Tag Archives: Trees

Travel Guide: New Zealand Road Trip – North Island

After a weekend in and around Auckland (which was sweet as!) my friend Sharon and I picked up our North Island road trip vehicle, a white Toyota Yaris that I promptly named Sylvia. I can’t help it; cars speak to me.

We headed first for Rotorua where we spent two nights. This was also the part of our trip where it began to rain. It rained quite a bit during our travels but we didn’t let it stop us from seeing what we wanted to see. Our drive took us through farms and rolling hills and mountains that faded in and out of blues and greens. We drove with the windows down, enjoying air that was fresh, clean, and cool. We saw more cows, sheep, and horses than anything else, which was a theme throughout the trip. Even more than the animals, though, I noticed the trees. Part tropical palms, part enormous ferns, and part overgrown forest, the juxtaposition with cleared farmland was striking.

The climate of New Zealand reminded us of California and it wasn’t long before we realized how similar they actually are. Our first stop in Rotorua was the redwood forest that shares trees with California. Our walk through the woods was beautiful in and of itself . . .

. . . and the redwoods took my breath away. I sat for a time and meditated, listening to the wind.

When it got dark, which happens quite late in New Zealand in the summer and only later as you travel further south, we climbed the trees. The Rortorua Treewalk consists of 28 suspension bridges linking to 27 trees. I haven’t spent much time 20 meters up looking down to the forest floor and it was so cool. Oh, and there are giant wooden lanterns lighting the way. It was beautiful and felt like being in a fairytale.

The next day we went to Kuirau Park to check out the bubbling mud pools and hot springs. I expected a dinosaur to wander by at any moment. While sitting in the rain with our feet in the pools we chatted to travellers from Germany, South Africa, Belgium, the US, and elsewhere in New Zealand.

I love how much of New Zealand is just conservation land and public parks. There’s a unique feel to it, a sense that it is both important and expected that people spend time together as well as in nature. That afternoon we took a walk through Rotorua Park, which smelled more strongly of sulfur than Kuirau. It didn’t take us long to figure out why.

For Christmas Eve we’d planned a visit to Mitai Maori Village. I haven’t celebrated very many Christmas Eves but this was a darn good one! In addition to dinner, we were treated to a cultural performance which included entry by water . . .

. . . a walk through the village . . .

. . . and a cultural performance of songs, dances, and, of course, the haka.

Once it got dark, we went on a short walk to see the glowworms, which are famous in Rotorua, and to Rainbow Springs Nature Park to see the kiwi birds! Kiwis, we learned, are very rarely seen in the wild and they’re nocturnal, which doesn’t help make them easy to spot. Our very helpful guides had no trouble, however.

The next day we were back on the road heading to Napier for Christmas Day. On the way we stopped at Wai-O-Tapu, which call itself a thermal wonderland. That was pretty spot on. We were just in time to see the daily eruption of Lady Knox Geyser . . .

. . . and then followed the walking trails. The sun came out as we explored and it was a unique place indeed! While I took pictures, Sharon read aloud from the map about each of the natural wonders that we passed.

We’d heard that Lake Taupo was pretty (note: everything in New Zealand is pretty) so we stopped there for lunch and a walk. I thought we might walk around the lake but that was before I learned that Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake; we walked along it instead.

When we arrived in Napier, the town was quiet and empty. Napier is designed in an Art Deco style that makes it feel like going back in time. It wasn’t until the next morning that we saw many people at all, and the emptiness and shuttered stores gave it the feel of an old film set.

The point of visiting Napier was to spend the evening on the black stone beach, which is exactly what we did. We watched the sun set and the stars appear; we listened to the wind and smelled the sea.

We shared a bottle of wine and had a beautiful evening.

After a night in Napier, we headed for Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Post coming soon!

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir

Upstate Hiking

My family has always loved hiking and we used to do a lot of state park camping when we were growing up. I have fond memories of weekends spent in Stony Brook, Watkins Glen, and Letchworth, all of which are just a couple hours’ drive from Rochester. Last summer, we spent a week in the Adirondacks hiking, boating, and spending time without cell phone service in beautiful scenery. This year, for the first time ever, we had a proper staycation in the Rochester area and spent the week doing a variety of Fun Family Activities, which ranged from hiking and wine tasting to board games and bar trivia. We chose Letchworth State Park for our hike because the park is huge and we knew it would be easy terrain for the dog.

I love the gorges at Letchworth . . .

 

. . . the trees . . .

 

. . . and everything that grows and lives along the trails. . . .

 

Pretty, right? I highly recommend a visit. Need a buddy? Happy to go with you if I’m in the area! If camping isn’t your thing, there’s the beautiful Glen Iris Inn in the park, too, and the best view of the gorge is just beyond.

But one hike was not enough, so my sister and I spent a day at her newest local find, Grimes Glen, which has now topped the list of my favorite Rochester area hikes. It’s also probably the most challenging hike I’ve done around here and perhaps the only hike that my sister and I have done just the two of us. And we had such a great time.

Grimes Glen is basically a walk up Grimes Creek that takes you in the creek itself . . .

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I sorely missed my Tevas, sitting unhelpfully outside the door of my apartment in Singapore.

. . . scaling ropes tethered to trees and rocks to get up the banks and waterfalls . . .

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. . . and picking your way through trees, waterways, and shale walls that basically become a playground!

 

There are three major waterfalls at Grimes Glen and we spent a few hours sitting on the ledge of the third fall. It was tricky to get to and we saw exactly three groups of people in the entire time we were there. The noise of the water echoed off the shale and our vantage point from the top of the waterfall let us see all the way to the bend in the creek. It was so unexpectedly private!

 

Once the sun reached the highest point in the sky, we were ready for a swim. I find counting to three very motivating and my sister was kind enough to indulge me until I was (briefly) completely submerged in the frigid water. I couldn’t bring myself to join her in the fall itself, though, not once I came up shrieking because of the cold. My last swimming in a waterfall experience was in Laos a couple years ago where it was much, much warmer!

And the privacy I mentioned? We climbed back up to our ledge and spent a few minutes topless to dry off, enjoying the sun after our dip. And why not, really?


Upstate New York may be older, emptier, and more downtrodden than I remembered, but it’s as beautiful as ever.

Go exploring. Spend some time outside; it’s lovely there.