Saturday, August 12, 2017

Retrospective #2a: New Zealand, the North Island

This is the second of two retrospective posts on travels I took while I was in Japan, which I promised to write a year ago. I’ve managed to narrow down my thousands of pictures to around 20, which was half the battle in writing this. But since this was a two-week trip, and I’ve talked to a number of people who were interested in getting ideas for their own trips to New Zealand, I think I’m going to split this blog into two posts. So here we go!

I’d been interested in going to New Zealand for a long time, so I decided to prioritize that trip while living in Japan. Although 10 hours on a plane is a long time, it’s a whole lot better than the >24 hours that I’d spend traveling there if I waited until I returned to DC. So in February 2016, I went to New Zealand.

While I looked at some group tours, I ended up creating my own trip in order to maximize my time and get in everything that I really cared about. One of my colleagues in Tokyo spent a number of years working for the Embassy of New Zealand, so she gave me some good tips about interesting things to do. In the end, I had an itinerary that looked – from a logistics standpoint – about as complicated as a senior official visit, with thirteen hotels, five tours, three planes, two rental cars, one boat and one train. 

I started my trip with one day in Auckland. Except that it wasn’t that simple. Because one hour before I was supposed to leave for the airport, a lady in my building left something on the stove while she went downstairs to pick up her son from the preschool. PSA: Do not do that. It’s the #1 cause of fires in the United States, and #2 cause of fires at our overseas posts. Black smoke was billowing out of her apartment. That apartment was pretty much destroyed; neighboring apartments had a ton of smoke damage. Thankfully, it was Japan, and we had a bunch of large fire trucks on the scene within minutes. Fire was put out. Nobody was hurt. I left the cat (in her carrier) with a friend, while I was escorted in to the building to grab my suitcase. Cat wouldn’t look at me when I left, but I got off to the airport on time!

So… Auckland. My entire experience with Auckland was a walk around the city center. It was kind of an interesting mix: casual restaurants, pubs, cafes, backpacker outfitting shops, surfing shops, souvenir stores, Gucci, Dior, etc. It struck me as a combo of southern California beach and Pacific Northwest granola. There were some people wearing suits, but New Zealand clearly caters itself to the outdoor adventure crowd. And it delivers!

Day two, I got in my rental car and headed south. First stop, Hobbiton! My plan was to drive to Hobbiton, check in, and then have lunch at the café before starting the tour. It was a grand plan. But I think my GPS was programmed to avoid all highways, because it took me on a very scenic, lovely drive consisting of a lot of back roads driving by a lot of dairy cows. I loved it. But I arrived just in time for the tour. The tour was wonderful. The LOTR fan in me was SO EXCITED. The setting was beautiful. I had hard cider and a beef and ale pie at The Green Dragon. It was great. 

This tour was also the beginning of me meeting a number of very friendly couples over the course of my travels. There was one elderly Australian lady who was about as excited to be there as I was who told her husband “No grumps!” before the tour started. He had never seen the movies (gasp!), but I found out that he had worked on creating the set for “Man from Snowy River,” which was pretty awesome. At one point, we were talking, and I was telling him what I do. He looked at me and said, “what an exciting life.” Sometimes, I get too focused on the details, and I can start feeling lonely or sorry for myself over this or that. And in addition, I had been going through a stretch of time where most of the people I interacted with either a) had a similar life or b) who heard what I did and had a look on their faces that was a mix of "why would you do that"/"I couldn't leave me home." So that one comment – said so genuinely – was really timely and encouraging for me. The setting probably didn’t hurt either!

From Hobbiton, I drove south to Rotorua, where I went on the Te Po tour (Indigenous Evening Experience) at Te Puia. I got to see Maori cultural performances, eat a Maori feast, and walk down to the Pohutu Geyser, which is the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. The cultural performances reminded me a lot of Hawaii. Which all made sense when I saw the map that showed the Polynesian Triangle, with Hawaii at the north end and New Zealand at the south end. Don’t know why I never realized that before. 

"One does not simply walk into Mordor."
The following day, I drove to Turangi, which is apparently a trout fisherman’s paradise.  For me though, it was a base for going on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site and home to three volcanoes. It’s amazing. It was also Mordor in LOTR. Mt. Ngauruhoe was Mt. Doom, except that the top of the mountain was always CGI, because it’s sacred to the Maori (if I remember correctly). 
See those little tiny people walking on the ridge?
That's where I was going.
Red Crater
I was not in sufficient shape for this hike. So the first hour or so of flat was great, the next couple hours of going UP was hell, followed by the start of a migraine that I killed over lunch, and then the rest of the day was really nice. All told, about 8 hours of walking, because I’m slow. I loved it though. It was beautiful. I met some more very nice people – including two couples from Copenhagen that lived a few miles from each other, had mutual friends, and had never met before that day.
To recap, I walked from the left side of this picture to the right side of this picture.
Wellington, from the botanical gardens
The following day, I drove to Wellington. I finally started to see lots and lots of sheep. Wellington looked like a pretty town. Sadly, I didn’t realize when I planned this that everything closes by 5pm on Sunday. So I took the cable car up to the botanical garden, but I needed to eat and the restaurant was closed, so I went back down after a short walk around. (And my legs were still tight from the trek the day before, so I wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to walk back up the hill if I walked down to look at some of the gardens.) Eventually I found a place down by the water for dinner, which was very nice. And my hotel was a historical building with gorgeous rooms. With no staff, because it was Sunday. I feel like I need to give Wellington another try, because it had the potential to be great.

And on Monday, I took the ferry to the South Island. 

To be continued… 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A year of transition

I am embarrassed to see that it has been a year since I last wrote a blog post.  It’s been a busy year of transition. So in an effort to get caught up, we’re just going to do a quick synopsis of this eventful year.

As noted in my last blog post, I departed Tokyo at the beginning of June 2016 and began a month of home leave. This included time in Virginia, buying a car (a light blue Honda CRV, for those who are dying to know), and going about the business of transitioning my life (temporarily) to the U.S. I then took my new car on a road trip. I spent one night in Hilton Head on my way down to spend close to a week with some dear friends in Florida. We had a good time hanging out, including a trip to the beach and another trip to see the mermaids at Weeki Wachee.  

On the way back north, I spent two nights in the historic district in Savannah. I took one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tours (rode it all the way around once and then got off at a couple places the second time around) and did a ghost tour (primarily so that I could get inside of one of the houses). I’d love to go back some day when I can take the time to stroll, do more tours, and sit and watch people while drinking peach sangria. 

In July, I moved into temp quarters in Pentagon City. My home leave ended with a visit to the Tidal Basin to ride the paddle boats and watching the fireworks from the Air Force memorial on July 4th. Over the next six months, I took (abbreviated) Spanish and other trainings, took care of all of those doctor appointments that we FSOs do when we are back in the States, and visited with as many friends as I could get in. I hosted my Florida friends for a week in the fall. I went to DCI in Annapolis and watched the children of various friends in band concerts, basketball games, Nutcracker performances, etc. And after spending 15 years or so saying that I wanted to take one of those Sur La Table cooking classes, I took three. All told, it was a good time of both very useful training, but also of rejuvenating the soul - soaking in as much time with friends and American experiences as possible. 

In January, I moved to Santo Domingo. Less than a week later, I went to Jamaica for a very short trip. In retrospect, I should have delayed that trip a week or so. Live and learn. As close as our two islands are, it takes all day to get there, because we have to fly up to Miami and then back down. So two days of travel for one day on the ground. But I had a bunch of meetings in the embassy and met some key contacts. My household effects were shipped from Tokyo to Miami, so they were delivered to my apartment two weeks after I arrived. Also in January, I went on the 27 Waterfalls adventure with a group from the Embassy. We hiked in and then hiked down the river, jumping off of or sliding down 27 waterfalls in the process. I have a slight fear of heights, so I liked the sliding better than the jumping, and I chose to walk around the two tallest waterfalls. But it was still a great adventure. 

I spent the first week of February in Haiti visiting our McGovern-Dole school feeding program there. That was a fascinating trip. The Dominican Republic and Haiti share one island, but they feel like different worlds. We spent a couple days in Port au Prince and then drove north, ending in Cap Haitien. It was amazing to see how life is in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and to see the impact of the school feeding program – to see the children, some of whom are only sent to school because their parents know that they will receive a meal there, possibly their only meal of the day. 
Lunch time at a rural school in a church

Also in February, I joined a couple friends for an amazing girls’ weekend at Disney World (so much fun!!!!), and I went on a tour of a rum factory with a group from the Embassy. 

In March, I went on a whale watching trip in Samana. The Bay of Samana is the breeding ground of the Atlantic Humpback whales (slightly smaller than the Pacific Humpback). We were able to see some whales swimming along and a number of babies playing. (The whales were always on the other side of the boat, so I don't have any good pictures.) Then we had lunch and a couple hours of beach time. It was the only time I’ve made it to a beach since I arrived. Also in March, I visited a chocolate factory (love my job!), finally hired a maid to come in once a week, and got pictures put up on the walls. And then the Embassy told me that they were breaking my housing assignment and making me move. (Long story.)

April was spent getting more settled, looking at possible homes for me to move to, and getting introduced to the game of bunco (and a lot of great ladies) at an Embassy Ladies’ Bunco Night.

Prawn motorcycle at the NRA show
May began with a fun Kentucky Derby party, complete with mint juleps. Then I went to Chicago for the first time to attend the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show. The NRA show is huge and very impressive. I’m glad I’ve finally seen it so that I can better promote it to potential buyers. While in Chicago, I also managed to sneak in a quick boat tour (recommended by several taxi drivers), Chicago-style pizza, and a game at Wrigley Field - complete with a hot dog, although I skipped the mustard. I’d love to go back to Chicago some day so that I can see more of the city.

June began with a spa day at the CLO's house - wonderful ladies, food and mimosas, manicures, pedicures, facials and a 1-hour massage, all for about $50. I also discovered that I can hire somebody to come to my house and give me a 1-hour massage for about $15. I am definitely going to look into doing that on a regular basis! 

In Port Royal
I then went to Jamaica for a week – so, three days on the ground. This time, I was able to get out and have more meetings. We went to the east end of the island to see some sugar and dairy. We visited the APHIS pre-clearance site near Kingston’s airport and had lunch in Port Royal. Port Royal is a fishing village, but it was once the home base of Henry Morgan and was known as “the richest and wickedest city” in the world. I went straight from Jamaica back to the U.S. to see a dear friend’s oldest son – who’s been showing me how to operate tech gadgets since he could walk – graduate from high school. So proud of him, and so excited to see what he does at Virginia Tech in the coming years!

And now we are in July. I was in DC for 10 days for an Ag Attaché conference (great to see so many friends from all over the world!), followed by a quiet week of vacation before heading back to Santo Domingo on Tuesday. My new deputy will arrive at the end of August, and I'll move to a new house sometime this fall. So I have high expectations that the transitioning will end (for the next three years) by the end of the year.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Retrospective #1: My trip to Kyoto and Nara

Although I have left Japan, there are a few trips that I've made in the last few years that I wanted to blog about and never did for various reasons.  So my plan is to do a couple retrospective blog posts.

Today's retrospective: In November 2014, a friend from Washington came to visit, and the two of us took the shinkansen to see Kyoto and Nara. Sadly, my computer totally crashed - unrecoverable - immediately upon our return from Kyoto, and I spent the next several weeks trying to get it fixed. The positive is that, while I lost everything that had been on my computer because I was an idiot that never bothered to find out what the heck Time Machine is, I hadn't downloaded my Kyoto photos yet. But all of the computer trauma/drama delayed my review of the photos long enough that then life got away from me, and the blog post got set aside until some nebulous point in the future. Of course, now it's been so long that I don't remember a ton. But I can give you a handful of key photos and a quick run down of where we went!

For those who may not know, Kyoto was Japan's capital from 794 to 1868. It has tons of history, with thousands of temples, gardens, imperial palaces, and shinto shrines. It's also the city most famous for geisha (followed by Tokyo and Niigata (and Osaka?)). A fairly common thing to do is to rent a kimono for the day and then go to the many temples and shrines and gardens. Our visit to Kyoto was fairly short, so we sadly didn't have time to rent kimonos. Basically, I looked at japan-guide, and if it didn't have three red dots, we didn't do it. 

We started at Kinkakuji - aka Golden Pavilion - which was the retirement villa of Yoshimitsu Shogun until his death in 1408, at which point it became a Zen temple. It's beautiful. 

I took this picture just outside the grounds of Kinkakuji. The leaves were just starting to change color in Kyoto, and some of them had fallen onto this plastic ice cream cone (advertising a place to buy ice cream cones - it wasn't just a random ice cream cone - although, that wouldn't have really surprised me in Japan).

We then walked down the street to Ninnaji Temple - the one exception to my three-red-dots rule, but it's a World Heritage Site. The temple is also known as the Omuro Imperial Palace and is the head temple for the Omuro School of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It was late, so we actually couldn't go up to the temple, but we were able to go through the Goten, the former residence of the head priest. It is beautiful, with lovely, peaceful rock and pond gardens.

The next day, we took the train to Nara, which was the first permanent capital of Japan, from 710 to 784. It's main temple - one of the most famous temples in Japan - is Todaiji, or Great Eastern Temple. It dates back to 752. The current main hall, which dates back to 1692 and is only 2/3 the size of the original main hall, is the largest wooden building in the world. Inside is a 15 meter tall Buddha and two Bodhisattvas.

The other thing Nara is famous for are the deer. Wild shika deer wander around freely. Up until just after World War II, they were considered to be sacred, as one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine is said to have visited Ibaraki riding a deer. They are no longer considered to be sacred, but they are classified as national treasures. You can buy deer crackers to feed them, but be aware that they know that you can buy crackers to feed them, and they can be a bit aggressive about it - crowding you and pulling on your clothes until there are no more crackers left. It's still fun though!

Of course, Nara fully embraces being a city where deer wander freely, so you see them everywhere, including on light poles and in arcades.

On the way back from Nara, we stopped at Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for having thousands of torii gates. It's really cool to walk up the hill through the tunnel of torii. What's funny is that it's one of those shrines that all of the foreign tourists go to, but according to all of the Japanese I've talked to, pretty much none of them ever go.

We started the next (and last) day at Ginkakuji - or "Silver Pavilion." It was originally the retirement villa of Yoshimasa Shogun, who was the grandson of the shogun who built Kinkakuji. There are lot's of different theories as to why it's the "Silver Pavilion" even though it's not silver. But it's pretty and has a "unique" dry sand garden and beautiful grounds.

These were just some pretty things we saw when we were walking around. I loved how even the little shrine was made kind of cute and sparkly!

We then walked through Higashiyama District - one of the best preserved historic districts in the city - on our way to Kiyomizudera Temple, aka "Pure Water Temple," which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's most famous for it's wooden balcony that extends from the main hall. Since the temple is on a mountainside, with the balcony about 13 meters above the hillside, it provides a great view. The Otowa Waterfall is at the base of the main hall. The water is split into three streams, with each stream providing a different benefit to the drinker - longevity, success at school or a fortunate love life. You can't drink from all three though, because that's considered greedy. Sadly, we didn't drink from any of the streams. There were a TON of Chinese tourists there, and we didn't want to wait in the very long line. 

Looking up at the main hall from the Otowa Waterfall
Some girls dressed in kimono at Kiyomizudera

And that was basically our trip! We got a very quick peek at Gion, the geisha district, on our way back to the hotel, but we didn't really have time for it. I would love to go back to Kyoto some day and explore some more. There's just so much to see!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Sayonara, Tokyo!

Happy summer, everybody! My last five months were pretty full, so here's the quick run down.

In February, I went to New Zealand and Australia. I'll do a separate blog retrospective on that trip, but for now, suffice it to say that I had a wonderful trip! I spent ten days going all over New Zealand, and then I hopped over to Sydney, Australia, where I met up with my lovely Australian friend who I haven't seen since we lived in Brazil, seven years ago. It's such a blessing to have friends who you can pick right up with no matter the time that has passed!

In March, I enjoyed my final hanami in Tokyo. This year, a friend and I went to Nakameguro to see all of the cherry trees that line the canal there.  It was beautiful! 

April was the G7 Agriculture Ministers meeting in Niigata, Japan. That involved a lot of work and a lot of late nights. But it all went pretty smoothly, so that was great. Of course, at the end, I was so tired that I slammed my head into the baggage rack on the shinkansen and had a nice little bump along my hair line for the next three days. Oh well.

Ikinariya (Edo-era restaurant)
Pepper was there to give advice on tourist sites in Niigata.
The Ag Ministerial was the second of a whole slew of Ministerials prior to the G7 Summit is Ise-shima. So during the month of May, while I had a significant amount of empathy for my colleagues that worked on the many other G7 Ministerials/Summit, I have to admit to a certain amount of joy/relief knowing that my Ministerial was done. But I was also very busy sneaking in some last minute excursions, packing out, getting ready to leave, and saying goodbye to people. 

Mickey and Minnie!
There were two last minute excursions in May. The first excursion: I finally went to Tokyo Disney Sea! It has been on my list for five years, but I just hadn't done it. I particularly wanted to go to Disney Sea (rather than just Tokyo Disney), since Disney Sea is unique to Tokyo, and it's known for being a little more adult-friendly. So a friend and I picked a date that worked in our schedules, and off we went. Unfortunately, that was the only day that week that had rain. All. Day. Long. Fortunately, that also meant there were no lines! And since it wasn't cold, and we were able to buy Minnie Mouse rain ponchos - an excellent investment! - it made for a super fun day full of riding rides, seeing shows, and riding rides again.  

Rainy and windy. But still fun!
The mountain actually explodes!
The second excursion: Some friends and I hiked Mt. Fuji. To be more specific, we hiked the lower part of Mt. Fuji - up to the 4th station. Normally, people drive to the 5th station and then walk up to the summit from there. But people with asthma aren't supposed to go above 10,000 feet, and Mt. Fuji is taller than 10,000 feet. So instead, I hiked the bottom half. Again, I managed to pick the one day with rain. But again, it was a light rain, the temperature was good, and we had rain ponchos (Minnie Mouse rain ponchos, thanks to Disney Sea!). So off we went! We had a great hike up to the 4th station, stopped for lunch, and then hiked back down and went to an onsen before heading back to Tokyo. Due to the rain, places where we could have had great views of the five lakes, it was just a giant cloud. But it was still a beautiful hike. 

The 2nd station

Bridge just after the 3rd station
At the 4th station!

Pack out went fairly smoothly this time. I did the regular closet purge (just because you CAN zip it up, doesn't mean you SHOULD) and medicine cabinet purge (why did I take expired medicine on an international move (twice!)? and wow, I have a lot of medicine that expired in the last four years!). So that's always useful. The cat was somewhat disturbed by all of the purging going on, but got really upset when I started sorting the cat toys. She sat down in the middle of them and gave me a very stern talking to, all with a very worried look on her face. So I had to wait until she was out of the room before I could sneak some of her toys into the air shipment pile and some for the suitcase. The movers were probably the best I've ever had. Not only were they nice and efficient, but they would also ask questions on occasion - a very important point considering that I am only one person, unable to keep an eye on everybody packing in three rooms on two floors simultaneously, and had forgotten that the throw pillows for the government's sofa had been stored under the stairs. 

And around the excursions and the packing out, there were a number of sayonara parties/get-togethers (two involving karaoke!) and just regular life. I tried sweet potato kitkat and sake kitkat. (Liked the sake kitkat. Can live without the sweet potato kitkat.) I found a creme brûlée candy that wasn't as tasty as I had hoped. I discovered that Japanese face masks come not only in camellia and soy, but also in snail, snake venom and bee venom. (What we won't do for beauty!) And I decided that my final visit to a Japanese nail salon deserved nothing less than Hello Kitty.

I left Tokyo on June 2, and now I'm in the middle of home leave. It was a wonderful tour, and I'd be happy to go back there in the future, if that's where life takes me. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to a few months in the U.S. catching up on a whole bunch of training before heading off to my next adventure in the Dominican Republic!