Thursday, November 4, 2021

The good, the bad, and the what-the-heck

I want to thank everybody for all of the support and encouragement I've received with regards to my battle with cancer. I've provided little updates on facebook, but since I saw the oncologist today for the first time, it seems like an appropriate moment for a big update. Particularly since there have been some good things, some bad/disappointing things, and some things that came at me from out of the blue in the last two months.

Let's start with the out-of-the-blue/what-the-heck first. In September, I talked to a genetic counselor who, for various reasons, decided that she wanted to test me for a rare genetic mutation in addition to the standard breast cancer panel. So we did the test, even though I was a bit annoyed that she was scaring me with the possibility of this when the odds were so low that I had it. But she was right. I have the CDH1 mutation, which not only puts me at high risk for lobular breast cancer but at extremely high risk for diffuse gastric cancer. This freaks me out. Stomach cancers are all aggressive and very bad actors. And it's diffuse, so it's not like they can scan for a mass and find it early. You can do an upper endoscopy with random biopsies, and it just means you don't have cancer in those spots. The default recommendation for this mutation is to remove the stomach. This also freaks me out. How does one live without their stomach? (Apparently, you live just fine. A little complicated, but doable.) And how can I have this genetic mutation when nobody in my family in the last 100 years has had stomach cancer? We determined that the mutation is on my mom's side of the family. I have to admit that I know nothing about my extended family on that side; my sample pool is extremely small. So I've decided to do some digging into my ancestry to see if I can find any cancer on that side. (My great grandfather was diagnosed with stomach cancer back in 1930, but I'm not entirely convinced it's the same. But maybe.) Genetics are fickle. It could be that everybody else lucked out, this mutation only went down the line to me, and certain family members in my direct line died too early for it to manifest. Don't know. But it gives me something to look into while I talk to the medical professionals and decide what to do. In the meantime, we all agree that the more important thing to deal with is the breast cancer.

With regards to the breast cancer, things went pretty smoothly for the most part. I had an outpatient surgery to dissect the lymph nodes in mid-September. (Side note: Having a nuclear dye injected next to each nipple - not fun! Hurts like heck. But it lights up the lymph nodes so that the surgeons know exactly where to go.) They all came back negative for cancer. So I don't need radiation and the reconstruction could proceed as planned. I had decided on the deip flap reconstruction. It involves some vascular microsurgery, but then you have living tissue, and there are no foreign materials in your body. Surgery at the end of September was around 11 hours, but it went swimmingly. All the surgeons were happy. The tests on the tissue surrounding the tumors all came back negative for cancer. My arteries were pumping as they should. I spent two days in the ICU, one day on a regular floor, and then I went home. Yay! I have amazing friends who stayed with me (literally) day and night. But two days after coming home, we noticed a problem. I was in the emergency room first thing the next morning, where I stayed for eight hours until an operating room opened up. I was that extremely rare person - like, 1 in 1,000 - for whom one of the reconstructions failed five days after the surgery. That side was successfully removed, and I was back to recovering at home by the following afternoon (sans the two nerve blocker tubes/bags). A week and a half after that last surgery, the plastic surgeon removed all four drains. I could have hugged him. No more Dr. Octopus. It was awesome.

I've never had major surgery before, so I will admit to getting impatient with my body after a few weeks. While I haven't had much acute pain, there has been the constant pain of the nerves growing back plus discomfort/pressure, all of which I understand is normal. More than four weeks in, I got really sick of it. But I've noticed in recent days that I've had increasing moments when I'm not in pain. Much of today was without that constant tingling pain, just discomfort. So I'm heading in the right direction. I go to physical therapy on the 16th, where I'm hoping to get some good exercises and insights into what I should be doing to help my recovery. Of course, I couldn't be doing so well if not for the friends who stayed with me that first week (in and) out of the hospital and the friends who brought me supplies or company.  

I will admit that today was discouraging. I shouldn't be discouraged, but I am. I was hoping to get away without chemo and to be able to focus on healing from my surgery (12 weeks to reach full recovery), reconstruction of the one side that failed, and the stomach stuff. But no. I met with the oncologist today, and the decision is that I should do chemo. One of the things in the consideration is that, if the cancer comes back, it comes back metastasized. I'll have a port put in my chest in the next week or so. On November 18, I begin chemo, receiving it intravenously for 3-4 hours. Four rounds, every 3 weeks, which takes me until the end of January. They leave the port in for another six months, which I don't really understand. But I should be done with chemo end January.  

So that's the update. I want to thank everybody who offered help. If I haven't already taken you up on your offer, I may still, as I understand that chemo will make me extremely tired. But your encouragement has been hugely significant in helping bolster my determination to fight this. Thank you!

Thursday, August 19, 2021

We always think there's time

I love to create to-do lists and spreadsheets. They keep me sane when I've got a ton to do. I strive to create some order out of the chaos so that I'm not constantly worrying that I've forgotten something. And yet, a part of me also assumes that I have time. When I left my mom's house right before New Years Eve 2019, I thought there was time. I thought I'd return to the U.S. that summer and have more time with her. That I'd take her to performances at the Kennedy Center, or that I'd convince her to take some of those trips to places she wanted to see. But five weeks later, she was gone, and there was no more time.

I thought that I had time for some of those final trips I was going to take before I left the Dominican Republic. I had new snorkeling gear, and I was going to finally take that trip to Bani and see the sand dunes and go snorkeling in Salinas. Maybe a last trip to Bavaro or to the north coast. But five weeks after my mom died, covid-19 came to the Dominican Republic. Everything was shut down, including the beaches. There was no more time.

Then it was time to get ready to move back to the U.S. I had an international move, a renovation of my condo in Arlington, clearing out my mom’s house and getting it on the market, finalizing everything with her estate that I had left hanging while I finished my tour, and starting a new position with my agency in Washington. I created my detailed spreadsheet of everything I needed to do from May to September and when I needed to do it. It helped. A lot. But I was also reminded of my inability to control time when covid resulted in everything taking a little (or a lot) longer or supply chains not working as I expected. I completed most of the things I was planning to take care of when I returned. I did all of the cardiology tests that the government helped me get scheduled. Those were a priority, because both my mother and her mother died around the age of 67 with enlarged hearts. I learned that my heart is average for my age and gender. In other words, I’m not the spring chicken I once was. But the positive is that I’m not on the same bad heart track that runs in my family. Those were the only medical appointments I got done last year, but cardiology was the priority, and I only had time for so much.

My new position at work is interesting. It was also very busy, as I spent much of the last year responsible for both my region of S Asia/Pacific and N Asia. It was busy but manageable. Then appraisal season hit, I had a ton of personnel statements to handle, and out came the spreadsheet again. I got through it successfully and then promptly handed off N Asia to my new colleague. And finally, I had time! My mom’s estate was wrapped up. I had a year in my new position under my belt, so I understood the cycle of work. I would start focusing on some other things, like finally getting my washer/dryer replaced so that maybe it will do more than just hot water. I would get nice blinds to replace the cheap blinds left by former tenants. I would get my estate documents updated. I would continue going through my old stuff and my mom’s stuff and get things more organized. And then my concept of the time available to me changed.


I felt a lump in mid-July. A large one. I was told to monitor it for two weeks. After 12 days, I contacted the doctor again. Within a day, I had an order for a mammogram. The following day, I got a mammogram and then a sonogram and then a visit from two nice doctors with a box of Kleenex followed by 3 biopsies – of two very concerning lumps and one lymph node. That wasn’t a good Wednesday. That weekend, I left for a week in Florida with dear friends. On Monday, I received the news that I had cancer in both breasts. Thankfully, that one lymph node was negative for cancer. The day after I returned from Florida, I went in for the MRI. I am very thankful for modern technology, but MRIs are not fun. It was nearly an hour, plus an IV for a color contrast study. The very nice ladies regularly told me to not move, which quickly had me worrying about the movement involved in breathing. Was this all for NOTHING because I couldn’t breathe more shallowly? I actually pressed the panic button once near the end as I was starting to spiral towards panic, but they convinced me that it was just one more scan, and it would be fast. Apparently, the scans all came out very clear. So, if anybody asks, don’t worry about breathing in the MRI machine. The MRI determined that I needed to biopsy another lump. One week later (this past Monday) was biopsy #4 and the consult with the surgeon. 


Here’s what little we know at this point. I have invasive lobular carcinoma, which is only about 5% of invasive cancers. Due to the size of the large tumor, I’m automatically stage 2. We won’t know stage and grade fully until after the surgery, but the surgeon does not expect it’s more than stage 2. It looks like I’m facing a double mastectomy. My surgeon is aiming to do the surgery in early September. It’ll be 2 days in the hospital followed by at least three weeks of recovery. Once we get the results of the tests on what they cut off during surgery, I’ll meet with the oncologist to talk about what’s next.

My new t-shirt
I have been greatly blessed with support and offers of assistance in just these few weeks as I’ve started telling people. I’ve also been seeking out t-shirts to inspire me. When I was doing those performance appraisals, I’d wear my Wonder Woman t-shirt. During this last month, I pulled out the storm trooper t-shirt, because they look fierce. One of my friends who has fought this battle recently told me that I’m now a cancer warrior. I like that word. Warrior. It’s active, not passive like other words people use. What I hear consistently from people who have gone through this before is that it will really suck for a period of time, but that I’ll get through it. I’m a warrior. That’s what I’m choosing to believe. Failure is not an option. Now it’s time to fight.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Grief and the Helpers

On February 7, a police officer called to tell me that my mother had been found dead in her home.  They suspected a heart attack.  Since that horrible moment, I’ve been so thankful for all of the people who have expressed their sincere condolences and who have provided help and support in ways big and small.  One day, I’ll write something personal about my mom’s life, but I can’t do that yet.  I wrote a simple obituary that you can find here.  This blog post is because I never want to forget the many ways that people showed – and continue to show – that they care. 

[Note: Rather than angst over whether I should refer to somebody as a friend or a colleague throughout this post, I’m just going to refer to everybody as a friend, as they all have a place in my heart.]

To say I was in shock when I received that call would be an understatement.  My entire office jumped into action, calling Washington to get the funds for a plane ticket and talking to the Management section in the Embassy to get started on a reservation.  It was after 3 on a Friday afternoon, when the Embassy is usually extremely quiet, as lots of people leave early.  But within an hour, I had a confirmed flight for 8am the next morning and an expediter to help me through the airport (which probably saved my carry-on bag from being checked at the gate).  I was shaking too much to fill out the necessary forms, so one friend filled it out for me, and I just scribbled a signature.  One of my friends had already left for the weekend, but she returned to the office to give me a hug and make sure that I had everything I needed to return to the States.  A number of friends dropped what they were doing in their offices to come give me a hug and offer to do anything that was needed.  One friend drove me home while another drove my car to my house.  

I am an only child, unmarried, with no children, and my mom had been divorced for decades.  So it’s just me.  I imagine it’s natural to say that I’m alone in this.  And in many ways, that’s true.  But in the midst of thinking that I had to hold it together and be independent, I learned that not only could I not do it alone, but I didn’t have to.  I am so thankful for all of the friends and neighbors who reminded me in words and actions that I am not alone.  

There were some little things that people said that set me free in that regard.  That first night, one friend told me that all I could do was cry, and I thought, “that’s great, because that’s all I’m capable of right now”.  All I had to do was pack my bags, and I was free to cry as much as I needed.  A friend stopped by to get the spare keys to my house so that she could take care of my cat while I was gone.  I mentioned to her all of the people who were being so kind and jumping through hoops to get me back to the States, and she told me that every one of them would do anything for me; all I had to do was be willing to ask.  I can’t fully express the gratitude I felt as that concept began to sink into my soul.  I could ask for help.  I was not alone.  Later that night, a friend texted me to ask if I had eaten yet, and when I said no, to tell me to please eat something.  Because of her, I actually pulled myself out of my stupor on the sofa and ate a little something.  Meanwhile, the condolences were rolling in on facebook.  I read and greatly appreciated every one of those comments, even if I was unable to express that gratitude.  

A dear friend picked me up the next day in DC, took me to lunch, and drove me the three hours south to my mom’s house.  She stayed with me that weekend and the following weekend, scouting things out so that she could prepare me if necessary, going with me to the funeral parlor and the bank and to consult with a lawyer, remembering all of the questions that I couldn’t think to ask, and telling me that I was doing just fine when I would bemoan the fact that I couldn’t hold a thought in my head from one moment to the next, having to write everything down.  She helped me go through files and closets and dealt with the things that I just didn’t want to face.  I was there for two weeks, and friends and neighbors of my mom helped me with plans for moving forward and some key repairs to the house.  I truly couldn’t have gotten through that without any of them.  

When I first arrived, I also heard the stories about how the people in my mom’s community were looking out for her.  My mom had been having a migraine for about a month.  There may have been other issues in there, but that was the one she told me about.  Her friend who lives across the street kept offering to go with her to the doctor.  My mom would agree and then change her mind, but her friend would check in on her a couple times per day.  The manager at the bank came to give me a hug and tell me that my mom had come in the week before and asked for help getting her car window closed, and she had been worried.  I went to the pharmacy and learned that the pharmacy tech alerted the pharmacist out of concern for my mom.  The pharmacist caught up with her and walked with her all the way to her car, asking if there was anybody he could call for her or if he could call emergency services.  She just kept saying no and drove away.  He was worried, so he tried to call her later, but she didn’t answer.  He continued to worry, so he called her doctor.  And I believe that call prompted the doctor’s office to call the police and ask for a welfare check.  Hearing these stories made me thankful that there were people around her who cared and who went above and beyond trying to help.  I am thankful that they were there looking out for her.  For a variety of reasons, my mom never wanted to “impose” on people, and always felt that she had to be independent.  But knowing that there were friends and people in her community who were offering help, and knowing that she had a very strict DNR order, I am comforted in knowing that she went on her own terms, even if it was not at the time she planned.

I got back to the DR about two weeks before everything went to max telework due to COVID-19.  I usually read about 100 books per year.  After my mom died, I found that I simply couldn’t read books for a couple weeks.  I was just starting to read again when covid hit.  So instead I’m watching youtube videos, listening to audible, and doing color-by-number pictures on my ipad.  I saw an article in the Washington Post recently that talked about how a lot of people can only read old favorites these days, that our brains have so much to think about merely for survival (social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, etc) that we just can’t focus on a lot of other stuff.  So at least I know that this is normal.  Brene Brown started a podcast in March, and one is an interview with David Kessler on grief.  I found it to be excellent.

I still get hit by things.  I suspect that may never end.  A few weeks ago, I saw a photo of my mom out of the corner of my eye.  I was so happy for a split second, and then I sobbed.  I still haven’t made stovetop popcorn, because she made that my entire life, and I know I’ll cry the first time I do it.  The other night, I cried about Christmas stockings.  We always spent Christmas together.  If it couldn’t be in person, then we’d call while we opened presents.  As technology evolved, we’d skype if we couldn’t be together.  I was her Santa; she was mine.  This last Christmas, I finally convinced my mom that we should only do Christmas stockings going forward.  Keep it simple.  So we went out to a local art gallery and bought two new Christmas stockings.  Now I cry just thinking about those stockings. Will they ever be used?  Hung up or filled with gifts?  Maybe I’ll just buy a bunch of items and fill them both and then open them on my own.  If I do that, don’t be surprised if I show up at your house with hand-milled lavender soap.  But even with these things, I’m having more good days than bad ones, more good moments than bad moments, and I suspect that’s positive progress.  Grief is a very lonely thing, but I can’t do this alone.  I am so thankful for all of the friends and helpers who are willing to be there for me during this journey.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Driving in Santo Domingo

Ever since I arrived in Santo Domingo a year and a half ago, I’ve been wanting to write something about the traffic here. But it is so complicated, it’s had to percolate in my brain all this time as I try to figure out how to adequately explain it.  

So that I don't sound overly negative about the Dominican Republic, here's a picture from my visit last fall to Bahia de las Aguilas, which is widely considered to be the most beautiful beach in the DR (and possibly the world, depending on who you talk to). It was gorgeous and pristine, and I am honored to have been able to go there.

And now that we've had that palate cleanser, let's talk traffic. To start, it’s important to know that, according to the World Health Organization, the DR is ranked #14 in the world for traffic related deaths. In the Western Hemisphere, it’s #1. (#1 on the global list is Thailand.) I’ve also heard that the DR is #2 in the world for motorcycle deaths. I haven’t been able to confirm that statistic, but it would lend credence to what most people say - that a majority of those traffic deaths involve motorcycles. When you arrive, you are told that the question is not IF you will be in an accident, but WHEN.  

The only way I can even attempt to explain traffic here is to break it down.

The Actors: 

1)  Guaguas (vans) and carro publicos (sorta taxis) – These are basically your public transportation options. All of these look like they are survivors of a demolition derby. They are completely battered. Most don’t have any functioning break lights, turn signals, etc, because they’ve all been smashed. I regularly see doors attached with duct tape (or held up by the driver’s arm) and cardboard where the windows should be. The side mirrors are often broken. The seats inside barely have any cushioning. And they cram WAY more people into these vehicles than they were ever intended to hold. So they’re basically demolition derby clown cars. The drivers make their living on the road, so they believe the road belongs to them. You always let them go ahead of you in traffic, because they don’t care if they hit you. I haven’t had this happen to me, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’ll bump your car to try to get you to move out of the way. Hence, their smashed headlights. Ending up behind one can mean that you’re stuck going 10 mph while they look for more people to cram into their cars. But it can also mean that you can sneak through heavy traffic, because they’ll create a path. [Note: I've heard that the new traffic law limits the number of people that can ride in a car. I have not yet noticed that this law is being observed.]

2)  Motorcycles – Some are taxis. Some are just people with motorcycles. A few have side mirrors. They often have at least two people on them. I've seen up to four people on a motorcycle. Sometimes a baby is smooshed between the driver and the passenger. Sometimes a baby is riding on the passenger's hip, completely open to the wind and whatever crazy car goes by. The drivers are required to wear helmets, but the passengers are not. Sometimes the driver "wears" a helmet by hanging it from their arm. I'm sure their elbow appreciates it. What I've seen most often lately is that the helmet is technically on their head, but it's pushed so far up (either on their head or over a baseball cap that the driver is also wearing) that the part that would normally cover their chin is "protecting" their forehead. Motorcycles follow NO rules of the road. They drive down the left side, the right side, the middle, the sidewalk... Basically, wherever they can get by. At least once per day, I am going around a curve in the road to suddenly find a motorcycle coming straight at me in my lane. They often appear to be operating under the assumption that all the rest of us on the road are stationary, and that wherever we are when they look at us, that is where we will be in five seconds. Motorcycles have crossed from my left to my right practically right under my bumper while I'm in motion. I've seen a motorcycle do the same thing with a Mack truck, and I'm still amazed that guy is alive.

3)  Daihatsu - There are a ton of used Japanese Daihatsu trucks or used trucks from other countries, such as Korea. Some are big trucks. Some are the small, flat-bed pickup trucks that are piled higher than the cab with bananas or some other fruit or vegetable. Some of the trucks are missing their bumpers. Some are missing the entire hood of the vehicle, so that the engine is just out in the elements hanging on by whatever. (Sorry, I'm not a car person.)

4)  The other cars – There are plenty of cars on the road that are just your standard vehicles: Hondas, Hyundais, Toyotas, Kias, and the occasional Porsche or Lexus or Mercedes.

5) Bicycles/pushcarts - To add a little flavor, you also have the occasional guy pushing a cart - or a bicycle attached to a cart - down the side of the road. He's got coconuts or pineapples or ice cream or something else to sell.

6) AMET (traffic police) – These guys have a thankless job. But sometimes there's a reason you're not thanking them. They are often at busy intersections directing traffic. Sometimes they are helpful with the flow of traffic. Sometimes you spend an extra 15 minutes at an intersection because they are letting other people go and go and go, or they skipped your side in the rotation. When they tell cars to stop, people don't pay attention and five more cars go flying by. Although in that sense, they're treated the same as a traffic light. 

7)  Others – And then there are the people crossing the street or at the intersections trying to sell you stuff. Or if you're on your way to the Embassy, standing in the middle of the lane waving a sign trying to get people heading to the Consular Section to go use their parking lot. And if you get off the main roads a little, you can have stray dogs or the occasional chicken that will decide to cross the road. I don't know why the chickens want to cross the road.

The Rules:

HAHAHA.  You’re funny.

Seriously, I don’t think drivers here acknowledge the existence of any rules or laws with regard to driving. Including the laws of physics. Reference my previous comments regarding the motorcycles. I've heard that the driving test in the DR is to simply go out to a parking lot, drive around a bunch of barricades, and then park. If that's true and it's really that simple, that could explain a lot.

The Scenario:

When I first observed traffic in Santo Domingo, I decided that I needed to think of driving here like a dance. It’s all about going with the flow and following their lead. The problem sometimes is figuring out what music everybody is dancing too. Our former Community Liaison Officer has said that we Americans get in accidents because we’re dancing salsa, and the Dominicans are dancing merengue. More recently, we’ve developed a different metaphor for driving around here – it’s like Mario Kart. Everything's flying at you from all directions, and it's every man for himself.

So here's a scenario. You're driving down a two-lane road. There aren't any lines on the road, but you know it's a two-lane road, because it's not wide. Cars are going by on the left. Motorcycles are going by between you and the cars on the left. But they're also going by on the right. And occasionally they'll pass from one side of your car to the other, often right in front of you. Sometimes motorcycles are coming at you in your lane. Sometimes other cars are coming at you in your lane - either because they're going around one of those pushcarts filled with coconuts, a carro publico or a truck has stopped on their side of the road and blocked traffic, or because they are tired of sitting in the long line of backed up traffic on their side of the road, and they've decided to simply go around the traffic. In your lane. But they'll squeeze back over to their own side when you drive up and stare at them. Sometimes that two-lane road becomes a three- or four-lane road, and everybody accepts that it's okay, because there's enough space for you to squeeze through between the cars on your left and the sidewalk or ditch on your right. And watch out for that giant pothole that reopens every time it rains. 

Actually... You know what? I don't think I can adequately explain traffic in the DR. You'll just have to come visit and see for yourselves.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Retrospective #2b: New Zealand, the South Island

In last week’s episode of “Beth catches up,” I wrote about the first half of my trip to New Zealand. Namely, my time on the North Island, ending in Wellington. 

Picking up from there… I took the Interislander ferry from Wellington to Picton, on the South Island. The three-hour trip was lovely, with beautiful scenery and dolphin sightings.

This is probably a good point to mention that I met a ton of friendly people on this trip – mostly Australians, but also people from England, the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S. And in the continuing saga of “the world is small” – At Hobbiton, I met an American couple who used to live in Virginia and an Australian lady who was about to visit her friends in Spokane, Washington (very close to my alma mater of Washington State University). And on the ferry, the couple I met from the Netherlands used to live in Chehalis, Washington, where I lived for 5 years during elementary school.

From Picton, I took the Coastal Pacific train to Christchurch. The train ride was fun and beautiful. The train travels along the coast, going by sea lions, the pink salt plains and one of the main wine regions of New Zealand. I also saw tons of roly-poly sheep! (Side note: In Hobbiton, I learned that the sheep of the North Island weren’t considered rustic enough for the LOTR movies, so they imported sheep from the South Island for the movies.)

Sadly, the November 2016 7.8-magnitude earthquake raised the seabed two meters and caused significant damage to the rail line, so the line is closed for repairs. Current expectation is that it will reopen in mid-2018. For a rather dramatic picture of how the coastline changed from when I saw it, you can see a CNN picture here. I don’t know if it still looks like that, but it’s pretty dramatic.

So then I arrived in Christchurch. Since it was a holiday, there were very few taxis available. I ended up sharing a taxi with some nice British ladies I had met on the ferry. I just had the evening in Christchurch, so I walked around the business center a little. What amazed me was how much devastation still remained from the 2011 6.3-magnitude earthquake. A lot of the business center was still closed off or slated for demolition. They’d decorated the walls blocking off the buildings quite a lot, so it was very colorful. But it seemed like the entire business center was a temporary memorial of that earthquake. Granted, it was a holiday, so maybe it would have a slightly different feel on a workday. I asked the taxi driver why they were still waiting to do the repairs/demolitions, and he said it was because of insurance. Every time there was an aftershock – and there were many – the insurance companies would require a new assessment. Apparently, a lot of people have moved away from Christchurch, because they’d become discouraged or were afraid of the earthquakes. But one thing that Christchurch has done that’s pretty cool is to paint murals in various places. I was given a little map of all the locations of those murals when I arrived.

The following day, I drove to Queenstown. That drive is gorgeous. Beautiful mountains and lakes and rivers and mountain passes and vineyards. I stopped for a little picnic at Lake Tekapo, which was beautiful. I made an impromptu stop when I caught a glimpse of Mt. Cook and was going “MUST STOP MUST STOP MUST STOP to take pictures.” Thankfully, there was a little pull off to park at soon thereafter, so I didn’t cause any traffic accidents.

Mt. Cook
I adored Queenstown. It was so pretty. I walked to the gondola and rode it up the mountain to see the view. I couldn’t do the stargazing – for which Queenstown is famous – because it was all booked out. Next time, I’ll get those tickets well in advance. The following day, I went on the Glenorchy tour. Again in the realm of small world, our driver/tour guide was from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the other people in my car were all from Japan (Nagoya and Yokohama)! So that was super fun. A lot of different movies have filmed in the Queenstown area, so it was fun to see where those movies were filmed and learn a little about how they did it. But it was also wonderful to just see the gorgeous scenery. 

"Welcome, my lords, to Isengard." 

On the Milford Track
After the tour, I drove to Te Anau, the “gateway” to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. The national park is also home to the famous Milford Track, New Zealand’s most famous walk. It’s a four-day, 33-mile walk from the head of Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound. When I was planning my trip, I seriously considered doing that walk. But there were so many things that I wanted to see in New Zealand, and not knowing if I’d get the opportunity to go back, I decided to just get a tiny taste of it and did a one day Milford Track and Cruise instead. In the morning, I hiked the very end of the Milford Track – five kilometers from the end of the track at Sandfly Point to Giants Gate, a beautiful waterfall, and then back out. The guide was a guy who grew up in the area and was a former park ranger, so he knew all about the plants and birds and history of the area. It was fascinating. 

Milford Sound
In the afternoon, I took the cruise through Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea. The morning hike was delayed an hour due to weather, which was great for not having to get up before dawn, but also meant that the boat I was on in the afternoon was one hour later. And that turned out to be a great thing. The boat I would have been on was PACKED with Chinese tourists (because of Chinese New Year), whereas the boat I ended up with was nearly empty. It did rain a little during the cruise, but it was a light rain, so no big deal. Apparently, Milford Sound is the rainiest populated area in the world. It lived up to it, but it was still beautiful. You could see how the glaciers carved through the rock. There were lovely waterfalls. We went right up to one where local legend says that, if you get touched by the spray of the waterfall, you’ll wake up the next day ten years younger. That didn’t happen. But it was still pretty cool.

And that was my trip to New Zealand! The next day, I drove back to Queenstown and flew to Sydney, Australia, where a dear friend from when we both lived in Brazil met me for a girls’ weekend. It’s such a blessing to have friends where you can be separated for seven years and just pick right up. It was a wonderful way to end my trip. I hope I’ll be able to go back again before another seven years have passed. 
A beautiful day in Sydney

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…