Monthly Archives: October 2012

Top 10 travelling experiences so far

I really struggled with this one. I feel pretty lucky to find it so difficult to narrow these down. But I’ll give it a go!

10. The plane landing in L.A

All my life I have been a pretty big film buff, and with that comes a bit of an obsession with the world of celebrity. The moment the plane started descending into L.A and the Hollywood sign came into view, I was fulfilling an ambition I’d had for years – to visit the heart of film making and celebrity culture. Hollywood represents that perfectly to me (we even had to do a tour of the celebrity homes while we were there!). It was so surreal to see something that I’d seen so many times in films on on TV, and having that world and reality collide. It was one of the first times in my life that I fulfilled a lifelong ambition, and the reason I always get a window seat!

I didn’t manage to capture the Hollywood sign on camera, but it was there!

Hollywood – a surreal experience

After spending my first 3 weeks of my trip feeling a range of emotions, but mainly homesickness, I was beyond excited at the prospect of one of my oldest friends, Amy, flying out to meet me in Bangkok. So much so that I spent the hour before she arrived just staring at the door of my hostel in anticipation.

That night, I couldn’t have been happier. I’m generally not interested in many sports, but like the majority of people born and raised in Wales, I get pretty passionate (aka loud and angry) about international rugby games. I was disappointed to realise my trip fell over the entire Six Nations tournament – one that we were tipped to win. After missing the first match due to my flight delay and the second due to being in the middle of nowhere at the time, I was extremely happy to have found a bar playing the England v Wales match on Khao San road.

I hadn’t met any Welsh people on my trip up until that point, but they seemed to appear from nowhere for the match, and before I knew it we were surrounded. There has always been a rivalry between England and Wales and so this was a very important match for us. The Welsh outnumbered the English 2:1, which always makes for a better match viewing experience in my books! It was hot, I had a cheap cocktail, Amy at my side and a sport I loved on the TV. The atmosphere was brilliant and it was only made better by the fact that we won.

Amy and I partied into the night, only leaving at around 4am with some 50p street pad thai in tow to go back to the hostel. It was the happiest day of my trip at that point and it meant so much to me after feeling so up and down for the last 3 weeks. I was also convinced I would hate Bangkok, but I found myself absolutely loving Khao San road. It taught me not to judge a place before I’d been there myself, and one day I would love to go back.

Reunited with Amy at last!

Our new Welsh friends at the winning moment

8. Canyon Swinging in Queenstown, New Zealand

This was without a doubt the most terrifying thing I have ever done (with travelling the world alone coming a close second). After handling the skydive okay a couple of days before, I was full of confidence and convinced I was ready for a bungee jump. However, I really wasn’t keen on the idea of dangling upside down while blood rushed to my head. That’s where the idea of a canyon swing came in.

It’s basically the same concept as a bungee jump, except you swing at the end of it and you can do it tandem (tied to someone else). Rachel, my friend who I was travelling with at the time, won a ticket in a fancy dress competition (hence why she did the swing dressed as an OAP!). I hadn’t planned on doing a bungee, but I was sure that if survived a skydive without any major panics then I could survive this. After all, a skydive is way higher…

When I got to the jumping platform that’s when I realised the reality was something totally different. It dawned on me that this time I would be strapped to Rachel and not a qualified professional, and that we would have to take the leap ourselves (as opposed to being shuffled out of the plane and dropped off the edge by someone else before you’d even had time to think about it). Add that to the fact that when you skydive your brain is unable to register the height and process everything completely (it just feels surreal), whereas when you do a bungee it understands full well what you’re doing, and what I felt can only be described as pure terror. Every inch of my body told me not to do it, and yet I ignored it’s advice and did it anyway.

There were tears (yes, I actually cried), a reluctant shuffle off the edge and high pitched screaming, but God am I glad I’ve ticked that one off the bucket list. Mainly so I can say I’ve been there, got the T Shirt and will never again in my life have to do one again! What made it so great was that I overcame the scariest thing I’ve done so far, and I got a real kick out of it. If I can overcome that then who knows what I’m capable of in the future.

You can find out more about canyon swinging here

The moment of the jump. This photo actually makes me feel a bit sick to look at.

Our best nervous smiles!

7. Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

It might seem like this experience is all about getting blind drunk whilst trying to navigate your way down a dirty river in a tube, but it meant a lot more to me than that.

After a difficult first week of my 3 and a half month trip, this was the first point where I geniuinely started to enjoy myself and realised that yes, I could do this experience alone. Before that I had been constantly homesick and upset and actually spent time figuring out ways to bring my flight forward. This was my first glimmer of hope and the first time I started to be myself instead of the withdrawn, unsociable girl I had become.

I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive of tubing after hearing about the death toll in Vang Vieng (1 every 8 days apparently), but I soon realised that as long as I was sensible with what I drank I could have a night that was both safe and fun. Dancing on the stage, sans make up, looking like a drowned rat in nothing but a wet bikini and a baggy mans T shirt it was the first time I really let go. I didn’t care what people thought of me, how I looked or what my worries had been before that day. It was a real turning point for me.

Floating down the river at the start of the evening

Starting to get a bit messy…

6. Taking a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon

This was one of the most expensive things I did on my month trip to the USA, but it was totally worth it. Staring at the Grand Canyon from the viewing points at the top is nothing compared to the experience of flying over it. The moment the helicopter first went over the drop is something I’ll never forget. I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that what looked like tiny blades of grass were actually acres of trees. It can only be described as epic, but a word of advice – hangover’s and helicopter rides do not mix – there are sick bags in there for a reason!

Posing for a photo before our helicopter ride

None of my photos do it justice in the slightest!

5. Sailing the Whitsunday Islands in Australia

I may have spent a lot of this trip feeling seasick/hungover, but the scenery completely made up for it. With bright blue water and silky white sand, Whitehaven beach is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We were lucky enough to get there before anyone else when the beach was clear of tourists (it meant a 5am start) and it was perfect for several silly photo opportunities!

There were countless times in my recent trip where I was completely blown away by the scenery, but I had a real moment during these few days. Everyone went snorkeling while I opted to stay on the boat (I didn’t fancy going again after spending the last two snorkeling opportunities completely freaking out and convincing myself I was going to be eaten by a shark/stung by a giant jelly fish). I put my iPod on, dangled my legs over the edge, basked in the sun and stared into the distance at the beautiful, bright blue sparkling water. I told myself that this experience was too amazing for it to be my last and there was way too much beauty in the world that I had yet to see. I made a decision there and then to do whatever I could in the future to see as much of the world as possible.

That was the life!

Countless photo opportunities! (I think we may have lost the plot a bit at 6am)

4. Riding an elephant in Chang Mai, Thailand

I may have had the worst combination of hangover and sunstroke I’ve ever had in my life (I was very close to being sick on the elephants head), but that didn’t stop this from being one of my favourite experiences of my life so far. I rode the elephant bareback through the jungle and I spent the whole time not actually believing I was doing it. I got to feed them, ride them and bathe them in the river.

I have always found elephants fascinating and it amazed me that although they are massive creatures that could easily hurt me, I had no fear of them at all. They are gentle, intelligent and amazing creatures and this just confirmed my love for them. Five days after I left Birmingham Airport, it was the first truly enjoyable experience of my trip and it gave me a well needed reminder of why I had booked it in the first place.

Trying to enjoy the experience whilst simultaneously trying not to throw up

Chilling out on an elephants leg

3. A homestay in Xe Champone, Laos

This is one experience that really sticks in my mind and probably one of the only times I felt I experienced a real piece of a completely different culture. The Maori experience in New Zealand, for example, felt commercialized and fake. This, in comparison, felt like a real part of Laos life. I got the opportunity to take part in a traditional Laos good luck ritual. It’s something they perform on special occasions for people in their town.

Basically it involves an offering to the Gods (in the form of food and drink) while several prayers are said and white bands are placed on your wrist. You’re encouraged to eat and drink the offerings (several shots of lethal Lao Lao were downed as a result!) and then the elders of the village tie the bands around your wrist. The bands represent luck and success. While they do this you connect with everyone in the room by touching.

While we were doing this and the white bands were being placed on my wrist, it was one of the most special moments of my life. I could really feel the love in the room and truly believed this experience would give me good luck. I kept the white bands on for several weeks afterwards (They were more of a brown colour by the end!), only removing them by stretching them individually off my wrist. It was painful but apparently breaking them was bad luck – and I was never going to risk that one!

The offering complete with a litre of lethal Lao Lao (it’s a spirit they drink in Laos)

Feeling the love

2. Wild dolphin Swimming in Kaikoura, New Zealand

This was important because it was me fulfilling a life long ambition and it didn’t disappoint. I was freezing (it was almost winter in New Zealand) and when I first jumped into the water the temperature hit me like needles and took my breath away.

I pretty scared at first. I’m not great with water and dolphins may look cute but they’re still massive, intimidating creatures. Although I knew deep down that it was unlikely they would hurt me, having around 100 of them surrounding us and brushing past my legs and arms was pretty daunting. However, on our second trip into the water I really started to appreciate the experience. I’ve always been fascinated by dolphins and they’re one of my favourite animals, this just confirmed my love for them. When one came up to me and started circling underneath me while I circled him back, playing with me, it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. That dolphin was wild and chose to make a connection with me with it’s own freewill. It reinforced the idea that anything is possible. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I achieved it. It was also pretty funny to hear Rachel singing ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ into the sea (the dolphins like to be entertained) and then unexpectedly getting slapped in the face by the tail of a seal!

You can find out more about wild dolphin swimming in Kaikoura here

Dolphins can be intimidating!

We were surrounded by around 100 of these guys

1. Sky diving in Taupo, New Zealand

This is one thing I never thought I would do but I’m so glad I did. The feeling of free falling is such a surreal and unique experience that it’s almost impossible to describe, but it’s something I’ll never forget. I spent the majority of it deafening the man I was strapped to with my screams whilst desperately trying to compose myself for a photo. The views after the parachute opened (of Lake Taupo, Mount Doom and scenery straight out of Lord of the Rings) were immense, but when I look back on those 60 seconds of free falling, they were like no other.

I’ve never been particularly scared of heights and I naively didn’t think I would be too nervous about doing it, but when it came to that 15 minute plane ride I was absolutely terrified. When I landed I felt the biggest adrenaline rush I have ever felt, which continued for the rest of the day and into the night. The feeling of accomplishment I get from overcoming something that scares me is like no other, and I would do another skydive again in a heartbeat.

You can find out more about skydiving in Taupo here

Managing to stop screaming long enough to smile!

My view of lake Taupo on the way down

It wasn’t easy to narrow down my experiences to 10, and I hope that with time it will only get more difficult!

Has anyone else experienced any of these moments? Feel free to add your own top travelling experience below.

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Photo essay: Finding both hope and devastation in Christchurch

Art reflecting the thoughts of the residents of Christchurch

I didn’t expect to spend any time in Christchurch, but after a change in my flight time I found myself with half a day to explore it, and I’m glad I did. 

I had heard about the earthquake of February 2011 on the news but in all honesty I had never paid that much attention to it. Yes it was tragic and it made me sad, but like everything else you see on the TV I felt completely removed from the situation.

Although this wasn’t the first earthquake Christchurch had suffered, it was the second most deadly natural disaster New Zealand has ever seen and it claimed the lives of 185 people.

It did not just destroy lives, but the heart and soul of the city. It wasn’t the countryside or the less visited suburbs that were worst effected, but the city centre of Christchurch. It is estimated that around 60% of the historic city centre was destroyed by the earthquake.

A map of the centre of Christchurch. The red section represents the area closed off to the public due to damage from the earthquake.

What was once the heart of the city is now closed off and abandoned

High street shops and malls on the main shopping stretch – it was surreal and eerie to see them completely empty

Of the 3,000 buildings inspected within the Four Avenues of the central city by 3 March, 45% had been given red or yellow stickers to restrict access because of the safety problems. Many heritage buildings were given red stickers after inspections and One thousand of the 4000 buildings within the Four Avenues were expected to be demolished. Even in the suburbs it was estimated that 10,000 houses would need to be demolished, and liquefaction damage meant that some parts of Christchurch could not be rebuilt on.

A destroyed building in the city centre

More destruction

It was the strangest thing seeing shops and offices left exactly as they were after the earthquake. Pens, files and computers were still on desks and merchandise was still in the shops. No one would even step foot on the unstable ground to steal it. The best way I can find to describe it is similar to the first scene of 28 days later. The lead character wakes up to find London completely empty and abandoned. Even just watching the film, it  feels wrong. That’s what Christchurch felt like.

A book store left exactly as it was after the earthquake. Above this there was also an office block and you could clearly see pens, files and computers on the desks.

So many wasted books…

Christchurch was set to host five pool matches and two quarter finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. However, damage to AMI Stadium, as well as infrastructure, hotels and training grounds put this in doubt. The city was unable to host the matches and the quarter finals were moved to Auckland. It seems that this was just the beginning of tourists being drawn away from the city.

I travelled through New Zealand with Kiwi Experience, and I was informed that after the earthquake the company began offering passengers the option to travel from Queenstown straight to Kaikoura – skipping Christchurch completely. Only a handful of people chose to get off the bus in Christchurch. It saddened me as it’s obvious a large part of New Zealand residents have completely given up on the city, so much so that new visitors to the country don’t even feel the need to give it a chance.

This was highlighted by a man I met while I was traveling up the east coast of Australia. Christchurch was his hometown. I told him I was visiting the city and he gave me these words of advice – ‘Go there, witness the destruction for yourself and then leave – there’s nothing else to see’. 

Random art installations are dotted around the city, some more negative than others

My friend and I were sharing our dorm room with a man who had just accepted a job as a project manager to help rebuild parts of the city centre. I was interested to hear about it the time scale he would be working to. He told us that it wasn’t just about rebuilding fallen structures, but about reinforcing the ground beneath them. We were informed that it would be 10-15 years before Christchurch would be resurrected to it’s former state. And that that was only on the basis that there were no more earthquakes in the meantime.

Since last February, Christchurch has suffered thousands of tremors and two further quakes in June and December, although none caused as much damage as the February earthquake.

A tribute to the drivers and passengers killed on a bus that was crushed by falling debris in the earthquake. it was weaved into the railings near the scene of the accident.

The bus that was crushed

These were the glasses of a small child, weaved into the railings next to some flowers. This made me cry.

However, amongst all the gloom there were clear signs that some people have not given up hope and that they still remember the city as it once was.

Inspirational quotes and art are dotted around the railings

I was looking for potential presents for my friends and family and I got talking to the owner of a jewellery stand. He asked me where I was from and what I thought of New Zealand. I told him I loved it so much I had even been thinking about living there one day. He asked me where I would move to and seemed genuinely surprised when I didn’t mention Christchurch. As a long term resident of the city, he clearly didn’t see the misery that I saw. He spoke about the city with love and affection and it was refreshing amongst all the negativity. The art around the railings highlighted that he wasn’t the only resident who held that opinion.

Proof that residents of the city haven’t given up yet

Proof that it’s not just residents of Christchurch that hold it in high opinion

The day I spent in Christchurch was one of the most miserable days of my three and a half months away, but also one of the most meaningful. The dark, gloomy weather that day mirrored my thoughts about leaving a country I had loved so much. The air of sadness and loss effected me in a way that I will never forget. But I also took something positive away from it, and that was finding hope in the darkest of situations.

Inspirational art

I love how the tributes will be kept as a memory, not only of the earthquakes but to mirror the thoughts and feelings of the people effected.

Since returning from my trip I had a discussion with one of my friends about Christchurch. She told me she had stayed there for almost a week and had loved her time there. She had several nights out and described it as very lively, which is what I would expect from the second biggest city in New Zealand. It took me a while to realise she was talking about Christchurch before the earthquake. It made me so sad to contrast her experience against mine, and to realise what a beautiful, energetic place it must have been before all the devastation.

While I was there I was informed that a few streets around the centre had been reopened – another glimpse of hope in an otherwise dying city. There was also an area they called ‘the recovery zone’ which is a temporary shopping centre. Re:START created the project in order to stimulate economic recovery and tourism in the city center. The precinct currently features 27 shops, including a variety of retailers and two cafés.

A shopping centre made out of shipping containers

A building site in the city centre – a positive indication of things to come.

I can only hope myself that they rebuild and regain the energy that my friend described. This country meant so much to me and Christchurch means so much to New Zealand. I for one, hope to go back some day, give it a second chance and try and look beyond the misery. I really do believe that there is enough hope alive in the city to make that goal achievable, and that against all odds Christchurch will someday rise to it’s former glory.

Love never dies

Feeling the love for Christchurch

I visited Christchurch in May 2012. My original blog entry about that day can be found here

This article was written with help from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake wikipedia entry

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