Ten Days in NZ: Hobbiton

Possibly the most anticipated blog from my New Zealand adventure has finally arrived. Hobbits! If you’re an avid Tolkein fiend, Jackson junkie or Frodo follower, this post is for you. Come with me into the magical lands of Middle Earth as brought to life in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

I Love Hobbits

10261107_oriI remember having some picture books as a kid about Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. They were highly simplified versions of the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but my mother loved those stories so much, she made sure I got started early. The books had read along audio cassettes that I could play in my own little cassette player (because digitial music didn’t exist yet, that’s why). I learned about Golum and the One Ring while I was learning to read. It’s safe to say that the stories of Middle Earth are embeded in my foundation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn high school, we used to use Dwarven runes to write secret notes and one of my friends even learned basic Elvish. In 1999 or 2000, my mother and I were walking out of some movie or other and saw a poster on the wall of the theater with Elijiah Wood and my mother immediately exclaimed, “It’s Frodo!” without even reading the text on the poster. It was indeed Frodo, and the poster was the first advertisement for Peter Jackson’s film rendition of the epic stories. Now the books have spawned a movie franchise, sharing Tolkien’s work with a whole new group of fans with 6 movies so far, and I hear more in the works. So, when I found out that the Hobbiton movie set was still alive and well in New Zealand, I of course fantasized about going there. And, when I found my travels taking me down under this year, I finally got my chance.

The Movie Set

The Hobbiton movie set is on private land. Jackson and his team chose from among several farms in NZ, finally selecting this one for the combination of the Party Tree (that giant tree Bilbo stands under at his 111th birthday party), and the natural hillside that enabled them to build Bag End in such a way that matched the physical description in the books. Jackson’s attention to the detail in the books was demanding, sometimes to an insane level, but it made the movies match the mental image so many readers and artists had carried for years after reading the tales. When Jackson asked permission to use the land, the farmer agreed with the proviso that the land be returned to exactly the way it was after filming. However, when Jackson returned to film the Hobbit movies, the farmer saw an opportunity, and this time demanded the set be built to last a minimum of 50 years so that tourists could come to visit after the filming was done.

Visiting Hobbiton is not an inexpensive proposition. It costs a little over 50$ US for the tour, but this goes into maintaining the amazing detail of the set, a full time staff of gardeners and repairpersons as well as guides and staff at the Green Dragon to brew ale and cook Hobbit food. It’s so much more than a movie set left behind, it’s a very nearly living village that makes one believe the Hobbits have just ducked out for a moment but will be right back. Also there is no way to view the Shire from the public roads, so if you want to see Hobbit holes, this is it.

The Tour Begins

20160821_130200The tour is 2 hours long and starts at the visitors center where a massive car park surrounds a quaint gift shop and cafe. I was truly surprised at the number of cars in the lot when I arrived. The movie set is outside Matamata, and is quite remote. I had seen more sheep than people my whole drive over, and the nearest petrol station was more than 10 minutes away. When I turned into the car park, however, it was like a shopping mall on a Black Friday, I nearly didn’t find a parking spot. I did go on a Sunday, which may have accounted for the higher turn out, but there is no doubt that Hobbiton is a prime attraction. There is a fleet of green buses (the color of Bag End’s front door) emblazoned with the Hobbiton logo that drive visitors from the car park over to the movie set itself. On the way, the guide, Sam (our guide was named Sam, he swears it’s his real name and just a coincidence) told us that originally there had been no road into the farm this way. The New Zealand Army was contracted to come in and build the road so that all the set and filming equipment could be moved in. The farmer himself was under a non-disclosure agreement, so when one of his neighbors asked why the army was on his farm, all he could say was that they had been selected for a random road building exercise.

Deep in the farm, past many more sheep and the now empty fields that once once housed the set construction, make up tents, cast trailers and craft services hall, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Shire, the water mill and the Inn of the Green Dragon on the lake. The excitement on the bus was palpable. Despite the huge numbers of tourists visiting each day, it seemed that very few were idle viewers and most were just as happy as was to be arriving at the real, physical, 3D version of Bilbo’s home town. We piled out of the bus to begin our walking portion of the tour next to some last minute bathrooms. I hadn’t had a chance to go at the visitor’s center so I decided to do so here. The outside looks like nothing so much as a rustic gardener’s shed, and I rather expected the inside to be about the same. Instead was surprised to encounter one of the cleanest and most well appointed restrooms I’ve ever seen outside a formal restaurant. So that’s one more thing the entrance fee is covering, well done.

Welcome to Hobbiton

There is a sign at the entrance with old drawings of the Shire and an overgrowth of ivy. It welcomed us to Hobbiton and marks the real edge of where Earth becomes Middle Earth. As we continued on, we came through a narrow path with a high stone wall, the exact path that Gandalf uses to enter Hobbiton in his first appearance. Sam did a great job of pointing out all the details from the movie, as well as the books as we passed by, including many interesting stories of how and why the sets were built the way they were. The scene with Frodo and Gandalf on the cart uses forced perspective to make Elijia Wood seem Hobbit sized, so the path itself is very long and narrow to aid in the cinematic illusion.


As we continued into the town, we encountered a few differently sized Hobbit holes. Each set was built based on whether it would be used as background for a “normal” sized actor playing a human or a Hobbit, or a smaller actor playing a Hobbit, or simply as background, all to create the forced perspective illusion that Hobbits and their homes are small in comparison with the visiting wizard.

After each explanation, we had time to wander around the immediate area and take pictures. Apparently the record for most pictures on one tour is over 3,000 and I’m happy to say I didn’t come anywhere near that. The detail on the sets was incredible. Tiny windows set into the mounds of earth with even tinier window dressings. Knickknacks, tools, tiny Hobbit sized clothing out on a line to dry in the sun, stacks of firewood, jars of honey, fish out to smoke, picnic tables set for second breakfast, the garden bursting with real produce, as though we were intruders in a life still lived.

We circled around the gardens, the frog pond, up the hill past the baker’s house, taking in the sweeping view of the Shire as we slowly ascended the Hill toward a familiar oak tree and the distant shadow of a green door. Most of the sets are closed off by gates, and Sam asked us to leave them shut, but there are a few without gates, where we could get much closer, 20160821_135942and even one with an open door to give us the chance to stand inside the traditional round portal. There is nothing inside, of course, the interior of the Hobbit holes were only filmed in the studio, but it makes for a unique and fun photo opportunity to place yourself in the role of a Hobbit. I didn’t have time on this trip, but when I get the chance to go back and stay in NZ longer, I’d love to dress up and get some photos in cosplay on this set. I’d also love to bring my niece and nephew before they get too big (Gnome, Squidgette, I’m talking to you) because so many of the Hobbit sized sets are perfect child size and include a lot of props that are not hidden behind gates. There was a Chinese family in our group and watching the little ones pose in front of the smallest Hobbit holes was a cuteness overload.

Up the Hill

The higher we got up the Hill, the more amazing the view became. I had to present my vacation to my students (learn English so you can do this too!) and I used a clip from the beginning of the Fellowship to show off the Shire before starting and it really made me appreciate just how very much like walking through the movie this place was. 20160821_135226.jpgJackson’s attention to detail and commitment to the book was so intense that during the filming, he was unable to find plum trees in the right size to match a written description of Hobbit children sitting under plum trees, so instead he brought in pear and peach, but stripped them of their fruit and leaves to replace it with plum foliage, each leaf wired on by hand. The scene is only in the extended edition and only visible for about 2 seconds.

20160821_134507Other examples of his eccentric dedication include the frog pond which had such an abundance of loud frogs that staff had to be employed to catch and move the frogs before filming each day because they were too loud to work around and managed to return each night. Finally, the famous oak tree above Bag End. New Zealand does not have oak trees, so the entire tree was built from steel and plaster, with real (although dead) tree branches for the outer boughs to imitate the movement of wood in wind. The leaves were made in Taiwan and shipped in, then stitched or wired onto the tree frame one by one. On the actual day of filming, the leaves had faded and were no longer the right color, so Jackson sent a team up the tree to paint them.

Bag End

When we finally reached that oh so familiar green door and the sign on the gate reminding us that there were to be no visitors except on party business, it was as though a piece of my childhood had stepped from the pages of a book and come to life in front of me.

The gate was closed, and our tour was not there on party business, so we remained just below the entryway, but we could still see through the partially opened door, the hallway decorations of Bilbo’s house. Because Bag End was filmed from both the outside looking in and the inside looking out, the entryway of Bilbo’s house needed to be correctly decorated, unlike the open door we’d been able to stand in for photo ops earlier in the tour. Additionally, while that opening door concealed a small space that only 2-3 people could stand in, the interior of Bag End can hold about 30 people and film equipment. The all-interior shots were filmed in a sound stage, but anything that showed Bilbo or Frodo framed against the open door with the Shire in the background had to be filmed there on site.

The Party Tree

20160821_1402101It was very hard to leave behind the house on the the Hill, but our next stop was the party tree and the green field where Bilbo’s 111th birthday party was held. However magestic the party tree looked from afar, it was even more imposing up close. It wasn’t so big as Tane Mahuta, but it was taller and still an impressive girth. Unlike the oak tree, the party tree is a real and living tree that was one of the main reasons this piece of land was selected to be the Shire. Within the meadow, there were party decorations and Hobbit games for people to try out including a maypole, some stilts, a game of ring-toss and some see-saws. Children and adults alike had fun testing out the various activities and admiring the detail of the design. 20160821_1424021Even the fence, which looked old and overgrown with lichen was artistically aged with plaster and paint, but indistinguishable even after we knew what to look for. Before we left the meadow, we stopped off at Samwise Gamgee’s own yellow round door where you could just imagine Rosy and the children playing in the garden.

Around the Lake

From the party tree, we could see the Inn of the Green Dragon across the lake, but still needed to walk a fair way to come to it around the water. We passed yet more Hobbit holes, which is hardly a surprise because there are 44 total home fronts in the Shire (up from 39 for the Lord of the Rings), crossed a tiny bridge and came to a signpost dividing the path between Hobbiton and the Green Dragon. The path went into the forest as we left the town behind and I suddenly realized why so much of my time in New Zealand had reminded me so strongly of Middle Earth (you know, aside from the fact that nearly everything outdoors was filmed here). The forest path we were on, taking us around the lake, may or may not have been in any of the scenes, but it so clearly belonged there and just as clearly echoed so much of the landscape I’d been tromping through for the last week. 20160821_142646.jpgThere is something familiar yet otherworldly about the unique flora of New Zealand that must only seem familiar to the Kiwis themselves. For the rest of us, it is just different enough from what we are used to that it provides a sense of otherness, of the fantasitcal and created without being so foreign as to seem alien. The main context that I (and probably many of you) have become familiar with these plants unique qualities is in the films themselves, so it is no surprise that more than just the buildings here make me feel like I am walking in the footsteps of Bilbo himself.

The Inn of the Green Dragon

As we emerge from the woods, we come to the stone bridge that leads us past the Mill and into the waiting arms of the Inn. This is possibly the only part of the tour that I have any complaints about and it is only because there is simply too much to do and see in the amount of time we are given here. The exterior is amazing enough, with the same level of detail and attention as every part of the set. There are places to pose, things to climb on, and shadowed alcoves to investigate, but inside is, if anything, even more intense. The indoor scenes of the Green Dragon were not filmed here (like all indoor scenes, they were done on a sound stage far away), but the Inn here at Matamata has been designed to replicate the indoor set in every way with the understandable exception of the small area that serves food and the modern plumbing. Once inside, visitors are greeted with a pint (yes, Pippin, it comes in pints) of locally brewed (for the brave and true) ale but there is much, much more. 20160821_144212.jpgThere are comfy armchairs by the fire, and artwork all over the walls. You can have a taste of Hobbit food if you fancy a light snack (I tried the steak and ale pie, it was yummy), you can try on Hobbit clothes, wield Gandalf’s staff, and explore room after room reading the local Hobbit bulletin board, peeking at the range of knickknacks on shelves, visiting the Inn’s cat (not in the movies, but, you know, cats), or just admiring the large wooden carving that gives the Inn it’s namesake. I tried my best to multi-task, to take it all in, but I felt like I’d only begun to scratch the surface when Sam gathered us up to continue our trek.

Farewell Shire

Walking past the pavilion (used for the Hobbit feast if you’re up for the price tag, and for private events like weddings and birthdays), we continued around the lake back toward the path we had entered from. The weather that afternoon was a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds that reflected so perfectly on the face of the still water along with the Mill, the trees and the few water front Hobbit holes. Although these photos aren’t movie accurate, they were still some of my favorite images of the day.

Our bus back may well have been a magic box that transported us from Middle Earth back to the land of car parks and gift shops. The gift shop itself is nothing special. About the only unique thing there is the beer and wine brewed for the movies and now for the tourists. There is a better selection of LOTR merch online, but that’s ok, this isn’t about the gift shop. Just expect that your souvenirs of Hobbiton will be your photos and your memories.

Despite it’s potential for crass commercialization, I enjoy movie magic. I’ve been to Universal Studios (still have to do the Harry Potter exhibit, but..) Hobbiton is different. It isn’t the costumes, actors or creatures that make Middle Earth come to life here, it’s the land itself. The majesty of the Party Tree, the sweeping vista visible from the front of Bag End that, as you stand there makes you feel that it is indeed a dangerous business, going out that front door, stepping onto that road because there really is no telling where it will take you…but you’re sure it will be one heck of a ride20160821_145225

I have so many wonderful photos and memories of this day. I sincerely hope you’ll take a moment to go and see the full album on Facebook. If you’re a Hobbit fan, it’s worth it. May the hair on your toes never fall out!

Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 2)

Part 1 ended in the middle of the performance, just after some lovely songs and dances. The second half of the story continues with insight into Maori tattoos, weapons, gender roles, and economic preservation in the form of a glowworm hike.

Tattoos / Moko

In between the musical performances, the chief spent some time explaining the traditional tattoos. In older times, Māori-Tattoo-Art-770x957.jpgthe tattoos were done by cutting deep grooves in the skin and filling the wound with ink over and over so that it created a combination of ink and scar tissue for the design. Although the cheif joked that now they have a tattoo gun, he still pointed out that rarely do Maori get facial tattoos these days, and that the performers were all wearing make-up. Bear in mind the Maori tattoos may be the closest thing to a written language they developed and are just about as complex as any other ideographic language, so I’m only going to get the tip of the iceberg here.

The Moko (Maori style tattoo) was a way of denoting a person’s rank, lineage, and achievements in life. No two people would ever have the exact same moko. The face alone is divided many times to show parents, rank, marriage, and other important representation of identity. The legs carried symbols of strength and speed for running through the bush, arms or shoulders may tell stories of loved ones or life experiences, and it seems the buttock tattoo was mainly sensual. The Mitai chief spoke to us mostly of their facial tattoos and of the four birds that the tattoos represented. This has been driving me a little bonkers, because I can’t find any reference anywhere to these birds in Maori moko except in other blogs about the Mitai Maori Village. I don’t think they made it up, but it does demonstrate how unique and regional the moko and their myths are not only to each of the seven main tribes, but to each family. So, what they told us, as far as I can tell, is true for their family, but not necessarily anyone else’s. Each moko is entirely unique, combining common symbols and ideas to weave a story of a person’s past and current life.

t1The basic legend: Mataora was a great chief who fell in love with and married a spirit from the underworld (Rarohenga) named Niwareka. One day Mataora struck her in a rage and she fled back to her father’s home in the underworld. Mataora felt remorse for his actions and decended to Rarohenga to find her. There he met her father instead who laughed at his painted face, wiping away the designs drawn there to show how useless they were. Mataora saw the permanent ta moka on his father-in-law’s face and asked him to mark his own face the same way. The pain was such that Mataora fell ill and his suffering softened Niwareka’s heart, so that when he recovered she agreed to return with him, and he promised never to hit her again as long as the markings on his face did not fade (so never). His father in law then granted him the knowledge of te moko and the Maori people have used it ever since.

The Mitai Version: This version is very similar, but when Mataora asks to have the ta moko, his father-in-law scoops up the four birds and uses them and their gifts to adorn / punish his son-in-law. 1614493167001_2285182574001_video-still-for-video-2210296148001.jpgThese four birds are the bat (go with it), the parrot, the owl and the kiwi. The bat represents knowledge. The head of the bat rests in the center of the foread and the wings spread out to either side. The parrot is situated along the nose, particularly the beak on either sideof the nose. The parrot is a talkative bird and this represents oratory skills and is very important in an oral culture. The owl sits on the chin (the only facial tattoo typically available to women) and represents protection. Finally the kiwi, envision it’s long beak open, rests on the lower cheeks, meeting the chin moko in a fluid design. The kiwi represents stewardship of the earth.

Like I said, I cannot find any corroborating reports of the Mitai story that are not self-referential, so take it for what it’s worth and know that these four birds are probably not the symbols found on other tribes’ and families’ facial moko. I can tell you that everyone agrees the face is divided into 8 main regions and the ones the Mitai described are 4 of those 8. However, the facial regions all represent things like lineage, rank, job, responsibilities, marital status and prestige, so it’s hard to say why the Mitai describe these four birds as being so central to their moko.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

The next main topic of the presentation were traditional Maori weapons. These are mostly long weapons, a fighting staff, a pointed fighting staff and an axe-like fighting staff, along with the spear. The main difference is that spears are thrown but staffs are held and used for beating, stabbing, or blocking. The men came down and gave us short demonstrations of the techniques for each weapon. 339_mere-pounamu_medThe only real hand to hand weapon is the club, or patu. The patu can be made from wood, bone or stone and resembles a paddle being narrow at the edges although not sharp enough to be a true bladed weapon. In addition to being carried to war like the long weapons, the patu were also used by women who remained at the village when the men were away hunting or fighting so that they could defend themselves against any hostile raiders. Women were expected to be skilled enough with the patu to kill their attackers. The chief pointed out that due to the shape of the patu, if one hit the skull of an enemy with the edge and twisted, it would pop the top of the head right off, handily combining village defense and dinner. Yes, the Maori used to be cannibals, too, but don’t worry, he told us “now we have McDonald’s”.

Following the introduction of the weapons, there was a short demonstration of fighter training activities that included an obstacle course of sticks that was meant to imitate the protruding roots of trees in the bush so warriors could practice running without tripping, then a sparring match between two young men using the fighting staffs. I do believe it was actually sparring and not a choreographed fight.

May I Have This Dance?

After the sparring, came one final dance of the men and women together, a cute little song expressing the women’s appreciation of the men. In the video I managed to take, the cheif actually translates their words, including “look at this handsome man, he’s so handsome he is almost ugly, but he has stolen my heart, so let’s dance”.

Finally, the warriors came together to perform the haka or war dance. This was a ritual designed to build courage and confidence and get the fighters riled up before a battle. The haka involves the same kind of intimidating face our potential chiefs had to make earlier that night, opeing the eyes as wide as possible and sticking out the tounge. There is lots of foot stomping and thigh and chest slapping, as well as a variety of lyrics that are fairly similar to modern day sports chants in other languages on a general theme of “we are awesome and you will die”. Nowadays, there are no battles, but the Maori use the haka before sports matches to psych themselves up and intimidate the other team.

We applauded our hosts, but I couldn’t keep myself from more mixed feelings as we went back into the dining hall to eat. The songs and dances were stylized and modernized and the chief had used any number of references to modern Western culture to crack jokes. I’m still torn between my fascination, my happiness that they have some way of sharing their culture and history and my total devastation that most of the visitors in that room were treating that culture and history like a theme park or a dinner theater. I’m not trying to sound like an elitist, I just want visitors to have enough interest and respect that sharing sacred land and legends doesn’t have to seem like vaudeville.


Dinner was simple, chicken, lamb, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), stuffing, some kind of seafood chowder, garlic bread and lasagna. The meat, potatoes and kumara were all cooked in the traditional method in the ground as we had seen earlier, but the other food made no pretense at all at being anything other than imported tastes. Dessert gave me a chance to try, if not Maori dishes, at least some traditional Kiwi dishes including steamed pudding and pavlova. Pudding in this sense is like the British word that equates to the American term “dessert” and in this case was a gingerbread style cake that had been steamed rather than baked and was served with a warm custard. pavlova_2949_16x9Pavlova was a dessert that by it’s name made me assume it was from some Slavic country, but the natives at my table told me firmly it was invented in New Zealand, no matter what lies the Australians are spreading. The pavlova is named after a Russian ballerina, which explains why I thought it seemed linguistically Slavic. It’s like a merenge but more complicated, having a crispy exterior and fluffy interior. It’s also supposed to be very tricky to make and prone to collapse if it’s cooled too quickly. It’s traditionally served with whipped cream and fresh fruit. I found it unique and delightful.

Groups were put together at long tables during dinner. I found myself seated next to several different folks, some native Kiwis, one student from Norway and one lady from the UK. We exchanged some stories about where we’d been and what we’d done and I settled into seriously picking the brains of the two locals which is how I came to learn about the water laws in New Zealand, some of the history of the Maori treaties, the origin of the pavlova and other interesting local tidbits.

As the meal wound down, our guide came back to give us a chance to ask questions, anything we wanted. The first time I read Harry Potter and Hermione raised her hand, I knew right away she was like me. I am an incessant class participant. In my later years I did learn to share the classroom stage with others, but it was an uphill battle. So when it became clear no one was asking, I raised my hand to break the ice. One other person did ask a question after mine, but as the silence drew out, I couldn’t help but ask again and again, until it started becoming obvious no one else was really into it.


450px-IwiMap.pngHow are the tribes delineated and what are the differences between them?

I already described the first part, the seven waka that came from Polynesia became the seven main tribes, but our guide went on to elaborate about some of the linguistic differences between the tribes. The “wh” that I had so recently learned was pronounced  “f”? It turns out some tribes pronounce it “w” or “h” instead of “f”. Additionally, the “ng” sound can be pronounce as a “k” or “n” in certain tribes. I later found this handy map that shows the tribes by geography.

What are the gender roles in Maori culture, historically?

1474328365_large.jpgI had noticed during some of the talks that there were some unfamiliar gender roles being described. For example, the chief had to be male, and it was possible for a man to take more than one wife, but women were the landholders. Pre-colonial Maori gender roles appear to have been definitive, but not derisive. That is to say, women had very clear roles and responsibilities, but they were not thought of as lesser than men’s roles, nor were women seen as belonging to men. A woman did not take her husband’s name nor relinquish her membership to her own family or tribe at marriage. Women were seen as the progenitors of life, responsible for childrearing and the home. The main difference is that these roles were not seen as lesser to men’s roles.

The Maori believed in balance and had a very holistic view, meaning that all parts were essential to the health of the whole. War was the purview of men. Women did not go to war, not because they were incapable but because their role in the balance was peace. Women did learn weapons (mainly the patu), but only to defend the village. Women also carried out song, dance and storytelling except for the war dance, making them the main guardians of history. The house itself is seen as a woman, the peak of the roof being the spine, and the four corners the arms and legs, while the doorway represented the womb.

The women also all work together to raise all children and the Maori relied heavily on the village or family collective model until they were forced into a nuclear family model by the British. The guide tried to describe Maori culture as matriarchal, but I think he may have used the word incorrectly out of a desire to contrast Maori to the western patriarchal cultures. What I have read since indicates that the culture may have been a little weighted towards men, but it was one of the more egalitarian societies I’ve read about. Of course, that was before the Christian missionaries showed up and started treating the Maori women as inferior. If you want to read more about that history, check out this site.

If the moko (tattoos) on the faces are no longer done, what about the tattoos on other places such as arms?

traditional-tattoo-ta-moko.jpgThe two main reasons modern Maori no longer wear traditional facial tattoos are the painful physical process and the social stigma. As I described earlier, the moko isn’t done with a needle, but by carving grooves into the skin and coloring the wound. This process is both painful and dangerous, and although could be replaced with a tattoo gun, there remains the second issue. Even as the moko mark them like each other, they also mark the Maori as separate and other from the British colonials. Due to years of colonial mistreatment and outdated ideas of “savages” that boil down to little more than racism, the presence of Maori tribal tattoos can still be cause for discrimination in modern day New Zealand.

Many societies consider facial tattoos especially to be unprofessional at best or representative of criminal behavior at worst. Because of this the Maori stopped the practice of facial tattooing in younger generations, but continued to use traditional symbols and art to make personal moko they could wear elsewhere on the body, trying to adapt their history to the demands of a western society. Unfortunately, there are still people in NZ who will discriminate on the basis of these moko, and not because they don’t want to hire people with tattoos. They will hire whites with tattoos of knives or skulls or whatever on their arms, but will not hire Maori with their traditional tribal art in the same place.

How do you (directed to my guide and his family) feel about cultural appropriation?

Because someone in the audience had just gotten a new tattoo in Maori style, I waited until after the groups broke up to ask this one. There is some difficult talk in the US about people using Native art and dress for sports, fashion or advertising. There’s no doubt that the stereotypes are less prevalent than they were, but since “Sexy Indian” is still a Halloween costume, it’s clearly not over yet. One of the things that happens is non-native people getting tattoos of Native symbols without really understanding what they’re doing simply because it’s cool or trendy or pretty. But since arriving in NZ, I’d seen several adverts for tattoo shops that specialize in Maori styles and I wasn’t sure if this was for everyone, or just to serve the Maori themselves.

Kirituhi Tribal Tattoo 04.jpgMy guide said that he generally felt fine with other people getting Maori tattoos or wearing their art or jewelry as long as it was respected. These Maori tattoo artists won’t just put any old design you want on your skin, they will listen to your story and make something unique to you using the traditional Maori symbols and styles. So, while I suppose it is possible to print something off the internet and go to a non-Maori tattoo artist to replicate it, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in NZ and so it’s far less an issue of misappropriation and more a way of sharing and honoring. Later research revealed that the name for Maori style tattoos for non-Maori (Pakeha) is kirituhi and so most Maori don’t even see the kirituhi as being the same as the moko (even if it appears similar in design) because it lacks the spiritual and familial connections of a true ta moko.

Although the Maori have survived colonialism far more intact and with greater rights than nearly anyone else the British invaded, it is obvious that colonialism has done some damage in terms of women’s roles, the family collective, and the lingering prejudice for non-conformity. Many Maori around NZ struggle to fit in or get by, often suffering from the issues that plague many colonized peoples such as alcoholism, abuse, and crime that stem from living a purgatorial existence, neither able to fully embrace their own culture nor fully integrate into the dominant culture around them. At least these families in Rotorua are doing their best to revitalize the old ways and spread awareness and acceptance of the Maori to Kiwis and foreign visitors alike.

A Walk in the Bush

After dinner and the q&a were all finished, we were invited back into the bush for another walk to go and see the glow worms that lived in the area. To limit the light, they only gave a small flashlight to every other person, asking us to stay in pairs. At this point, I noticed several people actually complaining about having to go back into the woods, it was too cold or too dark. I couldn’t help wondering why they’d come if they felt that way.

47-mitai-maori-villageBefore beginning the glowworm hunt, we passed by an outdoor village replica so that we could get a better look at the housing construction and village arrangement. This picture is in daylight, but when I was there it was night. It was a little hard to see in the dark, but the guide gave a good description of the house (as a body) and of the general village construction on a hillside that allowed for greater protection. Before we moved on, he reminded everyone not to shine the lights on the glowworms and also, to cup the lights in our hands and point them only at the ground, so we could see where we were walking without obstructing the night view. I think about 5% of the group listened to this, because most people were busily shining their lights all over the woods.

I abandoned my “partner” with the light and dropped back to the rear of the group where I was able to find some glowworms. I pointed them out to a Japanese tourist and her daughter, but it took me a few minutes to get across to her that she had to turn her light off to see them. She did seem appreciative once she figured it out and got a good view of the little fairy lights under the bush, but quickly moved up to rejoin the main group. A couple of early 20s Americans were also interested so I got to help them find a few more clusters of glowworms and answer some questions about the little bugs. I have decent night vision, so I wasn’t worried about treading a well beaten path without my light (plus I had a phone if I really needed it) and I managed to find several more patches of twinkling insects while I caught up to the group who had arrived at Fairy Springs.


Patupaiarehe is the Maori name that is translated into English as “fairy”. patupaiarehe_by_typthis-d7qb21wThey were a tribe of supernatural beings that lived deep in the forest, ate their food raw and shunned the light. They were described as having pale skin and red hair, and it is thought that the red-haired Maori are descendants of a union between Patupaiarehe and Maori women. The gloworms are sometimes said to be they eyes of the Patupaiarehe, since they can be seen only in the dark places. They were not spread evenly around New Zealand, but seem to be concentrated in certain areas including Rotorua where they are rumored to have come down from the mountains to drink from the pure waters of this spring. The spring puts out more than 24 million litres of water each day. The dark spots in the photos at the bottom of the pool are not rocks, it is the constant billowing of the seditment as it is churned by ever arising spring water from the bottom.

While the floodlight was on, showing off the clarity of the spring, 20160820_203045we saw one of the native fish swimming around, but after the light was turned off and people started moving on, the freshwater eel resident of the spring came out. The second guide who was bringing up the rear tried to turn the light back on so I could see it better, but the light sadly drove it back into the rocks. However, having realized that I was more interested in the land than the majority of the tourists who were rushing ahead to get back to the halls, he stayed a little behind with me and started pointing out various interesting things around the bush.

He tried to find some of the river fish for me, but they were all hiding, and we talked a bit about the uniqueness of NZ flora and fauna. 620454-292773-14.jpgHe told me about a kind of mud-skipper fish they have, and about some of the extinct land birds. He left his flashlight off and we found many more glowworms. I tried to show some of the other tourists on the walk, but they were too busy chatting to stop and look. The Mitai tribe has been watering their forest areas in order to boost the glow worm population. They aren’t seen above ground in great numbers because the atmosphere is often too dry, but a hydration program was having a profound effect on the local population and I saw probably hundreds throughout the walk all along the rock-sides sheltered by roots and leaves.


I’m glad I went to the village. I learned a lot and it opened the door for me to learn even more about who and what the Maori people are and what the land of Aotearoa is all about. Nonetheless, when I returned to my room that night, my feelings were all over the map. Too many times I saw someone be impatient, ignore what was being offered, or flat up say out loud that they weren’t interested. There was too much focus on diner and boozing (because there was a bar in the dining hall) and too much modern western humor added to the performance to placate the guests.

Our hosts told us that the spirit of a person mingles with the spirit of the land through their feet, and by setting foot on the Mitai ancestral land, we mingled our spirits with it. They performed the hongi with our elected chief, making us more than visitors. They shared food, history and hospitality that was deeply meaningful, and yet so many treated it like nothing more than entertainment. It left me feeling profoundly saddened.

The Maori culture is no longer practiced day to day the way it once was and these villages are a way not only for us to see into the past, but for the modern Maori to reconnect with their ancestors and the spiritual values that shaped them before the influx of Christian missionaries. It is beautiful and interesting and fun, but it is not a theme park. If you visit them, remember their space is sacred, like a temple or church, and treat it accordingly. Enjoy their intimacy and openness, their delicious food and beautiful singing. Take delight in their wilderness, their spring and it’s wildlife. But most importantly, take a moment away from your regular life to reflect on what makes this place tapu, special and scared, and let the spirit of the land touch you through your feet before you wander on.


Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 1)

Ever wonder about the aboriginal people of New Zealand? I had the opportunity to visit a Maori village in Aotearoa and it inspired me to learn a lot more about them. Not everything I have written about the Maori was something I learned in New Zealand. I did a lot of follow up research after I got home to help me understand what I had seen and to put the experiences into a greater context. For the purpose of this blog, I will be mixing the information I found afterward with the descriptions of the experiences to help make the connections clearer.

Feelings & History

When I found myself suddenly spending an extra night in Rotorua, the girls at the reception desk of my hostel recommended the Maori villages as a good activity. This was something I had some strong yet mixed feelings about while I was researching the trip. A lot of websites put one or another village in the top 10 experiences of New Zealand, to the point where it felt like an integral part of the national experience. The issue for me, however, was a leftover white guilt for the way that First People are treated in the US, now and historically. As I write this, tribes are coming together for one of the biggest united protests in our shared history in order to draw attention to a planned oil pipeline that is questionably off their land but would have serious impact on their water. (#NODAPL) Native American reservations already have some of the worst land and water in the continent and are rarely heard when they try to talk about the pollution, the violence against them that still pervades, the lack of access to healthcare or the justice system (only federal courts can hear their cases). Nevermind all the insane horrific murder, rape and mistreatment they suffered for centuries at the hands of European colonialists.

Then, there’s the fact that as a child, I traveled around the American west. It’s not a frontier anymore, but people like to pretend, like to see a show or visit a replica old west frontier town. I went to these and a lot of them are about cowboys and famous historical figures like Wild Bill or Calamity Jane, or Annie Oakley where you can see replicas of the shootout at the OK corral or a modern version of the Wild Bill show. That’s ok, I guess, not that different from going through replicas of colonial villages in New England, it’s a glorified version of history. But I also went to shows about the “Indians”. I watched an outdoor play one night, I don’t remember the story, but I know there were white characters and Native characters, and I remember being riveted. I got a rabbit skin from the souvenir shop and had the whole cast sign it for me… I don’t think I was more than 10 years old.

indian_gamingYou can’t go anywhere in the US without being on some tribe’s ancestral land, though. I learned about the tribes as we moved around the country. I learned their words in each new place because white settlers used the names the Natives gave to things long after the people were relegated to reservations, forced to wear western clothes, speak English and go to church. And in the few places where they are reclaiming their place, they are still only known for 2 things: casinos and tourist attractions. Casinos because crazy sovereign land rights make gambling legal on reservations. These buildings are decked out in the tackiest stereotypes of Native imagery with wooden carved Indians in giant feather headdresses adorning the entryways and sacred patterns hanging on the walls, using the images of their culture to draw in suckers. Only slightly less crass are the informational tourism spots where descendants of colonialists can come and see an authentic teepee or wigwam or rain dance. Sometimes they even sell sweat lodge experiences. And as much as I want to learn about the people and the culture, because that is maybe my greatest passion in this life, it feels cheap and tawdry whenever I see these displays outside of museums. This is not to say they shouldn’t live their own culture, but there is a difference between living your lifestyle and putting on a show.

Why I decided to go anyway

With all of this heavy history in my head and my heart, it was not an easy decision to visit a Maori village, to cross onto someone’s sacred ancestral land and be… “infotained”. Several factors helped to bring me around.

One, I really like to learn. It’s hard to separate me from an opportunity for knowledge, even if it is uncomfortable.

Two, it turns out the Maori are not “native” to New Zealand. It is believed that the Moriori were actually there when the Maori arrived from Polynesia and were gradually driven South and out (by the Maori) until they finally died off in the 1930s. Unlike the Native Americans who are believed to have travelled to the continent about 10-12000 years ago when there was a land-bridge from Russia to Alaska, the Maori are believed to have arrived in New Zealand only 1000 years ago. I don’t think it gives them less claim to the land, but it does mean that they have more in common with the European colonists than the Native American tribes.

Three, the Maori have not been nearly so hard done by as I had feared. This is not to say they did not suffer at the hands of the British colonists or that new European diseases did not ravage their population, but overall, there was nothing quite like the Trail of Tears or the massive amount of betrayal and backstabbing that went on during the colonization and westward expansion in the US. Captain Cook didn’t even land on Aotearoa until 1769, and for nearly the next hundred years, New Zealand was sparsly colonized, new British arrivals consisting mainly of whalers, seal hunters and missionaries eager to convert the trouserless heathens. Possibly the most damage done to the Maori during this time was the introduction of the gun to their intertribal warfare so that they could kill each other more efficiently.

Fun Facts:

maori-fishing-up-the-landMaori Colonization: The explorer Kupe took a really big boat and ventured across the ocean, leaving his home in search of new land. It’s believed that colonization of NZ from Polynesia was deliberate and slow after this. It took several hundred years of ocean faring boats going back and forth bringing more and more Maori. In fact, the seven main tribes now identify by which boat (waka) their ancestors arrived on. For those who have been wondering about why I keep using other names to refer to NZ, Kupe named the land Aotearoa which roughly translates to “land of the long white cloud”. There are a few legends on why, but no consensus. The seven waka hourua (ocean going boats) and later the seven tribes, are called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.

23054085.jpgThe Treaty of Waitangi was basically an agreement the Maori signed with the British crown stating that New Zealand was under British sovereignty, but that the Chiefs and tribes would keep their own land (selling only to British settlers, no filthy French or Dutch here, please), and that the Maori would have the same rights as British citizens. Of course they’ve been arguing over the terms and ignoring the details since it was signed in 1840, land was stolen anyway and wars broke out, but it was a big deal that the warring tribes came together to deal with the colonists (which did not happen in America) and that they never completely lost the power to leverage this document (also unlike every treaty the US government ever made with Native tribes). I actually passed by the treaty grounds when I was in Piahia, although at the time, I didn’t understand the true historical significance, as I had only US/Tribal treaties as a reference point.

12061-2Modern Maori: Are there arguments about land rights, water rights, fishing and hunting rights… and every other aspect of sovereignty? Of course, but it’s much more like an argument between people of (nearly) equal footing than in the US where we’re still ignoring the fact that our reservations don’t have safe drinking water or can’t fish their own streams/ coastlines for a food source. I found lots of news articles about the modern issues between the Maori and the State and the general tone is much more like dealing with a neighboring country or even another political party than anything else. Nowadays Maori language is taught in schools and there are a guaranteed number of Maori seats in parliament based on the numbers of Maori who are enrolled to vote. Meanwhile, Native Americans are struggling to regain their languages from the time the colonists forbade their use, tribes like the Haida in Alaska no longer have any members who can speak the old tongue and the last recordings of their language were made almost 100 years ago. And while there are people of Native descent in congress, they must run as representatives for their state, not for their Tribes.

Of course the Maori need to keep working to preserve their heritage and the colonial injustices are bad. I don’t want to say their issues are somehow less because other people have it worse. But, it did go a long way toward helping me see that these Maori villages that were offering shows and dinner to visitors were not being exploited or financially trapped into feeling like turning their culture into a show was the only way to earn a living. Rather that they were more like our Native Hawaiian population than our mainland Natives and, so far, I don’t feel guilty about luaus.

I met many Maori in New Zealand. I was surprised, actually at how not white the country is. It’s still about 70% European descent, but the census reckons about 15% of the population is Maori and the remaining 15% a mix of various Asian and non-Maori South Pacific. (In the US, only 2% are Native, and more than half of that greatly mixed.) I gave a ride to a Maori farmer who’s car had broken down and he talked about wanting to do something with his farm to bring in tourists like offering horseback riding tours and lessons. He told me how they used to use Maori language as a secret code when they were kids. Once I learned to recognize the features and not just the tattoos, I saw Maori integrated into every part of New Zealand, often displaying traditional jewelry or smaller tribal tattoos in more discreet places, keeping their culture close, but not ostentatious.

Visiting the Mitai

p-e6223960-c944-2800-c81f093ea594b12b-3747524Armed with a better understanding of the history and a strong desire to learn more, I booked myself a table at the Mitai Maori Village for that evening. The Rotoua area tribes (iwi) are said to all be part of the Te Arawa iwi from the original seven. There are at least 4 villages offering tours, shows, and dinners around Rotorua. I didn’t really do a lot of research into each one because initially I had not planned to go at all. When I did decide to go, I went with the Mitai Village because the hostel I was at was able to get a substantial discount from their regular price. Sometimes we make decisions for very practical reasons.

During my visit to the Mitai ancestral land, two main things happened to me: I learned a lot about Maori which was awesome, and I watched a whole bunch of obviously materialistic tourists treat the whole thing with the respect and solemnity you might expect from a Medieval Times Restaurant, that is to say, none, which was sad.

You’re Saying It Wrong

Now that I’m about 2000 words in, let me start from the beginning. The first thing I learned was that I’ve been pronouncing the word “Maori” wrong my whole life. I don’t know if it was from some well meaning documentary or just some assumptions about the transliteration, but I always said may-oh-ri, with three distinct sylables. I was wrong. It’s a two syllable word that sounds more like maw-ri  or mow-ri, the vowel sound is actually about half way between ma and mo and not common in English sounds. It was more like the Korean vowel ㅓ, and the r is more of a flap than a glide with the tip of the tounge tapping the roof of the mouth gently. I had already learned about the strange wh=f issue and now I encountered my first major dipthong (“ao”). I have no idea who Anglisized their language. The Maori had no written language and all of their words are now written using the English/Roman alphabet that is clearly unsuited for the sounds they make, so much so that I didn’t always realize words I heard that night were words I’d seen written on signs around New Zealand as I traveled.

sam_2253_01We were greeted at the entrance by a woman in traditional dress and (makeup) tattoo with the Maori greeting “Kia Ora” (key-or-ah) and escorted through to the dining hall for our introductions. Here, our host greeted us again and taught us to say kia ora then proceeded to offer introductions in the native language of every visitor there (although he did have to ask about a few). I thought this was a good idea because it felt like an exchange and not a lecture, and seemed like a good way of engaging the audience and personalizing the experience as much as you can in a group of 50. He told us a little about what to expect for the evening and taught us a few more Maori words, nearly all of which I have subsequently forgotten, but it was fun and as an amateur linguist I really liked having the opportunity to hear and practice the Maori phonology.

The Quick Tour

20160820_171604Next we broke into smaller groups and bundled outside to see some of the village. Our group first visited the boat displayed by the front gate. Our guide explained to us about the word “waka” (boat) and the three most common types of waka for daily use (fishing and transporting goods), for war, and for long ocean journeys. She pointed out to us the way in which this particular waka was made using planks and that was how we could tell it was a replica and not a traditionally made waka. In fact it was the prop from the movie The Piano. I appreciated the fact that they were so upfront about the fact it was a replica, using the movie prop to point out the similarities and differences between the prop and a traditional waka. It felt honest. Film and museum replicas are great for showing off history, but should never be passed off as originals.

After admiring the waka, we headed over to the cooking pit. Here, our hosts had dug a deep pit in the earth which was filled with hot coals. The food was carefully wrapped and lowered on a tray into the pit, then covered with blankets to keep in the heat, cooking what would soon be our dinner. This is one of two historically traditional methods the Maori used for cooking, the other being to use the geothermal heat of the region to steam the food instead of a manmade fire. I understand at least one village in the area still has access to a nearby hot pool they use to prepare dinner for guests with, but the Mitai lived with a vibrant freshwater spring rather than a geothermal one. Our guide told us that although the Maori cooked this way in the past, that mostly what they ate were the native ground birds which are now all extinct or protected and so the only traditional food in the meal would be the sweet potatoes (kumara) and that the rest of the chicken, lamb, potatoes and stuffing were all brought in from the British settlers. I suppose to some, this revelation may have been a disappointment, finding that our Hangi feast was really made of familiar food, but again, I appreciated the honest discussion of history and the unique way that a living culture had adapted to the changing times far more than any fake recreation of an imaginary past. Our guide said a prayer in Maori over our meal, before covering it back up and leading us once more into the dining hall.

Here he went more into details about Maori culture, language and history. He asked us to choose a “chief” from among ourselves to represent us as a visiting tribe. He told us the Maori called foreigners “the tribe of the four winds” or Ngā Hau e Whā, to represent that we come from everywhere. There were more than 21 different countries represented in the audience that night. Women are not allowed to be chiefs or you can be sure I would have raised my hand, but two men both volunteered and the guide decided to have a contest between them. New Zealand_Maori Culture_APT_740_LLR.jpgHe taught them how to make the traditional war face which involves opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, sticking out the tongue toward the chin and doing an aggressive war cry. One of the men took this task quite seriously, doing his best to make an intimidating face and sound as he was shown, buy the other (and younger) was too cool for school and sadly sought audience attention by laughing at the process and doing a poor imitation of the war face, perhaps unwilling to look foolish, but in the end failing. We were asked to vote by applause and the man who went all out won by a landslide, which was nice, because I felt like he would at least take his duties as our chief for the night seriously and not treat it like some kind of opportunity for laughs.

Maori Greetings

The guide then explained that when we went into the meeting hall (performance hall too), their chief would meet our chief. When two families or tribes meet, one puts a small offering on the ground (often a silver fern leaf). If the visiting chief picks it up, it is a sign that they are peaceful and pleasantries, trading, or feasting can commence. If the visiting chief refuses to pick it up, it is a declaration of the intent for war, and fighting promptly ensues. The next thing he showed us was the Maori greeting. We had already learned how to say kia ora (key-oh-ra), which means not only hello, but also goodbye and is a general well wishing like “be well” or “good health to you”. If someone says kia ora to you, it is polite to say it back. Next he taught us the body language that goes with it.

In the west, we shake hands, and in Asia, people bow, but when the Maori meet they touch foreheads and noses at the same time. Called the hongi (not to be confused with hangi, our dinner), it is an intimate greeting that breaks down the barriers of personal space immediately. The touch is done twice. On first touch, you do not breathe. This stillness is for the dead, for those who have come before and gone beyond. On the second touch you breathe, mingling the breath of life (ha) which can also be seen as a co-mingling of spirits. It is a representation of the creation of the first human. Tane (the giant tree who separated his parents to make room for life) created a woman (yeah, first human is a woman here) from the earth and breathed life into her. Once this is done, visitors are considered part of the village for the duration of the visit and share in all rights and duties that the villagers themselves do.

River Raid

With our chief prepared to meet the Mitai chief, we headed out into the bush to watch the warriors paddle their waka down the stream in a recreation of a traditional war party. This waka was made in the traditional manner, unlike the movie set replica at the front gate. Perhaps in the summer, this part of the performance is more visible. I’ve seen some pictures online that look like they are happening in daylight, but during August, the sun was setting around 6pm every night and it was quite dark by the time we were led down to the stream. Nonetheless, the warriors in the waka had torches (fire, not electric) and it was impressive to see them coming down the stream, chanting and going back and forth between paddling and using the oars in a type of dancing display.

Sadly, my cameras are really lousy at low light. Maybe one day I’ll run a go-fund-me for a new one, but somehow every time I come face to face with the choice of spending my money on a new camera or on a new country experience… there is no actual competition. As a result, I have pretty old cameras. I usually am able to share my own photos of the places I’ve seen, but in low light the best I can do is share the photos of people with expensive cameras who went to the same places to give you a better idea of what we saw.

Show Time

20160820_183118After the outdoor display, we headed into the performance hall. It was somewhere during this time that I started getting flashbacks to my childhood wild west/cowboys and Indians shows. The stage was set up to look like a Maori village, and once again, the guide was quite clear that it was a set and not real. The performance started with singing and dancing, then the cheif came out and gave a speech in Maori that of course none of us understood. While all the Maori performers were wearing traditional costumes, it struck me at once how different the cheif’s clothing was, especially the white fur cloak he wore. New Zealand has only one native land mammal, which is the bat, so where did this fur come from? It turns out that the Maori brought dogs, kuri, with them from Polynesia. The dogs were rare and their fur was prized as one of the elite materials for chieftain cloaks (along with fur seal skin), and because white was a common kuri coloring, I expect this was meant to represent a white kuri skin cloak and was quite prestigious indeed.

He presented the peace offering as we were told to expect, and our “cheif’ picked it up accepting the peace. He introduced us (his tribe) and thanked the Mitai chief for hosting us on their land. Then they performed the hongi (touching nose and forhead) and our chief was able to return to his seat. Following the formal introductions, the Mitai chief switched to English and gave a brief introduction of himself and the tribe, reminding us all that the Maori now live in modern houses, wear regular clothes and enjoy using facebook, and that all of that night’s show was a way of demonstrating their history and traditions that are no longer practiced except for purposes of historical preservation or special significance. He was easygoing and had a good sense of humor that kept the audience engaged, but it was still sad to me to see the fact that their history was being almost Disneyfied for our consumption.

The Action Song

The performance is known as waiata a ringa, or action song. In the early 1900s, there was a movement to revive traditional Maori music that added dancing and the guitar to the traditional singing, and eventually developed into a standard performance used all over Rotorua today that includes a sung entrance, poi, haka (“war dance”), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. Our performers (kapa haka) did not do it in exactly that order, but really close, and nowadays the action song is used in competitions between iwi (tribes) around New Zealand; it’s not just a tourist attraction.

337207941_48fcda1c62_zAfter the sung entrance and the chief’s introductions, they introduced traditional Maori instruments of which there are two main kinds: melodic and percussive. Melodic instruments (rangi) include flutes made from wood or bone, gourd instruments that are blown into or filled with seeds and shaken, and trumpet instruments made from shells. These are considered the domain of the Sky Father but each group and specific instrument has it’s own god/goddess or spirit associated with it. Percussive instruments (drums, sticks, poi -the white flaxen balls on strings, and a type of disc on a cord) are considered the heartbeat of the Earth Mother.

They showed us how some of the percussive instruments like the poi and the sticks had started out as training activities to strengthen the warriors, but had quickly been adapted as games and dances by the women. The poi were used in dances, but also to imitate sounds the Maori people heard around them, including the more modern sounds of the imported English horses and the railway. The short sticks were used in group dances combining rhythm and agility as the men and women tossed the sticks around the circle while singing and beating out the time (the stick game).


They also performed some beautiful songs that included the hymn and the ancient song as well as some lighter-hearted love songs. One of the cuter love songs included the lyrics, “hey pretty lady, your boyfriend he’s no good, so come with me instead”. The hymns were not translated for us, so I’m not sure exactly which gods they were honoring, but at least one of the ancient songs was a sort of Maori “Romeo and Juliet” about a pair of star crossed lovers named Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. They lived in villages in Rotorua, across the lake from one another, and their families forbade their marriage. Unlike Shakespeare’s famous couple, however, Hinemoa and Tutanekai had a happily ever after, because after his family had taken Tutanekai’s waka to stop him, Hinemoa swam across the lake to reach him instead.

The performance is far from over, but this post is reaching my self imposed limit for avoiding TLDR syndrome. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned so far. I’m not posting an album on Facebook for this experience because my photos are too dark, but you can find my YouTube Channel if you want to see more videos of this and other travels. Part 2 is coming soon!


Chuseok in Jeju Part II

Wasn’t that in September? Yes, it was. Beleagured by work and play, by deadlines and soul crushing political discourse, it’s taken me a little while to get everything put together. The good news is that the second half of my Jeju trip was much better than the first half and includes a glimpse into Korea’s kinkiest theme park. My Loveland photos may be NSFW for you, I know they were for me! 

Seongsan Ilchulbong Crater

ÇѶóDBThe weather was once more gray and drizzly, hot and humid, but with some sleep, breakfast and coffee behind us, we were enthusiastic to hit the road. I had done a bit of research on the crater that morning because of how the walk around the waterfalls turned out. I found some bloggers who claimed it was a 20 min walk if you just went straight up and about 40 minutes if you were a slow hiker. (it still took me about 45 that day). I felt better prepared for the hike ahead, but then we arrived late due to heavy traffic.

Our original schedule would have allowed us to get up to the top and come back down in plenty of time to see the famous “diving women”. However, the delay meant that the only way to climb to the top and see the divers was to race up. I decided that it wasn’t worth making myself ill, so I chose to climb at my own pace. It was another one of those hikes that should have been fairly easy but was made challenging by the weather. I soon realized that it wasn’t just us pudgy white girls that were having to stop and take breathers regularly. The Koreans, who so often zip by on mountain climbs, were also struggling in the humidity, and people of all ages and shapes were taking frequent breaks along the way as well as showing signs of being out of breath.

PS, the humidity was so bad that nearly all of my photos from the trip were adversely affected by the moisture, creating blurry and haloed pictures that I’m ashamed to put online. I tried to pick the best for the full album on Facebook, but I’m borrowing some tourist advert pics here. Sorry!


When we finally reached the top, it was clear the effort was worthwhile. The crater was formed by a volcanic eruption about 5,000 years ago. Since then, the wind and water erosion have moved the vocanic soil around and connected the crater with the mainland by a narrow land bridge. The view from the highest segment of the ring overlooks the deep bowl and surrounding stone ring. The crater itself was filled with green and the sea spread blue-gray in the distance. We bounced around the viewing platforms, which were made as giant steps to allow people to stand above those in front of them and not have to jostle for the front line. We took photos for ourselves, for random strangers, and had strangers take photos for us as well. Everyone at the summit was in a celebratory mood and it was exhilarating to be at such a beautiful natural display while shoulder to shoulder with a hundred or so happy and excited people.

As I predicted, we missed out on the diving women, but further research shows that it’s not actually that much to see, since all the action takes place under water. We managed to find some pure Hallabang juice (which I was very curious about since it’s famous and unique to Jeju, it’s a variant on the orange/tangerine theme, sweet and light, not at all tart) and a place selling chicken skewers in time to scarf down lunch before the bus headed off to the next locale.

Lava Caves


The lava caves at Manjang Gul are a unique kind of cave formed by flowing lava rather than by water erosion. We have some in North America. In fact, I got to hike the Ape Caves’s by Mt. St. Helens a few years ago and those are the longest congigous lava caves in North America (Hawaii boasts the longest in the world, btw). I was interested to see the ones in Jeju, but was a little sad to find out only a 1km stretch of the tubes is open to the public. Safety, safety, safety. In Oregon, we hiked the Ape Caves alone with only our own flashlights for guidance, scrambling over piles of rocks and at one point navigating an 8ft wall with only a short length of rope secured to the rock to aid us. In New Zealand, there were limestone caves that would require special gear and plenty of squeezing through narrow gaps and were still open and unguarded. But in Korea, the cave was carefully lit with color changing lights and each rock formation that might have been even the teeniest bit not-flat was cordoned off to protect people from climbing on it. It certainly helped me to understand why my students thought my trip to NZ was so dangerous.

Nonetheless, as we descended into the cave opening, the cool underground air was a welcome change from the stifling late summer humidity above. It was also fun seeing sections of the cave fully lit. The last time I’d explored a lava cave, I could only see a small portion of it at a time. There were signs and infographics explaining various formations, and there were certainly better photo opportunities than in any of the unlit caves I’ve been in. I really appreciate the fact that Korea has made so many interesting things so accessible to people with small children or physical limitations. My only complaint? You can guess by now, not enough time. I hear there’s a pillar of sorts at the very end of the tunnel, but we never made it because about ¾ of the way down, we realized we had to turn back if we hoped to make it to the bus on time. And I wanted to be on the bus on time, because our final stop for the day was Korea’s kinkiest theme park: 

Loveland (NSFW pics)

When I first saw Loveland on the tour itinerary, I thought, oh it’s probably some romantic couples oriented thing with tunnel of love rides and romantic couples cafes and two person everything. Then I did a Google Image search, and channeled the voice of George Takei.

Coming as I do from Seattle, where 50 Shades of Gray was dissected in minute detail for it’s many inaccuracies and misrepresentations, I might have a culturally different idea of “kinky” from most of the rest of the world, so, just to be clear, Loveland is really Sexland, but not anything wild. Pornography is not legal to make or own in Korea yet, so the park is a much more unique experience for Korean visitors than it is for those from countries with a thriving pornography industry. It’s mostly vanilla with the occasional nod toward the existence of other flavors. However, if artistic renditions of naked sexy parts offend thine eyes, scroll past quickly to the next section.

The park is filled with larger than life statues of erotic and sexual poses. Full bodies, body parts, foreplay and coitus. There is a giant hand stroking a giant vulva on the ground, as though someone is trying to bring mother earth to orgasm. There are several climbable giant penises. There are no “do not touch” signs, so basically everything is interactive for all the photo ops you want and several statues are designed to be only part of a picture and are clearly in need of a partner. There are a couple of gift stores and a sort of museum of smaller sexual art depicting vibrators and masturbation aids from around the world, wooden carvings of penises, and miniature dioramas of sexy scenes in ancient and modern Korean cultural settings.

The best part about the park, however, was the fact that once inside it, all the people seemed to be totally free from sexual embarrassment. People who, in normal life, would blush or stutter to talk about sex were suddenly giving full belly laughs at the little clockwork couples who you could make fuck with the crank of a handle, they were grabbing statues’ breasts and butts, gender roles mattered less and less as people posed with sexual statues the same gender as themselves without fear or homophobia, they asked total strangers to take pictures of themselves in compromising poses, and even when I squeezed my breasts into the outstretched statue-hands of a woman in ecstasy, I got no rude glares, but only smiles and thumbs ups. It was like some unspoken agreement that hey, we’re all adults, we all do this stuff or wish we could, so there’s no point pretending today. Oh, and not once did anyone of any national background try to use the freeing atmosphere of the park to skeeze on or harass another live person.

Rain Rain and more Rain

By the time we got back to the hotel, we knew 2 things: 1) there was no way on Gaia’s Green Face we were climbing Mt. Halla for 7 hours in that weather, and 2) we were definitely having a good vacation. We stayed up far too late, sitting by the pool and chatting while watching other groups around the courtyard play a variety of drinking games, and even got to help one lucky girl ring in her birthday by joining the sing-song. We went to sleep hapy in our decision to skip out on the mountain and to spend our last day of vacation on the beach, enjoying the water even if it rained and maybe even finding a secret hidden cove on our own.

The next morning brought a slightly different reality. Some time while we had slept, the weather turned for the worse, from merely rainy to outright typhoony. The main difference is of course the wind. For beach going, we weren’t too bothered by rain, since you get wet when you swim anyway, but the experience at Jungmun told us how bad the riptides here could really be, and we didn’t want to sit on the beach all day and not be able to swim again. During breakfast I watched the palm trees blow sideways. Our day’s buses were scheduled to leave late, so my friend and I tried to go sit outside under a canopy for a while to see what it might be like. Even under the canopy, we quickly became soaked and we had to hold on to everything we brought with us lest it be blown away by the wind. Finally, we had to admit defeat and start looking for a rain plan.

The tour group decided they would run an extra bus to the downtown area, so we started our search there. Downtown Jeju City is not terribly different from other large Korean cities, but we still wanted to do something unique to Jeju. The main obstacle here is that Jeju is famous for it’s outdoors. No one comes to Jeju to stay inside. All the activities are outside, even many of the museums are combination museum and park. Finally, I located the Yongduam Seawater Sauna and Jimjilbang. Jimjilbang are all over Korea, but I hadn’t actually made it in to one at the time of this trip, and on top of that I gathered that this one is unique because it pumps in water from the sea for some of it’s bathing pools.

Samseonghyeol Temple


When the bus dropped us off, we spotted a sign for a museum and headed toward it, but before we arrived, we passed by the gates of a temple. I’m a sucker for temples. I expected it to be Buddhist, because so far that’s what every temple I’ve been to here in Korea has been. In Japan, there were Buddhist and Shinto temples, sometimes side by side. In China, there were Budhhist, Daoist and Confucian temples. Since arriving in Korea, I’ve realized how little I actually know about Korean religion pre-Buddhism, despite the fact that I actually minored in East Asian Indigenous Religions at school. It’s not from a lack of interest, but I realize I haven’t read a single book on Korean religious history. As a result, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the Samseonghyeol Temple in Jeju city is not Buddhist at all, but rather it is a temple to honor the three gods of Jeju Island. (side note, this doesn’t mean I know more about Korean religious history, since as it turns out, Jeju history and culture is separate from mainland Korea. Mainland Korean shamanism is called Muism or 무교 and I’ll be reading about that for while.)

tumblr_ndl8rli3vk1qkyzm3o1_1280According to the legend told at the temple, the first inhabitants of Jeju Island were three demi-gods who came to earth in a great flash of light and energy, and emerged from three holes in the ground. The temple is built on the site of these three holes, and no matter how much it rains, the holes never fill up with water. The demi-gods were named Go (고 / 高), Yang (양 / 良), and Bu (부 / 夫). They wore animal skins and hunted for food. They were of great strength and cunning, but they were alone. One day, a ship arrived on the coast and an old man came out to meet them. The old man said that he was a king of a distant land and that when they had seen the great flash of light, he knew that he must travel there with his three daughters to find husbands worthy of them. The demi-gods accepted the women as their wives and their new father-in-law gifted them with the five grain plants and several livestock animals including cows and horses. In fact the last horse to leave the ship landed so hard that it’s hoof left an impression in the rock that can still be seen today.

The marriage service was held at what is known today on the island as Honinji (literally “marriage pond”). Before the wedding ceremony, the young demi-gods bathed in this pond. Neaby there is also a cave called Sinbanggul that has three rooms and where the brides readied themselves beforehand, and the newlyweds spent their honeymoons afterward. Both the pond and the cave are landmarks preserved as the three holes are.

The couples used the gifts of grain and livestock to establish the first farms of Jeju. They began to trade with other countries including China, Japan and mainland Korea (which historical records support). Once the farms were well established, they decided to each create their own separate governments.  In order to decide where each family would begin their own districts, the three demi-gods each shot a single arrow into the sky. The arrows landed on three different parts of the island: one in Il-do, another in I-do, and the third in Sam-do. These names are still in use today.

I find it interesting that the founding demi-gods were effectively hunter-gatherers. The descriptions of their animal skin clothing and hunting lifestyle indicates that they were very similar to our own understanding of pre-agrarian human cultures. Typically, gods and demi-gods in origin myths have all the trappings of civilization which they then bestow upon the humans as gifts (or sometimes have stolen from them). When the king and his daughters arrive, they are depicted as wearing beautiful clothing of woven and embroidered cloth, and bring gifts of grains and livestock. This is an obvious transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural civilization. The transition is often told in myths, but this one was unique to me because the roles of human and divine were reversed.

The Tamna Kingdom remained a separate country until the 1400’s when it was absorbed into the Jeoson Dynasty of Korea. Even after this, the people of Jeju were still treated as foreigners and travel was restricted so there were many conflicts and more than one uprising. In 1910, Japan annexed Jeju along with the rest of Korea. And finally, today, the Island of Jeju is the  first and only self-governing province of Korea.

20160917_153121.jpgAfter watching an informative film about the history and mythology of the shrine and the island, we wandered through the paths in the quiet woods. There are almost 1000 trees in Samseolhyeong. The other buildings included the museum where dioramas of the myth were displayed along with some of the original writings and ceremonial clothing from the earliest rituals performed starting in 1562. Additional alters, shrines, dormitories and halls were added over the years, but most were destroyed during Japanese occupation. Although the site of teh three holes is the same, the modern temple complex was rebuilt here in 1970. The walk through the trees was a refreshing break from the hot and humid weather. We admired many bangsatap (small stone towers built for luck) and more than a few dol hareubang (the stone grandfather statues that are the iconic image of Jeju).

We emereged feeling newly educated and refreshed and ready to enjoy our afternoon plans at the spa.

Jimjilbang at Yongduam

Just about every blog I’ve read about Korean jimjilbang starts off with “eeeek! Nakedness!” or some equivalent. I’ve seen people refuse to even try to go for fear of nakedness, and I’ve seen people talk about how they plucked up their courage and averted their eyes and tried it anyway. But pretty much everyone feels the need to talk about how scary it is to have to get naked, be seen naked, or see other people naked. It seems a great many westerners are well and truly freaked out by the prospect of being naked in a non-sexual setting. This may tell you some things about western culture?

The jimjilbangs are not unlike the Japanese onsen. These are strictly gender segregated, and they are about enjoying the baths. Nakedness is not shameful, scary, or sexual here, it’s just how you bathe. When we got to the front counter, I managed to communicate to the woman there that we wanted to do the baths and the saunas (it’s a different price point, but only by about 2$). We were given pink T-shirts and shorts (the men had blue) and a few small towels then directed to the women’s entrance. This place seemed to be owned or at least operated by and for Chinese tourists because the vast majority of the signs were in Chinese and Korean (not much English around). We put our shoes in lockers in one room and headed further in. In the main changing area, there were more lockers where people were able to change and store clothes and bags. I wasn’t sure yet what our pink clothes were for, but as we tried to change into them, a somewhat beleagured staff member patiently explained in Korean and then again in Chinese that we only needed the pink clothes to go up to the second floor.

We quickly stowed everything in our lockers and headed, yes naked, into the bathing area. This room had 6 pools of different temperatures and mixtures as well as a dry sauna and a wet sauna. But before we could start soaking, we had to scrub. About a third of the room was dedicated to getting clean. It’s important when sharing a bath with strangers that everyone cleans up first, so we got some soap and scrubbed down with the rest of the ladies. We were the only non-Asians in the place, but people mostly ignored us. The scrubbing process is not a shy rinsing off. Think about everything you do in the shower to get really clean and know that that’s what everyone was doing here. It seemed it was also possible to hire someone to give you a massage, or even give you a good scrubbing while you sat at one of the cleaning stations.

Once we were scrubbed, we headed over to investigate the pools. There were several sea water pools, as wells as some fresh water, and some herbal infused. Some pools were still and others had jacuzzi jets. One pool even had a jet in the ceiling that when you pressed a button, sprayed an intensive force of water downward, letting you stand under it to pound away at the muscles of your back and shoulders. We started in a marginally hot sea water pool that was filled with volcanic rocks along one edge. When we got too hot, we moved to the cool water pool. We tried the super jet. We wandered in and out of the jacuzzi pools. We even tried the iciest pool to maximize the hot cold contrast. Gradually, my stiff muscles from days of bus rides and hiking began to unwind. The dry sauna smelled intensely of cedar and was too hot and dry for me, but my companion enjoyed it. I visited the wet sauna which was hot and steamy, but the walls of the room were made of a mosaic of semiprecious stones like amythest and rose quartz in geometric patterns.

After a couple hours of this, we decided it was time to investigate the mysterious “second floor”. We dried off and put on our pink clothes and followed the signs to the stairwell. The second floor turned out to be a clothed co-ed area where people could relax, eat, watch tv, and sleep. Jimjilbang are a popular overnight destination for people traveling on the cheap because they are open all night and offer these communal sleeping areas. (It turned out the basement had even more sleeping areas and a dedicated DVD room!) We got a simple meal from the small restaurant there, enjoyed the coin operated massage chairs, ate some ice cream while admiring the view of the sea, and finally decided to explore the unique jimjilbang rooms.

jjimjilbang-insideThere were 3 special rooms along one wall of the second floor: the red clay room, the amythest room, and the gardenia room. The rooms had little doorways and were quiet and dark inside. Places where people sat on mats or lay with their heads on wooden blocks to relax or nap while enjoying the atmosphere. The red clay room was warm, but not quite sauna warm. The walls were red clay and it resembled the inside of a clay oven. I don’t think I could have stayed for long in the heat anyway, but we were driven out by one man’s snores before that. The gardenia room was a truly sauna level of hot. There was a stong floral (presumably gardenia) smell in the air, but the heat was too oppressive. My bare feet singed on the floor as I hopped to a reed mat for protection. There were many women sitting on the mats but the air was too hard for me to breath for long and I hopped back out without even sitting down.

20160917_185732The amethyst room is by far my favorite. I had fallen in love with the beautiful stone mosaics in the wet sauna below, but this room put them to shame. Jasper, quartz, amythest, and many others were used to create beautiful scenes of village life and cherry blossoms. The temperature in the room was Goldilocks level’s of “just right” and I lay on the floor there for a good 20 minutes enjoying the play of the low light on the colored stones, feeling like I had crawled inside a geode.

With only an hour left, we headed back down for one more round of soaking in the baths and it was with some reluctance that we took our final shower and donned our street clothes to make our way to the bus rendevous. Even leaving ourselves 45 minutes to travel what should have been 10, we almost didn’t make it. There were no taxis anywhere to be seen and the city bus stop had no timetable to show us if another bus would even come. We asked some clerks at a convenience store to call a taxi for us, which they did attempt to do, but we were told no taxis were available! Just as it seemed all hope was lost, we finally flagged one down and made it back to the group with minutes to spare.

The Moral of the Story

This trip taught me a couple very important things.

One is that even if I’m going with a group, don’t rely on anyone else to know what’s going on. By the third day, I had no choice but to do my own research because our entire primary and secondary plans for that day were scratched. I skimped on researching Jeju because I spend so much energy researching New Zealand (and then speeding through my rough drafts to get them done before leaving for Jeju) and because I thought a tour group of locals who had done the annual island trip more than once were likely to know what they were doing. I basically looked at a few pictures on google enough to know that I wanted to go to the places they listed on the itinerary and left it at that. I know now, based on my experiences and research that I would have chosen a different plan for myself even if I’d still ended up going to nearly all the same places.

The other is the value of traveling with a good friend. Experiences that would have been a big fat bummer if I’d been alone became endurable or even fun and silly because of the company. I like travelling alone, too, but just like Taean’s many travel disasters were mitigated by the presence of my Busan Buddy, the Jeju trials were made well by my Seattle Sister. We took turns managing each obstacle and when one of us got overwhelmed, the other was there to pick up the slack. I really do believe that it turned what could have been a mediocre holiday into a great memory.

There were hours of bus rides and long evenings by the pool and crazy mornings trying to pack everything we needed for the day in tiny bags and that made up at least as much time as the beaches, museums and parks. I’m not dedicating a lot of blog space to the story of how I got irrationally upset my towel wasn’t dry overnight and she busted out a hair dryer to get it dry for me, or how she got super seasick and I spend a couple hours of ferry ride dashing around the boat to bring her things to help her feel better, or how we stayed up late into the night philosophizing about the better angels of our nature or the etymology of the suffix -izzle, but that does not mean that these were less meaningful and impactful portions of my holiday experience.

Sometimes the company and the journey are the destination.

Ten Days in NZ: 3 Hot Springs at Rotorua

Here in Korea, the cold weather is starting to seep into my bones as the days grow shorter and the need to apply extra layers of clothing grows more intense. Looking back on my summer (or first winter) in Aotearoa, I yearn for the beautiful and soothing natural hot springs I found in Rotorua. 

I have a deep abiding love of hot springs. Not just spas and indoor hot baths, but the wild and natural heated water that springs from the geothermal centers of the earth to bathe us in the mineral rich (slightly sulfur smelling) warmth. I love spas too, goodness knows that I will treasure my Riyadh spa treatment for many cold winter nights to come, but this holiday wasn’t about pampering, it was about wilderness. Whether you believe in the healing properties of these waters or not, it’s still fantastic to spend a day soaking in hot water surrounded by natural beauty instead of tile and grout.

Finding a good natural spot, however, can be a real challenge. When I started looking around my US home of Seattle (also rich in hot spring activity) what I found was that nearly everything was either on private land, had been developed into a spa, or required a massive hike to get to. The shortest hike we found was still 11km from the car park and the campsite nearby had no drinking water and did not allow any fires. If we wanted to stay the night, we would have to haul in all our gear, our water, and our cold food. The most “natural” resort I found was a 5 hour drive away in the next state, required a 2 night minimum booking and cost hundreds of dollars.

However, due to NZ’s water laws, it’s much harder for private owners and companies to monopolize all the accessible springs and rivers. Rotorua is one of NZ’s main geothermally active locations and has bountiful natural hot springs. Some of these have been diverted/converted into lux spas where the water is filtered and even chlorinated and the environment is suitably sterile. I hear they’re nice. I didn’t go. Instead, I sought out three natural and free locations that I’d learned about online during my pre-trip research: Kerosene Creek, Hot and Cold, and Waterfall Spout Bath.

A note on wild hot spring safety:

 20160819_144111There are signs at every natural hot spring that basically warn you of 2 things:getting burned and getting sick. Because these are natural springs, the temperatures are not regulated, and water that is hot enough to burn you sometimes rises up from the ground in the river and pool beds. You can be sitting in lovely water and suddenly a hotter current will come by. You can take a step to the left and land on a patch of mud that is scalding hot. However, these are not insurmountable problems if you exercise a little caution and common sense. Don’t dig down into the mud/sand at the bottom. It’s hotter below the surface. Feel before you put your weight down, test the bottom gently with a hand or toe before you put your weight down so you can move away quickly if it’s too hot. If you’re really worried about it, you can always wear water shoes. The other thing to bear in mind is that hot water breeds microbes. In the case of the Rotorua springs, there is a small concern of amoebic meningitis. That sounds scary, but it can’t infect you through your skin, only if it gets up your nose, so just keep your head out of the water and you’re in the clear. If all this sounds like too much work, that’s why the spas exist.

Finally, it’s worth noting that NZ is having some issues with campers and tourists visiting these places being targeted for car theft. I received many differing accounts of the severity, but everyone agrees it is something to consider. Campers are known to be carrying all their belongings in the vehicle so they make great targets for theft. If you can leave your stuff in a hotel, hostel, bus station locker, etc. that’s probably the best solution. Otherwise do your best to make it look like the vehicle is empty and carry your most valuables (passports, money, jewelry, etc) down to the creek with you and lock them to a tree (preferably one you can see from the water). Honestly, if you’re roughing it and don’t have a hotel/hostel to leave valuables in, you should own one of those lockable, cut resistant backpacks for your valuables anyway. It’s sad that these places are becoming targets for theft, but it’s an easily avoidable problem and there are no reports of personal injury or violence whatsoever, so please don’t let it deter you from the experience.

Kerosene Creek

Kerosene Creek is easily the most famous of these three sites. I understand that during tourist season it can get somewhat crowded, and even in August when I was there, I saw about a dozen other people. It’s far from what I would call “comercialized”, but be prepared to share.

Kerosene Creek is also searchable on Google Maps, so if you have GPS this is the easiest one to find. As you drive south of Rotorua toward Wai-O-Tapu there is a little road called Old Waiotapu Road. It is gravel and filled with potholes. I drove very slowly down the 2 km it takes to get there. I also passed Lake Rotowhero (pictured here) which is another hot swimming spot that I didn’t know at the time if it was safe to go into due to the complete lack of signs or other indications of occupation. I have since learned the lake is debatably swimmable due to a potentially skin damaging pH balance and a tendency for the temperature to get to burning hot levels quite quickly once away from the shoreline. But it’s a beautiful lake with the plumes of steam rising up into the air, so it’s worth pulling over for a looksee on your way to Kerosene Creek.

The carpark is clearly marked with signage, and there’s even a toilet facility (hole in the ground style, not flushing) that doubles as a changing room if you arrive here without your swim gear on. The path down to the swimming hole is not long. It took me about 5 minutes of walking along the creek (which is also warm) to find the main area. 20160819_122343.jpgThere’s a beautiful and fairly large waterfall there and a pool that’s deep enough to sit in and have the water come up to a comfortable chest level. This spot is the spot, but if it’s too crowded, bear in mind that the whole river is warm and the path does keep going, so you could keep wandering to find a smaller more private area. There were some people leaving as I arrived, and two other campers came at the same time I did. At one point I think there were maybe 6 people in the pool, and another half dozen or so came by to look at the waterfall but did not want to get in. I also went on a Friday, a weekday, so it is almost assuredly more crowded on a weekend when families can come down from Rotorua for the day.

The entrance to the pool is a steep set of rocks that I actually had to sit down on to reach the one below. There is no stairwell or gentle descent into this particular pool, although there are many shallower areas along the creek. The water was actually not as hot as I had expected based on my experience at Hot Water Beach and all the warning signs. I didn’t have a thermometer but I’d say it was close to body temperature, maybe even a little below. Of course it felt wonderful in contrast to the crisp 16C air. The bottom of the pool was mostly small rocks and was safe to walk on barefoot, but not soft. I quickly discovered that getting closer to the base of the falls made me feel like I was getting a gentle massage just like a jacuzzi jet. There’s not much to tell about soaking in a hot pool for a couple of hours. I chatted with the other bathers and just relaxed, taking in the feelings, the waterfall air and sounds, and the beauty of the sunlight through the trees around us.

Eventually, the water stopped feeling as warm. I’m sure I just became accustomed to it, but it was time to move on. Getting out of the pool is a little tricky because of the steep entryway and I basically went backwards, pushing up from the bottom rocks until I could sit on the upper rocks and scoot back up. Because it took a little while to get out and back to my towel, I got quite chilly on the way, but once dry and rejacketed, the walk back to the car wasn’t too bad.

Hot & Cold

I was going to try to find the Waterfall Spout Bath next because I’d gotten some GPS coordinates from another backpacker online. Basically, you keep going to Wai-O-Tapu and take the Waiotapu Loop Road (paved, yay!) to a road called “The Avenue” which leads to Lady Knox Gyser (on Google Maps, easy to search). The path is just off the Avenue. Sounds easy enough, but when I got there, I discovered that there was a locked bar across the entry to the Avenue. The sign next to it indicated that the road was closed from 5pm to 9am, but it was only 2 in the afternoon, so I was a bit flummoxed. I headed up the road a bit to the visitors center and went inside to find out what was going on.

When I asked, it took a while to get through to the girl at the counter that I wanted to go up the road toward the Gyser. I had to repeat myself a few times that the road was blocked despite the posted signs indicating it should be open. She eventually led me over to an older lady who told me they close the road at 11am after the gyser is done doing it’s thing because there’s just no other reason to go down that way. Taking in my swimsuit under my jacket asked me rather tartly if I meant to go swimming and then told me there was absolutley no place to go swimming down that road… at all. I gently argued that I had seen it on the internet, which earned me a beleaguered sigh and an “of course you did”. She then went on at great length how dangerous it was because my car would be broken into, and I’d burn my feet and I’d get meningitis and and and. She told me that she’d lived there for 15 years and never even wanted to go look at it because it was sooooo dangerous. If I absolutely HAD to go swimming, I could go to Hot and Cold by the bridge, but she was sure I’d have my car broken into if I did.

When I asked her how this waterfall compared to Kerosene Creek, she told me how awful that place was too, covered with used condoms and needles (no it isn’t). I realized I was dealing with a genuine Paranoid Old Person™ and decided to humor her and back away slowly. “Can I just go look at the waterfall if I promise not to swim?”, (fingers crossed) I asked. “Well, I can’t stop you.”, she grumped back at me. I thanked her for her advice and indicated I’d head to Hot and Cold as she recommended, and leave my car in the visitor’s lot for safety if that was ok. She warned me they would lock it up before 5pm so I should hurry (it was still only 2pm).

Based on her directions, Hot & Cold was right around the corner from the visitor’s center, and since the Avenue wasn’t going to magically open for me, I figured I’d check that one out before assessing my plan of attack for the Waterfall. I did leave my car in the visitor’s car park, and if you’re worried about break-ins you can do the same while they’re open, but there is also plenty of roadside parking by the bridge. It was a short walk from there to the bridge that goes over the Hot of Hot and Cold. I saw several other cars parked around and sure enough there was a small handful (4-5) of bathers already enjoying the water.
Hot and Cold is an interesting geothermal phenomenon where a cold water stream and a hot water stream converge. The hot water stream runs under the bridge and the cold water stream runs along one side of the road. A nice shallow pool rests at the mixing point before they continue on as one merged stream. The Department of Conservation actually built wooden steps that lead down into the pool on one side of the bridge and into the hot stream on the other. The hot side is quite hot, so be careful if you decend into that side. I spent the majority of my time in the mixing pool, not for fear of heat, but because the sensation of being swirled around in hot and cold water is a uniquely pleasant one.

The pool is not merely warm water but active currents of HOT and COLD. Of course, it is generally hotter or colder as you near the appropriate stream, but the currents in the pool get everywhere. You can be soaking up a nice hot spot and suddenly a cold tendril wraps around your legs. One of the interesting activites the old foks in Washington taught me was that it was fun to go dip in the freezing cold river then dash back into the hot spring. I tried this exactly once, not because it wasn’t neat, but because the river was REALLY cold there. The hot and cold pool in NZ isn’t anywhere near so extreme, but it is a fun experience. It’s impossible to overheat in this pool since all you have to do is drift over to the cooler side, and because of the regular changes in temperature, the cool currents are refreshing and invigorating but don’t last long enough to make you cold, while at the same time your body doesn’t adjust to the hotter temperature meaning you get that ‘ahhhh’ sensation of new hot water on your skin over and over.

The water is a bit cloudy, no crystal clear mountain stream water here. You have to be careful walking around when you can’t see the bottom so you don’t stub your toe on a rock (most dangerous thing here). The bottom on the warmer side is sandy and rocky, while on the cooler side there is more algae growing so it gets a little softer (squishier) and muddier. That texture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s pretty harmless. One of the locals I talked to here said in the 10 years he’d been coming up, he’d only had his car broken into once, and that was at night. I personlly did not go to these pools after dark partially for concern of my car, but also because I was travelling alone and still suffer some lingering paranoia about my single woman status and my saftey. If I’d had a travel buddy, I would have happily dumped all my stuff at the hostel (empty car is less tempting) and gone back for a candlelit soak.

Waterfall Spout Bath

20160819_174226Not wanting to find my car locked up in the visitor’s spot, I only spent a couple hours at hot and cold before venturing out to see what I could do about this waterfall situation. I was very determined not to miss out. Even if the water or mud turned out to be too hot, I just had to go and take a look since it was so nearby. I parked my car on the side of the road just in front of the barrier and off the main road. I’m not sure how advisable this really is, but in general it’s safe to park in NZ if you can get your whole vehicle off the road so that it isn’t blocking traffic and it was almost closing time for the visitors center anyway, coming around to the posted closing time for the road itself. The GPS coordinates I had said the falls were just 500m up the road which isn’t a far walk. As I was locking up the car, two more travelers walked out of the bush. They had parked a bit further away and were using the same set of coordinates to track the elusive bathing spot.

Sure enough, 500m down the road we began to hear the water and there was a small track off to the right. Just at the opening of the bush, the path is fairly wide and clear, but it quickly narrows and becomes overgrown. I’m glad I was wearing my jeans over my suit because I got snagged by a low growing thorn bush that bit right into the fabric. It’s not a long path and you can hear the waterfall sounds to know you’re heading in the right direction. 20160819_163144_1The first thing you see is the top of the falls. These are quite lovely and worth a gander, but the water up here is too shallow to enjoy a soak, so head on down the trail a little further and you’ll find the pool. Despite it’s lack of popularity, it was indeed marked with another Dept of Conservation sign warning us about mud burns and amoebic meningitis, so the government was clearly aware of the fact that people were coming here and was just as clearly not prohibiting it. Ostensibly, this is a result of the Queen’s Chain policy of reserving 20m of land around bodies of water (and prohibiting the private ownership of said water).

We made it down to the pool and quickly skinned down to our bathing suits and waded in. Of the three places I visited, this was easily the most rustic and the most amazing. The bottom of the pool is especially temperature variable. The other lady there singed her bum because she moved onto a hot patch without realizing it. No lasting damage fortunately, but it made us all aware that the hot patches on the bottom were not to be ignored. The pool was less than knee deep, but the bottom is not visible, so it’s necessary to carefully navigate. The water isn’t “dirty”, but the waterfall stirs up mud and leaf debris from the bottom. You can easily see in the stream above and below the falls that the water itself is quite clear. It’s still got microbes tho, so don’t get it up your nose.


Aside from it’s remoteness, and the fact that we slightly felt like we were doing something forbidden the most appealing aspect of this location is the waterfall itself. It is not a tall fall, perhaps 2 meters maybe a little more. It is very powerful, but still narrow enough to be approachable. Some people straight up “shower” in these falls, and given that water falling down on your head is unlikely to get up your nose, it’s not as risky as putting your head under in the pools themselves, but it was still more of a risk than any of us were willing to take. But, and a very important but, the falls are moving quite fast and the water comes at an angle so the bottom is further out into the pool than the top. It is, therefore, possible to get your back and shoulders under the falls while keeping the front and top of your head completely out. It’s a slow process to get there because of the hot mud pockets and the need to move slowly across the ground of the pool to avoid being toasted (considering some waterproof shoes next time) and then backing into the falls to find the sweet spot that hits high on your shoulders without dunking your head, but ah when you get there… the deep tissue hot water massage that mother nature gives you as a reward is oh so sweet.

Blessed by the Gods

After lingering around for another hour or more, I got a feeling it was time to move on. I wasn’t sure of the time, but could tell from the light it was getting dark and I had not left all my stuff in my hostel. My car looked totally lived in and I didn’t want to become an after dark target for thieves ruining what was otherwise an amazingly perfect day full of soaking and nice company. I said my farewells and struggled damply back into my jeans to guard my shins on the way out. Remember how I said I felt like my trip was being divinely influenced for maximum awe? Somehow 3 gorgeous natural hot springs and two waterfall massages was just not enough of a message, because when I emerged from the narrow path in the woods onto the main road I was greeted with the most beautifully gaudy display of sunset color I have seen in a long time. I stood in total shock before remembering to snap a picture and within about two minutes the whole thing was gone, returning the sky to a darkening gray. If I hadn’t listened to the little ‘time to go’ voice in my head, I would have missed it completely. I went from feeling like the gods of the land were putting on a show to wondering if I was instead being wooed by a heavenly being.


Some things are just too wonderful to attribute to mere coincidence and I’m a lousy monotheist. I tend to ascribe to a more fantastical yet practical version of divinity outlined by authors like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I tend to think that gods are “real” in precisely the same way that “truth” or “honor” or “love” are real.


You can’t, of course, but we accept these as real. That’s basically what I mean when I talk about the gods of some place or another (up until the Diaspora, all gods were linked to the land and the local people). It’s not about religion or worship for me, but I do believe it’s important to express gratitude for the good things in life and it can help if that gratitude has a focus. Plus, it’s fun to imagine being courted by a god like a beautiful mortal maid from the old legends.

Once More With Feeling

I ended up spending 3 nights in Rotorua. On the first day I went to the springs, then on the second I did some more touristy things including a visit to a Maori village (post forthcoming). That second part was rough and emotional, so on my final morning, I decided I needed one more cleansing bath in the hot pools before I bid farewell to Rotorua and Waiotapu. First and last activities in a place go a long way to defining our memories of an experience, and as much as I valued my Maori visit, I didn’t want those feelings of sadness and conflict to be my last ones for Rotorua. Matamata was only an hour away by car, and the Hobbiton facility runs tours every 30 minutes until about 4pm, so I wasn’t worried about getting an early start for that part of the day. Instead, I woke up early to return to the Waterfall Spout Bath, easily the most remote and most beautiful of the three pools I had visited 2 days previously.  Now that I knew where I was going, it was much easier, and since the gate was open, I was even able to park at the trailhead.

This may have been the best decision I made in all of my time in Rotorua. The pool was completely empty, I had it all to myself. I like company often, but I relished the opportunity to quietly absorb the beauty of the surrounding bush as a means of replenishing my spirit, my joy and my gratitude from the night before. Once more, I could not help but feel that the land or the gods heard my requests, because the waterfall was, if you can believe it, even more beautiful on this morning than it had been the first time I found it. It was as though, having shown me the loss and sorrow that incautious tourism and exploitation brought, they now would show me the best and most beautiful that the untarnished land could offer.


The pool is set down below the level of the main road and most of the surrounding bush. When the morning sun came through the trees that surrounded and enclosed the pool, it was like beams of liquid gold pouring through fine black lace. Spiderwebs still dripping with condensed steam, gleaming like strings of diamonds between the branches drew my eye again and again as the patterns of sunlight changed. The steam itself rose up from the waterfall and the pool in great plumes, turning opaque in stripes and beams where the sunlight penetrated the canopy only to remain invisible in the shadows. If I had seen it in a movie, I would swear it was a computer generated effect, that no real thing could be so amazing all at once. As I lay in the pool, my body relaxing and revitalizing in the mineral water, the shining ribbons of light moving with the steam but also with time’s passage of the rising sun, there came a moment when I was directly in line with the sun itself, my vision becoming the center of a radiating circle of glowing sunbeams, dancing steam, and dark winding branches as though I were looking down a tunnel into another world, or even the afterlife. It was one of the most profound moments of natural beauty I have ever experienced.20160821_101856

I made another stop off at Hot & Cold that morning as well, and the sunlight was no less stunning. Once again, when I arrived I had the place to myself and the sun reached down into the riverbed through the trees not in rays and beams this time, but a spotlight to light up the steam from the hot river as it rose up the steep walls and curled back on itself in an endless spiralling dance of thermodynamics. Feeling wholly restored and incredibly grateful, I didn’t mind at all when other visitors showed up to the creek and promptly encouraged them to come on in. It was the best farewell to Rotorua I could have wished for.


I’m trying my best to get all the stories from my visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud up for viewing before the end of 2016. The good news is, since these stories are not linked to world events, they make sense whenever you read them. And, if you happen to be a northern hemisphere dweller, the weather from my trip is finally starting to line up with what you’re experiencing outside. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Please check out the Facebook page for all the photos, and my Instagram for updates on day to day life in Korea. 🙂


Autumn at the DMZ

As the weather cools down, so begins the annual reddening of the leaves. Busan is a very warm part of Korea and our trees were still mostly green going into November, so my other two musketeers and I joined the Enjoy Korea group once more to head to the northernmost regions of South Korea, known best for the Demilitarized Zone and the most beautiful Fall Foliage. It seemed like an odd conjunction of activities: the DMZ and a temple in a mountainous national park, but when you live at the southern tip of the peninsula it pays to combine the northern activities.

A little history151339-004-68fcf709

I hope that most of my readers are aware at least in outline of the Korean War and the resultant division of North and South Korea. For those who would like a refresher, here’s a very brief recap:

Japan had been controlling Korea for a while, but was forced to give it back at the end of WWII. Unfortunately, the Allies couldn’t agree on who would replace Japan as the dominant colonial power, so a line was drawn at the 38th parallel and Russia got the North while America got the South. Yeah, they sort of had thier own governments, but it was heavily infulenced by communist and capitalist ideas (and money). In 1950, the North swept over the border in huge numbers and descimated the South… flattened… destroyed and took over nearly everything in only a few days. A few DAYS. The UN decided to get involved and America sent the majority of troops into a war no one was prepared for. It dragged on for 3 years (which seems so fast and efficient nowadays, right?) and finally the Northern armies were pushed back behind the 38th. The DMZ was established as a boundary between North and South to protect  the South from further surprise attacks and it is heavily guarded at all times.



Our group was not heading to the Joint Security Area (JSA) where official government buildings and occasional meetings between the two countries exist, but rather to a less well developed part of the border that was only recently opened to the public. It’s one of the least developed areas in South Korea; apparently sometimes there are even deer. The Korean Board of Tourism refers to the area of Yanggu as “the natural side of the DMZ

It was a long drive from Busan all the way to Yanggu. We left at 5 o’clock in the morning, but I did manage to get to bed early the night before so it wasn’t too bad. When we arrived in Yanggu, we first stopped off in town for a late breakfast. It was surreal walking through a town so close to the Northern border. There were far more military personel around than in other Korean cities, and it seemed somehow more subdued, although there were still cute street decorations and a wide variety of bakeries and cafes to choose from. We had some delicious waffles made with a Belgian style resting dough recipe.

20161022_123119.jpgAfter eating and stretching our legs, the buses moved on to Dutayeon. The area of Dutayeon is beyond the Civilian Control Line, was closed to civilians after the Korean War and was only recently reopened to the public in 2006. It’s still necessary for us to register ahead of time with the government in order to visit the area, and for some of our group to wear GPS tracking necklaces around while in the park. Of course I volunteered to wear one for our group. Are you kidding? The Dutayeon Park area also includes the warning: “Not all landmines have been found, so stay within the permitted areas.” It’s not your average hike in the woods.

20161022_123713That being said, it is a beautiful area. The river that runs through it ends in a small but powerful waterfall that is the crown jewel of the park, visible across from the pond and from viewing platforms on both sides. There is a loop trail around the park, so it doesn’t matter which way you go from the pond. We headed right and passed by quite a large number of unexploded mine signs on our way toward an outdoor exhibit of mines used in the war, 20161022_125524.jpgas well as other security measures and a mock explosion that demonstrated the sensitivity of the mines by blowing foam bits around in a ball while playing a low volume explosion sound whenever hikers came too close. There were also many happier decorations including party banners between trees, wooden deer and pigs, and a whole wall of paper prayers and wishes.

As the path veered toward the river, we came to a suspension bridge which the Koreans took great delight in bouncing and swaying on as we crossed. Our group of westerners was several hundred from all over Korea, and there were many more busloads of Korean tourists visiting the park that day as well. I know that normally you can get away from the crowds here by taking a side trail or going to a less popular part of the park/beach/etc. However, given the security issues at the DMZ, it simply wasn’t an option. The good news is that everyone was polite and took turns at all the best photo spots.

20161022_132835After crossing the brigde, we followed more winding forest paths through beautiful red trees. We climbed up some stairs to get to a viewing platform just above the falls and then continued on further upriver. When it came time to cross again, there was no bridge, but instead a trail of stones that required us to hop across. Most stones were large enough to allow two people at a time, but not all. Some stones could be easily stepped between and others required jumping. Plus, everyone wanted to stop in midstream for a geourgous photo-op. The end result was a long and patient crossing while trying not to get bumped into the water by people crossing the other way. This was mostly acheivable, except for when the Ajuma needed to pass. These are the ladies who wait for no one and push everyone aside to pass. Behavior that is just rude and annoying on the subway suddenly becomes hazardous when trying to balance on river rocks. Oh, Korea.

20161022_134358.jpgBack on the near bank, we followed the trail up to a gazebo/pagoda hybrid that overlooked the waterfall once more, before following a side trail up and over to a sculpure garden that included various works of outdoor art inspired by the war or the peace as well, as a missile and several tanks that were leftovers from the fighting. One of the most fascinating pieces was a painted sculpture that blended 2d and 3d art. The sculpture was the bust of a young woman, but only half of it was painted realistically, the other half had been painted blue. In addition, the depth was unrealisitc as well. The combination created an illusion of a different perspective of portrait from each angle as you walk around it. There was also a kitchy photo frame where we took a group shot, and a copse of giant eyeballs which was meant to show the sourse of all the tears shed for those lost. There were art pieces made from the objects of war, such as the barbed wire dandilion, and other shapes made from reforged metal. All in all, it was a surreal yet emotional tribute to the history and tragedy.

20161022_151349.jpgFrom the park, we wended our way over to a small war memorial. Mostly we stopped here because it was necessary to file more paperwork for the Eulji Observatory. The memorial was very artistic and very sad. There were nine pillars representing the nine big battlefields in the area (Dolosan, Daeusan, Bloody Ridge, Baekseoksan Mountain, Punch Bowl, Gachilbong, Danjang Ridge, 949 Hill, and Christmas Hill), as well as statues of soldiers, displays of weapons and a whole room the floor of which was covered in shell casings from the war. Growing amid the barbed wire and destruction were small and beautiful flowers. There was a poem there ending in the stanza:

The Land of Guardians

A leaf of grass, a flower, don’t look at them as usual

And please don’t forget

Freedom today is stained with blood

Tears of sublime sacrifice underneath the smiling Peace.

When you pass by Yangu, the land of myth,

Stop at the sight of flowers red as blood,

Regard them as souls bloomed,

And please take your hats off, brooding awhile

Slowing down your busy pace.

20161022_151414.jpgWhile reading these lines, I stood over the discarded shell casings, and under the helmets of dead soldiers, my camera filled with photos of beautiful flowers growing around the site. Although small and far less grand than the UN Memorial in Busan, the closeness of things these men had touched or died in amid the natural beauty of wildflowers and creeping red ivy brought the tragedy of war far closer to my heart than a cemetery or a statue ever could.

Euliji Observatory771891_image2_1

(I don’t have many photos from the day, but thankfully, the South Korean board of tourism has published a few from the area that show the Northern side and interior of the Observatory so you can see them, too.)

The drive up to Eulji Observatory was interesting because for large parts of the ride, we rode with the border fence directly to our right, staring though it toward North Korea, which looked bleak and empty compared to the Southern side of the border. The day had been partly cloudy but with decent sunshine and fluffy white clouds, but as we drove up the mountain, it became gray and misty. Perhpas it was just the elevation, but it did give an aura of doom, gloom and Mordor to our encounter with the border of violent and secretive North Korea. Armed soldiers came on to the bus several times to count us. The Americans were notably less disturbed by the sight of military weapons close up and it was easy to tell which expats were from countries where such things are still uncommon. We were told that photos at the observatory were somewhat tricky, since we were allowed to photograph South Korea and the outside of the observatory, but *not* North Korea or anything inside the Observatory.

Several people tried to take photos of a memorial pillar against the fence, but even though the fence was blacked out, they were asked to delete the photos. The Korean soldiers guarding the area were very polite and respectful, but did ask to see phones if they spotted anyone pointing a phone toward the Northern side. I put my phone in my pocket and went up to the fence to peer through the cracks and get a glimpse of the forbidden North. The mountains and valleys beyond were bereft of signs of human occupation. Behind me on the South Korean side lay the famous Punch Bowl, once a bloody battlefield and now a well developed agricultural area, the land divided into neat geometric shapes for crop management and dotted with low wide buildings. In front of me, through the narrow slat where the tarp covered wire fence met the concrete base, 771892_image2_1I could see one winding dirt road, some tires stacked and filled with dirt or sand to create a barrier, and a lone watchtower surrounded by more barbed wire fencing. Beyond these decrepit signs of occupation, the land seemed as wild and untouched as though looking back in time to before humans even arrived. Coming from South Korea, where all the land is so thoroughly occupied that wildlife is all but vanished, it was a stunning contrast.

96b48f615a34f9c1cd756f6173624324Inside the observatory, there is an enclosed viewing platform that overlooks the North. A brave soldier who spoke some English decided to read an English presentation to our large group. He was very nervous, but it was a great gesture that he wanted to share information with us, so we filled the small auditorium and listened politiely while staring at the mist shrouded emptiness behind him. He told us about famous battle sites around the observatory including Stalin Hill, where the South lost some land that is now part of North Korea, a radio tower used to block signals traveling into the North, and a distant waterfall called Fairy Waterfall where beautiful North Korean women used to bathe nude to entice South Korean soldiers. He also indicated that North Koreans did use the area nearby for agriculture, although to my eyes it looked completely natural and I cannot imagine that the food they harvested there would be anything more than wild gathering.

20161022_161530.jpgI stepped back outside, feeling disoriented from the whole experience, looking back and forth across the narrow fence from a high vantange point where I could easily see North and South at the same time. (hint, the South is on the right, the North is on the left) Large ravens swooped around the peak, effortlessly gliding between the two countries gripped in cold war, alighting on the Northern watchtower, then returning to our parking lot to scavenge for crumbs left by tourists.

4th tunnel

20161022_172650.jpgOur last stop for the DMZ day was the 4th Tunnel. This sounds fairly ominous, because it also implies there are at least 3 other tunnels, which there are. The North has tried on at least 4 occasions to literally tunnel into South Korea to get troops behind the border for a massive attack. Before heading over to the tunnel entrance, we scooted inside the nearby museum for a quick propaganda film. The film was in Korean, but had English subtitiles. They were long, small and hard to read over the video, as well as not being the most accurate gramatically, but I got the gist: North bad, South good, Threat onging. The idea that the Korean War is over is not something that really exists up near the border. To be honest, it doesn’t really exist in Korea at all, but most of the time Korean citizens can ignore their war with the North the same way Americans don’t let the 7 wars their country is involved in affect them on a daily basis. This film was a little startling however, because it didn’t even make an attempt at looking like an “unbiased documentary” and was more in a tone in keeping with propaganda material from the 1950s-60s during the cold war with Russia, or the modern Chinese government propaganda films. I’m not sure how old the film was, but it certainly felt out of time.

20161022_175636After the film, we filed into a large round tunnel. The tunnel we were walking into was dug with a serious drill by the South Koreans in order to reach the less sophisticated North Korean tunnel. It was a long walk, less than 1km I’m sure, but the tunnel was dim and damp and nearly perfectly circular thanks to the diamond tipped drill the Koreans had used to make it. Hard hats were available at the front, but there were nowhere near enough to accomodate our group size, so we simply left them behind. Inside the tunnel was another no photos zone. Fortunately, the internet provides, so you can see some photos that other people (including authorized tour guides) have taken of the tunnel and equipment.

As we stood in line in the dank underground tube watching water drizzle down through a crack in the rock above, someone in the queue pointed out how much like waiting in line at Disney Land’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride it felt. I couldn’t disagree; it was underground, dark, dripping water, although the armed soldiers were real instead of animatronic pirates. In a moment I can only blame on the sheer absurity of our situation, we decided as a group that the experience would hereafter be known as DMZney Land, where the atrocities of war are wrapped up in neat little display packets for visitors to line up and experience by the busload.

20161022_175114Where the modern and sleek South Korean tunnel ended, there were clear toolmarks in the rock, concentric circles left by the drill. Intersecting our tunnel was a much smaller one, no more than 2 sqare meteres, and rough hewn, carved out with picks and dynamite. A small train awaited us, one seat behind the next as the tunnel was too narrow for two abreast. The seats were low and a transparent panel protected us from the threat of falling rocks above, but the sides remained open. We climbed in, feeling even more like boarding a ride in a theme park, expecting a trek through the rugged rock. After a mere 100 meters, the train came to a stop. We could see tool marks, and holes that had been prepared for the next round of dynamite. I forgot for a moment about the photo ban, but when I snapped a few, the soldiers only politely reminded me not to and I put my phone away again.

After a few minutes, the train moved us backward along the rail to our point of embarkation. I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I asked one of our guides to find out why the trip had been so short. Once the next trainful of tourists was on its way, she was able to ask the guard there more about the tunnel and the train. It turns out the reason we stopped is because we had gone right up to the border underground. I don’t think it was actually the border of North Korea, I think it was more likely the border of the non-civillian section of the DMZ, but it was still chilling to realize how close we’d come, or rather, how close the North had come to succeeding in their infiltration plan.

Outside the tunnel is a memorial statue to a military dog named Hunt who died while helping to rid the area of landmines. The tunnel was only discovered in 1990, and although North Korea claims it was for coal mining, there is no sign of any coal in the granite through which the tunnel was dug. American and South Korean forces are maintaining a look out for possible 5th or even 6th tunnels to this day.

Hotel in Sokcho

By the time we emerged from the tunnel, the sun had set, and the mountains were wreathed in the last glimmer of twilight. We boarded our buses in the dark and headed over to our hotels for the night. The only real reason this is of any blogworthy interest is because our hotel had both indoor and outdoor spas and pools. My experience at the jimjilbang in Jeju was great, but highly segregated. Here, we got the chance to sit around in our swimsuits in mixed company with some cans of beer and feel the contrast of the warm spa water and the cold mountain night air. The whole experience started like a jimjilbang, and we had to clean off in the showers before heading outside. The pools closest to the door were cooler, and by the time we got all the way to the upper levels and warmest pools, I was shivering intensely, but it was worth it to enjoy the wonderful outdoor spa.

I try not to dwell on the sleeping arrangements for these trips, because we go in for economy. This time we ended up on the floor again, and I gather no one slept terribly well, all of us relying on our excitement of travel to keep us going one more day.


Early in the morning, after a buffet breakfast, we headed out to the famous national park for some hiking and autumn leaf viewing. The weather was still rather damp, but that just made the colors of the trees and rocks around us stand out more. Seoraksan is quite famous among Koreans for it’s natural beauty, it’s giant bronze Buddha, and it’s fall foliage. Even wih the drizzly weather, the park was still packed to the gills when we arrived. I’m so used to hiking in the woods being a quiet escape from humanity, so this was a very big contrast. Even when climbing the famous Mt. Hua and Mt. Tai in China, I didn’t feel this crowded.
20161023_153116The parking lot had more tour buses than Disney Land, and when we passed through the main entrance, we were greeted with a wide stone road lined with restaurants, cafes and other businesses catering to park-goers. There are several trails that can take over 12 hours, but we didn’t have that much time. After doing some research, my companions and I decided we would see the big Buddha, then walk the short (2 hr) waterfall trail, and finally take the cable car up to the highest peak for  a look around.

Our very first task was to buy cable car tickets, since the tickets are sold by time and sell out early in the day. In fact, even though we;d decided to do the cable car last, nearly all the tickets before 1pm were already sold out by the time we found the ticket office. I gather that most of the year the cars run every 15 minutes, but during the weekend we were there, they had cars running every 5, holding 50 people each, and all of them were sold out by the end of the day. That’s 600 people an hour or about 4,000 people in a single day. And that’s just for the cable car. I really have no idea how many were in the park, but when I say it was full, I’m not joking.

20161023_102755.jpgOur tickets in had, we followed the signs toward the temple, passing more and more restaurants, cafes and other buildings of unknown purpose. We rounded a corner and spotted the giant statue from a distance and made a bee line straight for it. The first thing that struck me was how similar it was to the Buddha at Kamakura I’d seen last year (and totally forgot to write about but follow the link for pics). Both large metal stautes had hidden entrances as well. We took our photos and wandered around the area, watching as other visitors engaged in prayer or selfies or some combination of the two. For me, visiting famous temples is more often an act of tourism even though I call call myself a Buddhist. I imagine it’s the same way that many Christians visit Notre Dame or other famous churches to appreciate the art and history rather than to attend service. I did take a moment to find my center and become mindful of my experience, and my friend made a votive candle offering as well, so we weren’t total gawkers.

The Sinheungsa Temple was burned down in 699 and rebuilt in 710, and many believe it to be the oldest standing Seon (Zen / Chan) Temple in the world. The statue (built in 1992) is 16.9m tall (not counting the nimbus around/above his head) and contains within some pieces of the Buddha’s sari recovered after cremation, and a copy of the Tripitika (the Buddhist “bible”). The Kamakura Buddha is a bit shorter at only 13.5m, but much older, having been around since 1252, and represents a different branch of Buddhism, being a statue of Amida Buddha from the Pure Land sect, while the Seoraksan Buddha or Tongil Daebul (Great Unification Buddha) is from the Seon school and represents the sincere desire for Korean reunification.

Biryong Falls Course

41918_43827_1347Trying to keep ourselves on a decent timeline, we said our farewells to the stunning statue and set off in search of the trail-head to Biryong Falls. We soon joined a stream of Koreans dressed to the nines in their special hiking clothes. For many Koreans, espeically the older ones, outdoor activities are a serious glamour show. All the clothes are brightly colored and brand new looking. Meanwhile, my friends and I were dressed in jeans and hoodies because that’s usually how we walk in the woods at home.

20161023_104649.jpgThe path involved some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Unlike the Busan mountains which are low and covered in a softening green layer of trees, the Seoraksan mountains burst from the treeline with jagged teeth of bare rock, and this day, the whole thing was wreathed in clouds and mist making it even more haunting. We took a wide bridge over a river and ambled joyfully along the forest path, stopping to admire the trees on a regular basis. The Koreans around us took some pictures, but only at designated picturesque spots. The rest of the time they were in a hurry to get moving. So much of a hurry that we were jostled, bumped and even shoved if we were deemed to not be going fast enough. It was like being in the subway… for several km.  We tried to walk on the side of the path, or even just step OFF the path when the hordes of ajuma came barrelling down on us, but it didn’t always work.

Eventually the trail thinned out and it became harder to get out of the way. The ground left soil behind and became a wet and slippery ascent of natural stones that were precarious and challenging to hike up. The Koreans all had special hiking shoes and one or two walking poles apiece for balance and had zero patience with us for hiking in only trainers and not having sticks to balance with. More than once, I was worried that one of the shovers was going to knock me down or even knock me off the edge! It was a big contrast to the DMZ park where everyone had been patient and taken turns on the river rocks. At one point I moved as far off the path as was safe to stop and take my coat off. I got bumped into by people coming from behind 4 times. More than once they looked at me as though it were my fault for not getting out of the way. Heaven forfend we should want to stop on a bridge to admire the view or take a photo. There’s nothing so nerve wracking as having ajuma shove you while you’re balanced on a thin rail of metal over a pounding white water river below.


However, despite the nerve jangling crowds, the hike was absolutely stunning. There were still quite a few trees dressed in green, but that only served as a better backdrop for the fiery reds and golds that permeated the woods. 20161023_121430.jpgAs our path ascended beside the river, we were treated to the kind of views normally reserved for high class calendars and natural beauty screen savers. My computer randomly shows me stunning nature pics every time I log in, and I swear that one of them was actually from Seoraksan. We climbed up the slippery rocks, clinging to the railing and nearby trees until we reached two more bridges crossing the lower Yukdam Falls. The maps and pamphlets all say it’s just a 40 minute hike from the main entrance to these falls, but it had taken us close to 90, proving that 40 minutes was measured by ajuma walking standards rather than beautiful day in the woods standards. I understand that Biryong Falls was only a little farther up the mountain, but in order to make our cable car time, we had to turn back early.

Cable Car & Tiny Temple

20161023_140905Our last adventure for the day was to take the cable car up to Gwongeumseong. This particular peak is only accesible by cable car and can’t be hiked up to. We’d gotten our tickets as soon as we arrived at the park, so all we had to do was wait for the sign to show our boarding time and file on. These are decently large cable cars, and hold 50 passengers at a go, all standing and no personal space. My friend decided to play elbows for us and wrangled some spaces right along the rear window so we could watch the ground disappearing beneath us as we ascended into the clouds. We were able to see the main park entrance laid out below us, including the giant Buddha off to one side.

img_2155As we rose, the clouds soon fell below us, covering the view of the ground and the sea became visible off to one side. I had known Seoraksan was near the coast, but I had not realized how close to the ocean we actually were until that moment. The cable car stand at the top had more amenities, food and restrooms and coffee shops, but we swept past them and onto the viewing platform. I had read ahead of time that one could walk all the way to the tippy top from here and see an old castle, but after my experience on the waterfall path earlier, I was reticent to follow another stream of hundreds of hikers. We walked around the viewing area and found a distant waterfall, a long streak of white amid the green and brown of the mountains, visible even at this distance it must have been enormous up close.

20161023_145139.jpgWhile searching for more and better angles to take majestic photos of the panorama around us, we stumbled upon a small path leading downward that no one else was on. The small sign indicated there was a temple (templ-ette? I’m not honestly sure how to translate this word in English) about 70m downward. We carefully balanced on uneven, wet and slippery rocks, clinging at times to the chain along one side of the path. 70m isn’t far on flat ground, but it took us a while to cover it on the mountainside. We also stopped to admire the views often. When the path leveled out, we were greeted with a tiny hut, decorated in Buddhist style. We doffed our shoes and went inside. The warm interior was a welcome contrast to the chilly outside air. The ceiling was covered with lotus lanterns and small candles burned on the altar. The air was so still, I had to stare at the candles for a few minutes before I decided they were flame and not electric.

Our whole day had been so hectic and crowded, it was bliss to sit on the plush carpet and just enjoy the calming music playing on the sound system. While we were meditating, the monk came back inside and seemed a bit surprised to see us there. I don’t know if I want to go too far into what I experienced internally, but I definitely received the answer to a question that had been bothering me. My friend also found some answers in her meditation that helped her to find her way again after some troubling times. Buddha isn’t a god, he doesn’t answer prayers or give us things, but quiet reflection is hard to come by and can make a space for us to hear the answers we already knew. This temple, however small and remote, had a sense of peace and purpose. Even it’s name reflected this, translating in English as the “love and happiness temple”.

When I stood to offer a respectful bow to the altar, the priest caught my eye as I straightened up and smiled broadly, bowing to me and greeting me in Korean. My friend was still meditating, so we were quiet and did not speak much beyond greetings, but I could tell he was happy that we had come in with intent and respect.

Once both of us completed our meditations, we headed back up to the cable car feeling cleansed and refreshed. Some other expat tourists asked us what was down the path and I told them. Then they asked if it was “worth it” and we had a small discussion on what that meant. The temple-ette was tiny and not very architecturally or artistically stunning, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally, the peace we found there was priceless to us.

As the fall moves on, I treasure the memory of this temple most from the weekend experience. Things are not getting calmer or easier for me as an American or for everyone living in Korea dealing with the political uncertainty here. Religion and spirituality are tricky topics, and I’m not out to preach or convert, but the core Buddhist tenant of loving-kindness is something I think we can all use a little more of in our lives.


I met with some other Americans after the election and someone reminded me that one of the most important roles of the expat is “soft diplomacy”. We go out and show the face of the people, instead of the government, and when we come back, we can tell stories of the people and places we’ve seen, sharing things the news and the movies miss out on. I hope that my travels, stories and experiences can serve to help show the value in diversity, in natural preservation, and in open-mindedness. Thanks for reading, and please be sure to see all the photos from the DMZ and Seoraksan over on Facebook! ❤


어떻게: How

I have to admit, I’d rather be posting about my trip to the DMZ. I’ve got pages and pages of stories left from my summer and fall adventures, but somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to keep blithely moving on to happy travel posts without at least acknowledging what just happened. I’m not a political blogger, but those who read here know sometimes I share my thoughts on a major world event, and/or event that causes me deep emotional reactions. If you just want the happy travel stories, that’s ok. I like those better anyway. But, for what it’s worth, my .02 on the election.

I’m 16 hours ahead of the West Coast. The election was well underway when I woke up Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, the Koreans were staring at the electoral map on my phone, just saying 어떻게 (ottoke) over and over. It means “how”. By the time I left work, it was over and I was in shock. My Canadian and I ate pb&j sandwiches and drank 2 bottles of wine while trying to talk about literally anything else.

I didn’t sleep well. Anxiety and stress combined with some lingering back pain. I woke up tired and numb. Random thoughts keep scrolling across my brain like one of those LED tickers in New York. Tears coming and going as I walk down the street to the bus station. No appetite at all. Even when I’m finally hungry, I can only eat a few bites before it all seems disgusting again. I cried, I yelled, my coworkers laughed because they thought it was a joke until I gave example after example and then they cried too. I spent the whole day fighting the urge to just lay down on the floor and stop moving. My body is in grief.

어떻게 (ottoke)


I was (am?) one of those disenfranchised white people who is sad-mad about the loss of my future. I believed in the meritocracy and it failed me. I’ve changed careers 3 times because every time I invested in the training and the low level experience building, it was just in time to have the economy hiccup and destroy my future. In America, I couldn’t get adequate health care because it was too expensive. I put myself in insane debt for a career that I will never have now. I couldn’t afford to live on my own with a full time (30-50% higher than minimum wage) job. Even with a roommate, I couldn’t save up for a car, a house, a new TV or even dream of getting out from under the credit card debt without the aid of my family. I took a job I didn’t like with no prospect of advancement simply because I needed the health benefits more than I needed a job with a future. I drove the one new car I bought way back when the economy was still good until it died a sad death from lack of me being able to afford regular maintenance 16 years later. One of the reasons I never married or tried to have children because the very thought of even more financial burden terrified me to my core.

What makes me different from the rest of the disenfranchised white people who believe Trump can save them? I am honestly not sure. It could be my educational level. It could be my hippie mom. It could be my urban location. It could be … nothing.

You can make jokes and snide remarks about racism, but we all know that only a small portion of the Trump base are really off the hook haters. Most of them are the lost people, who like me, thought that if they worked hard, they could get that house with the fence and the kids and the dog and it would be ok. We are all processing what it means to realize that just isn’t true.


My cousin – my mixed race, female cousin told me she would have voted for Trump if she’d voted. (Do not even get me started on that “if”) When I expressed my worry for her and her family members of color, she was surprised and said she had no clue how I got the idea he was racist. Even when I tried to explain, she dismissed it as having happened so long ago (the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and you know the recent election cycle) that it wasn’t relevant anymore. When I asked her to tell me some things she liked about Trump, all she could tell me were the same things I’ve read and seen over and over. Hillary is BAD, the establishment is BAD. Trump is not those bad things. Yeah, but what do you like about him. He’s not the establishment.


She was just as politely patronizing to me as I’ve seen well meaning liberals be, too (and if I’m being brutally honest, as I’m sure I’ve been to people when I feel like they are being dumb but I still want to try and be nice). I was hoping my liberal media “bubble” was exaggerating that “voting-against” response. That if I just talked to a reasonable Trump supporter they could explain the good things to me, but nope. It looks like the people who don’t love Trump are so in hate with Hillary and “the establishment” that they don’t care who else gets hurt, including themselves.

I can’t tell you how much I want to be wrong. I want to be Chicken Little and not Cassandra. So. Much.

어떻게 (ottoke)

obama-protestAnd there’s the riots, which I am not happy to see. I don’t want violence to be an answer ever. Yeah, I know, the Trump supporters did it first, but now that they’ve won, they’d like it all to stop. People are like “oh you’re overreacting”, “oh you’re whiny cry babies” (nevermind that’s been pointed at us for caring about anything ever for decades, so it’s lost it’s oompf as an insult), but I voted in 2000 when this happened with Gore and I was not scared for my nation’s future (although, it turns out I should have been). I was mad when Kerry lost in 2004, too because that explitive promised to do recounts and bailed. And the Democrats didn’t take to the streets in protests and riots because voters who lost an election were capable of telling the difference between a guy we didn’t like the policies of, and a guy who we honestly believe will enable the ruination, incarceration, and deaths of humans we care for and respect.

It’s not about oh we lost, boo hoo. It’s not about, oh we didn’t get our way and now we’re throwing a tantrum (looking at you House Republicans). It’s about all these horrible stories on twitter of people being harassed, threatened, and assaulted in the name of the President-elect. It’s about high school students being groped and bullied and beaten while their classmates chant “white power”. It’s about spray-painting the President-elect’s name on cars and churches then setting them on fire, sometimes with people still inside.

They say they’ve never rioted when their candidate lost (a debatable claim at best), but I say we’ve never abused people in the name of our winning candidate. This isn’t like any other election.

어떻게 (ottoke)


Oh, yeah, I’m not going back. It’s not as big a political stance as it sounds. I left when the country was improving. I left before marriage equality. I left, not because I was disgusted or afraid, but because I like to travel. I’ve stayed away for the very practical reason that I get paid better for work I find more rewarding in cultures that have superior access to quality health care and in communities of like-minded globe trotters. It’s better for me out here than it is at “home”. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of going back before. What would I do? How would I pay rent? How would I afford health care? This is just a sort of nail in the decision. I don’t want to live in a country where I’m struggling to just get by when I can live somewhere that I thrive. I desperately want America to be that kind of a place again, but I’m not optimistic for the near future.

Not everyone can leave. Not everyone would actually have a better life outside America. Not everyone even wants to leave. That part’s just about my life choices.

어떻게 (ottoke)

Democratic National Convention: Day One

Bunch of folks are looking for the love. We know hate is bad, we know love conquers hate. I personally don’t like hating because of how it makes me feel. But I’ve also seen a lot of people in the at-risk minority groups get righteously upset at those “love uber alles” type messages. They worry, and I think justly so, that we who remain un-impacted or less impacted by virtue of our skin tone, our gender, our economic status, or our geographic region can take the moral high ground and love without suffering, thus forgetting the pain, fear, anger, loss and very real danger being experienced by people not us. But, I think it’s ok to love while still being hurt, angry, sad, mad, and scared.  I don’t think you have to choose.

I’m trying not to hate. I saw the Daily Show the other day, the it comes with the package speech Hassan Minhaj gave, and it so succinctly put into words why I’m upset with the not-actually-horribly-racist Trump supporters.


Maybe right now, I feel the same way about them. I don’t actually hate you, non-racist, non-misogynist, non-xenophobic, Hillary-hating, establishment-destroying Trump supporters… I just don’t care about you? Doesn’t really feel good.

I’m trying to find all my compassion and use it, but I’m tired, wrung out, this year has seen so much tragedy in the US and I am afraid it is only going to get worse. And yeah, I’m mad at the people who voted for this. But I’m trying to be like… family mad. Mom mad. That kind of mad where you’re like, “I can’t believe you just took the family car for a joyride and crashed it into a telephone pole!” HUG “I’m so glad you’re ok, I love you.” because those go together. We can be mad at people we love and we can love people we’re mad at.

I’m not sure I have it in me to love the super bigots yet. I may not be that enlightened. But I know that’s not most of the people I’m mad at.

So they’ve shown it’s possible to not-hate someone, but at the same time not care if they live or die. I’m saying possible to be mad at people for doing dumb, dangerous, shortsighted, selfish things and still . That’s the struggle for me right now. That and trying to decide what to do with my book collection if I’m really never going back there.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to lay down on the floor and stop moving.

어떻게 (ottoke)