Sunday, May 27, 2012

Just Remember...Beeeeeeee Yourself

The tally is in.  I have now lived with 62 different women, by the end of the summer, I'm pretty sure I'll be hitting 70-75.  This has probably been one of the greatest challenges and blessings of my life.  It has allowed me to get to know numerous amazing women and also many who struggle to see how amazing they are and/or could be.  It has given me a pretty clear picture of what kind of people I work best with and has also given me great practice in working with those I don't click with easily.  Living with all of those women has helped me get to know and become more comfortable with myself.  It has forced me to stare down my own insecurities and address things in my habits that probably should be adjusted.  With each individual, I have learned something new about myself and developed something I wanted to make a part of myself.  Each of those individuals has brought light and clarity to my perspective.  Some formed large portions of that picture (shout out to my soul sisters) while others did an amazing job of adding depth, color, and accents to views already formed.

I have been incredibly blessed to have the chance to live with those individuals, and I think one of the greatest gifts they have given me, collectively, is security.  That may seem odd considering the high turnover rate having 62 roommates requires (I've moved 14 times), but I'm not talking about the kind of security one experiences from things never changing.  I'm talking about the kind of security you can find once you accept that things are always changing - and that with God supporting you, they can always change for the better.  It's a great faith/hope builder, and also a great source of strength.  It's that security that keeps me calm amongst the unpredictable waves of life.  It's the strength that allows me to 'just keep swimming' when I'm not sure where to go next.  I owe more to those individuals than any of them could ever know (and not just because they somehow managed to survive living with me).

But this new group is a different kind of batch.  For the first time, I'm living with women who are much younger than me.  The average age of the 10 volunteers I live with is 20.  It's a fascinating dynamic to be in because I've never seen it from the older point of view.  It's interesting to see how they are addressing the same issues I dealt with just a few years ago.  Some amaze me by just how far ahead of the game they are, while others I feel more concern for because I know exactly where their particular brand of thinking leads.  Some have an impressive amount of independence and self surety, while others seem to really struggle understanding what all they have to offer.

One girl in particular, I think about a lot.  She's a strong personality; outspoken, direct, and very social.  She's a definitely a perfectionist and therefore incredibly talented, driven, and intelligent.  There's just something just a little off.  After the first week, I noticed that her interests kept changing and shifting closer to mine.  I started seeing a pattern that seemed like she is trying to use me as some sort of role model without any clue as to what kind of role she's looking to fulfill.  (fyi - I'm not okay with that)  She just graduated in political science, aced the LSAT, but didn't want to go to law school.  She also happens to have two men at home incredibly determined to marry her, and doesn't know which to choose.  Every life choice she has been trying to make seems to be an arduous and impossible process.

It's an early assessment, but I'm starting to see how she has no idea what she really wants.  Based on how she adapts her interests and passions to whomever she's around, I'm betting neither of the guys waiting for her have any idea who she is either.  Watching her drama is like watching the movie Runaway Bride.  I guess I think about her a lot because I see how precarious her situation is.  She has so much going on it's hard for her to focus on who she is or what she actually wants.  She's distracted by all of her possibilities, and therefore ironically blind to which of those possibilities she actually wants.  She's tortured, but she doesn't understand what is torturing her or how to find solace.  She's not the first person I've seen in that kind of a situation (goodness knows I've been there myself a few times), but it's still difficult to watch.  I just want to shake her and tell her to slow down, spend some time with herself, and figure out what she wants before trying to choose from what's available.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Otherwise, things are going well and moving along nicely.  We met with the World Health Organization Tuesday and Wednesday in Rakiraki (this is the sunset there).  We helped them train the headmasters of local schools on how to make strides toward a healthy schools policy.  It was an enlightening meeting and I understand much better now how Fijians structure their food habits.  My job with WHO will be checking in on the plans these headmasters came up with and help them troubleshoot any problems that might arise.  One of the most shocking things from the meeting was seeing just how uncreative these men were.  I was forced to come up with as many questions as I could think of just to get one idea out of them.  Getting answers to those questions was very helpful to my personal project brainstorming, so all in all it worked out well, but I can see how any progression in Fiji is going to be a long, slow, and arduous process.

One other project I'm going to be working on with WHO is creating a Zumba workout video for the South Pacific.  Saula (the head of WHO in Fiji) wants me to create some dance routines with a south pacific flavor so that he can market them to the older (and incredibly inactive) Fijians.  We also talked about making other videos, one for young adults and one for children.  After our meetings we actually did a little Zumba and I loved seeing how excited these old educators were to dance.  Needless to say, I'm incredibly excited about this.  Hopefully I'll be heading to Suva either this week or next to get started. :)

So besides WHO, I also started working with an organization called PRISM.  It's a group that travels to the villages around Lautoka to provide basic health screenings, nutrition and exercise advice, and as of recently, gardening tips (gardening being a form of exercise the women will actually do).  It'll be a good precursor to what I want to do working with the Gold Foundation for Women's Empowerment.  I also took it upon myself to start shopping for our house's food this week.  I think it's pretty safe to say, it's going to be a busy summer, but the latter responsibility seems to be necessary.  It has become apparent that our country directors are not used to thinking about how to feed 15 people a day, let alone how to do it nutritiously. One of the directors has a really hard time knowing how and when to spend money and many people have expressed frustration by how often we run completely out of food.  We'll see if I can keep the mutiny at bay a little better.  

Oh, I almost forgot.  After our conference with WHO, we decided to spend the night in Rakiraki at a backpacker resort nearby and celebrate Tacy's (one of our team members) birthday.  We invited Saula, Ben (director of Fiji's Ministry of Health), as well as Tikiko (director of the Ministry of Education) for dinner to further discuss possible ventures for other Help volunteers.  It was a fantastic dinner, and I pretty much used the whole time to pick Saula's brain clean.  To celebrate Tacy's birthday, I made a TimTam Slam cake.  With the help of the resort staff, this is how it turned out.

The best part of the night was definitely teaching these men how to do TimTam Slams.  Ben, an incredibly manly and huge Fijian, was hilarious about it, and Saula and Tikiko definitely enjoyed them.  It was a great time with plenty of good laughs.  Who knew partying with distinguished old men could be so much fun.  It's going to be a good summer.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My Theory of Right and Wrong

"Placing a spoon on your nose every morning for 20 mins prevents you from getting cancer."
"What?  No it doesn't!"
"Yes it does.  Do you know anybody who has done it that got cancer?"
"That's because it works.  My aunt, who is a herbalist, says so."

My friends, my family, and my countrymen, today I'd like to speak on truth.  What is it?  How do you know when you have it?  How do you know when you don't?  Well, I don't have all the answers to those questions, but they are questions I've been asking for a while.  What I've come up with is a convoluted mess of gray possibilities.  A gray that only differentiates into black and white when you individually look at each pixel, each person, and the truth they perceive.  But what determines if something is right or wrong?  Who decides what right and wrong looks like?  Are there any absolute rights or absolute wrongs? 

Before I go much further, I do need to state one thing just to be clear.  I do believe in right and wrong.  I do think there are laws in the universe that act the medium for right and wrong to exist.  Laws that extend beyond the tangible world and laws that have and will exist, literally, forever.  Those laws are the embodiment of truth and offer the framework by which right and wrong can be differentiated.  Those laws do not change with culture, creed, time, or language.  Understanding of those laws will change as much as the moods of an adolescent teenager, but the laws themselves are as eternal as eternity itself.  Like understanding particle physics, an understanding of these laws enables us to do more and to become more.  Also like in particle physics, there are many aspects to these laws that we do not understand and have much more to learn about.

Like the law of gravity, I don't think we can choose which of these laws to live under.  You may hate gravity, even resent it, but you can't escape it (nope, not even in space).  It's in every molecule that exists in and around you.  In a very real way, it's utterly essential to your very existence.  And just resenting gravity and it's effects does nothing for you.  It does not, because it cannot, go away.  So what choice do we have then?  If we can't control the forces that affect us, what power do we have?  Well, just like the glory of God is intelligence, our power comes from knowledge and understanding of those laws.  The more we know about those laws, the greater ability we have to make choices that will result in a desired consequence.  Think about gravity.  The more we know about gravity, the more we can use it to our advantage.  Our greater understanding does not change the law, but it does change our ability to find joy, satisfaction, or a given desire while living the law.

The way I understand things now, right and wrong are bi-products of that knowledge and those choices, and that applies both physically as well as spiritually.  A wrong choice is a choice that acts in opposition to the law at hand, and a right choice is a choice that acts in line with it.  A example of a 'right' choice might be something as seemingly amoral as a humans choice to stand upright or take a step.  Some would call it overcoming gravity, but we aren't defying gravity in any way.  We are just using our understanding to take advantage of the structure that law offers.  We are living and acting according to the law. 

How does one make ever make a wrong choice then?  Here's where things get difficult for me.  If the laws are omnipresent and eternal, how does one act against them?  Well, I'm not sure they can, but I think the 'wrong'ness occurs in our attempt.  A wrong choice would be choosing to step off a building (unequipped with any propulsive device) and defy gravity.  The consequence of that wrong choice (and I would argue, every wrong choice), is that you will fall.  Gravity will act on you whether you want it to or not.  Whether you believe it exists or not.  It does not care if you did it for noble purposes.  It does not care if you did it for love.  It will accelerate you toward the ground, and the impact will either hurt or kill you.  But gravity did not hurt you.  You did.  You chose to act, or perhaps it's more accurate to say you chose to attempt to act, against the law.  So while we can choose the choice, we cannot choice the consequence.  Because we don't make the laws. 

So what is right and what is wrong?  Simply stated, right is an act that is in line with the law, and wrong is an act that attempts to bi-pass, ignore, or work against the law.  Unlike our human laws, these laws can't be argued with or changed.  They don't have sympathies, and they don't have friends.  They act on everybody equally, and are perfectly just in their nature.  How well you understand and use those laws determines your happiness and your success, or, if you so choose, your eternal demise.

This applies with both physical and spiritual laws.  After all, they are of the same body and the same origin.  They are the laws science, the laws of the universe, the laws of God.  But God did not create them.  He lives by them, but is not controlled by them because He too has choice.  Being perfect, having perfect knowledge, and knowing exactly what right is, he never chooses to act against those laws, because that would be wrong.  In fact, I'm pretty sure it's those laws that make him the all-powerful being He is.  His perfect understanding of those laws is what allows him to create, organize, know, and act in all the ways He does.  But God is love, and God loves His children, who are still very ignorant of those laws - at times to the point of self destruction.

I think it's why He needed His Son to perform the atonement.  Because while gravity may not care if we fall and hurt ourselves, God does, and He needed a way to help His children learn those laws with the possibility of choosing to not being destroyed by them.  He needed a force that could act against the force of death and destruction - both physical and spiritual.  It's the atonement that allows us to buffer ourselves from the consequences of wrong choices.  It's the atonement that allows us to choose 'right' at any time, and not be hit with the full weight of our previous wrong choice.  It's the buffer that saves us from ourselves and settles those demands of justice.  To use my previous example, think about what would happen if somebody did step off the building.  Gravity acts.  While plummeting toward the ground, they have a change of heart.  They decide to believe in gravity, to live by it's precepts and never step off the building again.  God wants to give them the chance to make that choice, so He uses the power of that atonement to catch the falling body, and give them another chance to live the law.

Like the properties that act as the root of gravity, love is the root of the atoning force that allows for God to counteract the force of justice.  It's why love is so powerful.  It's why we are taught to love God and love our neighbor, because that mercy is our only hope, and the more we cultivate it in our own lives, the more power He has to use it to buffer the consequences of our human ignorance.  And since we are all human and all ignorant - we all need it.

Likewise, what happens when the person steps off the building, initially feels the effects of gravity, but then after hitting terminal velocity, has convinced themselves they've done it.  They have overcome gravity.  Whether they're aware of it or not, gravity is still acting on them, and the consequence will catch up to them eventually - even if it takes a while.  Their ignorance will cost them dearly.  This is where that mock-convo at the beginning of this entry comes into play.  Like the person convinced a spoon would protect them from cancer, humans are really good at convincing themselves of things that simply do not line up with the laws of the universe.  And look at what it's gotten us: poverty, abuse, isolation, depression, anxiety, disease, etc and no end in sight.  I think it's pretty safe to say, ignorance is the #1 cause of suffering in the world - probably the universe.

What I wanted show with that intro is something big I have learned about truth over the years.  One, truth is always in line with truth, and if two truths are not syncing up, you need to deepen your understanding of both.  Two, when learning truth, try to learn from those who know truth and, even then, always check your sources.  Why?  Because people can be awful sources of education on truth, science, health, peace, and/or happiness.  Whatever the reason, there is a TON of misinformation out there about how to live, feel, and find joy.  Like the speaker with the herbalist aunt, many are just full of bad info.

My time in Thailand and India taught me this on a whole new level.  One example: While navigating a new city, it wasn't uncommon that I would get utterly lost, at least once.  When I asked for directions, I was flat out lied to about 60% of the time.  This became very frustrating to me because I could not for the life of me understand why they would give me bad directions.  What did they have to gain from deceiving me?  The more this happened, the more I realized that it was rarely done in malice or deceit.  Many just didn't know but didn't want to leave me hanging, or those that did know didn't know how to communicate it very well (or I just couldn't understand them).  Likewise, think about the many children who are lost and asking their parents how to be happy, but the parents don't know themselves, so they give bad directions in an attempt to just give some direction.  The children go in that direction, then get frustrated because happiness is not achieved, then look elsewhere and find more direction from an ever-present media, other lost people, etc, only to get more frustrated after realizing it was also bunk.

Many are satisfied with their understanding because they trust their source.  The herbalist aunt must know what she's doing, she's an herbalist.  Yes, there are good herbalists out there, but perhaps an oncologist would be a better source.  And even if an herbalist were the authority on cancer, there are good herbalists, and some that are complete loons working completely from old wives tales and rumor.  How do you know which one your aunt is?  This is a classic problem for humanity.  How do we know who to listen to? 

Sometimes I wonder if that's what makes living this life so difficult at times.  Because there is no simple way to learn the laws of the universe.  Like particle physics (which is only a minute portion of those laws), it takes a great knowledge of lesser laws and lots of experience to ever understand what those universal laws are.  It involves trying to digest those infinite laws into the finite human understanding.  Something that makes it so none of us will come to a perfect understanding in this lifetime.  But the more we know, the better off we are, so it's worth the investment of our time.  And while we may not ever understand all the possibilities of these powerful laws, we can learn and take advantage of the basics, and save ourselves from the consequences of ignorantly jumping off buildings.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alright Stop.....Hammer Time

Bula Vinaka!

So I built a house.  Well...kind of.  Really, I just spent several hours climbing rafters and hammering in nails at really weird angles.  I've got the bruises and blisters to prove it. :)  The first day we arrived we got to work building Rotohome houses.  They are a part the Koropita community development project and is closely affiliated with Habitat for Humanity.  It's a planned community project, developed by the local Rotary club, meant to provide housing, food, and education for the numerous squatters/homeless people in Fiji.  Many of these people have been trapped in poverty caused by the typically disastrous hurricane season.  They build shacks for shelter, the shacks get destroyed by winds, then they have to use all their surviving resources to rebuild the shacks that will get destroyed by the next years hurricane.  These houses, though simple, are strong and incredibly nice.  They withstand the hurricanes and still provide it's tenants with all the necessities of indoor plumbing, running water, and of course, shelter.  It's environmentally friendly (carbon neutral) and food is provided by the tenants own gardens.  Here's a pic of the community.

But the really impressive side of the project is in the social engineering.  Peter Drysdale is the man behind it all, and he has had decades of experience dealing with impoverished populations.  He grew up in Fiji and first encountered the squatter population when he was a young man working for the Queen's civil workers league.  He went from there to Oxford and now owns one of the main shipping companies here.  What he has managed is a remarkable balance of giving people a hand up without offering hand outs.  Through many years and several hard earned lessons, he has found an impressive social structure that manages to help the impoverished while protecting those in poverty from their own socially and economically destructive habits.  

He does so by keeping the community under very strict control.  There are 19 pages of rules each person agrees to upon moving in.  Part of those rules is mandatory employment and improvement trainings, education for their children, and numerous other rules directed at keeping the property self-sustaining.  Peter spends hours evaluating each incoming tenant to make sure they can fit in with the balance instead of disrupting it.  He has found a 70:30 ratio of Indo-Fijians to Native-Fijians works best to keep peace, and meets with each candidate personally to figure out where to place them such that they will get along well with their neighbors.  Those who do cause problems or breeches their 19 page contract can face possible eviction, but Peter has a process before that occurs.  First, he tries to talk to them.  If they are not home (usually because those in breech are trying to avoid him), he cuts the bolt off their lock and replaces it with his own lock.  They must then come and find him to get into their house, and that's when he confronts them with whatever issue is at hand.  After many warnings and no repentance, eviction may occur, but for the most part, the housing is such a good deal for the tenants that they usually work something out.

The main problems Peter faces at this point is 1.) How to get people employed and independent enough to move out on their own and away from the community, and 2.) Who is going to replace him (he's in his late 60's).  Considering he has literally given his whole life to this project, that will be tough.  He has tried to fend off the generational dependance by not allowing any of the children in the community to start their own family there, but rather give them the education they need to trek out on their own and start a life independent of their parents and Rotohomes.  This has worked pretty well thus far with the upcoming generation, but their parents still find it very difficult to figure out how to stand on their own two feet.  It's an interesting look at the nuances of poverty.  Not only what causes it, but what perpetuates it.  It makes me more and more sure that the solution to poverty is incredibly complex and yet totally individual in nature.  That the solution to it is somewhere in teaching the new generation, at educating them and showing them a better way than then 'traditions of their fathers,' then allowing them to choose and work for themselves at figuring out what kind of life they want.  It's a rough understanding, but it's an improvement. lol

So other than the Rotohomes, we've been meeting with different partners throughout the week to set up different projects around the island.  FRIEND is one of those groups and it has a division called Prism that travels to all the different villages and does basic medical check ups (taking stats, handing out pamphlets, etc.).  Another partner I'll probably be working with is the Gold Foundation.  It's a women's empowerment group that focuses on a lot of gender issues.  Healthy habits is one of those - and that's where I come into play.  I'm planning a project where I'll be going into the villages and working with their women's groups, teaching them the basics of nutrition.  I'm also hoping to have time to really learn how they cook and then be able to make suggestions for small progressive improvements.  Non-communicable diseases are the main cause of death in Fiji now, so I'm thinking this will give me great experience for my grad work in the states. Next week we'll be meeting with the World Health Organization and I'm quite excited to see what our options will be with that too.  One of the directors has suggested teaching Zumba to all the villages and is looking for somebody to help out with that - needless to say I'm hoping to jump on that boat. 

We did play a bit this past week or so.  Tuesday we got home from meeting with partners to a house filled with propane.  I walked in the door, smelled the propane, and told everybody to get out of the house pronto.  I checked the gas stove in the back and found the hose had come loose and had been leaking all day.  We turned off the tank, opened the windows, and got out of the house as quickly as we could.  Everybody else congregated right outside but due to my upbringing, I was not coming within 20 feet of that place.  So I walked across the street and advised the others that they may want to follow.  One of our directors went for help while another tried to have a meeting on how to write project proposals (right next to the house).  She tried to coax me into joining for the meeting but all I wanted to do was scream, "Do you really think this is an appropriate time OR an appropriate place to have a training??"  I once again suggested that they move away from the house, but to no avail.  When the other director returned, she helped move people away from the house and called the Fire Department.  This is us waiting outside our house for them to arrive.

The fire dept came in, tightened the hose, and then advised us to stay out of the house for the next several hours.  They suggested that we attend a safety meeting offered at the firehouse, and then recommended a good place to go get dinner.  I relaxed once we got away from the house and really enjoyed rest of the evening.  It turned into a nice break from the constant project focus we've been swimming in.

The next day, our directors had a surprise for us.  Apparently, one of the resorts offered to let us use their facilities (pool, beach, restaurant, etc) for $5 each.  So we had one last day of intensive paradise.  It turned into a great day.  The cool water of the pool felt incredible and switching back and forth between warm ocean and cool pool was a nice contrast.  The food was also incredible and all in all, we got a lot done.  This is where I got to do my brainstorming and project planning. :)  Awesome right?  I was able to work out my project ideas with both of our partners and team up with another girl in the group wanting to focus on exercise.  After our training with the WHO next week, I think I'm geared up and ready to go.  I'm getting to do amazing things with amazing people.  What more could I ask for?

So I think that takes us up to date.  I guess I should wrap up my time in New Zealand.  That evening in Queenstown the rain did clear for a bit, so I took a gondola up to the top of the adjacent mountain and got some great shots of just how beautiful that place was.  While I was up there, I decided to have some fun and ended up taking a luge ride from the very top around the side of the mountain.  This is the shot I got from there.  This place is just stunning.

After the luge ride, I watched a Maori culture show and even got to practice poi-ball with them.  Haha the operative part of that being 'practice' because I was pretty awful at it.  Oh well.  The men then did the Haka and explained a few things about Maori culture.  All in all it was a good show.  Afterward, I poked around the gift shop and indulged in some really yummy hot chocolate (perfect for 45 degree mountain weather if you ask me).  After dark, I headed back down the mountain.  The next morning, I begrudgingly said goodbye to Queenstown.  In the words of a certain cyborg assassin, "I'll be back."

My last day in Auckland it rained much of the day again.  In between spurts, I did manage to hike up to one of the local volcano's.  The town surrounding it had a very Lawrence, Kansas feel so I walked around a bit there too.  That evening I headed to the Auckland Skytower.  I wasn't planning on doing it, but because of the rain, my options were again limited.  It's $30 to get to the top and that just didn't seem worth it to me.  Luckily, I had a very informed hostel manager who told me if I went to the Orbit Restaurant (rotating restaurant) just above the viewing deck and spent $40+ then I would get a ticket to the viewing deck for free.  This made it much more enticing, and so for my last meal in New Zealand (the next day I was reporting to Fiji), I had an incredible lamb dinner (lamb is to New Zealand what beef is to Texas).  I've never had lamb before, and I'm still not much of a red meat person, but it was delicious.  The next morning I caught my flight to Fiji, and the rest is history.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

G'days From Down Under

(written last week, never got to post because of internet issues)

Kia Ora everyone!

Sorry for the delay.  I'm currently writing from Queenstown, New Zealand.  Queenstown has some of the most spectacular outdoor scenery I've ever seen.  It's close to Glenorchy which is where Lord of the Rings was filmed.  Unfortunately, it has decided to rain today - all day.  So my list of 4-5 things I wanted to do here has been reduced to 1.  I suppose it's a fortunate, though forced, break though.  A LOT has happened in the last week, and it's good to get it written down. 

I suppose I should pick up where I left off.  On my last day in Chiang Mai, I went to Tiger Kingdom.  This basically consisted of me petting, playing with, and learn about tigers for a few hours.

I got to snuggle with baby tigers.  They are ridiculously cute.

Tigers like to get their belly scratched.
 They also like to swim.

And pose.  This was one of the largest tigers there.

After the tigers I packed up and caught my flight to Bangkok.  Bangkok is a crazy place.  It's a huge city packed with people, pretty much body to body all the way across it, and I'm pretty sure 90% of those people are actively trying to sell you something.  It's chaotic.  I did take advantage of the environment of consumerism and spent the hottest part of the day exploring the 3 HUGE (air-conditioned) malls.

This is one of those malls.  There are 7 levels in total.  It was kind of overwhelming to the senses to see just how much stuff there was to offer.  I also was not in need of anything, nor did I have room to pack purchases, so after watching a fashion show and burning out on window shopping, I decided to catch up on my American cinema.  I watched The Hunger Games and The Avengers.  Neither disappointed.  One interesting tidbit.  Before each movie, everyone stands and pays tribute to the king as they play this almost awkward movie montage about how great the king is.  It had 'I may be king, but I'm just like you - and I'm wonderful' written all over it.  Blatant propaganda.  It was interesting.

In spite of the 95+ degree heat and intense humidity, I did do some touring in Bangkok.  I went to the temple of the reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) and Wat Arun with one of the girls I met at my hostel.  Wat Pho was huge, and the reclining Buddha was only a small part of it.  Well...maybe not so small.  Either way, it took a couple hours to cover the grounds.  After which, we crossed the (very dirty) river via ferry and climbed to the top of Wat Arun.  The climb involved steps that felt more like climbing a ladder, but it was worth it for the view.

That night I went salsa dancing at a bar on the roof top of a rather upscale hotel in downtown Bangkok.  The view was a nice addition to the great music and amazing dancers.  I was rather impressed by the overall skill of everybody there.  I didn't get to dance long, but I'm glad I was able to make it and enjoy the breeze/view.  That was my last night in Thailand.  Overall, I really enjoyed it.  Because I lived with so many Japanese for so long, I felt like I got to explore two countries for the price of one. I'll miss the food, especially the mangoes, but once again, the timing felt just right.  By the time it was time to leave, I felt ready for the next stop. 

The next day I flew out to Sydney.  My first day in Sydney was literally, a breath of fresh air.  It had been months since I had smelled such cool, clear, and odorless oxygen.  My lungs and my heart rejoiced.  They continued to rejoice as I took the Manly ferry to Manly island.  Manly island is absolutely gorgeous.  It's quiet, quaint, and very clean.  I spent most of the day walking around the island, enjoying it's beaches and the cool but sunny weather, breathing as deeply as I could in an effort to clean out my lungs.  It was the perfect way to rid my psyche of Asia's chaos.

That night I walked around Sydney and checked out it's local music scene.  They had some spectacular bands and t reminded me a LOT of Boston - specifically Cambridge.  A mixture of architectural styles, a clean, but quiet environment, and everything is expensive.  A bottle of water or pack of gum is about $3. Any meal, no matter how meager, will cost you $10.  Taxi's...haha make New York look cheap.  I guess this is because, in Australia, the unions rule, and now they have an $14/hr minimum wage.  But despite the higher salaries, wealth doesn't seem to shift much.  The wealthy live close to downtown and it's all very clean and nice, those who can't afford it (1bd 1bth apt - $600,000 - 1,500,000, so most of Sydney's population can't afford it) use the spectacular train/bus system to make their way into work.  The other areas of Sydney likewise resemble the less-nice areas of Boston.  It's a great city.

My second day in Sydney I took a tour of the Sydney Opera House.  It was neat to get some history on such a spectacular structure.  One factoid: They planned on it taking 3 years and 7 million dollars to complete.  It actually took 25 years, a new architect, lots of unexpected drama, and 102 million to finally finish.  But in the end, I suppose it was worth it to have it finished.  After all, it is one of the 7 wonders of the world.

With good reason too.  I went to see Mozart's Requiem that night and it was simply phenomenal.  The Lacrimosa movement had me in chills the entire time.  I also met a lovely 18 year-old girl named Morgan that night from New Caledonia.  She was my seat-mate and incredibly friendly.  We actually ended up going salsa dancing together that night.  We talked quite a bit about a variety of very deep and spiritual topics.  She kept mentioning how she craved the opportunity to talk about this stuff.  It made me feel very grateful to have the friends and family I do, because I know that feeling of craving depth and spirituality.  I told her about the church and funny enough, her best friend is Mormon.  She asked me to send her the address and info in Sydney so that she might be able to check it out.  I invited her to join me Sunday, but schedules got in the way, so I promised her I'd hook her up, and she was incredibly grateful.  I guess she's been having a hard time in Sydney, and is need of some friendly, encouraging faces.  It was great to meet her, hopefully it's not the last I'll see of her.

My Sunday in Sydney was just what I needed.  It was fast Sunday, and it was nice to be able to understand the testimonies.  The YSA out here is very tight and it's a fun group of people.  One of the girls offered to take me to the fireside that night, and I had a chance to chat with a few people I didn't meet at church.  They were an older crowd, so much more my style.  I think it's safe to say that if I ever had to live in Sydney, I wouldn't mind.

Monday morning I flew to New Zealand.  Just flying into Auckland, I knew I was going to like this place.  The patchwork farmland spotted with green mountains and perfectly deep blue ocean was a pleasant sight to fly into.  Immediately after I landed, I went the harbor for what turned out to be the best date of my life.

Ok, so it wasn't a date, but it's a fantastic date idea.  Usually there's more people, but because it was the end of the season, I was the only one signed up to kayak that evening.  So it was just me and Nic, the main instructor/owner of Auckland Sea Kayaks.  He's 28 and a lot of fun (shorter than me - go figure...).  He is really enthusiastic about his company and incredibly accommodating.  He took me to one of the local beaches where we geared up and set out for one of the islands in the bay.  Kayaking on open ocean is quite the experience.  It also happened to be very windy that day, so we were sharing a kayak.  He took me to one of the beaches across the bay where we went for a hike to the top of this bluff overlooking the city.  We watched the sunset, got some candid shots with the antique artillery, and headed back to the beach where he had dinner waiting.  After some delicious tomato, basil, and feta risotto, we hopped back in the kayaks and paddled back to the city.  The stars were bright and he pointed out some of the uniquely southern constellations.  It was pitch black besides the stars and the stunning glow of the city.  Nic was a great conversationalist and it was fun to listen to his Kiwi accent.  When we got back to shore, it was pretty late, so Nic dropped me off at the door of my hostel.  It was a great night...just funny to me how date-like it was.

5am the next morning (this morning) I headed to the airport for my flight to Queenstown.  Tonight I'll be heading out with some Israeli girls I met.  Apparently they just finished their service in the military (all citizens are required to do so), and wanted to travel before heading to school.  So they've been here for a few months and have been great guides thus far.  Next week I'll be writing you from Fiji, but I'll give you a wrap up on New Zealand then too.  Till then! :)