New Zealand: The Beautiful Disaster That Changed Me Forever

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I often muse on the great paradox of travel: That I can leave pieces of my heart and soul scattered in quiet longing over mountains and across oceans and in little quiet corners of the world where I've been, yet each time I return home more a whole, with a greater capacity for wonder and adoration than when I first began. This is the story of a journey that devastated me, brought me to unexpected heights, and gave me new eyes through which to see the world. 

At the end of November 2017, Caleb and I were set to embark on the trip of a lifetime to the wild home of Middle Earth and the curious little Kiwi bird: New Zealand.  My first exposure to images of this impossibly beautiful island nation came in the form of celluloid. From the moment I saw the sweeping panoramas in the Fellowship of the Ring on the big screen at age 14, I was entranced. Having only ever lived my short life upon the unvaried terrain of Michigan, I could scarcely believe that one small country contained all of the landscapes of Middle Earth in a nutshell just barely twice the size of my own state. So it was that, 16 years later, I found myself packing my camera gear and my best exploring clothes to board a plane and make my acquaintance with that magical place. Though I knew I was in for a special kind of adventure on this trip, no dream in the world could have prepared me for the roller coaster of fear, uncertainty, self-discovery, divine providence, and breathless beauty that I would experience over the next 9 days.

Caleb and I left our house at around 4 in the morning to catch a flight out of Toronto. The flights to New Zealand were the most expensive we’ve ever bought, and we didn’t want any risk of being late for boarding. I had asked Caleb to carry a few of my things that wouldn’t fit in my own bag. Grabbing his backpack as a last minute carry on, we rushed out the door. Little did either of us know that the handgun he is licensed to carry in our home state was sitting, loaded, in the pocket of that same backpack. A bit of backstory on Caleb. He comes from a family of law enforcement and military, he graduated in the top of his class from the police academy, and he is an active member of the security team at our church. He has trained extensively with firearms, and he has had a concealed carry license for many years. So you can imagine the complete and utter shock on both of our faces when Toronto airport security officers took Caleb into custody after scanning our baggage, informing us that there was a loaded handgun in his backpack. I remember looking at Caleb’s expression and watching every bit of color drain from his face as he heard the officer’s words. For about 10 minutes before that, we thought all the hubbub at the security scan was over some camera flashes we’d packed. The trip took a quick nightmare turn after that. One of the officers, a stout and aggravated man, approached me to question me while they took Caleb into an interrogation room nearby. I rushed to acknowledge the severity of the mistake that had just been made. “I am so sorry to cause trouble. I know this is a big deal, I can assure you that neither of us had any idea”- “You’re damn right it’s a big deal! Even in your own country it’s a big deal!” I nodded my understanding, and elected to bite my tongue for the moment until things calmed down a bit. After another ten minutes and thorough examination of my things, I was told I could take the rest of the baggage and continue on to my gate. One of the officers sympathetically tried to give me some hope, meager though it was. “Hopefully he’ll be able to get on a later flight and catch up with you when this is all over.” Walking toward the gate alone, the grim nature of the situation began to set in and I felt my heart began to pound against the very walls holding it in. What if he doesn’t catch up to me? I’m going to be on the other side of the world, with a wedding to photograph, by myself. Once I reached my gate, I called dad on the phone. He answered with his usual chipper, “Well hello, beautiful!” And that familiar comforting voice was all it took for the floodgates to burst and the tears to begin pouring unhindered. While the other passengers sitting around me looked on in curious pity, I babbled and sobbed out the story of what had just happened. Dad listened, prayed with me for peace and strength, then told me not to worry; he would take care of things with Caleb. Comforted that I had a lifeline, I went on to call my best friend Lina. Ready to spring into action to help in any way she could, she told me to keep in touch as much as I could over the next 24 hours that I would be on planes and navigating layovers. With a promise and a deep breath, I hung up the phone and got on the plane to begin my long journey.

On my first layover, upon touching down in Vancouver, my phone exploded with texts and phone calls. Many of these were from a number I didn’t recognize. I had several texts from a detective who introduced himself as the one in charge of Caleb. He asked me to “give a call ASAP with regards to your husband”. I hustled myself and my four heavy carry-on bags to my next gate, fingers burning from the weight of everything. I found a seat, and quickly dialed up the detective. After he had introduced himself, the detective went on to explain that Caleb was doing fine and eating dinner in his cell. He told me that Caleb’s greatest concern was for me in all of this. While I silently cursed back the tears that threatened to spill again, the officer filled me in on the entire situation, the next steps that would be taken, and best and worst case scenarios. He said he was convinced that Caleb was completely innocent and had no intention to do anyone harm. He said that he was hopeful for the outcome, and encouraged me to do my best to enjoy the trip despite the circumstances. Try this for irony: The detective himself had gotten married in New Zealand years earlier, and said it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. Once I got off the phone with the detective, I called dad. It was looking pretty clear at this point that Caleb would not be allowed to continue on to join me. I asked hesitantly if dad might be able to help fly Lina out to help me photograph the wedding. Without a second thought, but still hopeful for Caleb’s quick release, dad said he would happily pay for a ticket. Next, I called Lina. Understanding that my best friend is very much a small-town girl and happy to be one, she has always been terrified at the thought of navigating airports and foreign countries alone. That’s my dream, but something that never really had a draw for her. When I asked her if she might possibly be willing and able to come help me on the opposite side of the world, I could practically hear the breath catch in her throat at the prospect. With only a slight waver in her brave voice, she told me that she would confirm with work, but that I could go ahead and book the tickets and she would be there for me. In that moment, juggling multiple critical situations at once and all of them up in mid-air, I boarded yet another plane. This time, I would be without phone service for 15 hours. As we were taxiing along the runway, I furiously navigated the flight booking website to get Lina’s ticket reserved. The internet service was spotty and cut in and out at intervals, as if teasing me in my hour of dire need. As I finally got to the end of the payment screen and clicked “submit details”, the internet cut out and my payment was unprocessed. Lina was to fly out only one day later, but I would have to book her ticket when I landed in New Zealand. It was a fitful night of sleep over the Pacific Ocean. The feverish dreams filling my head only woke me to a more frightening reality.

Just before 6am, the plane finally began to descend over Auckland. As I got my first glimpse of the rugged green mountain peaks and hazy puffs of mist hanging over the valleys, my heart swelled with glad excitement for the first time in days. At last, here was the place I’d dreamed of for all these years!

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I had no trouble picking up both large checked bags at baggage claim. Priority one. With 6 bags in total, I schlepped it all to a corner of the room so I could sit down with my laptop and book Lina’s flight. Priority number two. I was once again met with a great deal of trouble from the internet, and I finally gave up after 30 minutes and almost as many tries at waiting for web pages to load. Frustrated and tired, I guided all of my bags into the line to clear customs and exit the airport. The customs and baggage scan attendants both greeted me with huge, warm smiles. After applying a stamp to my passport book, the customs guy sent me on my way with a cheery, “we’re so glad you’re here! Enjoy yourself!” Oh, that heavenly accent. Out in the terminal, a towering, stern-faced dwarf of stone stood sentinel. If only Caleb could see this! I thought, He’d be just as giddy as I am!

Making my way out into the warm sunshine of New Zealand’s November summer, I waited for the shuttle to my rental car. At the desk of the rental office, I was finally able to get Lina’s plane ticket booked. With my car secured, luggage loaded up, and directions to my Airbnb house pulled up on my phone, I began to feel like things would be alright. I could breathe again. Then I drove out onto the road to be met with the red glow of the car's dashboard lit up with warning lights. A quick stop back at the rental office got me set right in a matter of minutes, and I learned that the parking brake was a third pedal down next to the brake pedal, engaged any time the car was in park. Rookie tourist mistake. Laughing at myself, I took to the road again, this time successfully. It was around 2.5 hours’ drive from the city of Auckland down to Waitomo, where my Airbnb house was located. The drive was mostly freeway, and the surroundings were subtropical, with swaths of palm trees and giant yucca plants lining the roads. I could see great mountains far in the distance, excited to be heading towards them. I stopped at a grocery 15 minutes from my destination, and was amused to see the shopping carts under a sign that read, “trundlers”. I decided this was a much better word than “carts”. I stocked up on every sort of junk food imaginable, including my guilty pleasure, Lindor truffles. Of course I also grabbed some fruit – mainly kiwis – and fixings for sandwiches. The food I saw was surprisingly similar to what I’m used to back home. Adding grocery bags to my bags of luggage in the tiny Nissan rental, I continued the last leg of my drive home. Winding up and up into the mountains, past an ostrich farm and several cave exploration tours, through the little village of Waitomo with their glow worm caves, I climbed as the road grew more narrow. The dense tropical trees and vines surrounded me on both sides, and the sun streamed through the greenery with its afternoon warmth. At last I came to the sign at the side of the road, “Rock Retreat”. Taking this little gravel path up a steep incline, I climbed even higher through the middle of rolling sheep pastures The hills were adorned with natural limestone pillars jutting out of the green earth, and clusters of purple lupine flowers. Halfway up that road, I was met with such a stunning view over the distant mountains that I couldn’t help but stop the car to get out and stare.

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Even on such a bright and sunny day, the expanse of plains and mountains before me went on for so many miles that the most distant peaks were shrouded in a haze of blue mist. Of all the unexpected blessings, I was soon to discover that this magnificent view would be the sight outside my window for the rest of that week. Just above me on the top of the hill, my Airbnb house sat perched like the tiny slice of heaven it was. Perfectly appointed within the minimum amount of space, the little house somehow managed to feel spacious with its large windows and high ceilings. The house runs exclusively on solar power, and boasts a covered patio that runs the entire length of the building, overlooking the rolling hills and mountains toward Waitomo.

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After unpacking my things and soaking in the view from the patio, I fell into an undeterred deep sleep for hours. The bed was so soft, the air so warm, and the bird songs just beyond the patio were so sweet. By the time I woke up, it was dinner time and a storm had rolled in. At the invitation of my host family, I groggily wandered next door to introduce myself, looking more disheveled than I cared to acknowledge. I met the whole family, including their two sweet girls, their dog Leif, and their cat, Mr. Tumnus. The girls showed me their drawings and thrilled at the travel pictures on my Instagram. After a cup of tea, I said my goodnights and headed back to my house at dusk. In a surge of jet lagged madness, determined to squeeze every last drop of adventure out of my time here, I went a little crazy with the itinerary that night. I booked quite a few excursions and tours for the days to come, including a private helicopter charter to an active volcanic island the next morning.

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I woke naturally at 3am, since Michigan time is a day behind, but 6 hours ahead on the clock. I took my time getting started, eating my bowl of cereal at a glacial pace as I mulled over and over my thoughts. By this time, Lina, Rich, and dad had begun the grueling 7-hour drive through the night to Toronto to pick up Caleb from the Toronto jail. Lina would be taking off shortly on the first flight of her journey, and I would be picking her up the following morning. It was a 4 hour drive to the helicopter charter, and I decided to get an early start so I could do some wandering in downtown Otorohanga on my way there. I came upon several unexpected beautiful spots along the drive that had me occasionally pulling off to the side of the road just to appreciate the view. The 4 hour drive became more like a 5 1/2 hour drive with some incredible sightseeing.

Arriving at the hangar for my 2 O’clock charter, I met the other two passengers who would be accompanying me on the trip. A father and son, fellow Americans from Orlando. The three of us were given hard hats and ventilator masks before setting out along with our pilot for a 40 minute flight over the shimmering waters of the Pacific.

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From the cockpit, I spotted a pod of dolphins below us, easily visible in the crystal clear water below. As we got within half a mile of the imposing shape of “Whakaari”, the White Island, I observed columns of insidious-looking white smoke billowing a mile high. The unmistakable tang of sulfur filled my nostrils and slammed the back of my throat as if with physical force.

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We flew a perimeter around the island as we made our descent toward the landing pad in the crater. Around the back side of the volcano, we could see hairline cracks all along the wall – a herald of the impending mammoth collapse of the volcano wall into the crater. Setting foot on that barren, sulfur tinged earth was surreal. Not a speck of life in sight, plant or animal. Tiny rivers of acidic water snaked along the ground, bordered with crystallized orange and yellow deposits as bright as any hue I’ve seen. Pits of bubbling liquid gave off clouds of smoke from below, some clear liquid and some muddy and thick like boiling chocolate milk. We were sternly warned not to step too close to the pits, lest we fall through the thin ground into the scalding hot liquid. It was a more post-apocalyptic scene than any I’ve seen in a movie.

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The skeletal remains of a turn-of-the-century sulfur mine still sit near on the black sand near the beach. The misguided attempt of an operation was cut abruptly short when the outflow of a volcanic eruption wiped out every one of the workers with its rapid consumption of everything in its path. 100-year old metal machinery sits wasting away in an impressive state of decay, looking about eight centuries older than its true age. Rods of steel used to fortify cement walls have long melted into orange stains, leaving the cement to crumble in on itself. The relentless salt from the Pacific that lingers in the very air gives no rest to the metal elements in its domain. In stark contrast however, the wood inlays and doorways of the structure look as if they’d been erected only days ago. Just as firm and smooth as the day the mine opened.

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Approaching the massive heart of the volcano's crater, I spotted two small lakes of milky turquoise at the very bottom. Our guide explained that this water often fills the entirety of the crater, around 300 feet deep, and other times is just small ponds like we were looking at. The water level fluctuates almost as much as its color, determined by the diverse cocktail of minerals and micro-organisms it contains at the moment. At all times, the water is so extremely acidic that it could completely dissolve a human body within minutes. We’re talking a pH level of about 1. As we processed this information with hard gulps, my eyes caught a small black speck on one of the islands in the crater. Our guide explained that a Canadian goose had unwittingly flown into the crater a couple days before, tired and malnourished, and further hampered by the harsh surroundings, he eventually died there. What possessed that bird to do such a thing? Poor little airhead.

I drove home that evening in a maelstrom the likes of which I have never seen before. The rain pelted the roof and windshield of that little car so hard that the roar of it was deafening. Among the mountains to my right, blinding splinters of lightning illuminated the rugged landscape in white-hot bursts. Such a fiercely beautiful display of creation. I slept the rock-like sleep of a world weary traveler that night.

Meanwhile in Canada, completely unknown to any of us, Caleb was clad in an orange jumpsuit keeping his back to the wall in Maplehurst prison. He had already spent two days in a holding cell, and Canadian law doesn’t allow for a suspect to be held any longer than this. Since dad had not yet arrived to pay bail and escort Caleb back into the United States as required, Caleb was transferred to Maplehurst until dad arrived to collect him.  To make the situation even more interesting, Caleb was placed in the cell block assigned to house convicted violent offenders. Due to the strict nature of Canadian gun laws, all gun crimes are treated as violent offenses. Hence the unlikely story of how my straight-laced, preacher husband found himself bunking and lunching with murderers in a Canadian prison for 24 hours. Though he described the feeling of the place as miserable and dark, he was given the incredible opportunity to preach the gospel to the men there with him. The entirety of his cell block heart about Christ that day, and many brought questions and objections that Caleb was able to interact with. He says this alone was worth the discomfort and uncertainty he had experienced over the course of those turbulent 48 hours. 

Before the sun rose over the mountains of Waitomo on Thursday, I was up, showered, and eating my breakfast of fruit and cheese. I had intended to be waiting by the giant stone dwarf at the Auckland airport when Lina got off the plane that morning, but a traffic jam on the way to the airport thwarted those plans. What a merciful sight for sore eyes she was! Standing there in the busy terminal with determined, red-rimmed eyes and her hair in a disheveled bun on top of head, Lina was the picture of an unyielding warrior in a pink sweatshirt. After huge hugs, she filled me in on the chaos and confusion of her journey to reach me. She was brimming with gratefulness that the worst of it was behind her, that she had faced and overcome one of her greatest fears to come rescue me. We scarfed down some airport sushi in grateful silence before hitting the road for the 2.5 hours back to Waitomo. Entering the little town of Otorohanga, Lina pointed out a billboard with a giant photo of an ice cream cone advertising “real fruit ice cream”. We both commented simultaneously how good it looked. It might sound like an odd time, but I remember feeling a rush of mixed emotions in that moment: The implications of Sunday’s disastrous turn, the fading adrenaline of the past 72 hours, and a swell of happy contentment now that my dearest friend was beside me to help me navigate the journey. Smiling to myself, I mused out loud, “why not.” With an twist of the steering wheel, I turned into the gravel lot. We wandered into the farm store, soaking in the warmth of the sun. We sniffed and sampled their locally made lotions and admired their fresh fruit stands before ordering a couple of ice cream cones. Lina got kiwi, and I picked raspberry. We watched them be made, tasty little seeds and all blended into the perfect soft serve texture. Absolutely the best ice cream we’ve ever had!

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Cones in hand, we wandered out to the pasture behind the store, where about a dozen baby calves stood drowsing in the shade of a palm tree. Refreshed and content, we finished the short drive to our place just up the road. Lina was by this time already a huge fan of the lush landscape, but she was decidedly OBSESSED with the little solar house on the hilltop. If she could choose a type of house to live in, this would be it. Simple, quiet, cozy, and with a view to beat any in a magazine spread. Add a dash of balmy sub-tropical weather and a refreshing shower, and Lina was completely settled in and ready to do some more exploring. I had booked us a tour of the Glow Worm Caves for that afternoon, since these little blue guys are Waitomo’s claim to fame. I figured we may never get a chance to see glowing worms again, and they’re right up the road. Again, why not? When we got the tour site, a sudden rainstorm hit with a vengeance. Much like the storm I had driven through the night before, it came on with massive raindrops and mighty gusts of wind that bent the palm trees low under its weight. Apparently tropical rain falls a bit differently than we’re used to in the Midwestern plains of the United States, who knew? Getting caught in that powerful, sudden storm was a new kind of exhileration.

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As we headed into the dark caves with our tour group, we were unsure of what to expect from this expedition. Two minutes later, standing in an open space with cathedral ceilings and an elaborate maze of limestone tunnels around us, we were dazzled. We took in the spectacle of massive stalactites that stretched from the high ceiling down to a foot above the ground in front of us. These mammoth formations grow at a glacial pace of about 1 cubic centimeter every 100 years. Suffice it to say, we were forbidden from touching any of the limestone around us, wall or stalactite. Nearing the end of our cave walk, we were given a brief crash-course on the life cycle of the glow worm. These little creatures, most accurately called maggots, live 9 months in their larval stage. During this time, they dangle a small silk string out of their bodies, similar to a spider’s web, to catch insects that they attract with the blue glowing light of their bodies. The food is what gives them energy to glow, and the glow is what in turn brings in more food. Once this 9 month stage is finished, the worm finally becomes a fly – with no mouth and no stomach. The fly is only alive for a period of two days, during which its only purpose is to reproduce. It lays about 100 eggs in groupings of 20, and only one egg from each grouping survives to become a worm. This surviving worm then eats the rest of the eggs around it for energy, giving it the ability to glow. And so begins the cycle anew.  In the next dark room, tinged with the scent of musty damp, we filed onto a tiny, slippery rowboat with the rest of our 25-person group. We were packed so tightly onto those narrow seats that we were nearly sitting on top of one another. We were instructed to keep very quiet so as not to disturb the life in the cave. All lights were extinguished as we pushed away from the platform into the still, black water. We heard nothing but the hushed breathing of our neighbor passengers and the echoing drips of the cave around us. The boat moved slowly into a cavernous space, lit only by the pale blue glow of thousands of tiny blue lights above us. Even the previously disinterested pair of gangster-looking guys in their snapback hats gasped their profanity-laced amazement at the sight overhead. The boat lingered for a few minutes in the cave before continuing around a bend and up the river where a bit of daylight could be seen. Thoroughly impressed and satisfied with our day’s accomplishments and discoveries, Lina and I headed home to rest up before the big wedding in New Plymouth the next day.

December 1st: The date that had been marked with anticipation in my calendar for nearly a year, and the purpose of our trip. Photographing a wedding is no small task. There is a great deal of pressure that comes with capturing memories which will be treasured and shared and framed and admired for a lifetime and beyond. When that wedding is in a country far from your own, and the couple have done you the honor of paying for your specific skills and artistic perspective to document their day out of hundreds of other photographers in their own country, that pressure is compounded a hundred times. For this reason, whenever I wake up for a wedding day abroad, I’m somewhat beside myself with nerves and disorganized thoughts. Lina and I were up around 3am, prepping equipment and loading up the little car for the three hour journey to New Plymouth. The drive was unexpectedly breathtaking, and took us through a landscape far different from what we’d seen so far. The first hour had us climbing and dipping along a winding mountain pass, with panoramic views of jagged cliffsides above rainforest, or sweeping peaks and valleys draped in mist and the first golden light of dawn. We must’ve gasped in amazement about 30 times that first hour. One of the most spectacular drives of my life. Once we emerged from the mountain road, we continued on a straight highway that hugged the expansive shoreline of the western coast. We had wanted to pull over to take pictures several times that morning and had kept going out of our determination to be early. But when we caught sight of the sparkling waters of the Pacific tumbling on a stark beach of mirrored black sand, we could resist the urge no longer. Standing on the beach was like something out of a dream! The sand was so dark and smooth that it had the look of polished marble. I could see the white clouds above me reflected perfectly beneath my feet. I made sure to scoop up a little bit of the sand in the water bottle I was holding, to keep a piece of that place as a memory.

Promising ourselves we would return to the beach the following day, we reluctantly headed back to the car to continue down the coast toward New Plymouth. Far ahead of schedule, we turned onto our destination street. The address was meant to be a salon in urban New Plymouth, but we were pulling up to an abandoned looking house on a run-down residential street. Uh ohhhhh…. This was not good. I checked the directions again. Kings Street. Same name, same building number. No way was this the place. Then I saw the problem – we weren’t in New Plymouth at all! We were in a neighborhood about 20 minute outside of the city. Wiping sweat from our foreheads and chuckling nervously, we restarted the GPS and continued on. From that point, the day was a wonderful blur of excitement and chaos. We met up with the sweet bride and her posse in the bustling metropolis of New Plymouth. We scoped out the incredible venue in the middle of the city’s vast nature preserve. We saw a real live meerkat sunning himself. We found a secret waterfall, watched dusk fall over Mt Taranaki, and I got the worst sunburn of my life. Exhausted and feeling accomplished, we headed home under the darkening sky.

First on our itinerary for Saturday morning was an 8am tour of the Hobbiton movie set. This was the part of the trip that I had been most excited about! I’d booked the earliest tour spot available in order to beat the crowds, and to chase that beautiful golden early morning light. We were one of the first cars to arrive to the tour office in the rolling green hills of Matamata. Even though there were two 8am tours, our bus was the first of the day. I didn’t yet know how much of a great thing this was, until later when we were nearing the end of our tour. Looking back across the site, about 10 separate tour groups were visible at different points along the path, spaced out only a few minutes from each other. Maximum number of tours, maximum amount of money made. Seeing this, we were so grateful for the chance to get the feel of the place as it might have been on an early Saturday morning in the Shire – peaceful and sleepy with nothing but the noise of the streams and the singing birds to convince you that you’re standing in a real place and not simply staring at a photograph. This wide-open piece of paradise was hand-picked by Peter Jackson because of its lush rolling hills and absence of modern distractions. Not a road or a telephone pole sullies the horizon as far as the eye can see. It’s truly as if you’ve been picked up and placed in the middle of a little universe untouched by the modern age.

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The land was, and still is, owned by a generational family of sheep farmers who run their operations around the movie set. Full of our usual curiosity, Lina and I trailed behind our tour group, photographing everything in sight and squealing with delight over the tiny baskets of pastries and miniature mailboxes outside each hobbit hole. The detail of the set is painstaking and authentic, from the hand painted flower borders on rocking chairs to the little hobbit-sized garments hanging on the clothes lines. If you look very carefully into the windows of each home, you can see the occasional little glass vase containing a single daffodil, or a loaf of bread cooling on the sill.

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Our enthusiastic tour guide regaled our group with stories of the filming of the movies and the antics of the cast and crew that even my extensive geeky research had not informed me of. We were especially impressed to learn that the tree at the very top of Bag End was once a real tree which Peter Jackson selected and had brought to the set in several pieces, then reconstructed for the filming of the Lord of the Rings. Years later, for the Hobbit movies, he needed to replicate this tree exactly. He had his crew use the footage of the real tree, analyze and create a 3D digital model, then convert that model into a lifelike acrylic and polymer copy of the tree. Wait, it gets better. Once the crew had completed this task down to the last detail, Peter Jackson decided that the color of the leaves was not the exact shade of green he needed it to be. So back to work the crew went, hand painting every last one of the leaves on that tree with meticulous care. That same tree stands atop Bag End at this moment, an homage to the dedication of the people that helped bring Middle Earth to life in our world. We were delighted to have the chance to actually step inside the doorway of one hobbit hole.

Most of the doorways of the constructed dwellings were only made large enough for one or two people to fit inside, since filming of hobbit hole interiors happened mostly in a studio. The foyer of Bag End, on the other hand, needed to have the capacity to fit 140 of the cast and crew, along with all of their video and sound equipment. The last stop on our tour was over the bridge and past the old millhouse to the fabled Green Dragon pub. Shamelessly, Lina and I scurried over the bridge ahead of the rest of our group to reach the door first. Inside, we were given cold mugs of ginger beer which we took to a table in the back of the room beside a tiny window in a patch of warm sunlight.

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On our walk back to the tour bus, we passed Hobbiton’s quintessential lake and its row of three tiny hobbit holes situated beneath Bilbo’s party tree on the hill, all reflected in the lake’s glass-like surface. What an iconic sight! I’d seen this very image countless times on a movie screen since age 14. “I have to go stand over there, just for a moment,” I shout-whispered to Lina as I took off running toward the hobbit holes. Lina photographed my mad dash to the opposite bank of the lake and back again as several other tourists watched in amusement. Now, whenever I see the image of that lake and trio of hobbit holes, I’ll remember my adrenaline fueled sprint, and I’ll smile to myself with satisfaction. Another life goal checked off the list with a flourish.

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On the way back home, we took a pit stop at the Waitomo grocery to grab some snacks. We planned to try the Vegemite that our hosts had stocked in the fridge for us, but we weren’t ready to take the bet that we’d want to fill up on the curious stuff just yet. Taking some advice from a Hugh Jackman interview we’d seen on YouTube, we lightly toasted a couple slices of bread before applying a light skimming of the dark and pungent spread to the surface. The verdict was unanimous - salty yet satisfying! Once we’d had lunch, we set out to drive the same stunning mountain pass we’d taken toward New Plymouth the day before. Our hope was to take the drive slow and soak up the views along the way, ultimately ending up at the same ethereal black sand beach we promised we’d return to. That beach ended up becoming our holy grail, and a seemingly unattainable one at that. The GPS took us a different way toward New Plymouth than it had the previous morning, and we spent an hour and a half driving about on nameless dirt roads among the sheep pastures, getting no closer to beach regardless of which way we turned. Eventually we came within dangerous proximity of an empty tank of gas. A simple gas station then became our holy grail in place of the glorious beach. We passed a hot spring to one side of us, all vibrant turquoise and beckoning. Onward we forged, knowing that our few drops of gas probably wouldn’t sustain a re-ignition of the engine. We came at last to a crossroads at which sat a beautiful little petrol station and convenience store.

After filling up the tank, conversing with the friendly station attendants, and stocking up on all sorts of exotic flavored soft drinks to sample on our drive, we got back on the road to return home. I had booked a massage with a local therapist for 6pm, and we had used up all our beach time getting lost on the back roads of Waitomo. The therapist arrived at the door of our little bungalow right on time, setting up her table on the sheltered patio and queuing some ethereal spa music. When I lay down at the beginning of the hour, the sun was shining and birds were singing. When I sat up at the end, black clouds had rolled in and a light mist had begun to shower the landscape. Much to our sorrow, Lina and I realized that there would be no chance to return to the beach. Even so, we were determined to fit in one of our signature adventurous photo sessions before this most epic journey of ours came to its end. Not sure where we were headed, we picked a direction and struck out once more into the rain in search of a striking mountain horizon to use as our backdrop. We found just such a horizon lying beyond the borders of a fenced-in sheep pasture. The sun was hanging low in the sky and blazing bright orange through a gap in the clouds, illuminating the fine mist as it fell on the green hills. Perfectly still and silent, but for the gently pervasive whisper of the rain settling onto the earth. Everything glowed with a soft golden radiance. The sight was nothing short of magic. For a moment, it was as if we’d discovered a place too perfect to belong on the earth we knew. Too untouched and peaceful to be part of an industrialized modern world. With hushed admiration and bare feet, Lina and I carefully crept underneath the pasture’s electric fence, through a wooden gate, and out onto the open hillside to take in the view of the distant shadowed mountains.

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We spent as long as we could on that hillside, until the sun left us standing beneath a quickly graying sky. Drenched and blissful, we returned to our car and drove home.

Sunday morning: THE BIG road trip day. I had planned a guided tour through the bowels of WETA workshop’s top-secret bunker, and a stop at the national park which served as the set for Rivendell in Lord of the Rings. Only catch: all these gems are located 6 hours south of Waitomo in the seaside town of Wellington. At 3am, the alarm sounded its obnoxious squawk. We sprang out of bed and demolished a couple of bowls of cereal before running to the car to start our long trek. Though we began in the dark, the sun rose less than two hours into our drive. The rich and diverse scenery around us, as expected, made the journey a thoroughly captivating one. Between conversation, Lina furiously worked to take photos of the passing landscapes, doing her best to capture the snow covered peak of a mountain in the distance, or the way the dawn’s light fell between the dewy branches of trees.

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Around 9am, two hours before tour start time, we stopped to fill up on gas and cream filled donuts. Further down the coast, we began to see glimpses of the rugged shoreline and crashing waves, signaling that Wellington was just ahead. Our route into Miramar took us along the edge of the city, with its colorful harbor and abstract sculptures. Miramar, an upscale suburb of Wellington, is the Beverly Hills of New Zealand. This is the heart of the filmmaking industry in the country, and where many studio owners and actors have permanent residence, including the famed director Peter Jackson.

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But before you start envisioning grand mansions with gates surrounding perfectly manicured acreage, let me tell you that Miramar is much more sensible. The homes are beautiful, but not gratuitous. The streets are manicured, but not showy. In fact, as we pulled onto the street where WETA sits, we felt as though we were in a typical suburban neighborhood. WETA’s exterior looks something like an auto repair garage on a sleepy street, modest and inconspicuous. But for the giant trolls outside the entrance, I would have questioned the address. Inside, the workshop proved to be anything but inconspicuous! A hulking, life-size likeness of Lurtz the orc stood in the entryway, muscles flexed and sharp teeth bared in a menacing sneer. Above the service desk, a frighteningly lifelike Moria goblin crouched with a bow and arrow, ready to pounce.

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Glass cases displayed actual props, prosthetics and wardrobe from movies like the Hobbit, King Kong, and Narnia. The helms of Sauron and Aragorn were of particular interest to me. We saw dozens of the most intricate set models and figurines, each in such a state of graphic re-creation that they looked as if they might awake into movement at any moment. And if I stared long enough, was that a bit of movement I saw in that cloak caught up in the wind? Lina and I were like frenzied children in a toy store, running this way and that, losing each other and nearly bumping into each other again as we rushed to show the other something new we’d found. This was only the home base of the tour, and we had yet to discover the inner secrets of the studio’s workshop.

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At 11, we were herded onto a little bus to be brought to the back of the warehouse. As we entered a side door, we were welcomed with a screen the size of the wall in front of us, showing a montage of scenes from the studio’s most illustrious movie projects. My stomach was up in my throat at this point, and I could barely contain my giddiness. The guide, a petite little Kiwi with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, told us that we may under no circumstances record or photograph anything beyond this point, since some things are not owned by the workshop and some projects are still in top secret development. Wide-eyed and nearly shivering with anticipation, we moved with our group into the first room of the warehouse. At the center of the space, three life size dwarves appeared poised in ferocious battle stances, fully armed. One of them was seated atop a large boar with his axe raised above his head and an adrenaline-induced snarl on his face. The incredible lifelikeness and exquisite detail of the scene had us mesmerized. The guide went to the opposite wall of the room and picked up the first in a line of about 5 dwarf helms at different stages of production. She explained each stage of armor creation, from concept sketches to 3D printing, to the painting and manual distressing of each piece to make it look worn and dirty. We moved into another room called the armoury, a large warehouse space with a window overlooking the machines that help create the many swords and other weapons used in WETA’s projects. Boromir and Aragorn’s broad swords hung on the wall with many others, and Gandalf’s staff among them. In the corner of the space loomed a scrupulous “bigature” model of Caspian’s castle from the Narnia movies. In the opposite corner sat a massive, functional replica of the Warthog combat vehicle from Halo. This was apparently such a hit with the WETA staffers that one of them recently used it as transport on his wedding day. My favorite stop on our tour was a narrow, L-shaped room that looked something like a storage closet for the most awesome backstage props known to man. Rows of shelves held scraps of silicone “skin” that the workshop uses to transform their mechanical creatures into convincing humanoids. Realistic eyeballs, hair swatches and hands complete with fingernails lay on the shelves in organized chaos. A robotic bust of a soldier with stubble facial hair sat next to a red button. Only the front of his face was completed and concealed with silicone skin, while the sides and back exposed all of the mechanics inside. I tentatively pushed the button down and watched as his face changed expressions and his eyes blinked. I peeked around the corner from the shelves that had caught and held everyone’s attention for the moment. There, towering over 9 feet tall against the far wall, stood the full body armor of Sauron, complete with menacing spiked helm and claw-like gauntlets. I gasped out loud and made my way slowly closer to it, as if hoping not to wake the Dark Lord from slumber. Though the armor was crafted of dense foam, it looked every bit like a sinister black iron belonging to a different age. Moving into the last room of our cave tour, a charging figure of Azog the Defiler stood over the entrance with his sword raised to strike. Thankfully we were permitted to take photos in this room, since I’m sure I would have gotten myself in some trouble otherwise.

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After tour number one, we were famished. We wandered just a block up the street from the workshop to a little corner café that was bustling with lunchtime patrons. We claimed a little round table by a sunny window and filled up on fabulous pasta, musing on how close we must be to Peter Jackson’s house and his private collection of movie memorabilia. A second warehouse tour and some extensive souvenir shopping later, we’d spent almost two hours longer than expected at the WETA site. Thoroughly inspired, we headed on to our second and final destination for the day; Kaitoke Regional Park, the lush, forested site of Rivendell from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The afternoon weather was bright and the heat intense, but the trail through the trees provided the perfect canopy of cool shade. The forest and trail were marked with signs and maps bearing information about the site, along with photos of the surrounding trees as they looked during filming. I carved my initials into this same tree using a sharp little rock:

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Across from the trail in the forest, a river wove a wandering path through a rugged gorge. Lina and I discovered a footbridge that stretched over the gorge from the woods to the sheer limestone cliff on the opposite side.

The late afternoon heat made the water below exceptionally inviting. Lina made a joke about jumping in for a swim. I shot her a mischievous look. “It’s our last day in New Zealand…why not go for a swim?” Without hesitation, we grabbed our backpacks and forged a path through the trees and across the rocky shore to the edge of the river. In shorts and tank tops, we waded into the refreshingly cold water til it was deep enough to go over our heads if we bent our knees a bit. The way that water felt is hard to describe. It was simultaneously the most refreshing and invigorating feeling in the world. I suddenly recalled memories from third grade, when I first read about Ponce De Leon and the fountain of youth. I thought to myself that if there was a fountain of youth somewhere, it probably felt just like this. And when we finally climbed out onto those sun-warmed rocks, the cool sensation on my skin remained. Like all the showers in the world could never make someone this impossibly clean. Feeling that we’d had the most wonderful day ever, we contentedly began the long journey back to Waitomo and our bungalow. We had made it about 10 minutes from Kaitoke, singing along with my 90s Spotify playlist, when the GPS directed us to turn right into a residential neighborhood. The sign at the entrance read, “Birchville”, but someone had added their own revision of the sign in black spray paint, changing it to “Bitchville”. As I was turning onto the street and pointing out the sign to Lina in amusement, I completely didn’t see the car barreling toward us in the opposite lane. A split second before the car reached us, Lina screamed out to warn me of the impending collision. I slammed the gas pedal to the floor as hard as I could manage, but the little 4 cylinder engine only hesitated, leaving us sitting dead in the center of the other car’s path. The driver didn’t slow at all, and the car slammed into our broad side at a full tilt of 80 kilometers.  Everything moved in slow motion. Lina and I both screamed in terror, Lina bracing herself to lean as far away from her door as possible as the other car slammed into it. A deafening crunch of metal, then everything was silent as our car seemed to drift sideways for an entire grueling minute. I remember seeing so much hair, a tangle of both mine and Lina’s hair, suspended in midair along with shards of flying glass intermingled. Our car settled to a stop and I couldn’t move for a brief moment. I first considered the possibility that I might be dying, or that my body might be mangled in some horrible way. I heard Lina’s shaky breathing beside me. A hissing sound came from somewhere nearby. I forced myself to move, and my right shoulder made a sudden deep thudding noise as it popped back into the socket. I gasped at the pain, and a hand touched my head to brush the hair out of my face. A gentle voice came from the backseat, “do you girls know what day it is? Can you speak? Stay still, help is coming.” A sweet woman from one of the houses facing the street had seen the collision and come running out to help. I muttered something about how we needed to get out of the car before it exploded. I was feeling the door and the surfaces around me deliriously. Lina told me firmly to stop moving. I looked at Lina and the door caved in beside her. The pavement outside was visible through the hole in her door. A large chunk of her long hair was pinched between the crumpled metal of the door and had been ripped out of her scalp. Some obscure 90s ballad was still playing through my phone’s speaker from somewhere in the car. Lina was moving and speaking, but tears ran down her face as she repeated over and over again, “we’re alive. We’re alive. Thank you God. Thank you God!” I grabbed hold of her arm weakly and leaned my head on her shoulder. “I could have killed you. Lina, I could have killed you. I’m so sorry.” The ambulance and fire truck arrived. Our comforting visitor in the back seat disappeared, and cops and firemen came to our doors to see if we were alright. The girl in the other car was completely fine, pacing up and down the sidewalk on her cellphone. One officer asked Lina if she was able to crawl over her seat to get out through the back door. She did without much difficulty, fishing one of her shoes out of the sea of glass shards on the floor. My door was pinned shut against the Birchville sign, which they had to rip out of the cement to get me out of the car. Glass shards were everywhere. One had lodged in my right ankle and caused quite an impressive stream of blood, which concerned the medics at first glance. I remember seeing a long streak of white skin on the console from skinning my knee during impact. Lina also had a nice chunk of skin taken off the top of her hand, which has left her a nice scar to this day.

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I was helped out the door and to my feet by two of the officers, and I immediately started trying to gather up my camera stuff and WETA souvenirs to bring them with me. The officers stopped me and told me they would take care of our things, that we first needed to be looked after in the ambulance. I joined Lina in the ambulance with two female medics.

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They took our vitals and helped remove the larger glass shards with tweezers and peroxide. Lina was explaining to her medic that she thought she might have blacked out for a moment after impact. Clear worry in their eyes, the medics advised us that we had the opportunity to receive care at a hospital, and strongly recommended that we take that option. Lina and I shot each other looks of concern from across the ambulance. My mind reeling with thoughts of foreign hospital bills and the fact that we had 6 hour drive ahead of us, plus a 3 hour drive to the airport before our 7am flight the next morning, I numbly shook my head. “We’ll be fine. Thank you.” My shoulder and neck pain was about a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, but I could push through to get home. After about 20 minutes in the ambulance, an officer stuck his head in to ask how we were holding up. He went on to explain gently that I had been at fault in the car accident, and that there were a few possible outcomes from the situation. Oh gosh, I hadn’t even thought about this angle of the repercussions yet. He explained that, at most, I could face charges for reckless driving. A second, more lenient option, would be a traffic infraction with a fine. I mentally crossed my fingers for that one. He continued, “There’s one other option. But I’d need approval from my chief first. We could issue a written warning and let you go on your way.” I nodded my understanding, trying not to get my hopes up for that last option. While the officer stepped outside to make a call to his chief, someone handed me my cell phone that they’d fished out of the vehicle carnage. The pockets were filled with glass shards and the wallet cover was bent in half, but the phone hadn’t acquired so much as a scratch. Lina took the opportunity to call Caleb and fill him in on our situation. She was very concerned at the way I was acting, sort of in a haze and emotionally distant. Caleb was beside himself in his own cool and calculated way, urging us to go to the hospital to get checked out. I told him we wouldn’t make it home in time if we did that, and promised to go to the doc as soon as we reached home. By this time, the officer had returned, looking somber. Oh no. More bad news. He explained, in a roundabout way, that he’d been given permission to let me off with a written warning. No fines, no repercussions whatsoever. “This is the only way we can get you home on that plane tomorrow…otherwise you’d be required to stay in New Zealand to resolve this.” A brief wave of relief swept over me and I thanked the officer profusely. He offered to drive us to the tow yard where our totaled rental was being taken so that we could claim our things. Lina and I signed health waivers for the medics, and slid into the back of the police car. I called the rental company to ask them what our next steps should be. My next biggest concern was finding a new rental car on a Sunday evening. The man who answered the phone gave me all the details on how much my card would be charged and asked me how I was going to return the vehicle to them. Frustrated and frantic, I snapped that the car was totaled, and there was no way I could return it. And because I had waived the rental insurance for the first time on ANY trip, I knew I would be responsible for all damage charges. I told him I need a new rental ASAP, so I can get back to my rental house and make a flight in the morning. “Well, if you can reach our Wellington airport location by 7pm when we close, we can get you into a new rental. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow when we open.” I looked at the clock. Just before 6pm. The airport was about 45 minutes away, and we still needed to collect our things from the wrecked car. The race was on. The cop had some trouble finding the address where the car had been towed, but we eventually got there. The car was sitting in the bed of the tow truck, and we couldn’t reach the suitcase and photography equipment in the trunk, so the tower had to get the keys and pull it forward slightly. Lina and I did our best to retrieve the rest of our things from the front seats by leaning through the windows. Without any other transportation option, I quickly downloaded the Uber app and requested a driver to take us the 45 minutes to Wellington’s airport. A driver showed up within minutes, and helped us load our myriad of bags and wet clothes and camera equipment into his car. We explained our predicament and our race to get to the airport in time, and he did his best to get us there fast. I sat silently in my seat, overwhelmed. Lina did her best to make small talk with the driver, until she too fell into an overwhelmed silence.

We reached the Wellington airport after 7pm, but I knew that Hertz would be open later. After hoofing all of our stuff across the large parking structure and through the airport entrance into the rental terminal, Hertz informed me that they had no available vehicles. About to lose my cool, I moved to the next rental desk to ask if they had anything available. Yes, the lady informed me, but it will be quite expensive to rent here and return at the Auckland airport location. I told her that I had no choice, and braced for impact when she told me the total for the rental. The computer seemed to be giving her fits and she had to call over a supervisor for help. I reached up to wipe sweat off my forehead and felt a fine coating of glass shards greet my hand. Lina asked the clerk if we could help ourselves to the bottled waters that sat behind her on the counter. A few minutes later, looking bemused, the clerk stated, “It will be $1 for the rental.” Shaking my head in confusion, I asked her to explain. “Do you mean $1 for the collision waiver?” “No,” she reiterated, “One dollar is the total cost for the one day rental. I guess we’re in need of some more inventory at the Auckland location.” Lina and I looked at each other in disbelief. How was this possible? I’ve never heard of a rental so cheap! I started laughing an unhinged cackle that was a hybrid of confusion and relief and sheer madness. When the clerk looked at me with growing concern, I suppressed the laughter to the best of my ability and signed the rental agreement. On our walk across the parking lot to our new rental car, in full view of the terminal windows above us, I started to cry. All the emotion of the accident, gratefulness, fear, stress, anger, all culminated into powerful sobs that shook my whole body. I stood there leaned over the luggage cart while Lina held me comfortingly and the people in the terminal above watched curiously. Our new rental was pristine with only a few hundred miles on it. Even though we’d only be driving it through the night, I still purchased the full insurance coverage. I was not trying to tempt fate a second time. As we made our way out of the terminal and onto the road north, we were still thoroughly shaken but bursting full of thankfulness. Now that we were at least moving in the direction that would lead to the beginning of our long journey toward home, we finally began to recap the events of the past few hours and compare perspectives. About three hours into the drive north and many tears shed, adrenaline began to wear off and reality came crashing down in the form of intense exhaustion and aches and pains from the impact of the accident. Once the sun had set, the glare of approaching headlights from vehicles in the opposite lane had Lina jumping out of her skin with flashbacks to the collision. The narrow countryside lanes didn’t help much with the fear factor. My dry eyes would barely stay open, and the shadows were playing tricks on my vision so that I almost went off the road a few times. In an attempt to get us through the last push, Lina pulled up Spotify on her phone. We sang along with every conceivable Disney song for nearly two hours straight at the top of our lungs until we couldn’t sing anymore. About 30 minutes from the house, I was feeling faint and very nauseous. I could tell I was at my crashing point. Without explanation, the accelerator suddenly stopped working, and the car, though still running, wouldn’t allow me to give it any gas. We were on very hilly roads at this point, with lots of uneven surface and gravel in spots. I thought maybe the engine was overheating, but the dial showed that the temp was normal. An icon was flashing yellow on the dash display, but I had no idea what it meant. I tried pulling over to the side of the road, killing the engine for a few minutes, then starting it up again. The engine stalled again within a minute of driving, and the car coasted slowly to a stop in the middle of the road. The clock read 2am at this point. I thought to myself dismally that if we had to leave this car on the side of the road and walk to the house in the middle of the night, it would take us far longer than I even wanted to consider. Not to mention the wildlife in the dense wilderness around us. Lina hunted down the car’s user manual in the backseat and began flipping through the book to find out what the flashing icon was trying to tell us. Within a few minutes, she had determined that it meant “unsafe terrain, collision imminent”, and that the car was preventing acceleration to keep the vehicle from spinning out of control. Considering that we were only going about 40 mph, this seemed like a pretty ridiculous safety feature. I found that if I slowed to around 30 and kept the tires toward the center of the road, away from the uneven edges, that the car didn’t stall as much. We crept the last 15 minutes home like this, until at long last, our headlights came to rest of the “Rock Retreat” gate at the base of the driveway. A curious looking furry mammal sat atop the gate’s post, glowing eyes fixed on us in the darkness. He looked like a cross between a fox and a possum. Lina carefully made her way toward the gate to unlatch it and let the car through. As she did, the animal watched her with unmoving interest. Now came the tricky part – getting up that treacherously steep gravel driveway. As Lina latched the gate closed behind me, I accelerated as much as I dared to gain momentum for the climb. Miraculously, the car made it the entire way to the top, spitting gravel the whole way without stalling. One more small victory! Inside the bungalow, the warm lights and soft bed beckoned with astounding allure. We had now been awake for over 24 hours straight. With a three hour drive ahead of us and a flight to catch on the other side, we were forced to acknowledge that there was no time for a nap now. We packed up our things in relative silence, with Lina shooting concerned glances my way. She could tell I was at the end of my rope and feeling worse by the minute. She loaded all of the suitcases into the car and proceeded to tell me, in her firmest voice, that she would be driving us to the airport so that I could rest a while. Under any other circumstance, knowing Lina’s fear of driving in a foreign country with different laws on the opposite side of the road, I would have refused. But I was beginning to doubt if I could actually get us anywhere safely in my condition. My shoulder was beginning to throb with intense pain, and I felt like I might pass out at any moment. With a resolute deep breath and a click of her seatbelt, Lina threw the car in reverse and headed down the driveway. It was almost 3am at this point. I only remember a few minutes of the drive before I completely zonked out with my head rolling back against the seat. I woke up exactly an hour later, and the first thing I saw was Lina’s hands clutching the wheel tightly as she leaned forward toward the windshield, straining to see and to stay awake. Just beyond her tense hands, I saw the gas gage bouncing on the E line. Out my window, the dimly lit sign of a petrol station. “GAS!” I croaked. Lina first looked at me with surprise, then at the sign, then quickly gave the wheel a few turns to go back toward the station. The sign advertised 24 hour machines, so I popped a credit card in and followed the prompts. It kept declining the transaction, no matter how many different cards I tried. Frustrated, we continued up the road hoping to catch sight of another station. Our route was uncannily scenic, with nothing but an occasional passing car every 5 minutes or so. With no stations ahead on our route that I could see, I pulled up Google for the nearest station in any direction. Google took us off into a little town that promised a 24 hour station. This one too declined my payment, and we had no choice but to continue driving. Around the time I realized that we were now going to arrive at the airport too late to check in for the flight, Lina said she felt the car sputtering. We checked yet another station that was diesel pumps only. One breath away from going into full panic rage mode, we caught site of flashing cop lights ahead of us – what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. “Pull up to him!” I barked. Hesitantly, Lina slowed and I rolled my window down. Waving both arms out the window and apologizing profusely for the unorthodox approach, I explained that we were on empty and needing a station. With one hand on his holster and a wary expression, the officer pointed to a roundabout behind us and told us to get off at the second exit. We thanked him and Lina pulled the car across two lanes to do a U turn onto the opposite side of the road. I’m sure the cop noticed, but thankfully he let it go. On fumes and wracked with anxiety, we pulled into the gas station to the welcome site of lights on inside and a clerk at the counter. Lina shed tears of relief while I sprinted inside to empty my enraged bowels that had been threatening to burst for the last 30 minutes. With a full tank of gas, I relieved Lina in the driver’s seat, and we sped back onto the freeway toward Auckland. Now to address the next obstacle standing between us and home: I calculated that if I was able to shave 15 minutes off the projected travel time by speeding, there was a chance I could still make check in time. Lina’s flight was set to leave later that afternoon, so she would be left with the task of returning the rental car herself. I put the pedal to the floor and sped past every car in my way, darting between lanes like a test track driver. We were gaining time quickly until we hit traffic on the highway closer to Auckland, to the tune of exasperated sighs and fingers drumming nervously on the steering wheel. We flew into the terminal drop-off zone a few minutes after the hour that marked the end of check-in. Lina helped me get my myriad of large bags out of the car, since my useless left shoulder was threatening to slide out of the socket again at the first sign of strain. Like some sort of gruesome, disgruntled zombie, I hobble-jogged my cargo through the terminal doors and to the check in lane for Air New Zealand. I was directed to the service counter first, since they wouldn’t allow me to check in Caleb’s additional bag under my name without paying for it. Fantastic. With desperate rage written all over my face, I schlepped all of my things to the desk across the hall and waited in line. A man with a thick Eastern European accent tried to strike up a conversation, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very amicable to the poor man. Once my turn came at the service desk, I paid for the extra bag and was also informed that I’d need to apply for a Visa in order to make my layover in Australia. This too would cost extra. As the clerk was processing the paperwork, several other service agents came to check on my flight itinerary I had set on the desk. Judging from their puzzled looks, there seemed to be something wrong with my information. One of the clerks made a few phone calls to United, who owned the flights. He then informed me that United had cancelled my flights without notification. I think I actually laughed out loud at this point. He was very concerned about the error and was quick to assure me that they would work to put me on the next available flight once they found out when that would be. I moved all of my stuff to the end of the terminal to sit in the corner of a crowded McDonalds and wait. My phone signaled a call from Lina. Her frazzled voice cracked on the other end of the line: “I just crapped my brains out. Where are you?” The intense stress and rich pasta from Wellington hadn’t sat well with either of us. Once she found me in the terminal, we camped out in the McDonalds for around 45 minutes until Air New Zealand had made arrangements for me on another flight – mercifully, it was scheduled for 3pm that afternoon, close to the same time as Lina’s. With another six hours to wait until we could check our luggage, we scanned the terminal for a spot to hunker down for the long haul. Every seating area we saw was completely packed with people, even this early in the morning. Wearily, we headed for the escalator to check upstairs. In attempting to fit both large rolling suitcases with bags stacked on top onto the moving steps, one jerked forward and pulled my shoulder with it, sending shooting pain down my arm and a volley of choice words from my mouth. Lina rushed to my aid and we made it to the top of the escalator in one ragged, gasping piece. At the center of the terminal upstairs, we spotted a seating area with two open chairs beside a loud group of people speaking a foreign dialect. We arranged our suitcases in front of us so that we could place our travel pillows on top and lean forward to rest our faces in the hole of the pillow. Sort of like sleeping on a toilet seat, but softer. After about 20 minutes like this, the crowd next to us got up and moved on. “Quick!” I elbowed Lina, “spread your stuff out!” We took over the whole row, two seats each, and made a little wall in front of us with our bags. Clutching our pillows, we curled up in the fetal position on those sticky vinyl seats and found a bit of sleep in the middle of that loud, bustling terminal. I don’t know how long we had been asleep, certainly not more than an hour, when a shrill female voice abruptly roused us out of our slumber: “Excuse me, you need to make room for other people. You can’t sleep here. You need to move.” It was like we had found a stream in the desert, only to realize it was a mirage. Wordlessly, Lina and I pulled ourselves upright and pushed our luggage to one side of the chairs to satisfy the disgruntled woman. With no option but to stay awake, we pulled out our laptops and began uploading and going through our photos from the trip. I got us tray of breakfast (sushi and lo mein noodles) from the nearby Asian buffet, which actually did a lot to help calm our stomachs and give us strength. We had a coveted electrical outlet next to our chair, which was a complete godsend. Without that, we would have had no charge in our phones or for our laptops. We got a little more sleep leaning our heads together while sitting upright, but not much to speak of. When 2pm finally rolled around, we decided it was time to split up and head to check in. After the apocalyptic trials we faced together over the past week, going our separate ways felt like trying to finish a marathon without one leg.

We did not anticipate getting much rest on our first and longest flights into LAX, because neither of us can get relaxed sitting up while sandwiched between strangers. It was an unexpected blessing for both of us then, when we were greeted with nothing short of miraculous provisions on both of our separate flights. Lina was assigned a rare window seat that allowed her to build a little pillow plush to lean into. She was out like a light before dinner was served. I was seated at the very back of the plane with an open seat on either side of me, which has never happened to me in all my years of flying abroad. After takeoff, I stretched out across the empty seats covered in blankets and slept for much of the 12 hour flight. Each time I woke, the pain in my shoulder and neck had grown, and I became increasingly stiff. By the time I reached LAX, my left arm was pretty much unusable. I had to ask another passenger to get my bags out of the overhead bin and put my backpack on for me. Upon disembarking the plane, I was herded into a long line behind a couple with a screaming infant who had freshly pooped his pants. The line to clear US customs took just under two hours, and many passengers in the line were missing connections and throwing angry tantrums in line. I got to my gate to find out that my own flight had been delayed a few hours. This was the story the rest of the way home. Lina and I kept in contact via text between flights, and she arrived in Toronto just shortly after I did. We claimed our luggage, picked up the car, and headed onto the highway for the 6 hour drive back to Traverse City. A heavy rainstorm hit just as we were leaving Toronto, making it difficult to see in the dark with the reflective pavement. The going was slow, but we pressed on. We got a call from Caleb and Rich letting us know that they were driving down to the Michigan/Canada border to meet us and drive us the rest of the way home. We were grateful for the rescue, particularly in our bedraggled state. We mused in tired irony that it was still December 4th – the same day that began with us driving through the night to get back to Waitomo after our accident in Wellington. It was the day from hell that never seemed to end. And yet here it was, at last coming to a close. As was our week in that beautiful corner of the world that so deeply bonded us and altered our perception in so many glorious ways. Never had God’s intricate purpose and relentless, merciful faithfulness been so plainly evident in every step we took. I think more than the indescribable beauty of the landscapes and unforgettable experiences, the best part of that week in New Zealand was the ever-present knowledge of being held firmly in God’s hand for his own perfect purpose. At some point, the fear of another disaster striking and the pain of uncertainty gave way to contentment just to be part of a story bigger than ourselves, and for a more glorious purpose than we could foresee.

Update, July 2018: After hiring a Canadian lawyer and making multiple trips to and from Toronto regarding his pending criminal charges, Caleb appeared in court for his sentencing this month. The prospect of huge fines, suspension on our ability to travel abroad, and even possible prison time had been looming over us like a black cloud. In April, the prosecution offered Caleb a plea deal that they would drop the larger charge of unlawful possession of a firearm if he agreed to plead guilty to the reckless storage charge. This is just what he did at his appearance early this month. He was mercifully granted an absolute discharge, which is essentially no more than a warning. The judge made a lengthy statement about Caleb's obvious upstanding character and many examples of selfless conduct. He has no criminal record, no fines to pay, and any evidence of the arrest is expunged after a year's time. 7 months after the mistake that threw us into a tailspin, all fears and doubts are finally put to rest. We have at last reached a point where we can smile about the physical and emotional scars we carried out of that ten day crucible. By the grace of God, those temporary hardships have yielded some of the most wonderful changes in us and in the way we look at life. Not a day goes by that I don't thank God for everything that happened in New Zealand.

Japan - Golden Week in Historic Kyoto and an Unforgettable Mountainside Wedding

In August 2016, I was contacted by a sweet Brazilian couple living in Japan, planning their wedding for that coming spring. Victor and Eliana had first met in Japan in 2013, in a train station far from home. Since that moment they connected as strangers, they formed a lasting bond. Through our weeks of messaging and Skyping each other, I caught their infectious excitement for the wedding day that had been years in the making. I learned that Victor was a freelance wedding photographer himself, and that he and Eliana were looking for a photographer with an artistic, photo journalistic style; something that Japan doesn’t have a lot of. Since Japanese couples tend to value a very formal, traditional style of photography, that is the standard for photographers there.

Once it was determined that we were to be given the unique honor of photographing the wedding, I set to work planning our trip to the opposite side of the world. I was full of nervous anticipation to experience a culture so entirely different from my own! The wedding would take place at spring’s radiant apex, adorned in pale pink cherry blossoms and wrapped in gentle warmth: Japan’s Golden Week. Since this is such a vibrant and exciting time to visit Japan, most of the hotels in populated areas book up a good six months in advance. By the time I started my search for lodging, there was almost nothing available. I did consider the option of lodging at one of Japan’s traditional Buddhist temples and living the extremely minimalist lifestyle of the monks, but I decided I probably wasn’t prepared for that extreme level of cultural immersion yet. So with few other options and my mind set on living as the local life as authentically as possible, I decided to make the plunge and book an AirBnB rental house instead of our usual hotel. This turned out to be one of the best choices I made on this trip!

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Departing from Toronto airport at 1:45am, we braced ourselves for our longest flight yet (at the time): 16 hours to Taiwan.  Because of the 13 hour time difference and length of the flight, we lost more than an entire day to get to our destination. And that, my friends, was just the beginning. Landing in the Osaka airport, I was immediately overwhelmed by the crowds, the smells, and the lack of the English alphabet. The most challenging task of the trip lay yet before us: Navigating Japan’s complex and highly developed public train system. This, comically, turned out to be even more of a fiasco than my imagination had threatened. Using the automated kiosks at the train platform (and all the powers of reasoning between the two of us), we bought a fare ticket for two passengers one way from Osaka to Kyoto. Well, that was easy! We go to scan our ticket to get through the turnstile and board the train, but we notice our ticket is different from anyone else’s.  Also, it won’t let us through the turnstile. So back to the ticket office we go. After a while standing in line, we approach a service window under a sign that reads “assistance in English”. Oh, thank heaven! Upon explaining our debacle and asking for help on what to do next, the clerk is silent for a few seconds, then lets out a long and bewildered, “uhhhhhhhhhh….”. What followed was a grueling 5 minutes of miming and pointing and trying to explain that we needed to get a refund on our first ticket and get another that would let us on the train to Kyoto. It took another clerk finally joining the conversation to enlighten us. We had bought our fare ticket only, and we also needed a separate supplemental charge ticket to cover the cost to our destination. Once we sorted out the cost and acquired all 3 tickets needed, we went to the train platform and boarded, careful not to sit in any car besides the designated economy cars. It was almost exactly an hour and a half train ride from the Kansai airport to our stop at Kyoto station. Kyoto station was bustling with people who knew exactly where they were headed and on a mission to get there. Then there was us: Two bedraggled travelers laden with luggage, a crazed look in our eyes that shouted, “We need a taxi like we need our next breath!” We managed to find one, and that little yellow chariot of mercy delivered us to within three minutes of our rental house.

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Since there are so many homes and so tightly packed together in larger Japanese cities, it’s not uncommon to have to reach a doorstep by foot or on bicycle. Many of the residential roads are little more than narrow alleyways, so it’s not possible to get a car closer than the nearest main road.  Luckily, we only had to walk across a little park full of squealing school kids, then up a tiny sidewalk to find our Machiya’s doorway.

A Machiya is a traditional townhouse made of wood, characteristic especially in historical Kyoto. The beauty of these dwellings is found in their minimalism and efficiency – merits that are central to Japanese culture and daily life. The appliances in the dwelling were all at least half the size of those I’m used to in the US. The bathtub was like a large bucket with jets, large enough for an adult to sit cross legged inside. The doors were all sliding wood-and-rice-paper panels, including the front door. This had nothing more than a nonchalant sliding lock to secure it. Not much violent crime in this part of the world. Each level of the house was small but perfectly laid out to give the feel of space and tranquility, with each level being built around windows to the tiny walled garden at the back of the house. This garden was little more than 8 square feet housing a few plants and a fountain, but still did a great deal to give the impression of seclusion and let in natural light. On the upper level of the machiya, in a wide open room with tatami mat floors, we were greeted by the intimidating spectacle of a snarling Samurai guardian. Truth be told, this piece of fascinating history from the era of feudal Japan was the main reason we booked this home. The machiya’s owner affectionately refers to this centuries-old Samurai guardian as “Bob”. Keeping Bob company are the Maneki-neko (“fortune cats”) and lovely Geisha dolls on display in the house. In the dining room, a traditional Japanese wedding kimono graces the wall with a mythical allure.

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Samurai "Bob", fierce guardian of the machiya!

Samurai "Bob", fierce guardian of the machiya!

The dining room, with a door to the tiny garden

The dining room, with a door to the tiny garden

An intricate porcelain Geisha doll

An intricate porcelain Geisha doll

Little pandas made of "rice ball" filling

Little pandas made of "rice ball" filling

Hungry and intent on finding some unique Japanese cuisine, Caleb and I left our new abode and hit the unfamiliar streets of historical Kyoto. We saw the peaked roof of a temple in the distance, and decided to head that direction. Ducking awnings and hurrying single-file down alleys that were barely big enough for a person to fit, we found a main street lined with pottery shops, galleries, and ramen shops. I got sucked in by the little souvenir shops with cute animal figures made of rice and baskets of everything you can imagine in miniature form. I quickly noticed how many people I saw wearing white face masks, something that is a common part of life in this part of the world. Because of the size of their population and health consciousness, many Japanese choose to wear a face mask in public. It’s such a normal practice that these face masks are sold in as many varieties as chewing gum at every corner store. 

Varieties of face masks for sale at the local konbini

Varieties of face masks for sale at the local konbini

Local girls celebrate Golden Week in colorful Yukata robes

Local girls celebrate Golden Week in colorful Yukata robes

I also noticed that a great many of the Japanese girls we passed were wearing Yukata (similar to Kimono, but more casual) in honor of the Golden Week celebrations. The vibrant colors and elaborate hair and makeup were dazzling! My inclination is to make eye contact and smile at people I pass, but this is totally not how the culture works in Japan. The emphasis is more on respect than on friendliness. The Japanese are incredibly friendly and polite, but they value respect most of all. Instead of a wide, toothy smile, strangers will greet you with a small bend at the waist with eyes directed downward. This is even appropriate when passing strangers on the street. It may sound strange, but it actually starts to feel pretty natural after a few days.

A residential alley in downtown Kyoto

A residential alley in downtown Kyoto

Komainu (狛犬), lion-dogs, are statue pairs of lion-like creatures guarding the entrance or the inner shrine of many Japanese homes and Shinto shrines

Komainu (狛犬), lion-dogs, are statue pairs of lion-like creatures guarding the entrance or the inner shrine of many Japanese homes and Shinto shrines

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Matcha ice cream in a shop window. Matcha is a popular green tea flavor that can be found in the form of cake, cookies, and pretty much any other food you can fathom.

Matcha ice cream in a shop window. Matcha is a popular green tea flavor that can be found in the form of cake, cookies, and pretty much any other food you can fathom.

Dinner was a shot in the dark at a small restaurant we found by accident. With not a single English symbol on the menu, and google image translate taking far too long, I did something I've always wanted to try: I pointed out a random item on the menu to order it. Caleb, not feeling quite as adventurous, went with a curry shrimp dish he had seen on the sign in the entryway. Suffice it to say, Caleb made the better choice. When my meal came, I instantly regretted my risk-taking. I had ordered Zenzai: It was a soggy and burnt dumpling swimming in an unappealingly sweet, watery bean soup. Not wanting to be rude, I gulped down as much as I could responsibly handle, while taking bites of Caleb's tasty rice while he smiled wryly at me over his cup of green tea. Well, at least I tried!

After dinner, we took a walk on the grounds of the Chion-In Temple, then stumbled upon a kimono shop. I was over the moon excited to check this out, since one of my priorities for the trip was to score a traditional kimono of my own. This also proved to be more challenging than I thought, since most shops only rent Yukata robes. Feeling mildly defeated and kimono-less, we kept walking toward home. On our way, we stopped into a corner convenience store, adorably termed a “konbini”. Something about the Japanese: They are all about convenience and efficiency! These compact miracle stores sell everything from hair dye to produce. Need a pressed and packaged shirt for an unexpected job interview? You’re in luck! With much curiosity and bewilderment at the bright foreign labels, we stocked up on groceries for our house. Some incredible ice cream bars, mandarin slices in jello, a dozen eggs that were under no sort of refrigeration…we threw caution to the wind and bought everything that made us curious.

It was dinner time in the 'burbs of Kyoto, and smells of cooking fish and rice began to waft through the air as we walked the rest of the way home to our machiya. Between the hours of dinner time and breakfast in Kyoto, the neighborhoods get very quiet and people keep to themselves.

I woke at 6 the next morning, ready to greet this new side of the world with vigor. I slid open my window panel to look down into the memorial garden behind our house. A woman was lighting incense above one of the memorial stones. It was so absolutely quiet and peaceful. Caleb was down in the kitchen fixing eggs and bacon. He made a joke at one point, at which I laughed a bit too loudly, slapping a hand over my mouth when I realized that the woman in the courtyard below had heard me and was disrupted out of her meditation. Obnoxious Yankee move, Chloe! I learned to tone down my usually boisterous exclamations during that trip. At least I made a valiant attempt at toning it down.

Later that morning, we got to meet our wedding couple and gracious tour guides, Eliana and Victor. Upon first greeting them outside our house, Eliana’s first words to me were, “You are SO TALL!” Followed by a great big hug (which I had to bend down slightly to receive). It’s true, I do stand 6 to 12 inches above the average height in these parts. This amused Caleb to no end, and he jokingly dubbed me “Amazon woman” for the week.  We hopped into the car with our new friends and headed into the center of Kyoto, where unbelievable sights awaited us. First on the itinerary was the iconic towering structure of Kiyomizu-dera Temple – A treasured World Heritage site. Astonishingly, the building was constructed completely without hammer and nail. 

Kiyomizu-dera Temple in the heart of Kyoto

Kiyomizu-dera Temple in the heart of Kyoto

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An "ema" shrine outside the Shinto temple - wood plaques that contain prayers and wishes

An "ema" shrine outside the Shinto temple - wood plaques that contain prayers and wishes

Our next stop was one I was particularly looking forward to: The incredible Fushimi Inari Shrine sits at the base of Inari Mountain, elevated high above sea level. The shrine is most recognized for its Torii gates, bright orange arches signifying the entrance into the sacred. These structures date back to 711 A.D. and there are rumored to be over 10,000 of the gates on the shrine grounds. It was difficult to shoot subjects here because of the thick crowds, but the further we walked, the fewer people around us. 

Crowds of both tourists and worshipers pour through the paths at the shrine from early morning to night every day of the year.

Crowds of both tourists and worshipers pour through the paths at the shrine from early morning to night every day of the year.

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From there, we headed to Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, where the picturesque Sagano Bamboo forest exists in all its splendor. On the drive there, we bombarded our poor hosts with questions that they were all to graciously willing to answer. Eliana told us much about the language and culture that she had learned in her many years as a student here. We learned that the Japanese language has no "L", "R" or "V" or "Th" sound, and she taught how our own names would sound pronounced by the Japanese. Chloe translates to "Ku-RO-i", and Caleb sounds like "Ku-RI-bo". Eliana even wrote our names out for us in Japanese on a little slip of paper. We made good time to Arashiyama, and decided to get some lunch at a little noodle shop up the street from the forest since we had a long walk ahead of us. The most delicious ramen I’ve ever had! I've started adding a soft boiled egg to my own ramen at home because I liked the idea so much.

Outside on the street, the crowds were dense. We watched rickshaw carts and their passengers being pulled around by people with the most toned legs and bums I’ve ever seen in my life. I felt so sorry for those poor people trying to navigate the crowds, uphill, while their passengers sat staring at their phones, apparently unimpressed with the amount of effort and strength being expended right in front of them.

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A samurai cat we spotted in the crowd

A samurai cat we spotted in the crowd

Sagano Bamboo Forest

Sagano Bamboo Forest

The path through the forest was predictably crowded, but the forest was absolutely stunning. Bamboo is seen by Japanese culture as a symbol of strength, and standing among those narrow, towering trunks, I could clearly see why. My favorite thing was how the sun looked filtering down through the minty green foliage onto the forest floor. 

A sign in the district of Gion, warning tourists of what not to do in the presence of a Geisha.

A sign in the district of Gion, warning tourists of what not to do in the presence of a Geisha.

As we were driving back into the heart of Kyoto that evening to find some dinner, we spotted a Geisha on a side street, making her way to work for the night. Geisha are lauded, highly disciplined and skilled entertainers who act as hostesses at fine restaurants in Japan, and spotting a Geisha out and about is an exciting thing. Their history is long and distinguished in Japanese culture. It takes years of rigorous training to become one. As such, there are some seriously strict rules when in the presence of a Geisha: First, you never, EVER, touch a Geisha. Second, selfies are totally not okay, and you shouldn’t even try to sneak a picture of a Geisha. These ladies perform only for patrons of the restaurant or house where they work, so it is seen as cheap and tacky to take advantage of a Geisha sighting if you're not a paying customer. That didn’t stop us from doing our best to catch another glimpse! We parked the car and started covering the neighborhood on foot, eye peeled for colorful kimonos and powder-white faces. After about an hour of wandering fruitlessly, Victor spotted two Geisha in the back of a taxi. In a rush of adrenaline, all four of us began wildly chasing after the car, cameras in hand. Caleb, bound and determined to put a Geisha sighting in the books, out-sprinted the rest of us. Just as he was about to catch up to the car, it took a right turn and disappeared onto a busy street. Out of breath and laughing at ourselves, we decided to give up and do some sightseeing that didn't involve quite as much endurance. 

The tiny but lovely entrance to an elegant Gion tea house where we stopped for a rest

The tiny but lovely entrance to an elegant Gion tea house where we stopped for a rest

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Sampling our first taste of matcha cake. It was incredibly moist and not overly sweet.

Sampling our first taste of matcha cake. It was incredibly moist and not overly sweet.

A creepy giant crab on the side of a building downtown Kyoto

A creepy giant crab on the side of a building downtown Kyoto

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A woman dressed in a bridal kimono for a photo shoot in the city

A woman dressed in a bridal kimono for a photo shoot in the city

As night fell, we decided it was time to find some dinner. A particularly legit looking Japanese steakhouse had caught our attention with their sign advertising the absolute best in Japanese Kobe and Wagyu beef. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we were sold.

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The dinner was made in front of us on our table, Teppanyaki style. The chef put such intent concentration and expertise into every last vegetable he prepared, and the flavors and textures of the food were incomparable. Something that greatly inspires me about this culture: As a general rule, the Japanese treat their profession as an art form, and they vigorously aspire to master their art to the greatest degree possible. So when a chef in a legendary steak house prepares beef that has been raised, cared for, and curated with painstaking precision, he does it as if he is presenting his finest work of art before a judge. Talk about setting high standards!

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Early the next morning, Victor and Eliana picked us up to make the 5 hour drive to glorious Mt Fuji. (It ended up being more like 7 hours, all told.) We couldn’t wait for the photo opportunities this iconic spot would present! With suits and gowns packed into bags, the four of us made the scenic trip with minimal pit stops. (I was thankful for the motion sickness medicine we found at a konbini a few hours into the trip, because I was having a rough time in the backseat by hour 2!) When we got within about 1.5 hours of our destination, Mt Fuji and her unmistakable white crown could be seen clearly above the mountainous landscape. What a breathtaking sight!

 

 

We drove along the border of Aokigahara, “the Sea of Trees” on our approach to the mountain. This undeniably eerie expanse of wilderness has earned the name “Suicide Forest”, because of the inexplicably high number of suicides that occur here each year. 500 confirmed suicides here since the 1950’s, with the number rising exponentially each year. There are signs at the entrances to the forest trail and along the path reading admonitions like, “Your life is a precious gift from your parents,” and “Please consult the police before you decide to die!” It’s true that there is a tangible feeling of heavy darkness even on the borders of the forest. Even the stores on the outskirts of the trees are purposefully devoid of bright colors and attention grabbing lights. I noticed a 7-11 store outside of Aokigahara with just a plain white sign, devoid of its usual bright and colorful logo. Victor told us this was done so as not to be offensive in the presence of so much death. Despite the temptation to take a few steps into the forest, we kept on our way toward Mt Fuji. By fortuitous chance, we drove by a wide open field of tall, lush grass overlooking the imposing form of the mountain with nothing standing between. We had to stop and take advantage of this incredible view!

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After about 30 minutes of shooting in this scenic field, we quickly found out it was not as perfect a spot as we initially thought. A local farmer on a tractor, presumably the owner of the aforementioned field, came by to give us a sound verbal thrashing in Japanese. He screamed angrily at Victor for several minutes, expressing his anger that we had crushed his beautiful grass and damaged it. Even after Victor explained that we would leave right away, the farmer's anger was unrelenting. Apologetic and a little freaked out by the verbal beating, we moved on to find another spot to shoot.

The sun was quickly sinking in the sky as we approached our final destination: A view of Mt Fuji across a perfectly still lake.

We were able to catch the last rays of sun on the snowy peak of the mountain before it finally dipped below the horizon. Caleb and I, still jet lagged and exhausted from all of our explorations, unintentionally slept most of the long drive home while Victor drove and Eliana navigated. In the wee hours of the morning, as we were finally nearing Kyoto, I awoke to hear Victor and Eliana enthusiastically singing along to Brazilian music together in an effort to keep themselves awake and alert.

The following morning, after letting ourselves sleep in and filling up with a big breakfast, we hit the market streets in search of some souvenir treasures from the opposite side of the world.

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We did some sake tasting and bought some Japanese art for our house, beautiful paintings on rice paper depicting the moody shadowed peak of Mt Fuji, and another in the likeness of Japan's iconic sakura, or cherry blossoms. Caleb was entranced by one specific sakura painting, and couldn't abide leaving the gallery without it. Despite our unique finds, I was still having no luck scoring the kimono I was after. It seemed that all of the stores only sold or rented casual Yukata for the Golden Week holiday. The last shop we went into had a table at the very back of the store. The first traditional kimonos I had seen in person, pre-owned – and they were actually for sale for less than the cost of a Yukata rental! The woman in charge of the store saw my excitement and kindly offered to help me try on a kimono. She picked out a belt (called an obi) to go with a beautiful black kimono, and it took her about 10 minutes to get me properly robed and tied. I was in awe! When we got the kimono back home, I committed to the difficult task of learning how to tie an obi on myself. I watched about 5 different YouTube tutorials and failed with a dozen sloppy looking bows by the time I finally nailed it with tired arms. Not bad for my first day!

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Later that night, we set out with the phone as our walking directions to find some authentic Japanese sushi for dinner. After 15 minutes of walking, the phone told us “we had arrived” in the middle of an alley with absolutely no sign or a restaurant in sight. With a bit more wandering and asking a few people for directions, we eventually wound up across the street at the Four Seasons Kyoto. Holy smokes, what a ritzy place! The ironic comedy of the situation was that, minutes after we were seated for dinner beside the garden river, we were introduced to a gorgeous, soft spoken, died-in-the-wool Geisha. We had spent an evening chasing them on the streets of Kyoto, unsuccessful, only to get lost and meet one on accident!

The private garden of Brasserie Restaurant, Four Seasons Hotel - Kyoto

The private garden of Brasserie Restaurant, Four Seasons Hotel - Kyoto

A colorful seafood plate at Brasserie

A colorful seafood plate at Brasserie

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The 6th of May was the long-awaited wedding day, and the apex of much joyful anticipation. So many years of expectation and promise, and the day had finally arrived, bringing with it a sense of palpable energy. It was a gathering of about 30 people total, at a remote cabin in the mountains of Japan. After spending 2 full days and a 13 hour road trip getting to know Victor and Eliana, we felt like old friends. We had discussed everything from culture and travel, to our shared faith, to the hilarious idioms of our native languages. We couldn’t wait to be part of the day that would begin the rest of their lives together! Early in the morning, Caleb and I walked 20 minutes to the train station, bought our tickets with only minimal hassle, and hopped on a train to the countryside.

When we arrived at the house in the mountains, we were greeted with hugs and many exquisite gifts by both Victor and Eliana's families. Though most of us didn't share a language, the love and warmth was tangible. As the night went on and thick clouds settled on the mountains, candles were lit and the newlyweds shared their first dance under a canopy of glowing lights. After dessert, everyone gathered inside while Caleb tried his hand at the pump organ and I sang with him. We were soon joined by other instruments and voices, as worship broke out in the living room of the little cabin. It was one of those moments that makes you wish time would just stand still. Lives and hearts were permanently bound in fellowship and love that day, a day none of us will ever forget.

Sharing an incredible time of multi-lingual worship after the wedding ceremony

Sharing an incredible time of multi-lingual worship after the wedding ceremony

Polaroids from the night's festivities

Polaroids from the night's festivities

At the late end of the evening, two of the wedding guests drove us back to the train station to ride the 1.5 hours back to our place in Kyoto. I had begun to feel under the weather (chills, sore throat) late in the afternoon, and by the time we reached our machiya, I was in rough shape. I slept fitfully through the night, and each time I woke, I remember thinking I was dying. My fever had made me delirious, and my throat felt like it was on fire - too inflamed to even swallow the water that I desperately needed. Caleb kept a fresh cold washcloth on my forehead all night until the sunrise. Mercifully, that was the day we were to head home. Victor and Eliana kindly offered to drive us to the airport so we didn’t have to navigate the train station again. Not having much fight left in us, we accepted their generosity. It was a tearful parting and a reluctant goodbye at the airport. We had come to this place completely devoid of expectations, feeling more like strangers than we had in any other place we’d been. But because of this sweet couple and their open hearts, it turned out to be one of the most memorable weeks of our lives. We still talk about visiting each other in our home countries, and since Victor and Eliana are back in Brazil now, they’re even closer than before! 

The greatest lessons I took home from Japan are these:

There is a great deal of merit in simplicity and stillness.

The world is both larger and smaller than we think. There are transcendent ties that bind people, no matter how far the span of continents or oceans between us. At the same time, there is so much experience, wisdom, beauty and history beyond what we can grasp within our current narrow perception. It's overwhelming to feel so far outside of one's familiar comfort zone, but in a uncomfortably awesome way. 

As always, thanks for following along with our adventures! Keep expanding your horizons, friends!

Chloe & Caleb

Let's Talk Timekeeping - World Travel Style

Every now and then, a truly unique item on the market will capture the fancy of this style-savvy traveler. While minimalism is key while trotting the globe efficiently, sometimes a girl craves a little bit of pretty in her exploits.

When I had the good fortune of discovering JORD timepieces, with their earthy appearance and ultra-classy style, I was immediately intrigued and curious. Okay, so these are gorgeous watches. No denying that. But do they wear comfortably? Are they durable? I snagged one for myself before heading to Japan last week. I was expecting the most intense jet lag of all my travels to date, and I'd need something to help me keep pace adjusting to the 13 hour time difference.

 I wore my little gem almost the entire time (including all but one security check). The watch worked its attention-grabbing magic, and I got a slew of compliments everywhere we went. Language barrier be damned, a good fashion piece can make a connection anywhere. Through touring temples, hiking the Sagano Bamboo Forest, taking in the views of Mt Fuji, shooting a wedding in the mountains of Japan, and countless packed rides on the express train, that watch was the most consistently classy aspect of my travel persona.  

 

 

It had never occurred to me to wear a watch made of wood. But now that I’ve been doing it for a while, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the clunky metal or overrated leather of my past. It’s always a win when a functional item becomes a signature fashion staple. Next stop: grab one of these beauties for my jealous hubby before our trip to Scotland in two weeks! To win a $100 credit towards a unique watch of your own, or a $25 credit just for entering, visit https://www.woodwatches.com/g/thewelltraveledweddeds by June 4!

Northern Romance

Snow covered pines and icy bay shores aren't usually considered synonymous with the hottest lover's retreats. As two snow bunnies raised in Michigan's lake-effect climate, we know the best little escapes to counter cold with cozy while heating things up. Our favorite such hideaway happens to be the very spot Caleb and I tied the knot in Fall 2011 - The iconic Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. This beacon of the North is one of the most recognizable landmarks to travelers exploring the famed Grand Traverse region, right along with the Sleeping Bear Dunes and rolling cherry orchards in bloom.  This resort certainly is just what its name denotes: Grand! From the first moments approaching the substantial tower via the tree-lined drive, to making an entrance into the stately grand lobby, it becomes apparent that the Resort stands assuredly in a class of its own.

 

The lobby offered the same sparkling, spacious reception as we remembered, and we even recognized two of the bellman who greeted us as the same two who assisted with transportation and luggage during our wedding weekend five years ago! We realized when we reached our room, however, that some things had changed quite a wonderful bit. The Resort has recently updated and renovated all of its rooms in a cool, clean, and welcoming style that is the perfect homage to the qintessential nearby waters of Grand Traverse Bay. Those tower views are second to none!

A dinner in Aerie was to be the long-awaited centerpiece of that evening, and the highlight of our Valentine's week. Not only are we huge international food connoisseurs, Caleb himself works in the food industry. I suppose you could say that fine food is one of our great passions in life! We've been to Aerie several times, including on the night of our engagement back in 2010. Aerie holds a special place both in our hearts and our stomachs. So it was with high expectations that we donned our dress attire and rode the glass elevator to the 16th floor.  

Stepping off the elevator into Aerie, the first note to greet the senses is the low-lit, effortlessly sexy ambiance. Immediately after that, the tantalizing aromas of a dozen artfully orchestrated culinary masterpieces from the kitchen. Thirdly, the gracious and unassuming attention of the staff. The genteel David welcomed us warmly on our arrival, and swept us off to be seated in the very intimate velvet booth where Caleb and I enjoyed dinner on our engagement night. What a sweet and unexpected way to relive that great memory! David then set the ambiance on our table with the flourish of a candle, and proceeded to attentively serve us the most sumptuous 3-course dinner we've enjoyed here to date. 

Melt-in-the-mouth filet, Aerie style: Truffle mash, confit dice potato, candied bacon, roasted cipollini onion, jus

Melt-in-the-mouth filet, Aerie style: Truffle mash, confit dice potato, candied bacon, roasted cipollini onion, jus

Delish rock shrimp cocktail

Delish rock shrimp cocktail

Spiced cake dessert in a chocolate cup with blackberry jam garnish and a candy lattice

Spiced cake dessert in a chocolate cup with blackberry jam garnish and a candy lattice


After a perfect evening and a superb night's sleep, we woke to this gorgeous view from the 12th floor of the tower:

We enjoyed a delicious and filling breakfast in the Resort's Sweetwater Bistro, then it was off to the next anticipated milestone of our visit - the Spa! Spa Grand Traverse has an illustrious reputation among travelers and spa connoisseurs alike who crave a truly exceptional indulgent experience. This reputation is fortified by prestigious recognitions such as being voted best spa 6 years in a row by Michigan’s Red Hot Best Awards, and being listed in Spas of America’s “Top 100 Spas” list. Clearly, Spa Grand Traverse has refined the art of relaxation in a noteworthy way. Upon our arrival, we were presented with plush robes and given a tour of the irresistibly welcoming 2-story spa. Candles glow softly throughout each room, a fireplace flickers in the luxurious relaxation lounge, and soft music beckons the visitor into a state of gracious relaxation.

We slid under heated blankets in side-by-side beds for our 50-minute couples' massage. Our congenial therapists, Fallon and Becki, started the experience with a "breathing treatment", a blend of essential oils inhaled to open the sinuses and put the mind and body at ease. My head felt clearer instantly and the tenseness in my muscles began to melt away noticeably. After about 10 minutes, I heard Caleb lightly snoring beside me. And to think, I actually had to convince him to come do this with me! When the serene 50 minutes came to an end, we pulled ourselves together in a delightful state of disoriented bliss. I hardly even remember riding the elevator back to our room, I was so relaxed. What a perfect way to end the perfect little getaway! 

The Grand Traverse Resort has blown our minds yet again, with their own signature brand of genuine northern hospitality. We have yet to find another getaway so perfect for brightening the gray months of the long Michigan Winter. Until next time, GTRS! We can't wait to come back!

La Vie en Rose - Saint-Émilion and France's Southern Countryside

In late August, we spent a glorious week experiencing quintessential life in the French countryside - Timeless chateaux, exquisite wines, verdant vineyards, and little city streets that look like poetry straight out of a painting. The Romans planted vineyards and established picturesque St Emilion in the 2nd century. Romance is a way of life here, and lovers are treated like royalty.

Sunrise over the medieval village of St Emilion

Sunrise over the medieval village of St Emilion

We flew into Bordeaux on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. The first thing I noticed (besides the reassuring military presence) was that nearly every woman and about half the men I saw were toting Louis Vuitton luggage. I got two compliments on my new LV rose bag before even reaching the terminal's exit doors! After claiming our tiny rental car, we sat in the parking lot for the better part of an hour, trying to get the GPS to work. Once it decided to cooperate, we were on our merry (read: stressed and exhausted) way to our destination: The storybook village of St-Émilion, France. 

The uneventful drive gave us time to settle back into savvy traveler mode, jet lag and navigational snafus be damned. If only because of the idealistic images I'd seen during my pre-trip research on the area, I was full of anticipation to discover this little corner of the world that seemed too perfect to be real. We were about to be thoroughly educated on life in the French countryside. Little did we know, those moments at the airport were the last semblance of anything akin to stress for the next 7 blissful days. 

The graveled drive up to our hotel was lined with stately Elms, iconic to this part of the world. The late afternoon sun was bathing everything in a golden glow and casting warm rays over the acres of green leaves in the rolling vineyards all around us. At the end of the drive, we came upon this vision of the impossibly picturesque Grand Barrail Château - 

An absolutely decadent entryway at Grand Barrail, leading to the restaurant and guest rooms.

An absolutely decadent entryway at Grand Barrail, leading to the restaurant and guest rooms.

The fabulously classic bathroom in our chateau suite - complete with artisan tile flooring and a chic claw-foot tub.

The fabulously classic bathroom in our chateau suite - complete with artisan tile flooring and a chic claw-foot tub.

The Grand Barrail dining room

The Grand Barrail dining room

Surrounding our hotel were the verdant vineyards of neighboring Chateau La Marzelle. Those sun-ripened Merlot grapes were absolutely delicious!

That evening, we slept the coma-like sleep of the jetlagged. Thanks to our accommodations, we awoke to the sunrise, completely refreshed. The breakfast spread at the chateau, while not fastidious, was perfection. Fresh, handmade loaves of bread still warm from the oven. Local cheeses and cured meats. Bowls overflowing with vibrant local fruits, and lightly sugar-dusted crepes topped with a single red currant berry.

This was also the first time I'd ever tried fresh passionfruit. So tasty!

After our hearty, first ever French breakfast, we set out to make our acquaintance with the village of St Emilion. It was only about a 5 minute drive from our hotel, and parking was surprisingly easy to find in a nearby lot. The first thing that struck me was how authentic and intimate the village feels. It's as if the cheap, greedy grasp of tourism has overlooked St Emilion completely. May this always be! We were enraptured within the first few minutes of walking these quiet cobbled streets, and it was about to get even better. Imagine: Tiny ice cream shops with crepes made fresh to order on the curbside. Wine shops peddling vintages from the surrounding estates, each with a long family history in their fine craft. Shop owners offering tantalizing samples of foie gras prepared on the farm that very morning. Little restaurants run by small families, each one eager to share their culinary passion with their patrons. These are not just idealistic images of utopia; in St Emilion, this is reality.

Did I mention that St Emilion is absolutely magical at night? 

On Friday morning, we got a late start. Stuck halfway between breakfast and lunch time, we decided we wouldn't bother to hide our American-ness. We both ordered duck burgers and entree-sized crepes, which completely baffled our poor waiter. He did a double take at both of us and repeated, "you want both burgers AND crepes? At the same time?" He must've told the rest of the wait staff, since all of them found frivolous reasons to pass by our table and chuckle at the mass of food on our table.

The most fabulous crepes ever from Amelia Canta, in St Emilion's little city square.

The most fabulous crepes ever from Amelia Canta, in St Emilion's little city square.

We dedicated Friday to appreciating the smaller details of St Emilion - the little nuances that make up the fabric of the town's grand and whimsical quality. Dear world: Please take lessons from Southern France on how to effortlessly achieve classy perfection.

Have Euros, will travel.

Have Euros, will travel.

Enjoying, quite possibly, the best ice cream of my life at Le Gouter d'Amelie

Enjoying, quite possibly, the best ice cream of my life at Le Gouter d'Amelie

This brings me to my favorite part - Let's talk about FOOD! Culinary culture is one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling, after all. Without exception, each spot we visited honored with flair the French reputation for impeccable eats. Here are some of our favorite dining moments from the week.

Just another impeccably photogenic little street!

Just another impeccably photogenic little street!

Beautiful flying buttresses inside Eglise Collégiale, the church at the heart of St Emilion.

Beautiful flying buttresses inside Eglise Collégiale, the church at the heart of St Emilion.

Saturday dawned in glorious, sunny perfection. We had the honor of photographing a wedding at Chateau la Gauterie in St Paul Lizonne. This chateau was originally built in 1820 for a French Count, and has been painstakingly restored to it's current state of splendour. There is even a bamboo forest bordering the property, imported by the Count himself after his time visiting Asia.

And of course, we couldn't pass up the chance to do a shoot of our own around St Emilion!

One of the best things we learned from our time in France was to live well, even when living simply. As Sandra Byrd wrote, "If your arteries are good, eat more ice cream. If they are bad, drink more red wine. Proceed thusly". This beautiful little corner of Europe has completely stolen our hearts, and we can't wait to return in July next year!

An Introduction to Switzerland

Since I was a little girl, I've seen images of the Matterhorn and the larger-than-life Swiss Alps in movies and depicted in giant framed prints, gracing living room walls like a window to a view that was too incredible to be true. These inspiring visuals captured my young imagination to such an extent that I used to squint my eyes at clouds on the horizon, and convince myself that they were actually far away mountains, dark and mighty and too massive and mysterious ever to be tamed by humanity. Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I continue to do this in my adulthood. Mountains are captivating! It's somehow at once thrilling and comforting to feel one's smallness in proximity to such a mighty monument of creation. I've seen some mountains in my travels, but the landscape in our fair northeastern United States really only works itself up to rolling hills; Nothing to quench that craving I have to gaze at a distant mountain range for hours and wonder at what must be sitting on top of each little peak so far away.

So on our first drive in Switzerland, as we headed toward Montreaux from Lausanne, I didn't actually believe my eyes when I saw a towering dark wall looming above the highway, tipped with the most impeccable jagged peaks and golden sunlight streaming over them. In disbelief, I looked and Caleb and said, "those are clouds, right? Those CANNOT be mountains." As I said it, I realized that they were, in fact, mountains grander than any that my mind had dreamed up in all my years of cloud-gazing. And I cried tears of absolute awe.

Still thoroughly and happily overwhelmed by the sights we had absorbed on our drive, we arrived at our hotel. Or rather, our palace. Lausanne Palace & Spa in the heart of downtown Lausanne, perched on a hillside, grandly overlooking glistening Lake Geneva and the misty Alps behind. The entire reason for our visit, coincidentally, was to photograph a wedding at the Palace later in the week.

Like many travelers, I'm guilty of judging a hotel heavily on first impression. After 24 hours of travel and little rest, and an absolute repulsion at the thought of carrying/dragging or rolling anything with wheels or handles, the welcome we receive at the door and the check in desk often sets the tone for the rest of the experience. Lausanne Palace anticipated every whim of our exhaustion-addled minds and then some. When we pulled up in front of the doors to the Palace, the smiling bellman greeted us by name, an impressive nod to the meticulous attention given by the staff to anticipating and providing every possible comfort and convenience. After a quick check-in and orientation, we were swept up to our room which they had prepared for us two full hours before check in time, in order that we might "get some much needed rest". Music to our ears! 

Swiss chocolates as a "welcome home" gift!

Swiss chocolates as a "welcome home" gift!

The view from our suite balcony - Lake Geneva and the Alps.

The view from our suite balcony - Lake Geneva and the Alps.

Upon seeing our elegant suite and the accompanying inspiring views from our balcony, all thoughts of rest were delayed. We set out to explore the rest of the hotel and to get acquainted with the photogenic bars, balconies, and ballrooms of the Palace before Saturday's wedding. This spectacular 5-star retreat beautifully tows the line between modern comfort and class and its grand and glamorous past as an exclusive lodging for Olympic athletes. The palace has had an illustrious history of celebrity guests as well. Coco Chanel's tribute suite is on the fifth floor, historically her favorite room where she stayed on her visits to Lausanne. Fittingly, the suite boasts a massive walk-in closet, for those fashion fiends who travel with more clothes than most of us will ever wear in a lifetime.

With four restaurants (one of these holding a prestigious Michelin Star award) and three bars in the hotel, we had no need to leave the Palace for anything. At dinner on our first night, we were spoiled with live jazz piano music in Côté Jardin, while we enjoyed impeccable dishes that expertly married the best flavors and culinary techniques from across Europe. In addition to experiencing the restaurants of the Palace, during Saturday's wedding reception, we had the privilege of joining the wedding guests for each course of the celebratory meal. That was a truly spectacular affair which was carried out from 7 in the evening all the way until midnight. But I'm getting ahead of myself now!

On our first full day in Switzerland, we pulled our jet-lagged selves out of bed at 5am before the sun rose. So much to see, so little time! We headed East into the winding roads between snow-capped mountain peaks into Gstaad. Once we found a shoulder of the road wide enough to pull off and not literally tip off the edge of the mountain, we parked the car and got out to explore on foot. I was wearing a long and heavy medieval cotton gown with a velvet corset, for the sake of taking some dramatic photos in the mountains. The wardrobe choice made for some interesting hiking, but also sort of contributed to the magic of the moment. When walking among mountains that literally define timelessness, jeans and tennis shoes would have seemed to me unfitting. The autumn air was just cool enough that we could see our breath in little glowing puffs that caught the sunlight before vanishing. The colors all around us were yellow and deep rusty orange blanketing the mountainside.

Toward the end of the evening, we finally made the long hike back to our car. Homes in the valley had little wisps of smoke coming from their chimneys, and lights began to show through the windows from inside. As we walked, we heard the faint tinkling of what sounded like bells, but we couldn't figure out where it was coming from. The higher up the mountain we got, the clearer we could hear the bells. Finally, we came upon a group of cows on the mountainside, grazing lazily toward their gated pasture with bells around their necks. We were literally hearing the sound of the cows coming home at dusk!

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On Friday, we set aside the whole day to soak up Geneva, particularly her landmarks that held significance with the Reformation. We are just one year shy of the 500 year anniversary of the start of the Reformation, and Geneva is so central to the roots of our Protestant faith. We started by visiting St Pierre Cathedral, the very church where John Calvin preached his history-altering sermons during the mid-sixteenth century. His chair still sits in the sanctuary today, set off to one side beneath the raised pulpit. In 1536, the church was claimed from the Catholics and transformed into a Protestant church. The reformers stripped the cathedral of most of the art and statues, which they considered excessive or even idolatrous, so the interior of the church is fairly simple and un-frivolous in its Gothic grandeur. We climbed both the north and south towers of the cathedral, 157 narrow stone steps to the top. But the inspiring view was well worth the workout!  

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From the church, we headed to the little Musée international de la Réforme (International Museum of the Reformation), which is a beautiful old re purposed residence just beside St Pierre. We spent most of the daylight hours there, since Caleb wanted to pore over each little document, artifact, and informational plaque it housed. He was like a kid in a candy store! When the growling of my stomach started to echo in the little rooms of the museum, Caleb reluctantly said goodbye to the museum staff so we could find some lunch. We stopped at a nearby café owned by a Genevan husband and wife, neither of whom spoke much English. I got to dust off my few years of French lessons, rather clumsily, but the attentive couple were gracious and patient. After lunch, with full tummies and warm hands, we mapped our way to the Reformation Wall monument. This moving tribute stands in the center of the Old Town, built into the last remaining section of what used to be the wall surrounding a fortified ancient Geneva.  

Part way through the trip, I decided we absolutely couldn't miss seeing Interlaken. (This announcement elicited a tired sigh from Caleb, although he later said it was one of our best decisions of the trip.) Interlaken is an extremely photogenic resort town set in a valley in the Oberland region, and surrounded by peaceful lakes and soaring mountain peaks on every side. You've probably seen multiple photos of this striking destination, even if you didn't recognize it by name. Interlaken was just short of 2 hours drive from our hotel, too close to miss seeing it as long as it was humanly possible to do so. (We are constantly testing the limits of "humanly possible" during our travels together.) We realized that the only way we would be able to fit Interlaken into our busy schedule was to get up hours before dawn on Saturday morning, watch the dawn in Interlaken, and make the drive back to Lausanne before the wedding that afternoon. So, like the mountain-crazed adventure gluttons we are, we got up just after 4am and made the drive along the dark highway toward Interlaken. As we drove, exit signs changed from "Sortie" to "Ausfahrt" signaling our transition from the French-speaking region into the German-influenced territory toward the middle of Switzerland. As the darkness slowly lifted, we could just barely make out the outlines of forested mountains against the black-blue sky all around us. For almost a full hour, we were driving through the thickest fog - clouds - that hung over the road in the high altitude. Thanks to the lightening sky and our windshield wipers, we persevered. Suddenly, as the highway burst out of the mountain wall enclosure, we were greeted with the most breathtaking sight that Pinterest could never have prepared us for:

We drove until our exit set us right in the middle of quaint downtown Interlaken: Victorian-influenced inns, youth hostels that emanated with the smell of hearty breakfast, and pups going for early morning walks with their bundled owners. We walked around for a bit, then decided to keep on driving further up into the mountains in hopes of views less obstructed by buildings. The road wound through villages of little timber lodges and Bavarian-style inns and restaurants.

After soaking in the views in the valley for as long as we could, we began the journey back to Lausanne to commence wedding festivities at the Palace. I met with our gracious bride, Maria-Emanuela, to go over last minute details just before her hair and makeup appointments at the luxurious LP Spa. From that point, the day's celebrations got rolling at full pace, and didn't stop until midnight. What a day! Every moment, every exquisite detail, every artfully composed course of the meal, was gracefully executed by Lausanne Palace's attentive staff. The bride and her groom were glowing with a contagious joy that carried through until the last of the night's lively dances.

Mr. & Mrs. Fotinos on the balcony of Lausanne Palace at dusk, 29th October, 2016

Mr. & Mrs. Fotinos on the balcony of Lausanne Palace at dusk, 29th October, 2016

On our last day in Switzerland, we were absolutely not ready to leave. Despite needing to catch a flight that same evening, we decided to enjoy one last bountiful breakfast at the Palace before heading into Geneva to attend the Sunday morning liturgy at St Pierre. The hotel staff, whom we'd come to know by name, said goodbye and wished us a safe journey and a quick return, handing us handfulls of Swiss chocolate to take along with us. Leaving Switzerland was one of the hardest goodbyes yet, but we are already soothing this ache with plans for a return visit next year.

We love Switzerland!!

Layovers for Lovers: How to do Romance in Paris in Just One Night

On an 18-hour overnight layover this week, Caleb and I had our first clandestine meeting with la Ville Lumière - the resplendent City of Lights.

Paris has a larger-than-life distinction among the great cities of the world, and none can compete with its notoriety in the affairs of romance and glamour. So the task of making the most of a mere night in this city was a challenge we undertook with a great deal of research and dedication. Our first priority? Find a view worth falling in love-and then falling asleep-to. We decided that if we couldn't spend much time seeing the city on the ground, we'd invest in a love nest that would allow us to get acquainted with the city's sparkling visage from an intimate perch. We found the perfect mix of sweeping view and decadent seclusion at Hotel San Régis, an idyllic 19th century townhouse-turned-boutique-hotel in the heart of the Champs Elysées district. Our next step was to secure a transport from the airport to our hotel, and maybe a little extra touring around on the way there. We hired a car a few weeks in advance, which was less expensive than a cab, and quite a bit more accommodating. Exhausted and late from a flight delay, we stepped outside the terminal to be met immediately by our driver, who swept our luggage quickly into the trunk and had us on our way towards the heart of Paris in moments. He gave us the grand tour of the Champs Elysées in all of its glimmering, moonlight glory, throwing in little bits of history and meaning as we passed by each beautiful sight. I learned more about Paris on that drive than in my months of researching before the trip. He even graciously allowed me to snap some photos of the Arc de Triomphe through the moon roof as we passed it!

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At about 9:30 in the evening, we pulled up to the doors of Hotel San Régis, which the bellman swung wide open before we had even stepped out of the car. That warm light spilling onto the street and congenial "bonsoir!" from our greeter Stephane were certainly welcome comforts to these two very weary travelers. In fact, we had no idea how indulged we were about to be once inside those picturesque doors. The 5-Star San Régis is charmingly understated in its acclaim, with the individuality and kind attention of a French countryside chateau, and not a hint of the detached air sometimes found in similarly illustrious, celebrity-frequented properties. During check-in, we mentioned that we were a bit hungry after our travels. Promptly, Stephane arranged for dinner in the restaurant for us, and the staff stayed open 30 minutes past close just to make sure we were fed and attended to. Our gracious waiter, Eric, would have kept us happily occupied all night with conversation on travel and adventure if we hadn't felt guilty for keeping him there in the first place. With full tummies and heavy eyelids, we headed up to have a look at our accommodations for the evening.  

To say we were pleasantly surprised would be a gross understatement. The view we had been coveting via photos for the past few months was so much better in real life, it literally took our breath away. It just so happened that the Eiffel Tower was shimmering with white lights at the moment we stepped out onto our balcony. When I turned to ask Stephane what the occasion for this was, he grinned and replied, "It sparkles for you!" (Though I later learned that this is an hourly occurrence, part of me still believes him. It was just too perfect!) 

Caleb and I wrapped ourselves in blankets and spent the better part of the night out on our patio in the chilly night air, just enjoying those fabled night lights all around us. 

At sunrise, we collected ourselves and headed out for a brief exploration of the legendary fashion showcase on Avenue Montaigne just before catching our flight back across the Atlantic. (I absolutely couldn't miss stepping inside Dior.) We even accidentally came across my namesake store!

While we would have loved to have had a bit more time to soak in the vibe of the city and the most romantic vantage point for miles around, we certainly experienced the romance and magic that Paris is rightly known for the world over. So if you find yourself in the capital city of romance for less than 24 hours and the lights and legends beckon while the clock threatens, don't panic. 1: Find a cozy spot where you can recharge, and look for one with a view that you'll never forget. Memories and images make the best souvenirs, and you'll have this one long after you leave the city. 2: Hire a car to drive you around, even if it's just a transfer from the airport. (Tour services such as Viator are preferred over more expensive taxis, and they tend to be more accommodating to tourists.) Ask the driver to tell you a little bit about the places you're driving through. Ask him his favorite spots in the city - the inside scoop from locals is often better than any online resource! 3: Relax, and take in the feel of the extravagant city. The romance here is tangible, and you'll get swept right into it if you just go with the flow.

Whether you give her a few hours or a few weeks, Paris is truly a place like no other!

Bidding adieu to San Régis and the wonderful staff after our first incredible night in Paris. We can't wait to return!

Bidding adieu to San Régis and the wonderful staff after our first incredible night in Paris. We can't wait to return!

Caribbean Island Life in the Lesser Antilles

The vibrancy of the islands of the West Indies rivals even the most colorful locales of the mainland, and the warm island welcome makes this Caribbean oasis a true paradise.

The string of tiny island nations in the Lesser Antilles region is vested with a most delightful and distinguishing resource: its dynamic people. Many of the islanders who've found employment with acclaimed resorts in their area have received instruction in the particulars of western hospitality. In a wonderful marriage of elements, a singular brand of hospitality has emerged in the Caribbean: One comprised both of infectious joy and gracious consideration of the indomitable islanders. That, in a nutshell, is what we love most about the West Indies! Our acquaintance with the area began with our (first) honeymoon in St Lucia, and brought us to our most recent adventure to Grenada. While much of our time was spent parked in a cabana oceanside, or making the most of our all-inclusive food options, we did get to do some exploring around the islands, discovering what organic island life really looks like.

The port of St Georges, Grenada - Spice Isle

The port of St Georges, Grenada - Spice Isle

The vibrant turquoise waters of the Caribbean!

The vibrant turquoise waters of the Caribbean!

Lush bluffs and rocky cliffs give St Lucia's beaches exotic variety and views second to none!

Lush bluffs and rocky cliffs give St Lucia's beaches exotic variety and views second to none!

Island vibes

Island vibes

Salt water in our hair and reggae beats in the air...

Salt water in our hair and reggae beats in the air...

Our First Cover Story!

Inspiring travel and lifestyle magazine Upward just released their latest issue - and look who's featured on the cover! We are just giddy with excitement about this!. Lots more to come on the adventure and romance roster. Thanks for all your support, friends!

How to Actually Stay Healthy Abroad

Air travel has developed quite the sinister reputation as the great instigator of illness for those who dare venture up the ramp. But how much of this reputation is misplaced blame or conspiracy theories? It’s a fact of life that crowded spaces represent a higher risk of illness. More people = more germs. It’s also a fact that combining people from many different areas of the world in a crowded place will introduce geographically unique strains of different infections that the majority of the crowd has developed no immunity for. It’s easy to make the assumption that seating all these strangers in close quarters in an aircraft cabin would be a proverbial molotov cocktail for airborne illnesses. According to many studies and industry professionals, That’s not quite true. Pro pilot Patrick Smith of “Ask the Pilot” explains that airplane air is actually cleaner than comparable crowded spaces such as offices and schools. Using highly functioning filtering technology, air is cleaned and circulated out of the plane cabin every 3 minutes. Commercial airline giant, Boeing, states that 94-99.9% of airborne microbes are netted in this filtration process. That’s substantial, folks. Unless you’re unlucky enough to be seated next to a passenger who is incubating a virus and coughing right on you throughout the flight, you probably have no reason to wear that conspicuous pollution mask. The real culprit might be staring you in the face, literally. Your tray tables, arm rests and seat backs likely haven’t been cleaned in longer than you’d care to hear. Our solution? Disinfectant wipes! We bring a little pack of them every time we travel. Though it’s hard to be conscious of it all the time, try to refrain from touching your face or eating food until you’ve washed your hands.

Sleep is a huge health factor, whether you’re at home or away. But during travel, it’s a resource your body can’t afford to go without. As tempting as it may be to scrimp on sleep in order to see more and do more on your journey, resist the urge! UC San Francisco conducted a study on the connection of sleep with contracting colds (see link below). The study found that people who slept six hours a night or less were four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to the virus, compared to those who spent more than seven hours a night asleep. While you’re mapping our your itinerary, schedule 7 solid hours each night for face time with your pillow. Hopefully, you’ll never know the grief you saved yourself!

A little bit of prevention goes a long way. Try starting supplements of Echinacea and vitamins before you leave for your trip, so your body is equipped to fight whatever it comes in contact with while you roam. Don't let a bug slow you down on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Travel informed, travel healthy, friends!

Enjoying complimentary blanket, socks and toothbrush on a trans-Atlantic British Airways flight - our fave airline by far! 

Enjoying complimentary blanket, socks and toothbrush on a trans-Atlantic British Airways flight - our fave airline by far! 

Packing Tips for the Jet-setting Couple

One of the first and most important steps to a successful journey is packing well. For a couple that always travels with an array of camera equipment, special effects, and technology, we can't afford to waste a kilogram or a centimeter of space in our luggage. While Caleb tends to underpack and run out of socks, I take along enough outfits to clothe a small village. Often, I pack actual ball gowns in case the opportunity arises to shoot on a stormy cliffside or mysterious forest. And I've never once regretted it! Here is a handy graphic and some of our favorite shortcuts to packing like a pro!

- ROLL those garments. Instead of just folding, roll clothes tightly so they will fit closely together.

- Bring more underwear than you think you'll need. Also, put a few pairs in your carry-on. You can thank us for this one later.

- Travel pillows are a lifesaver on those long international flights. But who has space to carry around those clunky things? Enter the inflatable travel pillow, giving sliced bread a run for its money as the best thing that ever happened. Find our favorite one here: 

- Think in terms of full outfits instead of just individual garments.

- Before you head to the airport, make sure to check out your airline's size and weight requirements for checked and carry on luggage. Particularly for international flights, rules and restrictions differ from what you might be used to. 

HAPPY PACKING! 

Packing Tips: How To Pack The Right Way

Co-produced by RebatesZone: http://www.rebateszone.com/home/ 

A Practical Guide to Being an Obnoxious American Tourist

There’s a saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. It’s become a catch phrase, sort of like the globetrotter’s version of “YOLO”. But there’s actually valuable insight in the meaning: blend into the culture you find yourself in! Be respectful, no need to flaunt your American-ness. But since I adore satire, and because some travelers seem dead-set on playing the tourist tool, here is an easy guide to sticking out like a sore thumb during your travels.

A Venetian artist's impression of the American tourist. Flattering, to be sure. 

A Venetian artist's impression of the American tourist. Flattering, to be sure. 

1.       Expect everyone to speak your native language. 

Also, get frustrated and annoyed when they make an attempt to speak your language and don’t do it clearly enough.

2. Be loud.

Laugh raucously. Shout at your travel mates through the crowd. When touring churches and holy sites, be sure to share your opinions about the artwork and culture's sacred traditions at full volume so that everyone around can hear what you think. 

3. Complain frequently about the climate. 

Sure, you did your research about what to expect from the weather during the time of your visit. But what kind of obnoxious tourist would you be if you didn't complain about how miserable the humidity is making you on your summer trip to Italy?

4. Order McDonalds abroad.

Forget those family-owned trattorias. Never mind those traditional sushi bars that have perfected their ancient craft as a sacred art. Stick to your comfort zone in the world of heat-lamps and fry baskets.

5. Above all, don't miss an opportunity with your selfie stick! 

Whip that sucker out at every possible tourist trap, landmark, and whenever you suspect your hair looks super good. Definitely make sure to hold up crowds by standing obliviously where everyone else is trying to walk. The rest of the tourists and annoyed locals can just wait. After all, this is only your 534th selfie today.

The Waldorf Way of Life

Caleb and I are self-proclaimed luxury connoisseurs. We tend to seek out and appreciate those distinguished industry names that have earned their reputation as purveyors of luxury, because we know what it takes to set yourself apart in your sphere. So naturally, we had had the illustrious Waldorf Astoria name at the top of our hotel bucket list for many years. When work brought us to Chicago not long ago, I immediately jumped at the chance to book our two nights at the Waldorf. Never mind that the hotel was at the opposite end of town from our conference center location. Here was our chance to have our own experience with the legend!  Now I'll ease any suspense you might be feeling at this point; YES. The Waldorf is all that and a bag of chips. With a cherry on top. And here's why:

While we are great appreciators of the finer things, we are most delighted with the simplicity of being treated well, consistently and genuinely, during a stay. Whether we're in a mountain chalet with a wood stove for a heater, or in a swank, downtown high-rise, good service is good service. We aren't high maintenance. We aren't compulsive complainers. But we are great appreciators of courtesy and thoughtfulness. From the engaging chauffeurs to the gracious room attendants, we found it at the Waldorf. (And honestly, who doesn't love a suite with velvet couches and it's own fireplace?)

Urbex: The Underground Renaissance

Urbex: 

noun. the study of parts of civilization that are normally unseen or off-limits, such as abandoned structures, drains, sewers, tunnels, etc.; also called infiltration , reality hacking , urban caving. - Dictionary.com

Urban exploration is an off-the-record hobby of mine, and one of those great guilty pleasures I can't seem to get out of my system. Is it the allure of the forbidden? The nostalgia of the long forgotten? Whatever the recipe, these decaying locales have the perfect mix of captivating elements to keep a dedicated tribe of us coming back for more. There's raw and organic art living here like no gallery on earth could match.

The Cardinal Rules of Couple Travel

So your girlfriend has a habit of over-packing. Your boyfriend neglected to research the fact that the hotel he booked for your layover is in an actual ghetto. Your husband decided to eat questionable Mexican street food right before a long flight. We all make stupid mistakes when we travel, but here's a handy list that just might save both of your jet-setting rear ends next time you take to the skies.

1. Copy. Everything.

Your passports. Your reservation confirmations. That receipt for the burgers you bought at JFK. Hell, make two copies of everything so each of you can have one. When things get lost in the shuffle (when, not if), you need to have some hope of proving who you are and what you paid for.

2. Stop blaming.

This one goes against every natural inclination of our human state. I'm not proud to admit this, but I've been guilty of throwing an infantile fit on more than one occasion, just to let my husband know just how stupid his mistake was. Like that one time he put a full, snap-top bottle of hair gel in his checked bag, and the whole thing vacated the bottle and soaked our clothes and some of the photography stuff. I made sure to chide him several times that liquids and gels always go in bags. The irony of this situation was that, a few months later, I did the same thing with one of my hair products. The moral of the story is that you need just as much grace and understanding from your partner as they need from you. Take a deep breath and remember that you'll likely get a own turn to make a fool of yourself soon.

3. Don't Be A Jerk.

I have anecdotal evidence that travel turns some people into inconsiderate tools. It behooves us to remember that, even though we may be the center of our lover’s universe, the two of us are not the center of the actual universe. Don’t take up a ton of unnecessary space. Be conscious of the people around you so you’re not cutting people off or blocking people where you walk or stand. Have some empathy for the elderly lady holding up the line trying to get her bag out of the overheads. Be respectful of the culture where you are by not being loud and obnoxious. Mirroring the mannerisms of the locals doesn’t make you a poseur, it makes you considerate. And please, don’t be that tacky tourist ruining someone else’s experience at a landmark or holy site because of your disruptive selfie sesh.

4. Pack extra Underwear in Your Carry-On.

Just do it.

5. Let the World Change You.

Let the journey make you stronger and bring you closer. Embrace your smallness in the context of the world’s great vastness. Acknowledge the struggles of each new culture, and appreciate their singularity and strengths too. Being a cultured and conscious human doesn’t happen overnight. But if you travel an open mind and a soft heart, great things happen.

 

 

The Art of European hospitality, Perfected in Southern Canada.

The idea of a private residence accommodation is the oldest and most organic expression of hospitality. Establishments like B&Bs have unique potential to offer a far warmer, more singular and memorable experience than any big hotel can. Imagine an enchanting, stately residence lacking nothing; filled with lavishly appointed suites that nearly outdo the comforts of home. Imagine surroundings where every small piece of art and ornate decor has a history that contributes to the grand ambiance of the place. Now imagine that the hosts of this Shangri-la are a pair of the warmest, most exquisite and genuine individuals you've ever met. This perfect picture may sound far fetched, but it exists in reality in our favorite little Canadian Town, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Georgian Residence is home to Kate and Robert McEwen, visionary proprietors who have made an art of exceptional accommodation.

The Residence is just around the corner from the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake and varied dining choices downtown, and a short drive to Niagara Falls and the rapids.

Kate and Robert McEwen, congenial owners of the Georgian Residence.

Kate and Robert McEwen, congenial owners of the Georgian Residence.