About Kelli Mutchler
Kelli Mutchler left a small, Midwest American town to prove that Yanks can, and do, chose alternative lifestyles. On the road for five years now, Kelli has tried news reporting and waitressing, bungy jumping and English teaching. Currently working with Burmese women refugees in Thailand, she hopes to pursue a MA in Global Development. Opportunities and scenes for international travel are encouraged on her blog, www.toomutchforwords.com.
Latest Posts by Kelli Mutchler
Someone once wrote that to visit Burma is to be haunted for the rest of your life. I read it in a book while traveling the country; some text that we tucked furtively behind the Lonely Planet guide so no one could see the now-forgotten title, nor learn that we might carry novels speaking candidly of the military government.
No one had told us we needed to be so careful, but there were veiled warnings. The unnamed men who seemed to follow us in Shwebo. The merchants of Aung San Suu Kyi souvenirs, poised to dash at the slightest trouble from authorities. The youth who asked to share his honest opinions at a later meeting place – and then never turned up.
We wondered about exchanging money on the black market, medicating whatever germs were ravishing our intestines, and getting our tourist visas revoked so close to the 2012 April elections. Again, no one told us this would happen, but we’d heard stories.
And there was no need for our Western bravery, because Burma’s own citizens – emboldened by the promise of democratic voting – showed courage anew. Approaching us to whisper The Lady’s name with enthusiasm, or tacking a National League for Democracy flag onto the roof of a trishaw. Public support unimaginable even a year before.
Now, while the country votes in its first general election since then, I’m haunted by this quote, and our travels there. I’m haunted by all the questions I never asked. All the things I was afraid to say.
The country’s borders officially opened to tourism in 1996, yet entire ethnic regions were still prohibited to travelers in 2012. And so I’m also haunted by the places we could not see, the cultures hidden, like our books, behind more acceptable imagery.
The ghosts of our travels tease me with the lingering flavor of le payey, sweet tea, and the weary sigh of overloaded buses as they spewed out a thousand extra passengers and bags of market vegetables.
I can still feel the bony weight of the grandmother who climbed into my lap in a packed minibus from Mandalay to Kalaw; and on certain foggy mornings, my eyes play tricks with clouds and rice paddies that no longer exist.
I’m reminded of passport checks on the borders of nations unrecognized by the U.N., the barefoot children who kicked a soccer ball as well as my boyfriend, the scarlet stains of betelnut on broken pavement slabs.
Memories mute my words and muddle my opinions – the very thing a travel blogger is always supposed to have in good, loud supply.
But that, in its own way, is my experience of the country now commonly called Myanmar. A place that politely shirks all the opinions you lined up against it, holds them before proud faces rubbed with thanaka, challenges each one with an easy smile and respectfully passes them back to you.
I have loved a thousand destinations and frequently declare my will to return to them all someday. But only Burma taunts me in daydreams and news headlines, outdated library books and the occasional golden egg curry.
Only Burma sends its ghosts after me, reminding me that even with an eternity to travel, I will never fully appreciate the place it is, nor understand the country it could be.
Queenstown’s aluminum roofs shrink to bread boxes, then postcards, as we gain height; at 4,500 feet, it’s a crumb-sized civilization clinging to Lake Wakatipu’s eastern shore.
Mountains hedge in these neighborhoods from the uninhabited land beyond, and I cannot decide if I’m terrified of what I see (always have been a nervous flier) or enraptured (only a handful of eyes have witnessed this view today).
For some reason, I’m reminded of Tolkien’s classic quote, “Not all who wander are lost.” There are five helicopter companies in town, each one offering some variation of a Lord of The Rings tour and winging visitors over the improbably real landscapes used for filming.
But we are ignoring his wisdom and trying to fall off the map today.
It’s my thirtieth birthday present: an unspecified length of afternoon at an undisclosed location, accessible only by rotor blade.
And even though locals moan about Queenstown’s busy roundabouts, and visitors complain about it’s over-crowded sidewalks, all that human bustle disappears if you venture just a few miles from town.
One moment, my hands clench the leather seat cushion as Over The Top’s black chopper zooms illogically upward. Seconds later, confident fingers click the camera as Cecil Peak’s rocky stubble passes beneath us.
It’s an awkward scramble out of the helicopter. Though my shoulders are far from the circling blades, their impatient wind tickles my neck and turns me into a hunchback.
“See you in a few hours,” the pilot shouts over the engine and waves goodbye.
As the black underbelly flies off like some unnatural insect, we become strangers planted on foreign soil. Our only form of communication is a walkie talkie left behind.
Is this what abandonment felt like to the country’s original settlers?
But Hadyn has packed a picnic lunch with all the comforts of our Kiwi home: Just Juice bubbles, brie and smoked chicken, water crackers and hummus, cider and Donovan’s feijoa chocolate.
Mid-February means late afternoon shivers, but this high up, I have to roll back the sleeves of my sweater. Forever aware of the Southern Hemisphere’s fickle ozone, we build a base camp with golfing umbrella and blanket.
The beverages are stowed among pebbles, in water so clear it is almost imperceptible. My eyes casually search for the forgotten debris of other visitors, but all we find is a rusty can, many meters away. Again, I feel that we are the first explorers to leave footprints on this part of the mountain.
“How many people do you think have been here?” I wonder aloud. My boyfriend is not sure. Could I count them on one hand? “Possibly,” he assumes.
Had the helicopter remained on the peak, our pilot would have silenced the machine – its hum quickly replaced by wind through bushes, the occasional cry of a hungry gull, the distant splash of a small mountain waterfall.
The peak is named after a son of William Rees, Welsh pioneer and Queenstown founder. But the little lake we’ve used as a fridge has no title. None of these humps and outcroppings, as far as we know, appear on any atlas.
I love that. To be here with my family, in a secret square of my favorite country, has created a new standard of birthday surprise. Where will we go for my 31st? What untrod ground will we discover?
The very very best part of the celebration is another surprise: the realization that, though we’ve moved to Queenstown for the indefinite future, we have by no means exhausted our list of things ‘to-do’. Every good pioneer pushes into new environments, especially when doubts linger.
Over The Top helicopters – famous for their excursions to the world’s highest golf hole – offers a range of regional scenic flights, as well as bespoke tours for special interests and events. Flights run year-round; visit their website for more information on all the places you can get lost in New Zealand.
Some photos courtesy of Hadyn Fitzpatrick.
How do you measure the smallness of a town? Count the blocks between its borders, the farm animals grazing in residential front yards? Or how often “the usual” gets ordered at the corner cafe?
After moving to tiny, twee Arrowtown, I began collecting the characteristics of New Zealand’s littlest places. Daily walks to town highlighted things that I could only associate with those miniscule dots on the South Island map.
Which seems just fine to the folks who live here. They’re proud of rural roots and hospitality. Let three-quarters of the population flood the North Island. Remote survival is just one of the many reasons they – and I – love small town New Zealand.
Plus a few reasons more:
1. You don’t need to look before crossing the street.
2. And you don’t need to lock your front door at night.
3. Or your car doors, either.
4. Strangers can be trusted to watch the horse/bicycle/baby you’ve left outside the shops for a second.
5. Of course, no one is a stranger once you say “hello” and initiate a conversation.
6. And you say “hello” to everyone.
7. Town halls still serve a purpose.
8. Though, in practice, the corner pub becomes the town hall on weekends.
9. It’s OK to go barefoot everywhere.
10. Or wear your gumboots.
11. Everyone has a hobby displayed in their garden or window.
12. The mom-and-pop cafes sell these mom-and-pop crafts.
13. Or stick them in highly public places.
14. Kids still play outside.
15. Yep, you can say “hi” to them, too.
16. The library only has 500 books, yet the rental limit is 100.
17. Sometimes, you can’t find things at the local dairy, because produce is transported and eaten seasonally. Limes disappear for weeks at a time, and peppers cost $6 in the winter.
18. Street side shopping is a sustainable alternative. Drop your coins into the Honesty Box and go organic.
19. And even though every cafe sells classic pies and sausage rolls, you can also find regional specialties like grass-fed venison and green lipped oysters.
20. The woman who cuts your hair lives next door to the uncle of that kid you went to school with who now dates your second cousin.
21. At least two other second (or third) cousins live down the road.
22. As do random Kiwi celebrities. An actor, ex-All Black or the country’s richest businessman may be your next door neighbor.
23. People plant fruit trees.
24. That rustling in the bush can never be anything more dangerous than a rabbit.
25. Each town features a creative motto and a well-tended ANZAC (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) memorial.
26. And sometimes, they add a bizarre, yet loveable, giant statue.
27. It’s safe to hitchhike from town to town.
28. It’s legal to drink in public.
29. And community events literally include the whole community – all 127 members.
What do you love about small town New Zealand?
Top photo credit only: NewZealandtradelinks.com.
Parachutes have a way of eliminating excess weight – like the leftover pounds of a post-pregnant mother, or the unwanted ounces of one visitor’s recent addiction to hokey pokey ice cream. Even the heavy winter coats we wear for a season that never seems to end. All these burdens are temporarily forgotten under one massive yellow safety net.
Painted on the parachute are two eyes, a smile and the name of this vacation paradise, Queenstown. As Rock unfurls it behind the Paraflights boat, I wonder how this flimsy sheet can actually carry two full-grown women.
“Doesn’t look so bad,” Mom shouts over the motor, though she and I are obviously thinking slightly less confident thoughts. The curse of the Adrenaline Amateur is to always hope something natural will cancel your adventure, before your terrified bladder does.
But she’s right, this looks survivable. As the other two passengers – Dunedin uni students in a shocking ensemble of shorts and t-shirts – gracefully glide back to deck, I agree with the pilot, Quinn. “Yes, we’re ready!”
Harnessed next to Mom, I count back to the last time I did anything ‘extreme’ in town. Though it’s nicknamed Adrenalin Capital of the World, my last forays into wildness seem like eons ago, before I had a baby. Before we ‘settled’ down in New Zealand.
Bungy jumping, paragliding, river surfing . . . “Just remember, stand when you land,” Rock instructs.
. . . The world’s biggest bungy swing . . . A gust of wind lifts us elegantly off the boat.
. . . And now parasailing, I think as my toes dangle higher and higher above Lake Wakitipu.
It’s quiet up here. We should be yammering about the altitude and keeping a firm grip on the rigging, but mom and I are silenced by the dramatic scenery. I think we’re also secretly pleased not to have swore aloud as the parachute pulled us into the air.
Some six hundred feet in the sky, we are unencumbered by gravity or her impending departure; my easing post-natal nightmares, the washing I will need to do later . . . Just us. The way we see ourselves, I suppose. Young, brave, witty, free.
It’s only fifteen minutes but feels like an hour. Quinn points the boat back toward Queenstown, teasing us with a narrowly-missed dip into Wakipitu’s freezing waters. “Stand as you land!” Rock reminds us.
Naturally, we crash onto deck in an exuberant pile of arms and legs and laughter.
Maybe it’s not the parachutes, but the outrageous things themselves that make us weightless. Whether they remove a layer of adult responsibility from a new parent’s shoulders, or remind the worrier how much fun a little risk can be. Perhaps they even give us an excuse to giggle like kids again. Something worth doing every single day . . .
(Queenstown Paraflights operates year-round from the town pier. One – four folks can fly at any time, weight depending. Prices vary. To make a booking or watch the ungainly landing of other tourists, just follow that big yellow face in the sky).
Photo credit: Parasailing images courtesy of Queenstown Paraflights.
Auki warned us about the gelatinous creatures we’d discovered in tide pools along ‘Eua’s coral shelf. The sea slugs had always been part of the Tongan’s diet, with natives picking and eating sustainably. But now, aid and corporate funds from China had purchased the foreign investor free license to over-consume and threaten the islands’ delicate ecosystem.
This is one of many reasons why Tonga – and the South Pacific – are hailed as the “last frontier” in tourism.
Tonga now faces the same challenges as destinations in the Caribbean and Central Asia: how to protect its unique culture from an influx of outsiders, while improving infrastructure to draw in tourism money, and carefully balancing growth without destroying the scenes such travelers are desperate to see.
Headhunters On My Doorstep – J. Maarten Troost, 2013
Robert Louis Stevenson. Photo credit: Wikipedia – University of Edinburgh.
You can only imagine how exotic and pristine these isolated countries must have appeared to early expatriots, such as the renowned Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson.
After penning the classics Treasure Island and Kidnapped, a deteriorating health condition sent Stevenson sailing through the South Pacific in search of warmer climes. Troost, though never a huge fan of the Scot’s writing, decides to follow Stevenson’s route on his own journey of self-improvement. Only Troost isn’t struggling with weak lungs, he’s battling alcoholism.
From the Marquesas to Kiribati, Troost’s cocktail-temptation-trail between remote island chains is only slightly less difficult than Stevenson’s original route. With his usual ability to turn small details into entertaining anecdotes, Troost faces devious gold smugglers, starving sharks and the ghosts of old islanders. A bit more candid than in his previous South Pacific narratives (read: The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stone With Savages), the author returns to familiar settings in order to compare how they – and he – have changed over the decades.
The result could be ‘yet another South Seas story’ of predictable fact and wit; luckily, Troost’s personal demons and Stevenson-influenced itinerary turn Headhunters into something slightly more than expected.
Most of the titles on Longitude’s list study heavier subjects of social, political and economic impact. While Headhunters seeks to compare environmental and emotional instability in some of the Pacific’s most unique locations, it does so with a quick but lighthearted perspective guaranteed to educate the reader without becoming overtly academic.
Plus, though Troost’s movements and style may seem rambling at times, they subtly reaffirm Stevenson’s own motto for travel: “Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.”
Pele, Vanuatu. Photo credit: Nicky Fernandes, Flickr – Boat Boys.
Why it’s relevant to travel in 2014:
Auki was right; there are few other destinations in the world so physically removed from modern society that the sheer tyranny of this distance protects regional identity. Flights and ferries to the South Pacific don’t run frequently, or on time. Travel here is dictated not by man-made schedules, but by tides, storm fronts and the whim of locals. Though previous attempts at colonization – through whaling and trading, missionary work, and goodwill aid efforts – have already brought about noticeable damage to cultures and environment, optimistic efforts at preservation are growing.
It may sound hypocritical to trumpet a location’s delicate natural beauty, then prompt travelers to rush there. But, if you believe in tropical paradise and want to experience it before it’s destroyed, follow Stevenson and Troost to the south seas.
“This be the verse you grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea…” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Welcome to Tasmania, the place of two heads, snaggle teeth and webbed feet. An assortment of unflattering body parts that supposedly separate inbred Tasmanians from the rest of Australia. However mercilessly the Mainlanders may laugh at the island, locals shrug it off with a stoic pioneer spirit. During my six months here, I’ve realized that they’ll gladly trade a little laughter in order to keep secret the paradise that is their home.
How do you actually distinguish Tasmania from other Aussie states? The devil is, quite literally, in the details.
1. Loony Toons’ spinning maniac isn’t far from the real thing. Tasmanian Devils are noisy carnivores with sharp teeth and a ferocious jaw. Rarely seen in the wild, the Devil population has been slowly declining due to an incurable facial tumor. Make a difference by adopting a devil, or purchasing one of the many souvenirs that donate a percentage of sales to the Save The Tasmanian Devil appeal.
2. With a human population of about 512,00, it doesn’t take many visitors to make a crowd. In 2013, a record 1 million tourists explored the state – a number slightly less than Tasmania’s total population of sheep. Join the journey on the newly-created tourist highway, The Great Eastern Drive, which will rival mainland’s Great Ocean Road.
3. Regional alliances aren’t based on politics; instead, they’re shaped by beer. Southerns swear by the striped mascot of Cascade’s Tasmanian Tiger, while Northerners sip up the ales of James Boag’s. Why the dividing boundary? Cascade, Australia’s oldest beer, is brewed down in Hobart, and Boag’s is bottled in Launceston, up top. Taste a bit of local flavor with Cascade Draught or Boag’s Wizard Smith Ale, two unique beverages only available within the state.
4. The main road between the two largest cities, Launceston (or “Lonnie,” as the natives call it) and Hobart, is a one lane highway. Expect to travel it in fits and starts, as your route is slowed by road-killed wallabies, suddenly changing speed limits, nervous tourists in camper vans and neighborhood farmers chugging home in tractors.
5. Shopping can still be done at roadside folding tables. Hand-painted advertisements for cray pots, potatoes and sheep poo line the winding highways, with tin can collection jars acting as cash registers. Need used books or Tassie Devil oven mitts? For another rural shopping experience, swing past Shop in the Bush, a lonely bric-a-brac store on the outskirts of the Blue Tier Forest.
6. The hottest event of the summer will not be the 2014 Fifa World Cup, but the United Nation’s decision to uphold Tasmania’s World Heritage site. The Tasmanian Wilderness is one of the largest conservation areas in Australia, covering nearly 1/5 of the island. The federal government has petitioned the UN to reduce the size of the site in order to increase logging. Keep an eye on the news in mid-June, when a decision on the Tasmanian Wilderness will be made at the 38th World Heritage Committee session.
7. The most popular and recognizable style of architecture is Convict. While Britain’s transportation policies to the mainland ended in the 1850s , Tasmania remained a penal colony until the 1870s. The bricks and mortar of this recent history are evident around the island, especially in jail settlements like the infamous Port Arthur. Built on the edge of the Tasman Peninsula, this was a prison within a prison, a place where eternal punishment destroyed rehabilitation. Explore the grounds of Port Arthur with a sense of reverence; nearly 130 years after the final prisoner was flogged here, Australia experienced it’s biggest public massacre when a gunman opened fire and killed 35 people.
8. Thanks to a rich soil and the ban of all genetically modified crops, Tasmania is an agricultural haven. Savor salty Pacific oysters, succulent Cape Grim beef, aromatic wheels of King Island brie and crisp red apples – the fruit behind Tasmania’s nickname, “The Apple Isle.” With multiple wine, cider and microbrewery trails, it’s quickly becoming a gastronomic destination. Don’t stop at the food stuffs; try Lark, a distillery product that just won the title of “World’s Best Single Malt Whiskey.”
9. People often refer to the island as “the New Zealand of Australia” because it’s smaller, more scenic, more colloquial, and all jokes involve sheep and cousins. Much like residents of Alaska or the Isle of Man, folks relate foremost to the soil beneath their feet, and not the nearby mother country. To be Tasmanian is to protect a parcel of land so wealthy in history, wildlife and natural resources, that insulting generalizations are simply empty sentences. Look closely and you’ll see, the joke is really on those unlucky folks stuck on the mainland.
A clod of dirt caught between my front teeth, earthly particles burying my taste buds under the distinctive flavor of ground soil. When Geoff passed around the plate of raw Wichetty grub and dared us to take a piece, he described it as a traditional Aboriginal snack. “Very high in protein, tastes just like chicken.”
Guffawing with typical Australian good humor, Geoff squished a segment of grub between thumb and pointer finger. “On the count of three: one…two…luckiest person gets the brain…three!”
There are certain foods you’re fortuitous enough to try just once. And the exploding brain of an obese native bug tops the list.
But the rest of Australia’s indigenous and exotic foods, so often misrepresented by Vegemite and “shrimp on the barbie”, are far easier to try. And – unlike my introduction to the Witchetty – pleasantly unexpected.
I didn’t always consider Aussie meals, tucker, to be an ethnic cuisine; at first, I didn’t consider it much of anything. Greasy chips, English-style roasts on a Sunday, mince beef pies and sausages drowned in tomato sauce.
Yet the danger in categorizing a country’s national dishes so simply is that we, the Visitor, miss out on its more subtle and unique local palates. Down Under, you have to dig a bit to discover the tastes that shape this island.
Flavors of summer and sea, from fresh Pacific oysters to Barramundi fish and crisp, bright native limes. Quandong fruits, with their heavy round pits and the tart flesh that melts into jams and chutneys.
If you’re caught in a Melbourne rain storm, nothing comforts better than a crumbly chocolate Tim Tam dipped into a cup of black tea. After roasting through a Western Australian afternoon, caramel ice cream infused with Murray River salt lowers your body temperature as quickly as air conditioning.
Learning to shuck Pacific oysters. Fowler’s Bay, South Australia
Kangaroo, wallaby, crocodile and emu appear in unfamiliar shapes on restaurant plates. Crusted in wattle seed or spiced with Kakadu plum sauce, each bite brings the rugged Outback directly to your tongue.
And then there’s my favorite – Pavlova. Though Australia and New Zealand fight lightheartedly over this desert like they do over sporting events and the origins of Crowded House, it’s a regional dish that reminds me of my first backpacking adventures in this part of the world.
Picking wild blackberries in the bush. East Coast, Tasmania.
The knife slices through meringue crust, exposing soft, sugary insides. Unlike the Witchetty grub, one bite is not enough. I scoop the escaping passion fruit off the plate and back onto my fork, devouring the syrup and cake combination.
“It’s a Kiwi specialty,” my Kiwi boyfriend reminds me.
Lost means little when you’re halfway up a rock face, wedged furtively between towers of stone. Every surface looks the same from this angle; no map promises us stable footing. My partner and I are chasing cairns to the top of Mount Parsons which is located in Abbecville County South Carolina. Whether meaningful trail markers or merely lose rubble, these rock soldiers silently mark our ascent.
“Up there,” Hadyn points toward five pebbles stacked on the shelf above me. How can you be sure? I wonder for a third time. Who left them here before us, and how do I know we share a destination? Trusting these inanimate guides is either a trick for the faithless, or an assurance to the faithful.
But then – as all travel writers do when the next blog post is absent and an angry wind threatens to topple a cairn on your forehead – I realize that this man-made monument is symbolic of a much greater universal truth.
Every other peak in the Hazard Range of Freycinet National Park can be reached on a maintained trail, but this one has not been tamed. The only proof of previous human touches are these granite guides. To trust them is to trust everyone who has climbed ahead and kept them in place.
Isn’t there something all-inclusive about these wee piles? Throughout the ages, humans have written sagas with nothing more than a few stones, carefully placed one on top of the other: to indicate hunting ground in Greenland, to commemorate grave sites in Portugal, to garner good luck in South Korea.
And almost everywhere, they are used to mark trails and point a traveler in the right direction. So I wedge my heel into a narrow crevice, sigh and stretch upward. We can doubt, or we can learn from the signs left by others. After all, it is always better to climb forward than to slide back down.