Facing Challenges and Fears

It is good for us to do things that challenge, and even scare ourselves from time to time. The effect is often to feel more alive and renewed, and helps to put the smaller problems of daily life in perspective.

When I plan vacations I like to add a little adventure. Something we have not done before and could get the old adrenaline flowing. Feeling safe all of the time is not a good thing. We need to img_9416step out of our comfort zone to stretch ourselves, and to feel energized, able and competent! To get your heart pumping and to be a little scared is a rush that helps you feel alive. There’s a sense of well being and accomplishment when finished, and a good story for dinner parties, and for when we are old to show our grandchildren how cool we were.

When I first zip-lined in the jungle tree tops in Costa Rica, my heart was pumping hard, but as I stepped off of the first platform, so high that you could not see the ground below through the thick forest,  I had a certain calm come over me and had to trust that those in charge had built it safe and I would be ok, or maybe it was just the img_9008realization that I had no control. I stepped off the platform, zipping from tree top to tree top, and I might as well enjoy it because there was nothing I could do to change anything at that point. I might as well enjoy the ride and fly with the wind! It was fun and life affirming and we were perfectly safe.

On our recent trip to New Zealand we visited Bluff. We flew into Invercargill, and then took transportation to the southern most tip of the island known as Bluff New Zealand. It was a small fishing village with quaint buildings and friendly people. It had some of the best sunsets around. We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast located at the end of a winding road, and it was on one of the most beautiful areas of the beach with rolling hills and nature preserves surrounding the nearby town.img_9131

This was considered the southern most tip of New Zealand, and it had a sign at the end of the road to mark its importance. Through our window we could see many people drive up and take pictures at this most lovely spot. The sign showed how many miles it was to various other parts of the world including how far it was to Antarctica.

The famous hiking trail known as the Te Araroa goes from the top of the North Island of New Zealand through to the tip of the South island, and ends in Bluff in front of our Bed and Breakfast. It is a 3000 km walk and takes most people about 4 months. Over the three days we were there we saw a number of hikers end their hike in elation, with pictures to commemorate their accomplishment, hard work and img_9163perseverance to make the entire trek. They celebrated by hanging their hiking boots over the sign and taking pictures that they will cherish forever. It was clearly a celebration of life. They had pushed their limits and made the ultimate decision to leave any comfort and challenge themselves to complete this important personal journey. We met some of them and you could see the electricity of life in their eyes and the pride of accomplishment.

This is the feeling we want to feel everyday. We want the electricity for life that makes one excited to get up in the morning and to be happy, satisfied and to feel competent and accomplished; a zest for life that always playing it safe does not provide. We have been fortunate enough to have done many life affirming things, to take us out of our comfort zone and to challenge our comfortable day to day existence. We have taken helicopters over beautiful mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. We have swam with sharks and gone img_9346shark cage diving. We have hiked beyond our comfort zone, and been lost and then found again. It is life affirming to face your fears and chose activities that scare you. The day to day work and life issues are not as consequential when you have been in situations that scare you. Facing work deadlines or difficult meetings or encounters of every kind in your work life or daily life become small and surmountable in the big scheme of things. The scariest thing for me would be to think that I did not live my life to the fullest. Take on challenges and push your comfort zone for a full, happy and most satisfying existence. There is calm and contentment in your life when you know what you can do, if you try.

The Beauty, Mystery, and Allure of the Underground World

Caves attract us. I don’t know if it can be attributed to the fact that we may be descendants of cave dwellers or if it’s the damp darkness that sparks mystery in us as we ascend into the earth. We know we are not the only ones who like caves. If a writer or movie maker wants to add mystery to a story, a cave is involved. The mysteries we read as kids were always more fun when someone fell into or discovered a cave. The first Indiana Jones film starts with a great cave scene, and both National Treasure movies had the actors discovering treasure in caverns. Caves evoke images of dangerous, narrow wet tunnels and floors that disappear, treasure long left by ancients, and rooms full of spider webs, skeletons and bats.

In the Mayan culture, the entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld ruled by the death Gods, was said to be located in the caves in Central America. They buried dead in the caves and made ColoradoStairssacrifices to the Gods. When my archaeologist daughter was recently in Belize, they  were allowed to explore the caves with their group, and were able to see first hand the human sacrifice remains and pottery left behind thousands of years ago by the Mayans. She came back with great stories and fabulous pictures.

Caves are pure fun and excitement no matter which one you see. When we traveled to Playa in Mexico with the kids we went snorkeling in the caves. It was dark and beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time. The water was ice cold even though the air above was 95 degrees or more, and the caves had areas that were open to the sun, just enough to make the snorkeling visibility good. As we went along there were roped off cave areas that were off limits to prevent tourists from getting lost. Those really looked like fun, but we followed the rules and did not go past the ropes.

CaveMexAn occasional bat would fly over and we were actually surprised by the number of fish in the cave rivers. They flowed to the ocean so it was salt water and the fish were of every color and size. It was a little scary because the water was quite deep in places and as we led our young children through the caves, I started to wonder what lurked in some of those deep cave waters.

Obviously I have seen too many scary movies. I did not share my concerns out loud, because they were all having such a good time and I did not want to alarm them. It would have ruined the experience. I also went by the rule that it seemed like hundreds of visitors have been snorkeling in these caves for years and I have not heard of any problems, so if they could do it we can do it. I figured the odds were in our favor and nothing will come out of those deep dark waters to attack or steal our children.

Some of the most beautiful caves in the world are by the Apostle islands in Lake Superior. We saw them in person when we stayed on Madeline Island with friends a few years ago. You can take a boat or Kayak out to the colorful  caves on the shores of the islands, formed by the wind 140220 3698and waves of Lake Superior. We took a boat, and while we took some lovely pictures, the true beauty of these caves have only been captured in pictures by professional photographer, Craig Blacklock.

He makes these caves come alive as he was able to capture the multicolored cave walls eroded by thousands of years of water and wind that sculpted out walls, pillars and caverns in the sides of the mostly uninhabited islands. The caves are colorful and whimsical in the winter and even more beautiful when surrounded by the fall colors or the bright sun of summer. They look almost enchanted as if created for their beauty and our enjoyment. The boats come as close as possible and it is a place I need to go back to for the kayak experience. With the Kayaks you can go right into the 140220 3708caves and get a close up view. Blacklock, who I found out teaches photography lessons on the island, actually has worn a wet suit while taking pictures of the caves from the water.

We have a long history of visiting and loving caves in our family. Minnesota has Niagara cave in Forestville by Harmony, Minnesota which got its name from the large waterfall inside the cave. There are also the St. Paul caves that have a long history as a speak easy for gangsters in the 1930’s and then in later years it became a nice restaurant, and now they hold weddings and parties in the caves. We went on a tour of these caves a number of years ago and they can show you bullet holes in the walls where the gangsters would occasionally shoot up the place.

We saw Craters of the Moon in Idaho which has caves with spray painted big foot tracks. That was fun for us all! We have seen Cave of the Winds in Colorado which was close to the Manitou BigFootMexcliff dwellings site. We toured that with our family and it was fascinating to imagine the people who called the cave dwellings their home. It had to be a struggle for existence from finding enough water year round, to being able to grow food in the harsh area, but when you stood in the cliff dwellings you could see unspoiled beauty for miles and I imagine they looked for a place where they could not only survive, but one that made their heart happy.

We also saw wind cave in South Dakota which had a desert wind-swept look to the walls, like no other cave we have ever seen. In New Zealand at the top of the list of interesting caves is the Glow Worm cave. The silk type worms live on the ceiling of the cave, dropping down their silk to catch bugs and flies to eat, but their most interesting feature is that they have bioluminescence. IMG_6084They light up. They are similar to a fire fly and they glow and twinkle in the darkness. Because there are so many on the cave ceiling, it looks as if someone strung millions of tiny white Christmas lights on the ceilings. The tour is a silent boat ride where no photography is allowed. They quietly load the tourists and everyone is warned numerous times of the rules of no talking, no noises and no photos. It was the most romantic cave tour I have ever experienced.

We have been to many caves all over and each cave is unique in its beauty and mystery. Some are scary, some full of adventure and some provide a twinkling romantic experience for a middle aged couple like us, celebrating thirty years of marriage. Our kids sat in awe and wonder as they followed the big foot tracks into the cave in Idaho on a family adventure that they remember IMG_6080well, even though they are now all grown up. As an adult, one of them was lucky enough, while working in Central America to see the legendary entrance to the underworld of Xibalba of the Mayan gods and see the human sacrifices of thousands of years ago.

Caves are the essence of mystery, beauty and wonder in our world. It is no surprise that we seek the allure of traveling underground to see these dark, mysterious, scary, romantic, awe inspiring and naturally beautiful part of the underground world. Seeing and appreciating these natural places that can evoke so many emotions and so much excitement in us is what life is all about! Stir your soul and peak your excitement and interest for life by appreciating these naturally mysterious places.

Drinking Ale in the Green Dragon

There is no doubt that New Zealand has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It is no wonder Peter Jackson chose New Zealand as the location for the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When we planned our recent vacation to New Zealand we had to include a tour ofIMG_6612 the movie set, smartly left in place by agreement between Jackson and the landowners. The green rolling hills of the North Island was the chosen home for the Hobbit shire and the famous Green Dragon saloon.

Reservations are required in advance for tours, as it is visited by about 350,000 people a year. We took a bus deep into the countryside of the Waikato District in the farming community of Matamata to get to the set, now known as Hobbiton. It is a mecca for fans of the Lord of the Rings movies, which were first released in 2001. New Zealand is known as the home of Middle Earth as depicted in these fantasy filled movies. Over 150 locations throughout both the South and the North Islands of New Zealand were used for the filming of the movies, but Hobbiton was the only set left in place.

Jackson loved New Zealand for its rugged mountains, rolling hills, dramatic waterfalls and streams, and the miles of unspoiled open landscape. The story is told on the tours, that Jackson’s location scouts flew over the Alexander’s sheep farm looking for a very large tree by a IMG_2721stream and were so impressed with the area that he negotiated the use of the farm to build the entire shire, which was the home of the Hobbits. The farm still has over 10,000 sheep and 350 to 400 hundred beef cattle on its approximately 1200 acres. The movie set itself, consists of about 12 acres and contains 44 Hobbit holes, built into the hillsides.

The Hobbit homes, surrounded by long lush grass, are scattered among the large trees and gardens. We visited in March. The sun was warm and bright in the deep blue skies above the shire. March is early fall in NZ and the shire gardens were full of large orange pumpkins and dark green vegetables. It looked as though they were ready for a fall festival. We looked for hours and took hundreds of pictures. The more you looked the more detail you recognized at each site. Each Hobbit home was set up to give you clues as to the occupation of the Hobbit who lived there. Some had carpentry tools and others had laundry on their clothes lines. Even now looking back at the pictures I notice details I had not seen before. Flowers, bushes, fruit trees and unique garden gates and painted benches everywhere. Some IMG_6502pictures I took just to have so that I could try to maybe replicate some of this beauty in my own gardens.

We spent an entire afternoon at the shire, learning about how they built the sets, how filming progressed for each movie and how the locals were enlisted to feed three meals a day to approximately 600 people working on the movies. The tour ended as we went over a stone bridge and through the large double doors of the Green Dragon saloon. It was a hit with movie fans. The crowds of happy tourist fans filled the Dragon and the bartenders did all they could to dispense the ale, hard cider and ginger beer as fast as the taps could pour them. We grabbed a IMG_6593table with other people from our day tour after looking around at the oversized stone fire places and the famous wood carving of the Green Dragon above the entire west bar.

We also booked a four wheel tour around Queenstown, NZ on the South Island which was also used for filming. We drove on the mountain roads and through the streams as our guide pointed out the Remarkables, a set of jagged mountains used extensively in the Lord of the Rings movies. Our driver would even stop midstream sometimes to cue up on his iPad, to show us the scene in the movie filmed in the area in front of our Jeep. It was such a fun trip and so fun to be on location of one of the most epic fantasy films ever made, from one of the best IMG_6640books ever written.

English author, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings and it was first published in 1954. The story was conceived by the author’s creative and limitless imagination, and then luckily he was also talented enough to be able to describe what he had created on paper into his books. Many years later, one of the most talented filmmakers, also blessed with that limitless imagination dreamt of making the epic fantasy novels into epic movies and did so with creative genius and creativity. Walking in and amongst the movie sets made us feel closer to the author IMG_6653and the filmmaker and brought the films and the books to life.

Touching talent like this is rare and should be celebrated. On the surface it was one of the most beautiful locations anyone could be in whether there was a movie set or not, but when one contemplated J. R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s creativity and the bravery the showed in following their dreams to make this fantasy come alive for all to enjoy, it makes me appreciate theIMG_6677 abilities that comes forward in all of us when we believe we can accomplish anything. I am sure they ran into road blocks and nay sayers on their path to success, but they did not let themselves be dissuaded in their quest to follow their dreams.

By being a part of the magic we were reminded that there is no dream too big, and as we finished our tour of Hobbiton, in the Green Dragon Saloon, conceived in the mind of J. R. R. Tolkien and brought to life by Jackson in the movie, we raised our glass of ale to both men and to all those creative souls who fill our lives with fantasy and fun.   We took time to appreciate them and be grateful! Be grateful in your lives for those things that make life fun.

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Seeking Wild Penguins

There are many penguins on display in zoos. You can watch them swim and dive in their little tuxedo looking suits. They are the cutest things ever. You cannot help but smile when watching them. I had only seen penguins in the wild in Alaska and I felt as if I were experiencing something rare and beautiful. There is something special about seeing animals in their natural habitat, especially if they are rare and far from your own home.IMG_6907

When we recently traveled to New Zealand, I was sure after doing my research that I wanted to try to see the elusive and rare, yellow-eyed penguins. If you see the picture on the internet, you know right away that this is something rare and beautiful. It is not the textbook tuxedo looking penguins we have seen in zoos. Yellow-eyed penguins are not easy to find, even on nature excursions. I always try to plan some things for vacation that are not a sure thing. I don’t know why such self challenges are so fun, but it is exciting when you try something that may turn out to be a good effort, but unsuccessful and maybe even disappointing.

There are plenty of sure things if you plan well, like traveling to see the geysers on the North Island of New Zealand. They have been there for thousands of years, and you know they’ll still be there when you go see them. But these penguins intrigued me. I don’t like being disappointed, but I like that I tried and truthfully, I always say I am one of the luckiest people ever, so I have a good chance at success. I usually see the rare sights, but if not, I have the right positive attitude and appreciate the effort of trying.

IMG_6888The yellow-eyed penguins live on a peninsula by the town of Dunedin, on the east side of the South Island of New Zealand. I was armed with information regarding the available excursions, and hoped for some good weather to be able to trek and search for the penguins.

I planned our trip with the peninsula excursion, and to cover my bases, I talked to the guides and made sure there was other wildlife to see in case we did not find the penguins. They assured me the four wheel van ride there and back would be lovely, and we would stop to see other wildlife on the way. Once we reached the end of the road we would have a challenging hike from the top of the sea bluffs to the coast, and we actually had to do that twice in two different locations. That was enough of an incentive alone to do the trek, so I booked it. I love good hikes and I love seeing beautiful countryside, and any kind of wildlife in a foreign country is exciting.

They picked us up at our hotel, and because it was a bit chilly we dressed in our warm jackets covered by our rain gear for wind protection, hats, mittens and hiking boots. The van was full of other explorer tourists, all filled with anticipation and cameras in hand. Everyone shared information about what they knew about the penguins. You could hear the excitement in people’s voices, all hoping as a group that we could see these rare creatures together.

We drove out of the city and through the hills until we reached the narrow dirt roads. We drove along the edges of cliffs with no guard rails protecting us from the steep cliffs below. It is always extra fun when there’s a feel of danger on a trek.IMG_6918

After about an hour, we ran out of road at the top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. We got out and headed onto the hiking trail and started in a zigzag fashion down the hills. Some areas were a little steep, but it was a very nice hike. It was late afternoon heading into evening, and even though the sun felt bright at first, it was low enough in the sky that we were happy to have our layers of clothing. We heard we were more likely to see the penguins at this time of day, as they feed in the ocean most of the day, and rest on land at night away from predators.

IMG_6988As we got closer to the bottom of the cliff, our guide stopped dead and spoke in hushed tones. He pointed out a yellow eyed penguin almost standing on our trail and blocking our way. It was standing in the sun as if posed to sun itself. Our guide actually pointed out that it was cooling itself in the breeze. I referred to it as a penguin with attitude. It stood there with its bright yellow eyes and yellowish head in its perfect little penguin tuxedo. It looked like it was about to say something profound or let out a war cry, just to be sassy.

It seemed not to mind that we were snapping picture and video, as we tried not to get too close or to scare it. Everyone kept their distance and did not move around a lot, as we had been instructed on our way there. Also, no flash photography, and everyone was very good about observing that rule. I really want to see beautiful things, but I also try to follow all of the rules to make sure we IMG_6931preserve these beautiful creatures for other generations. The rule is to observe, but do not harm or interfere with them.

The little guy eventually dawdled off and we continued down to the beach. We walked by sea lions wrestling with each other and taking naps on the beach, which I loved. My husband and I snapped selfies with them in the back ground and we watched as they growled, fake bit each other and wrestled like middle school boys with too much energy.

We kept moving down the beach and found another penguin along the trial hanging out in the shade under a bush. We had field goggles along and scanned the hillsides for even more penguins that had already found their resting place for the night. We cackled with eaIMG_7008ch other about how lucky we were to see not only one, but multiple yellow-eyed penguins, and to get so many nice close up pictures and watch their little shenanigans on the sun drenched cliffs. What a treasured memory for years to come for all of us. They were peaceful, yet playful, hopeful and joy filled waddling on the warm grass abutting the ocean sand.

We made our way back up the cliffs, huffing and puffing all of the way, giving ourselves the best cardiac stress test possible, only to then go down another cliff on the other side, and observe the fur seals with their babies. There were nursing mothers and babies playing on the jagged wet rocks. Our guide filled us in on the habits and statistics on fur seals as we snapped picturesIMG_6967 and marveled at the beauty of the cold foamy sea and the rocky cliffs, full of chocolate-brown fur seals in the backdrop of the bright orange setting sun.

As we trekked back up the hill and quietly made our way back in the dark along the narrow roads to the city, we could see the Southern Cross constellation, and the billions of stars in the southern night sky. We were victorious in our quest to see the rare yellow-eyed penguins, and along with our feeling of accomplishment, we again were reminded that nature nurtures. We were cold and tired physically, but we were mentally and spiritually refreshed and renewed. Rare and beautiful things inspire us and fill our lives with joy and wonder, and are worth pursuing with our time and our energy.

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