NZ Highlights: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Hailed as one of the best one-day hikes in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was at the top of our list for our New Zealand trip. And it certainly did not disappoint! Rugged volcanic terrain, breathtaking views, emerald lakes, a hike that made our feet feel like they were bleeding by the 18th kilometer… all 100% worth it.

Here are our basic logistics: we parked at the Ketetahi parking lot, took a shuttle bus (booked over the phone the day before) to the Mangatepopo starting point, and then proceeded to hike the 19.4 km back to our car.

The 19.4 hike between Mangatepopo and Ketetahi is almost other-worldly. In the first part of the hike, we strolled along a boardwalk rising up from marshland and vibrantly copper-colored streams, with Mt. Doom (in reality, Mt. Ngauruhoe) looming to our right.

After an hour or so, the actual climbing began. We left the boardwalks behind as the path became loose volcanic gravel—or scoria, as we learned it is called—zig-zagging sharply up a cliff. Quite a few times, we joined other hikers to stop, catch our breath, and evaluate our progress (“I’m so out of shape…”). Finally, the trail flattened out to reveal the South Crater before us, Mt. Doom closer than ever.

We crossed the South Crater leisurely before getting to the next challenge: the long, steep climb up to the Red Crater. I was stopping every 5 minutes to take pictures (and catch my breath) because the views were just stunning.

The hike up to the Red Crater took us quite a bit longer than the course pamphlet says it should, although I’m blaming both fitness and photography for that. By the time we actually reached the Red Crater—at 1886 m above sea level—it was well past lunch time. We marveled at the colors (the crater is quite aptly named) then bid goodbye to the once-again-distant Mt. Doom and started our descent down to the most photographed spot on the entire hike: the Emerald Lakes.

I was reaching for my camera every three seconds by this point. Slide down the scoria slope a few feet… pause and snap a photo. Scramble down a little further… oh, it’s a new angle, so let’s take another photo! Then, we had lunch on the banks of the Emerald Lakes. That’s a sentence almost out of a fairytale, and that’s exactly how lunch on the banks of the Emerald Lakes felt, too—a fairytale. Plus, it was magical indeed to finally sit down and rest our weary feet while we ate.

After lunching by those beautiful Emerald Lakes, there was another little climb up to the Blue Lake before beginning the three-and-a-half-hour, 1000m descent back to our car at Ketetahi. The first part of the descent wasn’t so bad—we were winding around Mt. Tongariro’s northern slope, and the views were still stunning. We could even see Lake Taupo far off in the distance. But after passing the Ketetahi mountain hut, with another 2 hours of trekking left to go, our car seemed unreachable, and our feet felt broken.

The end of the hike is a bit of a blur. We finally passed from sun-beaten tussock slopes into the cool forest, marking the last landscape change before the carpark. Every step was painful by this point, and every rumble of the nearby stream fooled us into thinking it was the rumble of a car engine. At long last, however, we really did hear engines, and we walked with renewed energy the final few hundred meters to our rental car. Peeling off muddy boots and sweaty socks, we then drove an hour north to Taupo, where hot showers, greasy food, and soft beds awaited us.

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NZ Highlights: an Afternoon in Hobbiton

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – So begins J.R.R. Tolkien’s first masterpiece, The Hobbit, and so began my happy tumble into Middle Earth as a child. After years of relying on the books, the movies, and my own daydreams, visiting Hobbiton brought Tolkien’s world to life.

There are hundreds of blogs and reviews covering the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour, so I’ll just keep this brief and add a few pictures of my own. Simply put, I loved it. Even J, who is not such an avid fan of Tolkien, meandered around the Shire quite happily (her favorite part was the Party Tree—she desperately wanted to climb it). The attention to detail  is absolutely incredible. I loved all the autumn flowers, the hobbit-sized shirts hanging on the clotheslines, the signposts written in Tolkien’s handwriting… To sum up our afternoon in Hobbiton: we frolicked, we drank cider, we lost the tour guide, and I took entirely too many photographs. How could I not?

Distracted as I was with taking photos and looking around, I ended up missing most of the stories that our guide told. I do regret that a bit… but at the same time, I was just so happy to be there that the experience was perfect all the same.

So that covers our first highlight of the trip: Hobbiton (Day 4 of our New Zealand Itinerary). The next highlight is Day 5: Tongariro!

Snapshots: June and July in the Classroom

Life as an ALT on the JET Programme is part travel and festivals and new experiences (which makes up most of my blog content) and majority teaching classes and working with students and day-to-day chores (which has been slightly neglected here).

During my February blog challenge, I gave a little glimpse into what I do at work in the Monday: Office Life series. However, I want to go a little further and note some snapshots of recent classroom moments. (Maybe it’s because I’m missing all of my adorable students now that summer vacation has finally started).

So here are a few moments that stuck with me from June and July:

@ my Tuesday school:

There’s a ruckus in the staircase below as S-sensei and I wrap up our 4th period lesson and leave the classroom. As we descend, we see groups of students pointing at the ceiling and whispering.

It’s easy to see what is causing all the fuss: clinging to the white ceiling tile, fast asleep, there is a small brown bat.

One of the math teachers, who had peeked out of the staff office to find the source of the noise, pointed at the bat and explained it to me proudly in English, “New hallway accessory.”

@ my Monday school:

It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m giving a practice interview for EIKEN, a national English proficiency test. The student I’m interviewing is a serious, studious boy who we’ll nickname Y-kun.

I read out the fourth question of practice test 5: “Do you usually wear a wristwatch?”

Y-kun has been answering all of the previous questions easily, but he scrunches up his face in confusion. “One more time, please?”

I nod, “Do you usually wear a wristwatch?”

He pauses again, and then asks “What is a… wristwatch?”

It’s so tempting to answer and help him out, but in a real EIKEN interview test, the interviewer wouldn’t give such a hint. I tell Y-kun that has to try to break down the word, or answer with whatever he can, and we’ll go over the answer after the practice interview.

Y-kun does his best, “No, I usually wear t-shirts and pants. I’m not interested in wristwatches.”

I try my best to keep a straight face through his answer, because it would have been a perfect response if not for one small detail…

As soon as he’s answered the final question of practice test 5, he immediately asks me about the wristwatch question.

I say, “Um… please raise your hands.”

He does so, confused.

I continue, “You are wearing a wristwatch right now.”

His eyes snap to his watch, and I see understanding hit. “Oh….” he says slowly, “….embarrassing.” Then, for the first time in the hour I’ve been practice-interviewing him, Y-kun starts laughing.

@ my Thursday school

I-sensei and I were doing a Speed Dating activity for our lowest-level English class.

For the first part of class, students make up a basic profile – name, age, hometown, job, birthday, hobby. The only rule was that they couldn’t write their own information. They could write their dream job or a celebrity name or they could claim to be 100 years old—any of that was okay—but they couldn’t fill out their profile as a17-year-old high school student living in Ibaraki, Japan.

For the second part of class, students would pair up to practice asking each other basic questions (“What is your name?” / “Where do you live?”) and memorize their partner’s profile answers within two minutes. After the timer rang, they would switch and do it all again with a new partner.

I-sensei and I have two students with severe learning disabilities in this particular class; a girl, S-chan, and a boy, K-kun. For the first part of class, while the other students were writing down their profiles (My name is Anpanman! I live in Neptune!), I helped K-kun with his writing.

K-kun is a sweet, hard-working student; he knew exactly what he wanted his profile to be. The name he chose was faintly Russian; his new hometown was China. When we reached the “Job,” section of his profile, he didn’t even hesitate: “English teacher.” He looked up at me, smiling, “What’s the spell?” and I spelled out the letters for him slowly, one-by-one.

Later that afternoon, after class, I overheard a conversation between K-kun’s homeroom teacher and another teacher. The homeroom teacher was sighing heavily. She said that during her meeting with K-kun to talk about his future job plans, she had finally persuaded him to give up his dream of becoming an English teacher. It was simply unrealistic, she said. He was barely passing many of his classes, including English—getting into college would be difficult enough.

And some logical part of me knows that K-kun will never be an English teacher, even if he keeps dreaming and working hard. He struggles with understanding basic questions in English, and Japan isn’t the most sympathetic country to intellectual disabilities.

But all the same, it was heartbreaking to hear adults discourage a student from their dreams.

@ my Wednesday school:

Wednesday morning with my favorite class in this school: 3-4 conversation class with O-sensei.

Our current unit is giving directions in English, and O-sensei is inspired: he buys two colorful eye masks (featuring huge anime-eyes) from Daiso and announces to the students that they’ll be putting English to use today.

The first task for students is a trust exercise for me. O-sensei and I stand blindfolded in opposite corners of the room, and students have to navigate us around desks and chairs so we can meet and shake hands.

N-chan is the first student to guide me, and her directions are far from perfect.

“Go right, NO. No. Go left. Left.”

I turn left and promptly bump into a chair. The other students giggle.

“Oh. Right. Sorry, go right Karen-sensei.”

Eventually, we made it. But it cemented my decision to never try that particular directions activity with my tech school. I’d end up in the hallway, or going down the stairs…

The next task is students guiding their blindfolded classmates around the room. This time, though, O-sensei announces that the blind students would simultaneously be playing tag. The student wearing the pink eye mask had to tag the student wearing the blue eye mask.

As you can imagine, blindfolded 17-year olds chasing each other around the classroom, listening to imperfect but impassioned English directions is quite a sight.

The funniest blind tag game featured T-kun, who was giving instructions to a blind Y-kun (pink eye mask) to tag the blind N-chan (blue eye mask), who was being led by M-chan.

T-kun kept yelling “Straight straight straight fast! FAST! NO, TURN LEFT!! Fast fast! Yes! Straight straight FAST! TOUCH! No, turn around! Straight~” and M-chan was quietly foiling T-kun at every turn, teasing him by keeping N-chan close and then making her turn in a new direction at the last second, out of reach. Whenever Y-kun was close to N-chan, T-kun would scream “TOUCH! TOUCH!!” and Y-kun would flail blindly, groping the empty air.

As the race became more intense, personal safety was sacrificed. Eventually Y-kun was being led straight into desks and even T-kun—who could see—was banging into stray chairs, such was his focus on the chase. Everyone else was cheering and jumping out of the way as the four students chased each other around the room with erratic movements.

I’ve never laughed so hard during a class.