Monday, June 27, 2011

What a beautiful final morning in Fiji

After having overcast skies yesterday, we awoke to a sunny day. I am sure all the kids will be excited when they get up. Kevin, Lauren, Van, Bri and Gemina have booked a morning fishing trip. I can't wait to hear those stories.

We had our final nightly meeting on the beach under an amazing blanket of stars. In fact, several saw a shooting star. Sarah was particularly touched by the shooting star and was breathless for a few moments after seeing it. We talked about what we we miss from the trip and everyone was in agreement that they will miss the group of people that has become their family for the last three weeks. Makenna said how odd it will be to wake up alone in her room and not have three other faces to look at it. The bonding of friendships has been a huge bonus for all of us. The students were wonderful travelers. They have shown great maturity as they have had to deal with many obstacles on this trip, especially the last few days of travel. They have been patient and supportive. All their parents should be proud of how well they handled this trip. We got along great and their were no cliques formed....every was everyone's friend.

And their will be amazed. Ulla, the NG photographer, was very impressed with their work. After one student's critique she was telling me how good she thought they were. I told her they were a beginner and had just learned how to use their camera. Her eyes got big and she said, "a beginner? Their photos were unbelievably good."
I said, Yes, a beginner....she was overly impressed. She told me that in the 5 days of time that she was with them that she really saw ALL students work improve. She loved watching the advanced kids try new techniques and move to the next level of photography. She said our group was one of the best, talented groups she has worked with....I believe her.

I am off to the open air restaurant to have my breakfast and then hope to get a little color on this white body.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The last few days of NZ

Wednesday - Friday, June 22 - 24

Hanmer Springs - Christchurch, New Zealand

We are currently sitting in the Christchurch airport with 30 minutes of internet access. We have been up since 5:15 am. Our flight to Fiji has been cancelled on Jet Star Airlines because of the volcanic ash coming from Chili. We are trying to get rebooked for tomorrow on Air New Zealand; they and Emirates are the only airlines flying out of this airport. This ash problem has been an issue for us before because Ulla could not get to us from Australia. It took her several days of rebooking for her to finally get a flight. Hopefully, we will not spend out last few days of the trip at the airport.

The stay in Hanmer Springs was very nice. We met up with Dave, our local contact who provided some interesting activities for us. We went horseback riding along the mountains, and then spent the afternoon in a huge outdoor sulphur pool, complete with water rides.

Next stop Christchurch. I had been looking forward to coming to New Zealand and spending time here. Once the September earthquakes hit and the main city centre was damage, I was sad. Yesterday, as we drove around the residential areas and walked around Christchurch city centre, the sadness became more real. What once was a very busy, bustling downtown area looks like an abandoned movie set. There was a restaurant that you could look inside the windows and see the RESERVED sign on the table and the dead flowers in the fallen vase. The pepper shaker had dropped to the floor and the pepper had spilled. It was all surreal. Time was frozen. All the group was deeply moved by our observances.

Our last stop of the day was to experience the Maori culture tradition. We participated in the program by electing Kevin our chief. The girls did the poi dance and the guys did the haka. We all had lots of chuckles.

Now to Fiji…we were so excited to get to the warm sunny beaches but that has been delayed. Keep your fingers crossed that the rebooking goes well.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Coast to Coast

Monday - Tuesday, June 20 - 21

Hokitika - Hanmer, New Zealand

Hokitika is a small mining village on the western coast. From our lodge, we walked to the roaring beach and were impressed with the stormy waves. This was just a preview to the next day when we drove to Pancake Rocks and saw and heard the powerful sea. This day was a photographers dream as we had great lighting and a different scene around every corner.

In the evening we grabbed our tripods and hiked to the glow worm dell. The stars were out and it was a beautiful clear night. The glow worms and stars looked very similar. It was interesting setting up the glow worm shots because we all had to use the self timer and long exposures and every one had to turn off their "torch" at the same time and keep it off so as to not disturb the others pictures. You can imagine what that was like with 14 kids in total darkness. The shoot was successful and we had lots of fun.

Ulla Lohmann, our National Geographic photographer, joined us in Hokitika. She is a fireball of energy and the kids really enjoy working with her. She is an exploration/expedition adventure photographer and has a most impressive bio. She is extremely down to earth and very fascinating to talk with.

Today was a very long bus ride from the west coast to the east coast….five hours….but we stretched it to an all day event because we stopped at several beautiful places. The most powerfully scenic was a place called Castle Hill. It is an area full of boulders. Scenes from the Narnia movie were filmed here. In fact, the landscape of NZ has been in many movies and now I know why.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Past Week in NZ

I have been a little delinquent in blogging so here goes....

Tuesday - Wednesday, June 14- 15

Waneka, New Zealand

Queenstown was a big hit as we wandered the city center streets for a few hours in the morning, took a gondola ride in the afternoon and souvenir shopped. Queenstown is a beautiful ski resort city located next to a large lake and nestled at the base of the Remarkable Mountains. This was the most populated area that we have been in. There are only four million people in all of New Zealand and only one million are on the bigger south island. We loaded up the bus and headed for our next stop.

We drove an hour and half to the small village of Waneka. The kids were excited as we arrived because there was a rugby practice going on next to our lodge. They all grabbed their cameras and rushed down to the field to try their luck at low light action photography.

The lodge had a great community space but the rooms were quite small. There was one heater in the entire lodge located in the living room; three toilets and two showers. This was our most interesting accommodation yet. Sleeping bags were used here to ensure a warm, comfy rest. The kids were good sports as they crammed into their tiny rooms. We went out to eat for Indian food, which many students had never experienced.

Wednesday we ventured off to Puzzling World, an amusement venue dedicated to optical illusions. Everyone had a great time as they played in the different illusion areas. The afternoon was a hike to a scenic overview. Carson was injured as they played a game before the hike ever started and she and Gemina had to come back. Carson had to go to the doctor and was diagnosed with a mild concussion. It is sad and the group feels the gap when someone is not up to par.

Thursday - Saturday, June 16 - 18

Franz Josef, New Zealand

We arrived here after a long day on the bus. We had stopped for lunch at the half way point. There was one convenience store with a small eating area. I had two fried eggs on toast….you learn to eat the oddest things when you visit another country. We had several scenic overview stops which broke up the long ride. The favorite stop was on the Tazmania Sea. We lingered on the beach for an hour. We were greeted by annoying sandflies, which are like mosquitos. They bit the heck out of my hands, (the only area not really covered on my body). The bites are little red splots and itch like crazy.

Our lodge accommodation is nice here. We have the big community room which is perfect for holding our group meetings. Every night ends with a pow wow meeting. This is a time when the entire group forms a circle and we talk about the day. Each meeting a different student ask a question and we go around the circle to answer. For example Brianna's question at the last pow wow was, "What is the most inspirational or meaningful sight that you have scene on this trip?" The answers were very touching. Makenna's favorite place was at the top of the gondola in Queenstown where we ate lunch. She chose this place because many years ago her parents had eaten there on the honeymoon. I have really enjoyed the pow wows and what each one has to share.

So we really shifted gears on Friday and got up very early to go to town to get geared up for our glacier hike. We were outfitted with special hiking boots, crampons, over pants, a raincoat, mittens and hats. This took about an hour. It reminded me of going snow skiing and all the hoopla that goes into getting ski equipment. Once we were outfitted we got on the bus and drove a short distance through the rain forest to the rock base of the glacier. There are only three glaciers in the world that are located next to a rain forest and two of them are in this area. The other is in Argentina.

Once at base we were joined with several other people. We split into three groups: those who wanted to go at a fast pace, slow pace and in between. I immediately migrated to the slow pace along with Brittany, Kelsey, Lindsey and Makenna. We had two other couples and a chubby Indian family of four in our group. The momma Indian lady was really slow and it made me look like an alpine hiker. However, after about an hour on the trail the Indian family announced they could not go any further and wanted to go back. Our guide Rob, told us to sit on the rocks for 5 - 10 minutes as he escorted them down. He was back quickly and we continued our hike up the Terminal Face. This was a steep rocky incline and all I could watch were my feet shuffling up the mountain. We finally reached the ice of the glacier. We put our crampons on and had instructions on walking on ice. The glacier hike was beautiful. The guides had carved out a path and we walked safely among the crevasses. We stopped and had our lunch on the glacier, took some group photos and then started our way back. All in all we were gone from about 9:30 - 2. We were exhausted.

Back at the lodge we found out that we were going to the spa hot pools. Everyone was excited as we all had aching spots on our bodies. We lounge in this gorgeous spa pool for a couple of hours. It was Gemina's 25th birthday and she was happy to spend it in the spa. We dried off and headed out to dinner. We are in another small town and the restaurant choices are very slim so we went back to the same restaurant as last night. The prices of food are extremely high. A burger cost about $21 NZ dollars which is about $17 US. The good news is the portions are big and many times the kids share entrees.

After dinner we all met in the community room. The kids wanted to listen to some of their music and dance around. They seemed to really enjoy that.

So my blog is up to date. I have been so busy that I really have not had much time to write. But today ee are having a slow, easy morning and everyone is enjoying some free time.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Monday, June 13 (I think)

Queenstown, New Zealand

Yesterday we spent several hours organizing our photos in the morning, then off to lunch and then an afternoon hike around the lake. It felt great to be out in the cool weather. We wear three or four layers as we "tramp" around. Most of the time we are warm. The food has been really good from pizza to lamb. The tap water is better than bottled water.

Today started with an hour bus ride to the sheep farm. Here we met Andy and his father, three dogs and hundreds of sheep. We were exposed to the sheep business and were introduced to the procedure of rounding up the sheep by the sheep dogs, loading them into different pens and separating them based on their age and wool length. Many of the students held the sheep in shearing position and Miles actually took some of the wool off.

We have a limited amount of time right now to get this blog written and uploaded as we are about to go explore the town. Ski season is approaching and this town is a big tourist ski destination.

Friday, June 10, 2011

New Zealand is beautiful

Saturday, June 11

Lake Te Anau, New Zealand

We arrived at the Holiday Park lodging around 4:30 pm, Friday, Kiwi time. Most of us slept on the long flight from LA to Auckland despite the howling baby, and we were eager to get off the planes and buses and walk. This small town, where we are spending the first three nights, is beautiful. We are by the third largest lake in NZ. The mountains and hills rise over the lake forming some beautiful scenery. There was alight rain yesterday when we got here but today is sunny. It is cold. I had to buy some possum gloves already…of course I knew I was going to buy something from possum before I ever left Houston.

Milford Sound is on the agenda for today. It will be a two hour, winding road, bus ride and then a two hour boat cruise around the sound. We have to shoot the scenery quickly as the sun sets early and it is dark by 5 pm.

Monday, June 6, 2011


The New Zealand - Fiji group takes a break to gather for the group shot. Summer school started today at SWHS. We leave on Wednesday and we are getting very excited.

FRONT ROW: Lauren, Carson, Brianna, Alex Somoza, Sarah, Makenna, Van. BACK ROW: Cathy Bottoms, Brittany, Alee, Miles, Kevin, Michael, Lindsey, Kelsey , Pam Karter.

Our National Geographis leaders will be Peter and Gemina.

Our National Geographic Photographer will be Ulla Lohman. Check out her website.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Off for the fourth adventure

Wednesday, June 8 will begin the fourth summer trip with the National Geographic Student Expeditions program.  I will be traveling with 14 students, another SBISD teacher, and two NGSE leaders.  

Stay tuned...

Sunset on the Amazon

Sunset on the Amazon
We had some of the most spectacular sunsets. Our cabanas over looked Piranha Laguna. From our open air lodge you could see the most beautiful close to the day.

National Geographic Ecuador Group

National Geographic Ecuador Group
We gathered with Massimo (front and center) for a group shot before he had to leave us and return to Italy. We are all back in Houston now and have made many wonderful memories.

White water tubing

White water tubing
In freezing cold river water, our group loaded onto two tube rafts for an adventure ride. Lots of gasping for breath as the cold water hit the body, lots of screams as your tube raft headed into the rapids, and lots of smiles from everyone.

Watching and waiting for Hummingbirds

Watching and waiting for Hummingbirds
Biologist, Nicki, names some of the birds that we are trying to photograph.


Day four started with a ride across the canopy in the tarabita.

Bug Hunting Hikes

Bug Hunting Hikes
In the evenings, when it is not pouring down rain, we hunt along the road for nocturnal critters. It is quite entertaining to see the students excitedly looking under leaves and rocks. I would have to say that Callie and Madeleine Ham won the most critters found award for our time in Mindo.

Making Chocolate

Making Chocolate
As one drops the cocoa beans into the press the other pushes down and out come delicious chocolate. We had bananas, kiwis, apples, and pineapple to dip. We even had left overs....wish I knew where that tub of chocolate was.