Tag Archives: death

So… What’s Next?

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America, the beautiful. Hiking the Pacific Northwest in Oregon.
The period of time from July 2016 – September 2017 is what I’ve been calling the “Best Year of My Life”. I traveled all over the world, I pushed myself to cross off bucket list experiences. I ate, climbed, dived, drank, meditated, practiced yoga, flew, trained, rode in buses, walked everywhere, laughed, cried and lived my life in a way that I did not know was possible. And then I returned back to the U.S. because it had been over a year of this journey and I thought it was a good time to evaluate my life from many angles, reconnecting with family and friends whom I missed so very much. There were so many reunion dinners, lunches, drinks and I loved it. I traveled from LA to San Fran, then Portland and eventually to DC and of course NYC, the place that was last “home”.

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Revisiting my old place in NYC only to find out it’s become super fancy and even more expensive. I love you, NYC but we have broken up.
When I returned, many friends and family asked a few questions about my trip (usually “where is your favorite place?”), which is impossible to describe in a few sound bites, but even more wanted to know “so…what’s next?” What could possibly follow the Best Year of My Life and not feel like a major disappointment? Anticipating these questions, I decided prior to my return to the U.S. that I would head to South America, which for me was still unexplored territory. More exploration, adventure and new experiences and places?  That sounds good to me.  I decided all of this without having done that assessment part that I mentioned earlier.

I would go to South America after the holidays and after my cousin Grace’s wedding at the end of January. Grace is like a little sister and the only daughter to my beloved uncle and aunt so this was a major family event. I’ve witnessed her life from birth to becoming a successful doctor (every Korean family’s dream) and I knew I wouldn’t miss it even if it meant being in the intense judgmental glare of my entire extended Korean family. Do not underestimate the anxiety of being a single, unemployed and homeless woman in her 40’s who is about to step into the Gladiator’s Arena that is a big Korean family wedding. And to give up a big job where you made good money and had a big fancy title (Koreans love that too) and lived in NYC, “well that doesn’t make any sense” would be the prevailing sentiment in most of my relatives’ minds and being Korean, spoken directly out loud. I managed to avert most of the scorn and concern about my triple curse of being single, unemployed and without my own home by miraculously transforming myself from hideous beast to lovely swan (to translate the Korean response, I lost some weight).

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Korean Swan
Prior to the wedding, my time spent with friends and family was everything I hoped it would be. I met babies that were born during my absence, told of upcoming weddings, new jobs, new relationships and the many life events that I missed while away. But the euphoria of reunions and homecoming plunged into darkness in December when a series of unforeseen life events came crashing over me.

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On December 21st, I was sitting outside on mom’s front stoop when I got a call from Ley, one of my closest friends.  Our history is so long and deep that I knew from the moment I heard the first word out of her mouth that what would follow would change our lives forever. She told me that our friend, her best friend, Kristin (affectionately nicknamed “Pig” since our college days) passed away peacefully after a merciless eight year battle with cancer. I barely recall what words we exchanged because all of it was heavy with a devastating sadness that comes with the knowledge that we lost the best among us. She was the most beautiful, boldest, bravest, most loyal friend to all of us, our sister, our favorite belligerent warrior who fought cancer without complaint or self-pity, often being the one to console her loved ones as we were sometimes unable to mask our fear of losing her. There are too many memories of our decades-long friendship to list, but her presence could never be forgotten as her strength and hilarious laughter are like treasures we carry with us every single day. And when the GIRLS get together, we don’t talk about cancer, we talk about trips, dancing, wine, her gorgeous son, her stubbornness and the endless ways in which we love and remember her. We celebrated her life and said our goodbyes to her the days after Christmas finding brief moments of comfort in huddling together and shedding fountains of tears and howling over our favorite Piglet stories.

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We love you, Piggy
As if the trauma of losing one of your dearest friends wasn’t enough to endure, the days leading into Christmas, I developed a crazy infection on my leg that had me spending Christmas morning at Urgent Care. I’ll try to avoid the gory details, but what started as a seemingly innocuous pimple turned into a throbbing, angry and ever expanding mass on my thigh that kept me from being able to sit, lie down or do anything without intense pain. It’s not the most reassuring feeling when the doctor’s initial response to seeing something on your body is “UGH! That’s a bad one.” It turns out it was an aggressive bacterial infection that took two weeks of antibiotics that made me sicker than the infection and multiple visits to the clinic where the wound had to be treated. The only positive outcome of that infection was that it provided some comic relief to my friends to see me arriving to one of the saddest events of our lives with a small pillow featuring a beautiful angry elf character (it belongs to my gaming sister Sylvia).

And just when you think things couldn’t get worse and I prayed that 2018 would bring some positive news, I crashed. More accurately, a car came crashing into me. It was the first week of January and I was on my way to my friend Andy’s place when I decided being sad on his sofa sounded more comforting than being sad on my mom’s. I got into my car and braved the 12 degree day and appreciated seeing the sun. I was about to get onto the highway when at the last minute I decided to keep straight and treat myself to a car wash and take advantage of the sunshine and wash the salt off my Mini. Seconds later on this busy road where most drive 45-55 mph, the car in front me came to a sudden stop. I slammed on my brakes and by some miracle managed to avert hitting him and for a millisecond I celebrated my luck before the car behind me hit me so hard, my car spun, hit the car in front me and I experienced that thing people talk about during life threatening events. I had that moment of “God, please don’t let me die not this way” and thankfully I didn’t. But the impact was so forceful it moved my car seat off the rails so that I spun about 60 degrees to the right and the left side of my body slammed into the car door.

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This car crashed and destroyed the poor Mini
I sat in the car frozen with shock and confusion about what just happened when I saw for the first time the cause of the accident. A woman who looked about 30-40 yrs old was dancing around the carnage of cars and parts that flew all over the road and she was wearing what looked like pajamas. She was shouting, spinning and taking off her bra, which she then hung on the side mirror of the car in front of me. I later found out that she was yelling “I am going to kill all of the cars!” Mission accomplished lady.

The man who hit me from behind was the first to spring into action, getting out of his car to check on the man in front of us and me and he asked if I was OK. It’s a powerful and bizarre reflex to immediately respond “yes, I’m OK.” Truth was I was far from OK but I did not know that. I mean, I was “lucky” in that I was alive, my bones were not broken and thankfully no one else was obviously injured. When the police arrived, I was still in shock but started to get really upset and unfortunately encountered an inexperienced officer who missed the day in police training when they talk about showing any kind of sympathy for victims of trauma. When he asked me if I needed an ambulance I was quick to respond I didn’t, but as he was recording the details of the accident and the adrenaline started to diminish, I could feel increasing pain rising in my body. I started to cry and I asked him if I should go to the hospital when he replied with agitation “ma’am you need to calm down. I am not a doctor.” Luckily, Sylvia and her boyfriend Ervin came to pick me up and despite the fact that they also didn’t go to medical school, they insisted I go to the ER just to make sure I was really OK.

In the days and weeks that followed this accident, I’ve learned so much about the do’s and don’ts of post car accident decisions. The “I’m OK” reflex had me signing settlement claims with the insurance company within three days of the accident, which I later discovered was the not the smartest thing to do. I may not have broken bones, but I’ve needed a lot of physical therapy and treatments and I didn’t just lose a car in the whole mess. It was so emotionally traumatic and I replayed my last minute decision to go straight instead of turning and how that decision led to so much pain and negative consequences. And in this time post Best Year of My Life, I haven’t worked so the financial consequences have also been an unforeseen cause of stress as well. Insurance called it a “total loss” which felt like an accurate description of not just the accident, but life the past few weeks. Sadly, the value they placed on “total loss” was about $5000, which doesn’t quite seem commensurate with the phrase or the way I felt.

My friends have described this month of my life using biblical and literary references like the trials of Job or the Crucible. Initially, I was trying to not to slip into the whoa-is-me of it all because I did not have cancer, I did not lose my leg to infection and I did not die in an accident. However, finding the silver lining felt impossible when these things happened in rapid succession and before I knew it, I was drowning caught in the riptide of trauma, loss, grief and pain. I withdrew from friends and family and everything slowed to a pace of just existing and contemplating how to get through each day without freaking out my mom with my never before seen fragility.

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My family. My heroes.
I was listening to a podcast with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild and she quoted from her book Tiny Beautiful Things that gave me comfort and hope, two things I hadn’t felt in a while. I shared it with my friends that I knew were going through their own grief and pain.

“You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days.
You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry
and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up
through the months. And then one day you find yourself
alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and
lean your head back and realize you’re OK.”

Now back to the question so, what’s next? I know that I need to work and earn money, but I am not rushing to get the next big corporate job. I am fortunate enough to have friends reach out to me and talk about some professional opportunities, share their experiences in consulting/freelance work, which is something I am starting soon. I am channeling my attention back to writing and sharing my stories. I am taking the advice of a trusted advisor who told me to slow down and take the time I need to figure out what I want my life to be and not just my career. She knows that is not in keeping with how I normally operate because even in the Best Year of My Life, I rarely stayed still. I had to constantly remind myself to enjoy the slower pace of life. Being back in the reality of “real life” that is filled with so many things that can break my heart and make me feel small, I am also reminding myself of all of the reasons I feel lucky and grateful. I have friends and family who support and rally around me and show me all of the ways that I am loved. I am finding my voice again and starting to share my pain and vulnerability in ways that feels really uncomfortable, but I know that is also what will help me move past the smallness and shame of this period. I still want to go to South America, but not rushing there either. I look forward to the day I will be sitting on a bench and feel the sun on my face.

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Here’s to the sunny days ahead.

New Zealand: Trauma to Triumph

The Crater Lakes look like you've landed in Jupiter, but it's actually a reward for the punishment and pleasure that is the Tongariro Crossing.
The Crater Lakes look like you’ve landed in Jupiter, but it’s actually a reward for the punishment and pleasure that is the Tongariro Crossing.
My amazing journey through the New Zealand
My amazing journey through New Zealand

There’s a reason New Zealand inspires filmmakers to shoot its unparalleled natural landscapes or use them to create even more fantasized versions of them in Lord of the Rings, Avatar, X-Men and more. Everything about this country feels bigger, greener, surrealistic and stunning. I spent a month in this country of physical (and in my case also emotional) extremes. There’s nothing about New Zealand that doesn’t test and ultimately reward you for making the long trek to the edge of the world to see this place for yourself. I experienced some of the lowest and highest moments of my 10 month journey, I felt more isolated than anywhere else I’d been and thankfully I also met some remarkable people that I believe will be lifelong friends. The country is so far and isolated from the rest of the world, I felt a bit like an explorer discovering new and unchartered lands. New Zealand transformed me into an outdoorsy person or at least as close as I was ever going to get as I faced harsh weather without winter gear. My tropical Southeast Asia clothes weren’t going to do me much good here.

Christchurch has some really cool art displayed around the city.
Christchurch has some really cool art displayed around the city.
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My first stop was in Christchurch, a city that is unfortunately best known to many of us after the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and another smaller one in 2016. I really liked this city. You get a feeling of resilience everywhere you go and its residents who are still very much recovering from the natural disaster and aftermath. Some of the locals I met conveyed an attitude of moving on without complaint. That’s something I really admire about Kiwis, they’re used to handling hardcore weather conditions, remote areas, physical extremes and they do it with a friendly and optimistic ruggedness.

One of the best things about being a tourist in New Zealand is that they have these amazing I-Sites, which are the information centers for tourists and they help with everything from transportation, tours, hospitality and general questions. The super helpful woman at the Christchurch location helped me determine that I would take the Intercity bus system that you can use to bus all around both the south and north islands. I know a lot of people drive around the islands and camp, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing it on my own until I got to the north island where the majority of the population lives and in the end was happy with my decision. The South Island is a Jurassic World of forests, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, jaw dropping cliffs, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes and it felt like five kilometers there was something new and awesome and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I spotted dinosaurs roaming around.

How could I drive and also pick my jaw up off the floor?
How could I drive and also pick my jaw up off the floor?
Before I began my bus journey around the south, I took the famous TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass National Park, home of the Franz Josef Glacier. The TranzAlpine was shut down the month before due to serious fires that took the line down for some time so I was lucky that the train just started running again. The ride gives you a plethora of opportunities to “oooooohhh and ahhhhhh” with the most incredible scenery. Arthur’s Pass Village is a tiny town, population total of 29 with a general store and two cafes. But you’re going to Arthur’s Pass to see the glacier, and do some of the many walks through the forest and mountains. Remember how much I loved Iceland’s glaciers? Turns out they’re also awesome in NZ.

The famous Tranzapline train line with stunning views to the west.
The famous Tranzapline train line with stunning views to the west.
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I took the bus from Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth for a night where I stayed with an Airbnb host who gave me a friendly interrogation about Trump and how it was possible that he became the President of the “greatest country on Earth”. The Trump questions and concerns do not end and I can’t blame people for asking. Not too much going on in Greymouth, it’s a bit of an industrial town but a good stopping point.

Hey Franz Josef Glacier, you're as lovely as the one I met in Iceland.
Hey Franz Josef Glacier, you’re as lovely as the one I met in Iceland.
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I've taken a lot of photos of great signs all over the world like this.
I’ve taken a lot of photos of great signs all over the world like this.
Then I traveled from Greymouth to Wanaka, my favorite in the south and maybe all of NZ. I stayed in another Airbnb and met some friendly non-Kiwis who were both working and living in NZ and a lovely woman from the UK who was hiking all around the south. It was in Wanaka that I received news that someone in my family died and although it wasn’t necessarily unexpected, there’s always a shock that accompanies death. 

When I started this trip last year, I lost my stepfather Richard, my grandmother and my aunt Su all within a span of a few months. I attended a memorial service for dad and my grandmother just a few weeks before I left the country and when I returned from Florida from the service, I packed up my things and left NYC. That time was a total blur and full of so many emotions: grief, guilt, regret, anger, and sadness to name just a few. At the same time, I tried hard to focus on the positives in my life and about the journey I was about to embark on and reminded myself that this limited time in life was part of what was driving my decision to do this. But the weight of my grief from losing my family was heavy as I started my “Year of Joy”.

These guys are so cute. I don't know if I can eat lamb again after we make eye contact.
These guys are so cute. I don’t know if I can eat lamb again after we make eye contact.
I learned from the passing of my dad that complicated relationships in life leads to complicated feelings about their death. While he and I had not been in touch since he and mom divorced, his unexpected death sent me reeling. I felt the loss like a sledgehammer to my gut and was really surprised by how truly devastated I felt. How could I feel so grieved about someone who wasn’t even a part of my life in the last 15 years and with whom I always had a complicated and not very close relationship? I think it was the regret of not being as close as either of us probably would have liked that made the loss so final and cutting as well as a life cut short by alcoholism and not taking care of himself.

The views from Wanaka were my favorite.
The views from Wanaka were my favorite.
I watched the movie The Lion here in Wanaka. Or more accurately, I sobbed hysterically watching this movie.
I watched the movie The Lion here in Wanaka. Or more accurately, I sobbed hysterically watching this movie.
WOW is a word I uttered all of the time in Wanaka.
WOW is a word I uttered all of the time in Wanaka.
So when I found out about another death while I was quite literally as far from home as possible, I felt blindsided and the pain felt like a tidal wave knocking me down and every time I tried to catch my breath, I was taken under. I decided that I still needed to do what I could to try and be present for the gift of this trip and enjoy NZ so I did a lot of hiking. As previously mentioned, I’m not an outdoorsy person. I enjoy nature, but usually from afar in a protected vehicle. I’m often intimidated by it and here I am in NZ, basically nature on steroids. So much of my time in the South Island consisted of me pulling myself up higher and higher in vertical climbs that terrified me, that I wasn’t exactly practiced or familiar with and sliding down often tumbling on the way down, which is even more terrifying.

The famous Wanaka Tree that grows in the lake.
The famous Wanaka Tree that grows in the lake.
One of my most memorable moments was hiking Ben Lomond Trail in Queenstown, which I found really challenging. As usual, I was alone and stupidly did not tell anyone I was hiking alone. Not sure who I would tell. I heard it was a five to six hour hike if you go all the way up to the summit. By the time I reached a part of the trail called the “saddle” I was panting, my legs were spasming signaling SOS and I had been sobbing by myself for almost the entire two hours up to that point. I looked around and saw beautiful red pine trees, inspiring mountains, and a shimmering lake, but I couldn’t feel anything other than a blurry mix of heartbreak and exhaustion. At the saddle, the weather was starting to change from fairly cool, to much colder and I had to decide whether I’d try and summit to the top. I don’t even know if I weighed the decision consciously or if I just let the heartbreak momentum push me further up, but I realized quickly that the last bit was totally treacherous. I somehow got off the trail and found myself on an almost completely vertical area without any kind of trail and covered in sliding rocks. I slid several times, sometimes almost a couple of feet at a time and there was nowhere to grip to break the fall. I was genuinely scared and alone so I prayed “God, please don’t let me die alone on this mountain. Not right now. Please.” A minute later as I peeked over my shoulder to see the drop below, I saw a kea, a rare New Zealand bird, perched on a ledge not far from me and I swear it was making eye contact with me. As I pondered giving up on the summit knowing that I didn’t have much time before the sun would set and get dark, I still had hours to trek back and the weather took a mean turn as the wind whipped around me as a warning and it started to drizzle icy rain. But then the kea moved even closer as if he wanted to tell me something or to make sure that I saw him. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I think that bird was encouraging me to keep going. And so I did. I slid a few more times, but somehow I made it to the summit. And I was all alone up there. It was so cold and wet that I didn’t have much time to pat myself on the back and it was too dark and rainy to take a decent photo to commemorate the occasion. All I could do was cry some more. I quickly slid my way back down and hiked the three hours back, frozen, head aching from tears and dehydration and grateful to that bird for giving cheering me on and witnessing my small triumph.

Ben Lomond Trail you almost killed me, but I survived.
Ben Lomond Trail you almost killed me, but I survived.
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You take a cable car up just to get the party started on the 6 hour hike.
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Even on a grey day, the views are so beautiful
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Another awesome view
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My guardian angel, the Kea.
My time in the South Island was marked by visiting some of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. I spent almost three weeks in wondrous awe of nature’s beauty and challenges, as well as almost debilitating pain reliving past trauma, death and grief. In some ways, the stark solitude of the south was probably what I needed to face all of these emotions and process everything. New Zealand was like the kea, watching over me as I stumbled, picked myself up and moved on. It was fucking hard though.

One of the most beautiful places is the famous Milford Sound.
One of the most beautiful places is the famous Milford Sound.
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Lucky to have a perfect sunny day in Milford
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Goodbye gorgeous
This waterfall has starred in many films including LOTR, X-Men and more.
This waterfall has starred in many films including LOTR, X-Men and more.
More awesome southern views
More awesome southern views 
Even the mushrooms are pretty here
Even the mushrooms are pretty here
A reward for all of this insane hiking
A reward for all of this insane hiking
So when my fab friends JJ and Rachna (Kiwi American) offered to introduce me to their friends in the North Island, I was so grateful. It was through them that I met Lucy and Jessica and these wonderful women graciously opened their homes, let me eat and spend time with their families and slowly nurse myself back closer to normalcy. I spent a few days with Jessica in Wellington, a lovely (yes also windy!) and emerging city that is also home to Peter Jackson’s WETA studio. She and her sons Quincey and Felix made me feel so at home that I offered to become their nanny, although 13 and 16 year olds don’t need a nanny and Jessica is killing it in the awesome mom category. And Lucy who recently moved from NYC back to her home country also let me luxuriate in their beautiful new home in Tauranga. Lucy and I bonded over NY stories, Ru Paul’s Drag Race and talking about life changes. Lucy and I even got her city kids Iris and Freddie out of the house to go on a hike one day. I connected with Jessica and Lucy immediately and just being around smart, funny, and kind women was like a healing balm. I am so very grateful to my friends who connected me to their tribe and I feel like I made two incredibly good friends in NZ as a result.

Lucy and I are super cool that's why her kids are so psyched to hang out with us. OK, maybe not that excited.
Lucy and I are super cool that’s why her kids are so psyched to hang out with us. OK, maybe not that excited.
Jessica and Nicola (another Rachna friend) and I went to yoga and promptly had a fab dinner and wine after. Namaste.
Jessica and Nicola (another Rachna friend) and I went to yoga and promptly had a fab dinner and wine after. Namaste.
Quincey is Jessica's son also my Wellington tour guide. #futureheartbreaker
Quincey is Jessica’s son also my Wellington tour guide. #futureheartbreaker
Felix is the younger son and future/current Justin Bieber.
Felix is the younger son and future/current Justin Bieber.
Lucy's adorable Freddie and Iris adjusting from NY life to being full time Kiwis. Looks like they're adjusting just fine.
Lucy’s adorable Freddie and Iris adjusting from NY life to being full time Kiwis. Looks like they’re adjusting just fine.
I also did one of the most unforgettable hikes in my life in the north island in Taupo. There’s a trail called Tongariro Crossing which is one of The Great Walks in NZ and the seven to eight hour hike is an experience like none other where you pass the gates of Mordor (Lord of the Rings for you amateurs), volcanoes, red craters, descend down the steep and slipperiest set of rocks on Earth to end up seeing a trio of lakes the colors of which I think are only seen on Saturn or Jupiter and eventually through a dark, cold forest where I nearly gave up. I fell three times on the way down and noticed I wasn’t alone as I passed a poor man who just sat on the rocks after a bad fall looking like he resolved to just stay there until the end of time. By the time I finished, every part of my body was shaking and I was covered in five layers of volcanic ash, dirt and rocks. When I got back to the gorgeous Airbnb where Shani my host, a smart and fascinating woman took great mercy on me and made me an incredible dinner and poured wine into my cup to anesthetize my pain.

This is Mt. Doom in the LOTR trilogy.
This is Mt. Doom in the LOTR trilogy.
This is The Devil's Staircase and when you do it, you know why.
This is The Devil’s Staircase and when you do it, you know why.
Red craters also add to the other worldliness of this hike.
Red craters also add to the other worldliness of this hike.
The Crater Lakes deserve another look. This was my least favorite to get to because it's treacherous down the hill but good lord it's worth it.
The Crater Lakes deserve another look. This was my least favorite to get to because it’s treacherous down the hill but good lord it’s worth it.
Got to see a Maori warrior dance in Rotorua. They make these crazy faces as part of the ritual.
Got to see a Maori warrior dance in Rotorua. They make these crazy faces as part of the ritual.
Hobbiton!!!
Hobbiton!!!
A month in NZ included seeing the craziest real phenomena such as volcanoes, crater lakes, mountains, waterfalls, glow worms, fjords, as well as some of my favorite fantasy fulfillment of drinking in Hobbiton, letting the waterfall from X-Men wash my face, a selfie with Gollum and much more. It was also the toughest time I’ve had this year with the mix of death, grief, isolation, and trauma as well as some of the hardest I’ve pushed myself physically which felt like the only way to distract myself from the emotional pain. I’m certain that the physical and emotional challenges I experienced there followed by the kindness of strangers turned friends, I left New Zealand feeling a sense of triumph that I have never experienced.

Ended NZ on Waiheke Island where these monarch butterflies are everywhere. Felt a bit like a caterpillar turned butterfly myself after this time here.
Ended NZ on Waiheke Island where these monarch butterflies are everywhere. Felt a bit like a caterpillar turned butterfly myself after this time here.