A Million Little Things

People said that once school started, we would develop routines and things would start to feel a bit more like real life. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

Every single day, be it school day or weekend is completely separate from the one before it. Some days there are no events planned or extra-curriculars happening, and yet we still find a million new things to do or new conversations to have. It is so fantastic that this place lacks the monotony and routine of life at home but it also makes for an intense, exhausting lifestyle.

Here are some highlights from the last 2 weeks:

Two weekends ago, I headed to the beach for the first time. We went to a popular surfing beach on the Pacific Coast, called Playa Jaco. It took us about 2 and a half hours to get there but spending the day playing in the waves and lounging on the beach were so worth it. It was so nice to get to see more of Costa Rica and not just San Jose.

Playa Jaco

The next day, the second years had a huge deadline so the firsties decided to surprise them with something. We planned a school wide water fight at midnight (that was the deadline). We had hundreds of water baloons as well as buckets and water bottles. We waged full out war for about half an hour. Then we invited the second years into the social center for snacks and a dance party. It was fantastic spontaneous fun.

Last sunday, about 20 of us went to a local woman’s house to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I am not Jewish in any way and neither were most of the students that went, but it was a very intersting cultural experience. She talked to us about the meanings of the holiday and some Jewish folklore. And we got ice cream, which didn’t hurt.

Hermosa - My residence

Independence day was also a big deal. On the day when Costa Rica got it’s independence from Spain there are parades in every town. In Santa Ana, we are a part of it. Everyone dresses in their national costumes and carries their flags. You might not believe it but honestly sometimes you forget how ridiculously multicultural it is here. The parade really brought it to the forefront.

Roomie love

Of course, some of the best parts of being here aren’t specific events. Often the highlight of my day is staying up late talking to Shore from Nigeria about the mis-portrayal of Africa in the media or climbing trees and talking about art with Sophia from Wales. Somedays its lying on a friends bed and singing at the top of our lungs.

There are a million little reasons to love this place and I am trying to experience them all.



Hola Chicos

Strangely enough, the first time I have found time to write a post is the fourth day of school. That goes to show how wonderfully strange and chaotic the last two week shave been. I haven’t been alone for more than half an hour since I got here, and even that has only happened twice.

I arrived at the college at midnight and I was greeted by groups of second years hugging me. The Canadian second years came to visit when I got to my room. The next day or too was pretty much like that. Crowds of people from all over the world hugging me and telling me their name and country. Unsurprisingly, remembering the names of 160 students while sleep deprived and disoriented is almost impossible. By the end of the first week I knew the names of most of my fellow first years (called co-years at UWC), and by now I know most of the names of the second years.

Those hugs and early introductions really were symbolic of life at UWC, full of affection, curiosity and absolutely no personal space. I already feel like I am friends with many of my co-years and the girls in my residence (Hermosa). We have played about 400 ice breakers since we arrived. It has made these first two weeks really feel like camp. The first week was taken up entirely by meetings, games organized by second years and socializing. I didn’t go to bed before 11:30 and I didn’t wake up any later than 8. We played a school wide game of capture the flag, but I got caught with in the first ten minutes and spent the rest of my time sitting in jail playing mind games with the other people that got caught. We had a really good bonding thing called candle night, where anyone could speak about how they were feeling without any judgment. It really helped me feel closer to my second years.

On Saturday, I went on a tour of San Jose. It was really fun to get to see a new city but honestly it wasn’t that impressive. It’s pretty dirty and smelly and loud. Maybe when I get a chance to explore some other parts I will enjoy it more. The next day I woke up obnoxiously early to hike up to the top of a nearby mountain. We walked through Santa Ana (the district I live in) and then up a steep narrow dirt path. We stopped after about two and a half hours into the hike and went swimming at this fantastic secluded pool. From there the group split, some people went back down and about 20 of us continued up. The road up was ridiculously sleep and we were tired but the view from the top was fantastic. The walk back down was really tough and in total the hike took us about 8 hours. It was totally worth while.

The next two days were spent at Roblealto camp. This was a very canadian-style over night camp. We spent our time there playing more ice breakers and energizers as well as doing some reflection. We had a hilarious open-mic night on Monday night. The nicest part was when we were given 30 minutes to spend all by ourselves. I didn’t realize how much I needed some alone time until I got it.  That’s what this lifestyle of constant socializing does to you.

Some of the coolest things here are the animals. So far I have seen 2 armadillos, a tarantula, a snake and 2 geckos. There was even a very large iguana in my residence and a hummingbird in my room. This is what happens when every window and door in the residence is always open.

School started this week and it’s very strange. We got to school from 7:30 until 1:30 and we don’t eat lunch until the end of it. There are no bells or morning announcements so to me it doesn’t really feel like school. I have homework already a quiz next week but it still feels like we are playing school instead of really doing it.

I’m sure eventually this will all seem like normal life, truthfully it’s getting close, but for now its a wonderful adventure every minute of the day.

Pura Vida

40 years ago, my grandfather picked up a magazine in a dentist’s office. In it he read about this revolutionary new school in BC called Pearson College. It was a school for well rounded, intelligent teenagers to study at for the last two years of high school. With a high-level high school curriculum and a special focus on extra-curriculars, it sounded to him like the best place a kid could go to high school. He tried to convince my dad to apply, with no success. When my aunt was old enough she applied, but wasn’t accepted.

When I was in Grade 9, my dad told me about this school. I instantly latched on to the idea of attending and started researching the school. I found out that I could apply when I was sixteen. One of the more interesting discoveries I made was that there were actually 14 schools like Pearson around the world, which are all part of a group called United World Colleges (UWC).

When the summer before Grade 11 rolled around I was still interested in attending Pearson, so I filled out a detailed application and sent it in. I spent the next 3 months in New Zealand and the application was pretty far from my mind.

In January, the phone rang and they asked if Anique Baillon was home. The woman on the phone proceeded to invite me to an interview for Pearson. I did my best to sound professional on the phone and then screamed and ran to tell my dad as soon as she hung up.

I had about three weeks to prepare for the interview but I didn’t really know what they were going to ask. I kept up with news more than normal but there wasn’t much else I could do. So on Saturday morning, I entered a private school in Toronto to face 7 interviewers. They were very nice but I was still incredibly nervous. The questions were hard enough but I thought I answered them fairly well. Then I got to hang out with all the other candidates for a while. They told us we should know near the beginning of March.

By the beginning of April I was wondering if they had forgotten about me. Then I received an  email that said “We are sorry but you have not been accepted. We can place you on a wait list but its unlikely that there will be spots available”. I asked to be put on the wait list but I assumed that it would never happen and so I gave up on that dream.

A month later, I was sitting at home when my mom called me and said “Are you still breathing?”. I had no idea what she was talking about until she told me to check my email. I had an email that said that I had been nominated for a spot at the UWC in Costa Rica. A week later I got my official acceptance letter.

So on August 16 I set out on my biggest adventure yet. I am going to school in Costa Rica for 2 years with an intense curriculum and 160 kids I don’t know at all… And I couldn’t be more excited!

The Leap of Faith

Standing at the edge of a 43 metre drop is always going to make you nervous. Today I learned that it’s even more nerve racking when you are preparing to jump off.
Let me back up. In 1988 a man called AJ Hackett opened the first commercial bungy jump in the world. It was just outside of Queenstown, New Zealand, on the historic swing bridge over the Kawarau river. Since then more than 2 million people have bungy jumped from that spot. Today I joined the ranks of daredevils and jumped.
Since we decided to go to New Zealand I have said that I wanted to go bungy jumping but secretly I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I did some research and got the okay from Mom and Dad but I still wasn’t sure. On our first day in Queenstown I realized that I would regret it if I didn’t jump in the home of bungy jumping. So I booked my jump, paid the money and then waited for two days getting more and more nervous. By this morning I was pretty freaked out but super excited too.
At 11:20 we got on the bus that takes jumpers (and spectators) to the bridge. Once we got there, we were told that jumpers could jump whenever they wished and so I went out to watch others jump. After watching about 10 successful jumps and I decided it was time. I was nervous as anything but I was ready to go. I went up on the bridge and the crew strapped my harness on. Then I had to stand in line while the people in front of me went. As I waited I felt complete terror and total excitement.
After what felt like an agonizingly long wait, I was sitting on the preparation platform and one of the workers was putting a towel around my ankles and then a harness around them.
Now it was really happening and I was so nervous. The worker could obviously tell so he started distracting me by teaching me a secret handshake.  It worked and the next thing I knew I was waddling (my ankles were tied together)  to the edge of the platform. Looking down at the turquoise river, I still couldn’t quite believe that I was doing this. Then the jumpmaster stepped up behind me and said “3… 2… 1… JUMP.
I was ready…until he said JUMP. When he said that I thought “Oh god I need to stay on the platform” but I was already past the tipping point. I just spread my arms out and screamed. The fall was like nothing else, pure adrenalin and fear and excitement all at once. After a few seconds of free fall I started to bounce upside down. This part wasn’t so much fun because the blood started rushing to my head. Then the guys in the raft grabbed me and pulled me into the boat. After they took my harness off I climbed up the stairs to see my family. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. I  was, and still am, so proud of myself for facing up to that fear and jumping. The adrenalin rush was amazing and I would jump again if I had the chance.


Preparing to Jump


3...2...1... JUMP


The Swan Dive


Mom, Dad and Owen hold their breath




Safely on the raft

So if anyone is planning on coming to Queenstown, I suggest going Bungy Jumping with AJ Hackett. You are crazy if you do but you are crazy if you don’t.

Nine Degrees and Raining

Half the people we meet tell us that this rainy weather is just what happens in New Zealand, the other half apologize for the weather. Regardless of what it’s normally like, we have had awful weather lately. The worst of it was in the Catlins, the south eastern corner of New Zealand. Over the course of our four days there we experienced pouring rain, gale force winds, daytime temperatures of 6C, and hail storms. All this prompted us to write another rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, this one based entirely on what we experienced in the Catlins.
It goes like this:

On the twelfth day in the Catlins New Zealand gave to me:
Twelve gale force days
Eleven big black clouds
Ten frozen toes
Nine degrees and raining
Eight rusty wheels
Seven giant hills
Six twisty roads
Five numb fingers
Four soggy tourists
Three hail storms
Two frozen ears
And hypothermia

For our first version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, click here
For the full story of our time in the Catlins, click here.

The Misty Mountains

After a lovely ride through the Buller Gorge and the West Coast we have reached the Southern Alps. The mountains have been getting progressively bigger since we started crossing the South Island and now they have finally become the Alps. These towering, snowcapped mountains are home to all sorts of birds and plants as well as several glaciers.
On our first day in Greymouth,  we rented a car (a Mazda Demio) and headed south towards the Franz Joseph Glacier. On our way we stopped to explore Hokitika,  a popular tourist town near Greymouth. There we found a Saturday morning market.  Though the market was small, we made a few purchases. Dad and Owen both bought pounamu (jade) pendant and we shared this fantastic, Hungarian, fried, garlic – flavoured pancake called a Langos. I also bought a jade necklace in Hokitika. Pounamu (jade) is a very important stone in Maori culture and necklaces with carved pounamu pendants are very popular. From there we drove all the way to the village of Franz Joseph. The drive, although pretty, was not as stunning as the ride from Punakaiki to Greymouth. We did get to cross a combination rail and car bridge (a bridge where you literally have to drive on the train tracks to get across), which dad was thrilled about.
After lunch,  we went on the glacier walk just past the village of Franz Joseph. The glacier is receding very quickly, so the only way to actually hike on it is to fly there by helicopter. This is why we stuck to the (free) hike to the view point. We walked through the bush for a few minutes before popping out into a large valley. We could now see the glacier itself. We were a bit concerned that the low hanging clouds were going to cover the glacier but it was easy to see and it was even in sun for a while.  We walked up the braided river that comes from the glacier, to the lookout point. It was  stunning. Both sides of the steep valley had rock faces and cliffs all over as well as gorgeous steep waterfalls and natural bush. The mouth of the valley gave way to steep cliffs and the glacier itself. This was our first experience with the Southern Alps, the filming location of the Misty Mountains in the Hobbit movies.
The next day we woke up to low hanging clouds and spitting rain. As far as we could tell, this seemed like the worst possible weather for our TranzAlpine train journey. We had a tickets for the train that goes from Greymouth to Christchurch via Arthurs pass and we had been hoping for a clear day to see the mountains. By the time we got on the train (1:30) it was still cloudy and wet. We resigned ourselves to missing the snowcapped mountains.
The train took us through some large valleys with more braided rivers. It took about 1 hour and a half to reach Otira, the last town before we got to Arthurs Pass, the point at which the water flows either to the east coast or to the west coast. At Otira the mountains were still obscured, much to our dismay. When we left that station we headed into the 8.5km Otira tunnel. This rail tunnel climbs on on a very steep grade and took nearly 15 years to construct. After about half an hour in the tunnel we came out into the Hamlet of Arthurs Pass…. and clear skies!
From here on we got to see the snowcapped mountains clearly. They were astonishing. We took advantage of the outdoor viewing carriage to photograph the mountains. As we were standing out there we began to see the Waimakariri gorge. This beatiful glacial blue river has carved a gorge through the foothills of the Alps. We rode the train along the steep cliffs beside the gorge and across several shockingly high viaducts over the river itself.
We soon parted with this gorgeous river and continued across the plains of Canterbury to Christchurch.
So while the Misty Mountains might look forbidding and scary in the movies they are definitely worth a visit in real life.

NB: Technical issues mean that I have no photos at the moment. I’ll post them as soon as I can.

The Coolest Little Capital in the World

That’s what the Lonely Planet called Wellington, NZ. I think that’s a pretty accurate description.
We have spent the last 5 days in Wellington and we have had a chance to really explore it.
We got here on Tuesday evening after taking the train from Masterton. On Wednesday we awoke to gorgeous weather. We took the bus into Wellington and set off to find the cable car to take us up the mountain. On our way we stopped in at a book store. I bought a book on the recommendation of one of the employees. Coincidence of all coincidences, it happened to be set in Lanark County, Ontario! Of all the books he could have told me to read!!!
From there we went up the cable car to the botanical gardens where we ate lunch with a panoramic view of the city. The botanical gardens were gorgeous and full of all kinds of foreign plants. They were also very confusing to navigate so we spent a few hours wandering around before we went back into the city. We had a snack on the lawns in front of the parliament and then we walked along the wharf. The wharf is super cool and very people friendly with lots of places to hangout and cafes all over the place. After coffees (for mom and dad) and smoothies (for Owen and I) we went home.


Wellington's awesome wharf

Thursday’s weather was not so picturesque. It was cold and overcast and so we went to Te Papa, the national museum. This is a 6 floor museum in the heart of Wellington. We spent almost all day there and only covered two floors. We saw an exhibit on how New Zealand was formed, the only colossal squid on display in the world, tons of Maori artefacts and cultural displays, and exhibits on New Zealand’s early settlers and social issues. It is a fantastic museum for people of all ages and better yet it’s free. A must see in Wellington! On our way home that night we went to the Old Bank Shopping Arcade which is a fantastic old Bank of NZ building that has been converted to a classy mall. It has original tiled floors and wooden counters and it’s totally gorgeous. Our last stop that day was Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. This massive timber frame cathedral is nearly 200 years old and is made of wood in a lovely Gothic style. It’s calm and dark inside and makes a lovely change from the hustle and bustle of the city.


Old St. Paul's

Friday was even worse weather than Thursday but we braved it and headed into the city. We went to Miramar (a subdivision) first. Miramar is New Zealand’s biggest movie making location and it’s also the home of Weta Cave. This is the company that did all the props and effects for all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. We saw all sorts of authentic props and hard core memorabilia in the entrance way and then we took a tour through the actual workshop itself. Once inside we were warned that anyone that took any pictures and posted them online would be sued for the entire production cost of the movie they were from… so there’s no proof that we have been there. We were explained how the props were made and what they were made with. I held a gun from “District  9” , a skull from the Twin Towers, and chain mail from the Hobbit. We saw props from Tintin, the Hobbit, Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and several others. We watched an employee sharpen a sword and we watched a sculptor doing her work. All in all it was really cool to see the behind the scenes in real life and all those props for real. After lunch we went on a tour of the Parliament Buildings. The government is a lot like Canada’s except they don’t have a Senate. This is because in 1950 the senators actually voted against the existence of the Senate (and their own jobs) and they haven’t had one since. The highlight of the tour (for me, anyways) was when we went into what used to be the Senate and the tour guide appointed me as Queen for the day. I got to sit at the front of the room and yell “Off with your head” when the tour guide walked in front of me. It was a lot of fun.


The Beehive, part of Wellingtons iconic Parliament Buildings

On our last day in the Wellington region we went for a bike ride (I know) around the suburb that the campsite was in (Lower Hutt). On our tour we went into a Macpac store. There was a 40% everything sale on and that was enough to convince Mom and Dad to buy a new tent. You see, our old one had seams that were ripping, a fly that was stretched and leaking and far too many vents for these cold nights. This new Macpac tent is heaven because it’s so warm but I was sad to see the end of the only tent I have ever known. The rest of the day was spent biking on the wharf and the Riverside and chilling in the sun on the Library’s lawn.


The new tent

We left Wellington this afternoon aboard the Straitsman, a Bluebridge ferry. We had a calm crossing and fantastic views the whole way and we are now comfortably settled in Picton.


The Straitsman

So thanks Wellington, for having a lively and exciting downtown, an aweome wharf and even your unpredictable weather. I think you really are the coolest little capital in the world.

12 days of Kiwi Christmas

When we do these long days of riding there isn’t a whole lot to occupy us. The scenery is beautiful but we have to keep our eyes on the road for the most part. We can’t read or listen to music. We can’t play eye spy because the only things to see are sheep and hills.
We had to find something to do with the time so we have taken to singing. Only on back roads, of course, and we shut up whenever a car goes by but we still sing. We sing everything from Micheal Jackson to french camp songs.
Today Owen asked me to give him a song to sing while he biked up a hill. I told him to sing the 12 days of Christmas… without taking a breath on the countdown part.
He couldn’t remember the lyrics to the first verse and when he hesitated dad filled in with “a Kiwi in a kiwifruit tree”. That gave us the idea to try to come up with a Kiwi version of the 12 days of Christmas. We tried to incorporate some of our favourites Kiwi icons and experiences.
This is what we got:
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
12 Surfing Santas
11 Germans Travelling
10 Roadkill Possums
9 Hiace Vans
8 Tattooed Maori
7 Giant Hills
6 Twisty Roads
56 Million Sheep
4 Cycling Tourists
3 Pukekos
2 Kiwi birds
And a Tui in a Kauri tree

The Art Deco Capital of the World

Anyone who knows me knows that I love anything related to the 1920s and 30s. That means that I love all things Art Deco. That, in turn,  means that I love Napier, New Zealand.
Napier originally looked like any booming colonial town. Edwardian buildings, wrought iron fences, wooden homes and cramped streets. That all changed in 1931 when the entire town of Napier was demolished by an enormous earthquake. This earthquake was quickly followed by fire, destroying all but a few buildings. 
When the Town Council regrouped after this catastrophe, they decided to build the town back up in one cohesive style. They chose Art Deco for its optimism, it’s futuristic feel and, of course, because it was the fashion of the time. Funds were gathered from Insurance Brokers, Government grants, sponsors and towns people and they started rebuilding within 6 months of the ‘quake. There were four different architectural practices in town and they came together to redesign the town, with the help of many newly graduated architects from Aukland. Because it was the Great Depression it was easy to find men to do the physical labour to build the town. This meant that they rebuilt within 10 years.
All this gives the town a marvelously upbeat feel with its pastel colours and charming facades.


A just an ordinary buisness front in Napier

There is the lovely pale blue, Masonic Hotel, the yellow and light pink outdoor soundshell, the navy blue fire hall and the stunning theatre. We had the privilege of going inside some of the buildings where we saw amazing oak doors, black and white tile floors, white marble staircases and many types of integrated light fixtures. We even saw one with a glass roof.


Inside the Municipal Theatre

I absolutely love that even though all the buildings have their own personality, they also work together to create a whole. You can just picture a woman a red fringe dress and headband leaning from a balcony or a man in a tailored suit and a straw boater driving a swoopy-fendered car down the road.


Iconic 1930s car on Emerson St.

While this was a crisis at the time, Napier is now glad that earth quake happened. Their stunning array of Art Deco buildings has turned them into, not only a tourist hotspot, but also a truly fantastic town.


Oh, and our ride from Taupo to Napier was this fantastic Toyota Hiace from Rent-a-dent

From Loopy Singh to Raglan South

I have been procrastinating writing a post, surprise surprise, so this is going to be a recap of the last 5 days.
On Saturday, we left Auckland on our bikes. We had a lovely, if hilly, through Tuakau, Sir Edmund Hillary’s hometown, on to the town of Pukekawa. We were headed to a Backpackers hostel recommended in our guide. As we were entering Pukekawa a truck carrying cattle pulled over in front of us. Out hops an older woman who tells us that she is, in fact, the proprietor of the very hostel that we were headed to. She gave us directions and headed off again. That night we stayed at their hostel. They let us cook in their kitchen, eat in their dining room and watch rugby with them. We met and became friends with the proprietors Anita and Penny and their good friends Caroline and Jeff. They even gave us pie for dessert. It was a fantastic first night of our trip.
The next day was much the same. Beautiful scenery, big hills and equally big downhills. However the next night was completely different.
We had traveled 55km when we arrived at our destination of Waingoro Springs. We discovered that the hot springs was closed and that there was only a pub and a campground in the whole town. They were both looking very rundown. We stayed regardless because we didn’t want to bike another 30 km to Raglan that day. We set up camp and went to hang out in the kitchen. There we met the owner of the campground for the first time. She was an older Indian woman who was almost 6 ft tall. She was so crazy that she was probably certifiable. We started calling her Loopy Singh because she was so nuts. She was constantly forgetting our names and she told us her whole life story in the first 15 minutes that we met her. This included a description of all the places that she had owned, which had presumably gone under. At one point she told us that “God made some funny creatures”. All I could when she said that was “Yeah, you!”. She was too wacky to describe properly but believe me she was coocoo for coco puffs.
Because there was no where to get food in that town we went to the pub for dinner. The meal was good and the bartender was super nice but there were a bunch of very drunk, very down and out guys hanging around the bar. On our way out on of them stopped us and tried to talk to us. He was pretty much impossible to understand because he was slurring and he kept throwing Maori words into his sentences. All we known is that he wanted us to stay safe on our bikes. All that made for a very different night than the one before.
After that we moved on to Raglan. There we met a Kiwi family that we became fast friends with. They had two daughters near my age and we spent the next two evenings hanging out and playing games with them. They had 3 tents for the 5 of them so we called their site Raglan South. They shared their extra food and we went head to head in Scattergories. It was another great example of Kiwi hospitality. Raglan was fantastic for another reason. WE WENT SURFING! Yes you heard that right we all went surfing. We had a surfing lesson on Tuesday and we all managed to stand up several times. Dad and Owen stole the show by standing up almost right away. We loved it so much that we decided we had to try it again. We rented boards and wetsuits from the local backpackers hostel. We chose to rent from there because they also have free transportation. Little did we know that that meant they were going to lend us an ancient Subaru Legacy. We strapped our boards on the roof and headed to Ngaranui again. We surfed for 3 more hours. It was a fantastic few days!

So if you are headed to New Zealand go to Raglan and avoid Waingoro Springs.