I’m going on an adventure!

Yes, this was the famous line made by Bilbo Baggins in the movie “The Hobbit.” Like the famed character, I was given the chance to chart my own adventure to Tolkien’s Middle Earth… New Zealand!

View from one of the Hobbit houses, across is the Baggins house below the giant tree

New Zealand has always been one of my favorite countries. I mean who would not be fascinated by this country? Without an iota of doubt, it was the perfect location for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. So when I was given the opportunity to travel to New Zealand a.k.a. ‘Middle-Earth’ for an IHEU General Assembly last month, you could just imagine how ecstatic I was.

I had to apply for a travel grant first, so I went through the process and waited for the result. Luckily, I got the IHEU grant that was good enough to finance 75% of my travel cost to New Zealand. But as a Filipino citizen, I needed a visa.

One big part of my adventure was with getting the NZ visa. I needed to go first through yet another rigorous application to get myself a tourist visa. And so I did, and it was not easy. I’ll tell you, it was one hell of an adventure, like going to the top of Mt. Doom.

Adventure as it should be since I possess a Philippine passport, a passport from a developing country, and there’s always that chance that my request for a visa would be denied. The whole process was mentally excruciating, just so you know. My cortisol level was raised up to the tenth degrees, that I could no longer put into words the mix of emotions I felt during that phase of my adventure. I could only remember how stressed out I became during the whole processing and waiting for my NZ Visa application, like I had to skip meals several times and having barely three hours of sleep in a week span. I completed my application, and submitted it on May 5. After stressful twelve days, at long last, that awaited email I received from NZ Embassy drained all the negative emotions in an instant. To simply put, I got a positive response from NZ Immigration.

(Some of the conference delegates had to haggle with immigration lawyers just to secure theirs.)

I think it’s just noteworthy to make mention of Marissa Torres-Langseth a.k.a Ms M, who pushed me to go this far. She has been like my Gandalf on this journey to the land of the Hobbits. She provided me with all the documents I needed to seal the deal with a New Zealand visa.

Now that I have received my visa, the next step to my adventure was getting myself ready. So I had to forage for all the stuff that I would bring with me to New Zealand. I had to make sure I had everything necessary for my journey to the land of the Kiwis: a big traveling backpack, enough clothes, sweaters, shoes, toiletries, etc.

All my stuff had already been packed and ready to go when something unexpected happened: a band of thieves broke into my place and stole a good amount of stuff, money, as with the ready-to-go backpack, while I was away for work. How’s that for an adventure? Needless to say, I got depressed of course, since it would again cost me a fortune to get new stuff ready for this travel to NZ. I just thought of bouncing back, suck it up, and continue this adventure. I had to do a three-day side trip in Manila and Baguio to shake off some jitters. As planned, I had a good time in Baguio and Manila, relieved enough, and ready for New Zealand.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sidetrip in Malaysia

Time: 6:50 AM.

Flight time has come, my excitement grew bigger as I so adore morning flights, and more stoked for my 11-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Good thing my flight only lasted 3 hours.

I arrived at KLIA 1 safe and sound. Now the sleep-deprived and famished Filipino in me wanted food, so off I went for my first Malaysian breakfast.

Ikan goreng and Nasi goreng for heavy breakfast

Fast forward 10 hours of non-stop itinerary in Kuala Lumpur through the super impressive, efficient, not crowded, RAPID KL transport system. So I visited these following places:

1. Bricksfield- Also known as Little India.

I had south Indian sweet treats, ate Tamil-Keralan heavy lunch. (Most of my friends know about my fondness for Indian food and culture)

Kortumalai food place uses Banana leaf as plate. Distinctly South Indian

Food selection in Kortumalai food place

2. The iconic Petronas Tower, the tallest building in the world from 1998-2004, and still the tallest twin towers.

Petronas Towers, KLCC Park, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

3. KL (Menara) Tower, the tallest freestanding building in Malaysia, 7th in the world.
(Unfortunately I didn’t take any picture of KL Menara)

4. Sultan Samad Building, Merdeka square, and Jamek Mosque.

Sultan Samad Building

One most distinct feature of Malaysia is that it has the Malaysian flag waiving in almost every corner of the street. My amazing Malaysian short tour finally went into a halt. Now time to get ready for New Zealand. I was sticky from my whole day of non-stop walk under the sun from one place to another, so I had to take a bath in one of the toilet places in KL Airport. Fast forward to my actual flight from KL to Auckland, I had the privilege to find my place by the window and no one was seated beside me. That meant I had enough space to squirm myself in a good-for-three space for a more comfortable sleep on the plane.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

On board MH 131 overlooking Tasman Sea, just a few minutes before landing

I arrived at Auckland International Airport at exactly 1:38 PM.

Mandatory selfie upon arrival at Auckland Airport

Kia Ora! Now I’m officially in New Zealand. But first I had to take a selfie, for documentation purposes.

Side note: Kiwis are known for their hospitality. Geographically, New Zealand is as isolated as all Polynesian countries. Their isolation makes them a welcoming people.

I had to go through the friendly immigration. The queue was long, good thing there were Filipinos at the airport in the same line with me who readily shared their story how they made it out of the Philippines.

When I got out of the immigration the first person I met at the airport lobby was Ramdeo Vishwadbandhu from India. I have exchanged emails with him prior to coming to New Zealand.

Selfie with Ramdeo Vishwabandhu bhai.

Good thing there were only a few people waiting at the arrival hall, so I easily spotted my name written on a placard held by Ms. Judy de Leeuwe of Humanist Society of New Zealand, who volunteered to fetch us from the Auckland Airport . Judy welcomed us with a warm smile- warm enough to ignore the 6°C afternoon wind from Antartica blowing against my fat Filipino face. (Yes, it’s interestingly winter in New Zealand found at the Southern Hemisphere when it’s summer on the other part, the Northern Hemisphere).

Off we went to our hostel in Auckland CBD, just a stone’s throw away from the iconic City Tower which actually served as marker whenever I lost my way through the streets of Auckland.

Auckland City SkyTower, the city’s major landmark

I didn’t want to waste my time, so I then decided to go for a stroll around the city to have an actual feel of NZ winter and forage for food like a bear who had gone out of hibernation. The first restaurant I went to was The Taj Mahal Indian restaurant. The food stuff in Taj Mahal was relatively cheap, where I was able to eat a decent Indian Thali (platter full of food) for just 12 bucks.

Indian Thali (platter of food)

Friday, 3 August 2018

My second day here in Auckland. I woke up late in the morning maybe due to fatigue. So right away I headed off to get myself some quick breakfast at the Warehouse along Wellesley St.

After my breakfast, I went ahead just a few meters of walk to Aotea Suqre just right in front of Auckland Townhall.

Aotea Square

Auckland Town Hall

Now I have hurry up to the Rationalist House at 64 Symonds St. But of course as usual, I would always stop by old buildings and take pictures of them.

St. Paul’s church, Symmonds St.

So here’s the Rationalist house. I came here for a quick visit and meetup with IHEYO people

The Rationalist House at Symmonds St

Standing from left to right: AJ Ballares (Philippines), Rana Amjad Sattar (Pakistan) Richy Thompson (UK), Kristoffer Strokkeland (Norway), Chin Wen Feng (Taiwan) Rebecca Ponce ( Belgium) and towering above us all at the back is Romeo de Belleford (Belgium)

Seated from left to right: Gulalai Ismail (Pakistan), Uttam Niraula (Nepal), Anya Lena Overmann (USA), Merieke Prien (Germany) and Viola Namyalo (Uganda)

Rationalist House is a two-story building that serves as a coffee place on the ground floor, and NZRH office on the first floor. Yes, this is confusing, especially to Americans.

This is where we held our IHEYO general assembly and for some organizational updates. I made instant acquaintances with IHEYO people, did some chitchats that ended up looking for a bar where we could talk longer. So we headed off to the Shadows Bar at Princes St. to gulp some locally brewed beers. The name of the place was suggestive, we had a hard time looking for the exact location as it was called Shadows.

Four of us went to this bar; Chin Feng, Viola Namyalo, Anya Lena Overmann, and myself.
So we ordered some beers and talked about World Geography.

Tui Dark Brown Ale at Shadows Bar, Auckland

Then came dinner time. We checked out the food at Auckland’s Night Market.

At a Korean stall, Auckland Night Market

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Venue: The Heritage Hotel, 35 Hobson St, Auckland, 1010.

Now this marks the official reason why I’m here in New Zealand, to attend this Conference and General Assembly.

First thing I noticed, Kiwis, like most Filipinos, are chill when it comes to time. Our program started minutes late. So those who came early had the chance to make acquaintances with humanists from different parts of the world.

Registration opened for those who have not registered yet, while others started sipping on tea and coffee. Then first part of the program proper was initiated by Sara Passmore, the president of Humanists Society of New Zealand. She cordially welcomed us all to this conference and General Assembly.

9:00 AM

The first speaker was Te Henare, one of the leaders of Community of Maori Atheists and Freethinkers who discussed about being an atheist in a Maori community.

Then followed by the second speaker, Eru Hiko-Tahuri, whom I had the chance to have photo with.

Eru Hiko-Tahuri, the man behind Heretical Hori blog

The third speaker was Gulalai Ismail, a Pashtun, who is also a member of IHEU Board. Her speech was about countering violent extremism. She reminds me of Malala Yousafzai.

Fourth speaker Andrew Copson, President of IHEU and UK Humanists Chief Executive talked about non-religious arguments against secularism and how can they be answered.

Andrew Copson, Humanists UK CEO and IHEU President

Fifth speakers were David Hines and Tanya Jacob, for a Flashtalk on challenging religious instructions in New Zealand schools. New Zealand schools are secular.

Then followed by speakers Jackie Clark for Aunty Jackie and Max Wallace for a flash talk on secularism in the Pacific.

Buffet lunch time came, so I have to help myself on these amazing food stuff.

Buffet lunch, first batch

Buffet lunch, second batch

I can’t remember the names of the food I munched on, but I made sure there’s always slices of Kiwi fruit.

At around 2:30 PM we resumed our sessions. First speaker in the afternoon was Catherine Low for Effective Altruism. This workshop dealt with weighing which charity organizations to support and those important things that should be considered.

Then afternoon tea came. I had a chance to meet Imtiaz Shams, whom I’ve known about because of his documentary with Vice News.

Imtiaz Shams (in grey sweatshirt), Founder of Faith to Faithless.

At the center, Shymal Kumar , Fijian Humanist.

Imtiaz and I had a little chat and asked me if he could do an interview with me. Little did I know that Imtiaz is the next speaker. His attention was called that the next session will resume very soon. So he headed off the lectern and talked about leaving conservative religions.

Then member of the IHEU Board, Uttam Niraula, followed on his talk about the politics of the Cow. He’s from Nepal and runs a humanist school in Kathmandu. He discussed rising Hindu conservativism and extremism in India and Nepal.

Sidenote: India’s PM , Narendra Modi, is a ‘Hindu-first’ nationalist leader whose stance consequently encouraged Hindu extremism in the Sub-continent.

Next in line speaker was Leo Igwe who talked about witchcraft accusations and other human rights violations in his native country Uganda and other parts of Africa.

Leo Igwe, Brighter Brains, Uganda

Chin Feng Wen from Taiwan was given a few minutes to talk about Humanistic Pastafarianism. His speech centered on why should this Humanistic Pastafarianism be part of IHEU.

Finally, Joseph Bulbulia from the School of Humanities, University of Auckland, looked at the available evidence on the link between politics and religion. I liked it when he linked the Austro-Polynesian migration to the evolution of language and politics. He raised up three important questions:

1. What religion has done for human species?
2. Where is religion headed in the future?
3. Big challenges to humanists?

Such topics give me thrills.

The conference was capped off by photo ops with humanists around the globe.

IHEU Board Member Kato Mukasa, Uganda

Rebecca Hale, American Humanists Association

Anya Lena Overmann, USA Rebecca Ponce, Belgium

Navin Nathaniel Inassi, Malaysia Ramdeo Vishwabandhu, India Farooq Ahmed, Pakistan Shymal Kumar, Fiji

My globetrotter friend, Paolo Feranini, Italy

IHEU Board Member, David Pineda, Guatemala

IHEYO President, Marieke Prien, Germany

After that whole day of conference, I decided to be alone, since I will not be joining the gala dinner. Plus the fact that it would be too expensive for me. So on my own I went to the viaduct harbor and ate dinner there and drank two bottles of beer. By the way, the Viaduct Harbor oalys a very important role in making

Auckland the largest city in New Zealand. This city is also called the city of sails for a reason.

Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor is lined with upscale restaurants and pubs.

Straight ahead is Auckland Ferry Terminal

Then on my way back to my hostel, I passed by a convenience store and grabbed a bottle of beer to call it a day.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Venue: The Heritage Hotel, 35 Hobson St, Auckland, 1010.

Time: 9:00am

Event: IHEU General Assembly

This assembly mainly zeroed-in on discussions and casting of votes. It was initiated by IHEU president Andrew Copson.

First discussion point was the expansion of the staff team. Then this was followed by setting of a vision of a more diverse and global organization. After Andrew, Gary McLelland, IHEU chief executive, introduced the annual report for the calendar year 2017 and the upcoming new logo and branding for the organization.

Proposed new logo for rebranding

The other members staff gave their share in the general assembly by providing updates in their respective fields. These were Communications and Campaigns Director Bob Churchill, Director of Advocacy Elizabeth O’Casey, and Growth and Development Officer Giovanni Gaetani. Giovanni and Elizabeth appeared in a prerecorded video.

Some of the important discussion points were working on to secure an agreement to establish a new global launch event for the Freedom of Thought Report at the United Nations in New York. This is currently on the works.

Also on this afternoon’s event, HAPI affirmed it’s excellent track record and good standing with IHEU.

After a whole day’s worth of IHEU general assembly, all of us had to disperse to eat dinner. I ate my dinner again at the Viaduct Harbor where there’s a lot of options. But loneliness crept in, so I messaged Chin Wen Feng and the rest of IHEYO people their whereabouts so I can catch up. After 45 minutes of walk I finally found them in an Irish pub called Father Ted’s. At the pub, of course, I got myself this beautiful malty liquid poetry- an original Murphy’s Irish Stout.

Murphy’s Original Irish Stout

Sidenote:

New Zealand beers are excellent. They have the cleanest tap water and best locally grown barley and hops.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sparetime time means I have enough soliloquy moments. So I had to tour myself around the city again. So I went on a sightseeing adventure with my cellphone in my pocket, a little cash, and packs of cheap chocolate.

First destination
1. Albert Park- An 19th century park located right next to the universities. The trees inside the park are refreshing.

Chilling at Albert Park

2. Symmonds Street Cemetery- I spent 15 minutes inside this cemetery to enjoy my solitary moments.

Old tombstones in Symmonds Street Cemetery

3. Auckland domain- I wandered around the city’s oldest park. The park features a centennial walk and thick forested areas.

Auckland Domain Park

4. Auckland Museum- Seated proudly atop of Auckland Domain, once a volcanic cone. This museum has an extensive and vibrant collection, featuring Maori culture and Polynesian way of life.

Maori warrior Te Ware Rawiri bronze bust

Hotunui, Maori ancestral meeting house

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

NZ countryside is such a sight to see, all poster-worthy, that description even is an understatement. I got a day and a half for exploring more of New Zealand, so without second thoughts I grabbed the chance in joining the mini-tour organized by New Zealand Humanists for us.

This time we’re going to see the famous NZ countryside. We went through the state highway passing the towns Papakura, Hamilton and Cambridge. Cambridge is the most English yown of all New Zealand, as described by our driver/tour guide. Then we had a short stop at Lake Karapiro.

Lake Karapiro is a man-made lake on the Waikato River and is renowned as a world-class rowing venue. A number of water sports events are held at the lake including yachting, powerboating, canoeing and water skiing.

I’m going on an adventure!

This time to Hobbiton, the real deal, and why I have this title ‘I’m Going on an Adventure’ for my article. This place is referred to as The Shire, home of the Hobbiton Movie Set where The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies were filmed. This movie set is a 1250-acre sheep and beef farm, and just the perfect bucolic setting for Sir Peter Jackson’s adaptation of these classic works by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The entrance leading to the Shire

Alexander farm road, Matamata

The dreamlike road leading to Hobbiton snakes its way through the rolling verdant hills of Matamata. So we rode on a bus to the actual set.

The Hobbiton Set tourist bus

Along the way there were flocks of sheep in all directions greeted us with their ‘baaah’ in, I guess, Kiwi accent. No joke, they bleat differently.

Sheep basking under the sun

As the bus moved toward the Hobbiton, the more surreal it all became. All the strands of hair in my body stood up in excitement. I can’t conceal it no more, so I just decided to sing along Enya’s song ‘May It Be’ that’s being played in the bus as we moved closer to the site.

So finally, I’m really here.

One of the 44 Hobbit houses

Walking through the village was nostalgic. It reminded me of specific scenes in Lord of the Rings. I could vividly recall where Frodo Baggins told Gandalf that he’s late. Also I spotted where the scenes with the pond and barns Bilbo Baggins jumped over when he was told he’s going on an adventure.

From the Bag End, overlooking The Water

Hobbit laundry

All of Hobbiton were fine-tuned to make it the perfect spot for the movies. Details in the movie set scream perfection.

Random Hobbit’s house

All these Hobbit Holes were created with untreated timber and ply.

Baggins house. The giant tree on top is a fake tree.

Green Dragon Pub, where Bilbo Baggins’ birthday was celebrated in LOTR 1.

Sipping on my exclusive brew by the fireplace. Green Dragon Pub.

After the Hobbiton is Rotorua. The famous geothermal town that offers something for everyone, known as the grand-daddy of New Zealand tourism. They say, ‘you’ll smell Rotorua before you see it’, and true enough to its

description, the first thing I smelled as we approach the Smokey Town was ‘sulfur’. Literally there’s sulfur everywhere!

Sulfur spring in Kuirau park, Rotorua

One of the highlights of my trip in NZ was the Tamaki Maori Village experience. This was one amazing learning experience for all of us who went there. There we saw the Maori culture first hand. And I had a lot of first times.

1. First time to witness an actual Hakka. It was a spine tingling experience. It was also my first time in a while that I felt intimidated.

2. First time to try hongi, a Maori traditional greeting in which people press their noses together. We were told by the chief that this means sharing of breath. What an intimate way to say ‘hello’.

3. Fist time to see ‘poi’ dance in action. Poi is a hand-held weapon. Also used to train the wrist.

4. First time to eat Hangi-cooked food. Hangi is the traditional Maori style of cooking using heated rocks buried in a pit oven.

That sumptuous Hangi cooked dinner made us all sleepy.

We stayed overnight in Rotorua Lakeside hotel. A cozy hotel by the highway. I had enough space to dry my half done laundry from the hostel.

Then morning came, our group decided to do a snap visit in Rainbow Springs. Rainbow Springs nature park was not part of the original itinerary. But we had enough spare time, and just enough for me to squeeze into my tight schedule before I head off for Auckland Airport. This place is a safe haven for Kiwi birds. From there I saw live Kiwis for the first time. But not these taxidermed ones below.

North Island Brown Kiwis

Kiwi birds are nocturnal, so the place where the live ones roam should have a simulated nighttime. You can only imagine how I tried looking through the glass with minimal light just to see a live Kiwi.

Crystal clear pond

Rainbow Springs was a surprise to me. I didn’t expect this to be that good. I searched through the different forested parks in Auckland, and only in this place where the endemic in New Zealand silver fern finally showed up.

Silver Fern. New Zealand’s national emblem.

Rainbow Spings is almost a zoo. It keeps a wide variety of animals, including endangered ones. So it functions as conservation facility too. This includes the ancient Tuatara

Tuatara. Crawling on this planet since 220 million years ago. The only surviving relative of dinosaurs.

California Redwood

Hours have passed, I had a good traverse along the trails of the this nature park. Then came the time that I have to leave so I don’t miss my connecting bus trip from Rotorua to Hamilton, Hamilton to Manukau. I needed to cut this trip short and sped off to the bus station.

At the bus I met a lot of people. I was the only Asian on board, yet these total strangers were so friendly to me, one even offered his Kiwi fruit to me to bring on my journey back to the Philippines.

So my journey has to end here. I cannot translate everything into words the amazing adventures I had in the Middle Earth.

About the Author:  

Already 30 years old
Loves beer more than water
A sucker for different cultures
Ex-MMA fighter
Ex-Pastor

At Kuala Lumpur Airport.

“I make sure that I always bring this pin with me. The very first one I got from HAPI. This serves as my constant reminder of my love for humanity ”

AJ | ED (Alvin John Ballares)

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