We arrived in Auckland after an overnight flight from Bangkok. It was grey and rainy as we drove north on State Highway 1 to Warkworth and up Matakana Road to the village. We found our rental house - a beautiful four-bedroom with a large yard, deck, pool and trampoline - then went out for food.
The house reminded me of many places we’ve stayed on Cape Cod - ranch-style and lacking air conditioning. My mold allergies here were the worst they’ve been in decades. I was fine as long as we were out of the house, but they always flared up at night and my over-the-counter antihistamines were not much help. But it was really nicely decorated and fully stocked (it is a primary residence, not a vacation property) and we got comfortable pretty quickly. I loved the views, especially after few weeks of city-slicking in southeast Asia.
The sun came out on the second day, and we still had a lot of energy for exploring. We drove out to Tawharanui Regional Park for a hike. We slathered on the sunscreen because, in keeping with the New Zealand as Middle Earth branding scheme, the sun here feels like the Eye of Sauron burning your skin. (We were a little surprised when the rental car agent gave us two complimentary bottles of sunscreen; later we learned that New Zealand has about the highest melanoma mortality rate in the world.) The sunscreen doesn’t help with the burning feeling, but it did prevent bad burns. (I think we may have come out a little pink, but that’s all.)
The Ecology Trail at Tawharanui took us along the beach, through wetlands and pasture, and into native bush. It was a microcosm of the North Island landscape, and it was beautiful. We saw ferns and flax and kauri trees. The kauri are a special species unique to New Zealand. They were nearly all cut down by the Māori and early English settlers and now face a devastating die-back disease. The park set up shoe-cleaning stations at the entrance and exit to the bush, because the disease is spread through soil movement. It was interesting having to scrape and spray the bottoms of our shoes during the hike, but important, too.
We had dinner at the Torkingtons that night - an excellent introduction to New Zealand. They live on a peninsula with gorgeous views of the harbor. There is a protected beach and walking trail nearby, too. Basically, they live in paradise. We returned to our place full of yummy food, happy from good company and in awe of the star-filled sky above us. I can’t think of a better way to start a staycation here or anywhere.
As for sightseeing and other activities in Ho Chi Minh City, I didn’t have my heart set on anything in particular. So, one day in Phnom Penh, I had the girls read our Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam and peruse TripAdvisor to find some things they’d like to do. Zoe came in with an incredible idea - eat at Noir, the #1 rated restaurant, which just so happens to be in complete pitch-black darkness.
Excuse me? Did she mention blindfolds? She did? Well, then. NOPE.
Seriously, I did not want to do this. I felt tight in my chest just thinking about it. I am particular about my vision. I like it. I want to keep it. I am afraid of losing it. But, I didn’t want to say no. So I said yes.
We went to Noir on our last night in Vietnam. You are greeted, seated in the dimly-lit and beautifully decorated lounge, offered a welcome drink, then given your briefing. There are two set menus: one Eastern, one Western, three courses each. You are not told what the dishes will be, but you are reassured that there are no “unusual or strange” ingredients. You are asked for your drink orders. Then, you are given a game to play, and blindfold, and shown how to play by one of the sighted-but-hearing-impaired staff.
We were escorted to the dining room. At the entrance, we met our waiter. He has a visual impairment, but spoke English and was very clear in telling us what to do and what was happening. He put us in a line, calling us by name and having us hold on to the shoulders of the person ahead of us. I held his shoulders. We walked into the dark - completely dark - dining room. I felt my eyeballs bulge from my head, straining to find a little light. As we shuffled along in the dark, I heard a woman speaking French somewhat loudly and jumped out of my skin. For a moment or two, I felt like Jodi Foster in “Silence of the Lambs” and I wished to high heaven that the French lady would just be quiet until I got to my seat. It was hard to concentrate on following my waiter with all that noise. (The truth is, she wasn’t that loud, but our perceptions vary when our usual balance of sensory inputs changes.)
We were seated, and the table layout was explained. We were asked to always keep our cutlery and drinking glass in the same place so that our waitstaff could safely serve us. We were advised to close our eyes, because trying to see in the dark would actually cause strain and possibly a headache.
Once I was in my seat, I was more comfortable. I listened - the French lady wasn’t so loud anymore - and I was relieved that we were not blindfolded in the dark. That was part of how I imagined the experience when Zoe first described it, and I think it is what I most strongly reacted to. The first course had two soups and two salads. It all tasted delicious and I had no idea what it was. We all guessed that one of the soups was a chowder, but it was a cream of taro soup. Second course included three meats and a vegetable. We all guessed correctly on the salmon, the pork belly, and the vegetables, but we all missed the duck. I thought it was beef. Zoe thought it was some kind of organ meat. Theo wasn’t sure what it was. The dessert course had three dishes - a sorbet, a pudding, and something else. We guessed the sorbet as lemon, but it was actually tamarind. I don’t even remember what the other two were - I actually didn’t like them.
In some ways, the lack of sight enhanced my sense of taste. However, I was both really uncomfortable and really hungry, so I didn’t savor my food. I would go back to a dark dining restaurant to try to guess the food. I like that kind of mental challenge. When the restaurateur sat with us after dinner to go over the menu and reveal our meal to us, he mentioned that wine critics have been stumped by the wine pairings and that when people are served kiwi fruit without light, they almost never guess what it is. In that moment, I tried to conjure the taste of kiwi, and couldn’t. My sense of kiwi is almost entirely visual!
In our debriefing chat with the restaurateur, I asked which came first for him: the dark dining or the social mission of hiring visually impaired staff. He said it was a mixture of both, but that the dark dining idea really came first. He and his partner went to a similar restaurant in Malaysia and decided that they would open one in Vietnam. Their calling to offer job opportunities to people with visual impairments is something that means a lot in Vietnam, where over 95% of people without vision are unemployed. There is huge social stigma here. People with hearing impairments fare a little better - around 60% of them are unemployed. The next venture of the owners of Noir is a silent dining experience, staffed by people with profound hearing loss.
We said our goodbyes and caught an Uber back to the hotel. I did leave with a headache, but I am so glad we went. It was a dining - and living - experience I will never forget.
In our sixth month of travel, we visited Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We celebrated Christmas and New Year’s on the road, away from family and friends. We took a “vacation” at a resort in Phuket. We ate insects.
I am a changed person. I suspect I will revert to much of my old self after some time settled back in Maryland, but when I think about what life will be like then, I struggle. There are so many things I can’t imagine or believe or forget.
I can’t imagine having as much clothing as I used to have, and I even struggle to imagine having more than I have now.
I can’t believe that I drank fresh camel milk and ate durian fruit, tarantulas (twice!), red ants, beetles and crickets.
I can’t forget how far from home I felt in Morocco. It felt so expansive - the distance between me and home.
I can’t believe the luck we’ve had in being present for other country’s special holidays.
I can’t imagine driving to the stores and restaurants within a mile of my home, and yet I can’t imagine not driving to these places.
I can’t forget how weird U.S. dollars looked to me this month when I saw them again for the first time in over five months. I thought, did they change the bills while we’ve been away?
I can’t believe all of my possessions fit in a backpack and a purse - weighing about 35 pounds - and that I don’t have to carry anything for the kids.
I can’t forget the wonderful people who’ve entered our lives this month, and that those meetings were only possible because of this trip. First, our new friends in Singapore gave us all a fabulous dinner and night of connection during the Christmas season. It was so nice to meet people who had lived where we had lived and had traveled to where we had traveled and whose kids connected with our kids. Second, we met another round-the-world family whose travel plans put them in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at the same time as ours. We connected through Instagram (@mylittlevagabonds) and Facebook and the courage of asking to meet. Cindy, Pierre, Julien and Lily left California a year ago and hope to travel for years to come. There is just something I love about meeting people who have the spirit of world travel.
Now, we prepare to visit New Zealand for one month, to connect with old friends and experience a familiar settled way of life in a brand new setting.