Upon being asked the very relevant question "What have you been doing, anyway?", I realize that I've been remiss in saying exactly how my time down under has been spent. Besides KrisDina, the Moleskine and some chatty waiters and waitresses, no one but me can say whether I've actually been spending this vacation well or merely sitting in the Auckland airport, thumbing through travel pamphlets of places I'd like to go but won't on account of this country being all crazy and backwards and funny shaped and who really needs two islands, anyway? In that light, I thought I'd share.
I guess I've been just a little reluctant to do so when the occasional internet kiosk affords me the opportunity because I feel guilty. You're there and I'm here and I didn't want to rub your nose in it. But I care and since I did leave, I thought you should know that I did so with good reason: to take advantage of the opportunity to see a new place and see it well.
(And, please, note that I'm doing this writing in none-too-cheap internet time. So while I will spare no detail, you must afford me the opportunity to lapse into stream of consciousness ramblings, commas and homonyms be damned. Also, the constraints of this computer have forced me to change my writing style slightly. For example, I cannot figure out how to type an em dash, and only you could fully understand how much that it presently killing me.)
Days zero through three: The Land of Auck
Despite a little research, I actually have no idea what the "auck" in "Auckland" means. It's an odd little syllable, and, in a way, Auckland is an odd little town. It's not the capital of New Zealand, though I think most people would bet that it is. And though it's a fairly large sprawl, complete with the skyscrapers and ethnicity-centered suburbs you'd expect from a large town, you can drive too far in the wrong direction a bit and suddenly find yourself in rural territory with sheep and cows and rhubarb and the like. In any case, the day after day zero -- the one I spent on One Tree Hill getting the full Auckland panorama, KrisDina and I went searching for this little breakfast spot her boss recommended. Trouble: the Atomic Cafe no longer exists. In its place was a still fully good restaurant called One 2 One, which served fejoia smoothies the likes of which I've never encountered. We walked up K Street, a central thoroughfare, past this weird shopping arcade that seemed entirely devoted to hipsterware. Had Brenna seen it, she would have had a happy little seizure, for sure.Days four through six: Rotorua, the geothermal city
We caught a ferry to Devonport, the part of Auckland that lies on the other side of the bay, and walked around in its suffocating quaintness and then hiked up Mount Victoria, which boasts a cannon that the Kiwi government installed to fight off the oncoming Communist Russian army, which never came. Odd place. A little man like a hobbit came by and showed us into an old bunker, which the Aucklanders have turned into the meeting place for the local bluegrass music players association. Like I said, odd. It rained like it hasn't done again until today, actually, and we decided that the safe, dry option for the night was to catch a movie.
The next morning, our Larry took us to Cousin Francie's strawberry farm, which sounds like the hokiest thing since taking your scoliosis-suffering cousin to a barn dance, I know, but was actually quite nice. I met a cousin of whom I had previously only seen photographs. Francie also let us pick as many strawberries as we felt like, which was enjoyable in that city kids-doing-farm-work-as-a-novelty, Marie Antoinette-playing-peasant kind of way. The we caught a bus to this tourist trap called Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater Experience, where we gawked at penguins and sting rays the size of a Mormon family dinner table. Then we saw Auckland's harbor district, which is called the Viaduct Basin for reasons I do not understand. We wanted to go be all looky, but we ended up having one of those monumental ice breaker dinners, where everyone tells personal stories and becomes best friends. We ate mussels, but the things had little crabs buried inside their shells. Later, someone explained that the crabs were being digested by the mussels, which would account for the little guys' soft shells and blanched coloring. (We did not eat the crabs.) Funny thing about dining out in a country where tipping is not customary: the waitresses think nothing of letting you wait forty-five minutes for your bill.
It being dark enough at that point, we hiked over to the Sky Tower, Auckland's fairly new iconic structure, which lights up in neon green and purple at night. Picture the Space Needle as designed by a ten-year-old with a Buzz Lightyear complex and you get the idea. The deck has glass floors, which allow you to see the city your hovering over. We took lots of pictures. The snooty French hostess rejected us from the revolving restaurant at the top, so we had to settle for drinks at the cafe just below. There, we discovered L&P, a New Zealand-only soda that tastes like a deeper, more mellow lemonade.
After Avis rejected us, we turned to the only car that Budget could offer us: a lemon yellow Volkswagen Polo. An ominous color, I know. The car's lameness was compounded by the fact that it essentially looked like a rolling Easter egg. The drive to Rotorua included a stop in Tirau, which bills itself as the corrugated metal capital of New Zealand. This lofty title is evidenced by several corrugated metal statues -- a sheep dog, a sheep, a shepherd and then a praying mantis, I presume to break up the monotony -- though I couldn't help but look at them and think of Ruffles potato chips.Days six through nine: Waipuk, where everyone's a Mackie
The first morning in Rotorua, we went to a hillside reputed as a prime site for zorbing, that ridiculous extreme sport where you roll around in a big plastic ball. It was actually quite fun and well worth the $45 it cost -- kind of like falling, but roughly twice as pleasant. After that, we went down the street to the Agro-Dome. I remembered liking this place from when I saw it as a kid, but KrisDIna didn't seem all that stoked on seeing what essentially amounted to a sheep show. They quickly realized the error of their ways. I don't know how they do it, but they make sheep-rearing seem flashy and fun. A negative: the sheep do not stack up into a pyramid cheerleader-style like I remembered. Turns out they merely line up on a pyramidal stage. A positive: the sheepdogs they have do run up and down the sheeps' backs in an entertaining fashion.
We also went to a place called Kiwi Encounter. I finally got an up-close look at a real-life kiwi bird. They're bigger than I remember, but still essentially a potato with feet and a long beak. The people there help breed the kiwi bird and then release them into the wild, so we even got to see a one-day-old kiwi hatchling. Fun fact: the egg grows inside a female kiwi bird until it's roughly half her size, rendering her immobile, vulnerable and in a great deal of discomfort. I also found out that my beloved cassowary, relative of the kiwi bird, is native to Australia and now I want to see one, ride it, steal it, take it back to California and name it Charlie.
That night we went to a hangi, the Maori version of what is called a luau in Hawaii. The whole deal had this air of inauthenticity, however, since it was held in a hotel. The food was good, especially the kumara, which are tubers that taste like sweet potatoes should. However, I felt oddly guilty during the cultural performance afterward. Like the Native Americans, the Maori kind of got a raw deal. And they totally have the right to pedal their culture to tourists as much as anybody else, but I felt like they kind of sold our to these busloads of Canadian and Korean senior tour groups kind of in the same way that I feel like Chumash sold out every time I see their name affixed before the word "casino." The performance included a love ballad duet that told the story of a Maori youth and maiden you fell in love despite being from opposing tribes and thusly sang to each other from the opposite shores of a lake that separated them. But although the male lead was played by a suitable Maori man, the female part was played by a menopausal-looking woman who could have easily been his mother. I got kind of sad when I characteristically overthought the situation and guessed that this particular troop couldn't find a young Maori lass talented or interested enough to play the part.
We woke up the next morning and set out for Hell's Gate, a geothermal spa that had a good, proper Maori name until George Bernard Shaw visited and noted that the place looked too much like the afterlife his atheist soul was doomed for to be called anything else. The sparse foliage and bubbling gray mud has this allure that I guess I have to attribute to its otherwordliness, for lack of anything else. The best part was the mud bath and sulphur spa we took after. Supposedly the stuff has medicinal properties. I think it gave me blackheads. Fun and dirty, all the same.
Too late in the day, we found, we set off for Lake Taupo and then Napier, the city known for its art deco architecture. So well known, in fact, that they nearly didn't have any room for us. We chanced upon a hostel with a vacancy just before we would have had to push south to Waipukurau, luckily. Our first tase of down under nightlife. Bar music doesn't suck here, it turns out.
Funny how everyone in my dad's hometown looks like him: my dad fatter, my dad taller, my dad wrinklier, my dad balder, my dad as a lady. This whole stay was exactly what you'd expect from any occasion in which a relative from out of the country comes to visit. We pinballed from one relative to the next, for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, tea. All very nice. I got to see my grandmother, whom I hadn't seen in eight years. Everyone prepared me for her not remembering me -- she's in a home now -- but she did and I was very happy. Oh, also we got to ride four-wheelers around a sheep farm and eat lots of red meat.Days ten through twelve: The aptly named Christchurch
We flew from Napier to Christchurch on the south island. This city has more houses of worship than I could count, and all of them looked a few centuries older than they possibly could have been. We stayed right near the central Anglican cathedral, however. We also overslept and only had time the next day to go see the city's art museum, which had lots of contemporary stuff I really liked, though the names of the featured artists all escape me now. That night, we ate at my cousin Hamish's. I don't remember meeting him, though we apparently did the last time my family came through Christchurch. It's so odd to see cousins not too much older than me living in the suburbs with a wife and kids old enough to have some concept of what "the cousin from America" means. They named their daughter Skyla, after the Minnie Driver character in "Good Will Hunting," so there's still a flair for pop culture-addled youth in them. He took us up to an overlooked called "Sign of the Kiwi" -- and yes, there actually is a wooden sign with a kiwi bird on it -- and the city looked nice from all the way up there.Day fourteen through two days ago:
We picked up our second rental car, a tan Nissan Pulsar. There is not sadder phrase in English than "tan Nissan Pulsar." It was cheap, though, which was good since a rock cracked the windshield of the Polo and we had to pay through the nose. Kristen claimed to have actually compiled a list of the Pulsar's pros and cons, and the cons truly win. Worst of the worst: no functional tape deck or CD player.Whatever day I'm on now:
In our shit-colored car of shittiness, we drove all the way down to Queenstown, which took nearly all day. Pretty country though, and finally stuff that doesn't look anything like countryside in California. Queenstown is this awesomely quaint little ski town and adventure sport mecca. We stayed at a hotel named for the owner's cat, which blew, then spent the next day testing our propensity for extreme intensity by taking a gondola to the city's overlook. It's quite beautiful. As with the rest of the glacier-scarred south island, sediment in the lakes makes the water a pretty teal color. Also, Queenstown is framed on nearly all sides by mountains, the most craggy of which are one of the only ranges in the southern hemisphere to run from magnetic north to magnetic south. Their name: the Remarkables, which sounds like a Motown group, I think.
Easily the best day we've had in the whole trip was the second one spent in Queenstown. We went over to Shotover Canyon, where we rode a jet boat through this seemingly dangerous rocky stretch. The drivers get off on making the boats veer as close as possible to jutty rocks and then pulling 360-degree spins. Quite fun and not as soaking as you'd expect. We did this when my family came through eight years ago.
Then we bungy jumped. At the place where the sport was invented, no less, a bridge with a long Maori name that commonly gets abbreviated to "K Bridge."
I'm not sure, but I think the drop is 43 meters, though that measure doesn't really capture how steep it feels when you're standing on the ledge. The girls went first, since they weigh less, and I had to stand up there alone, save for the bungy nuts who work there. The think about bungy jumping that's really scary, however, is that the harness isn't as comprehensive as you'd think. It's really just a few scraps of fabric cobbled together. Part of it is just an ordinary bath towel. And yet somehow this thing is supposed to prevent you from falling to your death.
So I'm standing there, listening to "Dyer Maker" play with its "Oh oh oh oh oh oh / You don't have to go-o" and when the guy finally counts down from five, I just stand there dumbly. So he tells me to look straight forward and then he counts again. And I step forward and as I start to fall, I see that there's this random sheep on the hillside opposite the bridge where I'm jumping. And it's nowhere near a grazing area and I my mind fixates on this sheep and the last thing I can remember thinking is "Oh look! a sheep!" And I've been in New Zealand for more than two weeks and I've seen more sheep than I've seen people and I'm bungy jumping for the first time and all I can think to say is "Oh look! a sheep!" And then I'm hanging upside-down at the bottom. I couldn't tell you what the fall was like. I think I blacked out.
That night, sore and dazed, we went to the Minus 5 bar, where everything is made of ice and you can only stay for a half-hour. They give you gloves, since the glasses are also made of ice. Things get blurry.
So here I am in Hokitika. I guess I won't see the glowworm dell, though writing this letter to you has been more fulfilling than that would have been, I think. The past two days have consisted of a lot of being in the car, driving though this lush scenery that looks like the backgrounds from Donkey Kong Country, though I don't think that will mean much. It's nice. Rain forest imposed on glacier country, with quaintness abounding. Franz Joseph Village was cold and the view of the glacier was obscured by this kind of low-lying cloud that hugs around mountain midsections and looks like moustaches. We're flying from Christchurch to Sydney on Wednesday, and it's hard to believe I'll be seeing a whole other country before I'll see you again. I hope, if nothing else, this letter proves that I've seen a lot and been making good use of my time.Write back. Tell me what you've been up to. Go into great detail. I care more than you know.
And, now that I think about it, don't be surprised if I take up your post-as-open letter trend and put this on the Cereal Box. I don't think I can bare to trudge through all this again, at least not on a keyboard.
All my love,