Archive for March, 2009

I’ll Take You As Far As: Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

En Route to Cape PalliserSeals

I recently finished reading Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s account of his farewell trip through Britain, his adopted home of twenty years, before moving back to the United States.  Personally, I’m a great fan of Bill Bryson, especially of his wit, social commentary, and writing style, and have read and recommended a number of his books.  As usual, Notes From a Small Island made me laugh, taught me something new, and gave me plenty to think about.  However, unlike Bryson’s other works, I found this one to be a bit boring and repetitive, perhaps because, as he points out, Britain is a bit boring and repetitive.  After a while, the places visited ceased to captivate the imagination, the people encountered no longer amused, and the anecdotes failed to entertain.  I remain a loyal reader, but I do suggest skipping Notes From a Small Island and going straight to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Neither Here Nor There, or A Short History of Nearly Everything.  But I digress.

Literary review aside, I mention Notes From a Small Island here because I hold it responsible for what happened to me the other day.  Bill Bryson travels through the UK by means of public transport (bus and train) and his own two feet.  He has a rough itinerary, but he allows himself to veer off course when fancy strikes, even if the travel time significantly outweighs the amount of time spent at the destination.  Once he gets the idea in his head to visit a sight he is undeterred, regardless of how complicated the timetables or difficult the route.

A few people had mentioned to me that the nearby town of Martinborough and its lovely vineyards were worth a visit.  But my guidebook’s vague description of Cape Palliser and Palliser Bay, located along the coast of the Cook Strait, had sparked my interest.  Unfortunately, the explanation of how to get to Cape Pallier was as vague as the description of the place itself. But with Bill Bryson in mind, I decided to forgo the wine and make my way instead for the black sand beaches of the Wairarapa coast.

My guidebook did mention that the Cape was located south of Martinborough.  So, I woke up early to catch a train from Wellington to Featherston, where a perfectly timed bus was waiting to take me to Martinborough.  Once I arrived in Martinborough, I visited the local i-SITE for guidance.  One of the kindly women on duty walked me over to a display of pictures of the Cape and explained that it was just a mere 40 minutes down the road.  “Walking?” I asked, naively.
“No, by car.”
“Is there a bus or some other form of public transportation?” I inquired.
The poor woman looked at me like I had just asked her if Santa Claus was real.  She clasped her hands to her mouth in genuine anguish before responding, “No, lovely, I’m afraid there’s not. Can you drive?” she asked, optimistically.
“Not on the left side of the road.”
“Oh dear, well, I’m not going to show you any more of these photos then.”

Disappointed, I thought to myself, what would Bill Bryson do? And then it came to me in a flash of inspiration.  I would rent a bike and ride to the coast.  When I revealed my plan to the woman at the i-SITE, her eyes filled with tears of pride and admiration.  The problem was that no one could give me even a rough estimate of the distance to Cape Palliser or how long it might take to reach it by bike.  But I figured, what the hell? If I don’t make it, at least it will give me something to do for the day.

I hired a bike from the wine center down the road and set off down the lonely path to the Cape.  The scenery was stunning: sheep grazing in green pastures and white clouds topping rolling hills, typical New Zealand stuff.  The road was paved and decently flat, but after just a short time, I started to resemble the Little Engine That Could more than Lance Armstrong.  I’m not the best or most experienced cyclist in the world, but I’m in shape and have taken more than one spinning class.  The challenge wasn’t so much physical as it was mental.  I enjoy traveling alone, but some activities, such as riding a bike an indeterminate distance through deserted farmland, are just not as much fun without a friend.  At one point, I even started talking to a cat that was crossing the road.

After an hour, I finally came upon a road sign indicating the distance to my final destination.  Cape Palliser, it read, 50km.  That’s when I decided to pull over to the side of the road and have a snack.  I was eating an apple, contemplating my options, and secretly hoping that someone would come to my rescue when a car pulled up beside me.  A young, South African woman and her dog Turbo leaned out the window.  “You alright?” she shouted to make herself heard over the sound of the hip hop music streaming from her radio.  “No, actually, I’m not,” I replied.  I approached the car, explained the situation, and accepted her offer to drive me at least part of the way there.

It turned out that she was free for the day. So, rather than take me as far as she was going, she ended up being my travel companion.  We drove along the coast, stopping to watch a group of Danish surfers battle the waves, take pictures of seals, have a few drinks at a hotel bar overlooking Lake Onoke, and talk about life.  She was absolutely fascinating, and we had a great day together, even though one of the only things we had in common was that earlier that day we happened to be in the same place at the same time.

At five o’clock, she and her boyfriend drove me back to Martinborough.  Before dropping me a few blocks from the wine center (to give me the appearance of having accomplished my stated goal), we exchanged contact information and said good-bye, possibly to meet again in the future.  I returned the bike, and headed to the i-SITE to catch a ride back to Featherston with the woman who had helped me earlier that day.

With a few hours to kill before the train departed for Wellington, I made myself comfortable in an Italian restaurant near the station.  I was trying desperately to entertain myself when the owner came over and handed me a stuffed cow.  “A little souvenir for you to take home,” she explained.  Either it looked to her like I could use a friend, or she, like everyone else in this country, thought that I was under the age of 16.

People often think that I’m crazy for traveling alone, and the truth is that it’s not always easy (although neither is traveling with your best friend).  Sometimes I wish that I had someone with whom to share the experiences and the responsibilities, to help me feel safe and keep me entertained.  But days like this remind me that, even in today’s skeptical, cynical, selfish world, if you’re open to accepting rides from strangers and letting new people in, you’re never truly alone. (A fact confirmed again later that night on the train platform, when a clearly inebriated, middle-aged man introduced himself to me by way of a giant hug).  I like to think that even though I never made it to Cape Palliser, Bill Bryson would have been proud. (Or horrified by my foolish behavior.  He is a father after all).


Home Sweet Hostel: Living Long-Term in Temporary Housing

Wellington, New Zealand

During my travels, I’ve stayed in an infinite number of hostels, pensiones, guesthouses, and any other synonym for budget accommodation.  Whether good, bad, or ugly they were, for the most part, predictable and forgettable.  But a few were downright memorable.

The summer that I backpacked through Europe, a Viennese friend of my travel companion was interning in Bratislava, Slovakia. Curious to know what Communism looked like, we agreed to spend a night there partying with him and his coworkers. After an evening of drinking Absinthe and dancing on a houseboat, we retired back to the cement block university dorms where they were staying.  We found an unlocked room, and even though the mattresses were bare and the doors were riddled with what looked like bullet holes, my friend and I immediately passed out in a drunken stupor.  The next morning, we heard the door creak open.  Terrified, we waited for members of the KGB to rush in and shoot us for being spies.  Instead, a four feet tall Russian maid in a fur rimmed jacket peeked in, turned around, and walked away without further incident.  We immediately dressed and treated ourselves to a McFlurry to calm our nerves.

When we arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, we accepted a strange mans offer to lead us to housing because there was no way we could navigate the subway without him. He left us at the home of an old, shrunken, dusty Czech woman who rented out spare bedrooms to travelers.  In her hand, she held an old, shrunken, dusty book.  She searched determinedly for a particular page and pointed to a specific passage: the English translation of the Czech word for “to pay.”  The other room was clearly inhabited, as evidenced by the cigarette smoke and the sound of the Crowded House song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” which wafted incessantly from under the door.  However, we saw our neighbors, two young German men, on only one occasion: when they emerged from their room accompanied by two scantily clad Czech women whose company had no doubt been included in the price of the room.

Because all of the hostels were booked in Florence, Italy, we followed an old, Italian man home from the train station.  He rented us a room adorned with a four-posted bed and decorated with cheap copies of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in his luminous, airy apartment.  In the morning, we were serenaded by the sounds of he and his wife screaming at each other. Tensely, we listened for one of them to throw the other down the stairs. Our money was on the wife.  Thanks to my Spanish, I understood enough Italian to eventually determine that they were discussing the weather.

On a trip to the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, two girlfriends and I stayed in a hostel owned by an expat from the Northeast, USA, who moved to Central America because he suffered from bad circulation.  My friend tactfully pointed out that he could have just bought gloves.  There were no beds available the first night, but the owner kindly offered to let us sleep in his room (while he would sleep on the couch).  There, we discovered his collection of Playboys from the 1970s, and the fourteen year-old Tica, with lips painted in the unmistakable hue of Wet & Wild watermelon lipstick, who lived in a room adjacent to where we were staying.  It suddenly occurred to us that the climate wasn’t the only reason why the owner had migrated south.

Finally, in Antigua, Guatemala, my friend and I stayed at a hostel that shared its diminutive space with a bar/restaurant.  Every morning at 10am, we opened the door of our room to find the 7-foot tall, dreadlocked bartender/cook from Belize preparing breakfast while the bar owner divided a substance that was not oregano into plastic bags.  Sitting at the table outside our window were a Spanish teacher and her student, conjugating verbs and getting high.

Some of these hostels were actually trip highlights.  But regardless of how comfortable the accommodations, how cool the other guests, or how hospitable the staff, I have never felt compelled to stay in one long-term. Personally, I got my fill of random roommates, communal bathrooms, no privacy, and crowded kitchens during college. I hate keeping my valuables locked away, worrying that someone will steal my groceries (whoever ate my last two granola bars, I’m after you), and listening to the incessant commentary of the elated Chilean who happened to be vacuuming the hallway when I returned to my room from the shower, dripping wet and in a towel.  And yet, I find myself going into my second week at a hostel in Wellington.

The hostel where I am staying has a large number of long-term occupants.  In fact, they offer discounts for longer stays and allow guests to work for housing.  It’s always a little awkward when the person you were drinking with last night is cleaning your bathroom in the morning.  I used to envy long-termers.  They were the ones who knew how to work the stove and turn on the hot water.  They had all of the insider information about the coolest cafes, bars, and restaurants.  And they controlled the remote control and took over the couches in the living room.  I used to look at them like they were part of an exclusive, invitation-only club.  Now, they seem a lot more like fifth-year seniors than members of a secret society.

Many of them suffer from failure to launch syndrome.  They came to Wellington with the idea of getting a flat and a job, and integrating into local life.  Instead they got comfortable staying at the hostel, taking advantage of the free dinners and 2×1 drink offers at the adjacent bar and living vicariously through the backpackers passing through, unable to let go of their travel glory days.

Still, in my current situation, living in a hostel is the best, if not only, option.  It is my halfway house, the place where I am staying while I’m transitioning into a new life.  Plus, in addition to temporary housing, the hostel provides me with temporary friends.   As much as I enjoy and need my alone time, spending all day talking to myself can get boring and lonely, not to mention that it’s a good way to develop a borderline personality disorder.  Even though I dread fighting for pots and pans and making small talk after a long day, I secretly love coming home to friendly faces that understand what I’m going through, even if we’re going through it separately.  So even though the search for a flat and friends outside the hostel is definitely still on, there’s no immediate rush.  Because, who doesn’t love going out on St. Patrick’s Day with Irish guys, playing cards with a Swedish couple, and watching Tango & Cash with a group of Dutch, Spanish, and French kids?

The Honeymoon’s Over: Going Back to Work on Monday

Wellington, from Mt. Victoria LookoutWellington, New Zealand

On Waiheke Island, we were innumerable.  In Queenstown, we were seven.  In Wellington, we were four.  And then there was one. I just said good-bye to my friend and her new husband (congratulations!), which means that the traveling portion of this program has now, sadly, come to an end.  Well, at least for now. (Yet, ironically, I am staying in a hostel for the first time since arriving in New Zealand.)

The last few weeks were a hit parade.  From playing Frisbee in Auckland to watching my friend get married on Waiheke Island, splashing around in the Pacific Ocean to cruising through the Milford Sound, sky diving in Queenstown to getting down at Boogie Wonderland in Wellington, this trip has definitely been a life high.

Now, I’m on my own in the capital.  Which isn’t a bad place to be, especially not on a good day like today.  Wellington has the style, class, culture, cuisine, and sophistication of a big city, but the size, youth, humility, and hospitality of a small college town.   It is environmentally friendly, health conscious, and socially aware.  Besides, it has a lovely harbor with sandy beaches (even if it’s almost never warm enough to take advantage of them) and rolling hills in the background.

The only problem, as many people, most of them Aucklanders, are quick to point out, is the weather.  Although many people, most of them Wellingtonians, insist that the city more than compensates for its poor climate.  But today, the sun was shining the way that it was meant to in the summer. And even though I really wanted to stay in the swanky hotel room and watch A Dog’s Show (a riveting half-hour sheep herding competition) on the flat screen TV, I decided to take advantage of what could very well be the last nice day for months. Oh, the pressure.

I rode the cable car up to the botanical gardens, a lovely, enormous, and rather confusing expanse of green space overlooking the lower portion of the city and the water.  After stopping to smell the roses and being serenaded in the bathroom by a little girl with a lisp singing “Jingle Bells” in a British accent, I sat down on a quiet park bench and began to freak out.

Maybe I’m not returning to the office on Monday, but I am about to begin a new job. Starting your life over is full time work.  Of course, I’m excited to explore a new city, meet new people, try new activities, and experiment with new foods, drinks, and fashions. (I am somewhat less pleased by the realization that I will also have to learn a new vocabulary.  Have you ever heard of a footpath or a capsicum?  I didn’t think so.)  But I am also overwhelmed by the logistics of finding a flat (apartment), making mates (friends), and uncovering pubs (bars).  Clearly, getting from point A to point B won’t be easy.  I’ve even considered taking a cue from A.J. Jacobs and outsourcing my life to India.  A “remote executive assistant” doesn’t sound so bad right now.

Complicating things further is that, even though I want to get settled in, I don’t want to settle.  I don’t want to apply for jobs with descriptions eerily similar to the position I quit eight months ago, or furnish the first flat that I find.  I came to New Zealand with a clear, albeit abstract, idea of what my life here will look like, and I don’t want to compromise.  Even if that means temporary housing and seasonal work in the meantime.

I guess that the price of admission to my new life includes a bit of anxiety, impatience, stress, and loneliness.  Not to mention a missing bag of groceries and two padlocks (apparently, regardless of how warm, generous, or wealthy they may be, Kiwis subscribe to the “if it’s not bolted down” philosophy of property law), an Internet card equivalent in value to a round of drinks, seven nights of interrupted sleep in a hostel, and a diet rich in granola bars.  But I’ve only been in the country for a few weeks and in Wellington for a few days.  Which, as I keep reminding myself, is far too soon to panic or make decisions out of desperation.

So, since I’m the one organizing the schedule and writing the checks, I’ve decided to work part time for now, spending half the day taking care of business (searching for jobs, flats, writing, etc.) and the other half having fun and enjoying the city.  Now, what does one do for a good time in New Zealand? Other than Bungy jump, that is.

Beware of Sheep: Taking on Nature and Taking it Easy in Queenstown

Queenstown, New ZealandMilford Sound

Queenstown is a fairyland: snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes, majestic fiords, and cascading waterfalls.  More importantly, it’s the adventure capital of the world.   If you’re someone who believes that you can’t truly appreciate life until you’ve faced death, then Queenstown is the place for you.  Between jet boating, kayaking, luging, and paragliding, this city is a pleasure seeker’s paradise, assuming that you find knowingly placing yourself in harms way to be enjoyable.  With a generous budget (and insurance plan), you can get your thrills by land, sea, or air.

Personally, I love to do things that scare me, which is good, because I’m a bit of a paranoid hypochondriac, meaning I’m afraid of most everything.  Yesterday, a friend and I took a bus up to Lake Wanaka (please note that the accent in Wanaka is on the first syllable.  I tell you this so that you don’t accidentally pronounce it as if it were the name of a summer camp in Northern Michigan).  The plan was to sky dive from 12,000ft (or as another friend put it: the height when you’re allowed to turn back on your electronic devices).  I never understood the appeal of diving headfirst off a ledge with a giant rubber band tied to your feet.  However, there is something inexplicably exciting to me about the idea of free falling through the sky with nothing but a manly New Zealander and a parachute attached to my back.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and we spent a day seeking shelter from the wind in the town’s tourist shops, debating over which would be the best souvenir: kiwi-shaped candles, kiwi jam, or kiwi scented body lotion.  I rescheduled the jump for this morning, but the sky was overcast and grey, and no one was flying, leaving me to spend the day by myself in Queenstown.

Looking for a way to justify my 7:30am wake-up call, I set off to climb Queenstown Hill, armed with only an iPod, a granola bar, and the wrong kind of undergarments,.  It’s a fairly easy hike with fantastic views of the city.  However, being up there alone was kind of creepy, as much of the trail winds its way through a dark pine forest, causing me to wonder every few minutes, Is this the spot where I’ll be abducted?  Fortunately, I saw enough fellow climbers to keep me calm, and eventually the path spilled out into a clearing.

As soon as the sunlight (and my breath) returned, I heard the call of a wild animal in the distance.  Seconds later, another animal responded, and I looked up to find two wild sheep trotting towards me.  Sheep attacks may not be as prevalent as bear attacks, but I’m pretty sure that any animal is dangerous when it feels threatened.  Not wanting to get mauled by a rogue ewe, I stepped aside to let them pass.   The sheep continued to talk amongst themselves, but the pair never went by.

Now, I’m no Doctor Dolittle, but I just knew that they were talking about me.  So, I decided to join in the conversation, doing my best impression of a sheep.  From further up the mountain, the sheep team leader engaged my trash talk, no doubt insulting my mother, but the other two remained silent.  I was trying to figure out what they were up to when all of a sudden I was startled by a violent “BAHHHH!” coming from overhead.  It seems that during the diversion, the two sheep had snuck around back and were now standing above me.  Without thinking, I did what any rational, levelheaded person would do. I ran, leaving the delinquent sheep to high five each other behind my back.

Further up the hill, I stopped to tie my shoe.  I looked up just in time to see a flock of sheep stampeding towards me.  I had no idea what to do in the given situation – play dead, look them in the eye, stop, drop and roll?  Luckily, they ceased their charge and left me alone.  Once safely back indoors, I decided to give myself the rest of the day off.  So, while my friends are taking a guided walking tour of the Rob Roy glacier, in the rain, I’m sitting in a café, sipping hot chocolate, and writing a blog entry.  In all honesty, given how intense my life is right now, a warm drink and wifi is about all the thrill I want or need.

Two weeks ago, I was eating dinner in my apartment in Buenos Aires with two of my best friends.  Until a week ago, I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of my high school friend’s house in Auckland.  Just three days ago, a college acquaintance was trying, in vain, to teach me to boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean.  And yesterday, I was sitting in an apartment in Queenstown, warming myself in front of the fireplace and watching Flight of the Conchords on TV.  How does life change so fast and so dramatically?

When I try to wrap my head around all of the places I’ve been, people I’ve seen, and things that I’ve done in the span of fourteen days, my mind wants to explode, or take a nap.  Which probably explains why I’ve been so tired lately.  Today, I don’t need to jump off or out of anything, row down any bodies of water, or tramp up the side of any landmasses.  I’ve had all of the excitement I can handle for the moment, and there is plenty of adventure still to come.  Instead, I’m taking a mental health day, and dedicating some of my precious and limited travel time to those things that keep me grounded: writing, working out, meditating, and listening to music.  I’m even treating myself to an hour in the hot pools.  Besides, I need plenty of rest for tomorrow morning – I have an 8:30am jump time.

Where Am I and What Day Is It?: Recovering and Readjusting in Auckland

Auckland City Bus Asks For ForgivenessAuckland, New Zealand

Traveling to New Zealand is like solving a word problem: If a plane leaves Buenos Aires on Wednesday at 2:30am and arrives in Auckland on Thursday at 7:10am, where did that day go, will I ever get it back, and more importantly, just how long will it take for me to get over the jet lag and culture shock?

Clearly, I’m not in Buenos Aires anymore.  The air here is so clean and clear and the clouds are so white and fluffy that I keep thinking that I’m feeling off due to altitude sickness.  And then I catch a view of the Tasman Sea and remember that Auckland has an elevation of about 12 feet.  Not to mention that I could walk around all day without shoes (as some Aucklanders are wont to do) and my feet still wouldn’t get dirty.

Yet it is all somehow strangely familiar.  Perhaps because Auckland, with its laid-back, environmentally friendly, pseudo-intellectual vibe and penchant for vintage shops, cheap ethnic restaurants, and houses with gardens, is eerily like my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It doesn’t help matters that I am currently crashing with a good friend from high school, who also recently moved to New Zealand.  My first night, it felt like we were having a sleepover at one of our parents’ houses – the only things missing were a Ouija board, a boy to prank call, and raw cookie dough.  But we’re not in Michigan anymore. We’re halfway around the world in New Zealand.

Readjusting to New Zealand means more than getting used to the fact that while people here are getting ready to go back to work, my friends and family are just finishing their Saturday night.  Aucklanders seem to be big fans of the adage “early to bed, early to rise,” with lights out by 11pm (the time that most Argentines are eating dinner) and alarms set for 6am (when most Argentines are leaving the nightclub).  My body, desperately craving a bit of structure and routine, eagerly latched on to this new schedule.  The other night, around 10pm, I fell asleep mid-sentence, like I had just been shot with a horse tranquilizer.  An hour later, my friend woke me up to send me to bed.  “Is it tomorrow yet?” I inquired earnestly.
“No, it’s 11pm.”
“Oh, I thought it was tomorrow.”  And the time change is the least of my troubles.

The first day here, I kept trying to speak Spanish to people.  This is partly because the language is so ingrained in my subconscious that in certain situations, it comes out without warning.  But it is also because despite the fact that everyone here speaks English, they still have an accent and we don’t always understand one another, causing “second language mode” to switch on automatically.

The other day, my friend and I returned home to find her roommate sitting on the couch watching sports.  Back in her room, she remarked, “In case you hadn’t noticed already, you’re going to hear cricket everywhere.”
“Yea,” I replied, “but I don’t even notice them.  It’s like white noise to me, they just blend into the background.”
“Cricket the sport, not the insect.  Besides, those are cicadas.”
When my friend’s roommate took me to the supermarket and I asked her if the store carried granola bars, she thought for a moment before replying,  “Hmm, granola bars, yea, that sounds familiar.” The next thing I knew, I was speaking to her like English was her second language, avoiding contractions and idioms so that nothing was lost in translation, and saying things like, “I cannot understand you, please.”

Even pronouncing street names is a challenge, probably because many of them are Maori.  Thankfully, even the locals have abbreviated Karangahape Road to K Road. And then there’s the fact that the streets curve and switch names without prior notice.  One moment you’re happily walking down busy Richmond Rd. and suddenly you realize that out of inertia you went straight when you should have veered, and now you’re standing in someone’s driveway in a residential neighborhood.  You retrace your steps back to civilization only to find that the street formerly known as Ponsonby Rd. is now referred to as St. Mary’s Rd.

For the purposes of “research,” and to ask for directions, I’ve been stopping in every store, library, market, and bakery I pass, and I’m still amazed (and pleased) by how healthy this city truly is.  Although, personally, I draw the line at butter, egg, and gluten free sugar cookies made with chickpea flour, applesauce, and soy milk.  It’s like being on the campus of a small, private, liberal arts college in Oregon, where everyone walks around barefoot and calls their professors by their first name.  I keep waiting for someone to pull a Hacky Sack out of his pocket or challenge everyone to a rousing game of Frisbee golf.

Auckland may have the perfect balance between urban jungle and the great outdoors, a paradise for nature lovers trapped in the body of a city dweller. Beautiful beaches where you can sail, surf, or sunbathe are just 30 minutes away, dormant volcanoes offer fantastic views, and parks hosting free events are scattered throughout the city. Plus everyone here is so friendly and polite, even the buses apologize profusely for being out of service. You get the sense that Auckland is a place where people live well, and slowly but surely the city is growing on me.  A girl could get comfortable here, too comfortable perhaps.  So, will Auckland become my new hometown?  It’s still too soon to tell.

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