Monday, November 30, 2009

NZ - Eastern Peninsula

I slept horribly that night.  I think I could best attribute it to knowing that I had a lot to do that morning, and a lot to do the rest of the day.  My morning plans began after the spa last night, when our other German roommate returned not long after we got back to the room.  He had been to a hot springs right by Wai-O-Tapu & was espousing how great it was.  Indeed, I had just learned about this very location from one of the teens at the museum when I was there to photograph the sunset.  So of the room, only Gitti (an apparent morning person) was willing to tag along nice and early.

The hot spring was a breeze to find, with the merger of the hot water & cold stream being but only paces away from the shoulder of the roadway.  Balancing temperature was easy: it was freezing cold if you sat yourself in the movement of the cold stream, or it got progressively warmer the further up the hot spring’s stream you went.  The swimming hole also had signs all over the place warning about amoebic meningitis & how one should keep their head above-water – a task that my fishy self was sure to stick to.

It was unfathomly comfortable, apart from the moment when some cold water would mix a bit too much into the hot.  Staying still was among the better fixes for that.  We were a bit amused when a local kiwi (a rather large & hairy man in his 40s or 50s) arrived and noted that he didn’t bring a swimsuit, kindly asking whether or not we’d be comfortable with him swimming nude.  I was alright with it, knowing I’d just look away; Gitti clearly wasn’t excited of the prospect but didn’t want to decline him from the springs; and so I yelled back that he was OK so long as he didn’t mind the construction crews working on a bridge only a few meters away.  Indeed, these crews were what prompted Gitti & myself to don swimsuits in more prude American fashion, but this kiwi just shrugged, disrobed, and in he was sitting on a rock across the spring.

At one point Gitti was showing how easy it was to break rocks, and in the process of trying to do the same: I managed to cut my finger.  Not a gaping wound, but right on the  back of the joint: so whenever I bend it I’m quick to remember that mishap.  It’s not painful; just annoying.  Regardless, it wasn’t long after that that not just the front of my hands were wrinkled; but even the backs of my hands were becoming wrinkled.  It was time to skedaddle.

I dropped off Gitti at the hostel & hugged her farewell.  Then I was off to the east coast to loop around the eastern peninsula.  This was something I thought I could accomplish without much hassle, but I soon learned that outside of Auckland: the kiwis have an unfortunate tendency to close down really early; or to only be open at weird times of day.  It also didn’t help that what looks like an easy drive on a map or even in Google Earth is actually a long voyage along a twisting & turning coastal roadway.

If I recall correctly, I believe I was ultimately on the road for about 11 hours.  When I reached my first destination of Tokomaru Bay, I’d missed the last of open lodging by a couple hours.  I then had to revise my destination to Gisborne, where I fortunately came upon a place that had officially closed at 10pm, but the receptionist was still in even at 11-ish working on paperwork.

The eastern shoreline is quite beautiful, with the length of the drive taking even longer thanks to my many many stops to take photos.  Furthermore, my hour-long round trip drive to/from the East Cape Lighthouse along a dirt road – an intensely fun drive – added to the time; and the ~30 minutes up/down hike to the lighthouse furthered the duration.  Despite my exhaustion from driving: it was worth it.

Along the way, and indeed throughout all of New Zealand, there are plenty of signs warning about wandering stock (that is: livestock).  There was one point during my drive where I turned around a curve and there was a cow just standing there, staring at me nonchalantly.  I couldn’t help but smile: something just seemed so amusing about that.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

NZ - Rotorua

My first goal for the day was to get down to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.  Nothing cries “touristy” quite like a name like that.  Specifically, this place has a geyser that goes off whenever soap is added to the mix (some crazy chemical shindigs going on to cause that to occur), hence the show goes on right at 10:15 am everyday – and sure enough I just had to be there for that.

With its detonation, much of the crowd immediately dispersed – not even sticking around to appreciate its beauty.  I stuck around to at least capture its beauty in many many virtually identical photographs such that I could upload it to the beauty-savoring ether of the internet.

The “thermal wonderland” itself actually was quite interesting – a series of walks around a geologic area with plenty of sulfur springs.  It smelled fantastic.  …Especially the “Champagne Pool” – a massive lake of hot watery glory.  It’s worth a visit, even if you’ll be cringing at the aromas quite frequently.

On my way back I stopped by the base of Rainbow Mountain and began hiking the track up to the top.  The hardest part of the hike was when I passed a sign about 15 minutes in which showed a map of the area, including a road along the other side of the mountain going right to the top.  Motivation took a bit of a hit there.  I always try to espouse that you have to earn your summits: you can’t just drive to the top; but when there’s an easy way so handy, it really is tough to stay motivated to stay with the harder route.

I nonetheless kept on tramping, even after rethinking things at one point & going about 10 meters back downhill, only to turn around and keep going up.  It actually wasn’t a difficult hike, unless it’s finally gotten to the point that my legs have acclimated to this newfangled “exercise”.  There was only about 10-15 minutes of steep tramping near the top, but overall really not bad at all.  The views were great: I could espy a snow-covered peak to the south – my first view of such a mountaintop since Switzerland in 2007.

My return to the hostel finds a note on my bed: Gitti was at her first day of work as a waitress at a local bar.  With that, I headed out to explore some of the parks in town – one to the east and one to the west, both of which provided colorful sulfuric odors to cleanse one’s senses.  I’d already experienced this earlier in the day, however, and wasn’t too enthused about experiencing it even more.

So I made my way east toward the museum in the eastern park: a huge & neat-looking former bathhouse.  En route I stopped by the bar & chatted with Gitti and a customer before excusing myself out of there – no need to hold the customer from his meal, or busy Gitti on her first day of work.

My goal at the museum was to photograph the sunset.  I got there with the sun still about an hour or so away from color-inducing angles, so I had a look about the museum.  I really wasn’t expecting much, but in actuality I was quite impressed with what it had on display.  Fascinated, even.  I watched a movie about the eruption of a volcano in the not-terribly-distant past… its production values may not have been top-notch, but it was actually quite entertaining.

I was so enthralled that I almost didn’t realize it was nearly the 8pm closing time & nearing sunset time – I rushed to the tower to get some photos, ultimately heading out a couple minutes past 8 and with the sun still up aways.  I wanted to squeeze out every minute I could, but the two teens manning the museum’s desk were quite pleasant to chat with earlier that I didn’t want to hold them up.

My next step was to seek out more ice cream, since the stuff I had the previous night was downright tasty.  They were closed.  OK so I just need some chow… something to tide me over for the night… also closed.  The whole town seemed to have shut down.  Ahh, Sunday nights.  I came upon a takeaway right on the corner by my hostel and got an American Hotdog… exotic, yes.

I return to find Gitti already back from work: the bar joining the myriad of other businesses which had closed early.  Being a bit worn out from my Rainbow Mountain tramping, I invited Gitti to the hostel’s hottub – which was stocked with a couple toy boats floating about.  From the other German roommate’s descriptions, apparently this spa used to be a rather cheap wooden bit; but now it was a pretty nice looking fixture building into the room it was housed in.  It was a great temperature, and I’m not sure I’d ever seen my fingers get so wrinkled.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

NZ - Karagahake Gorge, Rotorua

My initial plan for today, as laid out the day before, was to get a room at Karagahake Gorge, located at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula.  Then the next day I’d continue onward to the coast and follow that around to ultimately end up in the lakeside town of Rotorua.  When I couldn’t find any lodging nearby the gorge, however, I decided to see if I could cram it all into one day.

A reluctant early rise had me out of Auckland nice and early for my first experience of motorways further outside the city.  Essentially… the motorways are really just country roads, albeit generally paved.  They’re about two lanes total most of the time and have a default speed limit of 100 km/h, unless otherwise indicated.

I stopped by a café along SH2 and learned firsthand that my feelings toward Kiwi food is about the same as my feelings toward English food.  There’s a good reason for that… they’re much the same.  One credit to New Zealand, however, is that at least their dishes have flavor.  It’s just not my kind of flavors.  Pies don’t refer to fruity desserts, rather they’re actual meals; and chicken pot pie is an actual pie – vastly different from the soupy concoction of the Pennsylvania Dutch that I’m far more accustomed to.  I have yet to happen upon shepherd’s pie, which is among my favorite of meaty pies… except for when I was in England, which is what I’d compare to the taste of cardboard.

The Karangahake Gorge was my first primary stop.  The Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway was my first hike, first heading to the western side of the railway tunnel & then tramping eastward to the waterfall.  The waterfall was rather ho-hum, but the dimly lit railway tunnel provided for a couple eerie photos.

I followed up with a hike up to the Windows, which consists of some openings in the former mine’s tunnels peering over one of the side-gorges.  The very first cave I came up to caused me to hesitate… I pointed my flashlight into its pitch darkness and saw nothingness, even after taking a few paces in.  There was another tunnel which led into the mountain – again, my flashlight yielded an even deeper void.

So I stood about peering out over the gorge below.  It was peaceful; quiet.  The sky was overcast and it just felt like rainforest: birds, the sounds of water flowing below, wind in the trees, and a weird sound coming from my left… a very non-rainforest sound…. and a light moving about in the tunnel… OK, it only took me a split-second to identify the light as that of a tramper’s torch, but in the initial split-second I got a bit of cardiac exercise.

When two pensioners emerged from the darkness, I made the determination that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as deep of a cave as I’d thought.  Sure enough, just a few more paces in than I’d originally traveled was a slight bend in the cave which obscured a bigger bend… and right around that bigger bend was the other side.  There were several more short caves like this, each emerging at another window.

When I reached the last window, the cave gave way to a stair that continued onward to other sites – many of which I really wanted to explore; but I knew my time for this day was short considering I still had plenty of driving ahead of me.  On my way back I went by that first cave entry again, and this time I looked down the other cave that went into the mountain.  I went in a bit, around a curve, arrived at a junction, kept going down one, and soon enough opted to turn back.

The last thing I needed was for any myriad of possibilities to occur.  My flashlight batteries could die, even though I knew they were brand new Energizers.  Or a slight rumble in this seismic area could caves something in.  Or I could trip or hit my head.  Or I could hit some loose ground & fall into something below.  Or… wow, none of these thoughts ever ran through my head before I turned 25.  On my way back, even though I made only one decision when traversing the caves – going right when I hit a fork in the caves – I immediately noticed how easily one can get lost; both caves really did look the exact same.  Fortunately I remembered I had gone right, hence on my return I went left.

And as I was walking out, approaching the light of the outside, I flick off my flashlight, deftly maneuver around a puddle, and BAM my forehead smashes into a low-hanging beam.

What more, I nailed my head in almost the exact same place I hit it on Labor Day weekend.  That hit back in September occurred whilst body boarding at the Jersey Shore despite it being very very shallow.  I lost my balance in a wave and it through me down, smacking my head into the sand.  If you ever hit an old TV and watched as it jittered, flashed black & then flashed a bunch of scrambled colors just for a split-second… yeah that’s what my brain did.  With the amount of sand that got packed into my head, even today I still periodically have some sand grains that spill back out of my ear.  But anyway, I managed to nail my head in the same place again; but not nearly as hard this time around.

The next stop on my motoring journey was Mt. Maunganui.  It was a short hike, but it had a pretty decent steepness to it; or maybe it was just that my mind was rushed with thinking that I need to get to Rotorua by 7pm – when the hostel’s reception closes – and hence I was pushing myself harder than normal.  The views from the top were great, and the town itself was neat to drive through.  It looked like a pretty nice beach town, if only I had the time to stick around there.

Onto to Rotorua, I pulled in almost right at 6pm – traffic was a breeze getting into the area, and the roads were pretty direct.  I recall it quite well: it was along SH30A just as the intersection with Hinemaru St where the wind shared the sweet smell of sulfer with me.  Ahh, lovely rotting eggs.  Fortunately, it’s not a ubiquitious smell… but one that does come and go as the wind moves about.

While on the subject of smells: I do want to mention that the cities are totally devoid of the smell of urine.  Almost any other city in the world reeks of it, and my unscientific opinion largely attributes it to the cost of using the bathroom.  When even a small charge is imposed on such a necessity of humanity: people will do what they can to avoid it.  Indeed, I think I’ve typed several paragraphs for each of my past trips detailing my avoidance of paying for bathrooms.  In New Zealand, however, bathrooms have been 100% free, and public toilets are also readily available to complement the abundance of toilets in private establishments.  While you may be short on benches, you’ll never be short on a loo.  And while there’s a bit more sulfur, at least you have less methane & ammonia wafting about.

Back to the subject of Rotorua: I was staying at Rotorua Central Backpackers – a phenomenal place with fantastic management.  If I end up in this area on my way back, I will definitely be making an effort to stay here again.

I walked into a room with backpacks on all the beds apart from one, making it an easy choice as to where I was headed.  I began unpacking a bit when a girl walked in.  I did the usual 1-minute conversation you do with all backpackers: where are you from, where did you come from before here, where are you going, blah blah blah.  I then sort of went back to unpacking.

It was then that, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a bunch of arm movement but not much body movement.  I right-away thought it looked like she was changing… but owing to my being a nice guy and not wanting to intrude on someone’s privacy (even if they clearly didn’t require privacy) kept me focusing on unpacking.

The problem was that our one-minute conversation occurred while I was still busying myself with unpacking… and since I’m never one to back down from chatting to a lass, I was fully expecting to continue the conversation with her in just a few seconds… up until she started changing right there in front of me.  So my mind began calculating: do I restart conversation?  I always make eye contact & speak with my hands when chatting with women (though I’m the total opposite with men), but would the whole “eye contact” bit be inappropriate if she’s only in her underwear?

I recalled when I was in a very similar situation way back in 2001.  I was at the Ephrata Rec Center and a girl joined me in the hottub… I just made perfect eye contact at all times, trying my hardest not to divert my attention to where testosterone would sooner send it.  So I applied that here: I began chatting again whilst still looking away, watching in my peripheral vision for her to look my way; then I looked up, perfect eye contact, didn’t cause her to scream with revulsion & sprint out of the room, and all was good.

I gotta tell you, it’s tough being a guy.  We’re so simple, but dancing around a woman’s mind takes practice, patience, and care.

So striking up a real conversation beyond the standard backpackers’ fare, I come to learn that her name is Gitti and is from Munich.  She was wwoofing on a farm in the far north recently, then went to Auckland seeking work, then onto the Coromandel Peninsula, and then just arrived here mere minutes before I.

Within a few minutes, her ride from Coromendel walked in – a guy from Birmingham, England, to which I was quick to note that he did not have a Birmingham accent.  That’s a very very good thing.  My other roommates included 2 guys I didn’t get a chance to chat with, and then another German from… hmm… somewhere in Germany (I forget where).  They were all pretty cool, and I was amused when the two Germans learned that they were each from Germany, and they began conversing together in English...

I also came to the realization that everyone I’ve met is on holiday for months… that’s plural: months.  Whereas I’m just off and about for only one month, and that’s a long time by American standards.  The Birmie was recently laid off due to the economy & was traveling until he ran out of money, and Gitti seemed to be at a transitional point in her life where she’s trying to figure out just what exactly it is that she wants to do.  I forget what the other German’s story was, but I recall that between those guys & also the guys back in Auckland: I’ve been the only one that would return to a stable life back home.

The German guy headed out on his own and the Birmie left with two other English girls he’d met in Peru & were also now traveling around New Zealand via campervan.  That left Gitti and myself.  I was stuck trying to figure out what I wanted to eat, and from her story I knew that her financial capabilities weren’t tip-top: so I offered to treat her to a dinner so long as she could decide what to eat.  Soon enough we were off to wandering around town on the cool rainy evening, ending up grabbing some food consisting of a healthy salad for her, and a greasy & terribly unhealthy meal for me.  Alas, I think hers both looked & tasted better than mine.

We walked about a bit and I grabbed a cone of ice cream from this place highly recommended in my guidebook, and sure enough it was quite tasty.  I spent much of the time trying to explore just what exactly she wants to do with her life: seeming to at least get some headway on getting her to think about it, but not really identifying any specific prospects.

Back at the hostel, it occurred to me that I should’ve asked for linens when I first arrived.  With reception now closed, all I had was a travel blanket that may have come from my United Airlines flight to LAX.  It covered me, but only if I curled up tightly; so I spent much of the night rather chilled.  It didn’t help that I was right in front of the window.  While the service & facilities at the hostel may be great, the mattress was also not quite my style.  I’m not really sure whether I’d say it was too soft or too stiff… it wasn’t either, but it still just wasn’t quite my preference.

Friday, November 27, 2009

NZ - Auckland

I finally started planning my trip this morning. Having come to realize that free internet may be tough to find, I gave in and finally started coloring my guidebook & laying out everything I want to see. I identified my next stop and attempted to book a room, but the first attempt was full and the second attempt didn’t answer… hence option 3 was to book a room quite aways beyond & hope I could fit in 2 days of anticipated touristing into 1.

My departure from the hostel came about in mid-afternoon, and I was amazed that two of my roommates were still sound asleep until not-long before I left. My destination would be the west coast today, and go figure I finally get ready to leave just as the afternoon rush hour was rearing its head. I expected hours and hours in traffic, but actually had almost smooth sailing as I made my way out to Scenic Drive.

Scenic Drive is just that: it’s a rather scenic drive. Granted, there aren’t too many viewpoints since trees often block the way; but when there is a viewpoint: woo hah it’s nice. I drove down to Karekare, tramped over the dunes, and watched as the sun set beyond this beautiful black sand expanse. This may sound geeky, but it seriously felt like I was walking in Middle Earth as I walked across the shore. Mountains all around me and a splendid sun setting upon the sea’s horizon, with waves crashing all around. I would’ve loved just a bit less clouds, but it was fantastic nonetheless.

The drive back along Scenic Drive included two stops to nab some photos. At the second stop, something in the sky caught my attention. First it was just a really bright star, and I began wondering if I could see Polaris from the southern hemisphere; though that was really beside the point since a star this bright was almost certainly a planet or satellite. I turned and then saw something else – Orion. I’d never have thought I’d be able to see that from here… I don’t know, I just kind of assumed the southern hemisphere has it’s own sky with its own constellations; and here was my favorite constellation right there upon the horizon.

I was diverted along Scenic Drive when I came upon a bunch of emergency vehicles responding to a crash. This gave me a chance to do a bunch of things: locate another route, do a K-turn to turn myself around, go through a variety of roundabouts (including a double-roundabout!), and all-in-all confirm to myself that I’m actually getting the hang of driving on the left. It’s really not that hard, apart from having to periodically remember not to stay so far left in my lane; and also that the turn signals & windshield wiper controls are reversed (good thing the accelerator & brake haven’t changed!).

Returning to Auckland, I immediately made my way out to an overpass to grab some photos of the city & motorways. Auckland is the first city I’ve ever been to where I’ve actually felt unease whilst walking at night. I mean, sure I kept a distance from the police in Moscow & stay alert when walking in any city’s dark alleys; but here in Auckland I just feel unease at nighttime even when walking in the more lively areas.

I think this is because of the youth culture here. Firstly, Auckland essentially has three races: white, Maori, and Asian. The Asian stereotype held in America pretty much stays in place here: dutiful and non-confrontational… so I have no gripes with that. The Maori, to break the bounds of political correctness, come off sort of like the Latino population in America: physically, they both have dark hair and dark skin. I think it’s this inherent darkness which lends to stereotypically mistrusting them, even though all I’ve spoken with so far are actually quite hard-working and are proud of their heritage – reinforcing my comparison to the Latino populace.

Then there are the white folk. I like badmouthing whites because, being white myself, it’s one of those opportunities whereby I can throw political correctness out the window. Essentially, the vast majority of Aucklanders walking the streets at night consist of chavvy folk. Now they’re not chavs at all: things aren’t that bad; but it’s essentially the “trying to emulate being ghetto” look. It’s almost like I was back in rural Pennsylvania, except it’s a whole city full of these guys.

Then there are the women. To be fair, this includes a decent chunk of backpacking tourist women. It’s not that they wear next to nothing on a Friday night – believe me, you won’t catch me complaining about that anytime soon. It’s that they show a genuine lack of class in addition to a lack of clothes. Now I’ve walked the nightscene and been to clubs in an assortment of countries, and despite a scarcity of clothes: both American and European women often tend to carry a bit of class about them. Not to say they all do; sure there are the lushes in any country; but in New Zealand their lushes seem to stand out to a far more noticeable degree.

For example, when going out for a stroll in the middle of the afternoon: right on the corner a woman walks out of a liquor store, does a quick pole dance with some construction scaffolding, and then walks back inside. My testosterone-fueled mind kind of wished I’d had time to get a video of it, but the upper-brain was a bit impressed that this would happen on a Friday afternoon.

Then there’s the girl right outside of my hostel, whom I passed in the evening just as I returned from my drive. As I’m walking into the hostel, my attention is already on her since she’s in her club clothes. Then she grabs her boobs and shakes em around a bit… and again, a part of me is not against such behavior and indeed wishes more women would do this; but another part of me suspects that she’s got comparable amounts of air both in her chest and in her head.

Now not to knock the city entirely; every single Kiwi and every single backpacker I’ve actually spoken to has been fantastic. From my roommates consisting of a Chicagoan & Swiss dude, to the merchants, to the random people I’ve come upon along the way – everyone has been both courteous and helpful. After a full day of driving, I still stand by my finding that even rush hour motorists are great to travel with.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

NZ - Auckland

My arrival began with the clattering of people opening and closing luggage bins. Considering that there were fewer people in my little world to begin with, how they could make so much noise was beyond my comprehension. I lifted my little sleepmask thing and noticed that the cabin lights were on… I tried to get comfortable again & ignore the sounds, but I ultimately gave in and threw on another movie: Pelham 123, a lackluster film that wasn’t worth my two hours of time-wasting time.

Fortunately, I was able to distract myself from the movie periodically to watch the sunrise – something I haven’t witnessed since… hmm… I guess since my last night in Ukraine when I pulled an all-nighter. Once the sun had successfully risen and was hovering along the sky, that was when the first island began to pop into view. Then another. Then another. Draped in green, they were an archipelago of velvet cloth surrounded by sea. I could see Middle Earth unfurling beneath me.

Touchdown brought me to the most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen, set right upon the waterfront. Then again, in New Zealand, everything is along the waterfront. A quick disembarkation & tour through customs, and there I was in the terminal… too early… because my rental car agency doesn’t open until 8pm – another 20 minutes. At least it gave me time to consolidate my bags & reorganize things.

At the rental car agency I was bumped up a class since they ran out of my cheapest of budget classes. So instead of a Toyota Corolla from ’99 pushing 300k, I got a Toyota Corolla from the early 21st century pushing 200k. Woo hoo! It’s the small wins.

It was amusing as I made sure that the insurance covered everything and I confirmed what my deductible was, as considering this was my first time driving on the left side: I figured the odds were high that I’d crash into someone or something. And then I asked about whether or not they had speed cameras, since I’m not acquainted with how fast 40 km/h feels. I’m sure I made him feel nice & comfortable handing me the keys.

I pulled the car up & backed into a parking space just so I could run through everything & make sure I knew what did what. I didn’t want to have to learn something whilst on the road, though in retrospect I do wish I grabbed my Lonely Planet guide out of the trunk, as it had the address of my destination – the hostel.

I sat in the parking space watching the roadway for a couple minutes, psyching my mind up by thinking “turn wide right; drive on the left… turn wide right; drive on the left”. So I did it. It was easy. I approached a roundabout and that was easy. Pretty much every turn I had to make was a right-turn, which I’d thought would be more complicated… but when I missed my exit on the interchange & had to go over the Harbour Bridge & do a U-turn, I came to realize that all this practice doing right-turns totally neglected left-turns. I completely skipped doing the U-turn since my mind couldn’t comprehend which way to look whilst turning the wheel, hence I executed several left-turns and consistently looked the wrong way. Fortunately there wasn’t any conflicting traffic.

While sitting at signals, it was also a bit awkward when the opposing lanes would start up… and the lanes you’d expected to turn left – as per right-hand driving – instead come right at you. The real trick was in knowing the size of my car… I instinctively want to position myself further left in the lane, which means the left side of my car is in the gutter, on the sidewalk, running over cyclists, etc. Not a good thing. Fortunately, Aucklanders are an exceptionally courteous lot both on the road & off the road.

After an unintentional tour by car, I found a place to pull over in downtown Auckland so that I could grab my Lonely Planet guide and figure out where exactly I was headed. I knew my destination down to a couple blocks, but was consistently driving right by the street I was actually supposed to turn onto. I checked in at my hostel, but left my backpack in the car’s trunk since it was still too early – 10 in the morning – to move my stuff into the room. Out I went.

First up was to explore downtown… by foot this time. Soon after embarking down Queen, it then occurred to me that my first priority should instead be food. Very tasty Turkish food from an Asian Food Hall filled that void nicely. Then I was off to do the Coast-to-Coast Walkway, a hiking trail that goes from downtown’s harborfront past several volcanos and onto the other side of the land, and to the other sea.

I soon learned that trailblazing was essentially nonexistent. In my frequent pauses to consult my Lonely Planet guide, I also came to note that benches are also essentially nonexistent, apart from parks where they are in appropriate abundance. Though I have come to find that speed limit signs are often spot-on with where I and everyone else feel comfortable driving… except for the work zone speed limits, which can drop a 100 km/hr road to 30 without any particular intrusion into the roadway; or that 2-lane country roads that don’t even have a centerline are signed for 100 but the motorway is 80. …At least it’s still better than how we do speed limits in America.

So that was a tangent… I got onto the lack of trailblazing because the Coast-to-Coast Walkway is very nearly devoid of it. The only time I’d see an arrow pointing me in the right direction would be when I’m standing right at one of the major destinations along the way. For example, an arrow saying “cross here” when I’m standing beside a footpath going straight up to the summit of one of the volcanos… of course I cross here; I can see my destination right there. What’s missing are all the signs in between: at every turn and every other crossing before then. Western Europe has definitely got trailblazing down to a science.

I can’t even figure out what street I’m on half the time, owing to both poorly positioned streetname signs as well as the seemingly awkward way with which they’re oriented. Or maybe all the streetnames have changed since my guidebook was written… or since the maps I have were published. All in just those last 2 years. Sometimes the streetname signs work well, sometimes they don’t… something is not at all consistent. Also, advance streetname signs tend to be a rare commodity: so you best keep track of any landmarks preceding your next move, otherwise you’re prone to go right past it.

Several volcanos, flower gardens, and a museum later: I was exhausted & waiting for a train. I’d also become cold. The wind that I experienced on top of the first volcano had grown to a gale by the next volcano; and when I retuned to the bottom: that gale was still quite noticeable. It’s usually not the temperature that chills me; it’s the wind. The last fingers of sunlight were also disappearing from the sky as I stepped on the train, and while I almost completely cleared myself of the 9-hr jetlag; I still found myself a bit sleepy & zonked out on the train – waking up seemingly seconds later only to find myself at my destination; the end of the line. A quick hike up the hill to my hostel, then some chatting with my roommates, and eventually deep deep slumber.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

USA-NZ - LAX --> Auckland

I didn’t even have a Wednesday. It just ceased to exist. Or at best, it existed for a couple hours over the Pacific; but it never had a sunrise and it never had a sunset. So I’ll just pretend that my transoceanic flight occurred on Wednesday.

With an early arrival into LAX, it gave me a bit of time to relax. Er, except that I was in Terminal 7 and had to get to Terminal 2. At other airports, such transfers would often be a pretty smooth process. At LAX, however, I had to walk outside, then walk along the full length of the airport’s frontage; only to realize it stops at Terminal 4… and then I had to walk across the parking lot (traveling through restricted areas & walking along freeway ramps in the process) to get to Terminal 2. Bravo, LAX.

I still had a pretty decent share of time to spend in Terminal 2. It gave me a chance to track down some chow – which ended up being Burger King since everything else had obscene prices – and then sit down with my beloved Civilization. But Civilization was put on hold when I ended up sharing one of the few working power outlets with a Kiwi woman named Wendy; and also when I discovered that I could mooch free wi-fi from some Air France terminal located somewhere.

For my long flight over the seas, I had opted to upgrade myself a bit to “premium economy” class. The price difference wasn’t too severe, and I figured that it I was going to spend 12 hours pent up in a tin can: I might as well be a bit more comfortable. I’d also been under the impression that it’d provide power outlets, hence more Civilization. It’s like a drug, really. All-in-all, though, I was just expecting “Coach Plus”.

What I got was borderline first class. Premium Coach was the way to go… I had some storage bins between my in the window which I could chuck stuff into & then use as a footrest; I had massive amounts of leg room; I could recline much much further; and I had amazing food / drink / hot towels at almost every moment I was awake. There were no power outlets, though, but that at least gave me reason to watch some films & get some sleep. Film choices ended up being Defiance – a good WWII movie – and Aliens, which believe it or not: I’d never actually seen from beginning to end before.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Lindsey left really early to catch Bolt Bus back south. All I remember was hearing my Uncle Ulrich say something like “It’s four forty-five” and that it was still dark… but I could’ve just as easily made that up in my head. I do remember Lindsey poking me or staring at me or breathing on me or doing something, but I must’ve only been awake for a couple seconds before I returned to unconsciousness. I had actually meant to get up & walk her down to the train station, but my sense of self never quite materialized enough to become selfless.

When it came my turn, Chris drove me out to JFK where I walked straight up to a counter person… then waited only about 2 people before I was through security… and then found a seat and returned to playing Civilization 3. I was crammed into my coach seat alongside a quiet guy & a young cute girl about my age with a very very loud child. The kid actually didn’t annoy me at all… usually I’m bothered to no end by young children, but for some reason my mind was totally at peace. I just stared out the window & watched the world go by… and there might’ve been some sleep intermixed in along the way.

Monday, November 23, 2009

USA - NYC / Westfield

A day in New York! Er… no. Another slow departure, partly because Lindsey had work to do; and partly because I (and possibly others) was feeling lethargic. When Lindsey finished her work and came running over bouncing & full of energy, it was as if she sucked away all of mine: I’d just become a dud sitting on the sofa.

We finally arrived in the city & I got some tasty Halal food. I reiterate tasty: this stuff was amazing. It came from one of the venders just outside of Penn Station & was absolutely fantastic. We stopped by B&N, made our way to some cupcake place in the Village, and soon enough parted ways as Chris returned to Westfield and Lindsey & I made our way to Webster Hall to see Röyksopp.

Webster Hall, as a venue, has a great ambience. I particularly liked the stairwell between floors, but the main room had a great aura, too. The opening act had a good soft-electronica sound – I’ll definitely have to check into them a bit more. Then there was Röyksopp with their great sound. It takes some talent to jazz up an electronic show, and they did it well; even if the lighting was pretty basic. Their female vocalist had some great power, at one point making me wonder if she was trained in opera given the notes and range she was hitting.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

USA - NYC / Westfield

After a slow start we got on the road out to Long Island. Our destination: the Cradle of Aviation Museum, where about a decade ago we donated a bunch of stuff to their collection. The short story is that my great-grandfather was pretty involved with the early years of the aviation industry, having built the plane in front of the Franklin Institute & also having built a seaplane base & factory on Long Island – the latter moreso the museum’s interest, as the museum focuses on aviation’s extensive history on Long Island.

Our first stop was the café, and we kind of laughed at how there seemed to be one or two birthday parties (or maybe bar mitzvahs) going on here… and how dorky it must be to have it hosted at a museum. The more I wandered around, though, the more I thought it might actually be kind of neat… big machines and lots of interactivity, though probably best for little boys that like dinosaurs & fire engines and not for borderline teenagers.

The museum was quite good – much better than I was really expecting. I just figured it’d be a couple hangars in the middle of nowhere & no patrons to speak of; but instead if was a fancy-looking building full of people (though still in the middle of a sea of parking lots). It was a bit disappointing, however, when I came upon my great-grandfather’s plane. In describing the plane, it only attributed it to my great-grandfather’s company; and in describing the company, it said that it was set up by Savoia-Marchetti. This was a big strike on the museum’s part: it only leased designs from Savoia-Marchetti; SM otherwise had no involvement. My great-grandfather’s name didn’t appear once. I’d wager that my aunt or myself will be getting in touch with the curator soon enough…

By the time we got back from the museum, much of the day was already spent. So we got some tasty pizza in Westfield and then took a stroll through downtown so I could grab some photos. …And in the process of that, Chris & Lindsey both froze. Or at least Lindsey did. I think Chris just became bored. Lindsey was bored, too. The dog seemed content.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

USA - Maryland --> NYC

My sleep schedule took a premature hit when I awoke at about 7:00 in the morning, following on the heels of a rather late night of getting ready for the trip. Actually, that also follows on the heels of a whole week of late nights & early mornings… so I guess there actually was a sleep schedule; just not necessarily a good one.

Lindsey and I bumbled about & Steve gave us a ride up to Baltimore to catch the Bolt Bus out of Penn Station. Only about 30 seconds after closing the apartment door, I realized I forgot the first item: my tweed hat. I love that hat. Having just gotten my hair shaved off, it also meant that my head was cold without that hat. But Steve didn’t have keys to get back in and nor did I, as his girlfriend & her dog were both sound asleep inside. So no tweed hat… though I still have my boonie hat (aka “Who needs an umbrella?”) and my winter hat, just in case.

The Bolt Bus was fantastic. The legroom was on par with coach class on an airplane, but for the prices I’d certainly be willing to take it again. In the absence of traffic, we got to New York in about as much time as it’d have taken Amtrak’s regional lines to get there… and at a fraction of the price… and with wi-fi & power outlets. Bravo Bolt Bus, and bah to misplaced federal subsidies.

After doing quite well with timing the transfers needed between bus, rail, and rail again: we arrived in Westfield at about 2pm sharp. We rendezvoused with my cousin & his dog, then otherwise meandered about Westfield the remainder of the day. While north Jersey may not be a favorite destination of mine (or of anyone’s, really), I can’t deny that its Italian presence results in some tasty cheesesteaks to be had.