Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Kia Ora (e)N Z(ed)

New Zealand. Population of about 4.3 million in a country with more land mass than the UK. Also about 32 million sheep. More than seven per person, and that's a drop from what it was just a couple years ago. Famous as the birthplace of the bungee jump and the film site for the Lord of the Rings. My welcome moment in the airport had nothing to do with any of this.

"I'm not supposed to stamp this part" the migrations officer grunted as he flipped to the end of my passport. "This part's supposed to be for amendments only. But there's no space left anywhere else."

He was right. There wasn't. Possibly if he'd had a smaller stamp,the kind the entry and exit spaces on the passport were designed for,it would have fit. But I've come to realize that entry and exit stamps are a lot like many other things in life-- if yours is bigger, you're more important. And just about every country in the world knows it's more important than any other country. So I've just about run out of space. I know I can get more pages added for free,but it takes about a week to process and they won't do it where I am. I'll figure something out, I'm sure-- the US government stopped issuing amendments to passports about five years ago, so even if it makes migration officers uneasy, they can stamp away there for now.

There's no way to say what the first thing was that hit me when I got off the plane. There was too much and so much of it was so subtle. Asking for, and receiving, directions in English from a local stranger might be the contender for the first big thing. Then there was the driving on the left. Then there's something just in the general attitude towards how things work. I got on an Auckland city bus and it stopped for exactly six minutes because it was ahead of schedule. 48 hours before that, I'd been told the buses in the city I was in didn't have a schedule and often skipped entire neighborhoods because they would save time.

But the kicker was how I felt in my context. In most places in South America, I felt like I would be perceived at first glance as western (and therefore rich) tourist or backpacker. If I was doing well, I'd blend in with the locals a bit, but my skin tone alone made that hard. Here though, with a dirty backpack, the same clothes I'd been wearing for months, a day's growth of beard, and all the smells associated from staying a night on a plane without bathing, I looked around at all the people in suits going to their morning commute and felt for the for the first time on this trip like I'd be perceived as a hobo.

But if I was, nobody showed any sign of it. I had to ask directions once or twice, and as one gym employee told me very early on, "if you don't find it, no worries mate, you can ask anybody for help. We're all friendly here."

I spent my first two nights in the converted apartment of Craig, a native Aucklander, thanks to the Couch Surfing Project. I asked him what he did for a living and he told me he made video games, music, graphic novels, and movies. Professionally. This isn't mentioning his professional writing in a blog or the photography work he's done and I don't even know what else he hasn't mentioned. I spent a good chunk of time with him, his roommates, and another guest who happened to be going to the University of Chicago of all places.

We got to talking about all kinds of things, art, the environment, Antarctica, culture of abundance, and of course a little bit of what Craig did for a living. At one point he was describing a political campaign he was doing encouraging kids to walk to school-- gets them a certain amount of independence knowing they can get themselves places, save emissions from traffic that would've have been driving them, gets them to know their neighborhood, etc. One on hand I thought it was a really cool project. On another, I was thinking about how not that long ago, I was traveling through places where walking as the only way kids had of to get to school at all. Interesting world, we develop enough to drive our kids to school, and then develop still further to choose not to.

I spent longer in Auckland than I expected, but I did move on. I took a combination of bus, walking, and even hitchhiking (another funny story in and of itself) to get to Waitomo, home of some of New Zealand's most spectacular caves, full of Glowworms. I took a raft with a group into one of them just to see. The limestone caverns had ceiling covered in these larvae that use a tiny turquoise light to attract prey into strands not unlike bits of spiderweb. Pictures don't quite do it justice because they're so difficult to take in that environment. But even with ideal conditions, it's hard to capture drifting silently underground while blue-green lights reflecting off the surface of the water were all you saw bouncing off stalactites and calcified curves of cave wall.

Shifting from there, I based myself in Rotorua for a day to do some hiking in the nearby Redwoods. Five hours of hiking with a shoulder bag is a bad idea, for those who didn't know. Use a backpack. I had a fantastic time in forest of the biggest ferns I'd seen in my life (many were trees in their own right) out to blue lake.

Not pausing too long, I took an overnighter to Wellington, the southernmost city of the northern island. The Southern island is the one that gets all the hype, so I've been anxious to get there. Staying with Chris, yet another friend (this one I met on the boat to Antarctica) in NZ. I learned after climbing a hill in town that the place had been used to film a chase scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (though like all the Lord of the Rings film sites, they've taken care to clean everything out afterwards).

When I started describing what I was seeing to friend of mine online back home, she said "gee, a hilly port city with a good theater and arts scene and lots of nice parks. Hmm." She had a point. Not only that, but the city has a similar propensity for Asian imports and restaurant, and something that looks an awful lot like the space needle. Getting out of it I found mountains, hiking, water sports, and further inland there are long stretches of farms with horses, pine trees, and Hereford Cattle. Both my home city and the ranch my mother grew up on seem to have echoes out on the other side of the planet.

But it does feel different, even if it sounds similar on paper. The driving on the left is one thing. Also the occasional switch of the hot water taps-- this is the sixth continent* I've been to in my life, and the first one I've ever seen where the hot water tap was consistently on the right hand side. More than that though is just a feel that everything is smaller. Partially this is because of the low population density, but I feel like there' more to it than that. The cities feel eminently more walkable than anywhere I've been of comparable size. Auckland has twice the population of Seattle, but something about its well developed downtown makes it feel like it's actually half the size. I'll figure out how to put my finger on it somehow. I'm headed to the south island fairly soon. I've got about ten or eleven more days before I fly out of Auckland for Sydney.

One unrelated announcement that will affect this blog a bit. I've acquired a new piece of travel gear: a used EeePC laptop. I'm still tinkering with the linux operating system to get to do things I want it to do,but in the end, depending on Wi-Fi availability, this could very well boost how often I post and how well I write the posts. Maybe. There's no concept of unlimited broadband out here in NZ, meaning everybody guards (and charges) for their data usage very carefully, but I can at least prep stuff offline, for the time being. This means no pictures for this post, but once I get a better access point for data uploads, I'll have them up.

*Terminologically debatable-- see comments if you're a stickler for that sort of thing

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  1. Desire to go to New Zealand: increased.

    Missing of Joel: increased.

    Definition of your "sixth continent": questionable.


  2. If you are into caves, there's one in Greece you tour by rowboat. Pretty cool, but no glowworms.

  3. Count C- Questionable claim: verifiable. As follows:
    1. North America-- born and raised
    2. Europe-- first visited as small boy with parents
    3. Asia-- Studied abroad in India during college
    4. South America-- first entered late last year
    5. Antarctica-- Expedition during same trip.
    6. Oceania-- New Zealand. Here, now.
    7. Africa-- TBA


    Catherine- The glow worms were the big draw for this one but rowboat tour through more caves does sound interesting. I'll keep my eyes peeled when I get there. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Oceania - not a continent my friend :). I didn't deny your travels were more than impressive enough. Once you hit Australia, then we can talk six continents ;). Which will be soon enough.

  5. There's actually a bit of debate about that point:

    But point well taken, according to some people, I have not yet been to six. I'll let you folks argue that for the next ten days.

  6. Hi Joel!

    All your experience and differences that you`ve seen between South America and New Zeland, it is so have a long way and I wish you the best...I am always reading your incredible experiencies, even though I do not understand at all (because of my english knowledge, but I try!)...but I just can tell you that it is amazing, because I can just imagen with your descriptions! :) thanks 4 doing it!


  7. Shout-out!
    We're all incredibly jealous of you in what's presumably nice weather and interesting surroundings. I've only seen "Seattle lite" in this weird pre-LOTR Peter Jackson zombie movie that James Snyder owned. Don't go to the zoo, btw. That was where it started. If there is an outbreak, your only hope is to make for the Gap of Rohan. Fly, you fool!

  8. Mary- Don't worry, you're going to have a few adventures of your own soon. Let me know when you get to the US, anything Jenny can't answer, I might be able to.

    Emily- The Irish guys insist this country is another Ireland, and the German's say it's another Black Forest. That's not even mentioning the Californians and Canadians. Weird thing is, nobody seems to recognize it as Middle earth. They've done that much editing to their shots... though they do have Peter Jackson brand cigarettes.