“You look thin.”
That was what my mom told me after I had activated the webcam on my laptop for the first time during a skype call. I was sitting in an Argentinian gelato shop in Queenstown with a view of the lake as well as the serrated ridge of mountains filmed as Dimril Dale in the Lord of the Rings movies. I still think that it's more due to the fact that I haven't lifted in months (hostels and homestays don't tend to come with gym memberships). But the phase of living partially off energy bars might have had something to do with it... The locally made brands here are portable, healthy, tasty, and almost always on sale for some reason. But I had to start branching out when I realized they had about the same effect as soup-- filling only for a few minutes after you eat them. I have not, as I threatened to one friend, made meals out of a whole loaf of bread to save cash. Seriously, I found peanut butter and jelly. For half of it.
It's mostly that the price tag with travel in the “first world” still feels excessive after living off of $1 three course meals and $6 hostel beds after an $8 bus ride. Now everything is a lot closer to the prices you'd find in the USA, making a $15-$20 budget a day more or less impossible.
And that's just the living expenses. I came to Queenstown considering taking it up on the reputation of gravity sports central. They call them Adventure activities around here, but as one guidebook puts it, “With 70-year-olds waiting for hip replacements signing up for Adventure tours, it's hard to know exactly what the term means... Just make sure you understand which kind you're signing up for.
Come to think of it, if you need to sign up for the adventure, that's a pretty good indication of what kind it is.” So I wasn't dying to try the bungee jumping, skydiving, bungee swing etc, but I thought it might be worth a go. Turns out the vast majority of them were well over the price I paid for my computer!
So I've picked other adventures. Like hiking the hills outside Queenstown with a Canadian national park naturalist traveling to do research on bats, the only land (air?) mammals native to New Zealand. Or stalking the forests at night with friends, searching for outdoor glowworms. Though a lot of what I did ended up being much more peaceful. I stayed in two different lakeside towns: Queenstown, the capital of New Zealand “adventure” tours, and Wanaka, up to the north. Aside from Queenstown's view of The Remarkables (aka Dimril Dale), they look like twins. Green towns set on a lake, surrounded by mountains. The difference was the Queenstown had been Developed. This meant tourist info centers across the street from other tourist info centers, restaurants of every ethnicity they could think of, hostels and hotels everywhere (two HI/YHA hostels alone), and rows and rows of identical cookie cutter “holiday homes;” The kind where you have to try your keys on two or three houses, just to figure out which one is yours. Wanaka didn't have as much to “do,” but I think that might have been sort of the point. I spent a full moon's night just walking by the lake, listening to my radio, figuring out how different stations brought out different aspects of what I saw, the classical music bringing out the moon and clouds, the rock station the long winding roads, the electronica bringing out the stars and expanse of the sky against the mountains, and the hip-hop accenting the flickering streetlights and back alleyways near houses. Only turning it off and hearing the water really brought out the lake itself.
One thing that surprised me in Queenstown was wandering the streets and coming upon an interesting art gallery. I'm not a connoisseur by any stretch, and I'd never heard of Ivan Clarke before, but when I saw the full-size painting of a motorcycle gang in the window I took a closer look. The gang members were all dogs.
I went inside and found more dog scenes, alongside beautiful paintings of landscapes. But I grew up on stories about the adventures of talking animals, and the dog paintings were of exactly that. In the corner was a massive tome with a pair of white gloves next to it. It was the the most elaborate and beautiful picture book I had ever seen. It was about Lonely Dog, set in the fantasy world of a rough, bluesy harbor town of cats and dogs and the legendary music that started there. There are only about 100 copies of the book in existence, and the price reflects the fact. I talked to the shopkeeper and she told me that Warner Brothers was making a movie out of it, and that it was going to be “bigger than Harry Potter.” She then tried very hard to sell me a set of paintings for the low, low, price of US$765. I declined, but I took her card- the Lonely Dog story grabbed me, and I think it might be worth keeping an eye on.
I swung up to Christchurch, accidentally getting on a tour bus instead of my intercity shuttle and sitting next to a French-American ex-military US customs and immigration official and his Latina wife and friends, (all employees of American Airlines), and their four-year-old daughter who could already speak and understand French, Spanish, and English, and who could not get enough of taking pictures of me making weird faces. Then came an early morning flight to Auckland, so among other things, I could take advantage of the annual Auckland Festival (arts events all over town for half a month).
Thinking of stories that grabbed me, I came to the Civic Theater to see a play all about being a foreigner. It was based on a graphic novel: The Arrival. Amazing direction. The entire set and design was mimed and minimalist in a really effective way-- finger snaps became rain, two-by-fours became a window, and then a set of stairs, and long poles moved and held at angles became a dense forest. The setting was a strange place with oddball creatures, machines, and customs. But through all that I could see the immigrant go through steps of acclimating to cultures and recognize all the little things I'd had to do or deal with when I'm somewhere new.
My sendoff from New Zealand was in a little spot tucked away from the city center called The Loft. I'd been invited to a vegan supper and told there would be some “spiritualist stuff.” So I went to check it out. It turned out to be a meeting spot for the Hare Krishnas. So while I sat next to Mexican exchange students studying animation, I saw a skit, singing, dancing, and a sermon based on something that seemed to be a mix of the Hindu Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. There was even a guy playing the pakawaj drum I'd gotten a lesson on in India two years ago, but also a western band using circle of fifths progressions. Very different from the services I remembered. I met and talked to activists over Indian curry and polenta with and salad with guacamole, and a drink the Mexican students and I were convinced was agua de horchata. One told me about how he was arrested in 2003 after he got a crowd together outside the US embassy declaring that they were hiding weapons of mass destruction and that since they we denying it and not permitting them to come in and search, they were sure to have them. He was the first on the ground hopping the fence and was quickly arrested. The judge said the only thing he could be found guilty of was eloquent speech. He and some friends started telling me problems they were beginning to have with gangs of skinheads, known by the name National Unity, and how they were actually coming into public high schools to recruit, as well as becoming increasingly violent against minorities. Also they told me how the national government had banned use of words like “partnership” and “coalition” in use in government documents. I went to speak with the leader who had given the sermon, thanking her, and asking her a couple questions about the service. She couldn't identify the pakawaj, but she did offer me a copy of Gita.
I left that to go with a couple other backpackers to the airport, where we slept before our red-eye flights to Australia. I'm writing from Sydney right now.
I'm going to wrap this up-- I've got a St. Patrick's day party I promised to check out in just a few minutes. In fact, I think I'm already late.