Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hello, Cuddly

Koala!This is first wild koala I've ever met. I didn't see the guy until he was nearly on top of me. I'd come to this place called Teddy's Lookout to see the view. It was a short hike out of the town of Lorne, sitting at the beginning of the Great Ocean Road and the Great Otway national park. There was a platform leading out to the view over limestone cliffs to the sea and the George River running between hills of rain forest. A finger of the platform was jutting back in the opposite direction. Intrigued, I walked down, looking at the view of the trees below. Then I looked up and found two small eyes, a big nose and big furry ears staring back at me about five feet away.

Koalas are typically silent, lethargic animals. When I say lethargic, I mean I've been told they sleep something like twenty hours a day. As for silent, it's probably a good thing. Search for the sound a koala makes on youtube sometime and you'll see why-- someone started calling this marsupial a 'bear' for a reason, and it's not just the face.

If this koala was any indication, they have a distinctive sense of humor as well. A few seconds after I spotted him, one of what I thought was a trio of tourists behind me saw where I was and a second later, why I was there and what I was looking at. Seven more tourists materialized out of thin air and all ten rushed forward cooing and smiling, cameras at the ready, focusing on the cute furry face with their viewfinders. The koala finished munching his eucalyptus leaves, looked at the tourists and cameras, and turned, spreading his legs wide for the photo op. This meant that while all gawkers were focusing on his face, their cameras also got to pick up a few more features for the shot to show the kids the difference between little boy koalas and little girl koalas. Click, click, beep go the shutters, the oblivious tourists beam as they lower their cameras, the koala closes his legs, and turns, steadfastly facing away from all the cameras that return for second shots, no matter what angle they circle his tree from (at least until I sneeze, getting his attention long enough for a few shots of my own).

That's Australian tourism for you. The tourists enjoy themselves. The locals do too.

I've spent the last few days exploring. Hikes in the Great Otway park are a bit different than hikes back home. I don't ever remember finding private land in the middle of a national park in the US. But one of the better hikes I went on led my right through an apple orchard, past a horse paddock, and a field filled with, of all things, llamas. The more interesting example was finding the art gallery in the middle of the forest. A pretty posh one at that, with an attached "cafe" serving prix fixe dinners at $60-$100 a head and modernist cabins on the other side of the sculpture garden. Great setting. Not exactly what I expected.

You may have read about the brush fires that have happened in Victoria, Australia. some are calling it the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Entire towns have been wiped off the map. This is the same state I was hiking in. So I was a little alarmed to find a log or two of the brush I was hiking around charred and smoking.

I hightailed it back to the trail head and looked for a number on the noticeboard for the parks dept. The only number I could find was for a local council that you should call if you wished to have your wedding in the park. I called it, and got three dial tone options which, on the third go around, I finally understood to be the Lorne Caravan campground, a different caravan campground, and the council. I tried the Lorne one first, was told I had called after office hours and should leave a message. I tried again, this time calling the other camp. I heard a number being dialed, then a different voice thanking me for my call and offering the same three options. I tried the second option again and got a different message saying I had reached them after office hours and would I leave and message. I called the first number again, and tried the third option. Yet another after office hours message, but this time with a number to call if it's an urgent matter. On the third try of calling this number it connected, and turned out the be the second voice offering me the options of the campgrounds and council. I hung up, looked at the smoke, and dialed 000 (international 911 for any phone using a SIM card).

That's how I found out that there were controlled burns happening in the area to keep down the undergrowth. They sent a team of balding firemen with white beards out just to be sure (who kept asking "where are you taking me?" as I pointed them to where I saw the thing. But it was all under control. That was the first of at least three such fires I found. Moving on from Lorne to the rest of the Great Ocean Road, we stopped at these huge limestone formations eroded away from the rest of the cliff called The Twelve Apostles. I turned away from them and the sightseeing helicopters circling them to look at something else, then turn back a few minutes later to see a plume of black smoke rising behind them. Nobody around me seemed in the least perturbed. I had to check my camera to make sure it hadn't been there all along and that I'd just been too obtuse to see it the first time. But no, it was definitely new. I tried pointing it out to people. The first time, nobody even glanced up. the second time, somebody said "Yup, probably just a helicopter", chuckled and clapped me on the shoulder as if he was indulging a pre-teen boy who had just told a clever joke. Sure enough, the thing was another controlled fire.

I'm in a different state entirely now, in the Blue Mountains, and I've found a notice saying they're closing some trails to do the same thing here. Even if they are controlled, it still makes me wonder. I'd heard the country was in a drought, but what I hadn't realized was that it has been in a drought for the last ten years. My family comes from a place in Eastern Washington state where we have serious fire issues every year. So seeing fires burning in a 10-year drought, even if professionally controlled, still makes me a bit nervous.

Still, same as usual, I've managed to have a great time seeing sites and meeting people. Sights included my first wild kangaroos, gigantic and deafening wild white cockatoos, a fallen limestone arch aptly named "London Bridge", and the nightlife of the legendary Fitzroy neighborhood in Melbourne on a Friday night. The people included another younger rich retiree, this one a very talkative expert on most intellectual subjects with a passion for steam engines, a pair of classical saxophone players, and an aboriginal elder and didgeridoo expert who taught me the origin story of the instrument-- the great hunter finding a hollow log eaten out by termites, blowing the rest of the termites and then using the same blowing to imitate all the animals he could think of. His spirit still rests inside each instrument.

I should say, since I've gotten a lot of comment on it after my last post, that after I wrote up on it, the anti-american treatment has all but vanished. I haven't had a single problem since then. Either it was extremely localized or I just had a run of bad luck. I'm still seriously considering sending an email to every Sydney backpacker travel agency I can find as well as the city tourist board with the name of the hostel where the door was slammed on me (The Broadway Inn), explaining that, for their information, the establishment does not welcome Americans and CCing the hostel so that they can contact them for details on their policy. Just to avoid future mishaps.

Anyway I've got the basics of a plan worked out for the rest of my stay here, working up the east coast, flying out west, then making my way across the Kimberly to my flight out of Darwin. ready to drop it all on short notice, but after I'm done doing some hiking here and head back to Sydney, my next destinations will be beaches and a port city rumored to have a koala hospital in town that allows visitors. Stay tuned.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thorny Cities

Australian statue at workI asked a friend of mine to give me some tips about things I should do or see while I was in Australia. His response: “Uh.... drink beer?”

So maybe this isn't because of his advice, but there's definitely been a lot of drinking in the last week  Not always beer-- the first evening I spent in Sydney, I sat on a hostel rooftop quaffing something called Goon-- a very cheap boxed wine with a warning on the side saying it might contain fish or dairy products-- along with a ton of homemade sushi while I debated politics with the sushi chef-- a German conspiracy theorist with a definite anti-Semitic bent who couldn't figure out why I wasn't intimidated by his Superior Intelligence. Then came St. Patrick's day, and then a ton of other parties and gatherings, from sitting in the St. Kilda park with hippies who swapped stories about dumpster diving and sitting in trees to keep them from being logged, to a hotel party in the most expensive suite of the Melbourne Westin (long story). All these involved massive amounts of drinking. It's something everyone here is proud of, and I don't just mean Australians, in fact it mostly seems to be foreigners. Most people I've met from country who happens to be on Australian soil are either drinking, or trying to figure out why they aren't drinking and fixing that problem as soon as possible. Even the most beloved local spread for toast, Vegemite, is an extremely salty yeast product that tastes an awful lot like beer (surprisingly good with eggs as long as you use it sparingly. I've already made one of my hosts really happy with a white cheddar and Vegemite omelet for breakfast.]

The drinking culture might be a city thing. I haven't spent time outside of cities yet, so I don't know for sure. But it probably is, because once you're outside of the cities, you really need to keep your wits about you. A guy in an Irish bar in Sydney told me early on “You can be safe in Australia, just don't touch stuff.” The list of dangerous animals ranges from venomous water snakes to hungry crocodiles to hidden stonefish, and those are just the ones I expected. It's the mundane deadly stuff that really gets you, like the small conch shells that contain a hidden creature that will up and sting you if you pick up the shell. But the most insane I learned about was in one entry under my guidebook's natural dangers list: “Poisonous Snails: proof that everything in Australia wants you dead.” The snails are venomous here. Snails. Not just like give you a rash, I mean make you seriously ill. Friendly country, 'aint it?

So far I've spent a few days each in Sydney and then in Melbourne, so I haven't come up against anything serious. But swimming on Coogee beach in Sydney was plenty intense. The water it beautiful, but because of the rip tides and currents, there is a very specific fraction of the beach between two red and yellow flags where swimming is (officially) permitted. And that part is intense enough. I'm six feet tall. More than once I was standing in water that didn't reach my knees and got hit by waves that nearly went over my head. Tumbling around beneath us was this bizarre kind of spiny kelp that rolled around scratching people's ankles like angry underwater tumble weeds on steroids. Then came the announcement from the lifeguard that a wave of bluebottle jellyfish was coming in, and that if anyone was stung, they could be carried over to the lifeguard for treatment. Did I mention the shark attacks that had flooded the headlines a week before? These beaches are not messing around.

So I have a healthy respect for the local wildlife, though you do have to take a few things with a grain of salt. One thing I was warned about that Australians will show they like you by “taking the piss out of you.” If they aren't, you should probably be concerned. So if someone at a bar tries to convince you to look out for the drop-bears-- vicious, carnivorous koalas that drop out of trees and rip sharp teeth into their unsuspecting victims-- and that the only way to avoid them is to rub Vegemite on your nose, it's all in good fun.

I'm sorry to say though, that there is a point after which things start to cross a line. Depending on how you're counting, this is the seventeenth country I've been through on this trip, and it's the first where I've experienced serious discrimination for being American. I'm used to jokes, debating politics and hearing people complain about the US government. I do those things at home myself all the time. But I've never had an experiences like the ones I've had here targeting, not my government, but me as a person. For example: my last night in Sydney, I was wandering around looking for a store and got turned around. I couldn't figure out where I was on a map, but I saw a hostel across the street. I walked up, saw the office would be open for two more hours and rang the buzzer. A man came down, asked if he could help. I told him that I was a bit lost and asked if he could show me where I was on my map. He ask if I was Canadian. I told him I was American. He yelled fuck off and slammed the door in my face. When I tried the buzzer again later, hoping to get someone else, he walked up to the glass, gave me the finger, made a call on a nearby phone (presumably to the office to tell them not to answer the buzzer), and left. When I told this story to the man sitting next to me on the train that night, he laughed and said “That's great!”

The door slamming thing was the most extreme incident, but it certainly wasn't the only one, and they guy who loved the story was not alone in how he felt. Even otherwise friendly people I've stayed with would simply flat out insult the US and Americans as a people. Not the government, the people. I've met Canadians here who have been so fed up with how they see Americans treated that they've pretended to be American to show solidarity and stand against the treatment they see us get. It's nuts. I've been in countries where our country has committed real atrocities, and while many people in those places would ask me some hard questions, they never disrespected me as a person because of where I come from. But here, where as far as I can recall, the US has never done anything particularly malicious, is a different story. Once you get surrounded by things like this, even the jokes you used to laugh along with at home stop being quite so funny.

At the same time, the general friendliness of Australians is legendary, and I've been getting a direct dose through CouchSurfing. It's very strong in both Sydney and in Melbourne, and since the project as a whole just recently celebrated passing the one million member mark a few weeks ago, it's getting stronger. It's such an intriguing concept, shows that something in humanity just works. I joined expecting it to just be a way to sleep in a town for free, but its turned out to be a lot more than that. It's like an underground network all over the world with nodes around every city. It's a group of people who join in a website basically saying blindly to the world that even if they don't know you yet, they trust you. And people they trust, they will show around and share with. It's not that blind of course-- everyone has references left by others on their profiles, so you know before you meet someone that other people have had a good experience with them. So I've ended up at free dinners as well as just random cool stuff, like a hike from Bondi to Coogee beach that turned into an awesome quasi free-form rock climbing event as a bunch of us ditched the trail for the seaside rocks instead (I think I could have paid about $100 for the exact same thing back in Queenstown).

And on my own, I've managed to have a good time as well. I snagged the only ticket left to see The Cat Empire, one of my favorite bands who just happen to be from Melbourne. Going to an awesome concert is one thing, but doing it in the band's hometown made all the difference. The entire crowd knew every word to every song. Actually it was just an impressive crowd to begin with-- the opening band was a Romanian Gypsy band that played a song in 9/8 time, and pretty much everybody was able to keep to the beat, clapping. The gypsies seemed impressed, at least.

As much fun as I've had here though, I feel it's time to move on. I've been to the beaches, I've seen my concert, and I've gotten pages added to my passport (even if the consulate sewed them in upside down...) I have more than a month left in this country, but I already can feel the time crunch just because it's so big and there are so many different things I can do. Besides, I've been in cities too long anyway, it's time to get out.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sweet As, Bro!

View from the top of Queenstown Hill“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.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Thumbs Up

The first time I stood on the side of a highway with my thumb out in New Zealand was back in a tiny town called Otorohanga, on my way to Waitomo. It wasn't planned. I'd told the Intercity bus employee in Auckland that I wanted to go to the Waitomo caves. She'd said there was no direct bus, but that I could get their bus to Otorohanga and there would definitely be a shuttle to Waitomo. I came back to get on my bus and told the driver where I was headed, he gave me a sideways look and said the last shuttle usually left within five minutes of our scheduled arrival. Then he volunteered to call ahead and arrange matters.When we got into town and I got off, he told me that the last shuttle had left, but suggested that I stay in the town's hostel, just around the corner, and catch the next morning's shuttle. I walked around the corner as he drove off. No hostel. A little investigation revealed that it had shut down two years ago.

It was starting to drizzle. I walked into a filling station and asked about hitchhiking, having been told this was possibly the safest country left in the world to do it. I was expecting an opinion on how safe it was. Instead, I got a explanation of which way I wanted to go, as if I'd been asking driving directions. Clearly this was a question they fielded all the time.

So, feeling pretty sheepish, I walked a ways out of town, near a spot where someone could pull over, and stuck up my thumb. Cars went by, more or less as I expected. I got less shy as more passed and I got a bit discouraged. It wasn't until a girl gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up back that it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't doing something right. I went back to the filling station and came away with a cardboard sign that said “Waitomo please.” The very first car that saw me pulled over.

A few minutes later, I was bumping along the road listening to my driver go on and on about his dream motorcycle in the thickest New Zealand accent I ever got two out of five words from. He dropped me off near a hostel with a smile and the typical small-town kiwi good-bye, “Maybe I'll see you around. Not such a big place, after all.”

Since then, I've hitched other rides, once even at the clandestine advice of a tourist info center employee (“honestly, you'll get there before the first bus will”) and gotten not only to meet more people, but to see a lot more stuff. If I'd been busing, would've gone more or less straight from the ferry dock into the nearest national park via the big inland highway. Instead, I got a scenic drive through the mountains, a stop at a gorgeous bay for a swim, and a Saturday night in a small town dancing with the ladies from a local “hen party” (I think they're just called bachlorette parties in the states).

So that's been my life for the last few days. Hike for five hours through the woods of giagantic ferns along beautiful beaches, and hitch to my next destination across mountain passes, and learn all about the local water taxi business, a local campaign aiming to make cigarettes illegal in NZ except for small amounts issued to serious addicts by the government, and a “storm chasing,” which seems to be more or less exactly what it sounds like, trying to get good photographs.

And, because the public transportation on the west coast is so scarce, it's thanks to hitching that I've arrived where I am now: Paparoa national park, on the west coast of the South island, with the most dramatic coastline I've ever seen in my life-- massive limestone cliffs covered in lush ferns, trees, and bush getting smashed into by lines and lines of waves. I've never seen rows of waves rising all at once like that before-- all in the face of sunbreaks through the clouds just so you can see that actual rays hitting the sea. If only I'd given myself a bit more time until my flight out, I'd stay here for days.

Working on the pictures still. The move from Picasa to Flickr isn't going quite the way I expected. They're there, comments aren't yet, and neither is the system I was trying to put in to make them browsable by entry. Once I don't have to pay for wireless with data caps, things will improve. (UPDATE, 3/18/09- all entries now have photos attached! order is screwy and I think a few might have escaped, but they're there now.)
Check out this entry's Photos.

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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