Semi-regular contributions from the road.
As you might suspect, it takes a while to digest a trip like this. I've been home for a couple weeks now, and at times it all seems almost... fake. Sometimes it feels like it happened a long time ago. Sometimes I wake up and forget I'm actually home. It's hard to describe.
The time has however, allowed me some time to go through some things and reflect a bit. I've had a chance to compile a few numbers. Below are some interesting facts and figures I've managed to generate. A bit of an "at a glance" sheet if you will. And I will.
- Start Date: January 8, 2007
- End Date: January 8, 2008
- Total Days on the Road: 365
- Continents: 7
- Individual Nations: 43
(Does not include USA, Hong Kong or Antarctica)
- Cities/Towns Visited (at least one night's stay required): 101
- Total Miles: >70,000
- Total Kilometers: >113,000
*The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901.55 miles or 40,075.16 kilometers. These numbers do not include day trips, metro rides, walking...
- Longest bus ride: 31 hours - 1657km/1030mi
(Arica, Chile to Santiago, Chile - includes 3-hour breakdown in Atacama desert)
- Longest plane ride: 14 hours: 12516km/7777mi
(Sydney, Australia to Vancouver, Canada)
- Flights (including connections): 35
- Individual Airlines: 24
- Bus Rides (inter-city): 56
- Rides in friends' personal vehicles: >15
- Languages Encountered: >25
- Currencies Used: 36
- Pages Filled in Passport: 27 of 37 possible
(extra pages added at US Embassy in Buenos Aries)
- Stamps/Visas in Passport: 81
(includes all entry and exit stamps/stickers - number is not indicative of countries visited for a variety of reasons: My request for Israel to not stamp my passport, the Freedom of Movement agreement in the EU, etc.)
- Longest time in One Country: 32 days (New Zealand)
- Longest time in One City: 21 days (Beijing, China)
- Movies Seen: >25
- Haircuts: 4
(Cape Town, South Africa; Dublin, Ireland; Beijing, China; Perth, Australia)
- Emails Sent: >800
- Emails Received: >1600
- Toothbrushes: 14
- Bottles of Antibiotics: 2
- Immunizations: Polio, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Typhoid, Tdap, Yellow Fever) + weekly anti-malarials
- Contacts Around the World: >55
- Books Read: 12 (not counting 5 guidebooks)
- Total Unique Visits to www.tallmatt.com in 2007: >13,000
- Pictures Taken: >21,000
- Journals Filled: 3
- Pens Used: 5
You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
I wouldn't say I'm a tremendous fan, but when the occasion calls for it, a beer can really hit the spot. And, when you're traveling for a year and end up in youth hostels on a regular basis, beer is the backpacker's equivalent of a handshake (and in some cases a makeshift currency). Thusly, as I wandered the globe, I thought it appropriate to keep a record of the beverages native to each nation. Below is a quick list of most of the lagers, ales and stouts I tried in each country. Just don't ask me how to pronounce them all.
|South Africa||Carling Black Label, Castle|
|Tanzania||Safari, Kilimanjaro, Serengeti|
|Belgium||Chimay Blue, De Koninck, Delirium Tremens, Duvel, Gulden Draak, Jan van Gent, Jupiler, Kwak, Leffe Blond, Maes, McChouffe, Palm, Rochefort, Verboden Frucht, Westmalle|
|Czech Republic||Staropramen, Budveiser|
|China||Tsing Tao, Yangjing|
|Australia||Toohey's, VB, Cooper's Pale Ale|
|New Zealand||Tui, Export Gold, Monteith's, Steinlager|
Almost a year ago, just days after I had embarked on this crazy walkabout, a friend of mine sent me one of the more thoughtful emails I'd received in a very long time. And, as it would happen, one that would continue to bounce around in my head for months to come. In lieu of trying to poorly paraphrase, here is the text:
As you travel I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes "Sometimes it is better to have traveled than to have arrived" or a derivation of it which reads "The journey is more important than the destination".
Makes me consider if the authors metaphorically sought and didn't find or whether they so enjoyed the travel that the destination didn't matter. Perhaps a combination of both? Maybe they found a destination but courageously sought new adventures?
I often wonder what happens if someone finds the "destination" and deems it more worthy than the continuing the journey.
In any case, my friend, enjoy your journey...
I thought about this throughout the year - and specifically in the places most would consider to be "destinations" along the way - Machu Picchu, Antarctica, The Pyramids, the Great Wall...
The more I traveled, the more I pondered. The more I pondered, the more I came to the same conclusion. There are Tourists and there are Travelers. G. K. Chesterton makes the point rather lucidly:
The traveler sees what he sees.
The tourist sees what he has come to see.
A tourist is interested in having proof they were there. They want to know they made the journey and took the photos. They also want others to know as well. They are the flocks of Japanese tourists with huge cameras they don't know how to operate. They are the nuclear families headed to Disneyland. They are the passengers on luxury tour buses and the money-belt wearing crowds following the red flag. The actual act of travel is itself an inconvenience. It's hauling over-packed luggage and nervously waiting around in airports. It's a something to endure before mercifully finding the hotel and enjoying a cultural but still recognizable meal.
There's nothing wrong with being a Tourist. I've been one, am one and will again be one. I've been one on this trip. When I'm 65, I'm certain I'll be one of the flocks of grey hairs patiently waiting on the bus to whisk me away to dinner so I can take my pills. I'll want the comfort of a real hotel where I don't have to share a room with anyone other than my wife. I'll enjoy having someone tell me exactly where to go, and tell me when it's time to head back to the bus.
For a traveler, the destination is simply an excuse to go. It's a chance to pack a bag and head out. It is a point of reference for themselves and others. Something to tell friends and family so they can find it on a map. The act of getting to the destination is the real joy. The traveler loves finding the "other" way to get to point B. Not because it's cheaper or faster or safer, but for the exact opposite reasons. The "other" way is probably not the most direct route, and is likely full of people and scenery you would never be exposed to otherwise. The travelers eventually make their way to where they're supposed to go and find the paths no one is on for views no one else gets. They enjoy being in airports for the excitement that surrounds everyone walking the halls with a carry-on bag. They enjoy being around others who are going somewhere - anywhere... and dream about going there too.
I started the trip as a tourist. How can you not? I wanted the National Geographic photos. I wanted to check things off my list. However, the more ground I covered, and the farther from home I moved, the more I felt those feelings recede and be replaced by a true wanderlust. A desire not necessarily to see "something," but to just see. To experience. To explore and discover. I loved seeing the Aya Sofia in Istanbul. The first thing I remember about Turkey is sharing beers and a water pipe with people from four different countries in a third floor bar while listening to Arabic rap music. I was in awe of Uluru in Australia. A dusty, hole-in-the-wall gas station 300 kilometers from nowhere in the middle of the Outback with pens full of kangaroos and emus was just as interesting.
There's no right or wrong. No better or worse. It's the point of view you decide to take, and the experience you want to take home. Tourist or Traveler, the point is to go. To check out of life for a bit and see the world. To roll along roads you've never been down before. To stand in front of that "destination" you've been dreaming about for so very long. To touch it and say "I made it. I'm here." And for the rest of your life remember the way you felt at that moment. It's possible. You just have to go.
I went to my first NHL game tonight. I'm not much of a hockey fan. As with most Americans, it ranks a pretty distant fourth on my list of major sports behind football, basketball and baseball. It's amusing, but pretty hard to watch on TV. Given the alternative of college basketball or even (gasp) the NBA, I'll probably watch the game with an actual ball.
That being said, when I found out the Canucks were in town, I did my best to find a ticket. An NHL game was the only live sporting event missing from my "big four", and I felt I'd probably never get a better chance. Plus, I've been told the Canucks are pretty good, and the opponent tonight was the New York Rangers. Can't be all bad.
I've actually been to one hockey game in my life - it was a Kansas City Blades (IHL) game way back in 2002 or 2003. They went under not too long after that, leaving a relatively unnoticed vacancy in the heart of the Kansas City sporting community. It was a pretty good time though. Like watching baseball, the entertainment factor for hockey goes up by about 63% if you're actually there. With about 2,000 people in the "crowd", we were able to sit down by the glass, which immediately beckons you to slap it when a player skates by. As it was minor-league hockey there was a fight every five minutes to go along with about seven goals between the two teams. All in all, a pretty fun event.
For tonight's festivities, I arrived at the GM Place a bit early, and walked down by the glass behind one of the goals. Soon, the teams came out for their warm ups, and started flinging round, black missiles at the net. I had never been that close to an NHL slap-shot. The first time one went high and hit the glass, I was pretty sure someone was going to die. It sounded like a whip cracking. That glass must be some secret-service approved stuff. Shot after shot nailed the clear wall in front of me - my self preservation mechanisms kicking in a couple of times, much to my embarrassment.
Once the teams headed back in, I hiked up to my seat in the nose-bleeds (you didn't think I paid for a good ticket, did you?) and watched the festivities leading up to the face-off. It had a very slick, NBA-esqe feel to it - lots of epilepsy-inducing light shows, stupid intermission time-killing contests and hordes of advertisements. And this was just the pre-game. I was pretty sure the hockey would be pretty conservative and watered down as well. The game would probably end up 1-0 with no fights.
In a sweet turn of events, two guys dropped gloves four seconds after the opening face off. Four seconds! The guy next to me explained there was some bad blood from an earlier game. They wasted no time grabbing each other's jerseys and trying to rapid-fire punch at the head. Hockey fights in general pretty much suck. Your only hope of some real head-knocking is if some guy has a long reach, or one of them lets go of the other's sweater for a better grip. I'd grade this one at about a C+. It went on for a while, until they inevitably fell down and were summarily separated and sent to the sin bin.
The rest of the first period was pretty boring - the teams feeling each other out, and me trying to understand the weird-ass rules about the blue line, off-sides and icing. The highlight though, was when the big jumbotron hanging from the center of the arena flashed a picture of Pamela Anderson sitting in her suite. Apparently Pam is a Canucks fan. Turns out she was sitting just diagonal from my section, and I could see her and all her friends paying minimal attention to the hockey, and lots of time on their drinks, cell phones and flipping their hair around.
The game did get more interesting - the second period producing a goal by Vancouver, and two or three pretty good displays of goal tending by Roberto Luongo from the home team. The third period was a virtual explosion - two more late goals by Vancouver which sent the home crowd into a frenzy. Which leads me to yet another soccer analogy. There's unfortunately a big soccer-esqe feel to hockey. A lot of moving around without a lot of action, a lot of frustrating turnovers and a lot of excitement over sequences that get somewhat close to the center of the ice, but eventually lead to nothing. Hockey is still 100 times better than soccer though - it's on ice, the surface is smaller, they have sticks, it's fast, and they hit each other. A lot.
I did honestly have a pretty good time. They have a good atmosphere, and a nice following here. It would definitely be more fun to be closer to the glass, and to have a couple friends to share it with. But, I can't complain. Plus, I got to see Pam in the flesh.. er... Fully clothed... live... in person. From a long ways away.
I love football. With the exceptions of friends/family, movies and Mountain Dew, football is at the top of the list of things I've missed this year. There's only so much force-feeding of soccer one American can take. And, while Rugby is a good alternative, it just isn't the same. I just enjoy the forward pass too much. So, from August on, I've pledged allegiance to any sports bar carrying the occasional American football game. And, thank goodness for the internet - I may have gone into a severe bout of withdrawals without it.
Vancouver is quasi-America, and seems to be in love with the NFL and football in general to a respectable degree, which pleases me. I spent Sunday watching the final day of the NFL regular season, and hopped over to a sports bar on Jan. 1 for my annual overdose of ridiculously titled bowl games. However, as tonight proved yet again, it was a damn good year for me to be out of the country.
I'll start with the obvious. As most of you know, I'm a big Broncos fan. Just check the pictures. I come by it honestly. It started back in the day - back when Elway was taking teams to the Super Bowl by himself, and then getting dismantled by New York, Washington and San Francisco. Whatever. He's been vindicated. They've struggled to be consistent ever since, which is frustrating as hell. This year, however, was not a pretty sight - even from the internet. 7-9 sucks a lot, and if Shanahan didn't have two rings, he'd probably be on the hot seat. There was a silver lining though. Two big slaps to the faces of the Kansas City Chiefs means this year wasn't a total loss.
The second obvious - My Cornhuskers were freakin terrible. I don't even remember my grandpa telling stories about years like this. Losing to USC is one thing. Losing to Okie State by 30 is another. Giving up 76 to KU made me think about seppuku. But, there's light at the end of the tunnel - Bill Callahan is no longer any danger to himself or others, Grandpa Tom is back in the mix and Bo Pelini is the new head coach. The Big Red will be rolling again soon.
Then, there's the rest of the stuff - The Patriots going 16-0. Michigan getting beat by Appalachian State. Everyone ranked number one or two losing at least once. Kentucky beating LSU. And, more mind-boggling, MU and KU actually playing for something in November. Rediculous! Missouri was even ranked number 1 for God's sake! Just writing that actually hurt me. And, to top even that, KU just won the freakin Orange Bowl! KU? Normally at this time of year, football is a distant memory and KU nation has turned to endlessly criticizing Bill Self.
I love football. But I'll probably pretend this year didn't happen.
When was the last time you were in shorts and sandals enjoying some BBQ out on the porch? Ok, well how about the last time you did that in December? How about while watching people bowling on the front lawn?
Welcome to Christmas in New Zealand.
Allow me if you will to take you back to a rainy week in September, and recount an ever-so-brief encounter in Poland. Hanging out in the dorm room one day (probably watching Terminator 2 or Aliens), I ended up talking to a very cool couple from New Zealand. Wehrle and Tash were from Auckland and were just getting started on a six-month adventure through Europe and Northern Africa. We chatted about this and that - about my trip and theirs, about New Zealand and Auschwitz. An hour later, I was convinced they were two of the coolest people I've met on the trip. For whatever reason - demeanor, humor, shared attitude about the hazards of everyday, cubed occupations and the healing powers of travel... we made a connection - where you feel you may have met at some forgotten point in the past and had a great time, and inexplicably forgot about it until they walked back into your life with backpacks on. Anyway, to make a long story shorter (and of course, relevant to the tale before you) we decided it would be a brilliant idea for me to look them up when I made it to New Zealand in December.
Fast forward to early December - True to our individual words, Wehrle, Tash and I have traded a few emails, concluding I'd be in the general vicinity of Auckland around Christmas time. Graciously and awesomely (is that even a word?) they invited me to join them for Christmas.
Now fast forward to December 24. Around 7:30, I took a bus across the harbor to meet up with Tash. She and a friend of hers were headed to meet some friends for a drink, and invited me to join them. It was great to see Tash again. It brought back the memories from Poland, and reminded me what it's like to see old friends. She was accompanied by her friend Laura, a tall blonde from England who was also making her first visit to New Zealand. We headed down to the happenin' part of town, and met up with a few more friends. Before retiring for the night, we made plans to meet up tomorrow morning to drive out to Wehrle's parents' house, where we'd all be celebrating Christmas.
Tash and Laura picked me up in a white hatchback, and sped us off toward Matamata. Being retired farmers, Wehrle's folks live in the country. Two hours of scenic green countryside later, we pulled into the driveway of an amazing ranch-style house set on two or three acres. It was a very modern design and a fairly recent build, which consisted of what seemed to be about 60% windows. And with their view, I can see why.
Wehrle met us in the driveway, along with several other members of his family. It was absolutely great to see him again. His hair was a bit bigger and the goatee a bit fuller, but it was Wehrle just the same. We went inside, where he promptly introduced me to everyone in his family, along with some neighbors who might as well be. Of course, five minutes later I had no idea who was who. Everyone was incredibly nice, which was wonderful, because I felt a bit like an interloper on a good family's Christmas celebration. However, everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome, which was a present in itself. (Think about that for a minute. Imagine if your son/daughter brought some bigger-than average dude from another country - which they met in Poland for a grand total of about five hours - into your house for Christmas. How cool is that?)
After a quick tour of the amazing house, Wehrle and I caught up over a beer on our various travels since we last spoke. He and Tash had had quite an adventure, hitting 33 countries in a little under six months. They hit a bunch of places in Europe that I missed, and parts of Northern Africa, including Morocco. Sweet.
Now, as you might expect, Christmas dinner in New Zealand is a tad different than in the States. Like the entire country, things are a bit more relaxed. While big ol' turkeys, hams, mashed potatoes and gravy and all the fixin's eaten in Sunday's best may be tradition in the States, Kiwis bust out the barbeque - as you do in the summer months. It was pretty overcast, and a few drops were starting to fall, but don't think a little rain was going to stop the festivities. We absolutely stuffed ourselves on Swiss and New Zealand-style sausages, grilled meatloaf, boiled potatoes, four or five different kinds of salads, Swiss bread... It was a grand feast.
The rest of Christmas day was pretty similar to back home. A couple little ones ran around like chickens with their new toys; the ladies chatted about kids and gossip over cups of tea, the men talked about farming and sports around bottles of beer. Before long though, the rain cleared, and we all ended up outside - to watch some bowling. Yeah, that's right - bowling.
Apparently there is a decent-sized Swiss contingency in the area, and they meet on a pretty regular basis. One of their favorite past times is Swiss bowling, which is played outside. As you might expect, the "Swiss Club" has a portable set, which just happened to be set up on the Wehrle's front lawn. It was good fun. Everyone got involved - young and old, grandmas and grandpas. Unfortunately, the rain came back, and we had to call the game before a winner was crowned.
After, we ended up busting out a poker set, and after a slow start for some first-timers, had a pretty decent round of Texas Hold'em. To top it off, Borat happened to be on TV - twice! And let me say, being the only American in a room full of witty Kiwis while watching someone just embarrass our country is a weird place to be. There were lots of questions to answer.
Pretty much your average Christmas, right?
I wish I had the words to express the Gratitude I have to the entire set of family and friends who made me feel like a part of the family in a matter of minutes. You can't understand what that meant to me. Especially being so far from home. Tash and Wehrle - thank you from the bottom of my heart.
It was a Christmas I'll never forget. A beautiful setting, and beautiful people. I'm not sure why I've been so blessed this year. But it's amazing to see where you end up if you just show a little trust.
If you've been following along for any amount of time you've probably figured out I am a certified geek. I admit it - I dig sci-fi, comic book stuff and all-things cinema related. I get excited about rumors on upcoming projects, new movie trailers, and all these cool superhero flicks coming to the big screen. Hell, I used to write my own year-end movie reviews. And, I know some of you have thought it simply a matter of time before reading about me jumping on some geek-fest Lord of the Rings tour here in New Zealand. Well, I'd hate to disappoint you...
Surprisingly, there's not much open in downtown Rotorua at 8:00 on a Friday morning. I was on my way to a convenience store with designs on getting a bottle of extremely overpriced water. The newspaper billboards in front of the shop touted today's headlines - one about a jail sentence for a sex offender, and one about Peter Jackson and the Hobbit. Now as a true geek, I actually heard the news yesterday about Jackson and New Line burying the hatchet to make the long-awaited prequel to the trilogy. It was however, fitting (and kind of cool) that the news hit the stands the very day I was headed for a tour of Hobbiton.
At 8:30 a white van with Hobbiton Tour logos splattered on its paneling pulled up in front of my hostel. And yes, it was kind of embarrassing. But, who cares? The driver, a jolly fellow named Danny, welcomed me on board with a firm handshake. He was probably in his late 50's with close-chopped white and silver hair. He had a tanned face with a big white moustache that rolled from the bottom of one cheek to the other. He looked like Paul Sr. from American Choppers, just minus about six inches and 75 pounds.
We made a few stops at three or four other hostels to see if anyone else was coming, but it ended up that I was the only soul going this morning. After a few pleasantries, we started talking about film in general - him asking me cheesy questions, and he quickly getting the picture that I knew more about the genre than his average passenger. We moved into specifics on Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings - as you do on a tour to Hobbiton. Fortunately, he was pretty well versed, as he should be. I grilled him about the recent news surrounding the Hobbit, but either he didn't know anything more than I did, or he was pretty good at denying it.
In the end, he was actually a lot of fun to talk to. A true Kiwi - laid back and open-minded, but passionate about "his stuff." He had the aura of someone who raised his fair share of hell back in the day and likes to think it's still in there somewhere. I could tell he had some amazing stories. He started talking with his hands about something, at which point I noticed his left hand had only three fingers.
45 minutes later, we rolled to a stop in the gravel parking lot of a two-story corrugated steel-clad building called "The Shire's Rest". It was actually a nice little set-up. It was early, and I was the only visitor - in fact a woman was still cleaning up from the night before.
Soon, another van rolled into view and pulled up in front of a gate on the other side of the road. I followed Danny across, and we both jumped in. There were four other Hobbits (as he called them) on board - two youngish girls from Finland, and a couple from Germany. Our driver was a twenty-something brunette gal with a baseball hat who was narrating a well-rehearsed tour script to us. The co-pilot's seat was occupied by our actual tour guide; an 82-year old Kiwi named Eric. Laugh if you will, but I pray I'm still reciting memorized tour dialogue and hiking up steep farmland hills three or four times a day when I'm 82.
As the movie set is on an actual working farm, there are lots and lots of sheep and lots and lots of fences. Four different times our little van pulled up to a gate, and each time old Eric hopped out to open and close it for us.
We rambled around a nice gravel road, which we were told was built by the New Zealand army specifically for the scenes shot here. About 400 meters after the last gate, we climbed a small hill and stopped in what looked to be a small parking lot. We all jumped out to take a look at "the view." We walked up to a point overlooking some of the most beautiful farmland I've ever seen. Rolling hills of jade. Full, dark trees randomly spotted in clusters here and there. A placid lake providing a runway for three or four large ducks. White specks dotting the entire scene, grazing on the beautiful emerald grass. This had to have been what was in Tolkien's head. This "view" is apparently what sold Jackson and other execs from the production crew on this property. Easy to see why. It had everything they needed and more.
We walked around for a few minutes, Eric telling us both particulars and a few stories about the production; about the ridiculous number of vehicles parked on this land, the size of the crew, the preparation of meals, importing water to the site, satellite hook ups for Jackson... They even had a few permanent pictures of what the scene looked like during the filming. It was all fascinating. Well... to me anyway.
Soon thereafter, we drove down the gravel road to a small covered sitting area equipped with rows of umbrellas. Eric went over a few of the rules - mostly existing due to regulations imparted by New Line Cinema who still technically owns all the sets. We then moved a few steps up a small hill and were treated to a pretty cool sight.
Six or seven white Hobbit holes were tucked away into the green hills just before us. I could actually see the scene from the movie in my head. Pretty cool, even for non-geeks I'd think. We spent the next hour or so just walking around; dodging sheep crap and listening to Eric relay little bits of trivia about each sight. Fortunately, our small group allowed us to spend a bit more time in each spot, which in turn translates into a lot more pictures.
There were sheep all over the place. Every time we'd change direction, two or three balls of wool would scurry off in one direction or another. Weird little creatures. They can be either pretty cute or really damn gross. Danny had mentioned earlier there were over 12,000 head on the farm, which is about 1,250 acres in total. Pretty good sized operation.
As I mentioned earlier - New Line still owns all the sets on the farm. Interestingly, way back before production started in the late 1990's, a big part of the agreement between New Line and the New Zealand government was that after filming all sets had to be removed, and the land restored to its original form. True to form (and much to the dismay of geeks everywhere), this has been done in all 120+ filming locations across the country. Hobbiton, however is the lone exception - but not by design. After the filming was completed in 2000, demolition crews came out and started dismantling everything they could. Alas, Mother Nature intervened, and torrential rains made it impossible to finish the work. New Line asked the Alexanders (the owners of the farm) for a six-month grace period. It was granted, and life went on. Until the next day, and the day after, and the day after, when neighbors and tourists started knocking on the door asking if they could see if anything was left. A couple of years later, the Alexanders and New Line brokered a deal to allow the family to set up a tour company and allow people to visit the site. They now run five to seven tours a day. Pretty cool stuff.
The sets here were only designed to last for 6 months, and only built about a foot deep into the earth - just enough to provide the right look for the film. Some of the originals are still there, and look pretty good seven years later. The Alexanders leave them alone for as long as possible, and then rebuild them when they collapse. Eric told us a couple of tales about holes collapsing due to just the traffic of wandering sheep.
We eventually made it up to Bag End, which as you may or may not know was the home of Bilbo and eventually Frodo. It's the most important of the holes, and obviously, the one in front of which we took the cool pictures.
Toward the end of the tour, I talked to Eric a bit about the news on the Hobbit, trying to see if he had any indication whether or not the production might move back here. He too was either a very convincing liar or as out of the loop as Danny. I should imagine it's simply too early for anything as detailed as filming locations to be decided, but... you never know. And I'd like to think they'd be coming back to Hobbiton - after all, most of the work is already done.
Once back at the Shire's Rest, Danny and I hopped into his van and we headed back to Rotorua. We had a very different conversation this time; after he found out I had at least a peripheral knowledge of cars. Actually, my limited knowledge is gleaned purely from my father, who is a true gearhead. Dad, you'll be proud to know I've picked up enough of the lingo along the way to at least convince a Kiwi "Petrolhead" I knew what I was talking about. We talked about muscle cars, drag racing and hot rods the entire way back to town. Danny has apparently met John Force and Tony Pedregon and a few other top fuelers in his trips to the US. He told me stories about hanging out with Ed and Zeke Justice, and went on about his recent car purchases in the states. He pulled out a copy of, appropriately, "Petrolhead" magazine and showed me a picture of the 1970 Plymouth Satellite he just bought.
It was a good day. A geeky day, but one that was well worth the time and effort. Not every day you get to visit Middle Earth.
To get away from one's working environment is, in a sense, to get away from one's self; and this is often the chief advantage of travel and change.
~ Charles Horton Cooley
New Zealand is a place unlike any other. This little country has absolutely everything. Beaches, mountains, lakes, glaciers, sweeping plains, volcanoes, sheep, hobbits... You can see it all here.
Below are some of my favorite scenes so far. I won't waste a lot of words - they are far too small to describe what I've seen.
Christchurch: Punting on the Avon River
Greymouth: Tasman Sea
Near Franz Josef: Rusted tractor
Matheson Lake: Fern Fronds
Wanaka: Lake Wanaka
Queenstown: AJ Hackett's Bungy
Queenstown: Lake Wakatipu
Moeraki: Moeraki Boulder
Moeraki: Moeraki Boulders
Lake Pukaki: View of Mt. Cook
Lake Tekapo: Church of the Good Shepherd
Kaikoura: White Anchor
After my two-day stint in Greymouth, the Magic Bus transported me to Franz Josef, a quaint little town in the middle of a mountainous rainforest. The village itself would be unremarkable and, likely, unworthy of a stop save for its proximity to a huge glacier just a few kilometers away which shares the same name.
Back in Greymouth, I’d booked a full-day glacier hike because…. Well… why not? It sounded pretty cool, and since I’d hiked a volcano in Guatemala earlier this year, I figured I might as well balance it out with a glacier trek.
After getting checked into a hostel, I found my way to the Franz-Josef Glacier Guides office, which is just around the corner – well, honestly, everything is around the corner in Franz Josef. The town is only about 600 souls strong, so you’d pretty much have to try to get lost.
My hike wasn’t scheduled until the next day, but I wanted to make sure of a couple things. First, that my reservation indeed did make it through. You never know with some of these folks. Second, I wanted to see if they had boots and crampons big enough for my sasquatch-esqe feet. Much to my surprise, an affirmative was given to both inquiries by a pleasant girl behind the front desk - who happens to be the Irish equivalent of a good friend of mine’s wife. Andrea, if you want to find your Irish twin, she’s in New Zealand.
The next day, I got up relatively early (6:30) and checked in for my hike. After waiting in a bit of a queue, I was pleased to find that the Irish-Andrea actually had my boots and crampons set aside behind the counter. Good service, that.
I followed the procession and received the rest of my gear – a thin stocking hat and some wool mittens. Who uses mittens? Especially on a freakin’ glacier hike? Anyway, I opted out of the over-trousers, as they were certainly not going to fit, and they looked ridiculous. I also declined the waterproof jacket, figuring my trusty North Face jacket would be just dandy.
53 fellow adventurers headed out to an old flat-faced red bus and piled in, one on top of the other. Future applicants to the Darwin Awards were rebuked by our driver for putting their super-sharp heavy metal crampons in the loose, open cargo racks above their heads. I think she should have let them be and seen what would have happened.
Once a couple more red-jacketed guides boarded our already overloaded bus, our driver hit the gas. I was near the front of the bus and, unfortunately, close enough to hear the banter between our two “expert” guides. The driver, a late-20’s something gal with long-ish brown hair in a ponytail and sunglasses too big for her face was yapping with a younger Canadian-turned-Kiwi dude with a tanned face. They were firing around thinly-veiled condescension about the tourists on the bus, their bosses, other guides, etc. Your typical puffed-up a-holes who have done this trip a few too many times and forget why they’re out here.
Once we made it to the car park and got out of the bus, we walked along a worn trail leading through some beautiful vegetation, and emerged onto a very wide, stony riverbed with a small but fast stream running through the middle. To our right, about two kilometers away stood a dark, stony wall of mountains parted down the middle by a thick, white tongue of ice. It was stunning. A grey ceiling was forming above us, but you could still see nearly to top – a bright white field pouring a curving stream down towards us. As it descended, the white dulled to grey and ended in a dark, dirty face which looked like rock itself.
After a few under-the-breath condescending remarks about people posing for pictures, our “experts” gathered us together. They worked to break 53 of us in to five groups, which turned out to be a complete cluster. In the end, my group consisted of two guys and two girls from Japan, three young-ish Dutch guys, two mildly attractive German girls, and one gal from Canada. Fairly diverse for a glacier hike in New Zealand I think.
About 20 to 30 minutes later, we sat down in front of the wall of dirty ice to put on our crampons. If you’ve never had them on before (like me), it’s quite the experience. You’re basically strapping two inches of sharp metal to the bottom of your feet. It’s pretty awkward to walk at first – especially over loose stones and rock. And, as an obvious side-effect, it made me another two inches tall, which was great.
It was at this point that our groups all split off from one another. There’s plenty of space on the glacier, and it made the going a lot easier. Fortunately, the two a-hole “experts” took two other groups, and left us with a Kiwi-guy named Matt. Aside from the kick-ass name, he was a pretty cool guy. He was younger – probably in his early twenties, but knowledgeable about pretty much everything related to the glacier – and a hell of a lot more sociable and honest than his counterparts.
We started our ascent – using stairs cut into the ice by “slaves” who get out to the glacier early in the morning to use pick-axes to cut steps. As you might be thinking, the answer is yes – that job would suck. Every so often we’d reach a point where some poor dude or gal was wailing away with a pick axe on some ice – carving out little steps about a foot high and a foot across. And, they have to stay out there all day, retracing their steps over and over. Combined with tourist traffic, there’s just enough sun and warmth to melt the ice to a point where streams of water trickle down and erode the steps.
It was a pretty strange sensation to be climbing a mountain of ice. It felt as solid as rock – our guide said it’s ten times harder than the ice you’d find in your freezer. Early on, the ice even looked like rock. All the dirt and rocks it has pushed along cling to the face, making it grey and drab. Once you get high enough though, you’re kicking your spikes into sparkling white – which is really cool.
While the ice itself was quite the sight, the views of the mountains on either side of us were breathtaking. Long, thin waterfalls streamed down from the rock walls – one set Matt told us was almost 200 meters high.
Unfortunately those views weren’t meant to last, as it wasn’t a particularly nice day; the clouds had now descended even lower, boxing us in. An annoying spit of rain pestered us all afternoon. But as this is one of only three glaciers in the world that descend into a rainforest, it’s to be expected.
Besides, the ice was the real focus. The colors along the way were fantastic – deep blacks, brilliant whites, turquoise blues, slate grays… At times it seemed we were walking through corridors of diamonds. It was amazing.
A couple hours in, we reached a relatively flat point where we stopped for a bit of a rest and to eat lunch, consisting of a quick couple of granola bars and some water.
We saddled up again, and after another 50-75 meters or so, we came to a noticeable “bending” point in the glacier. Matt said to imagine a candy bar – like a snickers or something – and then imagine it slowly bending – the cracks and striations that appear in the surface of the chocolate are the same as what we are going through now. And, you could see it – great crevasses opened up before us, revealing towering walls of beautiful blue ice.
It was at this point where the scale of the glacier came to bear. I could see a couple of groups in front of us – ones that must have started a few hours earlier than us – they looked like black specks on the ocean of ice. And to think that this is the narrow part of the ice. Matt informed us that the neve, the start of the glacier where the real snowfall occurs and the real pressure is applied, is a snowfield over 36 kilometers square.
The next few hours were spent on another world. Blue walls extending 20 feet over our heads. Huge blocks of crystal clear ice with frozen air bubbles trapped inside. Streams of water rushing past us in self-made canals which eventually dropped into deep holes leading to the bottom of the glacier.
We zig-zagged through canyons of ice, ascending on makeshift stairs at certain points, and on our hands and knees at others. We ended up hooking up with another of our groups, and took turns leading each other. Our guides did a good job of finding some sweet formations – narrow chasms of blue ice requiring us to squeeze through sideways. Low tunnels which had us on our bellies. Narrow walkways that had us hugging the ice. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before. We all got very wet – but it was worth it.
At around 4:00 we started our descent, which was obviously a hell of a lot faster than the way up. But, we took a different route, which exposed us to another side of the ice. Fortunately the rain had lifted a bit, and views of the mountains came back to us. We all took a look back down the glacier and onto the river bed and valley in front of us. Amazing to think this glacier once filled this entire space – and apparently hundreds of years ago, reached all the way to the ocean, a little over 30 Kilometers away.
Once at the bottom, we all unwound the crampons and hiked back to the bus. It was actually really nice to be walking on the soles of my feet again. I took one last look at the huge white beast before heading back into the forest. I’d always wondered what it would have been like to walk on those glaciers we saw in Antarctica. Now I know.
Once in a while, a setting or a scene remains etched in my mind. In many cases they are the awe-inspiring settings of well-known landmarks. Those are the easy ones. Sometimes, though, less obvious places reveal something you weren't expecting. And that "something" may not be much at all - just a view of local life, or the ramblings of a community elder. The sleepy little town of Greymouth, New Zealand for some reason had two such scenes for me. And they were in very different places - well, kind of. One was from the bar, and one from church. How's that for balance?
Saturday night, I found myself walking the deserted streets of Greymouth - mainly because I was bored and didn't want to spend all night in the hostel with a bunch of randoms putting a puzzle together on the dining room table.
I meandered my way by the Monteith's brewery, then down by the river, then back through the old downtown area. After about a half hour of wandering, I found myself in front of an Irish bar called "Danny Doolin's". As it was one of the only establishments open, and that it was only 9:00 and the sun was just now going down, I decided to see if they had run out of beer.
I walked through the wood and glass door to find a low-ceilinged room with worn green carpeting and dark wood fixtures. Three men sat at the bar, talking to two girls behind the counter. An old man stood near a pillar, listening to the conversation. An older couple sat at a table on the right, conversing in low voices over empty wine glasses. I heard the crack of a pool table in the back rooms.
A couple of heads turned as I came in, but the music kept playing. I walked up to the bar, and asked the cuter of the two girls what she recommended. As she was pulling the tap marked "Export Gold," a girl came from a back room and stopped when she saw me. "Oh my God. You're huge."
To make a long story short, the girl was about 4'11" and was fascinated, which in turn made everyone else fascinated. She darted out from behind the bar and started measuring herself next to me. Now, honestly, this happens from time to time. What do you do? Everyone now has a smile on their face and is enjoying the scene. I can't very well be an a-hole and push her away, right? She looked up and asked if she could take a picture. Yeah, sure. Whatever.
After the resulting picture-show, I followed an invisible current away from the spectacle I was just at the center of the low doorframe nearby where I could hide a bit. Hard to hide when you are one of seven people in the bar. I was alone for all of 30 seconds when the white-haired old man came waddling over.
As he approached, it seemed I was being confronted by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. A thin but pleasant smile on a short, compact old face. A rosy, button nose protruded between wrinkled red cheeks. Wisps of white hair seemed to protrude from every orifice - nose, ears - it even seemed his eyebrows had extra hair. His eyes were small but happy, and seemed recessed a bit due to the overgrowth above them. He was wearing a checked white and red collared shirt covered by a pale grey sweater vest. Grey old-man trousers were hiked up too far, revealing brown socks with geometric patterns which dove into worn black shoes with tassels. An age-spotted right hand was wrapped around a pint of gold ale, and the left was tucked neatly into his pants pocket.
He sat at a nearby table and talked at me for a while about the train from Christchurch and about his unquestioned preference for Monteith's Golden vs. Monteith's Pale Ale. Flippancy and disregard for "real" life was attached to "North Islanders" with a wave of the hand. We talked about pleasant weather and real scenery which those "North Islanders" also knew nothing about.
He rose slowly from the table, and I then received a tour of the bar - consisting of about 15 short steps. I was shown the doorway leading to the gaming area, and the doorway leading to the attached hotel. I was shown the pool table which had been in use since my arrival, and was shown the fireplace, which in case you were wondering is original in this building.
Five minutes later, an acquaintance of his came in - an older man with a burgundy sweater and a charcoal golf hat, which provided a much-needed distraction. I rounded a corner, and sat down at a table in a vacant part of the room. Above the bar was a small television re-broadcasting yesterday's friendly between the L.A. Galaxy and the Wellington Phoenix. To my surprise, no one was watching it. Perhaps they already knew the outcome. Perhaps they care about as much about Beckham and soccer as we do in the US.
I watched the people in the bar for a few minutes. They carried on, talking about whatever you do in slow Irish pubs on Saturday nights. I watched the girls behind the bar talk to each other in whispers and to the old regulars in shouts that pulled up stools near the taps. I saw hugs and handshakes of mates as they left - slaps on the back and the ordering of another round as new friends came in.
After another ten minutes, I finished my beer and headed out, amid the stares of the remaining patrons. For whatever reason, this experience stuck with me. It wasn't all that different than others I've had this year, but I've been thinking about it ever since.
After breakfast on Sunday morning I asked reception where I could find a good church. My choices were somewhat limited. After shaking off the signs for a Catholic and an Anglican delivery, I got one for a Baptist Church. That'll do.
It turns the Greymouth Baptist Church is a good two kilometer walk from the hostel.
About 20 minutes later, I found the alluded-to yellow "Baptist Church" street sign pointing to the right. It took me a couple minutes to actually find it though, as this particular church occupied the back 2/3 of a retail building. The front end turned out to be a second-hand furniture shop. The small parking lot was about half-full, with a few people just turning off their engines. In front of me, family of six was herding itself toward the entrance. I followed them in - finding a pleasant little foyer with tile floors and a Christmas tree. I was greeted by a salt-and pepper bearded man with a firm handshake, a cheerful smile and a church bulletin.
I entered a set of glass doors into the small sanctuary and found a seat toward the far-right of the semi-circle of folding chairs. At the focal point was a small, nicely carpeted stage with a bare white wall. A cross was posted to the wall on the side - composed of twisted rusty metal and old wood. It seemed out of place here, but kept my attention.
A few minutes later, the father of the family of six I saw earlier shepherded his lot over in my direction and sat down in front of me. He turned around offering a big smile and an introduction. Philip was a talkative balding fellow with rimless glasses, probably in his mid 30's. His wife was a quiet slightly overweight red-head, who occupied with keeping track of the children, which included two twin boys who looked to be about two years old. We had a good discussion, covering topics of travel, church and the ocean. Interestingly, invariable of the subject, our conversation somehow ended in a discussion of property values.
The service was nice - a short set of contemporary songs, led by a short, black-headed guy in his mid-40's. A small projector threw the Christmas-themed lyrics onto the bare space behind him. The congregation of about 40-50 sang out to each song - complete with the ridiculously off-key old bird behind me.
In an admirable feat of double-duty, the song leader turned out to be the preacher. He led a quick prayer, then provided a brief interlude by allowing members to come forward to run advertisements from the newspaper through an office shredder. A couple minutes of laughter at a symbol of keeping Christmas focused on the right thing.
I had a second to look through the bulletin, and found the contact information of the small staff. Oh - and there was Philip's name - Church Accountant. Of course.
There was a brief discussion of Advent, and the lighting of the first candle. The sermon was short and sweet, and we were dismissed after a final song and a concluding prayer. After the service, I hung around to talk to a few members of the church who all seemed to stick around afterwards for a cup of tea, including an amiable guy who spoke about the church's focus on Advent this year.
As you might expect, traveling doesn't always afford a chance to make it to a service every week. It was great to be around a happy church family. Small as it may have been, it felt good to be back in church, and around a set of people who genuinely felt like a community. Something you almost forget about after being on the road for a while.
Seems like no matter how far away from home you get, small town life is about the same. Townies at the bar, locals at the church. Community is community, and life is life, be it in a local tavern or in the church sanctuary - or in the US or New Zealand for that matter.