It is Sunday morning (Saturday around 6 p.m. for my Pacific Standard Time friends) and I have just returned from my marketing in Coburg. I am currently housesitting (and cat sitting) for a lovely couple – the daughter of a couple I stayed with in Bendigo last December.   Many of you know my hesitation in coming back to Australia this year. The email from J’s daughter tipped the scales and here I am, happily ensconced in a nearly new three bedroom with my very own room and bath, full kitchen with lots of pots and pans to use (some of which I don’t quite know what to do with) and a couple who has urged me to help myself to the perishables in the refrigerator and the pantry. Say no more.
  The house where I’m staying is just a few blocks from the train station and shops. Shops with names like Ottoman Kabobs and Pizza, Pantheon Cakes, Parthenon Shoes, Continental Groceries, Dong Natural Therapies, etc. line the Coburg section of Sydney Road, a main north-south artery.  There is also a plethora of Asian-owned variety stores where a person can find everything from salad spinners to ladies’ girdles. My stops this morning included the fruit and veg stand (a kilo of mandarin oranges for $1.99; a kilo of gigantic navel oranges for $0.99), Crystal Bakery (a terrific apricot Danish), Coles supermarket (various and sundry items) and finally to Al Alamy,(which in Arabic translates to “world of foods”) a grocery and café that has the very best flat white in the area. Joey and George, the baristas there, have memorized my order. So far I’ve received two free coffees. Not sure what that’s about, but I’m grateful for the treat.
   Melbourne reminds me of the American Midwest – specifically, Kansas City, where I lived for 16 years. Much of the architecture is of the same mid-19th Century vintage. And the other day I smelled something that was vaguely familiar, something that evoked a feeling of nostalgia … fallen leaves. Maple leaves, actually.  I’ve lived in the southern California desert so long that I have almost forgotten that there are places where trees lose their leaves.
   I do have responsibilities while I’m here, though. Actually a responsibility named Willow, who is an adorable (if a little needy) kitty-cat. I arrived to an empty house, but knew that there was a cat in residence. After a couple hours moving a suitcase, using the bathroom, getting comfortable, no feline showed up to investigate, so I deduced that the cat was outside or in hiding under a bed. Turns out that she was where she usually is – hidden under blankets on the couch. And I do mean under.  I had to pull back her covers to get the photograph. When she’s out from under, she’s talking to me about being hungry, or needing to go out or wanting attention. She’s quite content sitting on my lap while I work. Makes it harder to reach the keyboard, but it is cozy.
   I arrived Melbourne and was greeted by the worst weather they’d seen so far this Fall – 9 degrees C (about 48 F) and raining cats, dogs and ponies. For all that, I was still grateful to be out the Sonoran Desert, where the temperature was 104 the day I left. And even though I’ve been cold a great deal of the time since I’ve been here, Mom had a point when she said that you can always put on enough clothing to get warm, but you can never take off enough to get cool. True. The photo to the right is a view down O’Hea Street looking toward Sydney Road.
   In the past weeks, I’ve spent a good deal of time working on queries and scouting out how to make my blog better. In fact, there just happened to be a writers’ conference in progress when I arrived and I participated in a class concerning that specific topic.  Don’t worry – you won’t really notice anything besides a new look. My readers should also find it much easier to get email updates and so on. There might be a RunNorthGoWest Facebook page in the works, too, so all of you will have to Like RNGW on Facebook.
More soon – about Blooms Day.

And Back Again

   ‘Round about April 1, I started getting really antsy, the sort of restlessness that some have called wanderlust, but in my case, I’m not so sure. That will be a discussion for another time.
   As my friends have told me, I’m a doer, and I felt that I wasn’t doing much of anything. I was staying with my brother and sister-in-law in Phoenix. I had prepared a good proposal and sent it to several agents in hopes of having someone invest in my book project so that I could return to Australia with more money in my pocket. I had also sent off many applications for work, and even tested with a temporary agency that was quite optimistic about placing me. Nothing. In all of this, I was plagued with doubt about what I should be doing. Sometimes on a morning walk I would pass an apartment complex, the sort that is a series of boxes dressed up to look like something classier. People walked their dogs, moved in, moved out, nearly fell down the stairs carrying too many boxes, struggled to fit the box spring around the corner. I watched these people living their lives, becoming  inordinately depressed, because I imagined myself getting a job, moving into one of those boxes, trying to get my piano up the stairs.
   My sister-in-law and I became good friends during this time, and I would share some of my frustrations – and fears – with her. I know that there were times that she noticed my swollen eyes after a particularly anxiety-filled day. I was working my plan, being responsible, mapping things out, determined to do this the right way. I talked to my oldest sister, who has always been supportive of my dreams. I talked to my other sister, who is analytical by nature, but told me, hey, if this is your dream, you better do it. And my brother, no stranger to risk, who farmed for years and runs his own business, said pretty much the same thing. My sister-in-law, when I confessed so much doubt, said “stay the course.” And finally, my brother, who is an engineer and whose life has been lived in concrete and sequential terms said, “I think you should go for it.”  I also spoke with the dogs about these issues, but found that they were more interested in what they thought was going on outside.
    My friends asked when I was going back. I told them , it depends on this. And that. And this and that. One day I confessed to one that I had plenty in the bank to buy a ticket, and maybe I should just do that.
   And still, I didn’t do it.
   Finally, during a visit to Rancho Mirage I spoke with my spiritual advisor. We sat down together and I started explaining what was going on, how there wasn’t a job and there wasn’t an agent, but there was a great proposal, and that everything was in place except the balance of the savings account.  She listened. Asked a few questions. As I answered them I understood that (once again) the only one getting in the way was me.  I started laughing (a little hysterically) and surrendered.
   Shortly after that, an Internet search revealed a pretty good one-way fare to Melbourne. My travel agent found one that was $200 more good. I bought it. After which my dear friend M. pointed out, “Hey – it’s the leap of faith, not the fall of faith.”  I’m counting on that.
   Part of that leap was letting my car go. Little Ms. Putt now has the honor of being a young girl’s first car. Her Mom has a Beemer, so does her grandmother and her aunt, and her cousin … they know what she’s getting into. Her dad has a detailing business, so Ms. P. will always look good.  It is the last remnant from my old life.
   A couple weeks before I left, my sisters and I had a weekend together, just the three of us. We goofed off, ate too much. I bought a pair of earrings that I didn’t need but were too nice to leave for a stranger; K. found a really cool vintage dress and K. found a plate to add to her ceramic collection. We visited and went ice skating and got awesome foot rubs and visited museums. I cried when I got on the plane to leave. As much as I wanted to return to Australia, I wanted to cling to something that I no longer have here, and maybe never had, if I even know what it is. One thing I know for sure: leaving feels different this time.
   Since June 2011, I have lived in 21 different places, some only for a couple nights, others for a few months. In just a couple weeks, it will be a year since all of my possessions have been in storage and I have not had a lease. To those of you who have supported my goals and dreams by sharing your homes and lives with me, thank you.
   And to those of you who will be allowing me to stay with you in the next year, I can’t wait to meet you.
   It starts in Melbourne.

Phoenix Deja Vu

On March 31, 2012 my father became an octogenarian. (That means he turned 80 years old. In the interest of being the family historian – albeit self-appointed, amateur, inconsistent – and since the celebration was held in Phoenix mid-March (because that was a time when those involved with educating or being educated could attend) I thought I’d share about the first time I lived in Phoenix. The info was provided by my dad, because, since I had just turned one year old at the time, I don’t remember much.
Dad was teaching in my home town of Hallock, Minnesota by the Fall of 1958. After graduating from college, he and his brother  had completed service in the military, having avoided being drafted during the Korean War because, “we were engaged in saving our country from the godless North Koreans by attending Concordia College, [Moorhead, Min.] maintaining a significant GPA, and passing some sort of academic test (which less than thirty percent of college attendees passed at that time), all of which seemed to exasperate our local draft board secretary, Ed Fitzgerald, a WWII vet who had fallen off the back of two-and-a-half ton truck (duce and a half),  never saw any action, and got out of the army with a physical disability … and wanted every young male to do his duty to the country.”
Actually, Dad had come back home to farm, but ended up teaching because making a living at farming (without more land or supplementary income) was impossible. I don’t think that’s much different today. Teachers were in short supply – and there was the answer.  After trying to enlarge the farm acreage and not reaching consensus with his farming partner (Uncle Lyndon), he looked for other alternatives to increase income and, since he knew that the school counselor was not going to stay around much longer, thought he would become qualified for that position. In his search to find funding for his Masters degree, he discovered the National Defense Education Act.  
The NDEA provided a stipend that was more than his teaching salary at the time, and tax free, besides. He could go get his Masters at no cost to him, using the stipend to move and for living expenses while he was attending school. He was accepted to three programs, but chose the one with the best winter: University of Arizona in Tempe, which had the largest education department west of the Mississippi at that time.  The idea was to get the Masters in Elementary Counseling and Guidance, since it met the Minnesota requirements for counseling in either the primary secondary levels.
(Digression: My Dad was the guidance counselor at the high school that I attended – the guy who administered the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the PSAT, SAT and talked to students about attending college and which one might be best for them. I remember being fascinated by all those catalogues when I was a little girl, already planning to attend college by the time I was in first grade. And of course, I loved to get off the bus at the high school to ride home with Dad. He would come out of the faculty lounge smelling of cigarette smoke and a weird combination of wool, floor wax, paper, ink and wintergreen lozenges that he kept in his desk.  The secretaries in the office would dote on me, and I could use the typewriter – I think it was a Royal. I wrote my very first poem on that typewriter: “I’m Daddy’s Little Darling.” It remains unpublished.) 
And so, in 1966, we five kids and Mom and Dad set off on a four-day trip across the country in a ‘62 Pontiac hard-top with no air conditioning, pulling a very full borrowed trailer. I rode in the front (since I was about the size of a football – okay, maybe two footballs) and the other four rode in the back. I can only imagine the cacophony coming from the back seat. To hear my brother tell the story, we had nothing to eat on the way except Vienna sausages, off-brand Elf soda pop and potato chips. My father insists that we picnicked on those when on outings to Phoenix area parks, and that there was a variety of food available.
We stayed at the Country Club Apartments, a place that now gets mixed reviews, although there’s one here that is pretty stellar. My brother, his wife and I visited the old stomping grounds. I remember very little except having my blanket taken away to be laundered, waking up without it and waiting in front of the dryer until it was done. My sister and I were at home with Mom, who loved to be at the pool. In fact, she saved a kid who rode his tricycle into the water, sinking like a stone. She fished out the kid first, then went back for the trike.
While we were there my oldest siblings attended the Encanto School, which is still there at Osborn and N. 15th Avenue. My oldest sister attended second grade, my brother first and my other brother kindergarten. Kevin broke his arm while we were there but that didn’t stop him from becoming the undisputed and still legendary tether ball champion at Encanto. We visited there, too, but there wasn’t anyone around to give the sort of accolades a former champion deserves, so we had to settle for a photo-op in front of the banner and a portrait of the tetherball grounds taken through the chainlink fence.
By the time Dad finished the program in June of 1967, the ’62 hard-top had been replaced with a Pontiac Vista Cruiser station wagon, the kind with blue-tinted curved glass panels on the roof. The upholstery was powder blue vinyl. This car actually had seat belts – safety belts as we called them – and I know this because I didn’t latch mine all the way one day and ended up falling out of the car because I wanted to watch the ground go by. Right. No need for four kids in the back seat. My brothers were shunted into the two fold-down seats in the very back where they choked on the dust that seeped in the loose rear door and window assembly.  On the way back, from Phoenix, we stayed in a cabin at the Grand Canyon (slides of which were always shown at holidays), drove through Yellowstone National Park and visited a family that Mom and Dad had met when he was stationed in Germany.
My father ended up putting in 30+ years in the Minnesota education system. In the late ‘50s, he says that he really wanted out of the classroom, but couldn’t talk his brother into getting more land at the time. It took until the ‘70s to buy more acreage: a farm we called Midway (halfway between Grandpa’s and our home) and one called Prairie View (my great-aunties named that one). He says at one point he thought about leaving farming all together, getting into a city school system and earning a Ph.D., but after the year in Phoenix, he’d “really had enough.” 
And besides, as old Arvid Walstad pointed out, teaching gave my dad “something to do in the winter.”

Living’ in the U.S.A.

(Note:  Most of you know that I have already returned to Australia, but I feel as though I’m leaving some blanks here, and wanted to fill them in. So here’s a bit of info about my return to the States and my stay with KAT in Phoenix. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the Australia stuff in a few days.)
   I couldn’t help but think of the Chuck Berry song as I landed at LAX, even though I hadn’t been longing for Los Angeles. Berry actually wrote the tune on a return flight from Australia in the late ’50s after seeing the living conditions of the Aboriginies.  Despite that bleak motivation, it’s a catchy tune, and, after all, I was glad to be done with a 13-hour flight.
   And things were different here. Or things seemed different. The most apparent different thing was the attitude of the Customs agents, especially the woman who hustled those of us who were sitting back in steerage out of the bathroom, all the while grinning at us like she knew we couldn’t be rude back to her. And guns. Lots of guns.  And strutting. Plenty of strutting going on down there as well.
   It’s not that I didn’t run across rude or stupid people in Australia or New Zealand. And yes, Australian police carry side arms. I understand that the New Zealand cops do not, but I never saw a single officer when I was over there, even though my hostel in Rotorua was a mere three blocks from the station.
   And rudeness. A boat-load of rudeness, too, with the exception of the final guy who stamped my passport and let me back into the U.S. after saying that he’d look for my book. Cool. Thanks, dude. (I didn’t tell him that I, too, am looking for my book.)
   Along the way, I couldn’t help but make a mental list of the things I did not miss: Rude rental car agents; L.A. traffic; the Inland Empire (an odd name for such a bleak place); landscape the color of putty; snowbird driving habits. However, I did miss my friends and my BMW, and happily, a friend was waiting with my car when I returned the under-powered 4-cylinder Cube I had rented to the Palm Springs airport Hertz.
   Describing the feeling of being back is difficult, especially since I spent most of the flight knowing that I wanted to stay. In fact, I had discussed returning to Melbourne in February and staying an additional month. I didn’t, and now I’m glad I didn’t. Money was scarce for the past few months, I didn’t find employment like I thought I would, and faced little besides frustration in the U.S. I can’t imagine the nightmare of facing all of that in a foreign country.
  As it was, I spent a couple weeks in Rancho Mirage with a very gracious friend, who really has gone above and beyond in terms of allowing me to stay in her home for weeks (months) at a time. The weeks allowed me to visit my things in storage, say hello, pet them a little bit, assure them that I hadn’t forgotten about them.  The best part: getting different clothing. How many of you have worn the same few pieces of clothing for 107 days? Two pairs of jeans, two tank tops, two skirts, two t-shirts, two cardigans, a zip-up hoodie. A pair of boots, a pair of running shoes, a pair of flip-flops. That’s it. That’s all. I left a stack of clothing in the hotel room in Auckland with a note on top, “Free to a good home.” I couldn’t bear to see that white hoodie and that print cardigan ever again. Ever.
   In two weeks, I had switched out my wardrobe (high heels again – hallelujah!) and arranged to spend a couple months at my brother and sister-in-law’s place in Phoenix. My mission was to find work, save a bunch of money, query agents and editors and maybe get interest in a book, then return to Melbourne in late May/early June. It was a good plan.

Glow Worms and Back to Auckland

    I really wanted to stay another day in Rotorua, especially since I had spent so much time goofing around with the gondola and luge thing and didn’t get to see all that the museum had on offer. The exhibits at the museum were terrific, and I had only one hour to try to take in the Brian Brake photography as well as the building itself, as well as the Maori exhibit, which is one of the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here, co-created by Te Papa museum in Wellington. But the coach pulled up and Brian the driver was full of information. In fact, all the way up to the Waitomo caves to see the glow worms, there was a running commentary on just about everything from kiwi fruit to what the three fisherman on the bridge caught today, and after a while I wanted him to just be quiet. When he wasn’t talking, he played informational DVDs, much like History Channel specials, all about the Maori people and their resistance to the British invasion. (And I don’t mean the four Brits with funny haircuts.) But. I might have enjoyed my visit to New Zealand a little bit more had I ridden along with Brian earlier in my stay.
    As Brian turned the coach toward the highway, he informed us all that we had slept last night in the bottom of a volcano. Of course, I knew that but didn’t think of it in those terms. I suppose it’s a bit like living in California and knowing that the San Andres fault (among others) is right out your back door, but not deliberating the fact too closely.  After all, the Central Volcanic Plateau is still active, but active in geological terms. So we climbed 1100 feet out of the volcano over mountains that form the dividing line between the Bay of Plenty and Waikoto regions of New Zealand.
    The region from the Bay of Plenty to the Waikoto River is called King Country and boasts the largest man-made fort in the southern hemisphere, made when the Maori resisted the British in the 1860s. The story starts long before then, however, in 1814 when the Maori and Brits signed the Treaty of Waitangi. The essentials of the document dictate that the Maori grant sovereignty to Queen Victoria, that the Maori in return would be protected by the British military against all other hostile invaders and finally, that they would retain possession of lands they already held. The last item was what caused the problems.
    In 1858, in an effort to consolidate and organize power, Maori tribes united to choose their first King. Most British officers saw this as an effort to resist Crown sovereignty. It was – but it was also an effort to keep other tribal leaders from selling land to the British. A rumor started that the Maori in King Country had already built a road to Auckland and were going to attack. In reality, it was Governor George Grey who had built a road from Auckland out to King Country, and was planning an attack. As much as Grey wanted peace (he had presided over territory wars in the 1840s) he did not want to share power with the Maori.  He had already sent an SOS to England, who sent 13,000 troops who were joined by an additional 2,000 Europeans and another 2,000 Australians. This force was sent out against 5,000 Maori men. The total Maori population in the 1860s was around 50,000 men, women and children. In modern terms, that’s like a force of 1 million invading New Zealand.
    The end result was that the British seized many more acres of land that were supposed to be in Maori hands, and had been at the time of the Treaty of Waitangi. Maori petitioned for the land to be returned. The British refused, and kept refusing. In the late ‘60s, Maori marched from the tip of the North Island and from the bottom of the South Island, converging on the capital, Wellington, where they demonstrated. In the early 1970s, they mounted a legal case. It took until the 1990s for the suit to go all the way to London to the High Court (which is the highest level of appeal in New Zealand). They won. A tribunal was assembled to investigate land claims, and still functions, unraveling claims from up to 200 years ago. Many Maori have had lands restored to them and are active in agriculture, fisheries, tourism, etc.
    All of this information was offered by Brian in as we drove through lush pastoral land, finally arriving at the Waitomo Caves, home of glow worms. The entire way, I had been humming the old Mills Brothers song that I remember my mother singing. And I have to say that the caves were … a disappointment. Yes, there were stalactites and stalagmites and lovely formations of limestone, a grand cathedral type room. Perhaps it was our tour guides’ monotonecontinuouscommentarythatwasruntogetherasallonewordexceptwhenhepausedtotakeaquick breath… andstartagain. Plus, we weren’t allowed to take photos. The picture at the top is the exit of the cave…that’s the only thing we could photograph other than the visitor center. Which was nice, but I refuse to include it here. Just a matter of principle.
    The experience just didn’t live up to the hype. The caves are owned by the family of one of the original discoverers, and they haven’t missed any opportunity to make a profit. Admission is not cheap, a gift shop offers loads of expensive New Zealand merchandise and their restaurant does a brisk business what with all the tour buses coming and going. A brief boat ride at the end of the tour offered a completely dark and silent opportunity to see the glow worms doing their thing – glowing – at the top of the cave. I tried to get excited about it, but just couldn’t. The most entertaining part of the tour was the young Indian man who was right beside me every time I turned around, sat behind me on the boat, and then tried to convince me that his coach was the right one – after all, it was going to Auckland. I had to explain that it wasn’t the same driver, and that my coach was across the street.
    Back in Auckland, I found the Air Bus shuttle out to the airport, where I then got another shuttle to my hotel, retrieved my bag from storage and repacked for the trip home. A six o’clock morning flight meant I had to be on the four o’clock a.m. shuttle to the international terminal. First leg of the trip was to Sydney, where I sat from 7:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. because the 12:15 p.m. flight had been changed months ago, but I guess passengers are the last to know, and what the hell, I was there anyway.  I finally boarded the flight to Los Angeles and frantically typed notes on everything I could remember so that I wouldn’t put off doing my blog entries. I worked until my computer battery was gone, and then tried to sleep a little while.
Another song that I dimly remember my mother singing … couldn’t find a recording, but here are the words. If anyone knows where to find the music, or who actually wrote the song, I’d love to attribute it to someone!
The earth was wet with the dew of the dawn
As the warm scented air swept over the lawn
A big ol’ worm came out of the ground
To see the world and to look around

And as he gazed at the azure sky
Another little worm came up nearby
Said he, with a wiggle, “You’re a cute little worm,
Let’s you and I go out for a squirm
I could easily fall in love with you
If you’ll condescend to a rendezvous.”

But the cute little worm just shook its head
And to the big ol’ worm it said,
“No rendezvous between us two
Because I’m the other end of you.”



   The closer I get to the end of my journey, the harder it is to write the blog entries. It’s not because I don’t want to share. I just don’t want to come back, and every time I write an entry it’s because I’ve visited another city, and each city brings me closer to my origin, which will at last become my point of departure. Traveling for me is an ecstatic experience, which now carries the connotation of joy or happiness; I mean ecstatic in the true sense of the word, from the Greek root ekstatikos, meaning unstable or as people in the 14th century regarded the word, mystically absorbed, stupefied, a description I find more accurate for my experiences. Whatever else travel has been, it has been a mystic experience, one of detachment from familiar people and places, relationships and obligations. 
   Travel is form of pure activity, where much of my time was spent on the basics of acquiring food and shelter. Pico Iyer says that traveling is like being in love: a state of exquisite vulnerability where every sense is heightened to receive and give to the loved one. And while I agree with that in principle, my experience has been more ethereal than any love I have experienced. Being away from my home and everything that is familiar to me is like being in space, as though I have two selves: one in suspended animation while the other gets to tramp around on the other side of the world, freaking out and crying and loving the veggie kebab wrap a the Sultan’s Table and laughing with delight at the Sydney New Year’s fireworks. I stay in touch or not – I have control over that, while I have little control over what happens on the ground over here.
   In my One Hundred Years of Therapy, I have come to understand much about personality disorders and especially addiction. In 12 Step meetings, many people speak of how drinking was the perfect way to numb out, medicate themselves to where they didn’t feel anything. I experienced that. Since I have become a sober member of society, though, other addictions besides alcohol raised their heads – shopping, spending, sex, food, people. I am now convinced that when I overuse any substance, it is because I crave feeling something, anything rather than live in a state of nothingness and numbness and – worst of all – boredom. In travel, I leave my routine-bound, numb self behind while the other plunges into anxiety and excitement and delight and fear. In a life where I have spent so much time holding my breath and waiting for it to be over, travel is the way I have found to engage myself in the world. Restlessness might be hard-wired in my psyche.  I am, after all, a descendant of Vikings.
   And so I came to my almost last stop, Rotorua, where the air smells of the fire and brimstone that lies bubbling, biding its time, under most of New Zealand. A couple years ago (200,000) a volcano blew and formed a caldera which filled with water and is now Lake Rotorua.  The story about Lake Taupo is much the same, as you’ll note from my previous entry. This is the heart of the Central Volcanic Region or Plateau, and it shows all around in the form of mountains, geysers (which the Kiwis charmingly pronounce “geezers”) bubbly mud pools, yellow sulfur deposits crusted around the lake shore, and, of course, the smell.
   Rotorua is surrounded by the lush pastures and farms that are the heart of the cattle and sheep industries. It is also home of the Agrodome, a sort of Atlantic City for sheep built by champion shearer GodfreyBowen in the 1970s. I learned about the Agrodome while waiting at the Visitor Center for a shuttle that never showed up. Before I gave up and walked to the YHA hostel, I asked a nice person at the counter about the twice-daily sheep show. Yes, I could catch the 2 p.m. show and would have time to dump my bags, grab a quick lunch and hop on city bus #1. For the low, low price of $1.10, I could get out there – and for the same price, get back again.
   I walked into the Agrodome auditorium – or theater, since it’s more on the scale of a Branson performance hall, though not as gilded – and was unaccountably nostalgic for something that I grew up hating – sheep. My brother had about 30 head (Suffolk, I think). They proved to be stupid, easily panicked, sometimes belligerent, and smelly. The lambs were cute enough, but then came the day that I was recruited to hold each two- week old, its back against my chest while I held front legs in left hand, and rear legs in my right while my brother crunched a tag through the ear, docked the wiggly tail and castrated the males, pulling the sacks out with his fingers, flinging the bits down where the dogs gobbled them up. He saturated any part that bled with a violet antiseptic spray. I put each down to stagger away crying for its mother. We describe my brother as being “good with animals.”
   The stage was set up in tiers, each one labeled with a breed name. Then I saw the sheep in the wings, and started to understand that each one had its own little platform. I couldn’t believe that they were going to stay put up there, but then I saw the stainless steel feeders that look like old-fashioned ashtrays.  After Terry, the master of ceremonies, fired up the crowd that was mostly made up of Asians, sitting with headsets plugged into the translators on the back of each seat, we started meeting the breeds that New Zealand produces and exports for fabric and barbecues.  At the top of the heap was the Merino breed, prized for its fine, light wool.
   According to Terry, in the middle of the 20th century, there were 20 sheep for every man, woman and child in New Zealand.  Consider that every military uniform back then was made from wool, and there were just a couple wars going on. Wool production peaked out in the late 1950s, the U.S. contributing to that surge by stockpiling wool during the Korean War, but with the advent of petroleum-based fabrics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the demand for wool steadily decreased. Additionally, liberal governments removed agricultural subsidies, and the number of sheep per capita in New Zealand dropped to 10. Now, the number stands at seven, although there’s been recent growth in production. 
   In order to process wool, it first has to be separated from the sheep. Terry was kind enough to provide a shearing demonstration. A note: The clothing he’s wearing is typical of a shearer: the trousers are a tight canvas weave, lined to keep scratchy wool from irritating the skin. The singlet allows for unrestricted movement and air circulation. According to him, a full day of shearing is the equivalent to doing a triathlon.  Once the critter was sheared, bits of the fluff were distributed to the audience for us to play with, roll between our hands, smell the lanolin, feel the scratchiness.
   Where there are sheep, there are sheep dogs.  I was fully expecting to see Border Collies put through their paces, but was disappointed. Instead, these gangly, large, baying things showed up on stage. Turns out that the New Zealand Huntaway was the showcased canine on call. Bred from Border Collie with other breeds including the Irish Setter, English Hound, Old English Sheepdog, and Blood Hounds, they bay incessantly at the sheep, typically directing them from behind. There are breeds that move animals with direct eye contact from the head of the herd – and those to work to push animals forward from the back. The Huntaway is one of the latter breeds. 
   Huntaways are not very attractive. They look like the mutts they are, with inconsistent coat characteristics and colorings showing up in the same litter. The breed is truly a working breed – not a pet, but an employee. In fact, Terry was telling me after the show that a dog does the work of five men on a sheep station. Now, I had a herding breed dog (a Corgi) and he was awfully cute. I love herding breeds – they know how to make decisions as well as obey commands. And while I loved my dog and respected his abilities, Corgis (especially Pembrokes) have been bred to be cute pets. Some do still work, but (in my opinion) they have become too short and too long. A quick look at the first Corgis shows that they were once working dogs, just like the Huntaways. With any luck, this relatively new breed will not become a cute pet.
   I missed the herding demonstration outside after the stage show because I lingered around the sheep and wandered through the two souvenir stores that were full of over-priced merino wool yarn and sweaters, lanolin-based products combined with New Zealand manuka honey, sheep-skin rugs and every size of stuffed sheep toys imaginable. A vintage wool carding machine stool behind ropes in the corner, and we all looking on while she carded wool, and showed how to spin it into yarn.
   The tour buses had departed and most of the audience was gone. I wandered out into the lot, over to a deserted building constructed of rough-cut lumber, a few rows of benches the width of the room in front of a stage that had a few set-ups that looked like the shearing platform where Terry had just denuded a ewe. The walls were lined with placards showing photos and information about the recent history of shearing in New Zealand.
   Godfrey Bowen was the father of the Bowen Shearing Technique in New Zealand. On the wall of the shearing shed was a copy of the four-page letter that Bowen sent to the New Zealand Wool Board in 1954 for sheep shearer training scheme. His point: tons of wool were lost each season because of inexpert shearing, some of it ended up as waste on the shed floor, some still on the sheep. Bowen knew what he was talking about; in 1953 at the age of 31, he fleeced 456 sheep in nine hours.  The Wool Board responded to his recommendation and formed a group who provided instruction to Kiwi farmers on how to get the most wool off of their animals, and, consequently, the most profit for themselves. Bowen became an unofficial spokesperson for the sheep growing industry in New Zealand, giving shearing demonstrations in Afghanistan, Scotland, Argentina, India, at the South Pole. He met Kruschev in 1961 and appeared with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1969. Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip got a demonstration, too.  He held a record for speed shearing– one sheep in 14.6 seconds.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 72, Wool Report magazine stated, “Even if Elvis had been a shearer, Godfrey would still be king.”
   Although I found all sorts of sweaters in the souvenir shops and info about Bowen in the shearing shed, there was nothing about the dogs. On a sheep farm, a herding dog does the work of five men.  But no book, no pedigree, no champions, no cuddly little plush Huntaway doggies for little girls and boys to take home with them. Really? This got me all fired up, of course, to write about the dogs and start providing a record about the pedigrees, the breeders, the history of herding dogs in New Zealand. I mean, if Bowen can start a shearing instructional board, well … Well, who knows. National Geographic had a dog on the cover recently – a Weimariner with red poodle curls. Why not a Huntaway?
   I was so indignant that I went back into the souvenirs shops asking for information about the dog breeds of New Zealand. A book, a toy, a photograph of the dogs in action – a whistle! Perfect for the little ones to take home with them! Or a plush sheep dog to go with the sheep, which might have increased the sheep sales if someone wanted a whole herd for the dog. I asked the woman who had demonstrated the carding machine about any info on the dogs. I received the cocker spaniel look (head tilted, confused). “Well, everybody uses their own breed.” She said. “Yes,” I agreed, “but there’s not a book about all the different dog breeds in New Zealand? No information about the Huntaway’s origins?” Again, I was looking at a cocker spaniel.
   I crossed the parking lot to the other souvenir shop. The two clerks there were a little more open:
“Huh. That’s kinda cool idea.”
    But nothing again. Shameful considering that the name of that shop was The Dog and Whistle. One of the employees looked at me and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Yeah. He summoned Terry, the gentleman who em ceed the show. Terry seemed baffled about why I would be interested in the dogs. I barraged him with questions: Were the dogs pets, or employees? Did they become members of the family? What about starting a pedigree on the Huntaways? Are there breeders? What about the Border Collie – is that still a popular breed, or is it being replaced? How many different herding breeds are used in New Zealand? He seemed a little dazed. “You’ve thought about this.” Yeah. I have.
   But he offered to take me out to the dogs kenneled around back of the auditorium. They heard us coming and we heard them long before we walked in the door. Terry and I shouted over the ruckus.
   On the way out, I stopped at the colossus of sheep, a giant model of a Merino named Prince. Prince was pretty darn cool, although quiet, but was quite photogenic and didn’t have any problem standing still. I  stood waiting for the bus as the driver had instructed me across the road by a paddock where horseback riders were practicing jumps, trucks pulling trailers passing me. Another wave of nostalgia. I still love the smell of horse.
   So far I had managed to completely disregard the thing for which Rotorua is renowned: geothermal attractions. Spas and soaking pools abound in the area, and a person can spend just as much money as they want to swim around in hot acidic water or roll in mud. Geysers erupt regularly, and there is a Maori village where you can go and observe the customs of the native people and eat food that’s been cooked underground. I decided that after fighting a nasty virus for weeks and sleeping on a different bed every other night, it was time for a good long soak. One of my roommates at the hostel, Laavia (a Czech who moved to Canada and is now an Australian citizen) and I decided to go to the Polynesian Spa mid-morning, when the pools were less crowded.
   After switching from a pool that was hot to one that was hotter and then into the one that was hottest and back again, we showered, had lunch and then headed out to do more. I had planned to go to the Rotorua Museum, which was right around the corner, but Laavia wanted to rent a car and go to more of the attractions and not have to pay for a shuttle or a city bus. After checking a couple agencies, we finally gave up and accepted that there were no cars to be had for one day. Every time I mentioned the museum, Laavia changed the subject and finally decided she wanted to go to the Luge.
   Being a native of the northern parts of the world where winters are cold and icy, I hear “luge” and think of those crazy people in Spandex hurtling down what look like frozen water slides. The temperature seemed a bit warm to do that, but I was curious about what the thing actually was. There was also the Kiwi Adventure, a place to see the endangered national bird in a controlled nocturnal environment, so I thought I could go there while Laavia did the hurtling.
   During the next few hours, I came to understand why traveling alone is a good idea. Specifically, you get to do exactly what you want, when you want, how you want, where you want. No compromising, no discussing, no dancing around topics, no silent disappointment or deeply buried resentment. We checked out the Kiwi Adventure, but once we saw the admission price, we both said no. I had already paid $30 the day before to see sheep cavorting around on stage, and wasn’t game to pay another $25 to see a few birds skittering around a darkened enclosure. To the luge.
   I don’t understand amusement parks – largely because I do not find them amusing. I don’t even find them interesting. The time for being flung around and feeling my stomach press against my kidneys which in turn press against the vinyl backrest which in turn exerts centrifugal force upon all of my organs is long past. Being dizzy and nauseous hasn’t been any fun at all since I stopped drinking. Taking rides up gondolas is nice, but I would much rather get to the top of a mountain by hiking it. And going in circles in a go-kart looks excruciatingly boring, and it is expensive. But I went along, because it was nice to at last have a travel companion who was not in her 20s, and because when I balked at paying $36 for a ride in a plexiglass bubble up a mountain and then roll down again at high speed, she paid half.
   Once we got in the gondola, which was made for two or three people, Laavia confessed that part of the reason she wanted to do this so badly was because she was afraid of heights, and she thought this would start desensitizing her. This eased some of my disappointment about not going to the museum, but also put me in a position of having to be The Soothing Presence.  I put on my patient hat and my big girl pants, set to endure half an hour of wasted money – just a quick ride up the hill, watching the town of Rotorua and the lake spread out below us, then a quick roll down the mountain, and we’re done and off to the museum.
   Wrong. Up we went, and then stood in line with active children who looked like they were anywhere from eight to 18 years old. We dug in a bin of helmets for ones that sort of fit, then stood in line again to get our little cars. There were two lines, one for those who were on their first spin down the mountain, and one line for those who were doing it for a second time. Second time? Huh? Oh, yes. Lovely. Won’t that be fun.  We get to ride back up a chair lift and then scoot down again, and then come up again, and then take the gondola back down again. Well, at least there was a lot of upping and downing for the money.
   The carts were simple machines. To stop them, pull back – hard – on the handle. To go, let the handle go forward. Back, stop. Forward, go. I tucked my skirt up under me, put my messenger bag on my lap and straddled the handlebar. All the way down the mountain, five-year-olds screamed past me on a winding, narrow concrete path. Finally we were down, and got on the lift, where my toes hung on to my sandals to save them from a drop they might not survive. I did not rock the chair. I behaved myself well, even asked how Laavia was feeling – how was the challenge she posed herself? We hopped off and got in line for the second ride and found out – oh, shucks – that we didn’t get to go again. I paid for the gondola ride, she paid for both the gondola and the luge. I had taken Laavia’s second ride. We were on our way down again. Hurrah!
   Since we were in the part of town that had all the more commercial attractions, I got Laavia to walk with me over to The Caterpillar Experience. This is not about insects; rather, it is an attraction devoted to the history of the Caterpillar tractor and its roll in New Zealand agriculture and development. The CAT, as they’re called by those of us who are on affectionate terms with them, has been around since the early 20th century and has the same sort of continuous track as a tank. In fact, the mechanical engineering that was developed in the soft soil in the San Joaquin Valley around Stockton, California was the inspiration for the English tank, since these tractors were used to pull guns in the first world war.  During World War II, Caterpillar products found fame with the Seabees, Construction Battalions of the United States Navy, who built airfields in the South Pacific.  (Now, Caterpillar builds a complete line of defense products.)
   When we walked into the Experience, I knew that Laavia didn’t get it, that she was humoring me just as I had humored her desire to ride the luge. I also knew that I couldn’t explain it to her, and that it would probably be more expensive than what I wanted to spend, but I had to go there and pay homage on behalf of my father, and in memory of all the times I climbed those tracks as though they were a little ladder made just for me, all the way up to the seat where I pulled the levers pretending to drive. I had to go there for all the times that I watched my brother out on our little yellow tractor, dozing snow on a minus-20 January afternoon, or silhouetted by the setting sun that day in August 1976, pushing the body of my pony into a hole after she lay down in the wheat stubble and would not get up again, dying of colic. And now I don’t understand why I didn’t tell Laavia to go catch the bus, that I was going through The Caterpillar Experience.
   After dinner, I insisted on walking over to the Rotorua Museum anyway, because I at least wanted to see the outside of it before I left in the morning. I rounded the corner and was immediately even more disappointed that I had spent the better part of my day alternately soaking in hot water and riding down a mountain. The Rotorua Museum is fabulous, and the gardens that surround it are lovely. In fact, I would much rather have gone to the spa and spent the rest of the day there.
   I noticed that the door was open, and walked in, Laavia behind me. They were open for another hour. I paid and told Laavia I would see her later. She hesitated at the door. I could tell that she wanted me to go with her – to do what, I don’t know. But I just smiled and waved and went to watch the (excellent) movie about the last eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.
   It was an hour well-spent. Not only did I watch the film re-enactment of the eruption, I did a fast pass through the Brian Brake “Lenson the World” exhibit, developed and curated by Te Papa museum in Wellington. The big disappointment was not being able to spend any amount of time in the fabulous wing devoted to the native Arawa people, who donated the 50 acres where the museum and government gardens stand. I did get to see a couple of the rooms that have been preserved from the days when the building was a bath house – actually, the New Zealand government’s first foray into international tourism. The spa employed the latest methods for those who wanted to “take the cure” in the hot pools. Water from the lake and hot springs was pumped directly into sunken bath tubs where various methods of rehabilitation were employed. Now these chambers look like the anterooms to a mad scientist’s laboratory, but in the day, it was health technology. In fact, U.S. Nave Rear-Admiral Sperry happened to be there in 1908 for the grand opening. Creepy stairs led all the way up, through the attic up to the viewing platform where the lake was beautiful as the sun set over the gardens.
   The next morning I was off at 7 a.m. on the last leg of the journey – a brief stop at the Waikoto Caves to see the glow worms, then back to Auckland where I would re-pack for the flight back to Los Angeles.

Lake Taupo

   The ride up to Lake Taupo was quite different from the other coach trips I had been on. This looked like typical city-to-city transportation, full of locals, some back packers, and some folks like me. The driver was not particularly friendly, and did not introduce himself, nor did he offer a running commentary, so I ended up looking around and dozing a lot as we cruised through the agricultural south-central part of North Island, (although, much of New Zealand could be considered agricultural) until we rounded a corner and golly gee, there was a volcano.
   Snow clung to the top of it, but it was definitely a volcano. And as we got closer to it, we were getting closer to my destination, Lake Taupo. According to the geological exhibit at Te Papa museum in Wellington, this was the Central Volcanic Plateau, and Lake Taupo is a caldera created by a huge eruption about 100 A.D. In fact, some theorists posit that the Taupo eruption 26,000 years ago was one of the pivotal events that led to the last ice age. Jack, the “Lord of the Rings” tour guide, said that the rocks in Wellington were once where Lake Taupo is now. And he’s not speaking of the landscape gravel, either.  Lake Taupo covers 238 square miles, is 610 feet at its deepest point, and the rocks – boulders – landed 230 miles away. Any questions?
   Speaking of “Lord of the Rings,” the Taupo region served as the filming location for Mordor, Emyn Muil and Mt. Doom.  Fit folk can tramp the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a full-day hike across a rather apocalyptic landscape past volcanoes, fumaroles, lava flows, craters and lakes.
   Lake Taupo YHA hostel was another immaculate facility with friendly folks. Unfortunately, no free Internet access, but a nice kitchen and clean bathrooms. That is, clean until the person bathing next to me decided to pee not quite down the drain in the shower. Some people’s kids. However, none of my roommates decided to defile the room in anyway, so that was nice, and the second night I was there I actually had the room to myself. On travel day 101, I took bliss where I found it.
   Everything from parasailing to full-day sailing cruises to Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay were available, but being ever mindful of my (diminishing) resources, I chose to go exploring around the area to one of the (free) natural resources in the area, Huka Falls. According to several sources, the area is the most visited site in New Zealand. I set out on a cloudy morning to walk the 30-45 minutes to the Falls, and was careful to get a map and directions from the woman at the hostel desk. I had her use a highlighter to mark the route, explaining that I tend to get lost. She marked the route as far as the turn-off to the trail that connected to the Waikoto River, and said I’d have no problem the rest of the way. Right.
   After walking for about half an hour, I was not anywhere near the Falls. I had walked by the Lake Taupo Top 10 Holiday Resort. I had watched a couple Border Collies being put through their paces at the Taupo DogTraining Club. And finally, I got to a point where I knew I had gone too far and missed the turn. I took out my map, long past the point of being embarrassed or worrying what others might think of me. A man in a white minivan slowed down and rolled down his window.
   He: “Are you lost?”
   Me: “Well, I know I’m in Lake Taupo, but beyond that …”
   He:  “What are you looking for?”
   Me: “Huka Falls.”
   He: (laughing) “Oh, you’re miles from there!”
   Good to know.
   Me: “I know I’ve gone past the turn. How far back is it? I walked by the dog place.”
   He: “Oh, farther than that.”
   Me: “The Top 10 resort place?”
   He: “Just past that. Turn right. Looks like you’re going back into a parking lot. Keep going back – the trail starts as you get closer to the river.”
   Me: “Okay, thanks!” I started folding my map.
   He: “Do you want a ride?”
   I considered. He looked like a nice enough guy. Let’s see … alone, in a foreign country, no one knows I’m out here besides the gal at the hostel…
   Me: “Nah – I’m a good walker. But thanks!”
   I turned around, and off I went again. Past the dog place. Past the Top 10 camping place. The next turn, looked sort of like a resort, but it was a road going way back toward a parking lot, so I kept going past the really cool Maori carving of some sort of bird (a god, I’m sure) and found … cabins. And a restaurant that looked like it was closed and had been for some time. Gravel road curving around to what looked like a trail. 
    Then I heard the gun shots.
   Gun shots? Really?
   I paused.
   Yep, gun shots, and I think that weird smell might be gun powder, and if that’s the case I’m not going any farther, because I don’t really know if there’s a New Zealand version of “Deliverance.”
It is on these sorts of occasions that I start to curse. Creatively. Colorfully. I mutter oaths, I shout in short guttural barks, I sigh, I whine. If anyone happens along at these times they generally turn around or cross the street. Finally, I get so frustrated, I start to get all teary and sound (even to myself, even in the throes of this mood) like a child. I asked, godammit, I asked the fucking woman at the desk for directions, I know my limitations, so I asked and I STILL get lost? Jesus-f-ing-christ! WTF?
   And so on.
   So I stomped back and it was the next street where I was supposed to turn, and go waaaay back in the parking lot (actually, a road to a parking lot) where, eventually, signs pointed the way to the trail. At that point I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep going or not. I was tired, my feet hurt, my water bottle was almost empty … But then I thought, “oh, this is going to be such a great blog entry.”
   I had read, and been told, that there was a geo-thermal area by the river where a warm stream meets the Waikato. Several people were splashing around, some with swimming pool floaties, others just resting along the rocks along the edge. Even though I had worn my bathing suit under my clothes, I kept walking, determined to make up time. Once I relaxed, I started to enjoy myself. The river was wide and placid, subtle ripples of current pulled at the bank.  The trees and tree ferns were lush. The trail was quiet, once I passed a talkative French family. And the path didn’t take nearly as long to walk as I was told it would.
   Just like in the movies, you hear the falls before you see them, and it wasn’t long after I heard them that I saw them. Lovely. Crowded viewing platforms, but lovely falls. If the day had been sunny, the view and photographs would have been spectacular. As it is, they’re still pretty good. The water really is blue and white, melt-off from the snowy volcanic peaks filtered through layers of rock. I watched as a speedboat cruised just at the edge of the spillway, its occupants getting soaked. And then I walked back the way I had come.
   Two dietary supplements are guaranteed to soothe sore feet: ice cream and chocolate. In this case, I had neither (yet) and was desperately hungry for real food. Any energy from the breakfast peanut butter sandwich had long since worn off, so lunch was the first order of business. I selected what they said was lasagna, and it certainly had noodles and cheese and tomato-ee sauce, but, after having been married to an Italian, I know it was not lasagna. However, it was served with something green and leafy called salad, so I ate it all. And lo, it was good.
   Taupo has a museum, as well, which I was determined to see, so that was the next stop after lunch. And while it had a picturesque garden and rose gardens surrounding it, and a wonderful jewelry exhibit, I couldn’t pay much attention.  After the museum, shopping for souvenirs for family and a merino wool and possum fur throw for me. Found both, and bargains at that. One more night in Taupo, and then I was off to Rotorua and its geothermal waters the next morning.

The Trans-Coastal to Picton and across to Wellington

   Having been awakened by the dulcet tones of a fat man coughing up a hair ball, I dragged myself out of bed in the morning for a 6:15 a.m. shuttle back to the train station for the Trans-Coastal trip. This train was shiny and new, with outlets on the seats where you could plug in earphones and listen to recorded commentary. I grew tired of the canned commentary, so I ignored it and made up my own as we cruised along. At that point, I was a little let down. After the Trans-Alpine the day before, the Trans-Coastal was the ride that was overrated.

   The best thing about the trip up to Picton for me was stepping out onto the observation car, letting my hair blow around, and smelling the sweet clover from the paddocks. Sheep dotted the green hills. Cows dotted the green hills with cow patties. And soon, there was the Pacific Ocean on our right. A gray day, but nonetheless, a picturesque scene.
   At Picton, I checked in at the ferry terminal and cruised for three and a half hours to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital where the first thing I did after checking into the hostel was catch a bus down to Te Papa, the museum of just about everything. The exhibit “Unveiled,” 200 years of wedding fashion from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, was on view. The gallery was awash in carefully preserved lace, tulle, and various weaves of silk. 
   Among the notable gowns was the Christian La Croix gown “Who Has the Right?” and the iridescent purple taffeta Dita Von Teese wore when she wed Marilyn Manson. Gwen Stefani’s self-designed gown was there, too, but the real highlight was getting to see meticulously preserved hand-made Belgium lace and hand-worked satins. The light was dim and photographs were not allowed, so I spent a lot of time with my nose nearly against the glass, evading gallery security guards while trying to see whether that silk was cut on the bias or if that skirt was a jacquard or a taffeta.
   Three New Zealand designers created gowns for the Te Papa “Unveiled” show: WORLD, Lindah Lepou, and Jane Yeh. Check out their gowns and comments here.
   I stayed until they were ready to kick me out at 9 p.m., but got to speak with a gallery docent about not just the gowns, but the social sensibilities that fashion embodies. In our culture there is this idea of The Gown, The Wedding, The Day, The Man, usually in that order. When I edited a weddings publication for the Kansas City Star’s magazine division, the intent of the advertising sales people was to push that fantasy, the dream, the dress that’s too expensive but get it anyway, the wedding that costs $50,000 but do it anyway, even though that’s a down payment on a house, The Wedding must be done. The groom seemed like a prop. And having been once divorced at that point (an unlikely candidate for a weddings publication, but there you have it) I well understood that there is something that follows the orgy of conspicuous spending and that is called A Marriage.
   Once again, Elizabeth Gilbert’s name came up and this idea of The Man and how this idea of romantic love is perpetuated in young girls’ minds. Prince Charming and his cohorts ride in and take her away from all this. I used to believe that this protestation of feminists and their ilk was really sour grapes; they were just a bunch of lesbians who didn’t want a prince, anyway, so they’re going to tell the rest of us that there really isn’t one. That might be true. My prince came in with a white BMW in which, after five years, I drove off into the sunset.
   Anyway, when I edited the magazine I made sure that there was always some sort of article that reminded couples (read: brides) to prepare themselves for the inevitable post-wedding let-down. Now that you’ve spent an entire year (or more) of your life planning for one day, what now? What happens after that adrenaline rush? Now that you’re not the center of attention, Little Miss Bride, what are you going to do?
   But even those thoughts hovering around my awareness like so many soap bubbles over the happy couple didn’t stop me from being fascinated by the gowns. I have the convenient excuse of being a seamstress, so I can look at these garments from the perspective of design and workmanship, which I think is part of what the exhibit is supposed to be about. Never mind that there was a big screen showing footage of several society and royal weddings and that there was a cluster of women ranging from 15 to 50 sitting transfixed on red velour upholstered divans draped all around with tulle.
Because at the end of the day, after all the social analysis, there is beauty and there is love and that’s what people want to see. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.
   Since I didn’t get to see more than “Unveiled” at Te Papa, I resolved to return the next day – after my “Lord of the Rings” tour. If you know anything about the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, you might know that Peter Jackson directed all three films. You might also know that he is a New Zealand native, and all of the films were shot here. What you might not know, however, is that Peter Jackson pretty much built the film industry in New Zealand, which is in Wellington. In fact, this effects industry is so good, Steven Spielberg has started coming to New Zealand instead of calling up his buddy George Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic. Hopefully that information helps dispel the idea that I might be some sort of nerd.
   However, the tour guide, Jack, was. A nerd. And a happy one at that. He worked in Information Technology for 20 years, for a government agency, sounded like. And now, he said, “I can’t really remember why.” About eight years ago, Jack and some buddies started Rover Tours, a service that shuttles paying customers around for half-day or full-day tours of the Lord of the Rings filming locations around Wellington. I took the half-day tour which started with Jack picking me up at the hostel, taking one look at me and stating, “Oh, it can’t be her. She looks much too stressed to be on holiday.” All the better reason for this tour, Jack. And don’t worry, the antibiotic is working.
   We were barely out the door before he launched into how he was horribly crushed, that he got terrible news that day:  he learned just that morning that the casting call for The Hobbit is at 1 p.m. January 28 and neither he nor any of his partners would be able to attend because they have cruise ships dropping multitudes of cruisers off for tours. Personally, I thought that getting your company on a cruise ship’s excursion menu is a pretty sweet deal, but I didn’t say that.  Instead, I made the appropriate sympathetic noises, especially when he said that they are looking for men with large biceps. I was glad that Jack knew his biceps were not big.  Maybe then he didn’t feel quite as bad about missing the casting opportunity.
   One stop and five people later, we were off to the first of the sites, the Great River Anduin where, you might remember (or you might not) the Fellowship of the Ring ended up camping, and where Boromir ended up getting killed, etc. Jack had a whole binder of stills from the film that showed the locations quite well so we could compare what we were seeing with the actual scene. Next, we were off to Rivendell, the home of the elves, where Frodo, thanks to Elven Princess Arwen’s desperate ride, recovers from the wound received from one of the Nine Black Riders.  (Digression: Liv Tyler, who played the elf princess Arwen does not ride. Hates horses. That whole thing was done by a stunt double. Christopher Lee, who played Saruman also hates horses, since one of his best friends died being thrown from one. Just some fun facts. Christopher Lee also happens to know exactly what sound a person makes when he’s been stabbed in the back.)  
    Jack had a hobbit-sized sword, either a faithful reproduction or one from the movie – and a cloak for anyone to pose in. Martin from Canada was happy to oblige. Then, a spot of tea (or Elevensies, as the Hobbits would say) and off to Isengard where there is still a barely visible indentation of the road that Gandalf traveled to the Saruman’s tower.  We had to guess what the final location was. I got it first – the road through Fanghorne Forest where the first Ring Wraith comes hunting for Frodo. For those of you who remember, it’s in the first movie; it’s the “get off the road” scene where the horse and undead former king stand above them. Fabulous stuff. At the end of the tour, we all got a map that Jackson drew of the two islands with all the sites highlighted. And a good time was had by all.
   After lunch, I stopped by the Portrait Gallery of New Zealand which, funny enough, displays portraits of those who have been important to New Zealand’s formation and progress; among them is Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. But in the very back of the gallery, behind the wall, around the corner, was a small exhibit of daguerreotypes. These were not old images, but current portraits, the exhibit  “Reflecting Mana”- portraits of Tainui by AlanBekhuis.  The images were provided courtesy of the Paul McNamara Gallery, an important collection of ten daguerreotypes which complements the main exhibition. They are intricately made on silver sensitized with the halogens iodine and bromine. Alan’s specialty is to mount daguerreotype portraits, framed and lit in their own boxes. His authentic leather wooden cases are of exceptional quality and are used internationally.
   The daguerreotype is named for Louis Daguerre who created the first form of photography. The technique is juuuust a bit fussy. Take a copper plate, coat it with silver gelatin and polish it to a mirror finish, then load it into your frame and let the image develop. It is immediate, and incredibly fragile – the image can be rubbed off by a finger. The pay-off is that daguerreotypes are three-dimensional, have a depth that photographs just don’t show.
   Once I finished chatting about the daguerreotypes and the method with the gallery manager, I returned to Te Papa to an exhibit called “Blood Earth Fire” which concerned itself with the volcanic environment of NZ and where I got a review of natural science. Ready everybody? The earth is made up of a crust, a mantle, and an outer and inner core. Everything gets hotter the farther you dig, but we’ve never really gotten very far into the crust. Here’s the thing about New Zealand: the crust here is half as thick as anywhere else. That means that convection currents of the hot mantle make that crust less stable, and it’s easier for the crust to shift (earthquakes) and for molten stuff in the outer and inner core to get out (volcanoes) in the Central Volcanic Region, or CVR.
   New Zealand broke off from Australia a few years ago (somewhere between 65 and 80 million) and since then has been rising and falling depending upon the tectonic activity of the millennia. The Pacific Plate picks on New Zealand, too (not just us over in North America) sliding under the Australian plate, forming the central Alpine Fault. And I think that we all know that fault lines are where earthquakes come from.
   Anyway, it was all very fascinating. After that, I went to Cuba Street, yet another hip, young, edgy, snazzy neighborhood with people who sport tattoos and piercings in interesting and unusual places. A few vintage shops are there, along with a few touristy souvenirs shops. Cuba Street is also a pedestrian mall, so buskers are out in number, too. A young girl was singing – up on stage, alone, with a rudimentary sound system, and two homemade boxes covered in construction paper, hand-lettered: “I’m saving up for a new piano.” Sheesh. How can a person not throw a coin or two to the cause? But the best busker by far was by the train station – see the guy to the right in the kilt with the bagpipes.
   That was pretty much it for Wellington. In the morning, I caught a coach up to Lake Taupo, smack dab in the aforementioned Central Volcanic Region.

The TranzAlpine to Christchurch

   When Herman the German (aka Stefan) and I were booking these two weeks, I was quite definite about wanting to travel the Trans-Coastal train route from Christchurch to Picton where I would then take the Inter-Islander Ferry to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. The best way to get from the west coast to the east coast is via the Trans-Alpine train, which goes over Arthur’s Pass and several viaducts. But in my (admittedly limited) research about the Trans-Alpine, I read a review (on-line) that it was overrated and that the scenery wasn’t much to write home about, save your money and buy a nice merino wool and possum fur sweater.
The beginning of the journey – pretty, but not particularly inspiring.
   Well, first of all, a merino and possum sweater costs a LOT more than a train ticket, but I admit I was apprehensive about the journey when we started off and I saw a lot of this. But, it turns out that the Trans-Alpine is not overrated. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not as well-traveled as I would like to be. The summer after college backpacking through Europe was not on my post-graduate schedule. Following a man to a different city was, however, and I stayed in that city for 16 years. The point is that I have nothing much to compare this train trip to – although the scenery was reminiscent of Glacier and Yosemite National Parks. Arthur’s Pass and the viaducts overrated?  Not a chance.
   Along the way there was a commentary from one of the conductors, but with the Kiwi accent and the way she ended all her sentences as though they were questions, I had a hard time understanding her. Here are some of my notes: 
   Lake ??? holiday homes worth around a ½ million … lots used to be about $30 k. now $300 k Lake is ??? square kilometers.
   Lake ??? orange tint – crayfish – important fishing destination
   Coal train from ??? 30 cars, each containing 30 tonnes of coal
   The note about coal is actually important, since the railroad line between Christchurch and Greymouth was primarily constructed to transport from large reserves that were discovered in 1848 on the west side of the island near Greymouth.  Since the harbor at Greymouth wasn’t deep enough to handle large ships, the government built the railroad now used by TranzAlpine to access the  deep water port at Lyttelton, near Christchurch.  By the way, even though the coal has high sulfur content, it’s exported to China where “dirty” coal is regularly burned.
Closer to the mountains…
   We crossed the Alpine Fault that stretches 6oo km up the spine of the south island, the on-land boundary of the Pacific and Australian plates. According to geologists, the fault is due for a whopper in the next 40 years. Sound familiar? No word on whether the quakes that happened in 2010 and 2011 were the predicted whoppers.
   Otira, which is not a city, or a village, but a hamlet with a population around 50 people, was next. A few years ago, a couple passengers on the alpine route noticed that the Otira hotel was up for sale and bought it – then noticed once the transaction was complete that they had also purchased the town hall, the swimming pool, etc. They were offered $1 million for the lot last year and declined.  Not much to the place: tiny miner’s cottages with rust-streaked corrugated roofs, their identical faces differentiated only by lattice or ornate porch posts.  Every building is in a different state of repair. Sheep graze in a narrow paddock between front yards and the train track. The train stopped here to pick up a couple of passengers before going through the Otira tunnel and on to Arthur’s Pass when everyone was ordered back inside for the duration.
Otira, complete with sheep in the paddocks.
  The Otira Tunnel was started 1908 and completed 1923 and at 8.5 kilometers (5.3 miles), it was the longest in the British Empire at the time and one of the longest in the world.  The climb from Otira to Arthur’s Pass station is about 820 feet on a 1 / 33 gradient. From the ‘60s until the late ‘90s, electric locomotives were used to haul trains through the tunnel so that diesel fumes didn’t build up in the enclosed area.  The electric locomotives were decommissioned in 1997. Now, after the train enters, there is a sophisticated fan system (read: I don’t quite understand how it works exactly because the information online is vague) extracts diesel fumes.  We swayed through the tunnel a full 20 minutes, and even with fans running, the air was thick. There was a five minute stop at Arthur’s Pass Station, about 2400 feet above sea level.
   Although the scenic qualities of the route had become apparent by that time, the really good stuff was ahead as we crossed steel girder bridges. The highest viaduct on the route is the famous Staircase Viaduct, which is 240 feet above the Waimakiriri River. I didn’t have the stomach to be out on the observation car, so I did my best from my seat.
   The ride terminated at Christchurch. Most of us know that Christchurch, New Zealand experienced a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in September 2010. The shaker devastated the central business district of the city, and the area is still cordoned off, official vehicles only, braces on building fronts, rubble in the streets (whether from the start of repairs or the accumulation of damage debris).  Since that quake, others have struck: February 22, 2011, magnitude 6.3; June 13, 2011, mag. 5.6 and yet again the same day, a 6.3. The before and after photographs I found here are dramatic and kind of cool to look at.
   There was a little glitch in the plans where the shuttle driver dropped me off at the wrong hostel, which turned out to be the right hostel, but then was scheduled to pick me up the next morning at the other hostel … No matter. I had a room (a single one!) which was quite comfortable until someone decided to start a car that had a screeching fan belt at midnight. Then there was the crew that came in from the bars around 2 a.m. And the person who got up around five, clearing his throat and spitting up phlegm. Oh, and the drain that sounded like someone peeing right outside my window. Other than that, it was a great night. One sobering thing – when I checked in, I had to provide a contact name and phone number back in the states. Just in case there was another big earthquake. As a person to resides a few scant miles from the San Andreas and its shenanigans, this should have been of little note. But it wasn’t.
   The most distinctive thing about Christchurch that evening was the quiet. At six o’clock, the city should have been in rush hour, such as rush hour might be in a city of 360,000 souls. But no, not much traffic, even the birds chirped sotto voce. The Garden City is very much a city desert, full of buildings that are uninhabited and/or uninhabitable. Chain link fences surround every other lot; if a person owned a waste disposal business, they’d be in clover right now. According to the shuttle driver, Christchurch has had 10,000 quakes in the past 16 months, starting with the big on in September 2010. Whether these have been bona fide holy-cow-did-you-feel-that-there-was-another-one quakes or not, I don’t know. But it wasn’t the first time I had heard the figure.
Ok, it was a volcano, not an earthquake. Anyone else see the irony?
   The next time you walk down the street, look at the businesses you pass. Chances are there will be an assortment: a doctor, an attorney’s office, a convenience store, a few cafes, maybe a church. Now consider how many people those businesses employ. How many of them have families to support. How many suppliers are dependent upon those businesses for their own livelihood. And how many employees those suppliers have. And how many family members. You get the idea. We can read about Christchurch in the paper or hear about it on the news and think, those poor buggers, whew, thank God it wasn’t us sitting here on a ticking bomb. I think it’s worth more than a passing thought.
This broke. my. heart.
   There’s so much more to this city that I didn’t get to see – disasters have made much of it impassible. It’s worth noting, though, that Christchurch is one of four cities in the world that was planned on a central market square (Philadelphia is another, and I can’t remember the other two). It’s also referred to as the Garden City because of the acres of green space set aside for public enjoyment. In fact, Hagley Park is 407 acres and home of the annual flower shows, the Festival of Flowers in February and the Ellerslie International Flower Show each March. I could go on and on, but all I would be doing is reporting what I’ve researched on-line, since I didn’t get to see and experience it myself.
   Next, on to Wellington via another TranzScenic train across the Canterbury Plains, beside the Pacific and up to Picton, and then across to Windy Wellie.

To Fox Glacier and Greymouth

   Tired and still a little sick, I couldn’t help but want to be home, wishing that I had a greater attentiveness and appreciation for all the wonder around me. But there comes a time while traveling when one becomes jaded, and I had reached my low while in Auckland’s Ponsonby neighborhood when I found myself thinking, “If I see one more ‘funky, hip, back-from-the-brink’ inner suburb populated by skinny yuppie mums and their precious children strapped into expensive German-designed strollers, shopping at stores with minimalist interiors that sell minimalist clothing, with maximalist price tags, I will lie down on this sidewalk and shit myself.”
   About 15 minutes later, Herman-the-German and I booked this final two-week extravaganza through the country.
We stopped here along the way … I think it’s Thun
  So I hopped on yet another coach on what was shaping up to be a fabulous Queenstown morning, destination: Fox Glacier Village where I would see one of the glaciers that still exists, but is in gradual retreat, and has been since 1750. Incidentally, its retreat has sped up since 1950. I’d like to impart a whole lot of local color and info about the drive and what I saw, but honestly, I can’t remember much. I know only that my head ached, and that I kept coughing for no good reason and felt like I was constantly trying to swallow an acorn. The drivers were quite nice, chatted quietly at intervals about the countryside and its rich history. They did their job. I did not do mine.
   We were about an hour away from Fox when the driver played a DVD about Fox Glacier helicopter tours and offered to call in a flight reservation at our next stop if anyone wanted to take one. I approached him when we stopped and asked some questions about the flight, and he assured me that it was well worth the money. But when he called, he was told that the didn’t have another person who wanted that tour at that time, and flights only take off with two or more paying passengers. That saved me from myself, although I do believe that’s the way to see a glacier.
Yes, that dirty snow is indeed Fox Glacier.

   I did have a driver reserved to take me out to the glacier observation point. Murray has been driving for quite a while, I think, if the potent cigarette smoke/body odor combination in his van is any indication. Joe, the coach driver, had pointed out Murray where he was parked by the curb. I popped my head into the van, giving him a start, I think, and informed him that I was his four o’clock date. He said he’d be at the hostel to pick me up.

   I dragged my suitcase and my acorn-swallowing self up the street to the Ivory Towers Lodge Hostel which, oddly, was neither ivory nor towering. In fact, the hostel was a yellow weatherboard house? Old hotel? With blue trim. Ivory Tower Lodge Hostel is the sort of place that someone might call funky, or unique, or full of character. After checking in and walking down a hallway on carpeting that might once have been a color, and opening the door to Room 2, I called it time to check out. I had reached the point – actually remain at the point – that if I smell pasta cooking in a hostel kitchen, I gag. No pasta was cooking here, but the room was approximately 10 X 12 and contained three sets of bunk beds. The last free (top) bunk was for me. None of my roommates were there, but their stale hiking boots and damp towels were. I’ve become a creature of smells, I guess, and since I was not congested with my ‘flu, I could smell everything entirely too well.
   Before I could turn around and walk out, Murray had arrived. He provided commentary all the way out to Fox Glacier in an impenetrable Kiwi accent, which is a cross between Australian (she’ll be right, mate!) Scottish (oh, there’s a wee car park) and Cockney (well I says to him I’d do it meself). Anyway, he pointed out where the glacier was in 1750, where it was in 1850 and where it was in 1950. Now, it’s a good kilometer back from that point. I hiked along the trail up to a point where the photo cutout of a ranger and a word bubble said, “If you’re not with a guided hiking group, you have to stop here.” Okay. I got my photographs and walked the 20 minutes back.
   One expensive dinner later, my quest for different (better) lodging began. I found a place next door to Ivory Tower. The room needed airing and smelled faintly of mildew and mustiness, but it was my mildew and my mustiness for the next few hours and I planned to enjoy it. Never mind that I coughed nearly all night because of the mildew and mustiness – I was not sharing a room with smelly hiking boots and young girls with the pong of wet puppies. I even got a free continental breakfast in the morning – and they had peanut butter! Things were looking up.
   The next leg of the journey was from Fox Glacier to Greymouth, where I would catch the Trans-Alpine train to Christchurch. Steve the coach driver was a ringer for Willem Dafoe, if Willem Dafoe was skeletal, had wavy reddish hair, wore aviator shades and had receding gums.  But Steve had a great speaking voice and a lot of knowledge about the area and its history. I happened to overhear that he studies Medieval England in his spare time, and has figured out information about Antarctica that he was told by government officials to keep to himself. “we’re not from here; that’s all I can say.”
Here are some highlights:

·        Whatarea, a widening in the road called a town. Public toilets, a convenience store with some sort of chocolate chip and herb muffin, a farm supply, and a gallery that was voted best in New Zealand. It is in possession of 4,000-year-old sperm whale bones and incredible jewelry carved by Maori.  Steve praised the older couple who purchased earrings as being wise to buy there where they were assured of quality and a fair price.

   The Bushmans’ Centre (a steal at $1.8 million if you’re interested in buying) sports a giant sandfly and a sign on the door: “If you can’t laugh, you’re in the wrong place.” The entire place is about game, and not Monopoly. Heads on the walls, deer in an enclosure out back, ‘possum pie on the menu. But the Australian Brushtail Possum is not the same as our North American large rat-looking possum. In fact, it was introduced to New Zealand in 1837 to establish a fur trade, with disastrous results. There are no predators in NZ. None. So the varmints have over-run the islands. You can’t order a ‘possum pie, either, because New Zealand government requires restaurants to purchase ‘possum meat only from a government approved source. Such a source does not exist. The edict is in place because of the wide-spread aerial poisoning campaign to rid the country of the scourge that destroys forest habitat and eats bird eggs.  Brief Digression: New Zealand has NO indigenous mammals. None. Most native birds are flightless (the kiwi, for instance) so are defenseless. The Brits brought over bunnies, because they’d be good food and fun to chase on their pretty horses; they also brought deer, which were fun to chase, too. But although chased, many deer and bunnies got away, so they proceeded to reproduce like, well, bunnies, and eat away at the bird’s habitat. Solution: bring stoats and weasels to take care of the rabbits. When the stoats and weasels arrived they reached the consensus: why eat a rabbit that runs away when you can get a bird that’s never seen a predator? The kiwi, NZ’s national bird, is endangered now.
·         We stopped to pick up a 94-year-old man who raises goats, and were warned that he might smell a little bit like his cloven-hooved friends. He did. A little old thing, barely bent, and still had a frizz of white hair. His sweater had goat hair woven through it. Immediately, the woman across the aisle from me placed a small package in the seat next to her. “Where is he going to sit? He might sit by me!” she hissed. As it turned out, he did the next best thing and sat right in front of her. I have smelled goats before and found his odor pungent, but not as offensive as, say, the bouquet of a co-ed hostel dorm room. He got off the bus at the next stop, and the odor dissipated soon enough, but not before the same woman could confide that she “could smell that man.” I pointed out that at 94, he was doing great to be catching a bus anywhere, and when I’m 90 and raising goats, I hope to sit in front of a person just like her.

·         A stop in Hakitika and the Jade Factory, where carvers can be observed from a platform outside their glass-enclosed workshop. Since we arrived around lunch time, only one was at his post. Instead, I walked into a store called The Possum People and chatted with a woman about the ‘possums. As I mentioned above, the possum in New Zealand is not the same as our North American over-sized rat ‘possum. These guys look like an Ewok crossed with a raccoon. Problem is, they are munching their way through the two islands and destroying the habitat of native wildlife. They also spread bovine tuberculosis. She said that about 1 million are trapped each year for the fur trade, and 2 to 3 million are killed with 1080 poison, mostly in remote parts of islands. The government insists that there are around 70 million in the country, but the woman scoffed: “If that was the case we’d be tripping over them in the street.” While the fur trade decreased in the 1980s, due mostly to PETA folks spattering fake blood on fur coats, commercial value has recovered with China being the biggest buyer. I was tempted to buy a pair of gloves or a hat, but then remembered that I live in Death Valley with golf courses. Instead, I hurried over to a pharmacy and spent $11.20 for 24 ibuprofen tablets in an effort to reduce the size of my throat acorn.
·         New Zealand’s natural resources: Steve said that New Zealand is really a gold nugget with a little dirt thrown over it. Talk about opening up the National Reserves for mining has been met with a resounding “NO!” from the people, so the government has done the next best thing and started to build oil platforms off the South Island shore. Steve said that NZ has the second largest oil reserves in the world and has agreed with Saudi Arabia to cap the wells for 150 years to keep the price of oil inflated. When the wells are in production, they will be using the frakking method of extraction. I said a prayer for the marine life in the area.

   And by the time we got to Greymouth, the drugs were working.
View from my room at the YHA Hostel in Greymouth.

   When I walked into the Greymouth YHA Hostel, I smelled … nothing. Air. Fresh air. No cleaning agents, air fresheners, backpackers, food cooking … nothing. Come to find out that the hostel is cleaned with only three natural ingredients – coconut oil, lime and orange. The windows were open. A cool breeze. Faint scent of the sea. And although I was booked into a four-bed dorm, there was only one other person and only one very neat suitcase sat at the end of one bunk. Downstairs, a common room had comfortable furniture arranged around a fire place. The sun porch was set up as a TV room with a selection of (free!) DVDs. In the kitchen, no fewer than five bins were arranged against the wall for recycling plastics, paper, shopping bags, landfill waste and compost. The kitchen was spotless. I was sure to tell the girl at the check-in how nice that was.

   Downtown Greymouth is not extensive, and is typical of most small towns. A few cafes, bars, outdoor equipment outfitters, hotels down by the train station, a couple galleries, and a book store. More bakeries that concoct chocolate chip and fruit muffins. A couple notable stops: Jade Boulder Gallery, which really does have a jade boulder inside. The artist, Ian Boustridge, started getting interested in jade when he was only a kid, and has been carving since 1976. His work is inspired by pre-Columbian, Asian and Maori art, and his work is widely collected. Although the items at the gallery were a little bit out of my current price range, the work was stunning. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) photography was prohibited.  The Left Bank Art Gallery housed in the restored New Zealand Bank building also has a stunning collection of jade by artists of national/international repute. In New Zealand, jade is a stone of particular importance to the Maori (indigenous) culture, used for knives and ornaments for thousands of years.

   Then, at 1:30 p.m. I got on board the Trans-Scenic Kiwi Rail train to cross Arthur’s Pass and spend a night in Christchurch, yes, the city that has experience 10,000 quakes since the 7.1 quake on September 2010.