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.

Doubtful Sound Cruise

   The oddly-named Doubtful Sound received its moniker from none other than Capt. James Cook who, while sailing New Zealand’s west coast looking for a harbor, and after watching the breakers on the rocks and tracking the prevailing winds, came to the conclusion that it was doubtful that he could get his ship out easily once he sailed in.
   However doubtful, the sound is inaccurately named since it’s not a sound, but a fjord. A fjord is a valley carved by a glacier and then filled with the water from the glacier melting. A fjord typically has a rise where it meets the sea, a moraine of silt left behind. This moraine is usually under water.  
Stefan the travel agent had mentioned that I would want to take a cruise on either Milford or Doubtful Sound, and after reviewing the materials, I knew I wanted to take an overnight cruise on the Navigator, a schooner ship that accommodates only 70 people and offered an affordable quad-share room. (I didn’t have to come up with the four people, they put four together.) The price was a bit of a splurge, but this is the part of the trip where I really did become a tourist. I had come to understand that if I was going to see the countryside and its scenic areas, the choice was either rent a car or pay for tours. Since I’m not quite sure about driving on the other side of the road and hadn’t done the planning, I was quite pleased to have Stefan handle it for me. Not a bad way to go, as much as I abhor traveling on a coach with hordes of other people. Then again, I learned a lot and met a couple nice folks and achieved my objective which, after all, was to actually see New Zealand.
   The trip to Doubtful Sound is a series of over land and over water excursions that takes the better part of a day. We left Queenstown at 7:30 a.m. under a partly cloudy but mercifully dry sky, stopping a couple places along the way, including the Kingston Flyer, an old steam locomotive-driven train that has been restored, along with the tracks it rides. The train held little fascination, since the twisty-turny road had left my stomach a little green. Instead, I found a ginger beer (a much more potent and tasty version of ginger ale) and settled in with Spy, the resident Border Collie. Spy was great company, and we chatted about the train and all the people he meets. Spy, however, would not sit still for a photograph, saying that he and his buddy, a Jack Russell Terrier cross, needed to get back on patrol.
   Most of the track that used to accommodate the Flyer has been removed, but plans are in motion to convert that piling into a path for push bikes (that’s a bicycle to you and me). Bike traffic out of Q-town will follow a route taking riders through Wye Creek and up to Kingston where the Flyer is, and then riders can take the SS Earnshaw steamer back to its dock in Queenstown. Great way to bring revenue to the surrounding towns. I’m confident that there will be some sort of extreme version of riding that track developed soon.
   The coach arrived at the Lake Manapouri dock around noon, and I had 20 minutes to grab a quick bit at their limited café. (Digression alert! If I never see another toasted sandwich again, it will be too soon. Every café in Australia and New Zealand has a version of a “toastie” that is usually ham and cheese and tomato on a packaged white bread or croissant, spread with margarine and flattened into submission on a toasting iron. Perhaps a few months from now, I’ll be interested in a combination of Honey Baked Ham with a fine brie and thinly sliced Granny Smith apples on a chewy sourdough. Maybe.)
   The voyage across Lake Manpouri was gray and misty, since it was (surprise!) raining again. I guess they call it a rainforest for a reason. Once we crossed the lake, we were met by another coach that took us the rest of the way to Doubtful Sound on another twisty-turny road – gravel this time – which slowed the bus down. Along the way we were allowed opportunities to traipse out into the rain and take photographs of stunning waterfalls gushing down the mountains. 
   At the Navigator we were welcomed by the crew and treated to afternoon tea complete with homemade raspberry muffins. (Second digression! New Zealand – and Australia, to a lesser extent – has a thing for muffins that contain chocolate chips and some sort of fruit. Chocolate chip and apple, chocolate chip and pear, chocolate chip and berry, white chocolate and apricot, chocolate chip and banana, chocolate chip and salmon … What is with that? The only muffin I’ve found that is untouched by this craze is the good ol’ blueberry, which probably could use something to snazz it up. As much as I love chocolate, it has no place in a muffin. Or a pancake. Clearly, these sweets are for those who can’t take their chocolate straight up. Would you put ketchup on fine, aged filet mignon? Amateurs.)
   Anyway. For my money, I got: 1) picked up at the hostel, transported to and from the ship on coaches that were comfortable and driven by people who had terrific commentary on the area; 2) excellent food, including an arrival tea, soup service, a buffet dinner that included prime rib and lamb, and a complete breakfast buffet, 3) a cruise with the nature expert in a smaller boat, plus another interpretive presentation about the areas geological history after dinner and just about constant commentary throughout the cruise about where we were sailing, what we were seeing, who was there first, why it’s cool, and so on. They also had a stock of jackets for those who had none, or hadn’t the type for the cold, rainy weather.( After this cruise, I understand why wool is for sale year round in the southland.) An incredible value and a wonderful experience. Not to be an advertisement, but really, it was an amazing cruise, despite the rain and cold. I’m Norwegian and Swedish. You think the Vikings whined about a little rain and cold? And those guys were wearing skirts.
   As we cruised, the weather broke and we were treated to a little sunshine. The captain made a point of getting close to waterfalls and flora for photo ops, and a nice older gentleman offered to take my picture by one of the water falls.  At the soup service after the boat excursion, he approached me with several photos he had taken of me (without my knowledge) while we were out on the nature cruise, and wanted my email address so that he could send them to me. He even saved me a seat at dinner. I waved from where I was sitting with my quad-share mates.
   The southwestern edge of the South Island is called Fiordland, because there are fjords there, obviously. Most are referred to as sounds, although we went over that already. All were formed by glaciers growing and receding over the millennia, carving out valleys in the granite. Glaciers still exist a bit farther north, pushing right up to the tree ferns and mountain beeches in the temperate rainforest. 
   The ship motored all the way out to the mouth of the fjord where we could feel the swell, past the rocks and breakers that Cook saw, past a seal colony where we think there was a female giving birth, this being the season and all. Our overnight anchorage in the cove was smooth, and the engines started up again at 6:30 a.m.


   Flying standby from Auckland to Queenstown was a great option, considering that a regular flight cost $200, while standby cost $79.  Gee, that’s brain surgery. So I went to the airport between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and reported to the standby ticketing counter which was conspicuous around the corner from the baggage claims, behind the carousels, facing the opposite way of the traffic pattern. I was asked to sign a document which appeared to be a huge disclaimer of “if you don’t get on a flight at the time you want, that’s too bad.” I signed. Then the ticket agent asked if I wanted just a seat or a seat and a bag. Since I was going on the standard of the U.S. where you can still carry-on a carry-on size bag, I requested a seat.
   I took my signed piece of paper to another counter where I would hopefully be issued a boarding pass.
   “This says you requested just a seat.”
   “Yes,” I replied.
   “Let’s weigh your bag.”
   Well, okay. The woman looked just a little bit superior. I rolled my bag over and placed it on the scale where it was shown to weigh a mere 16 kg. The limit displayed on the sign above the scale allowed a weight of 23 kg. The agent directed me to yet another counter with another piece of paper.
   “You’ll have to check the bag.”
   “You’ll have to check the bag. It’s over 7 kg.”
   “But the sign says …”
   “Yes. That’s for checked bags. You’ll have to check this.”
   Off I rolled to the third counter, where I assumed I would just check the bag much like is done in the States with a gate-checked bag.
   The woman pursed her lips. Why is it that women are so good at pursing their lips in disapproval?
   “That will be $20.”
   “What?” Quick on the uptake, I tell you.
   “Twenty  dollars.”
   Fuzzy-headed and fever-sweaty, I handed over $20 and tried to explain that I didn’t understand this wasn’t considered a carry-on size.
   “You were given this information, right?” She pushed the form I had signed a few minutes ago across the counter.
   “Did you read it?”
   I gaped. “Well…No.”
   “Don’t you read things before you sign them?”
   “No.” Not always. I was just sick enough to where my editor was not employed.
   “You don’t read things before you sign them? You should always read things before you sign them. Here’s your receipt.”
   At the windows by the entrance, there was a ledge-type thing with vent units spaced intermittently which was the closest things to a chair that I could find, so I sat and read the thing. The document stated clearly that there was a charge of $79 or $89, depending upon whether a person wanted a seat or a seat and a bag fare. After reading it thoroughly – twice – I found the same woman, and stated that I shouldn’t have been charged $20; I should have been charged $10. No, she said. Yes, I said. Nowhere does it state that I am charged an additional $20. No, she said, it doesn’t have to because $20 is the charge for any checked bag. And in fact, they didn’t have to take the bag at all, considering that I didn’t claim it when I should have, which the airline might see as a suspicious action.
   Although the policy of restraint of pen and tongue has been impressed upon me for years, and although arguing in public is a crass action that embarrasses the arguer, the arguee and those unfortunate enough to stand within earshot, I argued. About $10. While at the mercy of two women who could put me on a flight or not, take my baggage or not, arrest me or not. Something in my consciousness finally clicked. I stopped.
   “I understand.” I said.
   “We don’t have to take the bag. This is what the airline charges, if you had read –“
   “I will fight no more forever.” I held up my hand in a sign of peace.
   “The airline policy is that – “
   “I. Understand.”
   And walked away and tried not to burst into tears.
   Well, those women were professional enough to get me a boarding pass and check my bag. And I shut my mouth and got on the flight. At least it was a beautiful day, and the view of Auckland as we took off was lovely. And although I got the center seat, the women on either side were quiet, and I dozed until we landed in Q-town.
   Where it was just starting to rain.
   But the shuttle driver was nice, and the same woman who had sat next to me on the plain got into the van and sat next to me again, chatting the entire time about what to do and not and where to eat and not and, oh, don’t know where the hostel is, she wouldn’t know anything about hostels, but have a great time, luv.
   Queenstown was named for Queen Victoria and is situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, a natural glacial lake that stretches 80 km (50 miles) and is edged by the Remarkables range of mountains, site of many “Lord of the Rings” film shots (much of the entire country is, Peter Jackson being a Kiwi). The mountains surrounding the lake also played host to the early scenes in “X-Men,” where Hugh Jackman  (yum) as Wolverine found Rogue hitch-hiking.  A vintage steamship, the SS Earnshaw, takes regular cruises across the lake and up the rivers that feed and empty it.
   The town was overrun with young backpackers, probably because it is the jumping off point for just about any extreme activity you might want to endanger your life doing, including bungee jumping and sky diving and the world’s largest swing (a different application of bungee cords) parasailing, speedboats up the river that specialize in full 360-degree spins, a zip line and, for those who prefer something more staid, a gondola ride up the mountain. In the surrounding bush (woods) there are numerous walking tracks (hiking trails) where those who enjoy having no running water or toilet facilities may bury their own poo to their hearts’ content.
   The city is not just attractive to backpackers, though – it’s one of the premier destinations in the world, hosting about 1.2 million people every year. The Maori passed through the area first, collecting jade, what they call green stone. They also hunted a now-extinct bird called the moa (moh-ah), a large ostrich looking thing that couldn’t fly. The Maori simply set fire to the bush and nabbed the creatures as they ran out. No wonder they’re extinct now. After the Maori, William Rees was the first European there, and the pioneering settler. He leased land from the government to graze sheep, and stayed after the lease was up. Before roads were built, the lake played an important role in farming since the quickest way to get livestock to market was taking them across on a steamboat. Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern found gold in the Shotover River not long after the town was settled, which set off a boom until the early 1900s, when the town went bust again, left with a population of about 200. Now about 8,000 people live there. 
   It is a lovely little town, and I probably would have had a better time there had I not been sick and sleeping with five other people, one of whom was a snorer of truly epic proportions (who would not wake even with poking and prodding – and yes, I got out of bed and tried) the same guy who came in at 2 a.m. and turned on the lights, then went out and slammed the door, in again and slammed the door, and out again, and in again. Not that I noticed.
   After two nights there, I was off to embark on an overnight cruise on lovely Doubtful Sound.

Welcome to New Zealand

   Maybe I’m getting old and  crotchety or maybe I’m just tired and am ready to go back to the States (I can’t say “go home” because I haven’t got a home right now …) but I sure turned into a cranky pants once I arrived in Auckland. How does one adjust to a new place after the wonderful experiences in Melbourne and the over-the-top New Years in Sydney? Poor Auckland hardly stood a chance.
I’m sure that Auckland is a very nice place. Most of the people were certainly nice. No – all of the people I met who live in Auckland were terrific. Okay, one was a little flaky. And I can’t say those who were visiting from other countries were great.
   In the quest to keep costs down, I’ve mentioned using some different Web sites – WWOOF, HelpExchange, hostelworld, couchsurfing, etc. There’s one more., a site for those individuals who have a room, mother-in-law quarters, guest house, or sofa-bed to rent for a night or week or month to total strangers with ready money. I fell into the total stranger with ready money category, and secured a room with a lady who lives in a western suburb of Auckland. My understanding when I booked was that she was going to either pick me up herself, or arrange for a shuttle/taxi pick up. Since I had trouble getting Internet access at the Sydney airport, I thought I would just check once I landed in Auckland.
   The flight from Sydney to Auckland is not a long one – only three hours. But there’s a two hour time difference, so you really lose five hours. My flight left at 5 p.m., got in at a 10 p.m. But we ran a bit late out of Sydney, and then I had to get a bag and clear New Zealand Customs. By the time I got to a computer terminal, it was getting on close to 11. But yes, there was Internet and yes, there are computers right there but no, they won’t, for some reason, take an American debit/credit card so no, I could not check my email to see what shuttle company she secured or if someone was waiting for me somewhere outside – in the rain.
   So I trot out into the drizzle (not exactly cold, because it’s summer, but still uncomfortable) and chat with the shuttle driver, who speaks broken English with a Chinese accent, but is very kind to me and tells me no, no one has reserved a shuttle for a Kimbel Westerson (I won’t attempt the phonetics on that) but he will call to make sure, and no, they don’t have a reservation, either. Since I don’t know the number of shuttle services in Auckland, I figure I should call to make sure I’m not taking off and getting stuck with two fees, one for the shuttle I didn’t take. But no, I don’t yet have a phone that works in New Zealand, so I find a pay phone but no, I don’t have any New Zealand coins. I remembered to exchange Australian for New Zealand dollars, but didn’t think to get coins. So the shuttle driver, who calls himself Michael because his Chinese name is too difficult for most white people to pronounce, gives me a dollar coin so I can call this nice lady at 11:15 p.m. who tells me, oh, no, she didn’t reserve a shuttle – didn’t I get the email?
   So Michael, bless him, takes me to Henderson, Auckland, New Zealand for the price of $48. A cab would have cost me $80. Along the way, he talks steadily about his job (okay, I was asking him questions) how it’s hard to make a living as a driver, he’s planning to quit at the end of the month but hasn’t told his boss yet, but he’s quitting because sometimes he makes as little as $8 on a run, and the airport charges a fee each time they enter the premises, but his girlfriend works at Subway (Subway?! Gawd, the things that America exports …) and she can get him a job there for minimum wage. Which is about $18 an hour.  Better. Much better.
   He also explains to me that drivers don’t want to go to the western suburbs because it’s more expensive especially for a single fare. There’s better money going east through the city center where there are lots of hotel drops. But he’s okay with taking me. I asked him if he was missing out on a better fare, and he said no, no. It’s okay. He got me to the address (of course he did – he had a nifty navigator on the dashboard of the van) and R. was still awake, with her friend C., who is visiting from Canada. They’ve been friends for 30 years. Both of them used to be flight attendants for Air Canada.
The one nice day when I was in Auckland … by the Ferry Building downtown.
   The house was immaculate and looked just like it did in the photographs online (praise be) and the room was quite comfortable. She had mentioned that only the single room was available because she had a couple other “girls” staying in the double, and she couldn’t kick them out. Of course not. The single was just fine: tiny bit clean, a cozy down comforter on the bed, just fine. R. fretted about her coughing and hoped it didn’t keep me awake. “Oh, this virus is awful – I’ve been sick since before Christmas!” That comment went over my head at the time. The only concern that crossed my mind as I was dropping off to sleep was that there were four women in the house and one bathroom between all of us. I needn’t have worried about the bathroom.
   In the morning, R. was keen to feed me espresso, but I declined due to the caffeine. I like my coffee, but have to have it decaf. (You don’t want to put jet fuel in a Toyota. The results are astonishing, but only for a short period of time.)  R. was going into downtown Henderson, so she offered me a lift and a brief tour. The tour was brief – a mall, a couple blocks of shops and cafes, the train station and bus stop. Ta-da!
   Since I had managed to find another house sitting gig, I did all the necessaries to get a phone, and proceeded to the train station to check on train times. R. had warned me that train service is reduced on the weekend. She didn’t warn me that train service was currently reduced to nothing. Auckland transit system is in the middle of upgrading their trains to be all electric (instead of steam driven?)  and repairing track, so buses are replacing trains until January 19. January 19?! But, no worries, helpful transport personnel were on hand to sell me a ticket and get me to the right bus. Happily, K., half of the couple for whom I was house sitting, was picking me up at the train station closest to her. The three of us met, had a cup of tea, chatted, agreed on when I would arrive, and M. gave me a ride back to Henderson where I found some pretty darn good Indian food.
   When I met C. the night before, she was wearing red, black and white plaid pajama pants; when I saw her the next morning, she was wearing the same; when I got home at seven o’clock she was wearing them and whether she changed out of them or not during the day is a matter for speculation. Built like a potato held up by slender toothpicks, with blonde hair skinned back into an untamed bun on top of her head, she shifted on the sofa like a child, shushing us as R. and I talked about the state of U.S. and New Zealand politics. She interrupts occasionally to tell me that I’m wrong about the U.S.’s policies. She calls George Washington “idiot boy.” She tells us that American schools no longer teach history, and she doesn’t say that in a, “Sheesh! Schools nowadays!” sense, she means that literally, U.S. schools have stopped teaching history.
   R. finally says “Stop it!”
   “Well, they don’t.” C. pouts
   “C., stop it. I mean it.”
   Something is happening here that I don’t understand. C. ignores R. completely. Canadian curriculum is counted off a finger at a time in detail: Grades 1, 2, 3: Nova Scotia history. Grades 4 and 5: Canadian History. Grades 6 and 7, U.S. History (she emphasizes “U.S.”, forcing the last letter into sibilance).  She snaps her fingers at me, tells me what Americans don’t know, shakes her index finger at me, “No! No! Nonono. You don’t know.”
   After I tell her that I know, firsthand, for sure, that at least one American school still teaches History because I have seen a student’s grades in the subject, I do my best to bite my tongue, or at least keep it still. Finally, I ignore the running commentary and shushing from the couch while R. glares in that direction.
   C. gets up, goes to her room, comes back to the kitchen, returns to the couch with a glass of water – wait – (sniff)  … vodka? Aaaahhhhh- that explains it. The petulance, the impatience, the bad manners, the insults. Of course. She’s a drunk. I so badly want to give back to her what she’s been dishing out, but I haven’t any real desire to be rude, dismissive, ill-informed and insecure. She can’t help it. She’s a sick pup. I can help it. So off to bed I go.
   The next morning C. is fast asleep when I get up. R. asks me if I’m okay, not to take it personally, that C. just gets like that sometimes. Of course. I understand. And I find that it works to my advantage that R. feels bad about a paying guest being abused in her home, because I have to tell her that K. and M. need me to house sit a couple days earlier than I thought, and I’ll have to leave tomorrow. The problem: I’ve already paid R. for the six days I wanted the room. We agree that I’ll return after the house sitting job and stay the remaining nights.
   K. and M.’s place is in the suburb of Blockhouse Bay and yes, close to the water as the name implies.  The house is situated down a steep slope, so the car is parked at the top of 43 – yes, I counted – stairs. At first glance, the place looked a little dodgy, as they say here. Tiny. Oh, sheesh. What have gotten into? Pleasebeokaypleasebeokaypleasebeokay … And it was quite okay. The structure has a tiny footprint, but is three stories of comfort. Hard wood floors, a large deck, great view of the water, natural landscape (what M. called “bush”) hydrangea blossoms big as melons, tree ferns and other lush green things that I can’t identify. The cats were content, as were the fish, although I was told that the fish didn’t like to sit on your lap and purr in the evenings. Ah. Good to know.
   New Zealand’s North Island is considered sub-tropical and has acres upon acres of rain forest. Consequently, it does rain on occasion. In fact, right now, most of the North Island is experiencing record rainfall. Wettest summer on record, matter of fact. And I saw nearly two weeks of it. Happily, I was ensconced in K. and M.’s place with the cats, who managed to bear the wet quite well and the fish, who , it turns out, don’t mind being wet.  I did laundry, hung out, got a lot of work done, was on Facebook more than I ever have been. And K. had generously offered the place if I needed it for another night after she returned. I needed it.
   While house sitting, I took a day trip with the other guest at R.’s, M. We drove off to Helensville one day, in the rain, and cold, to see … not much of anything, really. One main street stretched several blocks and boasted a couple (bad) cafes, and a few antique stores, only one of which was actually an antique store. The other two were more like pop-up garage sale sites. Bored with Helensville, we drove out to Shelley Beach, where the inclement weather had not changed, and had (bad) snacks at the café there. Finally, we gave up and left. During this excursion, I heard the news from R.’s place – both she and C. had caught R.’s contagious crud. I was glad to be gone, and did not want to return. My experience is that the Universe tends to grant wishes, and sure enough, I received a phone call from R. who said that I really shouldn’t come back, everyone was sick, she’d be happy to return my money. We arranged to meet at a halfway point, after which I would trek down to the Ponsonby neighborhood to find accommodations.
   Although K. and M.’s place was quite comfortable, getting anywhere from there was challenging. A good 15 minute walk would get me to the shops where I could catch a bus to the nearest train station to catch another bus or train somewhere. Yet the public transportation was surprisingly expensive and inconvenient – three different bus companies provided service, and not all trains were running yet. After an unfruitful day in Ponsonby (where I bought things I probably shouldn’t have, but some of them were gifts, so I couldn’t feel too bad about it) trying to secure lodging at a hostel (eeewww), I stumbled back to Blockhouse Bay. The standard shops line the main road – bakeries, cafes, pharmacies, a grocery store. And a travel agency.
Shelley Beach.
   Stefan, or Herman the German as his mates call him, was sympathetic and checked into an earlier flight home for me. The price? Yikes. That much? Nope. I’ll tough it out and find somewhere to stay. Stefan asked if he might make a few suggestions. Of course.
   So I walked back to K. and M.’s place delighted to have information about the South Island with me, and some of the destinations there. All I had to do was select and they would take care of the details. Nice. But strange – when I opened my mouth to tell K. about it (because she was back by now), strange croaks issued from my mouth.
   “Are you okay?” K. asked.
   “Uh … (ahem)…(cough, cough) …Yeah. I think I might be getting what everyone else has …” and told her my sad story about staying at the sick house.
   But I looked at the info, and chose, and the next morning with a head that felt like it was wrapped in cotton and legs that made me feel like I was wading through mud, I sloshed down to the agency to book my next two weeks and see if there was a doctor who would be kind enough to prescribe an antibiotic, should I need it in the immediate future. Yes, and yes, and $105.90 later, I had some lovely erythromycin to complement my meals for the next 14 days.
   Stefan booked me a whirlwind expedition to points of interest on the South and North islands, and I sweated my fevered self back to K. and M.’s to finish packing and meet the shuttle at 2:30 so I could stay a night at the airport, store one of my bags, and fly standby to Queenstown.

Not Lost

   I’m nearing the end of my journey and have been considering a few of the things that I heard before I left. 
You’re going off to find yourself.
   I am not lost. There are times, I suppose, when someone might have said that I had lost my moral compass, or my sanity, and they would have been right. I think the truth is that I am too much with myself and become self-centered, so much so that my navel becomes tired of being contemplated and says, buzz off lady, find something else to focus on. Travel is actually about losing myself, assuaging the restlessness that frustrates me, and stretching my experience. It’s safe to assume that I will find out more about myself. But I know where I am. I have not lost myself, as much as I try. If I’m off to find anything, it is how others live, what others think, why some people “say g’day” and others say “how ya goin’?”.   I don’t find myself somewhere else. Where would I be in the meantime?
Life is a journey, not a destination.
   Oh, fiddlesticks. God save me from inspirational quotes andposters. Those of us who complain about a sound-bite culture have no business quoting aphorisms, or quoting anything out of context, or passing along dross.  I’m here, so this is my destination.  A journey? Well, consider that ‘there’ is much the same as ‘here,’ and when you get ‘there,’ it’s just a new ‘here.’ So you’re always ‘here.’  At the destination. Life is here now. Sorry.
Oh, this is just like Eat, Pray, Love!
   We’ve gone over this before. Stop it.
   Yes. Alone. I was married to a man who couldn’t have been less interested in going anywhere other than where he was. I, on the other hand, was always wanting to go somewhere and do something, which could be seen either as having a short attention span or as a healthy curiosity about the world around me and how I might fit into it. It became clear that if I was going to go anywhere, even places that he said he would go with me, I would be going alone. Neither is right or wrong. They just don’t match. Going somewhere alone feels better when I am actually alone wishing someone else wanted to be with me.
 Are you traveling, or are you writing?
   That is not an either/or question. I’m always writing. But don’t always have a publisher lined up before I write something. If having a publisher lined up was a prerequisite for writing, we’d have very little to read. Writers write just because they’re made that way. Canadian author Robertson Davies explores the idea of what is an artist in several of his books. Right now I’m reading “Leaven of Malice,” where the character Humphrey Cobbler, an organist, points out that singers are not necessarily musicians – they just sing. And they sing because they’re made that way. They don’t necessarily sing great material or have musical taste (as Taylor Swift and those who buy her recordings demonstrate). Not all writers have taste or write well (as we can gather from perusing just about any bestseller list).  But writers write. Period.
   Am I looking for material for new writing? Sure. Always. Will I submit writing that originates on this trip? Sure. Will I be inspired with a Big Idea while I’m traveling? I sure hope so. I’m open to Big Ideas any old time.
You’ll get sick at least once, fall in love a couple times and lose at least a key piece of documentation or identification.
   This was offered by my first hostel roommate Scott as he left, wishing me health and happy trails. He’s one for three right now; I am sick. But I haven’t fallen in love even once, unless you count falling in love with Melbourne, but I think he meant a person or two. And so far (knock on wood, light a candle, sacrifice a virgin chicken) I haven’t lost any identification or other key piece of anything. Except that manicure scissors that was confiscated upon my arrival in Brisbane. Happily, when I got sick I was in civilization, or at least Auckland, and a kind doctor made time to see me hours before I flew off to Queenstown.
   Things are good. Life is good. The antibiotics are working, and more than that I cannot ask for right now. I’m a lucky girl.
   More to come on New Zealand. It’s ain’t over yet.


   I visit the dead.
   I do not visit the war dead.
   This is not a political statement or a protest – it is merely a fact. I do not visit shrines or temples or chapels or other stone monoliths or mausoleums built for those who have died in the glory and the carnage of war, those who sometimes have not even left physical remains behind.
   I’ve been in Washington, D.C. more than once, but have not yet paid respects at the Viet Nam Veterans’ Memorial, although I’ve heard it is a potent experience. Arlington Cemetery has not yet made it onto my itinerary. My family has in it a number of good and true who have served their country. However, they served and came home.
   So visiting the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was sheer coincidence on an afternoon that was to contain other stops to shops, cafes and notable homes along the Number 8 Tram route. As it happened, I had no patience for premier residences and beautiful people lining sidewalk cafes after seeing the Shrine.
   The monolith stands on a hill, visible from St. Kilda Road, a pyramid that could be a Victorian formal garden monstrosity or some sort of memorial, a big stone something-or-other whose presence is inescapable yet repellent. These places tend to be austere and solemn, providing only the most basic information – this nation did this, that leader did that – they are temples to Mars, not Athena.
   I enter through a low door, a courtyard and a hall full of medals symbolizing in their count the number of Victorian Australians who served – for each medal, 100 served and six died. There is a sign that directs me to the garden courtyard, the crypt, and/or the sanctuary. I haven’t any idea where I am now, but it is a dark place with a concrete floor and red brick columns a meter square that disappear into a black void. Banners hang on each column, they are muslin with paintings simple as a child’s drawing, elegant as calligraphy. Each depicts a scene from World War I, and a poem. By the artist? No, by soldiers who were there, Englishmen, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, writing in a trench or between marches.
   The columns are too close together, the room is too dark. I can’t get a photograph that would allow me to walk through with efficient speed on my way to the next tram stop. I must sit now, write it now, feel it now, not distance myself from this place where a child’s trantrum echoes, a cell phone rings, an Asian voice answers, one of the two women who were a pain in the ass on the tram. The child is sitting on the floor, leaning against one of the long banners while his mother cajoles him and takes a flash photograph. Before I can scold them for touching the art and using flash photography, they are gone, as if they felt the wrongness of that and are uncomfortable in this place with no convenient photo ops.
   Now I have become a pest; either that or the staff and volunteers here are well above what other volunteers I’ve met. I asked for a catalogue of the exhibit – one does not exist. An older gentlemen with brilliant white hair, mustache, side burns and aged ivory  teeth approaches me as I’m watching the orientation movie that I ignored on the way in, gliding past on my way to  – what? I didn’t know until I got there. He tells me that the curator is coming to speak with me, and I’m amazed and immediately self-conscious. Really? The curator? Sheesh. I really have put a bee in someone’s bonnet.
   Neil Sharkey, curator, walks toward me. I’d love to know the origin of his family name. He is thin as a rake, dressed in long, square-toed shoes, skinny jeans the color of sand, a black (of course) shirt, black mop of hair with bangs that flop over his eyes. He keeps brushing them away, or tossing his head. He tells me that no, there is no catalogue of “Everyman” available, largely because there is not an extra $5,000 or so lying around. (I think to myself that $5,000 sounds like a bargain to produce a quality catalogue.) There must be someone with five grand – maybe five someones with one thousand each to put together an amazing piece of this art. Really? Seriously? After working at an art museum I know that there is a story that goes along with this catalogue drama. I would have purchased one. Fifty dollars. Easy.
   I tell Neil that I keep a blog, that I really want to write about this and use images – that I would have taken photographs, but it’s too dark, my little iPhone won’t do it, I can’t get far enough away to show the whole image because of those wonderful brick pillars. Neil phones Craig Barrett, the artist.
   “Listen Craig, there an American woman here who is really interested in “Everyman” and wants to use some images on a blog … yeah. Yeah. Well, I suppose we could … Yeah. I have images of everything. Mmhmm. I have her right here.”
   He covers the mouthpiece.
   “Kimber …?”
   “Kimbel. Here she is.”
   I love speaking to artists about their work. Most of them are approachable, unlike the people who represent artists. Craig Barrett tells me that he returned from Spain to Melbourne in 2002 and looked at the new area just opened at the shrine and immediately wanted to create something specifically for the space that he saw as a cross between catacomb and cathedral. He said he didn’t know how gas worked, so he researched it. He said that the first tanks were used in the first World War, so he researched them. He immersed himself in the details of trench warfare.
   Craig Barrett created this work because he wanted to make artwork specifically for that site. The staff and board of the Shrine loved it, and after the exhibit opened, he gave the entire set of work to the organization. This is the fifth time it’s been displayed. Well over half a million people have seen it. I wonder if I’m the first person who wanted a full catalogue?
   Four men from Barrett’s family served on the Western Front of what was once called the Great War, the War to End all Wars. His great grandfather and three great uncles fought at the Somme and at Ypres. One great uncle remains there. The others lived to return home.
   I, like Barrett, grew up knowing little of what these men had witnessed. My hormonal yearnings during American History distracted me from the relevant information, no matter how earnest Mr. Money was about imparting his knowledge.
   I am given permission to use images of “Everyman” on this blog, and thank Craig and Neil profusely. Then I wander through this Hall of Columns, as I have learned this room is called, to the Crypt where the fighting units of World War I are commemorated, where the colors representing 25% of Victoria’s regiments have been retired, where the elegant folds of forty-six Light Horse regiments’ guidons drape. No air current stirs them here.
   I want to reflect, look more closely at “Father and Son,” the bronze sculpture that represents the two generations who fought in the First and Second World Wars, silk poppies mounded at its base.  A clear shot of the sculpture is all I want, but I am surrounded by a horde of Asians with cameras. A toddler fiddles with the poppies, pushing some to the floor. She watches them fall then walks away. The other kids race around the perimeter of the room, touching all the brass plaques that commemorate the ships lost. I step forward involuntarily saying, “oh, nononono…” No one hears me over the chatter and clicking of Nikon shutters. I want to tell them that this place is sacred, now that I understand.
   Finally, they are gone. I place the fallen poppies back on the statue’s base. I take one with me.
   One of my grandfathers fought in The Great War, shipped into France in a boxcar, The 40 and 8 they called them because they had a capacity for either eight horses or forty men. He came back, raised a family and died of a stroke before I became an adult. I hear that he sat with me at Disneyland after Mickey Mouse scared the crap out of me. But I heard no stories of France and the Western Front, and probably would never have been old enough to even think to ask questions.
    What of the glory of war – does war give some sort of meaning to our otherwise small lives? War is at once dehumanizing and humanizing, brutal conflict breeding a love between brothers in arms that defies the understanding of one who has never experienced foxholes and mortars. For most of us, bombs bursting in air is only a 4th of July event. And for most of us, that’s all we want it to be: the melodic romanticism of a mythic battle.
   Barrett says that he created “Everyman,” “as homage to all those who have witnessed such events, to the poets and soldiers Owen and Sassoon, and to (his) Great Uncle George whose name is written along with his brothers in the Books of Remembrance here in the Shrine.”
   I visit the dead. I visit the war dead.
Dulce et decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen