Monthly Archives: November 2009

eagle vs. shark II: whale vs. dolphin.

If there’s one thing New Zealand does well, it’s scenic views. Of course, a close second to this is actually letting you know about the views, by which I mean the amount of signage devoted to one scenic spot. As my German friend Elise and I departed from Christchurch one sunny Monday morning, setting off on our trip around the top of the South Island, I marveled yet again at the country’s ability to proffer so many reasons to pull over from the main state highway. If it wasn’t the sandcastle-esque Cathedral Cliffs by Gore Bay, then it was St. Anne’s Lagoon, which, as peaceful as a pastoral scene it was, hardly seemed to necessitate the three signs alerting us to its existence ten meters off S.H.6.

This particular leg of my year-long, cross-country journey had been in the research and development stages for a while. After my time in Thailand, I knew I still had nearly half of the South Island to see before making my way up north to Wellington for the summer. Several key must-sees (and must-dos) remained: the marine life of Kaikoura and the various activities associated with it, the famous beaches of Abel Tasman National Park and the accompanying sea kayak trips along them, and even the northernmost point of the South Island just near Farewell Spit. The thing that troubled me, though, as I drew plans together in Queenstown, was just exactly how I planned to transport myself around. Hiring a rental car was, cost-wise, out of the question. But the second best alternative, bussing it from town to town, would not only prove still expensive, but would also not afford me the freedom I wanted to stop and explore the aforementioned scenic sights on the side. I wasn’t looking for a ride strictly from point A to point B.

And so it was that on yet another mind-thrilling day in Premier Taste, Elise began telling me about how the friend she’d come traveling with wanted to stay in Queenstown through Christmas while she herself only had a few months left in New Zealand and needed to get traveling again. Before exploring the North Island, though, she still had the rest of the South Island to cover and named many of the places I myself was hoping to see post-Thailand. I was amazed at how the plan fell together on its own: Elise, who had just bought a car, didn’t want to travel on her own; I, more than happy to be someone’s traveling companion, needed transportation. Brilliant!

“Nice day, isn’t?” a man asks as we walked down the streets of Kaikoura, a town of just under 4,000 about two hours north of Christchurch along the east coast. And a nice day it was, I agreed, having just checked into our hostel, the Dolphin Lodge, appropriately named after the abundance of marine life found off the coast of Kaikoura. There is a rotating roster of titles often ascribed to the town, sometimes proclaiming it the “Marine Mammal Capital of the World,” “Whale Watch Capital of the World,” or the slightly combined version of “Marine Mammal Watching Capital of New Zealand.” Over fifty different species of marine mammals call the coast of Kaikoura home, including the Hectors dolphin and the New Zealand sea lion, both of which are found nowhere else in the world. The reason behind this plethora of sea life would come later, though.

It was a simple town, the kind of town with one supermarket, a handful of restaurants and cafés, and – just like the town of Franz Josef – one natural attraction that draws a large number of tourists each year…and by large I mean over one million. The attraction in Kaikoura happens to be the significant presence of marine life and one of the many tourist activities capitalizing on this occurrence is run by a company called WhaleWatch Kaikoura.

We arrived at the Whaleway Station (the company’s shameless pun, not mine) just in time to check in for our whale watch tour, one of several that runs every day. Recalling my infamous Foveaux Strait ferry crossing in July, I didn’t hesitate to hand over $2 for a motion sickness pill. The sea could change fast with the weather and a display board already flashed a seasickness warning. I’d learned my lesson and wouldn’t tolerate a repeat incident, no matter how blue and cloudless the sky looked or how calm the sea appeared.

A curly-haired guy named Tom, sporting aviator sunglasses and a chilled-out attitude, would prove to be our narrator for the afternoon. As the boat powered out to sea, Tom described the science behind the sea, explaining just what it is about the Kaikoura coastline that’s so darn popular with all those whales and dolphins. The unusual thing about Kaikoura, Tom says, is how the continental shelf drops off so close to land, going from 200 meters to 1,000 meters right offshore, facilitating not only marine life but also the proximity for humans to view this marine activity. The waters of the Kaikoura Canyon descend to 1600 meters, deeper than the average depth of the Grand Canyon. Additionally, there’s a remarkable “convergence of currents,” whereby warm water from the north mixes with the cold streaming in from the south, coming together in a way that makes it incredibly nutrient-rich. All these nutrients create the perfect feeding ground, which is a fitting occurrence given the literal meaning of Kaikoura as “meal of crayfish.” Among the 200 species of marine life found in Kaikoura are whales, dolphins, seals and even 75% of the world’s seabirds, including fourteen types of albatrosses, giving the town yet another potential title, the Marine Bird Capital of the World.

The star of our show, though, would be the male sperm whale, the waters being too cold for the females (and I don’t blame them). The sperm whale, the largest toothed predator in the world, also happens to be the deepest and longest diving. Not that we’d have the privilege of seeing too much of these fellows, though. Like a moving, breathing iceberg, it’s possible to see only about 10% of its body as it comes to the surface. Furthermore, Tom shares, each boat averages just one or two whale sightings per trip out. Talk about not getting your money’s worth.

Tom also described a possible theory on where the sperm whale got his name. Early whalers, perhaps “having knocked back too much rum,” cut open the whale’s head only to have a white gooshey substance ooze out – what they thought was sperm, but in reality was up to 2.5 tons of spermaceti oil they store in their head. Scientists eventually discovered the spermaceti works as both an amplifier for their acoustic lens and as an anchor. Cold water circulates around the mass of oil, dropping its temperature until it freezes into a wax and helps him dive more easily. When the whale needs to resurface for air, he pumps blood around the mass, melting the wax until its density is less than that of the ocean.

“So who here’s been whale watching before?” Tom asks and I was proud to be the only raised hand on the boat, having gone a few summers back with my family off the coast of Boston. I knew it would work against me, though, as our trip had been particularly spectacular – a whale breached, actually flipping its entire body out of water. I tried not to expect the same to happen again, or else I could expect disappointment. Although a woman named Lydia was apparently the “official whale spotter,” taking a seat next to the captain, binoculars strung around her neck, we’re all encouraged to keep an eye out for our underwater friends. Only until we see a waterspout twice, though, are we allowed to alert the crew. In that case, Tom clarified, “I give you full permission to kick, scream, shout, dance, do whatever it takes to get the staff’s attention.”

Our first whale in and I see the experience would most definitely be different from Boston. Where I’d seen whale-flipping and tale-slapping, the Kaikoura whales were far less about the show. They were there to breathe, and breathe they did. After several waterspouts (impressive, nonetheless, but how many pictures do you really need of them?) the whale would dive, giving us a window of about three seconds in which to photograph his tail. Moreover, Tom – obviously attuned to sperm whale behavior – was able to predict almost exactly when the whale was going to dive. Accordingly, he’d tell us to whip that windswept hair out of our eyes once and for all and have our camera out. With one whale, Tom preps us, saying “Get your cameras ready, folks, he’s about to dive…no, he’s just playing games with us,” as the waterspouts kept coming. Typical male, I thought, my camera poised and ready.

But the boys didn’t disappoint. One and after another, they kept coming, or rather, we kept finding them. “It’s our lucky day,” Tom says after our third whale sighting, “It’s not often we spend a whole day running between whales, no tracking whatsoever, relying solely on our eyes.” And boy was I grateful. Even though the company promises an 80% refund if no whales are spotted the entire tour, I didn’t want to settle with a money-back guarantee. I went out to whalewatch and some whales to watch were exactly what I wanted.

As we turned around and headed back for shore, I had to agree with Tom as he said, “It was definitely a good day for whale watching in Kaikoura, folks,” with a touch of that facetious air you often hear from sports announcers at the start of a game, as comfortable in their press boxes as a king gazing on his kingdom. You never can tell with tour guides, whether the lines they feed you have any ounce of originality in them, but from the final count, I figured he wasn’t completely misleading us. In total, we watched five whales dive up close, could see three waterspouts from a distance, and two whales just eluded us before we could get any closer. “Seeing five sperm whales dive in one day doesn’t happen very often at all,” Tom says, our boat pulling up to the dock. “Count yourselves very lucky. That really was an amazing trip.”

I only hoped our luck would continue as I awoke the next morning, with dolphin swimming on the agenda for the day. We had a few hours before we needed to check in for our swim, so we decided to drive around the Kaikoura Peninsula in search of the well-known seal colony, the seals famous in many a tourist’s blog for coming up the beach as far as the car parks. Some “colony” I found there, though, seeing only four seals. “Where are they?” I kept asking, “Where are those seals?” I may sound demanding, after expecting to watch whales the first day, then upset at the lack of seals, and surely, I do keep an open mind and open expectations in most of my travels, but when you look on a map and see “Seal Colony” printed in neat pink letters, you’d like to think they’d actually be there when you show up!

After my disappointing visit with the furry, flippered colonists, Elise suggested we visit the gardens in town, her guidebook having mentioned Kaikoura’s Garden of Memories as one worth seeing. Earlier that morning, she asked one of the workers at our hostel where it was located but all Elise got in return was a strange look as the girl said, “Huh, I’ve never heard of that.” Not ones to be easily deterred, we started walking anyways. A look at my map and I see “Memorial Gardens” printed in small letters. Oooh, I think, of course! The garden’s proper title was obviously lost in translation from Elise’s German guidebook. Happy to have sorted it out, I walk into the garden with the feeling of having achieved a small victory, similar to completing a puzzle or a Sudoku. As we exited through the front gate, I turned around only to see a sign: “Garden of Memories.” Well darn if Elise wasn’t right after all! No matter what its name might or might not have been, the gardens were understated and lovely, a simple halfmoon of a pathway, lined with arching whalebones, enclosing a small green complete with the usual war memorial. A small plaque honored Ms. Lydia Washington, the woman who first planted the gardens after WWI. As another sign read, she “was given whalebones” to use, but all I could find myself asking was who had a spare set of whale jawbones laying around in the first place? She tended the gardens until her death at the age of 82 in 1946, at which point she had come to be known as the Grand Old Lady by those around the town. I hope I myself live to achieve such a noble moniker.

Soon it came time to report to the Dolphin Encounter headquarters, the only company in Kaikoura licensed for dolphin swimming experiences. After being fitted out for our wetsuits – hood, suit, flippers, mask and snorkel? check! – we gathered in the auditorium to watch a briefing video. The majority of the video was devoted to tips on how to attract the dolphins. Diving head first, circling around, and swimming with our arms by our sides were all ways we were encouraged to “be dolphin-like,” even singing. Dolphins live in a sonic world, after all, so any sound we made could only help our case. Having worked at the bar in Queenstown, the video continued more and more into what I found to be a hilarious comparison to going out at night, interested in picking up someone. “Dolphins are not interested in you, you have to make an effort to attract them to you,” a narrator says in a serious tone, “You must entertain them. Sometimes they’re interested, sometimes they’re not…we want you to be aware so you don’t go home disappointed.” If only such a video were available to caution young party-goers before heading out on the town for a big night, we all might have fewer broken hearts.

Boarding the boat, our group of ten met our guide for the afternoon, a guy about my age named Owen. After a few introductory remarks and the general rigmarole about life jackets and fire safety, Owen says, “There aren’t many things you need to know about me save that yes, I am Scottish, and yes, my hair is the color of ginger.” If there was ever a guy made for his job, it was Owen. “And no, I don’t spend all of my time throwing one fist in the air and shouting, ‘Freedom!’” Outgoing, funny, and full of information and jokes, he stood at ease in front of us and balanced out our all-too-reticent captain, Mike, as we flew across the water in search of pods of dusky dolphins.

With the scientific name of Lagenorhynchus Obscurus (from the Greek words for bottle and nose and the Latin for dark or indistinct), the dusky dolphin can be found only off the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, off the coast of South Africa, off of South America near Argentina, and in the South Atlantic Ocean. Being only 1.6 to 1.8 meters in length, it measures in as one of the smaller dolphins, but is still known for its acrobatic abilities, entertaining itself and others with leaps, jumps, and even somersaults – forwards and backwards. And despite its size, the dusky dolphin is a promiscuous little thing. Owen tells us that one scientist observed a female mating five times. With three different males. In two minutes.  You’d think that with all that activity, these dolphins would need some serious sleep, but they don’t actually sleep. They merely “rest,” shutting off half their brains while they continue to swim.

All fascinating information, of course, but nothing compared to actually coming face-to-face with them in the water. There isn’t one word I can use to describe my experience that afternoon. On one hand, it was amazing. Phenomenal. Otherworldly. As soon as I slipped off the back of the boat into the water, a toasty 11°C, any tips I’d picked up from the briefing video went the way of my body temperature. The last thing on my mind was remembering to sing into my snorkel or to keep my arms by my side. I had more important things to attend to; namely, breathing. But thankfully my frantic motions didn’t ward off the dolphins too much. I was instantly struck by their grace, by the speed with which they darted around me. One dolphin emerged from the deep into my sight and I somehow managed to start circling, unsure if it would make any difference. As if making eye contact with me like in some 17th century courtship dance, the dolphin swam – if only for a few seconds – in the same direction as my circle. I’d like to think we made a perfect circle if seen from above. While many were on their own, a similar amount of dolphins swam together, and this I loved. At one point, I dove down – not an easy task in our overly buoyant wetsuits – and three dolphins came up and began to swim in a circle around me. I’ll never forget that moment.

But on the other hand, it was awful – physically, I mean.  The water was frigid, knocking the breath out of me as soon as I entered it. Even while suited up from head to toe, the water still flooded in our wetsuits and chilled us more and more each time we climbed back on to the boat to race off towards more dolphins. To further complicate things, I was seasick. Not having realized it would be quite a boat ride away to swim, I hadn’t bothered with the motion sickness pill this time around. After our final swim – and spending over forty-five minutes in the water, quite the feat according to Owen – we peeled the wetsuits off and changed back into dry clothes. At this point, I took my place towards the back of the boat and hunched over, determined to make it to land sans incident. Which I did, but not without discomfort.

The entire afternoon was quite the opposite of my whale watching experience the day before. The whales, massive creatures that they were, moved in a much more foreseeable manner. Guide Tom was able to warn us far in advance about their dive so as to have our cameras ready, the perfect shot pretty hard to miss. But the dolphins? They darted by, in and out of vision in a matter of seconds, difficult to take in due to our peripheral visions already limited because of the mask. I had bought a disposable underwater camera to take with me on the swim, but I barely had time to take a picture before they were gone. Once developed, I am fully expecting twenty-seven shots of murky blue water, with a fin or flipper in the corner of one if I’m lucky.

Towards the end of our trip, Owen shared a few more bits of information on the dolphins, emphasizing the fact that our afternoon had been an entirely natural experience. The dolphins we had seen were totally wild – not fed nor enticed. We’d chased them, “So be proud of yourselves,” Owen says.  Proud as I was, the dolphin encounter shattered my illusions and expectations. For whatever reason, when I thought of dolphin swimming before, it conjured images of some commercial affair involving Sea World and Free Willy, of some life-vested child holding onto the fin of a dolphin or trainers throwing fish in their open  mouths. Clearly I am glad the dolphins I saw were as free as a dolphin could ever hope to be – all I’m saying is that it would’ve been nice if they’d stuck around a little longer so I could actually appreciate them.

So a sequel to the well-known Kiwi film Eagle vs. Shark could very well be Whale vs. Dolphin, set in none other than Kaikoura, New Zealand, of course. Want a dependable-yet-predictable afternoon with whales of a size that will overwhelm and inspire you to awe? Or would you rather exchange the stable whale-viewing periods for a more fleeting beauty, for something a little briefer, something with an edge to it – where dolphins move so fast you’re lucky you barely get a glimpse? The choice is yours, but if it was up to me, I wouldn’t choose at all.

Both worlds are yours for the taking, so pop that motion-sickness pill, don that impossible wetsuit and get to the water, people.


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macanese mystique.

As my plane descended into Macau, an island off the coast of China, a mere seven square miles and with a population of 500,000, I thought of conversations I’d recently had with a friend about TCKs – Third-Culture Kids, the term describing how children of one culture raised in another country form a third culture based on their unique upbringing. Having a general understanding of Macau’s history – how the Portuguese arrived in the 1550s and governed until 1999 when the island went the way of Hong Kong and became a part of China again – I imagine Macau has a TCK. Now termed Macau SAR, or Special Administrative Region, the city rules itself largely autonomous from China, apart from issues of defense and foreign affairs. I’d also read several travel articles on Macau, both official and not, writing that extolled the “fusion of East and West” to be found in the city. This idea of magical fusion was alluring to me and I couldn’t wait to spend two nights on the island.

The first sight to greet me upon landing, my face pressed against the window of the plane, was a bright red fire truck with “International Airport of Macau” written in Portuguese and Chinese on its side. Here was my first glimpse of the “fusion” and I began to think about what I’ve read and to formulate my own thoughts on this city.

In the passport control line, I look around and laugh to myself at how different I look, at how I must stand out, being the only white female in the terminal, heads above the other women, and blonde at that – and young, as the few other white men were old enough to be my father. But just then, a man walks up to me and says in a Portuguese accent, “Hello, miss, I’m with the police. May I see your passport?” As I eye him incredulously, he flashes a badge – what do I know? I instantly have visions of sitting in a sterile back room in the airport, still unsure of my infraction. The man stares at my passport after I hand it over, flipping through pages, studying each visa. “You here on holiday, miss?” He reaches the book’s end and returns to my visa for Egypt, looking at it even longer. Do I look like I’m linked to some Egyptian crime ring or terrorist cell? Is tall and blonde the new suspect description circulating through airport security across the world? “Thank you, miss. Welcome to Macau.” I watch him as he patrols the terminal. He stops no one else.

My passport stamped, I make my way to the airport’s bus stand. As I board a bus and ask the driver if he goes to the center of town, he throws his hands in the air. He turns around and motions to a young girl in a school uniform to help me. She knows English, I’m relieved to discover. She writes the name of my street in Chinese characters in my book. “Use this to help you,” she says. I switch buses at the Ferry Terminal, dead and determined to not use a taxi. After two weeks in Bangkok with people who knew the language, knew the city, had drivers or could drive themselves, I was ready to be an active traveler again, not just some passive guest – as grateful as I was for their help. I was ready, in fact, I needed to find my own way, I tell myself, keeping all my bags close to my feet like an overprotective mother. Furthermore, I want to be a graceful traveler, but already feel myself fumbling my way through this country. I know nothing, I know no one – this is culture shock if I’ve ever felt it.

By several strokes of luck – a sudden realization that the bus was barreling down the street I needed to stop on, a man on the streets able to read the characters my Chinese friend wrote and point me along – I stumble through the doorway of my hotel, the San Va Hospedaria, located on the Rua da Felicidade. Ironically, however, happiness was not my immediate emotion upon walking into my room. To put it crudely, the place is a dump, but it manages to cross the line from bad to comical. There are two glasses sitting upside down on a plate in my room, and when I go to fill them from the water cooler in the lobby, the grey-haired woman at reception points to the red switch and says, “Hot,” the first English she’s spoken. As if I need it, though, in the boiling, un-air-conditioned room. I then ask for a map, she points to the toilet. I ask again, and she points to a chart of English phrases and their Chinese translations kept under glass in the front counter. “Please speak slower,” her finger rests on. I find the map on my own, on a shelf near the water cooler.

Back in my room, water glasses full and already lukewarm, I collapse on the bed and attempt to collect myself. I finally venture outside again a little after four in the afternoon. I’m amazed at the humidity here, at how sticky the air is. After Thailand, land of eternal sweat, I was ready for a change, but it looks like I won’t have that until my return to New Zealand in three days. I start walking with no particular end in mind. Green signs point the way to the Ruins of St. Paul’s, a major landmark in Macau, and soon I find myself winding through Old Macau. The ruins appear and I see a visitors’ center to the side offering free guided tours until mid-November.

I walk into the center and enquire about the tour. “For how many?” a woman named Christina asks. “Just one,” I say and she hands me a tour sticker before leading me out the door. I’d been expecting some sort of a wait, either being told to come back tomorrow or at least in an hour, so the promptness catches me off guard. The tour consists mainly of a walk around the ruins, all that’s left of what was at the time the Church of Mater Dei and St. Paul’s College, the first Western-style university in the Far East. The wooden structure burned down three times, leaving only the stone façade behind. When fire struck for the last time in 1835, no one bothered rebuilding – it seemed they never got the picture and tried another building material.  Christina points out several features carved into the façade, comprising what’s referred to as a “sermon in stone:” four saints, the Virgin Mary, six angels, a dove, and even Chinese characters.

I thank Christina for my short tour and make my way to the Macau Museum, at the top of Fortress Hill. It begins with a long narrow room, one side devoted to early Chinese history, the other to Western, leading to the point of “convergence” when the Portuguese came to Macau. An overly friendly security guard on the second floor, a Philippine man named Mark, begins to ask me questions; where I’m from, how long I’m here, and so on. He tells me he came to Macau two years ago but doesn’t expect to be here forever. “I’m still waiting for what I’m meant to do.” It’s a familiar feeling, I assure him.

After struggling to decipher menus of Chinese characters and decidedly unappetizing photographs, I dine at McDonald’s for dinner, in desperate need of a dose of familiarity. But what does attract me to the place thus far are the streetscapes; the neon, the people, the pace, the red lanterns strung in rows everywhere. I arrive back in my room, though, wrestling with the idea of a Third-Culture City, much like the TCKs. Has a fusion, a so-called “convergence,” really taken place? Has there been an intersection or just a parallel existence? Macau is 97% Chinese, and Premier Taste in Queenstown, with all its Brazilians, certainly felt more Portuguese than this place appears to be. Any nod to Portugal – whether tourism brochures citing Portuguese as an official language or signs reading old Portuguese street names – seems more of a formality than an actual part of daily Macanese life.

I sit in bed the first night feeling unsettled and distinctly isolated. No TV, no internet, not even service for my mobile phone if I did feel like splurging on the international fees to text a friend back in New Zealand. It’s just me and a book tonight. A three-bladed fan spins furiously above me, causing a caustic fluorescent rod, suspended by two thin wires, to sway somewhat concerningly. The rooms are not completely contained. There is about a meter between the top of the walls and the ceiling, so voices carry. A man down the hall sings Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and I’m tempted to sing along. The parquet floor, two shades of wood paneling, has been laid unevenly, the walls are a chipped, peeling shade of kelly green, the double mattress is hard, the only towel they have to offer me is the size of a tea towel. That should make the morning’s shower interesting. But, I keep reminding myself, I am in China. This isn’t some major city’s Chinatown…this is the real thing and all these little nuances aren’t crazy, they’re character, right? The man in the room next to mine (I imagine him to be a man, that is) takes a sip of water. A gulp, rather, then two. He drops his cell phone and I hear the Nokia tone that plays when you turn on your phone. His light clicks off and I am alone.

I wake up the second morning after a fitful night’s sleep on a hard mattress. At least the sky is blue and the air cool. First stop is Lou Lim Leoc Garden, where I learn of the garden model of Soochow, the most well-known Chinese classical garden. As I follow the twisting paths, I note the distinct difference between this and the gardens I frequented in London – gone are the simple layouts, the elegant stretches of straight paths, the wide expanses of green lawn – and I stumble upon groups of rocks shaped into stairs, caves, and dramatic overhangs. Supposedly, a brochure reads, the garden is a miniature landscape and my new-found rocks are molded concrete “mountains.” I climb to the top of such a peak for a look at the gardens as a whole, at the classical pavilion overlooking the pond, at the bamboo groves, and the nine-turn bridges, moving in a zigzag to deter the straight-moving evil spirits.

Already I feel more at ease in this city. The tour I plan to do in the afternoon departs from the ferry terminal. I find a bus stop near the garden just as Bus No. 32 pulls up and opens its door. I glance at its schedule on the bus stand, at the top reads “Terminal” in Portuguese. I jump on just as it pulls away. Success. In one seemingly fluid motion, I am where I need to be, something I will no longer take for granted in a city.

At the terminal, I am told the English version of the tour will not be running that afternoon. Fantastic. Paying fifteen-odd dollars for a tour in Mandarin or Cantonese wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I found myself left with little choice. When I find the meeting point for the tour’s departure, there is the expected crowd of Asian faces, but among them was a guy who looked Indian but was dressed suspiciously American in an orange North Face polar fleece, jeans, and trainers. Sure enough, as we walked towards the bus, he introduced himself as Alak, a native New Yorker, graduate of Rutgers University, and derivatives trader for an investment bank – whatever that was supposed to mean. He had come over for the day on a ferry from Hong Kong, where he was visiting his sister and niece. So I wouldn’t be alone in my English-ness after all.

Indeed, I’d expected to learn far less on the top, going along mainly for the ride and easy transport around the city’s major landmarks. Soon after I meet Alak, another couple introduce themselves to me. Chang and Ah, originally from Malaysia, have been living in Melbourne, Australia, for the last twenty-five years and were blessedly proficient in English- as well as Malay, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Hellllo, translators! We quickly agreed they would let me know if anything truly important or noteworthy was said. And then there was the middle-aged Asian woman from Boston, who had coordinated a trip for her six siblings and their mother, originally from Hong Kong. “We speak another dialect of Cantonese,” she tells me, “So we catch maybe one out of ten sentences.” And then, of course, the family of five chattering away to each other in a tongue not distinguishable to my ears.

Our tour guide, Kate, dressed in a simple navy blue cardigan set and khaki pants, takes a microphone and begins the tour as we leave the ferry terminal. She goes on for a while in what I assume to be Cantonese, before a quick “Good afternoon” and nod in the direction of myself and Alak, seated behind me. I had a feeling we got an abbreviated introduction. I turned around and smiled at my American compatriot, “This is hilarious.” It proved to be a pattern on Kate’s part – extended Chinese dialogue followed by one or two words of English. “Here A-Ma Temple,” she might say, or “Have forty minutes.” Here, the most basic of vocabularies and sentences gave way to mere fragments of key nouns – a verb thrown in if we were lucky. But half the time on this kind of thing, you tune the tour guide out anyways. It was nice not to feel bad for it for once. So I turned to my Malaysian-turned-Aussie friends for a few more details. As we crammed the entire group into an elevator in the Macau Tower, Ah tells me we’re going to the observation deck on the 61st floor for ten minutes before going to another deck on the 58th. He’s not sure why there are two separate viewing areas, but Chang cuts in, “There’s glass floor on the 58th!”

So far in my stay in Macau, I’d seen a few remnants of the Western world I felt so far removed from – McDonald’s, Starbucks, Haagen-Daaz kiosks, and even pairs of clean-cut Mormon missionaries roaming the streets – they weren’t difficult to spot, as you can imagine. But at the top of the 338-meter tower, I came across something else – the world’s tallest commercial bungy jump of 233 meters, run by none other than my friends at the A.J. Hackett company – the same company I’d bungeed with in Queenstown. As if a Kiwi myself, I swelled with pride and told Alak about the company’s history and my own bungy experience.

But while having another American around was fine at first, being able to speak English as fast as I wanted and share a laugh over our beloved tour guide, it soon became more like being on a bad first date once you’ve reached the point of having nothing else to say to each other yet still obligated to be together. When told the tour wouldn’t be in English – after my initial moment of “What-do-I-do-now?” panic – I actually began to look forward to the afternoon and the chance to be free to wander around sites on my own, taking pictures as I liked. Instead, just as I’d move to another corner of a temple, I could see the orange of Alak’s fleece in my periphery, moving in my direction. There were definitely interesting aspects of our conversations, especially learning about his family’s history in Kashmir, an area caught in a dangerous tug-of-war between India and Pakistan. Sometimes, though, a girl just wants to be alone – a fact Alak unfortunately didn’t pick up on.

As the tour drew to a close and the bus made its way back to the terminal, Kate asked (or so Chang and Ah relayed) if anyone would like to be dropped off at the Macau Fishmerman’s Wharf instead. It was an area I’d yet to explore, so I let them know. As I gathered my things and shook hands with Kate, Chang, and Ah, exchanging well-wishes, I turned around to say goodbye to Alak, only to see him standing up to follow me off the bus. Oh, boy, was all I thought. We ambled through the wharf and all its many faces. This was no typical pier, teeming with ships and the fishy smell of the ocean. There was neither a single boat docked for the night – “You’d think they put at least one out for show,” Alak mused – nor a lone fisherman hauling in the day’s catch. Instead, this stretch of waterfront property seemed more to me like the abandoned back lot of a Hollywood film company, with the range of movie sets including a row of Victorian brownstones, Shakespearean-style English flats, Italian villas, a Roman amphitheater, a large Babylonian-looking palace that housed a war game arena, and – last but not least – a volcano. They all seemed perfectly authentic and perfectly built to specification and size – except for maybe the volcano – yet all perfectly empty. Despite the restaurants and shops housed in the first floor of each, I felt like I was walking through the shell of a town; that if too strong a breeze blew, the whole thing might topple over. It seemed wrong and out of place, especially as it sat in the shadow of a mammoth Sands casino.

Once back in the terminal, it was time to leave Alak to catch his return ferry to Hong Kong and carry on with the evening. I’d seen the Portuguese aspects of the city, I’d seen the Chinese, now it was time to discover MacVegas, or as Macau is also known, the “Monte Carlo of the Orient.” Gambling had been around for centuries on the island, with Chinese fantan houses opening after the legalization of gambling in 1847, but it wasn’t until the Portuguese handover of Macau back to China in 1999 that Western-style casinos sprung up all over the island – MGM Grand, Hotel Lisboa, Wynn Macau, Galaxy, the works. So much so, in fact, that in 2006, gambling revenues from Macau’s casinos actually exceeded those of Las Vegas, making Macau the highest-volume gambling center in the world.

On the ground floor of the ferry terminal, a three-sided counter houses representatives from casinos all over the city, all offering hotel packages and free shuttle rides from the city. Curious to have a look for myself, I approached, reputedly, the grandest of them all – the Venetian. After a fifteen-minute ride, I enter the lobby of the hotel, not awestruck like I thought I might be – no oversized chandelier hanging precariously above, no sweeping marble staircase. But I suppose that’s only a stereotype, eh? Much like the image I had kept in my mind about casinos, my imagination fed from movies like 21 and Casino Royale, I thought I’d be underdressed in my summer dress, leggings, and flip-flops, surrounded by flash and glamour enhanced by low lightning, servers swinging around trays of expensive, brightly colored cocktails. What I found was that I fit right in. Middle-aged men in blue jeans and tan wind breaker jackets sat at five, ten, and twenty cent machines, pressing buttons a little too mechanically for my liking. Ordinary-looking waiters carried trays holding ordinary glasses of water and soda. Macau was shattering every romantic illusion I’d ever held…about everything.

I decided to try my luck, for the pure heck of it, of course. Discovering the machinery only took paper money, not coins, I joined the queue at the cashier’s counter. The woman in front of me hands over two simple black chips. The cashier flashes a fraud-detecting black-light wand over them and whips out a thick wad of bills. One, two, three, twenty $1000 bills. I glanced down at the paltry $50 bill I clutched close, my intention to break it into $10 Hong Kong notes and gamble with just one suddenly seeming incredibly ridiculous.

As I walked up row after row of computer games – a total of 2,130 of these machines in the Venetian alone – with names like “King of the Wild” and “Diamonds in the Rough,” I slowly realized gone were the days of slot machines and a lucky line of three cherries in a row. Gone were the days of pulling one lever and watching as a cascade of quarters spilled out into your open hands. This was the 21st century, people, and even if a machine had a lever to pull, it also came with an entire panel of different-colored buttons to push as your fate spun in front of you. I finally settle on a game called “Easy Money” – it’s what we all hope for, isn’t it? – and fed in my ten-dollar note – equivalent to about US$1.25. I pulled the lever a few times, quickly using 4 of my 10 credits already, before experimenting with the buttons. They had something to do with placing bets on certain images that would appear, although I ever got the hang of it. I was clearly out of my league.

Even if I had struck it rich, no shower of coins would have greeted me in this coinless casino. Rather, a simple white ticket with a barcode would have printed out for me to take to the money counter and cash in. Talk about anticlimactic. After a quick look at the high-limits area, which – with its 620 tables games – at least looked a little more familiar with its roulette and craps tables, I set off to explore the shoppes of the Grand Canal – this was Venice, after all.

A tall-ceilinged lobby area, complete with dome and Italian murals, soon led to the food hall. Here, the ceiling was painted like a bright blue sky, cumulus clouds and all. And for a split-second, I forgot it was well past sunset and I’d stumbled upon an outdoor eating area. Each food vendor was housed in a different Italian villa, making up this pseud0-Venetian scene. The rest of the hotel was built in this manner – all the ceilings looking like the sky, all the shops in their own house, and where the walkway of a regular mall would have normally been there were canals, stone bridges, street lamps, and even gondolas moored in water so clear and shallow you could see the coins people had thrown in shimmering at the bottom. It was at once magnificent – impressive in its design – and underwhelming – it felt as empty as Fisherman’s Wharf. What was the point of a place like this in a place like Macau? What was the point of a casino like this at all, if only to be some sort of alternate universe where fortunes are won and lost, where stores like Tiffany and Co., Swarovski, Lacoste, and Mont Blanc are yet another black hole for money. This was as close to Vegas as I ever hope to be.

I had one thing left on my agenda for the day when I got off the bus at Senado Square: souvenirs. In addition to the usual tacky magnet for my grandmother’s fridge and a postcard to send home, whenever I visit a new country I always keep a lookout for something small for myself. This kind of accumulation isn’t always practical as a backpacker with a  budget, and I fully expect to be the crazy old lady next door with a bunch of junky knick-knacks gathering dust on her bookshelves, but for right now, I still like to have something tangible to remember the place by, something with which to mark my journey.

From Estonia, it was a set of Russian nesting dolls; from Amsterdam, a tiny pair of wooden yellow clogs; from Egypt, a small limestone carving of Nefertiti. I didn’t know what I’d find in Macau – I had even Googled quintessential Macanese souvenirs before my arrival. But as I saw more of the place for myself and felt more Chinese influence than any real kind of fusion, I began to wonder what little object would capture Macau in such a way as to make me want to take it home. In a souvenir shop that night, I settled on a Chinese drama character, a doll about four inches high and wearing a festive red costume. “What the heck,” I thought, it was getting late and I needed to get some sleep. It wasn’t until I started to walk out of the store, though, feeling just a little unsatisfied with my purchase, not believing that I had truly found what I was looking for, that I spotted a lucky Portuguese rooster, about the same size of my Chinese figure, with “Portugal” written on the side, standing in a far corner of a display shelf. For sixty more Macanese dollars, the lucky rooster joined its new Chinese friend in my bag.

A souvenir from China and a souvenir from Portugal – maybe no great Macanese fusion of an object even exists. When I finally set them on my desk in Wellington, side-by-side, the rooster turned so as to hide the “Portugal” label, I’ll always think of this strange city, where signs painted with Chinese characters hang from buildings with Portuguese façades, remnants of its days as a European colony. I’ll think of the colors, the vibrant red of the Chinese lanterns, the yellow of the incense spirals slowly burning in Buddhist temples, and the lighthearted mint green of the houses where Portuguese officials used to reside. I’ll think of the dichotomy of this place that’s not just “one country, two systems,” as the Chinese government proclaims, but even one city, two worlds – two worlds perhaps not as fused as many seem to believe, yet offering an air of mystique that keeps you coming back for more.

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on the [not-so] bright side…

My time in Queenstown has been filled with some amazing memories, whether it be my first time up the mountain, my first time on stage at Watties, or especially my first leap off a bungy ledge. But in between the Fiordland forays and the glacial galavanting, life hasn’t always been as exciting or exhilarating as many of my posts have portrayed – not every day can hold eight and a half second freefalls to say the least. There was a lot of routine, a lot of monotony, and a lot of annoyances that didn’t always have me jumping out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, depending on whether I’d worked a bar shift the night before or not…). And it normally wasn’t the big stuff that left me upset. Big explosions from an irate customer, few and far between that they were, would usually just make me laugh, amused as I was by their demands to speak to my manager. Instead, it was the petty perturbances (is that even a word?), the little things that had the potential to build up and ruin any good day. As the months went by and many customers were culpable of the same grievances (I call them repeat offenders), I found myself keeping track of pet peeves, a running list forming in my head – and in the heads of my colleagues, as they often shared during a good whinge session. And here, for your enjoyment, are the top three at both of my places of employment in Queenstown. Here, out of my exasperation for your entertainment, is a look at the not-so bright side of my life…not to whinge, but merely to record and laugh out now after the fact.

Premier Taste

4. Customers who don’t talk. I don’t just mean the ones who walk up, say hello, “Fine and you?” and then don’t continue an extended conversation. I mean those select few who quite literally didn’t say a word; who would simply nod when you said hello, who would hold up their EFTPOS card when you told them the total as if to say, “I’ll be paying with a card,” and then walk away. One surefire way to elicit some verbal response from them, though, would be to forget to give them their change or money if they requested cash back. Soon enough, the vow of silence would be broken with an “Excuse me, my money?” confirming this customer wasn’t mute, just not interested in basic conversation.

3. Customers who bring their own bags. Now, I am all for “going green,” buying cloth bags announcing “I’m not plastic!” on the side, and trying to save…whatever it is that using less plastic saves. However, all that I ask is that said customer tells me they brought their own bag, preferably before I finish bagging their groceries and they suddenly snap out of whatever trance they’d fallen into, reach into their purse and pull out a nylon bag, folded into an impossibly smaller bag, and exclaim, “Oh! I am so sorry, I forgot I brought…” “Yes, yes,” I’d say, already unpacking and repacking, shaking my head, “You brought your own bag.” Good on ya, buddy.

2. Customers with different bagging standards. I’m not talking about one customer in particular who has double standards, but different customers with their own opinions that make it impossible to develop any set system when it comes to getting groceries from the shopping cart into bags. Being severely OCD myself, needing a place for everything and for everything to always be in its designated place, I took a rather careful approach to bagging, not quite painstaking but probably putting way more thought into the process than most. Besides the obvious rules like all meat in its own bag, frozen items kept together, and eggs on top, I always tried to make sure items were placed neatly in their bags, not just some random, jumbled mess. One day, an older couple, perhaps in their 50s or 60s, came through my lane. I distinctly remember putting three bags of potato chips and one bag of pre-washed lettuce together in the same bag – hardly an offence, even in my eyes. The woman, though, swiftly took the bag from my hands, saying, “Kids these days, they just aren’t taught how to pack.” I almost laughed out loud at the utter preposterousness of her statement. I imagined myself in some supermarket high court, defending myself: “Number one, Your Honor, I am hardly a ‘kid.’ Number two, yes, she is exactly right – we aren’t taught. We’re bagging groceries, sir, not explosives. And – finally – taught or not, there is nothing wrong with the way I packed that bag.” It was customers like her who just increased the OCD-ness of my packing habits out of the fear of another accusation. But other customers would come through and say, “Oh, just chuck ‘em all in there. I’m not fussed,” throwing off my fastidiousness. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Before you think otherwise, my job at the bar wasn’t immune from such annoyances, they just looked a little different…

Watties.

4. Customers who think they’re my friend. I’m all for developing relationships with regular customers and there were many, many people I got to know in Queenstown who I would look forward to seeing whenever they came in. It was every so often, though, that someone I didn’t know too well would begin to expect freebies from me. I could understand a legitimate friend wanting a free drink or two every now and then (not that I did, what with observant bosses, video surveillance, and a vigilant stocktake completed every Monday morning), but some people whom I barely knew would make comments like, “One of these days I’m gonna get a free drink off of you, or, “I’ve been bartending for ten years and I would never charge a friend for [insert extra drink here].” Hm, maybe one of these days I won’t…

3. Customers not able to pay. There’s hardly anything more frustrating than having a section packed on all sides with people clamoring for a drink and that one customer holding up the line for a myriad reasons – not enough cash, no cash, an invalid card transaction, or an alcohol-induced inability to recall their pin number. There were once two particularly wonderful customers, two guys – no doubt from Australia – who literally spread fistfuls of coins – of both New Zealand and Australian origins, mind you – across the bar trying to scrape their total together. One had a wallet open as they stood there and I saw a bill tucked away inside large enough to cover their drinks. I reached across the bar, took the bill, and thanked them ever so kindly for their patronage.

2. Customers who don’t order their drinks at once. The way this might typically go would be a guy walks up and orders two beers and three tequila shots. I pour the beers and go to the back of the bar to get the shot glasses and tequila. As I turn around and carry the shots over to the customer, he’ll then hold up any number of fingers indicating he needs that many more. If it’s really my lucky day, he’ll do this several more times, obviously incapable of tallying a total friend count before coming up to the bar to order.

Now, if you’re wondering where #1 is for both these lists, it happens to be the same – Self-Explanatory Customers, or SECs as I refer to them. SECs have a habit of either pointing out the obvious or asking for things I’d already planned to do or get. At the supermarket SECs might ask for a receipt just as it was printing out. “It’s coming,” I’d patiently smile, “Slow machine.” Or sometimes, if a customer was purchasing only four or five small items, it could be faster to scan everything through before placing them all in a bag.  SECs would often ask, “Uh, can I have a bag for those?” just as I wetted my fingers to more easily pull the plastic of their bag apart. At the bar, SECs might order three beers, two vodkas, and a water. I’d serve the vodka and be pouring the beer when they’d say, “And a water, please.” “Of course,” I’d say, wishing I’d been born with three arms instead of two. Like I said, pretty petty offences on the whole, but they manage to annoy all the same.

All that being said, I obviously know there are more important things to life than crying over spilled milk, and my daily frustrations are dwarfed by infinitely more important concerns like unemployment rates, epidemics, or the political situation in Burma or North Korea. But it’s fun to laugh about how easy it was to get fed up with my jobs – and in a way, it’s a challenge to not be “that customer.” If I was ever ordering drinks at Wattie’s on my night off or doing my weekly shopping at the supermarket, I’d always tell my friends, “I’m so sorry, I’m being that customer again, aren’t I?” One of the guys I worked with at the supermarket, a Scottish guy named Mark with one of the best sarcastic senses of humor I’ve ever come across, would often come through my checkout lane and jokingly take on several annoying traits at once – moving his items back on the conveyer belt again and again, pretending not to realize the thing was automatic and only stopped when an item was actually in front of its sensor; trying to use his EFTPOS card before I’d selected method of payment, swiping incessantly and with increasing impatience; and standing at the end of my till, receipt in hand, studying it for an uncomfortably long amount of time, eager to point out the smallest mistake or price discrepancy.

That was how we made light of the meniality, though; that was how we kept ourselves sane. But of course sanity found itself in more than customer impersonations – there were many moments I’ll miss and think of often as I move on in New Zealand.

I’ll miss the friends I made – friends that even though we may not have known much about each other or our pasts and background, we still connected and grew close over the winter season. There’s one scene, one moment, that remains in my mind. The stage at Wattie’s was across the room from the bar, but to the right of it was another bar that, while used by the restaurant during the day, became an extension of the dance floor once the DJ came on for the night. On Wednesdays and Sundays, though, as live musicians took the stage for acoustic nights, the side bar became the Wattie’s Staff VIP listening area. We’d pile on, sitting close, swinging our legs, soaking in the local talent. It was on one of my last Wednesdays in Queenstown that we sat in our spot – I’d just finished my own set and I joined Diana, the girl I grew closest to in town who worked in the restaurant, and all of the guys we worked with, most of them English, with accents I could fall in love with, Brit hairstyles I laughed at, and a camaraderie among us all I couldn’t imagine getting any better. As cameras got passed around, our arms wrapped around each other, singing along to covers we knew and love, I looked at Diana and said, “I’m gonna miss this so much.” She smiled and we agreed not to talk about it.

I’ll miss the international community of Queenstown, so impressive for such a small town. I’ll miss not being the token American, feeling out of place in the skin and sound of my nationality. I’d barely left town in October and arrived back in Christchurch, spending the weekend with friends I’d known there before, when the “In America…?” questions started up again. Some people really think up the craziest stuff. “In America, do you guys have fences? When I was in Texas, I didn’t see any…” “In America, are there cyclists? Because when I was there, there were no sidewalks, so where are the cyclists supposed to ride?” “Have you been to New Jersey? Is it amazing?” It gets exhausting being singled out and expected to have an answer for everything they think of. Already I looked back on my time in Queenstown and appreciated it for being a place where everyone was from somewhere else, where no one’s hometown was cause for commotion.

On my last day at the supermarket, my Scottish friend Mark drew me a “stick-figure family” of our circle of friends at Premier Taste. A motley crew it was, but it showed me in the middle with a guitar; Susan, our Irish supervisor, in the corner on a conductor’s stand; Malou, a Malaysian woman and fellow checkout chick, known for her incessant cleaning around the checkout area, with a bottle of cleaning solution in her hand and three “mini-Malous” at her feet, representative of her children; Georg, my 18-year old German friend and me and Mark’s little project who worked in the service deli, his shaggy hair seemingly blowing in the wind from his well-known crazy moves on the dance floor; Remy, a Frenchman who looked younger than he was, a beer in his hand, bags under his eyes, and a clock reading 5am – a guy who wasn’t hesitant to admit he often came to work on just two hours of sleep after a late night out; and even “Cute Kid,” my favorite regular customer, a boy of about nine or ten who would come in, walk around holding a shopping basket and scratching his head as if deep in thought, and walk out with only the most practical of items – never anything remotely frivolous purchased for himself. And that’s only half of the figures included on my drawing, no bigger than a 3×5 index card. Finishing before me that night, Mark handed me the card as he went upstairs to clock out, giving me a hug and saying, “You’ll be missed.” When he came back down, I was in tears – the last thing I thought I would happen on my last day at the supermarket (I’d more envisioned myself jumping for joy or perhaps doing a cartwheel out the automatic sliding doors in front). “It wasn’t supposed to make you cry,” he said, and I hadn’t expected it either – but it just goes to show you the power of the place.

I’ll miss Braden, my bar manager-turned-music promoter. Braden is personally responsible for reviving my music, for getting me up on stage and on the radio. We spent many a late night over a glass or two of white wine after finishing work, “talking shop,” me playing him my songs, him sharing his plans and desire to be a songwriter himself. After one such night, I woke up to a text from him:

Hey, it’s late but never too late to inspire. I’m back writing. How was I to know you were to go, amazing it was, short it is to be. You live your life the way it should be. Chances are taken; choices are made. Everything has a reason and it comes naturally. Night hun, my pen can’t stop.

After I played on the radio, he sent another later that day:

Hey doll. Hope you had a good night, this morning was absolutely amazing for me to watch you do what you’re born to do. Sing your heart out.

And after I left Queenstown, having given him a card thanking him for bringing music back into my life, he wrote:

Hey you. Just read your card down by the beach. I got teary eyed. Thank you. A lot of people come and go here in Queenstown and I forget them but you and I will meet again. It’s just a pity we left it so late to get to know each other. Lots of love.

My last Wednesday night playing, Braden and I stood to the side together, listening to a fantastic new group he’d found for the night. Their female singer was especially incredible and I mouthed “wow” to Braden. “This is who you could be hanging out with, you know,” he said, not happy about my impending departure. “I know, I know,” I sighed, still not 100% sure I was making the right decision. He pulled me in for a hug and said, “It’s just that I believe in you so much.” You don’t get that often in life. I’ve talked several times with my mother, a published author, about the importance of having the right agent, of how the person filling that role in your life and career needs to be someone you know believes in you – someone you know has complete confidence in you. I’d found that and here I was leaving it all – and I’m not even sure why.

Despite all my frustrations, despite the downsides to everyday life, there is a magic about the place I won’t soon forget. In a way, I feel a large part of me grew up in Queenstown – I learned to stand on my own; I grew into my new role as a bartender and developed some semblance of sophistication when it comes to my knowledge of wine and cocktails; I challenged myself physically on the slopes, on glaciers, and on the bungy ledge; I challenged my opinions, beliefs, and stereotypes I’d held; heck, I finally even had romantic interests I was actually interested in myself; all of this while living on the shores of a lake at the foot of the Southern Alps.

I recently finished reading a book titled Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, whose author, Brett Dakin, graduated from Princeton before spending two years in the capital city of Laos as a consultant for the government’s tourism authority. As I read of his plans to finally leave Vientiane, the reasons he gave for leaving were remarkably similar to mine when I decided to leave Queenstown:

If I had really wanted to stay, I could have found a way. But that was just it: if I had stayed, I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I could imagine myself living in Vientiane for years, applying to renew my visa every few months and holding my breath as I awaited a new lease on my paradisiacal lifestyle…The ease with which I’d slipped into a comfortable routine in Vientiane frightened me, for it wasn’t clear where it would lead…But the main reason I felt I had to leave was more simple: everyone else was always leaving. While I’d lived there, most of my closest friends had left…Sure, it was fun to meet the occasional visiting consultant…but this was no substitute for real friendships I’d established, and it was difficult to watch as the men and women I had come to know disappeared.”

It was good to know I wasn’t alone in my moving on from a place where I was perfectly happy, a place I wasn’t even quite sure why I was leaving. So at the end of the day (or season), a few pet peeves aren’t much when compared to the friends and new experiences I’ll always think of when I think of Queenstown.

 

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where are all the woolly mammoths?

You know the moment you walk up to a hostel and see a Kiwi Experience bus parked outside, you’re a tourist again. You’re as far from “off the beaten path” as you can get – you are, in fact, on the very definition of the aforementioned path. So what is Kiwi Experience? Think one massive lime green tour bus shuttling thirty or forty backpackers with a bit of a tendency to party around the country from Highlight A to Highlight B and so on. It’s safe to say it’s best to stay away. Thankfully neither two girls sharing my dorm in Franz Josef were partaking in such an Experience. Instead, they were quite the opposite – curled up in bed when I walked in the room, reading obscure novels, sporting long flowing skirts and chunky knit sweaters in uncoordinating colors. My initial impression of “quiet hippie types that keep to themselves” was confirmed when I learned they’re WWOOFers – traveling around New Zealand, doing farm work in exchange for food and accommodation.

But alas, Kiwi Experience Highlight or not, the Franz Josef Glacier must be done, no matter what your status in New Zealand. Even if you’ve lived here for one, five, or fifteen years, it’s a quintessential sight to be seen. Back in August, I heard about the Naked Bus transport company that guarantees at least one seat on every trip for one dollar. Thus similar to my addiction to stalking the Ryan Air website in London for one-pound flights, I sat down one night asking eagerly, “Where can I go and when??” The answer was Franz Josef in mid-October.

Unfortunately, the amazing bus fare – just $3 for a return journey! – came with a not-so-amazing departure time – seven-thirty in the morning, clearly a forbidden hour with my newly-acquired nocturnal lifestyle. Having finished work at 4am the night before (or should I say the morning of?) and not getting home until 5, I knew there was absolutely no chance of me waking up if I decided to attempt an hour of sleep after I packed. So a proper all-nighter it was, filling the early morning hours with a few overdue emails, scheduling, and figuring out what exactly it is you bring when you’re off to hike a glacier.

The bus ride up was exceptionally unremarkable – I’ve had better and worse transport experiences. Being first to arrive on the scene and check in, I’d managed to stake my claim on the entire back seat, but even being able to spread out and lie down didn’t facilitate that good of a sleep. Our driver, lovely man that he was, seemed to be a little too keen on taking breaks, this due to being a smoker I’m sure. Four or five times along the way he stopped for fifteen minutes at a time, making phone calls, having a fag. I mean, as much as I loved the bus, it wasn’t like I was trying to spend any more than the already seven and a half hours on the trip. We even paused for a forty-five minute lunch break at the Salmon River Café – obviously a pre-arrangement between both parties as “No food or drink are to be consumed on the premises” except for the $20 options found on the menu, all of which included salmon. Go figure.

But somehow we made it, ten rest stops and fag breaks later, and after checking into the Rainforest Hostel – supposedly situated on a seven-acre rainforest, but you can’t believe everything you’re told – it was on to seeing just what Franz Josef as a town had to offer besides a glacier. Well, as it turned out, not much. Besides a scattering of hostels and campervan parks, Main Street – otherwise known as State Highway 6 – held only a handful of restaurants and cafés, a bookshop, one supermarket about a tenth of the size of Premier Taste, a glacier center featuring a gift shop and movie theater, two churches, and a couple of glacier guide companies and helicopter tour booking offices. Even after I walked to the edge of town to explore the Department of Conservation office for the glacier, it took no more than half an hour to cover what exactly there was to cover.

The highlight of that first day has to be St. James Anglican Church, which I visited in hopes of seeing a well-known stained glass window that was even featured on a postage stamp in 1946 for its view of the glacier. Although I didn’t find the door to the church unlocked, what I did find was a white tea cup and saucer sitting on top of a few stairs outside with bright green ivy growing from a crack in the cement. I’m not sure why this particular image struck me – perhaps the suggestion of life in a seemingly empty place – but I found the simplicity of the scene resounding with me long into the day.

An early night in the hostel it would be, despite the Monsoon Bar onsite – “It rains…We pour” – touting itself as the “hottest bar on the West Coast.” And it was early to rise as well, up the next morning in time for an 8.15am tour departure. As I brushed my teeth in the communal bathroom, I overheard Kiwi Experiencers moan about hangovers and gossip about who didn’t come back to their rooms last night. I, for one, was amazed they were able to have such a big night in such a small town. It must certainly take a lot more effort than in a place like Queenstown.

At the office of Franz Josef Glacier Guides, we were given blue, yellow, and red plastic cards to exchange for boots and crampons, overtrousers, and a hat and gloves, as well as a safety waiver to sign – besides cautioning “persons with poor balance” against participating in the hike, it also advised that “Franz Josef is considered a ‘warm’ glacier so it is very likely that you will be getting your feet wet on a guided glacier trip.” Just like with my bungee jump, you have to laugh sometimes at what these companies choose to include in their safety statements and wonder at the complaints (and lawsuits?) they’ve received that led to these waivers.

After a short bus ride to the start of the national park, our day began with an hour-long hike to the face of the glacier. A guide named Amy led us along this portion of the hike, taking us across the rocky riverbed of the valley and explaining some of the history and science behind the glacier. “The region’s a geologist’s paradise,” she says, “They can get a little excited.” She pointed out how far the glacier used to extend, distinguished because of the tree line – the difference between the upper part of the cliffs, covered in heavy foliage, and the lower part, where trees were small and scarce and marked with glacial striations. Towards the end of the Seventies, many were worried the glacier was going to disappear once and for all, so far back had it retreated, but from the 1980s until 1999 a sort of mini-Ice Age caused a huge surge forward, guaranteeing the glacier would be around at least a little while longer. Such are the cycles of its movements and growth that the ice at the bottom of the glacier is never more than fifty or sixty years old at any given moment. I don’t know why I imagined Franz Josef to be some remnant of an Ice Age long ago, but as one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, Amy explains, “You won’t find any woolly mammoths here.”

The glacier itself is twelve kilometers long, filling a valley between steep cliffs that for all intents and purposes reminded me much of Milford Sound – the same sheer rock faces, the same low-hanging cloud cover, the same waterfalls threading their way down through deep green trees – all but for a massive block of ice sitting in the middle.  We are told to picture the glacier as a frying pan, with the flat, round section at the top being the Névé, a 50 square kilometer section that accumulates 30-40 meters of snow a year. It can take six years for this snow to compound and form into ice, ice that is pushed forward by the weight of new snowfalls. The “handle” of the frying pan is five kilometers long, running down from the ice fall – often shifting five meters a day – to the terminal face of the glacier – which can move up to one meter a day.

When we reached the face, Amy handed us over to Bryce – “rhymes with ice,” he says with obvious pun intended – who would be leading us on the rest of the full-day hike. He sat us down out of the way of any rockfall and showed us how to strap on our crampons, funky little contraptions that made it feel like wearing steel soccer cleats – not that I ever have or anything, but still. “Anyone ever wear these before?” Bryce asks as he checks that each of our crampons have been secured properly. A Scottish guy named Peter raises his hand. “They have many glaciers in Scotland, Pete?” Bryce asks, obviously amused, and I immediately appreciate his sense of humor, as well as his philosophy of tour-guiding. He had each of us go around and share our name, nationality, and whether we were traveling with anyone else – thankfully I wasn’t the only loner.

Besides Scottish Peter and an American couple from Maine – she sporting L.L. Bean and him an oversized woolen green Swanndri poncho – “Only in New Zealand,” I had to think, “Can you get away with wearing something like that” – I got to know Jonny, a guy my age whose backpack had a patch in the shape of a red coat of arms with “Jersey” and three gold lions emblazoned on it. While my only knowledge of Jersey is in the context of New Jersey back home, I soon learned of the Isle of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy. While closer to France, they are a part of the United Kingdom, technically referred to as a British Crown Dependency. A mere 45 square miles in size, Jersey is considered an off-shore tax haven and the financial services sector is its chief source of income, something Jonny worked in for six years before needing more than island life and heading out to travel. Just like that cup and saucer outside St. James, it’s funny the things that stick to the corners of your mind, how this discovery of a new place – not quite a country in its own right, but almost – made my day on the ice that much better.

With our crampons secured, the group divided itself into two based on physical ability. With only thirteen to begin with, Bryce took my team of seven and said we should be able to cover a lot of ground with our size – “Most days, we can have six groups of at least ten each.” And so we were off on the first segment of our hike, an utter labyrinth of stairs weaving and winding their way up the face of the glacier. What could have been potentially disastrous to my out-of-shape heart – stair after stair after stair – was avoided thanks to having to stop every few meters or so for Bryce to take a pick-axe to the path, evening out the ice and shaping the stairs. Many of the steeper sets of stairs as well as tracks with substantial overhangs had strong cords set up as handrails along them – “No one’s too cool for the handrails,” Bryce says as he tightens and readjusts the screws keeping the cords in place.

After a solid hour or two of Stairmastering our way up the glacier, we reached a wooden box filled with ice picks a little less intimidating in size than Bryce’s – a box that marked the peak of the half-day climb. It was a good reference point, as it showed me just how much you would miss without choosing the full-day experience. You would miss squeezing your way through crevasses so tall and so narrow you have to shuffle along one foot in front of another, and turn your torso sideways, one arm extended behind you, just to make it through. You would miss the naturally formed caves, where water has smoothed out the sides so slickly that walking through them is not unlike scampering through the brightly-colored plastic tubes of McDonald’s Playworlds in your socks. You would miss the view from the vista, where you can hardly believe how far you’ve come in just a few short hours, where the waterfalls along the rocky valley seem minute, and where the glacier itself appears before you as a frozen sea, waves of ice slowly surging forward, the concave shape of each a strikingly electric blue, stunningly translucent, a shade seen only before in a Crayola box.

At the top, Bryce arranged us together for a group photo, me holding his ice pick high into the air, before starting the descent. Anxious to make the bus ride back, we waste no time – “On our way up, we can do what we want, muck around wherever, but it’s straight down the way back.” As I prepared myself for yet another uneventful night in Franz Josef, Jonny and I realized we were not only staying at the same hostel but would be catching the same bus back the next day. Oh, how misery loves company. But what seems like nothing more than another nondescript small town to me isn’t to others. Bryce shared that while in big cities, you might find 5% of people are interested in outdoor activities, in towns like Franz Josef that number is more like 85% and while my ideal weekend might include movies or museums, a performance or night out, these outdoor enthusiasts fill their days off with rock and ice climbing, tramps, or skiing and snowboarding down south.

That’s what I’m coming to learn about New Zealand, though – there are some places that exist simply because of one main natural attraction, one that makes up for the rest of your visit being perhaps less-than-stellar in comparison. And even that last statement is only in my opinion. Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, after all, and to the right person, a little town with a permanent population of just over 400 might have more to offer than what initially meets the eye.

As for me, I’m just happy my first glacial expedition was so successful, and that even if I had fallen in a crevasse and been frozen alive, I wouldn’t have had to hang out with woolly mammoths until the next Ice Age.

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