Archive for the ‘New Zealand’ Category

Home Sweet Home

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Well, our trip is over. And being with our families and catching up on six months’ worth of events, stories, and mail (not to mention planning a wedding) has left us without much time to think about blogging during the last two weeks. For this reason, my account of our last three destinations will be (severely) summarized. I hope no one minds.

Sydney was an awesome city, everything we hoped it would be. Downtown is filled with modern skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, and cozy pubs. In its heart, there are some much older stone buildings that contrast spectacularly with the metal and glass surrounding them. It’s much like London in that way. There’s a huge park, and walking through it to the harbor provides perfect views of the city’s skyline and the famous Opera House.

After walking around and discovering all of this ourselves, we noticed a large crowd on the opposite side of the harbor. Heading over, we found the Sydney Aroma Festival, an annual event showcasing coffee, chocolate, tea, and spices. We got some good food and coffee and wandered through the booths. There was a showcase of espresso machines inside one of the ferry terminals, and it was the best part of the festival. Experienced baristas demonstrated how to make the perfect cup of espresso in $3,000-$5,000 machines (and gave out lots of samples). We learned a lot and got very jittery.Our second day in the city was dreary, and we went to the Australian Museum and the National Gallery. On our third day, we took a trip out to the Royal National Park, the second oldest national park in the world (after Yellowstone). That night we went to a one-man comedy show at the opera house, Possessed by Frank Woodley. It was a really unique, hilarious performance.

We left early the next morning for New Zealand. Our flight home included a stopover in Auckland, which we extended to three days. We purchased a budget flight from Auckland to Christchurch so that we could see the South Island, which we were told was even more lovely than the north. Even from the plane, we could tell that New Zealand was beautiful: rolling hills covered with green grass like you’ve never seen. We got to Christchurch in the middle of the night, and the reservation we had made with Thrifty car rental had been lost. There was no car waiting for us. Luckily, Europcar still had a cheap vehicle available (every other company was booked solid). We had originally planned to do some driving that night, but by the time it was all settled we just got in the car and slept in the airport parking lot.

The next day we set out, driving north from Christchurch along the coast and then cutting inland to cross the mountains which span the South Island. We continued all the way to Nelson, on the northern coast. It was absolutely spectacular. It was like nothing else we had seen on the trip so far. Every time the road turned we would stare out the car windows and utter “wow.” The scenery was gorgeous. First, fields of grapes. Then rolling green hills coated with the softest, thickest-looking grass you’ve ever seen, all dotted with fat, fuzzy Murano sheep. Snowcapped peaks became visible, and soon we were climbing into the mountains. We rode through a beautiful river valley, past quaint and charming towns, past hotsprings that filled the riverbed with steam, and up into the snow. We pulled over to play in it a little before carrying on. As we descended, tendrils of fog crept into the plains, casting everything in an eerie light as the sun filtered through it.

We were getting tired by the time we got close to Nelson, but a sign caught our eye: “Rutherford Birthplace.” We stopped, very excited. Ernst Rutherford was a New Zealander, and is well known for his work in atomic physics, especially in working out the structure of the atom. There was a (somewhat funny looking) statue of him as a boy and a nice monument that took you through the events of his life.We arrived in Nelson after dark. It’s one of the larger cities in New Zealand, but its center still looks like a charming small town. Our hostel, the Green Monkey, was one of the most welcoming places we’ve been yet. Looking through a booklet we picked up at the airport, our hostel choice was contingent upon the presence of two things: a fireplace and hot chocolate. This place had both (and marshmallows and lemon cake besides). The other guests were nice, the kitchen was so beautiful and well-equipped that we found ourselves hoping our future kitchen would be as good, and the owners were a married couple who had settled down into running the hostel after a youth spent traveling the world. We went to the grocery store to pick up fixings for pizza, and then took a chilly nighttime walk around town before returning for dinner.

The next day, we planned to get a very early start, but when we awoke to the sounds of a howling storm, we decided to roll over and go back to sleep. It was almost midday by the time the weather cleared and we started out. It was windy and rainy, and we went very slowly along the mountain roads. Tommy was nervous driving on the dizzying roads and took extra care while driving; we were surprised when we saw a police car’s flashing lights behind us, signaling for us to pull over. The very friendly policeman cheerfully explained to us that we had been in fact driving too slowly. We looked so stunned when he told us this that he then asked us if we understood English. It ended well, no ticket, just a New Zealand Highway Patrol postcard and a smile. “A souvenir from your holiday! Ta ta!”

This might be a good time to mention how friendly New Zealanders were. You hear talk about friendly people in different places in the world, but none of the people we encountered anywhere else we have been on this trip could possibly compare to New Zealanders. Of course, the lack of a language barrier is a big help–we may have missed out on some really friendly countries due to our limited fluency. But in New Zealand, everyone we met went out of their way to help us or guide us, even when it wasn’t asked for. When you dealt with people, whether it was behind the rental car desk at the airport or behind the grocery store counter, you felt like they were really listening, really caring, and really thinking about you as an individual person, not just another customer. I strongly suspect that being constantly surrounded by the beautiful scenery of New Zealand would make anyone friendly, given enough time. What a wonderful country.

We drove around the sounds along the northern coast, but couldn’t see much. The weather cleared as we drove down the east coast back to Christchurch. It was an interesting contrast: blue-green water as beautiful as that on any Thai beach, rolling green hills like the Italian countryside, and snow-capped mountains to rival the Alps, all in a single glance along the coastal highway. We pulled over to see some seal colonies on the rocks at the shore’s edge, and someone else, either a local or an Australian visitor, told us we should hike ten minutes up a nearby trail, and we would find a group of baby seals playing in a waterfall pool. We followed his advice, and there they were, adorable baby seals hidden in a little forest pool. Seals are surely a wonder of the animal kingdom: all the adults seem to do is sit, and all these babies seemed to do was play. Someone had thrown some balls in the pool that they were happily pushing around, and when Tommy threw a stick into the water, they turned it into a toy as well. They came very close as we tried to snap pictures in the dim light.It was later than we expected when we finally arrived in Christchurch. Our hostel pamphlet helped us find another good place to spend the night. We cooked a pasta dinner and went to sleep–our last night on foreign soil!

The next day, we had the morning to do a little more sightseeing. We drove towards Akaroa, out on a small peninsula south of Christchurch. After only twenty minutes’ drive out of the city, we came to some of the nicest scenery we’d seen yet. There are some bays that cut into the hilly terrain and just create the most lovely view as you look down from the road. We were sorry to turn around at noon.

We flew from Christchurch to Auckland, where we had a six hour layover before our flight to Los Angeles. Auckland Airport wins the Gold Medal of Security Excellence from ever since we were in Bangkok nearly two months prior and had found that one of our souvenirs had broken while packed in our checked luggage, we had started carrying our bag of souvenirs with us onto airplanes. They were mostly breakable, and so were wrapped up carefully. This time, in Auckland, security saw something suspicious, and began rooting through my bag. They would take a few items out and run it through again. They repeated this multiple times, and the table became strewn with odds and ends from everywhere between Morocco and Australia. Finally, the security guard found what she was looking for: the khanjar we bought in Oman. A knife, with a three-inch blade! And we had taken it on no less than twelve flights without it being caught by security (making us even more resentful of one self-important security guard in Darwin who had haughtily informed us that our duct tape was a dangerous item). Obviously we knew we should not have the knife on the plane, but we begged them to let us check it because of its sentimental value. Because we had already cleared customs, we could not return to the check in (a precaution taken so people do not test security). It took a lot of complaining, a lot of rule clarification, and a little begging, but we managed to get the khanjar checked in Tommy’s backpack. And we’ve never felt so safe boarding a plane before!

A thirteen hour flight sounds like an awful, boring ordeal, but not these days. We immediately turned on our personal TV screens and selected which movies we would watch on the flight home. We enjoyed them while eating dinner and drinking multiple glasses of New Zealand wine. Not a painful journey!

We arrived in LA, feeling strange to be back home in the states. The immigration officers were impressed with the number of stamps in our passports. My brother Joey picked us up at the airport and brought us back to his place just outside of downtown LA. We went out to dinner and then saw some of LA’s best attractions–the shopping malls!

The next day we went to mass at the Cathedral of the Angels. Then we went to Universal Studios for some good old-fashioned American fun. We finished the day with an improv comedy performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade. We met some of Joey’s friends and hung out for a while after the show.

On our last day, Joey had work–at Warner Brothers Studios. Being the awesome brother that he is, he got us visitor passes and showed us around a bit. Among other things, we saw George Clooney’s parking space, the set from ER, and Matthew Perry (thus fulfilling our Los Angeles goal of seeing someone famous).  Joey dropped us off at the subway, and we did some sightseeing. We went to Hollywood Boulevard, of course. We also went to the Walt Disney Opera House and did the free self-guided tour, which was particularly well-done and informative. The Opera House was designed by Frank Gehry (like the Dancing House in Prague). We went to the Grand Central Market for fish tacos, and then took a bus to Rodeo Drive. Our last stop was the lovely Santa Monica pier. Getting back from there took longer than we expected, but we made it back in time for some Mexican food with Joey.

The next morning, he brought us to the airport and we boarded our last two planes. We stared out the window in awe as we descended into New Orleans. The man in the row ahead of us had a GPS and helped us figure out where we were as we flew over Lafayette and continued east. We marveled at the sight of the swampy land surrounding New Orleans. It truly is a landscape like nothing else we have seen on this trip.

Our parents were at the airport, eagerly awaiting our return. It was so good to see them again. We went back to our house in Mandeville and had a big dinner. We had a great time recounting the trip and hearing more about everything that had happened during the three months since we had seen them last. We had called, emailed, and even videoconferenced, but nothing is the same as talking face to face.And so we’re home. And it’s really nice to wear different clothes, to sleep in our own beds, to be with our families, and to not have to unpack and re-pack every few days. But every now and then our minds wander back to one of the wonderful places we have been to and we hope that we will have the opportunity to travel there again. But for now, we are just thankful that we have been privileged enough to take this trip. We have been gifted with understanding and encouraging families, and we have also been lucky enough to have found the perfect lifelong traveling companions in each other. When people ask, “How was it?” there is no easy answer. It was, quite frankly, the best six months of our lives.

Photos from SydneyPhotos from New Zealand

Photos from Los Angeles

Photos from New Orleans 

Time away: 6 months and 3 days

Continents visited: 5

Countries visited: 28

Cities visited: 68

Different languages spoken: 20

Different currencies: 24

Flights taken: 42

Airports visited: 48

Trains taken: 27

Busses taken: 27

Hostels stayed at: 74

Rental cars: 7

Hospital stays: 1

Bags lost: 0

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”  -Henry Miller