January 19, 2007

"The reward... may be.. SURVIVAL!"

I'm not ashamed to admit that one of my most prized possessions is a circa 1962 U.S. Civil Defense fallout shelter water storage barrel, which I inherited from the Boston University Physical Plant (where it was sitting around unused in the paint shop) during my time working as a carpenter's lackey there; there were apparently tons of them left in the old National Guard Armory Building on campus prior to its demolition and subsequent replacement by the shiny new Student Village housing complex, and while most of them were junked I managed to pick up this one. It makes a great end table with a piece of plywood on top, but is unfortunately not too suitable to shipping overseas to my current home of Japan.

In lieu of that, I will have to feed my fascination with Cold War ephemera via this wonderful collection classic U.S. Civil Defense filmstrips (and also general Cold War-era reels), found at the Internet Archive thanks to a tip at Lawyers, Guns, and Money (the "House in the Middle" spot highlighted in that post truly has to be seen to be believed). Watching this stuff, I think it's not too hard to see why we got the 60's.

January 15, 2007

Adventures in Middle Earth, Part Two: South Island and Back Again

Part One is here.

So; having crossed over to the South Island on the day after Christmas, we had at that point eight full days left in the country, the last of which we had to finish up in Auckland by 4:00 in order to return our car and prepare for our early flight out on the morning of the 3rd. Aside from our first days in Auckland, we had yet to stay in the same place two nights in a row, and despite a good time in Waitomo were still feeling like we were spreading ourselves too thin; the prospect of more or less everything had been closed from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day also contributed to the thought that our remaining time here in Middle Earth was, shall we say... precious.

With this in mind during the course of our ferry ride across the Cook Strait we decided to plant ourselves down in a good-looking place for at least two days in order to take part in some more of the many adventure tourist activities New Zealand has to offer. A promising candidate appeared in the form of Kaikoura, a small little crayfishing town on a peninsula jutting out from the northeast coast of the South Island that has turned itself into a center for whale-watching, fur seal-watching, dolphin swimming, and other aquatic activities. Only a short drive from Picton later we were there, and looking around found ourselves a very comfortable backpacker's hostel, The Albatross, which at one point served as the town's Post Office and telephone exchange (the huge post office safe vault door is still there in the common lounge). The friendly proprietor set us up in the special "Turkish-style" dorms — again, all to ourselves! —where curtains shelter each bunk. We stayed in a number of nice places during our travels through Enzedd but this was definitely one of the nicest, hence the direct recommendation (for what it's worth) here. Also, the Subway sandwich man there in Kaikoura is extremely friendly as well.

Well, dolphin swimming turned out to be booked out for the next week, but as the Lonely Planet did warn us of that we weren't too set back by it. Instead we decided to go horseback riding, another first for me, but not for Ms. Riddarfjarden who was looking forward to the chance to go riding again. Accompanied by our guide Linda and a very energetic dog named Zack, our two mounts, Madam and Winston ("Winnie") took us along a path in the shadow of Mount Fyffe, over some rocky riverbeds and around several acres of land. The horses were well-behaved, which was good, because I mostly concentrated on staying upright (especially when we tried some bone-jarring trotting; now I know why cowboys were always so ornery, as sore as that left me). It's weird to be riding something that you don't need to guide precisely along, but rather is an intelligent animal that knows where to go and how to watch its footing on its own. A neat experience, and something I'd be interested in trying again I think.

We returned to town and took a long (and hot) walk along the rocky peninsula tip on whose edges the seals regularly bask; then it was back to the Albatross for a refreshing shower (and much-needed laundry run) and a late dinner at a local seafood restaurant that also, it must be said, did a delicious rack of lamb. The live cover band playing made a few questionable selections but all in all it was a nice finish to the day.

With dolphin swimming booked out we decided we might as well bid our farewells to Kaikoura and carry on; having already made reservations in Christchurch for New Year's Eve, we resolved to cross over to the other side of the island, before doubling back again for our reserved night there. A four-hour or so drive through Lewis Pass took us over the spine of the South Island and to the West Coast, where we made a short drive northward to the Punakaiki "pancake rocks", surf-pounded stacks of limestone that jut out into the Tasman Sea. Heading back south, we stopped in Hokitika, a major jade-working town that was unfortunately almost entirely closed for the holidays. We did chat with a few fellow backpackers in our hostel whose car problems were even worse than ours (a hare had apparently jumped into, and subsequently shattered, their windshield, temporarily stranding them there) and who had enough stories about Australian spiders to make me reconsider just how badly I want to see Coober Pedy anytime soon (well, I still do.. maybe in winter, though).

There was a nice little "grotto" of glowworms on the edge of town that night, far fewer than in the caves of Waitomo but still very beautiful (when the other noisy tourists left it, that is). We also spotted a possum, "New Zealand's number one enemy!", hiding there in the dark. We saw nocturnal critters of a different type the next morning when we visited a local zoo (things are open, finally!) and saw a couple of... cute, whuffling little kiwis! Any comparisons made to fluffy footballs just begging to be kicked will be omitted from this public recounting for the sake of decorum. But they were cute.

So the main reason we had come to this side of the island was not the chance to see kiwis, but rather — glaciers. Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers lay just a little further south of us, only about a half hour apart from each other, and I was keen to go hiking as we could — helicopter tours and serious mountain climbing expeditions are all available there but I figured a day to take in the walking trails that skirt the terminus at each would be plenty. Unfortunately, by the time we reached Franz, it was raining steadily with no signs of let-up, forcing us to take stock of our plans and consider whether we wanted to stick around and wait out the rain.

The forecast we got from two German girls who attempted to proposition us for a lift — "anywhere but here" —was not encouraging; it had been like this for several days and many of the tracks and trails were closed from the rain. In a testament either to their hitchhiking skills or our extreme decent-ness, we told them we would have to think what our next move was going to be but if we were going to leave, we would stop by their hostel and offer them a ride our way. It continued to rain through lunch and we finally settled on taking a short walk up to Sentinel Rock overlooking the tip of Franz Josef glacier. It lightened a little during this part and we were able to make out a bit of the glacier; soaked but having at least seen something, we decided to cut our losses and head back to Christchurch early, bump up our reservation there by one and use the extra day elsewhere. Fox would have to wait for another time. The German girls back in town thanked us but said they weren't planning on going as far as Christchurch; that and a delay for filling up the gas tank meant that just as we were leaving Franz Josef town... the sun broke out!

45 seconds or so of deliberation and we swiftly resolved to wheel around and head for Fox as fast as we could, hoping to beat the next downpour. Hiking our way through light mists, we made our way up the scree-filled canyon that the glacier had gouged out over the past century, coming within only a few hundred meters of a massive wall of blue ice that was truly awesome to see. Someday I'll have to back and see it under clearer skies, but I'm very glad we were able to see what we did. Then it was back across the Southern Alps again, along the twisting slopes of Arthur's Pass, a long mountains drive but, it must be said, a beautiful one to make in dusk-light. We pulled into Christchurch late in the evening (after passing through another pounding rainstorm on the outskirts, that, unfortunately, would follow us for the next few days) but found our reservations welcome and waiting for us. No energy for dinner — straight to bed.

We had a nice big brunch in a downtown Christchurch cafe; still raining, and cold, we went to check out the Air Force Museum for a change of pace. We spent a good deal of time there, marveling at what a different experience it must've been to be a far-flung citizen in the service of the British Empire back in the first half of the 20th century — and discussing the crucial national defense issue of which is cooler, jets or helicopters. Opinions on our committee differed and final judgement was postponed pending further study. By the afternoon as we left it had cleared off — though still cold — so we were able to walk through downtown Christchurch, passing by the famous cathedral as well as some pleasant botanical gardens that seemed to be having some kind of UFO problem. For dinner we splurged on some Mexican, which sadly does not seem to be found for cheap anywhere outside of North America. It was good (and spicy) though.

The next day was New Year's Eve and we decided to press back up north, reaching Picton in a few hours and catching a ferry north back to Wellington. This experience was considerably livelier than our crossing south a few days back; four to five meter swells had the boat churning and rolling for most of the three hours, sending things rolling and flying all over in the cabin lounge and most of the passengers to the seasick bags in short order. I managed to keep my feet pretty well and shut down the panic impulse as best I could whenever I saw the ocean surface rolling out underneath the side porthole across the room; the ferry crew seemed fairly blase about the whole thing so I passed the time listening to their conversations and skimming the Lonely Planet for ideas to fill our as-yet-unplanned New Year's Day.

We finally made it into Wellington and yet more pouring rain. Driving around in search of a place to say it soon became apparent that our decision make reservations for the holiday had been a good idea — except that we had made them in Christchurch, and had bumped them up to the 30th, so now we were out of luck. We finally made it back to the hotel we had spent Christmas in and got the last room in the house, a spacious triple well worth the NZ$99. We had good Indian food for dinner but did not end up staying out to midnight with the rest of Wellington's population; which was too bad, but we were also pretty soaked and tired as well.

2007 dawned gray and rainy, but we had a goal — see Mount Doom! Tongariro National Park in the center of the North Island is home to Mount Ngauruhoe, which played the role of Mordor's fiery mountain in Lord of the Rings. We reached it by noon, and while it was still cool and misty (leaving comparisons to the screen version, not to mention clear photos, somewhat hard to make) we were able to get in a good hour or so of hiking along the rocky scrub desert that surrounds its flanks. Unfortunately no orcs in sight, but it was something.

We stopped in the small town of Turangi, ate Chinese takeout, and slept the night in a crowded dorm before alighting early the next morning for Auckland. There we spent our last day in country doing a bit of grocery shopping — my fennel needs have been unmet here in Japan thus far — and returning the car after securing a spot in a backpackers and a shuttle bus out to the airport at the crack of dawn the next morning in order to make our 9:00 AM flight. We saw Borat in theaters (since we figured it's doubtful it'll be making it here any time soon) which was admittedly funny albeit extremely cringe-inducing... which I guess is mostly the point. Then it was off to bed for the last time in New Zealand.

The flight on to Hong Kong was as long as the one down, but starting off in the morning when we were still awake helped make it more bearable; the reasonably good selection of movies (except Miami Vice, which was as awful as The Departed was good) helped too.

By the time we made it to HK we were pretty tired, though, and with a full 24 hours layover we needed a place to spend the night. We found one in Chungking Mansions, a "backpacker ghetto" whose unique character which the Lonely Planet alternated between praising and warning against. Unfortunately we were too busy dodging touts to catch any pictures of the place; the most immediate comparison I have was the building in downtown Dhaka we changed money in during my trip to Bangladesh last May, an urban experience like no other I've had to date; this is probably partly due to the fact that many of Chungking's tenants appeared to be immigrants from South Asia, including (judging from the writing on a number of the storefronts) Bangladesh itself. The bottom floor was given over to all manner of shops, mostly serving this immigrant community, while the above 16 floors were packed with all manner cheap flats, budget guest rooms, and flophouses. We wandered through for a bit, finally prying off the last and most persistent tout; picking a place more or less at random out of our guidebook, we went up to check out the Osaka Guesthouse, and when the young African man on duty — who didn't look to be more than a teenager — called in the manager, who should he be but our persistent fellow from downstairs. Well, the place wasn't bad and it certainly was cheap, so we took it, and proceeded to stretch out and nap.

Our failure to reset the clock for local time meant that nap lasted a good deal longer than we had intended, and we ended up stepping out near midnight onto the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong, which made for an interesting visual tableau of the kind I imagine most people associate with my current home of Japan; very Blade-Runner, in parts, our Mansions most especially included. We didn't stay out too very late, stopping at a 7-11 for some snacks and doing a bit of window shopping in the closed Nathan Street storefronts.

The next day we took a tram line up a very steep ascent to the top of Victoria Peak, where thick haze brought south by prevailing winds from mainland China obscured what the guidebook assured us was probably a very impressive view of Hong Kong. We got lunch in a very crowded restaurant — we were seated at a table with other patrons, something that I had always been advised to prepare for in Japan but which to date has never happened to me here — and then made our way back to the airport for our 1:00 flight home. Another stopover in Taipei, touchdown in Fukuoka, and a pass through Japanese customs (Inspector: "Do you speak Japanese?" Me: "Uh, sukoshi." ["a little"] Inspector: "What's in this box?" Me: "Omiyage." Inspector: "No drugs?" Me: "No." Inspector: "Ok, thank you." *waves us through*). An hour on the train and then it's home sweet Karatsu, with the first day of the new semester waiting for me the next day.

It's hard to wrap something like this up with a neat conclusion but I think it's fair to say that New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places I've travelled to; and there is also far too much there to fit into a mere two weeks. If you can go, do, but be sure to take good care of it while you're there, because I plan to go back.

(But my next stop is... Mongolia.)

January 14, 2007

Adventures in Middle Earth, Part One: The North Island

So... New Zealand. You look at a map and say to yourself, "Why, it's just straight south of Japan here... when am I ever going to be this close again?" And while you might be right that traveling to the Land of the Long White Cloud from the United States would be a very long endeavor, the fact is it's not all that short of a trip from Japan, either. You are flying more or less half-way around the world ... it just happens to be the other, other half. Something to remember for the next time I leave the northern hemisphere.

There were no direct flights — at least no cheap ones — to Auckland from our end of Japan so we went through Hong Kong. We packed everything into my yellow hiking bag and took the train up to Fukuoka, where we just managed to make it out to the international terminal and through security and to our gate right as final boarding was being called. Part of the delay was due to the check-in lady spending a good 20 minutes trying to figure out a way to seat my traveling companion, the lovely and for the purposes of this blog post momentarily pseudonymous Ms. Riddarfjarden, and myself together, which she was ultimately unable to do for the first leg of our journey. Instead I ended up pinned against the window by two Japanese salarymen until we stopped off in Taipei, Taiwan for a short layover. There we got out to stretch our legs in a very dingy looking airport lounge before returning for the remaining two hours or so to Hong Kong; having arrived at HK's shiny new airport we had a good seven or eight hours to pass until our next flight on to Auckland.

We had some Chinese food, debated the merits of shelling out 40 bucks for a shower and nap cubicle (which we ultimately passed on), wandered all over the concourse, and reveled in airport bookstores that actually had things in languages we could read. (Thank you, a hundred years of British colonialism.) Finally we were let onboard our 11-hour redeye to Auckland, although the cabin crew's insistence on feeding us dinner — it already felt like past midnight for us, and was 9:00 Hong Kong time — kept us up a good while longer. Cathay Pacific gives you a toothbrush and toothpaste in a little complimentary toiletries set, which you would think is a nice touch until you actually taste the toothpaste, which is vile. Be forewarned.

We finally touched down in Auckland the next day and passed through New Zealand customs, which is probably the most serious I've experienced in my travels to date — they take their "100% Pure" slogan (and their agriculture industry) pretty seriously. They did not, however, bother to open our bags. After changing some money we caught a shuttle bus into the city center where our hostel lay, a bus driven by a slightly manic old lady. I think my only major instance during the trip of not being able to penetrate the Kiwi accent was when she asked for 30 dollars for our tickets.. I'd claim sleep deprivation but she also almost drove off while another guy was still getting out of the bus so maybe just crazy will suffice. Our host at the B&B, an Indian woman whose name I don't recall, was as friendly and welcoming as the bus lady was intimidating and weird so we were able to do a good bit better after that. Total travel time, from out our door to falling onto the bed in Auckland — probably about 26 to 27 hours.

Fortunately they made the place inaccessible for a reason: it's too gorgeous a country to let all the rest of us go mucking it up. I suppose I shouldn't lavish too many superlatives — I'm sure there are hidden problems and issues that my short two-week passage left me oblivious to, and the weather for one was not exactly pristine for the full duration of our trip (I was dubious of this whole "summer in December" claim to begin with... it was warm, but the season having only just started, we were still in jackets or at least long sleeves most of the time) — but I did feel like New Zealand had a number of the qualities (a diverse range of culture and ethnicity, raw natural beauty, housing insulation) that I miss living here in Japan.

We saw a bit of that in our first two days in Auckland; after a recovery nap we walked through the Ponsonby area and the "K Road", which took us through several neighborhoods that reminded me of the outskirts of Boston in my days there. We had some tasty Malaysian food for our first meal in the country and explored a bit of the central Queen Street downtown area before making our way back to our B&B for the first night. The next day we returned to Queen Street, walking down its sloping length to the ferry port at the north side of the city to take a ferry across to the slightly tonier suburb of Devonport on the far side of the harbor. It dumped down a bit of rain at this point and then cleared off again, which it would continue to do frequently during the course of our trip. At Lonely Planet's recommendation we did a walk of two old fortified volcanic hills, Mt. Victoria and North Head; failing to heed our B&B host's recommendation from the morning to be careful of the sun, I got burnt. The old tunnels were cool, though, as were the (still unexplained) mushroom-capped vents on top of Mt. Victoria.

We returned to our place to look at car rentals and arranged to rent one through the recommendation of our host; from what we could tell it would be the cheapest option available and she did seem pretty nice. The wisdom of this approach was put to a bit of questioning the next morning when we were picked up in the car we would be driving, a mid-90s Nissan Sunny that pretty clearly would not be charging up the Southern Alps any time soon. The price was right, though, so we went with it; it took us a while to find our way out of the city but we eventually made it onto a scenic highway lined with jungle flora right out of Jurassic Park, which lead out west towards Karekare Beach, where the movie The Piano (which I haven't seen, but Ms. Riddarfjarden had) was filmed. Gorgeous rock formations and dramatic surf.

After a stop there we carried on northward to Waipoua Forest, where huge kauri trees grow; we got there just an hour or so before dusk, it taking longer to wind our way over the Northland hills on a single-lane highway than we had initially planned (this would the story of much of the first part of our trip, until we had to admit that the country is a good deal bigger than we'd planned and started adjusting our plans accordingly). The forest was nearly empty of fellow hikers though, and some of the trees were massive — the most breathtaking being Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), its trunk over 5 meters in diameter. Amazing.

By the time we had left the forest it was nearing darkness (which meant it was going on 8:00ish) and we stopped, more or less by default, in the tiny town of Opononi, which featured a closed gas station, closed restaurant, closed takeaway fish-and-chips place, and one open youth hostel, the "House of Harmony". We were able to get a dorm all to ourselves, the only other folks there being a Swedish couple (named Rodriguez?) in one of the other rooms. Dinner-less, we munched down a few crackers and raisins and called it a night.

The next day we made a U-turn and headed back down south, past Auckland and into the central part of the North Island. Our destination was Rotorua, a thermal hot springs area full of steaming lakes, volcanic vents, and the occasional geyser. Again, unfortunately, the driving took longer than we had hoped and we ended up getting into the city in the early evening, by which point many of the lake walks we had hoped to see were already closed; one option still open, though, was Tikitere: Hell's Gate, the English name coming from a visiting George Bernard Shaw. It was gray and rainy but that might've helped contribute to the blighted atmosphere.. plenty of bubbling pools and sulfurous gasses and other cool features that spread out over several acres of land. You could only imagine what the early Maori would have made of such a place.. surrounded by forest, it certainly felt like an otherworldly place. The abrupt death of Ms. Riddarfjarden's camera further contributed to a sense of forlorn-ness, but that might've just been the rain.

After getting dinner, it was going on 9:00, and we made it to the Kiwi Paka Youth Hostel just in time to have them switch off the reception room lights in our face. Turning around quickly, we snagged another dorm bedroom to ourselves in the Planet Nomad backpackers about ten minutes before it too would've closed the doors, luck that carried over the next day (Christmas Eve) when Ms. Riddarfjarden's camera spontaneously recovered from its earlier demonic possession — although our early 7:00 AM departure meant we missed out on recovering our $6 blanket deposit as the manager wasn't up yet when we attempted to return them. Having felt like we had been spending too much time getting from place to place and not enough time seeing the places themselves, we were keen to get an early start so that we could make it to Waitomo, an area to the southwest full of caves where we hoped to try some "black-water rafting" or similar adventures.

This time we did make it to our goal, with plenty of time to spare. There we took an abseiling adventure down 150-meter-deep Nathan's Canyon, with a friendly guide by the name of Jason. This was the first time I had ever tried anything like that and I'm pretty sure I managed to conquer whatever lingering fears of heights I may've had with it — I was a little unsteady at first but by the end I was pretty sure that the whole experience was one of the best things we did in NZ. When he tells you all it takes to stop yourself is hold your right leg out straight, it's hard to believe, but sure enough it works — we slid down slowly but surely through a deep crevice there in the hills, its sides lined with all manner of green creepers and ferns that served as home to the small glow-worm larvae that are Waitomo's other claim to fame. It being daytime, we couldn't see them there, but after going down a second time and having fun all over again, we went back to take a boat tour through the caves below that passed under cave ceilings illuminated by a constellation of thousands of glow-worms, whose soft shining light (reminiscent of a firefly's) attracts the even tinier insects they feed on. Beautiful.

We left Waitomo a little after 2:00 that afternoon and drove on to Napier, a town on the far east coast of the North Island that was almost totally leveled in an earthquake in 1931; when it was rebuilt, the popular Art Deco style was used in many buildings, giving it a unique architectural flavor. We got a place to stay in "Toad Hall" Backpackers (attached to the Willow Art Gallery) and dinner at "Hell Pizza" in the same building — their "Mordor" special, one of many diabolically-themed offerings, was pretty good. Much of the rest of town was closed for the holiday, though, so all that was left was to pick up a few groceries and return to the hostel for the night.

Christmas morning we were awoken with a present from the hostel proprietors — a rather nice calendar of New Zealand art. We breakfasted on grocery store pastries and took a walk along the Napier beachfront; everything being closed for Christmas morning, though, we didn't linger for too long before getting into the car and pushing south to Wellington. On the way, we made a detour to visit what is billed as the longest place name in the world: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. There's a sign there, and some sheep. Nice.

It was a good bit of driving (probably four or five hours) down from Napier to the southernmost big city on the North Island, and we were pretty tired when we pulled into windy Wellington. We parked the car and checked into the Cambridge Hotel, where we had made advance reservations, mindful of the holiday. Going back to pull the car closer to unload our bags, we found that it was... dead. The engine would grind and the dashboard flicker, but nothing turned over, no matter how much we revved the key. And unlike Ms. Riddarfjarden's camera, it was not going to be reviving any time soon; not wishing to ruin our Christmas evening, we resolved to worry about it tomorrow, and got good Chinese food and didn't worry about it.

The next morning, the car persisted in not starting, so we attempted to call the local rental branch — considering that the major national rental outfits have their branches primarily in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Picton (the port on the other side of the Cook Strait, at the top end of the South Island), this was about as fortuitous a breakdown as we could've hoped for; anywhere else and we probably would've had to call an auto breakdown service and wait out whatever repairs it took.

As a rule I loathe the car rental process — my number one cause of stress during my times running Habitat build trips back in Boston — so I suppose the response we got could've been much worse. Although the guy who came out to meet us was initially convinced it must've just been a drained battery (how we could've drained it in the five minutes it took us to walk into the hotel to check in, and back, I'm not quite clear) and he did indeed succeed in jumping the thing. He let it run for 10 minutes or so, gunned the gas a couple times, and shut it off; it promptly refused to start. He jumped it again, and after admonishing us to "let it run for 15 minutes", took off. Not wanting to chance things, we sat in the car for a half hour — so much for seeing anything of Wellington before we caught the ferry at 1:00 that afternoon — and let the battery "charge".

Completely unsurprisingly, once shut off the engine once again failed to respond to any attempts at starting it up. To his credit, the guy was pretty fast about getting us a replacement, an older Toyota model that despite its age ('94, I think) seemed to handle hills a good bit better than our recently departed Nissan; it lasted through the rest of the trip with no apparent problems. We made it onto the massive Bluebridge ferry south with only about a half hour to spare, but it was a pretty smooth journey and we were able to relax a bit over the next three hours onboard and plan out our adventures in the South Island.

... Which will be a story for next time. Until then, the full album of pictures is here; the South Island installment will be forthcoming shortly.