Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bungy Shots from 147 Meter Jump; I'm Home

I'm in the stirrups and about to be trussed up like a Christmas pig.

My eyes are probably shut, so I'm missing the great view of the river.

Side view: I'm the little blue thing on the end of the cord. I've fallen about half way. The cord will be totally taught when I reach the bottom of the jump.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Milford Sound, Shmilford Sound

The Milford Sound is a key part of Fiordland National Park, which has been designated as a World Heritage site. When I heard this from our tour guide, I started to shake uncontrollably and became queasy -- Angkor Wat is also a World Heritage site and that was an overpriced waste of time.

The Milford Sound trip is composed of the following:
- 4 hour bus trip to the sound
- 1.5 hour hour cruise around the sound; soggy chicken sandwich
- 4 hour bus trip back to Queenstown
- $127 bill

The bus picked us up at 8:00, so the trip provided a good chance to catch up on our sleep. My biggest gripe is the scenery is pretty monotonous: Plants, rocks, trees, mountains, river, waterfalls, repeat for 9.5 hours. The boat trip was also a letdown. The water was dark green, like the Boston Harbor. The only wildlife we saw was fat, lazy seals lying on some rocks. The seals at the Boston Aquarium are more active.

At the risk of sounding like a whiner, Randystravels surveyed some people who took the trip. When we asked what they thought, initially, they would say "it was nice." (Who wants to bash a World Heritage site?) When asked if the trip lived up to it promise, we got the following responses.
"What a rip off."
"What a load of crap."

My Own World Heritage Sites

Obviously, those who designate world heritage status know very little about the world. So, I have come up with my own sites of exceptional beauty and culture.

- Sok San Palace, Siem Riep, Cambodia
Must see: Lady boy go-go dancers
- Central Market, Phnom Penh
Must see: dried larvae and dried snake snacks
- Saigon, Vietnam
Must see: Moped mayhem during rush hour
- North to South highway, Vietnam
Must see: Highway stop with trough urinal 4 feet from kitchen

Queenstown Activities: Bungy, River Boarding

Queenstown bills itself as the adventure activity center of the world or some such. So I sampled some of the activities.

1) Canyon Swing ($135)
I previously sent description and photos. Here is a little more detail.

Free Fall:
Once you jump off the platform, you fall for about 3 seconds before the device catches you. That 3 seconds seems like 3 hours. It is called free fall.

Anticipation: The Worst part
The prejump anxiety is brutal: all the hanging around on the platform waiting to jump, watching other people jump. Finally, it's your turn and they harness you into the device. With a bungy jump, you are trussed up by your feet. With the Canyon Swing, the harness attaches to your waist. Most people who did the swing, were shaking from the adrenalin rush for a while once they were done. A couple of people were unphased and did it multiple times. One middle-aged woman who came just to watch her husband, did it herself.

2) Luge ($32)
A ski lift takes you to the top of small mountain. You ride little go carts down a paved track. It was surprisingly hairy, particularly if you're a bad driver like I am. You get five rides and you can also watch people paraglide off the top of the mountain or watch a small bungy jump that operates on the same mountain. That jump is 150 feet or about 15 stories. The free fall, time before the bungy catches you, is about 2 seconds.

3) Nevis Bungy Jump ($176)
At 134 meter, 440 feet, or 44 stories, this is the fifth highest bungy jump in the world. According the the bungy staff here are the 5 largest bungy jumps in the world:

1) Macau (230 meters)
2) South Africa (213 meters, about 77 stories) I did this one in October.
3) Switzerlad (209 meters)
4) Nepal (196 meters)
5) New Zealand, Nevis (134 meters).

*Note: Abu Dhabi is supposed to be building the world's highest bungy jump.

The Nevis is particularly unpleasant because you are jumping from a cable-car suspended over a canyon. The jump platform is about the size of a bathroom scale, just long enough for you to take two steps before you're airborne. (The South African bungy was part of a bridge and you had a nice wide platform. The Canyon swing also had a wide platform. With the Nevis, you really feel like you are walking the plank by yourself.)

In addition, when the jumper reaches the end of his free fall and the bungy cord catches them, the whole cable car jerks, as if someone had just thrown a dead body over the side.

To make matters worse, we had a freak out: one woman was harnessed up, stood on the platform, and then couldn't jump. She was terrified and rattled our whole group. It is a contagious situation almost like when there is a group of young children and one starts crying and then the rest start to cry. The rest of us were ready to cry.

For me, the anticipation is lot like the anxiety I feel before public speaking. I'm just able to contain the churning in my stomach and the shaking of my hands. But once I go, I'm fine.

I got to the edge of the bungy platform, looked down at the rocks and river below. They looked far away. The platform attendent counted to 3, I jumped and screamed as loud as I could. (I always scream.) You plummet and hit a top speed of about 90 miles an hour and then the bungy cord stops you and you bounce back up toward the platform.

One thing for those number crunchers out there: On a cost per meter basis, the Nevis is quite the rip off when you compare it to the South African bungy.
South African: $80 for 213 meters or 38 cents per meter
Nevis: $176 for 134 meters or $1.31 per meter.

By the way, the woman who freaked out, eventually jumped. She waited till everyone else had gone and then she just got on the platform and jumped. She was the bravest of all. She had gone sky diving the day before and said the bungy was much scarier.

4) River Boarding ($111)
Most activities overhype and under deliver. This one was a pleasant surprise -- everyone who did it nearly drowned and was surprised at how hard it was. River boarding is like white-water rafting without the raft. Instead of sitting in a cushy rubber boat, you ride an oversized kickboard, commonly known as a boogie board, through the waves and roiling water. (This activity was on grade 3 rapids, which is so mild as not to be not worth the bother on a raft. )

Why this was so difficult:
- the boards are hard to control in a swirling rapid filled river
- the participants were not strong swimmers (like me)
- like many activities, the guides spend a lot of time explaining the most obvious things , like follow us down the river, don't fall asleep on your board, don't pee in your wetsuit. But they don't discuss some of the more complex things. For example, at one point, a French guy, who barely spoke English, and I had to be rescued by one of the guides. We were preparing to go into a more difficult section of the river and the guide, who was also a little shaken up, told us to remember to do a "duck dive" through the next set of rapids. I had taken a surfing class and knew that a duck dive was a very specific move. (Not that I could do it). The French guy may have caught the word "duck," if he was lucky. So, he and I got a 2-minute instruction on how to do a duck dive: stay on your board and try to go under the wave of water coming your way.

Anyway, the activity was strenuous but excellent. The scenery was nice. The water was drinkable. I spent the last 20 minutes of our ride on the river, relaxing on my board and peeing in my wet suit.

- a middle-aged woman ripped open a previously stitched up gash on her nose. She got the original gash doing the 12-foot water fall on the white water rafting trip on the North Island. In her rafting incident, her boat went over the waterfall and bent in half. Her face hit the helmet of the guy in front of her. She had to go to the hospital where she received 7 or so stitches. She said her nostril was just hanging like a flap of skin. She also got a black eye. A guy on her boat broke 2 ribs. (When I did this waterfall, a woman in another boat had to be carted off. We don't know what happened to her.)
- lots of sore, cramped calf muscles.

Canyon Swing with photos

This activity is called the Canyon Swing. It is like a bungy jump, but instead of bouncing up and down when you reach the bottom, you swing back and forth. I jumped off a platform that was about 360 feet, or 36 stories, high. 

The company's marketing material includes the following quote from a customer: "Even my shit was scared."

People who are very brave jump off backwards, or with a bucket over their head, or even upside down. I am not very brave, so I went standard missionary position, jumping straight out and yelling "mommy!"

Monday, December 10, 2007

All's Well in Wellington; Night in Nelson

The next morning we were off to Wellington, the southern most major city on the North Island. It has a lively bar scene and is also the town where you catch the ferry to the South Island.

When we reached Wellington, the driver gave us a tour and we all got off the bus. To my surprise, the fireman came over and invited me to go out with the gang that night. I was sure they thought I was too old, too square, or too something to hang out with them for another evening. I, on the other hand, wasn't as friendly as they were and wasn't interested in spending another evening with them...unless I could get the Korean girl to go. I approached her. We made polite chit-chat and then I asked for the order. (I was not feeling particularly social or confident after the previous night, so this took some effort.)

"Hey, a bunch of us are going out tonight. Do you want to go?" I asked.
"I already have plans this evening. Will you be heading to Queenstown later in the week?"

Even though her English appeared to be marginal, her blow-off skills were quit sharp.

At the Hostel Bar

I went to the local gym (Les Mills, they let me in for free when I told them I was a poor American). Then I went to see movie "Into the Wild." (As good as the book) Then I went to the bar at the hostel. I spoke to a group of New Zealand airforce guys who were holding a stag party. They were all hammered. They liked me. They invited me to go with them to the section of town with all the strip joints. I did the calculations in my head: drunk military guys plus girlie joints plus hangover from night before. I passed.

Later that evening, a group of locals came in to celebrate someone's 21st birthday. Here are the highlights of the celebration:
- guy annoys girl
- girl spits on guy
- guy chases girl around bar and spits on her
- girl follows guy outside bar and throws drink on him, glass and all
- guy slaps girl in the nose
- bouncers intervene.
- I have enough entertainment for one evening and go to bed.

Nelson, South Island

Once again, we had to be up and out by 8:00 am. Being that I've been going to bed at 2:00, I've developed a routine where I'm sleeping for a few hours in the morning while we're traveling. Up to this point, I've been sleeping on the bus. Today, we took a 3-our ferry ride to the South Island. I slept the whole time. When we got back on the bus, there was a new cast of characters. Of particular interest: a very attractive woman from Holland. In Vietnam, the Dutch folks I met were among the most interesting. They also tended to be a little older and for some reason --maybe the age--I just clicked with them.

We drove for most of the day on the bus and pulled into a town called Nelson. The hostel (Paradiso, $50), was a little ways from town and most people stayed in for the evening. At 6:00, the hostel served free vegetarian soup. They also had jar of cayenne pepper. I put a teaspoon of pepper into my soup. The Dutch woman was sitting at a long table. I sat opposite her and tried to interject myself into the conversation that was going on. As I worked my through the soup, the heat from the cayenne pepper was starting build. My eyes were starting to bulge and water. My nose was starting to run. I looked like someone who had contracted Ebola virus. I was probably not making a very good impression. She asked if I was ok. I knew if I tried to talk I'd start gagging and probably spray her with soup. I nodded that I was fine.

Then everyone started preparing dinner. I left to do some laundry and buy dinner. When I got back I squeezed in next to her. We started talking. She complained about the young age of the group and how all they wanted to do was drink. She had been traveling for 6 months and had spent part of the time volunteering in an AIDs hospital in South Africa. She said in Holland typically you can take a year of unpaid sabatical after working for 5 years -- and you get your job back. She had been to Cambodia and Vietnam. We had plety to talk about. Then disappointment: She was going to stay in Nelson for another day. Nobody spends two days in Nelson. She said another Dutch girl whom she had just met was traveling solo and had glommed onto her. The glommer was upset because they weren't spending enough time together. To avoid confrontation, she decided to stay another day and let the glommer disappear on the next day's bus.

Also, at the hostel: a woman whom I had met earlier in my trip who was in her late 30's and great company. In addition, I met another "adult" woman. Both women were from England and referred to themselves as the "old birds." The three of us became fast friends.

And finally, a guy formerly from Boston who graduated college 5 years ago and has assembled a nice lifestle for himself. He lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and works in a ski shop during the winter and leads trout fishin trips in the summer. He said he typically skis over 100 days a season. (I ski a lot and barely make it to the slopes 25 days.)

Next Day

We drove to a town called Greymouth. On the way we saw some sites (pancake rocks -- large rocks in the water.) The sites bored me. I won't bore you. Greymouth is a small remote town on New Zealand's West Coast. The West Coast is known for it's coal production and coal disasters. It's got an industrial, down a the heels feel, it's kind of like the Revere of New Zealand's West Coast. Outside the hostel (Neptune's, $33) I noticed a familiar smell: rotting fish and urine. I do miss Cambodia.

More New Zealand Miscellania
- lots of people roll their own cigarettes here
- the slogan for the New Zealand armed forces: "Kiwis armed to make a difference." My question: why would you use the name of the world's most defenseless animal in your military slogan?
- sign on the wall in bathroom of our hostel: "Our hot water is produced using coal. Please take care as it can be very hot." Interesting.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

If It's Wednesday, This Must Be Taupo

I was now at a hostel called the YHA Taupo ($50)

Taupo is small town on a massive lake. The scenery inspired me and I went running for the first time in 5 days. (my sciatica was still active but much better. )

One thing worth noting: On these bus tours, the crowd on the bus changes constantly, which has its good and bad points. If you meet a group you don't like, you may only be stuck with them for a couple of nights. If you meet a group you like, you may split up and not see them again.

My bus group at this point was on the young side, big drinkers, and I didn't really bond with them.

The cast:
- Brother and sister from Brazil
Most of us thought they were a couple until they each started hitting on other people.
- The untouchables
Two very attractive women, who were nice enough but none of the guys really had a shot with them.
- The Irish girls
Fun, loud, hard drinking, not so attractive. Capable of a serious conversation when separated from the group.
- English fireman
Life of the party. Looked older than the girls, but bless his heart, he had them all going. He was very funny and a nice guy. And he could drink a lot.
- Korean girl
I'm think I'm developing a thing for Asians. Not really part of the group. Unclear who she socialized with. Her English was marginal, which meant she came across as aloof and lacking in social skills. We obviously had a lot in common.
- Bus driver
Loved driving big rigs like trucks and buses. He'd been doing it for 11 years. He was also a big drinker. He and the English guy got along famously.

A Night Out

The bus driver told us about a restaurant that would offer us a discount. The Korean girl had not decided to show up at my door in her lingerie, so I was free for the evening.

I went to the restaurant. The group (everyone but the Korean girl and bus driver) went and sat in the back of the restaurant at a big table. I didn't feel that comfortable around the group, so I joined the driver who was sitting at the bar. (The Korean girl didn't come out with us.) He talked about trucks, buses, differentials, transmissions, how some rigs have 18 gears and some have less. I listened. At least I was not sitting there by myself. I was thinking of suggesting we join the group when he suggested it first.

At the dinner table, I spoke to one of the Irish girls and she said the following about why divorce is so low in Ireland:
- people marry late, typically in late 20's.
- they usually marry someone they've been dating for more than 5 years
- by law to divorce someone, you have to be separated for 7 years.

Other useful information I picked up during dinner:
- women who wear g-strings can use a single pair for 6 days. (apparently, you use a different corner of the g-string each day. Then turn it inside out and repeat.)
- Australians and New Zealanders seem to suffer from some sexual confusion. The men call each other "cunts." Women are often referred to as "mate" by business and service personnel. For example, our bus driver often said things to the girls like "Can I help you with that suitcase, mate."

After dinner, the group went to a bar next store. I followed. The DJ was playing hip hop. I don't like hip hop. The group went out on the dance floor and danced together. I followed. Each guy in the group danced into the center of the group and performed some macho feat. The bus driver did a one-armed push-up and a one-legged squat. Impressive. The fireman put a pack of cigarettes on the ground, stood and spread his legs, and bent over and grabbed the cigarette pack with his mouth. I did nothing. It was time for me to move on.

I circulated and started talking to a couple from San Diego. The guy and I spoke about the Red Sox and Patriots. The girl had a nose ring that made her look like a bull. She got bored with us and went to the bathroom. In passing, the guy mentioned that she was his "kind of girlfriend" and that their relationship was on it's way out. I got the impression she wasn't aware of this development. I find it interesting how people (including me) will disclose these kinds of personal details to complete strangers.

The girlfriend came back. The three of us hung out for a while. She is one of the first girls with a nose ring that I've ever found attractive. I kept that information to myself and went home.

The Next Day

We were back on the bus and some bonding had apparently taken place the night before. The fireman and the Brazillian girl were now an item. Her brother was making the moves on one of the Irish girls, but it wasn't going so well. Apparently, he's 16. The girl is in her late 20's and very conservative. At least I wasn't the only one going empty handed.

High Speed Powerboats ($89)

I signed up for a jet boat ride, one of New Zealand's well-known adventure activities. The boats have huge engines and can hit speeds of about 50 miles an hour. They can ride in water a shallow as 4 to 5 inches. The highpoint of the ride is when the driver spins the boat around in a 360 degree turn. Everyone gets wet. The Korean girl, one of the Irish girls, and I were the only ones who signed up for this. The ride was fun but not all it was hyped up to be. After the ride, I was hanging around the restaurant overlooking the river. The Korean girl came in and sat down at a table nearby. She asked me to sit with her. We chit-chatted. She said she had quit her corporate job because had turned her into a workaholic and an alcoholic. She sounded like a partier. She sounded available. She sounded interesting.

Maori Dinner; Grumpy Mole

A few "facts" about the Maori people that I picked from various sources.
- Like the American Indian, the Eskimo, and the Australian Aboriginie, the Maori are an oppressed, depressed indigineous group displaced by ambitious aggressive white folks
- They have a higher than average rate of obesity, poverty, and alcoholism.
- They are of Polynesian descent, like the Tongans, Hawaiians, and Samoans
- the movie "Whale Rider" was about Maori people.
- a hangi is a special barabeque native to the Maori (food is cooked in an open pit that is covered with dirt.)
- Haka is a Maori war cry, a variation is used by the New Zealand rugby team.

The Maori Dinner

This was a dinner show with a Maori master of ceremonies who told jokes and led a tradional Maori dance ceremony. As I entered the event, I gave my ticket to the hostess and ask for a table with attractive single women in there late 30's and 40's. She gave me a sadistic laugh and seated me at a table with a bunch of couples, including one that was celebrating their anniversary. Neither the bride nor groom looked old enough to shave. The show wasn't bad but I felt bad for the performers, who once owned New Zealand and who were now reduced to doing goofy shows for white tourists. Still, it could have been worse and the food and company was good.

Nature Walk

After dinner, those of us who paid for the VIP treatment got a tour of the nature preserve. The highlight was the kiwis, a distant cousin of the ostrich. The birds are nocturnal and are the silliest looking animal I've ever seen. A kiwi looks like a large chicken with a Beatles' haircut. The birds weigh about 20 pounds and were scurrying around in their pens doing the things that captive kiwis do in their spare time: poking the ground, looking for bugs, hiding from tourists. The flightless, virtually defenseless, birds are endangered, so we were not allowed to touch or shoot at any of them.

When I got back to my hotel it was 11:30 and I was in the mood for one last beer.
I went down the street to a place called the Grumpy Mole. The place was virtualy empty except a few kids dancing and a huge Maori bouncer who was about the size of a grand piano.

I bought a beer and stood at the bar taking everything in. A 49-year old drunken woman came into the bar and ordered a drink. She started a conversation. She was from New Zealand, worked as a security guard, and had grown children. She told me her age. I told her mine. We toasted. She invited me to dinner the next day. I told I would be leaving town but thanked her for her offer. She kept talking. I smiled politely. She said she was from New Zealand. She said she had grown children and worked as a security guard. She asked me if I wanted to have dinner the next day. This was all starting to sound familiar. I told her I was leaving town and thanked her. She kept talking. She said she was from New Zealand... I excused myself to go to the bathroom.

I got back to my room at 1:00 am. I put on my headlamp and read. I was asleep by 2:00 and had to get up at 7:00 am to catch the bus to my next destination a town called Taupo.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Black Water, White Water

Black Water Tubing:

The first stop on the bus was a town called Waitomo that has caves that you can wade and inner-tube through. The trip lasts about 2 hours. (I have the price in my notes somewhere.)

To tube you need the right attire. My outfit consisted of the following:
- crash helmet with headlamp
- loose fitting wet suit pants, tight fitting wet suit jacket
- wet suit booties
- white ankle high wellie-style boots

- Cold Water: you spend half the time in the cave in water up to your chest that is about 40 degrees farenheit. I was shaking about halfway through.
- Glow worms: These are actually fly maggots that glow in the dark.
- 5-foot backwards drop off: You're at the top of a small waterfall and you jump off, backwards.
- 10-foot slide with rocks all around. A little hairy.

Then we arrived in a town called Rotorua, where I would spend the next two nights. My hostel was called Treks. (2 nights for $100). I booked some events for the following day: White water rafting (about $65) in the morning at 8:00 and Maori dinner show, plus a nature tour of nocturnal animals (together for the low price of about $72.)

Later that evening, I was in the mood to socialize. After dinner I went looking for a bar with some people. Most places were empty except for an open mic night costing $5 at the door -- no way. Around the corner was small bar called Scotty's. The bartender was playing classic rock music from the '60s and '70s. Sitting at the bar was a friendly, elderly tourist couple. Next to them was the winner of the Neil Young look-alike contest. He had long gray hair, a leather jacket. We talked about old bands for about 1.5 hours.

Next I went to a bar with all my backpacker contemporaries. The crowd was a little too young for me. I approached a young woman with whom I had sat with during our lunch stop earlier during the day. She had no use for me. I circled the bar aimlessly for another 5 minutes and left. I went home to read my new book, a novel called "Apathy." The light in my room didn't work very well. I remembered the headlamps from black water tubing. I rummaged through my knapsack and found my camping headlamp. I strapped it to my bald head and read. I fell asleep at around 2:00.

White Water Rafting

Six hours later, I was on the shuttle bus to the white water rafting site on the Kaituna river. (tour is run by a company called Raftabout.) The rapids were rated level 5, the scariest level offered commercially. (the river is really only level 3 but it includes what the rafting company claims is a 21-foot waterfall. The water fall is more like 12-feet high.)

The outfit:
- baggy, cold, wet wetsuit pants
- wetsuit booties
- fleecey top that keeps you warm but gets wet
- helmet
- life jacket

Then we got some preliminary instruction, including
How to go over a waterfall:
- get down in raft (normally you ride sitting on the side and paddling)
- hold a rope on the outside of the raft with your paddle hand
- grab a rope on the bottom of the boat
- put your chin down so it doesn't whack the helmet of the person in front of you.
- if you fall in, assume a tuck position and you will pop to the surface.

As we approached the waterfall, our guide asked if anyone was too afraid and wanted to get out of the boat and hike instead; we would pick them up later. He referred to this form of pussing out as "taking the Aussie trek." (New Zealanders have a little brother complex when it comes to Australia. They are always taking little jabs at them.)

Nobody got out of the boat, so it was time to go over the waterfall. We rested on the side of the waterfall and watched the boat ahead of us disappear over the waterfall. They came out just fine. Piece of cake.

Unfortunately, from where were were, you couldn't really see how high it was. We paddled up to the edge and our guide told us to assume the position. The last thing I remember is our raft heading straight down, completely vertical. The raft plunged under water and were all completely submerged. Then the raft surfaced as it's supposed to, but some roiling water on our right side flipped the boat over and tossed us all into the water. I tucked and popped to the surface in time to see our guide flipping the boat over and onto my head. Now I was trapped under the boat. I started to panic but was able to swim out from under the boat. The guide grabbed me by the lapels of my life jacket and lifted me into the boat.

We were all in our raft just in time to see the folks behind us get flipped. One girl (blond, cute, too young for me) emerged from the water with a bloody lip. She looked partially in shock, as if she had just been in a car accident. One of the guides carted her off and we never saw her again. The rest of the rafting was pretty dull. I was home by noon.

I went for lunch at a cute place called the Fat Dog Cafe. With all the nice wood and healthy menu, it reminded me of a place you might find in Burlington, Vermont.

New Zealand; Sciatica; Fat Camel

Qantas Flight to Auckland, NZ

My flight to New Zealand took about 3 hours and plus a 3-hour time difference. The plane was another Boeing 747 Jumbo jet, the giant plane with the world's most cramped seats.

On take off, there was a clear liquid leaking from the ceiling above the aisle next to me. Minutes later, there was a second leak over the people in front of me. Hopefully, the liquid was not from the fuel tank or from the toilet. The seatbelt sign was on. I rang the flight attendant call button. No response. I rang again. No response. No surprise. Fifteen minutes later, the seatbelt lights went off and a perturbed flight attendent went looking for the button pusher. (I was sitting in economy with the rest of the trouble makers and low-lifes.) The flight attendent said the fluid was just condensation. She gave me a look as if I had just pulled a fake fire alarm. Once the plane stopped climbing, the leaking stopped. As I've said before, the service on most airlines sucks.

Biohazard at the Airport

Like Australia, New Zealand has very strict laws to prevent the introduction of biological pests into the country. (Human pests are fine as long as they're loaded tourists.) This means you can't bring even a piece of fruit from another country, including Australia. The New Zealand airport even had a large display case with the exact bottle of cobra and scorpion wine that I wanted to bring back to the U.S. when I was in Vietnam. At the luggage carousel, a uniformed guy leading a beagle around asked us all to put our carry-on bags on the ground so the dog could sniff them. The dog made a beeline for a young couple next to me. He sniffed the girl's bag and sat down expecting a treat. Busted. The uniformed guy told the woman to empty her bag. Then he questioned her. Her bag was clean but she said she had an orange in there the day before. Then the dog stopped in front of her boyfriend's bag and sat down. The boyfriend said he also had an orange the day before. On the ball, these New Zealand sniffer dogs.

Over the last week in Australia, I developed a burning sensation going from my lower back and down the back of my leg. I get this periodically -- it's sciatica. Usually, I exercise through it and it clears up in two weeks. When I got off the plane, my back was in flames.

I took the local bus to my hostel, The Fat Camel ($56 a night, in Auckland's backpacker area.) It was exactly what my place in Melbourne wasn't: fun and social. I dumped my stuff in my room and went to their bar. It was hopping and the people were friendly. My drinking buddies for the evening were a 37-year old Scotsman who I could barely understand because of his accent and and 25-year-old local who worked for the bungy jumping company in Auckland. (He hooked people up in their harnesses and then tossed them off the bridge in the center of the city.)

After a few beers, the Scotsman disappeared. Then the 25-year-old asked me if I wanted to try a shot called a Yaeger Bomb. I said "sure." The bomb was a large shot glass filled with a dark liquid. In the center of the glass was a smaller shot glass filled with an even darker liquid. He said you have to drink it all it once. We clinked glasses and gulped the drinks. Not bad, kind of sweet. "So, what's in it?," I asked. Yaegermeister, a licorice-like liquer, and Red Bull, a beverage with so much caffeine it's outlawed in some places. Being that I never drink caffeine because a cup of coffee in the morning keeps me up all night, I figured I'd be up all night anyway, so I decided to make the most of it. So, I had a couple more beers with him and then went for a 1:00 am hamburger at a seedy mobile burger van. Note: New Zealanders like their hamburgers with a fried egg.

Eventually, I got to sleep, but the sciatica woke me up a couple of times. I took some ibuprofen. The next day I took ibuprofen every 6 hours. The day after, my symptoms were under control.

Prices in New Zealand:
- the New Zealand doller is worth 80 cents
- hostel was $56
- a beer is about $5 to $6
- dinner out is about $12

The hostel had a well-organized travel office in the lobby. They helped me reserve a seat an on again, off again tour called the Magic Bus, which stops at major spots along various routes in the North and South islands of New Zealand. I chose a 14 day trip that terminates in Christchurch with a flight back to Auckland on 12/19. These low-wage hostel employees could teach the airlines a little something about service.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Australia 101; Perfect Storm

Australia for Dummies (stuff I didn't know)

The Commonwealth:
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and a bunch of other countries are part of the British Commonwealth. That means:
- they still worship the Queen of England and think the royal family is a big joke
- the highest court for all these countries, akin to the Supreme Court, is in England
- all of these countries have their own Prime Minister but there is also a representative from the U.K. in each country. The representative in some cases can step in and run things.

Boxing Day:
You know that weird holiday that occurs after Christmas that is on almost every calendar you buy in the U.S.? In an informal survey done by Randystravels, most Australians didn't know its origins or even why it was called Boxing Day. All they knew was it was the day after Christmas, it was a holiday, and it was another excuse to get hammered. Boxing day goes way back to feudal times and tradionally, land owners would give serfs used Christmas boxes with some coins in them as a thank you. (Kind of like slave appreciation day.)

Is a state in Australia.

Flies in Melbourne:
Melbourne is a clean, beautiful, modern city, except for one thing: in the summer the place is invaded by flies. You'll see women decked out in the finery walking down the streets swatting away as if they were bushwacking through Maine during black fly season. Swatting the flies is called doing "the Aussia wave."

Night Sounds of Surfers Paradise

Whoosh, Whoosh:
At night you can see and hear giant fruit bats flying around in the trees. The things look like huge black cats with wings and they are so large they leave a shadow on the ground.

Wahh, Wahh:
Drunken coed crying jag. Usually, after 11:00 you start to hear girls who have had to much to drink crying on their friends shoulders about something. One conversation I overheard, the girl was crying because someone had the nerve to call her immature. The nerve indeed...

Tattoos and Exotic Hairdoos
I have never seen so many wild hair spikey hair cuts, piercings, and tattoos -- even on people over 40. With unemployment less than 5 percent, one can only surmise that the country has a lot record stores and software companies that can employ these people.

Silly Names for Places: Another Vestige of Australia's English Heritage

These were all stops on the train to the Melbourne airport
Gymple North

Drought in Australia

The country is experiencing a severe drought so they have taken various measures to preserve water:
- signs in hotels and public places telling you how to do everything from shower to shave to flush the toilet.
- toilets: as in Asia, the toilet flush mechanism has two buttons: one for a half flush and the other for a full flush. There are also trough urinals. These are cleaner than those in Asia, but you still end up getting your shoes all wet and sticky.

Spiciest Dish of My Trip
So far, to get enough fire in my food I've had to add hot peppers or some kind of fiery spice. When I ordered the Chilly Chicken from a Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne called Bismi's Goldan Fork (spelling is correct), I didn't need to add anything -- it was hot as hell!

Why Things Went so Badly in Australia: The Perfect Storm

Due to a combination of poor planning on my part and some bad luck, Australia was pretty much a bust.
- Bad planning part 1: originally, I had planned to take a tour called the Great Ocean Road. When I got to my hostel they had one crappy 3-day trip. I wanted something longer, but it was approaching high season and I didn't want to risk ending up on a park bench, so I looked for other options and grabbed the first one that looked easy -- Surfers Paradise. I took a little risk and lost.
- Bad planning part 2, Hostels: Since my one bad experience with a dorm room, I've always gotten my own room. When I did an online search for hostels at, I couldn't find many hostels offering that option in Melbourne. The hostel I found was nice enough but there was minimal social interaction.
- Bad planning part 3, Hostel/Tour Combo: Like South Africa and New Zealand, Australia has a bus/hostel arrangement that goes all the way up the Eastern coast. I just didn't know about it and didn't think to ask. (It's called the Oz Bus). Oh, well.
- Violation of my primary rule of traveling solo: Never, ever, stay in a big anonymous hotel in a Western city for more than a day or two. I stayed in Surfers Paradise for 8 days. I booked my trip on for 8 days and couldn't change it without huge hassles.
- Bad Luck: the travel knowledge of hostel I found in Melbourne was limited. Surprisingly, they didn't mention Oz bus and didn't have literature for it. In addition, the more social/party hostels were booked.
- More Bad Luck: I couldn't have picked a worse spot than Surfers Paradise. But once I got there, I noticed that there was a hostel right next to my hotel. Oh, well.