Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Taking a Breather in Nelson

When you're a long-distance marathon traveler putting weekly/monthly notches on your belt and watching a succession of stranger's bedrooms slip by, any modicum of familiarity is welcome. Especially welcome are the comforts of family friends, an almost-home away from home.

Nearly 2 months after I'd left the US, I arrived in Nelson and heaved a sigh of relief. I'd been there once before with my family to see the G's, long-time friends. We'd done lots of sightseeing and marveled over the town's laid back nature. And now that I was back, the pressure was off. I didn't have any plans or feel I had to see anything and everything. I could borrow a bike to tool around town and peek into bookstores and bakeries, sleep late, read on the shady back deck facing the Mai Tai river, and plan my text move.

And so, for the next week, that's exactly what I did. I visited with the various members of the G family, in town from the US and other parts of New Zealand; went to the remnants of the Busker's Festival (which I'd first seen in Christchurch) when they came through one evening; explored the city. One day I walked down the river to swim at the swimming hole with 15 adolescent boys who dared each other to jump off higher and higher trees into the cool water. Another day I biked all over the flower-lined town, to art galleries, a little museum, and a highly recommended coffee shop painted bright colors. I discovered a calligraphy school run by a British man and his Japanese wife, who was from the same town in Japan that I would later visit with JJ. I marveled at the WOW fashion/classic car museum, which featured fantastical outfits and gorgeous cars. And, as a special treat to myself, I splurged on a day trip to Abel Tasman park, where I tried sea kayaking for the first time and loved it.

Nelson, lined with flowers

The Mai Tai swimming hole

The Nelson Japanese calligraphy school

From the WOW Classic Car and Wearable Fashion Museum-- some of my favorites:

I want this car one day

Did somebody say "Bingo"?

This is a flapper dress made entirely of cotton swabs! (Look closely!)
Abel Tasman

The morning rain made it seem like it would be a disappointing day, but in the end the weather cleared.

And we saw seals...

Peeked into hidden, eroded coves in the coast...

And kayak sailed back into port.

On the day before my departure I got up early and visited the Nelson Sunday market, a fantastic specimin featuring everything from homespun wool sweaters to artisan cheese to woven baskets to pet rocks. An hour browsing the merchandise, chatting with the salespeople, and having fresh coffee and crepes for breakfast, got me prepared to leave the comfortably relaxing weigh station that Nelson had been for me and ready to make the leap to the next stop-- all the way to the north island and my last weeks in New Zealand.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The perils of Chinese internet

Boy, it has been a really, really long time since I've had internet access in any significant way. And today the trend continues! However, I am heading to Hanoi, Vietnam on a night plane tonight (along with my intrepid parents!) and we will have a computer wired to the internet in our room. So: fingers crossed! If all goes well there should be a lot of photo-rich entries coming your way.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sweet tweet

Yes, I'll admit it. I have indeed jumped on the bandwagon (or fallen off it, depending on your feelings) and joined Twitter. What began as a personal do-whatever-write-whatever account has transformed into an almost-live short-version of this blog. I know that entries here can be few and far between (although I'm certainly working on that and hoping I can change for the better), so if you're hankering for more you can always head over to and keep track of me hour-by-hour. Wondering what country I'm in now (by the way, the answer is: China, near the Tibetan border)? Twitter can tell you! And I'm going to start posting when there's a new blog entry up, so it should all work together fabulously.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sealed with a Kiss: 36 hours in Kaikoura

In the march of "active vacation destinations," there are those that set Gold Standard-- offering cheap and plentiful activities-- and then there are that group's lesser brethren, either offering only a smattering of cheap adventures or an abundance of expensive ones. Kaikoura, two hours up the coast from Christchurch, fell into the last category. Almost everything to do in the town was way above my price range. So when, the morning after Waitangi Day, I hopped a bus 2 hours up the (stunning) New Zealand coast to Kaikoura, I knew I couldn't spend very much time there. I had already decided that I would only take advantage of one of the panoply of exciting opportunities available, from kayaking trips to dolphin swimming to whale watching, and I knew that if I stayed longer than a night or two I would be tempted to keep spending.

View from the bus en route to Kaikoura

If the above activity roster didn't give it away, Kaikoura is famous for its marine life-- I had the tectonic complexities spelled out for me a couple of times, but suffice it to say that the way the mountains plunge directly into the sea creates an incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem. Out of all the expensive ways to experience this diversity I had chosen seal swimming. Although it has been something of a dream of mine to swim with dolphins, I figured there would be many other places and opportunities for this dream to come true. Swimming with seals, on the other hand, struck me as less common, especially outside New Zealand. So to Kaikoura I came, ready to shell out for a magical experience and maybe bumble over another adventure in the meantime.

I arrived at my hostel mid-morning and just had time to cram down a "Salisbury steak sandwich" (i.e. new Zealand hamburger) at a flea market happening nearby before heading for the seals. At the company's headquarters in little downtown Kaikoura, we were provided with wet suits and snorkels and advised on basic seal behavior, a briefing that basically boiled down to: don't challenge their territory, don't touch unless they touch you, don't get between a mother and her pup.

At the swim point we were motored out about 1000 meters from shore to a large rock where a colony of seals lived. The deep green water was still a little choppy from the morning's wind but calming by the second. This was where it occurred to me that I should have bought an underwater camera in Australia and used in on the Great Barrier Reef and then here. But alas, it was not to be.

Unfortunately this is the best seal shot I can offer you. After this I jumped into the water...

The bay was so cold it left me gasping for breath in my wet suit. After the bathwater temperatures of Australian Ocean, I wasn't expecting such cold water. But after a few minutes my body adjusted and I started to admire my surroundings. We were swimming above a thick forest of kelp, a view almost exactly like an IMAX movie I saw once, the fronds swaying languidly in the current. Although they were nothing but playful and curious, being at such close proximity to so many seals was scary at first. I remembered the guide saying that seals are extremely adept in the water, and I couldn't help but think how un-adept I was in comparison. And all the time the waves were constantly pushing me toward the large rock, which we had been warned not to approach to closely in order not to infringe on the bull seals' territory.

After awhile I was able to maintain a constant position against most of the waves, and that's when I realized that the seals swimming around, under, across me were just curious, just playing. Several of them seemed to like to shoot at incredible speed through the kelp several feet below me, breaking rapidly to change directions and nose to the surface. Another watched me upside down from not far away, hanging in the water with it's tail just breaking the surface. And then there was a family around me, a bull and a mother and a pup, and they were surrounding me on all sides swimming and twisting, their big liquid eyes searching me out. The pup put its tail in its mouth and started propelling itself around in circles in a little ball, bubbles fizzing to the surface, looking at me as if to say "Can you do that?" Of course I couldn't, and it wasn't until I almost opened my mouth to say so that I realized, with shear joy, that they weren't just playing. They were playing WITH me. I swam in a circle; the pup swam in a circle. I did a somersault, the pup dove backwards, and then with a splash they were gone.

The entire experience was exhilarating.

After showering and changing clothes at my hostel, I spent the night wandering the little main street, which mostly featured overpriced meals angled at tour groups. I looked into a few stores full of tacky souvenirs, then went into a"trash fashion" show in an art gallery, featuring clothing made from found/recycled items. My favorite:

A dress made out of a waiter's apron and menus
I finally found a reasonable fish and chips joint (which is where I drank the Lemon & Paeroa featured in the last entry) and had taken my food outside to eat in the waning light when I heard singing. The sounds were foreign but slightly familiar, and at length I was able to identify where I had heard it before--the day before at the Waitangi celebration.

Night had fallen and I was cold, so I bought a cup of tea at the restaurant next door and settled in to enjoy a kapahaka or traditional Maori song/dance performance, this one also celebrating Waitangi Day. There were something like 10 or 15 performers, mostly female, swaying their hips and arms and singing strong and plain melodies interwoven with surprisingly sweet harmony. At one point they pulled out their poi, pairs of soft balls attached by string and swung in intricate patterns that those of you familiar with fire twirling practices will recognize.

From one of the tacky souvenir shops: the exoticized Maori, sold to promote tourism and make money

Real Maori, practicing their own traditions in their own ways

The night was only getting colder, so I moved farther inside the open cafe and ended up sharing a table with Tiffany, an exchange student from Georgia Tech. We shared our admiration and curiousity about the performance. Tiffany was not as shy or self conscious as I was, and before long she was at the head table asking the performers all sorts of questions about Maori culture. Some part of me, the part that is a trained anthropologist, was embarassed, feeling that she was crossing some sort of invisible line. But in the end we were sitting at that table with the leader of the kapahaka and her parents, talking about America and New Zealand, Maori life and traditions, the things we had in common.

Tiffany and our two new Maori friends

The night wore on and we all got more comfortable with each other, chatting and laughing, the akwardness of before erased by time and cold beer. Instead, there was a wonderfully horrible Maori karaoke session with a singer from Christchurch performing over prerecorded tracks, there was dancing, and then somehow I found myself teaching a good 5 or 6 Maori to do the electric slide. Not a bad way to finish of my Kaikoura adventure-- the next morning I caught a bus to Blenheim, and then on to Nelson, for fear that if I stayed any longer either the whales or dolphins would have won me over to another day in the ocean.

The scenery heading out of town was just as good as coming in

Friday, April 10, 2009

Mint-as, bru!

Out having dinner in Kaikoura one night (entry forthcoming), I decided to sample a local soft drink. "Lemon and Paeroa" (better known as L&P) is apparently the official sports drink of backyard cricket, a fact I discovered while reading the label. I not only did not know what backyard cricket was-- I also found I could barely muddle through the entire label text. And so I present to you The Best Example of Kiwi English, Possibly Ever:

"As the official sports drink of backyard cricket, we've got heaps of mint-as gears taking up space in the tool shed-- so instead of hiffing it out, we're dishing it out. We've got BYC packs with bats and balls... and chilly-wickets (that's our flash name for chilly bins with wickets painted on them.). But hang on, it gets even way minter! There's also three 'choice-as' BYC weekends away for you and whichever five friends suck up to you the most. So find the fancy code on this bottle, then bash out a text or enters on the intertron."

Say whaaaaat?

(More Kaikoura coming to you after these messages)