Sunday, November 2, 2008

The End (Is The Beginning Is The End...)

So I'm sitting here, and Bloc Party is playing ("Do you wanna come over / and kill some time..."). My feet have grown irrepairably smelly since I arrived in Dunedin, but only with the exemplary weather of the past few weeks has their ripe cheese odor authoritatively announced itself. There is a stack of twenty books behind me on the floor. Aside from "Robinson Crusoe" and "Humphry Clinker," I have no idea which others I also want to leave behind. Should I bring home my "Rough Guide to New Zealand"? On the one hand, if I ever need such a travel guide again the year will be somewhere around 2025 and half of this country's now-touted coastal sights will be underwater. On the other... I've grown to love that damned book!

My bedding was turned in yesterday a few hours after I passed my room inspection by a former Professor who spent ten minutes declaring I was "the uncannily spitting image of a former student of mine... Mark (somethingorother)? You know him? Played rugby? Ah, well, I supposed we've all got a twin somewhere out there, haven't we now? One time my wife went back to Ireland, and you wouldn't believe..." Anyway, the point is I don't have pillows anymore, so my monstrous snow jacket and Otago sweatshirt are rolled up into quite the uncomfortable lump where my head goes.

The walls are bare (save for the frequent knick or scratch, which makes them even MORE bare, you know?), as are the bookshelves.

I've said goodbye to everyone noteworthy.

I'm wondering who's going to be in here next.

My camera is charging for its voyage to Fiji.

And all of these trivialities are being painstakingly carried out in order to keep my mind off of the future. It's looming just out of reach, like a soft white cloud that could either float by merrily or turn into one devil of a thunderstorm.

Now I'll see you all even sooner than the last time I said this.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Bum Life

I don't really know how I'd even begin to go about summarizing the past two weeks in an interesting narrative (probably not a good sign for my writing aspirations), but I figure I need to post something about Australia, so here we are. 6:00 am is never a reasonable time to wake up, but it was necessary to catch our bus to Christchurch, where we'd then fly to Sydney. My traveling companions were Sarah and Shannon (my flatmate). We were traveling on Emirates, which is an Arabic airline. Nothing printed inside the plane was legible, the flight attendants all wore small red hats and white shawls, and the ceiling of the cabin was decked out in thousands of little LED lights that twinkled like stars in the dark. Crazy. Also, their entertainment package was really good, and I watched episodes of "Arrested Development" for the entire three-hour flight.

Arriving in Sydney was like experiencing the culture shock that I'd been saving for America a few weeks early. As mentioned previously, I've grown accustomed to New Zealand's way of living without even realizing it, and returning to the scene of a bustling metropolis on a mass of land roughly the same size as the continental United States was overwhelming. So many people! And buildings! And 7-11s! I don't even want to get into my trip to the supermarket (labeled Woolworth's in OZ), which provided me for 13 short days with all the bunches of Cilantro I could ask for, cheap meat, wholewheat pasta, regular sandwich mustard, stick deodorant, and grapes. Withdrawals have already set in... again.

Anyway, Sydney was pretty much exactly how one would imagine Sydney, with architecturally sound buildings (all tinted a reddish color... but again, isn't that how you imagine buildings in Australia?), kebab shops everywhere, and the Opera House jutting authoritatively into a Harbour filled with sharks and dolphins. An interesting note on the Opera House: in pictures, its roof looks like a white, shiny shell, but in reality there is an intricately detailed mess of black lines that criss-crosses its tiled bulk repeatedly, and the color of the whole contraption is more like a cream or something (I don't know my colors). There was more than enough stuff to do for a few days, and we hit up the city's aquarium (#1 worldwide) and Museum of Contemporary Art for like a day apiece. Sydney was also where we met Stephen, a twenty-year-old on leave from Iraq for three weeks. His presence was interesting (mostly because I don't know any other soldiers in Iraq), and since we ended up spending about a third of our time with him, I now have a completely new insight into what's going on in that crazy desert on the other side of the world. Needless to say, we left him yesterday with me feeling very, very sorry for the guy.

Seeing as we were only stationed in a hostel for three out of our thirteen nights in Australia, I suppose it's time for me to illustrate our Wicked van. Wicked Travel is a company that rents out campervans to unsuspecting tourists looking for a cheap ride. They come equipped with front seats, a steering wheel, a bed/table contraption in the middle, and a rudimentary kitchen in back (complete with a hand-pump sink). The icing on these ancient Wicked cakes, though, is that each van sports a unique illustration on both sides to help give one's road trip some character. Ours featured the giant mug of a clearly shady (did I just discover a new oxymoron?!) man with the words "Jim's Muff Management" printed in enormous black letters. Below, Jim's various services were listed: laser hair removal, electrolysis, plucking, cutting and styling, and permanent hair removal. Needless to say, we attracted many stares, incited numerous remarks, and provided a backdrop for many hasty photos.

We would park to sleep in national forests, residential neighborhoods, information center parking lots, and along the beach whenever possible. Our first four days behind the wheel saw nothing but blinding rain, so the beach was avoided in favor of forests (and their accompanying spiders), the tallest tree in New South Whales, and a lot of card playing (by candle light, which induced 10 pm bedtimes and 6:55 am wake-ups... my biological clock right now is all kinds of messed up), which quickly escalated from games like "Asshole" and "Spoons" to "Flaming Asshole" (as tempers flared) and "Poons" (in Honor of Jim and our muff-mobile). I was eaten alive by mosquitos (which have an unmistakable burn to their bite overseas) and pestered by Shannon, who is the single biggest negative force I've ever encountered in my life, and who brought down the "cool factor" that Sarah and I were trying so hard for by, like, ninety percent. I'd fall asleep at night enraged by her idiocy, wake up at dawn even more upset (as she'd taken to ruining my dreams, as well), and then have to deal with the real-life version all day long in a terribly confined space. The next time any of you see me and want a better explanation, I'll be more than happy to divulge the details. For now, here's a picture of her stupid face:

And she wants to be a heart surgeon?!?!

The sun finally came out at Byron Bay, a gloriously attractive, alternative community on a beautiful stretch of beach surrounded by tropical vegetation. It was there that we paid for our only night of legal sleeping ($12 each), and I took the first of three showers during my entire OZ stay. I also burned myself stupid, and spent the next four nights sleeping semi-upright to avoid even slightly touching my purple (yes, purple) sides. They're just now beginning to peel (blistering came first), and they added a whole new dimension of misery to sleeping long-ways in a stuffy European van (after the first night, of course, when Shannon had the brilliant idea to make us all sleep SHORT-ways, which she loudly pawned off on Sarah the next day as our legs, backs, and necks agonized). Our 900-kilometer trek ended at Gold Coast (Surfer's Paradise, specifically), which was seeing up to four-hour traffic delays due to the city's transformation into an Indy raceway. Highlights of the region included Movie World (I successfully resisted the urge to make Disneyland comparisons until leaving the park, but Shannon adopted a heavy frown and called everything "really stupid" from Batman: The Ride 2 [rides can have sequels?!?] to Lethal Weapon: The Roller Coaster). We returned the van in downdown Brisbane dirty, tired, aggravated, and having had an incredible time.

In terms of wildlife, I saw kangaroos (of both the living and roadkill variety), koalas (only roadkill variety), terrifying spiders (one had spun a thick white "X" into the middle of its web), and enormous fruit bats (they kept us up all night during a massive thunderstorm as they swooped and shrieked over unsuspecting prey). With the help of a Diggery Doo CD purchased at a massive TurkFest in downtown Sydney, our adventure took on a serious Australian theme, and I feel as if I've thoroughly explored a small fraction of the country.

This whole post has been kind of a broad generalization about everything that went down, which makes me regret delivering a relatively unauthentic description of it. Time, however, is short. I have TEN DAYS (holy balls!) left in New Zealand before beginning my return journey to the US, and I don't really know what's going on. Never before has uncertainty been so marvelous and terrifying at the same time. I've reached a point where I'm going to be sad to leave New Zealand no matter how much longer I stay, so it might as well be now when I'm still excited to come home. I used to think getting older would solve all of life's issues, but now I know (or I'm fairly sure I know...?) that maturity only reveals our existence for the chaotic, barely-held-together-by-reason jumble that it is (and that's not supposed to come across as negative as it sounds). If my perceptions of the world, myself, and my friends and family were clarified and strengthened before Australia, coming back to New Zealand after being abroad in yet another country has tweaked them even more. I don't know how it's going to be possible to return to Oregon the same person I was when I left, because life is so much more fun (and rewarding) if I treat it like a grand experience that I'm indescribably (and improbably) lucky to be having. With such an outlook, playing the quiet kid in class who disdains everyone else is harder, if only because it's such a waste of time (unless one is productive with the observations it yields). I want to try being the crazy one now, dammit! I'm only young once, and I only have like 2 more years to do whatever I want (as long as I get good grades, of course) before some amount of acquiesence to the routine world of grown-ups becomes mandatory. Ahhhhh.

So that about covers it. I might post one more time right before I leave. If not, I'll see you all soon. Thanks for sticking with me.

Narrator's Voice: And so it was... the end of his Great New Zealand Adventure.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nature 3.0

If I asked you, my dearest friends and relatives, to make a blind promise to me right now that would fulfill your soul's quest for enlightenment AND require only a few thousand dollars to see through, would you do it? Please say yes. The feeling's worth every penny, there's no preaching involved, and holding hands while singing with a bunch of strangers isn't necessary. But here I am getting ahead of myself...

Friday dawned oddly. I woke up an hour earlier than usual, which (as we all know) is strange enough in itself. Everything's slightly colder, there are less breakfast dishes stacked in the sink, and the shower walls aren't yet covered in nasty long hair. There had been a pre-party party in our living room the night before (an extraordinary event in itself), so in a paradoxical complement to the unusual cleanliness of the kitchen sink, the dining room table was a mess of beer bottles, playing cards, and chocolate chips (?). The toaster was also broken, so I settled for an orange. I walked to campus to turn in my film journal (the last graded asignment of the term!), thinking frenziedly about everything that still needed to be done for our trip to Milford Sound later in the afternoon. Were we camping? Were food AND cooking utensils necessary? Was rain likely? And so on.

What followed was an unfathomably improbable series of events (including someone's lost credit card, a bizarre encounter with the remarkably friendly and concerned-for-my-future professor of my Film Genres class, and finally a harrowing thirty minutes at the Budget rental car offices as they discovered my online reservation AFTER all the fleet's vehicles had been rented). Nevertheless, a group of seven international students (spread across two cars) embarked through the blindingly green countryside of spring-time New Zealand, and arrived in Te Anau at dusk to spend the night. Camping cost $15 per person at the Country Hills Motor Lodge, so we forked it over and went about setting up the two tents. Group A's tent was recently purchased for $250 and included a waterproof screen. Group B's tent was a 1967 A-frame (missing several crucial ropes and zippers) that had been hastily borrowed from the international house. The forecast predicted over 8 centimeters of rain for the night. Guess which one I was in?

To slim down an already unsightly bulky story, let's fast-forward three hours. Sarah, Marty and I returned from a country bumpkin bar to find the other four playing poker. Outside, rain and lightning (something that supposedly NEVER occurs in NZ) lashed the ground competitively. The card fiends insisted on one group hand to finish the night, so we all grudgingly accepted. We each took turns cutting the deck, Mark shuffled, and then distributed five cards to all seven of us. No one wanted to exchange, and we all wore the same puzzled/smug expression. We showed our cards. Here were the hands, IN ORDER: 33399 4441010 555JJ 666QQ 777KK 888AA (Alexa had nothing)!!!!! Such a terrifyingly patterned round was the last necessary straw required for our collective haystack to go haywire.

The improbability of it all! How had it happened?

Later, as we wiled away sleepless hours in the car (after our tent had collapsed from rain), we further back-tracked the odds of this freakishly chance card game to the minute details of the walk back from the bar that placed us at the right moment in time for a collective hand of poker, then to the fact that we'd all ended up at the same campground (as cell phone communication had been terminated earlier in the afternoon, and we'd split up) to render a card game even possible, then to ALL SEVEN OF US going on the weekend trip (even after the rental car fiasco and the lost credit card, whereby Andrea almost bailed), then to one of the girls completely randomly deciding to come along the day before, then to our random decisions to study abroad in New Zealand this term, which was, like, a long time ago. It was all too much, and we soon realized that EVERY event in life stems from random forks of fate, which kind of made the whole thing less significant (because it, in turn, made everything else MORE significant, you know?). Naturally, the conversation quickly turned to aliens and how much more likely our chances of being abducted were now that we'd already thoroughly beat probability.

Did any of that make sense? I hope so. Regardless, it was an uneasy evening, made worse by the ominously cackling thunder. The next morning was another early one, but I didn't mind because I was so excited for Milford. While only 107 kilometers away, the drive was supposed to take all day due to its windy mountain roads and incredible scenery. We pulled out of Te Anau at noon, and from there entered a dream world so sublime in its renderings that my meager vocabulary just isn't going to cut it. Here are some photos I took:

Then we drove straight into the side of a mountain via a tunnel named Homer. I grew uneasy at its entrance when I read a sign that stated, "bus turnouts 400 and 1600 meters in." Needless to say, it was a large mountain tunnel, and the only one I've been in that slopes seriously downward for its duration. We felt like we were driving into hell itself, until Sarah said, "you guys... just imagine what the view on the other side of this tunnel is going to look like." As the pinhole of light on Homer's far end grew closer, then enveloped us, the most spectacular view of sheer mountain faces cascading with hundreds of waterfalls from the previous night's rain met my gaze. I couldn't take any pictures because the whole place was under a strict avalanche warning (which prohibited stopping), but lengthy switchbacks down into the valley provided ample time to stare out at the awesome geography and shake my head in wonder.

The hostel near Milford Sound was decent, and its scenery more than made up for the one knife its kitchen possessed. I've discovered here in New Zealand that I like cooking good food, but when you have to do it in a small hostel with like nine other international families who are all clamoring over the same eight burners, it can be a harrowing experience. Regardless, I sat around in a state of bliss, replaying that day's short hikes to numerous waterfalls in my head.

Woke up bright and early Sunday. Drove to Milford, geeked out at the view, loaded ourselves onto a boat for 2.5 hours that took us real close-like to all them waterfalls (so much so that we filled drinking glasses with pure glacial water). Again, I can't really paint an accurate picture, so I'll give you one of the 200+ photos I took.

***Photo wouldn't upload. Just ask to see it when I get back***

Then the drive back, where we stopped everywhere on the OTHER side of the road. I know this is another rushed conclusion, but it's a busy week for me and if I don't end now this post is just going to sit on my desktop until I accidentally delete it. YOU ALL MUST GET TO MILFORD SOUND. Somehow, it changes everything (this is where that weird first paragraph is supposed to make sense. Looking back, it doesn't, but I don't want to change it so bear with me). Also, I leave for Australia on SATURDAY until October 24th, so I might write one or two more posts when I return, but don't expect anything for a whiile. We're driving in a Wicked Van (which has a large bed, a sink, and a stove in it) from Sydney to the Gold Coast area, and we'll be camping on the beach every night. I plan on scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef as well. Crazy.

With the impending trip, classes ending, and less than a month to go, I'm kind of freaking out. What's going on?!?!? Madness...

Thursday, October 2, 2008

4:30 am

That's what time the parrots and all their relatives start warbling outside my bedroom window. If I could only convey to you the sounds they make... such noise is almost as overwhelming as a foreign language. I also realized that maybe the reason people associate wiry, bespectacled bird enthusiasts with stuffy old Englishmen is because the truth of the matter is that America really doesn't have as big of a bird culture as the rest of the world. Sure, there's an occasional crow cawing, along with some sparse, early-morning twittering, but in New Zealand a veritable symphony of melodic tunes plays almost constantly, and I don't mind unless it's 4:30 am and I'm trying to get to sleep (did I say "get" to sleep? I meant just sleep... heh...). One goes something like "Te-ta-tee-tah-tee-tahhhh" over and over again, one goes "tweeeeet-too-da-la-la-la-laaaaaa," and another just plain shrieks.

This week I spent all my time madly finishing several papers, but the upshot is that I don't have any more school work in New Zealand (except for finals in four weeks)!!! Wohoo! Today it's 24 degrees Celsius (I thought this temperature would never come), and although I've said it before, New Zealand really is infinitely better with warmer weather. Honestly. It's such a world of difference. Anyway, I'm off to Milford Sound for the weekend by way of Te Anau, where I'll be camping tonight. Expect some kind of lengthy post on Monday (that's Sunday for all you crazy fools living in the past). Take it easy.


I found some of the crazy bird sounds! Listen to them and justify my wasted time, dammit! (there are two of these in a bush outside my window... they're the LOUD early morning ones).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

39 days until takeoff

I look at that number and think, "Jesus, man, time's flown... but I'm also really excited to see everyone again. Or am I? Yes, yes I am. Of course I am. Why do I keep thinking about this? Does, like, a single hour pass when I'm not so caught up in my own pathetic countdown that I can just ENJOY being here in New Zealand with the little time I have left? Is that so hard? Is it, AJ? IS IT?!?"

So that's pretty much what's currently looping through the superb, surround-sound Bose speakers in my head. Yesterday marked three months of me being gone from the US, which got me pondering. When I first arrived in Dunedin, I would stumble awkwardly through my bathroom, thinking "this is my shower? And I have to put my towel here? And the water kind of pools up around my feet because the drain is so weak?" Then, in the kitchen for breakfast: "why are the plates in this cupboard? And what the hell kind of jam is this I'm using? Why does it taste so weird? What's going on?!?" Lately, though, I've grown so accustomed to everything that I don't even think about how it was once so odd. I have a hard time remembering how jam in the US tastes (better... but exactly why is vague), and as for the plates, OF COURSE they go on the far left-hand side. The final blow of my acclimitization hit me last night, while my flatmates and I watched Adaptation, a superb film. Chris Cooper's character was driving his van down the right side of a highway in Florida, and I cringed in expectation of a head-on collision. It seemed so... wrong. Horrified, I sat for the next ten minutes fake-driving a car in my head and trying to keep to the RIGHT side of a road. Thankfully, it's still a talent I possess.

To borrow an earlier used phrase, what the hell is going on? I swear I'm not going to be one of those people who returns from studying abroad and can't talk about anything else, but this madness is getting to me.

Event-wise, I found an incredible, top-secret Mexican restaurant last night. It's wedged in a narrow, three-story building behind a bar. The food was expensive, but the ingredients were all so choice. They had SEVEN different types of mole sauce for their enchiladas, and whichever you selected was applied LIBERALLY to the food. Tonight I'm going to see this Maori Reggae band called "Katchafire." Supposedly they're pretty decent. School's drawing to a close (only two weeks left and I'm free through January 5! Except for finals...), and I leave for Australia very soon. Crazy.

I'm writing this in the library. On my way through the main lobby area with all the cafes and shops and stuff, a girl turned around and ran smack into me with handfuls of garbage and a cup of coffee. The coffee dropped and spilled all over the floor, and she stood there looking stricken. This, as my careful readers will know, is yet another example of how absolutely, mindlessly ignorant Kiwis are of virtually everyone else who may temporarily be occupying their surroundings. They time their driving so that one can never make a dash across the street, they park their shopping carts horizonally across shopping aisles, and they walk in the absolute middle of pathways (which renders circumvention virtually impossible). Anyway, rather than apologizing profusely, running for napkins, and offering to buy her another cup of coffee (as I would in America, no doubt), I just stood there, glaring at her. I gruffly apologized, to which she said, "Oh... I suppose it's okay." suppose? SUPPOSE?!? Nothing along the lines of this whole mess being HER fault left the girl's lips, and after like fifteen seconds of uncomfortable eye-accusing (which is when my eyes repeatedly mouth, "it's your mess, bitch"), I left the scene. Coffee still covered the floor, and her friends all stared as I walked away, clearly shocked. I, however, counted the devastation as a personal triumph.

Maybe 39 days really is enough time...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sunday Morning (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 2:56)

So I figured I should write SOMEthing because it's been exactly a week since my last post, which is a longer dry stretch than I ever anticipated for this blog. I've been conducting some pretty frantic research in the library over the past several days, and at this moment I have exactly three more books and five journal articles sitting beside me that need to be sapped of any relevant materials. This past weekend saw both a pirate and a martian party. I bought a fake beard and an Oriental-themed purple mumu with big gold stripes around the sleeves to use for both (deckhand, crazed alien zealot). Dunedin is incredibly sunny. All the trees and bushes are erupting with color, and I broke a sweat walking here today because it's so much warmer (and muggier... cue ominous music) than usual.

I've got this new craving for Gatorade, which isn't sold here, and it's driving me wild. Who doesn't need to indulge in the heavily processed delights of Fruit Punch or Lemon-Lime every now and again?

I think that's about all there is. Let me check...


Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Adventure of Grand Proportions

This weekend marked a tumultuous turning point in the Dunedin environ: spring is here! It's actually warm out, things are blooming, and warm breezes work their way inland from the bay at regular intervals. Heedless of the preferential treatment our ludicrous universe suddenly seemed to be granting me, I promptly packed myself into a small rental car with three friends and headed west (which, as you avid New Zealand geography buffs already know, is the terminally cold portion of the island) to Fox Glacier. The 8-hour drive marked my first time BEHIND the wheel of a vehicle that purposely dominates the left-hand side of the street, and I got used to it remarkably quickly. What's not so easy is distinguishing the windshield wipers from the turn signal, which are also reversed: every time we navigated an intersection or pulled in for gas, the back seat would burst out laughing. After dark, possums become something of an obstacle, but seeing as they're a pest in NZ the act of dodging them is condemned, so we hit two. One was so large the front left tire made funny sounds until I readjusted the molding around it.

The Fox Glacier Township has a population of 250 people, and we were the only inhabitants of our hostel that we saw for the entire two-day stay. FGT is tucked into a misty rainforest setting, with intimidatingly dense jungle snaking up the sides of sheer cliff-faces that make up the base of the West Coast's mountains. A massive rock slide had halted all glacier expeditions for the past week (something we had no idea about until we arrived) and our group of 8 was the first to tackle a makeshift trail up the cliffside next to the glacier (which, in turn, accesses the safe portion of the 13-kilometer long hunk of ice). After overcoming my fear of heights during a 270-feet stretch of path that required hugging a sheer rock face AND holding onto a thick metal chain to avoid falling down a 333-foot cliff, I donned crampons and a spikey walking stick to tackle the glacier's surface. What I wasn't expecting was a gloriously terrifying hike through several deep crevasses (so narrow I had to take my backpack off and scoot sideways, and with walls so icy blue and tall I felt underwater) as falling ice emitted whip-like cracks every few seconds. The adventure lasted roughly 5 hours, and we returned exhausted.

Not exhausted enough, though, to keep from heading to FGT's sole bar at 9:00 to watch the All Blacks play Australia in rugby. Nearly the entire population of the township showed up as well, and a rowdy time was had with a crowd mostly aged 40+. They were crazier than us, though, and when we headed out of town at 10 am the next morning a couple dozen still sat perched on the bar's front deck. yesterday entailed lots of driving and a nearly obscene amount of stops to document the west coast's various beauties (coastlines, jagged peaks, waterfalls, crystal clear rivers, etc.). We managed to reach Wanaka by 4, which made possible a trip to Puzzling World. It's a crazy tourist attraction that's filled with illusion rooms and an enormous, two-story maze. You all know how I love mazes, so let me tell you that this thing was more fun than any other I've tackled (on paper or in real life, for that matter). Some genius arranged it in such a way so that my logic always failed, and I knowingly walked in countless circles because my brain simply refused to accept the proper path, which was always the last place I expected. Regardless, I eventually found my way up the labyrinth's four towers AND made it through the exit in like an hour and a half.

Then there was more driving. I met a lot of colorful characters, and I could spend a lot of time regaling you all with their endearing antics, but my finers are a-hurtin' (more from the scalding hot dishes I just washed than from typing) and I need to read 300 pages of Humphry Clinker (the official worst book of 1771). Take it easy.