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New South Wales: Lovely Yet Already Familiar

December 28th, 2012 No comments

From my vantage point, and save for a few exceptions including the ubiquitously cool & novel accent, Australia’s southeast province often felt like we may as well have been anywhere in the US.

Our last few days in New Zealand were uneventful.  Wanaka was everything it promised to be: a pristine and picturesque city perched on a beautiful lake.  And like the rest of New Zealand, it was pricy.  The first morning I managed to find a breakfast of pancakes for $161.  At this point we were just tired of traveling about, and so during our 48 hours we didn’t venture far from the rather nice YHA hostel beyond grocery store runs and a few meals out.

We’d been in travel/tourist mode for just over three weeks, and were looking forward to having a more regular home.

Our laying low at the YHA made a good proxy for this.  The kitchen was well-above-average impressive.  With its island containing no fewer than 5 burner stations and a comparably well-equipped perimeter it could’ve passed for the kitchen of a happenin’ restaurant.  From around 6 to 8pm it positively hummed with groups of travelers of many cultures all working to prepare meals that were way more involved than what you’d expect in a hostel kitchen2.

The common space was pleasant and spacious, like that of an alpine lodge and complete with a Christmas tree, that handy reminder of the so easy to forget fact that Christmas was, yes, next week.  In the evenings they put on a movie in the separate TV room.  One night we caught “Mao’s Last Dancer”, a biographical film about a Chinese ballet performer who visits and subsequently defects to the US.  In this film the US is portrayed as a bit excessively decadent as well as a super awesome alternative to going back to communist China.  As with the Hopkins film the week before, it’s fun to see how different cultures view the US and which points of contrast stand out.

It’s probably worth noting and remembering how well it worked to have a TV not in the main room of socialization and gathering.  At the Wanaka YHA the television is situated in its own [sound] space, a dedicated & closed-off room with comfy couches arranged to mimic theater-style seating, and dark-lit ambiance to match.  We’ve been in countless places where the TV is an unavoidable presence in the common space, and whether it means to or not it kinda dominates the space.  When turned on, it has to be loud enough so as to be heard, so it necessarily drowns out normal speaking voices which relegates (again, whether it means to or not) actual communication and conversation among fellow travelers to second class status.  This effect is largely invisible until you experience a common space without it–without a TV contending for attention, I couldn’t help but notice a lot more meeting and mingling among travelers was happening.

That and you can really just enjoy the movie when it’s movie night.  Brilliant use of a second room.

When it was time we caught our bus back to Queenstown.  One more night before our flight on to Australia and our house sitting gig.

On the whole I am just so struck with how good natured the whole of the New Zealand population again and again showed itself to be.  I adore their mannerisms, which may be the only thing that explains and/or excuses why I’ve been incessantly quoting lines from Flight of the Concords.

One instance stands out in memory.  During the bus to the glacier towns we had a stop in a park and I hit the restroom.  As I came out an older fellow, a member of the parks department with this huge grey beard called out to me.  “On holiday, are ya’ now?  Gonna see the glacier?”  “On holiday?  Yeah, I guess so: my wife and I are traveling for a year and have some time here in New Zealand, it’s beautiful here.”  He beamed back “Right-o, then, good on ya!3“.  And they he merrily went about his task of polishing the metal on an outdoor garbage receptacle.

I don’t know for sure, but I feel like I come from a culture where cleaning a trash can would overwhelmingly be viewed as draining or menial work.  Yet here was this fellow, cheerfully chatting with tourists while contributing to the very pristine quality that makes the area/country so endearing4.  I’m not saying you can’t find similarly cheery retirees doing basic manual labor in the US, but I’d wager you won’t on the first try.

Though I certainly wasn’t among 100+ other passengers, I felt like a VIP as we walked some 50 meters on the airport tarmac towards our plane, all nestled in mountainous beauty.  I’m walking along the cordoned off path, summery blue skies above, the outdoor terrain looks like this, and I’m about to fly to Sydney on a Wednesday afternoon.  I feel blessed.

A few hours later we landed in Australia’s world class capital.  Through no fault of its own, our first glance impression was strikingly lackluster.  New Zealand is a tough act to follow: suddenly in the streets of the city we saw regular bits of graffiti, a few pieces of litter, and less than perfectly lush and splendorous nature.  It looked like hell.

It wasn’t, of course: that impression is just a function of what our eyes were accustomed (and not accustomed) to seeing the last 11 days.  It’s totally unfair to be the destination city of a flight that originated in New Zealand.

Onward we navigated the bus system to the Sydney suburb where our charge lay, Mustard the dog and our hosts Tatiana and Simon.  Tatiana (or Tash for short) had provided immaculately detailed instructions and we made it straightaway.  We were invited to stay a with them a few days before they headed off for holiday in Thailand, so that we could get settled and to give Mustard time to get used to his new caretakers.

Tash’s hospitality was stellar.  On arrival we were greeted with homemade laksa, a spicy noodle soup from Malaysia with a coconut milk base.  Tash isn’t Malaysian, but Japanese in ethnicity and born and raised in Brazil.  That plus her cooking prowess makes her all kinds of worldly.  Being done with school and off from work, she pulled out all the stops to show us around her proud city during the next two days.

Our first stop was down to her place of work: Captain Cook Cruises.  She scored us some free tickets for a boat tour of the harbor.  Aside from featuring the legendary (and deservedly so) Sydney Opera House, Sydney’s harbor boasts the rightly famed Sydney Harbor Bridge, a kickin’ city skyline, sandstone cliffs, beautiful beaches, and collections of $10+ million dollar houses.  See the photos here.  If there was ever a good way to be impressed upon the world classiness of a city, this was it.

When we got off the boat, Tash led us on a surprise run along the harbor to the Opera House.  Turns out she bought us tickets for the tour, and we had to hurry to catch the 12:30pm.  At $28 a piece, Tracy and I left to our own devices might well have skipped it, contenting ourselves with a walk around the outside and popping our heads into the foyer.  It’s ridiculously beautiful up close and personal, well worth the price of admission.  Many thanks to Tash for treating us to an experience we might otherwise have let slide.

We rounded out our adventurous day with walk along a harbor inlet through the Royal Botanical Garden, lunch at a mall food court at which I cemented my new love for laksa soup, a guided tour of the Susannah House (an historic neighborhood building of 5 apartments built in 1844 and stylistically still quite in tact), and a delicious pint of beer at Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest pub which dates back to 1828.

It was quite the day arranged graciously by our hostess, a perfect sampling of Sydney at its best.

Ah, if that weren’t enough, the next day she took us to the Bondi beach, one of Sydney’s finest.

By day three of our stay we were well acclimated and feeling right at home.  In the afternoon Tash and Simon were off for their flight, so for the next two weeks the house and all its dog-tending duties were ours to manage.

Mustard is about 75 pounds of muscle, built no doubt in part from devouring 2 chicken wings whole in the morning every day, and then 2 again at night.  Shaped like a bouncer with a barrel chest and slender waist, about 90% of the time that he’s looking at you he’s got this big, loving smile on his face.  It’s super cute, he’s a good looking and friendly dog and that grin just gives you the warm fuzzies inside.  During walks and between breaks to smell things, he’ll get you up to a sprint if he can by toting you along on the leash.  And if he spots another dog within 100 feet, there’ll be a lot of barking and a mini tug-of-war as you pull to prevent a doggie altercation.

From Mustard I learned a very important and subtle distinction about me: I am a dog liker, but it turns out not a dog lover.  As a dog liker I love to pet and generally love on any dog whose path I cross, be it my Mom’s dog when I go home to visit or stray dogs running around the square of a city in Central America.  But I am not a dog lover in the sense of wanting to sign up for the ownership gig with its years-long haul.  For me the novelty wears off, leaving me with substantial daily responsibility and an upper limit on cleanliness that all that slobber and hair puts on your home5.

So we are lovingly tending to our Mustard duties and even get a lot of enjoyment out of the excuse for early morning fresh air and the games of catch in the backyard, and at the same time we take comfort in the fact that we won’t have to do so forever6.  What is so great about learning this here and now over a mere two weeks in Australia, is that we’re getting effectively inoculated against the premise of owning a dog now, well before our hypothetical children fall in love with a dog and bring impassioned pleas for us to get one.  Now that Tracy and I have a clear picture of the experience, we’ll be better equipped to quell such requests, and less apt to fall for innocent lies like “I’ll take care of it, it’ll be my dog!”.

Christmas was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  By that I mean it was the first, and most likely the last, time the Christmas was a strictly just-Tracy-and-I affair: no family, no friends, just the two of us with literally zero fuss on our part about gifts, decorations or other such preparations.  It was chill and low key, yet had a certain decadence about it.

In the morning we made egg sandwiches with fresh fruit atop yogurt and meusli.  Then we drank beers and played cards in the backyard.  Then we had a 30 Rockin’ around the Christmas tree marathon of watching 30 Rock, drinking wine, nibbling on cookies, all while our feast cooked: twice baked potatoes and a beef roast on a bed of veggies.  You get the idea.

My laptop’s hard drive has been in slow decline since Nicaragua and the situation has now come to a head.  Australia (like I imagine most countries that are not the US) totally closes down for holidays, which is most inconvenient when you need specialty parts to do surgery on your computer.  Today around noon I realized to my utter chagrin that my next-day shipping for an order I placed online wouldn’t ship until the first or second week of January.  With that plan out, I managed to find a store that was open until 2pm, and then not again for 5 days.  A $94 one way cab ride across town ensured I got there on time to make my purchase, saving me from another week of idling, work-wise.  No regrets, but youch, I wish I’d known an hour earlier that I might spend more like $7 on public transportation to get me there.

Right then, on to computer surgery.

Notes:

  1. Though in the pancakes’ defense they were uncommonly deluxe, featuring fully 5 distinct types of sweetness: maple syrup, a sweet butter cream spread, sweet raspberry sauce, the pancakes themselves, and sort of candied like molasses that was melted and hardened into an artful formation, anchored in the cakes to rise 7 inches above my plate.   So, you know, no regrets.
  2. You could argue that Tracy and I, with our spaghetti and PB&J’s, did our best  keep the average culinary complexity more in line with that of your typical hostel.
  3. “Good on ya” is like a standard verbal blessing that Kiwis give generously.  Entirely secular, I take this blessing as a shorthand for “I dig you and your style, may good be upon you as you go through your days.” What a great phrase.  Make your world more awesome and say it to someone you love (or someone you just met) today.
  4. I didn’t ask the guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an instance of the Zen concept of finding joy & satisfaction in the small and seemingly inconsequential, because it contributes to and is part of something much bigger.
  5. We made a habit of wearing socks around the house at all times.
  6. Especially because Mustard goes nuts with barking and jumping whenever I show even the slightest affection towards Tracy, be it a kiss on the cheek or a hug from behind.  He’s like the most strict chaperone imaginable, and pleas that “dude, it’s okay, we’re married!” fall on deaf doggie ears.
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Opulent Cityscapes and Other Such Beauty

December 15th, 2012 No comments

Maybe it was because we were fresh off of months in the no-stranger-to-squalor nations of Central America.  But then again we just had spent 24 hours in San Francisco, a good looking town by any account.  Even against that worthy point of comparison, Auckland was uncommonly beautiful.

We started our tour of New Zealand that early morning by walking a mile on foot, backtracking to make up for our hesitation to press the stop button press on our shuttle bus into town (we should have known that the Circus Circus we passed, the breakfast destination at which we were to meet our hosts, was in fact our cue to get off and no, it wasn’t one of a chain).  Even in the relatively pedestrian suburb in which we found ourselves, super reminiscent of the neighborhoods of my home town of Brookfield, Wisconsin, New Zealand’s polished nature and beauty impressed.  The air was clear &  invigorating, and the vegetation still wet with morning dew smelled simply delicious.

After holing up in a cafe to catch a proper breakfast, our host swooped in to pick us up right on time.  Back at their house we chatted a while over tea.  Charles and Amy are themselves about a month from commencing their own world tour, which gave us much to talk about.  It was somewhat humbling to be reminded what a big world it is when they described their own year-long path, one containing very little overlap with our own.

After an hour or so of visiting, my jet lag was getting the best of me and we settled in for a nap.  Here in the southern hemisphere the December days are long, so when I woke I guessed it was 4pm, maybe 5.  Nope, it was 8pm and still quite light.  To my surprise and utter non-disappointment, I had slept 8 hours, and felt thoroughly refreshed.

May we all be so blessed to have so comfy a bed to crash in after a 13 hour flight.

That night we made dinner (from the groceries we picked up earlier Tracy cooked lomo saltado, our favorite dish from Peru) and had a lovely little dinner party, topped with a drive down Auklund’s premier avenue for elaborate holiday decorations (a useful reminder that yes, we are in the Christmas season).

The next day, unfamiliar with couch-surfer protocol and wishing to err on the side of not being a needy or burdensome presence, we took to our own adventure of exploring downtown Auklund and its harbor area.  Charles set us up with directions and bus routes, and we were on our way.

This trip, during our day-long wanderings downtown and along the shores of the harbor, is when we realized that Auklund is ridiculously beautiful.  It’s a good looking town in general, but beyond that it’s pristine in an unreal kind of way, like visiting some sort of alternate universe utopia in the not-too-distant future.  During our whole day we saw not one bit of graffiti, not one homeless person, and I counted exactly 3 pieces of litter (they were floating near to one another in a little alcove of the shore).

Perhaps these typical marks of urban imperfection exist somewhere else in the city that we just happened to miss, but even if so it’s remarkable and deliciously disorienting to have them absent for even a whole city block, much less for hours of wandering about1.  Even the water of the harbor, this bustling harbor with shipyards and cargo ships all present and accounted for, lacks the usual grimy tinge to it in favor of gorgeous blue and turquoise that could be mistaken for the Caribbean.  Tracy’s got the pictures to back it up.

For lunch we hit a supermarket to assemble an impromptu picnic of wine, bread, cheese, deli meat, cucumber, and a pint of super tasty in-season strawberries, and took our bounty to a lookout point on a high hill overlooking the harbor, land and island formations dotted on the blue canvas below, and the city skyline across the way.

It was one of those “And this is what our life looks like right now.” moments.

Back at the fort Charles and Amy whipped up a smorgasbord of food and us two couples enjoyed our second little dinner party together, complete with wine and jazz music streaming from the collection on my laptop2.  Charles, a native Kiwi, and Amy, born and raised in China until 20, proved again to be delightful company, and yet another pair of data points to suggest that people from all backgrounds and walks of life are, well, pretty much the same when it comes to hopes, fears, ambitions, joys and all that other stuff that makes us human.

The next morning, rather than have us try to navigate early morning bus schedules to catch our return shuttle to the airport, Charles generously insisted on giving us a ride.  Since our earlier attempt at a greeting present of fresh roasted coffee smuggled all the way from Guatemala failed (turns out whole bean coffee is a bit of a niche gift around here, requiring the recipient to be a more than casual fan of coffee to own the requisite specialty equipment), I scribbled a note to accompany a box of Vizios that we would leave behind as gratitude Plan B.

This had the unfortunate side effect that my ballpoint pen through a single sheet of paper left a perfect imprint of my nice note upon the guestroom desk.  It’s one of those “Aw, crap.” kind of moments, because  “Hey, I just did something nice for you but defaced your furniture in the process, so, uh, I hope you still appreciate the gesture.” is not an ideal parting sentiment.  In the hustle of the morning I genuinely forgot to mention it to Charles until after he dropped us off, which made me feel like a bit of a spineless shit3, as though I were hoping they wouldn’t notice.  Two days later I did come clean with an email announcement of (and apology for) the defacement, which was met with a gracious assurance that they didn’t notice, that the desk was second hand & of no sentimental value, and would soon be in storage for a year.

Ah good.  I was hoping we’d be remembered as a net positive and welcome presence, and I rest reasonably comfortable that we will be.

So onward we flew to Queenstown, a town proclaimed 150 years ago to be fit for a queen.  Let me say right now that I doubt the city has lost any luster since that austere declaration, for it too was, ridiculously beautiful.  Nestled in the mountains and abutting several lakes, Queenstown, has all of grade-A natural surroundings, tidy small town architecture, and charming public spaces going for it.  Tracy and I felt immediately at home here, for Queenstown feels nearly identical to Colorado’s boutique mountain towns, fitting right in with the likes of Aspen, Vail, or Breckenridge.

“You get what you pay for” is a well known saying.  There are exceptions to this all over the place, of course (otherwise the Thunder Quotient™ would be a moot concept), but boy does it hold in the comparison of New Zealand to Central America.  After months spent acclimating to $3 breakfasts and decent lodging for $20US, New Zealand’s prices came with a dose of sticker shock.  Everything is beautiful, everything is immaculate, everyone is super nice, and prices for comparable goods are all somewhere between 2 and 5x.

It’s simply the tradeoff you make when going from the third world to the first.

So overall here in New Zealand we tread lightly, indulging in only a few of the pricy adventure offerings.  Our first was an excursion to Milford Sound, a 3-hour bus ride through spectacular terrain and a boat cruise through the sound out to ocean.  While winding our way through the Kiwi countryside I saw ample evidence that, yeah, there probably were more sheep than people in this two-island nation.  Our bus winded through lush valleys, over uncommonly blue rivers, and past more waterfalls than I usually see in a year.  Tracy’s photography brings this crude account to life.

The cruise through the sound was similarly beautiful, just on water.  Actually no: we also had a dozen or so dolphins keeping pace with our vessel on both sides, doing their fanciful dance of side flips and jumps as though deliberately entertaining for tips.  The masterstroke of this experience was when our boat pulled up close to a waterfall, forming a scene of dolphins literally jumping through a double rainbow formed by the falling mist.  It was the sort of scene that, to make more magical, would require something like Jesus riding in on a little cloud, flashing a peace sign and giving a wink before zooming off into the distance.

Again, score one for New Zealand.

By the time of the bus ride back my eyes were quite thoroughly saturated on natural beauty, so its splendor on the second pass was largely lost on me.  Fortunately, the time was made fantastic by a few simple joys: munching on a tasty takeout order of fish & chips, and watching a film of New Zealand propaganda, “The World’s Fastest Indian”.  Based on a true story in the late 60’s, Anthony Hopkins plays a delightful old New Zealander who goes to the US with dreams of setting a new land speed record with a motorcycle he built.  Basically his character is all chill and makes instant friends and allies with the motley assortment of (sometimes weird) Americans he meets along the way, a resounding endorsement of simple, down-to-earth friendliness if I ever saw one.  If every New Zealander we met wasn’t similarly charming and friendly I’d swear it was a contrived plot to make New Zealanders look good.  Nope, turns out his character is, uh, pretty representative.

Our second adventure was to hike a glacier.  We hopped a 5 hour bus to Franz Joseph with hopes of hiking the glacier there, but this turned out to be a small failure of internet research intel: it turns out with the recent trend of melting it is no longer safe to hike this glacier.  The other option was a helicopter tour at $330 per person, which, uh, wasn’t in the budget.  Confronted with the possibility that we’d come all this way without actually doing what we’d set out for, we opted for Plan B: to backtrack to the Fox Glacier the next town over, still walkable, and do the guided tour plus gear for a much more palatable $115 per person.  We booked it for the next day.

With our afternoon and night to kill in Franz Joseph, we went for the 5km walk to the glacier.  By this time my lungs were still keen to enjoying the clean as can be air, and it was a splendid walk through more nature that was just plain good looking and ecologically distinct enough to feel just borderline otherworldly.  The choice to use New Zealand as the setting for the fictional land of Middle Earth suddenly made so much sense.  The only letdown of our “glacial preview walk” was that the glacier, from a distance, looked like one big pile of dirty snow.

Fortunately the Fox Glacier was much prettier when we got up close and personal the next day.  Equipped with every layer that the tour company had on offer (socks, snow pants, and rain jacket–we are largely packed for summer conditions, after all), we strapped on our crampons4 as we descended on the entry point to the glacier.  Our British mountaineer guide brandished a pickaxe, and as we went along our path he now and again swung it windmill style like a pro to tidy up the small stairs carved into the ice (all the guides and tour outfits lend a hand in keeping the stairs in tact).

Again, Tracy’s pictures do justice to the experience which words alone simply cannot.

Fox Glacier has been receding for literally centuries.  As you drive on in to the valley carved out by ice many years ago, you see signs that “Fox Glacier was here ____ years ago”.  So the overall pattern of melt is nothing new, it’s just that it’s happening a lot faster than it used to.  During our hike, our guide showed up a white narrow tube jutting up from the glacier.

“We do this and take measurements in collaboration with a few scientific survey endeavors happening around the world.  We put the pole in all the way, so that they’re flush with the ice.  As the glacier melts the pole rises relative to the surface on which we are standing.  You can see how it comes up to my waist now, which means there’s been about a meter of melting in the last 2 weeks.  That’s a lot more than in usually does.”

If climate change is a hoax, be warned that these friendly Kiwi’s with their fancy melt measuring devices are in on it.

After the glacier we returned to our hostel, and warmed up (kinda) in a small wooden box with infrared lamps posing as a sauna.  Tomorrow it’s off to Wanaka, another beautiful town on a lake in which to enjoy our last few days in this beautiful country.

Notes:

  1. It’s kinda like Clinton balancing the US budget during his presidency.  Sure there’s debate about whether or not he actually did, but that there’s a debate at all is stand out remarkable against his contemporaries.
  2. With my love of Genesis and other artists inappropriate for my generation, I don’t have a lot of what you would call “cool” music.  So it’s a nice occasion when I can serve up some tunes and have them be well met in mixed company.  Heck, I’m listening to Genesis right now as I write this.
  3. “Shit” in the delightful British sense of the word, like when spoken of a loved one who messed up, e.g. “Deary, you can be such a shit sometimes.”  Not nearly as harsh as the American usage.
  4. Shoe attachments which feature down pointing metal teeth, great for biting into the ice and making otherwise slick surfaces quite walkable.
Categories: Travels Tags:

Over (a Lot of) Land, Sea, and Air

December 7th, 2012 1 comment

We’ve now set foot in 5 countries in just as many days1.

After catching our boat from the Pasajcap dock to Pana, we proceeded on to Guatemala City by shuttle to catch an overnight bus to Tikal.  At sunrise our bus pulled into our destination in Flores, and in our bleary-eyed state we fell prey to the sneaky doings of an overzealous tourism and transportation operator.  A fellow got on to the second level of our double decker bus and announced to the passengers that this was the place to get off for Tikal: just hop off the bus and on to the shuttle, and we’ll be taken to wherever we’re going in town.

It was so seamless, we assumed it was a benevolent add-on service provided by the overnight bus company.

We were heading for El Remate, a less touristy town about 30 minutes closer to Tikal than Flores.  Eagerly communicated Spanish assured me “Yep, we’ll take you there, give me your bag and hop on!”  After about an hour of cruising circles about town as the shuttle shuttled about its cadre of similarly bleary-eyed marks, we finally went onward to El Remate, roped in to pay 50Q a person when it should have been more like 20.  Not fatal, but annoying enough that I was delighted to decline Enrique the fare collector’s borderline pushy offer to set us up with a pre-dawn shuttle to Tikal, guide for Tikal, and subsequent transport continuing into San Ignacio, Belize.

“It should be 550Q but I give it to you for 450Q because I know her.  Good price for you my friend.”  (Indeed he knew Rutt, an Estonian gal I’d first met at the Mayan sun ceremony weeks earlier.  We’d coincidentally ran into her again on the overnight bus, and in the early morning shuffle Rutt was sold on our plan to stay in El Remate, making us travel companions for the day.)  It has consistently been my experience that the words “good price”, especially when uttered in English in a non-English speaking country, indicate a good price for the one doing the selling, as in “If you go for this I will have roped you in at a good price.”

Enrique first skirted around the fact that his good price didn’t include actual entrance to the park (150Q), and he completely neglected to mention that, when you go before 6am to catch the magic that is the sun rising over the Mayan temples while howler monkeys howl (which was part of his proud pitch), the price is 250Q.  Nuts to that, Enrique: if our transit to El Ramate is any indication, we’ll do way better to piece our trip around these parts together on our own, thank you very much.  (What can I say, I was still a little sore from the “aboard the sanctity of our bus announcement” hustle earlier.)

In El Remate, we hiked a quarter of a mile to accommodations, nicely nestled on the lake and tucked away from the main road.  The next day we did Tikal.

Tikal is a beautiful walk through jungle that has everything that is ominous and mysterious to love about it.  Well trodden paths through lush vegetation suddenly open up to massive clearings featuring one or more majestic structures of often staggering size.  In the morning a deep fog envelops both the paths and the clearings, giving the temples and eerie ancient vibe, which I suppose they well deserve.  Have a look at Tracy’s pictures of Tikal.

Unfortunately, due to a few deaths owing to presumably tragic missteps and/or jackass antics, most of the temples with their steep and endless staircases are off limits to climbing.  This is a shame because the view from that high, well above the lush treeline, is something worth witnessing.  The view from up on Temple IV suffices to satisfy pretty well in this regard, made available safely to all by the modern day winding wooden staircase built on top of still-buried portions of the temple.

(There were still a few jackasses who we saw early in the morning ignoring the signs and climbing other major temples.  My informal poll of Tracy and myself indicates an average 15% desire in people to see one of said jackasses fall as a gesture of instant karma asserting itself in real time.)

After Tikal we made our way on out of Guatemala and into Belize.  20Q got us out of El Remate to the next shuttle, and 50Q got us out of the country.  Our shuttle ride to the border felt like a Sunday drive with the family: we piled in to a minivan with 17 other people, 5 of which were in the front seat (3 small children).  Cramped but cozy, as we went and dropped people off we upgraded from our initial awkward position of facing backwards on a bench.

At the border we walked across the bridge, paid our 20Q a person to leave the country (sometimes I swear the guy stamping your paperwork at the border is making up the exit fee), walked forward 50 meters further and got stamped on in to Belize.  A quick cab and bus ride got us into our destination for the night, San Ignacio2.

The change was immediate.  After months in Central American where countries that mostly blend together, Belize was immediately distinct in terms of architecture (cinder block and corrugated tin roof construction is replaced with aluminum siding with wood trim), music (salsa is replaced with reggae), language (Spanish is replaced with English), and food (beans and tortillas are replaced by more Caribbean and other culinary influences).

The variation in food was quite delicious as we dined on Moroccan curry dishes, and the beer, Belikin, was quite tasty and more substantial than a lot of the pilsners we’d been having.  My mom and I took a trip here in late 20053.  Those memories plus the spoken English made Belize feel sort of like a homecoming, like we were reemerging from the deep jungle and back into civilization (which, of course, has a certain literal truth to it).

I needed a hair cut and wanted to fit one in before hitting the much pricier countries we were bound for.  I found a place in town called “Da Royal Cut”, and upon entering a laid back dude of like 26 greeted me and bid me sit down.  It was a little barber chair in the open air front room of what looked like someone’s 1st story flat.  He hit a button on the stereo and laid back reggae beats filled the room, it felt like the musical track of an MTV reality show makeover scene.  Then he grabbed the electric shears with a serious attachment and gave me the shortest haircut I’ve gotten in memory.  His technique seemed mindful but super chill bordering on lazy, I think he broke out an actual scissors for about 4 tidying cuts, possibly just for show.

I dug it.  It was like a barber shop trust fall.  The end result was tidy, and looked just a touch military.  $3.50 well spent.

We headed on to Belize City for a night in anticipation of our next day flight.  There’s not much to say about Belize City, but I must admit among blase scenery of urban decay there’s a certain scrappy pride about it.  In the morning there are folks out sweeping the sidewalks, going about their business, cheerfully bidding you good morning, and not trying to sell you anything with their politeness.

Among our limited 8am breakfast options we found only a place tucked away into the corner of the ground floor of the commercial center on the riverfront.  It had its name, “Butler’s Delite” spray painted on the wall above the entryway.  It was owned and run by a man and his daughter, happy to make us whatever we wanted from their motley assortment of options.  We settled on eggs, beans, coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, a little loaf of creole bread, and some stewed chicken that tasted out of this world.  “Holy crap that’s good chicken!” I thought as I sopped up the last of the sauce with the ample slices of creole bread.  The proprietors just opened two weeks ago, and I wished their venture well.  The tiny 2-table establishment describable as something between a food stand and a restaurant deserves to have a tidy clan of regulars.

We flew out at noon, onto our 2 hour layover back in El Salvador.  Our quest there while awaiting our plane was to catch a lunch of the delicious pupusas we’d fallen in love with 6 weeks before.  Unfortunately, airports tend to be really short of street food vendors cooking up legit deliciousness on tidy little portable griddles, especially behind the lines of airport security.  We settled for the only option we found, an airport bar advertising pupusas.  As you might have guessed, yep, they were rubbish.  But at least they cost us a lot more.

Onward then to San Francisco back in the US of A.  There once again the awesomeness of friends shined to make another 23 hour layover pass like a deliberate, joy-filled visit to town.  Ran, my insta-kindred-spirit and top-notch programmer friend that I met at Morgan & Jon’s wedding picked us up from the airport.  After catching sushi, Ran and I stayed up chatting and geeking out about JavaScript until 1am.  This says a lot to the quality of our quality time spent, for it was 3am according to my body with the time zone switches of the day, and after the lake I was accustomed to having a 9pm-ish bedtime.

Then next day Anna, a friend I picked up in Buenos Aires in ’09, played hostess to us in her fair town while we awaited our 7pm flight.  I must admit, during our stroll through the City Target I was a bit bemused by the prettiness of US-style retail as we wandered the immaculate and well-lit aisles.  A few months away can have that sort of thing instill a sense of wow once again.

After stocking up on essentials we made our way to her famous neighborhood of Haight/Ashberry for top-notch brunch.  After strolling the funky streets and the Golden Gate Park we parted company once more and made our way to the airport.  There during our wait I made sure to get a burger.  I found a good burger to be neigh on impossible to find in South and Central America, and didn’t want to miss out on my chance for one before venturing off to other countries of unknown burger quality.

And then it was time for our 13 hour flight.  With its more than ample collection of on demand movies, our passage to New Zealand passed by swiftly4.

Now we are in New Zealand which, unlike the Americas, is for both Tracy and I a whole new world5.  In an hour we rendezvous with Charles and Amy, our Couch Surfing hosts here in Auklund for the next two days.

Notes:

  1. Technically it’s been 6 days on the calendar, if you count the magical disappearing of Friday when we crossed the international dateline this morning.
  2. In total our DIY price for what Enrique tried to sell us on (at 450Q per person) ended up right around 160Q, minus a guide for Tikal which we are generally more content to skip anyway.
  3. Mom, know that Tracy was duly impressed when I rattled off all the things we did in those 6 days.  When I think about it, I’m impressed.  We should travel again sometime, you got plans this Spring?
  4. For the record, I watched Love Actually (a fast-become holiday tradition for Tracy and I), The Simpsons Movie (seeing as how I was that kid who amassed like 16 VHS tapes of episodes painstakingly recorded off of television during most of the 90’s, it felt like I should cross that one of my list already), and The Campaign (as a proudly professed consumer of The Daily Show as my primary source for news, I have a soft spot for political satire).
  5. Unless you count familiarity gained by watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Man, a decade later New Zealanders still appear to be huge on the franchise, at least insomuch as it serves as a proud banner for tourism.  The actors in pre-flight safety video were all dressed like characters from the movie (for the record, Gandolf was pilot), and the in-flight magazine had a whopping 25-page feature on the soon-to-be-released The Hobbit.
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