Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Majestic Rugby Ball with Legs

I awoke gradually as the rising sun began to show pink through the curtains covering my window. I was hunkered down in the fluffy covers, surrounded by pillows, having just had the first really good night's sleep since our arrival four days before. With unadjusted eyes I peeked through a slit in the curtains, only to have my retinas bleached by the sun's blaring light. The house was still all quiet so I padded out of my room as silently as possible to go get a better look at the morning's colors. I went into the living room, opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the deck (or "dick", as it is pronounced here). It was already warm and the light was blinding. A line of clouds nestled into the distant rolling hills. I heard the clicking of nails on wood and looked to my left to see Millie, who had apparently appeared out of thin air, trotting towards me. I sat in one of the deck chairs and she immediately leapt onto my lap for a cuddle. I remained there only a few minutes, trying to appreciate the view while shielding myself from the sun's rays. Millie hopped down and trotted back from whence she came, and I went inside to see if Mem was awake. She was, so I beckoned her out to look at the morning fog on the hills.

Millie says, "Good morning!" outside my bedroom window.

Soon Carrie also emerged and set to arranging breakfast, a combination of coffee, tea, cereal, fresh fruit, and a light, fluffy, locally produced yogurt. We chatted a bit and then readied ourselves for the short walk down the nearby Rotary Redwood Park bush path to the Kiwi House. We cut through a neighbor's backyard and emerged onto the drive, walking downhill a few meters until we came to a gate. The gate led into a shaded trail seemingly lined with trees of every variety. Carrie and leashed Millie led us down the composting path. It smelled of evergreen forest and a yet unseen choir of insects buzzed, chirped, and clicked from all sides.


A lily pad-covered pond next to the trail


A Mem!
It only took a few minutes to descend the steep path before we saw bird enclosures belonging to the Kiwi House. Carrie pointed out which pens contained kiwis and identified some orange-beaked seabirds who sat calmly on a vine-covered wooden staircase (and whose names I have forgotten).

Next we came to a pen where she called out to a wood pigeon who had taking a liking to her. At the sound of her voice, he flapped out of the foliage and grasped onto the chain link separating us, then perched on a high wooden beam as near to Carrie as possible. He was as large as a chicken, with the usual gray-purple colored head, but a brilliant and full white breast. He clearly liked Carrie as much as she liked him and trained his eyes on her as we all stood there gawking.

Carrie's pigeon buddy

Just a few meters further we emerged into the parking lot of the Kiwi House. Carrie walked us in and introduced us to the woman at the desk, who she knew from her own volunteer work there. She bid us goodbye and we paid our admission and entered. The first enclosure contained the great spotted kiwi, the largest of these unusual flightless birds, which are endemic to the north island. The kiwi display was completely darkened save for a few dim track lights meant to simulate moonlight. Once our eyes adjusted, we could see movement within the glass enclosure. Soon the shape of the kiwi became apparent as she wandered around the enclosure, bobbing her head up and down and poking her long beak into the undergrowth in search of food. To my surprise, she was roughly the size of a turkey, and the shape of a rugby ball with legs and a head. Her fine, frizzy feathers looked soft and she occasionally fluffed them up as birds are wont to do. She seemed animated and wandered all around the enclosure, sometimes coming right up to the glass where we could get a closer look at her.

It was time for the feeding and educational talk. We spectators saw light in the back of the enclosure as the keeper opened the door to bring in the kiwi's food. She saw this too and immediately ran to him, squawking to demand the food she was about to receive. He set down a bowl of nutritious hodgepodge and she happily ate. The keeper entered the darkened hallway and proceeded to tell us about this fascinating creature.

We went into a second enclosure containing a young, small North Island brown kiwi, the most critically endangered subspecies. His name was Kevin. Next door to Kevin was an elderly great spotted kiwi (they live 30-40 years on average). Neither of these birds were as trusting as the previous large kiwi, and it took them several minutes to gingerly step out of hiding to approach the food that the keeper had set out.

After this we visited the kea and kaka, two parrot-type birds with big personalities. They were all well trained and docile with the trainer who went in to feed them, even willingly stepping onto her scale in exchange for a treat. Several visitors got to help feed nuts and cheese to the birds in order to keep them away from the gate while the keeper entered and left. The kaka in particular were said to be accomplished escape artists and the numerous chains and padlocks securing their enclosure were testament to this.


 A kaka waits for his treat for stepping on the scale.

We made the loop around the park to see the other birds, which mostly seemed to be varieties of duck. Opportunistic sparrows flitted around both inside and outside the enclosures, stealing as much food as they could fit into their little beaks. Finally we ended at the aviary, where we were given handfuls of birdseed to attract kakariki. These red-crowned green parakeets would land on our hands to dig through the birdseed mixture in search of the good stuff (sunflower seeds).

Mem feeds the kakariki

A pair of kakariki wait for an open hand of birdseed.

 My Disney princess moment

As we made our way toward the exit, the keeper pointed out a couple of large reptiles known as tuatara, who apparently preyed upon just about anything, including the charming green parakeets. This had occasionally resulted in some horrifying education for sensitive visitors.

The terror of the aviary

We bought a few pieces of jewelry and knick-knacks from the gift shop, an ice cream bar and bottle of water each, and then headed back up the path. Coming down it looked quite steep and I anticipated huffing, puffing, and sweating profusely the entire way back up. It didn't turn out to actually be that bad and we arrived back at Carrie's house in a matter of a few minutes, barely winded.

I lazed around a bit, taking an opportunity to put my feet up and relax. The sky was a clear azure and the wind cooled where the sun burned, creating an almost perfect temperature.

 This does not suck.

We ate lunch, had tea, and then decided to venture out again. We drove past downtown and looped around east to visit Lake Huiputea. It was more of a pond than a lake, and a stinky one at that, full of stagnant water, ducks who swam toward us in anticipation of a treat, and water-loving plants. We walked around the entire thing in about ten minutes. In the center of the pond stood a giant sculpture of a pukeko, an odd-looking blue swamp hen with a large orange beak. Just south of the pond stood a historic tree, surrounded by a circle of other non-historic trees. The sign at the site reads, "Around this tree in 1822, after their victory at Matakitaki, a section of Ngapuhi had an advance base where they were surprised and annihilated by a party of Waikato and Maniapoto. Captive Waikato women aided the attackers. Soon after this reverse, all Ngapuhi returned North."

Lake Huiputea

A leafy vine occupies a tree trunk.

New Zealand flax, traditionally used in Maori weaving

 Flax flowers

We got back in the car and decided to drive south on Motorway 3 to see what we could see. We didn't have a map, but knew that Te Kuiti lay just a short drive south. We arrived within about twenty minutes and parked as soon as we spotted the giant sheep shearing statue we had read about. As we stepped out of the car, an air raid siren went off. We froze, not sure what to do. We had been talking with Carrie about earthquakes earlier and weren't sure if this was why the siren was going off. We looked around at the few people nearby enjoying the park, but they didn't seem to be reacting. A tired, snaggle-toothed woman emerged from the liquor store across the street and installed herself on a park bench right in front of our parked car. Mem asked what the siren was about and she told us it was either because of an accident or a fire.

Te Kuiti is the sheep shearing capital of the world, hence the statue, and apparently has little else going for it. It was practically a ghost town, much like Otorohanga had been the evening before. We walked up to the sheep shearing statue and then read the informational signs next to it. One read, "The most common breed of sheep in New Zealand is Romney." There's a political joke in there somewhere. As we stood there reading the signs, a fire truck went by and turned south down the motorway. It had been several minutes since the siren went off and the response time seemed long.

Mem for scale

Across the street was the tiny Tatsuno Japanese Garden, which could have used a little tender loving care, but was pleasant anyway. We walked several blocks into the desolate downtown area and then turned around and headed back to the car. Apart from a few attractive historical buildings, there wasn't much to see or do. On our way back to the car, Mem noticed a sign that said something about the volunteer firefighter brigade who were called to action by the air-raid siren, which explained the delay between the siren and the departure of the firetruck.

 Colorful but empty Te Kuiti

We drove back to Otorohanga. Mem was in the mood for a beer so we stopped in at the Thirsty Weta again. There one of the employees flirted with her and she flirted back, earning a free shot of some chocolate mint liqueur. We ended up staying for some excellent burgers and fries even though we had planned to dine elsewhere that night. Why fix what ain't broke? We returned to Carrie's and had a good long conversation about the dreadful state of American politics and, of all things, retirement funds.

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take" - Wayne Gretzky

Friday, February 10, 2017

You spin me right round, baby, right round.

Our final morning in Auckland (until our return flight, that is), Rosie treated us to a nice breakfast of sausages, hash browns, toasted bread, yogurt, and fruit. We packed our things and decided to head out shortly before midday. Rosie and John were nowhere to be found, so we just left a note to thank them and left. Traffic was always bad on this stretch of Manukau Road, so we ended up having to take a detour to even get onto it facing the direction we wanted to go. Thanks to our fickle GPS and my novice knowledge of New Zealand road code, it took a few more turnarounds before we managed to get on the highway. Today we would be driving to Otorohanga, a small 3500-person town a couple hours south of Auckland, making a stop at Hamilton Gardens about two-thirds of the way there.

Once again, the GPS gave us the runaround, suggesting circuitous routes when all we needed was to stay on Motorway 1 heading south. The map also seemed to be out of date because it suggested many turns that did not exist and then would get confused and repeatedly instruct us to "Proceed to the route." We drove through countless small towns, both picturesque and poor, and must have traversed a dozen or more roundabouts, which routinely took the place of stop signs. There is a specific protocol for signalling as you approach, enter, and exit a roundabout, and I'm sure I failed to do it properly at nearly all of them.

A few green acres along the way

After a stupidly indirect route that seemed to take forever, we pulled into the car park at Hamilton Gardens, a vast free attraction of themed botanical gardens. We were really only making a prolonged pit stop so we lingered a mere hour, but one could easily spend a day there exploring the labyrinthine layout of its carefully crafted sections. As soon as we approached the entrance gate we could already appreciate the fragrances of the multitude of plant species. We explored the Paradise Gardens, which were a collection of small idyllic creations, including a Japanese zen garden, an Italian renaissance garden, and an Indian palatial garden, among others. They were all connected by way of hedged plazas, giving the impression of a storybook maze. The maze contained many intentional blind corners that, when rounded, would reveal a breathtaking scene. The splendid colors and perfumes attracted large orange butterflies and light yellow honeybees with almost clear wings. Tourists and wedding parties sauntered about, taking it all in with their eyes and their cameras. In one garden we happened upon another mother-daughter team, who offered to take our picture, and then we continued running into them in each subsequent garden we toured.

After too short a while, we made our way to the exit. As we approached a small wooden footbridge leading to the main plaza, I spotted a small fuzzy potato-like shape on the ground. From afar, it looked like a giant acorn husk. As we got closer, we realized it was an animal. I suspected it was a hedgehog, but had never seen one in real life and it looked a bit different from the pictures and videos of domesticated hedgehogs I had seen on the internet. We knelt down to have a closer look. The thing seemed docile and moved around slowly, dragging its feet and freezing in place if we moved too quickly. At one point it began to crawl toward Mem so she wisely backed away, not sure whether it might be a bitey sort of creature. We took a few pictures and then continued on our way, heading into the information center/gift shop. As we paid for our souvenirs, we described the animal to the ladies working there. One looked a bit confused at first but confirmed that it was indeed a hedgehog. She also mentioned that it was probably quite ill and dying since they are generally nocturnal and quite shy with humans. She grabbed a brochure off one of the racks and went out to go scoop it up off the footpath and set it down under a tree somewhere so that it could die in peace. Poor little thing.

We got back into the car and programmed the GPS for our next stop, an AirBnB property in Otorohanga. I examined the map to determine the most direct route and defied the GPS lady's unintuitive instructions, following the road signs like one would have done in the olden days. It worked, and she eventually conceded the fight and proceeded to my route. We arrived in the tiny town in less than an hour, ascending into a manicured and emblossomed neighborhood just north of downtown and Rotary Redwood Park. I had the address slightly wrong in the GPS, so we couldn't find the house we were supposed to go to. I asked a friendly neighbor who was standing in his driveway, and he said he had helped other tourists find the place. He was kind enough to tell us the correct number, which was just a few houses down. We pulled into a steep downhill driveway and approached the rectangular house at the end. A brown and white terrier immediately sprung from the front door and I recognized her as Millie, the dog whose picture I had seen on the B&B owner's profile. Then came the owner herself, Carrie, who tried to calm friendly Millie's excitement as she came out to greet us.

Carrie showed us to our rooms and then made us a cup of tea. We sat for a long time talking about this and that and getting acquainted. As we talked, Millie would go from person to person, strategically seating herself just beneath their hands where they would, almost on autopilot, begin to pet her. After a while she began to beg Carrie for food and we realized that we too were hungry.

Carrie's map with pins indicating her many visitors' home countries.

The view from the deck.

Millie inserts herself into the conversation.

We opted for the renowned Thirsty Weta, a pub named after the horrifying giant locust-like insects that live here. We had seen several signs for fish and chips on the way down so it was on our minds when we walked in. It also happened to be the special that evening, so we both ordered it. We realized we hadn't eaten since breakfast and had big appetites, cleaning our plates.

Thirsty Mem tries a local beer at the Thirsty Weta.

Once sated, we headed out into the nearly abandoned downtown strip. Every shop that wasn't a restaurant was closed and few people wandered the streets. We walked up and down the handful of blocks that comprised downtown, contemplating the contents of the shop windows and trying to orient ourselves to some of the places Carrie had described. We found Ed Hillary Walkway a small outdoor museum-like display featuring general information about New Zealand's history. It was somewhat hokey and kitschy, feeling like a mix of superficial information and pure advertising of New Zealand products, but I learned a few things I didn't know. For example, the walkway's namesake Sir Edmund Hillary, the "first" man who climbed Mount Everest (that we know of), was from New Zealand. This was also the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in 1893.

Having seen about all there was to see in town at this hour, we headed back to our car. As we approached, a freight train went by just a few meters away and we noticed what looked like a small station next to the tracks. As we got close enough to read the signs, we realized that it was in fact an espresso bar run by Origin Coffee. The signs said that it offered espresso tastings, but it was of course closed already. Across from it stood a public toilet with different slang words for bathrooms painted on the outer wall. These included terms like "bog", "throne","powder room", and "loo", with the ruder sounding ones on the men's side. I suggested adding "Pee House", which was a term my brother and I had been using since we were children. We had heard it from a family friend, a New Zealand native, who had used it to describe the bathroom the first time we visited his home. Unfortunately, we later learned that "P house" was now local slang for a meth lab.

Mem wanted to see what lay beyond where we could see on the south end of town, so I drove us there, unfortunately pulling out onto the road in front of a policeman. I was still making plenty of driving errors and was a bit nervous, especially after Carrie told us stories of New Zealand policemen having to revoke the driving privileges of reckless foreigners. But he either didn't notice or didn't care that I drove like a drunk blind person. When we discovered that there was a whole lot of nothing south of town, I turned off the road and he didn't follow.

We went back to the B&B and appreciated the magnificent view as the sunset colors were starting to emerge. We had more good tea and conversation with Carrie until it was dark. A big fat full moon was just beginning to rise above the trees.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

My God, it's full of stars!

Surprisingly, Mem and I both woke at a reasonable hour, our bodies appearing to have adjusted to the major time change with some ease. We didn't have any concrete plans until the evening, but nevertheless felt held hostage by the prospect of our lost luggage being delivered. We ventured out for a brief few minutes very early to buy some food at Farro, which again smelled like heaven. There's just something about a room full off fresh, unfuckedwith produce. We returned home, had breakfast, and then sat around for a couple of hours. I called Air New Zealand baggage services for a status update. They confirmed that our bags had indeed arrived on the early morning flight and had already been X-rayed by customs. They were just waiting for the next DHL pickup. A little while later I received a call saying that the bags were being picked up from the airport at noon, so we would receive them between 12 and 4pm. Great. We hoped that the fact that our B&B was halfway between the airport and downtown Auckland would mean that we would be one of the first deliveries. Sure enough, the yellow DHL van pulled into the driveway around 12:30 and we rushed out to meet the driver. What a relief! Had our luggage not arrived, we would have been reimbursed by the airline and/or our travel insurance, but we both hate shopping and did not want to spend several hours doing so to replace the contents of our suitcases.

Now that we were free of the chains of baggagelessness, we decided to venture out. Rosie lent us a couple of bus passes and some maps and explained how the public transport system worked. It seemed quite straightforward and we were confident we could handle it... or at least handle it better than trying to left-drive into the heart of a busy city and then find a very expensive parking spot. We wandered up and down the block and only saw the bus stop because the bus was pulling up to it, meaning we had to run half a block to catch it. When we got on, I started looking at the map to figure out when we needed to get off. Fortunately, the bus not only called out the stops, but also had a screen at the front with a map showing our progress along the route.

We got off at the busy intersection where Wellesley meets Queen St. Our goal was to pick up cigars from the nearby Havana House so that we could shoot an episode of Smoking in the Park later on during the trip. It was only a couple blocks away and we found it pretty easily. The inside of the store was all shiny and polished white like an upscale jewelry boutique. It did not smell as much like a cigar store as the ones I have visited before (sweet wood and moist tobacco). The humidor was locked and the tobacconist was on the phone so we waited until he was done. I told him I had a cigar shopping list (courtesy of Charlie) and expected he would show us into the humidor, but he just handed me a menu. Honestly, this was a lot easier for me than the usual method of leaning my nose into each box to try to discern the name and price of the cigars. I'm blind as a bat so this takes forever. However, being able to pick cigars out of the boxes myself means I can actually smell them to determine whether they are something I might like, and touch them to see if they are too dry or over-humidified. The prices were outlandish because New Zealand is a country with proper tax rates, so I picked a few of the least outlandish off Charlie's list and called it good. I was kicking myself for not bringing a basic little guillotine cutter because we have at least a dozen of them lying around the house and the cigar store charged $10.00 USD for one. Live and learn.

We left the store and wandered around a bit. Mem said she had seen the tip of the nearby Sky Tower, so we decided to go check it out. We paid our admission and took the elevator up to the 51st floor. The elevator was fast and as we ascended we could see flashes of the scenery outside. One could also look down through the glass floor and watch the earth fall away. The 51st floor contained several benches, telescopes, and placards showing the major natural and man-made features of any given angle. From this height, Auckland sprawled gorgeously in blue, green, and silver. One could easily appreciate its architecture, infrastructure, and topography. The ocean shone deep blue and myriad boats dotted its surface. There was an even higher observation deck in the Sky Tower another 10 floors up so we rode another elevator to check it out. It was hard to discern much of a difference in the view from the one 10 floors below, except if you looked at very nearby buildings, which might appear slightly shorter. Satisfied, we descended again and went back out onto the street.

Sky Tower from below

Auckland from above

Looking northeast at Devonport with volcanic Rangitoto Island in the background.

Boats in Shoal Bay

My feet were starting to hurt and blister because I had foolishly chosen to debut a new pair of shoes that afternoon, so we decided to find our way home. We wandered up and down the suspect block until we found the right bus stop and then waited what felt like a long time. The big yellow bus finally arrived and we ascended the steps. I wasn't sure my bus pass had registered when I got on, so I tried tapping it against the reader again, inadvertently signaling that I was leaving the bus and causing me to pay an incorrect, discounted fare. I was too flustered and embarrassed to tell the driver, so I sat down sheepishly and decided to risk dashing off the bus without tapping my pass on the reader when we arrived at our destination. My first crime. The return route was busier so it took a little bit longer, and unfortunately this bus neither called out the stops nor had the handy GPS map going. I had to pay attention to the landmarks and street names we had seen on the way in and make an educated guess as to when I should ring the bell. Someone signaled the bus to stop within a couple blocks of our B&B so we got off with them. No one came running after me to insist I pay the remaining dollar I owed in bus fare.

We had an 8:00 PM reservation for the Night Sky show at Stardome Observatory and I had a surprise for Mem there. It was only a mile and a half down the road, situated inside the expansive One Tree Hill park. It was still daylight, but fortunately the tiny planetarium's show depended neither on weather nor darkness unless you wanted to look in the courtyard telescopes afterward.

Multiple trees in One Tree Hill. Hmmmmm.....

 The dome housing the observatory's Zeiss telescope

We went in and approached the desk where I informed the cashier that we had a reservation and a packet waiting for us. She looked slightly confused. "What sort of packet?" she asked. "An Adopt-A-Star packet," I replied. "Oh!" Mem exclaimed and started to cry. I did too, and then the lady behind the desk began to get choked up. In addition to celebrating her retirement, this was also a memorial trip to honor her late husband Michael who was an avid Tolkien fan and also a bit of an astronomy nerd. To commemorate this aspect of the trip, I had adopted a star in his memory that Mem could view from home in Pocatello. The observatory had assigned him HIP 56601, a star in the constellation of Leo, situated just above the lion's rump. The astronomer who would be giving the Night Sky show presentation, Tobias, was standing at the desk during this tender moment and offered to show us Michael's star after the show ended.

The observatory housed a small but fascinating museum and we wandered through it and checked out the exhibits before the show.

Lego space shuttle

Floating astronauts

The show was fascinating and also a little too relaxing. Tobias spoke with a soothing, metered Germanic accent and his voice was as hypnotizing as Carl Sagan's. Lying down on deeply reclining chairs in a dark room and staring into the night sky to such a sound did not make it easy to keep my eyes open, regardless of how riveting the content was. Tobias taught us about how stars are mapped in the night sky, gave us information about certain easily observable stars and planets, and then explained the life cycle of stars. After the show, he informed the audience that the sky was now so clouded you could not even see the moon, so everyone would be given vouchers to use the courtyard telescopes at a later date. After everyone exited the dome, Tobias went back to the console and showed us how to use guide stars from other constellations in the northern hemisphere to find Leo and Michael's star. He was even able to zoom in on the body itself and describe its specific characteristics, like age, size, and temperature. It was a real treat.

When we exited the observatory it was indeed cloudy and raining too. Mem pointed out that I could finally put to good use the wiper lever that I kept inadvertently flipping on when trying to use my turn signals in the backwards car.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

It's my time, 'cause I'm the next in line.

It all started with a snowstorm. We were scheduled to leave Seattle a day after fat flakes fell and stuck for 12 hours straight. I had made backup plans to get us to the airport in case we couldn't get a Lyft, but the snow stopped and the roads were just clear enough by the time we needed to leave. When we got to the airport, lines of frustrated people sighed and scowled, waiting for their turn to rearrange flights that had been cancelled early that morning. Our first leg of the flight was with Alaska (hereafter referred to as "Satan") so we had to stand in line with many of these poor unfortunate types. For some reason, Alaska decided to group international check-ins with reschedules, so people who needed to get through security and catch flights in the near future were made to wait behind folks whose counter interactions took an average of 20-30 minutes apiece. Furthermore, the seven available service desks were only half staffed. It was lucky that we had arrived early because we stood there for an hour.

Finally, when it was our time because we were the next in line, the apathetic woman at the open desk called out to ask to ask what we needed. We told her, and she responded that our check-in would take too long and her shift was finished in five minutes. Then she promptly signed off and walked away. The next few folks in the line looked around bewildered and offended, some asking, "Is she serious?!" She was. After several more minutes another more helpful fellow occupied the desk and helped us with our check-in. He assured us that our bags were checked through, but that we would have to ask the Air New Zealand staff for our boarding passes when we arrived in LA. Easy peasy.

So we went through an almost abandoned TSA security line (probably because of all of the canceled flights) and found our gate with relative ease. We only had about 20 minutes until our flight was scheduled to board. We grabbed a burger at one of the fast food joints and then went to speak with the woman at the boarding gate to get our seat assignments. I don't know why those hadn't already been assigned. We each ended up with middle seats in two different rows, one in front of the other. No biggie, I guess. Then the time to board rolled around and nothing happened. After a few minutes, the gate agent got on the intercom to tell us that the plane wasn't at the gate yet. She explained that it was indeed at the airport and had been all night, but they had yet to tow it to our gate. Okay then. Seems like someone dropped the ball, but I suppose these things happen. Another 45 minutes went by. This was when we were supposed to be actually departing. Still no plane. Another hour went by and the plane finally arrived. The passengers, despite our predicament, had remained calm and courteous and boarded with relative quickness. As we walked through the gate, I noticed the plane towing guys were having a snowball fight with the baggage handlers. Not super professional conduct, but whatever.

Finally, the passengers were all seated and ready to go. We did not go. What we did was sit there and wait, and wait, and wait. The captain came on the intercom and apologized for the further delay but said we were just waiting for the baggage handlers to finish loading the plane. We could hear the bags being loaded in one-by-one, slowly but surely. It was a large flight so there would be plenty to load. Perhaps they should have been working on that rather than chucking snowballs at one another. The sounds of loading seemed to last forever. Our plane finally backed away from the gate a full hour and forty-five minutes after our scheduled departure.

By now I was outraged and nervous. Our itinerary had allowed us two and a half hours to make our connection. Based on my last experience transferring between the international and domestic terminals at LAX, I knew we'd need the time. We were now down to an hour to make the connection and this meant we would be running a very long way. As we approached our destination, a flight attendant came on the intercom and asked that passengers who were not connecting internationally remain seated so that the few of us trying to make the same or similar flights could get off as soon as possible. Sure enough, as soon as we stopped every dickhead and their mom stood up to start readying their bags. I shouted down the aisle that there were some of us in the back who needed to get off. Fortunately, most people complied and we managed to exit fairly quickly.

Now it was time to run. I tightened my backpack straps and took off at a steady jog that I knew would not last long. Within a minute or two I was sweating profusely and panting, my heart beating out of my chest. I alternated between the briskest walk I could manage and a light jog the entire way. We wound through hallway after hallway, trying to follow the unclear signs and figure out where to get our flight. We took a couple of wrong turns and had to backtrack, which felt like torture under the already dire circumstances. We knew our flight had begun boarding a good half hour before we'd be at the gate so we were pushing it. Finally, the half dozen of us who had traveled from Seattle together fell upon the boarding gate almost at once, with me and another older gentleman straggling in behind. The gate agents were a complete 180º from what we had dealt with so far. They collected all of our passports immediately and made haste to arrange our departure. Alaska claimed to have called ahead to inform our connecting flights of the delay, but that didn't appear to be the case when actually got there. I can't say I was surprised to hear that Alaska had not actually even processed our check-in in Seattle at all, which meant that Air New Zealand thought we were just no-shows.

Fortunately, they were still able offer all of us seats, and even moved some folks around so that those of us who had paid for upgrades could keep them. They really went above and beyond and we were grateful. Mem and I were literally the last people to board the flight. We plopped down in our seats, sweaty and exhausted, relieved and in disbelief that we had actually made it this far. This flight ended up departing about fifteen minutes late too, but it was supposedly because of heavy traffic at LAX. I suspected it might also have to do with the number of stragglers who boarded at the last minute.

Nothing like running across LAX to give you that youthful glow!

We were in for a 12-hour trip, so we tried to get comfy and relax. As a surprise and a retirement gift, I had paid to upgrade us to a Skycouch, which is essentially a three-seat row where you can lift the footrests 90º to make a bed. The very courteous flight attendants served us a surprisingly good dinner and then we set about making our bed. Although our Skycouch afforded more space and comfort than a regular seat, it was by no means as comfortable as a bed. We're lucky we're not tall and are familiar enough with one another to sleep in close quarters. There was much tossing and turning, readjusting, limbs falling asleep, cramping, and sweating. Still, we did manage to get sleep in short spurts and arrived surprisingly alert.

Now, I have to tell you, I have been through many airports in many countries, and have dealt with passport control and customs all over the world. Most of the time it is, at the very least, a mild inconvenience. Other times (usually coming back to the US from elsewhere), it is infuriating or depressing. In either case, it generally takes awhile. New Zealand appears to have solved this issue quite well, at least for Americans. When we got off the plane, we followed clearly marked signs, walked through a huge sparkly duty-free mall, and then were spit out into passport control. Before we proceeded, I stepped out of line to ask the fellow at the Vodafone counter whether this was where I needed to collect the phone I had reserved. He informed me that it was actually the store beyond passport control where I needed to get it. As I went back to the line, he called out to me to ask what kind of passport I held. When I showed him, he pointed to the E-passport symbol on the front, which I had never really noticed, and told us that we could go through a different line where there was no wait. As we walked in that direction, I noticed the e-Passport sign showed flags from countries like the US, Canada, England, and Australia. When Mem asked why we got to use the special line, I explained that it was because we come from a white people country.

There were no passport agents to speak of. We each inserted our passports into a little touch-screen kiosk, much like the kind you use to check in at the airport. It spit out a ticket and the screen instructed us to walk to the entry gates. These were much like subway ticket machines, except when you insert your ticket a screen in front of you tells you to look into a camera straight ahead, your picture is taken, and then the gate opens so you can proceed. That was it, and it was amazing.

Next it was time to collect our baggage so that we could go through customs. We waited at the carousel, increasingly nervous as minute after minute went by. Soon, the other passengers we recognized from our epic run through LAX joined us and we all found ourselves waiting until the carousel sign said that all baggage had been delivered. At this point, nothing could surprise us. We spoke with an airport staff member who directed us to the baggage services counter. Soon, all of our fellow baggageless wandered over too. Air New Zealand was amazingly helpful and explained that our bags had not been registered in Air New Zealand's system, so they were not transferred to the transpacific flight (quelle surprise). The agent was apologetic but made arrangements for our bags to be put on the next flight from LA and delivered to our B&B. She also explained that we were entitled a $100 NZD reimbursement for any emergency supplies we needed to buy due to the loss of our luggage. We could either return to the airport to collect it, or take care of it before our flight home.

She stamped our customs forms and instructed us to proceed through the checkpoint with our carry-on. As we approached the line, a tall woman saw me carrying our baggage services forms and said, "Uh oh! What happened?" We summarized our story and she was sympathetic. The customs agent was friendly and quickly questioned us as to the content of our late-arriving bags. He also asked whether we were bringing any food into the country. The flight attendants had passed out hard candy shortly before we landed, so Mem set her piece on the counter in response. "Thanks, but I've had lunch," he joked and then sent us through to have our backpacks X-rayed. Aside from the baggage services detour, the whole immigration and customs process took a few measly minutes and we were discharged into arrivals.

First we went to the Vodafone store to pick up the mobile I had reserved. I thought it would be good to text our AirBnB hosts to let them know we would be there later than expected due to the baggage SNAFU. I sent a message but it didn't appear to go through. No biggie. We weren't that late yet. We headed over the Avis counter to collect the keys for our rental car and then I programmed the address into the maps app on our phone. It couldn't connect to the internet so I went back over to the Vodafone counter for help. It hadn't actually been activated. They set it up properly this time (or so we thought) and then we finally walked outside. It was 9:30 AM and we had been in airports or on airplanes for nearly 24 hours. The slightly muggy air was a warm and welcome sensation. 

We located our car, a silver Holden Cruze, and threw our luggage into the back. New Zealand is a left-driving country and we had read up on driving rules in preparation, but it was still disorienting. To begin with, the steering wheel is on the opposite side. I would be driving us to our AirBnB so I had to get used to keeping to the right inside the left lane. I hit the curb on the left side of the car a couple of times because my depth perception was off. Also, the windshield wipers and turn signal levers were reversed, so every time I tried to signal I would turn on the wipers and then swear.

When we started driving, the GPS failed to stay connected and we just ended up with a map that couldn't give us directions. We first pulled into a gas station to try to correct the matter and then went back to the airport. I had no idea where I was going so I accidentally pulled into the airport's pay parking area. I was getting flustered now and a steady stream of profanity began to emanate from my mouth. Mem was doing her best to talk me down and find a solution. I parked and marched back inside to the Vodafone counter. The woman there looked perturbed to see us again. I explained the issue and asked if we could just return the phone because I figured we could just pay for the GPS service from the rental car company. She said she couldn't accept the return and instead programmed the phone to be used as a mobile hotspot. That way, we could use one of our own iPhones for GPS. Fortunately, that worked, although I was annoyed at now having to use two phones to do the job of one.

We went back outside, got in the car and made our way to the exit. We had to pay $6.00 NZD (about $4.00 USD) for the five minutes we had been there, which was annoying, but at least we were on our way. I got the hang of the driving pretty quickly and, for the first time in my life, was thankful for moderate traffic because it meant no one could get too annoyed at me for driving slowly and carefully. Except for a couple of abrupt lane ending incidents when I had to think fast to get in the right lane, we made it in one piece. We pulled into our AirBnB about 20 minutes later. Relief doesn't begin to describe how I felt.

Our accommodations were a white Victorian house in the Epsom suburb with a beautifully manicured garden and a curved stairway leading up to a covered porch. We rang the old manual bell and were greeted by John, one of the owners. He was a friendly middle-aged Chinese man who graciously welcomed us in even though we were several hours early for check-in. He offered us tea and a sit-down on the patio while he called Rosie, his wife, to let her know we had arrived. Mem instantly noticed their fluffy cat, Mimi, sitting on the grass nearby. Mimi was friendly and came over to collect some scratches while we rehydrated and recombobulated. Rosie arrived and introduced herself. We explained to her that we had had quite the adventure getting there and that our luggage had not arrived. She was sympathetic, and she and John busied themselves readying our room so we could take a load off. We put our feet up and guzzled water.

Our first encounter with the local wildlife.

It was now 11 AM and we were hungry. We had noticed several restaurants and shops on the main road as we drove in, and Rosie recommended a few of them. We decided on the Chinese restaurant,  Golden Jade, half a block away and were not disappointed. It was run by an all Cantonese-speaking staff, who promptly brought tea and casually tossed menus on the table. The restaurant had just opened, but they moved busily as if preparing for the lunch rush. We ordered BBQ fried rice, kung pao chicken, and choi sam in ginger sauce. They brought out three huge plates of food and we realized we had ordered enough for a medium-sized family. I helped Mem with her chopsticks skills and we ate well. This was some of the best Chinese food I had had outside of China and the warm, juicy BBQ pork was in fact the best I had ever had.

We dropped our leftovers back at the house and then ventured out again to buy some emergency toiletries to get us through the next (hopefully only) 24 hours until our luggage arrived. We walked to a beautiful produce market called Farro, which looked like an upscale health food store and smelled amazing. They didn't have any non-food related items though, so we left empty handed. We walked into a pharmacy so Mem could buy a toothbrush (which only came into a two pack) and then headed back toward the house. On the way, we stopped at a little convenience store (known as a "dairy" in New Zealand) that had boxes of used books sitting outside The books cost $2.00 each so I snatched up a copy of The Official New Zealand Road Code, and recommended Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund for Mem. We noticed the store also had a few basic toiletries, like single toothbrushes for cheaper than the pharmacy had them. On the next block we stopped into the Lido Cinema to inquire about ticket prices and peruse their selection, discussing whether it might be good to see a movie later.

Since we had no fresh clothes, we thought it might be a good idea to take Air New Zealand up on their reimbursement policy. Once again I braved the road and took us about a mile and a half north to the Farmers department store. We each picked out underwear and a sleep shirt that could double as an actual shirt. This would at least give us the illusion of freshness, especially after we took advantage of a much needed shower. We had a nice conversation with the Iranian cashier, whose name tag read "Shireen", pointing out that my mom and I shared the middle name Shareen. Then we returned to the house to put our feet up for a bit. I had been having trouble with one of mine and the jog across LAX did not help.

The resting just made us drowsy, so we opted to go see Lion just to keep us awake until an appropriate bedtime. We were dealing with a 21-hour time difference and didn't want to spend the next several days jetlagged. The movie was beautiful and harrowing, with very little actual dialogue. I worked hard to suppress tears through most of it. I was amazed that it was true story because it was so unbelievable. After the movie, we went home and had some leftover Chinese and then I took a much-needed shower. The high water pressure was delicious and made me feel so much better. I donned my provisional wardrobe and crawled into bed. Mem was asleep in minutes, but I made myself stay up awhile so that I wouldn't wake up at a ridiculously early hour. I slept hard and dreamed of joining some rogue members of the media in publicly demonstrating against Donald Trump while he watched a basketball game with his family. Not even my unconscious will give it a rest!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Day My Girlfriend Broke Up with Me

Today was our final full day in Mazatlan. Charlie and I wanted to have one last outing downtown to do some souvenir shopping and pick up a couple things for dinner. Rather than having the bellboys call us a cab, we just walked out to the street and got into the only one parked where we had seen cabs lining up all week. The driver immediately addressed us in nothing but Spanish and never asked how I knew it, so that was kind of nice. He also pointed out several points of interest and monuments and explained some of the demographics and geological features of Mazatlan. I tried to cut in whenever possible to interpret for Charlie and was minimally successful. Luckily, Charlie is catching on to the whole Spanish thing and picked up a fair bit of what was said. When we got downtown, the driver asked whether we wanted to go directly to the market or whether he could take us a roundabout way and show us a few more things. We agreed to the latter so he drove us a little further south and continued his tour. It was quite nice to be oriented rather than wonder about all the things that zipped by the car window. He was also critical of the aggressive timeshare sales that goes on all over the city and warned us against taking anyone up on a free offer. “Nothing is free,” he said. “Everything has a price.” As we neared our destination, Charlie wondered aloud about El Chapo’s recent capture and before I had the chance to ask, the driver just started telling us the epic tale of how it happened.

We were dropped next to the cathedral and walked up to the main entrance to buy a gift from the little kiosk there. Then we walked the block to the market and went the long way around to avoid the non-food vendors. The first thing we saw when we entered was a skinned cow head lying upside down on a butcher’s counter, at eye level with any passersby. It was slightly unnerving but also kind of cool. We walked by the funny butcher from whom we had purchased beef a couple of days before and he smiled and nodded in recognition. We bought some beans and then went outside, chatting about whether to have second breakfast like a couple of hobbits. There were several little trailers along the street selling tacos and other typical dishes, so we approached one run by two young men who looked no older than 18 or so. Next to the trailer was a little table where several locals sat eating their lunch, and the trailer itself also had a built-in metal bench and bar area where it looked like one could eat. Since the table was full, we sat on the bench and immediately drew the stares of the other patrons and people walking by. Other than in the church, this was the only time that people obviously stared at us. We ordered a few tacos and then I asked one of the young proprietors whether it was alright that we were sitting there to eat. He looked at me like that was the stupidest question anyone had ever asked and said yes. We ate a few pork tacos with onions, cilantro, and a mixture of salsas and fresh lime juice, and then obnoxiously paid with bills so large that the poor guy had to wander around the block asking other vendors to help him make change.

Street tacos

After our short meal, we flagged down another pulmonía for our ride back to the resort. This one was slightly quieter and stank slightly less of exhaust, fortunately. The driver also tried giving us a tour kind of ride, but we told him we had been there a week and had already seen a lot of things. He told us about the aquarium anyway and it made us regret not going there because it sounded really cool.

When we got back to the resort, we joined Tony and Elena at the pool, swam a bit, went for a cigar walk, and then went back to the pool to sunbathe and have lunch. Charlie spotted my "girlfriend" as she circulated the pool on her security circuit and we were amazed that she either didn’t spot me or was ignoring me completely. We saw her again near the reception desk where she clearly avoided eye contact, perhaps because she was near her coworkers. Charlie asked what I had done to upset her and I said I hadn’t seen her since she smiled at me from the security gate the day before.

Pool iguanas

Today I learned that iguanas are excellent climbers.

A close-up of the sand

My view most days

Since it was our last day, Charlie and I walked around the resort to give extra large tips to a few of the staff who had gone above and beyond in their service, especially where it concerned accessibility for Elena. After we made our last stop, we once again found ourselves about to cross paths with my girlfriend. She was clearly still avoiding eye contact so Charlie stared her down to force her to acknowledge him. And she did, but only him. She didn’t even look at me. “I think my girlfriend just broke up with me,” I told him. “That’s why you shouldn’t stick your dick in crazy,” was his reply.

We walked out to the beach for a few minutes to watch the sunset. The sky was completely free of clouds, which meant there would be no shocking pinks and purples, but the sunset was no less beautiful.

My man watching the sun set

A lovely side effect of the earth's rotation

We headed back to the room and Tony, Elena, and I played Qwirkle while Charlie prepared dinner. We ate the rest of the beef from the market with a slightly different take on the mole sauce, plus rice, fresh salsa, and the refried beans we had bought at the market earlier that day. It was delicious, of course. We prepared our luggage for our trip out the next morning, built the couchbedfort, and then headed out for one last cigar by the pool. And now, without further ado, Smoking in the Park!

Update: Rather than dedicating a whole blog post to our trip home, I just decided to add it as an addendum to this post. Suffice it to say that our flights were cancelled or delayed every step of the way and it took as long to get home as if we had been on the other side of the globe. It was exhausting, but a took a few interesting pictures:

Watering the grass with the firetruck at the Mazatlán airport

Our flight was rerouted through Mexico city and we couldn't believe how immense it looked from the airplane window.

Urban sprawl

Every surface covered with buildings

A fairly clear day in a normally very polluted city.

 I do not think I would like to live here.