Month: September 2008

Munich, Germany: Act II, Scene 1 … A Tale Of Two Airports

So get ready people, cause the new adventure begins … Now.

When I checked in for my flight in Boston the attendant told me that I would have to pick up my bags at Frankfurt and check-in again for the final Frankfurt – Munich leg of my flight. Fair enough, I would have to get the boarding pass anyway and switch to the domestic terminal, I can wait for my bags too. Plus, with a couple-hour layover, it would be quicker to clear customs at Frankfurt and save time in Munich (even though I was gonna be waiting in the Munich airport for my brother for three hours anyway … well, it’s still quicker damnit).

I alighted the plane in Frankfurt and wandered around, looking for the customs area. Now in most airports the customs area is half cattle pen and half Apple Store checkout counter during the iPhone release. But when I got to the top of a set of escalators and looked left, I saw what looked like a Microsoft Store checkout counter during the iPhone release.

There were so many open lanes i didn’t know which one to stand in. And there were so few people, I could bounce from one to another, waiting for the half-asleep customs agent to gaze away from the newspaper to realize a brown man was trying to get into his country. Finally, I made eye contact and approached the counter. I handed him my passport, with half closed eyes he looked at me, looked at the passport, scanned the passport, stamped it and then gave it back. The only words uttered were by me, “Hi” and “Thank you”. I mean, there wasn’t even a departure card to fill out pleading that I wasn’t trying to smuggle in a live animal or any tropical fruits it might like to eat.

One of the worst feelings when waiting for a bag is the small rollercoaster of hope and disappointment as the shadow of each bag makes it’s way down the chute, only to reveal itself as belonging to the paranoid schizophrenic next to you who told you you smelled like formaldehyde. The worst feeling is when all the bags have come out, and yours is nowhere to be found. I stood by the belt hoping that some baggage handler was admiring my bland, olive green duffel bag for it’s durability and convenience, but then I was approached by two rather friendly baggage agents who asked me if I was waiting for a bag that hadn’t showed up. When I showed them the tags, she equally-kindly informed me that my bags had in fact been checked through to Munich and to please leave her baggage area.

Sure enough the airport code ‘MUC’ appeared last on the list of printed destinations on the baggage tag. I’d like to hurl insult-after-injury at the attendant in Boston, but hey, I didn’t notice it either. I quickly made my way to the check-in counter, through security and read the Wall Street Journal at the departure gate.

One by one the bags moved past me on the belt in the Munich airport. And each time, like waiting for a friend in the airport, I perked up and stood excited as the next bag pushed aside those rubber venetian blinds. Then my shoulders would slump and watch one more person leave the area, their friend rolling closely behind. This time there was no friendly agent to tell me what had happen to my bags, I had to go ask the Bag Trace department myself. The answer? We have no idea. I had a minor argument with the attendant about the fact that my bag fell halfway between the barcoded, designated ‘Green’ color and the ‘Brown’ color. Finally I settled on ‘Green’. Then changed my mind to ‘Brown.’

All I had with me was Mike BK’s house number and the name of the street, deconstructed by the detailed directions he had emailed out. I recited the street number and name and then she asked, “City?”. “Ummmm … Munich?” Ah, I thought, in the clear. “Postcode?”. Postcode?? “Ummm … well if I tell you how to get there is there any way to figure it out?” She didn’t get the joke.

When my brother arrived we confirmed the city and postcode with Mike and I updated the baggage agents. After more than three hours they still hadn’t figured out where the bag was, but at least they had the right delivery address. I contemplated updating the bag color, but then decided against it.

BK’s directions were spot on and my brother and I soon found ourselves in front of his house … in Munich … 80803.

Of course, half-litres of some good German weissbier (wheat, literally “white beer”) were distributed. We cleaned up and put on some new/same clothes and headed out with Mike, his wife Ann, and his brother Dave. We took the train and a short stroll into Mike and Ann’s old neigbourhood by the university and found some room at a restaurant called Soda. We tore into some sandwiches and some more weissbier. Another barhop later, we called it a night.

The next day, after all, was gonna be a big one. It was the first day of Oktoberfest, and we were waking up early to stand in line to be one of the first ones let into the enormous, packed tents. It was a mission most people would consider crazy, but we were drunk and full of confidence, and hey, if you’re gonna do Oktoberfest, you better do it right.

Boston, Massachusetts, USA: End Act One.

I won’t bore you with the details of my three weeks in the U.S. I spent a few days in Houston, catching up with Soares and all my former colleagues. I was fortunate that so many people were available and in a little more than 2 days I got to see almost everyone. Then, very much like what I did two years ago, I packed up the contents of the Public Storage locker and set off for Atlanta.

My life seems to ride like a wave, with crests and troughs. Lows like losing my passport and getting stuck next to paranoid schizophrenic on a trans-pacific flight are usually followed by some great highs. Like finding out that my good friend Sly recently moved to Atlanta, and I got to hang out with him, Rick and Jill. And then when I drove to Newark I got to see my friend Amanda, whom I hadn’t seen since after freshman year in college, more than eight years ago. I even got to meet her husband and her beautiful daughter Bella.

Finally, I had 9 relaxing days at home with my parents. I spent much of them time packing up the things in my room and the things I brought from Houston.

I know what you’re thinking, that this sounds like the end. The end?? I’m writing this 5 hours away from a flight to Munich.

Act I, Australasia, is over, but Act II, Europe, is just getting started. There’s some new clothes and new gear, but it’s the same old method: one-way flight in, no plan, no end in sight. I’ve got a lot of ideas floating around, but you know my feelings on planning …

And this time I’ve cut all ties, there’s no car, no motorcycle, no storage locker full of stuff. Just me and the backpack.

So get ready people, cause the new adventure begins …

Wellington/Auckland, New Zealand: The Story To End All Stories

The night before I left Wellington I packed. I was getting good at this whole preparation thing, instead of running around like a madman a couple hours before my flight. So by the morning, I was ready to leave the country in no time at all.

Jess drove me to the airport and came in to keep me company before my flight. I lugged my large pack, daypack and snowboard up to the check-in desk and fumbled around my pockets for my passport. But it wasn’t in my travel wallet, so then I checked my jacket. But it wasn’t in there either. And then I started getting hot, like when you know something bad is happening and all you’re allowed to do is sit back and watch the horror. That little butterfly in my stomach had butterflies in its stomach. I looked at Jess and the Air New Zealand attendant and quietly said, “I can’t find my passport.”

I used their courtesy phone to call the airport lost & found, to see if maybe it had fallen out of my pocket when I arrived in Wellington. Of course, I had to have it when I landed in Christchurch, but after that, you don’t need your passport for domestic travel, so it could be in any of the cities I had visit: Christchurch, Queenstown, Wanaka or Wellington. Except for Christchurch, I called the every police department and asked if a passport had been returned. I called the embassy and consulate and asked them if they had been given any found passports. Nothing. A very nice woman at the consulate explained to me that if I really had lost it, I would have to get a police report reporting the loss and show up at the Consulate General in Auckland to be issued a replacement. An emergency one could be produced in a day, if necessary. Unfortunately, it was Friday and the Consulate is closed on weekends and all US and NZ public holidays, including Labor Day, which was Monday.

I called up Orbitz and rebooked my flights. The plan was to take an early-morning flight to Auckland, getting me into the city around 7:30 AM. The Consulate opens at 8, so I would be able to put my application in first thing in the morning. There were two options for leaving: I could take a 6 PM flight out that same day, leaving me only 10 hours from the time I land to the time my next plane leaves to get a new passport, or a red-eye flight which left at 3 the next morning. Of course, after thinking about it while on the phone with the travel agent (whom I even asked “Hey … do you think I could get a new US Passport with that much time?”), I took the flight leaving at 6 PM. I love a good challenge.

Now the worst part was that I was supposed to fly to San Francisco that day and spend the weekend with my brother and parents. It would’ve been the first time we’d all be together since my grandfather’s birthday more than a year ago. I only found out that my passport was gone after my parents boarded their flight in Boston.

If you had looked into my eyes on Tuesday morning, you would’ve seen the raw, primal determination of a very desperate man. I pushed young and old out of my way as I made a dash out of the arrival gate. My bags came pretty quickly, and I left them at the airport i-site. After lengthy cab ride through rush hour traffic, I arrived at the US Consulate General. I presented my police report and photo identification to the woman behind the bulletproof glass who then asked “When do you intend on leaving?”, and then laughed when I said “Umm … 6?”

I waited there for about 30 minutes before a man called out my name and asked me for the story. I told him the whole thing, from when I arrived to when I realized I lost it, and that’s when he slapped in front of me my original passport application from 6 years ago and declared “I’ve issued emergency passports at midnight based on this.” It seems their computer system keeps track of all these bits of paper, and since my original application (complete with pictures and fingerprints) was in the system, they could definitively state that I was me. I raised my left hand and took an oath stating everything I had asserted was true (later, my friends would tell me the oath was invalid because I was supposed to raise my right hand), and the consular officer said, “Just sit back down and we should have a new passport for you in about 20 minutes.” Sure enough, less than 2 hours after I arrived at the building, I was walking out with a brand new US Passport. Sure, it was only good for a year, and it didn’t have the picture of Fat Bj on it, but it was good enough.

I watched a movie on my laptop at the airport while I waited for my flight. It was only as I was walking on the airplane did I realized that I was finally going home after 1 1/2 years.

And then everything went in the shitter.

I reached seat 47A with a bottle of water and my book in my hand. I tossed the water on my window seat and began to put my backpack in the overhead compartment. The very spaced out woman in the aisle seat 47B slowly reached over and picked up my water bottle and said, “Thanks …”. I chuckled at the weird joke. She was still holding onto my water as I motioned that I was going to be sitting next to her. “Are you sure?” “Um, yeah, why? Is there a mistake with the seating?” “I don’t know, is there a mistake?” Ok …. She finally got up and let me pass, but then she kept walking down the aisle away from the seats, with my water bottle! I started saying “Ma’am … Ma’am!” I lunged over the seat in front of me and grabbed her by the shoulder and swung her around. “Can I have my water back?” “Sure … I thought it was a gift.”

I sat in my seat thinking about how lucky I was to be seated next to a strange woman and then I started counting the number of hours before we land in LAX. I stopped at 15, and that would’ve barely gotten me to San Diego.

And that’s when things got even weirder. More and more frequently, she would turn to me and speak absolute nonsense. It was definitely English, but it was like she was answering questions that were never asked. For example, I never asked “If you could describe the two of us in numbers, what would we be?”, but as I was staring out of the window, she turns to me and says, “You’re a 12 and I’m an 11.” I made the mistake of asking what that meant, and she explained, “Well there are like 24 hours in a day, so … you’re like half that, and I’m like 11.” So then I’m thinking, “Wait how come she gets to be an 11 … is this like a ranking system?”

Once, she held up her hands, with her fingers touching the opposing fingers on the other hand in a strange symmetrical shape and says, “This is who I am.” Oh my god …

Then she would say, “What can you teach me?” And I held my tongue from saying, “Let’s start with How To Be Quiet.”

Around this time the pilot gets on the PA with news that the co-pilot’s seat has been acting up and they need to get the mechanics in to fix it. It was also around this time that my new friend started complaining about a bump on her forehead and how much it stung. An idea got into my head and suddenly I felt compelled to tell someone. When the crazy woman went to the toilet, I jumped up and went to the back of the plane to talk to a flight attendant. “Hi, you know the woman I’m sitting next to?” By now she had made her presence known to the attendants and the passengers around her, so I had assumed her reputation spread. The flight attendant suddenly stopped what she was doing and looked at me with wide eyes and anticipation. “Yeah …”. “Well, she’s been acting pretty strange and now she’s complaining about a bump on her head, and I was just worried that it was a concussion or something like that.” Another flight attendant walks into the area and the first one turns to her and says “Hey, remember that passenger we were supposed to keep an eye on? What seat was she in?” “47B. She’s on some kind of medication.”

You’ve got to be kidding me … It seems that she crew was warned about her, that she was traveling alone and on medication, and they were supposed to watch her. I told them about her behavior and they promised to stay on top of it. I explained that she wasn’t violent or anything, but that she wasn’t making much sense.

And then she got violent.

In her defense, the crew wasn’t doing much to make us comfortable. It was 2 hours into the Co-Pilot’s Seat Fiasco (a.k.a. Emergency At 20 Feet), and they hadn’t turned on the cabin air conditioner, so the air was hot, humid and filled with B.O. They hadn’t come around with refreshments, nor had they turned on the entertainment system. And to make matters worse, we were supposed to be getting our meals at this point in the flight. So the passengers were hot, sweaty, hungry, dehydrated and bored. Even if you weren’t off your rocker, it was enough to send you to the edge.

The crazy woman started getting quite annoyed at the air system. She would yell out to the plane about how we need air and some circulation. Then she started turning on me, her long-time friend, teacher and #12. Without warning or reason, she would suddenly turn to me and say, “You know what, why don’t you just mind your own business!” Damnit woman, that’s what I’ve been trying to do!!

The flight attendants finally turned on the entertainment system and the air control, so I quickly put on my headphones and tried to focus deeply on Iron Man. Oh but that didn’t stop her, she would either tap me until I took off the headphones and listened, or she would just talk at the side of my face, while I was intently staring forward.

Finally the plane taxied and took off. Soon after we were in the air, they rolled out the food carts and started serving dinner. The crazy woman was quite hungry, and this wasn’t helping her condition. The final nail in the coffin was the fact that they wouldn’t give her any alcohol, as it was one of the stipulations of her being on the flight. This really made her angry, and she started screaming out things like, “The rich are telling the poor they can’t have any wine!” Though purely philosophically speaking, I found it ironic that she would classify the flight attendants as the rich and the passengers as the poor. Maybe she was getting confused with Those That Have Power and Those That Don’t. But I didn’t feel like debating it.

During the meal, they made the standard speech about taking any loose change you might have and putting it in the Unicef envelope. The crazy woman nominated herself as spokesperson for Unicef and gave a hilarious alternative: “You can put any spare change in the envelope and feed children in Africa … or food, you can just send food directly to them.” And then she mimed taking some food off the tray and putting it in the paper envelope. Hey, it got a chuckle out of me …

I started feeling a bit uncomfortable, and at the suggestion of another passenger, asked the flight attendant if there was another seat I could move to. Unfortunately the flight was packed solid and there wasn’t any room left. A minute later they came back and said there was one seat available. “Great, which one?” “This one”, he said, and patted the seat directly in front of the crazy woman. Perfect, thanks for nothing.

One of the other rude things she said to me was “You stink, you smell like formaldehyde.” Now initially I passed it off as a crazy rant, but then I thought about it … I was wearing the jacket and shirt that I had with me in Rotorua. I buried my face in my collar and took a big whif, and I got a nose full of sulphur. Hm … maybe I do stink …That’s one for you, crazy lady.

For the rest of the flight she moved around alot. Much of the time she would spend in other parts of the airplane, bothering other passengers. When we landed, the people around me were patting me on the shoulder and congratulating me. Each one looked at me, smiled and said that I must have the patience of a saint, and that they’re not sure how I put up with it. One guy was chuckling about how he had never seen anyone so completely focused on watching the crap movies they have on the entertainment system. “I don’t think any of those movies has ever had such a captive audience!”

On the bus to the terminal I was making new friends based solely on being The Guy Who Had To Sit Next To That Woman. Then they’d share with me some of their airplane horror stories.

It had been a very long flight, but in the end I was just glad to be that much closer to going home. And hey, I got a pretty decent story out of it.

Wellington, New Zealand: Only in NZ …

I intended on doing some traveling or sight-seeing on my own the first week I was in Wellie, but I ended up just sitting on my butt and … well, baking. When Jess finished work we would often go hang out somewhere, but other than that I just sat around and watched movies.

But the next week, the next week was considerably different. Jess hadn’t seen any of the North Island either, so we decided to do a road trip for the rest of my time in New Zealand. Bear in mind this is gonna be long, but it covers one hell of a week, so enjoy.

Day 1: Wine Tasting in Martinborough

We left Wellington on Saturday and drove east towards the Wairarapa/Martinborough region. This area is known for it’s wine, as well as picturesque coastal lands. We drove into Martinborough and talked to the people at the visitor’s center abou what we should see in the area. The first stop was the Palliser Estate vineyard for some wine tasting. I remembered Palliser Estate from the bar, especially some very memorable Pinot Noirs. Even though the woman running the tasting room gave us the cold shoulder in favor of a couple of clueless Kiwis, she finally warmed up after Jess and I huddled in the corner and talked about her more loudly than we had planned.

Next we drove out towards Cape Palliser and a walk that took us near some pinnacle formations carved out in the stone of the seaside mountains. The walk was short, but a good workout. By the end we were both famished and raced to the Martinborough Hotel’s Settler’s bar for a great pub meal of venison burgers and onion rings.

Accomodation in Martinborough was available but very expensive, so we moved north towards Masterton to see if there was anything more affordable there. On the way, we passed one of New Zealand’s most secretly indulgent sights. Recently, Jess and I had seen it featured on a list of New Zealand’s tackiest tourist attractions. It’s called Stonehenge Aotearoa (the Maori name for the country), and it’s a manmade … tribute … to the English Stonehenge. This one looks more like someone was building a small outdoor amphitheatre and gave up after putting down the foundation. Jess was so excited we drove up to it only to find out that they owner was closing up for the day. We tried to take some sneaky pictures of it as we drove away.

Masterton didn’t look like what I thought it would look like: I imagined a small, tourist’s town, but what I got was a more developed trucker’s rest area. We pushed through to the town of Napier in famous Hawke’s Bay. We arrived at the YHA about 15 minutes after they closed the reception, so we had to settle for a cabin at the Top 10 Holiday Park. But settled is a negative word; though the holiday park was further from the town center, we got a cabin that could fit 6 people for the price of shared dorm.

Day 2: It Smells Like Rotorua

Sunday morning was very wet. Nevertheless, we got ourselves together early and headed into town. Coincidentally, it seems we arrived on the same day as some kind of exposition in a building along the riverside. Vineyards as well as local merchants had set up stalls to show off their goods, do wine tastings and generally give out free things. Because of the weather, much of the town’s activities were severely impacted. The Marineland attraction, were sea creatures will do a song and dance for you in an outdoor confined area in the bay, wasn’t getting the best reviews from the townspeople, and everyone said that it wouldn’t be worth it in the rain. Napier is known for its art deco architecture, which I was told means most of the downtown area buildings are styled like the 1950s.

Jess and I did a few wine tastings at the expo, and at one stall, when I told the woman I was from Boston, she immediately got her business card and started writing on the back of it. As she wrote she told me about how an old friend of her’s moved to the States and how they lost touch over the years. She said her friend was in the Boston area, and asked if I could look her up on her behalf. Jess and I looked at each other in confusion, and then explained to the woman that what I would probably do is just use an online service that she could use as well. Ahh New Zealanders, so cute.

We got a tip from a woman manning a food stall in the expo that there was a farmer’s market in the nearby town of Hastings. We drove there and picked up some delicious cheeses for dinner that night.

After consulting the map, we drove west towards the center of the Island and the lakeside town of Taupo. Taupo is a popular destination for tourists, and matches some of Queenstown and Wanaka’s appeal towards the adventure-seeking crowd. Unfortunately, when it’s so overcast you can barely see the lake, and so windy you run from one indoor shelter to another, your outdoor activity options are the last things on your mind. We looked through our guidebooks and decided to keep moving to Rotorua. Both towns are popular for thermal springs and hot pools, but Rotorua has made a name for itself out of those attractions.

We were only just out of Taupo when we noticed the smell. It was spoiled eggs, sulphur, and it was noxious. When we got into town and ran into the i-site through the hammering rain, the smell was all around us. We went to the local supermarket to pick up more supplies for dinner and found it was even worse in the store. We couldn’t get away from it. It was well-muted in our hostel room, so we didn’t dare open a window or venture into the hall for long periods of time.

Day 3: Now All I Need is a Giant Bottle Opener

Before we headed out from Rotorua, Jess and I stopped at two tourist attractions just outside of town. The first was the Buried Village, a recreation/restoration of a small village on the base of Mt Tarawera, a volcano which erupted many years ago, resulting in devastating impacts to the surrounding areas. It sucked. The “village” was nothing more than a few poorly assembled huts on the grounds of the museum. The actual village was actually located elsewhere, and the curators simply moved some of the restored buildings, or recreated them. The grounds were nice, but for $23 (and that was with a YHA discount too), I could’ve settled for pictures, or maybe reading about it in someone’s blog.

The next stop was a little more interesting: Hell’s Gates, a geothermal spring and mud pool spa. Now when I pictured mud pools, I imagined something similar to Ogg The Caveman’s bathtub: a hole in the ground filled with thick, goopy mud. This was more lke an in-ground metal bathtub with a dirty river-like consistency of muddy water. You could scrape the precious mineral-enriched mud off the bottom of the tub, but it wasn’t the thick consistency I expected. After that they ask you to jump into a freezing cold shower to wash off the mud, then step into a spring-fed hot pool to relax. Now I covered the smell of Rotorua, but this place was like the Source. It smelled *so* much worse at Hell’s Gates than it did anywhere else in town, I can’t even describe it. After a little while, both of us had to call it quits just because we couldn’t take anymore. “Let’s get the hell out of here, quickly,” I remember saying, as we changed back into our now-sulphurous clothing and peeled out of the parking lot.

We drove northeast to Whakatane (say Fuhk-a-tahn-ay), where we stopped for a self-catered lunch by the beach, and then across to Tauranga. After Tauranga we headed north briefly to the small town of Paeroa to satisfy one of Jess’ requests: see the giant Lemon & Paeroa bottle. Lemon & Paeroa is a classic NZ non-alcoholic fizzy beverage made in and named after the town, most commonly mixed with Bourbon.

Both New Zealand and Australia are covered with giant novelties from an L&P bottle, to fruit, to a prawn. It’s just something that they like looking at. And frankly I can’t argue with them, I get a kick out of it too. So in a light rain, Jess and I took turns hugging the L&P bottle while drivers passed and honked at us.

We drove south to Hamilton, where the next day I would get to satisfy one of my indulgences: the largest candy store in NZ, Candyland. It’s in a small town outside Hamilton, and unless you wanted to devote time to museums and the city gardens, one of the more interesting things to do in the area. Jess had a friend who lived in the city, so that night we met Kristy at a restaurant/bar across the street from THE ONLY backpackers in town. We still smelled like sulphur, and I could smell it in every skin cell on my body, so before I went to bed I took a very long shower.

Day 4: No … More … Candy … PLEASE!

After a stop at the Public Gardens for an early morning stroll, we drove out to Taupiri, the home of Candyland. We got there just as the store opened (in fact, the shop clerk arrived to open the doors just as we pulled up). But to my relief, we wouldn’t be the first through the doors, another group of travelers were actually waiting for the store to open, before even the staff showed up. Although the store was dirty and a bit rundown, they had an incredible assortment of candies, even ones I hadn’t seen since childhood. We loaded up on all sorts of gummies, chocolates and Nerds. Before we even left the parking lot, our hands were in the plastic bags, grabbing whatever treats would stick to our well-licked fingers. By the time we reached our next destination, the Waitomo Caves, I had sailed over the peak of my sugar high and was crashing, hard. Jess had come down so bad she fell asleep, and it wasn’t even a very long drive.

The Waitomo Caves are a series of underground caves which are known for their population of glowworms. For a tour, we went with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, because they offered a tour package that consisted of a 3-hour caving experience that included tubing and jumping off waterfalls. The experience was incredible, numbingly cold and eerily beautiful. We started with a safety lecture at the opening, and then we slowly ducked, crawled and waded (sometimes up to our necks) through the waters of the cave. When we reached small waterfalls, up to a meter high, we would one-by-one back up to the edge, and then “on 3”, jump backwards into the water, with our rafting tubes already snug around our butts. Every now and then, during a strech of the cave that had deep water and was long enough, we would tube down on our backs, shutting off our headlamps and watching the awesome beauty of the glowworms above. It looked like a starry sky, with an eerie green luminescence shining down on us.

After the tour we peeled off our wetsuits and wamred up with a bowl of hot tomato soup. Jess and I talked to one of the tour guides about the best snow mountains in Tongariro National Park, about 2 hours southeast of Waitomo, because the next activity on this hurried road trip was snowboarding. We drove to Ohakune (say O-ha-koo-nay), a village near the Turoa ski resort. According to the workers at Waitomo, it was the less-crowded mountain that all the locals went to. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the weather had gone south and it didn’t look like it was going to get any better.

Day 5: We Stop Giggling At The Name Long Enough To Get Some Boarding Done

The next morning we could see patches of sunshine everywhere but the Turoa snow village near Ohakune. We checked out of the motel as a light rain began to fall. The other skiing option in Tongariro National Park is at Whakapapa (ready? say Fuh-ka-pa-pa) Village. It’s only about 30 minutes north of Turoa, but we had to backtrack most of the way. I brought my snowboard, boots, helmet and goggles with me, but my gloves and pants were in a box en route to Boston. I we bought our lift tickets and I rented a pair of snow pants, then I had to buy a pair of gloves.

The area had been getting a ridiculous amount of snowfall, and everyone from the tip of the north to the bottom of the south was proclaiming that it was the greatest snow season ever at the ski resorts around Mt Ruapehu. Indeed, the snow was great, but the weather could use some improvement. Quick moving clouds would blanket the peaks in a white haze for about 30 minutes, then the skies would clear for a few minutes, then another cloud would move in. At times, hard, almost hail-like snow would fall and burn into our cheeks as the winds kicked up the higher you went. After a few hours, Jess and I stopped for a beer, and then called it a day. Both of us just wanted to get some time on the mountain, and especially because I hadn’t ridden since last season, and my prospects of riding any more this season looked slim.

The next stop was home, with a quick stop in Wanganui for a kebab.

So in less than one week we went wine tasting, sat in thermal mud pools, explored caves, and snowboarded. And everything was within a couple hours driving distance.

Only in New Zealand …

Wanaka, New Zealand: Another Short Goodbye

The next few posts are gonna take you through about three weeks of spending time in New Zealand. It’s not always stunningly exciting, but it’s worthwhile, especially for the grand finale.

I spent a week in Wanaka with my friends Wanaka, packing up my gear and catching up with everyone who had come back to town for the 2008 winter season. When I arrived in town, I was surprised to find that all the things I had left behind had been preserved. And just how much had my faith in mankind been upheld? Dig on this: I bought a bottle of New Zealand whiskey which I was gonna send home along with my snow equipment. Of course my schedule didn’t allow for any time to ship those things before I left, but the bottle was untouched when I arrived at the house on Mt Iron.

Apart from a week of drunken and disorderly conduct, I can’t say that much happened. Mike and I even attempted a round of 9-hole golf at the Hawea course in the freezing cold, and on the fringe of a storm. But my last night in town brought the biggest surprise: I actually stayed in and packed. It was my greatest achievement since walking into Kobold and landing a lucrative software engineering job. I actually packed up my clothes and gear and was well prepared for not only leaving the next day, but meeting the gang for breakfast first.

The next day we all met for a meal in the morning at Gusto, and then Garth drove me to the Wanaka airport for my flight out. It was great to see the guys, almost like a family reunion, and it was even harder to leave them again. As I boarded the 18-seater, propeller-driven “plane”, Garth took a position outside next to the terminal. And wouldn’t you know it, as I waved like a goofy idiot through the porthole of my flying cigar tube, he stuck around until my plane left the tarmac, waving back.

There was some confusion in Christchurch because not only was my flight from Christchurch to Wellington cancelled, but I had missed that cancelled flight. After some rebooking and running around the domestic departure terminal, I got on a flight to Wellington and met Jess at the airport at long last.

Me Likey The Pitchers

This doesn’t have much to do with traveling, Australia, New Zealand or anything like that, but I wanted to take the time to give a “shout out” — or whatever those kids call it — to my boy Jude Vrazel.

Jude’s an avid photographer, when he has time off from being an exceptional Rocket Scientist, and his pics are not only stunning, but they’ve even gotten some media coverage. Check out his blog at EverythingJude.com. He’s also the stage leader in the bicycle revolution, promoting biking to work instead of bitch-slapping Mother Earth in the face with your H3.

And I know it’s been a while since I’ve been regularly posting, but believe me when I say this: change is a comin’. For those of you who don’t know the direction my life has taken in the past month, be prepared for some serious excitement. I’ve got a cache of crazy stories to unload, and even more are forming in the horizon.

Brisbane, QLD, Australia: Goodbye Australia, Hello Unemployment

Not sure if I brought this up before, but I decided to meet my brother in Munich for Oktoberfest, arriving in Germany on the 19th of September. Before that I had to go back to New Zealand to pick up and ship my winter gear, and of course, say hello to the gang. Working backwards, I decided that the absolute latest I could leave Australia would be the second week of August, giving myself enough time to relax in New Zealand, see my brother in San Francisco, pack up my things in Houston, then drive to Boston. I booked a flight from Brisbane to Queenstown for the 11th of August.

And I worked right up until that date. My last day was that Friday the 8th. The office had a goodbye lunch for me, and with that I went back home and met my friend Maddy (fellow bartender from Wanaka who was working in the Northern Territory). She had come into town for the weekend to see me before I left.

The weekend was great, highlighted by the visit to the Ekka, a large rodeo & cattleshow complete with cowboys and carnival rides. Maddy grew up on a farm and rode horses for quite some time, so she was in her element. I on the other hand, was ankle deep in cow shit, and would’ve settled for a cocktail in the Valley.

We wandered around the grounds, Maddy went and looked at the cows and horses, and we met up with Brad for a drink. I was leaving the next day and was grateful for the chance to say goodbye before I left. This whole crazy Australian experience kicked off only when I met Brad and Phil in Sydney almost 21 months earlier, so it was only right that I ended it with them.

The next day I shipped off a box with my motorcycle helmet, papers and clothes to my parent’s house in Boston, and Zorba took me to the airport.

I wasn’t done with Australia. Even though I may not come back to live there, I will still return to visit. And the friends I made there provide more than enough incentive.