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Road Trippin’

“Zorbing?”, I asked.
“Yeah, zorbing. It’s awesome.”, he clarified enthusiastically.
“What’s zorbing?”, I asked. So naive am I – I thought that perhaps with my asking “zorbing” in the form of a question, some sort of an explanation would follow.
“Well, they strap you inside this big plastic ball and roll you down a hill.”

Yeah, I’ll probably do that.

So what have I been up to? I think I last left off with me trying to figure out how I was gonna get around the North Island. Yeah, that’s the ticket. So let’s start there.

I hung around the hostel after arriving from exploring the North with my buddies, I met up with a guy I had met named Tom with whom I was planning on renting a car and traveling around the island. I met an Argentinian girl named Valerie and hung out with her, an Argentinian guy, a Colombian guy, a girl from Spain, and a Mexican lady and we all chatted and drank mate throughout the night. I must say, I have been speaking more Spanish here than I spoke in some parts of South America. There are quite a few Spanish speakers in this country, which I attribute to the close proximity of New Zealand to South America. I met a few Chileans in the street and on this trip I have probably ran into about 7-8 others from Chile, Argentina, Peru and a few other places. I’m glad I get to continue practicing. Para que no se me olvide el castellano.

So yeah, Tom and I eventually managed to get a car secured despite high season and huge shortages of inexpensive rental cars. We got a station wagon, but one of those modern ones – not the white trash kind with 15 kids in the back. I don’t have any kids yet (I don’t think).

So we then began to look for people to come with us and split the costs. Bingo, two Swedish girls looking for a lift says the flier on the bulletin board in the hostel. We arranged a meeting. We met and made a date for the next morning. We would bring our stuff, pick up the car and head off. Where? No clue. Somewhere though, that’s for sure.

We headed off and started driving north. It was as good a direction as any. And for the sake of my sanity and your time, I’ll condense the proceeding 13 days into a few paragraphs.

The first day we stopped by and saw glow worms in this natural cave. Glow worms are these little bugs that light up in the dark so they can attract insects and eat them. Then they turn into flies without mouths, have sex and die of starvation. What a life, no? But we saw a ton of them on the roof of the cave and I got some cool pictures. We then headed for a campsite where Simon, Kat and I had stayed and put up our tents. We sat around and chatted as we made our barbeque dinner and got to know each other. I met a few Argentinians who were eating next to us and we chatted for a while. I think the Swedish girls were a bit taken aback that an American had learned another language. From what I gather, Europeans have a very narrow perspective of us Americans. First off, we are all fat. And dumb. We all drive Harley Davidson with a hamburger in one hand and a Coke in the other. And that’s only when we aren’t driving our SUV’s. And me being from California? I surf to school.

But I could see that we were going to have a really good trip with these girls. They were very funny and relaxed and we all got along really well. We ran into a friend of Tom’s from Australia randomly and we all sat around and talked for the entire night about everything. We laughed quite a bit and we all had a blast. Awesome sunset as well.

Next day, we headed a really nice beach and checked out the site of the sunken Greenpeace ship called the Rainbow Warrior. Apparently, the French secret service blew it up before it could leave to protest their nuclear testing off the coast of NZ. Crazy. We saw the memorial. The beach was awesome.

We ended up camping right on the beach at a place literally infested with mosquitoes. I have never seen so many in my life and they were even biting me through my jeans! The campsite we were at didn’t have anything but an outdoor bathroom so we ate outside in the dark while frantically trying to smash the mosquitoes on our bodies. It was crazy. We eventually took refuge in my tent (all four of us) and chatted the night away. It was fun.

The next day we headed to the very tip of the cape of New Zealand and overlooked the ocean at the very edge of the country. We saw the lighthouse there. Did you know that there was a lighthouse there? Well there is.

Next we went to Ahipara where we went sandboarding down huge sand dunes. We ended up getting boards for free since we couldn’t get the boards the lady had promised us and we walked along the beach (After Tom and I took turns driving like jackasses in the rental car on the beach) until we arrived at the sand dunes. We spent the next two hours climbing to the top of a dune and riding down as fast as we could on the sled. There was a natural little cliff there and I we went off that too. It was really fun and we got really sandy and scratched up a bit. The beach was awesome. The lava formed rocks really reminded me of Galapagos in some places which brought back quite a few memories. We then headed to a camp site and set up our tents. The girls made an awesome dinner, we drank beer, played ping pong and I did some laundry. It was a perfect night, especially after the awesome dinner (did I mention that the girls made an awesome dinner?). Word was spreading that a tornado was coming to the north so our plan was to get as far south as possible the next day.

And we did. We went to Coromandel and it rained all day. We had been driving all day in the rain and when we finally arrived at our hostel, we found a banquette awaiting us. The owners of the hostel were throwing a going away party for some German girls that had been working there and we were invited to eat as much as we wanted. And we ate as much as we wanted. And then we ate some more. I ended helping them with a computer problem so we all got free internet for the night and I ended up going to bed early after hanging out with some German guys we had met in Auckland.

The next day, despite the rain, we drove all day to a town called Rotorura. I guess it’s one of the most geothermally active places on earth and it certainly smelled the part. Natural steam rose from the forests and it smelled like rotten eggs pretty badly. Or maybe it was just Tom. We spent the evening at the natural hot spring pools where I ended up slipping and cracking open my big toe. Half of the nail just came off last night despite my babying of it the past week and a half. It looks very attractive. I ended up getting my money back and just sat around for the others to finish enjoying the spas.

That night we stayed in a hostel on account of the rain and the next day we headed to the geothermal park where we saw crazy colored lakes, natural geysers, stinky multi-colored holes in the ground and steam rising from everywhere. We enjoyed the sights, I met some really cute Argentinian girls (of course), and avoided the crazy guy who walked around the park screaming at himself, kicking trees and punching his head. Even I don’t get that excited about geothermal activity!

The next day we went to Taupo where everyone tried to go skydiving (except me) which ended up getting canceled on account of bad weather. No worries. In my opinion, everyone is much safer on the ground anyways. We headed to this place called “Craters of the Moon” which is a free geothermal park with boiling mud, and steam rising from cracks in the ground. We hiked around there for a while and then headed back to the hostel. We weren’t staying at a hostel, mind you, only using the facilities. We knew a guy who was staying there so we ate, took showers, and stayed all night before heading to a free campsite just outside of town where we put up our tents and slept. Sneaky bastards!

The next day, we headed down to a National Park, put up our tents in the pouring rain (after waiting an hour to see if it would subside) and headed to a hostel where we asked permission to eat under their porch for free. It was so cold and we all looked like bums, but we ate and then headed to a bar where we drank hot chocolate, beer, played pool and sat next to the fire to warm up. It was awesome. And we used their bathroom to brush our teeth before heading back to the campsite. Sneaky bastards!!!

The next morning, we headed to the capital of NZ, known as Wellington, where we were to let the girls off so they could catch the ferry to the South Island. We arrived, checked into a hostel, made dinner and chatted with a French guy we met there. I then met an Argentinian and two guys from Uruguay and drank mate with them while we talked about New Zealand. I always try to talk about new things so I can expand my vocabulary and learn to talk about other things. It was cool. And the dinner was nice. We spent the rest of the night walking around town and preparing for the next day when we would say goodbye.

The next morning, the girls woke up early and took off after hugging us goodbye. I was really gonna miss them and the trip wasn’t the same without them. When you find a group like the one we had, you need to consider yourself lucky. Very lucky. Bad groups suck. So anyways, Tom and I wandered around town for the day and then headed up towards New Plymouth where we camped for the night. It also happens to be the place where I slaughtered Tom in a ping pong match. It’s all in the wrist.

We then headed up towards the Waitomo caves which is a city with tons of really cool natural caves that you can explore and go down on an innertube. We camped at a free campsite just outside of town after not being able to find the park. When we did find it, it was boarded off with road closed signs. We put them aside and decided to try our luck. Just a tree in the road that we were able to drive by – but we were the only ones in the campsite. It looked like it had been closed quite a while ago, but until someone told us we had to leave, we weren’t going anywhere. We camped right on the side of a stream surrounded by hills in perfect desolation. At 4AM however, I woke up to a car driving by our site and then didn’t hear anything more. It was really weird. Why was a car driving by in this place about 2 miles from the main road so early in the morning? It freaked me out and I got out and looked around. I didn’t see anything but I know I wasn’t dreaming. It freaked Tom out when I told him about it in the morning (he slept in the car). It’s fun to freak Tom out.

So that day, we headed to Waitomo, paid 80 $NZ to explore a cave and go rafting through it (“exploring” entailed having a special reinforced wet suit and a helmet light and crawling through cracks barely big enough to fit your body and swimming down channels deep underground. It was really cool and since they had just opened the cave back up after heavy rains, there were only three of us in the group. As they would say in New Zealand…”SWEET AS!” (which I though was “SWEET ASS!” for a long time until I realized that that couldn’t be it – “Did that guy just say I had a sweet ass?”).

And now we are back in Auckland. We have turned in the car and are just biding our time until we fly over the the South Island where Tom and I will go our separate ways. I will hitch hike / take trains around the island to different trekking routes and Tom will see the major points on account of his shorter time budget. I don’t yet have a ticket out of the country so I can leave whenever, and I have decided that I want to do a lot of hiking before leaving. It is really fun and this is definitely the country to do it. And mom, don’t worry. Hitch hiking is safe here as there are tons of people that do it and the island is so small. I’ve talked to tons of people who have done it and said it’s a blast. I guess this is probably one of the last places in the world where you could successfully plan your trip around it.

So I just got done buying some hiking boots, a little camp stove (no bigger than my fist), a little aluminum pot, some full body thermal underwear and some water treatment chemicals. A few hundred bucks later, I’m ready to go. I will be doing quite a bit of trekking throughout the world (China, Thailand, Japan, and India) so I figured that it was worth the investment. You don’t spend much money when you are camping as well, so you end up making it back. Gotta love justification, no?

So yeah, I’m getting ready to leave. I met an Argentinian and Chilean in the hostel I’m staying at, so I am keeping up with the Spanish and laughing a lot in the process. North Island is fun and I am really starting to love this country. Once you get used to the Western prices, it starts to grow on you. Our dollar allows for a 30% discount on everything too, so that makes it easier.

Until next time, Cheers!

Sleeping with sheep

Yes, I have slept with sheep. And paid for it. And it was fun.

And aside from that, what have I been up to? Well, lets recount. The day after I arrived to Aukland, I spent the morning shopping for shorts then waited around for Kat and Simon to arrive in their rental car to pick me up. So I stood around and waited and they eventually arrived. Traffic is a pain. And we were off. We got a bite to eat and caught up on old times (I met them on the Inca trail) and what we had done in the months since we last saw each other, and then headed to a camping place where I bought a tent. At $100 bucks, plus the 25 I spent on the sleeping mat, it wasn’t cheap, but then again, camping will save me about $10 a night on hotel costs, so I will recuperate that pretty quickly.

Then we headed up north. The first day, we headed up to a city called Warkworth which is where we camped for the night in a place called “Sheep World” (where I slept with the sheep – which were in the pen next to my tent). It was nice. An open air living room with cable TV, a spa, a really nice outdoor kitchen, a stream, and a lot of sheep. After we arrived, we popped over to the supermarket, got some food and beer, headed back and set up our tents then spent the night chatting, eating, drinking and laughing. We met a guy who had just gotten done with a month in NZ in a car he bought. A lot of people do that as they can sell the car when they are done and get their money back. We had a nice nights sleep and the next day, headed further north to the Bay of Islands.

The Bay of Islands is a bunch of little islands right off the coast and is really just the name of the region. There we went snorkeling at this place called Goat Island (after renting wet suits on account of the really cold water) and saw tons of really cool multicolored fish. At one point, some kids were feeding the fish right above us and we were surrounded by huge Snapper (insert other local fish here). It was nice. We then headed up to this town called Paihia and camped there for the night right on the shore of the ocean. After cooking our dinner (lots of steak and sausages on the barbeque) we spent the night chatting and drinking on the beach while staring up at the stars – which are incredible in the outskirts of NZ.

There is very little light in the sky and you can see the Milky Way splashed out over top like a long thin horizontal cloud. It leaves you awestruck.

The next day we headed out early and looked into going sandboarding down some of the giant sand dunes in the area. On account of the wind, however, we ended up not being able to go so we spent the day wandering further up north and hanging out at some incredible beaches instead. Lush green country side and rolling green hills, perfectly pristine beaches, crystal clear water and beautiful white sand was enough to keep us busy for the day and we camped right on the shore of the beach again after having another barbeque dinner. Simon and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning debating whether or not math is something that exists without human beings (it’s clearly not, duh) and then we woke up early and headed back to Paihia to do Dolphin Swimming.

At the dock, we boarded our boat with about 15 other people and headed out to the water where we sailed with the dolphins in the bay. They swam right next to our boat for about an hour, jumping in and out of the water and splashing around until we eventually got too far out for them. I guess they had a baby with them so we couldn’t swim with them but we ended up heading to some island where we had lunch and could go snorkeling and hiking up the mountain to get some cool views. I opted for the hiking and snapped some pretty awesome pictures. We were at Captain Cook island where Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand and killed a few of the natives.

From there, we went sailing around and relaxed in the sun for the remainder of the day before heading back to the docks. We were pretty damn tired so we mustered up all our strength to head back to Sheep World again and get some sleep. We spent the night after dinner in the spa and ended up heading to bed early. It rained that night, as it had the night before but had cleared up by the morning enough to enjoy a pretty sunny day.

And now we are back in Aukland. What’s the plan? I don’t know. The guy I met a few days ago is still here so we are probably going to try to find some other guys to go in on renting or buying a car and go around the North and South Islands of NZ for about a month to a month and a half. Kat and Simon are going to head down south with their parents so we will probably meet up somewhere else or maybe in Australia. But as for me, I’m gonna figure something out and do it. Sounds very concrete, no?

And what are my impressions of NZ so far? It’s beautiful. The car rides are never boring as you can always look out the window to some of the most beautiful country side you could imagine. Lord of the Rings was filmed here and I can see why. Incredible beaches, incredible country side, tons of stuff to do, and really friendly people (probably even more so than Argentina!). Although I am spending lots of money, I am enjoying it and from what I hear, the best is yet to come (The South Island is supposed to be even better). I am starting to get used to the slang used here and I guess it helps that I have spent the past few days with Kat and Simon, who are both English. After a while, you find yourself using words like “Reckon'”, “boot” (for trunk of the car), “bit”, “bloke” and a few probably not suitable to write. Sometimes the accent is kind of hard to understand but you get better at it after a while (“Okay, for the fourth time, what the hell did you just say??”). I also am still resisting the urge to say “Gracias” after I buy something or say “perdon” when I bump into someone. Old habits die hard.

Anyways, wish me luck!

Detained in customs…

So, where to start? Where did we leave off? Ah yes, getting back from Uruguay. So I got back, and went to a pretty cool piano concert in the Colon theater (If I weren’t typing on a Korean keyboard, there would be an accent in Colon) and then met up with Julio (from Peru) who was still at the hostel as he had not yet left Argentina. So we hung out quite a bit and went and explored some other parts of the city before I left. The final day I was in Argentina, we went to a part of Buenos Aires called Tigre which is where a bunch of rivers come together at a delta and took a boat around for 5 pesos. It was pretty cool and the area was really nice.

But I was in a hurry to get back to the hostel so I could get my stuff together and get to the shuttle service to the airport. We took the train back and got our stuff arranged, I bought a bunch of mate for the proceeding months, and the bid our farewells (again). I was off. To explore new territory. To meet new people. To finally speak English again (even though I would prefer to continue speaking Spanish).

I got to the airport and after checking in and boarding, I was off to New Zealand. I met an interesting couple in line who had gotten married in Mendoza (the wife was from Costa Rica and had family in Argentina and the husband was from New Zealand) and we ended up randomly having seats right next to each other in the plane. We chatted the whole trip and then when we arrived, we met each other again as we got detained in customs.

So let’s explain how that happened. You see, you need a plane ticket out of New Zealand to get in. And I didn’t have one.

“Please step to the side sir. This officer will escort you to the waiting room. But don’t worry, it’s not that big a deal”

“Alright”, I replied. I wonder if this is gonna be a long process. What can they do? Deport me? Yeah. I guess they could. That would suck.

I then met an agent named Jenny. She explained to me that I needed a ticket or proof of funds. No worries. I showed her my online banking balances and she ended up giving me a 3 month visa. According to my balances though, she should only have given me a 2 month visa. But I think I kind of charmed her into it. It feels really good to be able to use your language the way you would use it in your own country. In South America, I couldn’t talk people into stuff very easily with jokes and a big smile. I couldn’t be comfortable enough with Spanish to do that. But here, I can. And it feels so weird. I can make people smile again. I can joke around. It’s like being able to walk again after being stuck in a wheelchair for 6 months (although I got better at managing the wheelchair as time went on). And now I’m back. I have to keep resisting the urge to say “perdon” every time I bump into someone and “quanto sale el internet la hora” when I walk into an internet cafe. I have to get used to an English keyboard again (Those damned quotes and question marks!).

So I got into New Zealand. It was raining. It was cold. And I had to get a taxi to town. How much would it be? Well. $50 New Zealand dollars (1NZ dollar = .71US). Holy shit! Okay, whatever. And then I was there at the hostel. It was 6AM and I was tired. I checked in and slept for 3 hours then got up, went upstairs to the kitchen (the hostel here is really nice) and drank some mate. Everyone looked at me kind of strangely. What the hell was I doing? And then…

“Eh!! De donde sos??!” (Hey, where are you from??), I heard from the corner of the dining room.

And thus I met Gaston, from Buenos Aires, who is working at the hostel to cover the cost of living there while traveling. We had mate together and chatted. This is what mate is all about.

I then went for a walk around Aukland. It looks really nice, but I must admit, I am in a bit of sticker shock. After six months in South America, the prices here seem exorbitant. A coke is like $2US!! In Argentina it was about 33 cents. A meal on the street is about 7 bucks. In Argentina it was about 1.50. I think I may end up losing all that weight I put on after all…

So what else? I bought a new harmonica (In a better note to play blues) and I also bought lonely planet guide books for New Zealand and Australia. After seeing them in bookstores for $50, then $42, I found a used bookstore with each for $30. I also was able to sell my Chile and Argentina books for $15 bucks! Right on! I also found a CD by Johnny Cash that I have been looking for in South America for about 3 months. I’ll have to contemplate buying it for a little longer. Music is very important when your traveling. It makes long distances bearable.

And I just got an email from Simon and they are gonna pick me up from my hostel tomorrow afternoon. Everything is falling into place. Yes indeed. Perfectly.

Anyways, it’s time to do some reading on New Zealand to see what there is to do here. Also, I have to figure out how I am going to get to Australia. From what I gather, I need an exit ticket to get there. So let’s say I get it to China. Well, I need an exit ticket to get there too. This is gonna be an annoying process. Oh well. It’s a good day when all you have to worry about is buying tickets to another country. No?