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The State We’re In » 2005» June

Archive for June, 2005

Impeccable Beauty or New Zealand by the Numbers

Sunday, June 26th, 2005

The 6 hour drive from Auckland to Wellington is wracked with beauty and fraught with peril. Gandalf must have had balls of steel to make the ride such as he did, white steed notwithstanding.

The Middle section of New Zealand’s North Island while picturesque is pretty boring. Joe cut his teeth behind the wheel of our Holden Acclaim station wagon proving conclusively that driving on the wrong side of the road is a dangerous but surmountable test of mental strength. (NB: British cars mirror American cars exactly so here the turn signals are on the right of the steering wheel and the windshield wiper controls are on the left. Muscle memory has set so strong that out first several hundred kilometers of lane changes were accompanied by the dulcet tones of our wipers on a dry windshield)


Three hours and a quick lunch at Lake Taupo launched us into the second leg of our journey. Stalwart moron that I am, I volunteered to take over for Joe behind the wheel. The Southern half of New Zealand’s North Island is the natural majesty of the Southern Hemisphere incarnate (or inmundate? Latin scholars can laugh at that one). Our precious rolling hills gave way to glacieresque cliff drops and craggy rock formations as our two-lane superhighway subtly disappeared into Lake Taupo 30m below. To put things in perspective, the 1 Highway which runs from north to south of the country, is a road no wider than one side of the Merritt Parkway in CT (or any standard two-lane road in your hometown) upon which the better part of the country’s overland transport and shipping takes place. Take a single hair-pin turns at 100km/hr with a semi-truck bearing down on you at speed. Red Bull, Coffee, Cocaine and methamphetamines pale in comparison.

Below the lake the 1 opens up into the ominously named “Desert Road.” A 200km stretch of open road which has an unpalatable tendency to get shut down in inclement weather. As luck would have it, the Maori gods of travel saw fit to grant us passage. Louis said that he sacrificed a virgin before he left Providence. The Sci-Li is no Tarpeian Rock, but good luck is good luck so we patted him on the back and went on our way. These pictures will attest to the natural beauty of New Zealand’s lowlands, what they call the “central plateau.” Scrubland streching out to the horizon is majestically and surprisingly only broken by the sharp appearance of several picture-book snow capped mountains.

The sun went down by the time we had gotten out from below the central plateau, but not before we managed to snap several pics of the hills, dales (what is a dale anyway?), valleys, gorges and canyons that inexplicably dot the Kiwi country-side. Matt also convinced us to leave Louis by the side of the road where he had gone to answer one of his ::ahem:: natural imperatives. We just rolled the car forward a couple feet to hide it behind a tree, but the look on his face was priceless to say the least.

Our lengthy trip gave us time to ponder some of the following facts and figures from the Lonely Planet guidebook:

    The population of New Zealand is 3.88 Million. (compare that to New York City’s 8.1M, or the state of Massachusetts’ 6.3M)
    New Zealand’s Sheep population, however, is nearly 48 Million (12.5 per person), and it’s cattle population nearly 8M (around 2 per person)….maybe those lonely shepherds aren’t quite so lonely after all?
    Kiwi voter turn-out comes in at about 80%. Take that, moveon.org
    While Auckland is the coutry’s largest city at 1.2M people, it’s capital is the much smaller port city of Wellington. The home of il Patrone Nuovo Zealomundo, Peter Jackson. Director, Iconoclast, treeBeard lookalike himself.

This seems to be a fair amount of info and exposition for one day.
Special props to the lone computer geek upstairs in the hostel who helped me gerry-rig my laptop to leech off the front office’s wireless. You are truly a god among men.

Wellington, NZ

EDIT: By some demonic pact or some dreary scientific embargo , the great nation of New Zealand seems IMMUNE to the coriolis effect, that delicious wonder of nature that makes our precious toilets flush clockwise around the bowl. Here, as if by horrible witchcraft, the water does not spin counter-clockwise as expected. Rather, it melts away down the drain, commanded by some unnatural invisible force. Fie, I say. Fie.

We have photos!

Sunday, June 26th, 2005

<a href=”http://www.famouspotatoes.net/gallery/”> <img src=”http://www.famouspotatoes.net/gallery/albums/userpics/10001/normal_kidfrisbee.jpg” width=400 height=300></a><br>
We finally have a preliminary batch of <a href=”http://www.famouspotatoes.net/gallery/”>photos</a> up from Fiji and a couple from New Zealand. We have free internet now in Wellington, so we will work hard to get more up really soon.

…Maybe you’ve heard of us. We’re kind of a big deal around here

Saturday, June 25th, 2005

New Zealand is an odd cookie to say the least. Strange welcomings seem to be our par for the course though.

This country is at the moment playing host to the National Rugby team of the United Kingdom. The Lions of England, Ireland, Scottland and Wales as I am told share a bond of mutual disgust akin only to the blood-feud fought lo these past hundred years by the Sox and the Bronx Bombers. While there seems to be no local sland to rival the jeers of “A-Rod has AIDS” and “Jeter blows” to say that there is a tension betweent he two countries’ rugby teams is an understatement of epic proportions.

For this very reason we were shocked to see the Lions’ banner plastered on every surface in Auckland Int’l airport. Not only that, but the unwary passenger was more likely than not to bump into signs of “New Zealand welcomes the British Lions and their fans” posted every twelve feet along the baggage retrieval corridors. Call me a pessimist, but my first reaction was to envision the first event which necessitated these signs. It went something like this…
Lions fans walks off the plane fresh from a 20+ hour plane trip dressed keenly in his British reds jersey and scarf. Two minutes later an audaciously young Kiwi janitor or ticket agent sneaks up behind him and knocks him out cold.

Could this actually have happened? I mean, come on. That being said, some day, just some day, I’d love to see signs of “Welcome Red
Sox fans. Your first central park Hot dog and handsome cab ride is on me. kisses, George Steinbrenner.”
I. Don’t. Think. So.

We watched the game from a backpackers bar below our hostel. I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the ex-pat and GI’s bar from the Hanoi scene of Full Metal Jacket. The applause for the home team was lackluster at best. Disappointing considering that the All Blacks were playing in a tempestuous HAIL STORM. Even the most die-hard Vikings fan can’t relate to that.

As a Point of order, I’d like to wish my father a happy father’s day for what I thought was tomorrow’s father’s day. Looks like I blew it again. and I can’t even blame the time difference on this one.

Dad, hope things are well at home.

Pictures are still forthcoming. We can’t find anywhere willing to kick some free wireless down to my laptop.
Sit Tight and be resourceful. I know you’re up to it.

As for everyone else, hope the summer is all you hoped for. Keep the four of us posted.

cheers
Auckland, NZ

Kava

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

We arrived in Nadi early (the only city in Fiji with an international airport) in the morning and quickly travelled to the main street. We took the local bus and it was packed. It was full and we had to stand. I swear that every eye on the bus was looking at us. Anyway, we got to the main street and there wasn’t too much to do there. We walked across the length of it in 10 minutes.

The highlight of Nadi was the Hindu tremple, which we promptly desecrated in our ignorance. About a 1/3 of the population is Hindu (Indians from India), 1/3 is christian, and 1/3 is Fijian. The walls and celiings of the hindu temple were hand painted and the architecture was beautifual especially compared to the other buildings in the main street. The worshippers we saw were carrying food to the altars, and all were respectfully dressed and barefoot. We didn’t realize that our dress and sandles were desecrating the temple until the manager came over to us. But I guess that would explain the dirty looks we got. We walked through to the tourist entrance for a tour(we came in through the local entrance) and were told it would cost us money to see what we just saw. So we left.

At the beach house there are several daily activities–making coconut jewelery, Bula massages, snorkeling, horse back riding, afternoon tea, kaykaing, and jungle treks. I liked the jungle trek best. It started through the village with crooked bamboo uprights for the rugby goalposts. I saw some plants whose leaves contract when you touch them just like a Venus fly trap does. The guide, nephew to the village chief, also pointed out several herbal medicines that the villagers regularly use. We followed the river past the swinging vinews (like tarzan!), past the bamboo groves, past the natural fish poison leaves, to a small waterfall. WE climbed alongside it to the top,c areful to avoid the snakes, spiders, and long centipedes. I’ve also seen some other cool wildlife on the coral reef. There was a royal blue starfish, a bright, neon-blue fish, and a yellow-striped fish that zoomed by.

Yesterday the four of us had our first taste of kava–a native Fijian drink that acts as a local anasthetic. Drink enough of it and your whole mouth will grow numb. I had my first kava before I saw how it was prepared. Kava leaves our tossed into a permeable bag which is submerged in a large bowl of water. The leaves are then squeezed as if they were a towel to be rung out. Soon the water turns a murky brown color; it looks like dirty water. If you come to Fiji though, you have to drink it–the native Fijians do so religiously. Anyway, this is the first non-cloudy night in Fiji. I’m looking forward to seeing the southern stars for the first time.

Navola, Fiji

The Beachouse

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

I would never presume to attempt a post as entertaining as John’s, but the task of relating the wonders of Fiji has fallen upon me, so I will do my best.

I began composing this update lounging in a hammock on the beach of our second residence in Fiji, a “luxury backpacker’s resort” called The Beachouse. As I swing here bathed in the glow of the setting sun and cooled by a gentle island breeze, the only blemish on an otherwise perfect moment is the incessant barking of Molly, the local dog. Compared to our first hotel, near the Nadi airport, this place is paradise, and I suspect it will compare favorably to everywhere else we visit on this trip as well.

For F$25/night (approx $15US) we are sleeping in a 5 person room in a little beachfront bungalow. The Ritz this isn’t, but it has decent beds and a private beach. The resort is packed, so we are sharing our room with a kid from Colorado on his way back from study abroad in New Zealand. Everyone here is under 30, and the environment is that of a perpetual, but incredibly laid back, spring break. That kind of thinking is certainly fostered by the F$2.75 (~$1.25US) beers during happy hour.

We have spent the majority of our time during the day basking in the sun, reading, and throwing a frisbee around on the beach. At night (the sun goes down around 6pm) we move to the Coconut Cafe (the social hub of the resort) for dinner, drinks, card games, and conversation with the Aussies, Kiwis and Brits who have us far outnumbered here. Surprisingly, we have not been made pariahs, and apart from two unprovoked attacks on John and I on two separate occasions for “bastardizing the English language,” it has been great to spend time with non-Americans and get inundated with advice from fellow travelers on what we need to do for the rest of our journey. For more on that, see John’s earlier post about advice… It’s all the same.

Highlights of The Beachouse so far:
1) I am finally (for the second time) a certified diver! The diving here is not as good as in Hawaii or the Bahamas, but I did see a pod of dolphins today, which was great.
2) The other guys went on a hike to a waterfall further inland that they really enjoyed, but I was diving so I missed out.
3) For the first time in the lifetime of our friendship, I have seen John actually apalled by something. For any of you who may need to upset him in the future, just bring up the use of dead babies in drug smuggling, he was on the verge of tears. (Disclaimer: This conversation was initiated and perpetuated by a group of Brits sitting near us at the bar. I swear it did not originate in any of our imaginations.)

Honorable Mention: Kava was a disappointment, but I feel like I should mention it. Imagine drinking muddy water mixed with lidocaine out of half a coconut and you have a good idea what kava was like.

Pictures will follow as soon as we get to Auckland. Fiji (the entire country) is only allocated 6Mbits of throughput (probably less than that of Ketchum, ID), so internet here is painfully slow and makes even checking email an arduous task, and posting any sort of pictures an impossibility.

Fiji Time

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

There is certainly something to be said for living life at one’s own pace.  The entire island of Fiji is not only enamored of this concept, but is, more accurately tied to it in profound and existential ways.
To wit: jet lag, such as it is found me up and out of bed at 5:30 this morning.  In the dead of winter, in a country with no Daylight Savings time, meant that it was of course, still in the dead of night.
I sat on the beach to watch the sun rise, and was shocked to see it hang on the horizon line for what was no fewer than 45 minutes.  Maybe the Sun was spending some leisure time in yesterday, uninterested, just as the Fijians seem to be about the pressing concerns of the near and distant future.
Kava, the natural and indigenous Narcotic beverage may be partially to blame.  The Four of us are being welcomed into a local village for an intricate, and unsurprisingly legthy Kava ceremony complete with ceremonial tribal gifts to boot.  More details after the jump.
I used my precious four hours of pre-day today to finish <i> High Fidelity</i>, nick Horby’s masterwork of over-wrought prose. Over-wrought prose. ha, who am I kidding.  Anyway, I spent the better part of today putting together my Top Ten Songs to Travel Around the World.  Here they are in no particular order:
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers - around the World
2. The doors - People Are Strange
3. The offspring - Gone Away
4. Led Zeppelin - Ramble On
5. Jackson Browne - Stay/ The Road
6. Simon and Garfunkle - Homeward Bound
7. Grateful Dead - Truckin’
8. 311 - Don’t Stay Home
9. They Might Be Giants - The World’s Address
10. Social Distortion - So Far away.

With a special Mention going to Pink Floyd - Us and Them, and <i> On the Road Again </i> by…Johnny Cash? Someone correct me on that one.  Feel free to add your own.  Matt, Joe and Louis are putting their lists together.

We have a ton of pictures but, surprise surprise, Fiji has yet to meet the high-speed internet Revolution.  Pictures to follow when we hit Auckland.
-JF-

EDIT:
Kava not all it was cracked up to be.  Think of waiting all afternoon to ride Batman: The Ride at Six Flags, and coming to the front only to find yourself on line for the spinning swing-set on the cover of that awful DMB album.

As far as travel songs go, Mikey seems to be spot-on.

EDIT EDIT:
I should have known better than to have brought the music thing up, but my mother makes a good point, and PP&M does belong on the list. Whether it takes spot eleven or knocks an incumbent out is anyone’s guess.

Defining Moments

Friday, June 17th, 2005

There’s a moment on every trip when you recognize the tone that your travels will take. Fortunately (unfortunately?) we’ve been on the ground in Fiji for no more than five hours and already we’ve had 4.

Number One:
As you disembark from a Boeing 747-400, an airplane that could easily and comfortably house your entire freshman-year dorm, their families and their pets, you are greeted first not by immigration and customs agents, not by airline personnel, not by baggage handlers, but by a non-sectarian, yet vaguely religious string and kettle drum quartet singing songs of what we are convinced is the only native Fijian word necessary to become a citizen, or indeed to hold public office. “Bula,” the catch-all phrase for hello, goodbye, well wishes and “of course I’ll marry your daughter” has so pervaded society and street life here that it has sprouted its own cult of personality religion.

Number Two: Well against the judgement of our collective common sense, we four Ivy League graduates sought a trip into town on board island Viti Levu’s jewel of public transportation Fleet, The Westbus.

When pressed for comment, Joe could only use the words “ramshackle, death trap, like a one-way rocketship to Purgatory” to describe this heap. Bear in mind that Joe has an ScB in Mechanical Engineering. He’s an expert. Naught but by the grace of God did we bustle into Cosmopolitan downtown Nadi, the transportation capital of the Fiji islands.

Number Three:
Flights which touch down at 5:30 AM (2PM yesterday in body-time) have a naughty habit of playing havok with one’s appetite. We marched the main drag of Nadi-Town, willing to embrace anything that we could embrace as Fijian (pronounced Fee-GENE) national cuisine. Alas, we were bested by our hunger and stumbled into an unnamed curry shop. [[NB: There is a very strong Indian influence in Fiji and much of the South Pacific accounting for the pervasive cuisine and Bhangra radio programming.]]

We later found out that the courtyard which housed our curry shop was also the HQ for Fiji’s Surgeon General. Go figure.
$7 and four 9AM curry dinners later we looked at eachother and said “welcome.”

Number Four:
At the bottom of some unnamed alley we crouched up next to a fence of razor-wire to watch a Fijian pick-up soccer match. Somehow, the city-dwellers have mastered the subtle art of the silent walk, because from directly behind us came a hale and hearty “BULA! Yu like to watch football?”
A lesser man would have turned-tail and fled.
He was a teacher. It turns out that we were watching his students practice. Before long he was leading us along a rotting drainage ditch to an unmended hole in the razor-wire, and with it field level access. As we walked out to the field it was all that the players could have done to keep from stoppign their game to welcome us into the stands.

It is now quarter to Twelve in the morning. We have been here for five Hours. My ATM card doesn’t work, and the weather is going to top 100 degrees today.
BULA.

Omens

Thursday, June 16th, 2005

The gods sound off.

Margaritas and Refried Beans

Thursday, June 16th, 2005

Pancho’s Restaurant in Manhattan Beach is the most faux-thentic mexican cantina I’ve ever been to. Our waiter, 20 year veteran Jesus, was only to be outdone by the happy-birthday singing, polaroid camera wielding “Mariachi” band. Nestled deep in the slums of Manhattan Beach, somthing tells me that there is a Goldberg, Weinstein or Katz rather than Gutierrez, Hernandez or Garcia on the deed to the restaurant.
Their margaritas are strong, and their beans gave me gas.
For my money, there’s no better combination.

$12-18 for an entree.

Meanwhile, tha LA Times feels my pain.

In Which My Journey Begins

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

When I walked down my driveway in Westport, CT <cue The Hulk Theme song music> yesterday it marked the beginning of my Trip.  As it stands, our itinerary brings me back to CT on September 1, 2005. Exactly 80 Days after departure.  Suck on that Jules Verne.
I packed a ton of shit, most of which will, inevitably be lost, stolen or traded for someone’s freedom.
My bag, a frame backpack which is half as tall as I am weighed in at 38 pounds.  Piddling small change in comparison’s to Matt’s “metric fuck ton” of clothes.
Also, Andy Hanflik, a would-be doctor friend of mine from New York, told me that I was bringing entirely too much electronics (mp3 player, PSP, digital camera, camcorder and laptop ::phew::).  He bet me $20 that my laptop gets stolen, or at least returns D.O.A.  I plan on collecting on that bet.

On the flight from JFK I was seated next to some guy with a cat in a carry-on bag. It was clearly not his cat, and I could clearly catch the glint in his eye that wanted to store that mewling, whining piece of shit in the overhead bin. if not somewhere out on the starboard wing.
Across the aisle was one of those chicks who is so hot that you lose your ability to <i>speak</i>.  What kind of supposedly merciful Judeo-Christian God would seat me next to Lord of the Cats and dangle one of the finest fruits of creation just out of my reach.
I call Shenanigans.

Also, the majority of LA reminds me of an entire ZIP code of Seekonk strip malls.