Sunday, April 14, 2013

New Zealand, you better be worth it…

Note to people wanting to visit NZ from the US: You must have documentation demonstrating your exit strategy from NZ in order to enter and they are very serious about this.

Although it states on all of the websites that this is the case, we still hesitated to make departure flight reservations because we are commitment-phobes. We chose to interpret “must have return tickets or onward itinerary” as “should have an idea of where you are headed next”. This was not acceptable. Upon arrival to the Denpasar Bali airport, we were informed that we absolutely must have proof of an exit ticket out of NZ before we would be able to check in for our flight to Auckland. I was tempted to say “forget it” and stay in Bali. I mean, really, is NZ that great? However, there was free wifi available at the ticket counter so Phil pulled out his computer, logged in and booked us a flight from Christchurch to Syndey, Australia for May 1st. Once the confirmation number was visible and shown to the lovely lady behind the counter, we were able to complete our check-in for our flight. Ah, modern day traveling. At Melbourne, we changed flights and were almost not allowed to board because our exit ticket from NZ was to Australia and we didn’t have visas yet to enter Australia. After spending six hours in the Melbourne airport and experiencing Melbourne airport prices, I was again tempted to turn around and head back to the stifling heat of SE Asia. Fortunately, they allowed us to continue on our journey to NZ after entering multiple notes for customs stating that we had been informed we might not be allowed to enter Australia if visas weren’t acquired prior to May 1st.  Phew.

And now here we are in New Zealand.

Winetasting on Waiheke Island

Population: dinky. (Approx. 4.4 mil.) 1.2 mil in Auckland; 396,000 in Wellington; 367,000 in Christchurch. And we thought Laos was small. Now that we are here, we get their tight immigration rules. The country is beautiful, the beaches are empty and the cities are clean. The people are friendly, the public transportation is awesome and accessible, and the trains run on time.

NZ cities feel very familiar, like cleaner, quainter, quieter versions of US ones, which is in contrast to the noisy, hectic “otherness” that is SE Asia. Auckland reminded me a bit of Seattle, especially with the Sky Tower.
Auckland at sunset from Devenport

Windy Wellington reminds me a bit of San Francisco. Perhaps Christchurch will remind me of LA? Ok, probably not. How strange to travel around the world to visit a place like home.

I am experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock re-entering Western civilization. The sticker price on things pains me; perhaps we should have started our trip in expensive places and then ended in Cheapsville. It hurts my stingy soul to pay triple the cost for a dish that was made better and more authentic in SE Asia. Boo.
But look at the size of these local mussels! These were worth their price for sure!!!

We have also gone from 90-100F temps to 50-70F: burrrrrr! (I only have two pairs of pants and one sweatshirt - thankfully, I don't mind wearing the same outfit a week at a time. Phil says I smell like roses - at least I imagine he would say that if I asked him.) The language barrier, strangely enough, is still an issue. Is that English they are speaking over the PA systems? Supposedly. I think I understand broken Asian English better. Sorry, Kiwis!

The Scenic KiwiRail train has been a great way to travel and see some of the countryside. If we had been a bit more adventurous and less travel-weary, I think we would have rented a campervan to see more of the land. 

After 12 hours of train riding, we still look so refreshed.Right?...

Instead, we have opted for more stationary travel plans in homes with kitchens and washing machines. Oh, the luxury of it all! Enjoying some home-cooked meals after two months of eating out for every meal has been awesome.  We are enjoying our month of slow-paced traveling after visiting six countries (seriously!?!) over a four-week period. Hopefully, we will have caught our breath and feel rejuvenated enough at the end of our time here in NZ to continue our journey.

Oh, and yes, New Zealand, you are worth it!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Traveling without a User’s Manual

Despite having several useful guidebooks, ebooks, online resources, and gps maps on our phones, we have still managed to find ourselves lost in awkward situations without the right words to express the absurdity of our snafus. (I think "snafu" should be spelled "snafoo".)

Scene One:
It’s 0500 and we have decided to take the motorbike in Hoi An, Vietnam for a ride to the lighthouse to watch the sun come up and see the fisherfolk do their thing. We tiptoe out of our guesthouse and come to a locked gate at the entrance. How do we get the bike out of the gate? We consider climbing the gate but that won’t solve the bike dilemma. We look around for a doorbell to ask the family to open the gate. Phil finds something next to the main door. “Do you think this is the doorbell? It kind of looks like a fire alarm,” he says. “I don’t know. Can you read what it says on the button?” I reply. “No,” he says. “Well I guess you can give it a try if you think it is the doorbell,” I say. Seconds later a very loud, obnoxious ringing from the red fire alarm above the button begins and we can’t find an off switch. We wake the family. We wake the other guests. We wake the neighborhood. Did I mention it is 5am? The family gains entry into the reception area and locates the off switch. We are let out of the gate and shown where the real doorbell is located, next to the gate. We get on our motorbike, chagrined, and drive off into the sunrise.

Scene Two:
We arrive in Vientiane, Laos with the plan to meet our friends at a restaurant that is very popular in town. We forget to look up the address online. There is no WIFI in the airport. (I can’t really believe we now expect to get free WIFI at airports. How spoiled are we?) We look around for a tourist map/guide and find one in Japanese; this is unhelpful. We ask the taxi stand people if they know “Sticky Fingers” restaurant. Multiple shakes of the head “no”, but after a bit more discussion someone says “yes”. We get in the taxi and drive in to town. We drive around. We drive around some more. We start to worry that the driver does not actually know where we want to go. And then the driver stops at a hotel and looks at us expectantly. We say, “No, we want to go to the restaurant Sticky Fingers.” He proceeds to drive around aimlessly a bit more while we restate the name in different inflections, faster, slower, different accents. Phil tries to act out sticky fingers. I try writing in English the name. None of our efforts seems to help the poor Lao-speaking driver. Then I gesture eating and our driver has an “aha” moment and takes us to a restaurant…not Sticky Fingers. Needless to say, I end up on the driver’s cell phone speaking to someone who speaks some English and we agree to go back to a hotel we passed earlier in the ride. At the hotel, they are kind enough to give us a map and direct us to the restaurant, which is two blocks away. Being the brilliant people that we are, as soon as we leave the hotel, we start walking in the opposite direction of the restaurant. An hour and two beers later, we join our friends at the restaurant.

Scene Three:
We drive to Kuangxi outside Luang Prabang, Laos to visit a waterfall. We have read in Lonely Planet that you can ascend to the top of the falls on the left or right, the right being more perilous. So, of course, we choose the right side, the side less travelled. Half way up the waterfall we encounter a fork in the road. The path to the right appears larger and more defined although in the opposite direction of the waterfall. Again, we go right. The vistas are beautiful, the heat is scorching, and the sound of the waterfall is receding as we continue our climb. Every few meters one of us questions our decision but the scenery is lovely, the hike is good and so we keep trekking. At last, we come upon a beautifully tended terraced garden, a couple thatch-roofed dwellings and a breathtaking view…and no waterfall.

It seems we have simply stumbled into someone’s home. I am ready to turn around but Phil continues up and greets the family. They sell us a bag of chips and we sit and enjoy the grand view. And then the family gestures us up the hill and says, “Waterfall up 5 minutes.” As we are leaving, Phil walks his face in to a barb-wired fence (He is up to date on his tetanus.) and we agree that we are definitely not on the normal path. Further along, we come upon a man machete-ing tree branches. We greet him and keep walking and we are again concerned that we have moved on to the neighbor’s property. And yet, we continue to walk until we are blessed by the sound of the waterfall. 

Sometimes getting “laost” (Thanks Aadip.) is a good thing.