Saturday, December 31, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: The Epilogue

I left Fiji at 10 PM, Thursday, October 27.  I landed at LAX at 1:30 PM, Thursday, October 27.  I know... crazy, right?

It was a beautiful, mild day in LALALand, and I was glad to be back in the US.  I picked up my bags and my rental car and beelined to the Westwood apartment of my childhood friend Dr. Roberto B. Vargas III.  I took the next two days to reacclimate to US time (albeit Pacific), remember how to drive, and reconnect with my people, including my "boy" and collaborator Andre "Black Nerd" Meadows aka Arnie Sykes.

By Friday night, the weather on the East Coast threatened to preclude my return to Philly on Saturday.  Once again, I was joined in first class on my way out of LAX by a celebrity, this time Jane Lynch, best known as Sue Sylvester on TV's "Glee."  To make matters worse, had I not changed my seat when I checked in for the flight, she would have been sitting next to me.  In other words, I missed the chance to learn how "Sue Cs it!"

I made it home, safe and sound, and with that, my "Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava" adventure came to an end.  As I finish this epilogue, more than two months have passed since I returned.  The passage of time has confirmed a few things for me. 

1.  This is an amazing World we live in and there's far too much to see, smell, taste, and experience to stay at home. 

2.  As different as languages, colors, and cultures may be, we all share the desire (and right) to live and be as happy as possible.

3.  Milford Sound is THE most beautiful, peaceful, and gracious place on this planet.


Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Eight, "Fiji, 'Ni Sa Bula Vinaka... Y'all!'" (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27 October 2011)

If you think Daylight Savings Time is rough, imagine landing in an exotic locale in the early evening only to learn it's an hour later because DST just kicked in that day!  (It's the Southern Hemisphere, so it's "Fall forward," kind of like the aftermath of a drinking binge.)  Such was my arrival in Nadi, Fiji.

Immediately upon landing and entering the terminal at Nadi (pronounced "Nan-DEE") International, I was struck by the beauty of this island country: the people, the culture, the language, the lifestyle, the landscape.  I cleared customs, grabbed my bags (each of which weighed roughly 3500 kilograms (400 tons) by now), and was met by the driver sent by my resort in Sigatoka (pronounced "Sing-ah-TOE-kah").  It was pitch black as we emerged from the terminal and found the car, and it was an incredibly dark, bumpy ride on barely paved roads  as we traveled 1 hour and 15 minutes Southwest to Sigatoka.

The Outrigger on the Lagoon is a sprawling, funky resort on the Pacific Ocean with fantastic restaurants, shops, and Fiji's best spa, perched high on a hill above the resort with panoramic views of the Ocean.  The festive sounds of a wedding reception filled the giant lobby as I checked in, and the bustle of "Sunday Night in Paradise" surrounded me as I was escorted from the lobby across the resort to my oceanfront room.  Everywhere I turned, I was met with a spirited "Bula!" (pronounced "MBU-lah"), the standard Fijian greeting.

I arrived at my room just in time to catch the second half of the Rugby World Cup finals between the New Zealand All Blacks and France.  (Sunday night... Rugby night... In Fiji...!)  Who won, you ask?  "GO THE ABs!!!" (See Chapter One.)

The next morning, my first full day in Paradise, began with buffet breakfast at the resort.  It was then that I realized I was thoroughly exhausted from weeks of packing and unpacking, getting on and off the coach, taking off and landing, and enjoying almost no downtime.  And it was then that I decided Fiji would be all about downtime.

SPOILER ALERT: My three full days in Fiji were comprised of walking the beach (actually a coral reef), enjoying tasty meals, catching up on movies and blogging (really!), and TWO FULL DAYS at the Bebe (pronounced "BEM-beh") Spa.  That's it.

Exciting, hunh?  Maybe not, but possibly the most relaxing three days of my life.

On my last day in Fiji, my flight was not leaving Nadi for LA until 10 PM.  Checkout time was 11 AM.  When I inquired about late checkout the day before, I was told to call the next morning and speak with the room coordinator.  I awoke bright and early, called the room coordinator, and she said... "NO DOGS ALLOWED!!!" (or something like that).  So I crammed everything into my already overstuffed bags, arranged a driver, and left the Outrigger.

The drive from Sigatoka to Nadi in daylight was the perfect punctuation to my four days in Paradise.  The island is rough and refined, dirty and pristine, ugly and immaculate.  It is unspoiled and real and special.  Fijians love their home and for good reason.

At the airport in Nadi, I learned two things: (1) I couldn't check in for my flight until 6:30 PM (it was 1 PM) and (2) I left my ultra-cool All Blacks hat in the car from the resort to the airport.  DOUBLE BUMMER.  I set up shop in a coffee shop in the airport, where I was "that guy in the airport with all his electronic devices plugged in" and I was able to get a wireless signal so I could continue blogging (really!).  I made the mistake of continuing to blog (really!) at 6:30 when check in for my flight opened, so when I packed it all up and went to check in at 8 PM, it looked as if the island was being evacuated.  I'm still not sure how 15,000 people managed to fit on a plane that seats 500, but we did.
Vinaka, Viti Levu! Moce! 

"I'm going going, back back, to Cali Cali...!"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Seven, "Sydney, 'Oprah Likes It, So....'" (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 20, 21, 22, and 23 October 2011)

It was late in the afternoon when we landed in Sydney, Australia's answer to New York City, and I was still scratching my head over Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," which I watched on the flight.  We were introduced to Australia's biggest city with an afternoon rush hour coach ride to The Grace Hotel, a restored Art Deco, boutiquish hotel nestled between Sydney's Darling Harbour and the Opera House area.  We checked in at the hotel and the night was ours to enjoy.

I had a decision to make.

"C'mon C'mon." Who am I "Foolin'"?  It's time for me to "Stand Up," "Breathe a Sigh," and decide if I'm going to see the "Rock Brigade" "Tonight" or spend the evening "Alone."   If I succumb to "Hysteria" and become an "Animal" or a "Barracuda," my night will be "Wasted" and "Women" won't take a "Photograph" with or give me any "Action."  Alas, "Love Bites"... and it's a "Four Letter Word."

I decided not to go to the Def Leppard/Heart concert.

We got an early start the next morning to tour this amazing city.  Our first stop was Rose Bay, a picturesque cove near the mouth of Port Jackson (the proper name of Sydney Harbour), after which we crossed the peninsula to check out the famous Bondi Beach.  (Imagine Venice Beach if it wasn't in California.  Or Italy.) 
The immortal Sydney Opera House was next.  I've never been to a building that compels you to take pictures of it from every angle, a building that morphs before your eyes with every step you take.  It goes without saying that there is no other building like it anywhere in the World.  But the Sydney Opera House is as miraculous as the human body, the corridors its arteries, the people its blood, the performance halls its heart.  It is a living, breathing work of art.  It is all things to all people... unless, of course, you're one of my tourmates and you are livid that the architect had the NERVE to put STAIRS in the complex!

When the tour was over, as my tourmates bobbed for tchotchkes in the obligatory end-of-tour gift shop, I found the box office.  A certain frontman for a certain pioneering Seattle grunge band and solo artist was doing an acoustic show in the Concert Hall of the Opera House the following night and this was a tough ticket to get.  The kind lady at the box office informed me that there were only two tickets left in the entire house and they were premium seats in the stalls.

The Sydney Harbour lookout point "Mrs. McQuarie's Chair" and Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour were our next stops.  We boarded a boat at Circular Quay and enjoyed a lunch cruise on Sydney Harbour, garnering an entirely different perspective on the city.  There was no gift shop at the end of the cruise... so naturally, we went to an opal museum!  But not just ANY opal museum: The National Opal Collection.  Did you know that opals come from dinosaurs, Hugh Jackman is a dinosaur, and Wolverine is a kind of opal?  If not, you need to visit the National Opal Collection.

How's this for serendipity: while I was at LAX waiting for my flight to Auckland, I received an e-mail from a former pro bono screenwriter client and friend.  About the same time I left Austin to move to Philadelphia, my friend, a native Texan, moved to Australia to be with his wife, a native Aussie, as they prepared to welcome their first child.  He happened to e-mail me about the development status of the indie film he penned and I was reminded that he lives in Sydney.  Long story short, I spent the better part of my last full day in Sydney getting an "insider's tour" of city, including the ferry system (and a failed trip to a supposedly killer fish and chips joint) and the Darling Harbour complex.  The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping for souvenirs.  Why is it that picking out crap for your family and friends is so much fun?

As this was the last night of the tour, it was time for the Farewell Dinner.  (See Chapter One for a recap of the Welcome Dinner.)  Tonight was also the solo acoustic show at the Sydney Opera House's Concert Hall by - wait for it! - Chris Cornell.  It would be a night of contrasts.

I met my tourmates in the lobby and we walked en masse to Casa di Nico, a snazzy Italian eatery on the water in Darling Harbour.  There are no photos to confirm this, but I have to imagine we looked like a cross between a retirement community field trip and the Bataan Death March... but I digress.  The vino flowed quite liberally and dinner was tasty.  As hard as it was to bid adieu to my new friends, I had a show to catch. 

Within 30 seconds of leaving my seat at the table, I was in a taxi bound for the Opera House.  It was a decidedly hipster crowd ignoring the opening act and imbibing in the lobby when I entered the Concert Hall.  My seat was almost perfectly center, just to the right of the soundboard.  The opener was an entertaining singer-songwriter, but there was not an empty seat in the house (including the seat next to me, presumably THE last seat available for the show) when Chris Cornell came onstage.  Over the next two and a half hours, he played every Soundgarden hit, a few deep tracks and b-sides, and all of his solo gems.  His performance was flawless.  Acoustically, it was as if I was sitting on a stool next to him onstage as he played.  It's official: this visually stunning building sounds as good as it looks!

I met the newlyweds for breakfast the next morning to say goodbye, then tackled the task of repacking to accommodate all of the new stuff I acquired.  (If you ever need to pack a 10 foot long djeridoo into a backpack, hollatcha boy! I shuttled to the airport with two of the couples from the tour and said goodbye to them as they checked in for their flights back to the States.

It's Fiji time!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Six, "Cairns, 'GOD Save the Queensland'" (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 18, 19, and 20 October 2011)

The disappointment and utter humiliation of my "Krispy Kreme FAIL" on the Queenstown to Melbourne still stung like a thousand hornets as I passed through security and customs at Melbourne Airport on my way to Cairns (pronounced "Cans") in the Northeast Australian State of Queensland.  I descended a stairway and rounded a corner in the shopping concourse and WHAM!!!... like a punch in the face, there it was: a Krispy Kreme stand!  Was this a cruel joke?  A flippant callback?  A bold slap across the face?  Or was this justice, the natural balance that exists in the Universe, a reward for my patience and perserverance?

NEH... it's just doughnuts, y'all!  KRISPY KREME DOUGHNUTS!!!
I won't bore you with the details.  If you know me (or if you simply like Krispy Kreme doughnuts), you can figure out what happened next.  (In Latin, "Nom nom nom.")  I watched "The Green Lantern" on the flight, and while I'm not quite sure what to say about the movie, I'm pretty sure I know why Ryan Reynolds and ScarJo aren't together anymore....

It was raining cats and dingos when we arrived in Cairns in Australia's tropical Northeast.  Our first stop was Rainforestation, a cultural and wildlife park nestled in a rainforest high above Cairns.  We enjoyed a tasty lunch before making our way to an outdoor amphitheater for an Aboriginal dance and djeridoo exhibition, followed by spearhunting and boomerang demonstrations.  A walk around the wildlife park lead to encounters with two kinds of crocodiles, lizards and other reptiles, assorted native birds, and up-close interaction with kangaroos and wallabes.  And, in an ironic twist, dingos.  (To my knowledge, and Meryl Streep's chagrin, they had taken no one's baby.)  The highlight of the Rainforestation visit was the opportunity to hold and be photographed with a fluffy, cuddly koala.  (We are presently in negotiations with the koala's agent to license the photo for inclusion in this blog.)

The rain and generally crappy weather did not let up overnight, and things did not look good for our excursion to The Great Barrier Reef the next morning.  Nevertheless, we braved biblical rains, "Perfect Storm"-like waves, and 30 knot winds on our "cruise" out to the Reef.  It was to be a six hour tour.

A six hour tour.

Instead of shipwrecking on a desert island, virtually everyone was sick and miserable by the time we docked at the giant pontoon floating over the Reef, from which we could snorkel, dive, and board a submersible to view the natural wonder.  But the inclement and overcast conditions precluded even those who got in the water from seeing much of anything.  Those who stayed on the pontoon were pelted with stinging rain and unrelenting winds, while desperately battling to hold down their breakfasts and consume their lunches.  Sadly, some sailors lost that battle.


Ochre is a restaurant in Cairns that features authentic native Australian fare and I joined the newlyweds for dinner there.  Our "Taste of Australia" tasting included wattleseed, ocean trout, kangaroo terrine, crocodile wontons, fried crocodile, grilled wallabe and kangaroo, wattleseed pavlova, and Davidson plum sorbet.  ("So THAT's what Australia tastes like....")  On the way back to the hotel, I stopped off at the casino across from the hotel.  I emerged victorious this time.

I returned to my room around 1 AM after the casino and was greeted with an unsettling surprise.  While we were in Melbourne, I booked what I thought would be a picturesque sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Great Barrier Reef.  Upon arrival in Cairns, I took it as a given that the horrific weather would wipe out any hope to ballooning while in Cairns.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when I returned to my room at 1 AM and discovered a note telling me I would be picked up at 4 AM to go hot air ballooning.

Excuse me?

Less than 3 hours later, I was waiting in the hotel lobby and was picked up by a shuttle bus, which made several more hotel stops before the 75 minute drive to Nareeba.  As it turns out, Nareeba is on the other side of a mountain range from Cairns and the Northeast coast of Australia, and the wet weather and winds pelting the coast had little or no impact on the weather in Nareeba.  (So much for ballooning over the Reef.)  Two bright yellow hot air balloons, each with a 20 passenger gondola, were being inflated as we arrived at the launch point.  Within 15 minutes, we were airborne... and it was beautiful.  Nareeba is no Milford Sound, mind you (See Chapter Four), but the very concept of surrendering to the mercy of the four winds as you float over virtually unspoiled rural terrain in tropical Australia is nothing to shake a spear at.

A half hour later, we drifted to a gentle landing in a field of brush on a private ranch.  I jumped out of the basket and accompanied a small crew of "manly men" as tugged on a massive rope and pulled the balloon down onto its side so it could be deflated.  Everyone, women and men alike, assisted in deflating, then folding the balloon and placing it in a bag (a very BIG bag) that was lifted by crane onto the bed of a truck along with the gondola.  We boarded the shuttle and returned to Cairns. 

I was back at the hotel 45 minutes before we were to depart for the airport. Ready or not, here we come, Sydney!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Five, "Melbourne, 'Victoria's Secret'" (Sunday and Monday, 16 and 17 October 2011)

First thing this morning, I was took!  I was hoodwinked!  Bamboozled!  Led astray!  Run amok!  Just when I thought nothing could top fried chicken in a remote area of New Zealand's North Island (See Chapter Two), this happens: I boarded my Queenstown to Melbourne flight, checked the in-flight menu, and discovered that - WAIT FOR IT!!! - Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnuts were available for purchase!  I waited anxiously and patiently for the cart to wind its way down the aisle to me.  The flight attendant looked my way.  We made eye contact.  I smiled.  She smiled.  I pointed to the menu card and asked if the Krispy Kremes were available.  She smiled... and told me they were NOT.

You go to Hell, Ma'am.  Go directly to Hell.  Do not pass "Go."  Do not collect forgiveness.

It was a beautiful, but windy Sunday afternoon when we arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  Customs and quarantine were a breeze, and once out in the airport, we met our guide for the Australian tour.  Hey, what do you get when you cross Brigitte Nielson, Carol Burnett, and Pee Wee Herman?  Normally, a hot mess... but in our case, we got Lara, our German-born, Australian-bred, "six foot twelve" tour guide.  Lara highlighted a few of the sights of Melbourne and previewed some of what we'd see on our city tour the next day on our way to our hotel.  The Crowne Plaza Hotel Melbourne is in the thick of everything, adjacent to the Convention Center, the Maritime Museum, the Aquarium, and the Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex, on the North bank of the Yarra River.   It was here, in a cramped, dim, unfurnished conference room, that we met "The Others."

How could we have known that while we toured New Zealand, there was another tour group out there touring at the same time?  How could we have known that we would encounter them here in Melbourne?  And is it a coincidence that Australia and New Zealand are known as Oceania, thus making this an "Oceanic" tour? 

We sat on one side of the room.  They sat on the other.  Lara talked of excursions and lanky siblings and luggage tags, but we weren't listening.  Their eyes were on us, and ours on them.  Not since Lord of the Flies has a group been so violently divided, clashing over such polarizing issues as what time to come down for breakfast, which side of the street to walk on, and how to democratically decide who gets to sit in the front seats of the coach.  It was the Montagues and the Capulets, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the Smurfs and the Snorks all over again!

On our driving tour of the city during rush hour the next morning, we learned why Melbourne has been nicknamed "The City of Black Suits": there is a SH*TLOAD of men and women wearing black suits here!  Our first stop was a photo stop at The Melbourne Museum and the adjacent Royal Exhibition Hall on our way to Fitzroy Gardens, a collection of landscaped, Victorian-era gardens that include the whimsically decorated Fairies Tree, a model Tudor village, and Cook's Cottage, the childhood home of Captain James Cook, transplanted from England and reconstructed brick by brick in the heart of Melbourne.  From there, we visited the placid Shrine of Remembrance to Australian war veterans and the Royal Botanic Gardens across the street.  Our driving tour continued with The Parliament House, Flanders Station, Federation House, all of Melbourne's stadia and arenas (including the Royal "Go Fish" Stadium and the National Checkers Arena), Queen Victoria Market, and Port Phillips Bay.

Oysters Kilpatrick is a tasty seafood appetizer consisting of an oyster on the half shell, broiled with cheese, diced bacon, and barbeque sauce.  I tried Oysters Kilpatrick with lunch today... and they quickly replaced meat pies as my favorite "nummy."  It was also at lunch today that I remembered I have a friend from Austin who now lives in Australia.   I thought she lived in Sydney, but she lives in Melbourne.  Oddly, she's in Sydney on business, but will be back in Melbourne by the time we get to Sydney, so we won't connect there either.

Yep.  True story.

What else can I say about Melbourne?  The city is known for its "laneways," bars, clubs, restaurants, shops, and galleries with hidden entrances in alleys beside and behind buildings on the main streets.  In fact, many of the finest restaurants and nightspots in Melbourne are in laneways.  I tried my luck at the blackjack tables at the Crown Casino across the street from my hotel and turned $90 in to roughly $500,000... only to lose it all.  Also, there are about 3 MILLION 7-11 convenience stores in Melbourne, answering the question once and for all, "What's a brotha gotta do to find a Slurpee up in this island continent?"  Oh, thank Heaven....

Tomorrow begins on a crispy note and just gets creamier after that.  We're about to expose Cairns!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Four, "Queenstown, 'We Are The Champions, My Tourmates!'" (Friday and Saturday, 14 and 15 October 2011)

I know you're wondering, so yes... there were baked beans on the breakfast buffet again.  It's a Southern Hemisphere thang.  I do not understand.

Our morning flight to Queenstown, "the adventure capital of New Zealand" on its South Island, was uneventful, and we arrived without losing any of my tourmates (we think).  Although we traveled South, the inverted geography means we actually traveled in to a sub-Arctic region of snow-capped mountains, stinging winds, and glaciers that roll down the streets like tumbleweeds.  Leaving the airport, we detoured to Arrowtown, a former gold mining village outside of Queenstown that kickstarted the South Island's gold rush "a few years back."  Arrowtown is now a quaint suburb, whose shops and commercial buildings maintain the rustic character of the town's original buildings, giving it an old world charm that stops just this side of kitschy.  Shabby craft shops and cafes blend nicely with modern merchants and contemporary eateries to create one HELL of a tourist trap.  My lunch consisted of a meat pie (I'm hooked) and a ginger beer (ditto) and my only "take away" was a "gorgeous" bottle of local Riesling.  (New Zealand is known the World over for its wines, a great reputation that is well-deserved.)

From Arrowtown, we detoured again to the "Original Bungi Bridge" on the outskirts of Queenstown, where bungi jumping is said to have originated.  I have always wanted to bungi jump at least once in my life, and what better place to do it than here, right?  Unfortunately, our tour itinerary read as if we would only be stopping at the bridge for photos and would not have the opportunity to try our hands (or ankles) at actually jumping, so I committed to another, less death-defying activity for the afternoon that could not be cancelled.  It was not until we arrived at the bridge that our tour operator invited someone (presumably me or one of the newlyweds) to "give it a go."  Checking my watch, I decided I had ample time to "live on the edge" and do both: bungi jump and river canyon jet boating.  And just as I had psyched myself up to jump from the very bridge where it all started... the bungi crew went on a 45 minute break, abruptly slamming the narrow window of time I had to do both.  So as a few of our tourmates stayed behind to watch one of the newlyweds dive from the bridge, the rest of us boarded the coach bound for check-in at the hotel.  It wasn't meant to be.

Though a bit isolated from the heart of Queenstown, our hotel, The Millennium Hotel Queenstown, is beautiful, and considerably more contemporary than its sister hotel in Rotorua (and no pesky sulfur smell).  I dropped my bags and left almost immediately for my "adventure" on the Shotover Jet, a high speed jet boat that runs the course of the Shotover River as it twists and turns through treacherous canyons surrounded by the Remarkable Mountains. (That's actually what they are called.)  But this is not "your father's jet boat."  The Shotover Jet's patented design makes it capable of manuevering (including 360 degree spins) at speeds of up to 65 mph (please don't ask what that is in km/h!) in as little as 4 INCHES (10 CM!) OF WATER!!!  On a "normal" day, say in the Summer, this might be a heart-pounding, exhilirating experience... but this was not a normal day.  Picture if you will a very gray afternoon with temps around 45 degrees Fahrenheit (you can figure out the Celcius temp on your own!).  There is a steady, cold rain, but the kicker is a hard, chilly wind that, at times, blows the rain perfectly horizontally in your face.  Now picture yourself on a speed boat, going 65 mph, thus insuring that the wind and rain are ALWAYS blowing in your face, on this gray, cold, rainy, windy day.  THIS... was my Shotover Jet Experience!

I've learned to dress in layers and be prepared for virtually anything, so considering the weather, I did just that: jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, a thin fleece pullover, a thicker fleece pullover, and a water-resistant windbreaker with a hood.  I don't know what the others going on this trip we're expecting, but their t-shirts, shorts, and - good grief! - flip-flops suggested we were NOT on the same page.  As we prepared to board the boat, we were issued thin plastic rain slickers (with no hoods), life jackets to wear over them, and goggles for those not already wearing glasses.  Despite my layers and the hood on my jacket, I felt ill-prepared for the Abu Ghraib-esque "waterboarding" simulation that ensued.  I actually pitied the kids in shorts and t-shirts (except for those wearing flip-flops).  It was like being on a log flume in Alaska in January with 1,000 high-powered water hoses being fired directly at your face, while buckets of frigid water are tossed at you from all sides and dumped from above, and all that stands between you and the elements is a $0.50 poncho.  When it was all over, my ears were on fire, my face was stinging, and I was soaked almost completely... and I dressed appropriately.

I should have gone bungi jumping!

Once back in Downtown Queenstown, it was dinner time.  Driving through town earlier, I learned that Queenstown has not one, but two casinos.  So on the way to dinner, I stopped in one.  My report: Queenstown's casinos "will ROCK YOU!!!"  (Fortunately, New Zealand dollars are worth less than US dollars.)

I chose a South African-style (your guess is as good as mine) steakhouse called Flame for dinner, the specialty of which is BBQ ribs.  (I was at a loss too.)  Since I was in a country known for its lamb (and having not had any yet), I ordered the rack of lamb.  It was delicious,
but was BBQed like the ribs, so it was a different taste than I was hoping for.  Walking back to the hotel, I stopped in The Remarkable Sweet Shoppe, where Willie Nelson played on the soundsystem and I tasted bubble gum-flavored fudge for the first time.  ("You can't stop modern science. Can't stop it!")  Back in the room, I opened the bottle of local wine and watched a movie.  I finished the glass of wine; the movie... not so much.

The next day, Saturday, was our only full day in Queenstown and a free day.  The biggest draw by far in this part of the World is Milford Sound (which, incidentally, is not really a sound, but a fjord, a mountain valley carved out by glaciers, then flooded by rising sea waters... THE MORE YOU KNOW(TM)), and the most common excursion is a five hour in, five hour out coach trip with a 2-3 hour lunch cruise as its highlight.  Not wanting to lose the entire day, I opted instead for a 40 minute flight in, 40 minute flight out with the same cruise.  The catch is the weather on the Sound side of the island can be very different from the weather in Queenstown, and if weather precludes flying on any given day, the coach has left hours before and you have no other option for seeing the Sound.  Nevertheless, I took the chance.

After breakfast, I waited in the lobby to learn whether I'd be flying that day.  As I waited, Uncanny Story #5 unfolded right before my eyes.  A group of my tourmates had planned a 3 hour excursion on their own and were describing it to our tour director.  She was concerned that they had booked an excursion that she knew to be really bad and wanted to warn them off of it.  The following exchange happened right in front of me.  I have NOT embellished it!

Tour Director:  What is the name of the excursion?

Tourmate:  I don't know.

Tour Director:  Is it "The Remarkable Experience" [referring to the mountains (see above)]?

Tourmate: I think so.  It gets us out of the hotel for 3 hours.

Thank goodness for bladder control.  Abbott and Costello would be proud!

Moments later, I got word that my flight was on!  A taxi van picked me up and took me to the airport, from which I flew "shotgun" on a 6 passenger, twin-engine plane over snow-capped, glacier-riddled peaks toward Milford Sound.  Kiting through the clouds, we passed close enough to the summits that I felt as though I could touch them.  But as picturesque as the flight was, and as unique as was my perspective from the front seat, nothing could have prepared me for the all-encompassing splendor of Milford Sound.

I can count on one hand the number of times I was so certain of GOD's existence that I felt as if I was sitting across from and gazing directly upon GOD's face.  Twice (a car accident and a near drowning), death seemed certain until GOD intervened.  A third time was when I saw the Austrian Alps up close for the first time.  The fourth was when I cruised out onto Milford Sound.

Never have I been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and so certain of the presence and influence of a higher power.  Never have I been driven to tears and simultaneously compelled to pray a prayer of thanks for such a massive and powerful blessing.  Never have I been at once reminded of how small we are as human beings and just how much we have in common, despite where we live, how we worship, the languages we speak, or what we look like.  Milford Sound is, quite simply, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and experience I have ever had in my 41 years on this planet.  Words will never come close to doing it justice, and pictures only tell a small part of the story.  If Milford Sound is not on your bucket list, you don't have a bucket list.

I had lunch at a cafe adjacent to the Sound -yes, I had a ginger beer... who wants to know? - then flew "shotgun" back to Queenstown.  I skipped dinner and stayed in to catch up on "the footy," watching the Wales v. France Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Tomorrow we leave New Zealand and begin the Australian segment of the tour, starting with Melbourne.  Nod your heads, Melbourne.  My tour group's coming!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Three, "Rotorua, 'And Away Goes Trouble...!'" (Thursday, 13 October 2011)

Just in case you thought it was a "big city," Auckland thing, there were baked beans on the breakfast buffet in Rotorua this morning.  I can also attest that even though you'd think it wouldn't, your nose actually gets used to the ubiquitous smell of sulfur.

Rainbow Springs, our first stop this morning, is basically a small zoo that features native flora and fauna, including "The Kiwi Experience," which, contrary to popular belief,  is NOT a display of live New Zealanders, but an enclosure and exhibit featuring the small, fluffy, flightless, and endangered birds. 

The Agrodome, our next stop, was a hands-on, interactive introduction to farm and agricultural life in New Zealand, featuring every breed of sheep - I don't think you heard me: EVERY BREED OF SHEEP!!! - bred and farmed in New Zealand for its wool.  If you ever saw a Merino up close (or better yet, SMELLED one!), you'd never think of wearing the wool.  Satan horns and "the funk of forty thousand years": Now... who wants a SWEATER?!?!?!?  (GO TARHEELS!!!)

It was also at The Agrodome where I was introduced to heading dogs, which actually herd sheep with a just a stern glance, and I got to pet (and smell) a Huntaway, known as the "Kiwi barking dog," a combination of three breeds noted for its particularly annoying bark and its ability not only to herd sheep by running around and barking at them, but also climbing on their backs to really drive its point home.  Let's see your border collie do THAT!

Uncanny Story #3: During our lunch stop in town, one of my tourmates wandered off, got lost, and could not remember the name of our hotel or our tour guide.  Fortunately, two taxi drivers were able to infer from her Rainbow Springs admission sticker that she had been their today, called Rainbow Springs, and tracked down our tour guide, who "rescued" and reunited her with the group.

Whakarearewa, an authentic, active Maori village, with as much thermal activity as tradition and history, was our next stop.  Here we saw everything from geisers and thermal pools to sulfur flows and "the original microwave," underground compartments used to cook and heat food with the help of natural geothermic energy.  (My colleagues at NBCUniversal-Sheinhardt would be so proud!) 

It was also here that Uncanny Story #4 occured.  While standing outside the village meeting house, where a sacred funeral ritual had taken place just moments before we arrived, one of my tourmates took it upon himself to ring a very sacred and official bell so loudly it could be heard throughout the village... on purpose... because he wanted to hear it, a single act that may bring about the 2012 doomsday the Mayans prophecied.

It's like being on a field trip with The Little Rascals.

Thursday nights in Rotorua mean one thing: night markets.  "Night markets" is a bit of a misnomer, since they open at 5 and shut down by 9; however, considering the age group I'm kickin' it with on this tour, with those hours, they could just as easily call them "after hours clubs."  Thinking "night markets" actually meant "markets at night," I headed over around 8:15 only to find the vendors ready to shutter... but what a finale it was!  I wandered around a bit and decided on "Paella in a Box" (exactly what it sounds like) as my dinner choice with a Bundaberg ginger beer (my new drink of choice) to wash it down.  With the vituals in hand, I moved on to the entertainment.

What has a balding, mullet-wearing, 50ish dude in a Hawaiian print shirt, jeans, "sensible shoes," and a soul patch and a late 40-something, Grace Slick wannabe in a blue sequined top and '80s hair and pumps?  If you guessed my tour bus... ooooh, you're so close, but....  The correct answer is, of course, SparX, the Number One classic and schlock rock cover band playing the Rotorua night markets tonight.  Imagine you've just purchased a piping hot container of saffron rice and seafood, which is burning a hole in the palm of your left hand, while an icy cool, Mickey's-sized bottle of ginger beer numbs your right, and you're looking for a place to take a load off and chow down.  You find your way to the center of the night markets, drawn there by the sounds of the aforementioned dude ripping off mediocre blues guitar solos like the average American college kid and the aforementioned chick belting out her very best, "X Factor" audition material, backed by C-grade karaoke tracks of your college bar band faves.  Noshing on Spanish food in the heart of New Zealand's North Island, you witness a performance so cliche, you can predict every vocal run, hair flip, and fist pump this duo will commit moments before they actually do.  As each song ends, you clap obligatorily, not certain if you're applauding the performance or your own apparent "clairvoyance."  You, my friend, have just enjoyed "The SparX Xperience (TM)"!

And as the night markets closed, right on cue, the rain started, and I took my cue to return to the hotel.  Tomorrow is our first flight as a group and anything could happen.  We may discover what happened to Amelia Earhart.  For all I know, one of my tourmates might BE Amelia Earhart!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Kiwis, Koalas, and Kava... Oi, Mate!: Chapter Two, "Auckland to Rotorua, 'That's the Name...!'" (Wednesday, 12 October 2011)

Today began with a great buffet breakfast (it appears that baked beans are a breakfast staple for my Kiwi brothers and sisters, so "ROLL that beautiful bean footage!") before we boarded the coach on our way to Rotorua.  Uncanny Story #2: Our departure was delayed again - noticing a trend yet? - this time because a different tourmate - are you ready for this? - locked herself in the bathroom of her suite.  Let me say that again: she locked herself in the potty.  I'm NOT making this up.  I don't have to.

This morning's rainy drive took us out of the urban center of Auckland and in to the lush green countryside of New Zealand's Central North Island.  After a "morning tea" (or is it "T-T"?) stop in Huntly along the Waikato River, our first stop was the Waitomo Caves and the famous glowworm grottoes.  The caves consist of layers of limestone pushed up from the sea and carved by water flowing through cracks
and joints over the last 24 million years (give or take a century or twelve).  The glowworms are actually fly larvae less than 3 millimeters long living on the cave ceilings and emitting a visible light during the 9 months they remain in the larval stage.  The light emitted is a "cold" light, so it is perceived as a greenish blue.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of them on the ceiling of the grotto, so the image is that of a very starry night.  The glowworms are sensitive to noise and light, so we navigated the grotto in a motorless boat that our guide "steered" by means of a heavy wire suspended overhead, which he used to pull our boat through the grotto.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Otorohanga.  One of the most popular food items in New Zealand is the meat pie.  Imagine a puff pastry shell the size and shape of a Moon Pie with fillings such as steak and onion, minced beef, mutton, and sweet lamb curry (my personal favorite).  Meat pies are as popular as burgers, pizza, or chicken fingers in the States (and just as healthy) and they can be purchased ready-to-eat everywhere, from restaurants to gas stations to supermarkets.  Well, I skipped the meat pie today, opting instead for "the gospel bird."  Yes, I had my first taste of Kiwi fried chicken (KFC?) today!  The verdict? Finger-lickin' good!

About 15 minutes outside Rotorua, you are greeted by the acrid smell of sulphur.  If you've ever smelled sulfur, you know how "special" a smell that is.  If you're NOT familiar with the smell, pretend that it's 115 degrees outside when you return from a weeklong vacation only to discover the neighborhood ne'er-do-wells egged your house right after you left.  That "rotten eggs in extreme heat" odor is what Rotorua smells like.  Everyday.  Rotorua is the geothermal capital of New Zealand, known for its baths and spas, not to mention its mineral rich mud, which has countless cosmetic and medicinal uses.  Our hotel, The Millennium Hotel Rotorua, was perched on the banks of Lake Rotorua, next door to The Polynesian Spa, routinely ranked among the Top 10 Luxury Spas in the World.

Rotorua is also a focal point of the Maori culture, New Zealand's native and founding culture.  Our evening began at The Realm of Tane, an EPCOT-like, indoor multimedia/interactive exhibit and live performance highlighting the evolution of the Maori culture and how the Maori people came to settle Aotearoa, "the Land of the Long White Cloud," now known as New Zealand... that is, before the Europeans showed up.  Every American knows how THAT story ends.

From there, we boarded a coach to Tamaki Village, a mock full-scale traditional Maori village.  We learned the hongi, a traditional Maori greeting involving pressing noses together twice to share the hau, or "breath of life."  Inside the gates of Tamaki Village, we experienced an actual Maori gretting ceremony, the haka, a bold and intentionally intimidating display of pride, strength, and hospitality used to invite visitors into the village
while surveying their intentions and warning of what lies within if those intentions are not benevolent.  The greeting ceremony was followed by a walk through the mock village, where crafts, games, and traditional Maori living were demonstrated under a canopy of tall trees that shielded us from the pouring rain.  An indoor exhibition of song and dance was next and then it was time for the feast.  All of our food (including chicken, lamb, two kinds of potatoes, and corn) was prepared hangi style, that is, in closed chambers beneath the ground heated by natural geothermic steam or heated water.  ("Mmmmm... tastes like chicken... and sulfur....")

We boarded our coach to return to the hotel, with a driver who was also the Maori warrior who first greeted us at The Realm of Tane and one of the narrators of the presentation at The Realm of Tane.  In addition those roles, we discovered that he's a halfway decent standup comic, a pretty good singer, and he's conversational in about 10 languages.  And you thought Jamaicans held a lot of jobs!

Bedtime, but tomorrow is a full day in Rotorua, when I find out once and for all who "built this city" and which genre of music they might have employed.  Sparks - I mean, SparX - will fly!