Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dinner with the Locals

Obviously, when in Rarotonga, one must eat like the Rarotongans at least once. However, as in many countries where the traditional local culture is quite different from that of most visitors, having an authentic meal easier said than done. On Rarotonga, a number of resorts offer "island nights" where they serve supposedly traditional food and feature supposedly traditional dancing, but it always feels odd to me to have an "authentic" experience when the only locals are the ones waiting on the western tourists.

Fortunately, Sarah and I came across a man who offered "progressive dinners" in the homes of locals. The dinners are three courses, with each course cooked and served by a different family. Surprise, we chose this option over one of the island nights.

The entree (which is actually what Americans would call an appetizer course) was at the home of a couple whose backyard was chock full of plants I'd never seen, proving just how ignorant Americans are about where their food comes from. This included not just the usual delicious fruit veg, but also coffee, lemongrass (for tea), and more. In fact, everything they served us was from their backyard except for the tuna, which they had purchased at the local market.

Below is ika mata (translation: raw fish), a common local dish. It's not actually raw because it's marinated in lemon juice for hours and the acid cooks the fish. They then add coconut cream and some veggies, ending up with a heavenly result.

The entree also included fresh fruit from the garden: starfruit and pawpaw (papaya)topped with freshly grated coconut. Whenever I have fresh fruit like this, I always wonder why I continue to live anywhere that's not the tropics.

Next was on to the main course at a beautiful house up in the mountains. Rarotonga has an interesting topography because in addition to all the beachfront, the middle of the island is treacherously mountainous. Much of the dinner food was relatively familiar--BBQ chicken and fish, salad, etc, but of course it was all locally produced and therefore fantastically fresh. They also served taro, a staple on Rarotonga. I am still deciding my thoughts on taro, which I've tried a couple times in New Zealand. It's not exactly tasty, but it's also not bad. Just kind of bland, so it's really only good when cooked right (but I guess that goes for most food).

Finally was dessert at the home of the man who organised the tour. Of course it included more fresh fruit. There was also banana cake which, although not exactly a "traditional" Rarotongan food, was still delicious.

To anyone planning to visit the Cook Islands (which really should be everyone), I highly recommend the progressive dinner. The food was fantastic, and being in real homes made it feel more like dinner with friends than a tourist activity. When you're only somewhere for a week, it's hard to see how people really live, but this felt like a pretty good taste, both literally and figuratively.

Holiday from a Holiday

Honestly, I felt a little silly telling people I was "on holiday" in Rarotonga. True, I was taking a break, but it's hard to justify that it's really a holiday when all I've been doing for the past two months is traveling around. But traveling in New Zealand, while fantastic, has been exhausting. Rarotonga was a true holiday, where the most stressful part was trying to determine which cafe had the best fruit smoothie (the answer: the Blue Note Cafe in Avarua).

Check out how clear this water is.

And more importantly, how blue it is.

Obviously, it was a much needed respite. But the question remains on whether the holiday provided enough refreshment and fuel to help me take on my last two weeks(!) in New Zealand, the inevitable reverse culture shock upon returning to the States, a long drive out west, and the beginning of a new career path. Or will I just spend all that time wishing I was back in Raro? Probably a little bit of both.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Coconut King

My mom knows a family that has been to Rarotonga, and they recommended as one of their "must do" activities a visit to Piri Puruto, the self-proclaimed Coconut King of Rarotonga.

He begins his show by weaving a rope out of coconut fibres, and then uses it to help him climb a very tall, very slippery coconut tree.

Yes, that helmet and skirt are made out of coconut.

He then takes one of the newly retrieved coconuts and shreds the husk to create kindling for the fire he's going to start. Somehow I was selected as the lucky audience member who got to hold the kindling.

Then he rubs some sticks together and ta-da!

And of course, no coconut experience is complete without some being eaten. Piri shredded it (in a weird/awesome machine), drizzled it with honey, and served it on a palm leaf. I could seriously eat this stuff all day.

I don't know if I would put this on my personal must do list, mostly because Piri turned out to be kind of a creepy old man, but given his plethora of uses for coconut, it's pretty hard to dispute his coconut king title.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I Am Officially Awesome

And I have the license to prove it.

The government of the Cook Islands has deemed me competent to drive a motorcycle. Until Saturday, I had never ridden a motorcycle or motorscooter of any sort, but it turns out to be the most convenient, economical way to get around the 32kms that comprise Rarotonga (it's one road--you can go clockwise or anticlockwise). Unfortunately, you can't drive on Rarotonga unless you get a Cook Islands drivers license. So when we arrived here, I headed down to the police station. They had finished testing on Saturday by the time we got there, but the police just told me to "drive safely" until Monday when I could sit the test. Clearly the licensing policy is very strict.

Today I sat the test, which comprised of about 200m of driving and four turns (including the turns in and out of the police station parking lot) and passed with flying colours. Or at least colours that flew enough to get what is probably the only ID picture I will ever have where you can see my bathing suit. I suspect the whole licensing thing just an easy way to suck money out of tourists, but I reckon it's the best $16 souvenir I've ever gotten.

Any Given Sunday

The Cook Islanders are a very religious bunch, so the only thing to do on Sundays is attend church. They are also a very welcoming people, so all the churches are open to visitors and they make sure to conduct the service in both Cook Island Maori and English.

The service was pleasant, with a lot of beautiful singing. Personally, I really enjoyed checking out the women's beautiful hats, which are very intricately woven with lots of colors and flowers. I didn't get a chance to take a picture, but here's a picture I found online.

After the service, they hosted a reception across the road at one of the local schools. Of course, fresh fruit was in abundance, so I was happy.

And although the graveyard didn't have much to do with our actual church experience, I thought it was really interesting.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hamsters in a Washing Machine

Very high on my "must do" list in New Zealand was another uniquely Kiwi activity: zorbing. I don't really know how to explain it because I certainly couldn't figure it out until I was actually there doing it.

A zorb ball is three metres (about 9 ft) tall, and looks like a giant golf ball. It's inflated, and there's a little pod in the middle that's maybe a metre and a half high--enough space for three people to fit. You get into the pod into the center, they throw in some warm water to make it slippery, and then push you down a hill.

Erica and I did it together. When we got in the zorb, the staff told us to stand up, and when they tapped the outside we should start running like hamsters. We could stay standing if we wanted, or sit down and enjoy the ride. What they did not explain was that standing or sitting were not really options because pretty much immediately we both fell down and spent the entire ride sliding around, rolling all over and crashing into each other.

I have never laughed so uncontrolably in my entire life.

Unfortunately the zig zag course was only for solo riders, but I still couldn't stop laughing. Check out the silhouette of my legs flying in the air as I go down the hill.

10K k

According to my odometer, I have now driven over 10,000 kilometers. I think this entitles me to comment on New Zealand road conditions with some authority.

Obviously, it is quite different driving here than in the US. You'd think that this is due to the cars driving on the other side of the road, but I was actually able to get used to that with surprising speed. There's also a weird "give way" (yield) rule about left turners giving way to right turners coming from the opposite direction, but that was also not too bad to get used to as long as you're aware of it. I was also surprised at how much I actually like roundabouts now--they really reduce the amount of time you sit around waiting, which I cannot say for traffic lights.

The biggest adjustment has been the road conditions. I have done a fair amount of long-distance driving in the United States, and I now understand how lucky we are to have the interstate system that we do. The major state highways in New Zealand are small--one lane on each side almost the entire way. This has taught me how to pass other drivers by having to drive in a lane occupied for oncoming traffic, which I find ridiculously frightening. Significantly more frightening than jumping out of a plane. The only time I have have noticed "motorway" is around the five largest cities, and even then it's not really significant motorway except in Auckland. I can't tell you how how exciting it was to get back to Auckland and have what I consider to be legitimate highways to drive on.

More frightening than two lane roads are one lane roads, which are a surprisingly common feature of New Zealand roads. One lane bridges pepper the roads, and even though there are signs stating which direction has the right ow way, I still get very very nervous driving on them. The worst, however, was a nice stretch of one lane road on State Highway 6 on the West Coast of the South Island. It snaked along a winding cliff face, only giving you blurry mirrors to see if there were cars coming in the other direction.

Speaking of windy roads... New Zealand is full of them. I have never seen so many hairpin turns, even when going through, say, the Rocky Mountains. They're everywhere, and they're usually accompanied by steep hills and sheer cliff faces, often with little or no guard rail. On the upside, I think I'm going to be very good at race car video games by the time I'm finished here.

I do have to say I've actually been grateful for the windy roads sometimes. New Zealand is full of breathtaking scenery, and the twists and turns around mountain corners mean that instead of a slow approach to a beautiful lookout, you're hit with it all at once as you come around a hill. It's kind of an adventure to find out what's around the next corner, because many times I've found that it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Beginning of the End

It's not like I ever thought of this whole traveling thing would be permanent. But when I embarked on this adventure last February, the end seemed SO far away. And for the most part it's continued to feel that way. Even though I've been sort of planning for what's next for some time, steps like taking the GRE or sending out grad school applications didn't really connect to actually coming home.

Then little things started happening that made everything feel final. First I quit my job back in February. Then I got acceptance letters from Stanford and Harvard, and my fantasy about not getting into grad school--and having an excuse to renew my NZ visa--was crushed. My family's visit came and went. My list of "must do" activities slowly got ticked off one by one as I headed further and further south. Erica's visit, which we have been talking about for ages, is actually happening and will be over in a few days. On Saturday we took the ferry from Picton to Wellington and I've officially left the South Island for good (barring some miracle).

But then came the punch that made it all real: I booked my plane ticket home. No more pretending that my final flight back to the US is all a distant dream. It's happening. In a month.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Paradise: Not Lost, Definitely Not Found

Queenstown is beautiful. It's nestled in the Remarkables (they are pretty remarkable) right on the shores of Lake Wakitipu. Here's the view outside my window when I woke up. Not too shabby, eh?

However, Queenstown is a bit touristy for my tastes, so I set off toward Glenorchy, an area where much of Lord of the Rings was filmed. My Lonely Planet mentioned that just past Glenorchy is a town called Paradise, so obviously I had to find it. Outside Glenorchy, I found a sign that said "Paradise, 12km," so I checked my odometer and set off down the unsealed road. My car is somewhat of a rock star and handles unsealed roads with finesse, but I was still a little unsettled by a sign just after entering Mount Aspiring National Park--the first of its kind I've seen--saying "Proceed at your own risk."

Then I came to a small stream. It wasn't that big, but I didn't really want to risk getting stuck so far out in the middle of nowhere. My odometer told me that I was pretty close, and since it was a beautiful day there was no reason not to park and walk the remaining 2kms. I strolled along the road, passing farmland with sheep grazing in front of the snow-capped mountains. The sun was shining, but since it's just turning to autumn (they do not call it fall here, and give me funny looks when I do) it was an ideal temperature. Highly picturesque, highly pastoral, and highly New Zealand.

However, even beautiful scenery can get a little old when you feel like you've been walking longer than planned. Unfortunately I hadn't taken note of the time when I set off, but I definitely felt like I'd been walking for more than 2kms. I decided to give up and go back to the car. When I got back to the little stream, I reassessed and decided it would be possible to ford without any damage.

So I tried again, and fortunately my car made it successfully over the creek. It turned out that I not only had gone more than 2 kms on foot; I actually had gone about 5. Which means that I should have reached and passed Paradise. But I kept driving. I soon hit another stream, which I crossed nervously. And then another, and then another. When I finally reached a fifth, very large stream, I weighed the awesomeness of a photo in front of a Paradise sign with the potential disaster of a broken down car. I decided there are probably other Paradise signs in other towns called Paradise (Google Maps now tells me there are 10 in the USA alone) and that I'd rather visit one of those than have to take the bus around the rest of New Zealand.

The next day I ran into a British guy I'd met in Doubtful Sound. We'd talked about how we both wanted to go to Paradise, so he was curious to know if I'd made the trip. He had gone as well, and when I told him about my ordeal he looked at me like I was an idiot. "You know there's no Paradise sign, right?" It turns out that my little hike had taken me right into the heart of Paradise and I hadn't even known it. A metaphor for something deeper? Perhaps. Although I'm not sure what to make of the idea that paradise might be nothing more than a sheep paddock.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Perfectly Good Ledge

So here I am in New Zealand, home of all kinds of scary adventure activities. And currently I am in Queenstown, where AJ Hackett invented bungy jumping. It was a long internal debate about whether or not to bungy jump. I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do the nevis jump, which is 143m high. They suspend you out over the middle of a gorge from a gondola. If you're gonna do it, you gotta do it right.

But I chickened out. I couldn't bring myself to do it, especially considering the exorbitant fee attached. On the other hand, I couldn't really leave here without doing anything daredevil-ish. So I opted for something that you can only do here in Queenstown: the Canyon Swing. Situated in the Shotover Canyon, the swing "lets" you jump off a 109m platform, freefall 60m, and swing an arc that stretches 200m. Much more fun than a bungy jump, I'd say.

I ended up doing two jumps. The first was eloquently titled "Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood" (their name, not mine). They suspend you in the air just off the platform, flip you upsidedown so you're facing head first into the canyon, and let you go flying. Awesome.

The next one was more scary for me because I actually took the leap off the platform instead of being released. And I jumped backwards. Okay, it wasn't so much of a jump as a fall. I was so freaked out that the guys had to basically talk me into it. I think they started to get annoyed with my by the end, but I am glad I did not completely chicken out and walk away. How else would I have gotten these awesome pictures?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sounds Good to Me

There are a couple of natural wonders that I can't get enough of. These include waterfalls, shooting stars, rainbows, and colourful sunsets. I know, I'm not exactly unique in loving these things, but I love them more than, say, pretty plants or something.

So Fiordland was pretty much the ideal place for me to take this all in. I was running a bit late on my way up to Te Anau on Saturday night, but I was rewarded with pink clouds as the sun sank below the mountains. I have witnessed a good number of Otago sunsets now, and they continue to take my breath away each time.

By the time I got to Te Anau, a tiny little town on Lake Te Anau, the stars were stunning.

There are two main sounds that people visit from Te Anau: Milford and Doubtful. I should note that they are technically not sounds, but fiords (sounds are carved by lakes; fiords by glaciers). But when the Europeans named them, they did not have a word for fiord, so we are stuck with the names.

Milford has a reputation for being more touristy--which definitely turned out to be true. But instead of miss out on this "8th wonder of the world" (to quote Rudyard Kipling), I figured I'd see it in the least touristy way possible: by kayak. I had never been sea kayaking before, but I can't imagine a better introduction. I want to mention the name of the company I went with, Fiordland Wilderness Experience, because it was definitely one of the best tours I've taken. The guide was fantastic and the trip was nonstop fun. I can't even begin to think of a word that describes the majesty and beauty of Milford. Basically, it's being right in the middle of the mountains, but on the water instead of on a hiking trail. And it rains about 2/3 of the time (I was super lucky to get a clear day), so there are waterfalls constantly rushing down the lush green walls of the mountains. Pictures cannot even come close to doing it justice.

One fun little trick is what our guide called the dwarfing effect. Everything is so huge, that things appear closer than they are. When we started off, she pointed to a waterfall in the distance and asked how far away we thought it was. (It's the little white streak to the left of the mountain in the picture below. The orange thing is the tip of my kayak). I would have guessed a kilometer or so away. Wrong. It was 8kms away.

On the way back to Te Anau, we stopped at some choice spots along the Milford Road. Below is the Hollyford Valley. It looks like it's been deforested, but it's actually naturally free of trees. The air gets so cold down in the valley that trees can't grow--sort of like the tree line on a mountain.

I was a huge fan of the mirror lakes. No specific reason; it just looked really cool.

I had thought about kayaking on Doubtful Sound as well, but am glad I didn't. Being physically inactive while travelling has definitely made me weaker, and after a full day of kayaking my arms were ready to fall off. So I went for a "cruise" on Doubtful Sound. Getting there is a little trickier. First you take a speedboat across Lake Manapouri, then a bus ride through the mountains. The remote-ness definitely makes it less touristy. Which was awesome.

While the walls of the mountains were not as high as in Milford, the sound was bigger and pretty much empty except for our boat. We sailed out to the Tasman Sea and back, again passing waterfall after waterfall.

Also a highlight was sampling the clean, fresh mountain water--straight from the waterfall.

And with so much moisture in the air, I even got my rainbow.

The thing about seeing all these awesome places is that it just makes me keep planning my next trip back to New Zealand. Next time I'm in Fiordland, I will be skydiving (what a view!) and doing an overnight kayak trip. Eventually I will become a good enough kayaker to make my way to the more remote, more challenging Dusky Sound. Yes, all this in my spare time.