Friday, November 28, 2008

Tales of New Zealand II: Kicked in the Butts by Trek

November 28th, 2008
Fiordland National Park
South Island, New Zealand

"It's been raining for six hours. How much longer can it last?"
Elaine, trekker from Wales

Apparently quite a bit longer.

Trekking in the rain sucks. It's not being dirty that I dislike, it's the smell...that unique fermentation that occurs when one sweats for days beneath polypro long underwear and layers of oh-so-nonbreathable fleece and gortex, then crawls into a sleeping bag with another synthetic liner sweating throughout the night, and then gets pelted throughout the day by rainfall, dirt, and bugspray. It's an overpowering and disturbing smell...a mixture of sweat, citronella, and musk, with notes of something strangely sour.

Why Mum and I choose to shoulder 40 lb plus backpacks up over mountains in bad weather, lather ourselves in bug spray, subsist on dehydrated pasta, and then sleep in bunkhouses with snoring, equally smelly strangers baffles me. We continue to suffer from what I refer to as "Trekking Amnesia," in which several months pass by after said memories of torture dissolve away and are replaced with nostalgia and fond recollections of bonding.

Our second trek, The Routebourn, is famed for receiving over 200 inches of rain a year. I believe that we were there around 30 of them. One hut ranger we met says that there's a sure-fire way of predicting the day's weather in this part of New Zealand. "If you can see the mountains in the morning...then it's going to rain. And if you can't see the mountains in the morning...then it IS raining."

The landscape here, despite the rain and sheer physical torture, is stunning....shimmering in thousands of shades of green...and even more vibrant after a heavy rainfall. We hiked through beech forests filled with the calls of the Tui and Korimako, beneath waterfalls cascading down Yosemite-like mountain faces of granite, past wide open river beds that meandered past magnificent fields of grass and up above the treeline to alpine lakes and wind-swept mountain passes. The fog creeped along the mountain faces like slow-moving smoke as Keas flew overhead and chattered away. We even passed through a forest painted in moss...every rock, stick, and tree trunk dead or alive was covered in an emerald carpet of green...the dominion of witches, warlocks, and faeries.

Mom and I, though avid hikers, have been once again humbled (some might dare say "defeated") by trekking. Although we weren't walking many kilometers per day, the strenuous ups and downs of mountains trekking with heavy gear in bad weather took its toll on our legs, backs, and even more precious egos. It doesn't seem to matter what type of training you do for trekking (biking, hiking, or dance)...the only way to build up muscles or stamina for backpacking is to do it. Carrying 40 pounds of sleeping bag, pans, toiletries, camera, pasta, butter, cheese, crackers, and a first aid kit kicks my ass every time (and yet I continue to do it). We stumbled into camp on the third day looking like landmine victims and Mom swore on several occasions that she would NEVER AGAIN go backpacking without a llama, sherpa, or heavy meds.

On our last night as I was cooking our final pot of ramen noodles, I noticed a trim, good-looking, stylish German girl I hadn't seen before on the circuit.
I asked her where she'd hiked in from.

"We came from the other side of the pass. We're doing the whole trek in two days," she answered, a bit too cheerily.

"You must be tired!" I exclaimed, trying to hide my own personal devastation.

"No, not really," she shrugged. "It only took us 7 hours today."

I calculated that it had taken my mother and I ten hours between two days to cover the same terrain--not including our breaks. I couldn't imagine having done it all on the same day, arriving before dark, and feeling strong enough to cook pasta or look as good as this German girl really did. Was she human?

She looked at me through her stylish eyewear, "Excuse me but how long did it take you to come from the last hut?"

I thought of our slow start earlier in the morning, of getting drenched in the flooded waterfall, of our multiple bathroom stops along the trail and of our lunch on the lookout where I cried about my stepmom. All in all, it had taken us 5 hours since we had left.

"Four hours," I answered, rounding a little bit down.

"Four hours?" She raised her eyebrows with a mixture of dismay, surprise, and the kind of sad compassion one would give to a lesser, more disadvantaged being.

I thought later (as I always do after the fact) of telling her that trekking is not a race. That we take a lot of photos as we go. That I hadn't felt energetic that day and that neither Mom nor myself liked rushing our walks.

But all I said was "Yup. Four hours."

She shood her head with pity and turned her attention back to her pasta. We clearly belonged to two different camps of trekkers: The winners and the losers.

I sank down in my seat beside Mom...shocked that a human being near my age could so casually make that death march seem like a walk in the park. Maybe her pack had been ultralight. Or maybe she had loaded all of her heavy stuff in her boyfriend's pack (not that I would ever consider doing such a thing). Maybe they had had better weather for the crossing than we had while we had suffered through 12 hours of rain.

I hated this girl.

Mom and I talked about how tired we had been through the trek. We sat huddled in our corner, feeling reassured that we could share in each other's suffering. I looked through all the photos I had taken over the past few days. I thought of the mammoth-sized waterfall that we had survived crossing beneath and that had nearly blown us over...I remembered sharing tea with the hilariously funny English trekkers, of eating apples and cheese in the hut with a bunch of soggy strangers on a miserably wet day, and hearing the story about the Czech couple whose horse and baggage fell into the Amazon on a trip to South America. We'd even hung out with one of the hut rangers who'd proudly showed us his home brew stash (what else are you going to do out in the middle of the rainforest during a long winter?) that he could have made serious money on selling to parched trekkers.

That Couple over in the corner han't had any of those experiences. They definitely didn't have any of the cool pictures we had cause I doubt they stopped long enough to check out the scenery or talk to anyone. They did look damn cheery though over in their corner of the hut as they ate their pasta and giggled together.

The next day as Mom and I finished the last few kilometers of the trek the same couple passed us. Instead of throwing toilet paper at them and cursing their names I instead chose to remember all of the moments that Mom and I had shared over the past four days. I realized that it didn't matter how far ahead of us the couple was, Mom and I had our own journey to make. A bit slower of a journey but valid nonetheless.

When Mom and I victoriously finished the trek an hour later, a Kea parrot landed beside our packs and hung out with us for a while as if to congratulate us on a trek well done.

When the German girl and her boyfriend caught up with us again--they had added on a side hike for extra exercise cause the trek wasn't enough for them--she was bummed to have missed the parrot.

I was sad for her, too. ;)

May you all be enjoying your own matter the speed.

much love,
Rachel and Karen

P.S. Turns out we weren't total wimps after all. Just a day behind us, a young woman from Sydney stumbled off the main trail, blacked out, and woke up facedown on a ledge that fortunately, had broken her fall down the mountain face. Miraculously, she didn't have any major injuries...she was just a bit shaken up.
P.S.S. The day after we began our trek, the beginning part of the route was closed off when a storm we blew a tree over and damaged one of the bridge crossings. The date after we ended our trek, the high mountain pass we hiked over received snowfall.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tales of New Zealand I: New Zealand Dreaming....

Nelson, New Zealand
Monday, November 17th

Greetings from the South Island of Nelson....I'm seated snuggly between Mom and Steve at an internet cafe in the small town of Nelson (imagine a spring-like "Witches of Eastwick" nestled in a valley along the Pacific Coast) as a cool wind whips up a light rain outside.

It's been two weeks since Mama Chihuahua, Baby Love, and I have arrived in the Land of Sheep, Rugby, and Maori Culture. We've not a single regret since arriving that we chose to come here.

After an intense year at home, we've felt the relief of traveling to an English-speaking, first world country that doesn't require a phrase-book or an intolerable number of vaccines. It's been a welcome change from the type of travel that Mom and I usually take on.

From our first touch-down at the Auckland Airport where we were offered FREE! cups of hot tea and coffee (and weren't expected to buy a carpet as well) while we waited for our bags (which actually made it! Air N.Z. is my new favorite airline!) to every encounter we've had with Kiwis and other travelers we've been amazed at the authentic kindness and helpfulness of the New Zealanders. Even the taxi drivers (who appear to be higher educated than the average American) and bus drivers are kind (one pulled his bus over after we had descended a curvy mountain pass and watched over a sick passenger, offering his own personal water bottle after she threw up on the side of the road).

The roadsides are free of litter and perfectly kept-up. The trails are so well maintained you could probably take roller luggage instead of backpacks and have an easier time of it. And the merchants are so generally helpful they'll let you make local calls from their phone or give you directions anywhere you need (without sending you to their brother's carpet shop instead). Even the town of Nelson has dedicated "Night Ambassadors" who walk around downtown on weekend nights seeking out and helping drunk people make their way home safely.

It's just so dang...well, CIVILIZED. I think that several years of ago I might have been bored by the comfort here but this year it's the perfect balm for my rather fatigued traveler's soul.

Kiwi Highlights:

Highlights for me in the last two weeks have been a visit to one of my new favorite museums...the Auckland National Museum with a live Maori Dance Performance and four floors of incredible exhibits....featuring a replica of a 19th-century New Zealand town, a simulated pyroclastic flow (extreme volcanic eruption), and a 15-foot Moa bird.

Eating hot Turkish chicken kebabs and home-made honeycomb and chocolate gelato in downtown Auckland. Walking through the Auckland gardens with Mom after a hard rain and a full rainbow appeared behind us....

Eating smoked cheddar cheese, locally-made rhubarb/raspberry jam, and multi-grain bread with glasses of New Zealand-made Sauv Blanc as we watched the sun set from the linai at our friends Kevin and Jenn's in Nelson. Watching Mom and Steve race each other to finish off a bowl of steamed, fresh green-lipped mussels dipped in garlic butter sauce. Spotting an Orca Whale torpedoing out of the water off the coast of our Abel Tasman trek.

Taking a yelp-inducing cold shower during the third night of our trek beneath a eucalyptus tree with a handful of cheap dish soap that I was the most invigorating shower I can remember since I had a hot bucket bath during the winter in Nepal! Walking barefoot across wet, sandy estuaries during low-tide on our trek and walking through the rainforest listening to the melodic call of the Tui bird (imagine a canary leading a symphony). Eating Edam cheese and sesame crackers on a white sand beach and watching blue-black, orange-beaked oyster catchers lead their week-old peeping chicks out to sea. Meeting other mothers and daughters along the way...a duo backpacking together, a mother and daughter who have a jade-carving business together and sell at the Nelson Market, and a mother and daughter who have a bead-making jewelry business together. (I've seen more mothers and daughters working together here than any other place we've traveled.) Running into two fiesty older women who were collecting whitebait (think of minnow-like sardines) for their morning scrambled eggs...

In all, it's been an incredible trip so far. We head to the mountains tomorrow for two days of hiking and exploring before Steve heads back home and Mum and I continue to Queenstown for our next trek, the famed Routeburn.

Thinking of you all and wishing you the best along the way-

much love,
Rach, Mama Chihuahua, and The Beloved Badger

Photograph by Genaro Molino of The Los Angeles Times
Gratitude from New Zealand: The Tea Fires

Nelson, North Island
New Zealand

Monday, November 17th, 2008

I've waited two weeks to write my first blog of our travels here in New Zealand...A part of me has just been reveling in feeling that this has been the first actually relaxing time we've had on a trip in a long time (especially compared to the trials and tribulations of Morocco) and now that I've caught up on news from home I have another reason to postpone stories of trekking and stuffing our bellies with locally-made edam and camembert.

We've recently learned about the Santa Barbara Tea Fire that has destroyed countless homes and I've felt humbled by the thought that several of our friends have had to evacuate themselves and their pets and most beloved possessions in a matter of minutes. One friend's family home was saved while another's was burnt to the ground right after she managed to evacuate herself and her dog.

It's hard to write about spotting Killer Whales and trekking through rainforest when I know that so many people have been in chaos this week. I am so incredibly grateful that Steve and I are safe and that our home and our cats are safe and in the good company of our girlfriend, Meredith.

This whole year up until this trip to New Zealand has felt heavy, like a time of transition and purging for myself and many of those whom I know and love. I have been looking forward to this trip for many months after a difficult year. For me personally, I've sold my condo in a short sale right in the midst of the Housing Crisis, my computer crashed, I sold the majority of my stocks in the spring, my car died on a road trip and I had to abandon it, my stepmum's cancer returned more aggressive than before, the Gap Fire consumed the hills above Goleta, and Steve and I lost several young friends to strange deaths over the summer.

And just as I thought that the year was coming to a peaceful end, the Tea Fire has taken Santa Barbara by complete surprise and ravaged the lives of many people whom we know. Many friends and family members have had similar ups and downs this year. My higher self has to believe that there's something happening on a cosmic level in the world, a purging and transition to a new world.

So instead of writing this first blog about New Zealand, I'd like to just reflect on a few things that I am grateful for from this year and celebrate the light during occasionally dark times:

The Top Seven Blessings That I Am Grateful For:

1) That I am in good health and sitting between two people whom I love dearly in a beautiful place on a warm sunny day: My Mamacita and Baby Love, Steve.

2) That our kitty kats are safe at home along with the pets of those we know.

3) That my uncle had a beautiful wedding with his fiancee, Teri, and that my cousin and her husband are happily pregnant back in Indiana (along with two good friends in Santa Barbara)!

4) That I have the incredible gift of music in my life....playing with Robby, Doug, Joel, and Billy in King Bee for eight years now!...and now have the opportunity to involved again with the very healing African Dance and Drumming Community through my good friends, Lisa and Budhi.

5) That I can afford to travel to such a beautiful place and continue to be transformed and rejuvenated by these travels with my Mother and now, with Baby Love.

6) That I'll be able to visit with my Dad and Wicked Stepmum and some of my family for a White Christmas in Indiana this year.

7) That when I return home, I'll be returning to one of the most magical, beautiful, and special places I know of and to a community of friends and "family" whom I treasure deeply in....Santa Barbara, California.

For those of you jonesing for some travel tales and sick of the touchy-feely sentiments, stay tuned, I will be writing again soon.

All my love and gratitude to each of you. I hope that you are all safe, happy, and healthy and, that if you are experiencing your own 'dark' times, that you're able to celebrate the light that you do see in your lives.

much love,

P.S. On a more political note (please stop reading here if you come from a red state) I have to add that I am also supremely happy that the popular winner of the presidential election was the victor of the presidential race.