December 14, 2006

Seattle, Washington
More Than You Could Ever Possibly Want to Know About Me

I was invited to Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont last month to speak about the dancing video and how I made it. I rambled on for 90 minutes and then took everyone outside to shoot a dancing clip.

I've edited the talk down to 75 minutes, yanking some of the more boring bits and the parts where I said stupid stuff I'd rather not have said. Oh, were it only possible to do that in real life...

There are also a few scattered moments where I'm cut off in mid-sentence. Nothing is being hidden there, it's just the result of the shoddy technique I used to convert the videotape recording into a YouTube-friendly form. Apologies for any annoyance it causes.

The talk is broken into three parts. It addresses a lot of the stuff I get asked all the time, so I thought it might be interesting for anyone who wants to know more.

I'd like to thank Tom Myers, a professor at Champlain, who contacted me, invited me out, and took a gamble on me not choking horribly and embarassing both of us. I'd not done anything like this before and I still don't know what made him think I could do it, but I am grateful for the opportunity.

I really enjoyed doing this and would like to keep doing it. Feel free to contact me if you'd like me to come to your school, university, office, cult compound, secret society headquarters -- whatever. I rely heavily on the Q&A for what I talk about, so it's different every time. What you see here isn't necessarily what you'll get.

October 13, 2006

Auckland, New Zealand
Cause I Just Can't Keep My Dumb Mouth Shut

I haven’t gone anywhere thrilling since I got back from the trip in June, so I feel obligated to mention when I do. I’m on my way to Brisbane for a wedding and I took a couple days to see Auckland along the way.

I’ve visited New Zealand twice before and had countless stopovers in Auckland’s airport, but I’ve never actually poked around the city. This is me getting around to that, albeit briefly and with half an ass.

Auckland is quaint and cheery as cities go. I packed for northern Australia weather, so it’s a bit colder and windier than I was prepared for. There are volcanoes everywhere – about 40 in the immediate vicinity. Seems a bit like building a city in a minefield, geologically speaking, but I guess they weren’t planning too far ahead when they chose the site.

Despite its quaintity…umm…quainthood, Auckland does boast the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere: the Sky Tower.

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Of course, this being New Zealand, you can jump off the side.

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No, really. Check out the little speck in the thumbnail below. That's a guy.

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I didn’t bother with it this time, but I noticed it’s possible to affix a camera to the plummeting mechanism. If I ever make another dancing video, I figure that’d be a pretty interesting clip.

At ground level, the Sky Tower facilities include a large casino where I managed to idly blow $200 on blackjack. That’s the same as what it costs to jump off the tower – which would’ve been an equally sensible thing to do.

So I get a lot of emails requesting that I dance in the countries that weren’t included in my videos. They come in from all over the place. One day I’ll get a bunch from South Korea, then the next day it’s Sweden, then a sudden burst from France a week later.

I’ve made subfolders in my inbox for the countries I hear a lot from. I’m collecting them in case I ever do get around to those places. Might be fun to invite everyone to come dance with me.

Here are the tallies of requests I've gotten from some of the more vocal nationalities:

Ireland – 24
Portugal – 28
South Korea – 37
Spain – 50
Canada – 75

And in the lead, deadlocked for first place as of today:

Brazil – 82
Israel – 82

The Israeli emails have started pouring in very recently. Let’s take a look at a few, shall we?

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"you alredy been in the midel east, and you don't came to see Jerusalem ???????? (ISRAEL) hope you correct this soon."

Thanks for pointing out my mistake.

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"I couldn't help not noticing that you flew right over Israel (Egypt-Jordan). Is there a special reason?"

Yes. It is between Egypt and Jordan. Similarly, Switzerland is between Germany and France. I skipped them too.

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"you have been in the middle east but never came to israel."

Ah. Thanks for clearing that up.

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"When are you coming to Israel? it wasn't one of your destinations..."

Again, thank you for pointing that out.

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"I'm surprised you were in Egypt and in Jordan, but didn't stop by in Israel, the country holy to the three monotheistic religions, and the one democracy in the middle east."

Are you sure you’re not confusing Israel with Iceland? Sounds to me like you’re describing Iceland. I get them mixed up a lot too.

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"How come you were in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt and you never went to Israel."

I’m noticing a theme here.

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"if you made it to Jordan and Egypt, why didn't you visit us in Israel to do your happy dance? You visit the oppressive Muslim countries, but not the one free democracy in the Middle East? Is it a political statement?"

Absolutely. I can’t stand democracies. They make me want to barf. Bring on the oppressive Islamic religious states!

I wish
They
All
Could be
Cal-i-phate reg-eeeeems

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"U were in Jordan and didn't take fifteen minutes to step across the border to Israel - shame on you!  Your list will forever remain incomplete until you finally dance on the Holy Land."

Boy! What a warm invitation.

This brings up a key point: where does one dance in the Holy Land? Should I do my jig in front of the Temple Mount? Perhaps I could visit Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and site of Christ’s crucifixion. How about I go to the Dome of the Rock and flail my limbs around? Cause I don’t get enough death threats from Guam…

I’m careful about dancing in religious sites for a number of reasons. A main one, of course, is that I don’t want to go out of my way to offend people. I also, personally, don’t happen to put much stock in organized religion. And pardon me for saying so – I’ll certainly understand if you disagree – but I’ve found that religion has a tendency to divide people. There’s enough of that around already.

To avoid this whole problem, some folks have suggested I dance in front of the Dead Sea. Ya wanna know why I haven’t danced in front of any large bodies of water? Cause they’re boring to look at.

Jordan has Petra and Egypt has a never-ending supply of enormous ancient things carved out of rock, but I couldn’t find any ideal dancing spots in Israel when I was planning my trip. That was a big factor.

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"you missed the most beautiful place on earth! the most talked about country in the news and the most important place for all three major religions on the planet."

“Talked about.” What a wonderful euphemism. Also, on the major religions, you forgot about Buddhism and Hinduism. And if "major"-ness is measured by number of practitioners, then Judaism isn't quite as major as Scientology and it's only slightly major-er than Satan worship.

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"I'm a bit surprised and disappointed that with several stops in the Middle East, you didn't come to Israel.  Any special reason for that?... Israel is a magnificent place, and not nearly as dangerous as the media makes it out to be.  Though to be honest, it was a *little* scary a couple of months ago when Hezbullah was firing ketyusha rockets at us every day."

…mm-hmm.

_______________
"How come you didn't dance in Israel?? I invite you personally (Don't belive in what you see in the news, it's nice and quiet here)"

I hear ya, Shlomit. I’ve found that many of the places I’ve visited aren’t nearly as dangerous as the public is led to believe. Nevertheless, I think it’s possible you and I might have slightly different definitions of the word “quiet.”

_______________
"you didnt come to dance in Israel. a bit offending."

I’m pleased you were able to read between the lines and see my deliberate insult for what it was. It is expressly implied that every place I didn't dance in must be a worthless dump.

_______________
"I must say I was quite puzzled by the fact you have chosen not to include Israel in your wide journey. Is that for any particular reason?"

I don’t know, but I get the feeling you’re implying something.

_______________
"It seems you traveled almost everywhere except one place!? Don't you want to visit the Holy-land, Jerusalem??
Egypt=Yes
Jordan=Yes
Lebanon=Yes
Israel=No
I hope its all because of technical issues or you just _______ (please finish the sentence)."

Hate Jews? Is that what you’re looking for?

Only when driving on the Pacific Coast Highway with an empty bottle of Tequila in my lap.

Look, folks, there was no conscious snubbing of Israel. It’s one of around 191 nations on this planet (depending on your definition). It took a lot of effort to get to the ones I did manage to hit. I didn’t dance my way past the immigration counters.

As it happens, and as I suspect a lot of you know, it can be difficult to travel around in the Muslim world with an Israeli stamp in my passport. With this in mind, I had to choose between leaving out Israel and leaving out a number of other places.

I would very much like to visit Israel someday. And if I make another video, I’d very much like to include it. I appreciate your invitations, but please understand that condescending reprimands don’t raise my interest level.

In the words of poet-philosopher-gay sex offender, George Michael, "I don't belong to you and you don't belong to me."

That said, I should point out that the vast majority of emails coming to me from Israel have been friendly, polite, and genuinely welcoming. I didn't include any of those in this entry because, well, where's the fun in that?

The world doesn't need to see my friendly and polite emails.

I appreciate all the invitations. I make sure to read what everyone has to say, and every once in a while -- based on my capricious whims -- I take the time to reply.

But I want to say this, and I know I have to say it carefully: if you watch the video and the only thing that occurs to you is that I left out wherever you live, do you think maybe you might have missed the point a little bit? When you write to tell me that your own country is the most beautiful place on earth, do you think you might have jumped the gun in that assessment? Cause I've seen a lot of beauty in a lot of different places, and it sounds a little silly to me. I get tired of myopia presented as native pride.

So in summary, here's a DO:

"Hey, if you ever come to my country, let me know. It would be fun to come and dance with you."

Here's a DON'T:

"Hey, you forgot about my country. It's the most beautiful place in the world. If you don't come dance here, you're an idiot."

And here's a holy-crap-this-is-the-coolest-thing-ever!:

February 17, 2006

Sydney, Australia
My Happy Place Revisited

Later on, this.

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But first, I gotta talk about Emirates.

We flew them from Christchurch in New Zealand to Sydney. With their home base of Dubai in the dead center between Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, they've seized the opportunity to serve as a major global hub.

They've only got one route for all of the Americas, so we don't hear much about them back home, but they're taking over, and doing so with panache.

Their fleet is brand spanking new and crammed with the latest in passenger-pacifying technology. Of course, a screen built into each seat, but not with the 3 or 4 movies you usually get. They provide 150, from Harry Potter to Casablanca. All movies start on demand, with pausing and rewinding -- basically a massive DVD collection for every passenger.

TV shows too. A couple dozen, including The Office, Simpsons, Seinfeld. You get three episodes from each series.

Games? Check. Forty of them.

Music? A couple hundred albums.

You can send email from your seat. Phone calls too, but that is, of course, expensive.

There are cameras mounted on the outside of the plane. You can watch the pilot's view of takeoff and landing, or switch to the bottom view and pretend you're a bombardier over Nazi Germany.

Free liquor, by the way. Menus at the start of the flight, and the food is fantastic.

Business class seats have a little private canopy over them. I only got a glimpse of the first class section cause there was a heavenly glow emanating from its core, but I believe I saw beds.

The one downside: every few hours you've gotta kneel down in the aisle, face Mecca, and praise Allah. Small price to pay, really.

We're in Sydney now. Our taxi driver coming in was Pakistani and had lived in Dubai until some banking disaster forced him to leave. With a couple hours before bedtime, we asked for his advice on what to do with a Saturday night. He shared with us his eclectic tastes.

"If you like gambling, you can go to the Star City casino. If you like fun...fun in the sense of gambling...you can go to the Star City casino."

We opted for bed.

After a month in South America where most folks are just trying to get through each day, it's refreshing to see this.

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Took the obligatory walk to the opera house.

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The place was buzzing because of the state funeral for Kerry Packer -- evidently some charismatic media magnate. He was important enough to get the smarmy Prime Minister to show up, Russell Crowe read a poem, and Tom Cruise flew down with his zombie seed vessel in tow.

The press feigned outrage at a woman in her third trimester taking a fifteen hour flight. I don't think they fully considered the benefits of Maverick's private jet. Not exactly ValueJet coach.

Through the glass you can see the wait staff being instructed never to look Russell Crowe in the eye.

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...yes, I'm now writing Jay Leno jokes.

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Folks glommed around the entrance, no doubt to glimpse the raw, brooding manliness of their Prime Minister.

As the "mourners" rolled out, there was not a celebrity in sight, so we had to start making up our own.

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That's Prince William.

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Cameron Manheim from The Practice. Guess she's put the weight back on.

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Stanley Tucci, looking fabulous.

We checked out the Sydney Museum of Whatever We've Got Lying Around. They had a big mineral and crystal display, which Melissa was giddy to check out. I never knew to be interested in that sort of thing, but it was actually really neat.

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We visited the Sydney aquarium -- one of the best anywhere. Their shark tank is a fine spectacle.

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Found a great spot for a dancing clip.

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Had to run back there first thing the next morning so we could have the giant window to ourselves and avoid the Asian snapshot brigade. It worked.

And that was our visit. Tomorrow we head up to Brisbane for five easy days catching up with old friends. Sort of a vacation from our vacation.

But wait, I promised dolphins. I must deliver dolphins.

The day after finishing our Routeburn hike, we flew to Christchurch with the hopes of renting a car and driving up to Kaikoura. That plan went pear-shaped quickly. We called several dozen rental offices from the airport and found them all sold out. They actually laughed at our inquiries, as if a car rental place would have any cars available to rent.

A humble suggestion for the people of New Zealand: buy more rental cars.

We eventually found one place that MIGHT have a station wagon in a couple hours, assuming it was brought in on time. That panned out, and the wait gave us an opportunity to explore Christchurch.

Lovely place. Great atmosphere. Just the right size, and with easy access to all the South Island and its myriad leisure activities.

I speak now to you, the reader. If the opportunity arises to work and live in Christchurch for a year or so, don't blink. Take it. Even if it's washing dishes, take it. I say that knowing it will never happen, as there is a mile-long cue of young Europeans biding their time in hostel beds, waiting to don the disposable plastic gloves of a Subway cashier.

Our trip to New Zealand was essentially a one-week "Best of" compilation from my longer visit three years ago. The two best things I did on the previous visit were trekking and kayaking with dolphins, both of which I was eager to do again.

I've been a broken record about the kayaking thing for years. It was sublime in a way I can't put words to. It gave me my happy place. I return there in my mind, often. I wanted Melissa to know what I'd been going on about.

We called the kayaking office from a pay phone in Christchurch. The guy said it was unlikely they'd be seeing dolphins anytime soon. The brief window when they come close enough to shore starts in late February and ends in March. We were a couple weeks early. Nevertheless, he said they were going out at 4:30pm and we were welcome to join if we could make it in time.

By the time we got the car, we had less than two hours left and a two hour drive ahead of us. Melissa felt, with quite a bit of logic backing her up, that it would be sensible to slow down and go kayaking the next morning instead. But I had this thing in my head telling me we had to get there now, that it had to be today.

When we got to the office, they'd left already. The woman at the desk said they took an extra kayak along in case we showed up and we could still try to make it.

We raced across town and found the kayaks sliding into the water. Seconds to spare.

It was us, a British couple, and a guy from Ireland. The guide was named Matt. He remembered me from three years ago.

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I told him I was hoping for a repeat of what I saw last time. He said it'd been weeks since they'd seen any sign of dolphins, and twice in a lifetime was probably too much for me to hope for. But we'd have no problem seeing lots of seals.

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As luck would have it, Matt happened to be making a new brochure and he had a professional photographer along for the ride. We struck a deal to get all his shots burned on a disc for $20. This precluded the need for us to bother taking pictures. It also meant the images were a hundred times better than either of us could've taken. And since he was getting paid for it, we got loads of personal glamour shots thrown in.

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I call that last pose Desert Sunset.

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And that one is Leathery Squint.

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This one is very particular and difficult to achieve. I call it Tom Cruise Playing in the Park with His Adopted Children. Perhaps it was presciently inspired.

Melissa did well too.

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She also got some doozies.

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I call that one Cannonball Run Blooper Reel.

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And that one, well...some things are beyond naming.

The goofy expression materialized as we watched a seal eat an octopus, so it was by no means unwarranted.

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The seal would isolate one tentacle at a time between its teeth and jerk it out of the water, hurling the still-vaguely-alive octopus through the air like a pinwheel. Once the tentacle was removed, the seal would gulp it down whole.

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The joyous feast continued until only the central hub remained. Finally the seal bit down on its head, bursting the ink sack and turning the surrounding water a murky black.

Disgust and fascination battled to a standstill.

Around this time, our guide noticed a big blue boat moving toward us from across the bay. More than a little surprised, he called out "Paddle! Everyone paddle like your life depends on it!"

Melissa and I led the pack. We got about a hundred yards from the whale watching boat, stopped, and waited. A few heads bobbed on the surface between us and the boat. It was a pod.

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Matt shouted, "Here they come!"

And they did.

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Pardon the analogy, but it's like having a host of angels swarm around you. They have an overwhelming energy. They come from a better place. They're fully aware of your presence and willing to, ever-so briefly, warm you with their glow.

They also want you to see all the cool tricks they can do.

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These are not trained animals. There are no hoops. No one is handing out fish. It's Duskys. These guys just love to soar.

From past experience, I told Melissa to start paddling. They followed alongside us, racing. Some leapt out of the water and splashed us coming down.

This was what I wanted to share. This was my happy place. And now it's hers too.

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That's one of several shots I wouldn't have had a chance in hell of getting. It's like shooting clay pigeons.

As quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Something like that can't last more than a moment. But a moment was enough.

Matt took us back across the bay to whaler's point. The small peninsula used to be a busy whaling station. I went there on foot on my last visit and was struck by the stink of death that hung over the place. Matt confirmed the weird knack animals have for dying on that little piece of land. He pointed to a nearby cliff where grazing sheep routinely plummet to their deaths.

The image this conjured almost made me flip the kayak from laughing so hard.

Matt showed us how to kayak surf.

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We started back to shore.

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From now on I'm bringing a professional photographer everywhere I go.

On the way we spotted gajillions of tiny creatures clustered together in the water.

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Krill maybe? No, too small. I'm not sure what it was, but it probably has something to do with the incredible abundance of macro ocean life that hangs out in the waters of Kaikoura.

We finished the kayak trip, both of us still glowing. To top it all off, it was Valentine's Day, so I was off the hook for my part and Melissa treated me to a fancy dinner.

With the dolphin thing checked off, we had the next day to just kick around. Whale watching was a fairly obvious option, especially since Melissa had never seen one. But the boats are clogged with the buttpack set and I'm generally skiddish about anything that involves hordes of people taking snapshots in a large vehicle of any sort.

Another option, surprisingly not much more expensive, but still very pricey: sperm whale spotting plane rides.

Sperm whales are elusive. They feed in the open ocean at incredible depths. There are few places on Earth where they come close to shore with reliable frequency. And of them, even fewer are in countries with the infrastructure to support commercial tracking.

Kaikoura is at the top of a very short list.

The town's surrounding waters have a unique topography; dropping off into the abyss just beyond shore. Down at the bottom is who-knows-what. Giant squid, very likely, as they'd attract the sperm whales. Whatever it is, it brings in just about everything with a blowhole.

We opted for the plane ride. It's very short -- no more than 30 minutes. But they usually know where the sperm whales are, go straight to them, and circle around until the whales fill their lungs and dive.

We got a few glimpses.

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The pictures are fuzzy. My camera isn't ideal for long-range photography, but I did my best.

Unlike the more common humpbacks, sperm whales aren't very gregarious. They pay no attention to humans unless those humans are firing harpoons at them. And when that happens, the attention they pay isn't the kind you want.

This shot gives a reasonable idea of scale.

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The three we saw were fairly young bulls, nowhere near full-grown. It wasn't quite the spectacle we'd hoped, but still pretty neat to see them from the air, head to tail.

With some extra flight time paid for and no more whales to be seen, the pilot gave us a pleasant tour of the surrounding inland area.

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The next morning we drove back to Christchurch for the aforementioned flight to Sydney. We drove behind a pick-up truck with a freshly-gutted boar flashing its innards at us.

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Once again, disgust and fascination did battle. This time, disgust won.

February 13, 2006

Queenstown, New Zealand
Hobbit Regret

We decided to give Argentinean food one last chance before leaving Buenos Aires. Went to Cabaña Las Lilas. The guidebooks point to it emphatically as the top notch place for steak. And they sure cook a lot of it.

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There’s gotta be a hundred tables in there, all full, all occupied by retired Americans. It’s mentioned in that 1000 Places to See Before You Die book, which should really be called: 1000 Places to See SHORTLY Before You Die, as the lion’s share of its pages are devoted to expensive resorts only old people can afford. Anyway, the restaurant seems to be doing well off the mention.

Honestly though, it wasn’t all that spectacular. I could get a better steak in Seattle. I’d have to pay a lot more, but I could get one. Argentinean food is still, to my taste buds, mediocre.

All the same, we did manage to get pretty drunk. With a twelve hour flight ahead of us, it seemed like the right thing to do. And wow, it sure was. Shortest twelve hours I’ve ever spent on a plane. We sat down, passed out, woke up on the runway in Auckland. I had a knee-high stack of junk to keep me occupied – didn’t need any of it. Slept like a hobo.

A few hours of layover in Auckland. Not enough time to leave the airport. I still haven’t seen that place.

Queenstown is much as I left it three years ago, but with a few changes. Prices are higher. Retirees are more abundant. There are more Asian tour groups and more Asian tour group hotels. The locals are grumpier.

They’ve really just about had it down here. Perfectly nice people under other circumstances, but I think they’d like their country back about now. I think they’re having second thoughts about that whole Hobbit business.

Good luck trying to find a room without a reservation. And sorry, they don’t do single-night bookings. You’ve got to stay for at least two. Want to cancel that reservation? Fraid not. They charge you full price for the night if there’s less than 2 days notice, whether you stay or not. No, there aren’t any rental cars available in town – they’re all out. Bed in a shared dorm room? Yeah, that’ll be $70 please. $10 deposit for the key. Oh, you want a towel with that? $2 extra. Soap? I’m sure you can find some on your own.

Where else could you get away with that and stay in business? But people just keep pouring in. No strange religions. No weird food. No deadly diseases. No scary ethnic types. Just a bunch of harmless-looking Caucasians and some pretty scenery. Makes for a great brochure.

The draw in Queenstown is the absurd abundance of “extreme” activities; bungee jumping, jet boat rides, river boarding – none of which anybody does. They all cost upwards of $100 for an experience that lasts a few minutes, tops. The young, nimble backpackers can’t afford it. The geriatric set can’t do any of it without breaking. And the Asians only travel in herds of thirty or more and limit their “extreme” activities to taking pictures of each other.

You can pay to get inside a big plastic ball and roll down the side of a mountain. Unless you’re shooting a Mountain Dew commercial, I don’t know why you’d want to do that, but it’s available.

Despite all my bitching and moaning, there is the oppressive logic of “Well, we’re here. Might as well give it a try.”

We cut our teeth on the luge, which is a far cry from the suicidal olypmic activity, and of course doesn’t really qualify as “extreme.” It is, nevertheless, extremely fun.

Luge_track Luge

…and dorky. There’s no way to pull it off without looking dorky.

The guy selling the tickets said it’s impossible to only do once. I figured we’d be immune to the implied temptation, but I was wrong. We did it four times in a breathless, hyperactive binge.

The luge is at the top of a steep mountain overlooking Queenstown. You get up the mountain on a cable car.

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That’s a bungee jumping overhang near the center there.

Charged from the initial venture, we agreed to sample one genuinely “extreme” and wallet-breaking activity. Now, adrenaline just isn’t my drug of choice. That kind of stuff simply doesn’t appeal to me. What gets me is wonderment – awe…

Paragliding.

I’ve known a couple avid practitioners. One of those guys still is, the other had a cell collapse and permanently injured his back.

Cell collapse is when the paraglider catches a bad gust of wind and suddenly loses its structure. It takes skill to recover from, and it’s one of those skills that’s hard to learn without dying.

Which is the thing about paragliding; it’s really dangerous. The numbers just aren’t very good. People get seriously injured and die all the time. But surely, if we only do it once, the odds are in our favor.

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…boy, we still look like dorks.

It took me a while to digest the price tag for both of us to go. Evidence to the contrary, I’m not ACTUALLY made of money. But “Well, we’re here” took over. I couldn’t not.

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No windows, no engines, no instruments. You’re just a flying goofball in a comfy reclining chair, mouth agape. It feels impossible. It feels fantastic.

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The lady was pleased. As we walked off the field, she pondered the logistics of her future as a weekend paraglider. Reality eventually settled in, but boy, if it weren’t for my aversion to dying, I’d be selling the farm to buy my own gear.

Aside from that endeavor, we spent most of our day ticking off a checklist to prepare for our 3-day hike along the Routeburn trail. Queenstown is the departure point for several major treks, and as such is dense with suppliers of anything you might need.

And good God, they really know how to screw you. Tourist prices abound. They’re inescapable.

You have to book a seat on a bus to get to the start of the trail, and another bus to get back. Wanna know how much it costs for two people? $200. Let me spell it out. Two…hundred…dollars…for a bus ride.

I spent more that day than on any other in the trip to date.

The good news is: once you’re on the trail, you never touch your wallet.

The aforementioned bus ride took us through the town of Glenorchy and past the location of Isengard from the hairy midget movies. Just past Isengard, near the start of the trail, are the Elven woods of Lothlorien.

How bout that?

And away we went.

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On my last visit to New Zealand, I did the 4-day Milford Trek and wrote about it extensively. For your sake and mine, I’m not going into much detail on this one. It’s a trail. You walk a lot. You see pretty stuff and take pictures.

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There. That was day one. See? We’re moving briskly now.

We hit the first hut, still jet-lagged from our Buenos Aires flight. I fell asleep around 5pm, had a groggy dinner around 9, rose at 7 the next day.

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I woke, along with 30 other people in the cabin, to an interminable chorus of crinkling plastic. There was a group of pre-teens with us from an international school in Taiwan. They were doing their Duke of Edinburgh certification or whatever -- some kooky rite of passage the British thought up that evidently involves hiking, among other things. Any readers from the Commonwealth, feel free to clarify.

In preparation for the journey, someone had handed each kid at least a hundred plastic bags and instructed them to wrap every object in their packs individually. This created a morning ritual of unwrapping and rewrapping that could raise the dead.

A middle-aged Australian guy in the bunk next to us saw no need to hide his irritation. "Are you sure you brought enough plastic bags with you? Have you got everything wrapped up tight. Wouldn't want a drop of moisture to get in there!"

I am quite fond of Australians.

There were other crimes; giggling, flashlight games, girls waking each other so they could go to the bathroom together -- all the stupid stuff kids do that makes grown-ups avoid them. I slept through all of it, but everyone else in the cabin was fuming.

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Day two is the big uphill/downhill day. The Routeburn trail forms a saddle between two high peaks, then drops back down into forest. It rained.

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Try as I might to dissuade her, Melissa insisted on wearing her yellow M&M costume.

More pretty pictures.

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If you look closely above, you can see a few tiny hikers traversing the cliffside.

On long walks, the mind wanders. Mine wandered to, among other things, time. Time is the one thing we pretty much all agree on. A second is a second, a minute a minute, an hour an hour. Why is that? It's a fairly arbitrary measurement. Nothing natural that I know of takes precisely one hour.

It comes from the hour glass, I would assume. An hour is the amount of time it takes a certain amount of sand to fall through an opening of a certain diameter. Amazing that it became a universally accepted standard.

We can't agree on weight, distance, volume, language, religion, electrical outlets, which side of the road to drive on, or how to spell "aluminum," but an hour is always an hour.

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This hut marks the middle of the saddle. From here, you can do the hour-long side trail up to Conical Peak. I was feeling quite keen that day and dragged Melissa to the top, which turned out fairly pointless with all the fog from the rain. We couldn't see squat.

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Walking through the low-brush at the start of the descent. There's a faint rainbow in the distance.

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Rough times ahead. Our moods were grim. A fight happened. I behaved poorly. No need to recount.

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Looking down the ridge at the lake, our destination for the day, I saw something strange and hypnotic. The lake was moving, getting closer, and the hillside farther away. It was like looking down the length of a tunnel at an approaching train. An optical illusion caused by the quickly moving fog, I'd imagine.

Melissa and I weren't speaking at the time, but we both saw it, compared notes later, and our experiences were identical. Never seen anything like it before. There's probably some fancy Latin name for the effect.

Below the tree line, things suddenly turn very, very green.

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A layer of moss covers every surface. Sound changes. It's like you're indoors.

On reaching the second cabin, we met a number of people who were walking the trail in the opposite direction. An older man from the UK cautiously approached us and asked, "are you with the young people?"

"No. They're about an hour behind."

"Good. We've heard about them. We're going to direct them to the far cabin. You can stay with us, if you're quiet."

We thanked him and ran upstairs to claim our beds. We learned it was a collective effort. Everyone was in cahoots. The Duke of Edinburgh brats were shut out.

That night, our cabin was like a very large coffin. When forty people sleep in a room together, you should hear it. I woke in the blackness and thought for a moment I was the only one in the room.

Perfect, joyous, silence.

On day three, the weather improved. Lots of nice mountain views.

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And a waterfall.

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Caught this fleeting moment.

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"Psst! Get out of the shot. This is premium desktop wallpaper."

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We've got a tradition now that whenever we pass an Asian tourist chain gang, I take a snapshot of Melissa posing with them.

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I figured out why they come here en masse. They're crazy about water. Waterfalls, rocky streams, that sort of thing. They eat it up. Japan, surprisingly, doesn't have much in the way of naturally occurring dynamic liquid. But in New Zealand -- not too hard to find.

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Another side trail up to this vista. It looks like the peak in the middle is exhaling smoke in the other peak's face.

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And we're done. End of the trail.

There's no road directly through the park, so the bus had to loop around to Queenstown by way of Te Anau. It's an astonishingly indirect route, but what can you do? I'm all for not carving any new roads.

We're back where we started for one night before flying up to Christchurch, then on to Kaikoura in the hopes of paddling with some dolphins.

After three days of vacuum-sealed, dehydrated camping food, we craved Indian. So we feasted on chicken tikka marsala.

We've both got some miles on us. Here's a fun detail: my inner thighs are grotesquely chafed from walking in wet, sweaty clothes, so to minimize the pain I've got to stagger around like I've got a load in my pants. Of this act, Melissa is...intolerant.

But we're doing okay.

March 30, 2003

Koror, Palau
Finishing Up New Zealand

I’ve finally got some quiet time to finish off New Zealand. I’m in a $30 a night hotel in Palau. It’s dirty. Lots of geckos, ants, and cockroaches. But it has a bed, a toilet, and a power outlet and that’s all I really need these days.

This is another exceedingly long one. And if I may self-criticize for a moment, it’s not all that interesting. So don’t go thinking I consider it a towering achievement in journalistic prose. I fully endorse skimming. It’s just that I did a lot of stuff that I wanted to report for posterity, and I don’t have an editor on staff.

Windows XP has a very nice tool for setting the clock. It shows a map with all the time zones and lists the major cities. I’m in GMT +9:00, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo.

I come from GMT -5:00, Eastern Time (US & Canada).

Everyone is watching GMT +3:00, Baghdad.

I miss people in GMT +10:00, Brisbane.

I’m on my way to GMT -8:00, Pacific Time (US & Canada), Tijuana.

My laptop is indispensable. It’s my alarm clock, diary, photo album, record collection, and DVD player.

After the Milford Trek, I spent a day kayaking through Doubtful Sound. That’s the one Cap’n Jimmy Cook named. He was wrong about it being a sound. It’s actually a fiord. The way you tell the difference is that a fiord has steeper mountains on the side and the water is much deeper. That’s cause it was carved out by a glacier. A sound is just a body of water that juts inland from an ocean or sea.

I don’t hold it against Jimmy for not knowing the difference. It’s a pretty subtle distinction.

So the glacier slides along, scraping off huge pieces of rock as it melts and depositing them at land’s end. Once it’s done, you’ve got trenches that go down over a thousand feet within the fiord, and a ridge along the entrance that’s less than 100 feet deep. The ridge keeps whales out.

The surface of Doubtful Sound is freshwater. But a few feet down it’s saltwater filled with ocean life. You get stuff that usually exists much deeper in the ocean. Something about the conditions tricks them into thinking they’re at a greater depth.

I’m told fiords only exist in three places on Earth; New Zealand, Scandinavia, and Alaska.

As far as I can tell, the spellings “fiord” and “fjord” are interchangeable.

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I’m about as good at kayaking as I am at driving -- which is not very good. Things like rhythm, form, consistency, and control are not qualities that come easily to me. My co-kayaker, Gauke, found this frustrating.

Gauke is a nice guy, even though his name has more vowels than consonants. I generally don’t trust people like that. He is from Holland. Incidentally, EVERY tourist in New Zealandis from Holland.

To pronounce Gauke’s name, clear your throat, then add a “ke” sound at the end. That’s all I was doing, and he said I was the only English speaker he’d met who could say it right.

Gauke is an urban planner. He plays a lot of SimCity.

We paddled about 13 kilometers over the course of the day. It didn’t feel like all that much. You go amazingly fast in a two-person kayak. I mean like motorboat fast. It’s uncanny.

Our guide was from the area, but he divided his time between kayaking in Fiordland, Austria, and India. What a life, huh?

He got dysentery in India. He said not to eat the meat. I’ll keep that in mind.

At lunch, the guide and I had a long conversation about the indigenous Maori culture. Land rights are a big deal for the Maori. After a long struggle, they managed to retain a lot of them, and of course their value is immense. But he claimed the land rights don’t actually belong to the Maori. They really belong to the Moriori, who came first but were killed off when the Maori arrived. The Moriori came from Asia
and had an agricultural background. The Maori came from Tahiti and were fierce warriors. The last remaining Moriori live in the Chatham Islands, right next to the international dateline. The Maori chased them there after getting them off the mainland, but stopped just short of wiping them out entirely. Anyway, he says the handful of Moriori left are the ones who should really own the land in New Zealand.

Later on I looked into what he was saying. Apparently the Moriori theory is over a hundred years old and was debunked a long time ago. They are on the Chatham islands and were attacked by the Maori, but there’s nothing to prove that they were ever on the mainland before the Maori got there. The book said that some people in New Zealand are still crowing about it. So much for that lecture.

The story of our collective migration from Africa is really fascinating and I keep wanting to learn more about it, but there seems to be so little we can be certain about that it’s impossible to get it straight. And the stuff we know anything at all about is just the surface story. There are whole cultures we’ll never find out about. Histories spanning thousands of years that got erased. And all these dots that can’t be connected.

I mean, there are people on these islands. They’re alive today and speaking prehistoric languages. But we can’t ask them how they got there. They don’t know. Was it Japan, Indonesia, Hawaii? How could the Maori have come from Tahiti? How does that work? I have no idea.

And then you’ve got that Thor Heyerdhal fella saying some of the islanders came from South America. It’s those damn Incas. They wandered all the way around the world, from Africa up through Asia, across the Bering Strait, down North America, through Central America, into South America, and then after all that they said, “Nah. It’s too hilly. Let’s make some canoes and see if we can find ourselves a nice island.”

It’s never good enough for the Incas.

They got what was coming to them on Easter Island.

Meanwhile, we were in Europe making bigger boats and learning about gunpowder. All things considered, probably time better spent.

The guide showed us a plant species that was 450 million years old. That’s twice as old as the dinosaurs. It was a simple moss. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it to look at it. But clearly it was doing something right. They only knew of about 200 samples of it in Fiordland, and that’s the only place it exists.

I didn’t think to take a picture of it. It really wasn’t all that exciting to look at.

I got the biggest laugh of my trip so far when we stopped to get water from a tiny waterfall. The guide would stick his bottle out and hold it while it filled. After he finished, Gauke and I moved in to do the same. I was in back, steering, and as Gauke neared the waterfall and reached his hand out, I neglected to stop us. He drifted directly under it. He was screaming as the whole waterfall poured down on him, and for a few seconds all I could do was laugh. It still cracks me up thinking about it. The poor guy.

Here’s a view looking into Doubtful Sound from the end of one of its branches. This is pretty much the area we covered.

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After the kayaking, I high-tailed it to Invercargill. I wrote an update from there about the days leading up to the trek.

I really liked Invercargill and the surrounding area. It was in the deep south of New Zealand
, a bit off the merry-go-round. People actually lived there. Scottish people. They came in 12 boatloads starting in the early 19th century. They went there to fish and hunt. That’s what they’re still doing. First they went after the seals, but they killed them off pretty quick. So they moved on to whales, but that petered out once they got too good at it. For a while in the 1840s though, it was all the rage.

I went to the nearby town of Riverton. It was one of the first European settlements in New Zealand. It’s where they released the possums.

For those who don’t know, New Zealandhas a bit of a possum problem. They brought a couple dozen over from Australia and let them loose so the colonists would have something to hunt. With no natural predators, that couple dozen has ballooned to about 70 million. It’s an ecological disaster. They’ve wiped out tons of birds and plant life that existed nowhere else on Earth. The roads are now strewn with possum corpses, but it’s hardly a dent in the outrageously overblown population.

Chalk up another one for stupid white people.

I checked out the town museum in Riverton. It was a lot of old junk -- corkscrews, typewriters, and stuff like that. They had chunks of the Parthenon, which struck me as odd. They also had rocks from the temples of Zeus and Apollo, the Oracle at Delphi, the pyramids at Luxor, and a number of other great ancient structures.

…in Riverton, New Zealand.

I moved on to Bluff. Another old whaling town with a nice little museum. They had a sperm whale jaw hanging from the ceiling and a skull from an unidentified whale species.

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I read some old newspaper clippings from the 19th century. They didn’t actually catch that many whales in the early days. Five or six was a good year. Humpbacks were the most common and the least prized. Sperm whales had some stuff in their blowholes that was really good for making hair curlers or something -- I can’t remember -- so they were super valuable. They were also the most combative. They do, after all, eat giant squid for breakfast…literally.

There’s no humane way to kill a whale. You can’t gas them. You have to stick harpoons in them until they either bleed to death or weaken to the point where they can’t stay on the surface. If it’s the latter, you let them sink, then drag them along the ocean floor until they suffocate. Both methods are exceedingly long and unpleasant.

I grew up thinking whales were super-intelligent. You know, there’s the whole “dolphins are smart” thing, and then you look at whales and they’re a thousand times bigger. They’ve got these huge noggins and solemn, contemplative eyes. So you assume there’s a lot going on in there. But I’m beginning to think they’re actually kind of stupid. I don’t know, maybe they’re too busy proving Fermat’s last theorem or solving for i, but they don’t seem to be making any progress on this whole beaching thing. And they never worked out how to avoid getting harpooned. I think it’s possible they only look smart, but really they’re just floating cows.

The town of Bluff was having a big fishing festival when I passed through. It was the third festival I’d seen on my trip. Kiwis are festival-mad.

I didn’t have time to head across to Stewart Island. I decided to do my laundry instead. So the southernmost point I’ve ever been to is on the far tip of Bluff. They had this handy sign.

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I was going dolphin swimming the day after next, which I had to book two weeks in advance. It was a long way to Kaikora and it was getting late, so I headed out. I only made it to Dunedin before getting tired, so I spent the night there.

Dunedin is a cool little college town. I liked the vibe there.

They had a grand old theatre (I’ll cave to the English and spell it thus), and guess what it was playing; not Shakespeare, not Chekhov, not even Batman the Musical. No, what the citizens of Dunedin demanded was:

A Tribute to Queen Extravaganza. They had a guy who looked just liked Freddie Mercury put on elaborate costumes and dance badly, recreating the authentic feel of a live Queen show.

Okay, seriously. What is the deal with Queen and New Zealand? I want to understand this.

The next day was the big driving day. I pretty much had to make my way up the whole south island. Didn’t have time for much, but there was one thing I had to see before I left:

Baldwin Street, Dunedin, New Zealand. The world’s steepest street.

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It was a 27 degree incline. Pretty steep. It didn’t seem like the steepest in the world. I’m sure there’s a street somewhere that’s steeper. There are a whole lot of streets out there, and a lot of them are very steep. But evidently no one else has bothered to get it confirmed by Guinness yet.

One time I visited my friend, Aaron Donovan, in Washington D.C. We couldn’t think of anything to do until Aaron mentioned that the D.C. subway had the longest escalator in the world at the exit to Wheaton station. It was way down toward the end of the line in Maryland. We made a night of it. We rode up and down that escalator eight times. We counted steps. We passed each other going in opposite directions. We contemplated trying to run down the up escalator, or getting really ambitious and running up the down escalator. But the threat of getting strange looks from people was too great.

Now that was a long escalator. Clearly deserving of its title. I can’t imagine anyone building a longer one for any reason. There comes a point where you’ve just gotta make an elevator.

After leaving Dunedin, I only made one other stop at a town called Timaru. I wanted to see if I could find a thing I’d read about.

In 1936, Timaru native Jack Lovelock…

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…broke the world record for the 1500 meter dash at the Berlin Olympic Games. It was the same Olympics where Jesse Owens humiliated the nazis by kicking whitey’s ass. Eager to make a big deal over any pseudo-Aryan achievement, they symbolically gave Lovelock the seed to this oak tree:

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The seed was presented by this guy:

Hitler

The tree was planted in the boy’s school that Lovelock attended in Timaru. I imagine they weren’t showing it off much once the war started, but PR not being as big of an issue back then, they never chopped it down. I guess they decided it wasn’t the tree’s fault that Hitler was a jerk. Either way, it’s still there to this day. The Hitler tree.

And dammit, I was there.

I made it to Kaikoura, which is one of the main tourist spots on the south island because of its plus-size marine life. They’ve got whale watching, albatross watching, dolphin swimming, shark cage diving, seal viewing, you name it.

I had a spot on one of the whale watch trips, but when I was standing in line to check in, I got spooked. There were old people with butt packs all over the place and a distinctly herd-like atmosphere permeating the room. I’d had enough of that kind of stuff, so I took off. I’m glad I did, too. Everyone I talked to said it was no big deal, and I’m quite certain it couldn’t hold a candle to the one I went on with Soph in Hervey Bay, Australia.

So then I went on the dolphin dive.

My coworker, Alex, went on it when he was in New Zealand, and he warned me that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. His experience was jumping in the water, having the dolphins swim around for a few seconds, then watching them get bored and take off.

Well, I had only a slightly better experience. The first encounter was identical to the above. Five seconds, then back on the boat to chase after them. When we got in again it was much better. They stuck around for a while and it was really neat. They’d circle around you to see how fast you could spin to follow them. If you could keep up, they seemed to get a kick out of it. But eventually they’d get bored again and take off.

Ultimately, it felt kind of lame. You’re in freezing cold water, so you’re bundled from head to toe in a thick, constricting wet suit. They tell you to make noises to attract the dolphins, so you’re surrounded by a dozen other people all hooting and cawing like idiots. It’s definitely for the butt-pack set.

Riding on the boat with them was a little more fun. They get more playful with the boat. I sat down on the bow and had a few of them swimming under my feet.

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They were doing lots of somersaults, which is amazing to see, but really difficult to photograph. I didn’t get any pictures of dolphins breaching, but I was lucky enough to snap this rare photograph of Celine Dion breaching.

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I went to the town museum to see some more whaling artifacts. They didn’t have much, but I was amused to find this pile of whale bones lying in the sun like garbage on pick-up day.

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A lot of people had them on their lawns and stuff. Some were from the whaling days, others just washed up on shore. Folks would haul them down to the museum, but the museum didn’t really have any place to put them, so they’re just in a pile out back.

I got directions to one of the old whaling stations. It was long since dismantled. It wasn’t on any maps, there weren’t any signs, and there was no road to it. I walked through someone’s farm to get to it.

The place had the stink of death to it. And I’m not just being a new age hippy tree-hugger when I say that. I mean there were actual dead things everywhere. I don’t know what happened to this sheep, but it didn’t leave much of a corpse.

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I found this jaw bone. I was excited when I thought it came from a dolphin, but I eventually realized it was from another sheep.

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There were dead birds all over the place, which is weird, cause you usually don’t see that.

I don’t know. It just felt like a place where things died. It was not cheerful.

The next day I was supposed to go diving with seals, but they cancelled it due to poor visibility. And as I found out, it wasn’t diving with seals anyway. It was just a boring old regular dive.

Instead of diving, they offered to take me out kayaking with the dolphins. I’d already swum with them, so I wasn’t all that excited, but I had nothing else to do.

This turned out to be the best thing I did the whole time I was in New Zealand. It was absolutely amazing. I still can’t get over it. Five of us went out there, and we wound up in the middle of a dolphin pod of around three hundred. They were all around us, leaping and flipping and splashing, swimming around the kayak, swimming under it, alongside it. It was crazy.

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I guess they’re a lot more at ease with people when they’re above water. Since it’s a kayak and not a boat, you’re within arm’s reach of them at all times. And since kayaks can go very fast, you can actually keep up with them as they move. They love it when you do that. They crowd around the boat and try to race you, they get in your wake and jump around in it, it’s the funnest thing in the world for everyone involved.

I was too busy paddling to take many pictures. The camera I’m borrowing (thanks Eric) does take movies, though, and I got a couple short ones that are pretty good. They’re too big to fit on a floppy disk, but I’ll upload them once I’m at Andy’s in a few days. When I do, I’ll post them right here:

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Dolphin Video (2.5MB)

I recommend kayaking with dolphins to everyone. It’s a rare and incredible experience. I don’t think it’s available in many places in the world, and it’s very uncommon that there are that many dolphins so close to shore. They only offer it in Kaikoura for two months out of the year, as it’s impossible any other time.

And that was New Zealand. It ended on a high note, but overall the trip was not a life-changing experience. It’s Disneyland. I’ve already been to Disneyland. I wanted something different.

In Micronesia, I found exactly what I was looking for.

I went back to Christchurch that night for my flight out. The war started the next day. And the rest, quite literally, is history.

March 19, 2003

Christchurch, New Zealand
The Milford Trek

Tonight is my last night in New Zealand. I leave tomorrow afternoon, and I have 4 flights before I arrive on the island of Yap.

I put together a map of my route through the South Island. I don’t know why I made it so spiffy. I guess because I’m still stalling about putting together my Milford Trek journal entry.

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All the locations I spent time in are labeled. The blue dots represent places where I spent the night, and the numbers beside them show the order. I basically did a loop of the lower half of the south island. I made a fair-sized dent, but there’s a lot of area I didn’t cover. Not that I’ll be itching to come back here and finish it off. It’s a big planet.

...but it's a small world. Someone in Estonia has been looking at this site. Artur?

And Seychelles. I got a visitor from a country I’ve never heard of. It’s a tiny island about a thousand miles off the coast of Africa, near Madagascar, with a population of 72,000. Apparently there isn't much to do there.

Okay, so I’m going to quickly put things in the right sequence, as I’ve been jumping around a lot in the journal. I left Christchurch and went to Greymouth on the West Coast. That’s where I got stuck in the undertow of the Hokitiki Wild Foods Festival and wound up wandering around in a goddam hippy refugee camp.

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I thought tree-hugging long hairs were all vegetarians. Why they flock to a place that serves pig offal, I have no idea.

Maybe they weren't hippies, though. Maybe they only looked like hippies, but were actually the distant cousin of the hippy: Fair People. Also known as the Fool's Hippy. Yes. That seems more plausible.

After Hokitiki, I drove down to Fox Glacier and spent a day doing the glacier walk. I spent that night in a little town called Haast. The next day I stopped at Puzzle World on my way to Queenstown. After Queenstown I went to Te Anau, point of departure for the Milford Trek.

Te Anau was a cool little place. It's set up entirely to service folks who are heading into Fiordland National Park for treks, cruises, and kayaking trips. So it is touristy, but it's not "Choose from our vast selection of snow globes" touristy, it's more like "Choose from our vast selection of overpriced titanium pots and pans" touristy. That is way more tolerable.

Milford Trek. Yes. I'm going to go into excruciating detail on this part, cause I spent a lot of time just walking by myself and wound up with a lot to say. So only read on if you're tremendously interested, or tremendously disinterested in whatever you're supposed to be doing right now.

Day 1

I got off on the right foot by missing the bus. I made it to the departure place with plenty of time, but I left my bag and went into town for some last minute supplies and when I came back, the bus had left. They don't have much of a system for checking in or anything. The bus comes. People get on. The bus leaves.

I caught a ride with another tour group and met up with the bus at the dock. We all loaded onto a catamaran for the hour-long ride across Lake Te Anau to the starting point of the trek.

While I was missing the bus, I picked up a hat and gloves, some cheese, and a summer sausage. Oh, how I did covet that sausage in the days that followed. That was a good purchase. And the hat and gloves weren't such a bad idea either as it turned out.

So we got off the boat, threw our bags over our shoulders, and started walking. It was an informal group of about 40 people. They limit the track to only that many each day to keep it from becoming a stampede. You have to book months in advance to get on the trek, so I imagine there'd have been a hundred or more people otherwise.

The group wasn't actually traveling together. Most of us were on our own. We just met up at the huts each night as we rolled in from the day's walk. During the day, you'd run into people every 10 minutes or so, but mostly I was by myself as long as I kept moving.

There was a small, guided tour group amongst us as well. The guided people paid 10 times more money to stay in separate huts with hot showers and power generators. They were mostly middle-aged American couples with matching butt-packs.

After only an hour or two of fairly uninteresting walking, I reached the first hut. Shock. Confusion. It was only one in the afternoon. Was that a full day's walk?

As it turns out, they make the first day's walk really short, cause they used to have a much slower boat to ferry people across, and they wouldn't get in until the early evening. Nowadays it's different, but the hut is still where it is.

I'd been walking briskly, and was the first one to the hut. I had the rest of the day to kill and was still full of beans. I felt like walking a lot more, so I put on a day pack and headed back to the start of the trail. Did some exploring along the way.

I brought along my Archos portable Mp3 player, even though the batteries only last an hour and there was no way to recharge it. But a miracle happened. What was supposed to last for only an hour ended up lasting the whole trip. It was like that Hannukah candle, the Minora. I don't understand how or why, but it never ran out. I listened to The Two Towers and Return of the King from the Lord of the Rings audio series, both of which ran over four hours. It was really nice. Without all the other distractions, I could actually concentrate on what people were saying and make it all the way through the story without falling asleep or turning on the tv.

It was pretty long and boring. I definitely prefer the films. The guy who played Aragorn was a poncey swish and he sounded ridiculous delivering his tough guy lines. I listened to about half of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well, and even though I've listened to it a dozen times before, it was still way more entertaining.

I maintain that J.R.R. Tolkein desperately needed an editor. I know 100 million people disagree with me, but the guy really had a tendency to ramble. The story ends about halfway through the third book, but it just keeps on going through this boring epilogue forever and ever. People act like it's sacrilege to criticize it, but it's flawed, self-indulgent storytelling.

Guess what! I'm rambling too!

The weather was great on the first day, but the report said to enjoy it while it lasts, cause it would be raining for the next three days. A feeling of dread came over me as I realized I hadn't brought any rain gear.

I also neglected to bring a sleeping bag. My understanding was we'd be sleeping in bunks -- which was true, but I kind of imagined the bunks would be fitted with sheets and pillows. They weren't. Just a hard mattress. And it gets very very cold at night.

I am living with chronic stupidity syndrome. I was afflicted with it as a child, and it has since gone into remission. But certain conditions can trigger relapses that are quite severe. Packing for a camping trip is one of those conditions.

So not having a sleeping bag was really bad. By the time the sun sets in Fiordland, you can see visible smoke puffs when you breathe. I piled on every piece of clothing I had: pants, shirt, shorts, wool pullover, two pairs of socks, and that hat and gloves I bought, and I shivered through the whole night. Fortunately, it was dark, so no one else knew how much of an idiot I was.

Day 2

Got up at the ass crack of dawn, which wasn't hard cause I never got past semi-asleep. Had a quick but huge breakfast and started walking by 8 in the morning. My plan was that walking would warm me up, and it did. By noon I had peeled off all the layers and was down to a T-shirt and shorts. It's amazing how fast the temperature changes in that area.

A couple hours in, I finally started seeing some neat stuff. The path winds through a steep valley, following alongside a stream. The water in the stream was some of the clearest freshwater I've seen. There were huge trout swimming inside and they were as clear as goldfish in an aquarium. All the fishermen on the trek were jumping up and down about getting in there and catching them. Anyway, it was pretty. And there were countless little cascading waterfalls running down the cliffs on either side of the valley, feeding into the river. I love cascading waterfalls. I am a cascading waterfall junky.

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The hike was long and exhausting. It started getting pretty steep as we neared the second hut, and I had my first taste of wondering when in the hell it was going to end. But the forest was lush and green and really amazingly beautiful.

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It was a 16 km (10 mile) walk, compared to only 6 on the previous day. I'd still been going fast, though, and was again one of the first people to the hut. As soon as I dropped my bag, I wolfed down about two days worth of spaghetti. My body needed food.

The ranger stationed at the hut said that since it was still a good day, we should keep on going to the summit, cause tomorrow it would be raining. I couldn't handle that. I needed sleep. I conked out at 4 in the afternoon. It was a shame to waste all those daylight hours, but I really had no choice. And it was also good to squeeze some sleep in during the day, cause once it got dark it was too cold to really do anything but shiver.

Day 3

Holy crap!

This day was the killer. Right out of the gate, we started going up the mountain. And it wasn't a smoothly winding path. They'd cut 11 zig-zags into the side, each one increasingly covered in unstable rocks and each one steeper than the one before it.

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I started at maybe 200 meters above sea level, and after two hours of walking, reached the summit at 1154 meters. Folks, that's 1 kilometer straight up.

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It was grueling. It was, after all, climbing a goddam mountain. But of course, once you get to the top...

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These pictures are going to be pretty huge files. I couldn't bear to shrink them down.

Fiordland National Park is one of the world's largest suppliers of Windows pre-installed desktop wallpaper.

The summit is called MacKinnon's Peak. MacKinnon is the guy who discovered the path and charted it back in the late 1880's. He drowned in Lake Te Anau a few years later.

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You can't really see it here, but I've been using this trip to conduct an experiment with my facial hair. I haven't shaved since I left. You'd need a good sense of humor to call what I have right now a beard, but it's definitely shaggy. I've been cursed with an inability to bridge the gap between my upper lip and chin, so it looks like I'm intentionally going for a Tom-Selleck-meets-Amish-farmer look. I'll have to get rid of it pretty soon, but at the moment I'm really enjoying stroking it.

...keep it clean, boys. Just let that one go.

From the top of the mountain, you can look back down the valley and see what you spent the first two days walking through.

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The river winding through there is what you walk alongside. That view looks back about 15 kilometers. It's hard to get a sense of just how big the scale is.

So once you're done being awestruck, you've got to face the challenge of getting back down to 150 meters above sea level by the end of the day. Now you may be thinking, "So what? It's downhill. Easy." You'd be wrong about that. If it were a sloping dirt path, it would be easy. But it's a steep and uneven pile of unsteady rocks, which is much different. The path leading back down the hill is ankle sprain alley. It's where most of the injuries happen. Some of the steps require you to jump down, and with a heavy pack on your back and no guarantee that the thing you land on is going to stay where it is, it can be hard work. It's especially tough on the knees.

The good news: still no rain.

A couple hours of that and I was ready to die. Then in the midst of my agony, I stumbled upon a thing called a Kea. Actually, it stumbled upon me. They'd told us a lot about them back in the huts, and assured us there would be encounters. The Kea is an interesting bird. It's the world's only alpine parrot. It's also supposed to be one of the smartest species of bird in existence. Don't ask me how they measure bird I.Q., but surely they know what they're talking about.

Keas are beautiful birds, and quite large. They're also extremely curious. Apparently this is an evolved trait that helps them nut out where food is in a harsh environment where the best meals are often hidden. When humans are thrown into the picture, this turns into a problem, because they have no reservations about coming right up to you and poking around for something to eat. If you leave your shoes out at night, they'll peck right through them. Socks? Gone. They can allegedly even pull open zippers with their beaks to look inside peoples' bags.

So I'm walking down the path by myself and a Kea lands on a railing right in front of me.

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I freeze. It takes a step forward. I take a step back. It takes two steps forward. I pull out my camera to grab a quick snap, then it starts flying right up to me.

I ran like a little girl.

Eventually I reached a group of four Australian women looking at a waterfall. They turn to me and can clearly see that there's a problem. I explain that there's a Kea blocking the path further ahead, and I didn't want to pass it alone. The women were not impressed. They walked right by me, then right by the Kea without any dramas.

Boy, did I feel like a sissy.

A long, long ways after that, and I finally reach the next hut. I'm completely wiped out by this point. But oh no, this wasn't a hut for me. This was one of the fancy Guided Trek huts with all the comforts of home. For us commoners, it was just a locked door. Our hut was another hour down the path. There was also, at this point, a turn off for Sutherland Falls. It was an extra 45 minutes of walking each way to see the falls. I wasn't about to bother with this, until I found out it was the fifth tallest waterfall in the world.

Here's a tip for getting me to go anywhere or do anything: think of something we'll see along the way that is either the world's tallest, shortest, oldest, fattest, widest, steepest, slipperiest, or most purple. And if you don't think I'll believe that it's the world's most, tell me it's the world's fifth most. I'll probably believe that, and once I hear it, nothing will stop me from seeing it. I'm a total sucker for the phrase: World's Most.

I'm going to start a page on this site to keep track of all the World's Mosts that I see. I'll call it Matt's Book of World Records.

So I drop my pack at the camp site and slog through another hour and a half just to see the goddam fifth tallest waterfall in the world. Here it is.

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Boy, isn't that tall? It sure is. Man, I'm such a sucker.

You were supposed to put on your rain gear and stand underneath the waterfall. But I didn't have any rain gear, and by then I didn't want to take a single step that didn't lead me directly to a surface that I could lay down and sleep on.

Got to the hut, still at the front of the group, but not as far ahead as I'd been on the previous days. It was 13 incredibly difficult kilometers, plus another 4 to see the waterfall.

I read Catcher in the Rye while hanging out in the huts. It was a great book. I loved it. I particularly enjoyed that Holden Caulfield was a kindred spirit in that he could find just about anything or anyone annoying. It was brilliantly written, and I now have a strange, uncontrollable urge to go assassinate a public figure.

I got lucky on that third night. The windows in our bunk room had no screens, so they had to leave them shut. This meant we had to share in the richness of each others' smells, but it also meant the room was considerably warmer. I slept well, despite my aches and pains, and despite the guy in the bunk underneath me who had a bladder infection and had to get up to pee every half hour.

I couldn't walk, though. My feet were a mess. I was thumping around like Frankenstein's monster with both of his legs asleep. My blisters actually had their own smaller blisters. I got some bandages from one of the other hikers -- another thing I'd neglected to bring -- and wrapped my feet up until I looked like a burn victim.

You know what? There are too many words for hiking. Every country has to come up with their own. We call it "hiking," Australians have the euphemistic-sounding "bushwalking," Kiwis use the ridiculous "tramping," then "trekking" -- I don't know where that comes from. I use all of these interchangeably, and I can never sort out where I am and which term is appropriate. I usually end up listing two or three of them and hoping for a look of recognition. I demand a U.N. resolution.

Day 4

On the last day, my luck finally ran out. I woke up to a pounding rain. Everyone else started pulling out their rain gear, and I just kept staring out the window. We had 19 kilometers to go -- the longest day of the trek -- and there was nothing I could do to escape getting very wet.

I decided that the less clothes I wore, the less there'd be to get wet. So despite the cold, I went out in the morning in just my shorts and T-shirt. The first hour was pretty bad, but once it warmed up a bit and I was completely soaked anyway, it really didn't matter whether I had rain gear or not.

I'd like to spend some time talking about the other people on my trek and how much I didn't like them. I didn't dislike all of them, just the vast, loud majority. And they're far more worthy of coverage.

Loud American Couple - When you project your voice, it implies that you have something important to say to other people. This couple from Texas must have thought their flight arrangements were extremely important. Everyone on the trek knew when their plane was leaving Queenstown, how long their stopover was in Christchurch, and whether or not they would be checking into a hotel or leaving their bags at the airport. They also had the annoying habit of running around to do all the side excursions before anyone else so they could lord it over us by saying, "You have to do it. It's so worth it!"

Psycho New Age Lady - This woman had just been let go from her consultancy job in New York. She clearly had a "freak out" and had to come down here to get "centered." She also had strong psychic impressions that she needed to get as far away from New York as possible, because something terrible was about to happen.

Weight Loss Lady - I'm pretty sure this Chicagoan went on the trek for the sole purpose of losing weight. Not that there's anything dreadfully wrong with that. She just didn't seem to be having a good time. She had the demeanor of someone who dislikes herself tremendously and doesn't want to bring anyone else down by talking to them.

Australian Ya-Ya Sisterhood - These women weren't so bad. They did, after all, rescue me from the clutches of that ferocious Kea. They just amused me with their rampant Australian-ness. They brought along an "esky" filled with Milo and Cordial, and they ate only bread covered in Vegemite and Marmite. One of the women observed that there are two types of people in this world, "Those who like Vegemite, and those who like Marmite." I wanted to step in and explain that there's a very large third group who aren't from Australia and find them both revolting. And there's an even larger fourth contingent that has never been to Australia and thus never heard of either spreads.

The rest of the people were fine. So what is there to say about them, really?

Sandflies were a serious problem. The sandfly is a small insect, very much like a mosquito, that sucks blood from any warm body it can find. Or I should say, the females suck blood. The men just hang around and do nothing. They're pretty much everywhere. Repellant doesn't seem to do much. The only way to keep them off of you is to always keep moving. The moment you stop, they start feeding. The really terrible thing about them is that you can't feel them on you until it's too late, you're already bitten, and you'll be itching the spot for days. The good thing is that they're slow. You can easily smack them once you know they're there.

Sandflies get everywhere. You have to walk with your mouth closed when you're on sand or near the water. I had several fly up in my nostrils. But as I said, they're slow, so you can squeeze your nose, crush them, and let their corpses drop out. Vivid, eh?

Sandflies were named by guess who...

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That's right. Our good pal, Captain James T. Cook. This is true. I'm not making it up. He really did name everything.

They were already called blackflies. But that didn't stop Jimmy. No, sir.

Captain's Log, 10th of August, 1770
"Joseph Banks, a botanist from our science entourage, has been bitten in numerous places by a troublesome insect that lives near the sand. I shall call it the sandfly. And Joseph I shall call Cynthia. The cook has taken to placing pork slices between two pieces of bread for many of my meals. I enjoy it tremendously. I shall call it a hamburger. The cook will be called Susan. He hails from the town of Redding, which I have just named France."

Anyway, I got bitten to death. Amongst the other problems my feet were having, I had about a dozen little bumps that were getting more and more itchy. The bite marks still haven't healed all these days later. And they still itch a little.

I was starting to feel a bit pathetic by this point. I am close to my physical prime, so this is about as able as I'm ever going to get to do a trek like this. I was in total agony, and I was fairly vocal about it. Meanwhile, half the group was over 50 and there wasn't a peep coming from any of them. They were doing just fine despite bad backs, bad knees, and what I imagine were a whole litany of other medical problems.

19 kilometers. That needs to be discussed some more. The phrase "19 kilometers" doesn't adequately convey how long of a distance it is. 12 miles. No, that doesn't do it either. 25,500 footsteps. Try counting your footsteps while you walk. It takes a while to get up to 25,500. Here's a good way to represent it: 206 football fields lined end-to-end...and strewn with big, loose rocks. It's a long distance when you're walking. And when you've already walked another 35 kilometers. And when your feet are covered in blisters. And it's raining.

It was a tough day. It still wasn't as horrifically brutal as the third day, cause it was mostly flat, but it was hard. I didn't take any pictures on the last day because of the rain. I didn't even really look up very much. I just wanted to get through it.

And I did. One by one, we started rolling into the cabin at Sandfly Point around 1:30 to catch the 2:30 ferry. I think I was about the sixth person to finish. The end of the trek was called Sandfly Point for good reason. It was the cruel reward for completing the trek early -- you get eaten alive while you wait for the boat. That was bad, but by that point we could all endure pretty much anything.

We had a quick jaunt across Milford Sound to the tourist outpost of Milford. Then we hopped on a bus and rode back to Te Anau. I caught several people that night at the local steakhouse wolfing down large pieces of meat and alcohol, which I was doing as well.

That's it for the Milford Trek. A long and tedious entry, to be sure. But it gives you a taste of just how long the trek itself was. And if I can pass some of that pain on to others...well, it was all worthwhile.

I've still got another week in New Zealand to cover. I will get to it as soon as I can. It was March 19th when I started this entry, but now as I finish this it's getting pretty close to April. I'm having too much fun here on Yap to stop and write. I'm itching to get into what I'm up to now, but I won't let myself until I get caught up.

March 16, 2003

Invercargill, New Zealand
Glaciers and Mazes

Things are getting kind of strange.

I just drove into Invercargill and checked into Gerard’s Hotel on Esk street. This is my first time in a real bed with sheets and everything in 6 days and I wanted to go crazy with a night in a decent hotel. I wanted a tv, a phone, my own bathroom – all those opulent luxuries. Avoiding the big chains, and finding that most everywhere is full since I didn’t book ahead of time, I wound up here.

This place was built in 1896, and I don’t think it’s changed much since. The room I’m in now is sort of late Victorian ghetto, with the requisite creaky floors, sink in a weird place, and door that leads to a brick wall. I’m in room number 3. My key is one of those enormous brass ones that Ben Franklin used to tie onto kites (note to Australians: nevermind).

None of this would seem odd to me if I were in England, or even somewhere like Massachusetts or Vermont. But I’m on the southern tip of New Zealand. Most everything down here is fairly modern, then suddenly I drive into this colonial time warp called Invercargill. And it’s not like I’m on a historical tour or anything. It’s a cheap, dingy hotel.

There was a lot of whaling done around here back then. That interests me a lot. Folks would leave from Nantucket or Manhattan, make their way down to this area, then wander back to their port of departure, oh, about…15 years later. That’s pretty amazing.

Those whaling guys sure did things on a grand scale. They went out for years at a time, circling a largely unexplored globe to hunt the biggest animals that have ever existed. And it didn’t used to be such an easy thing catching whales – just ask Captain Ahab.

Some changes to the site today. You may notice some new faces bobbing around. That's Sophie and Brad, who are joining me for different legs of the trip. Their heads will grow to full size once they join up with me. Also, the U.S. map is up. Kristin and Thomas, I don't have any pictures of either of you, so as soon as you send me some, I'll slap you up there too.

Tomorrow I’m going to try and get down to Stewart Island. It’s the little-known or visited third island in New Zealand, and it’s one of the southernmost human settlements on Earth. Outside of Antarctica, the tip of South America, and a handful of uninhabited islands, it’s as far south as you can get. It’s also, without a doubt, the closest I’ve ever been to the south pole. I get a big kick out of that.

In Christchurch, they discourage juvenile delinquency by making the boys dress up like Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls.

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I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Over a week ago now, I went on a day hike up Fox Glacier. It was fun-ucational.

Crampons are an unpleasant name for ice climbing cleats. I don’t want to wear anything called a crampon.

I finally learned what those pickaxes are for that old-fashioned mountaineering guys carry. They’re used to carve out footsteps in the ice, and they’re very handy. Our guide took us up almost sheer vertical surfaces, and we didn’t even really need handholds.

We ran into a mummified possum about halfway up the glacier. It’d been in the ice for who-knows how many years. Its fur was mostly gone and its skin was like leather strips wrapped around bone. The guy in front of me was standing on it when I nudged him to look down. He handled the moment well.

A glacier is like a river moving in slow motion. There’s a big chunk of ice up in the mountains and it’s spilling out into the sea. The ice is coming down through a narrow pass at 3 to 5 meters a day and carrying tons of rock along with it. Once the glacier has melted completely, what you’ve got left is a fiord. More on fiords later.

It was really interesting how much the glacier changed every day. They were constantly hacking out new steps and paths, as the old ones immediately started moving and reshaping once they were made. The guide goes up there daily, and hardly anything is familiar from one visit to the next.

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…boring pictures.

My hiking group included disgraced former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Mike Seaver as played by television star Kirk Cameron.

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Disgraced former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was still really upset about signing the Munich Pact. “Peace in our time,” he said. “Peace in our time! I sounded like an absolute fool. I am remembered as a spineless pushover.”

Mike Seaver as played by television star Kirk Cameron tried to cheer him up. "Don't worry about how you're remembered. Take me for example, I don't remember you at all (pause for laugh track). And avoiding fights isn't such a bad thing. One time at school, the class bully was picking on my friend, Boner, so I told him to ‘stuff it.’ He challenged me to a fight in the parking lot, but I chickened out. I felt pretty bad that night, until my dad explained to me that fighting isn’t always the best solution. So the next day, instead of fighting, I talked to him. He turned out to be a pretty okay guy.”

That didn’t make disgraced former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain feel better at all. He just rolled his eyes, waved farewell, then jumped to his death in a crevasse.

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The day after the hike I found out there was another death on the same day at nearby Arthur’s Pass. It was three guys traveling on their own rather than in a guided group, but they were doing more or less the same thing as us. The crampons make it pretty easy to walk, but there are lots of holes in the ice that go down for hundreds of feet and you can slip in there if you're not careful.

I miss my old balcony view. Before I left, I used Eric’s camera to try and piece together a panorama.

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On the way to Queenstown I stumbled across a place called Puzzle World. It sounded like my kind of tourist trap.

Surprisingly, the optical illusion on this wall still works really well in the photo. Look at it and try and decide if the rows are curved or straight.

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Here’s a close-up of the very same wall.

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The big draw was the giant multi-level maze. It was fun, but damn frustrating. And you get really tired having to actually walk around inside there.

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I did it the hard way and was wandering around in there for an hour and a half.

The bathroom had roman-style toilets.

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This was my favorite thing in the whole place.

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I've still got lots more to catch up on. I haven't gotten to the Milford Trek yet. I kept a journal of it and there are tons of pictures. I'm going to get to that next.

I lost feeling of the big toe of my right foot on the trek, and I still haven't gotten it back. Kind of freaky.

Dan, I've got an addition to the list of non-bilaterally symetrical animals. It's a New Zealand bird called the Wrybill. Its beak bends to the right so it can scoop up creatures that burrow in the mud.

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Can anyone else name any? They have to be an animal species whose left and right sides are not identical, and it doesn't count if they're asymetrical as a result of mutation or dismemberment.

Just checking my email and everyone is telling me about some pneumonia going around in Asia.

March 10, 2003

Te Anau, New Zealand
Embarking on the Milford Trek

Quick one this time.

I mean it about that Queen thing. I think they have one radio station in New Zealand and it just plays Queen.

Tomorrow morning I leave for the Milford Trek. I hope I've got everything I need. Or if I don't, I hope they have a Night Owl or something out there.

I need a first aid kit. And I'l probably need some water.

When I get back, I've booked a day of kayaking on Doubtful Sound. Doubtful Sound was named by our good friend Captain Cook, who was "doubtful" that the winds in the sound could carry his ship back out if they sailed in to explore.

"Captain's Log, 5th of May, 1770. We went past a sound today and I wasn't sure we could get back out, so I named it Doubtful Sound. I tell ya, naming stuff is great. I get such a kick out of it. Hey, that sure is a pretty lagoon over there. I think I'll call it Sure-is-Pretty Lagoon. Man, this is awesome. I feel gassy from the pork we had last night. I think I'll call that rock over there Fart Rock. I'm out of control!"

Umm, yeah, anyway. So kayaking in Doubtful Sound. That should be good. It's in Fiordland National Park, about 100km from the nearest commercial road, so pretty remote. It'll be a good place to be during the start of World War III.

March 09, 2003

Queenstown, New Zealand
Ditching Rasputin

Queenstown. The extreme sports capital of the world.

Extreme sports piss me off. Actually, no, the term "extreme sports" pisses me off. It's a marketing exercise wrapped in a lot of insipid carpe diem platitudes. No, I'm changing my mind again, the whole thing pisses me off.

Extreme sports is a lot of people who look vaguely like Jake Busey screaming out inane catch-phrases about fear and adrenalin.

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The activities themselves are overblown amusement park rides. And that's all Queenstown really is: an amusement park. They've got dozens of rides, each costing about $150-$200, and backpackers flock here to skydive on mountain bikes with angry monkeys strapped to their backs while solving rubik's cubes -- or whatever dumbass passtime they just came up with. The newest one seems to be flying in circles on a steerable rocket attached to the end of a long cable.

...okay, that does sound kind of fun.

Extreme sports themselves are pretty neat. But, like so many things, the people bug me.

And Queenstown is a nice place. Lots of great restaurants and fun things to do. If I were here with some friends, more money to burn, and a desire to be amused, I could really enjoy myself.

I've been pretty grouchy the whole time I've been here. Fortunately, I'm traveling alone, so I can be as grouchy as I want and the only person who'll suffer is the occasional hostile hostel manager. I actually kind of enjoy being grouchy, at least in these circumstances. It's my way of coping with being trapped in a tourist bubble with no hope of escape.

New Zealand has a lot of sheep. Maybe they got too used to handling them, cause it's kind of how they treat people too.

Get off the bus. Stand here. Take a picture. Eat here. Buy a stuffed Kiwi. Back on the bus.

Get off the bus. Get in this kayak. Follow me here. Turn around. Get out of the kayak. Back on the bus.

I haven't been on a bus yet, but they're all over the place. I guess it's like that at all tourist places, though.

I imagine I'm supposed to say New Zealanders are exceptionally polite. But they're not, really. I think they're exhausted. This place seems to have exploded in the last few years as a tourist destination, and I think they're overwhelmed from all the Americans wanting their sandwiches toasted and their towels warmed. It's a grind. Every town on the west coast has every room in every hotel and hostel booked to capacity every single night. You have to call two days ahead for each place you're going to stop at. And if you want to do anything like ride on a boat or go on a hike, you need to book weeks in advance.

To me, that kind of sucks a lot of the joy out of things. It's Disneyland. A canned adventure. I was expecting something a little less tamed.

What is it with Queen here? It's a national obsession. I'm constantly hearing them on the radio. And not just Bohemian Rhapsody. It's really obscure, post-haircut Queen.

So all in all, my current thinking is that New Zealand is a little overrated. If I'd come here 10 years ago, I'd probably have been banging the drum as loud as anyone. But these days it's gotten to be too much. It's played-out.

Picture time:

I stopped at a limestone rock formation on the highway coming out of Christchurch. It was right there in the middle of the island, 100km from anywhere.

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The world's coolest naturally occurring paint gun arena.

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I'm pretty sure the Riders of Rohan went past here in Two Towers.

Hmm, kind of boring.

...so I ran into Rasputin and we decided to travel together. Here are some snapshots.

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Later on we stopped at a restaurant for dinner. Rasputin told the waitress she was going to die in 3 years, and also that her son is gay. So we got kicked out. Then I caught him stealing cheese twisties at the service station. Rasputin is a real asshole. I ditched him in Greymouth.

I've gotten much better at driving on the other side of the road. I had to read Dan's post a few times, but I think I figured out how roundabouts work. I'm still not sure how to signal, though. Do I ever signal while I'm in the roundabout, or only before entering? If I'm going straight, do I not signal at all? What if I'm signaling a right turn and a person first sees me while I'm halfway through the roundabout? How will they know where I'm getting out? What exactly was wrong with stop signs that you guys had to go and make roundabouts?

You know whose fault it is that half the world drives on the right side of the road?

Napolean's.

If you've heard this rant, please skip ahead.

For as long as roads had been around, people always rode their carts on the left side. I don't know why. It's just what they came up with. That's how they did it in Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, all the way up to Napolean's rule in France.

Napolean's soldiers pulled their cannons into battle with oxen. The men walked behind, cracking their whips as they went. Of course, most of these guys were right-handed, so they had to walk on the edge of the road to avoid the inconvenience of whipping across to the other side. Napolean found this intolerable, so he had all the roads changed to allow the men to walk in the middle of the roads, whipping to their right sides rather than their left.

England, rightly, ignored this change. So did almost every other country. But it somehow caught on in post-revolutionary America, and that was that. Once the automobile came around and the vast majority of them were made in the U.S., a ton of countries came over to our side. So now it's one big mess.

Thanks a lot, Napoleon.

A Brisbane cab driver told me that story. If it's not true, blame him.

So I went to the Hokitiki Wildfoods festival.

Pig offal. Who would want to eat Pig offal? There's a pretty strong indication in the name that it's not something you want to eat. The people who named it put a hidden message in there, just in case anyone started getting ideas.

And scorpions. They were serving fried scorpions.

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Grilled camel penises...okay, no, just beef sausages.

There's a thing called whitebait that the Hokitikians are very excited about. It's a little tiny fish that looks just like a worm except it's got a face. Having a face is one of the only things that could make a worm less appetizing. They put a hundred or so of these little wormy things between two pieces of bread and serve it as a sandwich. They cook them whole, so you get the eyes and the brains and the cartilage and all that stuff.

They say whitebait is a delicacy. Why is it that every food I've ever heard of that's considered a delicacy is innately gross? "Delicacy" is a word they came up with to make people feel like they're missing out for not eating gross food. "Oh, but it's a delicacy." What does that mean? It doesn't mean it tastes good.

Glowworm caves are everywhere in New Zealand. Every tourist stop has a glowworm cave somewhere. They sound exciting in the tour guide, but they're just caves with worms in them that happen to glow in the dark. It gets old fast.

Any Australians want to comment on why people down here are so fascinated with South America? They sell a lot of Incan handcrafts on the street, and I remember in Australia the #1 travel fantasy was to go to Machu Pichu and travel around that area. In North America, we're generally not all that into South America. To us, it's where we get all our cocaine. Most of us have never even heard of Machu Pichu.

The main thing that interests me about the Incans is that they must have been a very picky people. Of all the folks on Earth, the Incans, Mayans, and Aztecs are the ones who said, "Nope, its too cold here. We're gonna keep on going." "Nope, sorry. Not enough food. We're gonna see if it gets better a little bit further down." "Nope, still not good enough. We're gonna check out what's on the other side of that mountain." I admire that, cause it was a really long walk.

Speaking of long walks, here's a guy who makes me feel like a big lame-ass for getting all worked up about my trip.

I'm going to Mongolia. BFD! This guy is jogging across Antarctica.

Speaking of Antarctica, I've got a few days before the dolphin thing in Kraikoa and I'm thinking of going to Stewart Island. It's one of the southernmost population centers on Earth, and only a hop, skip, and a jump from Antarctica.

I'm all about segways today.

Speaking of segways, where are those things? Aren't I supposed to see people scooting around all over the place by now? I saw one in Seattle, but Jeff Bezos said it was going to be the biggest invention since the spoon. I see lots of spoons around. No segways.

Speaking of spoons...nope, sorry. I got nuthin.

I'm going to go into radio silence for a few days starting on Tuesday. I've got the Milford trek coming up, and I'll be on that until Friday.

So far the only thing I've lost or destroyed on my trip has been my sneakers. I don't know where I left them, but all I've got is my hiking boots now, and hiking boots are kind of annoying to walk around in. They're halfway to ski boots.

I won $20 at blackjack tonight. That paid for dinner. My trick is to play until I'm up by even the slightest amount, then get out of there fast. I won my first two hands, so bam! Out the door. I think it's a pretty good technique. The hardest part about gambling is stopping when you're up.

I can see the stars pretty well from down here. The milky way is easily visible. It'll be even better in Micronesia.

The milky way is a trip. Say you can grasp that you're standing on the side of a huge sphere. And say you can also grasp that the sphere you're on is spinning around in a giant whirlygig. On top of that, you're also inside of a flat pancake that's bigger than all get-out. You're a speck on a speck in a speck in a speck, cause that galaxy is on the circumference of a huge cluster of galaxies. And there's a bunch of clusters too!

You forget about that stuff in cities. The lights block it all out. It's a convenient thing, I think. Who wants to think about the universe in a place like New York? When you're in New York, that IS the universe.

Something is bothering me about this web site. My sister gave me a copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" for Christmas, and the main thing good ol' Dale Carnegie says in there is that everyone's favorite subject is themselves. And here I am talking about me all the time. What about you? Umm, how are you doing?

No, that doesn't really work, does it? Well, I'm feeling kind of self-involved right now. I don't know what I can do about it other than stop writing. But this is fun, so I'm going to keep on doing it.

March 06, 2003

Westport, New Zealand
Hostel Concierge

Okay, so I'm not actually in Westport. I'm in Greymouth. Westport is an hour north of here, and I decided not to drive the extra hour in the wrong direction just so I could say I was there.

Ya see, the town I grew up in, about 9,450 miles away, is also called Westport.

Most of today was great. A long string of things going right that could've gone wrong. But nevertheless, I'm in a crappy mood cause of what just happened. It's really not interesting. In fact, it's utterly pedantic. But I've gotta vent.

So I booked a room out in Greymouth this morning, while I was still 3 hours away in Christchurch. I got a single bedroom in one of the few hostels in town. The girl asked what time I was coming, I said probably around 9, she said no problem.

I get in around 9:30 after driving across the island  fantastic drive, I'll get to that later. The place I booked in is a typical hostel, i.e. crawling with scruffy, frumpy, dreadlocked Scandinavians. All the doors are locked and there's no indication of how to get in, so I wait for someone who knows the entry code. I get to the front desk and buzz.

Five minutes later, a pissed-off-looking guy comes down and looks at me like I shot his dog. I tell him I booked a single. He says he hasn't had a spare single in 3 weeks. All he has is a dorm bunk. I tell him the girl I talked to this morning said there was a single, and he explains that she's new and doesn't know what she's talking about. Then he starts telling me it's 9:30 and I got him out of bed and I should have come earlier. I tell the guy I called ahead, ordered a single, and said when I'd get in. If he can't give me a room, I'll go somewhere else.

So I get to the pay phone out front and start shuffling through my guide looking for motel numbers. The guy comes up to me again and keeps going about how I said I'd get in at 9 and it's 9:30. He says he's had a long day, he had to get up at 7, and he doesn't need someone getting him out of bed. He says I'm not going to find anything better, so I should take the damn cot.

This is a hotel, I say. My job is to get here, your job is to be here. That's how it works. I don't need to give you a time. I'm sorry I woke you up, but I'm not going to feel guilty about your employee messing up my booking. I don't want to sleep in a dorm.

Maybe I overreacted, but it really irked me that the guy was giving me a hard time. It's a hotel! If you don't like being woken up, find another business.

But actually, I'm wrong. It's not a hotel, it's a hostel. And that's the problem. Hostels are filled with kids, and when you stay in a hostel you get treated like a kid. I don't like that. I guess I should accept that when you're paying $30 for a room, you're not going to be catered to. But it's just not my style. I'm a grown-up, and when a manager starts chewing me out for showing up late, I pick up my bags and leave.

For christ's sake, it was 9:30! If it were 2 am, that'd be different. But it's prime time. Is it that outlandish that I'd want to check in at 9:30?

Breatheokay. So as it turns out, tomorrow is the big annual Wildfoods Festival, when the sleepy nextdoor town of Hokitika swells from a population of 2500 to about 20,000. People come from all over to eat sheep's testicles, worm sushi, grasshopper stir fry, whale vomit omelets, albatross semen milkshakes, and a bunch of other shock-value crap (kidding about those last two). So every room in town is booked out way in advance and I've just gotten in a fight with the only guy that has a bed to spare.

I drive around for a while, and indeed, every motel in town has a No Vacancy sign up. Finally, I drive into the fanciest-looking place on the strip and they've got a double availableshit, if I were Kristin, I'd have thought to ask for a double at the price of a singleanyway, I ended up paying $95 for two beds instead of the $30 I was going to pay. But at least I didn't have to go crawling back to that asshole. I would've probably slept in the car before I did that.

Oh, yeah. The car is great. That was the big thing that DID work out today. I don't know how it happened, but I got a really decent car for $20 a day less than everyone else was quoting, and those other folks didn't even have cars to spare. I'm driving a '96 Toyota Corolla, and it's completely fine. The lady at the rental place was really nice too. I didn't smell a scam.

Driving on the other side of the road is easy. All you have to do is completely ignore everything your brain is telling you and do exactly the opposite thing. Also, if you hesitate or do the wrong thing, you could die. After an hour or two, I got used to it.

Kristin, I apologize for making fun of you about turning on the windshield wipers every time you wanted to turn. I do it too.

And roundabouts. Jesus. Could someone please post and explain to me how those things work? I get turning left, but what if I want to turn right all the way on the other side? Why is there an inside lane? How do I get out of the inside lane once I'm in it? Why would I go in it? When do I have right of way?

Suffice it to say, there's some guy in a red Taurus back in Christchurch still cursing my name.

Oops, apparently I'm not supposed to talk about being a bad driver.

You know Loki, the Norse God of mischief? The guy who's always playing tricks on Thor and Odin. Anyone know what his full name is?

Loki Sky-walker.

Weird, huh?

Going through the car thing yesterday and the hostel thing today made me realize something about myself; I'm still very much an American. The world is full of people who go with the flow. But Americans don't go with the flow. We build dams. We make things suit our needs. And if we can't, we yell and scream until something gets done. That sense of entitlement is engrained in us. It bothers me a little to see it in myself, cause when I run into other Americans abroad, I recognize this quality instantly and it always pisses me off. But I do it too.

There are different degrees. A lot of people do it with arrogance and ignorance. That's when it really gets to me. I try to be respectful of the people and places around me, but I still have a very Civus Romanus attitude.

I am a citizen of Rome. I go where I want to. I do what it pleases me to do. I carry with me the protection of my country, for if I am harmed, it will be as if all of Rome has been harmed. And if I am inconveniencedI'll have all mention of you stricken from the Lonely Planet guide.

Money sure makes things easier. I'm spending way too much of it, though. It was colder than I expected, so I bought a nice wool pullover. I didn't want to be hassled with taking buses, so I rented a car. I'm going tramping (hiking), so I bought great hiking boots (yes, that's my fifteenth pair of shoes). I spit the dummy at the hostel guy, so I'm in a fancy hotel.

I can't keep doing this for long. But it does feel good whipping out my credit card every time there's a problem.

By the way, spit the dummy is an Australian colloquialism meaning got mad at.

One good thing on the money front, though: calling cards. I had no idea they were so cheap. I can call the U.S. for cheaper than I can make a local call inside of New Zealand.

No, seriously. Calling the U.S. is $8 an hour. That's $0.13 a minute. Local calls are $0.14. And when you convert to U.S. dollars, it's half that. So family people, you will be hearing from me.

Of course, by the time I got into Greymouth at the ghostly hour of 9:30, everything was closed except for the unholy triumvirate of McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC. Not wanting to shove grease-covered corporate logos into my belly, I decided to try out the camping food I bought today for my hike next week. It was really good. I had Thai chicken curry in a little metal bowl with a ceramic fork. All I needed was a bit of hot water. I think I might stick with this stuff. I'll probably be out by the time I start my hike. It's really good. And easy. And fairly cheap.

Oh yeah, the drive over here was great. I went from the east coast of New Zealand to the west, passing through the top of the southern alps. It's definitely LotR country. You see the stuff in the movies and you think, that's just a special effect. But it's not. There's actually a massive, lava-spewing volcano that looks exactly like Mount Doom. And I passed the river with those two giant statues on the banks. That was amazing. I ran into a roving band of Uruk-Hai at an internet cafi in Stillwater. They're even scarier in real life.

One interesting thing about New Zealand: no planes in the sky. None at all. There are the Nasgul, however, sweeping to and fro on their winged serpents. I'm getting really sick of having to duck under a rock every time I hear that fierce cackle.

The eastern side of the south island reminded me a lot of Northern California. Lots of beautiful, wide-open plains with nice hills in the distance. Then once you get into those hills and they start turning into mountains on the western side, it reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. Honestly, there are places down here that I wouldn't be able to distinguish from Idaho or Montana. The mountains really are magnificent. And then at other times I was getting flashes of the English countryside, what with all the rolling hills and sheep. It's a strange topography. A geographical stream of consciousness. A landform medley.

Whoever told me there aren't any spiders in New Zealand was wrong. Cobwebs all over the place.

And the thing about no mammals is wrong too. Plenty of roadkill. But it's bizarre roadkill  like some kind of large rodent/rabbit creatures that I've never seen before. It's a bit of a shock running into an animal you've never seen or heard of. It makes me think of what it must have been like for the first explorers down here. They must've freaked when they saw kangaroos.

Captain Cook was up himself. He's got at least one of everything named in his honor. There's Cooktown, Mount Cook, the Cook Islands, Cook Bridge  it's as bad over here as it is in Australia. And when he got sick of naming things after himself, he named them after his wife, Sydney. And Melbourne was named after his dog. His cat was Brisbane. Adelaide was his pet turtle.

And when he ran out of wives and pets, he started naming things after whatever was happening to him at the time. That's why there's Cape Tribulation, and further up the coast is Half-My-Men-Are-Dying-of-Scurvy Peninsula, and further still is the Island of Oh-My-God-I'm-Being-Eaten-Alive-By-Cannibals.

The buses are everywhere. Thousands of middle-aged couples wandering around looking for their hotels, anxiously awaiting the thrill of eating fried squid genitals. Time to get the hell out of here.