Monday, August 24, 2009

The Jump: Bungy in Queenstown

The fear set in when I was asked to fill out a form with my name and country of residence, only it wasn’t a typical release waiver, it was a TOE TAG. In other words, in case I die today, it would obviously be too much trouble for the folks at the bungy office to fill out this little form, so best I do it now, myself, to ensure I’m properly identified when my body turns up in the river a mile away. Great. That’s reassuring!

The ride to the bridge felt a lot like what I imagine an inmate riding to death row may feel like. My stomach started doing somersaults and I realized that the coffee and the terror weren’t really mixing very well. I decided to check in last to give myself ample time to watch the other lunatics jump and try to build my confidence.

I sat on a wood ledge atop the Kawarau Bridge while a man with a beard attached harnesses to bungy cord and tied my ankles together with thick rope. The chilly wind whipped straight through my clothing. Shaking, partially from the cold but mostly from fear, I wondered to myself, “Why am I doing this?” “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I really go through with this?”

Once all the knots were tied and leashes fastened, I stood up and hobbled onto the ledge, holding the metal railing behind me with all my might. “Don’t look down,” the bearded man said. So naturally, I looked down. 141 feet below me was the rushing Kawarau River, a yellow raft to find me after my descent and a lot of distance between me and the obliteration of my fear. The man with the beard said he would count down from 5 and that I should jump when he reached 1. He told me that the longer I stand there, the harder it gets, so best to jump right away without thinking. Easier said than done.

Bearded Man: 5-4-3-2-1.

Me: (still standing there looking out into the distance) I don’t think I can do this.

Bearded Man: That’s natural, just don’t think about. I’m going to count down again and when I get to 1, just jump. 5-4-3-2-1.

Me: Nope. Do it again.

Bearded Man: 5-4-3-2-1.

Me: Um. Hmm.

Bearded Man: Ok, let’s try this. Take your hands off the railing.

Me: I can’t.

Bearded Man then forced one of my hands off the railing.

Me: Oh my god!

Bearded Man: You can do this. Just take your other hand off the railing.

Me: I can’t.

Bearded Man: Yes you can. 5-4-3-2-1

I JUMP!

There are no words to describe the sensation of falling 141 feet, watching the size of the river beneath me grow larger with each passing second. I held my breath the whole way down and prayed to God, Allah, or whoever would listen, that the damn bungy cord wouldn’t fail. Just as I thought I might actually plunge into the frigid waters below, I was flung wildly back up into the air, dropped again, bounced back up, then down, then up and down one more time for good measure. When I finally stopped bouncing around, I began swaying side to side and was told by the men in the raft to grab hold of a long stick and pull myself aboard.

On solid ground again, the euphoria of what I had just accomplished began to set in. My head was light and walking felt weird. It’s like the rush that comes from surviving a potentially life-threatening jump makes all other actions seem trivial and pointless. Staring fear in the face and overcoming it in such a bold fashion makes you feel superhuman.

It’s been about 32 hours since that fated jump and I am still high from it. I play it over and over in mind to try to regain a piece of that feeling and understand how and the why I ever did it. Here’s what I’ve pieced together in my day or so of reflection.

The How

Somewhere between “I can’t do this” and the jump, something happened. It’s like a switch flipped in my mind and the part of me that was holding back finally gave way to the part of me that needed to do this. The battle waged in my mind was won by the stronger, braver version of me. It’s like I envisioned myself chickening out and walking off the bridge a sore loser and couldn’t accept that as reality. There was only one way off this bridge for me, and that was down.

The Why

I turned 30 this year. I do believe age is just a number, but there is something pivotal about turning 30. It’s like society thinks you can’t really mess around anymore. It’s time to get your shit together and be an adult. Well I’ve lost my job and I’m frivolously (though thriftily) gallivanting around the world. I’m basically giving the finger to the ubiquitous “THEY” who say that I should work hard, pay taxes, get married, have kids and be happy, or at least pretend to, until I die. Screw that! I want to live it to the fullest every minute of every day. I want to see the world through my own eyes, not just images in movies or someone else’s photos on Flickr. I want to do it my way.

But also, there was something very personal about overcoming fear behind my motivation to jump. I think I had to take that leap to prove to myself that I am more courageous than I give myself credit for. I’ve seen myself give into fear too many times, so making a bold statement that fear is like a little peanut in my hand that I can crush with one swift clutch of the fingers is something I needed to do. And in some intangible way, I do feel stronger, more self-assured, more fearless, because of that jump.

I can’t believe this journey through New Zealand has only lasted 19 days so far. I feel like I’ve done, learned, seen and grown so much in these short weeks that it must be longer. I have driven on the left side of the road. I have ridden in not one, but two helicopters. I have hiked glaciers, rafted rapids, skied mountains, zorbed, and of course, bungy jumped. I have made new friends and skyped with old ones. I’ve tasted fine wine and eaten my fair share of fish n’ chips. I have seen magnificent landscapes and reveled in their beauty. I have taken risks and grown stronger because of it. I have loved every minute.

It will be incredibly hard to say goodbye to New Zealand, but the clock is ticking and more adventures await. In a couple of days I fly to Melbourne, where I will throw a shrimp on the barbie and wrestle some crocs. Ok, maybe not, but it just sounded good. Till next time, g’day mate!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Braving It All in Abel Tasman, Franz Josef and Beyond

A Maori man recently told me that there is a relationship between the land and the people who inhabit it in New Zealand. I immediately thought about the land as a source of food, shelter and beauty. But really, the impact that the landscape has on people here goes far beyond these basic needs. It was only when I began to explore nature in this amazing place did the statement begin to make sense.

I arrived in Nelson a bit earlier than expected and decided to get back in the car and drive another hour to Abel Tasman. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I heard it was beautiful and thought it might be a nice way to kill a couple hours. I parked the car, grabbed my iPod and started walking. It was an overcast day, but the air was fresh and clean from the morning rain. I came to a little bridge and looked out over the expansive coastline and my breath was taken away for the first of many times that day. The beach was dotted with rocks and in the distance were mountains of varying shades of blue and grey. Alone on this trail with Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marching” filling the silence, an indescribable feeling of peace and gratitude swept through me. Just a couple short weeks ago I was on the other side of the world. How unbelievably fortunate I am to be able to take in the beauty and magnitude of this place. I spent two hours walking, and with each bend in the path or crest of a hill, a new and equally remarkable view came into sight. If I ever come back to New Zealand I will spend 3 whole days trekking through this national park and try to take in every inch of it. Words and even photos cannot do justice the powerful grace of Abel Tasman.

The following day I drove west to the coast and then began the drive south along the famous Highway 6. This drive is ranked as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Roadtrips, and for good reason. The coastline resembles that of California’s Highway 1 near Big Sur, only the water is a brighter shade of turquoise and the flora looks almost tropical at times. I decided to splurge on the night’s accommodations and checked myself into a lovely single room in Hokitika where I had ocean views and a double bed all to myself. I woke up to birds chirping, the smell of salty ocean air and the soft lull of waves crashing gently on the shore. This might be the best $37 I’ve spent so far!

From Hokitika I drove south to Franz Josef, where I had booked a helicopter ride and glacier hike. I will spare you the 7 minute version of the video footage from the helicopter, but you must check the Picasa link on the right side of the page to see the photos to get a sense of the adventure.

Once my stomach settled and my heart slowed to a healthy pace after exiting the helicopter, I was completely awestruck by the sight of this enormous glacier. Our guide, Ty, took us through blue ice formations and up into the depths of the glacier. It was here on this glacier that I had another moment of clarity. I was admiring the way the ice jutted wild and careless into the sky. I noticed how the mountains seemed rugged and fearless. I watched the glitter of sunlight off the dimpled faces of the ice peaks and listened to the glacier create streams of fresh water underneath the cracked ice floor and all of a sudden it came to me… There is something unbelievably courageous about nature here: the way the rocks hold strong against the fierce ocean, the mountains extend bravely into the clouds, the ice bends and cracks to form deep cervices, the water proudly reflects an iridescent shade of blue/green. And I hear in my mind the Maori man talking about the land and the people and it all makes sense.

The people here are so deeply impacted by the courage and beauty of nature that they internalize that feeling and try to mirror it in their lives. They do things like bungy and skydive because they are inspired to be as fearless as the nature that surrounds them. They live in a place where they can go from tropical coastline to mountain glacier in a matter of hours and all of a sudden anything seems possible.

After two weeks in this special island country, I believe the land has begun to have an impact on me too. Each day brings bigger thrills than the day before, and I seem to have developed an insatiable thirst for adventure. Tomorrow I ski Cadrona. The day after I will helicopter into a river and manage Level IV and V rapids. The finale will be the 43m bungy jump off Kawarau Bridge (the first commercial bungy jump in the world). Naturally I’m a bit timid, but something about this place has inspired me to step fearlessly ahead, or off a bridge in this instance, and accomplish the extraordinary. I imagine the next installment of Adventures in Funemployment may have some video footage of me screaming my way to the bottom of a bungy jump, that is, if this spirit of adventure doesn’t fade with the winter sunlight before I take that leap of faith. Pray for me!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stark Contrasts: A Weekend in Wellington

New Zealand is a land of contrasts. The North Island competes with the South Island for bragging rights as the best New Zealand. The Maori hold on to their distinct culture despite the arrival of the British a couple hundred years ago. Even nature here is riddled with contrasts. Dark green cliffs jut magnificently into the deep blue sea. The kiwi bird cannot fly. The weather can change from dark grey clouds to bright blue skies within the course of 5 minutes.

When I arrived Thursday night in Wellington I grabbed an airport shuttle to the hostel. A man in an LA Dodgers hat hopped on as well. I struck up conversation to find out if he was from LA, which indeed he was, only to discover he is the tour director for an LA based hip hop artist named The Game. Dontay showed me some video footage of the Maori welcome they received at the Auckland airport (imagine men in skirts doing warrior dances while women robed in native attire sing rhythmically). New Zealand was the final stop on a tour that travelled all around the world, and the crew was headed back to LA after a final show in Wellington. To my good fortune, Dontay offered to put Maz and I on the guest list!

So Friday night, Maz and I hopped on the train to Porirua, 20 minutes outside of Wellington. We then walked confusedly through a suburb that clearly has an aversion to utilizing street signs. The arena, which was more like a high school gymnasium than a concert venue, was packed with teenagers, primarily Maori, dressed in baggy jeans, caps turned sideways and oversized sweatshirts with pot leaves embroidered on the back. We were amongst the very few white people in the arena and definitely the only people over the age of 22. That phrase about a sore thumb comes to mind here. But once the lights were turned down and The Game finally took the stage, there was no stopping anyone from getting down on the dance floor. I can’t say it was the best hip hop show I’ve ever seen, but it was definitely a night to remember.

The following night I ventured to another suburb of Wellington, only this time, for a very different set of circumstances. My dear friend Carie suggested I get in touch with her friend Vaughan while I was in Wellington. It turns out that it was Vaughan’s 40th birthday weekend and he was hosting a James Bond themed party complete with dirty martinis and an Aston Martin parked in the driveway. I made a quick stop at the $2 store earlier that day and purchased a fake strand of pearls and a toy gun to spice up my otherwise non-Bondish outfit. The party was composed of 40-something professional couples from in and around Wellington garbed in their finest cocktail attire. A couple martinis and few new friends later, I hopped in a cab back to the city to get a good night’s sleep before my 7:30 a.m. wake up call.

Wellington is a spectacular city and one I hope to come back to at some point in my life. The streets are dotted with modern sculptures. The people are friendly and hip. The cafes have outdoor seating. And the eateries are neverending.

But as with all good things, it’s time to move on. As I sit on the ferry to Picton, I cannot help but silently giggle at the extreme contrasts of my weekend in Wellington. From a hip hop show packed with urban teenagers to a black tie affair in an upscale neighborhood, anything and everything goes here.

I have just crossed the Cook Straight. Goodbye to the North Island and hello to the South Island. Up next: wine tasting in the famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc region and roadtripping along the epic West Coast.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Entering Adventure: Waitomo & Rotorua

Kiwis are thrill seekers if I’ve ever seen any. They see a hill and turn it into a winding luge course. They see a bridge and attach a bungee cord and jump off. They see a rock and repel down it, zip line across it or use it as a launch pad into a lake. There are many adjectives I could use to describe these maniacal blokes, but boring isn’t one of them. I’ve committed myself to doing my best to fit in around these parts.

I started this commitment by venturing down into a cave to see some glow worms. In the frigid cold we stuffed our bodies into damp wetsuits and gum boots and headed into the depths of the earth. The descent into the caves was a little daunting. The rocks were so narrow that I had to twist the top half of my body right while the lower half of my body carefully maneuvered the steps beneath me to the left. Once under the earth, the view was stunning: big limestone rocks immersed in water below my feet and a ceiling dripping with stalactites above my head. Ducking and dodging rocks that may cut through the wetsuits, we walked, waded and swam through this magnificent cave. Deep in its bowels we finally encountered the luminescent creatures we traveled so far to see. And… it’s all a sham! It turns out the famed Glow Worms are actually more similar to maggots than worms. Ew! The sound of Glow Maggot Caves doesn’t really have the same ring to it, so it’s all just a marketing ploy to lure na├»ve tourists. However, drifting through the caves in an inner-tube in pitch black darkness while the “glow worms” illuminated the rock ceiling in a constellation-like fashion was nothing short of spectacular.

But this was merely the tip of the iceberg for discovering adventure in New Zealand. Today I finally realized my dream of zorbing. Ever since I first heard of this wondrous activity, I knew I must experience it. In fact, this was the main motivation for driving 3 hours from Auckland to the stinky (I’ll explain more on that in a minute) town of Rotorua. Zorbing is, well, ridiculous. You go to the top of a hill, dive into a big plastic ball that reminds me of a toy my pet hamster used to play in, and go rolling down a hill while you slush around in the water within. Maz was designated cinematographer while I endured this madness. But due to technical difficulties, she did not capture my wild ride. Instead, I took some footage of the next person to go to give you a sense of the experience. While you watch this, imagine me inside screaming at the top of my lungs and laughing hysterically.

video

Since I was already in my bathing suit and soaking wet, Maz and I decided to venture on to take a soak in a famed stream. It’s actually the vortex of two streams. One stream is cold mountain spring water. The other stream is hot, volcanic water. If you sit at a particular part of this river you actually feel both the hot and cold currents, concurrently, which is an incredibly bizarre sensation. The whole Rotorua region is filled with natural thermal wonders. There are a number of geysers, naturally heated mud pools and thermal hot springs, which fill the region with an intense sulphorous stench that gets into your clothes and skin to no avail. Some of these natural wonders are big tourist attractions and cost good money to enjoy. Others, like the stream we visited, are entirely free so budget travelers like ourselves can enjoy as well… that is, if you can find them. We had been told that this stream we were seeking was quite easy to locate. This assumed that we would not turn onto the first Loop Rd., but would somehow instinctively know to turn down the second street by the exact same name. Obvi!!!

video

Tomorrow I head back to Auckland to catch a flight to Wellington. The weekend will hopefully be relaxing (think a glass of wine and a good book by the fire) and I will recover from the first (though certainly not the last) onslaught of New Zealand adventures. I may sprinkle in a James Bond-themed birthday party for someone named Vaughan, whom I have never met. More on that next time. In the meantime, if you have any Bond girl costume ideas that can be produced by the articles contained within my 30-pound backpack (such as khaki pants, black fleece, sneakers, etc.), please leave a comment.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Arrival

I imagined the flight from LA to Auckland would be 13 hours of torture. I envisioned being trapped in the window seat, needing to pee constantly but wary of waking my sleeping neighbors, unable to sleep, seated next to some overweight, smelly man who wanted to chat endlessly. I suspected that every second would feel similar to someone taking a tiny needle and poking me in the eye with it repeatedly. To my pleasant surprise, this was not the case. I was seated next to a very cheerful couple from Auckland who gave me some great tips and only chatted me up for the last 30 minutes of the flight. I slept for 8 hours, watched a cheesy, but entertaining movie called Adventureland and witnessed a breathtaking sunrise over the horizon of puffy white clouds somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. It may have been the easiest (nevermind the only) 13 hour flight I've ever taken!

The other fortunate event was meeting an English woman named Maz
while waiting for the bus from the airport to the city. She was on the same flight from LA and is also traveling alone. She and I have spent the last few days sightseeing together and she has quickly become a fantastic travel companion. The only problem is that her thick Cockney accent allows me to understand only about 50% of what she says and it's likely I'll start using words like "bloody," "diabolical" and "half six" as compared to six-thirty.

I've spent the weekend here in Auckland. I can't say I've really fallen in love with this city, but I suppose it's a good jumping off place. It is, perhaps, the cleanest city I've ever been. There is no trash on the streets, no homelessness and seemingly very little crime. The downside to this city is that there is very little character. The buildings look like those you may find in Any City, U.S.A. The racial diversity is lacking: there are Pacific Islanders, Asians, Whites and Indians, but I haven't seen a single Black or Hispanic person. And from what I can tell, the American restaurants outnumber the local ones. There are at least 6 Subway sandwich eatiers within a 12 block radius, a couple of McDonald's, a Burger King, a Wendy's and a couple of Starbucks.

Tomorrow is when the “adventure” part of this whole adventure really begins… Maz and I set off on a driving expedition to Waitomo, where we’ll put on full-body wetsuits, grab an inner-tube and float through caves illuminated by glow worms. Should be bloody brilliant!

Reading: Almost French by Sarah Turnbull (thanks Robyn)

Listening: Computer Love by Glass Candy

Eating: The best fish & chips I've ever had from Ponsonby Fish & Chips