Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Enterprise! (04.02.07-Edited to Include Photos!)

No, the title does not refer to our adventure in general. The Enterprise is, in fact, our own personal spaceship (though I still think it needs a good nickname!). We're on the second night of the spaceship, and it is a lot of fun. No tent to set up, lots of freedom. It's basically a minivan revamped to include a bed, small two-burner propane stove, small cooler and some storage under the mattresses. It is pretty ingenious for people who want to hit the road in cozy quarters without the stress of driving a true campervan! Though it is cozy--we're glad there are two of us, though they can hold four. Yikes!

Tyler, Enterprise Commander Extraordinaire

The Enterprise ready for DVD viewing and Sleep

Our cozy quarters

Another fun thing about the spaceship is it's a little like you've joined a little club--we've had a few other spaceship sightings, and there's always lots of waving and light-flashing, which makes for fun moments on the road.

Yesterday, we went to Waitomo Caves, about 2 1/2 hours south of Auckland. In Maori, Waitomo means "running under water," and the area is full of caves. We took one tour of the Glowworm Caves. Glowworms are strange creatures. They only live in New Zealand and four states of Australia, they live about 11 months, most of the time spent as a pupae, and once they become a full-fledged insect, they live for 1-5 days, mate, die and serve as food for other pupae. But they are fascinating! They glow in order to attract water bugs that wander into the caves. The bugs get attracted by the glowing lights, thinking that it's the way back out, but instead they get trapped in the multitude of mucus strings that the glowworms "spin" to catch their prey. I have to admit, when we entered the Glowworm Grotto, I could see the allure. The glowing lights above our head looked like a little milky way, with the green bioluminescent glow.

The caves themselves were worth a trip in and of themselves as well. We got to see lots of stalagtite and stalagmite formations. One room, called the Pipe Organ, was especially impressive, with a whole column of formations that did look like its namesake.

Unfortunately, to protect the glowworms and the limestone formations, no pictures were allowed, so I'll have to hope my words prove descriptive enough!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Heaven--an Island with 26 Wineries

Yesterday, we left Auckland and took a morning ferry to Waiheke Island. It's a small island 35-minutes from the city with beaches and 26 wineries. We arrived with the intention of catching a bus to the main hostel on the island. We got off in the main town, Oneroa, only to realize when we had gotten off the bus that we actually wanted Onetangi, another 25 minutes further down the road. And the buses only run once an hour when the ferries arrive. Fortunately, there was an i-Site just around the corner from the bus stop. I-Sites are amazing resources--we booked our spaceship through them, they'll give you advice on where to go, book hotels, give you maps and information. In short, they are a traveller's dream, and they are friendly and helpful and don't try to pressure you into other activities or more expensive things.

Auckland Skyline from the Ferry

At the i-Site, the nice woman suggested that rather than sitting around for the next bus, we could leave our bags there and walk to two nearby wineries, including one that had been highly recommended by our friends, JJ and Piper, who left us the goodie bag (see Tyler's entry below!). So, 35 pounds or so lighter, we started walking. First stop was Cable Bay Vineyards. For $5, we got to taste seven delicious wines. The island is known for producing good red grapes (cabernet, cab franc, merlot) and chardonnay, so most the wineries get grapes from Marlborough (on the south island) to make Sauvignon Blanc. Cable Bay is relatively new to the scene, started in 1996 and the tasting room and restaurant just opened a few months. Loosened up with some tasty wine, Tyler and I decided to treat ourselves to a delicious lunch (snapper and steak) from their modern-style dining room with a fantastic view. After lots of "self-cooking" at our Auckland hostel and plenty of mediocre food in general, it was fantastic.

After that, we walked a little further up the hill to Mudbrick Vineyard for another $5 8 wine tasting. Unfortunately, we weren't as wowed by these wines, but it was still fun.

We made our way back to the i-Site, passing by rows of grapes, views of the Bay and Dwell-worthy modern homes to find that our friendly helper had not yet (nor the previous day) been able to reach the hostel. We decided that since we'd be living on the road for the next few weeks that we would treat ourselves to a B&B, Tawa Lodge, for our two nights here. With great views and close access to town and a beach, we happily settled in for the evening.

Little Oneroa Beach, just down the road from our B&B

Exploring Tidepools at Little Oneroa Beach

Today we got up and decided to hit more wineries--four in all, including the best one we've had, Stonyridge. The prices matched, with their best Bordeaux-style wine costing $200 a bottle. But the wines we had (a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Morvedre, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux-style red and a Rhone-style Red) were fantastic, and the guy serving us was enthusiastic and informative.

View of Putiki Bay from Goldwater Estate Winery

Waiheke has been a great vacation from travelling. We thought Tahiti might serve that purpose, but there were enough difficulties and a short enough time that it wasn't as relaxing as we had hoped. Being here feels more like taking a "trip" than "travelling." Though it's only been four days since we've arrived, I've been really charmed by New Zealand already. People are friendly and helpful, and the culture is really focused on the environment--rain water collection, worm composting toilets, dual-flush toilets, plenty of recycling, billboards promoting reducing your personal carbon emissions, and last night--on primetime TV--there was a show called "Wasted," all about reducing waste (energy, water, and just the usual solid trash waste) with young people sharing a house. And people think renting a campervan for a few weeks is the best way to see the Island.

While I'm happy we'll have more exotic--and challenging--adventures ahead of us, I think this is going to be a nice month or so.

Oh--and another note for any regular readers--we're guessing that being on the road and the more rural South Island might lead to less frequent posting. But we still hope to check in every so often and post lots of pictures!

So, I knew I forgot something...

So, when I made my last post, I had a bunch of stuff I wanted to talk about... but proceeded to blank on about half of it. And then I padded my entry out with made-up vocabulary. Anyhow, here's what I really wanted to mention:

So, our friends JJ and Piper were in New Zealand recently. In fact, they were here so recently, that they flew out of the Auckland airport just a couple hours before we flew in. Before that, we had exchanged emails with them in order to get some advice on the "do"s and "don't"s of New Zealand. At the end of their last email, they told us rather cryptically to "we will leave you a little something something at the iSite in the international terminal in auckland. check behind the "City Life Hotel" pamphlets in the Auckland hotels section."

iSites are New Zealand's super-useful tourist offices that are scattered in most heavily touristed areas.

So, when we arrived at the airport Sarah and I made our way quickly through customs and to the airport's iSite. After a short seach, we found a note jammed behind the City Life Hotels brochures telling us to go and the Auckland City Life hotel and ask the concierge for a package from JJ and Piper.

Then, after we arrived in downtown Auckland, we were pleased to find the City Life Hotel just around the corner from our hostel. And, at the concierge's desk, we received a pack filled with Cliff bars, sun screen (very useful, since we had just run out in Tahiti), a map of New Zealand, some antibiotic cream and a list of "JJ and Piper's Top Ten Things to Do in New Zealand." So, thanks to JJ and Piper for the gift pack and advice. And, thanks for giving us and entertaining and welcoming start to New Zealand!

Between that, and the confusing signs on the Coast to Coast Walk, Auckland was a regular scavenger hunt!

I can't imagine how Sarah or I could have gotten lost while on the Coast to Coast Hike.

Finally, even though Sarah is going to get you all caught up on the last day or two, I thought I'd mention that now that we've gotten away from the city, I've found that I really, really enjoy talking to New Zealander's. Their easy going approach and friendly conversation style have made even the most mundane interactions enjoyable. Earlier today, Sarah and I were getting on teh bus, and after talking to the bus driver, I found myself thinking "it was really enjoyable talking to the bus driver."

I'd probably even enjoy going to the Department of Motor Vehicles here (or, at least, the NZ equivlant).

As most of you know, New Zealand is known for its X-Treme™ sports. So, here's a picture of probably the closest Sarah or I will come to bungee jumping, etc.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

We're hiring a Spaceship!

So Sarah and I decided to hire a Spaceship today...

No, not a Spaceship like this! We're hiring a Spaceship like this!

Early on in our trip planning, we'd decided that we wanted to rent a car while in New Zealand and basically make a big long road trip down the length of it. But recently we'd become concerned about the cost of both renting a car for three weeks and paying for hotels and hostels. Then we found out that you can rent camper vans for cheap in New Zealand, and our problems were solved! We'll still have to pay fees at camp sites, but they'll be nominal in comparison to the hostel and hotel costs. Plus, the Spaceship comes with a built in BBQ, chiller, pots and pans and even a DVD player... so we'll be cutting other expenses back at the same time. And it'll allow us to get away for the cities a bit and spend some time hiking and exploring the wilderness which had always been another big goal for this leg of our trip.

We are very excited!

But we actually don't pick up our Spaceship until Thursday. We spent today exploring Auckland, and tomorrow we catch a ferry to Waikehe Island. There, we'll spend a couple of days relaxing, hiking and taking tours of the 24 wineries on the island. Sounds like a rough way to spend a couple of days, no?

Today, though, we actually managed to beat ourselves up a bit. We decided to do a 16 kilometer (about 10 miles) hike through Auckland. It was called the Coast to Coast trail. Auckland basically sits on a thin isthmus on the Northern end of New Zealand and the trail stretches from one side to the other. Along the way, it climbs several of the ancient volcanic hills, cuts through numerous parks and college campuses and provided us with a great way to see a lot of the city quickly.

It also made our feet very, very sore.

My initial impression of New Zealand (or at least Auckland), is that it reminds me a bit of a trip to Vancouver. It's got that "same but different" vibe to it, where the language, culture and city have a lot of similarities to Seattle (lots of water and green space, lots of Asian influences, laid back and hip feel), but it's also got a ton of little differences that suddenly jump out at you. Things like the accents, the money, the warmer climate or just the fact that they drive on the other side of the road (something that will be a bit more of an issue on Thursday). But, at the same time, it's interesting seeing the parrallels between this part of the world and my own home town.

Sorry I don't have pictures to share with you all though; we spaced out (probably thinking about our Spaceship or bemoaning or sore feet) and left our camera back in our room at the hostel. So, to make up the lack of pictues, I'll share a random new vocab work that Sarah and I have made up while on the trip:

Escudoed - (Es-coo-doed) VERB.
1. To drink large amounts of cheap Chilean beer. Particularly while sitting on plastic furniture in front of a divey looking bar. Usage example: "Let's not go there, everyone looks completely Escudoed."

Escudo is a Chilean beer of questionable quality. And while back in Santiago, Sarah used the exact sentence above while we were walking past a bar that always seemed jam-packed with Chilean youths starting at about noon. Since she coined the usage, it's quickly become a new favorite vocab word. I thought some of you back home might enjoy it.

OK, time to quit rambling!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Photo Catch Up: Bolivia and Chile

We didn't get to these in Santiago (ironically, we found it harder to do many things in the big city than we did in tiny towns in Peru and Bolivia). And then internet was too expensive in Easter Island and Tahiti (prices have ranged from US 30 cents an hour in Peru to $10 an hour in Tahiti). So here are some of the things we raved about in the past month.

Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca:

The motley crew on the Bolivian Tour (look in the rearview mirror) and pictures of the Salar de Uyuni:

Our first Bolivian Altiplano Lake and flamingos!

The broad barrenness of the Altiplano:

A volcano smoking in Chile seen from Bolivia:

Lago Colorada and Lago Verde:

The colorful hills and houses of Valparaiso, Chile:

When flying into New Zealand this morning, the immigration form asked which countries we'd been to in the last 30 days. It was sort of amazing to realize we're already on our fifth country (Peru, Bolivia, Chile and French Polynesia) in about six weeks. Hopping between three countries (and three time zones) in one week was a little intense. We're looking forward to being in one place for a chunk of time again.

Unplanned Island Life

Harold Crick: What is wrong with you? Hey, I don't want to eat nothing but pancakes, I want to live! I mean, who in their right mind--in a choice between pancakes and living--chooses pancakes?

Dr. Jules Hilbert: Harold, if you pause to think, you'd realize that that answer is inextricably contingent upon the type of life being led... and, of course, the quality of the pancakes.

I'm not even that huge of a fan of pancakes but the quote above stuck with me after watching the movie Stranger Than Fiction on our LanChile flight from Santiago to Easter Island.

Actually, after our four weeks in South America, there was something almost relaxing about the flight in general. Six hours of immersing ourselves in on-flight movies and dinner hobby-kits. LanChile is the type of airline that proves that air travel can still be comfortable and emphasizes how off track most domestic airlines are. Heck, their silverware is still metal.

I know that Sarah is excited to tell you all about Easter Island (which was a truly wonderful experience), so I'll go ahead and fast forward to Tahiti. But I will mention one thing: If you are ever hoping to watch a dramatic sunset behind a line of Moai on the beach... just make sure there are no female dogs in heat present. Having two male dogs begin fighting next to you is less than a romantic.

Beyond that little note, I'm sure that everything that Sarah says is 100% accurate. The entire island was amazing and it was truly one of the highlights of our trip. Anyhow, on to Papeete (pronouced Pah-pee-aye-te, not Pah-pete)...

Papeete, Tahiti

There's nothing quite like the sensation of arriving at midnight on an unfamilar tropical island with no hotel reservations, no cash in hand, no guide book and the knowledge that even "cheap" hotels are often over $200 a night. And that was exactly the situation Sarah and I found ourselves in as we made our way off the plane, onto the tarmac, past the eukelele players, and into Papeete's airport.

Luckily, we had heard rumors of a new airport hotel and figured we'd try our luck there. And, even more luckily, it turned out to be across the street from the airport and reasonsably priced. Ok, so the room still cost about ten times what our typical room in South America cost, but it had a comfortable bed, decor that could have passed for an Ikea showroom, and (most importantly) a hot shower. After three days of sweating on Easter Island, we were getting pretty stinky, and it was nice to feel clean again... even if we knew that we'd be instantly covered in sweat again as soon as we left the safe confines of our air-conditioned room.

The next morning, we cleaned up, got some money from the bank--thank goodness for those emergency travellers cheques--at the airport (which seemed to also serve as a sort of defacto shopping center), and hopped onto a bus into downtown Papeete. In Papeete, we made our way to the one cheap hostel we'd read about in town: Hostel Teamo (pronounced Tey-ah-mo, not Team-o).

Teamo had rooms available, but unfortunately, only dorm rooms. This was doubly unfortunate, because it was seperate dorms for males and females, effectively making it the first night Sarah and I had spent apart since the trip began. But, then again, the beds were less than half the price of the Airport Hotel, so who are we to complain.

After ditching our bags, Sarah and I swung by the Tourist Information Center, than caught a bus to the other side of the island. The bus ride (which was maybe 45 minutes long) reinforced the fact that the rest of the world considers sometime around the year 1984 to be the apex of American Music. From this point on, I will always think of Tahitian bus rides whenever I hear "You're The One That I Want" off the Grease soundtrack.

On the far side of Tahiti, Sarah and I checked out the Gauguin Musuem, which didn't actually feature any of his work, but instead talked about the artist's interest in Tahit and his life on the island. After that, we wandered over to a botanical garden across the street, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise featuring not only an amazing array of plant life, but also two tortoises from the Galapagos. After strolling through the garden for about an hour, we made our way to a nearby snack shop where we had a beer and sat on a deck overlooking the ocean.

Me at the botanical garden.
A tortoise at the garden.

Little did we know that, while watching the ocean, we were also missing the last bus back to Papeete. Drat!

Luckily, Sarah was able to talk to a woman driving a tour van and arrange for us to get a ride back into town for half the price of the tour (the tour itself was only halfway done, so it seemed fair). So when the two other middle-aged couples on the tour returned to their van from the musuem, they were probably shocked to find Sarah and I sitting in the back seat, stinking of sweat and beer, and basking in the vans air conditioning. They were all pleasant enough though, and the tour stopped at an amazing grotto that Sarah and I would have missed otherwise.

Oh, and have I mentioned the air conditioning on the bus? Tahiti is hot. And humid.

Back in town, Sarah and I decided to eat at the Roulottes. The Roulottes are about a dozen vans that set up shop in a parking lot on the wharf each night and sell a variety of dinner options ranging from crepes to Chinese food. Probably at no other place on Tahiti is the juxtoposition of Tahiti's combined French and Polynesian histories more apparent than on the menus of the Roulottes. Sitting at a plastic table, on a wharf, with fish and veal cooking on BBQs around you and French-lyric pop music filling the air is a unique experience. Though one that also reminded us of the the sort of impromtu community fair that seemed to arise in the central plazas of towns like Pisco, Peru, each night.

The Roulottes

Tahitian vanilla ice cream at the Roulottes

After dinner, the heat and time change caught up with us, and we called it an early night and retired to our seperate dorm rooms.

The next day, we woke up early and caught a catamaran ferry to Moorea, the closest neighboring island to Tahiti. While Tahiti and its port town of Papeete is more bustling and developed than one would expect, Moorea looks more like the Polynesian island one might expect to see on a postcard: white sand beaches, palm trees and steep volcanic mountains rising to misty peaks.

Arrising in Moorea (with a slightly seasick Sarah), we hopped a bus to the far side of the island, where we heard the best beaches were. And, roughly 40 minutes later, we were finally lying in the sand and splashing in the bathtub warm waters of the South Pacific. Bliss!


After lounging on the beach for several hours, we made our way back to the bus stop, where we ran into one of the other girls from Sarah's dorm: Mandy. Mandy is a UW student (pretty much every American we've run into on this trip seems to be from Seattle. I'm convinced that only Seattlites travel abroad), who arrived late the previous night after flying straight from Paris to Papeete. She was basically on a one day lay over, before heading to Auckland for a quarter of studying abroad. She seemed even more confused and lost than us (it was her first trip abroad, and her first time travelling alone after leaving friends in Paris), so we quickly became fast friends with her on the bus and ferry trip back to Papeete.

Back in Papeete, we decided to go shopping for black pearls. Because of the black sand beaches that surround Tahiti, the pearls there are a unique black color. And, since we were in Papeete, Tahiti, black pearls are available at an extra cheap price.

Sarah had hoped to buy one as her one big luxury purchase of the trip.

So, with Mandy in tow, we went to a pearl shop so Sarah could pick out the pearl of her choice. Soon, she'd settled on a single pearl in a simple silver necklace. Mandy, also swiftly lured by the siren song of the black pearls, picked out a similar necklace.

Sarah and Mandy covetting black pearls at the market (also note that they both got a little sun that day).

Unfortnately, when it came time to actually buy them, our bank card was denied. Several increasingly desperate phonecalls to the bank later, it was determined that our card had been put on hold because the bank had grown suspicious of all the purchases made abroad. This was even more frustrating to us because on three seperate occasions before leaving I'd told the bank that we would be travelling for the next seven months. The fraud department in turn explained to us that we needed to call them ever 30 days to notify them that we were still traveling, or else we'd have this happen to us every month. Unfortunately, our calling card expired before we could get the card reactived.

Here's what WaMu didn't seem to want to give us -- the colorful money of French Polynesia.

Luckily for us, disaster was averted when Mandy offered to pay for Sarah's pearl on the condition that we pay her back by the time we reached Auckland. So, in the end Sarah got her black pearl; and later we were able to reactive our cards and get Mandy her money.

So, in short, Mandy is a hero. And Washington Mutual is lame.

After all the pearl purchasing drama (which also involved a procession of cars driving past us decorated for a wedding and all blaring their horns as Sarah tried to talk on a pay phone), we decided to celebrate by all going to grab dinner at the Roulottes again.

Then, after dinner, we returned to our hostel (where Sarah and I got transfered to our own private room. Yay!) and got to bed early. The next morning, the three of us all had to get up at 4am to catch out flight to Auckland. Unfortuantely, the only bus we encountered seemed to be overflowing with late night partiers from the previous night and couldn't fit us and our backpacks. So, after standing on the curb for several minutes, a pickup pulled up and offered us a ride.

Now, in hindsight, hopping in the back of a stranger's pickup at four in the morning probably doesn't sound like the smartest move on the planet. But, after a quick and breezy ride to the airport, it seemed like the perfect end to the crazy, haphazard, but ultimately enjoyable and fortunate two days on the island of Tahiti.

Maruru Tahiti!

Emerging from the South Pacific

Today, Tyler and I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. It's a little strange to be somewhere so...familiar....and easy. Signs are in English and things look more or less like they do at home or Canada. We're using a few days in Auckland to catch up on travelling 'housekeeping'--laundry, blog entries, and such. And there's much to catch up on! And with pictures we actually took! (For a better view, double click the photos to enlarge them.)

We arrived late on Easter Island to step out of the plane onto a humid tarmac and our host waiting for us with beautiful flower leis. After a short ride with others at our hostel in the back of a pickup truck (along with our luggage), we settled in, not quite sure where exactly we were, but ready to experience the island and the moai the next day.

Tyler still contends that one of his favorite moments of our three days on Easter Island was that first morning. After waking up with the heat and roosters crowing, we decided to wander about for a few minutes before breakfast. Since we'd arrived at in the dark, we didn't really have a sense for where our hostel was in relation to anything else. So we walked to the road, realized we were only two blocks from the ocean and could see downtown Hanga Roa (the only town on the island) as well as our first set of moai that are close to town.

We decided to rent a car that day to make our way around the island. While it's fairly small, it's not walkable, and the main moai sites range all across the island. Because it was a manual, Tyler got to do all the driving on many bumpy, off-road feeling roads. You can tell he minded terribly:

We started driving up the eastern coast in a counterclockwise fashion, until we stumbled upon our first overlook. We pulled the car over, mostly to look at the coast, when all the sudden, I noticed that the boulders I saw were in fact pukao, or the topknots that some moai have on their heads. Then Tyler noticed that we were also looking at a set of knocked over moai.

Though I had heard that seeing the knocked over moai might seem anticlimactic after some of the more spectacular restored moai, I actually found them quite moving. The first book I read on the trip was Jared Diamond's Collapse, which chronicles the falls of various societies, including Easter Island. Basically, the Cliff's Notes version is that the Easter Islanders first started building the ahu, or raised platforms for burial and ceremonial purposes. Then they started erecting the stone figures, or moai. At some point, the six societies on this small island started trying to outdo the moai building with each other, used all their energies and natural resources to this purpose, knocked other tribes' moai over, until they basically collapsed. Knowing all this made the fallen moai seem that much more tragic.

We had also heard and read that eventually you find yourself just tripping over ruins and moai, which was totally true. At every turn, you could see all rock walls, house foundations, circular walls used for agriculture, ahu and the moai and pukao.

One of the most amazing places we visited was called Rano Rarako, aka the "nursery." All the moai were carved out of the same volcanic stone from one place on the island. When the civilization petered out, there were more carved and partially carved moai on this volcano than there are on the entire island. It was really an incredible site.

And they are massive. It's hard to appreciate their size, but we tried to catch their looming quality in this photo. In the next, at a nearby site where a Japanese corporation helped re-erect the largest stand of moai, I'm the small pink dot in the center.

It seemed very strange and amazing to be surrounded by the reminders of a civilization that had nearly disappeared. As I mentioned, there is one town on the island, where really everything is. No homes, hostels, gas stations, anything on the rest of the island. Just remains and lots and lots of wild horses. Here are two more moai pictures:

On our second day, we decided to do some exploring on foot and headed up to an old volcano on the southeast end of the island. It had a huge crater lake and is a significant site for the birdman cult on the island.

While I expected the anthropologist in me to be blown away by the moai and cultural artifacts, the nature-hiker in me also was in awe of the volcanic geology and landscape. On a hike we found down from the crater lake, we encountered tons of amazing coastline, with bright aqua water next to black, craggy rocks. There are also lots of lava tube caves, places where rock solidifed around flowing lava and other beautiful and strange rock formations.

I really can't say enough good things about our experience on Easter Island. While some people at our hostel found it a little quiet for their tastes, I would have been really happy to have had an entire week there, to continue exploring the coast, enjoying the two white sand beaches, and just soaking in the island. I'd have to say it's been the high point of our trip for me so far.

Oh, and here's probably my favorite picture of Tyler from the trip yet.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Iorana! (Or hello, in Polynesian-speak.)

We are on Easter Island, and it is fantastic. The moai are amazing, the geology is incredible and we love it. But we don't love the expensive per-hour internet charges, so we'll be sure to wax rhapsodic, probably post-Tahiti.

We've had two days to explore, wander and stare in awe, and one day tomorrow until flying to Papeete, French Polynesia, for a quick two-day, three-night Tahitian adventure. We'll fill you in soon!