Nobody cares if you are from the United States… and that’s why I’m not. I am from the Virgin Islands. They don’t watch our television shows. Heck, most people don’t even know where the Virgin Islands are. So, while other Americans get looked over (how passé), I am the exotic commodity. It’s a conversation starter, which is something you need when traveling solo. In truth, I have only met one other American backpacker in New Zealand and she grew up just a few miles down the road from me. She tried to teach me how to properly order a coffee since she wouldn’t be the one making it for me the next time. It was a nice thought, but I still haven’t figured out how to order a regular black coffee in Kiwi country. I think it might be called a Tall Black, or perhaps an Americano, but I’m still working on a trail and error basis. One thing I do know is that Iced Coffee is out of the question. What they call Iced Coffee is something like a frappachino and when I mentioned what one was to a barista to see if they had an equivalent, she made a stink face and told me that people wouldn’t drink that in New Zealand. It’s a real bummer because I am an Iced Coffee fanatic in the summer (which I have recently re-entered after a short, blizzardy foray with winter)
Nappies are diapers – That’s one I do know. I found this out after my mate received a call from the pier informing him that there was a jumbo box full of nappies waiting for him. He hadn’t ordered any, but he went ahead and got the box anyway, figuring to make a few bucks off it.
But I digress. I arrived in Auckland three days ago in a huge Air New Zealand plane with thousands of movie options, impeccable service (including several costume changes), and most importantly: unlimited glasses of wine to knock me out for the 13 hour flight. Unlike the first leg of my journey with the deaf-mute, this time my neighbors were a cute Indian couple from Chicago who had all sorts of trouble with the in flight entertainment system. Finally, I set them up with some James Bond (“put on some action, some gun fighting”) and we all fell into a happy slumber.
I woke up in New Zealand and began the awkward process of collecting my bags and stating my purpose in the country. A short bus ride found me in the Central Business District where I checked my bags at Auckland Central Backpackers and set out on the town. When I first arrive to a new place I like to take a walk around to get my bearings. During my long walk, I decided that Auckland is the cleanest, most pristine city I have ever been in. There is no trash on the ground, lots of trees and green space, and I have yet to see a homeless person. I couldn’t even find anywhere that one might call “the bad part of town.” Nobody looks menacing. Instead, they all look uber-hip. Every restaurant is Asian and everyone is skinny except for the Samoans you see walking around with Samoan T-shirts and visors.
The first night I crashed early. I spent the following day opening a bank account, applying for a tax ID #, getting a Vodafone phone #, and taking care of other logistical necessities to make my presence legit. I walked the length of the harbor, hit up a few galleries in the Auckland Art Precinct and a stopped by a few museums but, all told, Auckland does not have a great deal of attractions. Everyone I spoke to told me the beauty of Auckland is getting out of Auckland. So I did just that.
While I was at the travel desk at my hostel pondering a trip on the Beach Bum Bus on Waiheke island, Mr. Beach Bum Bus himself walked in and I took it to be a sign. I hopped the ferry early the next morning and arrived at Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf thirty minutes later. I was the only one signed up for the day, so it became “choose your own adventure,” which I love. We pulled out of the ferry dock, Dan put on some reggae dub music, and the island began to feel eerily familiar. Apparently Reggae music is huge in New Zealand and we listened to various Kiwi groups throughout the day. The roads were small, hilly, at times unpaved, and I felt like I was back at home in the Virgin Islands. We got some coffee at Lazy Lounge and headed across the small township of Oneroa to the Waiheke Community Art Gallery. Having learned I was a glass blower, Dan introduced me to a sweet old lady who showed us some wonderful New Zealand glass art by Keith Mahy and others. Later on, I took a hike through the bush looking for the endemic Tui birds and hit up a few beaches before heading to Dan’s secret fishing spot on the edge of an oyster farm.
I am not the seasoned fisherman that one may assume when they hear Virgin Islands. In the VI you can’t eat the fish you catch off the shore because you are likely to get Ciguatera, so fishing requires a hefty boat trip. Here, it is a different story and Dan wanted to catch some Snapper for us to cook up for dinner. As it turns out, I am a pretty good fisherman. I was the only one to catch a fish, but it was not the nibbling but elusive Snapper.
With fishy hands and fishy shirts, we made our way to Topknot Hill for a little wine tasting. The wines were okay, but the ambiance was a bit odd. Several kiwis were disc shooting in the field while others practiced their archery skills between the rows of grapes. It was definitely a far cry from the vineyards I have visited in the states.
It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect for my Beach Bum adventure. However, New Zealand has the highest skin cancer rate in the world. It turns out there is a giant hole in the ozone layer over New Zealand formed by reflected sunrays from Antarctica. I hardly felt close to Antarctica on the sunny island of Waiheke, but the sunburn on the back of my neck was and is a harsh reminder.
Dan dropped me off on the path leading through the bush to my hostel, Hekerua Lodge. It was around dinnertime and I immediately found myself in the pool chatting with a Kiwi woman who used to work for Royal Caribbean back in the eighties. She got fired for inappropriate behavior with a passenger and is still bitter about it. We jokingly called her a Cougar and kept our distance, but she insisted she liked much older men so we opted for Saber Tooth Tiger instead. She was very distraught about a mass murder that has been on the cover of the New Zealand Herald for days now. It is the biggest story in the country… how could this man have killed all of those dogs? In today’s paper was a picture of a puppy that miraculously survived by hiding under his dying mother. It’s all very sad, but she was using this story to prove to me how New Zealand isn’t as safe as I may think. I am pretty sure with a murder rate of .01 per 1000 people I will be just fine.
Later on, a small group of us backpackers headed to the mini mart by Little Oneroa Beach to grab some dinner. I ended up sitting in the sand with a Czech girl named Zuzi, passing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc back and forth as the sun set. It was all very romantic, until I woke up with her cold this morning. My throat and head hurt, and I thought I was going to puke on the ferry ride back to Auckland. Thanks Zuzi!
Tonight is my last night in the big city. I fly to Christchurch tomorrow afternoon to catch the Trans Alpine Railroad across the south island where I will meet a bus that takes me to my final destination in Franz Josef! The Kiwis I have asked about Franz Josef have all had curious things to say. “There are some weird old characters in Franz.” “The weather down there has been unseasonably nice lately.” “After all the booms and busts in that town, the people that are left are pretty hardcore.” “I think there is a cult that lives nearby.”
As the Kiwis say, “Sweet as!”
The full album of pictures is here