572 Steps Above Hampi with the Monkey God

I hear the chanting from miles away, but it takes a ferry ride across the river, an hour on my bike, and a 30-minute climb to get to the source.

I bike along the Tongahadra River valley, a palm-lined oasis in the veritable desert. It’s so incredibly hot that my body refuses to remain dry. With clammy hands and growing pools of sweat under my eyes, I pedal on toward the Monkey Temple – birthplace of the monkey-shaped god Hanuman, who’s considered a devoted disciple and very strong warrior of Lord Rama.

Leaving my bike with a seemingly trustworthy banana seller at the foot of the hill, I start the long hike up the 572 steps to the top.

The town of Hampi — a trash heap built on the promise of tourism — sits on the edge of a beautiful rock cemetery in the distance. The landscape itself is one of the most jarring in all of India.

Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. Formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion, the result is truly awing. It’s at once both desert and oasis.

Amidst the rubble of the precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. The pleasant symmetry of the majestic kingdom sits in stark contrast to the rutted rock cemetery surrounding.

In 1336, Telugu prince Harihara chose Hampi as the site for his new capital Vijayanager, which in the ensuing centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. At its peak, the empire covered the vast majority of Southern India.

Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur.

It’s amazing what man can do under the auspices of religion. The massive columns of Hampi’s grand structures are like ancient storybooks, full of wild tales of gods and warriors. In addition to the heroic plotlines, the walls of the ancient city provide vivid displays of Hinduisms casual mix of the erotic and the everyday.

The historic site of an epic battle, the 21st century city faces an altogether different type of conflict – that of conservation. Local residents moved in amongst the ruins, building guesthouses and restaurants on top of priceless constructions as tourism began its gradual rise several decades ago.

Some locals even spend their entire lives monitoring minor monuments, claiming ownership and demanding fees from onlookers.

Though the town relies on tourism, Hampi remains one of India’s remarkably well-kept secrets. It’s a wonder the place isn’t bustling with intrepid jetsetters. A trip from the nearest train station at Hospet belies none of the glory of Hampi – but a few high-end resorts could certainly alter the trajectory of this architectural and natural wonder.


Turning away from the dramatic vista, I venture to the far end of the hilltop temple toward the source of the noisy clamor. Entering the lavishly decorated temple, I find a two-man band in a side room, blasting their music into mountaintop speakers.

Around another end of the temple, a fat-bellied man lies on the tile terrace with two young attendants.

The young boys massage his limbs as he offers orders between bouts of lethargy. Others stand by, waiting to serve. A larger-than-life mural of the Monkey King, Hanuman, looms above the entranced man and it strikes me that the two are not so dissimilar in appearance.

Hampi is a holy site mentioned in the Ramayana as Kishkindha, the realm of the monkey gods.

It’s a place where anthropomorphism is not fiction but fact and men can get away with pretending to be descendants of animal gods.

Each morning and evening, crowds gather to clean their bodies and souls in the river below the monkey god’s towering home.

As I make my descent back toward the river, the sun plots its course through the valley walls. Crossing back across the rambling water, an Elephant plays in the stream, dressed in ceremonial gear for a parade in a neighboring village.

As the orange sunset gives way to the violet hour it begins to rain. It’s the first rain of the season – the first rain this area has seen in months. The chanting from the monkey temple grows as the rain intensifies and the people of Hampi praise the monkey god while the sky turns tar black.

The Mekong Delta (continued)

Pt.2 – My Fatalistic Love Affair with the Motorbike

I’d driven a manual car and pedaled many a bicycle, but this hybrid known as the manual motorbike was completely new.  As a passenger on an automatic motorbike in Cat Ba, Vietnam, I knew firsthand how difficult the easier form of this beast could be.  I watched, aghast, as my two friends flew over a rough patch in the road and crashed ten meters away on the hard pavement.  Rushed to a rural hospital with a rural, non-English speaking doctor, they were treated in a dingy, yellow cell in a very rural way.  The one who cried, “I can’t feel my leg,” walked away with ice cubes while the other had the gash on her forehead sewn up in a way that will surely leave an ugly scar.

And yet, the girl who couldn’t feel her leg, two others and I decided to face our fears and try again.  This time, our resident Frenchy (with years of motorbike experience) and I (with none) would drive the beasts.

If you’ve ever played MarioKart, this is like tackling Rainbow Road with Princess on a scooter… a bad idea!

Leaving Can Tho was the first obstacle.  A city of over 350,000 people, Can Tho’s roads were congested with bikes, cycles, carts, carriages, pedestrians, and potholes.  No road is simply a road in Vietnam.  This trip would oscillate between city and jungle driving, two skills I had never acquired on a motorbike.

Perhaps out of a fear of imperfection’s cost, the nuances of the bike came quick.  Always keep your hand on the brakes when you start the bike.  You don’t turn a bike, you lean it.  Your weight is your steering wheel.  Driving is like dancing; it’s a delicate balance.  First gear is impossible, so start with second.  Third gear is to get going and fourth when you’re on a straightaway.  There were a lot of rules and I almost always followed them.

The first day we got incredibly lost, as if getting lost was our goal (which, in a way, it was).  It was a crowded, yet at times, incredibly peaceful countryside of orchards, rice, and fields of flowers.  Whereas English was sporadically understood in the rest of Vietnam, not even the hotel workers in the Delta spoke a word of it.  This made getting lost in the twisting maze of river, rice, canals, and curves all the more unavoidable.

In the early afternoon, we passed a string of police tape. On the other side sat a beat up bike and the chalk marks of its deceased owner.  This was certainly an ominous sign.  The statistics for motorbike accidents in Vietnam are absurd.  In 2008, 12,800 accidents occurred killing 11,600 people and injuring 8,100.   In other words, on any given day in 2008, 35 accidents resulted in 32 deaths and 22 injuries.  And, these numbers were down from 2007!  Had I known these facts at the time, I would never have paid money for a death wish.

By nightfall, we crossed our second river barge, leaving hectic Vinh Long for the twin islands of Ah Binh and Binh Hoa Phuoc.  Cryptically billed as, “…the land of unknown things,” these sleepy islands were diced in tracts by a large network of meandering rivers and canals.  As such, the roads petered along like poorly maintained mountain-bike paths, skirting the water’s edge.

The next morning, we set out early to explore the, “land of unknown things.”  I had spent the night with Ducati dreams, repeatedly congratulating myself on my uncanny motorbike skills.  Everyone was impressed.  I was a natural!

We penetrated increasingly shoddy roads, big enough for one bike, but used for two.  Like a post-earthquake sidewalk, the cement squares shot up in ice cube edges.  The ground was a meter below the path.  Bikes were passing handlebar to handlebar, honking.  The road was disappearing.  The Frenchy was waiting up ahead.  I got nervous, sweating.  I stopped for a passing bike and switched to first gear to start the bike again thinking, “never start in first.”  I shot forward, across the edge of the earthquake sidewalk-cum-jungle road and flew forward, the handlebar twisting into my throat.  Felipe, sitting behind me, was thrust off the bike, jamming his left ankle and scraping the skin off his hands and knees.  As I stood up, I could not breathe.   My face turned white and my brain drifted into cotton candy.

Felipe lay on the ground bleeding as the Frenchy and the girl who couldn’t feel her leg came rushing over to help.  Thankful that it was not again her tossed off the bike, Nico, the girl who couldn’t feel her leg, raced to the nearest pharmacy where the man instinctively handed her condoms.  After much pointing, she raced back to Felipe and I with supplies.  We stumbled our way over to the porch of a local Vietnamese family who had witnessed the accident.  They hovered over us, boiled tea with some dirt-speckled rain water, and forced upon us the most gracious hospitality.

I could breathe, but my throat was sore and my left leg scratched and bleeding halfway down my shin. Felipe was bleeding on three limbs and limping around on the fourth.  All told, it could have been a lot worse.  Shaken, the Vietnamese family grabbed our sunglasses and traipsed around like Hollywood divas to make us laugh.  You can never underestimate the kindness – or wackiness – of strangers.

A motorbike cannot drive itself home and we had one more night to complete our loop around the delta.  I packed away my fears and continued the trip on the condition that once we left these islands of “unknown things,” we would remain with the known obstacles of the highway.

That afternoon we arrived in Sa Dec, the Mekong’s town of gardens.  The botanical beauties of Ho Chi Minh are said to come from this riverside town whose bushy backstreets sprout with spyrographs of color.

We spent the night just out of town and plowed down the highway back to Can Tho the next morning.  Zooming down the wide, flat road, I regained both my confidence and my affection for the beast.

Motorbikes are intoxicatingly fun.  It’s the dance with danger that makes them even more thrilling.    Despite the nerves, the accident, and the injuries, I’m glad I saw the Delta by bike.  It’s the only way to get a feel for life in this implausible region of swamp and cement.

The facts are these:  I wasn’t one of the 32 people who die every day of motorbike accidents in Vietnam!  I was just one of the 22 injured.  At the end of the day, this is the statistical group that I greatly prefer.

Laos: Stay Another Day

There is something terribly right going on in Laos.  Engulfed in a Green revolution, sustainable tourism is racing through the recently paved roads from the provincial cities to the remote edges of this pristine country.  From organic farm cooperatives to ethnic fashion shows, the idea is pulsing and putting money back where it belongs – with the people.

At the heart of the revolution is Stay Another Day, a Luang Prabang based initiative that produces a veritable Lonely Planet of the country’s sustainable organizations.  They ask travelers to buy local/fairtrade products, get off the beaten-path, volunteer or make a donation (however small), learn a few basic words in Lao, respect the local culture, keep smiling, and stay another day.  Not too much to ask.

Laos is a poor country, but don’t mistake poor for unsafe.  The two words are not so easily intertwined.  Cloaked in a Buddhist ideology, this predominantly rural republic could hardly exude more chill.  The typical streets are awash with smiling faces and welcoming “Sabaidee.”  Long hours of back-breaking work and the scars of colonialism are lost on the friendliest faces of Southeast Asia.

Sustainable tourism is an incredible boon for Laos as it has little in the way of industry.  Yet, how this took root is a miracle.  The idea remains foreign in tourist-heavy Thailand whose music, entertainment and culture float over the Mekong, much to the Laos government’s dismay.

In Laos, sustainable tourism takes on many faces.  Green Discovery lays its claim as Laos’ pioneer in adventure travel and ecotourism.  Opening their doors in 2000, they were indeed one of the first in this recent movement and are committed to ensuring that local people, “not only benefit financially from tourism but also are true business partners by helping to develop programs and activities.”  Each trip includes a graph explaining where the money goes, making the entire process refreshingly transparent.

Vang Vieng is Laos’  backpacker-heavy town and arguably the world capital of river tubing.  On the outskirts of this party-crazy town, Vang Vieng Organic Farm offers travelers a chance to participate in the operation of the farm.  They provide accommodation not only for helpers in the field but volunteer English teachers for the local schools.  Profits from The Farm are used to “provide training and employment, support and education to the local villagers through various projects with the mission to preserve ecological diversity and provide people with accessible and sustainable technologies to earn a living.”

Yet, it is back in Luang Prabang where the sustainable initiatives truly come to life to coalesce the countrywide effort.  With the improved roads and transportation services, Luang Prabang is no longer an isolated oasis in northwestern Laos.  That’s not to say that the roads are peaceful (cavernous potholes, wild turns, open cliffsides), but they’re there – mostly.  The historic center of majestic Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.  The great city, growing with sophistication, stretches from river to river across the Royal Palace (abandoned with the revolution) and a sprinkling of 16th century temples.  Dignified monks, cloaked in tangerine, far outnumber tourists fighting for space under shared yellow umbrellas, while the bald-topped next generation, training at the city’s dazzling temples, spill out onto the streets at daybreak to gather their alms from the kneeling public.

Luang Prabang is a nerdy tourist’s intellectual paradise.  Oozing old-world charm, the dreamy backstreets and riverfront pathways overflow with art, architecture, religion, and history.  Across the dirt-green river and beyond the latticed riverside gardens, Luang Prabang is surrounded by a handful of craftsmen’s villages.  Woodworkers, potters, papermakers, knitters, and dyers prepare their works for the evening market, making Luang Prabang the premier place in Southeast Asia for authentic, genuinely handmade textiles and goods.

This is the auspicious outcome of a rigorous UNESCO campaign to promote the production of traditional arts and crafts as a means of creating incomes and fostering citywide tourism.  This year marks the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabong’s status as a World Heritage City, a joyous title that is not lost on the people.

Uber-trendy Hive Bar, hipster-happy L’etranger Books and Tea, and fair-trade haven Kopnoi form a fortress of ideas at the triangular intersection of Phousi and Phommathay roads.  Founded by Québecois Isabel Dréan and her partner Simon Côté, the pair arrived in Laos in 2001 and opened L’Etranger, Books and Tea, the town’s first licensed bookshop.   They aimed to promote Lao goods on the world market and over time opened up Kopnoi as well as the popular Hive Bar (home of the Ethnik Fashion Show).  Kopnoi Export Promotion Center’s second floor gallery houses the Stay Another Day Multimedia Exhibition, full of history, ethnography and ideas on responsible travel.  The fairtrade showroom below offers free daily tea tastings with organic brews from the Vang Vieng farm that can be purchased across the street at L’etranger.  It’s one big hippy, happy circle of do-goodery.

If not checking out the free 7:00 o’clock flick at L’etranger, next door at Hive, Luang Prabang (and presumably all of Laos’) only fashion show is the perfect combination of education and entertainment.  With twenty ethnicities represented by twenty models in almost one-hundred costumes, this is no small-scale production.

Laos is a thinly stitched quilt of ethnic minorities.  In fact, thirty-percent of the country’s population is non-Lao-speaking, non-Buddhist “hill tribes” with little or no connection to traditional Lao culture.  Government education ensured a limited knowledge of foreign lands, so much of the culture, including elaborate ethnic attire, remains visible in the twenty-first century.

The fashion show takes place on Hive’s moody, red-lit backyard stage.  As the smiley, giggling girls parade around to trance music in their patterned ethnic garb, a projector details information about the tribes and their traditional clothes.  When you start to wish your high-school teacher taught history lessons like this, the aftershow of local breakdancing boys brings a jolting change from the historic to the global.

Yet, even with its increasingly global allure, Luang Prabang remains blanketed in ancient rituals.  Each dusk’s almsgiving brings the methodically devout out to the street and onto their knees.  Tourists are given pamphlets to encourage respectful viewing, but a few paparazzi continue stalking the sleepy monks.

After decades of isolation, Laos has opened up its arms, however slightly, to the international arena.  It is a crossroads state between Thailand and Vietnam and a close partner with neighboring China (although this is a double-edged sword).  There are green initiatives all across the nation from the northern mountains of Luang Namtha to 4,000 islands in the south.  Many organizations have offices in Vientiane and Paske, though Luang Prabang remains the heart and soul.

Much of the money generated by these organizations is funneled out of the cities and onto the dirt roads and buffalo paths that crisscross this developing land.  Beyond the city limits, Laos poverty is truly face-smacking.  Yet, the country is moving in the right direction, improving the quality of life with education and building schools to teach the next generation.

Luang Prabang based Big Brother Mouse is racing to build a library of Lao language books so that every kid can have a chance to read in those schools, while international aid organizations like UNESCO have found profitable ways to preserve traditional crafts.  Non-governmental organizations such as Stay Another day (and its affiliates) promote responsible tourism so that visitors find an authentic experience and ensure their money goes where it belongs.  Green Discovery monitors that the lands they trek remain unlogged by the Chinese, while environmentalists teach locals alternatives to slash-and-burn farming.  With so much positive energy circulating around this small, land-locked country, it’s hard not to fall in love with Lao.

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If you would like to get involved or find out how you can give back, here are some helpful websites of organizations mentioned in this article.  Alternatively, you can send an email to markonthemapadvice@gmail.com.

Vang Vieng Organic Farm

Big Brother Mouse

Stay Another Day

Green Discovery

Kopnoi

Central Otago Rail Trail: a comedy in three acts

The last time I rode a bike was in New York City four years ago.  I would ride across northern Brooklyn from Williamsburg to Greenpoint to my job working on the Black Donnelly’s at Broadway Stages.  Then, one day, my bike was gone.  We saw the whole thing happen on the apartment building’s surveillance camera, which everyone had previous thought was a fake.  I used to make funny faces and unsavory gestures at that camera until the day I realized it was real – the day my bike was stolen.

After that, I swore that I saw my bike all over New York City.  But, with a lingering bitterness towards bikes and bike robbers, I had remained a staunch walker ever since – that is until I decided to go on a three day bike trip.  I speak for my quads, prostate, and lower buttocks when I say that taking on such a feat after years of apathy and ill feelings towards everything two-wheeled was ill advised.

Yet, how could I resist the call of the New Zealand countryside?  In an odd series of events I had quit my job, adamantly refused offers to change my mind, and then pleaded for it back all in the course of one week’s time.  This left me with several days off of work and itchy feet.  Having heard of an old railroad line through central Otago that was stripped of it’s tracks and left for bikers, I rounded up a team of marginally-employed individuals (Felipe and myself), scrounged up two bikes, some tools we didn’t really know how to use, and headed one hour east of Queenstown to the trail’s start in Clyde.

Being semi-unemployed, Felipe and I carried all of our food, clothes, and a rattling tin of dominos on our backs as we set out through the orchards and vineyards between Clyde and Alexandra.  Feeling the invincibility one feels only on the first day of such a journey, we took a detour to the “southernmost winery and vineyard in the world” so I could taste and purchase a bottle of Otago Gold to really way down my back.

As we biked through Alexandra, the largest town on the trip, we bisected a collection of netball courts in full use on a Saturday morning.  The girls were twisting in the stunted, stress-inducing way required in the sport as eager dads yelled on the periphery.  This was the real New Zealand I was seeking, out in the country, away from the attractions.  Netball to the left, cows to the right, a tractor crossing the road, the faint smell of manure.  Here it was, beyond the glossy veneer!

When our path crossed with a clan of freshly sheered sheep, I missed that glossy finish.  Their patchy hairdos, beady, pleading eyes, and splashes of crimson red looked nothing like the children’s commercials I’d seen on TV for sheep-sheering shows.  Luckily, I caught up with a group their bushy-haired brethren a few kilometers later who were eager to lift my spirits.

Most of the names I will mention on this trip you will not be able to pronounce.  I would add pronunciation marks, but I would be fooling myself if I thought I could say them any better.  So, after cycling along the Manuherikia River, our first night was spent in Omakau and we took a side trip to “Historic Ophir” before settling in.

The one street town of Ophir was the commercial capital of the region back in its day and is currently home to the oldest continuously working Post Office in New Zealand.  The well-preserved street also contained a one-room church, a memorial hall, and an honesty stall where you could leave two dollars for bag of either sheep or horse manure.

We spent the night at the Omakau Holiday Park, but when I say Holiday Park envision a trailer park.  This was the only accommodation we had booked ahead, and I was glad we could use a bit more discretion the next day.  When I came out of the shower before heading to bed, a Maori transvestite was fixing her hair and drinking a $5.00 Champagne called “pop” straight from the bottle.  Her birthday party ensued.  This was night one.

The Central Otago Railway was the economic lifeline of this region for 83 years and sent it’s last roaring engine down these lines just two decades ago.  In 1990, the tracks were stripped by 2000 the Rail Trail was opened by the Department of Conservation.  As the information states, “because this was once a railway line there are no steep climbs, but the gravel surface makes a degree of fitness desirable.”  When you are biking in New York on a straightaway, your wheels spin long after your last pedal.  If I may interpret the above quote, this is not so on gravel.  So while the trail remains relatively flat, constant pedaling is required for constant motion.

On day two, it was not so much the peddling that troubled us, but the sitting.  A full day of riding had left us with bruised butts that burned with each bump.  I read somewhere that you could rent bikes for this trail with “comfort seats” and I distracted my mind with thoughts of what such a seat may have looked and felt like.

After doing some research the night before, I realized that we were going steadily uphill all of day one.  I had big plans for day two, our hump day.  I hoped to crest the top of the trail at Wedderburn by the afternoon and speed down the other side to Ranfurly by nightfall.

These were mere pipe dreams.

Day two would be another uphill day, but I felt better knowing that the speedy, spandex-clad bikers we had crossed paths with were clearly cheaters doing the trail the easy way.

The Rail Trail does not traverse any of New Zealand’s famed landmarks, but it does link a series of quaint, quirky and comically country southern towns.

There were two types of these towns along the rail – those with taverns, and those without.  Those without were merely a collection of five or six farms.  Those with a Tavern, as if by obligation, had Speights, “the southern man’s beer” signs out atop their rickety roofs. One six-room hotel (adjacent to the tavern) even had a sign boasting, “where Speights filmed their ‘Good on ya mate’ adverts.” Clearly, we were in Speights Country – a land of good-ole Kiwi blokes, the type Aucklanders chuckle about with slight contempt.  Each tavern’s heavy door opened to a jingling bell that alerted the locals of an outsider’s presence.  Oh, and they don’t sell bottles of water.  Speights doesn’t make water.

I was meant to call home to make a vocal appearance at my Mom’s family reunion, so I asked the only woman on the streets of Lauder if she knew of any place with Internet.

“Oh, you’ve got about 50k to go before you’ll find any Internet around here.”  How about coffee I asked?  “Maybe in Oturehua, I think they’ve got one of those push-button machines.”  Water?

She opened up the closed motel and filled our empty bottles before sending us on our way towards “the best part of the trail.”  Unsure if this was a cruel joke, I picked up my pace as we passed a sign warning, “Caution! Lauder Gun Club ahead.”

The next 20k were, without a doubt, the most stunning section of the journey.  We traversed bridges and tunnels along the Poolburn Gorge as we climbed Blackstone Hill.  Atop the hill we stopped for a glance across the quintessentially kiwi landscape of Ida Valley with its farms and rivers edging on the Dunstan Mountains.

At Oturehua we could go no further than Crow’s Nest Accommodation where it was agreed we would plant trees in exchange for a night’s stay.  After planting a line on the edge of the property Annette, the hostel’s owner, sat with us for tea and brought us homemade orange and apricot jams for breakfast the next morning.  At daybreak, I stopped by Gilchrist’s General Store, the oldest continually operating general store in New Zealand, for some push-button coffee.  The owner gave me a quick tour and said her husband was out delivering milk.  She explained how they still take orders for groceries from the local community.  “It’s real old-fashion country service,” she said with a wink.

I loved the old store, but what I liked even better about Oturehua and nearby Nasserby was the people’s fanaticism for curling.  When the Ida Burn Dam freezes over, hundreds of folk come out of the woodwork, brooms in hand, to sweep the ice.  Nasserby even has a year-round, indoor curling center who’s pamphlet argues, “Maniototo Curling International: Curling is fun!”

Sadly, we did not have the time or strength to make the side trip to Nasserby’s fun curling rink so we peddled onward on our last uphill stretch.  The bike and I had come to an understanding – a friendship even.  We were coordinating our movements well, making record speeds and by 10:00am we had crest the top of the trial, breezing downhill past a pasture of puppets into Wedderburn.

By this point I had become an avid stamp collector.  Each gangers’ shed and old station house provided a stamp to track the train’s journey.  With the giddiness of a five year old I sped up to each stamp box, lined the block over our current location, and pressed the ink onto my tattered map.

In my car, this land would have passed by unnoticed.  Yet, on my bike I had nothing but time to daze at the distant farmland.  After days of staring at (and occasionally talking to) the cows and sheep, the fields on Central Otago morphed into a surreal child’s drawing.  The sky glowed a baby blue, the clouds puffed like cotton-candy, and the flax in the field swirled into lollipops for the dancing moocows. High on manure and endorphins, the mills became castles and the tractors Tonka Trucks.  The ordinary became extraordinary.  Life here had a childlike simplicity.

I thought to myself, I have drawn this place before with my robin-egg blue, mustard-yellow, and forest-green crayola crayons.  Everything was circles, squares, and triangles.  It was simple, happy, and innocent.  It made me laugh and it made me smile.

Although the Rail-Trail stretches on for another 60k, our trip would end in Ranfurly, the quirkiest town of them all. Virtually destroyed in a series of suspicious fires in the early 1930s, locals opted to rebuild the town’s buildings cheaply with concrete and plaster and adorn them with moulded embellishments, decorations, and colors.  Now known as the Rural Art Deco Capital of New Zealand, this town in the middle of nowheresville New Zealand offers 44 art deco buildings and a museum dedicated to the style.

After embracing every gimmick this toybox Lego village had to offer, we sat on an art deco bench waiting for the bus back to Clyde.  My bike was out of site, but the lady at the old train station laughed when I asked her to watch it, implying it might get stolen.  “I’ve been robbed before,” I told her.  “I even saw it on camera.”

I sat in this ticky-tacky town and shook my head in bemused wonder as I slurped on my strawberry milkshake.  This was the South Island, off the beaten track – Maori transvestites, push-button coffees, and an art deco dental center.  It was a land of “good on ‘ya mates” where every field had a dancing cow and every storefront showcased a jam jar pyramid.

There ought to be more guidebooks for these kinds of places.  “You want to buy budget sheep manure and curl with New Zealand’s finest?  Well, have I got the place for you… ”  Who needs Milford, Auckland, and Abel Tasman… you want to see the real New Zealand? Buy a bottle of “pop” champagne, strap on that comfort seat, and follow me!