The Long Road Home

And somehow it all came to an end.

It happened in the blink of the eye before I even knew it. Actually it happened in roughly a week’s time, but the next thing I knew I was back in the States, back in the groove, and back where I started unsure if I was meant for traveling in circles. Somehow straight lines had suited me just fine.

A straight line has no end. It keeps moving. Circles end and begin again. To end is one thing, but to begin again is another.

I wasn’t ready.

Yet, nine days, five planes and a lifetime away I found myself back at the beginning.

The journey from the life of my dreams back to the life of my reality began in Mumbai on a late afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur. The hyper-extravagance of Kuala Lumpur — all glittery gold and tacky tart — was the first sign that I wasn’t ready to go back.

The crisp air-conditioned bus. A fast food chain on every corner. Megamalls. Monorails. The Asian leg of my journey began here. At the time, I found it so incredibly exotic. Upon returning, it felt remarkably reminiscent of the life I’d left behind.

I had to get out, to run away one last time. So, I ran to the deep jungle of the earth’s oldest rainforest, Taman Negara.

Wandering the jungle alone like a madman — sleeping on planks of wood in animal hides and spending my days tearing bloodsucking leeches from my feet — I explored the ancient land. I waded through chest-deep rivers, followed tiger prints, tip toed around elephant poo, and came face to face with a wild, leopard-sized Asiatic golden cat and her two cubs. I left the jungle with shoes full of blood and eyes devoid of fear.

Wasn’t that was this was all about anyway?

“To dream anything that you want to dream / That’s the beauty of the human mind / To do anything that you want to do / That is the strength of the human will / To trust yourself to test your limits / That is the courage to succeed.” – Bernard Edmonds

Man will never know his true strength until he tests it. Sure, plenty have tested their fate in much bolder, nobler ways. But this was my story. This was my climax. And I wasn’t sure if there would be another. You can never truly know what the climax of your life will be until it’s too late.

I was detained, searched, and questioned upon arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand as aftershocks rattled the ground. Border police released me two hours later after every item in my bag was meticulously inspected, swabbed, scanned, and sniffed.

My friend Karen, who served as caretaker of my things, met me in the North Island that afternoon. She had kept my luggage tucked under her downtown Auckland bed in such a way that it lifted the lower end of her mattress. The neatly arranged mementoes of my life in New Zealand had thus become a footrest.

Karen gave me a warm Western welcome, calling me too skinny and making it her goal to fatten me up in three day’s time. She had completed the same journey I did almost 15 years before and, when we spoke of our paths through Asia, we realized that, all and all, little had changed.

Three days later, after making peace with what I consider the most beautiful country in the world and a second home, I caught another series of planes – first to San Francisco, then to Washington, D.C.

Two weeks later, I caught a bus back to New York City, found a job, and the line became a circle again.

Travel is like a drug. Rather, it was my drug, and I got really high. Coming down was the hardest part.

The high began three-and-a-half years before it ended. It started with the travel bug, progressed to island fever in the Caribbean, morphed into ex-pat addiction in Oceania, dabbled in traveler’s diarrhea in Asia and ended in denial back in America.

And so, this is my last post as Mark on the Map. I’ve learned a lot transferring my first impressions and second thoughts into a blog for everyone to read.

I’ve gown up charting my journey on here. Thanks for indulging me. Thanks for reading. Thanks for caring. This blog enabled me to move on to the next stage of my life and you can continue to follow my professional career as a travel writer by checking out the information on the “About” page.

If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it’s this:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

It’s been my motto from the very start and remains my motto today.

Farewell and get lost,

MarkontheMap (a.k.a. Mark Johanson)

Big Shots – Auckland

I have so many photos that I want to share and only a select few that make it onto the blog.  This week marks the beginning of what I will call Big Shots.  Each week between posts, I will share a few of my favorite photos.  These first few Big Shots posts will recap my trip so far, so it is only fitting that we start with a few shots from Auckland and Waiheke Island.

Later on this week, MarkontheMap will go into the rainforest at night in search of glowworms.  Stay tuned, or sign up for an email subscription to the blog and get each post sent to you.

Planes, Trains, and Naked Busses

I love trains.

I love trains so much that when I was a kid I had a special closed off area in the basement called the “Train Room,” where I converted the old scratched up pool table into a miniature village serviced by a ramshackle collection of vintage and new train sets.  I would go to the local hobby store and really geek it up with the owner about antique cabooses and the advantages of N over HO scale.  So, when it came time to plan my route from Auckland to the remote town of Franz Josef on the South Island and something called the “Trans Alpine” was mentioned and the words, “one of the most picturesque rides in the world,” came up, I immediately worked it into my plans.  However, I still had forty-eight hours, three buses, one flight, and some quality time on my own two feet ahead of me before I could ride the majestic train.

Having neglected to check out the Auckland War Memorial Museum, I headed up hill through the expansive Auckland Domain.  The Domain is the city’s largest park, which, interestingly enough, lies within the crater of the Pukekawa volcano.  As I neared the museum steps, I encountered a field overflowing with armored kids, running amuck in furry costumes.  It was as if a group of Teletubbies were let loose to create their own absurd Renaissance Fair.  Normally, I would question the meaning of such a scene, but it was far too comical to ruin the mystery.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum was quite expansive, spanning three floors covering Pacific People, Natural History, and New Zealand’s War stories.  The ground floor contained a wealth of knowledge and artifacts from greater Australasia.  But, it was the second floor’s Volcano room that sucked me in for over an hour (leaving me no time for the third-floor).  New Zealand is a very new country geologically speaking, this I knew.  However, what I didn’t know was that Auckland’s volcanic field is very active and overdue for an eruption.  The Volcano Exhibit showed the outcome of such an event and the means in which the city has in place to deal with such a disaster.  This made me feel a little better about my flight to Christchurch that afternoon.

When I exited the museum the kids were gone, but in their place, was a group of about twenty kilted, marching bagpipers and an enthusiastic crowd of redheaded spectators.  I don’t know why it took me so long to go to the Auckland Domain, but I will certainly be back and I expect to see something good.

I caught my flight to Christchurch that afternoon.  It was pretty uneventful except for this in flight video:

Christchurch changed some of my preconceived notions of Kiwi Cities.  After the impeccable tidiness of Auckland, Christchurch felt like it’s punky little British sister.  While it straddled the Avon River with beautiful parks and gardens, there was trash on the street, there was graffiti, and there were suped up cars from the 1970’s revving their engines.  The South Island likes to think of itself as the Wild West of New Zealand, so in addition to the obvious English influences in the town, they seem to share an affinity for Cowboys and Indians.  The bar the pink-haired receptionist at my hostel recommended would not have been out-of-place in Laramie, Wyoming.  Yet, it’s not the town that draws people to Christchurch, it’s the lazy river walks through the cheery botanical gardens.  After all, Christchurch is “The Garden City.”

As I walked in South Hagley Park through the fragrant rose gardens, I noticed a crowd gathering around a stylized tennis court.  I was just in time for The Christchurch City Council’s Summer Theater production of The Anthony Wilding Story.  Maybe you watch Tennis and know who this guy is, but I had no clue.  As the production notes summarize, “This dynamic, entertaining, and emotional production goes beyond Wilding’s sporting life and reveals a truly fascinating New Zealander, born and raised in Christchurch before heading oversees to take on the world.”  Any time Christchurch was mentioned the crowd went wild, and it made me sad that I could not think of a single hometown hero from my hometown of Springfield, Virginia.

That night, I stayed out way too late, heard way to many Eminem songs, and woke up way too early the next morning for my Trans Alpine adventure.  As groggy as I was, I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole way.  I sat across from a Russian couple for a short while until I made my way to the open-air viewing carriage and never returned.  Camera poised, I watched the landscape transform from the sheep covered Canterbury Plains into the heights of Arthur’s Pass National Park with it’s snow capped mountains, steep gorges, and wide river beds.  Words cannot describe this journey so I will let the pictures below do the talking…

The last leg of my trip was on Naked Bus.  The trip from Greymouth (fittingly described to me by a Kiwi as “not our finest city”) to Franz Josef took about three hours, but I imagine it could have taken about two.  We stopped at every small town along the way so the driver could smoke a cigarette, rousing us with his lively remarks,  “go on.  Get on out and stretch ya legs mates.”  He would disappear, we would amble around, and then in about ten minutes we’d go for another thirty minute drive and do it again.

The snow-capped peaks of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook drew ever closer until we came to a stop in the two-street-town of Franz Josef.  It is here that I will spend the first leg of my year in New Zealand, working for Scenic Hotel Franz Josef.  I am glad to finally settle down for a few weeks and have a place to call “home,” but in terms of “working holidays” I much prefer the latter.

For Photos of Christchurch and the full Album of the Tranz Alpine click here

Kia Ora

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