Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sailing the Seas of Cheese

Oh, what glorious sleep! I woke up way too late to catch the early Snowbus to Whistler, but it was sooooo worth it. But now here I am, enjoying the beautiful, serene, snowy atmosphere of the village, at yet another internet cafe.

Of course, dealing with different money and being at an internet cafe are about the only things that make this trip similar to any other. This time, the backpacker ethos is way out the window. I'm staying in a fancy lodge (concierge and kitchenette, yo!) that'd eat up a month of backpacking budget and just paying no heed to cash and enjoying myself. I can still feel the steak from last night settling in my tummy, and though that sounds bad, believe me - it was goooood. Unfortunately, I'll also feel stuff settling in my wallet for a while, but what the hell?

I guess I've spoiled myself tonight, as well. I can pretty much do whatever I want until my friends start trickling into town tomorrow, so I decided to check out the nearby Crepe Montagne, where the French-speaking staff delighted me with onion soup, fondue provencale, and some great locally produced wine. While I'm normally averse to the American tendency to smear cheese all over everything, I'm so full of Swiss gruyere, emmenthal, white wine, and Kirsch right now that I probably smell like some Alpen restaurant.

Well, I'd best get going. I have to finish this espresso and then hit the hot tub. Then maybe the Doctors and Nurses party at the local club, though I really should be a good boy and sleep early so I can make fresh tracks in the morning. Decisions, decisions...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Viva Vancouver

It's been 14 years since I'd last set foot in Vancouver and I forgot just how pretty this place is. The big inlet, the islands, the bridges - some people have compared this place to Sydney, and having seen the two more or less side by side now, I'd say they're worlds different, but there are some little similarities that could make them sisters.

The airport itself is actually quite nice, and that's where Uncle Yousef, an old family friend, picked me up. We went for a ride through much of southern Vancouver on the way to his huge, new house, where we sat down to a home-style family lunch of Indian curry, Auntie's specialty that used to make me shiver and shake with glee as a kid. I used to cry for this stuff when I was no older than 3, the beginning of my curry addiction. And now, decades later, I was digging into a plate of the same dish that got me started. We reminisced about other embarassing elements of my childhood over tea as it grew dark and I grew ever more tired - I'd been up since 4:20am, after all.

I could've gone to bed, but there was a change of plans. The house is nowhere near my downtown pickup point to catch the Snowbus to Whistler tomorrow, so I got a ride over to my friend Kathy's place downtown, where I have a futon to crash on, internet access, and most importantly, quick access to downtown.

Here's hoping I wake up on time.

SLC Drunk

How positively underwhelming. I know you shouldn't judge a town by circling over it and sampling the wares at the airport, but Salt Lake City strikes me as amazingly lame. These are my impressions upon layover.

While the humps and bumps and jaggy, craggy peaks of the fairly snowy mountains surrounding the city are pretty striking - especially since they carry on seemingly forever in a straight line - the city itself is bathed in a swath of yellow-brown. Essentially, the dingy valley that SLC fills looks from above like a shitstain in a pair of tighty-whities.

I wouldn't go so far as to call them a shitstain on society, but the cult members working the airport are about as lovely as the crew in Houston... which is to say they're a bit inbred and a bit slow. But hey, Mormons are very nice people. And believe it or not, the locals brew good beer. This might just be the place's saving grace.

I had a couple of tall glasses of Polygamy Porter, and it's among the tastier dark beers I've tried. Pretty surprising for a place that doesn't generally serve beer with an alcohol content higher than 3%. Just in case, I brought a flask of rum with me, knowing that I had a longish layover in Mormonville, but it turned out I didn't need it. Miracles never cease.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Back on the Road

Or rather, the tarmac. I was late in returning from an epic powder day in Kirkwood, but I'm now packed and ready for my next adventure. As of 6:20am, I'll be heading off for a sort-of-impromptu trip to Canadia... Vancouver and Whistler to be exact. Updates will come as internet access is available. See you on the other side!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Those of you trying to comment but can't - it should be working now...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Home and Away

I've now been back on US soil for over 12 hours now, and while it's been good to see my own bed, my parents, and my friends, I'm really not happy to be back.

The moment you get back to the states, you feel it. Everyone's cranky and in a rush at the airport. Customs/immigrations folks are rude bastards, most of them enjoying a power trip. The same people you were just sharing conversation with on the plane are now your most bitter enemies, jockeying for position to get through each queue and the baggage claim first. The chit chat is over and everyone's in a rush to get back to the rat race.

I come back smiling and relaxed and that makes people suspicous. They ask me questions. Some avoid me like some grinning loon. Am I the only one who comes back from a holiday with a smile and relaxed demeanor as a souvenir? Well, either way, everyone tries their best to take that smile away the moment you step off the plane. But fuck 'em. I just had the best month ever.

Everyone can go back to their hateful daily routines and wait for their next paycheck. Tomorrow, I'm going to go back to work satisfied, carrying with me the great experiences, beautiful sites, and above all the awesome people I met over the last month. That's what life's about - experiencing it.

See you next journey. It can't come soon enough!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Veni, Vedi, Vinci

I don't know if I'll get to another internet cafe/terminal before I head home, so I figured I'd put down my observations on New Zealand before I go out for a final slosh-a-thon.

* Merino sheep (the ones raised for their soft, soft wool, not meat) are actually sorta cute. I wouldn't nail one or anything, but it's fun to watch them run around the fields.

* At 31, I'm not the old guy on the block for once. NZ is full of older backpackers. Perhaps it's a more sophisticated destination. Perhaps it's because it costs so much to get here. Either way, I recommend this place to anyone of any age. Backpacking has dropped off here in the last couple of years after a nice plateau, so there are many deals to be had at very nice places, especially with the exchange rate.

* Among those older backpackers, there are far too many in North Face jackets, ugly sandals, and beards. Never mind that at this moment, I'm wearing my NF jacket, an ugly set of Keens, and haven't shaved in 4 days. At least I'm not kicking around a patchouli-scented hackey sack.

* If you think rugby is confusing, try watching a cricket match. All 5 days of it.

* Don't ask me to compare Oz and NZ. They may be in the same family, but they are worlds apart from each other. Think of them as two very hot fraternal twins - one resembles a swimsuit model, the other Lara Croft.

* Best. Trip. Ever.


It's my last night in New Zealand and - skydiving cancellation notwithstanding - I've gotta do it up. But before getting on the piss, it's necessary to build up a buffer - especially when there's a morning airport shuttle pickup at stake.

Foregoing the local delicacy of "fush & chups" (yes, that's how these freaks pronounce it...) I tracked down a place that serves lamb chops on the cheap. Now typically, going for cheap lamb isn't a good idea. If the sheep's too old, it's gamey. If it's cooked wrong, it's smelly. But in a country where sheep outnumber people 10:1, it's pretty hard to go wrong. In fact, they have their means of classifying sheep by age, where lamb is proper lamb (baby), the gamey crap that's called lamb by American standards is middle-aged (hogget), and the smelly old stuff (mutton) isn't eaten by anyone.

I sat down for my plate of baby sheep on-the-bone at the Gourmet Express Diner, a casual joint modeled after the typical American diner. There's barstool seating, red booths, and oldies on the stereo, but that's where the similarities end. This place is far too classy and stylish to be a diner. Seriously, at what diner at home can you get a succulent plate of lamb chops with a highly regarded glass of wine?

Needless to say, dinner was great. Followed by a shot of short black (Weird terms for espresso in the southern hemisphere, I tell ya!), my tummy has almost forgotten about the severe lack of high-velocity falling it was expecting.

Speed Addict in Withdrawal

The aforementioned bungy jump was incredible, but it wasn't quite enough. I rocked up to nZone and signed up for a 12,000 foot skydive so I could end the trip with a bang. Well, hopefully not a bang, but a whoooosh! Unfortunately, the weather turned to shit this afternoon and they canceled all jumps.

Needless to say, I am so bummed. The jump was going to be the crowning achievement of the trip, but mother nature simply would not cooperate.

Big ol' refund in hand, I consoled myself with some retail therapy, taking care of my own interests and buying goodies for everyone at home. I still feel like crap about not being able to take the dive, but at least the money ended up going toward some tangible shit, instead of 45 seconds of freefall.

Still, I'd savor one more second of freefall if I could. The folks back home better be up for a skydive sometime in the near future. You know who you are.

The Perfect Drug

About a 20 minute ride outside of Queenstown is the Kawarau river. Looking down at the gorge and the impressive turquoise blue water, you can see the rocky, narrow cliffs where they filmed the "Pillars of the Kings" in Lord of the Rings. I didn't think I'd be one of those Tolkien nuts and check out all the locations, but I couldn't help myself.

Just around the next bend, atop the gorge, is the Kawarau Bridge. In 1988, a Kiwi speed skier and all-around nutcase by the name of AJ Hackett started the first bungy site in the world here. It's the original place to get your ankles tied to a bungy cord, count down, and throw yourself off - and if you dive correctly, get a nice dip in the beautiful blue river. This is strictly for nutjobs.

I am now one of those nutjobs.

Logic is thrown out the window in Queenstown. There are just too many adrenaline-pumping activities for even the most weak-kneed of people to pass up. Whether it's jetboating, luging, bungy jumping, skydiving - it's all here, at a cost. Sure, I was going to relax and take in the scenery in New Zealand. But I had more than a full day of that at Milford Sound. And when you're at the birthplace of bungy jumping, how can you possibly say no?

Standing on the 43m bridge and watching others do it is good fun. You see the adrenaline junkies who yell and hoot all the way down. You see the ones who cry like a bitch before eventually taking the plunge. You see busloads of Japanese tourists who make their way up there just to be the peanut gallery and give you more pressure to perform. I was last in my group to jump, so after seeing the Geronimos and the bedwetters, it came down to the very end to see which I'd turn out to be.

I have a fear of heights. I have a fear of falling. I don't know how to dive. Bungy jumping is the last extreme sport I ever thought I'd bother with. But with a psych-up soundtrack of Nine Inch Nails in the background, I got geared up, put my toes on the edge of the platform, and the guy said "3... 2... 1... Bungy!"

Skipping my usual urge for hesitation, I dropped forward with my arms outstretched, went into terrifying freefall for a couple of seconds, and tucked my head in to perform the picture perfect up-to-the-shoulders dip. The groundrush of watching the stunningly blue river accelerate toward my face jacked my senses into another dimension. The cold splash of going under was refreshing and an extreme rush. The huge bounce back up was balls-out scary, considering how close I seemingly was to the canyon wall, but I was screaming with joy the whole way. By the third bounce, I was pulled into a raft at the bottom and climbed back up to the top, where I got a nice ovation from the camera-happy Japanese. It turns out bungy jumping is a performance sport, and you get style points for going down with form, and more for getting in the water. Who knew?

Diving the Reef a couple of weeks ago was a sensory transformation that I will never forget. Diving head-first off the Kawarau bridge is a sensory rush that ranks right up there with it.

Not a bad start to my last day in New Zealand.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sounds Good... Looks Good...

Scratch that. Replace "good" with "magnificent."

I don't have time to go into much detail, other than the fact that it was so nice to be able to sleep on the bus. Milford Sound is truly one of the most incredibly beautiful places in the world. You simply have to see this little piece of the Fiordlands at some point of your life. End of story.

Between bouts of sleep on the long, 4-hour journey back, I had a moment of reflection. In the last year alone, I've seen some of the most amazing places the world has to offer: The cloudforests of Costa Rica, the Great Barrier Reef, and now Milford Sound.

Life is good magnificent.

Addendum: Interestingly enough my tour guide, Westie, skis at my home mountain of Kirkwood once in a while and knows some of the Kiwi ski patrol guys there. I'll have to give Todd a shout when I get back on the slopes next week. Can't

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Another Perfect Sunrise

I witnessed yet another beautiful sunrise this morning... after walking home from the clubs. God, this has got to stop.

The night started out innocently enough. I found a place where I could enjoy a good, light array of NZ seafood: The Captains Restaurant and its Captains Sampler Platter. Chowder, prawns, calamari, mussels, oysters - you name it - all washed down with one of their own brews and a perfect glass of pinot gris. Yeah, you can definitely call me a flashpacker.

I got back to Bumbles and met a couple of my roomies: Daniel from London and Sam from Calgary. They invited me to join them for a night out, and we eventually got the full, huge group together by around 11:30. In the meantime, the guys were talking about how much they loved furburgers. It was gona be that kind of night.

Matt, the hostel's manager, joined us and hooked us up with hand stamps for happy hour prices all night at Fraser's. It was fairly subdued, but the drinks went quickly. Before we knew it, we were dancing it up at a club, doing shots, and working every corner of the dancefloor with our drunken superstar moves. Somehow, I got to the point where I was speaking fluent French with Jen (a Quebecoise) and Jess (a New Caledonian) from Bumbles. A bad sign, indeed.

The wee hours were about up and a couple of us decided we had to eat. Jess dragged me out for the "best burger in Queenstown." The place is called Fergburger. That's what the guys were talking about. And let me tell you - eating the South Island's best, most giantest hamburger while sitting on a beach and having the big lake's small waves lap at your feet is a great way to end a night out.

Being awakened at 7:15 because you missed you were about to miss your bus pick-up isn't.

In the Name of the Lord

I didn't plan my trip to Queenstown until the other day in Brisbane, and now I'm simply stoked about it. As the plane got stuck in a holding pattern before landing at the teeny, tiny, miniscule ZQT airport, I looked out the window and the geek within me started to glow: "Holy shit! That's Middle fucking Earth!"

There's this whole Lord of the Rings mania in NZ, just in case no one has informed you. They have the whole trilogy on-demand on longhaul Air New Zealand flights. There are tons of Rings tours on offer. I skipped the $150 option to truck out of Auckland and check out Hobbiton, but I couldn't resist walking into the official Rings store here in Queenstown and looking at the piles and piles of crap they have on offer. I'm fairly certain Peter Jackson has supplanted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour here. I'm pretty sure they even have a brand of cigarettes named after his Fat Beardedship. I can't be too cynical about it. Having laid my own eyes upon Rohan, Gondor, and the Misty Mountains, I can definitely see why the trilogy has boosted New Zealand tourism.

All my pain and misery from Auckland is gone. I booked into my accommodation at Bumbles, right on the shore of one of the most magnificent lakes I've seen. I got to my room to unload my stuff and - lo and behold - I have a panoramic view of that very lake from my bed.

If that wasn't enough to make me feel better, I walked into town and got myself onto the Shotover Jet, a jetboat tour of the shallow, rocky Shotover River. Weighing in at over 2.5 tonnes, equipped with two Buick V6 engines producing 520 horsepower, and with a capacity of 14 passengers, these boats rip down the Shotover at over 80kmh. The Shotover's no Mississipi. It's about as navigable as a bathtub, but these boats somehow glide through water as low as 2 inches at full speed, pulling 360-degree turns and burnouts in ways those Louisiana fanboats can only dream of. This was just the shot in the arm I needed to get my last week of holiday back on track. I thought the adventure portion of my trip had come to an end, but instead I find myself in the adrenaline capital of the world.

Needless to say, I think I've tuckered in for another slice of paradise. Now I just need to find myself some authentic Kiwi food (mmmm... lamb, maybe some mussels?) for the night and a few pints of Speight's and Steinlager to get myself back to 100%.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Fort Bamber

Well, I'll hand Auckland one thing: It's going to help me get reacquainted with cold weather. Sure, it's sunny during the daytime, although the occasional oceanic wind chill isn't uncommon. At night time, it gets downright chilly - kind of like a San Francisco summer... What I didn't realize is that in the middle of the night, it gets to be freakin arctic.

Upon first arrival into my *fanfare* double private room, I noticed that the cabinets were stocked with extra bedding. I wondered why they would keep so many extra blankets and pillows in a small room - perhaps it was just storage overflow? Come 2:00am, I found out.

For the first time since childhood, I built a fort. Not out of a desire to act out my imagination and go to the land of make-believe, but because it was absolutely, positively, 100% necessary for my survival. In a matter of hours, the climate went from San Francisco cold to Tahoe-in-the-winter freezing. All those blankies saved my life.

To think, it's going to be even colder in Queenstown. Looks like I'll be buying another layer of clothes when I get there. In the meantime, New Zealand will serve well to re-acclimitize me from the oppressive Aussie heat to *fanfare again* snowboarding season at home.

It's Official: I Don't Like Auckland

And that's why I'm sitting here at a computer yet again. I'd rather take refuge here in the lovely confines of the Bamber House than be out and about in this lame city.

It's only been a day and I already miss Australia greatly. Auckland, as I've explained previously, is just another big city. And I mentioned earlier that most of the locals are friendly, well, now I'm going to reveal my ugly racist/xenophobic side: The Maori and white Kiwis are friendly. Most of the immigrants I've encountered, including American expats, are dour and unfriendly. Maybe they moved here because of the beautiful surroundings and the friendliness and warmth of the locals, but they sure haven't assimilated. My last bus driver: Miserable middle eastern asshole who hates his life. My pharmacist: slow, dumb American who must be my crazy landlord's long lost son. My grocery clerk: rushed, unfriendly Asian who hasn't learned how to say "Hi" and "How are you?" back to people.

I never would've imagined that I'd be missing Australians for their manners.

On the other hand, the Kiwis who've been friendly have megawatt smiles and a demeanor that can melt the heart of any misanthrope, myself included. I hope to meet more of that type as I head south tomorrow. Auckland's about as appealing as Oakland at this point.

There's Got to Be Some Kinda Way Outta Here

My shared accomodation at the Bamber House in the beautiful Mt. Eden area of Auckland has been among the nicest ever, but I managed to get a free upgrade to a private room with a double bed this morning. How does one achieve such a backpacking coup? Snore, grunt, and cough like hell.

The previous two nights of full-on partying and staying up, in combination with the attendant sinus problems of flying overseas, finally brought out the beast within me. For the last couple of weeks, I've been supressing a cold. From Cairns on, I've been taking megadoses of Emergen-C and Sudafed, trying to ensure that something like a little cold won't bring me down. It finally did. I went from hard-partying, happy-go-lucky world traveler to miserably wretch in just a few minutes last night. Needless to say, I kept my roomies up all night with my hacking and gurgling, and now I have a private room.

The more I go around Auckland, though, the more I think I should just stay in my room. I'm feeling worlds better after sleeping in, topping up on fluids, and taking some cold medicine, but I've found this place to be pretty unimpressive.

Don't get me wrong - the surroundings are beautiful, and some of the stuff on display at the Auckland Museum was great. But other than that, it's just another big (dirty) city. The true natural beauty of New Zealand is to be found due south, and that's where I'll be headed.

In the meantime, what I am enjoying in Auckland are the lower prices, smiling faces of the (mostly) friendly locals, and the complete and utter ethnic diversity in this city. It's like being back in San Francisco. On any one bus ride, I can hear people speaking in English (of various accents), Chinese, Japanese, Spanish - you name it. Unfortunately, aforementioned buses are pretty reminiscent of SF as well. While Sydney and Brisbane had amazing public transport, the bus routes here are just as nonsensical and ill-timed as the ol' MUNI.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Backdated post.

Ch-ch-ch-changes... The worst thing in the world about traveling east is the time change forward. I lost three hours from Brisbane to Auckland, and I know it's going to be a bitch to get to sleep.

That and everyone's laughing at me for cooking a full-on two-course dinner at 10:30. But they can screw themselves. While they're eating instant noodles, I've got a nice salad of baby greens and red wine vinaigrette, spaghetti in a wine-infused meat and tomato sauce, focaccia, and a bottle of NZ's Mt. Difficulty Pinot Noir, supposedly one of -if not the- best in the world. I may be in a timewarp, but I'm freakin' posh, bitches. If any of them had been three hours behind, they could've all had some.

Besides going grocery shopping and cooking, I did manage to get one thing done: I clambered up to the top of nearby Mt. Eden and took in the great view of downtown Auckland, the surrounding bays, and of course, the magnificent sunset. I also ran into the local livestock on top of the old volcanic cone. No, not sheep, but a herd of cows. And somehow, I managed not to step in any of the many cowpies.

Quick Update

I haven't had a chance to get to any internet cafes the past couple of days and right now I'm on one of those silly pay-as-you-go kiosks that take coins.. Unfortunately, I only had one New Zealand coin and my time's about to run out.

Anyway, for those of you who've been calling or texting me overseas - neither my Australian nor American SIM cards are working here, even though I have international roaming on both. So FU Vodafone, and FU T-mobile. Luckily I'd used up more than my money's worth in Oz, so I don't feel too bad... And I guess I should be happy to be pretty disconnected while I shift from party mode into the mindset to enjoy some of the finest natural beauty the Earth has to offer. So there'll be a bit of radio silence for now, until I get my hands on more coins and can do some backdated updates.


Backdated post.

As if I'm not miserable enough about leaving Australia, I have to make my departure sapped of all my strength. Luckily, they serve pretty good pies and espresso at the Brisbane International Airport.

I sought the opinion of two people last night regarding the airport. We were at the official Andrew & Omid Birthday Bash at the Pineapple Hotel, and after an entirely-too-big steak, pavlova, and chocolate cake, I asked Andrew's dad if I really need to be at the airport 3 hours before an international flight. He was definitely on the pro side, citing the quagmire of the immigration line. Kel, on the other hand, suggested only a 2 hour window, saying that while the immigration line is bad, it's not that bad. I went with Kel, being that she's a fellow world traveler, and frankly a helluva lot cuter. (Sorry Andrew's dad!)

I'm also glad I went with that choice because the evening of November 30th was not one of those nights to go home early and pack. Despite the fact that we both had morning flights, Andrew and I decided we can not puss out on our birthdays. As the motto of the Down Under Bar goes, "Go hard or go home."

Of course, we weren't going to go back to the DUB, but instead went to hipper, cooler Fortitude Valley. Our first stop was Ric's Cafe, a good starting point for a night out in the Valley. We toasted our birthday over a couple of beers, and marvelled at the fact that one of the guys working there 10 years ago was still there. It was also amazing how many people were out on a Wednesday night.

The next stop was the Press Club, where Minno told us a DJ would be spinning funk. Alas, our old pal was wrong, but there was some good Latin jazz on hand, and eventually the dancefloor got going. We amused ourselves peoplewatching and imbibing in far too many vodka tonics. After Andrew hit the credit card tab minimum, it was my round... These credit card minimums can be a killer - for the liver or otherwise.

A gazillion vodka tonics later, it was time to truly test our stomachs. The warning had been passed around a million times about Ozgur's Kebabs (lovingly known as "Dodgy Kebab") during my time in Brisbane, but we figured getting falafel there would be safe.

I found out in the morning that even vegetarian items can be dodgy at the ol' Dodgy Kebab.