Friday, December 19, 2008

Worth Every Delayed Minute

What is it about the combination of sunshine, sand, saltwater and swimsuits that spells paradise? I may have missed my shuttle to the ferry in the morning (thanks to misdirection from the geniuses working reception at Grand Malenesian Hotel), but the moment my feet touched that warm beach all of my worries were washed away with the surf.

As my South Sea Cruise docked at various islands to drop off and pick up fellow travelers, I noticed that half of the passengers boarded half-dressed and without shoes. I immediately embraced their carefree attitude and showered adoration on the staff members who refused to let me lift a finger to move my luggage.

I was booked for one night on Beachcomber Island, one of the Mamanuca Islands. You can walk the perfectly manicured, white-sand circumference of this mini-mirage in about ten minutes. The only buildings scattered among the jungle wild life in the center are a huge lodge of 114 bunk beds, a few private villas, shared bathrooms, and a covered outdoor dining area and bar on the beach.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by cheers of Bula!, which means "welcome" or "hello" in Fijian. I checked in and left my valuables in the capable and methodically documented hands of the resort staff. They encourage guests to charge all purchases to their room or bunk number so that carrying cash becomes unnecessary.

I was excited to spend the afternoon with Alex and Nick, a waitress and chef who had worked at the Chateau and whose itinerary happened to overlap for one day in paradise. After exchanging stories of our last few weeks of travels, we took a dip in the crystal clear blue water just as the evening rain began to drizzle. This didn’t deter us at all and just cooled the top layer of the water, while everything from our waists down remained the temperature of a lukewarm bath.

On Beachcomber Island, the banging of a drum announces buffet-style meals served in the outdoor cafeteria- basically rows of picnic tables under a covered roof. You will never go hungry with breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner provided daily. There were always a variety of options from spaghetti or grilled fish to chicken curry and fresh fruit.

Apparently, it also has a reputation as the “party island”, which I discovered meant that every kid from the South Pacific who had recently graduated was here to celebrate before heading off to university. The drinking and dancing started early, including a performance of traditional dancers and fire shows.

From there it turned into an MTV Spring Break-vibe that somehow incorporated a theme of cross-dressing. The boys began raiding girl’s suitcases for bikini tops, sarongs and make-up and by the end of the night the smell of one-too-many-Sex-On-the-Beaches wafted out of every overgrown corner of plants. I retreated to my bunk bed, feeling little too old to join in on the Macarena-inspired “Bula dance”, recalling fond memories of my teenage days in Mexico. Let the kids live it up, and I’ll have the beach to myself in the morning while they sleep it off!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Fiji Fiasco

***Warning, written by a tired, grumpy traveler who may come off as slightly less than appreciative that she has just arrived on a tropical island...***

It was clear from the get-go that things in Fiji were not always going to go as planned. After dragging two huge suitcase, a laptop, and a carry-on through Rose Bay to the ferry and onto an airport shuttle (I know, I know, I brought it on myself, but c’mon- Six months! Multiple climates! And taxis are expensive!) I thought the hardest part was behind me. This was before I saw the line to check in snaking through what appeared to be half the terminal.

I joined the line and surrendered to an hour and a half of shifting weight from foot to flip-flopped foot, half-sitting on bags (see, large, heavy luggage is good for something!), and inching forward every time someone took the slightest step in order to maintain some sense of progress. After holding my breath during the baggage weigh-in (success!) the attendant robotically pointed to the time on my boarding pass that my plane would begin boarding. It had passed five minutes ago.

I still had customs and security to get through, with lines clogged full of the same passengers I had shared my afternoon rubbing shoulders with. By the time I made it into the duty free shopping area an attendant was bustling through calling for any final passengers to Fiji. I hustled to the gate and took my seat, cursing missing the more profitable side of currency exchange, and waited for another twenty minutes as the crew realized that the backlog had started hours ago.

After an uneventful flight on Air Pacific (except that I wasn’t impressed when they turned off the in-flight entertainment forty-five minutes before landing) I made it to Nadi International Airport in time to catch the end of a breathtaking sunset. Other than the cheerful band playing at the end of the exit corridor, the airport staff seemed overworked and tired. My immigration officer failed to mumble a single word while stamping my passport and the security screeners did nothing to facilitate bags getting stopped up through security screening.

I finally reached the exit, expecting the free shuttle from my pre-booked Grand Malenesian Hotel room to be waiting, but when I approached information the suggested hopping into a taxi, claiming it would be cheaper! I refused and moved down the line to an agent who called the hotel directly. I was stunned when she hung up the phone and confirmed that they had just told her to put me in a cab.

When I questioned reception upon arrival I was told that yes, they do have an airport shuttle van, but there was no one available to drive it today. Not in the mood for an argument, or to be labeled as a high-maintenance American, I shrugged and followed a porter carrying one of my bags. As he began climbing stairs to the second floor (no elevator!), I gave myself a mini-pep talk and refused to be disheartened.

My evening continued this way: Anywhere to grab a bite to eat? Shops in town are closed. Light bulb in the bathroom? Burnt out. Internet access? Yes, but I’m sorry, cards are sold out. I consoled myself with an early night in and the mini-blessing of an otherwise empty shared room and crossed my fingers that the shuttle scheduled to pick me up in the morning and whisk me away to Beachcomber’s Island Resort actually existed and came with a licensed driver.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Did I Mention I Climbed a Volcano?!

**Alternately titled “You can take the girls out of New York City, but you can’t take New York City out of these girls!”

When Helen and I decided to do the Tongariro Crossing, also known as “The Best One Day Hike In New Zealand” or “That-Famous-Tourist-Landmark-That-We-Lived-Next-To-For-Five-Months-And-Will-Kick-Ourselves-If-We-Go-Home-Without-Seeing”, we decided to do it in style. This was born out of a ridiculous conversation where I claimed that I wanted to do the hike in heels, but clearly the hiking boots and waterproof jackets were a necessity. Neither of us are big fans of drab attire so we made the best of the rest of our ensembles by donning the most formal dresses we had packed.

Our fellow shuttle passengers were amused at first, but when we arrived at the entrance to the trail they meant business. We started a few minutes behind the crowd after stopping to slather sunscreen on our exposed skin, and began our ascent of the Devil’s Staircase, the ominous name for the first leg of this seven-hour trek. Picking our steps carefully through some rocky paths and along a stream, we were surprised at the ease with which we were moving- this is of course until the incline changed from rising slope to lung crushing steep.

We started our hike with only one backpack, having woken up late as usual and thrown our supplies together in a hurry. We decided to take turns carrying it and that whoever was carrying the bag decided when it was time for a break. Fighting against asthma and completely untrained hiking abilities, this next leg of our climb included trading roughly every ten minutes. Luckily, this allowed us many opportunities for silly photo ops, which we are somewhat notorious for, while being constantly stopped due to our attire to ask if we were professional guides to which we laughed hysterically and politely declined.

When we reached the top of the mountain we were treated to the 

gorgeous views of the geothermal Emerald Lakes where most hikers stop for lunch and pictures. We started a conversational trend when we posed for pictures wearing our “Team Awesome” badges and had every group around us looking to dub themselves in similar fashion- Team Cobra became our immediate friends.

The next leg of our journey was a surreal flashback to the winter we had just survived when we found ourselves tramping through snow-covered paths in the middle of what New Zealanders consider springtime- especially odd considering we had been fighting against sunburns over the first hours of the hike! Luckily, we had rented color-coordinating jackets to match our dresses (actually completely by chance!) upon embarking so we were well prepared for one last chance to play in the snow.

From that high point onward our journey was spent looking for conversation to fill the air, willing ourselves to admire the beauty of the view, and begging our knees to continue working despite their screaming cries of pain in return. The incline may have been difficult on our lungs, but the physical strain on our bodies on the way down without the anticipation of fantastic views left us counting mile markers in disbelief and playing various versions of “If you were a…… what would you be?” We now know what kind of shoe, building, animal and article of clothing best represent our respective personalities (and if you’d like the answers feel free to ask me, or invent your own).

As we stumbled into the field at the end of the hike with the crowd of other hikers awaiting the arrival of our shuttle home we were overwhelmed with exhaustion, mutual admiration, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment… oh, and in dire need of a good dry cleaner!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

Having a birthday in another country is a strange experience, particularly when you’re way outside of both your comfort and time zones. I’d already had a wild night out with friends for our No Clothes Party and an amazing day of skiing and now I just wanted to relax. I decided to splurge and spend the day being pampered.

I’d been neglecting my hair to the point of resembling the Venus de Milo, so I asked around for recommendations for a cut and color and ended up at Chocolate Blonde in Taupo. From the moment I walked in the door I knew I had made the right decision.

We (my friend Luci came along to keep me company) arrived early (always allow time to be stuck behind a logging truck while driving on single lane mountain roads). As we flipped through magazines, each of us was offered our choice of coffee that arrived with a piece of chocolate cake on the side- and this was before we had even mentioned that it was my birthday! When they discovered that little tidbit of information, another piece of cake appeared, along with a complementary glass of white wine for each of us.

The stylist was good. Within a few words she knew exactly what I was asking for and how to explain it, the way a painter can tell you what type of brush strokes to use to make the clouds look different than the trees. We chatted easily with the other women, in typical hair salon fashion, about everything from work to fashion to the scary nature of Botox. Some things are just universal in the developed woman’s world.

There’s no use looking good if no one’s looking so we hightailed it back to National Park for dinner at Elvin’s. We popped a bottle of bubbly and took our time so that we could arrive fashionably late to Schnapps, where the rest of the gang was meeting.

Turns out we had no reason to rush because, despite claims of a band playing that night, it was a solo acoustic singer called The Ollie Knox Project who whined and strummed painfully before absolutely butchering a Pearl Jam cover. Luckily, the laughter of good friends always drowns out in the end. I ended up with a perfectly content start to the last year of my twenties. Good thing, too, because next year I couldn’t even get a visa!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Skiing Mt Ruapehu

It may have taken me two and a half months, but I finally made it up the mountain to try a day of skiing. Being a complete and total beginner I was dressed almost head-to-toe in borrowed gear- one of the perks of living in a lodge full of generous friends with opposite days off. This saved me from buying or renting: skis, boots, poles, gloves, thermals, waterproof pants and sunglasses.

In many social circles, reverting to talk about the weather is a safe and boring standby but in a skier’s life it’s absolutely essential. Too windy or cloudy and you can’t see five feet in front of you. Too warm and the snow turns straight to slush. I considered our ideal conditions of sunshine breaking through weeks of perfect snowfall an early birthday present and didn’t even bother bringing a jacket. I was, however, extremely adamant about applying sunscreen after working with walking cautionary tales sporting red faces and raccoon eyes.

Marc (more commonly known by his last name, Brooker) volunteered as my eternally patient instructor. An experienced skier and fitness instructor, he came up with different visualization techniques to help me with the various positions. Turning my toes out was “dancing”, going up hill was like “ice skating”, and turning toes in to slow down and stop was “pizza” (it makes the shape of a slice). Having trained in ballet my entire life, this last one was the most foreign to me, and unfortunately, stopping is a fairly important part of the process. I constantly had to remind myself to turn in, keep my weight on my toes and roll onto the inside of my feet.

Still determined, we skipped Happy Valley, the beginners hill, partially out of overconfidence but mostly because it gets overcrowded with kids and tourists and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of plowing over another human being. I took three runs on the basic rope tow to get the feel for turning and stopping, with Brooker giving me a new goal (follow his path, wide turns, stop and start) every time. Convinced I was a natural we moved up to Rock Garden to try some real runs.

This is where I fell in love with the sport. Despite my inability to instinctually stop (toes, Toes, TOES!), I did a few successful runs with only three major tumbles. I was fearless after discovering that rolling on powder is just about as painful as an overaggressive massage, nothing I couldn’t handle. That was, until on my next run I managed to fall into a backwards somersault and smack the back of my head on the hill. Swaying slightly as I stood up, I decided it was time for a break.

We grabbed a quick coffee and headed to the café at the top of the Waterfall run. I took one look and decided this one would be pushing my luck so, after enjoying some great views, I rode the chair lift back down to where I was comfortable. I fell in love with Tennants Valley, which starts with a step hill but drops into wide, open space so I could coast without fear. After the last possible run, I tramped back to the car with boots on my feet, skis over my shoulder, and a triumphant grin on my face.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No Clothes Party

I’m not sure if it’s an English thing, a traveler’s thing, or just the people I happen to surround myself with but while away from home I’ve found a common theme of people dressing up in crazy outfits to go out. The first time I heard the term “fancy dress party” I assumed it was similar to our formal dances back in America. I was definitely wrong.

We discovered a slew of September birthdays among the Chateau staff and tried to come up with a way to celebrate together outside of the limited options on the mountain that everyone was bored of. This was supposed to be something special. We settled on a night out in Taupo with one stipulation- everyone had to come wearing an outfit made of something other than clothing. One group started early with a pub quiz at Mulligan’s and moved on to dancing at Element until the rest of the staff could get off work.

With scarce resources on our fingertips (not to mention a limited time frame for those of us racing to catch at least last call after work) most people ended up in variations of bin bags, also known as can liners or trash bags to us "Yanks" (On a side note, when it was first suggested I kept thinking that people were suggesting we wear “bean bags”… got to love the English language barrier!). I grabbed the one thing in my room that wasn’t clothing and would still cover me, a towel, tied a tapestry around my head and called it a night.

One of the greatest things about the night was that all of us, whether we worked late or had to be up early, put in the effort to make an appearance. I’m not sure if it was the months that we had worked together or the fact that we all looked ridiculous, but any bonds that were formed felt cemented that night. Blood may be thicker than water, but garbage bags can definitely hold their own.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Prawn Fishing in New Zealand

Traveling can generally be divided into two schools of thought. First, you could attempt to learn how locals live their daily lives. This becomes a much easier task when your travels include long-term residency. Your best options include taking a working holiday, studying abroad, or staying with friends who can show you the sights not listed in every guidebook.

Option two is to take advantage of being on vacation and indulge in activities that you, or those native to the area, wouldn’t normally be inclined to do. These can fall along the lines of guided tours, visiting historical sights, or finding the perfect scenic backdrop for a photo op to memorialize your experience. You could even call them a traveler's guilty pleasures.

I generally fall more into the first category. It took me three years of living in New York City before I made it to the top of the Empire State Building, but I was thrilled when friends visited and suggested that I join them. Every once in a while you have to let your inner tourist emerge.

This is how I ended up at a prawn fishing farm in Taupo, New Zealand. I’d been to the town many times, as it’s generally the closest big city for us to go out for a night or do some decent shopping, but today’s mission was different.

We arrived at Huka Prawn Park, paid an admission fee and received a brief lesson on the best techniques to catch a prawn. Apparently, once you feel them take the bait on the end of your pole they have to walk around and show off their prize to all of the other prawns around them, so you don’t want to pull up as soon as you feel a tug. Instead, you’re supposed to follow them with your line as they stagger about with bravado, waiting for the jerk that means they’ve finally taken a bite before pulling them out of the water.

Some of us were better at this than others. Although I was one of the first to feel a tug on my line, I managed to either pull it up too early or wait too long and discover that they had eaten the bait and scampered off on their prawny way. We watched as the boys managed to catch a few (including Arturo’s monster prawn) and laughed as Keri squealed with a combination of delight and fear when she pulled hers out of the water but was too horrified to take it off the hook herself.

We brought our bounty inside to be cooked (slightly disappointed that our time and effort resulted in about one bite per person as opposed to the full meal we had been expecting) and hit the driving range in the meantime. There were inner tubes floating at various distances offering prize money for sinking a hole in one, but I simply prayed that it wouldn’t take me too many swings before making contact with the ball. I managed it in two.

We finished our afternoon with a stop at one of the more natural attractions of New Zealand- hot springs.
 After a stop at the store for some picnic food, we changed into our swimsuits and began vying for the best seat among the rocks. We sat back and enjoyed absolute tranquility- until it started to rain without a single trademarked umbrella in sight! Tourists may occasionally be better prepared, but it’s unpredictable moments like these that will stick in my memory long after the prawns have left the farm.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

“Weekend” in Wellington (Part Two)

Satisfied with our glimpse of the city’s nightlife, we got up early to dive into daylife expeditions (and check out of our room on time…). Without another night to spend in town, we decided to spend our bar tab on breakfast at the pub we had discovered the night before, indulging in eggs, potatoes, coffees, a bloody mary and soft drinks to take with us. We may have been one of the first teams in history to spend the minority of a bar tab on anything to drink!

The cable car came highly recommended by everyone we talked to, but we were greeted by miserable rainy weather that is apparently typical of Wellington. We took our chances anyway and, after a five-minute uphill ride filled with college kids and commuters, spent approximately thirty seconds appreciating glimpses of what would be a beautiful view through a cloud-covered haze.

We wandered through the largely unbloomed but fairly enjoyable botanic gardens, that I’m sure appreciated the drizzle more than we did, and took a brief shelter in the tree house, whose misleading name materialized as simply a visitor’s center and gift shop.

Slightly disappointed, we moved on to another highly recommended tourist attraction, the Wellington Zoo. Although it proved more difficult to find than one would imagine for a place housing the likes of lions, kangaroos and giraffes, it existed just outside of the city center and just off the edges of all of our maps. After a few circles and one stop for directions, we arrived to breaking blue skies. We took this as a good sign.

The zoo ended up being a highlight of our trip. Although a few of the animals sat disappointingly still, the swinging spider monkeys, swivel-necked mere cats, a chattering trio of inseparable otters and a pair of leopards intent on licking each other from head to toe were full of personality. We watched with a combination of childlike wonder and adult admiration and made up stories about the dramas in their lives. It wasn’t until the wildcats began to roar over a chorus of squawking birds that we realized it was diner time, both for the animals and our grumbling stomachs.

I had begun begging for us to eat at least one sushi meal, one of the things I miss most being at my fingertips in both Seattle and New York. We were, after all, in a seaside town and had spotted a “sushi” sign on Courtney Place the day before. It ended up being the type where you grab dishes off of a rotating river in the center of the room and your prices are color coordinated by the plates left when you finish your meal. This may not have been ideal, (or fresh?), but I took what I could get and built a stack halfway to eye-level to hold me over.

We couldn’t leave without trying Tuatara, “New Zealand’s finest beer” as boasted in a local newspaper. We stopped into a small bar filled with business men winding down from a long day of work and twenty-somethings getting a head start on the weekend ahead. We chose the wheat variety on draft, not necessarily overwhelming, but definitely an impressive note to leave this beautifully cosmopolitan town.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

“Weekend” in Wellington (Part 1)

One of the hardest things to reconcile on a working holiday visa is how to fit your holidays in around work. I rounded up three friends- Hannah, Tony Salmon (who everyone knows as “Salmon”), and Tim- who had never been to Wellington and we put in requests to our respective departments to get the time off. One of the things I had to get used to in this country is that our work roster runs from Wednesday to Tuesday, so technically we called this a weekend road trip.

After breakfast, we made it through a roughly four hour drive with minimal stops, entertaining ourselves by arguing over music choices and attempting to pronounce the Mauri names on street signs as we passed. We arrived at Base Backpackers in the afternoon where we dropped the car, checked in, and marveled at the size of our private suite and cleaner-than-we’re-used-to, non-communal shower for a fairly decent price.

Visually, Wellington reminds me a lot of San Francisco. The city sits right on the waterfront with ships lining the harbor, a few cobblestone streets, trendy dining and shopping districts and it’s very own cable car. My Lonely Planet boasted that, “Wellington is undisputed king of NZ’s nightlife with copious clubs, bars and other insomniac refuges,” so we couldn’t wait to hit the town.

We dropped our bags and began by scouring the neighborhood for lunch options, settling for the $15 lunch special at Coyote. Our stomachs quickly turned from rumbles to satisfied purrs and I rediscovered my love for a good draft beer with a Montieth’s Radler. From there we split into gender-friendly pairs so the girls could shop and the boys could hit up TAB gambling spots, but it wasn’t long before Hannah and I were ready for a nap so we dragged ourselves back to the room and collapsed onto our bottom bunks.

After the boys returned to rouse us out of bed, we showered, dressed up for the night and headed just down the street to a pub quiz at The Speights Ale House at The Shepherds Arms Hotel. It turns out that two Americans, an Aussie and a Swedish girl make a pretty good team because we won two pitchers of beer and a $100 bar tab to split between us! To be fair, we won both on lucky guesses of how many times the Earth could fit inside the sun (somewhere over 900,000) and by changing our answers to three questions in the bonus round three times. Our bar tab came a weeklong expiration date so we finished our beers and went to explore the rest of the town.

We started on Courtney Place, which everyone had told us was the heart of 

the city when the sun goes down, and bounced from place to place. We fell in love with El Horno, a cute little Spanish bar that played classic American music and served yummy sangria. We popped into Shooters, a multi-level club, to find four people on the dance floor and promptly turned on our heels to leave. Hannah and I spent a few minutes dancing at The Establishment where they had champagne drink specials for ladies night, but we took one look at the boys’ bored faces and agreed to move on. 

After stopping for one more drink at El Horno we ended up back at Basement, the bar in the bottom of our hostel, where everything behind the bar was $5. We plopped onto the couches and people-watched as couples who had far more to drink than we had paired off and danced around the subject of blatantly asking whose room was likely to have an empty bed. Before long, we called it a night, happy to have a double-bunk bed suite sorted out for ourselves, and geared up for a full day of sightseeing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Road Trippin’

The best inauguration for a new car has to be a road trip, as long as you remember a few key elements:

1. Comfortable seating- Don’t try to cram too many people in the car or you’ll end up with a crick in your neck and drool on your shoulder. Seat belts all the way around is usually a safe bet.

2. Eat up- You don’t want to stop eight times along the way for pizza, burgers and water bottles so stock up on car friendly snacks and drinks before getting in the car.

3. Bathroom breaks- It may have been an annoying rule when you were a child, but every person tries to go every time you stop. A spare roll of toilet paper in the glove box can also save you from drip-drying through public restrooms worldwide.

4. Soundtrack- Save yourself from making small talk for hours with a solid mix of music to suit the taste of every passenger. Take turns creating iPod playlists or tune in to local radio stations to get a feel for what the natives are listening to. Classic rock that everyone can sing along to can be a lifesaver when you’re struggling to stay awake. On that note…

5. Sleep in shifts- Never leave the driver awake on their own. Consider the back seat fair game for napping but keep an alert pair of eyes and ears in the passenger seat to avoid both accidents and boredom- equally dangerous.

Let’s hit the road!

Friday, September 5, 2008

I Bought A Car!

Ok, to be fair I bought half a car. Well, technically I’m long-term-renting a car.

When our friend Ewan was leaving and selling his car, Tony and I were both interested in buying it but neither of us was keen on spending a ton of money. I approached Tony with the idea of sharing it, since we work in the same department and generally get opposite days off. On top of that, he wants to keep the car when he leaves the Chateau to travel further while I only want it as an escape from the mountain while living here. He's going to buy me out when our travels part paths.

So, I’m a joint property owner of an old Mitsubishi. It has its quirks- the rear window leaks, the defrost takes a while, the driver’s side lock is a bit moody…. Throw in that the steering wheel is on the opposite side that I’m used to and they drive on the left hand side of the road and every time behind the wheel becomes an experience.

But, all things aside, the freedom it brings is invaluable. I’ve driven to Oakhune, thirty minutes away, for a bagel and a good cup of coffee. It gives me the freedom to plan road trips or even have a night out on the town without working around someone else’s schedule.

Having relied on public transportation for almost four years I had a hard time adjusting to being isolated on a mountain without so much as a flashing taxi light or subway station in sight. Sure, traveling (for some) is supposed to push you out of your comfort zone, but I’ve discovered that one of the most important things for me to pack is control of my own destiny.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Give and Let Give

Human nature doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves. One of the most important attributes that I’ve found upon moving to both New York and New Zealand is the kindness of relative strangers- particularly in times of distress.

New Yorkers have a reputation for being a fast-walking, tough-talking, competitive breed but upon arrival I found a culture dying to feel a connection. One can’t stand on the street or stare at a subway map for five minutes without someone approaching with an offer to help. Complete strangers will start a conversation in an elevator or subway and, particularly while working in restaurants, patrons were dying to ask about your life story. Work acquaintances and fast friends were always willing to go above and beyond to help find a new job, place to live, or promote an aspiring artist’s show. In New York I found the strong support network absolutely necessary to cultivate a city of dreamers.

I was struck by a different kindness from the international travelers making up the Chateau staff. I was a little bit nervous to join a team slightly later in the season than most, afraid that previous friendships may have already formed impenetrable bonds. What I found was the polar opposite: a welcoming group of open arms, an open-door environment, and a willing trust to lend money, a car, or some advice at any hour of the day.

Truly beautiful colors were revealed during a recent bout with the flu that plagued almost every member of our staff. While some people were barely able to breathe or get out of bed, others were making runs to the pharmacy in town to pick up medication, lending magazines and movies to keep patients entertained, covering long hours at work, and even sitting in germ-infested rooms to dull the loneliness and boredom of being quarantined away from home. The selflessness and kindness that I witnessed gave my faith in humanity and my immune system enough of a boost to ward off this round of illness- and yes that’s the sound of me knocking heavily on wood!

I’m not sure if it’s the difficult pace and constant rejection of being a struggling artist in the big city, the isolation and backpacker’s conditions of a small mountain town, or the inherent goodness of people in general, but what I’ve seen of the world is far from what is reflected on the front pages of newspapers and gossip magazines. They are the small voices offering to buy you a coffee, recommend a word-of-mouth traveler’s destination, and pay forward the kindness offered by those before them. What I’ve seen is hope for our future.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Taste of Home

One of the best ways that I’ve discovered to combat homesickness is to recreate the traditions that you miss most. This is how the idea of All-American Brunch was born.

Sunday brunch is a New York staple, as much about the company of friends and the excuse to drink champagne in the morning as it is about the food. We rounded up the American staff hailing from Seattle, Tennessee, DC, New York and Massachusetts, coordinated days off, and dressed in our finest red-white-and-blue for a little taste of home without anyone making fun of the way we say “tomato”.

We scoured the grocery store in town to find bagels (surprisingly scarce in this country!), eggs, smoked salmon, hollandaise, bacon, fruit salad, mimosas and coffee and dove into our feast. Saturday Night Live’s the Best of Will Farrell provided the perfect entertainment, making it tough to chew through laughter.

To top off the afternoon, Helen and I dove into a Sex and the City marathon, which turned out to be a bit of an overkill. It’s one thing to enjoy the benefits of a good brunch, and another entirely to taunt yourself with visions of the things from home you can’t have: good friends, a different restaurant everyday of the week, and all of the perks of cosmopolitan life.

So, I just reminded myself of the humidity of an East Coast summer, bundled underneath a blanket and drifted into a nap. Central Park grass can’t always be greener.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mother Nature is a Tough Boss!

One of the largest adjustments from moving to a concrete jungle to a mountain environment has been conceding major decisions to the whims of the weather. As a pedestrian town, New York is somewhat affected by the forecast - do you carry an umbrella to the subway? Do you eat at an outdoor café or seek solace in an air-conditioned room – very rarely will the weather actually disrupt the flow of daily life.

On the mountain, we are at the mercy of the skies. My work schedule is dependent on access to the ski areas: if they’re open we can expect to be busy later in the day as families come down after a day on the slopes, but I get called in early on days that the slopes are closed to accommodate guests who settle for tea and scones as opposed to a day of snowboarding. Deliveries and trips to the nearest towns depend on the roads being open and ice free, and whether or not the car available has chains or four-wheel drive.

It can be a humbling experience, and a frustrating one. Ski and 

snowboarding fans are stuck sleeping with crossed fingers that they can take full advantage of their days off. A heavy snow can turn the walk to work into an obstacle course, dodging the snowball fights that automatically ensue after a heavy snow.

Even our moods can be affected. I worried about the idea of living through two winters in a row when I chose to change hemispheres. I may have soaked up the sun in Las Vegas before arriving, but the idea of snowstorms in September is still tough to wrap my head around- especially with pictures of friends from home lounging on the beach taunting me on Facebook.

I’ve always respected the power and beauty of the weather - lightning storms and sunsets are a few of my favorite things – but there are certainly days when I wish Mother Nature took requests into consideration.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Taranaki Falls

One of the best things about being surrounded by travelers is the element of spontaneity. People from around the world with different personalities and varied interests come up with adventures that you could never have dreamed up alone. It was over lunch that I decided I wanted to jump into Taranaki Falls.

Helen and I were eating in the staff room and planning to use the internet before our shifts started when Mike, a sweet young guy from England, plopped down at the table across from us. Everyone knew that he was heading home to start university in a few weeks and was trying to cram in as many activities as possible before leaving.

“What are you up to today?” we asked.

“I’m going to jump in a waterfall,” he replied matter-of-factly, “I just wish I had someone there to take my picture.”

Helen and I exchanged a quick glance. “I’ll go with you,” I volunteered, “but if you’re jumping in the water then so am I.”

“Well I’m not going to be the only loser who doesn’t jump in,” Helen chimed in.

And so, our idea was born. We each ran home to change into swimsuits and pack a bag of warm clothes to bundle up for the walk home. We met at the entrance to the Taranaki Falls walk, checked our watches and realized that there was no way we would make it back to work in time if it actually took us the allotted hour posted each way.

Refusing to accept defeat, we decided to run the downhill portions of the trail and Manhattan speed walk the rest of the way, reassuring ourselves that the time was overestimated for dawdlers. Stopping for a few pictures in between, we reached the falls in about forty-five minutes.

Since it was his original idea, Mike stripped down and went first while Helen and I stood on the rocks armed with a disposable camera. After striking a few poses he crawled out shivering but grinning. We took turns wading to the middle, standing still long enough to get a good shot, and then trying to convince the next participant through chattering teeth that it really wasn’t that cold.

After we had each taken one turn, we concluded that we couldn’t really claim to have jumped into a waterfall while we still had dry hair, so Helen and I grabbed hands, plugged our noses, and tip toed far enough out to completely dunk our heads. Not one to be outdone, Mike followed suit, splashing water overhead as he broke the surface.

Exhilarated, and possibly delirious from the cold, we started our walk back at the same fast pace that we had taken there. Even slowed slightly by a scraped knee that I earned taking a fall around a slick corner, we made it back in time to change clothes and get to work with barely a minute to spare. For the rest of the evening, fueled by adrenaline, endorphins, and the sheer timing of coming across the idea on a day filled with blue skies and sunshine, I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face. As fate would have it, a blizzard hit Whakapapa village the next day making the savoring of our experience even more sweet.

**This little adventure was featured on!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Just Do It.

I’ve never thought of myself as an adventure sports junkie. In fact, most people laughed when I told them I was going to live on the side of a mountain and work at a ski resort when I don’t ski or snowboard. I’m simply here for the experience of seeing another country and having some quiet time to write without the millions of distractions that New York provides on a nightly basis.

That being said, I promised myself that I would be open to new experiences and take advantage of any that presented themselves. When I heard that a group was organizing a white water rafting trip I jumped right in.

Eight of us drove down to Tongariro River Rafting ( where we met our guides Nick and Ben and changed into wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets. They corralled us onto a bus and took us to the river where we got a few brief instructions before hauling our boats into the water.

The severity of a river is rated on a scale of one to five, and my favorite explanation was that one was equivalent to a warm bath, while five was similar to dropping a live hornets nest into your pants. Our river was a level three, and of course we chose a rainy day so we spent our time between rapids (which was probably seventy-five percent) sitting on our hands for warmth. 
Luckily, our guides were full of jokes and silly banter to keep us entertained.

After a two hour ride full of gorgeous scenery, a few thrilling moments of water splashing into our faces and a few more spent bouncing up and down in the boat trying to dislodge ourselves from the top of a rock, we piled back into the busses for a soak in the nearby hot pools. Numb skin tingled against the warmth of the water the moment our toes broke the surface, but within minutes we settled in and never wanted to leave.

Before we knew it we were being called out of the water (just moments before the skies broke and began to rain again) to change back into comfortable clothes. We headed back to home base where tomato soup (homemade from Nick’s garden) was waiting for us with bread and butter. We ate, drank and laughed at the slideshow of photos already streaming on the wall and left as soaking but completely satisfied customers.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Job

So, what am I actually doing here?!
My official title is Food & Beverage Assistant at the Bayview Chateau Tongariro. I am generally scheduled to work Lounge Service, which is pretty much a combination of bartender/barback/barista/waitress /American ambassador (people LOVE to ask the staff where we’re from, what it’s like, and what we’re doing here) and anything else that gets thrown my way.

My schedule is pretty ideal- most of my days start at either noon or 3:00pm and run up until midnight, unless there is a special event or particularly rowdy crowd that keeps us open late. Our clientele make up a stew full of varied ingredients- we’ve got high-end hotel guests having cocktails before dining in the five star restaurant spiced with skiers and snowboarders looking for a cold beer after a long day on the mountain and garnished with families placating their children with hot chocolates for a moment’s peace so they can get a glimpse of the gorgeous mountain view out the enormous picture window. You’re as likely to see a cocktail dress and heels as you are grown adults tossing dripping wet coats over the backs of couches and warming their stocking feet by the fireplace.

I work in a bit of a boys club, but they’re a great crew. Jon, our bar manager, is from England and a big kid at heart who could charm the pants off of anyone who approaches the bar window. Tim, our assistant bar manager and Jon’s best friend, is a smart ass Boston boy. He can rub people the wrong way until you realize that he only pushes people’s buttons when he knows they can take it. He can also turn on a smile the second any guest approaches and knows fine-dining etiquette like the back of a white-gloved hand. Rounding out our crew is Tony W, who everyone calls “Dubs” due to the number of other Tonys running around. He’s from Northern England with a great accent to match and hides his sharp wit inside the demeanor of a big teddy bear.
During busy times my job keeps me running, and in down times I turn to silly details like organizing the six different types of coffee saucers we use or taking walks around the lounge with rambunctious rug rats. It may not be the reason I came to New Zealand, but it is my means to income, housing, and a social life, and so far it’s not half bad.

Oh, and it allows me the time focus on my real career aspirations and get an article published in an Australian newspaper…. more on that later!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Staff

Living in the lodges is basically like being in college again, on an international campus. The staff here at the Chateau is primarily from England, Scotland, and New Zealand with a few Americans sprinkled in, topped off with travelers from Sweden, Poland, Brazil, etc. Most are skier/snowboarders (we do live adjacent to a mountain and all…) or backpackers looking to earn their way to the next destination.

Like most young adults in a new setting, we turned to drinks and games to get to know each other. There is a tavern two minutes down the road that hosts pub quizzes, pool tournaments and beer pong games where you can generally find a crowd unwinding after work.

Helen, the manager and friend responsible for bringing me here, celebrated her birthday the weekend after I arrived and she decided to combat summer-sickness with a beach themed birthday party. The whole staff got into the spirit with festive gear and crazy games that lasted until breakfast was being served in the cafeteria the next morning.

And, just as a reminder that we are actually living in a small country on the side of a mountain, we awoke the next day to the news that the water supply was contaminated by sewage getting into the village water supply (and yes, I made that face that you’re making right now!). So much for rehydrating- or even brushing our teeth! It was treated within twenty-four hours but not before plenty of moaning, groaning, and missing the simple pleasure of access to boiling water.