Saturday, April 27, 2013

Marriage in a Campervan

So as you could probably imagine, driving through New Zealand for two weeks in a rented campervan was one part backpacker adventure, one part road trip of a lifetime, and one part marriage boot camp. 

Now, admittedly, I'm not one to study up on travel guides--it's too much information to take in all at once, so I usually get tired of reading and toss the guides aside to watch "Girls" on HBO instead. Nod is more patient at planning out the big picture of our trips, and had been reading the New Zealand lonely planet guide ferociously. Nod and I have travelled a lot together--nine countries so far in the four years we've been together--so I trusted his planning and his judgment, and figured I could join in planning the details as we went along.

By the time we arrived in Christchurch two weeks ago, however, I hadn't so much as opened a map yet. If someone had told me to pack my sunscreen for a trek across the New Zealand desert, I might have believed them. The towns, which often have Maori names, got jumbled together in my head--was it Tekapo or Kaikoura or Wanaka that was next on our itinerary? I knew that we would see sheep, but was otherwise fairly clueless about what was in store.

Unbeknownst to me, Nod had been carefully mapping out hikes and treks and climbs through three different mountain ranges in New Zealand's South Island, so happy to see snow-capped mountains after a summer in Sydney and even longer in the flatlands of Washington, DC. It wasn't until the fourth day of strapping on our hiking boots and massaging sore calf muscles that I thought to ask if we were going to be hiking every single day of our vacation. In fact, that was the plan. My blisters protested and the rain clouds intervened, however, so that we ended up spending half of our time atop majestic peaks or by turquoise alpine lakes, and half of the time squealing at adorable wildlife in the lowlands (most of the squealing by yours truly, but don't let Nod tell you otherwise--he loves baby lamb faces, too).

Queenstown, hike #3 of our Trip
Would-be hike #4 of our trip: Mt. Cook. Unfortunately, the weather was too bad to do this overnight climb, so we settled for a little jaunt to a mountain lake and back down again.
Roy's Peak by Lake Wanaka, hike #6 of our trip

Stretching tired muscles after hike #8 in two weeks - but what a beautiful country to be sore in! 

It is also the case that it has been a long held dream of mine to be a kayaker. This comes at the end of a long list of career aspirations. When I was young, I dreamt of being an archeologist of Native American artifacts, or perhaps a Subway Sandwich Artist. When I was a little older, I discovered that working at a Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop is, in fact, the greatest job ever, but I supposed that Secretary of State might also be a good job title. Today, I still dream of working as a sheep farmer or opening my own cafe/bed and breakfast/hair salon, but I'm still on track to be an historian of the modern Middle East. To this title, I hope to add: amateur kayaker and slam poet. I'm still working on reviving my slam poetry career, but New Zealand provided a real chance to make gains on the kayaking front. The only problem? I had never really kayaked before. But never mind. I have wanted it so clearly and for so long, I was sure I would take to it naturally. The kayak guide might even offer me a job before I was finished.

My big chance came at Milford Sound, where giant green peaks rise straight out of the ocean, reaching breathtaking heights. Forests cling to the rock face, creating an improbable forest inlet where waterfalls spring to life whenever it rains, cascading water into the sound with such force that it can uproot the precarious trees. Jade stone sparkles in the rocks. It's an incredible watery world, and, I hoped, it could be the start of my kayaking career. Nod agreed to go along, less out of any love of kayaking than for the reason that there weren't any alpine views to be had in the sound anyway--you have to see it on the water, whether by kayak or cruise boat.

Beautiful Milford Sound

The experience was saltier and more blustery than I had imagined, but no less magical. True, we did look a bit silly putting on the kayaking company's standard issue striped long johns, and there really is no good way to wear the splash skirts that strap around your chest to seal you into the kayak nice and dryly. 

Milford Sound is notorious for bad weather-- it rains more than 18 feet per year, and the winds can be so strong that tornados form on the water. We managed to paddle out on a day without rain, but the headwind was stiff and my arms felt sluggish after a few hours. It was not the athletic debut I had hoped for. But all was redeemed when we discovered that a fur seal was swimming alongside us! It rolled in the water and waved its fins, oblivious or indifferent that he was only a few feet away. Not to lose my cool in front of the other kayakers, I did my best to squeal under my breath. Hard to do, in retrospect.

LOVE. I think he feels it, too. (This is actually footage from an even more recent seal sighting just two days ago. TWO seal sightings in one week! How could a girl be so lucky?)
But so New Zealand was a magnificent trip all around: snow covered peaks, sheep-filled meadows, starry night skies, sparkling alpine lakes, and a new career launched as a wildlife sea kayaker.

Now we've packed our bags, turned in the keys of our stalwart campervan, shipped home our warm jackets, and headed to the airport. I secretly love the feeling of waiting at the airport-- possessions stripped down to what you can carry, and so many places to go. Tonight we'll head back to Australia for just one day in the artsy, seaside city of Melbourne. And from there- our adventure in SE Asia will begin!

Until then--!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Farewell to Sydney, we're off to NZ!

Dearest friends and loved ones—

Well, we’ve done it. Nod—ahem, Dr. Razi—is officially finished with physical therapy school after completing a 14-week internship in Sydney. We bid the fondest farewell to our adopted home, sad a sad goodbye over one last dinner together with our beloved housemate Alison, packed our enormously oversized bags (ok—we packed Nod’s reasonably sized bag and my behemoth bone-crushing sized pack), and set off for our grand two-month journey through New Zealand and SE Asia. 

Nod keeping watch over his modestly sized packs while waiting to be picked up from the airport

It's hard to smile when your pack weighs 60 lbs.

The last month we spent in Australia was some of the most special time we spent down under. My sister Lauren and her friend Kendall flew all the way to Sydney for their spring break, giving us the chance to play host and tourist all at once, and guaranteeing that they would make all of their friends completely jealous. Determined to pack in as much as we could into their 9-day stay, we all managed to:
  • ·      swim with a sea turtle in the great barrier reef
  • take a thousand cheesy photos in front of iconic Sydney sites
  • ·      share with Lauren and Kendall all the glories of lawn bowling
  • ·      eat our collective body weights in Australia’s delicious Tim-Tam cookies
  • Introduce our Australian housemates to scrumptious American s'mores

Roasting s'mores with H. and Ms. A. 

We were so lucky to be able to spend time with these girls—it was amazing. Sadly, though, we knew that their visit was to mark the beginning of the end of our stay in Sydney—Lauren and Kendall left only two weeks before our own departure.

The end of our time passed by in a blur. There was the remaining site-seeing to be done: visiting the Koalas, Emus, and terrifyingly muscular Kangaroos at the Taronga zoo.


Nod had bittersweet goodbyes to say to his coworkers, who had become a close-knit family during their long days together treating patients.

I spent my remaining time frantically cramming French grammar lessons and re-visiting all of my favorite coffee shops in Newtown (the winner: Corelli’s, with its ricotta honey toast and soy dandelion lattes). 

I also have a completely non-morbid appreciation for old cemeteries (think history major, not True Blood). Sydney has some amazing ones. There’s the old cemetery on majestic sea cliffs by Bondi Beach, with the dearly departed pointed toward the horizon on $10 billion property. My favorite cemetery, though is nestled behind an old Anglican church in Newtown. The church has been restored and cared for over the years by a lively congregation, but the cemetery has been allowed to crumble in a sort of pleasant way—tombstones all awry and at obtuse angles in the afternoon sun, the graves’ writing completely worn away. The neighborhood uses it respectfully as an odd little park, a place to take an after-work stroll or play with the dog. The cemetery has a few famous residents—the first mayor of Sydney, for one. But the cemetery also has the woman rumored to have inspired the character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, which is what sent me out to the graveyard with Nod’s camera in tow.

That wasn’t the end of our odd run-ins in Sydney, in fact. After Lauren and Kendall reluctantly returned to America, Nod and I spent Easter weekend in the Blue Mountains, just two hours outside of Sydney.  It was a rare two days of vacation for Nod and our last chance to gather our thoughts and reflect on our time down under before we plunged into our final week in Sydney. Looking for a place that could act as a reflective retreat, we were lucky to find this gorgeously constructed treehouse in the middle of the Blue Mountains’ eucalyptus groves. The family who built this treehouse lived on the other side of the property, in a gorgeous southwest-style home that could have belonged to Georgia O’Keefe. Wallabyes nibbled at their lawn in the misty morning hours, and brightly colored lorakeets chattered in the tree branches. The moment we arrived, I immediately booked the treehouse for a second night. Really, I was actually just ready to move in permanently.

Inside our treehouse

We spent our first day hiking through the lush canyons, through the canopy of the eucalyptus trees to the breathtaking waterfalls below, listening to the calls of the peacock-like lyre birds calling through the trees, photographing the stars at night. One of our hikes took us far from our house, though. Rather than re-trace our steps our hosts offered to pick us up. The father of the family picked us up. He was charming—he had a mop of white hair, focused eyes, and an absolutely terrible sense of time (when asked when he had built the treehouse, he replied “Oh, that would have been back in the ‘70s. Or maybe in the ‘90s.”) When we asked him what he did, he coyly responded that he was a writer, and that the treehouse had been his writing studio when his children were young. And what did he write? “Oh,” he said. “Just a little of this and that. I used to live in London. Let’s just say that Salman Rushdie really enjoyed staying at that treehouse, too.”

At this point, my jaw hit the floor. Too polite to ask our host who he was exactly, since we only knew that his first name was Richard, the mystery squirmed inside me until we could get back to Sydney.

It turns out that our host was Richard Neville—little-known outside Australia, but a major figure for Australians who had grown up near the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Richard Neville was one of three Australians charged with obscenity for publishing unflattering political satire in their offbeat journal, The Oz. The case went all the way up to Australia’s Supreme Court, where the charges were eventually thrown out and the freedom of speech was definitively confirmed. In the movie version of his life, Richard Neville was played by Hugh Grant. And I rode in the back of his jeep with my muddy hiking boots.

There was one final coincidence to be had with Richard.  When we returned to Sydney, I had been breathless with excitement in unraveling the clues about our host’s background (this being second only to the time when I found “June 18, 1984: I set her free. Now she is happy” scribbled under the desk in my rented room in Newtown). As I scoured the internet for more facts about Richard, I saw that he co-wrote a book about a 1970s serial killer named Sobhraj with a woman named Julie Clarke. The very next day, I walked by the used bookstore next to my house and a book propped in the store window caught my eye. It was Richard Neville’s book! Looking at the book jacket, I saw that Julie Clarke was none other than his wife Julia, who had looked after us during our stay in her treehouse. Mind. Blown. Of course, I bought the book immediately and read it all in one sitting (note for the future: reading a book about a serial killer for an entire day is kind of unsettling; I wouldn’t recommend it). The book itself was really well-written and gripping, though.

So there you have it: Richard Neville and I, bonded for life. (Not really, of course. But now I’ll totally win in the “Six Degrees of Separation” game if I ever need to find a link with Salman Rushdie).

Of course, I realize that I haven’t even gotten to the biggest news of the day: Nod and I are in New Zealand! We’ve been touring the mountains of the South Island in a campervan for the past 4 days.

In fact, I’m writing to you now in the soft, red glow of our budget RV (the drapes are red, the reading lights are in Amsterdam red).  We totally have campervan envy. It turns out that there’s a pecking order in the world of motorhome travel, which is a really popular way to tour NZ. The Maui company has a fleet of posh BMW campervans, complete with ladders to the upstairs loft bed, ensuite showers and toilets, and nicer cooking ranges than your home kitchen. Apollo and Britz are just a step below, with VW engines, spacious living rooms, and these handy little awnings that you can pop out to protect you from the sun while you’re enjoying a roadside picnic. I’m not sure what manufacturer originally made our mighty little van, but with over 200,000 miles on the odometer, I’m not sure it really matters anymore.  Rather than a cute little house door to welcome you inside to our living area, we just have a sliding van door—the kind you have to heave with all your body weight to overcome the rusted hinges. The two long benches that line the inside of our “living room” double as storage units and transform Tetris-style into a bed when you rearrange the jigsaw-style cushions. The problem is that the bench cushions long ago lost the Velcro that kept them in place, so our entire living room goes flying whenever we make a sharp swerve (usually to avoid a wandering sheep).

Our mighty campervan!

Another thing I’ve learned: New Zealand has a population of only 4.4 million. That’s it! And one in three of them live in Auckland, up in the north island. I’m not sure how many people live in the South Island, but based on what we’ve seen, I would estimate that there are approximately 485 sheep to every person, which is a kind of paradise for me to be around so many sheep. I haven’t convinced any to jump into my arms yet or to sit with me in our campervan while I strum the ukulele, but we have a few more days to try to work my sheep whisperer magic.

Speaking of the ukulele, it’s been going great. I know only four or five chords, but the beauty of pop music is that this is sufficient to play all of Jack Johnson, most of Adele, a healthy sampling of Beatles music, Rufus Wainwright, and Lady Gaga a la ukulele. Bad romance never sounded so good. Nod, who had to listen to me playing “Rolling in the Deep” while he was driving down windy mountain passes on the left side of the road, might have a slightly different perspective on how my ukulele is progressing.

That’s it for now—we’ll have lots more to report soon, and even more photos to post. Until then!

Some Bonus photos from the past few days: