New Zealand III: Mid-Semester Holidays

April 13, 2002

This letter is long overdue, so I’ve made it extra long. I hope you don’t mind! Things are well down here in New Zealand. I’m healthy, I’m happy, and everything’s just peachy.

The first term finished on Good Friday, and now I’m in the middle of a three week holiday. The holiday schedule is a bit odd. I’m not sure why they chose to give us a three week holiday after only five or six weeks of school, but I’m not complaining. The past few days have been quite exciting: Poncho and I had a five day tour of the north half of the south island and the southern tip of the north island. Lots of fun.

I’m currently staying in Poncho’s friend’s roommate’s room, who’s out of town visiting family. The dorms wanted to charge me $20 a night to stay over the holidays, which is a terrible deal, especially considering they wouldn’t even be serving dinner. I think I like the flatting lifestyle better anyway — I don’t think I’ll be staying in the dorms next year.

Anyhow, the vacation has been quite good. The first couple of days were spent being terrifyingly lazy — wake up around 1pm, spend the day lounging about in the living room with my temporary roommates, have a few beers with Poncho and friends when they show up late in the evening, wander off to bed around 5am, wash, rinse, and repeat. After a few days of that, we felt a road trip was in order. One of our good buddies, Blair, was having his 21st birthday up in Wellington (on the north island), so we thought it would be nice to stop by and say hello.

The trip started off easy enough. Poncho showed up at the door around 10am, and we went over to another house to pick up our friends Danny and T (short for JT). They needed a ride to Richmond, which was a bit out of the way, but would provide for an entertaining detour. Instead of leaving town immediately, we decided that a quick game of paintball would be a nice way to kick off the trip.

paintball Paintball is an interesting game. The basic rules are really simple — don’t get hit by marble-sized gelatinous balls of paint, fired from pneumatic “markers” carried by the opposing team. Everyone gets a marker and a mask, and the games are organized around familiar themes such as capture the flag, or elimination. The exciting part is that paintballs move at around 300 feet per second (roughly 200 miles per hour) and leave impressive welts that look a lot like ringworm. It’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Anyhow, I decided to document the game, so I brought my camera with me and wandered around the filed, managing to snag a few action shots of my friends diving for cover, getting “bunkered,” and generally having a good time. Photographing paintball is almost as exciting as playing it, because trigger happy people have a tendency to open up on anything that moves. I think I’ll be building some PVC armor for my camera in the near future.

Paintball finished after a couple of hours, and we hit the road. The first leg was rather nice — we went through some pleasant New Zealand country side before driving up along the eastern coast. The coastal drive was a little slow going, because the road had been washed out in several places by some big storms in the past few days, but it was still quite beautiful. The coast was made of big, jagged, black, volcanic rocks, with rather large waves crashing over them. Very impressive looking.

Our first stop was at Poncho, Danny, and T’s friend’s house. His name’s Ben. He dropped out of university this year, because he’s making quite a bit of money importing pearls from China and selling polished shark jaws. Oh, and he also snapped both of his wrists and a leg last year in separate freak accidents, which made it rather hard to get to lectures, and impossible to take notes or write essays. Ack. If there is a higher power in the universe, I can’t think of a better way to tell someone that their life doesn’t involve university studies. Regardless, he’s a great guy to hang out with, and he enjoys paintball, so I think I’ll probably be seeing him again in the future.

After chatting with Ben for about an hour, we continued onwards towards Richmond, by way of Picton and Nelson, a good three or four hour drive. By the time we reached Picton, night had fallen, which made for a long but exciting high speed ride along the twisting mountain roads to Nelson. Nelson is an interesting place. From what I could discern, it’s a small rural town with a bit of a tourism business. We didn’t spend much time there, because Poncho hates Nelson with a passion. I’m not entirely certain why, but I think the story had to do with asshole rednecks with remarkably unfashionable haircuts. Regardless, Richmond is a quiet suburb of Nelson, and is where Danny lives.

We dropped Danny and T off, and headed back to Picton. On the way, we encountered a possum. Not an opossum, but a real possum. They bare very little resemblance to one another, as the possum is a very cute little animal with silky brown fur, but both seem to enjoy wandering out onto highways at odd hours of the night. Unfortunately for possums, New Zealand folks consider them pests, and drivers are instructed to hit them instead of swerve out of the way. However, we decided to swerve, and swerve we did, into the oncoming lane on a blind curve in the middle of the night on a particularly convoluted stretch of road which happens to be favored by logging trucks. But, we saved that confused possums life, so I suppose a few heart stopping seconds of terror was worth it.

We arrived safely at the Picton ferry terminal at eleven o’clock. The ferries don’t typically run after 9:30, so we were expected a cold night camped in the car, but as it turns out, the previous days’ storms had caused a large backlog in ferry traffic, so a high speed ferry was leaving at 1:30 in the morning. We bought the tickets, hid the car in a nice residential neighborhood, and spend the next few hours on a big boat with nothing to do except make up stories convincing the crew that we were Important People and trying to get cheap drinks.

Armed only with our devastatingly good looks, some impressive looking camera equipment, and Poncho’s “I can sell ice to eskimos” wit, we easily convinced the crew that we were a couple of journalists traveling through New Zealand on assignment. We were doing a follow-up story for “Worth Magazine” on three American dot-com millionaires who had taken their loot to New Zealand to start new ventures.

Apparently, flashy American journalists can get away with almost anything here in New Zealand. We took group pictures of the entire crew, including the ship’s captain. We played our music on the ship-wide music system. We ran amok and had a great time. Considering this was a rather large boat, with room for several hundred passengers, and a few hundred tons of cargo (not including passengers’ cars), we consider our venture a success. Even if they were laughing at us behind our backs.

The next few hours are somewhat hazy. We hadn’t slept or eaten much in the past few days, and after having a bit to drink on the ferry, we were a bit temperamental and befuddled upon arriving in Wellington. In the middle of a nice breakfast, we somehow managed to get into a huge argument about subjectivism and logic. Some time later, we were in a very nice office building, trying to convince a receptionist to let us use their posh bathrooms, under the guise of having some sort of appointment with their director or marketing (which actually did the trick). After that we caught a bus to Blair’s house. My last memory in the city is riding past the Beehive, the New Zealand parliament building … and then the bus driver was shaking us awake at our stop. Nice fellow. We owe him a lot. Anyhow, to make a long story shorter, we finally got to sleep around 6 in the morning, after Blair’s mom found us trying to pass out in their driveway (we didn’t think anyone was home).

Blair’s birthday party was great. His parents cooked up a huge amount of food, and played embarrassing tapes of him singing “If I Only Had a Brain” from when he was five years old. Blair’s a third year chemical engineering student who likes to talk about things like thermodynamics, so hearing him sing “if I only had a bawwwaaain” was quite enjoyable.

The next day, it was back to the south island. We slept most of the way across the Cook Straight, then hoofed it back to Danny’s place where we did some more sleeping. The next morning, having recharged our batteries, we went out for Nelson Paintball’s club day.

Imagine this: you’re a reasonable guy (or gal, as the case may be), and you enjoy a good clean game of paintball — that is, people yell “HIT” when they’re hit, everyone plays by the rules, the teams are split up evenly according to skill, and after the game everyone gives advise and accolades where due. The “Team Terminator” guys up in Nelson are not reasonable people, by any measure. They’re a bunch of testosterone pumped hicks who think that they’re hot shit because they have scary looking paintball guns and wear camouflage. Yay. It was Team Terminator against everyone else — 12 jerks who train together and have superior equipment, against 13 of us with rental guns, eight of whom had never played before. You can guess who won. I can handle loosing, but when they started bragging about how they kicked our asses and how we should “learn to play good” and use better equipment … well … that’s just not cricket, as they say down here.

It sucked, so we spent the night bitching and watching kung-fu movies. The next morning, Poncho and I were on the road again, on our way back to Christchurch. We took a different route back, through the West Coast. Absolutely beautiful. A few hours into it, we stopped for lunch at a little roadside store. That’s when I realized I had left my shoes at Danny’s house.

The lady who was working at the store was a nice woman, although we think she may have been a bit lonely. She talked, and talked, and talked, and talked. Wow. We heard all sorts of crazy stories while eating our pies (and being eaten by insects). Apparently, she’s originally from Hungary. When I mentioned I had spent some time in Budapest, she went on and on about corruption in the government. As it turns out, she went to England for college, and spent a fair amount of time drinking with the fellow who ended up being the current president (or whatever) of Hungary. Who would have thought we’d be meeting the Hungarian president’s drinking buddy on a backwater highway in rural New Zealand? Then she gave me a pair of her husband’s shoes, which fit just fine … but they have a terrible, terrible funk to them. Still, it was a very nice gesture.

Anyhow, the rest of the trip was pretty inconsequential. We arrived back in Christchurch in time for dinner, and things have been pretty easy going since returning. We’re heading back to school in about a week, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things, although I’m a little worried about getting “rivered” for my birthday. It’s a tradition in the hall to chuck birthday boys and girls into the Avon river, which really isn’t much more than a very cold stream with a whole bunch of beer bottles and duck shit in it. I can’t wait.

On a completely different subject, I started taking jiu-jitsu classes about a month ago. There’s no particular reason why I started studying jiu-jitsu. I’m not a very aggressive person, and I’ve never been in any real fights, but there was a good deal at a club in town, so I thought I’d try it out. Now I’m hooked. Twice a week I hike down to the dojo to get thrown around, choked, kicked, and punched by my fellow classmates. Of course, I also have the opportunity to return the favors — in fact, just before the road trip, I managed to give some guy’s knee a good bashing with my eye, which promptly swelled up, went a funny shade of purple, and made me severely nauseous for about ten minutes.

But it’s not as bad as I make it out to be. I’m hooked because it’s fun. You feel like a super hero the first time you do a basic throw, and your 250 pound partner is easily and gracefully lifted off his feet and deposted at yours. Even better, when you do things right, it’s easy to avoid the painful stuff I mentioned earlier — the incident with my eye was an outstanding exception to what I’ve found to be a generally safe sport. I leave each session excited to return, and it’s a real work out.

A few bruises and a couple bucks are worth it.

Anyhow, tomorrow is my birthday, and I need to track my friends down and figure out what we’re going to be doing. I hope you’re all in high spirits and good health, enjoying nice weather, and investing lots of time and energy into my birthday presents. Heh heh.

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