Wednesday, 19 March 2008

We were told a shuttle from the train station would pick us up at 6:15am and take us to the station in time to make the 7am Christchurch to Picton train. We just had to wait in front of our hotel across the street. We waited and waited and waited. We were told that if it was late, the train would be late. Finally, the van pulled up, on the other side of the street, and after screeching to an almost stop it started to take off again. We all started waddling frantically across the street, lugging our suitcases and backpacks and crying “wait!”, and then Clay, our hero, whistled really loud. The van stopped and backed up to fill up with all our stuff. Thank the Lord for Clay’s whistling skills, it would have been tough to get us all to the train station in time without that shuttle.

The train ride was billed as a six hour “scenic ride”, and I’ve come to discover something in the course of our travels. Our kids are not impressed by scenery. Maybe if it’s something incredible, like that raging waterfall back in Australia, or the cliff drop-off’s on the Italian coast, but sheep in pastures and endless horizons of ocean don’t have anything on their books or DS games. Of course, like all responsible parents, we directed their attention to particularly pretty spots. They’d look up and remark, “Wow, that’s pretty,” then look back down. So, I can say we enjoyed all those beautiful vistas in peace while the kids played happily and quietly. Towards the end we had them turn everything of, shut everything down, and they each had some “stare out the window” time. I hope some of it remains somewhere in their brain cavities, it really was beautiful.

There were special cars on the train that were open, no seats or windows, so you could walk around and take in the scenery and fresh air. We passed vast fields dotted with sheep or cattle, interesting rock formations carved by the ocean, and a hillside where a rabbit darted into the shadow of a boulder. There was a dining car where I got the boys some darn good pancakes, complete with lots of butter and a container of whipped cream! The scones weren’t bad either, and there’s something nice and cozy about eating on a train.

Six hours later we arrived in Picton, a two hour car ride from our final destination for the day, Nelson. Clay went to retrieve our rental car, and came back empty-handed. There had been a complication, so we set off in search of Le Café, our guide book said it was good. We dragged our luggage a couple blocks and found it, a pretty little place with a great view of the harbor, where huge ferry boats pulled in and out. An hour later, our bellies full of pasta, Clay got the rental car, we figured out the best configuration for everyone’s bodies and baggage, and we were off.

Clay had no problems with this new car except for one thing. The windshield wipers and turn signal were switched to opposite sides of the steering wheel from his previous cars, and he just couldn’t seem to get it right. Every time he wanted to turn, he switched on the wipers. We started counting his wiper snafus while Clay called out in anguish with each mistake. He just couldn’t seem to train his brain on this one.

Our hotel in Nelson is perfect. Little red brick cottages across from a bay that has water in it when the tide is in, and a large expanse of mud when the tide is out. We didn’t care about the water, we were too enthralled with the beautiful grounds, a lush green grass lawn grew behind our row of cottages, and flowers festooned every windowsill. A perfect breeze blew through the kitchen and living room when we open the windows, the back door is one of those nifty half doors where the top can swing open while the bottom stays shut. We have two rooms and they both have two bedrooms upstairs, so Alayna opted to sleep at Grandmamma and Granddaddy’s place, much to the boys’ dismay. Benji begged Alayna to stay with them, but she declined.

This will be the perfect place to spend our Easter weekend. I could see tons of egg hiding possibilities in the long grass out back, we just need to find some eggs. Clay and I made a trip to the store while the kids stayed behind with the grandparents. We stocked up for meals and discovered that they don’t do plastic eggs in New Zealand, at least not at the supermarket we found. We had to settle for chocolate foil wrapped eggs, everybody would be happy with chocolate. We returned and made everyone sandwiches for dinner. At bedtime, I started a new book with the boys, the first Hardy Boys mystery (Peggy brought it).  After we got the boys in bed, Clay and I sat on the couch and hashed through our options while we’re here, what to do and see. I think we’ll make plenty of time to just hang out in our new place, it’s a good one.


Thursday, 20 March 2008

This morning after we traded the bread and jelly and butter back and forth between our kitchens, we set out for Abel Tasman National Park. We planned to take a water taxi that gave us lots of options. Our family would ride for a little over an hour and then get dropped off on a beach, while Peggy and Maurice would take the round trip the full three and a half hours and then wait for us in a nearby café, seeing more of the coastline during their longer taxi ride. When we told Benji we were taking a water taxi he said, “Oh, I don’t like those.” He was remembering the overcrowded water taxi we took back in Venice, where we were hot and cramped.

This taxi was a motor boat, and it made us long for our boat back home. The ride up the coast was beautiful, the driver would stop now and then to point out how a particular rock looked like Elvis, or the simple homes on the beach that were valued between 2 and 4 million dollars. He explained that the homes were there before 1974, when the land was declared a park, and so they have been allowed to stay. There are no roads and no electricity to the region, all their supplies must come in by boat, it must be an interesting life. We passed one very small green hut and the driver said it belonged to an 84 year old man. When he dies, because he has no dependents, the hut will be destroyed. “But he seems to be hanging on for now,” the driver commented. What a story to tell, this tenacious Kiwi in his little green hut by the sea. What must it be like, to live on a beach where tourists are dropped by water taxi, coming and going day after day?  At night, when everyone is gone, he has that glorious beach to himself.

We continued on, visiting a rocky outcropping chock full of seals. Some rolled around in the water, their flippers waving in the air. There was a pup that hopped its way up a rock and then called down into the water, summoning his mama. Across from the seal rock was Tonga Beach, our stop. We departed, splashing from the boat to shore with all our stuff, then waved good-bye to Peggy and Maurice as they zoomed off. We found a bathroom, slipped into our suits, then set off to explore. First order of business was to explore the cave in the wall of rocks to one side of the beach. We could walk far enough into it that it became dark and narrow. None of us was brave enough to stoop down low and crawl into the black depths, we were happy to retreat and continue explorations elsewhere. We clambered over the giant rocks, while Clay followed our progress from the water.

The rocks were covered in thousands of tiny bits of dead barnacles, making them pokey and hard on the feet, we picked our way carefully. We found dozens of little tide pools, each one its own little world of creatures. One had what looked like a little sea urchin, a mud skipper, some green plants, clinging black snails, and a little crab, with black mussels lining the sides. The kids would crouch down low and study these carefully. We gingerly made our way further and further along the rocks, finding a crevice where water crashed beneath us, and we could watch it from above. We finally got so far we couldn’t continue around a particular bend, and made our way back.

The tide was amazing, it was going out, and in the hour or so we had spent exploring , it was noticeably down. We learned that the tide had the biggest difference between highs and lows in the areas around Nelson, sometimes as much as 5 meters (15 feet)! Clay found a star fish, five arms and a stout body, and passed it around for the kids to examine. We found another one, this time blue with ten spiky arms. The kids were delighted with all the treasures they were accumulating (we didn’t save the starfish, though). We found some shells, selecting only the ones with character. Clay decided to go for a run in the forest behind us while I opted to stay with the kids and let them play. We had about an hour before the last taxi of the day would return to pick us up.

The kids played Marco Polo in the surf, falling all over each other with their eyes squeezed shut yelling “Marco!” Groups of kayakers arrived, tromping onto the beach and collapsing to rest. I met an older man from Sydney, who was on a two day kayak/hiking trip with his wife up the coast. He drew a map of Australia in the sand with his toe, and told me about some wonderful places we’ll have to visit if we ever go back. After resting, the kayakers loaded up their gear and headed into the forest, while a boat came to transport their kayaks to the next spot.

The only waves that disturbed the sand were from the occasional water taxies, and the kids running around. The beach was wide enough for everyone to spread out and find their own little spot, outposts were dotted along the sand, groups of people sitting and staring off into the ocean, lost in thought. Mesmerized by the water and the sky and the rocks and the day. The saturated sand sent streams of water back into the sea, little rivers making designs in the damp sand, once covered by the retreating tide. I studied the sand where I was sitting, farther up the beach from the water. It looked like dull-colored sprinkles for a donut, all the colors of brown. Cream and white and mocha and buff. Further out, in the water, the sand changed from course to dense and fine, it molded to your foot like one of those expensive form-fitting mattresses.

I sat on an old, gray, weathered log to escape the sand fleas (they hurt when they bite!) and to avoid sand sticking to the back of my legs when I stand up. Removing sand off the back of your jiggly legs is so undignified. Polished and smooth like a piece of fine furniture, my log had a branch for an armrest. I sat and watched the kids and scribbled notes in my little journal. Further down the beach, a girl threw a white sheet over her head so she could change underneath. She looked like a misplaced ghost, her arms and legs silhouetted as she struggled into her clothes.

Clay returned, our taxi came, and we all waded out and boarded for our return trip. We found Peggy and Maurice back at the harbor, then all headed back into town. We stopped off on our way to get more bread, for some reason we only bought two loaves when we went the first time. As if two loaves could get our starchy family through three days! As Clay was circling the parking lot he stopped to let some people pass, and a car began backing out right into my door. I made a strangled noise and began beating on the window, something the old lady in her car could never hear but gave Clay a heart attack. I think Peggy was the one who managed to say “honk!”, which Clay did, and the lady stopped backing up just seconds before ramming into us. Clay said next time an emergency happened, I should actually speak instead of just sounding like a strangled turkey.

While Peggy and I made some stir-fry for dinner that night, the kids played outside in that soft grass. They made some new friends, threw around the football, and whooped and hollered to their hearts content. We sat down to a good meal, all around one table. Nate wrote in his journal that this place feels kind of like home, and when Alayna questioned him he couldn’t really explain. I think I know what he meant. A family, a yard to run around in, a meal around a table, coming home to the same bed for several nights in a row. Home.


Friday, 21 March 2008

When we told Peggy and Maurice that we booked a three and half hour kayak trip for this morning, they raised their eyebrows. Peggy gave a little squeak. But to their credit, they were brave and went along with our plans. Clay and I had gone through several brochures, looking for an outfit that would allow Benji and Nate to kayak. Most of them restricted kayak excursions to kids ten and over, but we found one just twenty minutes away that claimed their kayak rides were perfect for beginners, age 3 to 103. Perfect.

When we got to Cable Bay, we met our guide and his wife, who hustled us into our life jackets. As Clay and Maurice tried to pay for the kayaking, our guide’s wife had a little trouble adding up the cost of the trip and kept saying that she had drank too much the night before and it was too early for her to be up. There was only one other person who would be joining us on our tour, a twenty-something year old man named Jan from Germany, who spoke very good English. The guide’s wife remarked, “We’ll put each of the kids with an adult, so we’ll do you and you, you and you . . .” pointing to each of the kids, then Clay and I, and then she continued, “and . . . yes . . . well, we’ll see,” as she studied the trembling Peggy. I apologized to Jan, as the realization sunk in that he would most definitely be yoked to one of us less experienced kayakers. Possibly the trembling and unsure Peggy.

I ended up with Benji, Clay with Nate, Maurice with Alayna, and Peggy with Jan, while our guide led the way in his one-person kayak. We were transported just a few minutes down the road to the bay, where we sat down in our kayaks and were shoved by our guide out into the ocean. We were each supplied with a nifty little “skirt”, a bit of canvas with suspenders that stretched and attached with elastic around the edge of our hole, so no water could leak in. They kept us pretty dry throughout our tour, and I have to say, we were quite the fashion statements.

After a few quick tips from the guide about how to paddle, we were off. After the initial shock of being shoved into the ocean on a skinny piece of plastic, Peggy made good friends with her strapping young friend, Jan, who gave her good instructions on how to paddle and avoid capsizing. We eased our way through a little cave where the water turned a light turquoise blue. The cave was so skinny, we put our hands on the walls on each side and pushed our way out. We watched crabs scuttle as we glided past the rocky faces of the island we were navigating around, and we paddled. We paddled, and paddled, and paddled. At one point I asked Maurice, “Are you wishing you had a motor?” and he replied, “I’m wishing I had my boat!” We stopped for a break on a secluded rocky beach we had all to ourselves.

The beach we stopped at was a welcome respite for all. Alayna and I climbed over a hill of boulders and found another secluded rocky beach on the other side, where we gathered many shells, trying to decide which were the best. Our guide told us about each one, giving them names like blue mussels and cat’s eyes, just like the ones he found when he was a boy. We found a cone shaped “turban” shell that was still intact, quite a treasure. While we were busily searching for shells, Benji had been busy as well. “Hey mom, you want to see my rock collection?” he asked, many minutes later. Benji had been making a “big and heavy” rock collection, by lifting the largest rocks his little arms could lift and placing them in lines on a large boulder. I was quite impressed as he showed off his prowess, showing how strong he was as he hefted his new found treasures. Clay and Nate and Maurice skipped rocks in the ocean, delighting in the abundant numbers of skipping rocks on this beach of smooth stones.

Too soon, our break was over and we set out in the kayaks once again. We were rounding a corner when we came upon some seals. One was eating an octopus, raising his head out of the water and slapping the water with his meal. We could see the suckers on the bottom of the octopus’ tentacles. Our guide told us that seals like eating squid and octopus more than fish since they are easy prey. This particular seal was really enjoying his meal, or maybe he was mad at it. He sure was slapping the heck out of the water with it. It came really close, we could see its large head and long whiskers and hear it breathing as it ate.

By the time we made our way back to shore, three and a half hours and seven kilometers later, we were all pretty paddled out. Alayna had decided to try a little harder, and Maurice remarked, “It makes a big difference when she paddles!” I was proud of Benji, I don’t think he ever missed a stroke, and Clay said Nate was a big help. Peggy was tired, but pleased that she never did get wet, except at the end when Jan decided he wanted to kick it into high gear and catch everyone else, drenching Peggy in the process of furiously paddling. Alayna and Maurice were the first to reach shore and got a little stuck, so in the end Maurice got pretty wet as waves continued to break over him, stranded in the kayak. My favorite remark came in the car a little later, when Maurice said, “That was definitely an experience! I don’t think I’d call it fun, but it was an experience!” Peggy’s sleeves were totally wet, from the wrist to the shoulder, and Maurice’s back was drenched with salt water. We decided we weren’t fit for polite company and would need to change before going to a restaurant.

On the way, we passed a McDonald’s and decided we were perfectly fit for fast food. We brought it back home, and had a picnic on the floor of our English cottage. Then the kids ran outside to play on the soft grass, throwing a football with Clay and “running the gauntlet.” They also enjoyed shooting little plastic balls at each other with a plastic gun they got back at Christmas.

I was able to run that afternoon, and discovered a trail close by with a great paved path just for runners and bikers. I had my headphones on, the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and I just ran and ran, perfectly content. Another beautiful day in paradise . . .

We let the kids stay up late that night, American Idol came on at 9:30. We watched with all the attention and excitement we would have in the States, even though the broadcast was two weeks behind and Peggy and Maurice already knew the winners. After watching all the boys sing, we cast our votes, and then had immediate gratification since Peggy could tell us who was right, she already knew who had been voted off. It was fun to participate in just a wee bit of American culture for awhile, aren’t we cool?


Saturday, 22 March 2008

I had big plans for this day, our main destination being the much exonerated (by our guide book, and consequently me) World of Wearable Art and Collectible Car Complex. Now I know what you’re thinking, I know because I heard it all from Clay and Maurice, who were not thrilled with the prospect of any time spent with wearable art. Maurice wanted to make sure he wouldn’t be wearing any art, and I assured him it was purely a spectator sport. I think he’s a little careful about letting me be the party planner after our strenuous “experience” on the kayaks.

I read about this place in all sorts of guides and brochures, and envisioned funky outfits made from duct tape and plastic plates, a fun and creative display that Alayna and her artistic character would appreciate. I did not anticipate a bra made out of fish heads (called “Groper”, isn’t that a nice thing for your kid to see?), or another bra made out of human hair (the card said “most women find the idea of hairy breasts unthinkable” . . .) Clay said he felt like he needed to take a shower after viewing all that wearable art. I couldn’t agree more.

There were some interesting creations, a dress made of bits of plastic packing ribbon, and a room with a blue light that had glow in the dark outfits. But most of it was tasteless, each outfit trying to outdo the other and get attention. There is actually a show in Wellington, New Zealand, that sells out each year with people coming to get a glimpse of that year’s entries. It just wasn’t for me. Or for kids. I did enjoy the collectible cars complex, where we admired the Delorean used in Back to the Future, a tiny BMW that was the predecessor to the Smart Car, and all sorts of old hot rods and luxury cars with chrome and wood interiors.

After extricating ourselves from this bizarre conglomeration of “artistic” clothes and cool cars, we headed into downtown Nelson to find some lunch. We happened upon the city market, and I craned my neck as we breezed through, on our way to a café, catching glimpses of homemade candles and kiwi adorned bags and all sorts of interesting diversions. But, we were hungry, and piddling around shopping is one of Clay’s least favorite things to do in a day, so I contented myself with brief glances and we plunged onward. After finding a great place for lunch, we let the kids stuff themselves with three scoops of ice cream, just because it was cheap and everything else in New Zealand is expensive. Maurice proclaimed the apricot flavor was excellent. 

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped off at a historic street where we walked amongst houses that had been there for 150 years, still inhabited today. They were tiny and tidy, very appealing. I tried to imagine plopping one of them right on the lake, a small space to take care of, and thought it would be quite nice. The reality that we will be going home in just two short months has begun to hit, and as I remember all the space we have at home to take care of, I cringe. Just a little bit. I’m used to campervans and hotel rooms, living out of two duffel bags and a backpack. I’m not ready for that much space again.

We spent the rest of the afternoon playing cards and running around in the back yard with the kids. We made pasta for dinner, and once more we all crammed around the table with our knees hitting each other underneath. Nate told his jokes, Benji wiggled his snaggle tooth, trying to “snap the roots” so it would fall out in time for the tooth fairy and Easter Bunny to come on the same night. He wasn’t successful, but it’s getting a little looser with each jiggle. Before tucking the kids into bed, we caught the girl’s night on American Idol, casting our votes at the end, moaning at one girl’s tattoo, another girl’s crazy hair, and proclaiming who we liked best. Once again, Peggy filled us in on who was voted off, so we didn’t have to fool with any suspense or watching the next night’s broadcast of the winners, and the painful voting off process.

That night in bed we read the Easter story with the kids. We’ve been reading it for a couple weeks now, starting back at the Last Supper and doing a little bit each night. It was so satisfying to read the end of the story, after all the horrible time with Pilate and the beating and the crucifixion, to read about the resurrection. It is such a perfect story, so many have tried to write stories that imitate the feeling it gives, the whole majestic idea of giving your life for others and being triumphantly victorious in the end. It is wonderful and glorious, and I loved reading it with the kids bit by bit, so we could talk about each part of it. It is the kind of story you never tire of hearing, even though you know the ending.

After the kids went to bed, the Easter Bunny came and hid little chocolate foil eggs all over our cottage. Clay worked on his computer, I watched the first part of The Last King of Scotland, then decided it was too gory for the night before Easter. I fiddled with this and that, making sure the stuffed peeps and decorated cookies (Peggy gave the Easter bunny a hand this year and brought these from the States) were arranged just right on the kitchen table. That whole feeling of anticipation the night before a big holiday is a lovely thing, and I love it being on the adult side just as much as I loved it on the kid side years ago. Benji is so excited he’s going to burst when he wakes in the morning, his little snaggle smile and baggy boxers will wake us up early, I’m sure.


Sunday, 23 March 2008

Clay and I woke up to the sound of Nate and Benji scampering around, up and down the stairs, at 6:30am. I knew it was all over, there was no way those two were going back to sleep after they woke up Easter morning. I was a little worried they would find some of the hidden chocolate eggs before Alayna made it over from Peggy and Maurice’s cottage, so I roused myself to see what the boys were up to. They had gone downstairs to get some craft supplies and were busy making cards for us. They had spied their treats on the table and were all excited, but willing to wait upstairs until 7:30 when we’d retrieve Alayna and see what the Easter bunny brought.

Alayna woke without our help, and we all gathered around the table to admire their stuffed peeps and decorated cookies. We broke open their chocolate Kindersurprises, and pried open the stubborn plastic eggs inside to see their surprises. Then they read the poem from the Easter bunny, instructing them to search for chocolate eggs, one big one for each and lots of small ones. The Easter bunny was sure to remind them not to be pigs and to share their plunder with the rest of us. Eggs were hidden high and low and everywhere a bunny might go, it took a while to find them all, and we had a little chocolate for breakfast.

After the morning festivities, we pulled on our special Easter clothes, the same clothes we’ve been wearing for the past seven and a half months. Clay and I had discovered a church our first night in Nelson. It was located right behind the grocery store, and the sign said “Family Worship Service, 10am”, that sounded just right to us. Peggy and Maurice were game to try, so we all loaded up and headed down the road to Easter service. The parking lot had plenty of spaces available, we noticed several older people making their way into the sanctuary as we climbed out of the car. A couple people stopped to greet us as we made our way into the small sanctuary.

This was a church straight out of a Fannie Flagg novel, small and humble with wooden pews and a free-standing organ up front. The average age of the congregation was probably around seventy, our kids appeared to be the only kids around as we made our way up the aisle, finding the perfect seats where the sun wouldn’t hit us as it streamed in through the side windows. A beautiful stained glass stretched from floor to ceiling behind the pulpit, and several flower arrangements bedecked the front of the church. We sat in front of an older couple who immediately said hello and visited with us. Another man from across the aisle came over to shake Clay’s hand, said he was from Ohio, had lived in New Zealand for over forty years, and he’d find us after the service. We felt loved.

The pastor invited everyone to come to the front during the first hymn and put cut flowers into holes drilled into a wooden cross. We went up with the kids, along with almost everyone in the pews, and when the cross wasn’t full after the first hymn, a woman invited us to go back up and finish filling it. She was accompanied by two other kids (ours weren’t the only ones!), who seemed quite comfortable waltzing up to the front of the church. The other two kids talked to the pastor while he was singing and busily added flowers to the cross along with our kids until it was full of petals and color.

We sang some more hymns, while a tiny little white-haired lady played along on the organ at a slow pace, not always hitting the right notes but with lots of heart. The hymns were all old ones , I remembered several of them from when I was a kid, and it was nice to sing them again. The church was half full with about fifty worshippers, and about seven of them were in the choir and went up front for some of the songs. The kids were invited up front by the pastor, where they entered an empty “tomb” made from a beach canopy and a plastic cardboard stone which had been rolled aside. He told them the Easter story using an overhead projector, and he kept getting the pictures backwards and then had trouble moving them the right direction to get them to all line up, but it was endearing. He kindly but firmly told one of the other kids to get off the prayer rail where they were attempting to sit, and he was patient in getting their attention when it wandered. He never seemed irritated or frustrated by his multi-media shortcomings or distracted young audience.

The same woman who invited the kids to finish filling the cross with flowers invited our kids to accompany her and the other two kids during the sermon. They got up happily, they obviously felt at ease among this group of elderly strangers. While we sang another hymn, the pastor sat on the front row and made faces at a baby in a stroller pulled up beside the pew. The pastor held a red ball to his forehead and cooed and made goggle eyes, he was familiar with this little creature. He had probably christened her. When he said the prayer requests, he gave the weekly updates for each of those he named, he was the kind of pastor who knew his congregation intimately.

I loved his sermon, it was genuine and given in his soft New Zealand accent. He talked of the disciples hiding behind locked doors after he had risen, scared to death, and how Jesus busts through locked doors. He busts through our locked doors of fear and disbelief. He intrudes into our lives, just as he burst into that room of disciples. I wrote down a great quote, “We could not hold you (Jesus) in the grave with our truncated imaginations”. The resurrection is a promise that no force, not a heavy stone, not two Roman guards, not death itself, can keep the risen Christ from us. I love that.

After the service we were invited to the adjoining hall to visit and have some tea or coffee. We talked to Roy from Ohio, and I sat on folding chairs next to little old ladies and listened to their stories. The kids appeared with freshly baked cookies they had made with the other kids. The woman who left with them in the service was the pastor’s wife and lived just a few doors down. The kids went around the room, passing out their “biscuits”, while we all chatted. We were just about the last ones to leave, and made our way out as the people in the kitchen washed up the last few coffee cups. The pastor and his wife bid us goodbye and Happy Easter, what a gift it had all been.

We went home and ate leftover soup and sandwiches and I inhaled more chocolate eggs than I should have. The kids made new friends and ran around some more in that luscious green grass. Clay and I went for a run while the sun shone and the breeze blew and the world seemed darn near perfect. That night we had dinner at the nice restaurant next door, I had a fantastic steak. That night we recited Psalm 139 and praised God for the church we found, the green grass, the new friends we made, and for Jesus. We have loved Nelson, with its small-town feel and pretty waterside views. Flowers seem to bloom everywhere, and the people care for their town, keeping it clean and tidy. We learned that a “deery” is a “dairy” and you can buy phone cards and milk there. We learned that in New Zealand they take off Friday and Monday for Easter, and it is a perfect place to celebrate that most glorious of holidays.