Wednesday, 26 March 2008

We wanted to get an early start today since we had a five hour drive in front of us before we reached our next lodging, in Ngongotaha (I love to say that word), just north of Rotorua, New Zealand. The kids did their journals and got out their books and DS’s in preparation for a long haul. I stared out the window, relieved of my navigation duties now that Maurice is at the helm with Clay. I found a package of Mentos in the front seat that they’d been hogging, Clay said they had already scarfed through a package without ever telling anyone in the back seat. Of course this is normal practice when it’s Clay and me in the front, we hide cokes and candy and all sorts of things, cleverly disguising popped tops and crinkly wrappers with coughs and sneezes. I had no idea the tables had been turned and the goods were now being kept from me, the nerve! I’ll have to keep an eye on the boys up front.

We passed some beautiful scenery as we drove, lots of rolling hills and sheep and cows and deer farms. That’s right, they have deer farms here, and the fences aren’t even that high. I guess they don’t jump like they do back home. A lot of the hills were totally bare, except maybe a lone tree up top. They had been deforested, every once in a while we’d see a hillside freshly planted with replacement trees, all lined up neatly in rows. It surprises me that they deplete so many of their forests, New Zealand is so eco-friendly. The hills that had been deforested had a strange look to them, sort of like a scene out of Tele-tubbies. Bright green grass grew over the mounded hills, and I half expected a little blue guy with a TV on his belly to jump out.

Some of the larger hills look almost scabby, like a recently shorn sheep that has no more dignity, all its pink bits exposed. And yet somehow they were still pretty, rolling into the distance, hill after hill, some green with trees and some bare. I had goals on this drive, I wanted a good picture of sheep in a pasture, and I wanted a picture of the beehives. These are pastel boxes that look kind of like drawers from a dresser, stacked maybe ten high. Several stacks could be found at intervals along the road, usually at a distance behind a farmhouse. I liked that they were painted those pastel colors, as if someone cared about how they looked, even though they were just houses for bees. I got my beehive picture, and I got my sheep picture, as we continued to drive.

We passed construction workers, almost all in shorts, so different from Texas where it seems they all wear long pants and long sleeve shirts, even in the summer. We passed meadows full of purple flowers, maybe heather or lavender, and a mountain with a cloud on top that looked almost like a volcano.

Our most exciting discovery happened as an accident. We took a wrong turn and ended up adding at least an hour to our drive. After we got over the moaning we realized this was not such a bad thing, our new route would take us through a national park that was listed as a world heritage site. As we drove along, I asked Peggy to take a picture out of her window of that mountain that looked like a volcano, and then I looked out the front window, saw sheep in the road, and snatched the camera back from her, huffing “sheep in the road, sheep in the road”. I rolled down my window and hung out the side, worried they would leave before I could get a good shot. I needn’t have worried.

As we got closer we realized there were an awful lot of sheep in the road. A friendly Kiwi (what New Zealanders call themselves) in a bright orange vest explained that they were moving these sheep from one pasture to the next, and because a creek was in the way they had to use the road. He was part of the team moving the sheep. A sheep cowboy, if you will. There were over 1,600 sheep in the herd, and he called them “two-toothers”, because they were old enough to have two teeth. When they get four teeth, their called “four-toothers”. Those sheep were amazing, all running in a long white woolen blanket down the road, with the sheep dogs nipping at their hooves. If one of them stepped out of line, the dogs were after it in a flash and it dashed back to the group. A couple made it past the dogs and caused all sorts of trouble, sheep really are dumb. One got itself stuck down a ditch and it took the dogs and a strong man to hoist it out of there. He picked it up by its ears and the wool on its back. Those dogs were really talented, and it seemed they loved what they did. They ran along with their tongues hanging out, practically smiling they were so pleased with themselves.

We were so excited by our sheep encounter, such a unique experience, all for the price of a wrong turn. Of course there were other drivers who weren’t nearly as impressed with this sheep hold-up, as the sheep practically engulfed their cars and they had to wait for the woolen deluge to pass before they could continue on. We were moving in the same direction as the sheep, so we followed them all the way to where the grass was greener.

We continued on to Ngongotaha, finding our motel without much difficulty. Our rooms are nothing special from an adult perspective, although we are pleased with our tiny kitchens and cheap laundry facilities. But to the kids, our new digs couldn’t be better. There is a trampoline out back, Nate immediately jumped on it and discovered he still knows how to do a twist flip. There is a swing out front, grass to run around in, a lake across the street, and ducks that come waddling right up to our door begging for bread. Perfection.

Clay and I ran to the store for supplies. It’s been interesting, making do with what we can find. We tried to repeat the dinners we had successfully pulled off back in Nelson, but all the ingredients weren’t available. We needed noodles, canned chicken, and cream of chicken soup for a noodle casserole, but there was no canned chicken. There was a log of ham and chicken product, two inches in diameter and a foot long, and we figured that would do, along with a can of peas and a can of corn. When we got home and opened up that giant log of smashed up meat, Peggy just about had a heart attack. She actually deserted, running to her room in search of another pan.

I was a little afraid, too, but I gave it a try. It looked a lot like round spam. It did not look like canned chicken. Peggy reappeared with the pan, and while I chopped the meat product up into little bits and fried it up, she took care of noodles and opened cans. That meat wasn’t so bad, just like fried Spam, a childhood favorite. So we had noodles and cream of chicken soup with peas and corn and fried spam on top. Mmm, mmm, good. While we ate dinner, we left the door open to enjoy the cool evening breeze. We didn’t realize until later that night that we’d let in hundreds of bugs. Hundred and hundreds. They coated the walls and ceilings and swarmed around the lights. They looked like mosquitoes, we were not happy. But, what could we do? We left one light on in the kitchen and turned all the rest off, hoping that during the night they’d all be attracted to the one light and leave us alone . . .


Thursday, 27 March 2008

We woke up to find dead bugs everywhere. Along the kitchen counters and windowsill, littered around our toothbrushes, and even in the washing machine as I started a load. I figured a few dead bugs couldn’t hurt the wash, at least they were clean dead bugs. I wondered what made them all die, why weren’t they still swarming around? Maybe each of those bug carcasses had gotten too close to the light and fried itself. I walked through swarms of bugs as I went to the office and back, holding my breath so I wouldn’t inhale them. The good news is, they don’t bite.

We decided to visit the Agrodome this morning, and got there just as the sheep show was beginning. On the stage was a two-tiered pyramid identifying each breed of sheep, and they led the sheep out one by one. The sheep would hustle to their spot, where a little food dish was waiting for them with something to nibble on. Some of the greedier breeds drifted from their food bowl to their neighbors, and had to be reminded with a shepherd’s crook which one belonged to them. Some of the sheep had wool that almost touched the floor, some had black faces, some had curly horns, some were just big and fluffy. Some were best for their wool, others were best for their meat, they all seemed rather bored by the presentation and laid down in their spot on the pyramid after finishing what was in their food dish.

They let in sheep dogs that herded geese across the stage, since herding sheep would have sent the wooly creatures into the audience. The sheep in the pyramid were totally unconcerned with the whole thing, they stayed right where they were, until the part of the show where they all had to stand up and let the sheepdogs run up and down the pyramid on their backs. Volunteers were brought on stage to milk a cow and feed baby lambs, but the highlight was watching a man shear a sheep. He flipped the sheep onto its back and held its head while he efficiently shaved it using electric clippers. They passed the wool around the audience, encouraging us to rub it in our hands and then smell. Nasty smell.

It was a fun show, and when it was over we found some baby sheep to pet. Their wool was so soft, you could sink your fingers way down deep in it without reaching skin. They turned their sweet little faces up to us, not a bit scared, and nuzzled our fingers. I want a baby sheep when we get home. I’m sure our dogs would be great sheep dogs, and think of all the lawn mowing we wouldn’t have to do.

Once we were done at the Agrodome, we decided to let the kids roll down a hill in a giant plastic ball. That’s right, a giant plastic ball, It’s called a Zorb, and the way it works is you put some warm water in the ball, along with a person, and then give it a shove and the ball rolls down the hill, either straight down or along a curved track. Our kids chose the curved track, they pulled on their swimsuits and hopped in a truck to be driven to the top. I cannot describe what it felt like to see Benji being tossed around in that giant bubble, he was the first down. My heart was in my throat and I garbled “Oh my gosh,” while the spectators around us commented, “Look at that little kid in there!” Benji came out a little rattled but unharmed, and he smiled his gap-toothed smile for a picture.

Nate was next, he kept his body stiff as he bounced on down, and when he got out his back was all red, but he was smiling a shivery smile as well, and immediately began asking if he could do it again. Alayna was last, and she got going so fast she actually bounced off the curvy track and onto the straight one, where she rolled all the way to the fence that separated the track from the parking lot. It was quite a ride, and she practically leapt out of the ball with a huge smile on her face. If we were willing to part with lots more cash, they would have zorbed all afternoon.

In the afternoon, Clay, the boys and I all got haircuts. It just felt right, getting ourselves shorn in sheep territory, and I was grateful we didn’t get the same treatment the sheep had gotten that morning, being flipped on its back with its head held between the cutters knees. I haven’t had my hair cut in almost eight months, I had several inches whacked off and felt so much lighter with the ends of my hair tickling my cheeks. Nate had his hair spiked, but Benji wouldn’t let the lady spike his hair. They all looked quite handsome in their new heads of hair.


Friday, 28 March 2008

After clearing the kitchen counters of more dead bugs and eating our breakfast, we got in the car and headed out. Our destination was Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, and the first thing on the agenda was to attend the geyser gushing ceremony at 10:15. Our guide book stated that the geyser erupted at 10:15 each morning, which had us all baffled. How in the world could this geyser be so precise? What about daylight savings time, and the earth’s rotation, and leap year . . . we all took turns sharing theories. As we pulled into the parking lot we saw a wooden sign with the geyser eruption time carved in at 10:15.

While we sat on benches around the geyser, Clay googled the Lady Knox Geyser on his phone, and discovered the way it can erupt at exactly the same time each day is because someone comes along at 10:14 and pours soap down the steaming hole. Sure enough, a man in a bright orange vest, the parking attendant, came along with a bag of soap around 10:12. After a brief history, where he explained that the geyser was first discovered by criminals washing their clothes, he poured the soap, it began to bubble and foam like a fourth grader’s science project, and then it began to spout.

There are two pools of water under the ground, the bottom one is very hot at 150 degrees Celsius, and the upper one is cooler. The soap breaks the surface tension of the water, the cooler water mixes with the hot, and causes the eruption. The literature said it could go as high as 20 meters (about 60 feet), but it only went about 8 meters for us. I felt a bit deflated, it all seemed a little contrived, even though the attendant stated that the geyser would erupt on its own every two or three days. Oh well, I got a great picture book idea.

After leaving the geyser, we walked on a trail that led us through a strange landscape of steaming pools with water ranging from bright green to orange to yellow. It looked like poison, and smelled like rotten eggs. The sulfur smell permeated the air, we smelled it in the parking lot and all around. Some of the pools were so hot they boiled, low railings that barely came to Benji’s knees kept tourists at bay, but just barely. I can’t imagine walking around there with an unstable two-year-old.

We stopped at the mud pools on our way out. Clay came up with the perfect description, they reminded him of the “whack-a-mole” game you see at Chuck-E-Cheese, little burps of mud bubbling up in different places all over the place. I had a strange desire to take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and step into the gooshy stuff with a giant paddle, whacking where I thought the mud would erupt next. It made a great schlooping sound, a burping sound, a sound the boys just loved. It was mesmerizing, where would it bubble up next? Every once in a while it would go really high and we would all squeal.

On the way back home, we stopped for lunch at the Fat Dog Café, where stories were written on the walls and the plates and the chairs, it was my kind of place. Then we took a gondola ride up a hill to a luge track where all seven of us luged down the hill. That’s right. Peggy and Maurice were right there with us. This was a different kind of luge than the ones we’d encountered before. The carts had steering wheels and the track was wide like a sidewalk, so you could navigate yourself back and forth and get passed by those who wished to go faster. Benji was old enough to have his own luge cart, and he only got out of control and flipped off his cart once. He went flipping into the air and landed with a poof in a pile of dirt, and when he got up half his face was covered with dust, his hair was sticking straight up, and his arms and legs were a little skinned. He was shaken, but he hopped back on and finished the track, and by the time he got to the bottom he had the brake all figured out. My heart was left somewhere in my throat for a while, but I recovered sometime after Benji did. He picked the right place to flip off the luge. There were lots of places where he would have slid down the mountain.

A large percentage of us suffered injuries throughout the day. Nate fell on the corner of a wooden chair and hit his temple, doubling him over for a while. Clay shut his mom’s head in a car door. She was a little shocked, but seemed to recover without any ill effects. Clay got his nose smashed on the chair lift when the luge attendant flipped the restraint bar up without telling him. It hit so hard he didn’t know what happened at first, he just knew his nose really hurt.

Then, this afternoon, I got chased by a Rottweiler, but I’m happy to report I suffered no injuries, except a minor heart attack. I was out for a run, found a cool dirt road I decided to follow, and didn’t notice the “Beware, Attack Dog” sign until the dog was coming at me, full steam. You all know how well I perform under pressure. I turned around and ran back the way I came. I could feel its hot breath on my calves. I must have crossed some imaginary barrier and the dog turned around and went home without actually chewing the flesh off my calves. Thank you, God.


Saturday, 29 March 2008

We visited the Polynesian Spa this morning, leaving Peggy and Maurice at home while we took to the thermal waters. They somehow forgot to bring their swimsuits, the big chickens. As we exited the car at the spa, our noses were assaulted by the strong smell of sulfur. Ewww, would we be swimming in that? Apparently, yes, and it’s good for you. We entered the family spa, where we found three different pools at differing temperatures. Being a family spa, we figured they would be okay with kids. Signs on the wall warned there would be no diving or jumping in the pool. An ancient slide stood at the edge of the bigger pool, with instructions that you could only slide feet forward on your bottom.

I don’t know about most kids, but our kids only wanted to “soak” about fifteen seconds before they’d had enough and wanted to play. They slid down the slide, no taller than Alayna, as creatively as they could and still abide by the rules. They swam back and forth a few times, but what fun is it to swim without splashing and jumping and being a little rowdy? We got ourselves nice and saturated with sulfur, then decided we’d had enough. I had a heck of a time trying to get that sulfur smell out of our swimsuits.

While we were gone, Peggy concocted a fabulous vegetable soup with the most simple of ingredients. Two packs of tomato soup, two packs of chicken soup, and a bag of frozen vegetables. She dug into the fridge and used some leftovers, tortellinis and rice and a touch of cream cheese. It was just right. Clay and his dad streamed in a UT basketball game after lunch on the laptop, while the kids jumped on the tramp and played all afternoon.

Tonight we were all scheduled for our “cultural Maori experience”. I wasn’t expecting too much, something cheesy and touristy. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it was touristy. But I really felt like I got a peek into what the Maoris were like a long time ago, and what they’re like today. Our guide for the night explained that Maoris often press noses when greeting each other. As we waited by a “creek”, waiting for an authentic Maori canoe to arrive, carrying Maori warriors, I noticed an older man across the way. His skin was dark, he wore a faded, striped sweater, and he hung back, watching. He was a real Maori, a modern day Maori, and he wasn’t part of the show. He spied a few friends nearby, two men wearing baseball caps, their long black hair pulled back in pony tails. He walked over to them, and pressed noses. They really did, it wasn’t a show. They put their foreheads together and pressed their noses together, once, then twice. “Once to remember the relatives who have passed on, once to recognize the people still with us on earth.”

The canoe arrived, the warriors paddled by grunting and opening their eyes wide, then sticking out their tongues or baring their teeth. They certainly looked fierce, their faces covered in tattoos, and I could see how they would have intimidated their enemies. During the show, we watched the Maori men put themselves through a strenuous workout as they demonstrated the different dances. The women danced as well, tattoos painted on their chins. They swung onion-sized balls on ropes, banging them in rhythm with soft thuds, and opened their eyes wide every now and then. It was freaky-looking, but behind their makeup and costumes I could see the faces of modern day Maori men and women, holding on to their culture and yet living in the real world, with cell phones and computers and microwaves instead of earth ovens.

The emcee for the evening was a Maori man in a thong with tattoos above his knees all the way to his waist, including circle shapes on his bottom. He walked up and down the stage, telling us all about his people and his culture, and how things have changed and how they’ve coped. How the Maori warriors could split a skull with their blunt-edged weapon, the meaning of the tattoos on their faces, and how they incorporated the guitar into their traditional instruments to keep young people interested in learning Maori cultural songs.

Dinner was impressive, though I doubt it was very traditional. All sorts of salads, potatoes, chicken and pork, with bar-b-cue sauce, all cooked for three hours under the ground, making everything soft and flavorful. After dinner we were taken on a late-night walk. We learned about trees and Maori myths, and saw some glowworms hanging from a rock wall. Glow worms look like tiny pin pricks of light, if you get loud they go dim. Their lights are designed to attract a buggy meal, they send out tentacles to catch any bug that gets too close. Walking under leafy canopies, glow worms clinging to the walls, is a magical thing to do, even if you do it with a bunch of other tourists. I walked with Benji’s little hand in mine, wishing I could take a walk like that every night.