It’s time for the ‘holiday’ part to kick in…

Hello one and all of my lovely travelers. How have you all been? I’ve been good and busy and homesick and angsty and all sorts these past couple of weeks! But generally speaking I can sum up my mood as of late as ‘good.’ So that’s good.

But now I come to you again with another installment of ‘What’s been going on in Renee’s life in New Zealand?’ Honestly, as I write this, I can’t remember if it’s been exciting or just okay. Let’s review the pictures…

Oh yeah! It has been a good couple of weeks. Great. I was afraid for a second I’d have nothing exciting to tell you guys, but there is a fair bit! Let’s get started.

So first, just gonna make a brief mention here, I have started keeping a workout routine. Not very exciting to you all, but I tend to get up very early to do said workout and it makes for some decent photo opportunities.

It sucks getting up early sometimes but once I’m outside it’s totally worth it. The streets are quiet, no one is around, and the views are pretty decent, even in town. However, there are more exciting things to get up very early for.

Like early morning walks around Hobbiton where you can take lots of cool pictures! (Some of which I won’t post here because I’m not sure if that’s kosher or not and I don’t want to get in trouble.)

Yes, a work mate and I went out to Hobbiton at 6am to take pictures and watch the sunrise. It was a glorious way to start the day. It was so still and so quiet on set that when the birds flew low over your head you could hear the flapping of their wings. Pockets of mist had settled into the valleys between hills, giving a slightly eerie twinge to the surroundings. It made me feel like a Black Rider could appear out of nowhere. But as the sun finally crested the hilltops and began to cut through the fog the whole place started to emanate a kind of magic.

The multitude of colored hobbit holes  made the hillside look like a splatter painting and the grass gleamed and shimmered, still covered in the night’s rain and morning dew. It was Hobbiton liked I’d never experienced it before. Free of tourists, not baking in the blistering heat, instead peaceful and calm.

I took pictures of the abundant hobbit-sized props that litter the set. I took pictures of hobbit holes, gardens, windows, signs, flowers, anything and everything. I became more familiar with the set than I had been since I arrived all those month ago. And then of course, I played tourist and posed.

There are plenty more photos, be assured. But keeping in mind the length of the blog and also that I could potential get in trouble for posting certain ones, I’m going to refrain for now.

Walking around set was a blast. I’ll probably try to do it once more before I leave because I’m just that much of a nerd. Anyway, let us continue the fun!

There is a swimming spot just south of Tirau called Blue Spring that lots of Hobbiton peeps talk about. Until I went last week, I thought I’d never been there before. But it turns out that is actually where Emily and I went for a run the day before I started work. Go figure. I was still glad to go back and see the actual spring this time, and I can tell you it is aptly named. There is a spring and it is very blue.

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See?

I went down with Blair and Leah, a couple of good mates I’ve made since I moved. It’s a short walk from the carpark down to the swimming spot. I was taking a few shots of the river and surrounding hills and even managed to get a shot of the full moon (so to speak). Also, I’m not sure why Blair felt the need to give the double finger while walking down the path. Ah well. There ya go.

Conveniently, there is a rock just at the edge of the spring, where the water is deep enough to jump in. Now, you have to wade through the shallow river to get to this rock, so by the time I got there I already knew how cold the water was. But for some reason, I still decided it was a good idea to jump in…twice. Before I jumped in, though, I had to capture Blair doing his sexy poses on the rock, and of course, take pictures of him jumping in first.

Then came my turn. Leah had since returned to shore; we couldn’t convince her to jump. Instead she was playing siren on the steps. Meanwhile, I was steeling myself to jump into very cold water (that seems to be the only water I’ve found myself in here. Where are the warm beaches?) I also made Blair take a selfie with me afterwards, even though he hates selfies. Ha!

If anyone was wondering, yes, those are my undergarments, that is the kiwi way, and I only added the rather unflattering picture of me getting out of the water (which I didn’t know was being taken) as compensation for posting a picture of Leah and Blair’s behinds (which I did ask permission for, but still).

When we’d had our fill of swimming, we put as many things on Blair’s face as we could before walking back to the car.

Considering a hat, a towel, and sunnies were the only items we had, I think we did a pretty good job.

There are a few other outings I could tell you about here but I think I will save them for tomorrow. I’ve got some chores to get done today before going out on a night tour at work. Eee! It’s going to be so cool seeing Hobbiton all lit up. I’ll be sure to post pictures of that as well.

With two months left at Hobbiton I’m beginning to crave more and more the holiday part of my visa. It will be good to have some time off to really explore and travel to new places. For now, these short day trips to nearby places are what I look forward to.

‘Til next time, my travelers.

~Ren

 

 

 

Review: Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

51leFRhytuL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_I’ll be honest, I think I picked this up because I had confused it with Carrie Vaughn’s urban fantasy series. But that’s alright, because this series was also one that was recommended to me by an old co-worker. I haven’t really read much urban fantasy, for me it is usually all or nothing, but this wasn’t bad.

Mercy Thompson is a walker. She can shapeshift into a coyote. But everyone else around her is a werewolf, vampire or some other sort of fae. But she makes due. Life takes a bit of a twist for her when a young werewolf shows up at her garage asking for work.

The feel of the book is sort of adventure/mystery with the barest touches of romance throughout. The plot is set at a good pace. It doesn’t just blow through everything but it also doesn’t drag a bunch of things out. There are maybe times where it feels a bit info-dumpy with all the facts about werewolves and the fae and sometimes the bits where past events are being discussed gets a little muddled but overall things keep moving nicely.

The writing is not overly complex. It makes for quick reading. But sometimes it does feel a bit clunky and occasionally the wording and structure of dialogue got me a bit confused. I enjoyed Mercy as a character for the most part. She was independent and could take care of herself but also had moments of doubt and things she struggled with. Sometimes it felt like there were inconsistencies with these qualities (some things she should have been good at she was bad at and vice versa) but it didn’t bother me much.

I would say this is a fun sort of filler read. A good series to pick up when you are between the more literary stuff in your reading list and need to give you brain a break.

~Ren

From Edinburgh to Inverness

I had set my alarm for 8am. I didn’t get up until 9. When it went off, I rolled over, stiff and blurry-eyed and promptly hit the snooze button, questioning my own judgment at setting an 8 o’clock alarm. Call me optimistic. But when the time came for me to be woken by the funky jams of Foster the People, I remembered I had spent the whole day yesterday traveling to a foreign country and told myself I was allowed to sleep in a bit.

When the time came, Mom and I begrudgingly peeled ourselves up off the bed and started getting ready for the day. We were leaving for Inverness that afternoon and we had things to get done before then. At least, mom did. A friend of ours was visiting us in the city a bit later in our trip and our schedule had to be adjusted accordingly. Mom wanted to make sure she had enough time to do her research before her time would be dedicated to exploring with Peter and me. So what time we had on our first day in Edinburgh was to be spent doing as much research as possible.

Before I left mom to her work at the archives, before we did anything besides have breakfast, we went across the square to an electronics store Rebecca and Dave had told us we could get SIM cards at. I had been hoping to make it to a Vodafone store. It’s the same provider we had used when we were in New Zealand and it worked great. But the nearest Vodafone store was a 20-minute walk from the flat and we were going to need a map to find our way there, which as you might have guessed we didn’t have without our phones.

What did we get instead of Vodafone? Lebara. Fucking Lebara.

Let me start from the beginning. We finished our breakfast of a bagel with banana, trotted back down all those cement steps and crossed about three streets to get across the square. The gentleman inside the store was very helpful and got us our SIM cards without problem. Unfortunately, their top up machine wasn’t working so they couldn’t actually give us the code and such to activate our service. Instead, we had to walk down the street a ways to this shop where they could give us an activation number.

When we were sure we had everything we needed, we went back to the flat to put the SIM cards in our phones and get everything up and running. Once our phones were stripped of their cases, we hit a bit of a snag. We didn’t have anything to get the SIM card slot ejected. We poked around trying to find a paper clip before I had a stroke of genius and pulled out one of my earring studs. It worked like a charm.

Okay, so we got the SIM cards in, had the voucher code for minutes and all that jazz. Now we just had to call it in and we’re good to go! Right? Wrong! Fucking Lebara.

The damn help line kept hanging up on us! I think it was something like 7th time was the charm; it was ridiculous. We finally got it to work only to find we couldn’t split the minutes between our two phones like we’d hoped. We had to go get another voucher! I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details but also know that more than half of the time the 3G didn’t even work. And that’s all we really wanted!

Alright, okay, I’m calm. Let’s move on.

We set out to navigate the streets of Edinburgh somewhat blindly. Preparing for possible 3G failure, we had checked out the map to the Archives before we left the flat. So we at least had a general idea of where we were going. Something Google maps isn’t that great at showing you, however, are upper and lower levels of the city. The National Archives are located right at the end of the North Bridge (don’t ask me which end. There were no mountains in Scotland so I had no idea which direction was which). We found ourselves underneath the North Bridge, quite below where we needed to be.

When I think back now, I’m sure we could’ve reached the Archives from the lower level somehow, but we didn’t know that at the time and decided to play it safe. So we retraced our steps a bit and climbed back up to the bridge via a sort of dingy alley. Once we were on the same level, it was a lot easier to spot the Archives building. Like I said, it’s right at the end of the bridge so as long as you’re going in the right direction you can’t miss it. It’s also just a massive slab of a building with a man on a rearing horse smack dab in front of it. Not exactly inconspicuous.

Up a couple flights of stone steps, through the wooden doors and we had arrived. The man at the front desk was helping someone when we walked in so we amused ourselves for a few minutes looking a tables filled with books (my favorite!) and other things inside the lobby. At last he was free to help us. Mom went over and told him what she was there for. He informed us that it was 15 pounds to use the research room per person but that I was welcome to at least walk in and see where mom would be sitting so I could find her later.

We were led towards the back of the building. From the front lobby we entered a large circular room with a high domed ceiling. I suddenly felt like I was in the library from Beauty and the Beast. Bookshelves lined every wall and rose up and up until the walls began to curve into the dome. Light flooded in from the many windows, radiated off the white walls and made the lettering on the spines glisten. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen and I desperately wanted a library just like it.

I gawked for an acceptable amount of time before continuing into the next room where mom would be doing her research. The lady here was in the middle of helping some one, too, so instead of waiting I said my goodbye to mom and left the archives.

Now I’m a grown person and I’ve walked in big cities alone before. But I always get a little anxious when I do. Especially when it’s only my first real day there. But I walked like I knew what I was doing and knew where I was going (which I did, luckily). I was headed back to the flat to 1) try and get the phone situation figured out, and 2) get our things packed and book a cab to take me and all our luggage to the train station. I stuck to the big roads I knew: Prince Street down to Lothian and then straight to the flat. It was a long walk and my feet were pretty sore by the end of it but it was much cooler inside the flat and I had plenty of time to sit down and rest.

I didn’t waste too much time getting packed and making all the arrangements that needed to be done, though. On our walk to the archives we had passed a couple bookstores I wanted to get back to and check out. With taxi booked and bags packed (no, I didn’t fix the phone situation. Stupid Lebara), I left the flat and retraced my steps from this morning to Edinburgh Books. Mom and I had stopped in for a bit when we first passed it that morning but I didn’t want to waste her research time when I’d have most of the day to browse on my own.

I feel a little bad thinking about it now, but I didn’t really see most of the store. The shop front was a vibrant TARDIS-blue with the name Edinburgh Books in white lettering across the top of the frame. Two large windows, each filled with books on display, flanked the door. The room I was most interested in was directly across from the front door once you walked in. This was the Scottish room. I work in a bookstore back home, and while we have lots of lovely books by lots of lovely people, we don’t have a Scottish room, and I wanted me some Scottish culture!

Almost all the books in the Scottish room were old battered hardbacks with cloth or leather covers, all in solid colors. There were a few modern authors whose names I recognized, some of whom I didn’t even know were Scottish. The room, the whole store infact, was fragrant with old dusty book smell. And there were all different kinds of genres accounted for in the Scottish room: fiction, science, poetry, plays, history. I could’ve looked for hours. Not long after I started browsing, however, I came across the perfect book for me.

Alba, The Last Wolf by David Stephen, who’s a Scottish nature writer. It was a wonderful fit for a wolf-lover like me. And it fit the Scottish author criteria. There was no question, I was leaving the store with this book. After I paid for my awesome new book, I walked back towards Lothian Street. On our walk down from the tram station, we passed by this gorgeous cemetery and it seemed like the perfect place to go and do a bit of reading.

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The cemetery was below the street level. It was located right in the middle of the city, but the height difference was great enough and the cemetery large enough that you could get a way from most of the noise from the street above and enjoy some peace and quiet. I didn’t get straight to reading, of course. I had a cemetery to explore! There is no cemetery back home comparable to St. John’s. We don’t have that kind of history.

The cemetery spread out from the giant church located at its center. Rows of headstones stretched in every direction, some with their inscriptions still readable and others that were cracked or faded into obscurity. Nearly every stone was worn and weathered by time and nature. Moss had grown up on the bases of some markers; others had fallen clean off their dais and lay face down in the dirt. There was a large, pillared mausoleum that housed who knows how many bodies. In some places massive headstones created towering walls from one end of the cemetery to the other, dividing the place into sections. When I had wandered enough, I found a bench away from any entrances and the few people I had come across.

The graveyard was right in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, high up on its rocky crag overlooking the city, and I had a perfect view of it between the tress. I sat for a moment, looking over the green lawn strewn with brown and yellow leaves and all the headstones of various shape and size. The atmosphere was serene; I almost forgot I was in the middle of a bustling city. I flipped open the front cover of my new book and began reading the foreword, learning about the history of the wolf in Scotland and its eventual eradication from the area. It was sad, but nothing I wasn’t already aware of or used to hearing.

I spent a little over an hour in St. John’s cemetery before I stood, brushed myself off and returned home to meet the taxi. I had been ruminating on the best way to get all of our stuff down the stairs and onto the street since mom would be meeting me at the train station and I was the only one in the flat. It really wasn’t much but it was just enough to making getting down those blasted stairs a bit tricky. I ended up making two trips, the first with our biggest suitcase and then down with my backpack and the carry on (luckily mom had her backpack with her). I did one last idiot check and made sure everything was cleaned and put away before I left the key on the table and climbed down the cement stairs for the last time.

After that, it was just an uncomfortable wait on the street corner, watching taxi after taxi go by, wondering when my own was going to show up. It was probably only 10 minutes or so that I waited, but in situations like those it always feels longer. The cab pulled up just outside the door and the driver came to help me load everything in the car. Scottish taxis are a bit different than those in the States. There was no trunk. Instead there was just a large back seat area with your typical back seat bench and chairs attached to the the wall dividing the driver from the passengers that folded down if you needed them. Everything fit just fine; it was just a different arrangement than I was used to. And like that I was swept off into my first drive around Edinburgh.

The last time I was in the British Isles I was a little freaked out about city driving and this time was no different. Had I not already made my decision never to drive in Edinburgh on the walk to our flat, I would have decided so after that ride. It all felt so chaotic and like half of the rules were made up. The car jerked back and forth, applied the breaks in odd rhythms, but to the driver’s credit we made it in one piece.

We were leaving from Waverly Station, the main station in Edinburgh. Mom and I didn’t learn until we were there that Waverly has two entrances, one on Prince Street and the other on Main Street. I was at one, she was at the other. So we met in the middle. I squeezed myself and our suitcases into the elevator and descended to the platform level. The place was packed, or so it felt to me, and it wasn’t the easiest to navigate with two suitcases dragging behind you. I spotted mom at the other end of the station, her phone to her ear trying to track me down. With no free hand for a phone I just had to hope she would spot me making a beeline for her. She noticed me a second later and we stepped to the side of traffic and discussed what to do next.

Our train didn’t leave for about an hour so we decided to grab a very late lunch before our options were limited to what the train had to offer. Our options in the train station food court probably weren’t much better, but luckily there was a Subway at least. I parked it at a mostly clean table with all our stuff and mom went off to order. The travel part of the day had begun and it was already wearing me out. I sat watching families, teenagers and older folks milling around the food court, finishing up less than satisfying fast food meals, waiting for trains to leave. Mom returned with our own less than satisfying subs that we ate with only mild grumbling. When we finished, we went to pick up our tickets then waited for our platform to be announced. The platforms were laid out in a sort of T formation, so for the most part they were all pretty close together. But it was getting down to the wire and they had yet to declare our train’s platform. We were getting nervous.

Squinting from our seats on the other side of the ticketing area, I kept my eyes trained on the schedule board. My legs were bouncing up and down with anxious jitters. When at last a platform number appeared next to the train to Inverness, I jumped up and announced to mom that we were platform 15. We walked briskly through the station dodging and maneuvering through our fellow travelers. Platform 15 was a straight shot across from where we had been sitting so we made it in no time. The doors hadn’t even opened by the time we got there. More passengers began to arrive. When the doors finally opened with a hiss, everyone moved forward at once.

I was stuck handling the bigger suitcase. I hoisted it inside hoping to find a luggage rack nearby. Sadly, it was already full, so I began to waddle down the aisle thinking I might find another at the opposite end of the car. No such luck. So I stood, unsure of what to do, in the middle of the car until mom asked an attendant what the best thing to do was. He was very helpful and stowed our bag right inside one of the doors. We lifted our smaller bag and two backpacks into the overhead rack and took our seats. Steadily, everyone else got settled into their seats and stowed their things and the doors hissed shut again.

A voice came on over the intercom system and announced the imminent departure. I sat back in my seat and leaned against the window. I was looking forward to the ride, long though it might be. Since the train trip we took in New Zealand, I’ve decided I quite like trains. The ride is usually smoother than a bus and not as much of pain in the ass and a plane. And you get to see a decent amount of the country even if you don’t get to explore it at all.

We pulled out of Waverly Station and stopped at several stations before we left the city behind. Busy city blocks were soon replaced with small neighborhoods. The train gave the perfect vantage point to take in the back gardens, all similar in size but each bursting with its own personality and style. I loved the seeming simplicity of it all. The houses were small, quaint, and I could very happily imagine myself occupying a place just like them. Eventually we left even the houses and low stone walls behind to be replaced with expansive countryside.

The color palette consisted of mostly browns and greens with patches of trees splattered here and there with no real pattern. I found myself thinking of New Zealand again. So much time there we were on a bus with little to amuse us but the scenery, but I was never bored with looking out the window. We continued to make stops, people got on and off the train, but mom and I never moved. The day slipped away.

The further north we went, the more clouds appeared in sky, causing the rays of the sun to fight there way down to the earth. The sun had been transformed into a shinning, milky glass orb hanging in the haze of the clouds, but was still as radiant as always. As it sunk lower and lower towards the horizon it changed in color from a pale yellow to a fiery gas giant once more, lighting up the edge of the earth with rich shades of orange and red.

Deeper into the Highlands we went. Fog began to appear, some sections of it so thick you could barely see beyond the train windows. Old, overgrown shacks would appear like ghosts through the mist, surely abandoned for many years. The last of the sun’s light finally disappeared and all I could see through the window now was my own reflection. There was at least an hour or more left to Inverness and I passed this time in the dark reading or staring into the blackness of night.

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Also we subjected this poor girl to our weirdness and got her to pose with Jamie. Thanks random stranger!

Streetlights were the first and only indicator that we had returned to civilization. I sat forward and stretched, having grown rather stiff slumped over in the corner formed by my seat and the train wall. The train began to slow and the passengers to stir, collecting their things and coming out of drowsy stupors like myself. When we came to a complete stop, mom and I waited for everyone else to leave the train before we stood and grabbed our own belongings.

The platform was empty but for the small crowd of people from the train moving towards the exit. Our hosts had planned to meet us here so they could walk us to their house. I only had a tiny picture from AirB&B for reference but I guessed there would only be so many people waiting on the platform at nine o’clock at night. My eyes found the only two people not moving immediately for the exit. Bill and Jean were both probably in their sixties. Both were around mom’s height (so short to me) and they were bundled up against the chilly night air.

We shook hands and officially introduced ourselves before we left the station. Their house wasn’t far away, and before heading there we made a detour to the bus station. We would be taking a bus to Drumnadrochit the following day and they wanted us to be prepared for tomorrow, which we certainly appreciated. From there we learned just how close their place was to the bus station. It was just down the street and through an underpass (or subway if you’re in Scotland. I know, it’s a bit confusing). This would turn out to be very convenient for us than we knew in the near future.

Bill and Jean’s house was small but very charming. Each room was brightly colored and had a very cozy feel. We dumped our luggage in our room before going back downstairs to enjoy a cup of tea and some conversation with our hosts. They’re a lovely couple. We discussed everything from the referendum and Loch Ness to what Bill had done for work and their extensive renovations on the house. Once our tea was finished we began to feel the fatigue from the day in earnest. The conversation drew to a close, mom and I thanked them again for their hospitality and we all made our leave for bed.

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The comfiest, and most dangerous bed we slept in the whole trip.

~Ren

 

 

Hello Scotland

Travel in time with me for a spell, dear travelers. In addition to the book reviews and blogs about my adventures in New Zealand, I will now be regaling you with my recent time in Scotland. I hope you enjoy, and are maybe inspired to plan your own trip to Alba!

Some people call a big trip ‘going on holiday’. Where I come from we usually call it a vacation. Personally, I like both terms, but not for the same reasons. I like the word ‘holiday’ because it takes some power away from those other, nationally recognized holidays, which, let’s face it, aren’t always that great even though they are supposed to be. But I like the word ‘vacation’ for its implications. You are temporarily vacating your life. Life, as you know it, is changing. And when you return home you aren’t going to be the same person anymore.

My most recent vacation (that took place over a year ago now; yes, I know I’m late) from life took me to Alba, better known today as Scotland. Home of the Loch Ness Monster, the Highland cows and more rainy days than one might care for.

I’d been to the British Isles many years before when I was just a teenager, and mom had spent time there in her youth as well. It was her inability to reach Scotland during her youth, as well as my own, that cemented another journey across the pond with Scotland as the goal and prize.

Big trips like this one (and by big I mean you have to spend more than four hours on a plane to get there and you have to stay at least two weeks to make it worth your while) start long before you actually get on the plane. And they always seem to come about in a similar pattern. They start as a some wild fantasy. A trip to Scotland; wouldn’t it be wonderful? But I’ll never make it. It’s too far, too expensive. But wouldn’t it be great. But the idea keeps niggling at you until it becomes a mission to complete. You start making a budget, doing research, stressing about how much time you can get off of work to go. Then suddenly you have a plane ticket and there is no going back.

Mom and I got our seemingly wild idea just after returning from a fully realized wild idea. I feel confident in saying that not 24 hours after we got off a 13 hour plane ride from Auckland, New Zealand we were talking about making plans to go to Scotland. Our sore tailbones and numb butt cheeks were not enough to dissuade us from thinking about the next time we could spend hours upon hours on a cramped plane. Of course after that initial discussion the plans were put on hold. We were heavy with fatigue and we had to get our lives back in order. It would be a month or two before we started manifesting Scotland in earnest.

All the usual signs were there. We bought a Scotland calendar to hang on the wall. We listened to songs with prominent bagpipe parts. Our dreams were filled with men in kilts, and maybe a nightmare or two about driving on the opposite side of the road. We spent a month or more being indecisive about when to buy our plane tickets, troubling over whether we were getting the best deal we could. Finally we couldn’t wait any longer and we suddenly found ourselves at the point of no return.

Trans-Atlantic flights are the worst. They don’t leave until the evening, which gives you plenty of time to worry and stress throughout the day about how many things you forgot and whether you’re leaving early enough to get through security and to the gate. But I tried to stay as calm as possible. Eventually the anxiety wears you down and you just don’t have the energy anymore.

Mom and I met up with my dad and brother for a late lunch the day of our departure after we had gotten all of the big things packed away. During the course of conversation we came to realize our shuttle to the airport was leaving much too late. So we ended up cutting lunch a bit short and moving our departure time up an hour. With that crisis averted, we instead began to worry if we would have enough time to get home to finish packing. This was not my ideal scenario for starting a long trip.

I’m sure I scarfed down the rest of lunch a little faster than I needed to but it made me feel better to leave the café an extra five minutes early. We got home about an hour and a half before we had to catch the shuttle. Final checks began immediately. We began reciting over and over to each other that we had packed: socks, underwear, toothbrush, raincoats, chargers, camera, did I say socks already? When dad showed up, whether we had everything or not, it was time leave.

One thing I do pride myself on is how good at traveling light my mom and I are. In New Zealand, we managed one suitcase between the two of us for a month and a backpack each. For Scotland, we brought an extra carry-on, but it proved useful in the long run. Four pieces of luggage (most of them small) for three weeks is pretty good. With it all loaded into the van, we drove to the transit center. It was a nice sunny day, and I found myself wondering if this would be last one I saw for three weeks (no offense, Scotland). The shuttle hadn’t arrived when we pulled into the parking lot, so we brought our luggage to the curb and waited.

Several vans came and went, some staying parked for a while, but no one approached or asked us what the name on the reservation was. So we kept waiting. I was gazing past the pick up spot to the street beyond, watching car after car streak by towards the city. At last I saw the jumbo sized Green Ride van turn off the highway and into the transit center. I turned to mom, smiling. We gathered up our bags and moved closer to the curb so we could hand our suitcases to the driver. The goodbyes started and the hugs and the wishes for fun to be had. Walking up the steps and sitting down on the shuttle is thrilling in its own way. Those are the first steps of a much longer journey.   A small rush of endorphins is clouding your thinking and for a moment you don’t worry about the hassle you’ll have getting through the airport. All you know is you’re going! We waved goodbye from the window as the shuttle left the station.

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Whoo! Airports are exciting!

Maneuvering the airport turned out to be pretty seamless. Check in wasn’t too slow, security was moving pretty swiftly and the walk to the gate wasn’t too long. The flight itself wasn’t ideal, but when is it ever? The person behind me was reaching into the seat back pocket a little too often it seemed and it constantly felt like they were trying to stick their hand up my bum. And the guy next to me decided the armrest was all his and spent most of the flight asleep with him mouth wide open.

We didn’t hit our first snag until we landed in Heathrow. Stiff and groggy, we de-boarded and began to navigate our way to our connecting flight. I haven’t heard any personal horror stories about Heathrow but apparently they exist in abundance. I don’t know if mine qualifies as a horror story but it wasn’t a walk through a field of daises either. First we came to immigration and made the mistake of letting some one go ahead of us. It sounds insensitive but you should never be overly nice to people in airports. On top of that, we had picked the line with the newbie who took forever to process just two people. So we stood there watching everyone in the European passport line move further into the airport while we waited on the people who could’ve been us. Alas.

When we finally made it through immigration we continued to follow signs to our connecting terminal and soon found ourselves in what felt the long forgotten bowels of Heathrow. We climbed escalators in a wide empty room filled with thick metal pillars crossing every which way. There were no personnel to be seen. It was just us and all the other passengers trying to find their way. When we rejoined airport civilization we found ourselves going through security again. I’m always flustered by security stops in countries outside the States. They aren’t quite as paranoid as we are and more often than in the States you find yourself dealing with a security agent who is actually nice and friendly. It’s very confusing to my American brain.

But the nice security guard did not make up for the fact that I left security only to see that our connecting flight had just left. I couldn’t even make a mad dash to hold the gate while mom caught up with me because I didn’t know where the bloody gate was. Admitting defeat, we went searching for a help desk to get on the next flight to Edinburgh.

The gentleman who helped us was very nice and got us taken care of no problem. But he also taught us a valuable lesson about how they do things in Heathrow airport. It’s time for a lesson, children. If you miss a connecting flight, go to get a new boarding pass and the clerk asks you if you’d like him to bin your old boarding pass tell him NO! (thank you; best to be polite about it). Hold on to that old boarding pass for dear life or you will end up like mom and I did (maybe).

Here’s what happened. It seemed perfectly fine to me that I let the clerk toss my old boarding pass. I had a new one for a new flight, so why would I need the old one? Well apparently, that first boarding pass was associated with my freaking biometrics or something. They use those fancy cameras in Heathrow that must scan your DNA or something because if your biometrics don’t match up with your boarding pass the gate agents will make you wait, for whatever security reason, until everyone else is on the plane before you can get on yourself. It was quite a mortifying situation. Completely not our fault but mortifying nonetheless. Everyone else was seated and ready to go and it was just us two in the aisle trying to shove our carry-on into the overhead bin.

This all sounds terrible (and it was) but it was actually kind of nice that we missed our connection. It gave us a chance to walk around and stretch, sit somewhere that wasn’t a plane and get something to eat that wasn’t airline food. But Edinburgh was calling.

Though we were stuck in Heathrow for a bit, at least we were there. The worst part of the journey was over. We had made it to the right country. Missing our flight did highlight just how much it sucks not to have a smart phone, however; one that you can use anyway. There was no time or opportunity to get a new SIM card so mom and I were both completely cut off from everything unless we were lucky to be somewhere with wifi. And even if were lucky enough to find some it was slow as balls connecting and thus ultimately useless to us. I don’t usually have qualms with lack of an internet connection but there were things that needed doing. We had no way of contact our host to let her know what was going on or where we were. We had no way of locating a cell provider in Edinburgh we could get SIM cards from. It was maddening.

We didn’t get decent wifi until we were on the tram from the airport into town. The flight, despite getting off to a rough start, was quick a painless. We collected our luggage and then, rather confused, left the airport without stopping at immigration or customs. We were rather concerned, funnily enough, that no one had rifled through our underwear before we were allowed to enter the country. Feeling like fugitives, we followed the path flanked by chain link fences to the tram platform and had our first experience with chip and pin machines. (Also, my friend has since assured me that someone definitely went through my knickers at Heathrow; we just weren’t there for it.)

For those who don’t know, chip and pin cards are the way of the credit card future. America, who is perpetually behind, just joined the 21st century before we left, but apparently Scotland doesn’t like American cards. Of course we had no cash yet either so we couldn’t choose that option. But luckily there was someone there to help us get tickets. He was the first of many good looking Scottish men I would see that trip and the first of even more lovely Scottish accents we got to hear.

Tickets in hand, we pulled our bags onto the tram and took our seats. We had arrived! It was official now. We were in Scotland, in Edinburgh, on the tram. The stress and exhaustion of traveling melted away briefly and we allowed ourselves some excited squeals and joyous declarations that we were indeed in Scotland.

I spent my time on the tram messaging our host what the situation was and staring out the window at the city. My first impression was that Edinburgh is a city, which would be obvious to anyone. While I appreciate all the various activities and sights most cities have to offer, I’m not the biggest fan of spending much time there. And for a while I worried I might feel that way about Edinburgh. We exited the tram at Haymarket Station to a street noisy with cars and bustling with people. And we had no idea where we were going.

Our host, Rebecca, had provided instructions to her flat from Haymarket Station, which was very fortunate for us phoneless wonders. But we had to ask a gentleman on the sidewalk which direction we needed to head (Coloradans, am I right?)

We told him we were headed to Lauriston Place. He thought for a minute before he pointed to his right, then looked at us and said, “That’s a bit far though, isn’t it?” Not exactly what weary travelers with lots of luggage want to hear but I also wasn’t feeling up to trying to wrangle a taxi (plus we still had no cash and I was paranoid about having another card incident). He gave us directions as best he could and we were off.

What I will say about the walk to Lauriston Place is that I’m very sure it was not as long as the walk mom and I had to make to our hostel when we were in Christchurch. It was still long though. The sidewalks were bumpy and we were going uphill. Navigating the crowds was difficult with a bulging suitcase following behind you and it didn’t take long for the straps of the backpacks to start really cutting in. We had to ask once where Lothian Street was since Edinburgh apparently doesn’t believe in street signs (I mean, they had them, they just weren’t always the most obvious) but once we got there it was a straight shot down the road to our flat.

I don’t think I could ever, or would ever, want to drive in Edinburgh, at least not so near the city center. There were so many lanes and lights and traffic markings I had no idea what they meant that I’m surprised I didn’t die just crossing the street. The building our flat was in was right at the Tollcross junction and there were at least six different ways traffic could be moving at any given time. But we made it across safely and found the entrance.

We weren’t thrilled about what we found on the other side of that door, however. The flat was on the top floor of a four-story (I think) building. We had to carry all our stuff up a narrow cement stairway, which is just as difficult as it sounds. Sweating and out of breath, we reach the top and found Rebecca waiting for us. She introduced us to what I’m pretty sure was her boyfriend, Dave, and Dave was nice enough to carry the biggest suitcase up the last flight of stairs into our room.

After saying hello and giving a short account of the fiasco at Heathrow, she showed us upstairs where we’d be staying. The bedroom was small but with a window over looking the street, and the bathroom was covered in robot wallpaper. So that was pretty sweet. She had also written up a short list of suggestions of things to do in town and places to eat. After that, Rebecca and Dave were off to visit family for the weekend. Mom pointed out later that evening that they were very trusting to leave two complete strangers in their flat. She was right, but I wouldn’t have given a second thought about it if she hadn’t said something. I guess it’s just weird to think someone would be concerned that I would do something bad because I know that I don’t have any ill intent. But of course they don’t know that…but I digress.

Once we were alone, we took a moment to poke around the flat a bit and snoop in the kitchen, just to check things out. We sorted our things in the bedroom and flopped onto the bed, glad for a moment to relax. The sweat dried and my shoulders stopped aching but my feet still had a dull burning sensation. It was only after we both got caught up with all internet related needs (sweet wifi!) that we decided it was time to find a pub. We had walked by at least five on our way down Lothian Road. Calling upon our last reserves of energy we climbed back down the many stairs to the street to find a place to get a drink.

I think we were nearly back at Haymarket Station by the time we picked a place. Many of the pubs were on the small side and already rather full, and every one of them gave of that cozy pub feel, like everyone inside knew each other; everyone was a regular. I was nervous about stepping foot in any one of them because I would be the outsider.

So in the end we picked one of the quieter pubs, which in retrospect doesn’t seem like the smartest thing to do if you’re trying to fly under the radar. As soon as we walked in every single person there turned to look at us. We couldn’t have been more conspicuous than if we walked in wearing American flag jumpsuits. I moved straight for the bar. Beer would help! There were maybe five or six beers on tap, none of which I knew of course, and one of which I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. So I just let mom order and told the bartender to make it two. By the way, this was the second good-looking Scottish man I came in close contact with. Tall, dark and Scottish, the trifecta.

We took our beers and sat down at a narrow table against the wall adjacent to the bar and opposite from most everyone else there. We were silent for a while and just sipped our beer. Eventually we started talking plans for tomorrow when mom would be heading to the National Archives to do genealogy research and I would have the day to myself. From there we branched off to talking about who knows what before somehow getting around to discussing how messed up and unfair the world is.

To be fair this is a fairly standard progression of barroom talk. But before things got much darker, we threw back the rest of our beers and left to find some food. It was dark when we left the pub and the streets were significantly quieter. We weren’t in the mood for a sit down place so we stumbled into the Sainsbury on the way back to the flat. I say ‘stumbled’ because, even though we had only had a beer each, mom and I are lightweights, and one good beer is all it takes to make us a little loopy and unstable.

I picked up a basket and started walking up and down the aisles, peering curiously at a bunch of labels and brands that were completely foreign to me. I had no idea what half of it was, but if it looked good I grabbed it and tossed it into the basket. Drunk shopping is quite fun. In the end we made it to the register with a couple of bagels, some bananas, a container of soup, Jammie Dodgers, and a Mars bar. Not bad, I’d say, for drunk shopping at least.

We enjoyed some drunken banter with the cashier (he wasn’t drunk, just us) as I struggled with the card machine (it worked this time). Finally we stumbled back out onto the street and got back home. I was glad that we were alone in the flat. Drunken displays of cooking are not the best way to make a good impression. I kid though. We really weren’t that far gone, just thoroughly enjoying ourselves. I pulled down a couple bowls and got the soup in the microwave while mom toasted up a bagel for us to split. It certainly wasn’t the best meal we’d ever made but it was quick and easy and tasted fine.

My head was nearly clear as we washed the dishes and went up for bed. It felt good to be lying down after such a long day. I was feeling a little trepidation about the next day, and the whole trip for that matter. There’s always a degree of pressure I feel with grand trips like this to have a good time. But I was too tired to worry about it much just then. So I rolled over and went to sleep.

~Ren

Review: The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman and Eddie Campbell

TheTruthIsaCaveintheBlackMountainsATaleofTravelandDarknesswithPicturesofAllKinds_Hardback_1393353048This short story by Mr. Gaiman takes place in the Scottish Highlands (I believe). Two men journey to a mysterious cave, one of them in search of gold. This is how it seems but really, there is much more at play.

Sometimes Gaiman feels almost Hemingway-ish in his writing. Short sentences, straight to the point, but all put together are very powerful in their simplicity. He manages to say a whole lot with little words, which is a skill and think a lot of writers wish they had or could perfect.

Like some of his other works, this story has its edges tinted with black. It’s not a scary story but throughout reading there is a sense of unease and things lurking in shadow. Eddie Campbell’s illustrations fit very well with Gaiman’s story. They have this smudge, distorted quality to them which really helps add to the creepiness and mystery of the story.

A short read with a bit of a twist that Gaiman fans will enjoy.

~Ren

Four days off? Time to explore!

Hello my hobbi—ope! Still in work mode. Hello my dear travelers! Lordy it’s been a while since I’ve written to you. All the way back in January! And now February is almost half gone. Goodness, where does the time go? I’ve already been in New Zealand nearly four months. That’s still a bit weird to think about from time to time. But anyway, let’s get you all filled in on some of the goings on from the past few weeks.

First a few things from work. A lot of people on my tours will ask me if the charm of Hobbiton has worn off, if the novelty is no longer there and I’m just jaded by the whole thing. To which I usually answer, yes and no. And that’s an honest answer. Eventually, working at Hobbiton does just feel like any other job. You have good days and bad days, there are things you like to do and don’t like to do. And the people you work with (both coworkers and customers) can make or break how much you enjoy it.

That being said, there are still moments where it all just hits me. The most recent moment I had was a couple of weeks ago when I was on the bus being driven down for a tour. We were just passing the break in the hills where you can look out and see the mill and the bridge in the distance. And I looked out at that stone bridge with its twin arches and I just thought, “Damn, I work at Hobbiton. Freaking Hobbiton! How cool is that?!”

Also there are certain things that happen at Hobbiton that probably don’t happen at most other jobs.

First, it’s totally normal to come to work and find the carpark looking like this.

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And it isn’t totally out of place to come into the staff room and see this.

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I had to say goodbye to an old friend recently as well. Someone that has been with me for many years. It was just time, she was too old, getting tired and worn down, so I had to replace her. It was tough, but I think she’s happier now. And by ‘she’ I mean my hat.

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Yeah…it was time. This is what happens when you work in the sun for 8 hours a day. My pants don’t even look like the same pants if you turn them inside out.

Now not long ago I felt like I was in a bit of a rut with tours. They were all pretty average, the people didn’t seem very thrilled to be there and it made it hard for me to get excited about work. But then, oh my, I had the BEST tour the other day. It was a four tour day for me; I started at 8:30 and was going to be finishing up somewhere around 7. My last tour was only going to be four people until I took on another tour from the group going down after me (we were already five minutes late so it just made sense to go as one group).

These guys were awesome! There four people from the States, two guys from Austria and a couple from Germany. We had so much fun together! They asked questions and we all made jokes and told stories and nerded out together about Lord of the Rings and I took awesome photos for them. And because I had so much fun with all of them I asked for a picture with them behind the bar at the GD (Green Dragon; just a little Hobbiton shorthand for ya).

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Uh, they were just awesome. Such a great group of people. I also had a girl on one of my tours a few days ago who was super sweet. We chatted about languages and I attempted to speak what limited Spanish I know to her and her mother and we just had a good yarn at the bar. She actually brought me some chocolate after the tour. I can’t eat it, but for me it is all about the gesture and the fact she took the time to give me this little gift. Gracias.

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Okay! Because this blog is in danger of getting very long (and also because I have a book I’m trying to finish) I’ll be short and sweet about the last few things.

I had four days off this week so I decided to make the most of them. I got to do archery twice, which was sweet as but my fingers suffered a bit. It was my first time shooting where I didn’t have any finger guards or anything. Totally worth it though. (Also, to anyone who knows anything about archery, the picture probably looks like a shit round but this was intentional. I was going for an arrow in every color. Nailed it!)

 

My friend Emily and I took a wee hike up McLaren Falls, just outside Tauranga. We’re planning on going back sometime to do a bit of kayaking and more exploring. I also made a trip to Rotorua, which was the first time I’d been there. I went to see the redwoods after a recommendation from my mother. It was nice being in a proper forest again. The redwoods here aren’t as impressive as in Yosemite but it was still pretty cool to walk around and just enjoy some peace and quiet…if you don’t count the cicadas (or whatever they are; they sound like cicadas). I also paid a brief visit to the Rotorua Museum, which is in the old bath house building. An absolutely gorgeous piece of architecture. I had planned to go down to Blue Spring during my days of as well but Deadpool came up so I’ll have to save that for another time. Now for photos!

 

 

Oh! And I moved!

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A smaller room certainly makes it seem like you have more shit than you actually do. Until next time travelers!

~Ren

 

 

Review: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

23128304My mom insists it was cheating that I picked up this book. That’s because I partial did it because I knew it was short and I was starting to get behind in my book goal. But I’m still counting it. I’ve heard a lot about Murakami in my years of being a bookseller, most of it good, some of it not, but that’s the way with most everything.

The title pretty accurately and succinctly sums up the nature of the book. A young boy ends up stuck in a very strange library. As I was reading, I thought it seemed a bit counterproductive for an author to write a book that might terrify children from going to the library. Not that the book is really intended for children, but I could see younger people picking it up.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it. I rather did like it. This is my kind of ‘scary’ book. It’s a bit twisted, a bit off-kilter, and elegantly simple in its delivery. This particular Murakami story reminded me of Gaiman. It had that feel of a modern fairytale to it. Something ordinary is suddenly made slightly more fantastical by the author’s imagination.

Not to say all books need some kind of moral or lesson for the reader to take away, but this is one of those books that I don’t think really has one. And that’s not a bad thing. Reading was purely experiential. A friend of mine who read it compared it to a dreamlike state, which I can see. The reader slips into unconsciousness as they follow the protagonist into the depths of the library and they reawaken at the end when he escapes.

~Ren

Review: Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik (Temeraire Book 2)

2370002870702(This review has very mild spoilers, nothing related to plot.) Temeraire Book 2! This is the sequel to Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon. The premise of the books already has me drawn in (the Napoleonic Wars with dragons) and I absolutely love the depth to wish Novik goes with her draconic world.

The second book, Throne of Jade, finds Laurence faced with the possibility of losing Temeraire to the Chinese. They were none too pleased to hear the rare Celestial dragon promised to Napoleon found its way into British hands, and to keep diplomatic relations good, the British attempt to appease the Emperor as much as they can while still trying to keep hold of Temeraire, a dragon the Corps is in desperate need of.

This book dives deeper into the world of dragons, introducing readers to all sorts of new breeds and teaching us more about Temeraire and his heritage, all things I’m a total sucker for. We also see dragons living in a whole new way, widely wholly accepted by humans, being taught to read and write and many other things not seen in the Corps. This of course causes a bit of unrest with Temeraire who has always had a radical streak.

I enjoyed the book, though this one was a bit more heavy on the political side, and a good chunk of the book was dedicated to the sea journey to China, which is not the most thrilling stuff to read. But it did keep me engaged enough to get to the end. And the end did have an element of surprise to it, but I’ll keep that to myself.

Throne of Jade presented the characters with new challenges and new experiences and set up a lot of things for the reader to look forward to in future books. The world keeps developing and expanding so there is always something new to discover on the next page. I’m looking forward to picking up book three.

~Ren