Leaving Berlin

The next day was the last we would spend in Berlin. It had been a short, rather tiring, but nevertheless fun trip. Mom and I were both excited to be going back to Edinburgh though, but we didn’t say as much to Peter. Shhh. (Now that this is about to go public, I could change this bit, but I won’t. Sorry, Peter! <3) Checkout for the flat wasn’t until noon but we weren’t going to wait around all morning until then to start the day, and we certainly weren’t going to go out that morning only to come back some few hours later to get our stuff. So we were up early to pack and tidy up the flat a bit before catching the U-bahn to Peter’s.

Both of us knew the night before that this morning was going to, well, be a bit of a trial. Remember, there is no elevator in Peter’s apartment building, and he’s on the top floor. I mean, we did leave our biggest suitcase back at Maya’s place but we still had bulging backpacks and a decent sized carry-on bag to lug up all those stairs. I may be wrong, but writing that sentence may be the first moment I’ve realized that’s why we call it luggage. I digress. Either way, we still had a lot of heavy shit to carry up a lot of stairs.

A fine layer of sweat had formed over most of my face and gathered along my hairline by the time we reached the top. I, being the strong young one, got to carry the suitcase up. I lifted a trembling arm to knock on the door. I was slightly bent over to try and displace the weight pulling on my shoulders. It took a few seconds for the door to open but once it did Mom and I wobbled into the apartment and immediately slipped our packs from our backs.

We all but dragged our things into Peter’s room to store them while we were out for the day. From there we staggered to the kitchen for a sit and a much needed glass of water. Peter continued to get ready while we hydrated and regained normal oxygen levels, feeling the sweat cool on our brows. I was half lying when Peter asked if we were ready to go and I said yes. But he was taking us to a vegan-friendly buffet place. And food also sounded pretty good.

We descended the stairs to the U-bahn once more and traveled a few stops before climbing back to the street level. From there it was only a few minutes walk. The restaurant hadn’t quite opened when we arrived so we joined the crowd already milling about outside. Luckily it was rather warm outside, and the sun was shining so we didn’t much mind the wait. Well, I didn’t, but Mom was feeling pretty hungry. Once the doors were opened, we grabbed a table in the front corner of the room where Peter and I left Mom to go join the line for food. I’m not sure why we let Mom be the one to hold the table since she was likely the hungriest of all of us.

Anyway, Peter and I order drinks for the three of us and waited patiently as the line inched forward, bringing us closer to a spread of bowls, plates and baskets of many tasty looking items. It may seem silly to someone with a broader dietary intake but when I’m at a place where I can eat more than two things of the menu I get really excited, like, maybe irrationally so. At that little buffet in Berlin, the number of things I could eat outnumbered the things I couldn’t. And every single one of them was delicious.

Once we had our food, Peter and I hurried back to the table so Mom could go and get her plateful of food. We didn’t dig in right away. We tried to do the polite thing and wait for Mom to get back. I did nibble one or two things I had been curious about though. I passed the time by blowing on my tea and watching people pass by outside. Peter and I didn’t say much, both I think still needing to wake up a bit. Mom returned at last and breakfast properly began.

We all spent the first few bites uttering lots of “Mmm”s and “Ooh”s and the occasional “This is really good” which would always prompt the other two to sample whatever it was, whether it was on their plate or not. Around half way through the first plate, actual conversation started, punctuated by chewing and one or two trips back for seconds. It’s been too long now for me to recall in any detail what we talked about but I do remember that it was very good conversation, the kind that teaches you about yourself and the people you were with; the kind that gave me plenty to think about later on.

When we were all full up, we cleaned up our table and went to pay. This place was pretty cool since you pay what you think is fair or whatever you can spare. It’s nice because if you are a little short on cash you can still get a meal for a couple bucks and hopefully, in the future, you’ll pay it forward when you can. Anyway, after we were all paid up, we left the restaurant and walked to the nearest tram station. From there we rode through a few stops before getting off to traverse the streets on foot once more.

Since we didn’t have much time that day before we needed to head to the airport, we didn’t have anything planned except to check out this massive flea market which could take as little or as much time as we wanted. And boy, was it massive. I’ve been to flea markets before, both indoor and outdoor. And I thought I had seen big ones but this one in Berlin seemed to just keep sprawling, lining walkways and going around corners, branching into completely separate sections. There was no way I saw everything.

We passed stalls selling handmade bags and wallets, stalls with creative assortments of shirts and scarves and hats. There were food vendors and jewelry vendors, racks and racks of eclectic clothing and tables filled with rows of shoes. We walked through a pavilion with trays of dishes and glassware set up in lines underneath the pointed roof. We stopped to admire the wares in a few shops but all we ended up buying were a collection of postcards with various images from around Berlin.

Going to this flea market gave me some perspective. It made me realize just how much junk we have created over our time on earth. Humans, I mean. There were things ranging from old to new at this market but either way, it was all going to be around for the next however many years. It’s insane. And this was just one flea market in Berlin, and Berlin is just one city in one country in one continent. It worries me and makes me a little sad. Someone could surely reuse a lot of that stuff but a lot of it will always be junk.

Bringing the mood back up, when we had finished browsing the flea market we ducked through the crowd and took an exit along a wall that divided the flea market from a park. It was a long greenbelt full of people walking, playing frisbee, playing with their dogs or just lounging in the sun. The three of us took our time walking towards a rectangular space of gravel, dotted with trees and line with a low cement wall. At the far end, the wall was covered with people sitting and watching a man sing and play acoustic guitar.

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Mom, Peter and I walked around to the very end of the plaza and found an open spot on the wall to sit and watch. The guy was wearing an un-tucked, red plaid shirt with baggy blue jeans and had a sizable poof of black hair. He finished up a song just after we all sat down. The crowd applauded and he thanked them before he singled out a couple of guys sitting near us and asked one where he was from. They had a brief back and forth, the singer making a joke or two before he began another song.

The guy was very funny and had a really nice voice. We stayed until the end of the set, and when he had finished Mom and I went up to give him a tip and buy one of his CDs, which he signed for me. With another souvenir in hand, we wandered away from that end of the plaza towards the other where a full band had set up and was just about to start playing. I noticed instantly that they had a female bass player so I snapped a picture to show David when I got home.

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We stayed in the park, enjoying the sunshine and listening to the music as long as we could. But soon it was time for us to head back to Peter’s to collect our things and set out for the airport. It still wasn’t much fun, but carrying the bags down the stairs wasn’t as bad as it had been carrying them up the stairs. This time Mom didn’t even bother going all the way back to the top. She sent Peter and I up for everything while she waited below.

Peter went with us as far as the bahnhof that would put us on the S-bahn back to the airport. In Edinburgh our goodbye had been a short one, but this time we wouldn’t be seeing Peter again until he came home for Christmas. Mom and I each gave him a good hug and thanked him for the wonderful time before climbing onto the train.

I waddled down the aisle, our bag stuck between my legs, looking for a seat. I took one next to a girl about my age while Mom took one across the way from me. It was a tight fit with no where to really put your luggage besides your lap, but I managed to get comfortable enough for the short jaunt out of the city. The day so far had been very enjoyable but what we didn’t know was that the end of the train ride would be the end of the fun times, too.

Mom and I and several other people exited the train when it stopped at the airport. I recognized the platform; it was the same one we had left from. We descended the stairs before climbing back up the long, sloping ramp and following the gently curving sidewalk to the terminal. Our first pass through this building on our arrival had been short, and I had been oblivious to its very poor layout. We spent a minute or two looking around, past crowds of milling people, trying to find where the check in counter was.

Eventually we joined a long, very poorly queued lined of people, thinking only a line this long would be for something like check in. After a while, however, it got back to us that what we were actually in was the line for security. We weren’t cutting it that close to our flight time, but a giant clusterfuck of a security line still doesn’t instill much confidence for an on time departure. So we fought our way through the crowd, around the corner and over to the actual check in line.

There weren’t actually many people in this line. Probably because most of them were still stuck in the security line thinking they were in the check in line. So we got our bag checked fairly quickly and then had the joy of going back to the giant clusterfuck of a security line. By this time though it had made it out of the rather bottlenecked section it had been in before. But there was still a lot of line to go and it didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

Inch by inch we shuffled forward. I spent most of the time shifting anxiously from foot to foot. I noticed after a while that some people were being let to the front of the line, and I gathered it was because their flights were leaving very soon. When my nerves finally got the better of me I went over to inform the attendant when our flight left and if we should be cutting to the front. She told me if it came within a half hour of departure that I should say something. So I turned and went back to Mom, not feeling any better about our position.

At last we did make it through security only to be held up again before we even left the metal detectors behind. My laptop, for whatever reason, was taken aside into a nearby room and wiped down and scanned for alien technology or something. I was getting so nervous by that point that I was having even more trouble understanding the questions I was asked with a German accent. The security officers finished their tests and I got my laptop back, and from their we were back to rushing to the gate. The Berlin airport isn’t that big but a place always feels bigger when you’ve never been there and don’t know where you’re going and all your neurons are slowly frying under stress.

After a few minutes of following signs and turning corner after corner and briskly walking past slow people and kind of hoping you accidentally-on-purpose hit them with your roller bag to teach them a lesson for being slow and in your way, we made it to the immigration booth. I went up first and was checked through no problem. I walked through the doorway and stepped aside to wait for Mom. And waited. And waited. And wai­—Mom! Did you get sucked into an alternate dimension? Where are you?

At last she appeared in the doorway and told me, when I commented on the length of time, that she had gotten the newbie that took his sweet time just figuring how to open her passport. Frustrating as that might be, we had made it through the worst. Our gate was only a few short feet away. Sure, we may have to go straight from sprinting through the airport to being squished into a plane but we made it! And that’s what matters.

To our annoyance, though, the plane had not even made it to the gate by the time we arrived. Really, plane? Really? Talk about the biggest, yet most irritated, sighs of relief. I only felt like a bit of an idiot for obviously being the only person who had half sprinted all the way down to the gate. I was still too irked at the airline to care much, so Mom and I stomped off (at a much slower pace) to find a place to sit and let the sweat dry.

I was comforted by the fact the plane did show up only a few minutes after we busted through the door. Once on board, Mom and I turned our thoughts to the substance to cure all ills. Yes, I’m talking about booze. We had 20 Euro left from our stay so we did what any fiscally responsible travelers would do: we pulled out the food and beverage menu, and order just the right combination of items to spend our 20 Euro. Two gin and tonics, two bags of pretzels, and a pastry trio later, we were both buzzed and laughing about what a great story this will make later (and see how right we were?).

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Once we landed in Glasgow, we made our way out to the street where we caught a bus to the train station. We boarded with no problem and sat back to relax for the journey back to Edinburgh. We stopped at the station shop in Edinburgh to pick up something for dinner before catching the bus back to the flat. There was no food there and no energy in us to cook anyway.

Maya and Malc, true to their word, had placed our bag back in our room. We tossed our carry on and back packs into the room so we could sit in the kitchen and eat our dinner. The meal wasn’t much, but at this point we were both more tired than hungry and having something in our bellies was better then naught. Once fed, we prepared ourselves for bed and promptly fell asleep.

~Ren

 

Rocks on the Bay, Walks on the River, Horses through the Trees

Fox Glacier diminished in my rear view mirror, and before me were the last sweeping views of the west coast I would see for a while. We were moving inland now, to Wanaka, home to my former flatmate back in Matamata. That’s not why we were going there, it’s just a random fact for you. We didn’t get far from Fox, though, before we were pulling off the road.

The place was Bruce Bay. I didn’t know about it until that day, but along the coast there are lots of white rocks. And I guess someone decided one day they were going to write something on one of these white rocks and start a pile. So now, if you drive by Bruce Bay, you will see a large pile of white rocks with messages on them. Tokens from the many travelers who have passed that way. Hannah and Luke had added rocks to the pile before, but of course the three of us had to add our own.

Then it was back in the car. The drive from Fox Glacier was the longest we’d had in a while (three hours!). Luke and Hannah were more fussed than I was, I think. It takes ages to get anywhere in the States, so three hours was nothing. When we were not far outside Wanaka, we pulled over at a lookout so we could take some shots of Lake Wanaka/Lake Hawea (I’m not sure which side of the mountains we were on when we stopped, but it was pretty).

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It was well dark when we got to the Wanaka Top 10 Holiday Park we were staying at. We checked in at reception, collected our wifi code and our key, then drove back down the lane to our room. Ours was right at the end of the building. It was small but clean, and it heated up fast. The kitchen, however, was another matter. When we all stepped inside to make a quick tea, the first thing we noticed was the smell. It was rather like urine. There were no tea towels to be found and even less in the way of dishes and utensils. But we made due, simply filling our own mugs with noodles and hot water and returning to the room.

The next morning was a change to how we’d spent the night. We all went from sweating our asses off (we hadn’t figured out the optimal heat setting yet) to freezing them off as we made the drive along the Crown Range to AJ Hackett. If you’re unfamiliar, AJ Hackett is the man that helped popularize the bungy jump. The Kawarau Bridge jump is (I believe) the first bungy site to open in NZ. It’s referred to as the World Home of Bungy. Before you get your hopes up, no I wasn’t doing a bungy. That would be Luke who was taking the dive this time.

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Shivering like crazy, we all got out of the car. Before heading inside, we walked down to the cliff’s edge so we could see the drop point. After that we quickly scurried inside to warm up a bit. The building was large and built in what seemed to be a notch in the rocks. It was full of large signs advertising all the different drops, lots of bungy jump t-shirts and other merchandise, a small concession area, and of course, a large screen played videos of various people jumping.

Luke went to the counter to sign the necessary waivers and get weighed and all that good stuff. Outside on the deck, people were gathered, taking in the view, and I’m sure some were mentally preparing themselves for what they were about to do. Hannah and I got some chips and small cups of water while we waited. Luke joined us a bit later. We passed the time enjoying our chips and chatting and also doing some people watching. It was fairly easy to spot other people who would be making the drop.

A girl at the counter called Luke’s name several minutes later. He vanished outside while Hannah and I moved into position to take video and get pictures of the fall. Soon I was shivering once again out in the biting air. I knew it would take a bit for Luke to get set up but I wanted to be sure I didn’t miss anything either. So I stood there, my phone at the ready, watching Luke get closer and closer to the edge.

And then he was off! A gray and black blur streaking towards turquoise water below. As soon as he made the first bounce, the tension in my chest eased. I watched him bob up and down, snapping as many pictures as I could. Then he was dropped into the raft, just like Dad had been, and he disappeared from sight. I walked back inside to meet up with him and Hannah.

Luke didn’t look nearly as drawn as Dad had. He was a bit rosy-cheeked, to be sure. We took a minute to look over the pictures I’d taken, even though in the end they took home pictures provided by AJ Hackett, then went over for another thing of chips and water before leaving. Our big plans in Wanaka had been fulfilled with the bungy jump, so now anything was game. I suggested checking out a set location that was on the way back to town.

The drive there would take us the long way back, and we didn’t know it until we got there, but it would also take us the more exciting way back. Just after turning onto highway 8A, we came to a milk tanker that was completely on its side in the ditch beside the road. It had only happened minutes before we showed up. We pulled over ahead of it and quickly walked back to check that the drive was okay. Luke was straight on the phone to the police.

A few more people pulled over as we stood there. The driver was fine, a bit of a bang on the head, and the ambulance and fire department showed up shortly after Luke hung up the phone. It was an unexpected occurrence to be sure. We even saw a blurb about it in the paper the next day when we were in Arrowtown!

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Personally, I can’t say I felt bad about the possible milk shortage in Wanaka.

We left the emergency teams to their work and finished our drive to the set location. A short distance up the highway was the turn off for Maori Point Road. The land where the actual scene was filmed is private. But there was a gate open. So even though we technically were trespassing, we only did a little bit. We stayed just long enough to snap some pictures and declare several times that you could definitely see that this was the place, as if any of us needed convincing. This was were Arwen had employed some fancy riding skills in order elude the Nazgul and make it to the river.

We continued back to Wanaka, this time without any unexpected surprises. When we reached the edge of town, we pulled off the road and into the carpark of Have a Shot. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. The place has a few lanes for shooting clay pigeons and a few for shooting a bow and arrows. I held my tongue while we were there, but in my head I was thinking it was no Rocky Mountain Archery, a range that I frequented back home. Despite sharing bows and having to shoot in the cold, we were all happy to get in some archery.

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The day had warmed up sufficiently. Which was good, because once we were back in the city centre, we spent a couple of hours wandering around the shops, looking at things too expensive for us to buy, eating tasty burgers sold to us by a cute guy, and me, having no success in finding a used book to buy. More and more I believe that charity shops and used bookstores are where formulaic, mass market thrillers, mysteries and romances novels go to die.

When we’d finished our exploration of the town, we spent a few minutes walking along the edge of Lake Wanaka (where apparently they have wifi) before driving back to the holiday park. Our night would be wrapping up with a viewing of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Luke and Hannah hadn’t seen it yet, and I was game for seeing it again. First, we had to brave another “cooking” session in the stinky kitchen.

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The name of the theater was Paradiso, which appealed to my Firefly sensibilities. It was a tiny theater, very much like Lyric Cinema Cafe back home. The walls were covered in movie posters, there was a nice sitting area you could spend time in before your film, and there were couches and comfy chairs in the theaters. We bought our tickets but had to wait for the movie currently playing to finish up before we went inside.

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It didn’t take long for me to change my mind about buying a drink. I didn’t really want a whole beer though, so we we all ended up splitting one. A few minutes before we moved into the theater, I realized I had accidentally thrown my ticket away, thinking it was my receipt. I have since learned, as this is how all theaters in NZ seem to print their tickets. The viewing was enjoyed by all. We were all ready for bed after that. This time, we would be sure to turn the heater down.

The next morning we moved down to Arrowtown, just for a night. It’s a very tiny town just outside of Queenstown, and is the sort of town I could possibly see myself retiring to. It feels a bit like a place out of history to me, and that might be because it is quite proud of its heritage. It was a gold rush town, and families can do some gold panning of their own for fun. There is also an old Chinese settlement that has been preserved so people can walk around and see what life was like.

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Pretty nice view on the way down.

The main street has that quaint, homely feel. Lined with cafes, shops, a post shop, and even its own sweet shop, there is everything you could want right in one place. The place we were staying was pretty sweet, too. It was a short walk outside the centre of town, and we had a unit to ourselves with its own kitchen and bathroom. We were being spoiled. Arrowtown was all of an hour away from Wanaka, so we didn’t get to rave about our new digs until later. We spent most of the morning exploring the town.

We parked in a dirt lot near the river and walked up the hill to the street level. The streets were fairly full of people doing the same thing we were. I peered into shop windows as we walked down the street. Shopping was later, right now it was time for morning tea. The bustle of the main street faded behind us as we walked to a small cafe called Provisions. This is when we saw our spilled milk tanker story in the paper.

Now that we were all properly watered and fed, we went back to into town for some shopping. I say shopping, but really we were all low on cash, and I don’t buy things just for the sake of buying something, but we enjoyed our time browsing around (and I did buy a few things). We took our time poking around a shop called The Gold Nugget. It had lots of artsy trinkets, knitted items and other useless tourist junk. But I got a few nice postcards to send home, and Luke and Hannah had fun listen to a few old women from Florida speak in their ridiculous accents.

The three of us spent at least 20 minutes in the sweet shop, and I spent most of those minutes reading labels looking for something I could eat. We each left with a sweetie and walked to the Chinese settlement. There wasn’t a whole lot left. A few buildings still stood, some of them were built right into the hillside. But others were just cement rectangles on the ground, the only thing left of what used to be a house. Finished exploring the settlement and the woods nearby, we left to check in at the holiday park.

As I said before, we were being spoiled during our one night in Arrowtown. It wasn’t long after we’d parked that we were unpacking, boiling water for tea, taking showers, and getting cozy in bed so we could watch “The Chase.” Life was good. It continued to get better when we went out later that night to a super awesome bar called The Blue Door. It was a cold night, and a bit rainy, but we walked into town anyway. The entrance to the bar was in a small courtyard just off the main street.

True to its name, it had a blue door, and on the inside was a beautiful wooden bar, big comfy arm chairs by the fire, and large wooden barrels set as tables. It was awesome. The place wasn’t big, but it was nearly full when we walked in. The fire on the far side had the place warmed to the perfect temperature. We took seats against a stone wall near the bar. The lone bartender came out with menus and said he’d be back to grab our drinks in a minute.

We found out later, after Luke had talked with him up at the bar, that this guy was actually the manager of the place. He was very friendly and took good care of us all night. We didn’t drink much but still had a great time. I’d brought the deck of cards we’d bought back in Fox Glacier, and we enjoyed a few games of Crazy Eights while we sipped our brews. The three of us even went so far as to splurge on a bomber of this amazing stout. Definitely one of the best beers I’ve had the whole trip.

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Also this happened…

Enjoying a nice buzz, the three of us walked back to the holiday park in a light drizzle. It was a short stay but a good stay in Arrowtown. Very relaxed to be sure. And I think we all needed that. There will always be more to see of NZ, but I think the three of us were feeling ready for a break. I know I certainly was. But our time in Arrowtown wasn’t quite over. The next day we were off to Queenstown, and like it had been with the move from Wanaka to Arrowtown, we’d have plenty of time to kill before check in tomorrow. We spent the next morning taking a walk along the Arrow River.

I had visited Arrowtown when Mom and I visited, but that was just to see the Ford of Bruinen and the Gladden Fields. The criss-crossing sections of river and the wooded river bank hadn’t changed much in those intervening years. Only this time I was walking far above the rocky shore I’d ventured out to before. The narrow sides of the canyon were mostly covered in brown, but parts were still clinging to the edges of autumn. Patches of red and orange trees were still visible, and even a few green pines broke that drab monochrome of the hibernating trees.

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There was only one other person we saw on the trail, a man who was on a run with his dog. Otherwise we had the trail to ourselves. I spotted a vertebrae among the rocks beneath our feet, the last remaining bit of something’s lunch. We passed a lovely waterfall, slithering past ferns and over mossy rocks. We went as far as we could go, to the very end of the path until the river itself blocked us from going any further.

Back down the trail we went. We had business in Queenstown. Mostly that business involved eating Fergburger as many times as we could, but some other stuff too. First of all, I need some new pants. I’d brought my two best pairs with, and had picked up a couple new pairs of capris for the summer. But by the time we arrived at Queenstown, both pairs of jeans had succumbed to crotch holes. Alas. So! We had a plan to enact when we arrived in town.

It took us a bit to get parking figured. One lot we tried was full so we drove down near the harbor, and while Luke and Hannah found a spot, there wasn’t another near by for me. So I ended up driving around the block and snagged one there. But it was only 30 minute parking. We reunited and in a flash laid out our plan of action. I would dash off to Just Jeans and get myself a new pair, while Luke and Hannah went off to a ski shop to get Hannah a new pair of winter gloves. Then we would all meet at Fergburger to grab lunch.

And break! We were off! It was lucky everything was pretty close together. Racing the parking meter has to be one of the most stressful things, because no one wants to pay a stupid parking ticket. Finding a good pair of jeans took no time at all (I’d always had good luck and good service at Just Jeans). With a few minutes left before our meet time, I ducked into a used bookshop. In retrospect it was a stupid move because two minutes is not enough time to browse anywhere, let alone a book shop.

I was the first to arrive at Ferg (that’s what the cool kids call it). I took a seat on one of the benches out front and waited for my two compadres. The arrived a few short minutes later, and we got into line. Now, as of writing this, I’ve only been to Fergburger three times. But every time I’ve been there it has always been busy. People waiting in line, people waiting outside for their orders. It’s nuts, and I feel pretty sure that that is the norm for them. And for good reason.

I mean, there are only two veggie options on the menu, but they are damn tasty. They’ve got lots of tasty sauces to offer, and the buns are the perfect combination of fluffy and crunch. If you are ever in Queenstown, I would recommend a visit. With our lunch in hand we hurried back to our cars. One, so we wouldn’t get a ticket, and two, so we could get to our accommodation and start eating!

This Top 10 Holiday Park was much nicer than the one in Wanaka. For starters, the kitchen didn’t smell like pee. There was a nice lounge area with a fire and a TV (yes, we did watch more of “The Chase”) and the bathrooms were warm when you walked in. We ate first, savoring every messy bite, before we went back to our cabin and decided how to spend the rest of our evening. Somewhat surprisingly, we spent it shopping.

Again, we didn’t really “shop.” We did, I think, stop in almost every ski shop in Queenstown looking for gloves, and I did buy one shirt, but mostly we were just enjoying our time walking around Queenstown, seeing what there was to see. Once it started to get late, and all of us hungry, we returned to Top 10 to make tea.

The next day, our last in Queenstown, was a bit more shopping, a small blast to the past, and whole hell of a lot of anxiety that none of us were expecting. Here’s how it started. Things were good in the morning. We went to a place called Vudu Cafe and had a nice meal before we went to Cookie Bar (yes, there is a cookie bar) and had a nice dessert. Hannah finally made a decision on her gloves, and Luke and I picked up a few postcards from Whitcoulls.

My little blast from the past came when Luke suggested we have a game of disc golf (he called it something else at first but I can’t remember what it was). I haven’t, or hadn’t, played disc golf in who knows how many years. I played a lot back in middle school, and maybe had a game or two in college, but not in any recent years. So I was up for it. Hannah, not so much. We played about half the course, and that first half was kind of a bitch. Something like the first 3 holes were right on a steep hill that would take your disc all the way down to the trail below. I think Luke was the only one to chase his disc that far.

It was a short, and incomplete game, but we had fun. When we called it quits, we took a moment to sit and enjoy the view over the lake. Then we got to enjoy watching other disc golfers agonize over their discs being taken by the hill. There was one trio of guys we passed, and each of their discs almost ended up in the lake. It was hilarious. We returned our discs, and after that were a bit lost. We’d decided earlier, okay, well I should say Hannah decided earlier  that we should go see The Conjuring 2, (I lost by majority vote) and the only showing was at 9 or something. So we still had lots of time to kill before the showing. (A bit of that time was spent shoving our faces full of Fergburger again.)

We ended up where most wayward travelers end up when they don’t know what to do. We ended up at a pub. Though we didn’t actually drink any beer, which feels a bit blasphemous now I think about it. Instead we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and the wifi. And then, completely unbeknownst to us, we left the pub for the most terrifying movie experience of our lives.

No, it wasn’t because we were seeing The Conjuring. I mean, it was a scary movie, and sometimes I still think about that freaking nun. No no. The previews were still playing when Luke leaned over to me and said “We’re moving seats.” With brow furrowed, I followed Luke and Hannah to the section of seats on the far side of the theater. When we were all seated, I leaned close to the both of them and asked why we had moved. And oh man, the answer.

Apparently Hannah was very suspicious of the guy who had sat down at the end of our row. He’d been holding something close to his body, and then wrapped it carefully in his hat. Of course, she thought it was a gun. My first reaction was, “Dammit, this is America shit” which is terrible on its own. But it especially freaked me out because there had been a shooting in a theater just an hour away from where I live.

The guy eventually left about 10 minutes into the film, which was cause for a whole new wave of panic. But he never came back. The whole walk back to the car, we talked about how terrified we had all been during pretty much all of the movie. Hannah chided Luke and I for not agreeing to leave. But we’d survived. We were a bit rattled, but we’d survived. That will, hopefully, be the most, and only, terrifying movie experience I ever have. You know, unless the movie is like, really scary.

We left Queenstown the next day, the last step in our journey, and the one that would bring our Golden Trio adventures to an end.

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~Ren

 

The Luge, Thermals, and…Rotovegas?

The drive to Rotorua was uneventful. There were no more GPS hiccups, thankfully. The roads we drove all looked vaguely familiar, as I’d driven most of them once or twice before. Our AirBNB was near the outer part of town. We were parking a few minutes after pulling off the highway. We’d left Taupo just a bit too late to meet our host before he went off to pick up his kids from school. But the door was left open for us, so we unpacked and checked the place out.

It was a completely separate unit from the house. Thinking back, it may have been half of what used to be a two car garage, since the existing garage was just on the other side of the wall. It was a small space, with the bedroom at the back and a small sitting area at the front. We had our own fridge, a kettle, a microwave and kitchenware, and the bathroom inside the main house was just for us. It was a nice change from our last two stays.

About 15 minutes after we’d arrived, our host pulled into the drive. We said hello and were introduced to his kids and chatted for a little while before the three of them went into the house and Dad and I went back into our room. The weather that afternoon was overcast, and it was raining on and off. It didn’t inspire Dad or me to do much of anything. A quick stop at New World for dinner was as exciting as it got our first night in Rotorua.

Our second day was much more eventful. Rotorua is home to the North Island’s Skyline. There’s another down in Queenstown. They are basically adventure centers. Both have luge tracks and zip lining and various other activities people can enjoy. I’d booked the luge/zip line combo for Dad and me. There was no set time to arrive, so we took time to enjoy breakfast before we left the house.

It wasn’t more than a 10 minute drive to the Skyline. There were cars in the car park but it wasn’t packed. So the place wasn’t like to be totally full of tourists…other tourists that is. We crossed the pavement to the large, glass building. There was no one else in line so we walked straight up to the woman in the booth and gave her the name on our reservation. In exchange she handed over two tickets for the luge, two tickets for the zip line, and let us through onto the gondola.

Dad and I waited for the next empty gondola to turn into the loading area and jumped on board. A man snapped our photo, like he does for everyone, and the doors folded shut as we began to ascend. The sun was climbing higher and higher in the sky and shining right into our little glass gondola. My attempts to take a selfie resulted in Dad being in complete darkness and me being pasty white in the sunshine. So I gave up and enjoyed the ride. Mountain bikers rode trails below us and a small herd of deer stood grazing on the hill.

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At the top, we exited the gondola and found ourselves in an empty building. We walked across the open space, past a small shop, and through the doors on the opposite side. These took us outside to where all the fun was waiting. To the right was a cafeteria and lots of tiered outdoor seating. Out in front of us was the start of the luge track, a couple small booths with zip lining equipment, and the zip line launch point on the right of the deck. And at the far end, the Rotovegas sign.

We started the fun with a luge ride. It’s a very simple thing. You sit in a cart, you roll down a hill, then do it all over again. Might sound kind of dull, but it’s actually a lot of fun! I think Dad and I both had our doubts about how much fun it would be. Later on though, Dad would admit to me just how much he enjoyed it. There were three different tracks to take, and we tried them all at least once.

The Scenic was our first, a nice easy warm up. We got to the bottom, a feel for the carts under our fingers, and took the chair lift back to the top. Our second ride was down the Intermediate track. This one had some harder turns, a few raised corners, and less slow-moving kids on it. This is where we started to get into it. Between our second and third ride we took a quick snack break and enjoyed some chips and a drink. Then we were back to it.

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It was onto the Advanced track now. No more of the Scenic/Intermediate crap. I’ll admit though I was a bit nervous. The tight corners always made me fear I was going to flip my cart. Spoiler alert: that never happened. Off we went at high speeds! Turning, swerving, racing each other, cutting each other off. There was one hill you even got some air off of on the Advanced track! When we’d had our fifth and final run I was sad it was over.

There was one more thing yet to do, however. When we’d returned our luge helmets, we walked over to the zip line booth. The zip line went every 30 minutes, so we had 20 minutes to kill before our turn was up. We found a spot in the sun where we could sit and enjoy the view. Skyline looks right out over Lake Rotorua. The scene was picturesque with crystal blue water, green hills and a smattering of clouds in the distance. Dad commented that it was unusual to see a lake so devoid of any boats.

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When the time came we returned to the zip line booth. Our guides helped us into our harnesses, told us to grab a helmet, and then follow them down the steps to the launch point. The Rotorua zip line isn’t quite as awesome as the Queenstown zip line. Rotorua is a single long run, while Queenstown lets you choose a 4 or 6 line run through the forest around Lake Wakatipu. But it was still fun.

They hooked us in and double-checked all the pieces. They also showed us the brace position for when we came to the end (purely for comfort, not so much safety). As we went down the line we’d be reaching at least 80km, a speed I’ve never traveled without a car around me. I find zip lining to be a bit like the swing I did in Taupo, only I fear for my life less. When they released me, and I began zooming along down the line, I felt at peace, I felt unbound. There I was, soaring through the trees, unable to do anything but hang there and watch the world pass by.

When Dad and I both reached the end (which didn’t take long) they unhooked us from the line and brought us to a platform. This was the part I was really looking forward to/totally terrified to do. The platform is designed so you can fall backwards, as you would do for a trust fall, but then the cable catches you and drops you gently to the ground. I went first.

I started off by almost falling of the miniature gangplank you have to walk out on backwards. If my heart hadn’t already been pounding, that near slip would’ve done the trick. I was grateful for the countdown our guide gave, because if I had to go on my own, I might have been there a while. But with the count, it was just like ‘Go!’ and I went, and it was scary then cool and I did it for real! I mean, I didn’t freak at the last second and bend my knees or anything. Whoo! I got to watch Dad do his fall, and even that was a little scary. But he fell like a champ, too.

That brought our fun adventures at Skyline to an end. We rode the chair lift back up for the last time, returned our gear, and took the gondola back down to the car park. The most we’d eaten all day were the fries, so Dad and I were both feeling hungry. From somewhere in my brain I remembered a place called Hell Pizza. They were pretty vegan friendly so I suggested we go there.

The shop was small and entirely empty when we walked in. I took a minute looking over the menu and conferring with Dad before I ordered up at the counter. The wait was short, and soon there was a pizza box in front of us with delicious pizza goodness inside. We sat in the empty shop and ate our fill. A few slices went uneaten, so we closed up the box and took them back to the car with us. It was nice having a fridge back home.

Back home we spent a bit of time talking with our host before we slipped back inside our room and chilled out for the night. We had a full day planned for tomorrow. The first thing you probably notice about Rotorua (besides the fact that it’s not anything like Vegas) is the smell. Sulphur fills the air almost anywhere you go. Fortunately it’s not always super strong. But the reason it smells this way is because of all the natural hot springs and thermal areas in the region.

Dad and I were going to see some of these geothermal wonders at a place called Wai-O-Tapu. The park is a half an hour south of Rotorua. Dad and I actually drove past it on our way into town. When we woke up that morning the sky was very grey, and it was clear it had been raining over night. A bit of rain has never stopped us. So we pulled on our boots, grabbed our rain gear and set off for Wai-O-Tapu.

When we reached the large sign reading ‘Wai-O-Tapu’ we turned off the highway onto a narrow, unmarked road winding through the bush. A few minutes later we turned into the carpark. We dodged puddles as we crossed to the visitor centre and bought our tickets. The woman at the counter asked if we also wanted to see the Lady Knox Geyser erupt. We figured what the hell, so she told us where to find the geyser and what time we should be there.

The eruption was taking place in about 45 minutes, so Dad and I decided to walk around a bit of the park before going to see the geyser. We studied the map and saw there were several different loops to walk all through the park. The first track was the biggest, so we thought we’d do one side out and back, then walk the other when we’d come back from the geyser.

I’d been to one other thermal area in New Zealand before this, and I have mixed feelings about them. It’s always cool to see great plumes of steam rising up out of the ground and up through the trees and the bush, like there’s some sort of smoldering fire hidden below. But at the same time, a lot of the pits and craters and mud pools all look very similar. Not to diminish Wai-O-Tapu. It’s a big park and there were some pretty cool spots.

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We walked up a path lined with trees until we came to the top, and the land flattened out before us. It was very barren looking, as you might expect from a large thermal area. Pockets of steam hovered over the land as far as we could see. A few of the heartier bushes grew in amongst the gapping holes with names like “Devil’s Home” and “Devil’s Ink Pots.” The color palette was mostly gray rock, but patches of red or yellow were scattered about.

We went as far as the large shallow lake at the centre of the park. After spending a moment taking in the view, we turned back around. Back through the visitor centre we went and back into the car. The geyser was a five minute drive back down the road we’d come in on. It led us to a long dirt lot with an entryway set in amongst the trees. I parked, and we followed the rest of the crowd under the archway.

On the other side of the trees was a small amphitheater in front of the geyser. Lady Knox wasn’t big, her height probably not much taller than your average trash can. She was all white except for a few pale brown streaks down her front, and sitting in a crook near her mouth was a small bundle. This was no Old Faithful. The geyser had to be set off by one of the park rangers.

The crowd grew bigger and bigger while we waited. After a few minutes, a man walked out over the rocks to the geyser. He greeted the crowd with a friendly “Kia ora!” and we all chorused “Kia ora!” back to him. He spent a bit of time telling us about the history of the geyser, how it got its name, and how it was discovered the geyser could be triggered into erupting. It turns out the land had once belonged to a prison, and a few of the inmates had once tried rinsing their clothes in the geyser. Chemicals in the washing powder caused it to erupt. (That is a very truncated version of the story, BTW).

When the story was finished, the ranger thanked us, emptied the contents of the small bundle into the geyser, and left. The group was quiet while we waited for something to happen. Soon I could see a mound of tiny white bubbles making its way out the top of the geyser. It gurgled over the edge and spilled down the side. The stream grew a bit, like a very weak fountain, and I could here people around me wondering if that was as exciting as it got.

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But then the eruption really took off. A steaming jet of water shot high into the air. A fine mist was caught in the breeze and the water looked like a fine white flag spread out in the wind. We all stood momentarily mesmerized by the geyser. But soon people began to tire of watching a column of water, and they began to file out of the theater. Dad and I stuck around longer than most, leaving only when the eruption started to shrink.

We got back into the car, drove back down the road, and walked back through the visitor centre to finish our walk around the rest of the park. Like we’d discussed, we turned right at the top of the hill instead of the left. We were back at the shallow lake several minutes later. Now we walked down the gently sloping hill to the boardwalks over the water.

I’d seen a pool like this before, but that one had housed many more colors. At the edge of the pool was a bright red-orange ring. The rest of the water further out was a murky green, with a few lighter shades mixed in. Somewhere out there were the one or two spots of blue water I’d seen from the top of the hill. The steam around the lake was so thick in some places that I almost lost Dad a couple times when I walked too far away.

A steady drizzle had started not long after we’d left the geyser. We stood contemplating our next move in front of another park map. There were two more loops left, and they didn’t look very long. We didn’t let the rain discourage us. After a last look at the pool, we followed a path parallel to a small stream and moved deeper into the park.

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Exploring the rest of the park we saw dribbling waterfalls sliding over rocks that, if I’m honest, looked like they’d been carpet-bombed my a flock of birds, an expansive green lake that looked vaguely radioactive, and an endless expanse of steaming craters and bizarre rock formations. By the time we made it back to the visitor centre, we were sufficiently drenched, the hem of my jeans being the worst area affected.

Dad and I enjoyed ourselves despite the rain. We both agreed it created a different atmosphere, one people typically avoided, instead trying to enjoy the park on a sunny day. Yay for being different! After shaking as much water off our jackets as we could, we made the short drive back to Rotorua. It was still raining when we got back into town.

Back in the room, we turned up the heater right away to try and chase off the chill we’d brought back from Wai-O-Tapu. We put together a makeshift dinner out of what food stuffs we had left in the fridge. Just like the day we’d arrived, the rain didn’t inspire us to do much. However, after a bit of lounging, Dad was up and wanting to get out somewhere, not just stay cooped up in the room another night.

I did a quick search for cafes that were open late. There were a few potentials, all rather close to each other, so I plotted a course. We pulled on our still damp rain gear and stepped out into the night. Rotorua was near deserted. No one was walking around, and I only saw a few cars drive by as I picked a place to park. I looked at my map once we were out of the car and directed us to one of our possible destinations.

The first place we scoped out didn’t look very alluring. So we turned and walked the other way down the street until we came to the Abracadabra Cafe. It had a cool name, which is always a draw, and as we stepped through the door, Dad and I found ourselves in a cozy, and more importantly warm, cafe that was nearly as empty as the streets.

A woman seated us and took our order. We each got a cup of tea, and when I saw they had a vegan dessert, I got a slice of cheesecake to go with the tea. It was the perfect way to end the day. The drinks were hot, the cheesecake was delicious and fruity, and the cafe was calm. When we finished, we walked the short distance back to the car, made the quick drive home, and snuggled down into bed. Tomorrow we were off once again, hunting for trolls.

~Ren

Highland Cows in Berlin

We slept in again the next morning. It had reached the point in the trip where getting home and returning to normalcy wasn’t sounding so bad. Worn as we were, Mom and I got out of bed without letting too much of the day pass us by. We showered and dressed and I sent off a message to Peter to see what was on the docket for today. He told us to meet him at the Strausberger-Platz bahnhof in a half hour. Both of us finished getting ready and enjoyed a cup of tea until it was time to leave.

That Saturday was the first real sunny day we had in Berlin. Our visit there seemed to mirror Peter’s visit to Edinburgh. The first couple of days had been gray and overcast but then things brightened up. Mom and I enjoyed the walk down to the bahnhof. We passed by a small park and both admired the ravens strutting through the grass. They looked very distinguished with patches of gray looking like small vests over their black wings.

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On our walk, an elderly couple approached us, trying to ask directions. They were speaking in German so of course we could be no help. I told them apologetically that we did not speak German, and they gave an understanding nod and moved on. Mom and I continued on our way, but my brain was still thinking about what the old woman had said to me. I furrowed my brow and looked at Mom. “Did she say Strausberger-Platz?” I asked. Mom gave an unsure ‘ummm’ as I glanced over my shoulder to see where the couple had gone.

They were at the corner still waiting for the light to change. I didn’t wait to hear the rest of Mom’s answer. I raised my hand and shouted, “Excuse me!” as I jogged back down the street towards the man and woman. I caught their attention just as they were about to start crossing the street. I stepped up to the woman and asked “Strausberger-Platz?” She nodded and, as clearly as I could, I pointed down to the opposite corner of the street and nodded that that was the correct direction to go. The woman thanked me, I think, and we parted ways again.

It was complete chance that the couple was making their way to the very same bahnhof Mom and I were going to, but nevertheless I felt very proud of myself for being able to help someone I couldn’t understand in a place I had only been for two days. Back in Edinburgh I had confirmed for someone the presence of the North Bridge, which also made me feel pretty good about myself. It’s the little things, you know?

Peter wasn’t there yet so we positioned ourselves in the sun and waited. I kept panning back and forth like some probe droid. I wasn’t sure exactly which direction Peter would be coming from. Finally we spotted him on the diagonal corner. He was riding his own bike this time. We watched him cross one direction then the other, which brought him to our corner. “Did you see me almost eat shit?” he asked. We said we had but told him he did an expert job at catching himself. It took us a few minutes to decide what to do for breakfast, whether we should go out or make something back at Peter’s. I think what finally clinched it was the fact that Mom had yet to see Peter’s apartment. Though it may be at the top of a shit ton of stairs, it was still something Mom needed to do at least once…hopefully only once.

We descended the stairs to the platform and caught the train to Frankfurter Tor. There was a small organic market a short distance away from Peter’s apartment. Our plan was to stop here, pick up some things for what would be brunch and then walk back to the house. As we walked around a large intersection to the other side of the street, we passed a girl who stopped briefly and said hello to Peter. After the quick exchange, and once the girl was out of earshot, Peter turned around and told us he couldn’t fully remember who that was. I’ve had several instances like this happen, and they are always super weird. Eventually he did remember though. Apparently the new hair just threw him for a bit.

There was a bit of deliberation at the market about what exactly to have to brunch. But once Peter stumbled across some pre-made falafel cakes the creative juices were unlocked. We grabbed carrots and zucchini and tomatoes and hummus to dip them in. Pita bread, a baguette, some jam and some grapes also made there way into our basket. We got the baguette from a small bakery in the shop, and I saw they also had some big fat pretzels for sale. This was exciting for me because the night before, when we were coming home from the bar, still working the beer out of our systems, we had walked by some pretzel place in the bahnhof, and it gave me a craving for a soft pretzel. But at one in the morning the place was closed. When I saw the pretzel the next morning the craving was back. So Peter got us each a pretzel to munch on during the walk back to his place.

Peter pushed open the large front door, and we stepped into the high-ceilinged lobby area. Mom and I started up the stairs while Peter locked up his bike. We needed the head start. Once inside, sweating and panting, we stumbled to the kitchen to dump the bags. Caroline and Ben were sitting at the table when we walked in. Mom was introduced to both while I said hi to Ben and was now introduced to Caroline. Peter took Mom back into the hall to point everything out to her. I joined them once they went into Peter’s room. I wanted to check out the balcony again in the daylight.

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With the tour over, we all marched back into the kitchen to start cooking. Ben and Caroline respectfully cleared out, though we wouldn’t have had a problem if they’d stayed. One of us cut veggies while the other washed the grapes and tomatoes and cooked falafel on the stove. Peter cleared the table and got out dishes and glasses for water. When everything was prepared it was practically a buffet.

We sat down to eat while Peter’s Berlin Dance Party playlist played quietly in the background. All of us must have been hungrier than we’d realized because we somehow managed to eat nearly everything on the table in front of us. With everything ingested that could be ingested we cleared the table and cleaned up the kitchen. Nearly half the day was gone and we had things to do! A quick and much less exhaustive trot down the stairs put us back on the street and back in motion.

Berlin, like a lot of major cities nowadays, has a fantastic bike rental program. Peter had signed up for some kind of yearly pass that allowed him to check two bikes out at once. He brought his and rented two for Mom and me. Now maybe it’s just because I bike a decent amount and have become accustomed to my bike but it is suuuper weird to ride a completely new bike. For one, the city bikes were a lot heavier. The handlebars were higher than I was used to, and I couldn’t get the seat in the right place. But I forged ahead regardless.

With our bikes adjusted to the greatest comfort level, we began another anxiety-inducing activity: biking in a new city. Once we got into it some of the stress went away. It also helped that eventually we left the crowded sidewalks and busy streets behind. Our first stop wasn’t far away from where we had gotten the bikes. East Side Gallery was a pretty straight shot from where we had started. If you’re not familiar, the East Side Gallery is a segment of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed into an international memorial for freedom.

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The first thing anyone could notice about Berlin is that there is graffiti everywhere. It is part of the city’s charm and personality. East Side Gallery is more of the same but at a much higher level. Actual artistic ability is displayed here much more than just hastily drawn scribbles. It is an immense display of color and emotion, transforming the gray strip of wall into something beautiful.

Some pieces were small, simple. Others were large, intricate and greatly detailed. It was a fascinating piece of artwork to behold, and I wish I could’ve read all the messages inscribed there and known all of the stories behind the pictures. Some things would remain mysteries to me but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The gallery runs parallel to the river, and it was a very peaceful stretch to walk down. Light danced on the gently rippling surface of the water and the red bricks of the Oberbaum Bridge shone brightly against the soft blue of the sky.

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We walked down the wall on one side and back on the other. Then Mom and I decided it would be a good idea to run across a five-lane road with high curbs on either side so we could get a marginally better look at the Molecule Man statue that was down river. Believe me, it was totally worth it (this is one of those times you must insert sarcasm). After our could-have-been near-death experience, we got back on the bikes and rode into more residential areas of the city. There were no bike lanes to speak of like I’m accustomed to, but the streets were wide enough and quiet enough that I wasn’t fearing for my life every two seconds. There was only once where we made a crossing that was a little dicey.

After a few more minutes of riding down streets lined with multicolored apartment buildings, we crossed from the road into what I’ve since referred to as the Sketchy Park. Peter had warned us about the park before we ventured in, which in retrospect might have just made the ride through that much more unsettling. No one standing along the path made a move to sell me drugs or ask for drugs or anything like that, but the whole time my gaze was shifting nervously from one person to the next, watching for the slightest motion I may have to deflect.

The park itself seemed nice enough. It was lush and green with concrete walkways forming intersections that branched off in several directions deeper into the park. We left the park to bike through a bit more of the neighborhood before coming upon another, much nicer, park complete with a petting zoo. It was here that Mom and I realized just how spoiled we were by our bikes back home. The bikes we had rented were not nearly as light as ours are, and this became all too apparent when we reached the first big hill.

Peter, riding his own bike, had no problem. I just barely made it to the top still on my bike, my legs burning like I hadn’t experienced in a while. Mom had dismounted three quarters of the way to the top and walked the rest of the way. The wide slab of pavement was teeming with people that day. The three of us stood to the side to catch our breath and deliberate on whether we wanted to stop by the petting zoo for a moment. We were in no hurry so we decided we would make a quick pass along the enclosures to see if there was any animals we wanted to stop and see.

Ironically, we ended up stopping to see a Highland cow in Germany, when we had just come from Scotland and had no more than glanced a Highland cow from the bus window. As backwards as that was, we had fun standing and watching the massive orange beast strut slowly around his enclosure. He was kept company by another cow, this one black and a bit smaller. I think the sheer magnitude of these animals, and most large ungulates, is often lost on us. Most of the time when we see them they are a good distance away from us and we don’t get the full impact of their bulk and size.

It was a little easier to realize there in the zoo. The enclosure wasn’t that large and the cows had positioned themselves roughly in the center. The orange cow’s horns were each at least two feet long. He had thick stocky legs and grey cloven hooves. I watched him scratch his belly with one of the horns and was amazed he didn’t disembowel himself in the process. After we (okay, I) had snapped something like 50 photos, we turned and said hello to the wee donkey in the next paddock over. I reached out to rub his nose and his velvety lips flapped and tried to nibble my fingers.

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When we’d spent more than enough time with our furry friends, we got back on our bikes and rode the last stretch of path to our destination. We passed a wide swatch of green field just after leaving the zoo. There were people throwing frisbees and some laying out on blankets enjoying a drink. It looked so nice I was tempted to pull my bike over and insert myself into one of the groups. Figuring that would be too bold, and highly uncomfortable for all involved, I kept peddling.

The trees and the green belt soon came to an end, and the pathway intersected with a street that veered off to the left, and to the right was our destination. Tempelhofer Park used to be an airport. But once it closed down in 2008 the city reclaimed the area of 368 hectares for public use. That’s right: it was a park made from an old airport.

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When I think about it, it seems a little silly to be so excited and awestruck by a park that used to be an airfield. I’ve seen big open fields before; I’ve seen large stretches of black pavement with various markings on them before. And I’ve seen large crowds of people doing things you would in a park. But something about all those things being put together smack dab in the middle of a major city made it that much more impressive. We took a moment to gaze out at the park before locking our bikes to the fence and walking a short ways to Peter’s favorite gelato place.

It’s called Mos Eisley; yes just like the, “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” Mos Eisley. Only these guys make really tasty gelato, not those crazy space cocktails. The place isn’t that big. We stepped in and to the back of the shop while a few other people got their gelato. They had an array of all kinds of flavors, cookies and cream, spicy mango, cheesecake, baileys cream, and many more. We had Peter help us decipher some of the more difficult German names, however we had enough of a grasp on the language to know ‘vanille’ was vanilla.

I have to give extra props to Mos Eisley because they had several vegan options available. However, back in September I was not as strict a vegan as I am now. This will come into pay in a little while. Anyway, we got our gelato and returned to the park. The day was steadily coming to an end, and by the time we were walking back through the gate, the sun was hanging low in the sky. The whole place seemed made up of green and orange and shadows. A strip of clouds blocked the sun as it sunk lower, and its light was fractured into dusty rays of gold.

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The park would be closing soon, its hours being from sunrise to sundown. This made a lot of sense because there was no lighting in the park, and it would be a terrible idea to try and windsurf in the dark. But there were lots of people taking advantage of the last moments of sunlight. People were skateboarding, windsurfing, flying kites, lounging on the grass, enjoying a nice stroll down the runway. There was a community garden not far from the entrance and we took a minute to walk through and see what people were growing.

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A few minutes after we had entered the park, out gelato cups (or in German, der becher) were empty, and Mom and I were left wanting more. We finished our viewing of the garden, tossed our cups in a bin, and returned to Mos Eisley for another scoop. This time, I forewent my pseudo-vegan diet and got the pistachio gelato that Peter had gotten the first time we went. Totally worth it, though the retroactive guilt I feel still lingers.

Savoring our last cup of gelato for the day, we strolled down the runways of the park, squinting against the sun as we looked over the expansive grounds of the park. It felt good to take a moment to just enjoy the outside. It’s small moments like that that keep you sane while you travel. The long days are filled with constant motion and sometimes you forget to breath. That being said, once we had finished our second helping of gelato and taken a minute to inspect some wooden posts topped with soaring falcons we hurried back to the bikes so we wouldn’t be late for dinner. At least, any later than we were already going to be.

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Peter had arranged for us to meet up with Emma and Jakob again, as well as his friend Anna, at some Mexican fusion place. We arrived and found it to be almost as tight a fit as Burrito Baby had been (there seems to be a trend here…). The three of us carefully, squeezed, slid, or climbed into seats at the already occupied table and began searching the menu for our dinner. I ordered a sort of flatbread pizza that turned out to be surprisingly difficult to eat with a fork and knife, but that had seemed like a better, less messy way to do it than eating it by hand. Oh well. Eventually I got it all down, before we dashed out of the restaurant to find a cab.

We were wrapping up the day with a visit to the Reichstag Dome. The dome was designed by architect Norman Foster and built to symbolize German reunification. This fixture has made the German parliament the most visited in the world (according to the Bundestag website). The dome is made entirely of glass and sits directly over the room in which the parliament gathers. Our cab let us out on the side of the building opposite the entrance. So we speed-walked to the other side and made it to the security check place just as a few other stragglers to the group were arriving.

The guards made us put our jackets and bags in tubs and walk through a metal detector, airport style, you know, before they got those full body scan things. We joined a medium-size group of other visitors to the dome and followed a guard from the small security building across a courtyard area to the front of the Reichstag Building. Another security guard buzzed us from the foyer into the lobby of the building. From there we all shuffled into an elevator that took us to the top floor.

The doors opened on a long hallway. At the far end was a doorway that lead to another long room with a long desk where you could pick up the self-guided audio tour, and behind that was the inside of the dome. Peter, Mom and I each got a pair of headphones and the audio device and stepped inside the glass dome. It’s a fairly large space, with a circular display of images and history at its center. Just inside the ring of displays is the window that looks down into the parliament room. Extending down from the top of the dome is a cone constructed complete of mirrors.

The dome was built to be energy efficient, and the cone of mirrors helps to reduce the carbon emissions of the building by directing sunlight into the parliament chamber below. The top of the dome was also left open so that rainwater could be collected and directed into the pipelines of the building. As for the domes position above the parliament chamber, this was done to symbolize that people are above the government. Someone also told me while I was there that the opening had been made so that members of parliament, if ever they were having trouble making a decision, could look up and remember the people they were serving. A nice idea, I thought.

Peter had hoped to get us here during the daytime. Many of the stops on the audio tour were a bit useless since they referred to buildings viewable from the dome, but in the dark we couldn’t make many out. However, the dome had its own kind of beauty in the dark as well. I’m not a fan of light pollution but some cities do just dazzle you in the dark with all their lights. Berlin’s night skyline boasted a sprawling, color changing tent sort of thing (I don’t remember what Peter said it was called but it looked cool in the dark), a majestically light Brandenburg Gate and several buildings that were just large blocks of light, beacons in a comparatively dim surrounding.

Steadily, the three of us wound our way around the dome, enjoying brief periods of silence before our audio tours were activated again and we came to a halt to look and listen (mostly listen since we couldn’t see most of what the man was talking about). Even though the dome was filled with people it was pretty quiet inside. The whole walk up the dome was rather relaxing. I had the sensation of floating above the entire city as I spiraled higher and higher.

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When we reached the top, we saw up close the large hole in the dome. Directly below it is a large steel drum to collect the water. We all took a seat and had a quick rest before we headed back down the opposite side. At the bottom we left the dome and stepped outside for an…outside view. Obviously. Watching all the people move around inside the dome felt a bit like watching TV. All these people moving around in this big, lit up glass structure. I was just there watching life happen.

We snapped a few pictures and Peter and I unsuccessfully jump-photo bombed Mom’s pictures before we returned our audio tours and left the building. It was getting later and later and we were all tired, Mom and I especially, after biking and running around town all day. Peter put us on the correct U-Bahn home, but not before we had figured out how tomorrow morning was going to go. It would be our last day in Berlin and we had to be checked out of the flat by 12. Before we left the bahnhof, Mom and I stopped into a shop to get a few things to eat before returning to the flat and going to bed.

~Ren

 

Glaciers, Lakes, and Beaches

It was a quick drive to Hoki. I enjoyed two more hours of west coast scenery before we were pulling into another tiny coastal town. Hokitika was definitely bigger than Punakaiki but still didn’t have much going on. The three of us first pulled into the New World to stock up for tea that night. The hostel, unsurprisingly, was only a couple minutes away. We parked along the side of the garage and stepped into reception.

Reception was actually just a hallway with a buzzer you could ring for assistance, which none of us saw. Instead we all  just stood around awkwardly for a little bit, waiting for someone to show up. A young woman, probably a bit younger than the three of us, stepped out of a back room and greeted us. She wasn’t the owner but one of the staff, so she asked us to wait for a minute while she went off to find her.

A few minutes later another woman stepped into the hall. She greeted us warmly. It was then we learned that check in wasn’t until 4, which we all thought was rather late. But the woman did tell us that our room hadn’t been occupied the night before, so we were welcome to put our belongings into the room now. We did just that, then ventured down to the beach.

It wasn’t a far walk. The hostel actually sat right at the edge of the beach, with access right from the back door. But we took a different route. Down the street and a turn to the right took us to a walkway along the sand. The first thing I noticed was HOKITIKA spelled out in driftwood, casting long shadows across the ground. I followed Luke and Hannah off the sidewalk and onto the sand.

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The beach was littered with more driftwood. Hannah told stories of how her dad had longed to take pieces home with him when he was here for a visit. There weren’t many other people out that day. The sun was beginning to set and it was rather windy. But we had no better place to be, and there were treasures to be seen.

At the far end of the beach we came to upon a ship. I don’t think it was ever a real ship that sailed on the seas, but then I don’t know much about boats. It was silver and blue, with two masts and a large chain attached to the front. Otherwise, it was nothing very flash. The three of us walked round to the far side and up the stairs to the deck.

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I don’t think any of us really knew what the heck we were doing. I felt a bit like a teenager again. I had become one of those kids who would go to the mall and walk around and around because they had nothing better to do and no where else to be. Only my mall was a beach in New Zealand, so I didn’t feel too lame. We took a few pictures at the boat before checking out the last bit of beach left to us.

Here there were the remains of what used to be a road, I suppose. But a massive slab had been eaten away from below. Right in the middle was a gaping hole. I picked up a piece of asphalt and threw it to the ground. It shattered like some black, brittle rice crispy treat. One by one we climbed up the narrow staircase to a lookout tower set by the broken pavement. The world stretched out before us.

With no more beach to walk, we headed back into town. We looked around inside the charity shop for a couple minutes. There were used books, as usual, and this made me curious as to the other bookshops in town. I didn’t hold out much hope, but there was one other. I parted from Luke and Hannah here briefly (bless them, they were so good tolerating my book browsing) and caught up with them again at a cafe down a few blocks.

We each bought something to munch and a drink, and let the minutes slip by. By the time we finished it was very near four o’clock, so we decided to go back to the hostel and see if we could settle in. Our host welcomed us with no complaints. Hannah and I did some complaining to each other in the room about our dead animal skin rug, but we sucked it up for one night. The three of us lounged for a while, checking emails and Facebook.

After a bit, Luke and I went out to the kitchen to make up dinner. Hannah stayed cozied up in the room. She wasn’t feeling too good. The kitchen was small, and we weren’t the only ones cooking, but we managed to get the dishes we needed, and got everything finished at roughly the same time. The two of enjoyed fried mushrooms, veggies, and other goodies before Luke joined Hannah in watching Orange Is The New Black, and I sat in the lounge reading. We all turned in a couple hours later.

The next morning we left for Fox Glacier. I’d been here once before on a bus ride down the west coast. Mom and I only spent the night, and were too tired from sitting on a bus all day to see anything the afternoon we arrived. But now I was back with a couple of experts on the area, so there was fun in my future. There was also free accommodation in all of our futures. Luke and Hannah lived in Fox for a while. Luke worked at the general store, and Hannah did housekeeping for a motel. Unlike most of our other accommodation, we planned for this one a few days in advance. With Luke as our official envoy, we got in touch with their friend, Andy, back when we were at Te Nikau.

Before we drove into Fox Glacier, we made a short stop in Franz Joseph. The only noteworthy event that happened here was Luke, Hannah and I were bonded for life with our totally awesome friendship bracelets! I felt like I was in middle school again. After that historic moment, we drove the rest of the way to Fox.

Andy was still out when we arrived in town, so we kept driving down the road to a lookout spot for Mount Cook. We’d been getting our fill of snowcapped mountains on the drive from Hoki. I didn’t really realize it until later in Fox but I very quickly slipped back into my rather jaded, take-it-for-granted Coloradan attitude about the mountains. That’s not to take away from how spectacular they were. Really I think I was just feeling pride in my own mountains back home, and staying loyal to them. Sorry, Southern Alps, I’m a Rockies girl.

With our lungs full of that crisp mountain air and our eyes imprinted with snowy peaks and a glacier, we got back in our respective cars and drove to the Rainforest Motel. I’d been warned about the kind of character Andy was the other day, and heard a few gripes about it from Hannah. He was outspoken, loved to banter, and had a habit of cutting across you when you tried to speak. I understood Hannah’s frustrations. But he was a nice guy, and was putting us up in a fancy (by our standards) room for free.

Our original plan was to spend two nights in Fox. Bouncing around to a new place everyday was getting old. In the end we stayed three nights. It was so comfortable in what was essentially our own two bedroom apartment. More than once we joked (mostly joked) about staying at the motel and working for our keep. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

But a couple things did happen while we were cozied up in Fox (seriously, we did a whole lot of fuck all while we were there). Once we were checked in and had sufficiently gushed over our new digs, we hopped back in the car and drove down the same road we had taken to the lookout. This time we turned off at Lake Matheson. This particular lake, one of the placards informed me, is famous for how mirror smooth it can be. When the water is still, it holds a perfect reflection of Mount Cook on its surface.

(A fun little aside: I bought a few postcards in the general store before we left, one being of Lake Matheson with the mirror image of Mount Cook. I was looking at it once and wondering why the edges of the mountains and trees were so pixelated. Turns out I was hold the postcard upside down and was looking at the captured reflection. That lake is good.)

There’s a nice walking trail that goes around the lake, and there are several lookout spots to grab photos at. It was a near perfect day for it. The water was still, the sun was out, but a few clouds refused to let the mountain come out to play. That fact aside, the walk was peaceful and quiet, not counting the family with young kids that periodically caught up with us. Our evening was spent cooking up dinner and watching “The Chase” on our very own TV.

As the name suggests, there is a glacier near Fox Glacier. This was our outing the next day. It was a short drive up the main highway to the carpark. That’s where the real work began. In order to see the glacier, we had to pick our way across a rocky river bed. That was easy enough. But then came the very steep and even rockier hill up to the viewing area. I’d decided back in the Pinnacles that loose, shifting, rocky climbs were the worst. Ugh.

The glacier itself wasn’t very impressive when we finally made it to the top. I was glad I’d seen it yesterday from the Mount Cook lookout. It was much more majestical-looking there. We ended up taking more pictures with the metal cutout of a ranger, who we named Steve, than the actual glacier. Well, that, and taking a bunch of pictures of each of us, rapid-fire, while we shook our heads and made weird faces.

Now with a slew of hilarious and potentially embarrassing pictures of all of us, we were off to see some folks and have some lunch. We stopped into the general store so Luke and Hannah could catch up with some old chums, and talk some smack about the new English lad they had working for them. Then we popped next door. The Brits got themselves a tasty pizza, and I enjoyed a flavorful wrap for lunch.

When we’d finished lunch, and after I totally biffed it walking down a flight of two steps (fell right on my ass, I did) we returned to the motel and proceeded to enjoy another evening of doing absolutely nothing. We watched more TV, played cards, had a couple of beers and slept.

Our last day in Fox was the least eventful one. We took Andy out for lunch as a thank you for letting us stay for free. The majority of the day was then spent back in the room waiting for evening to roll around so we could hit up the pub for some live music. It’s those kind of evenings I’ve been missing lately. Going out with good mates, enjoying a beer, and talking about whatever comes to mind and sharing ridiculous stories.

Before we left the next day, the three of us paid our dues and helped Susan (I believe that was her name) clean rooms. When the rest of the motel was sorted we cleaned our own room, packed up the cars, and said a bitter farewell to Fox Glacier. Looking back on it now, that might be the time I enjoyed most while traveling with Luke and Hannah.

~Ren

Falling 47 meters in Taupo

Time and time again, GPS has proven itself to be not always accurate. Usually, the misdirection is harmless and just adds a few more minutes to your drive time. Other times (like some instances to be recorded here later) it likes to take you into sketchier territory. Dad and I left the coast behind and began making our way inland to Taupo. And Google, being such a good friend, set us a course that would take the least amount of time.

As you can imagine, that didn’t go exactly to plan. Things were going just fine until we were somewhere near the halfway point. The navigator lady told me to turn off the main highway we were cruising down and onto a road through the forest with signs posted at the entrance reading “Entry by Permit Only” or something like that. Despite those signs I kept driving. The road hadn’t been blocked so what harm could there be?

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Well, there was no harm, no one caught us or anything. But after a little while driving, the road split and both ways had gates in front of them. At that point, we cut our losses and turned around, deciding to stick with the highways. After that it was only another 30 minutes into Taupo.

Taupo is a nice little town with a gorgeous lake view and good people. I’ve been there many times during my stay. As we drove further into town, street names and places started to look familiar. We turned off into the neighborhood and after several lefts and rights we pulled up outside our AirBNB. We were staying with a young couple for a few days. Nicole was very friendly and welcomed us into the house.

Dad and I left the house after spending some time getting to know Nicole and her husband.We were both hungry after a long morning of kayaking, so we swung by the grocery store then headed back home to make dinner. It was another night of pasta, quick and easy. We talked a bit more with Scott while he fed his son. Nicole had gone off to run a youth group meeting. After that we didn’t do much. Went back to the room, relaxed in bed, and eventually fell asleep.

The next day was filled with even more excitement than the last. When Dad and I first started talking about him coming to visit, he had been persistent in wanting to do a bungy jump while he was here. Personally a bungy jump had never appealed to me, but I wanted to make sure Dad got to do what he wanted, so I compromised with the Extreme Swing Taupo Bungy offers. Instead of falling head first towards a river, you are sitting in a harness and swing back and forth next to this massive cliff face.

Our jump (swing?) was scheduled for 10:30 that morning. It was a great day for it. The sun was out and the sky clear. The platform hangs right out over the Waikato River, and the surrounding area is a beautiful place…to fall 47 meters and be scared shitless. The office was small. A large safety board dominated the wall just inside the door. A scale sat in front of one of the counters. I walked over to a man behind the counter and told him the name on our booking.

He asked us to read over the safety board closely, and then had us fill out a form before weighing us. I’d made a tandem booking for the two of us, but we found out that day that we were just a few kilos over the weight limit. Ah well. At least doing two solo jumps meant we could film each other! With everything taken care of, we went out onto the deck to wait. A few people were already out on the platform doing their jumps, so we watched for a while.

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In case you didn’t know, it’s hard to take selfies with a really tall person.

Dad and I were both a little bummed we couldn’t go together, but not long after we’d left the office, he decided he was going to pay the extra money to do a bungy jump, which is what he wanted to do in the first place. We watched a few more people do a bungy jump and the extreme swing before I snagged a bean bag in the sun and spent some time with the orange tabby in residence. Then, my turn was up.

Doing a bungy, or this extreme swing thing, is kind of like giving a big speech or something similar. You manage to keep yourself pretty calm before hand, but once you step up onto that stage the fear and nerves kick into overdrive. That’s how I felt walking out to that platform. My arms and legs tensed up, I started trembling ever so slightly. Every breath in my chest was tight. I stepped inside the gate and a guy helped me into my harness. He checked all the buckles twice before sending me down to the launch pad.

Down there, two more people checked over all the straps and buckles (which made me feel a bit better), and just like that I was being clipped to large carabiners and told to sit back on the seat. I was hanging there, my legs pulled into a loose fetal position. I felt helpless and ridiculous. A few minutes later, the gate was opened up and a winch began to move me out over nothing but air. I was holding onto my harness for dear life. The guy was talking to me, asking me questions like if I’d seen people do this before, and he pointed out the cameras to me.

I was answering the best I could, having other more pressing things on my mind, like being dropped 47 meters over a river with nothing but a few straps to keep me from splashing into the depths. He was listening to my stiff answers, also a bit distracted by getting things ready. He spun me back around to face the right way, asked me to lean back, and…

I yelped in surprise. My brain was instantly consumed by the fact my body was in free fall. “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!” The words just came out. I wasn’t in control of them. At last the harness caught and swung forward towards the high wall of the river bank. I yelped again. And then I started laughing. Like that deep, full, from the gut laugh. What was I doing? I whooped, and laughed again. Once I knew I was safe and would not be plunging into the blue waters below, I was oddly at peace, swing back and forth in this stunning gorge in New Zealand.

Once I slowed, the winch kicked in again and began pulling me back up to the platform. As I got closer, I could hear Dad giving a commentary to the video he was filming. He laughed and called, “Wave, Renee!” I gave a feeble shake of my hand and called back, “I’m not dead.” With a quick final pull from the winch I was back on the launch pad with solid ground beneath my feet. I thanked the two employees there and climbed back up the stairs.

Dad and I reunited for a brief moment. But then it was his turn to face the fall. I went off down to the lower view platform so I could catch the whole jump. It was a fair distance away, and you can’t zoom when filming a video on iPhone, but you could see enough, and hear when Dad started screaming (sorry, Dad). I stood there for a while waiting, and at one point thought I had missed it, but it was some other guy.

I recognized Dad’s tall figure step up to the edge of the platform. He stood there a long time. Then slowly, very slowly, he leaned forward. Then he was falling, fast, and the screams started, and as quickly ended. He hit the first bounce and was back up in the air like a human yoyo. I couldn’t stop myself laughing as I watched him bounce up and down. The yellow raft motored out beneath him and reached out a long pole for him to grab. I watched, still filming, as he was lowered into the boat, legs still tied up like some poor trapped animal. But soon he was sitting up and they boys were taking him back to shore.

I left the viewing platform and went to meet Dad on the path. His face was still a bit flushed, and he looked peaky when he appeared around the corner. I immediately started laughing again and asked him how it was. It had certainly done a number on him, but ultimately he was glad he’d done it. Both of us watched the videos of mine and Dad’s jumps several time throughout the rest of the day.

The other activities we had planned for the day were much more relaxing, and not at all terrifying. From the bungy place, I drove us up to see Huka Falls. I’d been a couple times, but it was a pretty impressive site I thought Dad would appreciate. The falls aren’t your classic waterfall. Instead it is just a large amount of water being forced through a too small space (and a bit of a waterfall), and the result is a massive churning, frothing channel of aqua blue water. We found a bench here and sat to have a snack.

With our hunger mostly satiated, we walked for a bit along the river before turning back to the car. Our day was given to the river, it seems. Any time I’m moving around NZ, I always make a point of checking to see if I’m going to be near any LOTR locations. A new one had cropped up around Taupo since my first visit (those Hobbit movies, ya know). So Dad and I were going to Aratiatia Rapids.

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This is where the famous barrel scene was filmed. At one time I imagine these rapids occurred naturally, but now they can only be seen when the gates daming the Waikato River are opened. (If you want to go see the rapids yourself some day, make sure you check what times the gates are opened. They are usually opened a few times a day.)  Like Huka Falls, the rapids are caused by lots of water being sent gushing through a tiny space all at once.

There are a few places you can stand and watch the rapids. Some choose to stay by the dam gates, but there are two other viewing platforms along the river. Dad and I chose the lower platform (the first one you come to along the path). We were the first people to arrive so we got the prime spot, right at the edge of the platform. There was still some time before the gates opened so I got some ‘before’ pictures while we waited.

Alarms sounded at certain intervals, warning people how much longer there was to wait until the gates opened. Conversation stopped anytime one echoed down the twisting walls of the ravine. Finally, the last alarm sounded and the gates were open. Had we been up on the street, it might have been more impressive. But it took a bit for us to really see that anything was going on.

Eventually, you could see white water up near the dam. Slowly, that band of white water pushed its way down the river, covering rocks and climbing up the stone walls. The sound rose with the water, something between a rumble and the rush of wind through trees. It was an awesome sight to behold, and certainly a force to be reckoned with. I wish I had tossed a rock down into the rapids so I could see it vanish in the waves.

The water stopped pouring out of the gates after about 15 minutes, but the water keeps coming long after. The other people that had gathered on the platform with us began to leave not long after the gates closed. Dad and I stayed so long that we were both the first to arrive and the last to leave. We didn’t stay till the very end of the rapids, but we did see them noticeably begin to recede.

We walked back to the car and drove back to town. Before heading home we made another stop at Countdown to pick up groceries for tomorrow. I’d made arrangements for Dad and I to do the Tongariro Crossing, one of the great day hikes NZ has to offer. It takes roughly seven hours to finish, so we had to be sure to have enough food for the trek. When we were all stocked up, we went back to the house for a while to relax.

Our day wasn’t quite finished however. Like I said, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Taupo, and as a result have made, well, one friend anyway. We go all the way back to my first time in New Zealand. Mom and I went sailing on Lake Taupo all those years ago with a man named Dave. When I came back and had heaps of time to fill in November, I took a trip to Taupo and went sailing with Dave again. He remembered me and Mom, and the two of us went out for a drink after the sail.

After that night of reconnecting we’ve stayed in touch. So when Dad came down for a visit, I figured I take him out for a sail with Dave, too. Yes, that was foreshadowing, if that’s even possible in a travel blog, but before we went sailing we met up with Dave at his local (a charming bar called Mulligan’s) for a drink. It was a quite night at Mulligans, but we all had a nice time chatting and sipping on a beer. Dave told us about his upcoming trip to Germany for the summer, and I filled him in on what I’d been up to lately. We ended the night early. Dad and I had a big day tomorrow.

Or so we thought.

Our shuttle for the Crossing was picking us up at some god-awful time in the wee hours of the morning, so the next morning we were up before the sun. We got dressed, made sure we had all our food and all our gear, slung our backpacks over our shoulders, and got into the car. We parked at the iSite, hoping my car would be okay for the day, then walked over to the street where the bus would pick us up.

We didn’t have to wait long for the short white bus to pull up in front of us. An older woman stepped out. “Are you here to do the Crossing?” she asked over the rumble of the engine. We said we were. The woman then proceeded to tell us that they weren’t taking anyone down for the Crossing. It was too cold, too windy, and just too dangerous. The part of me that still wanted to be in bed cheered, but the rest of me was disappointed. The Crossing was something I knew Dad would really enjoy. But in the words of Vonnegut, so it goes.

Even with our plans for the day canceled, we entertained ourselves and had a good time. First order of business was to go back home and get some more sleep. When it was a reasonable hour, we went into town to do something we hadn’t done in months. Father Daughter car maintenance. I had been in need of some new windshield wipers, and Dad suspected my air filter was in need of a change since my car struggled up hills, so we drove into town to the SuperCheap auto store.

It was just like shopping for car parts for back home, only here I wasn’t 100% sure of the make and model of my car, and the manual only helped a little. We only hit a few snags. The first air filter we got didn’t fit, so after looking at the filter already in the car (something we probably should’ve done first anyway) we went back in and found the right filter. The wiper blades gave us a bit more of a hassle.

We bought what we felt sure were the right kind of blades (thin, as opposed to thick), but when we tried to put them on the car, the blades were too small for the clips to grip them. WTF? So we went back in to exchange them. The clerk was similarly sure they should be thin blades. So someone went out with us to see what the problem was. It was then she informed us someone had modified the clips, and that they just needed to be pinched closed a bit.

Well that’s great, now we just needed to find pliers to do that! Our last bit of maintenance was filling tires at a BP station, so I took a chance and asked inside if they had pliers we could use, and they did! So it turned out not actually being that much of a pain. The air filter, wiper blades, and tires were all replaced and toped up before lunch. What to do now? We decided to play mini golf.

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What are the odds? I met the Stig buying auto parts!

Since I’m doing these blogs rather out of order at the moment, remember that time I played mini golf with Luke and Hannah in National Park? Yeah, well that was the second time I played mini golf in a gorgeous location, this is the first time. Lake Taupo was just across the street from the course. The sky in the distance looked like it was threatening rain, and we did get a bit of a sprinkle, but otherwise the weather was near perfect. Breezy, but still warm.

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Like most mini golf courses, the one in Taupo offered a free game if you made a hole in one on the last hole. Now, I’d already gotten a hole in one during the game, but by some will of the mini golf gods, I also sunk a hole in one on the eighteenth! The first, and maybe only time, I will ever do so. We had nothing better to do, so we took a quick snack break before coming back to play a second round.

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Now this is where the story gets a bit ridiculous. During the second game, Dad sunk a hole in one during the game. And then, oh yes, he sunk a hole in one on the eighteenth, too! What are the chances? We were mini golfed out after our second game, so we gave our free game pass to the family who had finished before us. Then we drove across the road to a car park by the water to have the lunch we should’ve had on the mountain.

After our couple of fierce mini golf games, we drove home. Much like the day before, the day wasn’t over just yet, but we’d run out of things to do, so lounging around the house was as good as anything. Our evening was going to spent at the cinema. Dad had noticed it when we were out the other day, so when our plans for the Crossing fell through, we decided to fill up some hours with a movie. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was still playing, the perfect film to continue Dad’s Kiwi experience.

I remember I spent a fair bit of time doing something or other on my laptop while Dad and Nicole chatted away. The hours passed quickly, and soon we were driving back into town and stepping into the theater. Since I’m certainly not going to write an account of us watching a movie, I’ll say instead here that this viewing was not my last. I’ll have seen Hunter for the Wilderpeople twice by the time I go home. And who knows, might end up watching it again when I get home. It’s a good flick; I’d recommend it.

We might have missed out on the Crossing, but our time in Taupo had been enjoyable even without it. Before we left the next day, as promised, we went out sailing with Dave. This particular sailing excursion was oddly reminiscent of the time Mom and I went sailing. Though we’d had good weather so far in our trip, a nice day on land can be cold on the water. Bundled up in my jacket and hat, I took a seat with Dad on one of the bean bags on deck.

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The sun came and went as we sailed. The sky was smeared with patches of gray clouds and the water was a dark steely blue. There wasn’t much talk while we sailed out of the harbor. The only other passengers were a pair of girls sat right at the front of the yacht. As we made our way further out on the water, I moved to the back of the boat to keep Dave company.

Dad came back to join us a while later. We passed the time talking, with Dave periodically calling up to the girls in the front to make sure they were alright. After an hour, we cleared the last cliff and turned towards the carvings. I didn’t take any pictures (I’ve been on this cruise three times before) but Dave gave Dad the spiel on the carvings, and I helped point out the smaller carvings that were beside the main face.

We didn’t stay long at the carvings. Soon we were turning back toward the shore. On our way out to the carvings, Dave had mentioned he was hoping to sail the entire trip. The wind had been with us that day, and we pulled back into the harbor having done exactly that. It was the only time he’d done it all season. Dave tied of the boat and the five of us stepped back onto pavement. I made sure to give Dave a proper goodbye. I wasn’t sure at this point if this was the last I’d see of him. Dad thanked him, and we both got back into the car and set out for Rotorua.

~Ren

Seeing Berlin with Sandeman

We slept late the next morning, and took our time waking up and preparing tea. There were only a few biscuits left from the day before that we made our very meager breakfast. Neither of us felt any real urgency to get the day started. Peter would be at work until that afternoon, and there was nothing Mom and I had our hearts set on seeing that day. Without Peter we felt rather lost. He had, however, mentioned a “free” walking tour that took you around a bit of the city and showed you some of the bigger landmarks and tourist hotspots.

We were too late for the 11 o’clock group so we planned to get a late breakfast and catch the 2 o’clock group instead. After getting cleaned and dressed we walked through the park to the bahnhof and took the U-Bahn into town. We got off at the Brandenburg Gate. It was from here the tour would be leaving. Before we went off to find breakfast, we found the red umbrella that marked the ticket line. We waited our turn and got our numbered tickets before we started walking down the street looking for a place to eat breakfast.

Unlike Fort Collins, and Edinburgh to a degree, Berlin did not have a coffee shop every ten feet. There were, however, two or three within a few minutes of the Gate. I made some arbitrary decision as to which one looked best. A minute later we were walking into Einstein’s Koffee. The place was alive with early morning energy…or was it the lunch rush by then? Anyway, Mom and I stood in the doorway for a few minutes, scoping the place out and looking for a table. There was no hostess stand and no one approached us to seat us. Mom tried to ask someone how things were supposed to go but she didn’t really get an answer. So as soon as we saw a table open up we snagged it.

The dishes from the last customers were still on the table. It took several minutes for our waitress to come and clear them and bring us menus. She seemed to be having a bit of a day so I wasn’t going to hold it against her or give her a hard time (something I rarely do anyway). At one point she came over and said something to us in German. Mom responded with a friendly, “Okay.” As soon as the waitress was out of range, I looked at Mom incredulously. “You have no idea what she just said. And you agreed to it.” There were only so many things she could have said, of course, given the situation, but it was just funny to so readily agree to something you couldn’t understand.

The menu at Einstein’s was not the least bit vegan friendly so we went with a Parisian breakfast. If you’re not familiar with the Parisian breakfast it is basically bread, bread, and more bread…and some jam. Mom got tea while I ordered hot chocolate, which was served in the most unusual way. It was a three-part deal. There was an empty cup on a saucer along with a saucer for the whipped cream, and the actual chocolate itself in a small porcelain pitcher. It was still delicious but just came with more parts than I was used to.

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The breakfast was enough to keep us full through the tour, but after two hours of walking we were going to be ready for more. We paid and left Einstein’s, heading back to the Brandenburg Gate with a few minutes to spare before our tour would begin. There was a sort of plaza in front of the Gate, and we had been told to meet there for the start of our tour.

In twos and threes and fours people began to congregate on the plaza. A man in a tan coat came over with the red umbrella we had seen early to indicate the meeting place. Soon another man joined the group, a tall fellow with brown hair and a knee brace. This was Paul and he would be our guide. He said a few words about the time span of the tour as well as how much walking would be involved. He welcomed questions at any time and gave a short list of some of the places we’d be seeing. After that we were off.

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We crossed to the left side of the street and moved a bit closer to the Brandenburg Gate. This was our first stop. Paul started to tell us about the history of the Gate as well as that of the statue perched high atop the columned structure. At the same time, a man at the center of the plaza began giving a speech through a loud speaker. This made it rather difficult to make out all that Paul was saying about the Gate. Talk about bad timing, eh? Some big marathon was taking place the following day so there were all sorts of pre-marathon events going on the day of our tour.

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Here’s something I do remember Paul telling us. The Gate used to be a symbol of a divided Berlin. From here, citizens of East Berlin could catch a glimpse of the world outside their own, see that there was still light on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Gate’s meaning changed after the reunification of the city, shifting from one of division to one of unity. It has undergone a couple restorations and reconstructions, both after the War and after it was officially opened to traffic in December of 1989.

The Quadriga sitting at the top of the Gate is a representation of the Goddess of Victory. Originally it had been Eirene, the Goddess of Peace. But then the statue was stolen in 1806 as a Napoleonic spoil of war. After its recovery in 1814 it underwent a redesign, a task undertaken by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The Brandenburg Gate now serves as a Prussian triumphal arch, with the Goddess Victoria, equipped with eagle and iron cross, looking down from on high.

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After the Brandenburg Gate my order of events goes out the window so I’ll just tell you about the things I remember. We left the Gate, and the annoyingly loud presenter, behind. Go figure that once we left he finished speaking and silence reigned again on the plaza. C’est la vie. We moved into a part of the city where the buildings lining either side of the street were much closer together compared to the large open area in front of the Gate. Throughout the tour Paul continued to point out to us the two-wide strip of bricks set in the pavement that marked the location of the Wall. It ran throughout the city wherever segments of the Wall no longer stood.

We stopped at a small square of grass just outside an ordinary strip of apartment buildings. This, Paul told us, was were Hitler’s bunker was located, the very one where he killed himself, his wife killed herself, and I’m pretty sure he also killed his dog there. Hitler wanted to make sure he was good and dead so not only did he ingest a cyanide capsule but he also shot himself in the head immediately after taking it. One of Hitler’s fears was what would happen to his body were it found by the Allied Forces, so he gave orders for his men to destroy his body once he was dead and make sure it wouldn’t be found. His men did succeeded in burning Hitler and his wife’s bodies, and then buried them in a shell crater. However, in early May, the remains were discovered by the Soviet Army and moved, one of many relocations to corpse would experience.

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We turned up more streets, visiting former Nazi buildings, seeing various embassies, including the U.S, U.K, Russian and French ones. We took a stop at the Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s most well known squares. It boasts a trio of beautifully constructed buildings. Two cathedrals, one French and the other German, flank the square and at its center is Schinkel’s Konzerthaus, or concert hall, if you couldn’t guess. The square was part of King Friedrick the first’s plan for the emerging quarter of Berlin called Friedrickstadt. Today it plays host to a Christmas market and ice rink from the first of Advent to the New Year.

We traded one square for another as we walked to the university and the long rectangular plaza where the book burnings took place. This stop had particular significance to me. I’ve made clear my love of books and the written world throughout my journey. To stand on those stones and think of all the pages that shriveled and burned at the hands of madmen struck me at my core. Today, it is a place of learning and knowledge, and to see that gave me hope that with time we could overcome our troubles and misunderstanding and live together in some semblance of harmony.

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A memorial to the books lost had been constructed in the square. The memorial was inaugurated in March of 1995, and is the creation of Israeli artist Micha Ullman. The piece is called “Library.” If you weren’t looking, you would miss it. It is hidden underground and can only be seen from the surface through a small, square window. There were shelves. Enough shelves to hold up to 20,000 books. The same number of books burned by the Nazi’s in 1933. The works of journalists, philosophers, writers and scientists were burned for the mere fact they threatened the Nazi ideology; they were burned for how they “undermine the moral and religious foundations of our nation” and because they acted against the German sprit.

It was a terrible thing to do, and I think the quotation set into a bronze plaque at the memorial sums it up best.

That was only a prelude, there


where they burn books,


they burn in the end people.

-
Heinrich Heine 1820

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Let’s move on to something less depressing, shall we? My favorite thing on the tour is a toss up between the site of the book burning and the memorial to the Jewish people murdered during the war. Did I say less depressing? I lied. I did a bit of reading on the memorial once I returned home and found that there is a good deal of controversy surrounding it. Half of the people that visit seem to be disappointed by it, not really understanding what it is supposed to mean or represent. Others find it is a disrespectful way to honor the lives that were lost and think it could’ve been done better. Still others find it moving and thought provoking.

The memorial sits on a plot of land not far from the Brandenburg Gate, and is located right in the city administrative centre. It is constructed completely of large gray slabs of concrete set up in a grid pattern. Every slab had the same dimensions, varying only in height as they move down the slopping plane. The area lacks any sort of symbolism or marker as to what it is. To the uninformed observer it is just a field of 2,711 gray rectangles in the middle of Berlin. After picturing this scene in your head you can maybe see why some people have a dislike for the memorial.

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The memorial’s architect, Peter Eisenman, says that the pillars are designed in a way meant to create an uneasy and confusing atmosphere, with the aim of the entire sculpture being to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. That is not how my experience of the memorial started. On the outer edges, where the blocks are set low and the air around you is clear and open, the place feels like a picnic spot or a very unimaginative playground. People were all about, sitting on blocks, have a quick bite; children were climbing on the blocks. Then I began to descend.

Paul set us loose in the pillars, saying we would meet up on the other side. I drifted away from Mom, trying to find isolation where I could in the crowded memorial. The ground slipped away so subtly I didn’t really become aware of it until the shadows began to press in around me. The air grew colder the lower I went. People suddenly began to disappear. All I could catch were brief glimpses of them as the appeared from behind one block and vanished behind another. I flinched whenever I nearly bumped into someone around a corner.

I kept turning, never walking in a straight line for very long. The pillars towered overhead. Many were streaked with thin tendrils of moisture, some faint, just ghosts in the concrete, others dark like blood from a freshly cut wound. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had felt down in the maze, I’m still not really sure today. The whole place had the feeling of a graveyard, the pillars great stone coffins set on top of the earth rather than buried below it. It was disorienting, unnerving, the way people were there one second and gone the next. The progression down to the bottom of the hill and back up again felt like the rising and fallings of life itself. And always hanging in the back of my mind was the great loss this place represented, the stinging injustice that is still felt today. People can think what they want, that was Eisenman’s intent when he built the thing, but I will always remember the profound effect it had on me.

The tour ended on Museum Island, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is home to a collection of five world-renowned museums. Mom and I wanted to visit the Pergamon museum, home of the Market Gate of Miletus, an ancient city that existed in what is now Turkey. This giant marble gateway was excavated in 1903 and piece-by-piece brought to Berlin where a building was quite literally built around it. Sadly, we were there just before it was about to close for a five-year renovation, and we didn’t have enough time to get there after the tour finished. Guess we’ll just have to come back in five years! The island is also home to the Berlin cathedral, a massive stone building accentuated with soft teal statues and domes and topped with a gleaming gold spire atop the highest dome.

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Paul gave his last history lesson before thanking us all for choosing Sandeman’s Tours. After a quick round of applause the group dispersed. A few people stayed to ask Paul some questions or say their thanks. Mom and I pulled out about 15 euro to give Paul and we said our thanks as well and how much we enjoyed the tour. We stepped away from what was left of the tour group, and a minute later Peter called. He would be leaving work shortly and wanted to see where we were. I told him we had just finished up on Museum Island, and that we were both ready for a good meal. We made plans to meet at this street market that was roughly half way between ResearchGate and Museum Island, and from there we would head to Burrito Baby.

With one last look at the behemoth buildings all around us, we left the island and walked the few blocks to our meeting place. The afternoon was slipping away into evening. The many buildings were splitting the rays of the sun, and most of its light was muted, setting the streets in a dull gray light. This made the market place a bit of a shock when we finally turned the corner on it. It was contained within a moderately sized square and flanked by rows of retail shops. Most of the stalls were constructed of sturdy looking wood and each was filled with a multitude of items. Some had fudge, others had strands and strands of kielbasa and other meats; there was also popcorn and other stalls with knickknacks and trinkets of all kinds. At the center of it all was a fountain we could only see parts of, and bright yellow lights hung over the whole scene. It was a splash of vibrant color and sounds after a drab street canvas.

Mom and I crossed to the far side of the square to a couple of steps outside the entrances to the adjacent shops. It was nice to sit after those long hours of walking on pavement. I passed the time waiting for Peter to arrive watching people come and go and half listening to the conversations of people sitting nearby. I was mid-zone when Peter swept in from my peripheral vision on a city bike and hopped off the petals to a stop in front of us. We walked back the way we had come so Peter could return his bike before we all boarded the U-Bahn.

We took seats (if we could find them), and Peter commented his surprise that the tour had taken us so long. Paul had mentioned he had gone a bit long by taking us onto the actual island but the timing seemed to have worked out well. If it had been any shorter, we would’ve been waiting that much longer for Peter to get off work. The train started to move. Peter nudged my shoulder and pointed down the length of the train. I leaned forward to look. The other day Peter had mentioned there was a train that wasn’t made up of separated cars but instead was one long continuous car. This made for a very mesmerizing U-Bahn experience. You can look down the center aisle and watch the whole train bend and curve with the tunnel. I know, doesn’t sound that great but it is actually a very neat sight.

After the train ride we walked through darkened Berlin streets to the second tiny restaurant I visited during my stay. Burrito Baby was bigger then Oases by far but it still didn’t allow for a whole lot of patrons to sit in and eat. Seating wouldn’t have been a big deal if it was just Mom, Peter, and me, but we were also meeting up with Peter’s friend Emma. It was probably a good thing his friend Jakob couldn’t meet up with us until later or one of us would’ve had to stand and eat.

It turned out a couple of people were leaving just after we ordered so we snagged their booth and an unused seat from another table and squeezed ourselves in. Emma showed up a few minutes after we did and Peter introduced us. I, and Mom to a degree, was rather quiet both before and after the food arrived. This was mostly due to fatigue. All we’d had to eat that day was our Parisian breakfast. Peter and Emma were chatting about this and that, so I was happy to just listen while Mom asked the occasional question.

Once I had a burrito in my hands all bets on talking were off. Peter had wanted to bring us here, one, because he said it had fantastic food and two, because it was vegan friendly. It was a good burrito. I kind of wished I had been paying more attention as I shoved it into my face. I’m not a foodie by any means, so I wouldn’t have gotten that detailed about a burrito any way, but it was just what I needed that day. When we were all finished we stood up to pay then filed out onto the sidewalk.

Peter was back on his phone trying to get in touch with Jakob and see where he was. He turned out to not be that far away so we waited around outside Burrito Baby until he showed up. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes we stood waiting but it was chilly that night and my long sleeved shirt and zip-up hoodie weren’t quite doing the trick. At last a lone figure in a gray jacket appeared down the sidewalk. We had introductions again and quick deliberations about where to go get a drink before setting off. Mom and I, being the foreigners as it were, were simply along for the ride.

Don’t ask me what the place was called. It was a bar, that’s all I know. We grabbed a table that was a bit closer to the door than I might have liked, and of course I took the seat closest to the door, but it wasn’t bad unless someone came in and didn’t pull the door shut behind them. Thank goodness for Jakob. He was very good about getting up and closing it when the new arrivals didn’t. Drinking in a new place, even drinking at home to an extent, is always a bit of an adventure. You have no idea what the beer is like or how good a brewery is. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce half of the drink list!

All the beer was fine though. Peter is my fellow beer enthusiast, so if he was drinking it, it wasn’t going to be that bad a beer. It was a night out very much like a night out at home would be. We sipped our drinks and talked and laughed a cheers’d, only in Germany you say “prost.” Some live music started in a side room a short while after we arrived. We could hear snippets of it drift out the slender entryway and over the chatter of the bar. The first round was finished and Mom and I found ourselves scrapping for more cash. We managed some but Peter offered to spot us the money for a couple more drinks.

I hadn’t thought about how many beers I’d actually had until Jakob commented that I didn’t seem that drunk. I remembered then that I was drinking much closer to sea level. Had I drunk as much back home I would’ve been too far-gone to drive or walk very straight. Regardless of my newfound drinking abilities, I didn’t have more than three drinks, though a couple of them were larger than your typical pours back home.

The night was going just fine up until the moment I had to go to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom in a new place always give me a bit of anxiety but going in a place where I felt sure I wouldn’t see “Men” and “Women” on each respective door was even worse. The only person I could admit my fear to was Mom. Luckily, she had already gone so she had the scene scoped out. I tapped her leg under the table, leaned over and admitted my rather silly concern. She laughed, of course, that was fair and expected. She told me it was the door on the right. Now that I was prepared, I could walk to the bathroom in confidence.

Apparently, though, my brain was just drunk enough that I decided to make something that should’ve been easy and straight forward complicated again. As soon as I was outside the two doors, my brain whispered in my ear, ‘Did she mean right when you’re facing the doors or when you’re facing away? Eek!’ So I opened the one on the left. Fortunately no one was in there. I came face to face with a sink, a stall, and a urinal so I was pretty confident that wasn’t the right one (ha, get it?). I moved over to the door on the right, just like Mom had said. I looked down and noticed, among lots of other graffiti, large blue letters spelling out “Boys fuck everything up.” How did I not realize that was the women’s bathroom?

With that crisis dealt with, I returned to the table with a happy bladder. When one in the morning began creeping closer we decided it was best to leave the bar and move in the direction of bed. We parted ways with Jakob at the bar. His night was going to continue. The four of us walked towards the U-Bahn station. Conversation had all but died out on the journey home. We said our goodbyes when our stop came up and wearily shuffled the short distance back to the flat.

~Ren

Four Day Berlin Dance Party! Go!

(Okay, we didn’t really have a four day Berlin dance party. It’s just a funny thing I recall Peter saying once. Oh, Peter…here’s what really happened.)

Getting packed and out the door the next morning was a seamless process. Most everything had been put away last night so it was really just a matter of getting dressed. Rhona was up early for work so we got to say our goodbyes to her before we tiptoed down the steps and out the front door to the waiting taxi. The driver got out and helped us with our luggage before we all piled into the car and headed off.

The Glasgow airport was only a 15-minute drive from Rhona’s flat. When we arrived, we followed a stream of other early morning travelers into the terminal to check in. We found the orange EasyJet signs and took our place in line. When we got up to the counter, the woman helping us said we would have to pay 30 pounds to check our bag. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t the biggest of deals. It had been so long since I booked the flight, and we hadn’t been sure if we would be checking a bag or not, so we could’ve been hit up with a fee regardless. I think there is just something about bullshit airline fees that piss you 0ff no matter what the circumstances are.

So we paid the fee, even if we didn’t like it, and moved on to security. They didn’t make us take our shoes off, which always throws me a bit. Until I’m safely through I just keep expecting someone to yell, “Psych! Get those shoes in the X-ray tunnel!” But thank goodness that’s never happened. We reached the other side of security with 20 minutes or so before boarding for our flight started. I checked the Departures board and saw that our gate had not even been listed yet. That just seemed to be a trend for us the whole trip. It was even more nerve-wracking because of course we had no idea what the layout of the airport was and therefore no concept of how long it would take to get to any given gate. I was also starting to stress because I was beginning to notice just how fat my backpack had grown (mostly due to books) and was beginning to worry that it might not fit under the seat, leaving me to fight for overhead bin space, which might all be taken.

But there was nothing we could do about either of those things except wait. So instead of freaking out, we went into a coffee shop across from security to get ourselves some tea and something to eat. I left Mom at a table with all of our stuff and got in line. No sooner had I returned with breakfast did they post our gate. We collected our things and began navigating our way through the airport.

EasyJet seemed to be the ugly stepfamily that children of divorce like to pretend doesn’t exist, and our gate was the most obnoxious of the stepchildren. The EasyJet gates were all in the basement. It was a long hallway with orange and gray walls everywhere. The lighting was poor and the whole place seemed like it was bordering on abandoned and derelict. Our gate was at the very end of the terminal, in the corner of the room. It wasn’t the most welcoming terminal I’d ever been in but we made it with minutes to spare. We first found a couple of seats along the wall a short distance from the gate. Then a family we had made the walk down with caught up and took the seats next to us. One of the boys was playing one of those Leap Frog Learning games or something and it was annoying as hell, so I told Mom we had to get up and move. We found a couple seats right next to the gate and planted. This is when the morning went from mediocre to complete disrepair.

While we were sitting there, I set my chai on the ground by my feet so I could get something out of my backpack. But I had set the chai too close to my bag so when I opened it and the front fell forward a bit, it bumped the cup. Luckily I was able to grab it before it tipped all the way over and there was only minor spillage. But when I set it back down, I didn’t set it far enough away not to get knocked again when I sat back and the base of the bag shifted again.

There was chai everywhere.

(Chai: before and after.)

I’m sure all the people sitting around us were watching the entire scene unfold. But I was too busy bemoaning the fate of my chai and laughing at what a klutz I am sometimes. I chose to laugh about it rather than feel mortified (though I did feel a little mortified). There was only a shallow layer of chai left in the white, chai-stained cup. The rest of it was slowly being absorbed in the carpet. We hadn’t grabbed any napkins and there wasn’t even a bathroom nearby for us to run into and grab some paper towels. I glanced over at the people standing by the ticket counter. If they had seen the spill, they were acting like it hadn’t happened; either that or they were completely indifferent to the beige amoeba that had appeared on the carpet, happy to leave it for the cleaning crew later.

I sighed, feeling defeated. I just wanted to be on the plane, flying to Berlin, forgetting about the chai that never was. I had barely gotten two sips out of it before it met its untimely end. I could only hope the day would get better from there. And it did. Soon people began to queue, even before they had officially started boarding. Mom and I sat and watched the line lengthen, thinking everyone was a bit foolish for getting up already but admiring them for their ability to form an actual distinct line. We just get this blob of people back home that shuffles to the counter in some sort of order.

At last we were on the plane, and my bag did indeed fit under the seat. The flight was more or less the same as flying to California back home. It took us about two hours. Once we had landed and walked through the airport, we found ourselves having the same feeling we did when we arrived in Edinburgh. We hadn’t had anyone rifle through our stuff so of course we were feeling a little apprehensive. That worry was short lived, however. We had bigger fish to fry. We had just arrived in a country where English is not the primary language. Our first obstacle to overcome was the ticketing machine for the trains.

Peter, who is a fantastic host and very well prepared, had sent us very detailed instructions on how to get tickets and which trains to ride and how to get to his office. But despite his help, we still approached the machine with some degree of anxiety. The other people waiting behind us didn’t help either. We moved forward and made one attempt before getting halfway through and panicking that we had picked the wrong option. So we stepped aside and let the group behind us go. They proceeded to take forever, but once they had left we tried again. Maybe we were just temporarily blind that day but we couldn’t see the ticket option Peter had told us to get. We gave up and went over to the ticketing desk to be helped by a human being. At this point, I should mention that when we stopped at the ATM earlier to get cash Euros, all the machine gave us were 50s. WTF, ATM?

A thin-faced, gray-haired, stereotypically stern-looking old German woman was sitting behind the desk. I went up and told her what we wanted and she gave me a total. I set one of the 50 Euro bills on the desk. She mumbled something I couldn’t here and didn’t take the bill. I realized she must be asking if we had any other bills we could pay with so I said, “The ATM only gave us 50s. Sorry.” She waited another moment before she took the money from the desk and began making change. She muttered something else under her breath that I couldn’t make out, then handed me the change and our tickets. We thanked her and left.

That was probably the most unpleasant experience we had our whole time in Berlin. I don’t even know what the big deal was. She had plenty of bills to make change with in that drawer. It’s not like we were going to clean her out. Whatever, I’m sure she had her reasons, even if they were silly. We left the airport and began following a long, gently curving sidewalk that took us to the train station. It was here I first really started to pay attention to all the signs I couldn’t read.

People were both coming and going. This was clearly the main fairway to and from the airport. How nice it must be to have public transportation that would take you straight to the airport. *Sigh* A girl can dream. Anyway, we reached the station and took a left down a long ramp. This brought us to another long passageway lined with openings leading to all the different platforms.

I checked Peter’s directions again for the platform number we needed. The numbering system was a bit weird but about halfway down the tunnel we found our number and hiked up another long ramp to the tracks. The platform, and most of those around it were still pretty empty. More and more people began to show up as we waited. Riding the trains, at least when we weren’t with Peter, was always an interesting experience. They announced stops just like they did in Edinburgh, but we had no idea how to pronounce most of the words. So we had to rely completely on recognizing the names of places to know if we had arrived or not.

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A long, boxy red and yellow train soon pulled into the station. We stepped on board and began looking for a spot where our bag and we would fit without blocking the walkway. It was a pretty nice looking train with big comfy seats. I referred to Peter’s notes again so I could show Mom the name of the stop we wanted. Our host couldn’t meet us until after 5 o’clock so first we were going to Peter’s office.

We had one transfer to the U-Bahn to make (we started out on the S-Bahn). The switch was made at the Natural History Museum stop and they had this kickass big picture of guys dusting dinosaur bones hanging on the wall over the tracks. How cool of a job would that be? The U-Bahn took us to our final destination. Peter had given us directions right down to which direction to turn out of the train. Which was good because even though we had finally gotten 3G back in Scotland it was completely useless in Berlin, and I hadn’t gotten set up for Vodafone’s Europe plan so all our trust was in Peter.

And he did a wonderful job! We left the bahnhof, walked a couple of blocks, passed through some major construction and found the ResearchGate front door. We pushed the buzzer and waited. In a few seconds, that lanky, blonde-headed Peter kid showed up and opened the door. “You made it!” he cried. We stepped inside and each gave him a hug. He quickly introduced us to the woman sitting several feet away in the reception area and directed us to a small storage cupboard where we could stash our luggage for a bit.

We then followed him from the reception area back through the dining hall, which still had a few people finishing up lunch, and into a room at the back of the building with nothing but a ping pong table in it. About seven people were running around it and maintaining a constant volley between ever-changing opponents. I was already jealous of Peter’s new job. I mean, he’d already been there for over a year but it is still the newest job he’s had.

We had another quick introduction to people whose names I wouldn’t, and don’t, remember before we left the ping-pong match behind and left for lunch. Back out on the street, Peter began making some suggestions for lunch. One was Middle Eastern and another was Asian. The restaurant names respectively were DaDa and DuDu. We went with DuDu.

It took us a couple blocks to leave the construction behind. Peter told us it was expected to go on for a good while longer, and how they never really seemed to make any progress. Whenever they did, he said, they ended up having to tear it up and start over again for some reason or another. We walked and talked the whole way; Peter did most of the talking though. Which was somewhat harmful to his walking skills. He was ahead of us at times, and would look back over his shoulder and go a bit crooked in his path. One time he almost ran into a woman coming the other direction and she expertly pulled off a well timed, “Allo!” to let him know he better watch himself. We laughed and made jokes about it for most of the trip.

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We also saw these out walking around. It’s funny, but probably only to me and a few others. 😉

It started to rain when we were still a few minutes away from the restaurant. Just drizzly rain, nothing much, but still more than we had seen in Scotland. We attempted to find a spot under the awning out front but no matter where we tried there was a little dribble sneaking through the cracks. So we took a table inside. I had Peter help with my pronunciation of the dish I was going to get and a few other phrases I saw in the menu. I didn’t want to be that obviously American.

We finished lunch, which was quite delicious, and walked back to ResearchGate. Peter took us on a tour of the whole place. We walked back through the dinning area and saw the ping-pong table again. Mom made a quick stop in the bathroom so Peter and I grabbed a couple of paddles and had a few volleys. He kicked my ass, but it seemed a bit unfair, since he got to practice at work and I didn’t. After that we saw the Relaxation Room (no, I’m not kidding) and all the various offices spread throughout the building. Peter showed us the floor he used to work on and then took us to his current office. His two officemates, (whose names I also don’t remember) were in there working when we walked in.

We spent a bit of time in there while he explained to us the work he was doing and what his job was in maintaining and modifying the site. I was glad to see Peter had settled into his new job, and new home, so well. Sure it had been a year, even more, since he had arrived, and you might expect anyone that had been in a place that long would have adjusted. But Peter felt like he belonged there, he’d really become a part of the city; you could see how comfortable he was, and I was glad to see it. Sure, I still missed him like hell back home, but we all have to move on with our lives eventually.

It was finally time for Peter to get back to work, so he walked us back down to the entrance and told us the way to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park a few blocks away. I listened carefully so I could recognize the street names later, and we went off to kill the last couple of hours before we could check in. The park wasn’t too far away and was easy enough to spot that we didn’t have any trouble finding it. There were smalls clusters of people already walking around between the various informational pillars scattered across the plot of grass.

Mom and I didn’t talk much as we made our way further into the park. Places like the park always flood you with information, which I appreciate and find interesting, but I always walk away feeling more or less the same as I did when I arrived. A decrepit section of the wall still stood between the street and the park. It was covered with splatters of graffiti, and it was riddled with holes and crumbling bits. The park was located in what would have been the no man’s land between the inner and outer wall. Low walls had been constructed around the old remains of building foundations that had once belonged to guard houses and watch towers. Rusted steel cords reached up out of the ground like tentacles, all that remained of a light post. More segments of the wall had been placed inside the park, disassembled into single pieces, all collected together and overgrown with trees and shrubs.

Between the wall and the sidewalk snaking through the park was another kind of wall, a memorial to all those people who had tried to escape East Berlin and, sadly, failed. I was horrified to find out some people committed suicide after failing to make it across to the other side. So many terrible things happened her, not just on the strip of land I walked across but in this entire city. The more time I spent in Berlin the more I heard about how much of it had been destroyed and rebuilt into something unrecognizable from its former incarnation. It is a truth that is very unfortunate.

And that’s the feeling I get, a sort of sinking sensations when I think about how unfortunate and horrible so much of our past is. Memorials like the Berlin Wall are always very sobering places to visit. I’m always baffled when I leave; I marvel at how humans allowed such atrocities to happen, and how we still allow them to happen today. Allow isn’t exactly the right word, not in every situation anyway. The fact that some humans commit hideous and terrifying acts knowingly is all the more baffling, and I sometimes find it hard to reconcile that fact with myself. That some people sit by idly and let it happen is a nasty side effect.

We left the park feeling less elated than when we had left ResearchGate. But soon we would have more important things to worry about, like how the heck to get to our accommodation. It was no problem finding the U-Bahn station again. We made it to our stop, Ostbahnhof, without any trouble but once we got off the train the trouble started. Peter had given us directions on how to get there from the station; we even talked to him once we got off the train. But none of that really matters when you exit the station in the wrong direction, making everything you were told completely null and void.

Coloradans, or at least Mom and I, are completely clueless as to the cardinal directions when we aren’t in Colorado. We have no mountains as reference! Don’t use cardinal directions with us outside CO because we will have no idea what that means in this new place. So yeah, we left the station in what we thought was a northwesterly direction but apparently it was a northeasterly direction. For a second I thought I saw the street name Peter had mentioned but I was just being delusional. We kept walking, asking almost everyone we passed if they knew where Andreasstrasse was, yet no one seemed to know with any great deal of confidence.

Eventually we asked a woman who was nice enough to take out her phone and look it up. Sure enough, she pointed us back in the direction we had come. We thanked her and followed the street back until we came to an intersection with a sign proclaiming ‘Andreasstrasse’ hanging over it. At last! We took a right and in a block or two came to a tall, bland building set apart from all the other surrounding buildings at the edge of a park.

When we told Peter where we were staying he had laughed and told us it was called a Plattenbau. It was a boring, nondescript building that had become a popular style back during the war. It is a style constructed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs and is relatively quick and inexpensive to make, hence its popularity in war-ravaged Berlin. It was essentially nothing more than a big gray box. He wasn’t wrong. The whole building was painted two different shades of gray and had no other ornamentation on the outside except for the windows and the front door. The inside looked no different. Gray walls, no carpeting, the whole thing echoed like a dungeon. The actual apartment we stayed in was much nicer. It actually had some color and personality.

We pushed the button with Kati’s name next to it outside the door and she buzzed us in. I hit the button to call the elevator and was surprised when the doors slide open to reveal a bright pink inside. It shot us up to the sixth floor in a second and we stepped out into the barren hallway. As soon as I was clear of the doors I voiced my concern that we didn’t know which apartment was Kati’s. It reverberated back at me, and it was no surprise that Kati heard us and walked over. I mean, I’m sure that was her plan anyway but the echoing certainly helped to announce our presence. I apologized for being a bit late and told her we had gotten turned around at the station. I felt a little bad because we had also taken our time at the park, and I hadn’t really given much thought to the fact Kati would have to sit and wait for us to show up once she had finished her test.

She didn’t hang around long, just gave us the key, asked if we had any questions and then wished us a nice stay. When Kati was gone, we did the obligatory look over of the place. We opened up the cabinets and the fridge; we located all the light switches, did a sweep over the bookshelf and tested out the bed. It was a small place but just the right size for one or two people. When we had finished snooping, Mom plopped herself down at the table while I made us each a cup of tea and dug the last of our biscuits out of my bag. We spent the next hour and a half this way, just waiting for Peter to get off work and come entertain us.

The biscuits were soon spent and the last of the tea gone so we continued to sit motionless at the table, moving only our thumbs and forefingers as we continued to pass the time on our phones. You know, writing about my travels makes me realize how much time I actually spend on my phone sometimes. I’d like to think it isn’t quite the same at home because there I have more things that require my attention, but that’s probably only half true. Anyway, at last Peter called me and said he was on his way out. I told him which buzzer to hit and what floor we were on.

That turned out to be pointless act since Peter ended up calling me when he was outside saying he couldn’t find the buzzer. So I went down and let him in myself, and we went back up to the flat together. We all spent several minutes up there talking about tomorrow’s plans and ideas of what to do that night for dinner and such. Mom ended up deciding to have a night in to rest while Peter and I went out. We said goodbye and offered to pick her up anything to eat if she wanted, and then we were off.

Our first stop was Peter’s flat. The only real reason for stopping here first was so Peter could drop off his bag, I think. But it was also so I could see Peter’s new digs. It was an equally exciting and exhausting trip to make. Peter’s building is older, and as a result has no elevator. In addition, he also lives on the top floor of a, oh I don’t know, seven story building? I’m sure you can guess what that means: lots and lots of stairs. At least it wasn’t like in Edinburgh that first day where we had all those stairs to climb, and all of our luggage to carry. It was a still a pain in the ass, legs and knees though.

Now sweating profusely, I reached the top. The battered front door opened onto a single hallway with several rooms branching off on either side. Immediately to the right of the front door was the bathroom and next to that was the toilet. Yes, the toilet had a room all to itself. Past that was the kitchen. On the left side of the hall were the bedrooms. The first belonged to Caroline (I think her name was), one of Peter’s flatmates. His was the next, and at the end of the hall was Ben’s room, Peter’s other flatmate. I quickly poked my head into the bathroom and kitchen before following Peter into his room.

It was longer than it was wide. He had a loft bed, sitting high above everything else, with a rack of clothes beneath it. At the far end of the room were a desk, some shelves and a tattered couch with a glass coffee table in front of it. The best part of the room wasn’t even in the room. It was the balcony just beyond the large swath of windows at the end of the room. It didn’t reach far out over the street, but there was enough room for a chair and a few potted plants, and really, what more do you need? I was just impressed that Peter had plants.

I spent a few minutes standing out in the crisp night air while Peter moved around the room busying himself with this or that. I squeezed back through the mildly obstructed doorway into the room just as Ben entered. Peter introduced us and we spent a few minutes talking, telling Ben about our plans for the night. Ben had plans of his own to keep or else I imagine he would’ve taken Peter’s offer to join us. After that we left the flat and headed to get some dinner.

Peter was taking me to this tiny little whole-in-the-wall place that served excellent falafel. And I am a fan of falafel. We took the U-Bahn to another part of town then walked the couple of blocks to Oases. He hadn’t been exaggerating about the size. There was barely enough space for the two of us to stand comfortably and order, let alone the two other guys there waiting for their order. I stood to the side and let Peter do the ordering. It was a curious sensation, standing there and one, watching Peter carry on a conversation in German, and two, having no idea what either he or the gentleman behind the counter was saying. It may have been equally unnerving because food was involved and I’m already extra paranoid about that since I’m vegetarian/vegan on a good day. Peter only turned to ask me a few questions before we both sat down to wait.

I spent a good deal of time gazing up at the community bulletin board on the wall and found myself thinking how interesting it was that I took more notice when I couldn’t read something than when I could, mostly considering I was in another country and I would think it would’ve been the other way around. But the brain is funny like that I guess. Our pita wraps came up one by one. The pita was stuffed to just the right girth. Peppers, falafel and greens stuck out the top, and it smelled fantastic.

I took my first bite. It may have been the fact that this was only my second really good meal eaten during the course of a very busy day that made it so tasty, but I like to think it was just really tasty. Just writing this scene made me crave falafel the other night! Anyway, we sat in the tiny shop and ate our scrumptious wraps before snagging some baklava for take away. We were on our way now to a bar called Hops and Barley. I remember I kept wanting to call it Hops and Berries, which is the name of a brewing supply store back home. Peter had wanted to try it out for a while and I was up for anywhere as long as I could get a beer.

We passed the package of baklava back and forth as we walked. Peter continuously pointed things out to me as we walked and talked about life in Berlin. I listened and chewed my baklava, looking around, getting accustomed to the city. Finally we came to a storefront with one short and one long table set up on either side of the door. Most of the space outside was already occupied. It was a busy night at Hops and Barley. Peter and I stepped inside to check out the seating situation. No openings to be found. There had been just enough room at the end of the bench at the long table outside so we squeezed in there.

We waited a few minutes, and when a waitress walked by a couple times without asking us for our orders we realized we must have to order at the bar. We got up and pushed our way towards the bar. It was then Peter noticed the back room. There was one small table just inside the entryway, so we ordered and sat there instead. I was thankful because it had been a little chilly outside.

We passed the time talking about anything that came to mind. The occasional loud cheer from the neighboring table punctuated our conversation every time the rowdy group took a shot. Peter felt sure it was a stag party. One of the guys was wearing a sash. It wasn’t a big deal. The whole bar was noisy and hazy with cigarette smoke. That was something that perplexed me for a moment. Nowhere back home could you smoke indoors unless it was your own house or some designated smoking area type thing.

Noise aside, I was just happy to be sitting, sipping a beer, and catching up with my good friend. For a long time, I was always super nervous about spending time with Peter, or our other friend, Collin, when it was just the two of us. The three of us hadn’t always been as close as we are now. Peter and Collin were really David’s friends, but as we grew up and David and I began to spend more time together, Collin and Peter and I grew closer. Now, I don’t worry so much about holding a solo conversation with either one of them.

We called it a night after one beer. I was tired from the trip and Peter had work the next morning. I mean, he had mentioned that he was in at about ten everyday so it wasn’t like he was going to have an early morning. But still. We stepped out of Hops and Barely onto the near empty streets of Berlin. The air still held a chill and I wrapped my arms around myself to conserve what heat I could. It was just turning midnight when we reached the bahnhof. Peter took me as far as the stairs down to the tracks.

There we said our goodnights and goodbyes and I got out my anxiety at riding public transportation by myself in a foreign country where I couldn’t read any of the signs. Peter laughed at me and assured me I’d be fine. I smiled at him but still walked with a little extra stiffness in my spine down the steps and onto the train. Once I was back at Ostbahnhof, there was only a short minute where I wasn’t sure which direction to go, but I came down the stairs to see the familiar park that was between the station and our flat. I walked quickly. No one was around but I still felt a bit paranoid.

I rode up the pink elevator and walked as quietly as I could to the door and slipped inside. It was dark inside but Mom had left the bathroom light on so I could at least see a little. As quietly as I could I slipped off my shoes, brushed my teeth and changed into my pajamas. I switched the lights back off and crept over to the bed, taking care not to stub any toes on the way. I said goodnight to Mom but only received a garbled reply from the pillow next to me.

~Ren

The West Coast

Man, I’m good at titles.

I was up early the next morning. Reception was still closed when I dropped off my key and loaded up my car in the dim glow of the first morning light. My ferry to Picton left at 9:30, and I had an hour drive to get there. This was going to be a wholly new experience for me. I’d been on ferries before, and specifically this ferry back in 2012. All those times before I was just a passenger, but now I was a passenger with a car.

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I mean, okay, it’s not that interesting of an experience. Instead of walking onto the boat, you drive your car on, park it, and then walk up to the passenger deck. Big whoop. But dammit! This is a trip full of me doing new things so it’s a big deal if I say it is! That being said, it totally wasn’t a big deal and was super easy to do and my biggest complaint is that it was expensive. Moving on.

I passed the three hour ferry ride talking to my Mom, reading, and listening to music. When we arrived, I first went to the wrong car deck as I made to exit the ferry, but one more flight of stairs and I was back in my car and driving onto the roads of Picton. If I didn’t have such angst about parking and driving around new places when I had no direction, I would’ve stopped and gotten a proper meal. All I’d had that day was a few slices of bread while I waited to board the ferry.

Instead, I soldiered on, stomach grumbling, off to Nelson. I was making a short stop over here so I could catch up with another chum from Hobbiton before meeting back up with Hannah and Luke. She was WWOOFing at a chicken farm up in Motueka, about 45 minutes outside the city centre. I wouldn’t be seeing her until the next day, though.

So my first night back in Nelson I was flying solo (for the most part). I got into town and found my way to The Bug Backpackers, which Carly had recommended to me. It was a tiny place, only 15 minutes walk out of town. I parked across the street and went to check in. This was my first stay in the last few weeks where I actually had roommates. The three other beds in my dorm were occupied by three young Asian women, roughly my age (I guess).

I immediately felt claustrophobic and restless, so once my stuff was put away in the room, I left. I have to break the narrative a bit here, travelers, because I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember what I did once I left the hostel. But honest to goodness I have no flipping idea. So let’s just jump ahead to when I stopped into Sprig and Fern for a beer.

Now I’ve grown accustomed to doing things alone while traveling, so grabbing a beer by my lonesome was not a new thing. I had my book with me so I was entertained. But sometimes, you just want some company dammit, and it can move you to make some not-so-wise decisions. Mine was inviting Hannah (different Hannah) out to join me for a drink.

Hannah was another former Hobbiton co-worker. We got on well enough but were never super close. But like I said, I had a weak moment and took whatever company was available. Things started off pretty well. We chatted and drank and ordered a pizza. But then the conversation took a turn onto a topic I should, with certain people, never discuss while drunk. So at an appropriate moment, drunk Renee deployed her go-to move when she’d had enough of a shitty situation.

I got up and left.

So the first night was kind of a bust. But I did have a couple of tasty beers, so it wasn’t totally lost. The next day was better, even though again, can’t really remember what I did. There was laundry done at one point, and some grocery shopping. I undoubtedly stopped into the bookstore at least once, or at least walked by and stared longingly at the long line of book-filled shelves. Once evening rolled around, I headed to East Street to meet Carly for dinner.

I was the first to arrive, so I took a seat at the table and began to peruse the menu while I waited. Carly arrived just a few minutes later. There was a quick hug before she sat down and both of us began to deliberate about what to order. At last we both decided, and when the food was brought out, we were both very happy with our choices. The conversation was sustained through the whole meal. It was good to catch up and hear about what one another had been up to, as well as what future plans were in store.

When we’d finished at East Street, we walked down the street to Sprig and Fern. That night’s drinking experience was much better than the last. We took our drinks from the bar to a table just across the room. The room was dimly lit. The surrounding tables were occupied by groups of people talking and laughing. A single candle flicked on our table. Carly and I chatted more while we sipped our drinks, and before the night was finished we took the first of several pictures that would mark our Ren and Stimpy adventures.

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We parted ways after that, with the promise of reuniting when I returned to Nelson later that month. She went off to her car to make the drive back to Motueka, and I began my walk back to the hostel. I took my time getting up the next morning. I was meeting Hannah and Luke at a retreat just outside of the town of Punakaiki. They had stayed at the retreat before, and Hannah assured me I would love it. I was sure I would too, but I had no idea what to expect.

The west coast of New Zealand is an amazing drive. I felt like I was on King Kong’s island (in the Peter Jackson version), and when I told Hannah about my feelings later on she compared it to Jurassic Park. The road is a winding ribbon that hugs the coastline. On one side of you is the ever churning and frothing sea, beating against rough cliffside. The other side is high hills covered in thick bush. There are barely any buildings to speak of, and just as few cars sharing the road.

I found the place, called Te Nikau Retreat, easy enough. It was certainly unlike any other backpackers I’d ever stayed at. Te Nikau is nestled right in the bush off the highway. A few cabins sit right near the reception building, but others are only reached by walking down a dirt path through the trees and ferns. The retreat was completely isolated, and the cabins of the retreat isolated from each other. Hannah was right. I did love it.

I was the first to arrive (again). I checked in and carried my stuff into the bush and found our cabin. We were in a dorm situation, and there was one guy who had already checked in. It was a little awkward. He didn’t say hi or anything when I arrived, just went back to his own thing. I picked a bed and ignored him back, pulling out my book to pass the time until Luke and Hannah arrived. I napped for a little while, and when I checked the clock, a couple hours had passed since I arrived. I was starting to get anxious.

For a little while I went into worry mode, wondering if something had happened to them on the drive down. I went to buy some wifi so I could try to get in touch and make sure everything was okay. It was. I was just being overly cautious, like I usually am. They had stopped to pick up some groceries on the way down. Soon the two were pulling into the parking lot in their newly acquired Subaru.

They checked in and I showed them the way to our cabin. We stayed long enough to claim a couple more beds and drop of their luggage before they were leading the way to the beach. It was about a ten minute walk through the trees. We were just in time to catch the last bit of the sunset. The clouds hung too low to really see the sun slip below the horizon. But the scene was still dominated by an orange glow and an increasingly inky sky above.

The three of us followed the steps of the path down to an alcove. The waves crashing up onto the beach were massive. At the base of the stairs was a wide, gently slanting slab of stone. We all pulled ourselves up onto the crest of the rock and got comfortable to enjoy the setting sun and the waves.

When nearly all the light had faded, he walked back up the path to the cabin to make some dinner. We were sharing the kitchen with our stoic, and presumably German, roommate. Hannah cooked up lentils while Luke heated up something from a can, and I prepared my sweet potato. That night I introduced Luke and Hannah to the awesomeness that is a sweet potato served with maple syrup, butter and sugar. It wouldn’t be the last time we prepared it on our travels together.

It was a spread that couldn’t rival the ones we’d made in National Park, but it was just right that night. Back upstairs, as we prepared to get into bed, we did some minor rearranging so we could all be up in the loft. Before lights out, the three of us spent a bit of time reading. Which, if I’m honest, really made me happy. Obviously reading is a very solo activity, but there was something really nice about sharing a reading moment with friends.

Anyway, the next morning, we had some breakfast and enjoyed the wifi before setting off to the Pancake Rocks. For a moment, I wasn’t sure I saw going to be able to pull out of the parking lot with out taking out part of the building behind me or hitting the car next to me. After executing a seven-point turn though, I made it out. The Pancake Rocks were all of 10 minutes away. I’d seen them before on my last visit, but it was only a short stop during our much longer bus drive.

We parked and crossed the road. It was a rather dreary day out. There was no sun to speak of, and there was a steady drizzle of rain. Not the nicest for walking around in, but it did make everything feel more moody and dramatic. The only people about left as we walked down the path. We sought out the blow holes, and stood mesmerized by great waves filing and draining from a great stone pit.

Lucky for us, we finished our walk around the rocks just before a tour group was dropped off. We found our walk back up the path and crossed the street back to our cars. From here we would make the trip down to Hokitika, where we’d stay for another night during our trip down the west coast.

~Ren

Circumnavigating Uretara Island

Our journey down the coast continued the next morning. We said our last goodbye to Amelia’s husband before we left Tauranga behind and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Whakatane (that’s Whak, pronounced Fak). We wouldn’t be spending the night here, but part of the morning and afternoon would be spent kayaking out in harbor-enclosed sea waters.

My time in New Zealand has seen me double my time spent in a kayak compared to what I’d done back home. This was my first time kayaking in the ocean. I mean, technically it was the ocean. But the water that day was a bit rough, so instead of taking the Coastal Tour I’d originally booked, I arranged with our guide to kayak inside Ohiwa Harbour. Still the ocean, just not as choppy.

The clouds had begun to break up some since yesterday and the sun poked her head out every now and then as we drove. Bright flashes would flare off the top of the water when we were fortunate enough to see the sun and shifting surface meet. I’d never been down the coast this far. The towns were small, people were few, and the beaches were near untouched. Dad commented that they reminded him of how Florida looked years and years ago before all the beach houses and shopping malls took over.

Our meeting place was actually outside of Whakatane and closer to Ohope. The closer we got, the more nervous I was about finding the right place. The night before when Kenny, our guide, had called to reschedule things, I was in the process of navigating through the streets of Tauranga to meet up with a few mates. During the whole conversation, my GPS kept blurting out directions and cutting Kenny off mid-sentence. But by the end of it I was fairly certain I knew where to go.

It turned out I did. We followed Harbour Road all the way down until it dead ended. There was a boat ramp and a short stretch of beach at the water’s edge. An information sign stood beside the paved parking area. There was no one else there, so I figured we had beat Kenny. Just to be sure I was in the right place, I gave him a call. He confirmed things for me and said he was only a few minutes away. Dad and I leaned against the car to wait, enjoying the sun while we did.

A few short minutes later, a silver truck pulling a trailer loaded with kayaks turned the corner and parked opposite us. An older chap stepped out, and Dad and I walked over to introduce ourselves. I knew right away by his accent that Kenny wasn’t a Kiwi but a charming Scotsman. We spent a little time chatting and getting acquainted before Kenny sent us each off with a pair of wetsuit shorts to change into.

We stowed our personal effects, like phones and wallets, in a dry bag provided by Kenny. I left my heavier winter coat in the car but made sure I still had a few layers on to help keep out the wind. One by one we moved the kayaks over to the water’s edge. I was the first to board my kayak. I stepped from dry sand into sand covered by a few inches of water, and my foot and flipflop were immediately sucked into the muck.

I pulled my foot out, dragging my shoe with it, and passed both flipflops to Kenny to strap to the back of my kayak. I paddled out onto the pulsing water. Dad and Kenny followed a few minutes later, and we began our journey around the island. We fought wind and waves for a good while, at the same time carrying on the conversation started back in the carpark. It didn’t take long for my arms to start feeling the strain of fighting the elements. Kenny kept saying we’d catch the current soon and things would get easier. I’m sure he was right about the current, but it didn’t make things easier.

Uretara Island loomed dark and bush-clad to our right, and off to the left was the edge of the harbor. A few houses could be seen up amongst the trees, and Kenny told us his house was up there somewhere. He told us about Uretara Island, how it was owned by the DOC but they had little money to maintain it. One gentleman had taken it upon himself to rid the island of some pest (maybe possums or rats? I can’t remember). He also told us about a family who used to live on the island, and how the father had left his wife to take care of some ridiculous amount of children on her own.

At last we made it to the far side of the island and the wind all but died down. We kayaked right up to the rim of the island. Knotted and weathered tree limbs reached out over the water, some hanging so high we could paddle right through them. On one branch, Kenny pointed out a colony of mussels hanging in the water below. Soon we left the island’s edge behind and were off to navigate our way through the mangroves.

Picking my way through the thick underwater plants was a new kayaking experience. It wasn’t a huge challenge, just tedious, and it really tested your steering skills. Dad and I both knocked into quite a few mangroves. But they’re resilient plants, and bounced back easily. When we were safely through the field of mangroves, we kayaked to the edge of the harbor opposite the island and stopped for morning tea.

Kenny had brought along some muffins, a few fruits (I tried my first persimmon, and it was pretty good, and Dad tried his first feijoa) and a thermos of tea. The three of us stood in the long grass of the shore, sipping our tea, peeling persimmons and scooping feijoas. At this point, our journey was half over. When we’d all had our fill, Kenny repacked his bag and we carefully climbed back into our kayaks (I nearly tipped over, but saved it at the last minute).

Since we’d now come about to the other side of the island, our lovely wind shield was no more, and we were back to struggling against the gusts blowing out of the north. Conversation ceased here. The wind was too much and we were all too far apart to share anything but the occasional call of, “Alright back there?” I put all my focus into my paddle strokes, trying to achieve the optimal propulsion distance to energy expended ratio (that’s a thing, right?).

The final stretch saw us turned out of the head wind, and the going got easier. Our trio regrouped and we shared a few words as we closed the gap between us and the shore. At last, the bottoms of our kayaks were scraping on sand once more. Just before we pulled in, though, Kenny wanted to get one more photo of Dad and me. As Dad reached out to pull our kayaks closer together, he pulled a bit too hard a nearly flipped himself out of his kayak, and tried to take me with him! It made for a really great picture though. Kenny caught us both mid-laugh.

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Dad and I helped Kenny get the kayaks back onto the trailer before changing back into our clothes. We exchanged our sodden wetsuit shorts for wallets, keys and all the other things we’d packed into the dry bag. We thanked Kenny profusely. It might not have bee the most ideal weather day for a kayaking trip but both Dad and I had a great time out on the water. We shook hands with Kenny one last time before getting back into the car and starting our trek down to Taupo.

~Ren

If you are interested in taking a kayak trip with Kenny, I would highly recommend it. He is very friendly and personable and was gracious enough to take pictures for us during the trip. Also, don’t be afraid to mention if you have any dietary requirements so you’re sure to enjoy morning tea. Check out the website here.