On August 31st, at some ungodly time my friend Molly and I grabbed our packs and piled into the cab that would take us to the vegetable market. We needed to catch the bus that would take us to the airport.
The sun was just rising as we took off at about 6:30am. I sat in my comfortable seat, ate my fabulous New Zealand Air warm breakfast option (you may think that this is being said with sarcasm but funnily enough, it’s not), and watched Shrek the Third while sipping complementary mimosas.
And so, we left Samoa and entered a land of hobbits, kiwis, and All Blacks or more importantly, a land of good beer, hot showers, and chai tea lattes.
There were many moments on this trip when Molly and I would revel in something small and insignificant that over the past year we had long forgotten that we even missed. My first moment occurred on the plane when I realized that I could wash my hands in hot water. Hot water! Why waste such a refinement on transportation?
We landed four hours later on the 1st of August (Samoa and New Zealand are on opposite sides of the International Date Line but when it’s 10am in New Zealand it’s 11am here, so there is no jet lag) and caught a van to our hostel. When Molly and I stepped into the elevator we bust into giggles. It had been awhile. We dropped our packs off, grabbed our books, and walked across the street to Starbucks. We definitely had our priorities.
When we were planning this trip, the overall goal was to relax. There was no desire to bungee jump or sky dive, we definitely were not going on the Lord of the Rings tours (yes, we are dorks but there are limits), and since we wanted to spend a few days in each of the places we visited we restricted our trip to only the North Island. This was not to the South Island’s discredit in any way; it’s supposedly quite breathtakingly beautiful. We simply wanted this vacation to be a vacation. Our major interests: coffee shops, book stores, restaurants, and pubs.
Staying in New Zealand Hostels was like college dorm life all over again. You meet the people in your room and tell your life stories, everyone shares a kitchen downstairs, and there are places to watch movies, use internet, or share books. Most important of all, there were laundry facilities and hot showers.
Outside of Apia, the only way to wash your clothes is in a bucket and clothes don’t exactly come out smelling Tide fresh. The weather is humid all year round and mold grows with vengeance so my clothes are not exactly at their best. After a few days of hot showers and freshly laundered clothes, I felt like a new person.
Back to our first day: After our Starbucks fix we wandered around town, visiting a few open air markets and ending up at the Borders. It was so wonderful to be in a book store again but books in New Zealand are ridiculously priced. A book you could get in the states for about fifteen bucks would be somewhere between 50 and 60 NZD (even if you do the conversion, it’s a stupidly high price). So, without books, we headed back to our hostel where we met up with another Peace Corps friend, Derek, who had just completed his service. We spent the night in a pub playing, or rather attempting to play, pool and trying different beers until a group of guys politely relieved us of the pool table and we decided to go to bed. The day after we arrived in Auckland we caught a bus heading South to Rotorua.
We had reserved backpacker bus passes before leaving Samoa. It was like a tour bus but much cooler. Its only purpose was to take us from city to city. Once we got where we were going, everyone was dropped off at separate hostels and toured the area on their own. The people we met on the bus were from all over the world but we were all about the same age. The bus company runs on constant circuits so you can stay in any place as long as you want then hop on the bus when you’re ready to leave.
Before leaving Auckland, the bus brought us up Mt. Eden, a long extinct volcano that overlooked the city. It had a deep, grass covered crater and provided a view that looked far down North Island.
On our way down to Rotorua, the bus stopped in Waitomo (water entering a hole in the ground) for a few hours so we could visit the Glowworm Caves.
So what are glowworms? The adult glowworms look like large mosquitoes. Their only function is to reproduce. They don’t even have mouths and only live for a few days. About twenty days after the eggs are laid, larvae hatch and this is when the glowworm gets interesting. The larvae, only about three millimeters in length, build nests and put down longs sticky feeding lines to trap insects. When an insect is caught, the larvae will draw up the line and devour it. To attract the insects in the dark, the larvae emit a faint glow. With thousands of larvae nestled in the craggy roof of the cave, the ceiling looks like a clear night sky full of stars.
The tour that we took was just the basic cave tour and the first half looked very much like every other cave tour I’ve ever been on (yeah Crystal Caves) but once we reached the water level of the cave we all got into this metal boat and followed the water out of the cave. Our guide stood up in the boat and pulled it along by raised guide wires. The trip was surreal and silent, the only thing you could see were the tiny pin pricks of light.
In late afternoon we got to Rotorua and arrived in the worst hostel of our stay. It had a few perks. Well, one perk. The pool in the center was a hot spring and that was rather nice but apart from that... If you guys at YHA Rotorua are reading this I would just like to say that your rooms are sorely out of date, you are much to far out of town and depriving your nonmember guests of sheets only further aggravates them.
That night Molly and I decided to head into town for a real dinner. And we found it at the Pig & Whistle (an old police station turned restaurant): A beautiful, thick pumpkin soup with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by cheese cake. Does life get any better than that?
Let me take the time out to say that New Zealand is chilly this time of year. It’s right near the end of their winter season. We were coming from a year on a tropical island so while it was like late fall during the day, at night there were times that we were freezing. It was wonderful to feel cold again.
The next morning we took a walk through the small geothermal park that sits on the edge of the city. There were paths that wound around small bubbling pools and there was steam everywhere. For breakfast we ate at the highly recommended Fat Dog Café (hot chocolate and an egg, ham, and tomato muffin, I know that most of you might not care so much what we ate during this trip but to me all the food was incredible and I can still remember the taste in my mouth). We walked around Rotorua to look at all the shops, stopped at Zippy’s for another coffee/tea break (eight ball: shot of espresso and a scope of ice cream) and for dinner went out to Amazing Thai (if I ever owned a Thai restaurant that is probably what it would be called).
That night we decided to try out the hot spring pool and lacking bathing suits (for God knows what reason, but neither of us packed them) we went swimming in our underwear when we thought everyone else was asleep. As it turns out, not everyone was asleep...
We left Rotorua the next day and on the bus radio, much to our great delight, we heard Samoan rap sensation, King Kapisi’s song “Screams from the Old Plantation.” Go Samoa Go.
Driving around New Zealand was breathtaking. The landscape is diverse and rich. We passed through open plains, dense forests, mountain ranges (oh look there’s Mt. Doom; no look over there, that’s Mt. Doom; no up ahead, that has to be Mt. Doom), and long stretches of bright green hills. I had kind of heard of the quantity of sheep before I came but I was completely unaware of the sheer volume. There are sheep everywhere. The rolling hills are all covered in fluffy dots of white.
We got to Taupo on Wednesday afternoon and decided that we should start making food at the hostel instead of going out for every meal. We went to the grocery store and loaded up on the foods we had been missing (whole grain bread, lunch meat, feta cheese, fruit, good red wine, and so on). I also found mixed M&Ms (plain, peanut, and crunch all in one bag) which is a brilliant idea and a shame that they aren’t sold in the States.
This was the day that Molly finally bought sneakers. She hadn’t brought any to Samoa and so spent the past four days wearing her flip-flops (while wearing pants, two shirts, a coat, a hat, and gloves). Some might think this is ridiculous behavior but if you knew Molly you would also know that this is completely typical.
That night we decided to go out. On our way to this pub called Mulligan’s, we ran into some of the other people on our bus heading home for the night. As it was only eleven, we scoffed and went in for a beer. After a couple drinks, we headed down the street to Holy Cow, recommended by our Lonely Planet guide. At first it seemed to be too early. There weren’t many people but Molly and I grabbed some drinks and went out on the dance floor anyway. After a bit we acquired a following and before we knew it there were about fourteen New Zealand guys who were definitely intrigued by the American Peace Corps girls. The music was awesome and we were completely relaxed (there’s no way anyone in my village was going to find out). I hadn’t had such a fun night in awhile.
On Thursday we packed lunches and walked along the edge of Lake Taupo and up one of the hills to the Botanical Garden. It wasn’t so much a botanical garden as it was just paths through the woods but we had a lovely lunch even though halfway back to our hostel we gave in and called a cab to take us the rest of the way. For dinner we ate at Hell Pizza where we got a Wrath (Pepperoni, Onions, Peppers, Tomatoes, Chili) and an Envy (Salami, Ham, Bacon, Onions, Mushrooms, Pineapple). These were only two of the twenty-four different varieties that they have.
We caught the bus to Wellington the next day.
We spent about three days in Wellington and they were spent in much the same manner that the rest of our trip had been: coffee shops, second hand bookshops, browsing local stores, listening to street musicians, and so on. We went to Te Papa which is the fabulous Wellington New Zealand and saw exhibitions on local wildlife, modern art, and Maori history. One of the nights we were there we tried a restaurant called Kai (Maori for food), which Lonely Planet must have mentioned at least five times. It was a Maori fusion restaurant. I had the Heihei (chicken) with sweet potatoes and sparkling wine. I was pretty sure that the only part of the meal that was ‘Maori’ was the fact that chicken was involved but I enjoyed the meal nonetheless. After dinner we went to see a play. A real play. As in theater and culture and whatnot. It was called The Winslow Boy and was based on a true story that took place in New Zealand during the fight for women’s suffrage.
I got to meet up with my middle school friend Rebecca, who is going to school in Wellington. It was like we’d never been separated. We hadn’t had a full conversation since we were about fourteen but we talked on and on and it was wonderful. That night, Molly, Rebecca, and I hit a couple of Irish pubs (Murphy’s and Molly Malones), tried the infamous Kiwi Burger, and got to listen to live music (it’s been a while since either Molly or I have seen a live band).
On Sunday we headed to Napier for the night. We didn’t end up seeing much of the city but we got to spend the night at the prison. The old Napier Prison had been refurbished as a hostel. Parts of it had the same foreboding appearance but some of it gave off the disquieting impression of an Auntie Muriel’s living room with little couch cushions, hand knitted blankets, and a giant, lazy cat.
The bathrooms were very clean but they were still the outside ones. When Molly and I checked in with the three guys from our bus, the manager pulled us aside and said he wanted to apologize to the ladies for the rest room facilities (poor dear had no idea to whom he was speaking, the bathrooms were nicer than the one in my house).
We didn’t have much time in Mount Maunganui, it was near dusk when we got there. The staff at Pacific Coast Backpackers was delightful. They work a lot with our bus line so when we arrived they had laid out tea, cakes, and snacks for us to eat while we took turns checking in. We also noticed that as part of their outside landscaping they had planted taro (one of the food staples of Samoa) and decided that might be just ridiculous enough to be cool.
The city has a large bay to the West, the Pacific Ocean to the East, and looming on the North end is the mountain. After we got our room we headed back out to watch the sun set over Pilot Bay. As we walked through the streets we realized we might not make it in time and started to hurry up. We cut through a field and began to jog down the streets to make it to the docks. By the time we broke through the tree line we were running. We dashed down the wharf and stood in awe of the last twenty seconds of sunset.
The next morning we woke up around five and scrambled down to the beach. We were much more successful this time and got to see the sunrise over the Pacific (not that we don’t see that often enough but it was still beautiful). Once we got back to the hostel it was almost time to leave once again, this time heading back to Auckland.
The Return Home
We got back to Auckland on Tuesday the 11th and spent the day buying last minute mealofa (gifts) for our coworkers and my host family. On our last night we went out for pizza and beer and ended up doing a small bar crawl around Central Auckland with a couple of the friends we had made on the bus. New Zealand makes one brand of soda (the rest is imported) called L&P. It’s a strong, lemony drink that I had tried but was not very fond of. Rumor on the bus had it that it was fantastic, though, with Southern Comfort. At the last bar we went to we were determined to see if this was true. The four of us sauntered up to the bar man and ordered our drinks. Tragedy! They were out of L&P. He saw the desperation in our faces and told us that if we went to the dairy (convenience store) down the street and got some, he would only charge us for the SoCo. I must say, that SoCo certainly did wonders. The floor-cleaner taste of the L&P was completely glazed over and the drink was delicious.
The next morning we left our hostel and caught the airport shuttle.
So, after our twelve day tour of the North Island, we were finally back at the airport about to head home. Of course, before leaving there was a stop at the duty free shops (passengers traveling from New Zealand to Samoa are allowed 1 liter of alcohol). We got to our terminal and found ourselves among Samoans. When the plane arrived fifty minutes late I felt like I was already back in country again.
As we were landing, the flight attendants began to distribute the declaration forms. They only had the versions in Samoan and asked who would like one (the rest of the passengers would have to fill it out once we landed). Molly and I proudly raised our hands (excuse me stewardess, I speak jive). Even though we fumbled our way through the forms, we looked damn cool in the process.
New Zealand Favorites
Drinks: premixed Jim Beam & Coke, Monteith’s Radler
Animal: the morepork (‘cause seriously, what an awesome name)
Coffee Shop: Pandoro Panetteria
*sweet as is common New Zealand slang and is kind of like sweet or cool in the American vernacular.