So this is it!
It was late Friday afternoon and I was going through my work routine for the last time. Getting into the elevator on the 23rd floor, zigzagging through the downtown crowd to the BART station, getting on the last train of my commuting life to make it to the Fourth Bore, our local watering hole, to sip my regular, Start of the Weekend margarita. After 47 years, retirement is here. It had to come, sooner or later. Sooner would have been better. Now is good. Commute is over, short vacationing is over, everything but real TRAVEL is over.
The last weekend was spent putting the final touches on our new AirBnB establishment, our house, that we have lived in for the last two decades. We raised our kids here, from elementary school all the way to grad school. You accumulate a lot of memories and junk over the years and you try to discard it mercilessly. On Monday afternoon, when our first AirBnB guest showed up, I have just swept the oak leaves off the steps down to our front yard for the last time. We showed him the house with the bed we have left barely six or seven hours ago, we grabbed our bags and off we went.
In front of our small village train station waiting for the ride to the airport.
Now it really starts. The First Day of 330 or maybe 694. Week 1 of 50 (or perhaps 102 if none of our girls procreate during the first year).
Each of us leaving with only a small duffle bag full of necessities for a week (you cannot pack one year worth of underwear, can you?). We think they are enough, those basics, to see us through, to be exchanged for the big pile of indulgent comforts of modern life we left behind. Even so there is plenty in those duffle bags and in two small backpacks stuffed with bottles of drinking water, iPhones, iPads, laptop, spare cables, convertors, chargers, toothbrushes, passports—things you need for the first fifteen hours of your trip to the other side of the Pacific way down in Southern Hemisphere in the middle of summer. And one way ticket to the next place. And the cream on top of it all? The feeling of freedom to be on the road again.
Truth be told, I did not want to go to New Zealand. We were there before. That before was actually 32 years ago, which is a lifetime or almost as long as our life together. That time of your life when you learn how to compromise and begin to recognize the validity of the rule no. 1: “My wife is always right!”. Hence I succumbed to my wife’s insistence, and instead of going to Bali all the way along the Pacific Rim of Asia, I got tickets on the direct flight over the water without any dry land to see until a new day shows up through the plane’s windows. It still counts as Day 1 in spite of leaving California on a chilly Monday shortly before midnight and the new day is a Wednesday! A balmy day in the Land of Kiwis and Maoris.
Coming here for the second time I try to rehash my memories of the first trip, but memories are in short supply. We only had a week then (yup, it was at the phase of our lives when we were still rushing from one place to another) so we never even stopped in Auckland. Maoris? We barely noticed them, only as carvers of simple carbon copy figurines in Rotorua. Nobody was out drinking in the bar after tea at five. They were all sitting quietly at home watching TV. Lord of the Rings movie had not been produced for another 20-25 years! What had been left in my brain were mostly colors and patterns and graphic of nature and locals.
A newly proposed flag of this country carries the fern branch you kick over EVERYWHERE in New Zealand!
And Maori warrior tattoo perhaps inspired by the ever changing pattern on the bubbling mud pool.
Another leftover was the admiration for Kiwis’ love of outdoors, camping, trekking (they call it tramping), or outright high altitude climbing. When I was a kid, reading about Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing were most exciting books and Kiwis’s ability to throw their bodies, no matter what age or shape, into the cold mountain streams was and still is quite remarkable.
Then comes the comparison of what was then and what is now. Certainly a lot has changed, but mostly for the better.
Drive Around New Zealand:
Sure, there are more cars but all of them are quite new. I don’t recall seeing a junk on the wheels the first week of driving around the North Island. And they move on pretty good roads even if there is not much in the sense of motorways or expressways, as they call them here. The government seems to size the roads to fit the traffic, so even the State Highway 1 between capital city of Wellington and Auckland, the NZ largest city, can be reduced to just a two-lane highway with occasional additional passing lanes every few miles. How can it work? I guess it comes with common decency of the general population. Kiwis, as most New Zealanders call themselves, are a very pleasant and positive variety of humans. That decency projects into their defensive style of driving. As a new addition to this country’s left side traffic I appreciate very much the absolute lack of killer instincts of locals, compared to drivers in our home countries. We were looking in disbelief at Kiwi drivers’ discipline in their compliance to drive within the speed limits, to yield to others whenever given an opportunity and let other drivers live for the rest of their useful life. We talked to some people here and it looks like speeding does not seem to be on anybody’s priority list, and traffic police tends to pardon the occasional violation only up to 4km/hour (two and half miles per hour). Therefore the violators’ ideas of having Michael Schumacher’s racing ability is dashed on the spot and indeed very short lived.
When in Rome do like the Romans do, oops ….when in NZ stay with Kiwis. When you have progressively aged and travelled as extensively as we did, you sooner or later run out of available destinations on your bucket list.
If it happens and you exhausted your bucket list and in the unfortunate event you have not, damn it, died yet, then the next best thing is to meet the local people as they can provide you with the never ending source of freshness, knowledge, entertainment and surprises as you move around. My better half, instead of wasting her time on buying airline tickets or renting cars in remote places of Southern Hemisphere, gave a lot of thought to general philosophy and intent of this couple’s travel. She discovered an organization called Servas, founded after the WW2 with the idea of overcoming the mistrust between nations and their peoples and supporting mutual understanding and friendship among them. Members of this organization welcome other members in their own homes for at least two nights (as we know a one-night stand clearly does not promote friendship and closeness amongst 2 people, as well as peoples of the world), and spend time talking, visit places and cooking (or going to the restaurants) together. Since neither my wife nor myself are very shy in social settings, we applied, we were vetted, interviewed, and finally accepted— after we promised we will behave! This easily projected even further as our travel plans were shaped by interaction with the locals. During the first week in NZ we stayed with three families and met extensively sharing food and drink, in some cases quite a lot of drinks, but we hope we still behaved. The discussions with ALL of them were quite open, lively and in some cases when we disagreed, (on such important world topic as legalization of medical marijuana) even very, very civilized. To our big surprise, we were told one of the New Zealand’s political parties is called NZ First, so America is not necessarily original in promoting a similar idea. Even though America’s current leader would probably strongly disagree, it is possible that New Zealand invented it first. Nevertheless we agreed with our hosts that controversy over which country came first with the idea to be Da First is not worthy the start of WW3 so we better open another bottle! And
plenty of excellent bottles in the sauvignon blanc or pinot noir variety they do have, even “Spicy bubbles” for everyone. Cheers!