Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Let me blow your mind: the drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka

We had to pull over many many times on this drive to take pictures of the mountains and lakes. I would be so content to live here, as I can imagine most people would.

Surviving my first Great Walk: The Kepler Track

Since I’m only in New Zealand for 6 months, or possibly a year if I decide to extend my trip, I examine everything I do much more than I would if I was living at home in the United States. I want to use my time here well and only do things that I’m really interested in. It also helps that most things in New Zealand are so expensive that you have to choose well, or you’ll be out of money in a week. Think it’s hard to spend $1000 in a week? Come to New Zealand; it’s not.

I listened to an NPR story about seasonal workers a few weeks ago, and it mentioned that since we are all working in positions for such short periods of time, seasonal workers never stop examining how much we like or don’t like the work, the industry, the company we’re with. We never settle in and accept the day-to-day hustle because we’re not in a job long enough. In New Zealand, seasonal work is pretty common, but only if you’re working in an industry like tourism or farming.

But I wish that all jobs could be seasonal, so we could all go through life trying out new things and companies and cities, and examining our choices as we make them. Maybe we’d all be happier.

Since now I do live that way and am constantly stopping to examine my choices, when Abe revealed his desire to hike all 9 of the Great Walks in New Zealand, I was a bit wary. The Great Walks are the most popular tramps in New Zealand, but the difficulty levels vary and all of them are multi-day hikes. Before coming here, I had never even considered doing a hike for more than a day. “Going on a hike is fun, but the next day I want to wake up clean and dry in my own bed,” I reasoned. But Abe wanted me to try a hike with him, and I felt like I should give what was clearly one of his top interests—camping and hiking, or tramping as they call it here—a real shot. So, he suggested we hike the Kepler Track, a three day-two night tramp around Lake Te Anau and up the mountains. “It’s supposed to be gorgeous,” he said. “I guess I’m doing this,” I thought.

Reading the NZ Department of Conservation brochure on the track made me nervous again. Their list of things you needed to bring on this hike was long and included things like emergency blankets, waterproof matches, and thermal underwear. And then I read about the weather on this tramp:

“Be prepared for at least one wet day or more on your trip…. Centred at latitude 45° south, Fiordland National Park lies in an area of predominately westerly airstreams, known as the Roaring 40s, delivering high rainfall and changeable weather patterns to the area. Cold temperatures, snow, strong winds and heavy rain can occur at any time of the year.”

Um, hmmm. I read further down, and there were separate sections on Hypothermia, Infections, Floods, Avalanches, High Winds, Getting Lost, and Heat Exhaustion. Crap. Now I was just flat out scared. Abe chuckled at all of my concerns, saying we would bring all of the right things, so I shouldn’t worry. But I was already nervous that I wouldn’t be able to hike for three days straight, especially if I wasn’t getting great sleep: we were planning to spend one night in the DOC huts—I wasn’t sure what to imagine for those—and one night camping in the wilderness.

My worry increased when Abe and I had dinner with our two friends here who also happen to be Girl Scouts, and they teased me about not knowing how to build a fire or pitch a tent, and asked me kiddingly, “What will you do if something happens to Abe, and you have to do all of this stuff yourself?”
I knew they were kidding, but it still bothered because I really didn’t have any idea how to do this stuff.

Our first day hiking, it rained. And the wind blew. And since we got a late start the sun was also setting which meant it was really freaking cold. We were just getting out of the woods, about an hour away from our hut that night when the rain turned into a downpour, and I started to lose feeling in my fingers. “What the fuck am I doing?” I thought. “I just want to go home, and I have two more days and nights of this.” But I couldn’t go home, and so I tried to carry on. Hiking with a big backpack was way harder than I expected too, I felt I could barely make it up each hill. A fellow hiker gave me her walking stick on her way out of the track, and I leaned all of my weight on it while I tried not to cry. “Can you walk a bit faster?” Abe asked me since we were getting wetter and colder with every minute that passed. “Actually, no! This is as fast as I can go,” I practically wailed. And it was true; I was dead on day one.

We made it to the hut about an hour later where we had access to gas stoves, and little mattresses on wooden bunks. Thankfully, this hut was really nice. I thought I might never be completely warm and dry that night, but after a few hours in my awesome mummy sleeping bag—I totally found it in the Salvation Army in Wanaka for 20 bucks!—I was actually sweating.

Day two is when I changed. We had hiked so far uphill day one, that day two seemed like a piece of cake. Yes, we still had some uphill, and yes, some parts of the path were frighteningly narrow despite being on top of the mountains, but I felt like a pro at this point. AND it was only raining intermittingly which meant from the gorgeous mountaintops we could stop and enjoy the breathtaking views of Lake Te Anau shrouded in wispy clouds and take pictures of each other looking like Frodo and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. Abe even taught me how to pitch our tent, and I cooked our dinner on our mini spider gas stove. I could do this! And actually have a lot of fun.

Day three it rained nearly all day again. At first I didn’t mind because it wasn’t as cold as day one, and hey, it was our last day. Abe and I had a private room in a hostel in Te Anau waiting for us, and we had already planned out our dinner for the evening once we got back. I could get through this last day. But as the rain poured on, it wore on me because it meant we couldn’t stop to rest and take off our packs because the ground was wet. And what were once pristine paths were now mudslides. When we stopped at a picnic area where we could have lunch, we found that we were swarmed with sandflies—think tiny mosquitos whose bites actually hurt and then itch for two weeks and then scar—so we didn’t stay there long. But what really got to me was that the land we were hiking through in this rain was all forest. Sure, occasionally the forest would change from being completely moss-covered to being full of huge ferns I thought were only found in some kind of South American rainforest, but really, there wasn’t much new to look at. And this was after day two when there was so much to see that I had to pull my gaze away from the scenery long enough to make sure I wasn’t falling off the side of the mountain.

Right when I started to complain that I seriously could NOT take any more of this forest, Abe and I crossed a bridge that looked eerily familiar. “Weird that they would put two bridges like that over the forest clearings,” I thought. And promptly forgot about it. About 30 minutes later we hit a sign we had already seen, and we realized we had somehow changed directions and just walked back to the hut we departed about 45 minutes before. That is when I really lost it. I had to trek through 45 minutes of the SAME forest I was dying to get out of? Fuck no. We should have been close to finished by then, and instead we now had over an hour of tramping to go. A few minutes after we turned around, my knee started to ache. Then my toes started curling up, and then my shoulders started refusing to straighten. I told Abe I wanted to sit down on the forest floor and just make the DOC personnel come pick me up. It seemed like that forest was never-ending, and the worst part was we could not see anything past trees and more trees.

But somehow I kept walking. I told myself to push forward because even though I could not see the end, it was somewhere. It was today. And eventually, though it seemed like hours instead of the one hour it was, we reached that ending sign: Rainbow Reach. And that was it: I had completed my first Great Walk on the Kepler Track.

It’s pretty amazing to me how adaptable humans are. I really thought I was going to freeze to death on day one, but I pushed myself through it and even got up on day two without complaints. I wanted to sit down on that forest floor and go crazy to myself until someone carried me out of there on day three, but I didn’t. I kept walking, and I found things to think about to get me through it. And though I told myself many times throughout the track that maybe I just wasn’t meant to tramp and that I’d never do it again, I was already composing a list of things to do differently for the next track. I wanted to go again, and I wanted to do it better. I felt physically dead upon completion of the track, but emotionally I felt strong and confident. If I can do this, I can do anything!

And so, even though Queenstown—the home base for most of the Fiordland National Park hikes including three of the Great Walks—is best known for “adventure sports” like bungee jumping, canyon swinging, and skydiving, I think it is much more adventurous to go hiking. I think it takes way more endurance, strength, and guts to push yourself through tests for 3 days or more in the wilderness than it does to have one moment of courage and say yes to jumping out of a plane.

So, fuck skydiving, I survived the Kepler Track. And my new gutsy, confident self is hitting the Routeburn Track next.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sex in hostels: as in, please do not have it

Abe and I have been in New Zealand for about 2 months now, but we've only stayed in 3 backpacker hostels so far, since we were working in Franz Josef for the bulk of this time. In 2 out of the 3 hostels, we have been, what in college we would have called "sexiled." People had sex in our rooms. But in college, no one has sex with someone while their roommate is in the room, they make them wait outside until the sex is over. In the backpacker world, however, I am discovering that it is quite common for an intoxicated backpacker to bring back their chosen sexual partner for the evening and have sex with them in a multi-bed dorm room. Even if this room is full of 6-16 other people, and even if these people are awake.

The first time I witnessed hostel sex, I was horrified. It was loud and seemed to last for an eternity—what began as whispering and kissing slowly progressed to giggling and heavy breathing, and I kept thinking, “This is not going to happen. This girl will never say yes to having sex in a multi bed dorm room in a hostel. She is going to say no.” And then the creaking noises began. So, apparently she said yes.

I couldn’t find my headphones that night, and I was so paralyzed with shock that it was even happening that I listened to the entire thing, including the girl letting herself out at the end. Needless to say, I was traumatized for a few days, and just a bit angry.

My second time as a witness, I was prepared. I had already fallen asleep on a top bunk of an 8-bed dorm room when I woke up to someone accidentally turning on a light and laughing about it. Another voice, a girl, laughed and slurred, “Are there other people in here?!” Crap, this is going to happen again.

I had my headphones on and Radiohead’s new CD blasting just as the first bout of heavy breathing began. Fortunately, I had been meaning to give this new album a close listen since I bought it a few days before just hadn’t found the time. Now the time had found me. After my first listen I tepidly removed one earphone to see if all was quiet yet. I heard moaning. And I decided this album was really deserved of a second close listen at full volume.

Somewhere during that listen, the sex concluded and the girl went home. I looked down at the backpacker guy sprawled out on a bed below me like a caveman: mouth wide open, dirty-looked hair matted, legs and arms hanging off the bed, and wondered, “Who ARE these girls?!”

I know I could be wondering who are these guys too, but it just doesn’t seem as hard to fathom. I have seen far too many male backpackers around who look like they haven’t showered in weeks (even though all of the hostels I’ve stayed in have great showers) and are on their 15th country on their world tour or something. I can just hear them in my mind telling stories to their friends when they get home about sleeping with girls in every country in the hostels. And if any of their friends bring up the fact that other people sleep in those hostel beds and probably listened or saw these sex acts, they would laugh and say, “Hey, I hope they enjoyed the show.”

No. We are not enjoying the show. But maybe I’m not being fair because after all, guys are people too. So, I’ll just say this:

If you are having sex in a multi bed hostel, yes, all of the other people in the hostel are awake, and yes, they hate you. Please stop. If you are thinking about having sex in a multi bed hostel, don’t. Man up and pay for the single room, it’s only a bit extra, and many, many people who got to go through life without witnessing sex in a hostel will thank you in the long run. And I will thank you right now because I still have a few months of staying in these hostels to go.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Seasonal Work in a Small Town

About one week after coming to New Zealand I got an offer to work as a seasonal worker in the small town of Franz Josef Glacier. I have now worked in Franz as a waitress in the hotel’s tour group restaurant--meaning my life consists of phrases like “Soup or Salad?” “Lamb or Fish?” “No, Hari Hari is a small town in New Zealand, not a type of farming,”--for seven weeks. Working at a hotel in a small town is like working at an even smaller town within the small town. Everyone works together in the 2 hotels and lives together in 3 different staff houses, so there is no such thing as separation. Since I have only lived in a large suburb and cities, when I first arrived, I was excited to try small town life. When I first got here, I felt very important because true to the small town, word got around I was coming before I arrived, and people were excited to meet me. Most people wanted to know everything about me. I quickly learned though that the downside of the small town is also true: anything you say or do is known by everyone instantly: dating habits, your past, that time you got way too drunk. And if you piss off the wrong people in the small town, you will very quickly feel excluded from everything.

Since Franz Josef Glacier is a tourist town that most tourists only stop in for one day and night--they see the glacier, have dinner, have breakfast the next morning, and they’re gone—it makes this small town feel even more prosaic. The majority of the businesses here are targeted toward those 1 day inhabitants: the gift shops, the adventure tour places, and the entire strip of hotels. No one in the world seems to think this town is worth spending more than one day of their lives in, and yet, we live here. When I first moved to Franz, I thought I would love talking to the tourists that came through about their adventures; after all, I am a fellow traveller. But I soon realized that talking to the people who come through here is awful because it’s the same routine every time. When I walk into one of the two bars in town, Monsoon or Blue Ice Café, and am immediately approached by at least one guy who wants to “hear your story.” They then launch into their story about backpacking around New Zealand and possibly a few other countries in Southeast Asia, or maybe they’re even on a “world tour” visiting some odd 15 countries or more. They wanted to see the world, do something different, or have an adventure. They are really missing everyone in their hometown or everyone at home is missing them. They’re just looking for a good time for their one night in Franz. But I live here now, and even if I was single, I wouldn’t want to be their good time for one night.

Living in a small town, there is no anonymity. I always know the people in the bar, not just the bartenders and bouncers but all of the patrons. One of the first weeks we were here, a few of my friends and I chatted up a waiter we thought was cute at The Landing, the more popular of the two restaurants in town, and in the next few days following we realized why you can never do that in a town the size of Franz. We saw him at the bar, Monsoon,  one of two bars young people go to in town, at the supermarket, and every time we wanted to go back to The Landing. A few weeks later we found out he also worked at the Kayaking Tour place, so we couldn’t go there anymore either.

When I first arrived in Franz Josef, the HR Coordinator at the hotel was conversationally telling me what kinds of cars people who worked here drove. I thought it was very odd at the time, but I quickly realized why she would recognize everyone’s car. Any time you walk anywhere in Franz Josef you will have at least one car pull over next to you to make sure you don’t need a ride somewhere. Even on a nice day when you want to walk or really don’t want to run into someone, there will always be a friendly face pulling up beside you to say hello, what you are doing and to find out if you need a lift.

I think what surprised me the most about working a seasonal job here was how close you can get to people. Since everyone who works at the hotel lives together and works together, I was expecting to be really sick of everyone here in a short amount of time. It seemed like too much exposure to each other. But I really found the reverse was true. Living in such close proximity to people allows you to form close relationships really quickly. You cannot live in the same place and work the same long hours with someone without finding out all of the weird intricacies of their personality. I quickly learned who liked the same music as me, who told great stories, and who made the best Chewbacca impression. I developed weird jokes that wouldn’t make sense to anyone not working in this hotel in this small town because you need to laugh a lot to work in a town this small and in the tourism industry.

My co-workers and I all joke that a person does not have to work here long to go crazy, and that “Everyone does go crazy eventually.. look at you, you were so normal when you arrived here,” my co-worker Luke teases me. But I think we all secretly love how crazy we’ve gotten. I have known the people here for less than two months, and we have no inhibitions with each other anymore. When else can you say that? Although I really miss the amenities—and the sunshine since this small town happens to be in the middle of the rain forest—of city life, I will miss the family that I have started to develop at the hotel in Franz Josef. I don’t think I could have hoped to get to know people this well on my vacation, but I’m so glad I do.

My town:

My people: