Entry #049: Friday, December 26, 2013 (Omarama, New Zealand)

Hey all, hope you had a wonderful Christmas, filled with good times and smiling friends and families. If you're hoping to here this smug guy say he felt homesick on that day, well I'm sorry, but I'm too smug for that. Actually, there's a couple reasons why I didn't really feel any homesickness on Christmas. First, despite knowing it was Christmas, I have never been able to really get into Christmas "mode", and so it never really registered in that way. Second, I was actually having a pretty good time. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here's what the haps have been, not only on Christmas, but the days surrounding it as well. Wow, what a scoop!

So, on the 23rd, I woke up earlier than I was planning to. Like, way earlier. It was light when I first looked at my phone (because I knew my alarm would go off, and I didn't want to bother anyone else) and saw that it was only 5:45. Yeesh. I don't know why, but it's been getting harder and harder to stay asleep as long as I'd like. Maybe it's the early sunrise. Maybe it's the fact that there are other people in the room. Maybe it's the fact that most hostels have check-out at 10am, meaning that you have to mentally prep yourself earlier, even if not checking out. Maybe all three. But in any case, I tried going back to sleep, and had some success with that, but eventually got up shortly before my alarm was going to go off. I got up, packed all my things, dropped my key on the front desk, and headed out. (I did have a bit of a scare when I saw that I was missing the bag for my quick-drying towel. ...Okay, scare is a bit of an overstatement. How about "mild sense of disappointment"? In any case, I found it sitting near the bathrooms, so I guess I must have dropped it when showering one night.

I headed out and walked the mile and a half to get to the bus stop. I had left my big backpack in "luggage" mode - that is, all the straps put away - and was somewhat regretting it, because the thing can feel quite heavy to hold after walking all that way. (That's not even considering that I was also carry a grocery bag with a couple of the consumables I had bought.) I sat down with all the other folks and waited a while for the bus. When it came, we went through a long process of packing our bags based on where we were going - people going to the last stop put their bags in the back, people going to the first stop put it in the front, etc. - though I found this whole process to be a bit unnecessary when we were told that buses would be changed at Tekapo, the first major stop. But I'm no bus driver, so I don't make the rules.

Anyway, it was about a four-hour drive, all-told. I had three different folks sit next to me during that time. The first was some Korean guy who hadn't actually booked the bus, and was lucky enough that the driver was willing to use the guide chair (the seat where a guide would sit with a microphone and narrate the trip) to accomodate one more person. He didn't say much. After the first stop, though, his seat was usurped by an old woman, who was quite the chatty one. She went on and on about how great New Zealand is, how awful Australia is, how cows are terrible, how this place used to be different way back when, how that place is a great place to settle down, how I should have gotten a job here, how the bus driver should be giving us information about the places we're passing, and so on and so forth. She was also one of those people who slaps you every time they start a sentence (on the shoulder, not the face). *Slap* "You should write a book about your travels." *Slap* "I don't remember seeing that house there before. Must be new." She also asked questions about the US. "Do you have Subways in the States?" And then she asked how much a house of a certain size would cost in the US, and when I started to say that it's really dependent on where you're specifically looking, she got annoyed and said, "Oh, come now, either you know or you don't." While I don't mind talking to old people, she wore me out a bit. So when she got off at and another old woman came on, I was a touch relieved to see her open a book to read. I was less relieved to see that the book was, in fact, Fifty Shades of Grey.

When we got to Tekapo, I grabbed my bags, took a very cursory look at the lake - it was pretty amazing - and then made my way to the hostel. I'd have plenty of time to explore; I just wanted now to check-in, get the best bed I could, and put my bag down. Thankfully, because this was a pretty small town, it wasn't a far walk. And the hostel was very appealing from the moment I saw it. That's primarily because the first thing I saw was a hammock. Maybe it's harking back to my lazy Saturday afternoons at Askari, but a hammock in the yard is just such a great feature. There were also chickens strutting around the place, which I suppose doesn't really denote quality as of such, but I think it got me thinking back to some of the other places that I've been. The people inside were also quite nice, it was in a quiet area, right next to a tennis court, and overall I could find little to fault it on.

When I checked in, I was informed that there would be a Christmas Eve potluck dinner, the idea being to bring in something that represented your own country. I was immediately endeared to the idea, as I love potlucks, but I knew from the get-go that this might be tricky, because I doubted I would have either the ingredients or the equipment available to make one of the dishes that I'm good at, much less something that represents American. I was then taken to my room, where I met Alton (I think it's Alton; it might be Elton?), a very nice guy from China who's been working in New Zealand for the last several months, speaks very good English, plays the intro to "Bohemian Rhapsody" pretty convincingly on his ukulele, and seemed like a pretty chill guy, who said he'd like to do a trip like mine, except that it's even more difficult when you're Chinese and have to cut through whole heaps of red tape, which I can understand. He told me that he was working at the observatory, doing stargazing tours. See, Lake Tekapo is known to have one of the darkest night skies in the world (I would dispute this claim myself, but I may get to that later), and so stargazing is a big activity here. Unfortunately, the cost is somewhere in the $75+ range, much more than I am willing to pay just to be able to stand on top of a hill to look at stars. So I figured I'd make due with such opportunities elsewhere.

After milling around and getting myself set up in my room, I decided to go down to the local grocery store. Alton had warned me that it would be more expensive here than elsewhere, which I kinda figured, and knowing that I could bring on a grocery bag to the bus without getting hassled, I kind of wished I had thought to stock up in Christchurch. But whatever, it turned out to be, really, only marginally more pricey. That said, the biggest question I faced at the store (aside from whether I should get the 200g of sliced ham, or the considerably more economical 900g of unsliced ham [I got the 200g, because 900g is a lot]) was what I was going to do for the potluck. I mean, what does one do to represent America that's not just, like, hot dogs? I considered doing the Mexican chicken salad that won so many hearts in South Africa (as I consider it more of a California dish than an actual Mexican one). In fact, I considered a number of California-esque dishes, but all of them required avocados. And every single avocado in this store was rock-hard. Like, murder-ready. No way they were going to be able to ripen in a day. So, I wandered around the store like an idiot for maybe a half-hour, not really knowing what I was doing (and this was not a big store in even the most generous of estimations). I looked online for other potential potluck recipes, but all of these either required ingredients that just couldn't be found in such a small store, or were small amounts of expensive ingredients (spices and the like), that would balloon my costs up immensely. Eventually, I just said "Nuts to this," and got a frozen apple pie (because "American as apple pie") and a frozen cheesecake (because...New York cheesecake? Really, I didn't want to risk getting two apple pies). It may have been a lazy cop-out, but I can't really be in good potluck mode when I don't have my kitchen and supplies handy.

When I got back, I spoke a little bit more with Alton, talking a bit about my travels and this and that. One thing I noted when speaking with him, and with some other people, is when they asked how I like New Zealand compared to some of the other places, I would say (after noting that I haven't been here long), that the place is exceptionally beautiful, but I do, but it also feels very comfortable. And I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. Like, it doesn't actually feel as much of an adventure here as it did when I was in third-world countries. Like, those places would have scam artists, and motorcycles nearly running you over, and mushrooms growing out of hotel walls, but I guess that was all part of the kick, y'know. Most of the people I've spoken to who've "been all over the world" haven't actually been in Africa (and, to a lesser extent, South America), so they don't know that being in a less...organized place actually does make for some interesting stories. I also brought up the possibly-related fact that I've mentioned before of my exploits kind of numbing me, both in terms of being amazed by stuff and being annoyed by stuff.

I considered going out on a walk, but it was already well past 4:30 at this point, and some of the main walking paths closed down at 6pm (as in, you can't be on them at 6pm), so I decided to forgo any walks until the following day. Instead, I just...did nothing, really. Relaxed a bit. I decided to go out to the hammock, but after only a few minutes, it started sprinkling. Not much, but enough that made it (along with the cold) not seem like great hammock weather. As I walked back in, I was amused to see some Chinese women be scared of a chicken. Like, they wanted to go in the building, but this chicken was just casually walking near the pathway. It didn't do anything intimidating, it was just there, but they were treating it like it was a spitting cobra. I walked past them and lightly brushed the chicken aside with my foot, thus clearing a path for them. I later went into the kitchen, had some dinner, and saw the sign advertising the potluck. That's when I saw that it said that Wilma (part of the family that owns the hostel) was providing "all the desserts". Wellllll......crud. I had already marked my frozen desserts as "For Potluck" already. Now I was going to look like a scumbag. Well, I'd have to figure that out later. I went back to my room to relax more for the night. To continue my WiFi misadventures, I had to pay $25 for a week's worth of WiFi, up to a terabyte of bandwidth. That sounds pretty okay (better than $1 for 10mb, that's for sure), but when the download speeds are like 50kbps, and it cuts out have the time, it seems like a not-terribly-great investment. ...Still better than $1 for 10mb, though. In any case, the beds in this place were super cozy, and I had no trouble falling asleep.

The next day - Christmas Eve, as it was - I got up, milled around in bed for a bit while my mind sought to catch up with my awake body, and I went into the kitchen. I was actually hoping to have a kind of peanut butter and jam sandwich for breakfast, but I guess the free jam that was available was all used up, so I was left with just peanut butter and plain ol' butter (though not combined on the toast). While I was doing this, I was also having a cup of tea and prepping my lunch for the day. I must say, this was less graceful than expected - don't try to eat one meal while prepping another, kids. Having finished making my sandwich for the day, I went back to my room, packed up my backpack with all the things that might come in handy (including the sterilizer pen, in case I needed to drink some lakewater). I then left about 10am or so.

I got the lake, and just stopped for a while, admiring its blueness. Seriously, it's blue. Oddly blue. Preternaturally blue. If you see any picture of this lake and think, "Man, that looks too blue (or turquoise)," you're wrong. Those colors are legit. According to the official website, "The amazing turquoise blue colour of Lake Tekapo is created by "rock flour" - the glaciers in the headwaters grind the rock into fine dust. These suspended particles in combination with the sunlight create Lake Tekapo's unique water colour." So there you go. But still, when you see it, you just have to gape in awe.

As I walked along the eastern side of the lake, I could only continue to admire the beauty and majesty of the place. Like, every single view you have, every picture you take, could easily be a postcard. There is a range of mountains surrounding the whole place, there are vast, open plains and other lakes to the northeast, and when the clouds broke up a bit, it created a gorgeous sky. And I'm not even mentioning the flowers. Well, okay, I will now. There are just large patches of wildflowers every so often, of pinks and purples and indigo. They are apparently called "lupins", and they were quite beautiful. There was this one moment along the walk I got what I called a "beauty cake" picture. Through two trees, I could see a layer of flowers, a layer of lake, a layer of distant mountains, and a layer of cloudy sky. "Pretty as a picture" is as apt a description as I can think of.

There were also sheep. Of course.

A couple things I noticed on my way up. First of all, I noticed I was experiencing allergies again. It wasn't nearly as bad as the allergies I experienced in Kaikoura, but they were definitely a thing, no doubt about it. I'm not sure what exactly it is - I can assume one of the native grasses, but can't really pinpoint which - but at least I'm not allergic to the whole of New Zealand, as that would be pretty crappy. Another thing I noticed - this was taking me longer than I had anticipated. According to the map I was given, there were two connected paths I wanted to take. One was a 2-hour loop to the observatory and back, and the other was a 3- or 4-hour addition to that, which would go further north. However, I was already about two and a half-maybe three hours in when I got to the observatory. I couldn't imagine why - my legs had seemed fine, and I didn't think the allergies slowed me down that much. But at that point, I was looking around desperately for the second, longer route, trying to keep an eye on the clock to make sure I didn't keep myself too late. After walking around the observatory a couple times, checking my map and compass, and generally being frazzled, I came to the conclusion you already had - that I had gone the opposite way and come up the long path. So...that made sense. And it was just as well, because it was windy as hell at the observatory. So much so that I was occasionally having a hard time walking. (I was told that the top of Mount John, where the observatory was based, had the highest recorded wind on record, but I stand a little dubious of their superlative claims in Tekapo.)

I walked back down, along the first, shorter path, which only took about 45 minutes. Once I got to the bottom, it seemed like the wind had followed me down. It was raining very slightly, but the wind was whipping that rain southward and straight into me, stinging my face. Looking out at the lake, I could see rain falling in the distant mountains, making me think it might get worse, so I quickened my pace. Before heading back to the hostel, though, I stopped back at the grocery store. I wanted to get myself some extra food to have more real dinners after this potluck was done, but I also wanted to get some more to contribute to the potluck itself. So, I decided to go simple: chips and dips. That's American, right? So, I bought three cans of various beans (almost $8! Crazy!), some salsa, a pack of pre-made guacamole, and some plain salted Doritos (which I had never known existed before). I got back to the hostel, and saw that some preparations were already being made for the potluck. I set my things aside for the moment, and went back to my room.

As I walked through kitchen on people preparing, and through to my building, it was only then that I realized how many Asians were here. Like, I don't recall seeing very many Asian people in New Zealand, but they all seemed to be inside this hostel. Especially Chinese. Funnily enough, some of the other tenants noted how many Chinese people there were, but it didn't occur to me until now how right they were. And, oddly enough, no Germans. My only real concern about this was that I now faced the very real possibility of a Christmas Eve potluck that was all authentic Chinese food (because that's what these folk were cooking). Having grown thoroughly over authentic Chinese food on this trip, it wasn't an ideal proposition, but what could I and my bean dip do?

Anyway, I relaxed around the hostel, meeting some more of the tenants, including a nice girl from Japan named Nei, a French girl named Juliette (which I thought for sure was fake at first), and a girl from Hong Kong named...well, I don't remember her name, but two for three is pretty okay. I also found out that the French guy I met in Kaikoura (apparently named Christopher) was in a different hostel in town, though I only found this out when he came into our hostel asking for Juliette. Small world, eh? After some time had passed, I decided to start making my bean dip. There was still plenty of time before the dinner would actually start, but I figured people could snack whilst they prepared their own dishes. It wasn't a totally ideal situation - the kitchen was utterly crowded (that's the thing about potlucks - all the dishes are supposed to be made in different kitchens), a popping bubble of boiling beans scalded my hand - literally, I was scalded by beans - and I think I may have added the salsa too early, somewhat caramelizing the tomatoes and giving the whole thing a slightly smokier flavor than I would have liked (though, to be honest, the salsa may have had a smokey flavor to begin with; I didn't test it). Still, it was done, and it was decent. I poured some chips in a big bowl, put the bean dip in two smaller bowls, and the guac in a bowl smaller still, and...nobody ate it. I realized that maybe all the Chinese folk didn't really go for tortilla chips and bean dip. I took a couple bites myself, just to break the top of the dip and show that it was popular, and then continued conversing some more, primarily with a girl from Holland.

(Note: No, I wasn't specifically targeting girls to talk to; it just so happened that there were three times as many women staying at this hostel as men. Don't ask me about the implications there.)

To my mild relief, as the actual dinner hour approached, some non-Chinese food appeared. Salads, sausages, asparagus, potatoes au gratin, sushi, all sorts of stuff. It was really starting to look like an bountiful and eclectic feast. As the hostel-owning family showed up, the directed us to grab our food and head outside, where some tables were set up on the lawn. Thankfully, at this point, the clouds had parted a bit, and we were starting to see the sun make its descent in the sky. It was still a little breezy, but not altogether terrible. So, we all sat out there, eating good food, looking at the amazing views of mountains and clouds with the most silver of linings, sharing laughs and enjoying good company. I was really happy to have taken part in this - it really had a homey feeling to it. And for good reason: apparently, the host family had been doing this Christmas Eve potluck for the last 22 years. So they knew what they were doing. They even gave us all Christmas crackers (which is apparently and English and Commonwealth tradition - it's, like, a popping tube that contains a paper crown [mine ripped when trying to fit on my enormous head], a Popsicle-stick caliber joke, and a "toy" [mine was a tiny plastic sheep pendant, which had a threading hole so small you could probably only use dental floss]) and a mysterious envelope, which we were told to open on Christmas. It was a really great experience, and any sort of homesickness I might have felt (which hasn't really been too much of a thing for Christmas, mainly because I never really got into Christmas mode this year) was cast aside.

I helped wash up the dishes, simultaneously putting my pie in (I decided to hold the cheesecake for my own personal use on Christmas day, like the miser I am). But it became immediately obvious that it was going to miss out on being part of the main dessert course, because it still had 50 minutes to go, and dessert was being served...now. And really, they didn't need my pie. There was ice cream, fruit salad, eclairs, trifle, some kind of not-yule-log cake, and something else that I didn't eat and can't remember. It was quite delicious. As we were finishing up with that, all the Chinese people (who I think were all in one group) filed away to their rooms, while the rest of the people stayed around, talked, and looked at playing games. I checked on my pie, and saw that it wasn't even warm. That's when I saw that you had to flip four different switches to actually turn the oven heat on. Seriously, these southern-hemisphere ovens are so needlessly complicated.

While my pie was finally warming up, I decided to play Monopoly (The Hobbit edition) with four of the girls staying in the place. I decided to play banker, mainly because it was a low-stress role that allowed me to make snide comments at all times, and win (because part of the satire of Monopoly is that no matter how well the best player does, the bank always comes out on top). While I take some contention to the fact that you don't buy property, but characters (implied slavery?), I did also find it fun to try to get into the Tolkein lore, making sure I read out all the flavor on the Chance and Community Chest cards, whereas the girls just cared about the ''Receive $50" part. We actually got a fairly complete game going before quitting (in the sense that one person clearly had the advantage and another person went bankrupt). Along the way, my pie finished, and I had the tiniest of slices. It was nice and hot and gooey and tasty. To my surprise, though, by the time the game was finished, and I bid adieu to the girls, I saw that two thirds of the pie was gone. That meant it already had been more popular than my bean dip. *Sad trumpet.* Hey, at least the guacamole was totally eaten.

Before going back into my room, I decided to go out stargazing. I didn't want to go down to the lake, so I went to the darkest place I could find, which was in the middle of a nearby park. There, I took a couple of pictures and just admired the view. I suppose the first-quarter moon could have been a factor, but it hadn't risen yet. Even so, I didn't think it was even all that impressive. It definitely didn't seem like the darkest sky in the world. Dark, yes, but I felt the African bush sky was darker, as was the Himalayan sky. I definitely didn't feel that my pictures were as good as in those two places, though that could also be because there was no milky way. Again, my prior experiences are making me jaded to what would have otherwise been one of the most amazing skies I've seen in my life. Such is such is such, I suppose. I did see some shooting stars, though, and no amount of jadedness could ever spoil that kind of feeling. Afterward, I went back to my room and in my cap, had just settled down to a long winter's summer's nap.

Next morning: Christmas! Yay! Except...well, it wasn't the kind of Christmas I'm used to, but that's all good. I got to sleep in a bit, and I knew from the get-go that it was going to be a very relaxed, low-key day. I got up, had some toast, tea, and yogurt for breakfast, and chatted with some of the girls in the hostel. (During this conversation, the girl from Hong Kong gave all of us who had played Monopoly little charms as Christmas gifts; I got one which was to ward off bad luck and bring in good luck. I thought that was very sweet of her.) As it turned out, we had all thought separately to go to the local lakeside church, the Church of the Good Shepherd (which I've been told is the most photographed church in the world, but again, superlatives in Tekapo should be taken with a grain of salt). It seemed like everyone was going for their own reasons. I wanted to go because, hey, it's Christmas, and I should probably go to church. For others, it was more of a photographic opportunity. Nei, the Japanese girl, was just interested in seeing how Christmas was celebrated by Christians. So, I got ready to go to the church, but not before remembering the envelope I was given the night before. Nei and I opened ours at the same time, revealing a very sweet note and some home-baked cookies (mine were broken; my fault for leaving the envelope in my pants pocket, I suppose).

So, Nei and I walked over to the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was already filled to over-capacity. I mean, church is a bit generous; I would have called it a chapel, as you can fit, maybe, thirty people inside comfortably. So, a bunch of people were standing on the outside. I grabbed a couple Mass booklets for Nei and myself (I had correctly assumed that this place was going to be an Anglican church, and they always, always have Mass booklets, basically guiding you through every single step, response, and song of the service). The service itself was...a mixed bag. The priest was a very animated guy, and actually felt alive when he talked, so that was nice. But the main parishioner, who was more-or-less in charge of everything that was not mandated to be done by a priest, was old and old-fashioned. Every time he spoke, it was with the grim solemnity that made it seem more like a funeral for a stone slab, rather than the joyous birth of our Lord. And the music, oh the music. It was your standard Christmas fare, but they seemed insistent in going at octaves above their range. And the aforementioned old man was leading all the songs. And he did not have a voice for leading songs. It was cracking every other line; honestly, it was a bit sad, especially when singing is such a major part of the service. So when it started raining, I could not really blame some of the folks for just flat-out leaving. Were this someone's first experience of Christianity, it would be a great advertisement for non-religiousness. I have to admit, even I was considering calling it a day if the rain got too bad, but they were able to open up a little bit more room inside (by opening up the supply closet), so Nei and I went inside to watch the remainder of the Mass. And I will say, the priest's homily started out pretty damn standard ("We all forget the real meaning of Christmas"), but he pulled it through by basically saying, "Well, you all knew that, so let's talk about something else." In the end, it wasn't the worst Mass I've ever been to, but it definitely didn't have any great energy to it.

Afterward, I talked a bit around the front of the church, with the priest, with some of the other backpackers, etc, and then Nei and I walked back to the hostel, where I answered all the questions she had about Christian and Catholic beliefs. (For the record, she thought the service, for all it's issues, was very interesting as an outsider.) I have to say, I think I'm an okay teacher of religious beliefs, because on the one hand, I can explain a lot of stuff clearly and thoroughly, and on the other, I always note stuff being a part of Christian mythology, rather than saying outright, "this is truth, convert, convert". Unfortunately, I must have been feeling too smug about my teaching abilities, because God chose to humble me by giving me a completely unprompted nosebleed, just as we were arriving at the hostel. (I somewhat wondered what Nei thought about that, as nosebleeds have some certain connotations in Japanese popular culture, which I won't go into here.)

After cleaning myself up, I had a late lunch (in which I was actually able to use the toasted sandwich press, which really did make it a bit more pleasant. I ate and talked some more with the people inside, and then went back to my room, where I proceeded to write for a few hours. I did go out for a brief walk (just around the nearby streets, not to the lake, as the weather was still on the rainy side), but came back and continued writing, pretty much up to dinner time. I was prepped to start cooking my cheesecake - my cheesecake, just for me - but saw that it was just a defrost deal, so I set that aside, and cooked my dinner, which was the most slapdash kind of meal I could possibly think of - a half-bag of frozen mixed veggies, a bag of mince (aka ground beef), and a random assortment of whatever spices and sauces were on the nearby free shelf. By all rights, it should have tasted terrible, but it was actually pretty decent. Some spinach on the side, some crackers with leftover bean dip, and a sherry glass filled with Diet Coke: this definitely was not your mother's Christmas dinner (or mine), that's for sure. While eating, Alton and I talked a bit more (I've been doing a lot of talking with folks at this hostel - see, I'm not against being social, I just need to be in the right environment). I then went back to the room and did some more writing and relaxing.

After some time, I decided to go back to the kitchen to have a piece of my guilty little cheesecake. Unfortunately, when I got in (and this past 8pm, mind you), the kitchen was entirely full of people cooking. I noticed they were all Chinese again (though I didn't recognize many of them). I honestly don't know where they're hiding during the rest of the day; they're just invisible until they come out to cook, and then they swarm the kitchen. I appreciate folk who cook their own meals, but man, 20+ people cooking at once just creates havoc. I just tried to wait until some of them dispersed with their food before I could even get my cheesecake from its hiding place. When I finally did, I cut myself a smaller slice than Christmas deserved, but had to wait to wash my plate, because there were people still using both sinks. So, in the meantime, I spoke with an Australian girl (Christine, I think) who I'd seen doing a puzzle all day. She still had a little ways to go, and I clearly wasn't going anywhere, so I helped her out a bit. Basically, this then occupied my next hour and change. But it was fun; I've forgotten how enjoyable puzzles are when they're done in groups. About halfway in, her boyfriend showed up (and near the very end, another dude helped for the last few pieces). The biggest headache we had was when a piece was placed in the wrong spot (where it fit perfectly and even looked kinda close). In the end, we did get the puzzle finished, and all gave each other high fives. (I was especially thankful some troll didn't remove a single piece.) It was a nice little diversion, and I celebrated by sharing some of my greed cheesecake with them before heading back to my room to relax and, eventually, go to bed.

My trouble with sleeping in continued into the following morning. In fact, I think it was exacerbated by the fact that I knew I had to get up early, and by my desire not to have my alarm wake everyone else up, I ended up getting up before my alarm. Way before. Like, 5am before. In fact, several times I woke up before my alarm went off, seemingly at half-hour intervals. This may not have bothered me, save for the fact that when it actually was time to get up, I now felt groggy, and so had to force myself. (Like I've noted numerous times before, I'm not a morning person). I grabbed my stuff, went to the kitchen to make myself breakfast, and then waited out in front of the hostel with some other people for the shuttle that would take us to the Aokari (Mount Cook) National Park. To my surprise, Nei was among them, so we kind of implicitly agreed we'd go hiking together, so to have the ever-so-common issue of doing self-timed shots.

The drive over was fairly nice, and the fact that we didn't have to pick up additional folks in the town of Twizel (aka Gondor, a good 45 minutes out of our way) meant that we got to our location with more time to spare. Along the way, we took a couple breaks to take photo shoots, and the shuttle driver was nice enough to give us some info about the area, geologically and historically. (Interesting note: The area, called the "Mackenzie County," was named after a Scottish-born dude named James Mackenzie who came to New Zealand, was caught stealing 1,000 sheep, escaped from prison twice, was recaptured within three days both times, was told to leave New Zealand forever, and now has a county named after him reasons Ican't even begin to comprehend.) The main concern we had whilst driving was that the cold, wet, cloudy weather that was in Tekapo seemed to be following us. The driver said we could only hope that the weather would clear up as the day went on. So hope we did.

We ended up getting to our dropoff point at this place called the Hermatige Hotel, which had a connecting Alpine Center named in honor of Edmund Hillary. For a second, I thought I was back in Nepal. I was actually a little confused by why Hillary would have a place named after him in New Zealand, seeing as he was British. Whoops, no, he's actually a New Zealander. Suddenly it all makes more sense. In any case, Nei and I were briefly discussing where we were going to be walking up, when I quickly excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I got out, she (and everyone, for that matter) was gone. I figured one of two things had happened: either she didn't hear me, and thought I ditched her, or she herself was also doing some last-minute things. I thus waited about five or six minutes before I reasoned that she had already left, and so then continued on my own.

I had seen some pictures of this place on a mostly clear, sunny day, and it's absolutely gorgeous. But on this gray, drizzly day, it just seemed...well, it still looked very impressive, but not any particularly inspiring way. Also, we couldn't even see Mount Cook (which is how I'll refer to it, because I can't remember how to spell Aokari), so that was a bummer. At the very least, I could see some glaciers on the side of one of the hills, as well as the remnants of glaciers long since past. (This actually made me feel a bit more comfortable about my decision not to go to the glaciers in Argentina, especially since I'll be seeing more before this is all done.) I followed path signs which led me up to a pair of areas called Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut. I was originally planning to go to the hut, because it's the longest walk, but the shuttle driver suggested against it, due to the cloud cover. So, I decided to go to the Sealy Tarns, which would give me more time for other things.

The walk was fairly steep, but for the most part, it was just a bunch of stairs. Not really much to say about it all; it was cold and wet indeed, but altogether not too bad. Try telling that to a pair of French guys who were coming down the mountain, decked out in head-to-toe rain gear. For my part, I was dressed in the same getup I had in the Sahara: undershirt, unbuttoned overshirt, shemagh, hat. These guys looked at me as though I were absolutely nuts. "There's snow up there," they warned me. I was still quite comfortable myself (plus, I had my jacket packed away in case it got really bad), so I just thanked them for the note and continued up, to their bemusement. I continued up for another half-hour or so, until I just stopped and took note of what my situation was. I hadn't reached the snow yet, but I was definitely in the cloud. I didn't mind the cold or the wetness, but the visibility was a contention point. Oh, I could see the path just fine, but that's about it. I wanted to go on this path because it was supposed to have great views. All I could see was white. This really wasn't worthwhile; I could see more at the bottom. Additionally, I was really confused as to if I passed Sealy Tarns or not, because everyone was talking as though I was just going to the hut. I decided to cut my losses and descend. Sure enough, once I got below the cloud line, I could suddenly see the landscape.

I got to the bottom, and took a short side trip to a place called Kea Point, which was really just a viewpoint of a glacial lake. Not terribly interesting, though on the way back, it started raining a bit. Rather than, say, put on my jacket, I decided to seek shelter in a small outcropping of rock. I probably didn't have to - it wasn't that bad of a rain - but there was something about finding this little spot in a generally open valley that genuinely provided protection (but was only big enough for one) that was just so damn charming. I loved sitting in that little spot that I continued to do so well after the rain had stopped, sitting and relaxing and watching the people who walked by, like some sort of hermit. Once I got out of there, I walked into this vast open area called Hooker Valley (not nearly as risque as one might think). It was a fairly easy walk between mountain ranges and glacial rivers; I was very careful not to fall into the likely sub-zero water as I hopped from stone to stone for a good river picture. One bit of disappointment came from the fact that, no fewer than four times, I heard the low, distant rumbling sound that as fairly indicative of an avalanche. The problem was, I could only hear them, never see them. It's the same as it was on the Everest Base Camp trek. I realize it might be a bit perverse, but I really want to film a non-life-endangering avalanche at some point on this trip.

The path just kept going and going. It wasn't until I was about an hour and a half in that I realized that the sign never provided an estimated travel time; it just had an arrow, as if to simply say, "Go". I needed to be back at the meeting point by 4pm, else they would leave without me (and the driver emphasized that he would leave), which would cause quite a few issues. I decided to turn around and make my way back to town. When I was nearly there, I got another nosebleed, which I just found super mysterious. On the bright side, though, I noticed at that point that I hadn't been suffering from allergies all day, so I guess it was an okay trade. I got to the meeting point with 15 minutes to spare (it's a good thing I was paying attention to the clock), and there I found Nei. Turns out, she had gone all the way up to the Mueller Hut, and just as I had suspected, there was absolutely no visibility up there, and she didn't have much time to go on any of the other walks.

We talked while waiting for the shuttle, and then shared some photos on the ride back. I also used the ride back to doze off a bit, which felt pretty nice. When we got back to the hostel, I dropped off my stuff and said hello to the new people in the dorm. (This place seems to have a quicker turnaround than many of the hostels I've been in; I can only wonder what it's like for Alton, staying here so long and having such a revolving door of roommates; in some ways, I'm a bit surprised (and honored, I suppose) that he sees fit to regularly engage me in conversation. In any case, I settled down a bit for about a half-hour or so, and then went to have dinner. I still had leftovers from my exquisite Christmas dinner (sadly, the bean dip was thrown away), and truth be told, I had way more than I realized. It could have been two dinners, to be honest. But...eh. After eating, I went back to my room to write. Nei and I formed a little bit of a trade; she washed some of my clothes in exchange for my needle and thread to sew a hole in a garment of hers. I then just continued to relax, and organized my bags a bit in preparation for checking out the next day.

Now, today was, more or less, a whole lotta nothin'. Not that I'm complaining; they can't all be eventuful. I woke up, had breakfast, and packed all my things. I "checked out" of the hostel significantly earlier than I really had to, but only so much in the way that I no longer had the key. I could - and did - hang around, use the kitchen, etc. Hell, I could even go back into the dorm room if I so chose; the door was hardly ever locked. As it was, I just hung out in the lobby and did whatever. Actually, it was a bit more productive than that. I took care of some Stateside administrative stuff, looked into additional accommodation and travel booking for South America, and simultaneously downloaded some games to my laptop in the background (y'know, for all those free times I have available to play games...I can dream, can't I?). This actually lasted me a good few hours. I did take a break to have lunch, which was made up of an uneaten sandwich from my Mount Cook trip, grilled in their sandwich press (I don't know why, but grilling it makes it so much better). I then grabbed what was left of my food - as well as a package of pork...loin? I'm not sure about what the cut was, but it was some meat that another guy in the dorm had bought and then gave to me when he left. I put it all into my reusable grocery bag, said my goodbyes to everybody, and then left. I gotta say, this may have been one of the better - maybe even the best - hostel I've stayed at. If you're in Tekapo, stay at the Tailor-Made. It's Wandering Loon Recommended.

I got down to the bus stop, where there were two buses preparing to take off, going in opposite directions. Upon finding the right bus, I discovered that I was pronouncing my next city, Omarama, wrong for since I arrived in New Zealand. I'd been saying "OH-ma-RA-ma", when it's really more like "oh-MARE-ruh-ma". That humility cast upon me, I got on the bus, where there was little space available, as it was already halfway done with its trip. Thankfully, though, I ended up sitting between two nice folks. The first was a Mexican guy getting off at Twizel to visit the Gondor filming location. The second was some local goth girl (obsessed with scorpions, and reading another of those Fifty Shades books - really, ladies on buses, what is it?), who was heading down to the town of Wanaka. I had a nice conversation with each, playing the same cards I've played with everyone I've conversed with on this trip, and before I knew it, I was in Omarama.

I'm gonna level with ya: Omarama is not really the happenin' place to be. I came here because I heard there's a good sheep-shearing show, and I wanna get close to shearing sheep whilst I'm in New Zealand. But when I asked for things to do around here that weren't $350 glider flights, the response was a bit on the empty side. There are a couple walks, to be sure, but they're more brief walks than day hikes. For the most part, it's a tiny town to service all the farms around. It's also a popular spot for fishing, apparently. Hence, most of the people here are either families or old people. You could count the folks my age on a single hand. Again, I'm not complaining, I'm just trying to give some context for why I barely did anything for the rest of the day.

And yet, despite this really being a small town in Nowheresland, the place I'm staying at still had a no vacancy sign. But it's a little different; it's not a hostel proper, but rather a place that includes motel rooms, backpacker rooms, camper-van parking, etc. That being the case, it didn't have the same kind of homey setup as your typical hostel, particularly in the kitchen. No shared butter, no free spices, nothing but a completely empty fridge. I put my food in there, and then got set up in my room. It wasn't fancy, just a old garage converted into a small two-room dorm. I was hoping that I'd be the only one in there (the hope being that "no vacancy" mainly applied to the motel rooms), and I was until after dinner, when some French guy came in. Still, being first allowed me to get the better bed, separated from the other two and in the presence of all the dorm's outlets. I also felt vindicated by the fact that this place used the same WiFi setup as the last place, meaning that I could hold on to that week-long pass I got.

After a little while, I decided to go out to buy some more food, and maybe also do the hike up one of the hills. However, when I saw the hill, I realized it would take me two hours, tops, and that I could hold onto it for tomorrow. I then walked into the town's Central Business District (which is what the motel staff called the six commercial buildings down the street) and into the grocery store. After some debate, I just got myself a six-pack of on-sale savory pies, and some crumpets, which were the cheapest bread-like item they had there. (And I always thought crumpets were cookies, to be honest.) I then went back to the hostel, and did basically nothing until dinner time, when I cooked up those two pork...things, which turned out fine but a little bland, seeing as they had no spice on them whatsoever. After that I...really, I didn't do anything.

The only other note I have about the day (and it's really more a note about the last couple days) is that my eyes feel really dry and irritated, more than any other time on this trip. Possibly related to the allergies I've been experiencing here, but I can't be sure.

I just hope I'm not allergic to sheep, seeing as I'm gonna get up close and personal with them (something that makes me giddier than it has any reason to). Fingers crossed!

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