Entry #056: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 (Rotorua, New Zealand)

All said, I could probably wait a few days longer before publishing a new entry, because one of the main crux of the last few days is that I wasn't really doing too much. But truth be told, I'd rather have more, shorter entries (at least, in equal proportion to the leviathans I occasionally write). And also, that's not to say nothing happened in the past few days. I talked with a lot of folks, for one! Also, there are some things interesting because they didn't happen, but I won't spoil the surprise...

So, I'm just gonna start with a bit of a blanket statement: I would say Taupo has been my favorite town in New Zealand so far. Mostly everything about it has rubbed me the right way. It's not terribly big, it's pretty picturesque, there's plenty of decently-priced shopping options and restaurants around, there's a bunch of activities in the area, there are hot springs. Basically, like all the best parts of small towns and big cities put together. Like, if I lived in New Zealand full time (and had access to a car), I'd probably want to make Taupo my base of operations. Also, the hostel I stayed in was a nice contributing factor to it all, as I would say it was the second- or third-best one I've stayed at. So there you go. I honestly wasn't specifically going into Taupo with any specific expectations, but hey, I'm glad I chose this of all places to stay for five nights. Because it's nice to be around even on the days where I'm doing a bit less.

Speaking of doing a bit less, that's kind of what my last couple days in Taupo were like, but as mentioned, they were enjoyable all the same. On Sunday, I woke up and had my breakfast, and then just milled around the place for a bit. I actually thought that, maybe, I should do some laundry before I leave for my next town, so I started gathering some of the clothes that needed washing. Didn't actually end up washing them, though, both because you couldn't use the laundry room until 2pm, and also because I didn't know if I'd be doing any big activities the next day (which I'll get to in a sec), in which case I'd want to wait until the last possible moment. Anyway, it turned out there was a bit of laundry-related drama to boot, as Tess had a couple of pairs of underwear and a bikini bottom stolen from the drying line. When asking the front desk, apparently they said that every so often, drunks will steal girls' underwear from the line on Saturdays. So that's pretty scumbag-y. It also encouraged me to pay the extra money to use the dryer. (Not that I needed much encouragement anyway; I 100% prefer machine drying to air drying. The feel of taking clothes off the line - the crispness of them - ugh! Disgusting.) Anyway, she went out to the Warehouse to buy some replacement clothes, Liam decided to stay put and read, Matt was still asleep, and the new guy went God-knows-where. So I decided to had out myself.

I first went to the Taupo museum, which had the standard museum fare, talking about the geologic history and aspects of the area, the flora and fauna, and the cultural history, both of the Maori and the Europeans. It even had a little art gallery. For being such a small museum, I found it really nice: well-stocked, very informative, and only $5. When I finished, I went out and ate the sandwich I had packed myself for lunch. I then went down to the waterfront. They were having a "Thunder on the Lake" boat racing event, in which a bunch of jet boats zoomed across the lake. I thought it'd be fun to see. So, I sat on the lake edge - along with a bunch of other folks - and watched. Before long, a whole platoon of jet boats came in from the distance (you could almost hear Flight of the Valkyries playing in the background), and then started looping around. It was fun to watch...for the first couple laps. Then in just got tedious. There was no announcer, no sense of who these boats were, no way to tell who was winning at any point. You were just watching fast boats go fast. But then hey, I don't really care for NASCAR either, so maybe I'm just not cut out for these types of things.

Anyway, after getting more than my fill of the race, I walked back to the hostel. Along the way, I had gotten a response to the message I had sent regarding that five-hour caving trip in the Waitomo Caves. They said they had some options available that would fit the times I noted. So I then had a bunch of phone calls to make. See, I couldn't go there straight from Taupo, and I couldn't go there from Tauranga (my next destination). Heck, because of the bus schedules, I really couldn't make it a day trip from any place other than the Waitomo Village itself. So, I had to make some changes. First, I had to make sure that all buses to and from where I needed to go were available. When I did that, I had to call a hostel in Waitomo to make sure a room there was available. When I did that, I had to call a hostel in Rotorua (which would be my jumping-off point) to make sure a room was available there. Then I had to call the hostel I'd be staying at in Tauranga to see if I could shorten my stay there from four days to two days without being penalized. After all that was done, I called the caving company and booked myself a time. But everything was successful, so now I had a plan for the next couple days, as opposed to just going to Tauranga and not knowing what to do with myself. This also tied up $155 (which, again, is pretty good for a five-hour trip), so no bungee jumping or white-water rafting for me in the next couple days.

Anyway, I don't even really recall what happened after that - I might have just been talking with folks - but something must have happened, as a good chunk of time passed. Eventually, though, I decided to go for a walk. I looked at a "Free Things to Do" pamphlet, and one item that caught my eye was a botanical reserve. So I got up and headed out. Being a few miles away, it was a nice little walk, but it was nice enough to walk around. It wasn't really what I was expecting (which would have been a botanical garden, as opposed to the veritable native rainforest the place was), but it was fine. I walked through, listened to the sound of cicadas everywhere, and tried looking at plants. There were a few with berries, especially ones with these dark violet berries, which haunted me. See, one of my weird desires is to just eat wild berries. There is something so pure, so real about just eating from plants that are just...there. That said, mama didn't raise no fool, so I'm not going to just eat any ol' thing I see. But man, it was so difficult finding out what the plant was, with my only real means being typing in a description to Google: "new zealand plant long leaves purple berries". Even when I saw something that may have possibly been it, safety information was hard to find. So, with a resigned sigh, I moved on. (I later did some more in-depth digging online, and found that the bush was the turutu, or New Zealand Inkberry, and while probably not dangerous, the berries are bitter enough to be considered inedible. [They do stain your hands quite a bit, though, so the name is well-earned.])

Anyway, after walking around for a good while, I walked back to the hostel. While I was on one of the less busy roads with wide shoulders, I did try hitchhiking, but nobody stopped (in fact, one guy revved his engine and sped up). I'm definitely glad I didn't rely on hitchhiking for this whole trip. Anyway, once I got back, it was about 7pm, so I went to the kitchen to have dinner (which included my last avocado, this one at almost the perfect ripeness). I talked a little bit more with Tess (being careful not to interrupt her diary writing, lest I be recorded as "that interrupting jackass Andrew"), the topics this time being about jobs, interviews, and college experience. We then went in to wash up, but Liam and Matt were inside, so we ended having a little roommate chat in the kitchen area. It was quickly derailed when Matt, in typical British style, began talking about the real reasons people travel to lands filled with strangers (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) to mess with the genuinely naive Dutch girl. I played along for kicks, but did assure her every now and again that this was all, as a Brit would crudely say, "taking the piss". This continued until all of them decided to go pack up (as this was their last night). Meanwhile, I continued to stay and talk some more, this time with a girl from Alberta, Canada, who I purposely didn't introduce myself to, as I wanted to see how long we could chat without knowing each others' names. Turns out, a good hour or so, because that's when she went to bed to wake up bright and early for the Tongariro Crossing. Having run out of people to speak with, I ate an apple for desert and headed back to the room, where I just relaxed whilst everyone else packed and went to bed.

I woke up the next morning to the most musical alarm ever (seriously, it sounded like a mariachi band had come in), but I didn't mind, because everyone was going to be leaving around the same time, and I liked these folks enough to want to see them off. After breakfast, I came back and sat in the room, enjoying my not-having-to-do-anything while everyone else was doing their last-minute packing. Matt, having done skydiving sometime during his stay, gave me a $5 coupon to a local restaurant, so I felt like my lunch plans were set for the day. Finally, shortly before 10am, pretty much everyone headed out. I wished them all the best, and then sat back down. I hung out in the room for a while, primarily because I was waiting for the staff to come in to clean the room. I was hoping to get into the separated room that Matt was in, so to have a night to myself. But no, they said, I couldn't do that, because that was only because of a booking error, and also somebody was booked there for the night. Hey, I tried. I could only hope that the new roommates were as nice and/or interesting as the last ones (not that it made much of a difference, as it'd only be for a single night).

After that, I decided to go to a local hot pool. I mentioned before that there was a park in which there was a little hot pool/waterfall area that fed into the river, and that people could go into for free. Free is a good price for me, so I wanted to check it out. In truth, I was doing it a bit more out of a sense of obligation than anything; I couldn't well go to a geothermal region without doing a hot spring, could I? But, after getting there and getting in, I was completely glad that I did it, because it was absolutely awesome. Imagine being by a small waterfall, with some pockets of smooth, algae-covered rock, and sitting in one of these pockets just let the water flow over you. But all this water is bath hot. That's basically what it was. It was like a never-ending shower/bath hybrid (sans clean water), and as I love the feeling of warm/hot water, it was perfect. I also tried going out into the river, but didn't stay out too long. The river itself was cold - too cold for my liking - but when you got into the joining portions, it felt really weird. It was overall warmish, but moving one of your arms around would cause the sensation of feeling either cold or hot water. Very interesting. Still, I preferred just sitting in one of the hot pockets, and really, I could have stayed out there for hours, were the sun not shining down with such ferocity and threatening my skin with harsh burns. So, I eventually climbed my way out (which was a delicate operation, because combining water, algae, and rocks really makes one consider the consequences of one false step), and went back, noticing briefly, and with a bit of a double take, that some older ladies had decided to bathe topless in the pool.

After getting back to the hostel, I took the quickest of showers, just to make sure I didn't smell of river water or have any algae in my hair, and then got dressed and walked downtown. I went to the Mousetrap restaurant, the one that the coupon was good for, and decided to order a Greek salad, because I can't even remember the last time I've had a proper salad. While eating (and it was quite good), I contemplated what kind of act I'd play when they asked me for my skydiving certificate as proof that I could use this coupon (as per the fine print on said coupon), but they accepted it without questions, so all the better. I then made my way back up, stopping briefly at the local shoe store to see if they had any good hiking shoes/boots (they didn't, it was all dress and casual stuff), and then to the supermarket to buy a small box of laundry powder (something I'm not sure why I didn't buy when I fist got into this country). I then put that powder to good use by getting a load started.

While my clothes were washing, I did some organizing of all my stuff, just to make sure I didn't have to worry as much about packing either that night or the next morning. And then, I just decided to relax. I felt comfortable enough to not give a hoot. Not that I could even go out until my laundry was done (all I had left were my pajama pants), but I was fine regardless. So, I just milled around the place, did some writing, and awaited any new roommates. For a little while, it seemed like it was going to be a quiet night, and that nobody new would be coming in, but those hopes were soon dashed when they brought in two new guys. I could tell they were German (by the way they talked), that they were hitchhikers (by the fact that they threw away cardboard signs reading "Taupo"), and that they hadn't showered in, probably, two days (by the fact that they stank; seriously, some of the worst-smelling travelers I've met in NZ so far). I was fine keeping to myself for the most part, but I made some chit-chat with them regarding their plans. To the surprise of none, they were doing the Tangariro crossing as well, so they'd be waking up at 5:30 the next morning. Lovely. (And for the record, I looked up the Tangoriro crossing, and it seems like it would be pretty cool had I not already been a number of places that look like that.)

So, I got my fresh, clean, hot-out-of-the-dryer(-and-not-stolen-off-the-line) laundry, packed it away, and then continued my writing (as well as continuing to bone up on my Spanish - apparently I'm equipped to translate 29% of actual Spanish news articles now; hot dog). During this time, some girl moved into the separated room that I wanted to be in. Don't know much about her, mainly because she made a point to close the door behind her (and hey, if you have the sub-room to yourself, I can't really blame you for that). But I guess she's one of the managers of the place, come back after a bit of a vacation. So good on her, though I wished she waited one more day. Anyhoo, after a little while longer, I had some dinner (and still, still had plenty of my food-stuff [which, I have to admit, has the visual appeal of dog food when taken out the fridge] left, at least for one more meal), spoke a little bit with one of the staff, and then headed back to my room.

I continued just messing around in the room for a while, and then later in the evening went back into the kitchen to get some gum or something (though really to get out of the smelly room until the two new guys took a shower). While there, I met up with the Canadian girl that I had met the night prior (the one who I never introduced myself to). She had come back from the Tongariro Pass crossing; apparently, it was extremely difficult for her (then again, I would say that this is probably at least partially psychological, because from what I saw, it would take effort, but didn't seem like anything I'd call challenging. Anyway, as this was her last evening in Taupo, she was going to a bar, so she invited me. I had literally nothing else to do, so I agreed and put on some decent, warm clothes. On our way over, she asked, "Sorry, what was your name again?" She seemed quite tickled by my whole scheme of trying to see how long I could avoid it (her name was Kaleigh, by the by). We got into one of the local bars, where a bunch of the other staff from the hostel was sitting and drinking. We joined, and I got along pretty well with most (well, all but one) of them, considering they'd known each other for weeks or months, and I was just a customer leaving the next morning. So when Kaleigh left to go meet up with a friend, it wasn't too rough of a situation for me to fit in.

The group eventually went to the bar across the street, which was significantly less classy, but also much cheaper, with most of the drinks being $5 (and even as a guy who doesn't drink who normally just knows American prices, that seems reasonable). Everyone got a drink, and I decided to give it a shot as well. Mainly, I wanted to test what I was saying in the last blog entry, that maybe - just maybe - I'd enjoy Bailey's Irish Cream. But you can't just get that (I don't think), and most of the stuff you'd use it with (coffee, ice cream, etc.), is not really something you can get in a trashy bar, so I improvised. I asked for a Slobberknocker. Everything about the drink, name included, was completely made up on the spot. Basically, it's Bailey's with ginger ale. The bartender seemed incredulous, and looked even more incredulous when the drink came out looking pretty revolting, as the carbonated drink mixed with the dairy to make some pretty significant foam. I assured him that it was perfectly normal. "The other name for it is 'Pond Scum,'" I said (which may be a better name to call it from the get-go in the future). When the others saw my drink, they were understandably disgusted, but when they heard the self-deprecating names, they just chalked it up as a quirky American drink. (To be fair, it looked terrible, but actually tasted decent, so I think I, the teetotaler, may be the cocktail pioneer here.)

Anyway, I enjoyed my drink while we talked for a while, nodding our heads whenever a fun piece of music came on. Eventually, Kaleigh (along with her friend) returned, and pretty much the conversation continued until some folks left. Of note was when this one German girl was leaving. When she announced it, I gave her my usual "Have a good night!" to which she responded, a bit surprised, "You're staying here." I explained I'd probably stay a bit longer (I pretty much planned to leave around midnight). She then asked which way to get back to the hostel, which I found odd (since she's been in Taupo longer than me) but gave her directions anyway. When she left, Kaleigh and her friend laughed at me. "You must not have liked her," they said. I asked them to clarify. "She was trying different ways to get you to come home with her. She wanted a one-night stand with you." "Really?" I said, "Huh." (Honestly, had I been a gentleman and directed her home, what an odd discovery that would have been. Maybe it's the fact that I don't consider myself a real looker that the concept that a girl [and this one was, if I remember correctly, 20] would want to have relations with me after a couple hours seems completely improbable.) I didn't have any desire to pursue the situation, but I hoped no feelings were hurt as I went back into the bar. There was a bit more chatting going on, but by this point the dance floor had been cleared away, so the temptation to go bust some moves intensified with each new song. Eventually, I did go out and just do my thing, which got a few pictures from the, ahem, "admiring" audience. During this time, Kaleigh and her friend had left without telling me, but that didn't bother me too much. At the stroke of midnight, though, I decided to get back in my pumpkin coach and head back to the hostel. I got there, and since the others were already asleep and prepping for an early start, I didn't bother showering; I just went straight to bed.

For some reason, I had a bit of a hard time sleeping, just tossing and turning for some time. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, though, as I woke up briefly when the two German guys left for the Tongariro Pass, and then again at 7:30, well before my alarm was to go off (again, this was because of light; the two guys didn't close the blinds when they left, so the sun shone straight though [I have an eye mask; I really should use it]). When I found I could go back to bed, I got up (a proposition that left me shivering, as it was below 40 degrees [Fahrenheit] at the time) and took a quick shower, just to get any dance sweat residue off me. I didn't want to get my towel wet, though, so I quickly ran to my bed - well aware that anyone passing by the open blinds could see me in the buff - and jumped back under the covers. I relaxed for a bit as I dried off (and as the manager girl got up and left), and then got up, got dressed, ate my breakfast (I had probably two more bowl's worth of milk left in the carton, but I just splurged for the morning), and then did my final packing.

I turned in my key to the office, saying goodbyes to some of the staff members that I had just gotten to know the night before. (In fact, the one-night stand girl was there at the time. I gave her a rom-com-style smiling shrug.) I got a piece of candy from their secret stash, so I knew I had been accepted. Anyway, I headed to the bus stop, and while sitting and waiting, I found out via Facebook that the Lisa’s (from Te Anau) had just come out of Taupo (having just done the Tongariro Pass) and were in Rotorua today. In fact, they were in the same hostel. So that was a nice surprise. The bus arrived, and after a short trip (barely above an hour) we arrived in Rotorua. While driving through, it basically seemed as though Rotorua was like Taupo, just a bit bigger and more populated. Upon stepping out of the bus, I also realized it had a more pungent odor than Taupo. Like, I didn't notice any particular smells in Taupo, but here there is a subtle-yet-omnipresent undertone of sulfur. I'm sure you get used to it after some time, but I'm definitely not here long enough for that, and so every so often I breathe in and have to remind myself that there are, in fact, no rotten eggs in the room next door.

After a short walk, I got to the hostel. It seemed like a nice enough place to spend the evening. One immediately noticeable trait, though, was the fact that the place probably had the highest concentration of Germans of anywhere I've been so far. Like, I know I've talked a lot about there being a lot of Germans, but here I've counted. One Canadian. One Englishman. One American (me). Twenty-four Germans. So the majority of conversations have been in Deutsch, and if you were to blindfold someone and bring them in, he'd think they were in a slightly smelly part of Germany. But enough about that. I was shown to my room, where, despite getting in at noon, I still got a top bunk (beaten by some guy who was on the InterCity bus, arriving ten minutes before me). I set my stuff down, and then went into the kitchen to put some food away and then heat up the remainder of my not-cottage pie for lunch. While eating, I spoke with this German kid (kid here being "fresh out of college") who's been working as a kitchen aide in Rotorua for the last two months. When asked, I gave the normal spiel about all the places I've gone. Then, I dunno, something came up in the conversation where I basically said, "Yeah, I was just working for a few years after university, and I'll be heading back to that after this." To which he responded, "Oh, that sounds like a boring life." I asked him if he was being sarcastic, and he responded that he wasn't, saying it was sad that I worked right out of university, and that I was just going to keep working, because there's more to life than that. I responded with three points. First, I never specified my job to him, and the fact is, I love what I do. Second, I've done more in the last ten months than some do in ten years. Third, you're a kitchen aide! Sorry, kid, but you're doing exactly what you're decrying, just in a different country. (I was much more tactful in all three points than I've written here.)

After that episode, I went to the front desk to find out some places to go and things to do, and was given a map of such, but before I had a chance to go, the Lisa’s found me. This time, they were joined by the first Lisa's mom, who was now traveling with them. They invited me to go out with them, so I gladly accepted (though I was acutely aware that my presence meant they would have to speak English during the venture). We first went out to ice cream at a place claiming to be "The Best Ice Cream in New Zealand". It was fine, that's about it. (I will say, I do like the New Zealand national flavor of Hokey Pokey.) We then drove out to the Blue Lake, one of about a dozen smaller lakes in the area. When we got there, we took a walk around (about 5.5km), which provided some nice views of it and the neighboring Green Lake. We then got to the beach area, where we went swimming for a bit. The water was absolutely crystal clear and refreshing, but also a bit cold. Still, it was nice swimming around in a fairly clean lake. We then got back onto the beach and did some sunbathing. I particularly enjoyed watching the sparrows digging for insects in the sand (or, as it more closely resembled, taking sand baths) and watching the form of people who don't know how to properly paddle kayaks.

Once I think we all felt we had gotten the maximum amount of sun before burnage began, we drove back to the hostel, where I hung up my swim trunks to dry (and thank God I wrote that down, because I would have completely forgotten to take them down otherwise) and then just sat on the porch and chatted for a good long while with the Lisa’s, the mom, and another German girl who was actually also at the Blackcurrant in Taupo when I was there. Once everyone was finished with that, I went to the nearby grocery store to buy myself a new loaf of bread and a simple frozen dinner for tomorrow, since I don't know what food options are available in the Waitomo Village. I was also asked to get some sour cream for the dinner we were having, tarte flambĂ©, which I can best describe as a thin-thin-crust pizza, except using sour cream as a base, and then topped with bacon and onions. Apparently, it's a cultural dish from the Franco-German border. There wasn't much I could do to help in the preparation, though, so I just sat in the lounge and did some writing. Oddly, someone (I didn't bother looking up) changed the music from pop to - I kid you not - period folk music. Like, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?-style period folk music. It was the most unexpected, out-of-place, and welcome background music I may have ever encountered. Before too long, the first serving was provided and, while a little too much salt had been added, I found it to be really tasty. As we were eating this, a second one was being made, which was good, because I felt like eating more. Then a third one came out. And a fourth. And a fifth. I don't know how many more were after that, but I had to stop, especially if I was going to have their dessert version. (I was also happy to have been given an unwanted tomato, which helped to negligibly balance the nutritional intake I was getting.) The dessert version replaced the onions and bacon with sugar, cinnamon, and apple slices. It was fine so long as you got an apple piece, but not nearly as good as the savory type.

On the whole, this whole dinner process lasted about two hours (longer, in fact; the oven automatically turned off when it's 120-minute timer finished, delaying a batch). So I guess that's a good way to spread out your meal. And afterward, we just sat around chatting. I knew I couldn't stay up all night, though, so I said my goodbyes (or, depending on how our schedules align, see-you-laters), I took a shower, and retired for the evening. And after this, I get up bright and early to head to the Waitomo Caves. So that's no fun, but hopefully it'll be worthwhile. In any case, it was nice to meet up with some travel friends, if only for a few short hours, especially after a few good (and occasionally odd) days. I definitely can't complain.

Well, I could, but I'd be wrong to.

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