Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Wild Tales from New Zealand

My family returned Sunday from New Zealand, where we experienced some wild tales indeed.

Of course, I would probably not be inclined to specifically characterize them as such, except that I watched Wild Tales at the start of my trip. About two hours after finishing the movie, in fact, was the first of these wild tales.

My iTunes rental was going to expire in two days, so I counted myself lucky that I got to watch half of it on the plane (not a given, considering how my younger son was behaving) and the second half at the hotel in Auckland that night. However, if watching that movie contributed to any of the things that were about to happen, I probably would have been better off letting the rental expire.

(Actually, they're not all bad, and even the bad ones have comparatively happy endings.)

As this movie contains six wild tales, I will give you six here also.

Wild Tale #1: I finished the movie at about midnight, and farted around on the internet until about 12:15. The kids had been up late, so I was expecting them to sleep late as well. But it wasn't one of the kids who ended up waking me up, and it wasn't at 6 a.m. or sometime sort of reasonable. It was my mom's boyfriend, staying in the room next door to us, and it was at just after 2 a.m.

It seems that my mom slipped outside the shower before going to bed. My mom is pretty spry for someone her age, but the fall was due to stepping directly on the wet floor because she thought there was no bath mat, since the bath mat was virtually indistinguishable from one of the towels. Anyway, she hurt her side and also hit her head. The head wasn't a problem, but the side hurt like hell. Still, she was just going to go to sleep and see what happened in the morning. Unfortunately, she awoke during the night and was worried enough by how much it hurt that she woke her boyfriend up. He was more worried about a possible head injury, since that's the type of thing that can become a serious problem if left untreated.

The long and the short of it was, by about 2:15 we were in the car on the way to the hospital, waiting for our GPS to wake up and tell us which direction to go. It finally did, and steered us there a few minutes later. She ended up in a bed near a guy at least ten years older than her who kept complaining about wanting to leave, and a 23-year-old girl (I know her age because the doctors kept asking her to repeat her birthdate as a proof of her cognitive functions) who had a giant swollen contusion on her head. I made small talk with my mom's boyfriend for two hours before we finally were offered a place in a family lounge to sleep. I took the floor and slept fitfully until about 7, at which point I drove back to my hotel to update my wife on the situation. (Our cell phones don't work in New Zealand, you see.)

My mom was finally discharged around 9:30, once X-rays had revealed not even the broken rib that we had assumed by now was a given. More importantly, nothing was wrong with her head, and it seems that if she had never mentioned hitting it in the first place, he might never (wisely, I might add) have insisted they go to the hospital at all. Then again, she might have gone in the morning, which would have wiped out the possibility of making our 1 p.m. tour at Hobbiton -- a good two-hour drive away.

Wild Tale #2: Despite all four adults being up for most of the night -- my wife didn't get back to sleep easily because she had no idea what was going on, nor the severity of my mom's situation -- we actually had an amazing day at Hobbiton, one that was hardly impacted by anyone being delirious from exhaustion.

We were 45 minutes late for our tour, but only because the GPS was taking us to a different place than the printed directions were taking us. That wasn't anyone's fault, it's just that there's a possible departure point both from the tourist center in Matamata and from just outside the actual farm where the Shire set is erected. That didn't matter anyway, because there were tours every 15 minutes and openings on all the tour times around ours.

I could probably write a whole blog post on Hobbiton, but I'll just say that the experience left me exhilarated. To top it all off, after touring the Shire, we were entitled to a free drink in the Green Dragon, the Middle Earth pub that isn't actually located in the Shire in the books/movies, but where a number of scenes in the movies take place. We also bought a meat pie and these moist chocolate balls sprinkled in coconut that were both amazing. I took more than 200 photos on the day, I think.

Wild Tale #3: Because of being late for Hobbiton, we had to push one other activity to the next morning, which was the Glowworm Caves in Waitomo. These are tours of a cave system where the ceiling of the cave is covered with glowing worms, which creates kind of a night sky constellation effect.

Unfortunately, not two minutes in to the tour, it became clear I was not going to be able to see them.

My younger son threw a fit when he got underground, either because he was scared of the darkened conditions, or because he couldn't walk around wherever he wanted, or both. It quickly became clear that he wouldn't improve and that the situation would be untenable. That was confirmed when the tour guide gently asked us to take him out.

My wife had done the "hard yards" (Australian term) at Hobbiton the day before, letting me take pictures while she chased children, so it was my turn to take one for the team. The guide said I could get a refund, but he also offered to meet me at the bottom where the boat lets out (did I mention there was a boat?) and show me the worms on a separate little trip. In the confusion I just kind of nodded, hoping for the best but expecting that the whole thing was a bust for me. I was disappointed, but not all that disappointed -- I actually really like taking one for the team, because of the gratitude it earns me.

Well, it earned me a whole lot more than that.

When my younger son and I did find our way down to the appointed place, I got more than I could have ever hoped. After all the others in the tour disembarked, probably very grateful for not dealing with my screaming son for more than three minutes, the guide welcomed me aboard and pulled the boat along a rope hanging about shoulder height through the caves. So it was just me and my Maori guide, moving quietly through the silent space, casting our eyes upward into the dark, the silence only broken by him occasional pointing things out or giving an abbreviated version of his tour talk.

My eyes were wide with wonder, my mind filled with serenity. This lasted possibly as long as ten minutes.

"I never get this kind of quiet in my day," I told him.

Needless to say, I did not actually seek a refund.

Wild Tale #4: Our next stop was Lake Taupo, another couple hours to the south, where we were going out on a boat.

It being only a lake, I expected it to be quite the placid experience.


The boat rocked and dipped and dived over waves. Miraculously, my older son did not get sick. Not sure why he's so much more immune to boats than cars -- he constantly threatened car sickness on this trip, and actually threw up once, which I caught all in a bag on the night after the harrowing hospital adventure -- but the fresh air certainly has something to do with it.

Nor did any of the older generation take a header, nor did my younger son slip out an opening in the ship's outer deck that was perfectly sized for a nearly two-year-old.

Thankfully, this Wild Tale is wild only because of the water conditions.

Wild Tale #5: Because of squeezing in the Glowworms on Friday morning instead of Thursday night, we had a third activity on Friday as well. This was walking up next to some geothermal activity escaping out of the crevices in the rocks at the site known as Craters of the Moon, also in the immediate Lake Taupo area.

Unfortunately, with the cascading effect of everything else, we thought we were going to be too late to get much more than a taste of it. Fortunately, the place was open until 6 instead of 5. Unfortunately, that was almost the problem, as it lulled us into a false sense of having more time than we really had.

The walk around Craters of the Moon is recommended for about an hour, which probably assumes not a huge amount of dawdling. Well, there was some dawdling, which can more charitably be described as lingering to enjoy the majesty of nature. And so it was that our group got splintered in a predictable fashion along the twisting wooden pathways that run through the grounds, children running ahead and being chased by their parents, and the older generation taking their time and lots of pictures.

We noted the sign that says when the siren goes off, you have 30 minutes to leave the grounds. This is because the gate closes precisely at 6 p.m., after which they cannot be responsible for any cars or people stranded inside. Having become at least five minutes separated from the other half of our group, though, we had no way of telling them or even knowing if they saw the sign. But by the time the siren went off, it looked like we still had plenty of distance to go to -- and they were still plenty of distance behind us. I sent my wife and older son off in one direction and hoisted my younger son on my shoulders to head back in the other.

They did read the sign, but left to their own devices, the siren had not significantly increased their speed, and they were still stopping off to look at things rather than determinedly marching toward the exit. I got us to start doing that, but even so, I had only a vague sense of how far the exit was. I wasn't carrying a map of the grounds, and I knew that they might not think twice about locking the grounds and just leaving us there.

The real trick was to establish a pace that kept our eyes on the prize, but did not overwork the two older folks, one of whom had recently had heart troubles and the other of whom had spent two nights ago in a hospital and was still in pain. All the while recognizing that the day was warm enough and the grade steep enough that I could be endangering them. But also realizing that we could face serious difficulties if we got stuck inside Craters of the Moon.

It was with an exhalation of sweet relief that I finally saw the exit, and still had all the members of my party intact. In fact, we still had ten minutes to drive a little ways down the hill to where the gate would be closing. We didn't have enough time for anyone to use the bathroom, but that's a story for another time ...

Wild Tale #6: Wellington, where we would be arriving the next day, is a small city. Its population is small, its streets are small, and its parking garages -- or carparks -- are extremely small.

Unfortunately, a car big enough to drive around four adults and two kids is big -- big enough to be referred to euphemistically as a "people mover."

The size of our vehicle almost got us into trouble a couple times on what turned into a harrowing Saturday on the roads.

The first was when we had to actually stop driving in the direction we were going on one of the streets around the hotel, because a car was parked just far enough off the curb that we literally did not have enough room to drive past it without hitting oncoming traffic. Sure, that car was a little poorly parked, but that's the sign of a street that is just too narrow. (When we passed the same car again later, its rear-view mirror had actually been smashed.)

The next was when we were going to visit my wife's friend, who lives up in the windy hills above Wellington, which would seem familiar to those who know the Hollywood Hills. My wife's friend lives in a house that's so difficult to get to, it does not even have its own driveway. You climb stairs to get to it, which I can assure you is a perfectly reasonable trade-off for the amazing view. But when you are trying to park, it leaves you with a difficult task indeed. My wife and I each took a pass at parallel parking in a space that was scarcely large enough for us, all the while having cars coming along that needed to pass on a street that was only wide enough for one. At one point I even had to pull to the cliff side of the road to let a car pass, leaving our vehicle half in a bush, and squealing pebbles out from under it when I tried to reverse and got nowhere. This was the point that I slumped down on the wheel in despair. Ultimately we realized that there were other spots that were just a slightly farther walk from her house, but not after getting involved in another Mexican standoff with a car where were both trying to turn around in space not designed for turning.

But the real adventure came when we were trying to park back at the hotel, after 10 p.m, with two sleepy kids in the back seat. We'd witnessed the tight quarters of the parking garage first hand earlier, when we'd managed to park in the one space that didn't require you to make this tight corner down into the dungeon lower level, which had about ten additional spaces. But that spot wasn't available when we came home, so we descended into that dungeon, quickly realizing that not only did we not have the turning radius to get into any of the three available spots, but getting the car back out would require a perfectly executed swirl upward in which gravity would be pulling us back down, and the corners were so tight that we'd be truly lucky not to clip a bumper or anything else jutting out at unlikely and problematic angles. After making several failed attempts to park and actually trying to get someone from the hotel to help us, we were told that there was actually an affiliated parking garage next door where we could park for the parking fee we'd already paid. We breathed a sigh of relief, but this was not the end of our troubles. As I nudged forward up that ramp and tried to accelerate (but not too much), my wheels squealed under me, the smell of burnt rubber emanating nauseatingly upward. Grim panic was on both my wife's and my faces, as though we were in hour 12 of some kind of hostage ordeal. After several more similarly unsuccessful efforts, I decided I just had to back up, grit my teeth, and make a determined lunge upward, fast enough to avoid the slippage but too fast to be sure I was not going to hit anything. I determined the best trajectory I could and just went for it ... and emerged unscathed.

"Let's get out of his hellhole," my wife said.

The carpark next door had only marginally better turning radii, but the parking spaces were actually manageable.

Bonus Wild Tales:

The time I thought I lost my wallet.

The time we thought we lost the car keys.

The other time we thought we lost the car keys.

The time the fruit salad spilled fruit juice all inside the diaper bag, also drenching our extra chocolate balls from Hobbiton.

The time it was so windy on Sunday morning in Wellington, I had to hold my older son on my shoulders and clench his legs tightly, just to be sure he didn't blow away.

The time I bought breakfast for everybody except my older son.

The time I had to read my son an epic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story in the backseat of the car on no sleep.

The time somebody wandered off.

The time somebody else wandered off.

The time everybody was talking at once and no one was saying anything.

Yes, it was a stressful trip, but as you can tell, it was also an awesome one.

I'll take Wild Tales over boring ones any day.

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