Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Good Fortune in Auckland: a Chinese Lantern Extravaganza

As holidays go, the one we witnessed in Auckland must be right up there with the all-time most colorful celebrations.
On the Indian holiday Holi, people pelt each other with water pistols filled with every imaginable color of water. Getting stained is part of the ritual. On Easter Sunday, the women of North America doff their pastel finery and flowered hats to parade into churches or stroll down urban avenues. On Thanksgiving, New York and other cities march giant helium-filled balloons of presidents and Disney characters under telephone wires and past viewing stands.

But none match the Chinese New Year for colorful costumes and props. In my home of Washington, DC, Chinatown comes alive with three-man dragon costumes, firecrackers, and musical performances. In Auckland, New Zealand, the magnificent city park called the Domain is annually decked out in extravagant Chinese finery: lanterns of all shapes and sizes, blown-up animals, gilded gondolas, and gracefully bowing animatronic dragons.
In February 2017, Auckland inaugurated the Year of the Rooster in similar style, with chicken wire, paint, twinkling lights, music, exhibits, and gobs of fanfare.
The annual Lantern Festival draws 200,000 to stroll the grounds of the Domain and sample the food and entertainment. We succumbed to the call! We picked up family friend Wilson (son of Cary) on the way; he is working in New Zealand.
First stop: painters employing both splashy blobs and delicate calligraphy to form chicken feathers, fish scales, flower petals, and snowflakes. On-the-spot art for sale: traditional Chinese style, with the artist's inscription in the corner.
Next station: dozens of delicate eggshell cut-outs with intricate patterns, all sculpted without breaking the shell. 
Third on the agenda: a stroll around the grounds, where one takes in a feast for the senses--music, dancing, and a cornucopia of blues, reds, oranges, and yellows. Come back at dusk for the spectacular light show, when all the "lanterns" twinkle and shine.
To top off the festivities were ladies in spring finery and the usual profusion of food trucks (a global phenomenon, apparently).
Smiles and warm wishes abounded, and we soaked it in like a dry sponge, relishing the good fortune that brought us to Auckland on this particular weekend. In this Year of the Rooster, may you also enjoy good fortune--and good friends, a dragon in your pocket, and a colorful lantern in every tree.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Lift, a Spin, a Thermal--and Up, Up, Up We Go!

When I was a kid, my mom used to sing “He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease,” from the song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” I always wanted to do that! But alas, I was afraid of heights. 

Backpacking on steep mountain slopes was terrifying. My companions had to hold my hand to coax me past snowfields and rockfalls. Climbing a ladder on a rock face in the Grand Canyon, I froze. Sweated. Had to be coaxed down. On the Outer Banks, I tried parasailing—and came down an emotional wreck.

A week or so ago, Pope decided that--of all the adventures and extreme sports New Zealand had to offer (see previous blog post)—paragliding was his choice. A taste of hang gliding and skydiving, but slower. $200 for half an hour. We had watched some spectacular soaring the day before. 
I smiled and nodded. “Go right ahead! Have fun.” But not for me. Oh, no! Waiting at the bottom of the mountain, I contentedly watched as Pope lazily drifted past clouds, waterfalls, and sub-alpine meadows, strapped in with an instructor. His adventure, not mine!
Watching with me--goading me--were two paragliders waiting for a ride up the switchbacks to the launch point, at the top of Treble Cone Ski Area near Queenstown. The paragliders (male, of course) expounded on wind direction, thermals, topography, and what it feels like to come down a mountain under a chute instead of à pied. Fantastic! they claimed. (Yeah, right.) They "gently" encouraged me: "Aw, go on, scaredy-cat! It's easy." Uh, no. I was just fine with being a scaredy-cat.

Although it did look kind of graceful up there, floating at the end of a line, under a colorful kite. Sort of special to glide past a waterfall. Stunning views. Hmm. $200 for a few moments in time...?
I kept busy, recording Pope's landing (video above). By the time he came down, though, I had somehow, reluctantly, allowed myself to be pushed into the van. "Go! Go, you ninny!" (Was that an internal voice???)

Surprise! I survived. No; more than that. I got into my groove! I goofed off for the camera. I consented when the instructor offered to ride a thermal up to the Long White Cloud in the nation's nickname (video below).
Toward the end, I even agreed to a few vertigo-inducing acrobatics: wing dips (video below). Listen to those wind gusts! Wait, who is that shrieking? No somersaults, thank you! Not scared exactly, just feeling a bit dizzy.
Amazing turnaround for someone who couldn't stand close to the edge of a cliff. Being strapped in with an instructor, and sitting upright instead of flying facedown (as in bungee jumping or sky diving), were the keys to my comfort--I think. Or could it be I'm changing with age? Feeling my mortality, perhaps, and wanting to grasp the brass ring while still able?!

Here are my favorite pictures, graciously recorded by my bosom buddy, Hayden. GoPro photos of your adventure--for only $60 more!


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Penguins and Kiwi and Moa, Oh My!

Every so often, Pope and I turn to each other and ask, “Why are we here?” The way we see it, you gotta have a goal to make a trip worthwhile. So when he bought tickets for New Zealand, I thought long and hard about why I wanted to go. I decided I couldn’t leave the country until I had seen two of the Southern Hemisphere’s notorious flightless birds: penguin and kiwi.
Sadly, I was informed by residents, it was the wrong season to see penguins. Moping around sadly one day, I was astounded to hear that, by a fortuitous twist of fate, a few little blue penguins were lingering off Robertson Island in the Northlands, where I just happened to be sailing by in a schooner! If you look closely at the center of the photo, you will see a few dots on the water: the heads of my penguins! I was tickled pink.
That left the second goal: to see a kiwi. Any intelligent New Zealander knows they are nocturnal birds, there are few left in the wild, and when a pair is fortunate enough to reproduce, most of the chicks are eaten by stoats, an invasive species introduced in the late 1800s to control another invasive species, rabbits.

Across the country there are pictures of kiwi, stuffed kiwi, kiwi pillows, and multitudinous references to kiwi. But there are very few kiwi.
 Dave, a native who lives in Waitomo, offered to be my token Kiwi.

So did John, who lives in Wellington.
But no, I wanted to see the animal, not the human, species of kiwi! I kept searching.
I looked on the beaches, I looked in the bush. All was quiet.
I looked in the mountains and in deep river gorges. No kiwi.
I looked in barnyards and animal graveyards. In the latter I found the skeleton of another New Zealand flightless bird, the moa, now extinct.
We had passed up a couple of sad-looking “kiwi houses”—museums that boast one or two live birds in a dark room, charging between $25 and $50 admission--outrageous! Their signs were worn and peeling and I had visions of decrepit animal cages. By day 23 of our 28-day trip, however, I was restless and blue, desperately wishing to see a kiwi. So I reluctantly turned to Pope and said, “I’m giving up and giving in. To meet my goal, I’m gonna have to pay to go in a kiwi house.”

Fortunately, there was one along our route to the Bay of Islands: the Wharangei Museum and Kiwi North. For only $20 (cheapest in the country!), we saw not just one, but TWO kiwi. It was very dark but very clean, and research was being conducted. If you look closely in the center of the photo, you might be able to vaguely detect a round brown critter actively ignoring his audience and focusing on finding something to eat.
It was somewhat disappointing to see a bird in a cage in a dark room. But sometimes you just gotta meet your goal, regardless of method or cost, rather than returning home sad and depressed, hanging your head in shame.

Instead I could return home with my head held high, because I found my penguins and kiwi.