Deep and Wide: A Travel Guide Interlude

Ah, Andy is proving to be as elusive as a wild stoat, so next up on Spartan Holiday–a travel guide to Guatemala! Mostly Antigua, actually.

But first a few business items:

1). I see no one has posted new tips in the comment section of the New Zealand Travel Guide. Yet, I am quite certain, several readers have tripped the light fantastic all over  that foreign land. (You know who you are: BrianKimHessDaveValerieEllen.) Also remember my clause that you needn’t even have visited New Zealand to add your two cents. Ignorance is no impediment here at Spartan Holiday.

2) I made a pavlova.  Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands.

3)  A deep thought: The older I get the more I gravitate from breadth to depth. I used to be a breadth person–I wanted to read as many authors as I could, visit as many countries as I could, learn as many words as I could. Now as I age, I’m sinking more into the depth of things. I want to read one author’s whole oeuvre (maybe like Jonathan Safran Foer, because he is awesome and only has 4 books), get to know one particular place really well, and pretty much only use the words “chafing dish” and “thimblerig.”

My friend Donna once said that she doesn’t feel the need to travel the world; that she instead has the desire to really know and understand her own city starting with her backyard…what birds live there, when do they come and go, the types of grasses, the texture of the soil, the ripening of fruit, budding of flowers, the skeleton of the tree in winter, the movement of heavenly bodies…

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I’ve realized that any gnawing feelings of wanderlust can be answered by going deeper in, not farther afield. Wanderlust is really about a desire for discovery, for the foreign, the universal in the unknown particular. All of which exists in our midst. Aldo Leopold and  Kathleen Norris are two  authors who helped me see this.

So, this year I’m trying to focus on the micro instead of the macro. (Or the accessible ultra-macro like the night sky).  I may, from time to time, post what I’ve discovered.

For now, I would like to close by saying: Thimblerig chafing dish, chafing dish, chafing dish thimblerig.

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New Zealand Travel Guide

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Ah, more empty promises from Spartan Holiday. My interview with Andy Gingerich has gone AWOL. I think I lost it while tidying up my computer desktop. Turns out cleanliness is next to deleting-important-filesyness. This means I’m going to have to re-interview him and ask leading questions to recapture the uncanny magic of that first interview. Sorry, Andy! I’ll buy you a burrito.

So, instead, let’s discuss something timely and timeless: wanderlust, the lusty feeling we get when we contemplate blowing this popsicle stand for foreign lands. And in honor of St. Valentine, let’s reflect upon wanderlove, something deeper and calmer and more abiding than wanderlust.

I have been thinking a lot about travel of late because 1). I just visited Guatemala and New Zealand and 2). I’ve been reading some travel writing essays (Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer  and Best American Travel Writing 2011).

On this St. Valentine’s Day, let us ponder travel as a kind of surrender and openness; a kind of compressed life narrative of disappointment, surprise, beauty, terror, times of feeling blessed and unblessed. Let us shake our heads at the acquisitive, competitive attitude we often bring to travel and life– how we consume places, claim places, tick places off a list.

Let us stroke our chins at the existential benefits and pitfalls of displacement, other worlds, and high speed transport. Let us burn with thoughts of noblesse oblige and economics and guilt and responsibility. Finally, let us acknowledge “wander-rage” and consider blaming the Victorians  for the modern travel industry.

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I mean later we’ll do these things, maybe at my “My Vacation” slideshow when I have a captive audience. For now, let’s leave these ruminations behind and take New Zealand, that strange, pastoral, lush and untamed outpost of the British Commonwealth. A dissonant blend of the Polynesian– rainforest, Maori, the wild Tasman Sea–and Anglo-Saxon sheep, derby caps, meat pies–that makes you constantly confused about where the hell you are.

In the spirit of travel guidance, I have compiled a short list for  future visitors to this distant island. Here are some of the things you may encounter in the Land of the Long White Cloud:

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Lamingtons–I read about these on Wikipedia’s New Zealand cuisine page before my trip. I said to myself–what that is there, is a square whoopie pie. I said to myself, I’m’a gonna get me one of those. I held out for days, waiting for the perfect time for lamington magic.

Finally, in Greymouth, Dave and I bought one. It had pink marshmallow cream and looked ex-qui-site not to mention dee-light-ful. I took a bite. The marshmallow was tough and gummy like wet mortar. The dried coconut was evocative of old sawdust. The chocolate cake had the mouthfeel of dried sod.

Still, I refused to give up the lamington dream and crammed it in the passenger’s side door tray. The human spirit is resilient! Twenty-four hours later, I was ready to give it another shot. I felt all around the door. But it was gone! Dave had chucked it. He told me he was afraid I would try to eat it again. Yes, he knows me well, a realization that counterbalanced my disappointment vis à vis lamingtons.

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Glowworms–I don’t know how I feel about their situation as worms, of which I’m not usually fond, but, hot damn! for  the glowing part. You can visit glowworm glens in the daytime and see nothing (which we did) or you can just happen to stumble upon a twinkly constellation of them in a mossy overhang at the end of long tramp to the top of the mountain (which we also did!). I recommend the latter.

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Southern Cross–yeah, you’ll see it on the New Zealand flag and in the sky. But don’t be surprised if it takes you, like, four nights before you can identify it as a cross. Possibly the most overrated constellation in the heavens (most underrated–Cassiopeia: Queen of the Night). It should be said that now I’m back in the northern hemisphere, I do kind of miss the Southern cross (the way I miss ugly wallpaper from Grandma’s house).

Kiwis–The bird, the fruit, and the people. Though you are more likely to see kia birds than kiwi birds, more likely to see cherries than kiwi fruit and more likely to see Germans than Kiwi people, depending on where you are.

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Pavlovas– Listen up. Get your mitts on one of these Trans-Tasman delicacies of meringue, fruit and whipped cream billed as the national dessert of New Zealand or you will be sorry. I mean it. Horrible soul-shattering regret. How do I know?  Because it happened to me.

Sandflies–Every paradise has its pests, to remind us of the Fall of Man, Original Sin and the Human Condition. In New Zealand, the pest is a diminutive little bastard called the sandfly. They’re everywhere (even on mountaintops) and they will bite you. Literally and metaphorically. Even when you are not being bitten, you will feel as if you are, and when you are being bitten you will feel as if you are. And that is a metaphor for our fears and insecurities. Come to my slide show if you want to hear more.

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Excessive Bean consumption–this will only happen to you in New Zealand if your travel companion has a canned bean fixation–claiming they are the perfect road food for their convenience, healthfulness and delicious flavor. Kiwis don’t really like beans as far as I can tell.

IMG_1657High Finance–Expect to shell out $11 for a hamburger, $25 for a pizza. Or you can survive on a diet of $5 meat pies (not recommended) or canned beans (recommended if you have a travel companion with a canned bean fixation with whom you want to maintain good relations .)

Germans behaving badly–So here is the fall-out of a unified Germany: Germans with the too much spending money and a penchant for backpacking. The Germans we met were either a) surly, or b) ignoring fire bans. You can pretty much see this all over the world, except in Germany, where they are actually pretty nice.

NRJ Music Awards 2008 - ArrivalsGreymouth–This town is dope. I highly recommend it. It’s where the Greymouth River is channeled into the sea…a fearsome sight to behold. It’s where you can stay in a hostel with a giant unicorn painted on the wall (the Unicorn Room) and where old weathered miners hug you randomly in the street. Also along the most beautiful stetch of coastline I have ever seen.

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Stoats--aka ermine, aka short-tailed weasel. The peace-loving nation of New Zealand has declared war on this invasive, bloodthirsty animal that is killing all of their flightless birds. Bombs away, I say. Cute, but they use their cute for evil. As evidenced by this video.

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Is this a complete list? Absolutely not. I left out sheep, mountains, fuschia, meat pies and funny looking babies amongst other things. Feel free to add more items in the comment section. Even if you have never been to New Zealand. Or just traveled there in your mind. You can post what you’d like to see in New Zealand or even some misinformed generalizations about New Zealand. Or if you know absolutely nothing about New Zealand, not even where it’s located, just make something up.

It’s okay. Some kinds of travel, like some forms of love, are built on illusion.

End note: I dedicate this post to Valerie Showalter who has stayed a spell in New Zealand, has a tattoo of a train on her person, and is currently knocking over phone booths in London with her partner in crime Justin Shenk. Tally ho, Valerina.