where's nemo?

Part 2: The Northern Isle
Chapter 5
Day 1

"This place reminds me of the Disaster Transport from Cedar Point." Dave had a good point. The gaudy fixtures and the tacky decorations bore an eerie resemblance to the roller coaster. The similarities stop there though. A strong stench of rotting fish and cheap fog machine air permeated the room. "Is your group interested in the full package?" One of the female workers was asking Dr. T if our group wanted to pose with a giant poster of Emperor penguins like campy tourists. I loved her accent. Ever since I've gotten here, I've been keenly listening whenever a Kiwi speaks. It tickles my fancy. What's not to love? For instance, though I heard her murmur, "Wewld yoa kuds luk to tek e pucture wut t'pingween?" She was actually asking, "Would your kids like to take a picture with the penguin?" OK, I probably butchered that sentence trying to break it down into recognisible Kiwi English, my apologies.

Dave jolts me out of my stupor and we continue moving deeper and deeper into Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World. Apparently it's one of the hot-spots of Auckland and a likely site for our environmental science class to visit. The center offered loads of educational information about the vast underwater domain. I walk over to where a man in a wet suit was talking to a crowd. At first I couldn't understand what all the commotion was about, but then I glanced into the pool and everything became clear. The man was waist deep in a pool with half a dozen sting rays. Those bastards! One of their relatives or cousins killed Steve Irwin. Of course that was in jest. Sort of. Wet Suit Guy was explaining to the gathered crowd about the docile and elegant creatures as they gracefully glided all around him. It's hard to imagine that such a beautiful creature could take down the Crocodile Hunter.

I hopped on board the ride that toured the penguin exhibit. The contraption was a replica snow track that smelled horribly of fish guts and god knows what else. I was accompanied by Dr. T and the other instructors: the graduate teaching assistant and a Professor of Urban Planning, Missy. Dr. T and Missy were deep in conversation about the various species of penguins that lived in New Zealand. GTA and I were simply anticipating the imminent arrival into the penguin habitat.

I'm not sure why I was so keen on seeing the penguin. I'm not a huge penguin fan. In fact that honor goes to this girl in the group, Krissy. I guess paying attention to the penguins kept me from thinking about how awkward it was to be cooped up in a tin box with my professors. This was definitely dropping my social status a few notches. I'll have to do something to make up for this totally uncool moment. Luckily the ride wasn't unbearable. The penguin were quite the stars and I spent my time behind the looking glass, snapping off a few shots of them. Finally the ride ended and I hopped off and away from the professors without another word.

I wandered into the section of the aquarium where they house the fish. All sorts of obscure sea creatures that you wouldn't even know existed unless you saw them yourself. All the usual suspects were there: clown fish, sea horses, sharks, etc. The real treasure was stumbling upon the crayfish exhibit. I was completely taken back by what I saw. Back at home, there was a creek that ran along the park where a few friends and I would go fishing for crayfish. Except, the crayfish that I was looking at was easily two feet long. I couldn't understand how it could grow that big. Steroids anyone?

As we boarded the bus, I was eagerly anticipating the nightlife that Auckland had to offer. Dr. T was giving us the night off to find dinner and explore the city. My mind began to wander while considering all the options that were laid out before me. I could hear the excited chatter at the back of the bus. My thoughts were interrupted as the bus came alive and rumbled down the road.


in pursuit

My eyes dart back and forth, scanning the busy sidewalk as I quietly exit the store, package in hand. The air is crisp as I gulp it in like giant mouthfuls of water. I duck beneath an awning to escape the push of the bustling crowd. With one hand, I deftly wipe away the nervous beads of sweat off my brow. Looking around, I check to make sure the coast is clear before setting forth into the stampede of rush hour foot traffic. My heart pounds quick and skittish inside my chest, mimicking my jittery stride. A large man with a dark black mustache bumps into me. He grunts a quick apology as he continues to shove past my dazed body. Frantically, I check the inside of my jacket. It's still there. I breathe a deep sigh of relief.

A flash of blue catches my eye and my heart stands still, frozen as if caught in the act. The way ahead is blocked by a female officer heading towards me. Her face is a blank mask- all except for her eyes. Her green eyes burn with a fierce intensity like a jade fire that belies her stoic expression. I dart around the corner and start off at an all out sprint, like an outlaw running from the deputies. I weave in and out of the mass of bodies, like a leaf navigating down a rapid stream. I glance behind me and see that she is still behind me. Has she seen me? Did she see what I did? Frightened, I surge forward with renewed intensity. Seeing an alley to the right, I veer into the darken path and continue until my lungs burn red with fatigue. Exhausted, I cast an eye down the route that I took and notice that I am alone.

The hour is late by the time I reach the front steps. Along the way, I stopped by the safe house to gather clean clothes. I stood there with the parcel tucked safely away in my jacket pocket. I smooth the wrinkles out of my shirt and wipe away a piece of lint on my pants. I check my breath. There's a faint linger of my last meal. My last meal as a free man. My finger shakes as I ring the bell. Each second feeling like an eternity weighing down on my heavy shoulders. Finally the door creaks open slowly. I'm greeted by a pair of green eyes. Instead this time, the intensity is replaced by affectionate warmth. My hands fumble as I dig for the precious item. I drop to my knees and look up at her surprised face, those green eyes filling up with tears. My quivering fingers open up the box as I ask with trembling lips, Will you marry me?


final descent

Part 2: The Northern Isle
Chapter 4
Day 1

My eyes scanned the natural beauty of Auckland's skyline stretched out before me. Despite being the most populous city in New Zealand, Auckland reminds me less of New York and more of a quiet bay-side community. Perhaps it's only because from my vantage point, all I could see were rows and rows of quaint colorful houses sprawled out before me. The bustling metropolitan center was across the river, the Sky Tower marking the destination like a beacon in the distance. The scenery was worth the effort I think. All around me, my companions seemed to come to the same conclusion as me. That hike wasn't so bad. I could get used to that.

Earlier that day, we landed in Auckland. Having spent the majority of the flight abusing the movie archive, I set forth into New Zealand with bleary eyes and a groggy mind. I stumbled with every step, struggling with balancing my cumbersome luggage and my own two feet, still asleep from the long flight. We past by a crowd of Maori, the island's indigenous population. Damn, these guys are bred huge. And it's true. Each one reminded me of E. Honda from Street Fighters. Face paint included. Not really. I slowly make my way out of the airport and head towards our charter bus. It's pouring rain outside when we arrived there. Dr. T leans over to me and says, "Get used to this because it will always be raining while we're down here." Splendid. After stowing our gear under what would be our mobile classroom for the next week and a half, we set off towards a number of destinations.

"Argh! My shins are fucking killing me." We just hiked to the top of One Tree Hill, the popular landmark that inspired a song by U2 of the same name. Having spent the last half day cooped up in a metal tube soaring over the Pacific, it's no wonder our legs were having issues dealing with mobility. "Stop whining, just walk it off." A smart aleck remark from someone in the group. While we were making our way up the steep hill, the rain was starting to let up. Now as we were standing at the top, we were able to glimpse the skyline of Auckland clearly. The clouds giving way to the rays of sun, as if like a series of spotlights highlighting the magnificent cityscape before me. "I can't wait until they fucking let us go into the city" Yeah, same here Dave.

Another ten minute bus ride later and we arrived at our second destination, Mt. Eden. We hike to the top of the tallest natural peak in Auckland. By this time, the sun is high up in the sky and the city is fully displayed before us. Mt. Eden's interesting feature is the steep crater in the middle of the peak. It's almost like a mini valley of sorts. I decide to walk along the edge of the crater, hoping to get close to the resident cows that were grazing on the grass. Each step took careful deliberation to avoid the "cow-pies" that littered the field like cans haphazardly strewn about after tail-gating or land mines eagerly anticipating to "ambush" unwary travelers. With my eyes glued to the ground, seeking out every would be "uh-ohs," I didn't realize how close I came to bumping into a cow. Startled, I take a few steps backwards and wipe out my camera. I've never been this close to a cow before, I wasn't sure if they had a comfort zone that they didn't like puny humans to cross into. I stood there quite still, hoping not to antagonize the beast into a kicking frenzy. I wonder if it knows that I love eating beef. Not exactly the right things to say out loud, but I hedged my bets and figured the cow wouldn't understand English. After avoiding any entanglements, I head back to the class and plop down on the bench with them. We each set our eyes out on sight before us. Each one gazing at what would be our playpen for the next three weeks. I am reluctant to refer to it as home, we were more like romantic wanderers.

Zipping through the city towards our next destination, I couldn't help feeling awkward being on the "wrong" side of the road. I wasn't used to inverting my sense of driving rules. Left turn has priority? Right turn must yield? What was this nonsense? My mind felt like it had gone on an acid trip. Not really, but you catch my drift. Also, I most definitely was not clued in to the point that I had to reverse my method of scanning for traffic. Habitually, I am prone to scan from left to right. If I had continued to do so in New Zealand, I probably would have ended up as road kill after ten minutes.

Why is this climb so much harder than the first two? "Maybe because you're already tired from the last two. Or maybe you're just out of shape." Gee thanks, that makes me feel better about myself. "Oh, no problem." Smart ass. My shins are burning by the time I made it up the steep grade. When I reach the top, I am welcomed by the sight of... Mario Land? Mushrooms dot the top of the hill, each one a tempting target for a well needed rest. It was a comical sight to say the least. "What the hell are these things?" Damn if I know Dave. Your guess is my best guess too. Dr. T is spewing off trivia about how young children would often use this hill to go sledding off of. Then he looked around and shook his head. "I was looking to see if there was any left over cardboard so you guys could try it. Guess you're out of luck today." Guess so Dr. T Lucky us. I start wandering off again, snapping off some shots of the landscape around us. I spot the other study abroad group from Michigan State. I wasn't sure how to react around them. Some of the other people in my group had made some small talk with them at the airport since we were all on the same flight. But Dave and I kept to ourselves during the beginning of the trip. Guess we missed out on bonding experience. I wasn't particularly worked up about it. They seemed like a weird bunch to me; however, appearances can be deceiving.

"WHOA AH SH-" Temptation got the better of us, and someone decided to sled down the hill. DJ somehow found a sign somewhere and used that as a would be sled. Unfortunately, the sign didn't hold up well and he was thrown off after hitting a dirt hill on the way down. Not to be outdone by his friend, Calen simply somersaulted down the side of the hill, tumbling every which way until he was finally stopped by a nasty looking bush. Dave and I stood there marveling at the stupidity of our fellow classmates and laughed. "These guys are fucking retarded. Now I kind of want to do that." Go for it, I'll be right here watching your dumbass hurt yourself. "Good, hold my shit."

Dr. T gave us a break from tramping up hills to grab a meal in Davenport. It was a typical bay-side community with rolling hills and white buildings. Dave and I break away from the group and make our way into town. We were both starving from not eating all day. I spot a local and ask her what's good around the area. She directs us to a few locations and we head off seeking them out. Crickey! The prices were ridiculous. We walked out of multiple restaurants after seeing their discouraging prices. $9 USD for a sandwich? Not quite what I had imagined paying for a simple panini. I stopped another local and asked about cheaper alternatives. The old man looked at me with a smirk and said, "You mean affordable. Cheap implies low quality, son" Ouch! Uh yeah, that's what I meant. Affordable.

We eventually settled for a mid-range restaurant. I ordered a salad with a local soda pop. Dave had a burger and a local brew. "Haha! I'm legal here. Hahahaha." The two of us sat there and people watched for a while. We were seated outside with the sun beating down on our unprotected necks. Despite the heat, the weather was quite nice. Every once in a while, a cool breeze would blow through and give us some relief. After we finished eating and were in the process of paying our bill we hit a roadblock. How much do we tip? I glance around at other tables and notice an absence of tips. "Do they accept tips here?" No clue buddy. I hate when that happens. I always try to go along with local customs and traditions. Maybe they don't tip here. "Yeah, that's what I'm guessing." We ended up not leaving a tip for our waiter. Turns out we were right in doing so. Phew.

On the way the way back to the bus, we spotted a fruit stand. Jackpot. A bag of kiwis for 99 cents NZ? No freaking way. Kiwis can go for $4.99USD back home. This was quite a steal. We both grab a bag and chuckled at our fortune. What a great deal.