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.

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