Archive for March, 2009

h1

New Zealand Travel Tip #6: Use Your Accent to Keep Them Guessing

March 31, 2009

flagI’m not sure where or when it went, but my American accent got lost somewhere along the way.

When I was in Sydney a few years ago people asked where in Ireland I was from, if I was originally from Queensland, and what part of London I lived in, all based on my accent.

On this trip, New Zealanders and other travelers have assumed I was German, Canadian and Australian. When I tell them I’m from California, born and raised outside of San Francisco, they get a squinty look on their faces like I’ve just given them a very difficult math problem to figure out. Then I get responses like:

“I never would have guessed you were American.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from California.”
“Are you sure?”
“You have a really subtle accent. How’d you do that?”

Then I give them a thrill by, like, going all valley girl on them? And, like, being a little louder and more like the people on TV and stuff? And they’re all like, “Yeeeah, now that’s American!”

What *real* Californians sound like.

What *real* Californians sound like.

And that pretty much solved the mystery for me. Because while I’ve never talked like a character straight out of “Clueless”, at one time I was all, like, you know, Californian in the way I talked. But after high school I moved to Boston for college, and my first day there I was talking to my RA who, within a couple of minutes, said, “So where in California are you from?”

Right then I decided to watch myself a little more closely, to blend in and try and sound a little more adult in the way I spoke. And apparently it worked so well that not only did I rinse the Californian out of my accent, but a lot of the American as well. But what does that even mean?

In my hostel in Rotorua, a guy at a table across from me answered that question when I overheard him bragging to his friends that he could always identify an American. “They’re really loud and in your face. But Canadians are quieter and nicer.”

Ah ha! So it’s not just my accent, but my general calmness, politeness and general courtesy that’s ruining my American rep! The irony is that two of the loudest, most obnoxious and embarassing people I met on my trip were from Toronto. Go figure, eh?

For final verification that my accent was all kinds of messed up, I turned to Facebook and one of its trusty quizzes. I allowed Facebook to determine which Muppet I am (Rowlf) and which celebrity I should marry (Jude Law? Really?), so I figured they could accurately identify my regional speech pattern as well.

The answer? I’m a “Northern Accent”, despite the fact I have never lived in the North. I haven’t even visited that much.

I guess Facebook doesn’t understand me either.

h1

Travel Adventures for Under $500

March 26, 2009

cappadociaWhen you’re bored of reading about my travel experiences, start planning your own. There are some great deals on airfare right now, and paired up with an affordable tour, trek or safari, you could have a hell of a vacation for around $1500. (Unless you only want to stay in luxury hotels and dine at fancy restaurants. Then you’re on your own.)

What interests you? Sunning on beaches in India? Visiting Machu Picchu by train? Rafting through Ecuador? Travel CUTS has put together ten of their favorite student travel adventures for under $500 each. Prices don’t include airfare, but if you’re a student (or teacher), they can help you find a great deal.

Call or visit your local Travel CUTS today to book your view of Mt. Everest, or check online for their weekly flight specials from the U.S. and Canada.

The Top 10 Under $500

1. Bali Adventure
2. Majestic Angkor
3. Machu Picchu By Train
4. Tap Into Thailand
5. Mendoza Wine Experience
6. Beaches & Backwater – India
7. Cappadocia Explorer
8. Chitwan Safari
9. Namche Bazaar Trek
10. Ecuador Rafting Jungle Adventure

h1

New Zealand Travel Guide: Wellington

March 19, 2009

Day Eight

Wellington, from the top of Mt. Victoria

Wellington, from the top of Mt. Victoria

I love Wellington. I think if I was ever going to move to New Zealand, I would move to Wellington. It has all the charm, personality and life that Auckland doesn’t, it’s surrounded by beautiful hills and beaches, and Peter Jackson lives there, so it must be cool, right?

After my Lord of the Rings tour the day before, I went out for drinks with my two roommates, Lawrence, from the Netherlands, and Roger, from Australia. Lawrence was just as cool and laid-back as you would expect a Dutchman to be, and Roger was… odd. That about sums it up. Nice guy, harmless, but he rarely blinked, and he was fascinated by pretty much everything. I think he’d spent too much time in the hot, Aussie sun.

We went to Molly Malone’s to listen to some live music, which was really good, and Roger spent the whole time trying to convince me to go to Parliament with him the next day for a tour and then Question Time, which sounds too much like “Nap Time” or “Play Time” for me to take seriously.

Ghandi stands guard over Wellington's Central Station.

Ghandi stands guard over Wellington's Central Station.

Question Time is when members of Parliament get to shout at each other under the guise of making political inquiries. It did sound interesting, but I didn’t really want to spend the whole day with Roger, watching him stare at me. (I swear, he only blinked like twice the whole time I talked to him.)

So, with just half a day in Wellington before I had to catch a plane to Christchurch, I checked out of the Wellington YHA(probably the best YHA in all of New Zealand), stored my stuff in a locker for the day, and went for a long walk along the waterfront to the train station.

Why go to a train station if I wasn’t taking a train? Because my LOTR guide the day before mentioned that the design was based on Grand Central in New York, which I thought was neat. She also said it had a Platform 9 3/4, like King’s Cross Station in London, which I thought was weird. A train station in New Zealand, that looks like a station in New York, but with a Harry Potter platform like they have in London?

Next stop: Hogwarts

Next stop: Hogwarts

And it’s true. Walking in to the station I felt like I had stepped back in time a little, to when New York was cleaner and newer, and there was a big sign for Platform 9 3/4. It wasn’t over a real platform, just hanging on a wall, for no real reason, but it was interesting enough to get me and probably lots of other tourists to go in and take a picture.

Outside the station, in another nod to multiculturalism, is a statue of Ghandi, given as a gift by the people of India.

The Beehive

The Beehive

The Beehive, New Zealand’s funny-looking capitol building, is just a couple of blocks from there, so I walked over and saw that I was just in time for one of the hourly tours. The tour did not answer the question of whether the building really was designed on a napkin as a joke that got taken too seriously, but it did teach me a little more about the New Zealand government, the role of women, the Maori and other cultural groups in politics, and New Zealand’s ties to England and the throne.

Next, I just had to ride the Wellington Cable Car. I love rides. Another backpacker gave me a ticket he bought but didn’t use, otherwise it would have cost NZ$5 to go up and then down again. The cable car takes a steep path, from Lambton Quay (pronounced “key”) to high above Wellington, past Victoria University, up to the Botanic Gardens.

The gardens are massive and lovely. Be sure to grab a map so that you don’t get lost in all the various paths and trails. The gardens are a great place to take a picnic, or to spend a whole afternoon wandering around. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a whole afternoon to kick back and relax, so I settled for a walk around the rose garden and a quick snack at the cafe there (watch out for the super-aggressive pigeons), then a slow meander back to the cable car, taking a peek in the free Cable Car Museum while I waited for my ride.

No wonder Wellington is a sister city to San Francisco with its earthquakes, hills and a trolly car.

No wonder Wellington is a sister city to San Francisco with its earthquakes, hills and a trolley car.

A colorful scene in the Rose Garden's greenhouse.

A colorful scene in the Rose Garden's greenhouse.

The last thing I had to see before saying goodbye to Wellington was Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand. I’d spent about an hour and a half there two days before, when I first got to Wellington, but with five floors of exhibits and special collections, there was a lot more to see.

Te Papa is one of the most impressive museums I’ve ever been to. It’s a natural history museum, art gallery, cultural center and science exploratorium all in one. And best of all, it’s free. Go in to see the colossal squid that was discovered in Antarctica in 2007, learn more about how volcanoes have shaped New Zealand’s landscape, hear stories from immigrants who have started new lives in New Zealand or buy a ticket to one of the museum’s simulator rides.

Te Papa, the museum Kiwis call "Our Place"

Te Papa, the museum Kiwis call "Our Place"

When you go in you’ll see that all of the exhibits start on the second floor. This is to prevent damage to the collection in the event of a tsunami. They built the museum knowing that the first floor would likely be wiped out in a natural disaster (the Wellington airport would also be a goner), so you have to go upstairs to get to the good stuff.

One of my guidebooks said to plan a full day at Te Papa. When I read that I sort of chuckled, but it’s pretty accurate. You can always go in just for an hour and see the one or two things that interest you most, but if you like to wander, like I do, four to five hours is more realistic. Luckily, because it’s free, you can split it up over a couple of days, like I did, because there’s no pressure to get your money’s worth.

I did pay the admission price to get into the special Monet exhibit. I figured that you don’t get to see Monets just anywhere, so I should take advantage of the opportunity. However, once I got in and started to look around, I saw that many of the paintings we on loan from the MFA in Boston. I had to laugh because, having lived in Boston for several years, I’d probably seen these paintings before… a few times. Still, it was a good exhibit, serene and calming before a trip to the airport.

From Te Papa I rushed my tired feet back to the YHA to collect my bags. There’s a bus stop about a block away where the Airport Flyer picks up. It’s just NZ$6.50 and 20 minutes to get there.

And I was off to the South Island.

Next stop: Christchurch

h1

New Zealand Travel Tip #5: Grocery Shopping

March 17, 2009

This tip really applies to anywhere you travel. If you’re a student, or just a backpacker on a budget, then at some point you’re going to give up on fast food and hit a grocery store to pick up some cheap, healthy eats.

Even if you’re only traveling for a short time and are perfectly happy with cafes, restaurants, roadside diners and assorted food carts and trucks, a trip to the grocery store can be a lot of fun, and very enlightening. It’s the kind of thing they don’t usually include in tours, but it will give you a lot of insight to local tastes and culture.

In New Zealand there are a few big grocery chains, along with the usual Mom & Pop style stores, bakeries and produce markets. New World is one of the big names and Pak N Save is another. If you visit a Pak N Save, note that you have to pick up your own plastic bags when you go in the store (and pay for them at checkout) or bring your own plastic or reusable bags. You’ll be packing your own groceries when you leave.

The eco-friendly reusable bags stores sell also make useful and cheap souvenirs. Costing just $1-2 each, you can use them to carry food, laundry or whatever you can’t stuff into your backpack from hostel to hostel, then pack them flat into your bag to take home with you.

I love to go through the produce section of a grocery store to see what’s in season and what kinds of fruits and vegetables another country has that I can’t find at home. Or maybe just to see if they call them something different.

Instead of Butterfingers, the Simpsons promote nectarines here.

Instead of Butterfingers, the Simpsons promote nectarines here.

From there I take a good look at the chocolate and snack aisles. Marshmallow seems to be big in New Zealand, and you can’t leave without trying a Pineapple Lump or Chocolate Fish.

tuna

Here we have Teriyaki, Sweet Thai Chilli, Savoury Onion ...

Speaking of fish, have you ever seen so many flavors of tuna before? Or any flavor other than plain tuna?

tuna2

Sundried Tomato, Lemon and Cracked Pepper and EVOO, for starters. These flavors make our choice between the big can or the little can of tuna seem really lame.

The international aisle is also a good time, as every one that I saw was mostly made up of American/Mexican food, like Old El Paso brand salsas, seasonings and burrito and taco kits.

Foreign Foods

Foreign Foods

Finally, if you’re sitting around a hostel on a cold night, get some Tim Tams and a hot drink and try a Tim Tam Slam. That’s where you suck your drink up using the cookie as a straw. It melts in your mouth and goes down smooth. Wash it down with some Hokey Pokey ice cream – a flavor you’ll find all over New Zealand.

You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around...

You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around...

h1

Photos From New Zealand

March 13, 2009

Here are a few of the more interesting sights I’ve seen lately. More updates to come soon!

A SuperLoo. What's so super about it? I don't know, but I was intrigued.

A SuperLoo in Taupo. What's so super about it? I don't know, but I was intrigued.

New Zealand's biggest band (pre-Flight of the Conchords) is immortalized in some kind of bedding store.

New Zealand's biggest band (pre-Flight of the Conchords) is immortalized in some kind of bedding store.

I think some public art is meant to scare the drunk backpackers at night, like the "Tripod" in Wellington, built by Weta.

I think some public art is meant to scare the drunk backpackers at night, like the "Tripod" in Wellington, built by Weta.

 

The Wellington train station features a Platform 9 3/4. I had no idea the Hogwarts Express picked up in New Zealand.

The Wellington train station features a Platform 9 3/4. I had no idea the Hogwarts Express picked up in New Zealand.

 

Food just looks prettier here.

Food just looks prettier here.

 

Ready to plan a trip of your own? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are lots of decisions to make, but a student travel expert can get you all sorted out. Or leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!

h1

New Zealand Travel Guide: Wellington Lord of the Rings Tour

March 9, 2009

Day 7

I had two days in Wellington and I knew I had to spend one of them getting my geek on. There are Lord of the Rings tours offered all over New zealand; I did a half-day one in Queenstown years ago. But Wellington is home to Peter Jackson, Weta (his special effects company), and dozens of filming locations, so this is one of the best places to hop on a tour bus.

One of the few signs that point out filming locations.

One of the few signs that point out filming locations.

I chose a full-day Rover Ring Tour because it was highly recommended by Lonely Planet, and the girl at the YHA who booked it for me. Our tour guide, Laura, picked everyone up at their hostels and hotels and took off for the first filming location, Mt. Victoria.

On the way there Laura shared photos of the film premieres in Wellington, where the stars were forced to parade through town in front of tens of thousands of people. she said there was a buzz in town for days before the event, as all the red carpet was laid out and people camped out for a good spot on the parade route. She said there are plaques in the Embassy Theatre showing where each star sat for the premiere – all except for Orland Bloom, whose plaque was stolen so many times that they gave up replacing it.

Laura, our awesome tour guide.

Laura, our awesome tour guide.

From the top of Mt. Vic you can see Wellywood, the area where the film studios are across the bay from downtown Wellington. You can also watch the planes land and take off at the Wellington airport, which is located on the only low, flat land around, and is therefore sure to be completely wiped out in the event of a tsunami. (Wellington lies right on top of a fault line, one of the reasons it’s a sister city to San Francisco.)

"Get off the road!"

"Get off the road!"

We walked down the hill a bit until we were standing on a dirt road, right in the place where Frodo shouts, “Get off the road!” as the Black Riders chase the hobbits out of the Shire and onto the ferry.

Throughout the day Laura showed us video clips on her iPod and had photos from the films to hold up at each location so that we could see who stood where. After a while it did feel a little silly hiking through the woods to get a picture of a tree just because you could see a certain branch behind Elijah Wood in one scene, but the stories Laura had about each spot, and her anecdotes about the stars, was really what made the day interesting.

Celeb hangout, Scorch-O-Rama

Celeb hangout, Scorch-O-Rama

We stopped for morning coffee at Scorch-O-Rama, a cafe down the street from Peter Jackson’s house, close to the homes where the rest of the cast was staying. The cafe used to be called Chocolate Fish, and was a favorite hangout for the actors, so you can sip a latte and picture Billy Boyd and Dominic Moynahan goofing off at a table in the corner.

I’ll leave the rest of the locations for you to enjoy yourself, but I will tell you a little about the Weta Cave, one of the places I was most excited to see. Weta is the place that built all of the miniatures, created all the CGI, did the live action capture stuff that turned Andy Sirkis into Gollum, and had two guys who did nothing for more than a year than create faux chainmail – a job that made them both wear off their fingerprints.

The Weta Cave

The Weta Cave

Weta was around long before the Rings trilogy, working on Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners” plus smaller, New Zealand productions. They’ve also worked on “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “King Kong” and some children’s animated films.

For some reason, even though fans have been poking around Weta for the past ten years, it was only about eight months ago that they opened a shop and museum for people to come in and look around. Before that, the most you could do was stand outside and try to peek in a window or hope to get a look at someone coming in or out.

Now, there’s a small gift show that sells things for films and TV shows that Weta had nothing to do with (“Harry Potter” and “Doctor Who”) and almost nothing for “Lord of the Rings”. It’s a little bit odd actually.

weta-orcYou would think you’d be able to buy shirts and figurines and soundtracks and posters and hobbit feet and elf ears, but they only had some of the books and a few expensive sculpted pieces. There are some very cool props and statues though, and you have to see the 20-minute behind-the-scenes video about what goes on at Weta.

As we were walking out, we passed one of the head make-up artists who we saw in the video, and driving down the street passed one of the sculptors. If you’re someone who’s watched all the interviews and extras on the DVDs, you could probably hang out at the cafe down the block and just watch all of these people come in for their morning coffee.

After Weta we went on to look at some shipping containers. Sexy, eh? These shipping containers are stacked three high in a U shape to hold up a massive blue screen. This screen has been the backdrop for the boat in “King Kong” as well as many LotR scenes.

We actually spent a lot of the day talking about shipping containers. At the end of filming all three Rings films, New Line Cinema had 240 containers full of props and costumes. They didn’t know what to do with them, so Peter Jackson said, “Sell them to me.” They did. At first people thought maybe he would create a museum or wait and auction things off. There was a touring show of props and things from the films, but that was less than 3% of what he had.

Then, it was announced that, after a long legal battle with New Line over money, Peter Jackson had agreed to produce “The Hobbit”, with Guillermo Del Toro directing. Ah ha! He’s already got 240 containers worth of props and costumes that he won’t have to pay for again, depending on how much of it is still good. Laura thinks she’s identified this stack of containers in a local shipping yard, but she’s not sure yet.

We stopped at a quarry where Minas Tirith and Helms Deep were both built, and where trucks were coming and going. This wasn’t sacred ground for them, just a place for business as usual.

Rivendell is that-a-way.

Rivendell is that-a-way.

In the afternoon we had lunch in Rivendell, then moved on to Isengard for trees, trees and more trees, then a river. Laura kept the stories coming, telling us about her own role in the fil, playing the voice of an orc. Sort of. To get the sound of a full orc army, Peter Jackson went to a cricket game and asked the crowd of 28,000 to stamp their feet, beat their chests, and chant. Pretty clever, getting all that free labor.

I would highly recommend this tour if you want a truly geektacular day. Along with the LotR highlights, it’s a great way to get out of Wellington and see some of the areas outside of town.

Next: More sightseeing around Wellington.

h1

New Zealand Travel Guide: Taupo to Wellington

March 4, 2009

Day Six

Today was mostly a Magic Bus day. It was tempting to relax and sleep a little on the bus, but there was just too much to look at as we cruised through the country, heading south from Taupo to Wellington.

In fact, I would call this a postcard drive, because every few minutes the scenery would change and I sat there thinking, “That could be a postcard. That could be a postcard. That could be a postcard.”

Here’s my day in pictures:

The scenic Magic Bus.

The scenic Magic Bus.

Stop at the Flat Hills Cafe

Stop at the Flat Hills Cafe

A sheep comes running up to me to be friends.

A sheep comes running up to me to be friends.

Volcano

Volcano