New Zealand aftermath

We’ve been home from vacation a little over a week now. I’ve just now finished uploading my journal of the trip. I tried to keep it as current as possible. I’m sure it has numerous spelling and gramatical errors. Maybe at some point in the future I will go back and edit it.
I took several hundred pictures while we were on the road. It’s going to take me a few more days at the minimum before I’ll be able to upload them.
Overall, the trip was wonderful. There we moments that were stressful and having a touch of the flu in the middle of it didn’t help. All that aside, it was an experience that will be with me til the end of my days. As a person it has expanded my horizons and taught me a great many things about people that I had once taken for granted. As a writer it has fueled my imagination moreso than I would have thought possible. It’s no wonder that the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been so successful. Peter Jackson already had a land so much like the middle-earth described by Tolkien that he had very little to do in the way of scenery to bring that world alive. I’m still digesting all of these new experiences. The only thing I can really say now is that I am glad we went.

Day 17, Wellington NZ -> Aurora, IL USA — December 18, 2003

What started out smoothly morphed into a fiasco. Our return trip was planned out and, if executed smoothly, would have put us home and in our fuzzy slippers by the evening news. Unfortunately things went amiss.

We all checked out and got our luggage loaded into the taxi by ten. The first leg of our return trip was a short one-hour flight from Wellington to Auckland. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately this is where our fellowship began to break up. April, being one of our native members, had a short flight to her home in Hamilton. Her flight left shortly after we settled in at the airport. Then went we boarded the plane we left behind Jenny, a Wellington native. It was sad to see them go.
Things got rocky once we reached Auckland. We were congregating at the baggage claim when one of our group came up and told us that our flight was delayed. Thus began one painfully long headache. Apparently there was some kind of mechanical issue delaying the flight. Isn�t that reassuring? It turns out it was some kind of scheduled maintenance that was conflicting with the flight schedule but had priority. Our flight, which was originally supposed to leave Auckland at nine in the evening ended up boarding at two in the morning, with a scheduled lift-off of three, and an actual take-off at four. This put us seven hours behind schedule. We had planned for a four hour layover in Los Angeles, so we missed our connecting flight too.
The airline tried to be accommodating. They gave us food vouchers. Unfortunately we had about ten minutes to eat at the only restaurant we could find � McDonalds � before they started closing up. From there we found a few long benches and spread out. Most everyone ended up lying down and napping but I couldn�t settle down enough to relax. I was anxious to get going. The time finally came to board and we were very happy to see that there was still a duty-free shop open. We ran in and picked up a few bottles of wine. We�re not big wine fans, but we wanted to pick up some for gifts and whatnot. Two whites, a red, and a yummy bottle of ice wine.
I don�t remember much of the flight to Los Angeles. I passed out as soon as I got buckled in my seat. I suffered periodic moments of consciousness, but thankfully they were short-lived.
When we eventually landed in LA, it was an unexpectedly short trip through customs and back to the Air New Zealand counter. They had rescheduled our flight on United for us and even checked our baggage for us, so we didn�t have to carry it across several terminals. We got checked in at the United terminal and staggered towards our gate.
Our flight to Chicago landed at five in the morning, seven hours past schedule. The handful of hours of sleep we�d gotten since watching Return of the King was not enough, and I had to go into work at ten to do a conference call. I blame that tiredness for what we discovered next. As we were picking up our luggage, we noticed a bag identical to the one we bought in Wellington go around the carousel a few times, but the name tag on it wasn�t ours. We finally checked the baggage claim number. Oops. It turns out I had picked up the wrong bag in LA and checked it in to Chicago as our own. United did a good job handling it. We turned in the bag and explained what had happened. The person who picked up my bag called and we had a laugh about the mix-up. It turns out he bought the exact same bag while in New Zealand, so he could carry home all of the extra stuff he bought, too. We also both put on the temporary tags provided by the airline, so at a glance the two bags looked identical. He picked up his bag that afternoon and United delivered ours the following afternoon.
After getting things settled with the airline we caught a taxi home. We had a great time on our vacation, but it was good to be home.

Day 16, – Wellington NZ — December 17, 2003

The longest day begins. We took the ferry from Nelson to Wellington today. I’ve never been on such a large boat before. The seas were a bit violent but you could barely feel it. I spent most of the transit time reading and “resting my eyes”. I knew it was going to be a long day, but I had no idea just how long.
We arrived in Wellington and caught a taxi back to the Richmond where we’d stayed during our previous stay here. I can’t say I’d recommend the place. There was a particular mildew smell that made sleep a challenge, not to mention that our bathroom didn’t have a door. That made having visitors over quite difficult.
We had to finish some last-minute shopping and email so we went downtown and walked our sore little feet off. We went to Te Papa, a large museum on the waterfront. We contributed greatly to their gift shop. Not only did they have some cool stuff, they had a dedicated shop just to Lord of the Rings stuff. Then we had to stop at a store and pickup another bag to carry all of our loot home with us.
We headed back to the room and tried to get a little sleep. It was still afternoon but we had our tickets to the Return of the King premier at midnight at the Embassy Theatre. I think we managed a few hours rest before we met up with Annie and walked downtown for dinner. Our last full day in New Zealand and we found the best little restaurant tucked away in a corner. It was a nice, relaxing meal before the big event.
Appetites satiated, we crossed the street and went into the upstairs lobby of the Embassy and waited for our group. As soon as it was time we found our seats and watched the last part of this epic trilogy. There were a lot of emotions wrapped up here at the end of our trip, finally seeing the last leg of the movie that had partially inspired our journey. I think I can best call it a bittersweet moment. We were enjoying the time and company but there’s an undeniable feeling of home that we were sorely missing.
After the movie we spilled into the streets and did our best to avoid the television reporters there to capture the event. I failed. I managed to avoid talking but I was rather prominently caught behind someone being interviewed, looking somewhat like a deer in headlights I imagine. Once the camera was off I was able to escape to the safety of a dark corner as we waited for a cab. About four in the morning we stumbled into bed and got what little sleep we could before the ten o’clock checkout that morning.

Day 9, Queenstown NZ — December 10, 2003

We went four-wheel driving in Skippers Canyon this morning. Riding in a decked-out Land Cruiser we traveled road and path and river for four hours. We passed through Hell’s Gate, witnessed the River Anduin and the location used for the Pillars of the Kings. The pillars were digitally added by Weta (pronounced Whey-tah by the locals) after filming.
That afternoon we drove to Te Anau. Doing our part to bolster the New Zealand economy, we bought our tickets to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. We boarded a cruise boat and took the 35-minute trip across Lake Te Anau. After a short video introduction we followed our guide through the cave entrance, at times bent nearly in half to clear the ceiling, and to the boat. Guide wires were set in the ceiling of the cave, which allowed the guide to navigate the boat through the tour. Once everyone was in the boat the lights were cut – the rest of the trip being made in total darkness.
Glowworms are fascinating creatures that resemble green LEDs glowing in the dark. The hungrier they are the brighter their glow. It was breathtaking to see these tiny creatures in their natural habitat, almost totally undisturbed. One thing I have noticed here is a strong trend towards conservationism.
The water in the part of the cave we were in was very shallow, no more than a foot or two deep. It was very clear, too, much like all of the lakes and streams here. Clear, cold and clean enough to drink. I can’t imagine drinking from any body of water back home, except for the occasional natural spring. It makes me sad to think about things like the Chicago River, that only looks healthy when they dye it green for St. Patrick’s’ Day

Day 7, Cambridge NZ — December 8, 2003

We’ve gone to Hobbiton! I’m still recovering from the flu but feeling much more alive today. This was the day I was most looking forward to. We drove to the down of Matamata and boarded a bus that took us to the movie set for Hobbiton. There’s quite a story to tell here.
When New Line Cinema sent out their location scouts across the width and breadth of New Zealand one of their aerial scouts spotted the perfect piece of land for Hobbiton, near the town of Matamata. The land was part of the largest sheep farm in the area. Once identified, New Line sent their representative to contact the owners about filming on their property. Their first attempt was not as successful as they’d have liked because they came during the middle of a rugby match. When they knocked on the door, they were greeted and told to come back after the match and the door was promptly closed again.
Their second attempt was successful. The family agreed to allow the use of their land for Hobbiton and the three-month process of contracts and paperwork began. All of the filming was done in secrecy. Once all of the legal necessities were out of the way, work began to prepare the set. The New Zealand Army was brought in to build roads. Thousands of man-hours spent constructing hobbit-holes, hills, and trees. The tree above Bag End was actually bought from a farmer, carefully cut down, each piece labeled, and then reassembled on the set. Then artificial leaves were imported from Taiwan and wired to the tree. The party tree, which Bilbo stands beneath during his farewell speech, is an original part of the property, and one of the key features that attracted the location scouts. Standing in front of the party tree, you can circle 360 degrees and not see a single man-made structure. It was a perfect location.
What was amazing is that, normally when a set is done being used, it is completely torn down and destroyed. It’s standard policy to return the set to its original state. In the case of Hobbiton, there was a change in the weather while the set was being torn down, leaving seventeen hobbit-holes remaining. Apparently, the family was so helpful during the filming of the Hobbiton scenes that New Line decided not to tear down the remaining set and allowed the family to host tours. They’ve been in operation for just one year as of today. It’s pretty amazing. As we were gazing around the set and listening to the tour guide narrate a pair of sheep decided to try climbing in one of the hobbit-holes.
There are a few things I found interesting about the set. First, the amount of effort that went into its construction. Some things were obviously built only for a movie set. Most of the structures were built with untreated lumber, which starts to rot away after a year exposed to the elements. We saw this in a few of the hobbit-houses, where the roofs had collapsed. Luckily the farm was just given permission from New Line, who still own the actual structures, to restore the set to it’s original state when they left it. All of the hobbit-holes were about a foot deep, save for Bag End. Any filming done inside one was done in a studio in Wellington. Bag End was a little deeper, with enough room for a few people to climb inside and look out a window.
By and large this was the best stop of the trip so far. It’s the only set still intact from the trilogy. The party tree was simply amazing and I find it somehow fitting that Hobbiton has become home to grazing sheep.
Interesting fact: Peter Jackson couldn’t use sheep from the farm for the movie because they have white faces and Tolkien specifically mentions the black faces of the sheep.
Interesting fact: So much polystyrene was used to build the set that it was manufactured on-site. Apparently Peter Jackson was none too pleased, when arriving on set one day, a “Pollywood” sign in the spirit of the famous Hollywood sign.
Interesting fact: I saw much discussion of a possible oops in the first movie, especially visible in the extended edition, where dust rising from a car could be seen in the distance. That, in fact, is true. They pointed out the road the car was on when it happened.
Interesting fact: When Sam says “If I take one more step it will be the farthest I’ve ever been from home”, he is actually about 150 meters from the party tree.

Day 6, Rotorua NZ — December 7, 2003

We made the trip up the mountain to the land of Mordor today. The Whakapapa area, where Mordor was filmed, is home to one of the few active volcanoes in New Zealand. The dark, rocky landscape was filled with the constant aroma of sulpher and ash. It was little wonder they chose this area for filming Mordor.
Unfortunately I caught a bit of travelers flu today. I wasn’t able to climb up the mountain with the rest of the group, opting instead for a nap in the car. The rest of the day was a wash for me, too sick to do anything but sleep and moan.
After the mountain we stopped at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute for a bit of shopping. While most of the group went inside, the rest checked us in to the hotel and dropped me off so I could sleep in something a bit more comfortable than the back seat of a station wagon.

Day 4, Wellington NZ — December 5, 2003

The day started off with a quick bite of breakfast, toast and some sort of nut mixture turned into cereal. It was different but in a good way. Apparently Vegemite is a popular spread in New Zealand but neither of us was brave enough to try it, especially after smelling it.
We picked up the second of the group’s rental cars and headed out. We drove to and walked through several sites: Kaitoke (Rivendell), Upper Hutt (Isengard Gardens, River Anduin), and Dry Creek Quarry (Helm’s Deep). Rivendell was pretty neat. All of the structure was digital but I was able to climb down to the river and take some neat pictures.
For lunch we stopped off at a little bakery for some meat pie. Steak and Cheese. Yummy.
The afternoon trip was much more exhausting. We drove around to various landmarks in the area. We passed Weta Digital’s headquarters. I saw someone that looked a lot like Liv Tyler getting out of a car and walking into the building. I got that on videotape but I haven’t looked at it close enough to know if it was her or not. It was surprising to see that there were houses right next to Weta. I wouldn’t have thought that it would be set right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We drove around to the back of Weta and paused to take a picture or two. The back of the building has big floor-to-ceiling windows in the offices and there were several people standing in front of the window when we stopped. We were all giggling quite madly when they returned our waves. I’m sure they’re used to tourists stopping by to gawk by now.
We played in the ocean for a while and then stopped by the Chocolate Fish Café for some refreshment. Apparently it was a favorite hangout spot for the actors when they were filming. It’s a nice little place on the beachfront. Having your tea and biscuit can be a bit tricky when the wind is blowing but it was still fun to do.
Apparently we were rested enough so we jumped back into the car and drove up Mount Victoria. It’s breathtaking to stand atop the mountain and look down on the land all around you. We watched planes land and take-off from the Wellington Airport and spotted the Apple store in the downtown centre.
Heading down the mountain we stopped to find the trail that was used to film the “Get off the road” scene from the Fellowship of the Ring. Armed with our location guidebook, we went off down the wrong trail, a very steep incline that ended in an abrupt drop-off. After trudging back up that path we found the right one, took the obligatory pictures and headed back up the car. My legs haven’t stopped hurting yet. I have a feeling that by the time I get home I’m going to be in better shape than I have in ages.
We closed the night with a big dinner at Mollie Malones, an Irish bar and pub in downtown Wellington. The food was a bit pricy but well worth it. We’re still having a great time and looking forward to heading out of Wellington in the morning. So far our stay has been limited to the big cities of New Zealand and we’re looking forward to seeing more of the countryside.

Day 3, Wellington NZ — December 4, 2003

The second greatest thrill known to man is flying. The greatest is landing. That dandy little saying is brought to you by the IHOP we stopped at on Day 2. The particular truth of it was revealed today after finally arriving in Wellington after thirteen hours of flying. We also lost the entire day of Wednesday in the process, thanks to that pesky International Date Line thing.
Aside for some minor turbulence the trip across the Pacific Ocean was long and uneventful (as opposed to short and eventful). Everything was going great until we missed our connecting flight in Auckland. Tired, hungry, thirsty and very stinky we made our way what felt like several city blocks to the domestic flight building and managed to secure seats on the next flight an hour later.
It’s a strange feeling to think that we left Los Angeles on Tuesday night and arrived in New Zealand on Thursday morning. The rest of our group met us in the terminal in Wellington and lead us on a short tour of the airport. On display were armor from both sides in the war for middle-earth. Further down the corridor was a fantastic display containing the fireplace from Bag End, pieces of Rivendell and other various sets from the movies. New Zealand is certainly living up to its reputation as the land of middle-earth.
Next we drove to the guest house we are staying at in Wellington. It’s a nice little place a few blocks from the downtown area. I don’t know if it was the fact that we hadn’t bathed in close to thirty hours or the blasting jets of hot water but I think the shower we took when we arrived is the best I’ve ever had.
After we took a breather and put on fresh clothes, Annie, Melanie, Dena and myself headed downtown and found a nice little English pub to have lunch at. Dena and I split an order of nachos and, without thinking, I said sure when he asked if we wanted bacon on it. I totally forgot that bacon isn’t served crispy like it is back home. It turns out that it’s more like slices of Canadian bacon, more like ham than anything. It turned out to be quite good, with a slightly sweet barbeque sauce and seasoned tortilla chips. We’ve wanted around the area a bit until we finally wound up in a little shopping center where we’re filling out postcards, updating our journals and saving some energy for tonight. Tonight we get to see The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition in the Embassy Theatre, home of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
We’re going to be dead tired by the time we get back to the room, but it’s worth it. I haven’t heard all the details for tomorrow but I believe it involves driving around and seeing local sites around the city.

Day 2, Los Angeles — December 2, 2003

We started off the day with a hearty breakfast at IHOP. The waitress laughed at us when we all ordered nearly the same breakfast – a western skillet with sausage (bacon for me) and eggs over easy.
Since we skipped Santa Monica yesterday we decided to make it our first stop of the day. We took a long drive north and west until we finally reached the city. We passed by 3rd street, which someone recommended to me as a good place to stop, but the glimpse of the great blue sea had caught our eyes. We pulled over next to a park that overlooked the pier and took some pictures. There were quite a few homeless people in the park. I suppose if I were to live on the streets I would pick a warm spot, too. The homeless of Los Angeles that we saw were rather subdued compared to other large cities I’ve been in (Chicago and San Francisco come to mind). The only odd moment was when I saw two men sitting on benches around an artillery gun in the park passing a homemade pipe back and forth.
We were getting bored with seeing the ocean from a distance so we jumped back in the truck and drove down to the pier. I’ve seen pictures of Santa Monica Pier before, mostly on TV or in the movies. It was the middle of the day (noon by my watch; ten in the morning local time) on a weekday so there were no crowds to be seen. It was nice to see the pier while things were slow. There were old men standing or sitting around the railing with fishing poles at hand and a few kids hanging around the arcade. The rest of the people there were tourists like us, shooting pictures of things that are no doubt mundane to the locals but fascinating to use visitors.
Back down the pier and on to the beach we went. Groups of children ran around – part of a school group learning about the oceanfront. Dena and Annie were smart and wore sandals and dabbled their toes in the cold Pacific waters. There was a pretty good tide coming in and they both got splashed. It was fun.
Back to the truck and we were off again. After about two hours of driving we decided that it would have been a really good idea to pick up a decent map. We finally got lucky and found our next destination, Mann’s Chinese Theatre. We parked and ran out in front of the theatre and joined the crowd of tourists taking in the sights. Next time we come to LA we know where to get tickets to TV tapings. We were offered seats to three different shows while walking around that block. Unfortunately we were running low on time or we would have grabbed the tickets to the Jimmy Kimbel Show. It was neat seeing the stars on the sidewalk that lined that block and the hand and foot prints in the concrete in front of the theatre. None of that was as cool as what happened next. We were across the street, walking towards the theatre so we could get a good shot from a distance. We noticed a slight commotion ahead in front of a restaurant and a limo pull up in front of it. We walk up to see what’s going on and Alice Cooper walks out of the burger joint. Apparently he only signs one autograph per public sighting so by the time I got my camera ready he was already climbing into the car. I think I managed to capture a frame or two of him, but I’ll need to dig out the video camera to find out (and I’m in the airport now). As I was standing there trying to catch a glimpse a scraggly man who could have easily been mistaken for a homeless guy stepped up to the open door and leaned in to talk to Alice. They talked for a few minutes and it was only as he was walking away down the sidewalk that I caught his name – Rob Zombie. My first thought was, “Jorge isn’t going to believe this!” (Jorge being a fellow brother of all things Metal). I snapped a few photos of him. It was hard to tell if it really was the famed rocker or not. He looked…normal. Wearing old jeans and a ball cap, I would have passed him on the street and never taken a second look. I guess that’s one advantage to costume and makeup when in the public eye. Take it all off and it’s not quite so easy to recognize you.
We spent a good forty minutes or so walking around Hollywood Blvd., but finally it was time to go. We still needed to grab some lunch and drop off the rental.
Now, it’s just after ten at night (eight local) and we’re sitting in the terminal at gate 27, counting the minutes (one hundred and eleven, the same number as Bilbo when he left the Shire) until our plane departs. Our fourth traveling companion, Melanie, has just arrived and is up at the service counter getting her boarding pass printed. We managed to arrange for the four of us to sit together on the twelve-hour flight across the Pacific.
Because of the way the time change works, we’ll leave here on Tuesday evening and arrive just after seven in the morning on Thursday. It’s going to be a little weird keeping our days straight at first but I’m sure we’ll manage it alright. On the return flight we’ll actually touch down in Los Angeles before we leave New Zealand. Pretty nifty, eh?
I’d been told by a few people that getting wireless internet access in Los Angeles Airport is a piece of cake but apparently they’ve never been to this international terminal. In order to get online I would need to walk back through security and down two or three terminals. Thanks, but no thanks. I even fired up MacStumbler and walked around the terminal in hopes of finding a signal but again I was denied. Once we reach Wellington I’ll be able to find some way of getting online and posting this.
The first short leg of our journey is complete. We’ve made it from Chicago to Los Angeles and just like Sam and Frodo as they left the shire, our small fellowship is about to take another step and be farther from home than we’ve ever been before. Onward we go.

Thinking different

After a long day of writing image filters (detecting diagonal lines embedded in an image is more complex than it seems), I finally decided to take a break and install the newest OS release from Apple, Panther.
My 12″ iBook, an 800Mhz G3, is a nice little machine, a bit slow but reliable and great for writing. It’s easy to throw it in my bag and sling it around my shoulder and the battery life is great. Still, the minor but noticable sluggishness always bothered me a bit. I listened carefully to reviews by the early adopters when Panther was first released a few weeks ago. The reports of increased performance filled me with anticipation.
The installation process went as smooth as could be expected, which is always a good thing. Copy new files, optimize, reboot and it was done. Perfectly.
I ran the upgraded system through my normal pattern of usage: listen to music with iTunes, chat via iChat and XChat and write via Word. Those early reports I had read were more accurate than I expected. Everything seemed to run smoother. Even iTunes, which is arguably the most intensive application I run on OS X, ran smooth. All in all, a very pleasant upgrade experience. With previous complaints about sluggish behavior gone and the extended battery life of the iBook (around 5 hours per charge), I expect to enjoy my mobile computing experience while abroad in New Zealand. I plan on keeping a daily journal of our travels and experiences while overseas and I can’t bring myself to bust out the pen and paper again.