Monday, March 18, 2013

Karen's Socks

Oh the places they have been... and the things they have seen.  Karen's socks have been on quite a journey since they found their way into new backpacks in Arequipa, Peru.  Karen, a new lifelong friend, heard about Sally's plight of wool allergies and her lack of success in finding quality replacement hiking socks in Peru.  Selflessly, Karen rounded up her Thorlos and set Sally off with a warm heart and warmer feet.  Karen's socks kept Sally's feet comfortable in the unexpected snowstorm on the way to Lake Titicaca.  A few weeks later, as we crept into simple plank beds at almost 16,000 feet near the lagoons and volcanoes of the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia, the socks gave their best through the cold night.  Sliding through muck and mud in the cloud forests the next week and walking the high streets of La Paz were no challenge for these faithful new friends.

The socks really stood up under the test of varying conditions in Patagonia, hanging out in kayaks, hiking glacier trails, and experiencing relatively few sock showers (we call them laundromats) for days or weeks at a time.  Stiffly, they went on toward northern Chile, sometimes hiding in a dark corner of the pack, but more often hanging out of Chacos as we watched folkloric dances and slid into each new dawn in kayaks, busses, or ferries.
The grey and black socks looked almost new after a week of rest in LA, some simple laundry soap, and time to rest.  Forgotten in the pack while their people walked barefoot on the sandy beaches of Rarotonga, Karen's socks waited patiently for their time to tread New Zealand.  Patience is rewarded and the socks dominated the New Zealand days, their stout lengths and tight weave often the only barrier between Jess and Sally and vicious sand flies.   They climbed fearlessly up lava peaks, glaciers, and forest trails saving their quiet, more reflective moments for sitting in kayaks or by baby seals in streams.  They snuck through the night in a dance that can best be described as a combination of blind mans bluff, hide-and-seek, and snipe hunting as they searched for the elusive nocturnal kiwi bird.  And occasionally, they gave way to much less favored pairs to wait their turn at the trail again.

As we travel, we take parts of our friends with us.  Some are physical reminders such as the inches gained from the thoughtful send off treats from Alina, Anthony, Linda, Bill and Dale.  Others are practical such as the emergency bracelet from Sara, Becca and Toni or Karen's socks.  Most of the time, our friends' and families' presence is less tangible but just as real as we think of the time spent with them, see things we know they would love, or hear the things they have taught us about ourselves or the world as we walk new paths each day.

Images are of Karen's socks on the Routeburn track in Milford Sound, New Zealand, under pant legs near Mt Aoraki/Cook and just out of sight of the camera at dusk looking out over the Tasman Sea.  For more about the woman who would give you the socks off her feet read, "Karen's Adventures: My life is a fairy tale" at  Posted at Jarrel's sister's house in Christchurch, New Zealand

Thursday, March 14, 2013

One ring to rule them all

"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future" - Galadriel

OK, we admit it.  We are big fans of "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," and New Zealand is just the place to immerse ourselves in our love of these movies/books.  For much of the past decade, we gathered as a family with Jack each Christmas season to watch Aragon and Frodo realize their destinies. What we have found to be amazing, though, is the effect that not only these movies, but the legacy of their director, Peter Jackson, have had on this small country. 

Tourism is a vital part of the New Zealand economy.  Of course there are other industries such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries and all of these in total make for a diverse and usually stable country.  During the last thirteen years, however, tourism has had a significant shot in the arm due, in large part, to the efforts of Sir Peter Jackson.  His trilogy, "Lord of Rings" became so popular that many of the movie locations are advertised and marketed as tourist attractions.  There are tour companies that exist only to provide tours of these sites for the visiting public.  Visitor information centers added personnel to handle the additional visitor traffic seeking anything they could visit concerning the trilogy, and we talked to employees who "had a job because of the trilogy."  Books have been published that detail (with GPS coordinates) site locations of the film and these books can be found in all bookstores and visitor centers across New Zealand.  Things are not slowing down for the movie buffs, as "The Hobbit" locations are now becoming just as popular.

Jackson, along with two other founders, has also located his Weta special effects business in his hometown of Wellington, on the North Island.  This studio/workshop/museum/office is an amazing wonderland that, until recently, was not accessible to the public due to patent concerns.  However, a portion of it is now open for guided tours, and topics such as false faces, armor and swords, stunt doubles, camera tricks, costumes, creation of/aging process of props, etc. are presented, explained and demonstrated----fascinating stuff for those of us who geek out over special effects and the wizards who create them.  Visitors come in droves to this small, inconspicuous building, and spend their vacation money touring this facility as well as for food and lodging in this quaint, bustling little community.

Probably the most surprising aspect of Jackson's influence came to us as a "must see" encouragement from other travelers and locals we met in New Zealand.  We were told more than once as we decided to meander through the wine country in the northern part of the South Island, that the vineyards and wine tasting were good, but the vintage avian heritage center in the same area was fabulous.  "World class" is the term brochures used to describe this museum that Peter Jackson has helped develop, but often we do not agree with the brochures, or with the people we talk to after we have actually visited a site.  However, we decided to see if Jackson's fingerprint could be identified here.  "Surprised" is not nearly a good enough word to explain our experience in this museum as we entered a dark and magical journey in the skies over Europe a century ago.  Jackson, who apparently is a World War I aviation buff, and his Weta studio, put together a fascinating journey beginning with early aviation through World War I with life size planes and figures in dioramas that are as detailed as real life.  There are biographies of many of the pilots, from Eddie Rickenbacker to Baron von Richtoffen. We were mesmerized and amazed as we stepped back in time and lived some of the moments depicted in the dioramas.  It was a stunning and unforgettable experience. The greater unforgettable experience will be a growing understanding of how one person supported by a team of creative geniuses with vision and passion can change the world.  

Images are of Frodo's famous hairy feet at Weta Cave, one of dozens of displays at the Avian Heritage Center in Blenhein, and the "Beacons of Gondor" film setting at the Franz Joseph Glacier.

Posted in Moeraki, New Zealand

Monday, March 4, 2013


A walk through the California Redwoods puts everything in perspective, gazing at giants that began life as tiny seeds searching for light in a dense forest.  The smell of natural decay in this forest is one of life, rather than death, as the eternal cycle of life continues as it has for eons.  What's wrong with this picture is that we were not in Northern California, rather a few kilometers outside of Rotorua, New Zealand.

One of the strongest patterns we are seeing in our eight months of travel is the stark, all encompassing influence of Homo sapiens.  Humans have, through time, "introduced" to native landscapes many of their favorite aspects of home.  Most times, the introductions have been deliberate attempts to convert a native landscape into something more profitable or familiar; however, many of the introductions of exotics have been accidental.  Whether deliberate or accidental, these introduced species are the single most significant factor to date behind the global extinction and endangerment of native species whether they be one third of all of the extant plant species in Chile, common myna birds on the Cook Islands, or possums in New Zealand.  The local ecosystems and endemic species simply have no tools to resist the onslaught.  For example, myriad flightless birds evolved in the island country of New Zealand in the complete absence of mammalian predators.  Today, rats, cats and possums dominate the landscape necessitating identified zones of poison where air raids rain toxic pellets on the land and bounties are offered on possums to give local species a chance to recover.

While the transformation of the natural world is alarming, we have contemplated the level of cultural contamination as well.  Every country we have been to has a similar story of losing some part of its identity, often with a fight over resources or religion at its center.  Invaders bring disease, war, forced conversion, and extinction to people and cultures that had evolved across millenniums on the land.  Today, that cultural invasion appears to be one of mega corporations, fast food, and pop culture as we find our Monsanto, McDonald's, and music in every region and zone we have traveled.

What is gained from such efforts can be a common appreciation, sense of familiarity, and basic comfort with the known and homogeneous world.  What is lost are the evolutionary branches of organism and cultural diversity that we celebrate in our nature programs and festivals even as they dissolve and disappear. At the beginning, invaders are generally welcomed.  It is often not until all that was special about a place disappears that the invaders are recognized for what they were.

Images are of a poisoned possum, bounty sign on a New Zealand window, and a ubiquitous McDonalds advertisement in South America.  Posted from Franz Joseph Glacier, South Island, New Zealand