Vice squad: San Jose

San Jose (SJO) may live, but these days it lacks a certain vivaciousness.

I have no personal interest in sex tourism. Never have; never will. It was instead a journalistic impulse that drove Steve and me to the Hotel del Rey Tuesday night. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world where women are allowed to legally sell their sexual services, though pimping and other forms of promoting prostitution are illegal, as is having sex with minors. Trying to wrap our heads around these extraordinary facts, we’d stumbled on wild online descriptions of the bawdy offerings to be found in “Gringo Gulch,” just a block off one of the main avenues in the heart of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city). Could this still be going on in the midst of what appears to be continuing Covid panic? Curiosity nibbled.

Nothing else about San Jose has seemed spicy — or even particularly attractive — since our arrival late Monday morning. The 91-year-old Gran Hotel where we’re staying in the city center is very nice, and it’s been fun to look out our window and see the people strolling across the Plaza de la Cultura. Almost every one is masked. But before 9 am, after about 7 pm, and at times in between, the streets radiating out from here have been depressingly empty.

This was mid-afternoon
And this was shortly before 8 am this morning.

The buildings lining those streets for the most part are forgettable, a mix of tacky strip mall and architectural brutalism. The national theater adjoining our plaza is an exception, and the post office building is so pretty we stopped to admire it. But where was the Spanish colonial heritage so evident in other Latin American capitals? The guidebook suggested an explanation: early Spaniards came here but when they found few natives to enslave and no gold, they lost interest and never left much of a footprint. “It’s kind of like Panama!” Steve exclaimed. “Only with volcanos and earthquakes.” (And of course no Canal.)

We spent most of yesterday giving San Jose our touristic best shot. Visited the Cathedral. Spent time in the national museum.

Some of the coolest things there were these samples of the mysterious pre-Columbian stone balls that have been found in the south.

We should have done the jade museum, but after two exhausting hours of Costa Rican history, tromping up and down 5 stories to look at 7000 objects made of pretty green stone didn’t push my buttons.

In the afternoon we returned to the central market area (which had been lifeless at 8 am). It was crowded and colorful and studded with what seemed like the highest concentration of cripples and old ladies and other folks hawking lottery tickets I’ve seen anywhere in memory. I went Full Tourist and bought t-shirts that seemed to represent some of Costa Rica’s greatest charms.

Sloths are native and iconic.

And one of their presidents in 1948 dismantled the country’s military. Costa Rica still doesn’t have one!

Then it felt like we were out of things to do except study Lonely Planet for dinner options.

For my birthday Monday night, we’d had a great score — an Argentine joint featuring beef. Every table was filled, and we spent a couple of hours swooning over the food and loving the all-tango musical background. But even though Nuestra Tierra (our choice last night) had hundreds of enthusiastic online reviews, we and two saggy business types were the only customers, apparently for the night. Our waiter looked sad when we said we only wanted one beer apiece. When we turned down the free dessert, he looked almost desperate. The manager, sitting at the bar, may have been thinking of heading for the US border. It was then we resolved to stroll by the notorious Hotel del Rey, den of iniquity par excellence. Could some hilarity at least be found there?

We turned off the pedestrian-only Avenida Central…… which looked like this a little before 8 pm and walked the short block to Avenida 1, where the already-dim streets were darker and creepier. Almost all the storefronts were shuttered. Almost no one was out walking. But Google Maps insisted the Del Rey was just a block or two away. An online report had described the massive pink structure as sticking out like a sore thumb. This was true enough that we easily spotted it, but this thumb looked more dead than sore. Dark and lifeless, it made us wonder if it was yet another victim of Covid. Or had we simply been misinformed about its heyday?

We scuttled back to the main street, where a lighted storefront caught our eye: clearly a casino. Such gambling also is legal here. Lest our brief stab at vice-detecting fail utterly, we let the guy at the front door take our temperatures, and we squirted yet more sanitizer on our hands (the universal drill) and wandered throughout the two-story establishment. The light was gray and metallic. A few dozen patrons, each shielded by plexiglass barriers between their slot machines, slumped in front of the whirling mechanical images. In the far rear of the place, we found an electronic roulette wheel, so deserted that I managed to sneak a photo.

We didn’t feel particularly lucky, so we hurried back to the plaza of culture and were asleep well before 10. Now it’s morning, and we’ll say goodbye to San Jose in a few minutes and drive ourselves to the north. There the true Costa Rican experience reportedly awaits.

Costa Rica does have marvelous money. Their 5000-colon note (about $8) is beautifully colored and includes plastic see-through areas. In the distance is the view from our hotel window.

Good luck with Panama Canal tourism

On our first-ever visit to Panama of course we would want to see the Panama Canal — vaunted 8th wonder of the world, 107-year-old shortcut between Earth’s two greatest oceans, Number Two on Lonely Planet’s “15 Top Panama Experiences.” And for Steve and me, experiencing the Canal had turned into something more; it had become a quest; a semi-sacred mission.

Weeks ago, in preparation for our travels, Steve began reading The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough’s splendid and definitive chronicle of what it took to create this engineering marvel. Steve immediately became besotted by it, declaring it was the best business story he had ever read. He couldn’t stop sharing the details with me and anyone else who would listen. I haven’t had time to read the book yet but I intend to. Listening to Steve convinced me I must.

Our guidebook and various online authorities assured me there were many ways of seeing and learning about the canal. A museum in Panama City was dedicated to it. A highly recommended activity was to visit one of the lock sites; at least two (at both ends of the canal) had fancy visitor centers. We could ride in a historical passenger train that ran alongside the canal, or pay for a boat ride through all or part of it. I fretted we would have trouble fitting in all the options.

When I discovered there was a home-exchange option in Gamboa, I got more excited. Gamboa is a tiny hamlet situated about mid-way across the peninsula. When the United States built the canal, it received a strip of land five miles on either side of it which it was supposed to be owned by America “in perpetuity.” Jimmy Carter ultimately decided (correctly, Steve and I think) the Canal and the Zone would be better off in the hands of Panamanians. That changeover happened in 1999, but in the 1940s, the US military built housing for the American canal administrators in Gamboa, and it was one of these elegant buildings that Jorge L (a Panamanian) acquired and now uses as a weekend retreat. He also rents out the place via Airbnb and trades it on homeexchange.com, a site that lets you arrange direct house trades OR receive “Guest Points” for letting other folks stay in your home while you’re away. You can then “spend” those points to stay elsewhere.

I thus arranged for Steve and me to spend three nights at Jorge’s Gamboa house. We were a little nervous about landing at Panama City’s airport at 4:30 pm, picking up our rental car, and having to make the 45-minute drive with night approaching. But luck was with us, and we arrived in Gamboa under thick clouds around sunset. Jorge had only sent GPS coordinates for the center of the town plus a photo of his house (apparently addresses are not a thing in Panama.) We were feeling pretty irritable driving around the rapidly darkening streets, trying to figure out which dwelling place might belong to Jorge, when we spotted a guy watching us with apparent bemusement. This turned out to be Omar, a sort of caretaker who confirmed that we had reached our destination.

The building contained two living units. Ours was on the left; our rental car was the blue one on the right.

Jorge had never mentioned him. Omar let us in and it felt a bit like stepping into a time machine; I tried to conceal my mixed feelings.

Two stories tall, both levels of the house had high ceilings and a gracious layout. It appeared to be more or less clean, but any 70-plus-year-old building set on the edge of a steamy jungle is bound to look and feel a bit grimy. I wondered how many exotic spiders and snakes and centipedes might be staying there with us. Omar gave us vague directions to the only eatery in town, and somehow we made our way to it in what by then was complete darkness. My heart sank at the sight of the garishly lit storefront, open to the street, no customers evident.

A tiny grocery store run by a Vietnamese couple adjoined it, however, and we bought enough supplies to return to the house and throw together a pasta dinner. The house was sweltering, but a floor fan made it bearable. Still I felt beyond sticky, and my mood dipped further when we discovered the shower taps in the only full bathroom appeared to be rusted into inoperability. I WhatsApped Jorge but heard nothing from him that night.

In the morning, Jorge responded that he would have Omar check the shower, and when he appeared moments later Omar somehow muscled the taps into life. Steve brewed the ground Duran Cafe Puro (“Panama 1907”) that we had bought the night before into something that tasted actually delicious. I cracked four thick brown eggshells and scrambled the whites and deep orange yolks in melted butter. With sunshine streaming through the windows, the house looked substantially more charming; its character outweighing the mild grubbiness.In high spirits, we set out for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort about 2 kilometers away. There we hoped to sign up for a tour or two and if necessary make a reservation for dinner in the fancy restaurant there.

I had read (and Jorge had confirmed) that this $30 million, 5-star hotel complex could be enjoyed not just by guests but also day visitors like Steve and me. It was less than a mile and a half from Jorge’s. We drove and found the parking lot almost empty. Still the grandiose entryway gave no indication it was closed. We walked in and gaped at one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen.

The lobby was enormous, immaculate, and elegant, and the views breathtaking.

But where were the people?

Not staffing the Tour Desk or the gift shop.
Nor at the reception desk.

Slightly dazed, we wandered around for a while and spotted one distant gardener and one guy cleaning the pool. We thought we heard the voice of maids in one of the guest wings. But we detected no other sign of humans. Indeed it looked like aliens had just departed after herding everyone onto the spaceship.

Clearly, we wouldn’t be booking spots on the the 11 am Gamboa Tree Trek. Or any of the Gatun Lake Expedition boat rides. Still, Gamboa is situated on the Canal, so we left the resort and did some poking around the town and the banks of the famous waterway. Parts of the town also looked abandoned.

What you see when you peer in the windows of the post office
But there was action on the canal.

From the Puente de Gamboa, it would be easy to mistake the Canal for a workaday river. But Steve was all too keenly aware of what went into creating this portion of the waterway — the infamous Culebra Cut. The cut passes through Panama’s continental divide and the highest point on the canal route. It’s excavation bankrupted the French company that made the first attempt to dig an isthmian canal and cost the USA twice what was originally expected.

Steve was dying to get a better look at the Cut, so later that afternoon we drove across the snazzy Puente Centenario and caught this view.We also looked forward to our visit the next day to the Miraflores Locks near Panama City. Steve was understandably crushed when he checked for directions on Google Maps Wednesday night and read that the its visitor center was closed because of the pandemic.

I double-checked and confirmed the closure. But I also saw that the Agua Clara Visitor Center, near Colon, had just re-opened to tourists on May 1. I had to make a reservation online, but almost all the slots were available.

When we arrived there Thursday morning, we learned that a big part of this center also was still closed (our entrance tickets were discounted, as a result.) But we were able to enter the huge, modern observation platform, where we watched a gigantic container ship from Hong Kong approach and enter the first of the three sets of locks that step boats down to the level of the Caribbean Sea.

In this last photo, you see the gate has closed, and the water level has started to go down. We didn’t stay to watch the whole process, which reportedly takes about two hours.

These were the new locks opened in 2016, financed in part by Japanese and Europeans, that accommodate ships far larger than the original locks. Those are still operating, and about two dozen tankers and car carriers and smaller container vessels and other ships pass through each day. Although we couldn’t get close to the old locks, after we left Agua Clara we drove around some more and eventually found the nearby dam that created one of the essential components of the canal, Gatun Lake, at the time of its creation the largest man-made body of water in the world.

Making it all work in the face of unimaginable obstacles and challenges, “This was the greatest engineering effort in the history of mankind,” Steve declared. “Greater than the pyramids at Giza. Greater than landing a man on the moon.”

Friday we packed up and left Jorge’s place, happy in the end to have had our three nights there. (As it turned out, the only jungly creature who joined us was this two-inch-long lizard, who seemed to live in the kitchen.)We drove to Panama City, turned in our rental car, and took a taxi to The Sexiest Condo in Panama, which is how Vicki Marie S bills her unit on the 31st story of a high-rise overlooking Panama Bay. I used more of our home-exchange Guest Points to secure three nights for us here, and I have to say it is pretty sexy. Here’s the view of the city skyline from the balcony outside our bedroom with its king-sized bed.And the view of me wondering: how DOES one pole-dance, anyway?

Our immersion in Panamanian Canal arcana wasn’t quite over. This morning (Saturday, May 29) we spent a couple of hours at the gleaming Panama Canal Museum in the gentrified Casco Viejo neighborhood. If not great, it’s respectable, and I think at last Steve feels sated. We’ll have all day tomorrow to participate in the Sunday morning Ciclovia, visit the natural history museum housed in a particularly colorful Frank Gehry structure, and eat more of the excellent local fish. Probably it will all be fun. Still, I think we’ll depart for Costa Rica Monday most impressed by how much luck we had in understanding the greatest engineering achievement of all time.

In the cloud forest of the resplendent quetzal

I like beautiful birds as much as the next person, but I’m no serious birdwatcher. I would have said spotting any particular bird would never shape the itinerary of any of my trips. Still, I knew that resplendent quetzals, gorgeous and elusive birds laden with powerful symbolism, are an icon in this part of the world. When border politics forced us to cut Belize from our journey and gave us three extra days in Guatemala, we decided to try to (metaphorically) bag this mystical avian.

I’d read that there’s a quetzal bio-preserve a few of hours north of Guatemala City. Moreover, this time of year is when the birds are mating and having their babies, hence it’s an optimal time for spotting them.

On the other hand, the Biotopo del Quetzal is not the easiest place to reach. Our Lonely Planet guide to Central America suggested we might be able to get there on a public Monja Blanca bus from Guatemala City. But… were these buses running, post-Covid? And how exactly would we get to one from our hotel? I couldn’t find ready answers. When a travel blog and Facebook led me to a driver named Alfredo Garcia, I emailed him and he responded promptly. We hired him to pick us up at our Guatemala City hotel the morning after our arrival and take us directly to quetzal country.

Quetzals live in the cloud forests of Central America. Historians tell us that the ancient Mayans thought they were gods and executed anyone caught killing the birds. What particularly tempts humans to kill quetzals are the male birds’ gloriously long tails; their feathers can grow to be 30 inches long. Although quetzals reportedly can be found in high chilly regions ranging from the Yucatán to Panama, Guatemalans particularly revere them. They made quetzals their national bird; put them on their flag and named their money after them. Alfredo pointed out to us that quetzals die in captivity. “So to us they are the symbol of freedom,” he said.

Alfredo turned out to be my ideal driver: skillful, smart, savvy, sensitive, and an agile conversational partner. He had told me about Ranchitos del Quetzal, located immediately next to the quetzal reserve, which itself is located down a heavily forested country road. At these basic lodgings, Alfredo personally had had excellent luck spotting quetzals over the years. He picked us up at our hotel in the capital at 9, and we arrived at the Ranchitos a little over three hours later. It had started drizzling when we set out, and the strength of the rain had built throughout our ride. But on the bright side, one of the young managers showed us a photo of a gorgeous male quetzal he had taken with his phone just a few hours earlier.

Alfredo on the steps of Ranchitos del Quetzal

We ate a simple lunch — black beans, potato salad, a bit of salad. Then Steve and I donned pretty much all the outerwear we’d brought with us (not much), grabbed our umbrellas and hiking poles, and trudged the 100 meters down the road to the reserve.

As cloud forests go, this was a lovely one. Our altimeter app said we were at 5500 feet when we set out, and from there, the path was all uphill, over rocky but well-tended trails. Towering trees, ferns of all sizes, orchids, bromeliads, wild ginger and other plants crowded in at every twist of the path, while a cold fog swirled overhead. The trees protected us from the brunt of the rain, though droplets hitting leaves sounded like birds; they made me jump and crane my neck almost constantly, hoping to glimpse our quarry.

But we saw no quetzals and almost no other humans, except for one pack of young Guatemalan parents shepherding toddlers and toting a couple of babies, moving through the drenched, vertiginous wilderness as blithely as San Diego parents stroll through Balboa Park.

I began to brace myself for leaving the area bearing only a photo of the stuffed quetzal in the reserve’s tiny, unmanned visitor center. But back at the Ranchitos, the manager told us to be on the porch at 5:30 the next morning, “and you will see a quetzal.”

It sounded enough like a promise that we did what he said. Once again, it was drizzly under cold gray skies. Steve and Alfredo and the manager and I stood and watched. We noted squirrels gamboling high in some trees. We heard birds singing and eventually saw a beautiful quetzal relative called a drogon perched on a wire. We admired the big violet saber-winged hummingbirds whom we’d been seeing throughout our stay. We milled about and didn’t chat much.

After an hour or so I had sat down on a stool and was meditating when some movement caught my half-lidded gaze. My first thought was that it must be some other small mammal, like the squirrel, with the capacity to be airboreal. Its very long tail to me looked rat-like. But then the creature flew to another perch. I stared at that tail and the manager yelled. The steely early morning light made it hard to make out the bird’s brilliant red chest, but the tail looked like nothing I’d ever seen on a bird before: unmistakably a quetzal, Alfredo and the manager concurred.

The four of us were ebullient, the way people get when they go to a lot of trouble to view exotic animals in the wild, and they get lucky. I felt proud of my quetzal pictures. They’ll help me remember what this very rare bird actually looked like. The cloud forest photos are less useful. They don’t come close to communicating what it’s like to move through that dense, drenched chilly realm. But I have added to my mental list of Amazing Quetzal Facts its power to get folks out of their comfort zone and into remote, resplendent forests that, if unphotographable, are hard to forget.

Central America, finally

It’s time for this blog once again to justify the “Abroad” portion of its name. Thursday Steve and I will fly down to Central America. Unless you consider Mexico part of that region (which I don’t), this is an area in which neither of us has ever set foot. It’s not for lack of interest. Rather, we were saving it up. Now the time seems right.

One reason we were saving it is because for some years we dreamed about driving in our aging van all the way from San Diego to Panama, then donating the van to a charity and flying home. That would have been a real adventure, and it would have required a significant chunk of time.

Eventually, however, several factors gave us pause about the wisdom of this plan, not the least of which were the bureaucratic nightmares that would have been involved in taking a personal vehicle across all those borders. On the other hand, unlike Europe and Asia at the moment, all the countries in Central America are once again open to visitors, particularly fully vaccinated ones such as us.

So we scrapped the driving plan, and I worked for a while on concocting an itinerary that would have us flying to all seven countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). I quickly learned that even if all the countries are open, service on the regional airlines that connect them is far from fully restored. The staggering current cost of short flights into El Salvador and Honduras (troubled countries on other counts too) led me to scratch them from the program. We had wanted to start in Belize and cross the land border into Guatemala (then continue on), but then I learned the Belize government was not allowing visitors out of Belize that way. This annoyed me so much I scratched Belize.

So now the current plan calls for us to fly to Guatemala and spend a week and a half there, followed by visits to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (in that order). For me these will be my 66th through 69th countries.

In the short time before we depart, along with packing and otherwise organizing, I’m trying to prepare for other as-yet-unforeseen challenges that may arise in the wake of global pandemic lockdowns. I’m telling myself this trip will be like traveling in the days of yore, when you couldn’t just assume everything would run like clockwork. But some intrepid spirits nonetheless hit the road then, because then, as now, it was better than not going. I can relate.

A Golden Retriever’s guide to some of the wonders of the American West

(as reported by Dilly)

My pack and I got back from the road last week, and I have to tell you: life has been pretty boring since then. So I’ve volunteered to briefly shift my attention from Sitting and lying Down and Speaking to… Reporting. My puppyraiser/Mom usually handles this task, but on our recent trip she (my p/M) didn’t find anything interesting to write about. She’d be the first to say she had a wonderful time. But really.

(Excuse me while I yawn.)

We drove 2600 miles but never had a flat tire or ran out of gas or got into any accidents. No one asked for bribes or tried to kidnap us. We visited five national parks (and a couple of lesser ones). But who doesn’t know those places are amazing? (I’ll admit I didn’t. But I’m a one-year-old aspiring service dog.) To most folks, that’s not news.

I, however, see (and smell) things from a different perspective. Here are five of my most important takeaways from our adventure:

1) Flying is much more interesting than being driven around in a kennel. And traveling out of a kennel is (slightly) better than traveling inside one.

I flew once before, when I was 8 weeks old and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the organization that owns me, shipped me down from Northern California to my San Diego puppyraiser/parents. But for all their travels, my p/ps never before had flown with any CCI puppy. (I’m the 9th one they’ve raised.) Despite their trepidations, our flight from San Diego to Salt Lake City went well. The nice man at the Southwest Airlines counter didn’t even ask to see the rabies-vaccine documentation my p/M had brought along. (I mean, duh, it’s pretty obvious I’m not rabid.) He gave us boarding passes that let us go first through the jetway,so we had tons of room, sitting in the first row. I Stayed in a perfect Down position when the flight attendant gave her speech, and although I got a little nervous during the take-off (and later, the landing), my p/M gave me the Lap command and let me look out the window. I found the sights out the window intriguing, if slightly creepy.

After that, we got around in a rented van. My p/ps had checked a travel kennel for me to ride in. But after a while, they started letting me ride loose, like a Regular Big Dog. Sometimes I took advantage of this, sitting on a seat and looking out the window. Just as often, I napped.

2) Weather can be more interesting than I ever imagined.

I got a big lesson in this our first afternoon in Jackson Hole (Wyoming). My p/D had taken me out for a little afternoon stroll around the compound where we were staying when suddenly the sky got dark and I was being pelted with hundreds of little pebble-sized pieces of ice! Hail, people were calling it. I never saw the like of that in San Diego!Frankly, I’m not a fan.

Several days later when we had moved just outside Yellowstone National Park, my p/M took me out for my morning constitutional, and fluffy white stuff was falling out of the sky. That was cold too, but at least it didn’t hurt! And pretty soon the sun was shining again.

3) National Parks smell amazing.

We hiked an awful lot. One day (I think we were walking along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park), my p/M sighed and said, “Dilly, it’s really too bad this can’t appreciate these sights.” They were looking at stuff like this:

My p/D piped up, voicing what I would have said (if I could talk). “Dilly says you can’t begin to appreciate all the smells.” Man, did he get that right! Sometimes there were scary smells, like this stuff, which was HUGE and filled with berry seeds. I didn’t want to get anywhere close to whatever creature produced it.

Day after day at Yellowstone, we hiked past what surely must be some of the weirdest smells on the planet.

I’m picking up sulphur, thermophilic bacteria, and subtle hints of magma!

But even the simplest stroll in a forest made me want to close my eyes and savor the symphony of scents produced when streams and leaves and pine trees and animals come together.

4) I don’t want to go to the moon.

After Yellowstone, my p/ps and I drove to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (in southern Idaho). It’s not actually the moon but a vast, crater-pocked area that was created when lava flowed out of fissures in the Snake River plain between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. It’s a stark, alien landscape that did NOT smell anywhere near as interesting as the Grand Tetons or Zion canyon. And the scrunchy black gravel kind of hurt my paws.

5) I’m thinking about a career change.

Everywhere we went, I had to wear my official cape and halter and leash (on which I pulled about 1000 times more often than I should have). But I did get one taste of paradise.

This happened when we visited my p/M’s uncle and aunt. They live on a farm in a small town in Utah. Before sunset, we went for a walk through the farm’s corn fields. I was on my leash, as usual, but then we stopped and suddenly they released me. For a moment I was so stunned I couldn’t move. Then I went berserk with joy – racing up and down the road, kicking up clouds of dirt, leaping and twisting and finding sticks and dried corn cobs and stones to chew.

My ecstasy was so obvious, my p/ps brought me back early the next morning. Again I romped and rollicked.

Everyone tells me it will be a great thing if I graduate and work in a life of service. I say….. maybe. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be as great as life on a farm.

9 years after the apocalypse — what it’s like to be a tourist in Christchurch

I knew two bad earthquakes hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, but they didn’t become real for me until the night Steve and I were eating dinner in Kaikoura. Looking out the window next to our table, Steve exclaimed, “Is that a bobcat?” The animal he was staring at seemed too small to be that, but it lacked a tail. “He lost it in the earthquake,” our waitress (the wife of the owner) told us. Her house in Christchurch had also collapsed, she added, and she and her husband had lost the five restaurants they owned. They’d recently moved to Kaikoura, trying to start over. This lady was a hearty, jokey sort of person, but the way her face subtly tightened when she talked of the disaster betrayed how overwhelming it had been. Watching her face, I struggled to keep mine composed.

A few days later, on the Routeburn Track, I asked one of my fellow trekkers, a longtime Christchurch resident named Louise, how the quake had affected her. She used to work in one of the high rises that had collapsed, she told me. “Nine of my friends died in it.” Two others had lost their legs. For a while, the funerals had been incessant.

Over the two days we spent in Christchurch (our last bit of time in New Zealand), the quakes got more and more real. The first thing we did Thursday morning was to head to Quake City, a facility dedicated to explaining what happened on those two fateful days. One of the things that shocked me most was learning that the two earthquakes which all but destroyed the central city were far from the worst that’s expected for this region. The huge fault, the one capable of moving with a force of more than magnitude 8, runs up the east side of the southern Alps, just an hour or two outside Christchurch.

What I also didn’t know is that most Christchurch residents never thought they were vulnerable to earthquakes; they had never felt any jolts for most of their lives. The 7.1-magnitude temblor that ripped the Canterbury plain in 2010 was thus a shock both physically and psychologically. But it struck at 4:35 in the morning, and while many buildings were damaged, no one was killed. The February 2011 event was an aftershock, only a magnitude 6.3. But its epicenter was within the city’s limits and only a few miles below the surface. The peak ground acceleration packed a force of almost 2 Gs, a motion more violent than that ever experienced in any urban center (or so they told us.)

Only two tall buildings pancaked, but the violence delivered in those 24 seconds smashed the tidy, conservative center city and turned into a place that looked freshly carpet-bombed. In large sections, solid ground also turned into a sticky goo that sank cars, trees, buildings. It resolidified into something that gripped with the strength of concrete what it had ingested. Quake City documents these changes well. Most mesmerizing were the filmed first-hand stories recounted by a cross-section of citizens. Watching their faces, listening to their words, the quake felt as real to me as anything apart from living memory.

But the funny thing is, if Steve and I hadn’t read and heard what we did, we wouldn’t have suspected what had happened less than 9 years ago. We walked miles and miles through a city that’s tidy again. We noted many empty lots and many buildings that are fenced off, or braced, in obvious need of repairs.

Note the fence around the still-damaged brick building. You see many of these.

The stone cathedral that was Christchurch’s great landmark still bears gaping holes where the bell tower and some of the walls fell.But there are urban centers in America’s rust belt that look worse. And few cities anywhere have mounted the kind of makeover that’s underway here.

Christchurch is now an urban planner’s paradise. The planners have made sweeping godlike decisions. They’ve decreed that the new city center should be low-rise and surrounded by a belt of green space; that it will be divided into a few discrete “districts” — one for retail, one for entertainment, others for government and safety services, residences, and a few other designations. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent or budgeted to make this a reality. The Kiwis have repaired a vast array of unseen infrastructure (underground water pipes, etc.) and they’ve built some stunning public facilities:

A new city art museum
A gorgeous new central library
One of the best children’s playgrounds I’ve ever seen anywhere.

They’ve re-engineered the river that winds through the center or town, landscaping it and creating lovely pathways.There’s much more to come, including rebuilding the cathedral, finishing the zoomy convention center that’s supposed to start operating next year… …and building a deluxe sports complex…

As this has gone on, intriguing temporary creations have sprung up to fill the voids. A temporary Anglican cathedral was built from cardboard tubes…Artists have been commissioned to paint murals on the sides of newly revealed building sides…… and create other works to fill the civic gaps.

Passersby were welcome to lounge in this “hammock forest.”

This all makes central Christchurch a fascinating place to stroll through — at least during the day. At night, Steve and I found most streets in and adjoining the central city to be eerily empty. Our Airbnb flat was just a few blocks outside the center, but the nearest supermarket was well over a mile away (in the CBD’s “Retail District”). I love packed, jumbled, textured cities like Tokyo and Rome and New York; the hyper-orderliness of Christchurch made me uneasy.

Over time will it be balanced, somehow, mellowed out by the other changes that have occurred here? More than one resident testified to a profound transformation in the residents. They used to dress drably, one woman recounted. “It was almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to look nice,” she said. But in the aftermath of the destruction, people grew noticeably more stylish. The artsy vibe today is unmistakable. Another guy commented that before the quakes, the city was a bastion of white complacency. But the quakes vaporized social barriers; made outsiders welcome. “Then we had the murders at the mosque last spring,” he said. “Before, I think a lot of people would have said, ‘That’s too bad, but it’s the Muslim’s problem.’ Instead, when it happened, within hours people from every strata of society were streaming there to help out. It was an attack on all of us.”

There’s so much of the world we haven’t seen, Steve and rarely return to many places. But I’d love to pop into Christchurch in 20 years to see what becomes of it.

Goodbye road, hello rail

Around noon Wednesday, we returned Car #3 and added up the total mileage covered with our three rentals. Steve safely piloted us a total of 2,124 miles. He says it felt like twice that long. The extra concentration required by the left-side driving on narrow roads never ceased to be tiring, although after three-plus weeks, it was far less foreign than when we started. We never regretted making this as much of a road trip as we did; the freedom it gave us was delicious. But we also were so happy we were able to shorten the driving portion, just a bit.

It was about a week ago, in the middle of Mt. Cook National Park, that it struck me we might not want to drive back across the South Island (through Arthur’s Pass), given that there was such an attractive alternative. There’s a train, the TranzAlpine Railway, that covers that passage. Lonely Planet says it’s one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys. Months ago, I thought we would certainly want to take it, but then I changed my mind.

On that road-weary afternoon, I wondered if I might change it back. Thanks to the wonders of the wired world, we found we could still book two train tickets and modify our car reservation, dropping Car #3 off Wednesday morning in Greymouth instead of at the Christchurch airport Saturday, when we fly home. Frosting on the cake was that because the car-rental agency needed for a car to be moved to Greymouth, it would only cost us $9 a day, instead of about $35.

We felt jubilant. Then three days later, I got an email informing us that a landslide had just destroyed part of the track! But, the message continued, we could take a bus from the Greymouth train station to Arthur’s Pass, then board the train there and ride for three hours through the most scenic part of the line! If we chose this, they would refund us half of what we’d paid for the train tickets!

We caught the bus at the Greymouth train station.

I may have been dumb not to plan to take the train in the first place, but I wasn’t dumb enough to turn down this second chance. It felt divinely inspired. The 90-minute bus ride was just as pretty — and vastly more relaxing — with someone else at the wheel. On the hair-raising, serpentine uphill near Arthur’s Pass, heavy sheets of rain lashed our vehicle, and then they lashed us as we dashed from the bus to the train. (So we never would have been able to hike in the forest there, one reason the drive had seemed attractive.) The train was one of the nicest we’ve ridden anywhere ever, with new immaculate toilets, huge windows…optional pre-recorded guiding commentary, an open-air viewing car…

…and TV screens showing a map of our position. But who would choose to look up at them with scenes like this outside the window?

No further landslides impaired our progress. We reached Christchurch station at 6:15 pm and took an Uber to our Airbnb apartment. We’ll have three final nights here, getting around with more Ubers and on foot, before taking to the air Saturday morning. I wish I could take the train all the way home.

Sheep World

Thursday (10/24), Steve and I drove to Sheepworld, an agrotourism attraction about an hour north of Auckland. We learned many things, but here are the five I found most interesting.

1) Farmers in New Zealand used to make money from both the meat and the wool they got from raising sheep. Now, however, all the money’s in the meat. Kiwis still raise about 27 million of the animals per year (about 5.6 sheep per New Zealander) to feed the world appetite for grass-fed lamb chops. But they barely break even on the wool they remove from those animals. Years ago, the increased availability of cheap synthetic fabrics clobbered the price of most wool. One of the only exceptions is merino wool, famed for its fineness and antibacterial properties. It fetches almost ten times the price per kilogram of wool from standard sheep breeds. But the merino breed (native to Spain), only thrives in certain high dry rocky regions; elsewhere they get foot and wool rot.

2). Even if they can’t make a profit on the wool, sheep farmers have to shear their sheep anyway, to keep them healthy. When a sheep’s wool gets too long, flies can lay eggs in it that hatch into maggots that can literally eat the animal alive. Sodden wool also can weigh a sheep down so much it can starve to death. The bottom line is that if you want to raise wooly animals people can eat, you have to give them a haircut, once or twice a year.

3) To manage their sheep, farmers in this part of the world use two kinds of dogs. New Zealand Heading Dogs (basically border collies bred to have short hair) have the job of finding the sheep spread over the fields and driving them back to the paddock, using their body language, intense stares, and the occasional nip.

They look like this.

But Heading Dogs never bark. Once they have driven the sheep into a pen, their job is over. Then the Huntaway breed takes over. Huntaways are a breed that was created by mixing border collies with Labradors and English foxhounds. They have deep, full-throated voices, and they use them enthusiastically to stampede the sheep into a barn, where they can be shorn.

The highlight of a visit to Sheepworld is the show in which all these activities are demonstrated. The Huntaway star of the show we saw was Griz, a marvelously handsome fellow.

First we watched his partner round up the herd with amazing speed.
Then Griz scared them into the barn.
Two audience members volunteered to sort the sheep (by the color of their foreheads) into three separate pens.

4) I would never, ever want to have to make a living by sheep shearing. Our delightful guide/instructor demonstrated what it takes. She pulled out a one-year-old animal…

We learned it still a lamb, since it hadn’t yet lost the first of its baby teeth.Shearing requires muscling such a creature around while you use a very dangerous tool…

…to strip off its coat. The work looks like it would quickly cripple one’s back.

The shearer winds up with this.
The sheep ends up looking like this.

For this work, the shearer only makes about $1.36 (US) per animal. Apparently skilled shearers nonetheless can make six-figure incomes, but to do that, they work very long hours seven days a week.

5) The New Zealand woolen goods industry has found a new way to make lemonade out of lemons. Possums, a non-native species, have long wrecked havoc on the environment. But they have soft fur with an extraordinary ability to trap heat. (We were told it is second in this ability only to polar bear fur.) Farmers here are now blending possum fur with merino wool to make soft, marvelously warm clothing.

I could not resist buying this pair of gloves. I have have worn them several times, and they’ve kept my fingers toasty. Every time wear them I will think fondly of the residents of Sheepworld.

A visit to the old gods

Years ago, an astute park ranger told me that perhaps the most valuable plant in all of Balboa Park was the kauri growing next to the Mingei Museum. This species (Agathis australus) is one of the most magnificent trees on the planet, capable of growing to massive size and living for more than 2000 years. Mature species are rarely found in the US. (The San Diego specimen is thought to be about 90 years old.) The Maori people considered kauris to be demigods; they cut one down only after reverent ceremony. However, when Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand, he judged them to be the finest sources of timber anywhere, and within a generation, something like 90% of New Zealand’s great kauri forests had been chopped down and carted off by Europeans.

Before this trip, I’d read that the Waipoua Forest on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s North Island is the largest remaining kauri sanctuary left on earth. Although Steve and I knew we’d have to drive for about three hours from Auckland to reach it, we decided to make the pilgrimage; that’s what we planned to do Wednesday (10/23). We confided our plan to some locals Tuesday, and they strongly advised us to instead head for a regional park an hour or so west of Auckland. The outing would be less grueling and we would see at least some kauris. We followed their suggestion and wound up being grateful we did.

We’re beginning to learn that a one-hour drive here FEELS like it took three hours. It’s not that the roads are bad; they’re in much better shape than most American thoroughfares. But people drive on the left side, and while Steve is competent at that, the switch still demands a lot of concentration, particularly when the streets are narrow and cars are parked along both sides or the curves are head-spinning, as they were over the mountains.

Moreover the weather Wednesday morning was wicked and tempestuous. When we checked in at the Arataki visitor center, this was the view to the south.

The friendly ladies at the center’s help desk suggested where we should go to see highlights of the area, and once again, the local knowledge was invaluable.

We drove west, to Piha, where the beach was almost empty, save for a land sailor harnessing the wind.

After lunch at the sole cafe in town, we took in the view of nearby Karekare falls…then hiked to the beach made famous by the movie The Piano.Grains of sand driven by the gale-force winds stung our faces, so we didn’t linger but instead drove back to the nature trail adjoining the Arataki visitor’s center.

Present-day kauris are threatened, not by loggers, but by a virus that is killing many off, one by one. To combat it, forest managers have set up shoe-cleaning stations like this one.

Dense forest pressed in. We saw just one other pair of hikers. The trail terminated in a spot that’s been designated the “Kauri Cathedral.” A dozen or so of the gigantic trees clustered there, looking as much as demigods as any plant could. We stood and looked at them for a long, long time before heading back to the visitor’s center.

Steve in the Kauri Cathedral

The wind was calming down. The sun was shining. That same view to the south which had been cloaked in gloom in the morning had changed to this.

I was sorry that we missed seeing the great kauri forest; that I almost certainly will never get to it. But we saw other soul-stirring sights and learned a lesson about the wisdom of being flexible about travel plans.

Wild!

After barely 48 hours in New Zealand, we have learned one thing beyond doubt: this place is a meteorological wilderness. We who have lived all our lives in San Diego are like toddlers, lost in and bewildered by it.

We have weather in San Diego, of course. Some folks say it’s the second best in the world (after the Canary Islands). But it’s mostly the same weather. It varies from one part of San Diego County to another, and (in subtle ways) from one time of year to the next. But even in the winter, when the rain comes (if it comes), storms roll in slowly then often last for days. Weather unfolds in slow motion (when it’s not stuck in the loop of early-morning-clouds giving way to balmy late mornings.)

It is spring now in New Zealand, a season that travel guides recommend. But I’ve been dismayed in recent weeks by what I was seeing on my iPhone weather app for Auckland (our first stop). It’s looked a lot like this. Or worse (no sun of any sort). When we arrived, Monday, the icon was Rain.

However, when we emerged from the airport, the sight that greeted us lifted our tired spirits. Blue sky was interlaced with puffy white clouds. The weather app was wrong! I rejoiced. This would be a lovely day.

Now, two days later, we realize that the weather app is just hopelessly simplistic for weather the like of which they have in New Zealand. There is no icon for Many, Many Kinds of Weather, changing rapidly from one type to another. Monday morning after we got our rental car, drove to our home-exchange house, settled in, and made our way to the closest grocery store to stock up on basic supplies, it had started pouring. When we emerged from the grocery store, the rain had stopped, but the skies were dark and threatening

Back at the house, we ate lunch then napped for about an hour, before driving the 15 minutes to catch the ferry to downtown Auckland. Once aboard, the sun was out again, and the city looked glorious.

The boat ride took ten minutes, then we set off to follow a Lonely Planet walking tour of the Central Business District. This ramble took about two hours, and showed us a city radiant with spring: sunny and flowering and so warm I had to keep shedding layers and stuffing them into our daypack.

We caught the 5:45 ferry back to the north shore, at which point it was pouring rain again. When it rains with such intensity in San Diego, you know that it will last for at least 24 hours. Here, however, the deluge had stopped when we got back to Devonport, cozy under a full rainbow.

Things have continued in this vein since then. A half hour ago, a mixture of hard rain and hail was pelting our front yard. Now the wind is blowing in an excessively noisy manner, and all the trees are whipping about violently.

You can’t see the rain slamming down, but all those white spots on the ground are tiny balls of ice (aka hail).

We are slowly adjusting to the idea that we simply must take all our layers and rain gear and be prepared for the world around us to transform itself within minutes. As Steve points out, he and I do not travel to experience places that are just like home. By that standard, this trip is already a raging success.