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the wonderful thing about warm, clean beds…

is that they let you fall completely into sleep.  There's something about a backpacker's bed that keeps you just on the edge of deep, refreshing rest, as if the collected consciousnesses of all the people who've slept in the bed before you are needling at you, thinking at you, reminding you that this bed is not yours alone.  I woke this morning easily and slowly, surrounded by the glow of the sun shining on the soft yellow bedspread, and it felt so good, so calm and fresh.  The best night's sleep in five weeks.  I'm in Tauranga (T-ow-wrong-a), on the western Bay of Plenty – North Island, on the east side of the island's midpoint.  Jasmine Beveridge is my host – the sister of Elliot Henderson, who is a friend of Mike Spingler's, who is a professor at Clark and also a friend of Gino DiIorio's.  Yay for obscure connections!  You'd never know it was obscure, though.  I've been welcomed like family and told to make myself at home – meaning eat the food, use the internet, and sleep in the guest room.  Wonderful.  And, the best part: the house is CLEAN.  Spotless and shining and filled with lovely mirrors and mosaics, all done by Jasmine.  I didn't realize how much the dirt and cobwebs and bugs of Maureen's and various backpacker's establishments had gotten to me, but how much more relaxing it is when I don't have to be wary of cockroaches or spiders or webs.

I arrived in the city last night, and only got a little bit lost trying to find Jasmine's little corner of the suburbs.  Yesterday was a long day of driving, but the distance was worth it.  I'll back up a bit, though.  Bought my car Monday.  My lovely, wonderful car.  It's a 1980 Toyota Corona – the luxury model.  Dark blue, four door, automatic, power locks, windows, etc.  Brand new Alpine stereo system, complete with a connector for my mp3 player (YES!).  Spotless body, soft blue interior.  Six cylinder, but seems to do pretty well on gas mileage.  The two side mirrors are mounted on the hood, which has taken some getting used to, but it adds to the overall classy, mobster-type look of the car.  The steering is a bit loose, and the suspension is a bit soft (I feel like I'm floating when I drive), but I love it.  It actually reminds me of Satine, my old Buick, though it's smaller.  25 years old – does that make it an antique?  After much thought, I have christened him (it's a male car): “Dr. Gonzo.”  Ten points to anyone who can tell me what that's from.  Post your answers in the comments section.  Answer will appear in my next entry.

Tuesday involved a lot of boring work, phone calls, etc., and that night I stayed in the car on the street in a suburb of Auckland.  A little scary, driving at night in the city in an unfamiliar vehicle.  Didn't sleep so well.  Wednesday, though, I signed up for an Automobile Association membership, and got $90 worth of free maps, and headed southeast towards the Coromandel Peninsula.  About two hours out of the city, on a secondary road in the middle of nowhere, I start to smell something funny.  I glance at the gages.  The temp is in the red, and the hood is smoking.  “Oh god, oh god oh god oh god…” (I said worse things than that, too).  There's no panic, exactly, as I pull over to the side, just a feeling of resignation and the slightest hint of dark humor.  The AA benefits don't kick in for 24 hours.  Ha.  I open the hood, let the hot air out, and am weighing my options when another car pulls up.  A middle aged Maori man in a fancy suit gets out and takes over.  Within 15 minutes, he's flagged down a works vehicle, and he and the driver of the works truck have found the problem (a coupling has sliced through the ancient hose between the radiator and the engine), fixed it with (what else?) duct tape, refilled the radiator, and given me directions to the closest garage.  There are no preliminaries or even closing exchanges – they stop, they look, they fix, they go.  Like this is their job.  They shake off my thanks and tell me to have a nice trip, bless them both.  The mechanic at the garage is the same – friendly and talkative, he replaces the hose in ten minutes flat while he tells me about his experiences traveling in the US and Canada, and then refuses payment.  “No worries – have a good trip.”  Bless them!!

From Auckland to Thames, where I am one of only four non-Germans at the backpacker's I choose to stay at.  A bit isolating, but what can you do?  Thursday – hiking.  The last kilometer of the trail I wanted to do was closed, so I decided to try another route that would allow me to take in a summit.  I hiked up two hours through incredibly thick and overgrown bush, and what felt like ten thousand different spiderwebs, until I was covered with sweat and sticky webs and was getting quite frustrated with the whole affair.  Suddenly, in front of me, there was a young man, staring, stuttering, until finally he got out, “Hi…” and then started babbling about dead ends and no trail and being lost and being stuck in the trees and screaming for help and finding his way back and getting caught for two nights in the rain and finally, now, coming back down.  He's from Israel, and I'm the first person he's seen in three days.  His intensity and his story scares me, and I decide on the spot to turn around.

As we hike back down together, I realize that he's insane.  Not that I think he's making it up, getting lost, I mean, but that he has no concept of wilderness.  He tells me about getting lost in the Australian Outback (they had actually already begun a search and rescue mission to find him when he found his own way out), and about the six different ways that he's broken his rental car in the one week that he's had it here.  Three times he stops for a cigarette, and I wait, but finally I can't listen to him anymore, and on his fourth cigarette break in a half hour, I tell him I'm going on ahead, then practically sprint to the first crossroads to get away from him.  I end up going back up, on the trail that I first wanted to hike, and even though the summit is closed, the trail is wide and clear, and the views are magnificent.  When I get back down, after nine hours total in the mountains, I take off my boots and shower and notice that my Achilles heel is swollen to almost three times its normal size.  Not good.  I'm still not sure what's happened to it, but I've been keeping it up and the swelling's gone down, and it only hurts when I wear my hiking boots, so I think I might be able to avoid an expensive Dr.'s visit for the time being.  I hope.  The last thing I need to do is permanent damage. 

Friday I leave Thames, and drive further north on the west coast of the peninsula (Kiwis say it like this: pen-in-chu-la), through Coromandel Town and Colville, where the road narrows and turns to gravel.  Thank goodness for all those years I spent driving on Laura's dirt roads.  They've prepared me well for NZ's.  The road from Colville to Fletcher's Bay (the northernmost tip of The Coromandel Peninsula) is beautiful.  It hangs off the sides of the hills, over the rocky coastline, and while the corners and hills and complete lack of guardrails is terrifying, I almost feel like I'm a part of the scenery.  The landscape dictates the road, not the other way around, so it's like I'm an observer rather than an intruder.  The Pohutukawa (Pa-hoo-ta-kawa) trees are beginning to bloom – they're the NZ xmas tree, because they're green and their flowers are bright red, and they bloom from the middle to end of December.  They're gnarled and thick and lean all over the road and the beaches and hills.  This is by far the prettiest coastline yet.

There are only two of us at the Fletcher's Bay backpacker's: a British woman named Louise, and me.  Our hosts live behind us, out of sight on the next hill, and I don't see them the entire time I'm there.  There is a cheeky little duck, though, who climbs up on the porch and begs for food, leaving nice piles of poop in return.  I had planned to hike the coastal walkway, a 7-hour return trip, but instead spend Saturday on the porch, resting my Achilles and looking out over the farmlands (can't see the ocean from the backpacker's), reading and writing and enjoying being completely alone (Louise left Saturday morning).  That night, like when I was on Taranaki, I go from one extreme to the other.  One minute I'm alone, the next: four Kiwi fishermen, six Swiss students of English, three German and one English med student from Tauranga, and two backpackers from Belgium and England arrive, making it a full house.  They're all pleasant enough, though, and the fishermen even take me down to the cooling house to show off their day's catch.  It's a unique place, this backpacker's, because it's a spot for locals, not just tourists.  This is the standard weekend retreat for these four men, and it's interesting to be a part of their world for the night.

Sunday is road trip day.  It's about 200km from Fletcher's Bay to Tauranga, and I make it in 11 hours, including stops.  The only stop worth mentioning is in Hahei, where I put my leftover chili in the back window of the car to heat up (it's about 85 degrees, and muggy), and walk an hour along the coast from Hahei beach to Cathedral Cove – a small but impressive cove that is famous for its enormous limestone arch that separates one part of the cove from the other.  It's another hour back to the car, and I am so hot and gross that I am powerless against the lure of the white sand and azure water.  My first swim in NZ!  The Pacific Ocean.  Absolutely lovely.  By this time, my car/microwave has heated my chili nicely, and I have lunch before driving on to the tune of the Ramones, who actually carry me all the way from Hahei to Tauranga.  The songs match the exciting pace and style of the road (windy and steep – you've never seen roads like this.), though I can't say that I take the corners and hills with the same finesse of the Kiwis who go zooming past me.  They're a little bit insane, but they're damn good drivers.  I actually find myself leaning to the left as I drive, as if by shifting my body, I'll ensure that my car stays on the left side of the road.  Or perhaps I'm just shying away from the unfamiliar sensation of cars passing me on the right.  Either way, I'm getting used to the left-side thing, and I'm having a blast bonding with Dr. Gonzo.

Phew.  This was quite a long update.  One of the difficult things about having to cram in a week's worth of events is that there's no room for the more leisurely writing about thoughts and observations and descriptions.  I've got to try to fit in the events and the facts, and then two hours have gone by and I need to take care of other things.  I'm starting to feel the itch to be settled in a place for a bit, and I do still need to find a job, so with any luck, the next week will see me in a more permanent location, which means that I can update more regularly and with more thought and less bulleted points of activity.  Love you all :)

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