Sunday, January 22, 2017

Kia Ora! A trip to Aotearoa

Happy New Year, friends!  Every once in a while in life, you get an opportunity that’s just too good to pass up.  This year, it was the chance for me to tag along on another department’s two-week travel course to New Zealand.  With the promise of sharing the company of two great colleagues, twelve splendid students, and three terrific alumni as travel companions, and a title like “The Psychology and Theology of Lord of the Rings,” how could I possibly say no?

A view from the Interisland Ferry into Picton
Now, New Zealand isn’t exactly an obscure destination these days (though it does take more than 20 hours of flying to get there from South Carolina!), so rather than give a day-by-day laundry list of places we visited, I’ll leave the itineraries to the guidebooks and just share some highlights from my time there.

A view of Auckland’s Sky Tower from the ground…

and from the top of the Sky Tower itself:

 A view of a tourist who paid a lot of money to jump off this perfectly good building…

…to land on that little blue-and-white target pad some 200 meters below.

A kea at the Auckland Zoo:

(These native parrots attack and eat living sheep.  One wonders why it’s okay for them to wander about freely in the aviary….)

A pukeko in the zoo parking lot:

(We kind of figured it was a zoo escapee, but it turns out we saw them a lot throughout New Zealand.  Their stride reminds me of the way cats walk when they have boots on their feet.)

A group of tourists getting off the boat as they leave the Waitomo glowworm caves.  If you think the cave mouth looks cool, google images of the inside!  (We couldn’t take pictures ourselves, but I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it.)

Black swans on Lake Rotorua:

Napier’s black pebble beach…

…and Art Deco architecture, courtesy of the 1931 earthquake that necessitated almost total reconstruction of the city:

Maori performing the haka at the Tamaki Maori village outside Rotorua.   

This evening was honestly one of the highlights of the trip for me, interested as I am in history and other cultures.  To see people so passionately engaged in preserving traditions that were on the brink of extinction less than a century ago—it felt somehow like a completely unearned privilege, a particular honor, to see, speak with, and learn from these amazing people.  And yet, when they weren't doing the haka or engaging in the formal welcome ceremonies, they shared the humor and sarcasm that seems to have been bred into every Kiwi we met. 


Think what you like about my maturity level, but I thought Hobbiton is absolutely splendid.  Every detail is arranged with such care, down to the washing on the lines and the Hobbit portraits inside the Green Dragon.   

It was a little surreal to be there—not just because it felt like stepping off the bus and into Middle Earth, but because at every turn they could say, “Here’s where Frodo rode in the wagon with Gandalf,” or, “Here’s where Bilbo and Gandalf smoked their pipes while watching the sunset.”  

I love films and everything having to do with the making of them, so walking in the footsteps of such well-loved actors was just as exciting as exploring the Shire itself!

And do you recognize this setting from a Fellowship of the Ring scene filmed here, on Mt. Victoria in Wellington?

That's right:  “Get off the road!”

(I hope it won't be pursued as a copyright infringement if it's a photo of a photo, and a bad one at that.)
And finally, just a sampling of New Zealand’s stunning, varied, and completely unpredictable natural beauty:

Lake Wakatipu
Cloud formations in the Marlborough area over the Spy Valley winery…

 …and Moa Brewery:

Pancake Rocks and Blowholes in Punakaiki:

The forest below Franz Josef Glacier:

Lake Hawea:

The swimming-pool blue of the Clutha River:

Queenstown from the Skyline Gondola:


And Milford Sound:

I keep saying that every time I visit a new place, I don’t cross things off my bucket list: I put more things on it!  I’d love to go back to New Zealand to explore places we didn’t have time to see—Picton, Christchurch, Doubtful Sound, Mt. Cook.  But I can’t express my gratitude to my two colleagues for providing this amazing first look to students and alumni—and for allowing me to tag along and enjoy the fruits of all their hard work!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Yo-Yo Summer

(Or: There and back again. And there and back again.  And there and back again…)

This summer has been one of those seasons in life when everything seems to happen at once.  They were all good things—wonderful things, in fact—but they did all happen at once, or at least one on the heels of the other.  So for those of my friends who have been wondering why they can never find me these days, this is what I’ve been up to for the past month.

In early June, I had the great privilege of attending the ordination of a dear friend to the priesthood.  The ordination was in New York, so I took a weekend trip from Virginia to celebrate this incredible milestone in my friend’s life.  I don’t have any pictures from this adventure: it seemed the wrong sort of occasion to be snapping photos on my phone!
(This is actually the River Avon.)
The week after that, I drove out to South Dakota with my father for a family reunion.  Aside from seeing my grandfather and aunts and uncles for the first time in a decade, I also played my first hole of golf (neither whiffing nor losing the ball—I consider this a success) and took a day trip to the Badlands.

If you have never seen the Badlands, you really should go if you have the chance.  You’re driving along a perfectly unremarkable stretch of prairie...
...(perhaps stopping to feed peanuts to the prairie dogs)... turn a corner, and suddenly you’re in this sci-fi landscape of bizarre red formations like giant termite mounds. 
It stretches for miles and miles—how the Native Americans and the settlers ever dared to traverse it is beyond my imagination.

And, of course, if you’re in the area, you’re obliged to stop by Wall Drug, the signs for which you’ve been seeing on the highway for at least three hundred miles.

Leaving my dad in South Dakota, I flew back to DC and the very next day flew out to Reykjavik for a week of research.  But what’s a research trip without a day tour?  My friend and I took a break from the books for an excursion to Landmannalaugur, a geothermal area on the edge of Iceland’s vast uninhabited Interior.

This area is just as incredible as the Badlands, and in some ways resembles it.  Only instead of driving through prairie, you’re bouncing crazily on unpaved roads through the lava fields...

...when suddenly you splash through a river and come upon this camp full of tourists in a valley surrounded by mountains.

You get out of the truck, get your bones back in order, and start on a short hike.  In the course of what can’t be much more than a mile, you walk across sheets of snow and ice along the banks of the river…

…passing piles of gleaming obsidian stone…

…you pause for breath of sulphurous air on a steaming Martian hillside…


…you walk through another lava field…

…and you come out, suddenly, onto a plush green meadow filled with buttercups, where all those tourists you saw earlier are bathing in a geothermal spring.

Then, of course, you go make friends with the horses from the local riding tour.

Our tour guide took us the long way back so that we could stop at the foot of Hekla, one of the most violent volcanoes in Iceland.  It used to erupt every ten years—it stopped doing so twenty years ago.  But the lava pack underneath it is still pushing its summit higher and higher every year, so it’s just a matter of time.  The tour guide kept saying that he wished it would erupt, and we all kept thinking, “Not until we get back to Reykjavik, please!”

After my Iceland adventure, my parents met me in Keflavik and we flew together to England for my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding blessing.  Again, I don’t have pictures from this event because it really is my sister’s show and I don’t want to steal her thunder.  I will, however, say that the happy couple were glowing and my parents looked very classy in the clothes they had to borrow for the ceremony because their bags were lost coming from Iceland!  (They caught up with us two days later.)

With my sister and brother-in-law on their way to their overdue honeymoon, my parents and I ventured off to Stratford on Avon, where we saw Shakespeare’s birthplace…

…his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage…

…and his mother Mary Arden’s farm.  At the farm, we saw a falconry demonstration, which wasn’t actually a falconry demo at all, as the avian star was a barn owl named Millie.  I remember her name because, since it was the end of the day and there were no kids in the audience, the handler picked me to be his “apprentice” and let me hold her on a borrowed glove! 

It was an amazing experience—they really should let more grown-ups try things like this, because we all have hearts for wonder if given half a chance!

The next day it was off to Oxford, where we visited Christ Church and all the terrifically beautiful Oxfordian environs.  (I’ve posted about Oxford before, so I won’t tax my readers a second time.)

The gate into Christ Church that tourists AREN'T allowed to use.
The stairway to the Hall (where, as we all know, Professor McGonagall welcomed Harry Potter and the other first years to Hogwarts)
The last full day in England, we went to Croughton, where I was born.  It’s a charming little village with one main street, one pub, and no grocery store. 

This is the house where I first lived:

The best part of visiting Croughton again was seeing my parents reminisce about living there.  It had changed, as all places do, but it was reassuring, in a way, that it hadn’t lost its village-y feel.  I mean, there was a horse pasture half a block from the street where we used to live!

But as wonderful as travel is, all journeys come to an end, and the next day saw us flying home to DC.  Thus ends the yo-yo part of my summer; I hardly count the two-hour trip between DC and Charlottesville, which I have made several times already this summer and will make several times more before I finally head back to South Carolina.

I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience all these wonderful corners of the world, and I hope I’ll have more travels to report on next summer (though perhaps without quite so much yo-yoing?).  After all, sleep when you’re dead, right?

The road goes ever on and on...