OK, so, my first mistake was not the decision to go back to my Air BnB and rest up before the GRL evening program. That was an entirely logical and sound decision involving wise and judicious boundary-setting.
No, my first mistake was, having gone home, deciding that to relax I would eat – alone – a single-serve pot cookie, recommended by the dispensary as a gentle option for newbies who haven’t touched marijuana since 1991.
My second mistake was thinking, only an hour later, the cookie wasn’t working.
My third mistake was eating the single-serve THC chocolate.
My fourth mistake, and this, I think, was the critical one, was the brainstorm that – having ingested multiple THC-laden products – what would really relax me was a two-mile walk around a strange city. Again, alone.
The gravity of my compounding errors appeared one mile out when the time dilation set in. I’m not sure if the paranoia or the deja vu came next: both came before sensory distortions.
It took either five minutes, or around eight Martian years, to go from walking on a pavement beside a busy road, to traversing a black-sand beach atop ragged white cliffs, at the bottom of which ran a buzzing ribbon of expressway traffic. By the time I was 0.8 miles from home the small part of my brain that was not currently walking in an alternative reality – yellow, in the key of peppermint, and flavored with disquiet – remembered there’s a bloody good reason why I didn’t smoke pot for the last 26 years. Being utterly unable to restrain my mind from wandering really freaks me the fuck out.
Having floated home I curled up helplessly on the bed as my synapses buggered off to the playground beyond objective reality.
For five hours.
It was not fun.
The takeaway: when in Denver, imbibe with friends, single-serve means single serve, park yourself somewhere safe, and skip the aerobic exercise.
I had one brutal day (in First World terms) this week. I finished it crying myself to sleep from tiredness and anxiety and hunger. And yet, for all that, it had great parts in it.
I skipped breakfast in Masterton, expecting to find an amazing cafe or welcoming vineyard on the Wine Trail route. First up were Carterton and Martinborough. I didn’t pass any amazing cafes or vineyard restaurants, and I kept watch the whole way south to Lake Ferry, right down on the coast of Cook Strait.
This is the safest place ever for kids.
I was expecting to get a room at the Lake Ferry Hotel – the only accommodation in town – and drive out to Cape Palliser the next day. Mistake number one: I did not call ahead. A chalkboard outside announced the hotel was closed. Holy goddamn and shit. I was in the middle of nowhere. There was no cafe, no restaurant. Not even a dairy. There would be no lunch.
I drove out to Cape Palliser anyway. The road winds like a necklace dropped in a rocky Zen garden, twisting along a narrow margin between steep escarpments and a gunmetal sea. An “Active Slip” sign urged I use Extreme Caution. Washouts split the road in two places, but the water was down to only an inch or so deep, so I risked it.
It rained the whole way.
I fell in love with the tiny town of Ngawi, clinging on to the rocks. They make a living harvesting crayfish, but there’s no safe harbor, so every night the cray boats are pulled out of the sea by heavy machinery. The road winds between the tiny fibrolite cottages and two dozen ancient excavators.
I have such a yearning to rent a bach in Ngawi for a summer and just read and write and walk along the beach to the seal colony and embrace being a hermit.
Past Ngawi is the Cape Palliser lighthouse. It kept wavering into view through the rain squalls, like a mirage on a postcard.
These are the stairs to carry supplies up to the lighthouse. I do not want this job.
Apparently no one wants this job as it’s been unmanned since 1986. Fun fact: it still has the original lens from 1897.
The coast is so gorgeous there, you guys. If there were such a thing as mermaids, they’d swim here.
It was nearly four pm by the time I got to the lighthouse, and this was a little worrying as I still had to drive all the way back the way I’d come, then head to the next town, Featherston.
Mistake number two: I assumed there would be a hotel or motel in Featherston I could stay at. I couldn’t ring from Cape Palliser or Lake Ferry, because there was no phone service out there, and also, it’s not like there was anywhere else to try: Featherston was the next town.
You can see where this is going, right? Apparently there is a simply lovely motel in Featherston, but I did not find it. And I could not get a strong enough signal to use my phone. I found B&Bs, but they were all full.
It was now five thirty pm.
“Fuckit,” I thought. “I’ll push on to Wellington. It’s only a 70-minute drive. There are hundreds of hotels in Wellington.”
Mistake number three: I did not phone to check any of them HAD ROOMS. In my defence, I had the phone issue. It would have taken 30 minutes just driving around trying to find enough signal to use the internet. So, I drove into Wellington.
Okay, up side: driving over the Rimutaka Ranges was INCREDIBLE and I want to do it again, over and over. It helped that it had stopped raining.
What didn’t help is that EVERY HOTEL IN WELLINGTON I TRIED WAS FULL. Including all the ones right out by the airport. How is that even possible? It’s our capital city! And sure, it was a business day, but there’s so many of them. Maybe the beds were all filled by insurance assessors after the earthquake.
Now, when I say every hotel, I’m lying. There was one hotel I found with three rooms left. I had the address. I found the hotel. I just found it on the other side of an intersection on a one-way street. I couldn’t get to it. “Ok, fine,” I figured. “I’ll just circle around.”
This means the city is not constructed from simple blocks. It’s a couple of long straight main streets squashed tight between the ocean, and tortuous, narrow-as-fuck, winding roads canted at angles only drunk teens riding in wheelie bins enjoy.
A simple manoeuvre to circle around to get back to the hotel left me instead climbing the hills around the university quadrant, before descending a hairpinning lane the width of roll of washi tape. It was straight out of a 1960s James Bond film (the scene would involve a suitcase on wheels and an automatic weapon disguised as an umbrella).
But my spirits rose as I miraculously failed to meet any cars head-on, and the road spat my car safely out into the CBD again. I approached the hotel, still on the other side of the road, but hooray, this was a two-way street. Two blocks up from the hotel a delightful traffic-calming median berm rose from the middle of the street, planted with saplings. The tiny elms shivered as they mocked me: there would be no U-turns today.
It was farcical. I circled around again, going the other way this time, but was stymied by a set of orange road cones blocking entrance to a side road, and a set of one way streets designed purely to taunt me.
I gave up.
“Fuckit,” I thought. Again. “I’ll go out to Petone. It’s only 15 minutes out. There are motels there.”
This time I couldn’t phone ahead because there was zero parking, and when I pulled into a taxi stand to try to grab five minutes on my phone a taxi arrived and the driver was an asshole.
Also, question: why does no one in Wellington indicate until they’re already turning? What’s with that? I thought Aucklanders were supposed to be the bad drivers but we are thoughtful, compassionate, and we indicate for the full two seconds.
So, Petone. Town of a thousand trucks.
The beachfront Esplanade is lined with motels. They were all full. My cellphone was out of juice. I cruised up and down the main strip three times hoping to find a place that had a room. Finally I spotted it: a motorlodge without a No Vacancy sign! I pulled into the parking lot and practically leapt into reception.
Turns out their sign was misleading: the motel was full.
I burst into tears.
Right there, at the reception desk.
I was so tired and the only sustenance I’d had all day was a pot of peppermint tea and my knee hurt from micro-braking on so many hilly roads all day and it was all too much and I cried.
I want to give a huge thank you to the receptionist at BK’s Esplande Motor Lodge for not even mentioning my blubbering, instead simply phoning around to find me a room. It was a simple kindness but it meant so much to me.
She found me a room! The new motel was only 10 minutes drive inland. On the way there I spotted a Lone Star. Booyah! Things were looking up. There would be pan-seared sea-run Marlborough salmon for dinner! (A meal also functioning as breakfast and lunch).
I checked in. The room was basic, but it had beds. At this point, sleep and food were literally all I cared about. I jumped back in the car.
I got to Lone Star at 8:42.
Their kitchen was closed. They could not feed me. And no, they replied when I asked, there were no other eateries open at that time of night.
Pffft, foolish Aucklander, expecting a restaurant to be open past 8.30! We’re so fucking ridiculous.
On the way back to the motel I spotted McDonalds flags on lampposts. I drove in desperate, ever-increasing circles looking for it. But I couldn’t even locate a Big Mac. Without my phone – charging back at the motel – I was utterly helpless.
I found a supermarket, but I was out of spoons and I just Could Not. I drove back to the motel. I drank a glass of water and got into bed and cried again and went to sleep.
Japan’s on my wish list! It’s right behind the Silk Road! So I persuaded Gillian to share what it’s like settling in to a foreign culture. (And pssst, her new book Thorns and Fangs is about two “dangerously hot vampires” and a ruthless necromancer.)
Getting Lost: The Best Way to Learn Japan.
Japan is a tricky country to get a handle on. I’ve lived here ten years now, and it still surprises me. Yesterday, two friends and I went on a road trip to a bakery and an onsen (communal bath fed from a volcanic hot spring). A fun day out, but on the way home we drove past a troop of monkeys, just chilling on the side of the highway — not something you see a lot of in New Zealand. We just about lost our minds. I’ve seen wild monkeys in Japan before — one was hanging around the schools I teach at for a while. Yesterday, we saw over twenty of them, some babies amongst them. It was the highlight of our day — and it happened completely unexpectedly. And that is a running theme in Japan.
My first week in Japan, I was a new ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Sendai, a city of a million people in the Tohoku region. Fellow kiwi Amy and myself (not her real name), decided to head out and explore. We were walking through the main shopping district downtown. Amy was really enthusiastic. It was her first time overseas, and she couldn’t believe how different everything was. I was less impressed. Between my parent’s jobs, we’d lived in five different countries growing up. Where Amy saw differences, I only saw depressing similarities. The architecture was not NZ architecture, but it wasn’t Japanese either. It could have been any big city anywhere in the world — besides the kanji signs, I didn’t feel there was anything particularly Japanese about it. I voiced this opinion and Amy rolled her eyes. “What are you expecting, that everyone would be wearing kimonos, or that there’d be ninja walking down the street?” She had a point, but I didn’t want to admit it. “I expected something more!” I grumbled. We turned the corner. Amy started laughing. After a second, I did too. Opposite us was a three story high sign of a giant gorilla, fist raised above his head King Kong style. He was surrounded by neon lights and a large sign that proclaimed that this was ‘Jungle Kong.’ “That Japanese enough for you?” Amy said. “Okay,” I said. “I’m happy now.” We later found out that Jungle Kong was a love hotel.
I had plans for my time in Japan. Armed with my copy of the Lonely Planet, and the Japanese I was studying, I looked up train times online and crossed off temples and sightseeing points. Amy decided spur of the moment what she was going to do and rarely looked up directions. She had adventures on a weekly basis. Walking home from school, she’d see an interesting side street and decide to detour. She’d be hailed by an excited retiree, working on his garden, who could not remember ever seeing a foreigner in his part of town, and wanting to know all about her. She’d be given vegetables from his garden, invited inside a temple not usually open to visitors, taken along on a family hiking expedition … Amy just had this amazing knack for meeting people and making connections with them despite the language barriers.
It drove me nuts. I knew more about Japan, I studied more, I didn’t need to ask for directions because I knew where I was going (my younger self was pretty insufferable)! Amy did none of these things, and she was having an amazing Japan experience — an experience I wanted.
Many years later, working for a different company in a different part of Japan, I began to realise that if I wanted adventures, I had to let go of my strict timetables and plans. This was hard, because I am the type of personality that feels anxious without a plan. Instead of checking my watch constantly to make sure I wasn’t going to miss the train, I just enjoyed myself. I allowed myself to take the interesting detour. And pretty much, whenever I did that, I found myself having interesting conversations with the people around me. I don’t have Amy’s knack for meeting people, but I’ve found that saying yes to things leads to the most unlikely discoveries.
As an example, last year the friends that I road tripped with yesterday had heard about a shiitake picking event in the mountains near the town we work in. We spent the morning gathering mushrooms with our guide, a retired farmer, and a family from Hiroshima, and then returned to the farmer’s house where we met his mother, and we had a barbeque with the shiitake, wild boar, other vegetables and ate fresh figs and persimmons from his garden. That would have been an amazing experience all on its own, right? Well, it got better.
There had been less mushrooms than anticipated so we finished early. The farmer asked us if we wanted to ‘cut.’ I thought he said ‘leave’ so I said ‘sure.’ He then started giving us directions to his friend’s house where they were dismembering a wild boar. By now we’d figured out something was not right, but had no idea what it was. It was an experience! We were actually allowed to help carve up the boar. Not how I’d expected to spend my Sunday afternoon, but the hunters were really pleased by how interested we were and ended up giving us some prime cuts of meat to take home. It was an incredible day, and an experience I’ll never forget — and not one that most people would associate with Japan.
Most people come to Japan with a strict itinerary and a limited amount of time, so I imagine that they’re unwilling to step off the beaten track and leave things open to chance. What they experience of Japan tends to confirm whatever expectations they came in with. However, I have found that my best memories come from the times that I’ve taken chances and detoured. Expectations and plans are great, but especially with a country that is as hard to define as Japan, they can prevent you from experiencing it fully.