NZ Day 13: Ruminating In Rotorua

Today we got another early-morning call with bad news. No dolphin snorkeling activity for us – the sea was still too choppy. Kerry and I decided that Whakatane was bad luck, so we checked out a day early and shoved our bicycles into a bus, and rode it back up to the lovely lakeside city of Rotorua.

The highway seemed even more twisty on this return trip, and we both got upset stomachs. It was early afternoon when we arrived in Rotorua, and instead of setting out immediately on the bike path towards Waiotapu, we decided to use our extra day to recuperate a little more and get an earlier start the next morning.

Most of the hotels in Rotorua were booked solid, and most of the rest had very high prices. Eventually we found one that was affordable and only a little bit crusty, and we flopped onto the bed and napped until our stomachs felt better. The discomfort inspired us to go through our luggage again and prepare another box of gear that we could ship directly to New Plymouth, instead of hauling it around for another three weeks. We paid for shipping online and left the box with the hotel receptionist, who promised to hand it to the carrier when they came by the next day.

I’ve been thinking lately: Travel is often romanticized and overrated, especially when it’s the kind of travel that’s packaged and sold to the middle class – and the aspiring middle class. For a while now I’ve been lucky enough to consider myself middle class, and one of the reasons I know this is, I have become a target for these romanticized, packaged experiences.

In the case of New Zealand, the package is obvious to me. It’s, “come wander through a working model of Middle Earth! You’ll dance with Hobbits, swing swords at orcs, and cast Magic Missile at the darkness!” Well, I could try and pursue that. I could completely embrace that vision – that product – and come to New Zealand intent on finding it. If I went with what the travel agents recommend, it would go like this:

Drop several thousand dollars on a helicopter ride into the mountains, then stand around for a few minutes in front of a rock formation that looks vaguely like the background plate for the city of Minas Tirith – except there’s no city there, obviously. Then fly another helicopter to a meandering spot on the Mangawhero River, the backdrop for (and I quote) “the dramatic scenes of Gollum catching a fish.” Then drive a few miles into a farmer’s back yard, to a hill that, if you squint, kind of looks like Fort Edoras in Rohan – if you scraped off the actual fort. And look! Here’s a hill that looks like Weathertop, if you squint and imagine a Weathertop-shaped structure in its place!

What better way to destroy a fantasy world? Heh heh heh.

Oh, how I mock the packaged product; but I do need to cop to the fact that I wouldn’t be in New Zealand if it wasn’t for the Lord Of The Rings films drawing my attention to it. Even if I’m not imagining myself in the Mines of Moria whenever I wander into a cave (like I did in Kentucky), I have still obviously been influenced by Peter Jackson’s adoration for his native country, and our common roots of fantasy literature.

Kerry has been to India quite a few times. She has many stories to tell, and they thoroughly clash with the “product” of tourism in India. In India’s case I think it would be fair to call that product the “Eat Pray Love experience”. It goes, “be like Julia Roberts! Reject middle-class decadence by burning thousands of dollars in jet fuel to flirt with exotic men! Oh, and there’s yoga, so it’s totally legit.” I wonder how many people see the movie, or something like it, or perhaps any one of a zillion Bollywood films, then go to India … and it’s beautiful and exotic, but it’s also packed with constant harassment, heartbreaking poverty, chaos, inconvenience, and filth.

Of course, the “product” is not born of India, but more from a negative sketch of what’s missing back home. And the same is true for the fantasy sketch of New Zealand. Even if we know they’re fake, such things can have a perverse and lingering attraction anyway. I just burned thousands of dollars in jet fuel to ride a bicycle in an exotic location, and is there anything meaningful I’m chasing in it? Probably not. It’s not for charity, it’s not for self-discovery… I’m not running from a past trauma… I’m not even doing yoga! (Just some fake Tai-Chi!)

So, I can’t shake the feeling that despite my high-mindedness, I am guilty of chasing the equivalent of the “Eat Pray Love experience” for geeks. I haven’t thought much about the Lord Of The Rings films, except during the tour of Hobbiton – kind of hard to avoid, when you’re walking around inside the Green Dragon Inn – but nevertheless I am mimicking the films in my own way, pursuing my own version of that product. I’m on a fairly self-contained journey (bicycling) through fresh air and nature (New Zealand), avoiding deadly beasts (cars) and exploring old ruins (Limestone Island) while casting Magic Missile (taking pictures)… A great antidote for my day-to-day job, which takes place at a desk. Where does the prepackaged fantasy world end, and my own mundane vacation begin? Am I the same posh, blinkered middle-class traveler that I look down upon for buying the “packaged product” of New Zealand as Middle Earth?

Perhaps I am, with just a difference in degree.

The most appalling packaged travel I ever took part in was a three-day cruise to a little island off the coast of Florida, on one of those gigantic cruise ships. There’s a lot I could say about it, but I’ll just say, every corner of the ship was enthusiastically designed to make me – the traveler – feel USELESS, like a pet hamster trapped in a giant food bowl. All that comfort backfired and made me feel very uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s what the difference in degree is: Comfort level. Perhaps I demand some level of discomfort because it bestows some feeling of accomplishment, or worthiness. Something to set me apart from other people. Not for the impression it gives other people – I’m usually embarrassed at the attention I get when I mention my long bike tours, since I think it identifies me as crazy more than anything else – but for the impression it gives to myself. I seek something personal, in the dangerous roads, the harsh weather, the rough sleeping, the isolation. Enlightenment, on my own terms.

Well, it’s true: Sometimes the uncomfortable aspects of travel can be the most enlightening, if you give them enough time to work on you. For example, I think the desolation of the small, meth-addled towns I passed through when cycling across the US helped me re-assess what was really worth worrying about in my own life. Of course, that’s another thing that the middle class is vilified for: Traipsing through third-world countries and using poverty as a kind of framing device for their own trifling problems back home. I’ve seen plenty of scathing editorials drifting across Facebook, flouncing at “poverty fetishism”, accumulating truculent “likes” like ants on roadkill.

Well, haters gonna hate, and ain’ters gonna ain’t.

As an aside, I think it’s very interesting that the author of Eat Pray Love wrote a followup book, gathering material about the meaning of marriage, as a tactic to conquer her own fears about it after her bitter divorce. To me, this says that “Eat Pray Love” – and the travel and the farting around and the talk of spirituality – was the years-long phase where the author “got her sillies out” (as an ex of mine would say), and the follow-up book “Committed” is where the real work took place, back home in the ‘States, back in another stable arrangement. I haven’t read it, but perhaps she even admits to herself somewhere in those pages that she didn’t have to travel to Bali to meet a man worthy of her time, and could have just as probably found one within 10 square miles of her house. I’ve seen many divorced men my age spend a fortune on distant travel and exotic women to do the same thing: “Look how different my activities, environment, and social circle are now! That means I’m different too!”

Change is not the same as rehabilitation.

All-too-human, and not exactly a spiritual awakening. … Good thing too, because if a spiritual awakening cost that much money, it would be in very short supply!

Okay, enough seriousness. Onward, to the next day…

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