Sid’s Diner: El Reno, OK

Located on Route 66 in El Reno Oklahoma is a cute little diner called Sid’s, which has been serving up delicious food for over 40 years. Although it doesn’t look like all that much, this restaurant has actually achieved some notoriety on the national level for the quality of it’s cheap eats.

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While it takes advantage of their route 66 address, and has been written up in guidebooks as part of a Route 66 road trip, it’s important for authenticity’s sake (I believe) to remember that Sid’s is NOT technically a historic 66 diner. Sid opened the place in 1989, five years AFTER route 66 had already been decommissioned (in ’84).

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Their claim to fame, isn’t that, but rather the food… specifically their fried onion burgers, which are considered to be so good that the Food Network listed them as among the top 5 burgers in the whole US of A., and the Travel Channel has listed them as one of the must visit road side diners in the country in the cheap eats catagory.

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Note: the french fries here are STILL called Freedom Fries… will get back to this later

Their burger (i.e., the regular) consists of a large number of thinly sliced onions that are then smashed into the raw meat so that they merge with it, but as a solid layer– a bit like what happens with hash-browns. The King is just a larger quantity of beef.

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I watched them making these, and based on the massive amount of fat involved wasn’t going to even try them (as they were completely off of diet). But as I was asking about the sandwich, they insisted I have at least a taste of one for free. (This is a VERY friendly place.) So they made up one and cut me off 1/4 of it so I could try it. Normally the burger includes a huge gob of mayonnaise, but they-made this one without

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The remaining 3/4 were given to this this elderly woman sitting next to me, who was a regular. From what I overheard, she’s apparently in dire economic straits and they’re always adding free add-ons to her meals. I therefore insisted that I pay for the whole of her meal, my 3/4 and everything else she was eating.

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As a result they insisted that we have a picture taken together. I have to say she was a very nice lady, very cheerful and upbeat.

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Like I noted previously, the “French fries” in this restaurant are still referred to as Freedom Fries. That, and the heavy references to American’s armed forces kind of tells you all you need to know about the politics of this town, and the restaurant’s owner.

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This is term that was adopted in 2003, and to this day is still used by the most hardcore Republicans around the country. The renaming (let’s keep in mind that french fries are actually from Belgium and not France) was the idea of a guy who owned a diner in Beaufort, North Carolina by the name of Neal Rowland. This patriotic act was in response to France‘s opposition to America’s proposed invasion of Iraq (which we went ahead and did anyway, without world support). Not long after two Republican politicians picked up the idea and ran with it; the first was Walter B. Jones, who represented Rowland’s district’s in Congress and the second was Bob Ney, a Representative from Ohio who in 2008, was convicted on corruption charges and did jail time — why yes this does make me smile. In 2003, Ney was still the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, and therefore in charge of managing all the general ‘stuff’ for the members of the house of Representatives. What these “patriots” did was to … as a way of sticking to the French (who are always quick to point out that French Fries are NOT French), insist that the cafeterias that serve politicians in Congress change the name of the fries likewise.

qh96DA2xSCaW7zxlXDfXrQ_thumb_ad7a.jpgAnd, why YES, the locals who El Reno did in fact, in majority, vote for Trump.

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Nzar Khoury Guest House & Airbnb, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet) and looking for a place to spend the night that is nothing fancy, but clean and HIGHLY affordable, look no farther than Nazar Khoury’s Guest House. I stayed here for almost a full month, and LOVED IT. If you want to book with him you can either call him directly (see number below), or use Booking.com, Agoda, or Airbnb (like I did — you may need to be signed into your Airbnb account in order to see that link, I’m not sure).  That said, while he has four different rooms available, his place is so much more affordable than the other places in town, that he tends to be full almost continuously (or at least was while I was there). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_de83

Be warned, this is NOT a fancy hotel, with elevators and bell boys, but rather his family home that he grew up in, which he has converted himself in order to accommodate guests. He runs it himself (the guy in image above) and for the most part does a pretty good job of it … If you stay here you’ll be getting an authentic experience of how the locals live.

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His home, which is located about four floors up, has a patio that overlooks the mediterranean ocean and the old Ottoman built seawallramparts of this historic, and once militarily strategic town.

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The wall is currently being renovated; I was hoping they’d leave this long enough for me to get a shot of the sun setting in the middle of it, but no luck, it was only there for a few hours.

It is an almost idyllic place to sit and enjoy the ocean. While there you can also get to know some of his other guests (I met more than few people that way) as you all watch the setting sun while nibbling on the free munchies he provides.

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This picture (above) was taken at around sunset — as you can tell by the golden color of the stones, and if you look up towards the Nzar Khoury sign, you’ll spot some guests, particularly the guy in the black shirt, talking to each other while enjoying said it from the patio — next to him was in fact his wife (who was distracting him from the view).

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The moon, just moments after the sunset

The great part about having stayed at the Guest House for almost a month was how many different sunsets I was able to watch… no two ever exactly the same

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From his home you can easily see Acre’s famous lighthouse, and Haifa across the bay.

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On VERY clear days you can just make out the second holiest Bahá’í temple in the world, known as the Shrine of the Báb, it’ll look like a vertical strip from the top of the of the mountain to the bottom, with one very large building in the middle of it. I know all about the Bahá’í because one of their temples isn’t far from the home where I grew up, north of Chicago. But like I said, you can only see it on VERY clear days… otherwise the fog and or smog (depending on the color — fog is white, not brown) will block you from seeing it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ba6.jpg

Just to the right of the lighthouse is the remains of a submerged crusader castle. On days when the wind is low and the water is still, you can just make out the walls of the various rooms of the building…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_df48.jpgon other days you’ll see fishermen (who aren’t actually supposed to be there, but the police don’t stop them) fishing either off the exterior wall of that castle, or netting up fish caught in the pools they create.

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Getting to his place is however NOT the easiest thing for people with mobility issues (it is NOT wheelchair accessible). The image above is the first set of stairs you’ll need to climb. These were built by the ottoman controlled Acre and were built more to be comfortable for horses pulling carts, then they were for humans. That said, the built-in ramps would have been a lot more helpful if they were filled in (so to speak). If you try pulling a suitcase up them, or a cart, the wheels will constantly slip off to one side or the other. (I’ve not seen anyone even TRY to negotiate them with a wheel chair.)

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The Stairway and Church’s doorway, decorated for the wedding

Nzar’s home — which is built upon the remains of a Crusader Church — is just next door to the St. Andrew’s Church (Greek Catholic), which is accessed from the parking lot by that same stairway. So, if you’re lucky, as I was, from his balcony you’ll be able to watch an Arab wedding party ceremoniously lead the bride to the altar.

At the top of the stairs you make a hard left (if you go right you see the church’s front door which is usually locked) and you’ll see the big metal door that marks his entrance

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The guest house’s  doorway and staircase

Push it open (it’s never locked)… be careful not to pull the handle (sometimes it’ll come off)… and you’ll see a very uninviting steep staircase that’s about 2 stories high with a banister that is just a rusty pipe bolted to the wall… that wiggles a bit if you lean on it (so don’t if you don’t absolutely need to). That said, while I was there a 90-year-old gray-haired grandmother with a seriously bent back put me to shame on those stairs.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b6d.jpgOnce inside you’ll see an apartment with VERY high ceilings. These are traditional to the region, and act as a sort of natural air conditioning system, as the heat rises above your head, and the cold drops to floor level. That said, no two spaces are on the same level. All the bedrooms are a step up to a place where you can leave your shoes, and then another step up to the bedroom area… the en suite bathrooms are yet another step up.

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The skylight viewed from above

My bedroom, where I stayed, has a skylight (image of it from the building’s roof)… but it’s currently the only one like that does. Unfortunately there were no way to block that light… so I ended up having to go to sleep earlier than normal in preparation for an 8am wake up (after a 6 am one, at which point I covered my head with a pillow)

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The setting sun as viewed through the doorway to the patio

At night, Nzar lights up his sign, so you can still easily see it from the parking lot below. IF you’re in one of the rooms that lines the back alley, as I was, and pop your head out the window, you’ll an large number of swallows (who you can watch at around sunset feasting on the mosquitos, G-d bless them), hanging out on the electrical and telephone wires that line the way.

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That said, I WARN YOU… they wake up really easily from things like the flash on your camera; and if awoken, they will fly around like crazy idiots for the next hour or so, chirping noisily. DO NOT WAKE UP THE SWALLOWS. That said, if you’re there during Ramadan, as I was, the wake up call before sunrise to allow muslims a chance to have breakfast, is ALSO going to wake the birds… you’ve been warned (ear plugs are your friend, as is a pillow over your head).

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Me, blogging while sitting on the patio on an overcast day

“World famous in New Zealand”, visiting the Two big L&P Bottles, in Paeroa, NZ

If you’re passing through Paeroa, while road tripping New Zealand (NZ) — let’s face it you’re most likely on the way to some place else — you WILL be seeing these two “Big Things”, i.e., huge bottles with the letters L&P on them located at either end of town. They represent one of NZ’s national soft drinks, which is made in here, using the local water.

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It is a super sweet lemony concoctin called L&P, short for Lemon — because it’s supposed to be a lemon tasting drink & Paeroa, the name given to the magnesium bicarbonate rich water of the springs located here. That said, the brand is no longer made here… it got bought out by Coke years back and is bottled up in Auckland …. although I’m not sure how many Kiwi’s know this.

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bottle in front of cafe

The bottle above, located in front of the L&P cafe, is one of two such bottles in town. In the photo I’m pointing at the advertising slogan on a red banner across it’s front… which reads “World famous in New Zealand.” I thought that was pretty witty, but learned afterwards that, according to Wikipedia, it was so successful that it has become a popular saying in New Zealand.

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bottle in park

At first I assumed the one in front of the cafe was the promosed “big bottle” but when we got there we were told that it was in fact the smaller one. The BIG one, is at the other end of town in a small park along the main road/highway…  Although, that said, if you compare the one above with the one below, to me they looked to be about the same size, only the one in the park is standing on a pedestal

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In case you’re completely unfamiliar with the product, L&P is a local to NZ brand of a lemony flavored soft drink… that in my personal opinion wasn’t very lemony, and actually tasted kind of fake … like some lab’s idea of lemon… And then of course I read the ingredients and…. its basically water, sugar, a lot of acid, and Citric acid (330).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad8As I discussed at length in the article about my visit to Hobbiton, (the movie set where the Hobbit Shire for the Lord of the Rings Movies where shot) is that while New Zealand’s economy is ranked first in the entire world for its socially progressive policies, and has a reputation for being one of the cleanest and greenest among the First World/western block, high incomeOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries….  the reality is that it is, ironically, also the most DEregulated government within that institution.

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This is the result of the economic policies of Roger Douglas, who was NZ’s Minister of Finance back in 1984, as part of the country’s Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990). Known as Rogernomics, a hat-tilt to Ronald Reagan‘s  Reaganomics, he had instituted a set of neoliberal economic policies, the most important of which from the perspective of this piece, was an almost complete deregulation of NZ’s industries.

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A retrospective of how L&P containers used to look, located in the entryway of the cafe

In day-to-day life, part of how this shows up for the average consumer is that in New Zealand, food labeling is DEVIOUS… so if you look at the close up of the bottle’s ingredients it says “food acid (330)” rather than “citric acid” … and ALL chemicals put into foods are like this… You know how in the states the general rule is if your reading the ingredients list and you can’t pronounce the ingredient you probably shouldn’t consume the product? Well in New Zealand ALL food additives are some easy to read words and a number code.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2add.jpgFirst my friend and I went to the L&P cafe location (which is the first one you’ll hit if driving south from Auckland to Wellington, and pit stopped long enough to try a bottle of the stuff and use the facilities.

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While the menu looked ok, I was actually holding out, if you can believe it, for a pit stop at the McDonald’s down the road. No, seriously! This was because along with happy meals in New Zealand’s McDs were giving out children’s books by Ronald Dahl (he of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was renamed as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the movie version) with the happy meals instead of toysUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ae0.jpgThe book being given out was his story Matilda (which in the movie version is called Matilda), only given out one chapter at a time — so that the title of the chapter was the title of the book — but with no reference on the cover to the fact that it was part of the larger book called Matilda. But for the fact that I’m very familiar with the story (not just the movie) I would never have known… and I was hoping beyond hope that at least they were giving out a chapter a week, because ever McD’s I stopped at was handing out the same “Marvelous Miss Honey” mini book.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad4.jpgAfter this we stopped at the park at the other end of town where the “bigger” bottle was located. This one had little spots on the ground leading to it, which I’m guessing were supposed to be bubbles… which was kind of cute…. and a collection of signs talking about the history of the town

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As well as the history of the product

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According to the sign above, the reason the drink was made in this town, and I guess was made part of the drink’s name, was because the water in the town is naturally effervescent…. hence the bubbles on the floor.

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That said, we weren’t the only ones stopping to take a picture with the bottles… only these guy had the good sense to bring bottles of the stuff with them for when they posed in front of it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad2.jpg

Location of the Bottle in front of the Cafe

Location of the Bottle in a small park

The Manawatu Scenic Route & Ruahine Dress Circle, in Rangiwahia, New Zealand

While my friend and I were road tripping south from Auckland to Wellington, we found ourselves with some (planned by me) spare time, and my friend … he who was doing the driving…  pretty much spontaneously decided he wanted to use said time to take a scenic route option his phone had notified him of, rather than stay on the most direct one. So, we turned off of New Zealand’s highway 1 and onto the Manawatu Scenic Route.

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Pretty much as SOON as we left route 1 we were happy we’d done so…

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The pictures really don’t do it justice

We found ourselves driving through a very windy and narrow river canyon type road (which was much more fun for him from a driving perspective than the mostly straight highway 1), with sides that were almost chalky white but shot through with green

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and a road that took us higher and higher up the side of the gorge, after which we entered a flatter area (at the top apparently)with some farms, and a GORGEOUS mountain range in the distance

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And then to MY delight (he was driving so past he didn’t even see it as we whizzed past) I noticed a stopping area with a sign and picnic area, and demanded that he stop and return us to it. [One of the many reasons we’re not traveling together anymore is he likes driving through places and considers them seen, while I like stopping each and every time I spot a good potential photo, so that I can take good pictures. Ironically, after I ended it with him, he wanted me to share with him said pictures.]UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a7e.jpg

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Panorama shot

looking down into the gorge I could see what the original settler meant, in terms of it looking like the dress circle seating in an Opera house (read the image above)…

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It wasn’t until afterwards when I researched the ‘Ruahine dress-circle’ that I learned that there was a side road we could have used to go down into it where there is a very popular swimming hole down there which we missed.

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my friend, who is about 6’+ tall, took this for me while standing on the picnic table (at my insistence)

Unfortunately, since he’s not one to carefully plan things in advance, my travel buddy was driving through the area sort of haphazardly (if I’D been the one to PLAN it, I’d have known in advance about the stopping location and the possibility of the swimming hole) and his GPS on his phone instead of taking us through the length of the whole scenic drive redirected us OFF of it once we got past the end of Ruahine Road, and (as he’s not a planner) he didn’t realize we actually had sufficient time and would have had MUCH better views had we stayed on it…  because from what I’m reading about it now, as I write this, we really only got a bit of taste of it…

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That said, we did get to see this view along Rangiwahia Road (which was NOT part of the scenic drive) after heading back to Route 1, which included our last view of Mount Ruapehu where Peter Jackson filmed his Mordor and Mount Doom in the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Memorial of New Zealands Worst Train Accident, in Tangiwai

In Tangiwai, a rural Māori community in New Zealand, about half way between the rural towns of Rangataua and Waiouru, just off the side of highway 49, is a memorial to the worst train accident in the country’s history. The catastrophe occurred on Xmas eve in 1953, when the rail-bridge over the Whangaehu River collapsed beneath an express passenger train traveling from Wellington to Auckland, resulting in the death of 151 souls.

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A local school group was brought here to learn about the disaster

The disaster happened because the Islanders at that time suffered from a lack of understanding of the full risks associated with being directly downstream from an active Volcano, in this case, Mount Ruapehu (see images above and below).

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Note the Volcano and the reconstructed bridge in the above photo

Volcano’s are beautiful, and their eruptions result in rich black fertile earth at their bases that is wonderful for farming, and this is why so many farming communities are located directly at their bases all around world — in spite of their being some of the most violent forces on earth.

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For example: think about the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum located at the base of Mount Vesuvius (a volcano) in Italy, or the town of Kagoshima in Japan which sits directly adjacent to Mount Sakurajima, which is so active that residents have to walk around with plastic umbrellas to keep the volcano’s ash out of their hair.

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The cause of the Tangiwai disaster was in part seriously bad luck. Almost 10 years earlier in 1945, Mount Ruapehu, the volcano whose nearby presence is the source of the area’s sustenance, had erupted creating a thick layer of ash at the top of the mountain.

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Over the next 8 years, water collected in the cone of the volcano, forming a lake, held in place in part by that same layer of ash. Earlier that evening, at around 8pm, the water (heavy with lava, ice and ash) had broken through and rushed downhill via the Whangaehu River (whose headwaters are the yearly melts off the glacier that sits atop the volcano — see the pictures above taken in during NZ’s summer), and at approximately 10:15pm, the force of flood had taken out many of the railroad’s bridge’s supports…. but unfortunately, not the bridge (which the driver might have seen).

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The disaster happened only about 5 minutes later, at 10:21pm, and as I said resulted in the death of 151 souls; the recovery was horrific and continued for days as bodies were found hanging in near by trees, washed downstream by the river, or buried in banks of sand and mud; 21 of these bodies of the victims were never identified, and the bodies of another 20 souls, who were believed to have been on the train, were never found.

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Here are two videos about the disaster from youtube. The first is very short, 1.5 minutes video posted by the Auckland War Memorial Museum:

This second video is a full 20 minute TV show about bad days in history that focuses on the disaster:

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Giant Gumboot statue, Taihape, New Zealand

In a similar way to the tiny rural town of Riverside, Iowa (Population 993), having its monument in honor of the future birth of Star Trek‘s James T. Kirk, the slightly larger rural town of Taihape, New Zealand (NZ), population 1,730, has a giant “Gumboot” (Kiwi for a rubber boot) in honor of its fictional hometown TV character, a farmer by the name of Fred Dagg.

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Created by a NZ satirist by the name of  John Clarke, in the 1970’s, the Dagg character — known for wearing his Gumboot’s 24 hours a day (even in bed and in the shower) was designed to represent and make fun of the stereotypical NZ farmers, who lived in NZ’s stereotypically isolated farming towns.

Once he unveiled Dagg on national TV in 1975 the character made Clarke a national star. And as he had chosen Taihape as that hometown for his character, and the town owned that claim to fame with a will. Not only have they declared themselves the Gumboot Capital of the World, but they also have a yearly Gumboot Day, where contestants compete to see who can throw a gumboot the farthest, and who can wear them and look the dashing while doing it.

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As in nearby Tiarau, NZ, where corrugated galvanised iron was used to construct the Big Sheepdog, Ewe & Ram buildings, the Gumboot is also crafted from the same material, which New Zealanders seem to have a sort of love affair with.

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And just for kicks, some of Fred Dagg’s Greatest hit songs:

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Ohakune, New Zealand’s BIG Carrot

Located at the south end of the Tongariro National Park (the filming location for Mordor, in Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings move trilogy), in the small town of Ohakune, New Zealand (NZ), what is reputed to be the world’s largest carrot. Considered by many Kiwi’s to be an icon, the carrot stands 7.5 meters tall (24.6 Feet), and its known as being one of NZ’s most hugged things.

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As anyone who reads my blog knows, I have a sort of perverse love affair with BIG THINGS (this will be my 59th one to blog about), i.e., oversized road-side attractions. You tend to see them in small towns, places that people would otherwise not travel to; with the items built or purchased, as a way to draw in tourists. Casey, Illinois is probably the most obsessive example of this, as in they’ve got EIGHT big things around town that hold the Guinness World Records for being the world’s biggest, for that sort of item. America has a LOT of things like this, with the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, probably being the most famous; it was in the hit movie Michael (1996) where the Arch Angle Michael — played as less than angelic by John Travolta — comes to earth specifically because he wants to see these sorts of things. I argue that anyone doing a road-trip across America is sort of obliged to search them out… because they are “Americana.” That said, once I started road tripping around Australia I discovered they were into this sort of stuff as well, and likewise,  New Zealand also has a few (although neither has as anywhere near as many can be found across the USA.)

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I found a very good Neil Gaiman quote on the topic of road side attractions, in his novel American Gods, which is now one my favorite books (read it three times at least):
“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

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And that really is it… there’s an initial excitement as you head towards the Big thing… a profound level of satisfaction once you’ve arrived AT it, and then an underlying dissatisfaction once you’ve seen it.

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Anyone interested in WHY the big carrot is there, please to read the signs in the images above — basically, it comes down to the town being (for a time) New Zealand’s largest producers of carrots. The fiberglass carrot had initially been made as a TV advertising prop for a bank promotion, but later became available for sale;

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a35.jpgat this point, a group of the town’s vegetable growers Association, who had been looking for symbol to represent their importance to the town (many of whom were Chinese immigrants who had arrived in the 1920’s) bought it. It was then moved from Wellington, it original location, to the entrance to Ohakune in 1984, in a ceremony attended by NZ’s prime minister.

YtITP+naSuKrnMCKZc74Jg_thumb_d0fd.jpgThat said, once the ‘dissatisfaction’ stage had passed, I was more than a bit delighted with the activity park that the city has developed alongside the “erection” intended for both young and old to enjoy.

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The park includes a massive playground for kids housed with some scary looking examples of other vegetables grown in the area. I think they’re supposed to be cute, but both me and my friend thought they were kind of freaky looking… AND kids are NOT allowed to climb on them, so what’s the point of them being there?UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a3b.jpgThat said there is a nice selection equipment and game areas for the kids

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As well as exercise equipment for the adults

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This kind of made me sad… the towns forestry industry had added their own presentation section in the park, which included this massive log. According to the History of the log, it had been growing since the 13th century. When they felled the tree  in 1955, and when they got it to the mill they couldn’t use it because it was too big for the saws.. such a waste!

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There’s also a small area for people who just want a peaceful stroll through a green area, which feels a bit like walking through a patch of forest, along a stream, and is very restful. We saw more than few folks picnicking there.

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What I found amusing about it was clearly paid for with funds raised from local business all of whom got to embed a little advertisement into the concrete.

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And for the adults there’s also one of those mini outdoor gyms that are popping up all over place in public parks world-wide.

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That said, Ohakune is known for more than just vegetables. As I mentioned upfront, the active volcano in the background of the image above was the shooting location for the Mordor scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and is also has earned the being a duel status World Heritage Site both because of both its natural beauty and its religious importance to the Maori people. In summer, it is one of the country’s most popular full day hikes, known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with a terrain towards the top that some have compared to being on Mars due to its utter alienness. While in winter, it turns into something of a ski resort town (more affordable housing for those willing to drive to the slopes), with the closest resort being at Turoa).

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Picture of the volcano from the porch of our Airbnb

In fact that Airbnb we stayed at (it ROCKED, seriously, was like a really good BnB), the owners share their home in summer, but vacate it entirely every winter because of just how much money it earns them as a ski resort rental.

The Big Corrugated Iron Sheep Dog, Ewe & Ram buildings, Tirau, New Zealand

One of the very first things I noticed once my friend and I began our road trip around New Zealand was, this country seems to have a love affair with using corrugated galvanised iron to construct buildings, as in I’ve never seen SO many buildings made of the stuff. One of the towns that has embraced this material with a will is town of Tiarau, New Zealand.

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Driving into town you won’t be able to miss this trio of buildings where the Iron’s been molded to look like a sheep-dog that houses the towns i-Site building, and the adjacent sheep & ram building, which house a coffee house and a woolen goods store, respectively.

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To paraphrase the New Zealand tourism board’s website, there are over 80 i-SITE visitor information centers scattered around the country, many of them located in distinctive or historic buildings (like the one above). In them you will find no shortage of pamphlets, and trained professionals, who can inform you about everything there is to do in any particular area you’re currently in, including which parts were film locations — i.e., for those travelers who are Lord of the Ring fans. And, of course, while in these i-SITE centers, you can do some souvenir shopping — as I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have a gift shop.

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That said, the i-Site’s store doesn’t hold a candle to the one inside combined sheep and ram building next-door. The ram section is full of Marino Woolen goods, while the front of the Ewe (female sheep) section is is all things like New Zealand T-shirts, post cards, etc., and out towards the back there’s a coffee house that also has ice cream. (For some reason I didn’t take any photos in there.) If you have the time, I suggest walking around town because there’s a LOT of corrugated Iron statutes decorating the place. My friend and I were sort of in a rush to our next location, so we didn’t have time to really do the place justice, just a quick drive through… but there are at least eight different such decorations around town at last count.

All good things come to an end… traveling with friends

[To my readers, warning… this post is pretty self-indulgent; It chronicles almost the past two years during which I on again off again travelled with Mik; It’s an overview of how it happened, what we saw together, what worked about traveling together, and what didn’t. In it are suggestions you might take to heart for yourself, should you team up with a travel companion, but you’ll have to read through all the hay to find those pins of value, cause this is a stream of consciousness, psychological dump on my part.]

After about 8 months of cumulative travel together over about two years … which was a pretty successful run considering how very different he and I are, Mik and I have decided to amicably ‘split up’ so to speak. Traveling together was no longer working for us — well seriously not working for me, and my low-level resentment occasionally blew up into me yelling at him, and THAT wasn’t working for him (well duh). There’s some low level anger, obviously, but for the most part we’ve dealt with it like adults.

[What follows is a sort of timeline of events … if you’re not interested in the blow-by-blow, feel free to skip to after the photographs stop, to get the meat of the problem.]

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In the summer of 2017, after having already traveled alone for about 2.5 years, I had decided that it was starting to get a bit lonely, and had reached out to friends via Facebook to see if anyone wanted to join me in my travels. In September of that year, Mik a guy I knew, whose job allowed him to work remotely, reached out to me and asked if he could swing by one of my next stops and spend a day with me (he combined it with seeing relatives in a town nearby the place I was going to be in Canada).

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Over lunch, he brought up the topic of our joining up our horses, so to speak, and traveling together. While the thought of having a travel buddy sounded good, I was more than a bit hesitant. My hesitation lay in the fact that Mik wasn’t so much someone I would refer to as a friend, but rather a peer who traveled in the same circle of friends as I had, about 10 years ago when I had lived in SF. In fact I barely knew him. We’d only ever had maybe one or two serious conversations in that whole period, generally around the topic of why as much as I thought he was a good guy, no I didn’t want to date him. After that, we’d maintained the connection via Facebook/social media (low-level) and about 5 years back, after I moved back to Chicago, he had asked to crash at my apartment for a few days while traveling through … I had a full-sized airbed that I set up in the living room for guests and again had an open invite up on FB. So I was a bit unsure about our potential for being travel buddies, but was lonely enough to be willing to give it a try.

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In Late October through early November, we had our first trial run, and spent a little over a week together in Tennessee. First we rented an affordable hotel room with two beds, because I usually don’t sleep well with others. I was really happy to discover 1) he was a very heavy sleeper who, 2) didn’t snore — like not at all. Apparently… I don’t snore either, he said however that I am quite the chatterbox while dreaming, but he said it didn’t bother him.

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This was then followed up by crashing at the homes of friends, first one of his, than one of mine in small towns, outside of Nashville… where we experienced sharing beds for the first time. This again also worked out all right (he was great about staying to his side of the bed after I made it clear that I don’t want to be touched while sleeping — HOW he manages to respect boundaries so well while asleep, boggles the mind).

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Based on this one week, we decided that we were going to do more traveling together, he headed back to the west coast for work related stuff, and then on to Australia where he’s from originally (and his mom still is) … and I went to Disney World for the third year in a row…. and promptly realized I was bored out of my mind with the place. So I contacted him and asked him, “do you have crash space for me there?” And he did, so I spent the next month figuring out how to downsize my life from the contents of a car, to that of one large suitcase and one carry on, etc., and, on Dec. 31, 2017 I had posted about how after traveling alone for about 2.5 years I had decided that it was starting to get lonely, and how I would now be traveling him, for as long as that might last.

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Later that day, on New Years Eve 2017/2018, I flew for the first time in my life to Australia. We hung out there, and did some other stuff, sometimes together, sometimes apart… Then on Australia day, which is sort of, a cross between 4th of July and Columbus day, while attending a protest in support of Aboriginal rights with him, I fell down and went boom, big time… which resulted in a concussion that took about a year to get over the worst of, but that to this day I’m still dealing with the repercussions of.

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That said, he was great during the worst of it. Had the foresight to document it for me with photos, knowing that I’m perverse enough to want them. Once out of the hospital, I could see (it was all there in his body language) his inner child was seriously struggling with his adult side in terms of “showing up” for me versus doing what he wanted to do in any particular moment (Mik is 45 going on 9), but he was none the less great about it. A week later (I was STILL in very bad shape “I …  …was… …talking… …like… …this…” and was still suffering bad positional vertigo so that I needed to be steadied in order to walk…), but Mik was flying to Tasmania with his mom, and I was scheduled to go to Ballarat (all my posts from there),

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LUCKILY the plan had always been for me to spend those next two weeks at the home of a friend, rather than to be in an Airbnb. She was a modern-day pen-pal; as in someone I’d bonded with over the last two years via Facebook, but had never actually met. She’d repeatedly said I should come visit her, so now I was going to. We had intended to spend two weeks traveling the area together, but obviously… life is what happens as you’re making other plans. That said, as dumb luck would have it, she was a former nurse, and as such was much better able (and more to the point willing) to care for me than he would have been. She was great about letting me rest 99% of the time, but still dragging me out for some short trips to places like their wildlife park… And to the Sovereign Hill Park where she regularly volunteers her time… a massive historical reenactment of Australia’s gold rush period, which I returned to for a FULL week during my second visit to Australia (I apparently broke their record for the furthest away person to buy a 1 year pass). It’s like Disney for history nerds, so totally up my alley… to the extent that I could see myself maybe going to that town for long enough stay so as to volunteer there myself.

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Towards the end of my stay, when I had more energy, we did a slightly longer trip out to Grampians National Park, Victoria. She also took me to her favorite dentist who (again, as luck would have it) specialized in jaw work; Another of the after effects of the concussion was that the impact from the fall had been strong enough that it dislocated my jaw. As in I’ve had over 1K worth of work done on it since then, and it STILL clicks. That said, she and I get along really well, and for the most part our travel interests are MUCH more copacetic than what I had with Mik, so odds are she and I will most likely do some travel together in the future (although her job does NOT allow her to work remotely, and her finances are that of a hard-working, middle-class person, so any trips will have to be short interspersed ones).

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After Ballarat I met up with Mik again in Adelaide, where he was visiting another girlfriend. From there we did a road trip along the Great Ocean road (link to all blogs on that topic). I’ve yet to do much blogging about that because at the time the post-concussive syndrome meant I didn’t have the mental strength to do much of anything. And then, I went to Korea and Japan and I had other things to write about … so my backlog of posts I need to complete is currently set to 140 (YAH!). Am thinking I need to think about staying put in one place long enough to catch up …

Photos from the as yet to be blogged about visit to The Twelve Apostles rock formation
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… of which only seven are still standing

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That said, during that whole road trip I was really only able to do things that meant leaving the car for short distances. I could NOT manage enough moving around to REALLY be able to SEE any one location in its full glory… let alone the mental energy to be able to really enjoy it. Just sitting in a moving car kind of made my brain feel like it was buzzing. As such, to be honest, I’d like to do it all over again, because my memories from that whole period are a bit hazy (like I said, post concussive syndrome). Only this time I’d cover shorter distances on a daily basis and spend much more time at each location (how I like to travel versus how Mik likes to do it). That said, Mik was considerate and not irritating to be around during that whole thing, and didn’t get pissy about my limitations.

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Photos of Phillip Island

All through it we kept checking in with each other and both of us felt like this travel partnership was working for us. In particular, I was surprised at how not annoyed with him I was (there’s a reason I never got married, I find most people irritating after a while). At which point I actually allowed myself to feel some affection for Mik, because I was enjoying his company so much (and was grateful for how considerate he was being). From time to time there were minor issues but nothing to write home about. So we agreed, we’d start making plans for future travel once this trip was over.

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After the road trip we ended up in Melbourne, where again I spent MOST of my time in bed getting over the mental strain of the road trip. We did however manage one day trip to Phillip Island, to see the Penguin Parade. We then drove towards Australia’s Capitol, Canberra, where both of us had friends,

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The nude is of a fellow classmate of ours. That image, which she’d never have sat for but for my influence, made his career.

…his where folks I sort of knew, from back when we all lived in SF, mine was a friend I had gone to the Royal College of Art, in London, with back when I was in my 20’s. This trip was also when I visited the locally famous Dog on a Tucker Box, and pit stopped at Glenrowan the home of Ned Kelly…  for the first time (we stopped by both a 2nd time the following year, spending a goodly amount of time exploring Glenrowan)

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After a few days in Canberra, we headed north to Sydney again, which is when we stopped at the Big Marino, for the first time (the following year, I asked if we could stop there again so I could actually get some shopping done, and climb up into the sheep’s head, as this time I wasn’t utterly wiped out, like the first time we went).

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Once we got to Sydney, I spent MOST of my time resting. Since we still had the rental car, Mik took me and one of his girlfriends, who was visiting him from California, to see Sydney’s Luna Amuseument Park (although we didn’t do any rides or anything like that). Apparently, while in Melbourne he’d walked me to the doors of THEIR version of the same, but my brain was so addled at the time that I didn’t realize that we had till we drove by it the following year when we did a longer stay in Melbourne, and he reminded me of it (the first time, I was just thrilled with being able to do a reasonably energetic walk, as in the post concussive dizziness had subsided enough to allow me to do that).

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The Jewish LGBT folks’ sign says Dayenu, an inside joke that made me very happy

About a week later we attended the ‘concluding’ Parade for one of Sydney’s biggest tourist draws, MariGras Week — which happens the same week as Catholic MardiGras, but that at some point converted from a Catholic pre-lent thing into Australia’s biggest LGBTQ event (Again, I’ve not yet written that blog post, so I can’t explain why, yet). After that, we headed off on our separate ways, while making plans for possible future joint travel.

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SO, a few months later we met up again in for a week in Ohio, where we spent a few days in Dayton, Ohio … a town I’d been wanting him to see. Dayton is in my opinion is one of the most undervalued tourist destinations in the US, as most Americans today have completely forgotten what the town had been in the past (it WAS the USA’s equivalent of today’s silicon valley during the industrial revolution). Mik, an engineer by trade, had passed through Dalton before, on the way to visiting friends who lived in nearby Columbus, OH, but didn’t realize its historic value and had never taken the time to really SEE it, but I had spoken to him about it at length, and had managed to convince him it was up his alley of interests. Turned out he wasn’t so much into issues of flight/travel… but what the town was ultimately about was the evolution of engines, and THAT he is very interested in, so he ended up enjoying himself but for very different reasons than I did. And here in lies one of the MAJOR differences between how Mik likes to travel and how I like to do it.

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[return to the meat]

It was after our Ohio trip, while planning our future ones, that I began realizing that most of my choices were turning into doing what he wanted and trailing after him. Me I’m essentially pretty easy, so as long as what he wanted to do was something I was physically capable of (my health issues meant I couldn’t go hiking with him, as much as I would have liked to) all good. The opposite, functionally, only happened after HOURS of negotiating, and tended to result in… you know how when you’re traveling with a little kid you have to actively plan it around what they want to do cause otherwise they’ll make it hell for you? It was a bit like that…. doing anything that he wasn’t really interested in meant being abandoned, because he was never willing to just trail along behind me.

Also, the entirety of the planning burden, was ending up on my shoulders. I was the one who had to search for out next digs, and every time it had to meet his needs, which included him having his own bedroom in any town he had lovers, so that he could have dates… which meant we weren’t really saving any money traveling together in those places. Only I had to also wait on him to agree to each location. I’d create lists of possible apartments, send him the list and then have to wait a full week or sometimes two or THREE weeks for him to get back to me, because he basically had to have nothing fun and hence distracting lined up before he be willing to sit down and do the work of planning.

That was when our disconnects started to really aggravate me. Oh, the conflicts were all pretty low-level. He and I really are pretty much OK with each other, it’s just that for me the benefits of traveling together were quickly getting outweighed by the annoyance of we are VERY different people. It worked for a while, then it didn’t. He likes the weather hot to equatorial, I like the weather cool enough to be able to wear a light jacket and a hat. If I agree to go where its hot and miserable, it happens, if I want to go somewhere cool, it rarely happens. He likes hills and mountains, I like looking at them from flat places where I can walk easier — cause I have real mobility issues and a high risk of falling if they’re not respected. I like shopping, historical and cultural stuff, he’s ok with that in short doses, but his priority is all about being social with old friends, reconnecting with old lovers and whenever possible finding new ones. I need a low-fat but in protein rich diet, he wants a high fat vegetarian one (and is disgusted by the smell of meat and fish). I love Japanese and Chinese food, he actively dislikes those kinds. I like things structured and organized in such a way as to allow for flexibility within obligations (which I never resent), he prefers lots of spontaneity and being able to do whatever he feels like doing whenever he feels like doing it (and resents the obligations that means he can’t, even though he admits there are a lot of benefits that come with my way of doing it).

This caused issues like him agreeing to things after long discussions, and then promptly forgetting anything agreed to that he didn’t actually want to do. At first I thought I was going crazy thinking this was the pattern, but I reached out to a bunch of mutual friends who had been his former partners, and they ALL said, “YUP, that’s what he does!” In NZ this actually resulted in me waiting to be picked up from Hobbiton at 10pm (which is the middle of NOTHING)  — even after my having said to him repeatedly, “you’ll pick me up at 10 right?” with him gripping and saying he’d already agreed to that so why was I repeating the question?… (I had because I knew he didn’t want to) …. only to realize he had in his own head decided that I’d agreed to finding my own way home. SERIOUSLY! Oh, and in addition, I prefer staying places for at least a few days each so I can rest a lot, and preferably for months if it’s a major city that has a lot of offer … while he gets antsy staying anywhere for more than 6 weeks (unless it’s a place he thinks of as home), and would prefer to not be there more than 3. … SO, yes, what it came down to was a basic disconnect

My theory about why it worked so well the first trip, but then did a mind blistering 180 the 2nd time we went to Australia, is that, at that point, in his head (he HATES when I do this), our relationship had shifted from “I’m on probation and being considered for a gig” to “OK, I can relax now, this is a sort of relationship with legs, she’s a housemate… with a moving house.” I’ve actually had a relationship like that in the past with the one guy I almost married. We were GREAT right up until I said “YES” to the ring, so to speak… and then from that day forward he went from absolutely charming bordering on perfect, to becoming a right asshole. When I asked him what had changed he’d said to me, “well you’re almost family now, I shouldn’t HAVE to be nice to family.” In Mik’s case… this was things like, he had been super clean and neat the first year, but then turned into something of a minor slob the 2nd (leaving puddles of water in the bathroom, wanting to bring food into my bed when we were streaming a show, etc).

I have confirmation of this being the fact with Mik, because over the last 4 months, every time he and I would have a “big talk”, or I get seriously pissed at him, he’ll shift back into the guy I was traveling with the previous year, at least for a few days…the same guy who I think (based on my personal observations), shows up when he’s with his sweeties (women he’s in non-monogamous relationships with who he only see sporadically, or for short stints) …. and everything will be good… and then he’d get comfortable again and all the behaviors I couldn’t stand would start-up again. (And again, I contacted all the women I know who’ve done long relationships with him, or whose sisters used to be his housemates, and they all confirmed, I wasn’t being neurotic… it was consistent with what they knew of him.) When that switch in his behavior would happen, I got annoyed and short-tempered and snarky with him… with lots of under my breath commentaries. Keep in mind, we’d done big talks to no effect, so I just gave up on trying …. because its pointless to talk about something when it never makes a difference because he just rejects that what I’m unhappy with happened or worse, he accepts it, and then forgets the conversation ever happened. There’s no learning curve, so — either way, it’s a lose lose scenario for me … till the next blow up, at which point he’s worried about his security again and he’s back to who I thought I’d be traveling with in the first place … that same guy who is great and easy to have around. Then wash, rinse, repeat … he gets comfortable again, stops minding his p’s and q’s…. we are back to where we started.

Also, as long as my health issues were emergency mode… he was great, but then he’d lose patience with not being able to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. So, not wanting to be abandoned, I’d try my damnedest to keep up his pace, and inevitably end up falling down (literally, I went boom a lot more often with him than I do alone). Add to that the fact that he kept coming back from visits to girlfriends (many of whom have kids) with colds, and passing those colds on to me… He’s of the sort who gets better after 3 days, I’m the sort who stays seriously ill for a solid 2 to 3 weeks… and by the 2nd cold in 3 months… well, enough was enough. He was in fact ruining my experiences.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. We’ve had THREE major attempts at fixing this in the last 4 months of traveling together, and the pattern got repeated. Three strikes and done. I told him in NZ, strike 2 … well yelled at him really, that I no longer wanted to go with him to Amsterdam. Then back in Sydney we had yet another blowup (in front of one of his dates) … after which, he’d been on BEST behavior, till finally I was like, “we need to talk about Amsterdam”, he agreed we did… and we agreed to cancelling that and all future trips.

The fact that I had, to his minor annoyance, insisted that we maintain a spread-sheet of ‘who paid what’ at this point turned out to have been a VERY good thing in the long run. For some small things, like dinners where the waiter refused to split the checks, we’d kept a pattern of taking turns, but for pretty much everything else, that all went into the spread sheet. I STRONGLY suggest this to anyone who gives this a try! Of course, he was the one in charge of the spread sheet (because he’s a computer programmer and knows how to make it REALLY work, while I’m clueless beyond using it as set up; as in every time I try to do more than just input data I’d seriously fuck it up and he’d have to go in and change the coding. That said, Mik being Mik, it wasn’t what he wanted to do, so it took him a few weeks to get around to it, with me having to send him constant reminders and him saying “oh yah, thanks for the reminder, I forgot.”; but, he FINALLY finalized it about 3 weeks AFTER he’d promised it would be done by (every leg of planning was like this, hence my mounting frustration with him)… with the end result being he owed me money… which he sent me via PayPal (about a week after figuring out he needed to — yes that me rolling my eyes). Last week, because he wanted my photos but was utterly unwilling to download them one at a time from cloud, we finally figured out how to cross share photographs — I’m a mac person, he’s a PC/Android person, it caused problems… DROP BOX is your friend ladies and gentleman… That said, it was ONLY our friend because he has a corporate account with them which allowed for (almost) infinite hard drive space. His google cloud account would only allow me to download from him a few at a time… not ALL at once as he was demanding… but unlike him, I have a modicum of patience. His unwillingness to accommodate to how websites like Airbnb wanted him to function versus how HE wanted to function, was part of why I ended up doing ALL the leg work of planning via those sites. ….snark snark snark

Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand: Evening Banquet Tour, and the Economic Impact that Lord of the Rings has had on the country

Located in what once was the laid-back Dairy town of Matamata, New Zealand (NZ), is the movie set turned tourist attraction, Hobbiton. It is a must see for any fan of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie series, of the J. R. R. Tolkien books of the same names. From an economic standpoint, this single tourist attraction, which happened almost by accident, has become the “flagship” for what is now the impressive movie-tourism industry that has evolved in NZ over the past 20 years. As a result, visitors can swing through the entire country on any number of “see all of the LOTR locations in 14 days” type tours, (most of whom also throw in a taste of Māori culture for good measure). However, for myself, I prefer to take my time when traveling. As such I suggest spending the night in or near Matamata, and timing your visit so that you can attend a Hobbiton evening Tour and Banquet, which only happens a few times a week — all told, for any Tolkien fan, it’s well worth the price (and the food ROCKS!!).

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[I need to do a quick shout out to the Hobbiton staff who worked “on set” on the evening of March 3, 2019. They are all amazingly well-trained customer service wonks who all seemed to love their jobs and not only never squashed our excitement, but rather actually aided our enjoyment. None of them were “phoning it in” so to speak. While the whole thing was impressively well choreographed (looking at youtube videos I see the same thing over and over), none of it FELT rehearsed or false. The whole time I felt as though I were being led through the set by friendly folks who seemed to genuinely enjoy our excitement to be doing it (like great teachers are) … And the food was not only delectable, but just enough to make sure everyone who wants seconds can have them (with just enough left over to feed the pigs); while not so much as to be a waste, etc,. That, and the timing of the meal was also perfect, so that no one ever felt rushed. BRAVO on a great performance! That said, shame that some of the staff at Shire’s rest aren’t that good, although, but, on second thought… maybe that’s why they were delegated to that location and kept off set.]

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FIRST thing you’ll see when exiting International Arrivals in Aukland, need I say more? As in RIGHT in your line of sight after customs.

Let’s be real, if you’re a nerd/geek like I am, your number one motivator to go to New Zealand was probably to see the 12 acre Hobbiton movie set. Other than for that, it’s hard to think of what other reason might have drawn over half a million people to the small town of Matamata in just over 10 years. Even the town itself recognizes this reality, to the extent that their welcome sign says “Welcome to Hobbiton” in BIG letters, and only refers to itself as Matamata in the small print (see first image above)….Most tourists coming here believe the set, is simply what was left behind from when they made the LOTR movies back in the early 2000’s, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

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Local businesses in Matamata clearly understand what’s drawing people to them

Peter Jackson chose to build his Hobbit Shire in this general part of New Zealand because the region’s natural landscape of green rolling hills already conformed with his mind’s eye vision of the shire, as described in the books. In essence, the local topography is grass-covered sand dunes. This is why the area mostly supports things like dairy and wool production, as it is great for feeding livestock but less so for planting. While sandy soil is good for growing things like root vegetables and corn, that is only when the land is generally flat. With hills like these, any farming of that sort becomes difficult. Driving past the other farms that encircle the movie set area you quickly realize that this Hobbit like topography is NOT special or limited to the small farm inhabited by the movie set; the below image for instance was taken along a road about a 20 minute drive southeast of where the Hobbiton set is located, and could just have easily been chosen.

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Photo taken outside of Tapapa, about 20 min south of Hobbiton

According to the Hobbiton website, construction of what was intended to be 39 temporary hobbit-hole homes began in March 1999, and filming started in December of that same year… and lasted only three months. Once filming completed in early 2000, they began to tear down the set (as had been set forward in the initial contract) but then the rainy season began, which put a halt to the process. During that time the owner of the farm began giving private tours to friends and family, but word got out and then strangers began to trickle in, wanting to see Hobbiton with their own eyes (only he didn’t have the legal permission to allow that, let alone charge for it).

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NOTE the sign saying FULLY BOOKED, and this was off season

As such, the owner changed his mind and negotiated with the film company to stop the dismantling of the set, which left a bunch of empty holes in the ground and only 17 plain white plywood facades in place [click this link for an article with images of how it looked then]. The negotiations to turn it into a tourism business took about a year, and included the stipulation that the studio earn a percentage of the money from every tour given. When finally completed in 2002, formalized tours of the movie-set began, and a former sheep shearing building that belonged to the owner was retrofitted into the “Shire’s Rest,” an area where tourists assembled before being taken onto the grounds proper.

The following are clips showing how this whole location, which took a lot of money to build was actually only used for a few short minutes in the films….

Keep in mind that Hobbiton is JUST the exterior shots, all interior ones happened in an entirely different part of New Zealand, in a film studio.

Among the people in my tour group were an older couple who told me that this was their third visit to the site. Their first had been back around this time in the early 2000’s, and that at the time the whole thing looked more than a bit dilapidated… with bits of plywood where the doors had been … sort of like a boarded up Hobbit ghost town, and yet, the tourists came… but they claimed that this had not dampened their excitement at the time to be able to see it, even with weeds growing everywhere, etc.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28abWhen the studio returned to the site in 2009, asking if they could use the land again for the filming of the second trilogy which focused on “The Hobbit” (released in 2012, 2013 and 2014), the owner agreed, with the “price” being that this time rather than using materials intended for temporary film sets, all of the Hobbit holes had to be built using quality materials — and that they be left in place afterwards to support his now ongoing tourist trade. The rebuilding proceeded in 2010. At that time, since the location was now going to be a much more central feature to the films, five additional Hobbit Holes were added. (As I showed above, in the first trilogy the shire was only visible in the movie for a few minutes) When filming began again in 2011, actors commented on how the location, rather than showing any of the tell-tale signs of being a movie set, now looked like a real, but idealized, village where people lived and worked. This in turn, increased the value for visitors ten-fold, and like Disney World adding a new ride, word of mouth about the improvements generated not only return business, but new interest as well.

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However, at that time, no “tourist facilities” existed within the movie set area itself, which the ever-increasing number of attendees made problematic.  If you needed bathrooms or snacks, those needs could only be fulfilled back at the Shire’s Rest facility, before or after your visit (or porta potties, YUCH!). So in 2012 The Green Dragon Inn was built; it is an exact replica of the Inn, as seen in the movies. This final ‘destination building’ not only provided bathrooms, but solved a major complaint of tourists up until then.

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The Dragon Inn’s bathrooms: as imagined by the studio’s designers — I’m guessing, because this wasn’t in the movie… love the handicapped hobbit

As our guides made a point of telling us REPEATEDLY, Hobbiton was only built to provide exterior shots for the LOTR movies, and all interior ones were done at a movie studio, so “no, you can’t go into any of the hobbit homes” (let alone ask to use their bathrooms); and even where you could step in, what’s behind the door is not a real home (see images below). The Green Dragon Inn filled that gap in the experience by giving tourists the much longed for chance to enjoy a hobbit interior. As such, the Dragon acts as both the conclusion and the “HIGH point/climax” of your visit. It is both a place where tourists can have that experience, while having a rest (for a very limited time before being shuffled off the set again). There they are given one free drink of their choosing (from their special brews, for sale at the Shire’s Rest and at other gift shops in Matamata), and the option to buy more drinks, and/or a snack (or use the bathroom). BUT, as I said, on the normal tours your visit to the Inn is VERY limited, about 10 minutes tops. So signing up for an evening tour that includes the Banquet is the ONLY way you’ll be allowed to truly enjoy it at your leisure.

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The closest I got to Mount Ngauruhoe, this trip…

However, Hobbiton is just the flagship/main attraction, for a movie based travel industry that has evolved in the nation. What I’m about to say is a bit bizarre, and might offend some New Zealanders … but bear with me…. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, arguably at least as many locations to see as there are ‘things to do’ at Disney World — the world’s most famous movie-based attraction (if you include all the shuttle ferries, stuff to see at the hotels, etc). And both offer no shortage of tour books and web sites to help visitors discover where each and every one of those ‘attractions’ are and how best to appreciate them. Only while the excitement offered at Disney tends to be more passive (you sit, and are taken through something), New Zealand’s LOTR attractions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island or most of Paris Disney, are all walk through experiences, only with a lot more exertion required, trekking and mountain climbing, etc., and a lot fewer rides (think the tour busses). So it is in fact comparable, albeit different.

So for example, Mordor’s Mount Doom in LOTR is actually Mount Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, that is one of the two such peaks located within Tongariro National Park; and like ALL mountain tops in NZ, it is a sacred place to her Māori people, and as such, by law, you are NOT allowed to drive to the top without first obtaining special permission. In fact, if you look at the google map for the place, while there are dirt roads going by it (accessible for those with mobility problems only if you rented a 4-wheel drive, and got official authorization in advance), there are in fact no roads that go up it; so if you want to see it your options are to hire a helicopter to fly you over (like I said, a movie-travel industry), or even more popularly, you can find local lodgings and choose to spend a full day hiking to the top. Oh, and if you want “shows” like at Disney, I suggest Māori cultural experiences. For myself, I STRONGLY prefer taking the time to relish things, and if I ever got the capacity back (unlikely without surgery and PT) would totally hike it.

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That said, the reality is, you actually don’t need to pay for a group tour to take you to see the LOTR sites/sights if you don’t want to, nor even buy a book on the subject to help you plan your trip. If you’re not someone who’s into pre-planning, you can in fact just impulsively fly to NZ, and figure it out as you go along. To paraphrase the New Zealand tourism board’s website, there are over 80 i-SITE visitor information centers scattered around the country, many of them located in distinctive or historic buildings (like the one above). In them you will find no shortage of pamphlets, and trained professionals, who can inform you about everything there is to do in any particular area you’re currently in, including which parts were film locations. And, of course, while in these i-SITE centers, you can do some souvenir shopping — as I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have a gift shop.

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The government clearly knows from whence its tourist prosperity comes, and embraces that connection to Lord of the Rings, especially in Matamata. The town’s i-SITE building was even built to look like a cross between a traditional British home, and a Hobbiton one (note the round doors). While you COULD book your tickets here, in this particular case I REALLY don’t suggest leaving THAT to the last-minute. As mentioned repeatedly, Hobbiton is the flagship attraction to a WHOLE industry, and demand is high while availability limited. The set can only accommodate a finite group of tourists per day … particularly if you want to take advantage of any of the “tour and a meal” options. So seriously, book ahead for this part of you LOTR’s tour of NZ.

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While the Hobbiton tours began officially in 2002, in what was a half-broken down movie set, by 2012, after the repairs and upgrades had been completed (including the Green Dragon Inn) it had become enough of an attraction that it had 17 full-time people working on staff, and by 2013, attendance was said to average about 400 to 600 people daily, with as many as 2,000 showing up at the peak of the season; so, somewhere around 220,000 visitors annually, a number which increased to 350,000 in 2015Tours usually leave Shire’s Rest for the movie set every half hour (you can NOT enter the set on your own, you MUST be part of a tour) and, each of those lasts for about two hours. On average days, the last tour starts at 3:30, and on peak ones their hours are extended by just one hour, so that the last regular/no meal tour starts at 4:30. And, when they say pre-booking is essential, they mean it. As such, I would NOT expect to show up at the site, or even at the i-sight center the day of (or even the day before) and expect to be able to just walk on… unless you are very very lucky. I booked my ticket for the banquet tour a good three weeks in advance… during the OFF season, and there was already only limited seating available.

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One of the things that really amused me when we got to the Shire’s Rest parking lot was the sheer number of Jucy vans parked there…  for those who don’t know, this company was founded in Australia initially as a campervan rental company (vans converted into campers), although they’ve expanded into renting cars. For the most part (although they’ve come out with some subtler ones recently — note the plain white ones in the upper right image) these rentals tend to be pretty hard to miss. Most of the vans are the garish green you see above, while others are covered in what looks like graffiti art with off-color images and messages written on them. For those, you’ll rarely see two exactly alike. Their business model is to provide small, energy-efficient, well designed and highly functional, camper vans… at an affordable price. Their product initially was aimed at the backpacker crowd (young travelers), but as they’ve expanded into the family market they’ve toned down the exteriors of their rentals. If you want to do a LOTR tour of the island on your own (not part of a 14 day tour group), then you might seriously want to consider renting one of these.

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Adjacent to the parking lot you’ll find this small Information building, where those who have already reserved their tickets on-line (i.e., pretty much everyone) are asked to check in. (The window off to the left is a small ice cream shop.) When I was booking I wanted the longest stay possible, once I discovered that you’re NOT allowed to wander around the place on your own. I considered both the Tour & Meal combo, and the Evening Banquet tour options, but the former appeared no real competition to the latter. The “meal” option puts you into a tent that’s ADJACENT to the Dragon Inn (NOT inside), where there’s a Buffett… i.e., standing in line with lord knows how many other people to fill your plate. This option lasts for 2.5-3 hours (2 hours for the tour, and then about a full hour to eat). While the banquet option involves sitting down to an already drool worthy, family style laid out table where instead of being in a tent you’re comfortably INSIDE the warmth and comfort of the Dragon Inn. AND not only do you get to see the shire during the golden hour, with the sun setting over the hills, but you also get led through a 2nd time, late at night. So you see it in daylight, and you get to see it lit up by candlelight (well electric, but close enough). The Banquet tour is the longest visit option, lasting about 4+ hours: 2 hours for the tour, and then about an hour and a half spent at the inn, followed by the 2nd walk through the shire at night….. more details to come (see below).

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Once you arrive at the Shire’s Rest, originally the farm’s sheep shearing and wool shed building, which was retrofitted to its new purpose, there are sufficient things to do that, while you’re REQUIRED to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your tour’s departure time, you might want to get there a full half hour before that.

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To the right of the building (image above) is a small shaded area of benches and ropes, where you line up when it’s time to load onto the busses. The first floor of the main building holds the ticketing center, and a gift-shop selling a wide variety of LOTR “stuff” (most of which is available from online sellers). My tendency when it comes to places like this is, I window-shop the shops, but don’t buy. Having worked as a catalog photographer back when I was in my 20’s, I know full well how good we were able to make piece of crap items look in the photos… so before I buy I want to see the items with my own eyes. However, places like this tend to be overpriced and rely on your excitement about the visit (impulse buying) to drive sales. So, I take photos of the stuff that interests me (try to get the name of the producers, etc.) and then try to find it used on eBay.  Probably the only location specific items I’d seriously consider buying here are the postcards, and the LOTR themed Southfarthing™ beverage range, of Middleearth wines and such, which can be purchased here, or at the i-SITE center back at Matamata, or at the Green Dragon (but that are NOT available on-line… I’ve been looking, no luck)… and of course there are clothing items to be purchased made of local wools.

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The guy bottom right brought his Gollum character on the tour (will show up again later)

Upstairs on the building’s 2nd floor is a full service cafe that will provide you with cooked foods and hot coffee until 3pm, at which point their kitchen closes. Here is where you can find “second breakfast,” lamb burgers, and fish and chips. After 3pm, any already prepared foods that are still in the refrigerated case are available for sale, until the close of business, but nothing hot. Apparently, Shire’s Rest’s kitchen is also available to cater weddings, functions and company events.

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Adjacent to the main building is a smaller establishment called the Garden Bar, which offers outdoor seating only, and sells wine, beer and a small selection of nibbles. There are bathrooms adjacent to both the bar and the cafe. When it’s time for your tour you assemble in the area I described before, and are loaded up into busses and vans.

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If you’re given a choice (you might not be) the difference is this: The busses have a built-in video system where you’ll be shown a composite movie timed to last the entire trip. It is made-up from all scenes shot in this location, and all six LOTR movies, so that when you arrive you’ll have been recently reminded of what you’re looking at.

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The vans do not have this system, and instead there’ll be a tour guide who will recite to you about all sorts of facts and figures about the location (which I assume the movie also does), and will point out the one film location the busses pass (the one in the image above); the guide however can do something that the movie can’t, i.e., answer any questions you might have. I was in the van. The location above, if I recall correctly, was where the wizard Gandalf and the Hobbit Frodo pass through, while riding together on the wagon when traveling towards the shire at the beginning of the first trilogy.

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Once you arrive on the set proper, the entire group from all the conveyances will collect together and be given instructions of what you can and can not do: where you can walk, etc. The group will then be broken into manageable subgroups, each with its own guide. The groups will all take slightly different paths so that there’s never too many people in one place at one time, but all of the groups will ultimately see all the same things, but will come at them from different paths.

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According to a Forbes article from 2012, the making of the Lord of the Rings movies in NZ has touched the lives of each and every New Zealander, whether they realize it or not. Firstly, NZ is a place which, back when I was in high-school in the 1980’s I remember being laughingly described as having more sheep than people, and not much else. As a result, (and this excludes the people who have moved to the country in the 15 years since the movies came out) pretty much the entire population found themselves at one degree of separation from the film’s production.

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Firstly, from a country of 3.88 million (at the time) about 20,000 locals were hired as extras to work in the films (about 1/16 of 1% of the population) — BUT if the average Facebook account is any measure — limiting it to those who will only friend people they know because of face to face interactions — each of these have about 450 friends, family and co-workers each… and 20,000 X 450 = 9 million…. far more than the 3.88 million of New Zealand’s population in 2001. But the hiring of local resources in the making of the film didn’t stop there by ANY measure…

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According to this site, 1,200 suits of armor, 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears were made and used along with 2,000 weapons to recreate the battle scenes — and even if these were made abroad and imported, all of these had to be handled, organized, and distributed locally… which requires manpower. (The following video, which clarifies a lot of misunderstandings about the story that are held by people who’ve seen the movies but not read the books, includes a scene where two people are struggling to get a prosthetic hobbit’s foot onto an actor’s real one — its worth watching)

And the hiring did not end there; according to one of the officials for Tourism New Zealand whose job it is to focus on people arriving from abroad, Gregg Anderson “During a fight scene in Return of the King, I can see my niece’s horse.”

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Additionally, according to the same source, in order to create Hobbiton, 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens were planted a year before filming. According to our tour guide while MOST of Hobbiton is natural landscape, the homes did need to be dug into the hillsides, and some of the contours of those hills were changed subtly to support the lie that there were homes within them…

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As already mentioned, only a few of the doorways built into the sides of these hills actually lead to any sort of interior space. In such cases, there is usually JUST enough room for an actor or actors, to open a door and walk in or out (see the image below) … MOST of the doors in Hobbiton are just exterior facades leading to nothing– although they all had to LOOK like they are doors of actual homes that lead to something.

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The above home with the Red door, was the ONE such accessible space that tourists to the Hobbiton set are allowed into.  There was enough standing space inside for maybe three people, if one of them was crouched… and the tour guide sort of lined us up so each of us who wanted it could get a picture of themselves standing in the doorway.

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Bag-end, Bilbo’s Home

In each of the cases where the door opens to an actual space (as in actors must be able to enter), only enough of the interior is decorated as was necessary to support the illusion when said actor opened the door and the camera peered through it, if only for an instant. The above is Bag End the home of one of the main characters, Bilbo Baggins, the elder Hobbit who is in possession of the ring at the beginning of the initial LOTR movie trilogy, and the protagonist of the The Hobbit, the second movie trilogy. And as you can see, if you look through the doorway, you are given the impression there’s an actual hallway behind it… This however is the least impressive of the illusions of the set…

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That reward goes to the large tree above Bag End … it is a FAKE tree!!! While in the original movie there was a real tree there (although apparently even that was a cut-down tree used for the filming), what currently stands is a smaller replica with silk leaves. This is because of continuity issues in film making. When they filmed the original LOTR, they didn’t know it would be SUCH a big hit, or that they’d be filming The Hobbit a few years later. The first trilogy filmed (LOTR), in the fictional time-line, happened 60 years AFTER the story that happened in the second trilogy, The Hobbit (confused yet?), and trees GROW quite a bit in 60 years. As such, for the Hobbit (60 years before), that tree (which had been seen in the LOTR) had to be a smaller tree, requiring that they shrink the tree in order to maintain continuity… with no way to find a 2nd smaller tree to cut down with exactly the same sort of branch pattern as in the first trilogy (no two trees are exactly alike). SO, it was just easier to make a fake one! Movie Magic!%JrDeNLsSfmes89bJfdzBA_thumb_d92a

Another illusion manufactured at the location has to do with the size of Hobbits. According to Tolkien, hobbits are supposed to be between two and four feet tall, so the biggest are a bit shorter than the small boy in the pink shirt. I on the other hand stand 5’4″. The reason there’s such variation in the size of the doors is to manufacture the lie, with door sized calculated to falsify the impression of size the various actors had to create vis-à-vis the characters they were playing.

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An actor is seen outside of the above yellow door, so it’s human sized

Returning however to the economics of the thing: The (so far) SIX Lord of the Ring movies (which together cost slightly over one billion to make) were all major world-wide hits whose combined releases have to date generated $5,886,273,810 in worldwide box-office revenue. Because of the various businesses that have developed to support both the film industry and tourism, the massive success has gone on to have a long-term economic impact on the country of New Zealand that can not be overstated. As evidence, the positive impact of the first three LOTR films on NZ’s economy was enough to ensure that the government has not only gave Peter Jackson some controversial tax breaks, but also changed local employment laws in order to ensure that he didn’t keep to his threat of moving the Hobbit and all other future movies to cheaper locations.

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Currently tourism is New Zealand’s second largest industry after Dairy. Ask any of the long time locals and they’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s choice to use their country’s topography as the backdrop for his movies did more to advertise those natural wonders, and hence to put their nation on the tourism map, than ANY amount of advertising done by their government.

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Between the LOTR’s initial release in 2001, and 2012, the country saw a 50% increase in tourism, and even though only 1% of travelers (in 2012) said the movies were the ONLY thing that drew them, 6% of those asked admitted that the movies, and seeing the locations with their own eyes was one of the motivators for flying there — which accounted for about $162 million USD in tourism dollars. Even among those who were NOT motivated to travel to New Zealand because of the movies, 80% of them knew the films had been and were continuing to be filmed there, because of her unique natural wonders, a knowledge which helped them to see it as a desirable tourism destination.

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That said, the fact is that Peter Jackson, COULD have filmed all of his interior scenes anywhere in the world, but because he chose to shoot all of them in his home country of New Zealand, and then insisted on doing all of the post production  work there as well … at Weta Digital (a special effects house he founded) and at Park Road Post (formerly a small state-owned post production facility, but now a large one owned by Jackson) in Wellington — sometimes referred to as the house Frodo built, and due to Jackson’s influence now considered by some to be the best in the world … all of this together helped to build film facilities within the country that are now a 3 billion dollar industry NZD (New Zealand dollars).

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As mentioned previously, back in 2013 there was apparently some upset when Peter Jackson had threatened to move the filming and production of the Hobbit trilogy to places like Eastern Europe, etc., where it could have been filmed more affordably. By doing so, he successfully blackmailed the country’s government into not only coughing up $67 million NZD in tax breaks for his production, on top of having already in 2010, having had the country’s employment laws changed to his likings. The ‘Hobbit law’ — officially called the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill resulted in a lot of outcry not just from actors, but also from the nation’s workers at large. This change in the law barred anyone working in NZ’s film industry from collective bargaining, and stipulated that any actors working in film production would be listed as contractors, unless they signed a contract that explicitly listed them as employees, i.e., sort of a BIG DEAL from the point of unions, etc.

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One has to keep in mind that just the parts of the film industry that evolved out of LOTR had in 2016 added $1.015 billion to NZ’s real Gross Domestic Product, so clearly, those tax breaks were paid back, with interest, and that was only about 1/3 of NZ’s entire $3.3 billion in revenue earned from the screen industry at large for that same year. In part this is because the LOTR franchise helps to supports 2,700 other businesses  (carpenters, costumers, set catering, etc) …. businesses that can then go on to serve other productions in the movie industry, and whose very existence make NZ a more attractive alternative to movie makers in general, including the new online-TV production companies like Netflix and Amazon…. it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, so to speak.

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And, the cream in that coffee is that most of these jobs are supported to the tune of 80-90% by money from the film budgets of FOREIGN companies (not NZ tax dollars), the majority of which come from Hollywood that again feeds money into the local NZ economies. All of this LOTR prosperity may account for why the New Zealand post office released stamps with the Hobbit characters on them, and Air New Zealand has two planes decorated with a Tolkienesque theme. And things like this:

This also explains why, in 2018, the new government had under pressure given in to taking a look at making changes to the Hobbit Law, while refusing to repeal it entirely (which is what their constituency had wanted); and this rejection was in spite of being WAY more liberal than the previous government. As a general rule, no government is going to ‘kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs’ without extreme provocation.

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Another VERY important point to know (that would surprise most people), is that while New Zealand’s economy is ranked first in the entire world for its socially progressive policies, and has a reputation for being one of the cleanest and greenest among the First World/western block, high incomeOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries….  the reality is that it is, ironically, also the most DEregulated government within that institution. This is the result of the economic policies of Roger Douglas, who was NZ’s Minister of Finance back in 1984, as part of the country’s Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990). Known as Rogernomics, a hat-tilt to Ronald Reagan‘s  Reaganomics, he had instituted a set of neoliberal economic policies, the most important of which from the perspective of this piece, was an almost complete deregulation of NZ’s industries.

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Deregulation is almost always a good thing…. in the beginning. According to one study, between 1978 and 1998 employment in NZ increased by 50,000 jobs, an increase of 2.6% in a country that at the time had a population that grew, during that period, from 3.121 million to 3.8 million, and kept growing to today’s 4.794 million, all of which demanded a LOT of new buildings to go up, especially in city centers like Auckland. Keep in mind Peter Jackson began building the Hobbiton Movie set within this deregulatory economic context, in 1999. Of course the downside of deregulation is shoddy construction, increased pollution, etc.

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View from our Airbnb in Auckland, New Zealand, note all the new construction

I had my first hint that something of the sort was going on during my first days in the country, when we were at our Airbnb in Auckland. At the time I had commented to my travel buddy on the high number of newly constructed buildings that (to my well-traveled eye) looked like Asian construction. Architecturally, there’s all sorts of decorative devices you see in Asia that you’ll never see in the west, for good reason. Back when I was in my 20’s I did an internship with a Japanese ceramics firm that among a plethora of other things, made the easy to clean decorative tiles you see lining the sides of Japanese buildings. When I asked my boss why they didn’t expand into the US market, he told me, “We can’t. Those tiles are only stuck to the sides with a sort of glue, and they have a tendency to fall down from time to time and hit people in the head. In Asia, that’s no big deal because if it happens the victim’s family looks on it as just being bad karma. In the USA you blame the company for unsafe building practices, and it ends up in a massive lawsuit.” And then of course I lived in Korea for a few years, so I’m more than familiar with this sort of pretty but questionable constructionUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_cbc3

One day as I was stepping out of that same Airbnb (in Auckland), I came across a real estate saleswoman trying to sell an apartment in our building to this young guy. He was clearly annoyed and wanted to know if she had anything NOT in this building. Out of curiosity I asked her what was the place they were selling and the price, it was about $200K USD, which struck me as suspiciously cheap for a one bedroom in a high-rise apartment in the middle of any downtown, let alone in the nations largest city. She admitted the building had “problems.” I asked what kind, and she admitted it had all sorts of problems, not just one or two, and that the owners might not be able to fix any of them although they were trying. The price was so low because you needed to be able to pay in cash as no bank would give you a loan to buy a place in this building… In other words, these beautiful new buildings in downtown Auckland, most of which looked to me like Asian construction, were in fact, of … probably Chinese construction. Again, what happens when you deregulate the construction industry…. is builders don’t do what they’re not absolutely required to do… which can lead to problems.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_294fBut in the land of deregulation well…. it’s a double-edged sword. But for the deregulated environment, I doubt that Jackson would have had it so easy making his film here, or building his post production companies, and quite likely Hollywood would have pressured him into making the film elsewhere.

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Deregulation, like Daenerys Stormborn’s dragons in GOT can be HIGHLY problematic doubled edged swords

And but for his having had done all that in New Zealand, we’d not be having this conversation. Additionally, had regulations existed, its questionable if Hobbiton as a tourist attraction would have been legally allowed to develop in the haphazard way it did, as things of this sort normally have to jump through any number of regulatory health and safety hoops…. like it not having a bathroom for the first 10 years of its existence … So… there’s that.

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The Dragon Inn even  has a resident cat!

Returning to the tour: After an unexpectedly long wait, during which folks explored the area and took lots of pictures (see the ones above)… we were all brought together in the bar area, where a pair of heavy velvet curtains hid the dining room from us. We were asked to PLEASE not take pictures until we were seated at our tables, although they understood the temptation, because if we did the food would get cold and they promised that there’d be plenty of time to inspect the room between our main course and the desserts.

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They then made a big To-do of opening the curtains, asking for volunteers from the group to do the big reveal (the two women in the photo, bottom left) and we all piled into the room like a bunch of excited kids … (really the excitement in the room was palpable)

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That said the spread was HIGHLY impressive not only to look at but also to taste. There were two big roasted chickens which seemed to be of the rotisserie variety and hence very moist and flavorful, a big chunk of salmon that was also not dry in any way, a roasted pumpkin stuffed with succotash (which kind of surprised me because that’s very much an American dish — corn, tomatoes, and peppers all being New World foods — but as I said sandy soil like the sort that the local topography is made of supports growing corn, so I’m guessing these were all local ingredients). There as also a big tray full of lamb shanks that sat on a bed of bubble and squeak, and came with a huge jug of brown gravy, and a mushroom dish that was to DIE for (if you like mushrooms, which I do). There was this huge dish containing a single coiled sausage cut like pizza, resulting in slices of varying sizes (quite tasty).

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Remember the Gollum from before? The guy put him on the table to watch us eat… And look at that guy licking his fingers, you can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm

There was one tray of roasted vegetables, and a big bowl of roasted cut up potato (with spices) again very good… A green salad which to be honest I didn’t touch… cause with all this… fuck no I’m not eating a salad.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2949There was also a bowl of mashed sweet potato, which apparently in NZ is called Kumara, and has been a Māori/ Polynesian staple from BEFORE the white man arrived. This is kind of fascinating, again, because the sweet potato is believed to also be a new world food. I looked it up and the carbon dating of some sweet potatoes in Polynesia verified the vegetable’s presence there as early as 1400 CE., so before Columbus’s 1492 sailing. There are two theories, one is that Polynesians were SUCH masters of the ocean that they were already in limited trade contact with South America before the European discovery of the same. Another theory (for which no physical supporting evidence has yet been found), suggests that sweet potatoes might have already been on the Polynesian islands before the first humans ever arrived.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2978

My LEAST favorite dish was a beef stew type thing, which they described as being beef and ale. It wasn’t very tasty (kind of bland actually) and the beef chunks were very dry and chewy. That said, there were other people at the table talking about how good it was, so to quote one of my mom’s favorite sayings:
על טעם וריח אין להתווכח
….which translates to, “on taste and smell there is nothing on which to argue”

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What amused me no end was that the Green Dragon’s resident cat came to join us when it was time to sit down to dinner. He (she?) walked around the room, and then spotted an empty chair at our table and jumped up into it. The cat was VERY well-behaved, made no attempt to get at the food and just sat and waited for one of us to serve her — at least until she was spotted by one of the servers and shooed out …

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This almost made me cry because I had a cat (R.I.P.) that used to do the same thing. After my mom had died, every Friday night, I cooked all the other nights, my dad made dinner which included his home-made chicken soup. (To die for: the man used actual chicken feet which is the missing secret ingredient for why your soup is never as good as your grandmothers — as almost no one cooks whole chickens anymore.) Our cat would come and sit by the table, wait to be served … he loved that soup… and then went away, having never put his paws on the table, cause he knew it wasn’t allowed.

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More than enough time was given to us (and enough food supplied) that you could go back for seconds if you wanted to. Me, my stomach isn’t that big and I wanted to save room for dessert… so when I was done I walked around took some more pictures, allowing me to see some of the area in twilight.

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And then once EVERYONE was finished, and not before… One of the great things about this meal was you got no sense of being rushed during the banquet, the waiters came and cleared the tables, and then almost completely reset them to prepare for our dessert. During that time everyone got a chance to enjoy the twilight, or explore the room and all its details. (Not sure where this girl found the map of middle earth) While the trays of dessert were much smaller than what had been laid out when we first arrived, realistically we were all so full from the first course that it was more than enough, and there were leftovers when we were done. (Clearly, these guys have done this before — HAH! — and have the serving sizes down to a science, although the staff does a great job of making their performances ‘fresh’ so that you feel like you’re in a warm embrace of friends rather than being shuffled through something choreographed.)

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Look at that anticipation!

The dessert tray consisted firstly of a kiwi and strawberry sauce filled Pavlova (one of the national dishes of both Australia and NZ) topped with fresh cream. For those who don’t know, the Pavlova is essentially a large bowl-shaped container made of white meringue, created in honor of the famous Russian prima ballerina of the same name, who was also the first ever to go on a world-wide tour, and was responsible for introducing modern ballet to the world. This tour included Australia and New Zealand, and at the time she was the single most famous performer to ever visit here… so it was a REALLY big deal. In honor of her arrival the dessert was created, but it’s a point of serious contention between the two countries — a sort of tongue in cheek war that is talked about AD NAUSEUM — as to which one did it first … as apparently it was a great minds think alike sort of issue with two different chefs in the two nations coming up with the same idea for the SAME dessert named in her honor

…. because her most famous dance was The Dying Swan, a dance she performed 4,000 times, which involves wearing a white tutu that looked like Meringue.

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In addition to the obligatory Pavlova, there was a bowl of seasonal fresh fruit, British Bakewell tarts (bottom of image), butterscotch sauce (in the orange jug, which went REALLY well on the tarts), an Irish apple crumble (top of the photo), a bowl of Yogurt with honey and cinnamon (which at first we thought might be cream but it tasted wrong, and no one really knew what to do with it…), and a big metal jug full of Vanilla custard… which kind of goes well with anything

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After the meal was over, they handed about every third one of us a lantern, and they took us on a walk through the set at night. More than a few people supplemented that light with the flashlight function on their smartphones… The night was so clear, and there was SO little light pollution that if you look very hard at the photo above towards the upper right corner, you can see a star!!!

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I had NO trouble photographing the night sky with my iPhone’s camera (which generally sucks at low light images) and seeing stars in the image (see above)… because it was SO dark that what my eye was seeing wasn’t just a few stars, it was the Milky Way.

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After the walk through they had us form a circle and talked to us about our trip, asking us to remember our favorite moments and hold them in our memories. And then they had all the lights turned off, had us close our eyes for about a minute and then open them and look up… and just wow. IF you’re lucky enough to go on a night when the sky is clear, and I was… just wow…  and then those of us who wanted to got our photos taken in front of this one door, which was lit up with a powerful spot lamp

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After much searching I found this professionally shot advertisement for the banquet tour… that includes drone shots and (what were clearly directed actors as) tourists… but it shows stuff I could never have accurately filmed, like the night-time walk with lanterns … and the scene of the guy taking a bite out of a chicken leg so enthusiastically that it made me drool

As I’ve already said, I think it’s important to remember that Hobbiton is just the flagship for what’s become an entire LOTR based travel industry. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, enough to necessitate MULTIPLE trips on the part of any obsessed fan who wants to see them all, which can of course include multiple visits to Hobbiton. AND, because of the huge success that was the Game of Thrones (GOT) — which I’m currently bingeing in preparation for the release of the final season next week, Amazon has gotten on the SciFi band wagon and has ponied up a budget of one BILLION dollars for what is being advertised as the most expensive TV show ever made, an original five season Lord of the Rings. This is sure to happen because Amazon has ALREADY paid $250 million to Tolkien‘s estate, just for the film rights, which were given with the caveat that the film HAS to go into production in the next two years

The following is a preview of the new series (although the first 30 seconds is about the wildly successful of GOT and how that influenced Amazon decision. Warning, contains spoilers):

All of which means that most likely not only will the Hobbiton set be closed once again for filming, and hence more changes will be made, but that there are going to be EVEN MORE LOTR locations to be visited in New Zealand, in addition to the 170 that already there. All of which, should the show be as big a hit as the movies were, will mostly likely generate even more increased tourism to New Zealand.

[Note, not that this matters to you guys but, I had spent 3 solid days composing a very detailed discussion with research and backing statistics… which WordPress LOST; I had revised it multiple times, always making sure the software said it had saved it, even quit and restarted the program a few times… each time was told it HAD saved, only to hit publish once I had it all as I wanted…  and have the WHOLE thing get erased…. well… but for the title, THAT got saved (I had changed it only about an hour before hitting publish). Many emails back and forth to company later and all I got from them was a “we’re sorry, its not on our servers, must have been a bug with the new update” … YOU THINK!!! Every photo uploaded got saved (and in the correct order), and the new title (which I had only just modified before posting)… but all the text, GONE. So the above is me trying to reconstruct it using my google search history,  the photos, in order to try to remind me what I had said the first time. Which took twice as long in part because it was so frustrating]

P.S. I was just watching this 60 minutes show about the making of Game of Thrones, and broke into a cheer when I learned the sets for places like Castle Black are following the lead of Hobbiton. They were built to withstand the elements, and will be turned into tourist attractions. WOOT!