It’s difficult for backpackers to escape the package-deal tourism industry. Philipp Laage takes a trip to Vietnam – and comes face to face with his own shortcomings.
»Two days?« The official at the passport desk looks puzzled.
He’s the groundhog from Groundhog Day. It’s not a reaction I’ve experienced for the first time on this trip. But in this case, the question of the man behind the pane sounds particularly incredulous.
From the perspective of a New Zealander, who knows exactly how far off his country is, it must seem pretty ridiculous. After all, I’m not standing at the desk that welcomes New Zealand citizens and Australians, but at the one for »All other countries«. That means, no matter where I come from, I have crossed at least one sea upon my arrival. Why would anyone cause themselves so much stress for a two-day stay?
I, however, see that quite differently: with a 42-hour long stop, New Zealand will be the longest stop of my trip. Two days on one and the same continent? Sounds like a wonderful deceleration!
I am currently on the shortest and most interactive trip around the world in the world called „In ten days around the world“ or simply: #10Tage.
Just out conquering the world.
Together with my followers, I have created this trip around the world that takes me to all five continents in 240 hours. They have determined the route: 18 hours Lima – 28 hours Las Vegas – 42 hours Auckland – 30 hours Kathmandu – 30 hours Cape Town. And for each of these places, they have presented me with certain tasks that I must fulfill while I’m on the road. Thus, I already hung under a paragliding parachute over the Pacific Ocean, was confronted with Peru’s button-eyed staple guinea pig and performed in a show on the Strip in Las Vegas. Now it’s time for the other end of the world, Germany’s (all but) antipode.
New Zealand is the first half of #10days.
Behind the custom’s automatic sliding door, a young woman is waiting for my fellow traveler, Thomas Niemann, a film maker from Leipzig, and me. This must be Amy. She warmly welcomes me with a hug.
»That’s how we do things here,« she says and smiles, alluding to the cliché of the ever-friendly New Zealanders.
Just click through the rankings of the world’s friendliest people – the Kiwis occupy a permanent position in the top five there.
Amy is a tour guide and will assist me in the next 42 hours with fulfilling my tasks. Via a rental car, we will take a small trip over the North Island because it soon became clear that the assignments I got require that I will have to look beyond the city limits of Auckland. Among the Maori culture and other things, the tasks revolve around those small beings with large hairy feet, who’ve presumably never set eyes on a mega-city like Auckland. They live outside in the wide juicy green that has made New Zealand popular and that I experience close up for the first time today when the country road after Auckland becomes more and more solitary and we are finally surrounded by endless evergreen rolling hills.
Somewhere there they have their caves – on their home continent they call Middle-Earth.
* * *
The Hobbits, J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Sir Peter Jackson – for over a decade, all this has been inextricably linked with New Zealand. Film director Jackson is a Kiwi himself and obviously believes that in his books, Tolkien invariably meant his homeland when writing about Shire and Hobbiton, Mordor and Rivendell.
So at the end of the nineties, he embarked on a journey through New Zealand in order to find the places which would be suited for his planned film trilogy. In doing so, two hours south of Auckland, Jackson came across a farm close to Matamata and asked his scouts to knock on the door of the farm.
At that point, the piece of land was just an ordinary farm with about 18.000 sheep and cattle, and the owner Russell Alexander had no idea that a few years later, under the name of Hobbiton, his small home would be among the most visited film sets in the world.
My follower Björn asked me to go take a look around. He is a huge Lord-of-the-Rings fan and wrote me that he would do quite a bit to travel there himself one day. I, on the contrary, bear a dark secret concerning the cult around this fantasy epic.
Meanwhile, it is possible to look at the Shire’s Hobbiton, called Hobbingen in the German translation, true to the original.
For the shooting of the Lord-of-the-Rings trilogy, only makeshift Hobbit holes as well as many artificial trees and plants were erected in 1999, which were removed again when the day’s work was done.
In 2011, when the set was reconstructed for the shooting of »The Hobbit«, it was decided that they would create something permanent this time.
The Hobbit holes and all the other paraphernalia obtained a stable, durable subsistence, off which Russell Alexander can make quite a good living.
»There’s been close to a million visitors here in the past twelve years,« says our tour guide Ethan as we walk on the narrow paths through the Hobbit village. A two-hour tour costs 75 dollars per person. In my head, I make a rough estimate of the numbers and realize that you’d really have to shear quite a few sheep for that money.
»Do you recognize the place where we’re standing right now?« Ethan asks.
»Ummmm, no,« I hesitantly answer and realize that I won’t be able to keep my secret to myself for much longer.
»This here is Gandalf’s aisle. It’s where Gandalf and Frodo rode through with the horse and the cart in the beginning of the first film.«
This is the moment where I could exclaim »Of course!«, look around once more, pretend as if I actually recognized the path and finally utter an agitated »Wow!«. But instead I decide to tell the truth.
»I’m sorry, Ethan. There’s not a single place I will recognize because I’ve never watched the films.«
Even Amy and Thomas, who’ve unobtrusively been walking behind us, stop short and look at me, dumbfounded.
»Oh,« Ethan offers. He thinks for a minute. »No worries,« he finally says. »That’s what I’m here for.«
Then he starts to laugh and pats me on the back like a father would his son to assure him everything’s gonna be alright.
I pass a big green tree that isn’t more to me than a big green tree. For other visitors, however, it is the notorious Party tree under which Bilbo Baggins disappears on his birthday celebration after giving his speech in order to forever desert the Shire to head towards Rivendell.
They recognize exactly the Hobbit hole where Sam runs towards his daughter in the very last scene of the trilogy and Rosie comes out of the yellow door with her baby. Whereas I only learn this information from the German tour leaflet Ethan has given me.
To me, this might as well be the town of the Smurfs or the Gummy Bear Gang.
That upsets me a little. Supposedly, everyone knows this feeling of standing at a place you’ve seen on TV – or at least, imagining what it would feel like to be there. The Empire State Building from »Sleepless in Seattle«, the Beatles‘ zebra-crossing in London’s Abbey Road, the bars in Havana, through which Ernest Hemingway once boozed his way. I’m upset because I could have this feeling here if, at some point in the past ten year, I had only taken nine hours of my time to watch the mighty trilogy. In addition to the nine hours for the Hobbit trilogy.
That way, I experience Hobbiton far from the cult and realize that it is indeed an enchanting dreamy place. The houses‘ front yards are groomed, flowers are blooming everywhere, on a washing line, laundry is flapping in the warm breeze, a few bees are buzzing, work tools are lying around – as if the Hobbits were just off on a short vacation.
Along the old water mill, we cross the bridge at the Bywater Pool and enter the Hobbit pub called The Green Dragon Inn. On my plate, I inspect something that looks like a ham sandwich with grilled cheese. But I make sure to cautiously inquire if this might also be a famous Hobbit dish. Once again, Ethan frowns and pulls up an eyebrow »Come on, you don’t even know the food?« But then he redeems me. »No worries, I just wanted to see your disturbed face once again. This is just a ham sandwich with cheese.« We laugh our heads off.
»You would have believed anything I said today, wouldn’t you?«
Yes, I suppose I would have.
* * *
Our road trip across the North Island leads us further south. »How Bizarre« by OMC is playing on the radio. It’s probably the most successful song that was ever produced in New Zealand. In the mid-90s it was number one in America, Australia and Europe.
»Ooh, baby,« Amy loudly sings along.
»Ooh, baby,« I join her. Then we all sing together:
»It’s making me crazy. Every time I look around…«
Amy is a cheerful girl. In her mid-twenties, short dark hair. In her company, you feel incredibly funny because she likes to laugh and to do so a lot. Only once does she get very serious when talking about her background. »I’m from the South Island, from Christchurch. My parents‘ home used to be there, where the terrible earthquake happened.«
»Why „used to“?«
»Because there’s nothing left. In our street, nearly all houses had to be torn down.«
At that point in time, many of her childhood friends had already – like herself – moved away from Christchurch.
»Shortly, after the quake we all returned home and had a beer together in the evening, eight friends from school and I. Luckily, our parents were well. But, all of a sudden, we no longer had a parental home. Simply wiped out. For some, it took a long time until they got over it. For me, however, it was most important that I still have my whanau.«
»My family. Whanau is the Maori word for family.« Amy explains to me that several terms of the native population have found their way into the everyday use of the language. »Love, for example, means aroha. For us, that’s a completely normal word, like for you the word computer. That’s just what it’s called.«
When looking at street signs and place names, I notice that almost everything here is named in the Maori language: Rangitanuku Road, Kuranui Park, Waikato. I have to think of the Australian Aborigines and how the European settlers, for centuries, tried to annihilate the Indigenous people’s culture and language. Today, efforts are made to revive this culture.
»What was it like here, where you are, between the settlers and the Maori?« I ask Amy.
»We weren’t as bad.« Of course, as it is with many culture clashes, there were also problems between the Maori and the pakeha, the others.
»I love my grandparents more than anything, but from today’s perspective I have to say they were racists.« But then there was a strong development in the society. »With my parents, I can tell that something has been happening – and my generation is awfully proud of the multiculture of our country.«
* * *
A huge, seemingly circular lake appears, bright blue and glassy. Lake Rotorua. At the bank of the lake lies the city Rotorua, one of the biggest Maori communities in New Zealand. »With more than 30 percent, the share of the population here is double as high as the national average,« Amy says.
Ever since, the first inhabitants of New Zealand have made use of the natural resources of their country. So, it wasn’t a coincidence that they settled here around 1830: the North Island is located in an active volcanic area and there are several natural hot springs around Rotorua which the Maori were able to use for cooking, bathing and washing. The city lies in the middle of a volcanic crater. Like a vegetated hill comb, the crater rim edges around the city limits.
Every half hour, the Geysir Pohutu spews water from the earth for about half an hour – up to thirty meters high!
In the whole city, it smokes and steams in all corners. From today’s perspective, this is utterly convenient, as several buildings can be heated with the natural geothermal energy free of charge. But as a result, there’s also a rather unpleasant fact, as I find out when we park and open the car doors.
»It wasn’t me!« Amy calls and laughs.
»I’m relieved to hear that,« I respond. »Otherwise, I would’ve immediately sent you to a doctor.«
A stench of a thousand rotten eggs hits my nose. It’s the sulphur leaking from the hot springs that settles upon the city in an unpleasant cloud of stink.
»I have to get used to it myself every time,« says Amy. »In the South Island, we don’t have any volcanic activities. But believe me, at some point you stop smelling it.«
I hope she’s right!
All the same: the blubbering and seething of these holes, the geysers and mud pools have turned this city into a health resort. Rotorua belongs – in the figurative and literal sense – to the tourist hot spots of the North Island. The volcanic mud contains several minerals that open the pores, encourage blood circulation and soften the skin. A little wellness can never hurt – and so, a few minutes after our arrival, I end up in Rotorua’s biggest geothermal park (with the friendly name Hell’s Gate) in a 38° Celsius warm grey mud bath.
The little Maori Carving School, an open hut, is in the same place. It’s where I will tackle the task of my follower Eumel: learn the Maori craft of wood carving.
»In former times, we Maori didn’t have an alphabet or a written language,« my wood carving teacher Te Mataa explains. He’s a short man with a black ponytail who seems a bit shy. »So we passed on our stories and our knowledge in a way that we knew to express ourselves back then.« I ask about the art work lying on a work bench behind Te Mataa. It’s highly rich in details, with three heads and plenty of carved ornaments.
»How long do you need for something like that?« I inquire.
»Oh, it takes a while,« he answers. »Surely one to two weeks.«
We agree that this might be a little too time-consuming for me (and technically perhaps a bit too advanced), and decide that I should better give it a try with a symbol which merely consists of a few thin strokes and looks like a fir twig.
I think the result of my carving efforts is something to be proud of. Except for a few small splinters that are poking out from the wood, I have carved a really nice fir twig – until Te Mataa enlightens me that it isn’t a fir twig at all. »It’s ponga, silver fern,« he corrects me. »A crucial symbol for the Maori. They used to use the silver fern for orientation when they returned from a hunt at night. They marked their way with the silvery underside that reflects the moonlight, which is how they found their way back home.«
Over the centuries, the plant has become New Zealand’s national symbol – thus, it isn’t astonishing that all athletes who participate in international competitions for New Zealand wear ponga on their jerseys. It was the New Zealand national rugby team, the famous All Blacks, who started it. In 1884, they wore a fern symbol on their jerseys at their first international game on Australian ground. This is in so far interesting as the All Blacks haven’t just once made an appearance as trendsetters.
They were also the first ones to make the haka worldwide known. Before every international match, the players step up to the center line as a closed pack and perform their frightening Maori dance in order to intimidate their enemy. A lot of loud shouting, a lot of angry posing and a lot of sticking out your tongue – this I will now learn in order to fulfill the task from Stephan (»Learn how to dance haka«)
* * *
The first encounter with my masters is surprisingly peaceful, yes, almost a bit romantic. Onstage at the 100-year old, amply decorated ceremony hall of Te Puia, a cultural center for the arts and crafts of the Maori in Rotorua, I meet Laurence, Chadwick and Te Whawhanga. The three half-naked men are merely wearing bast skirts and a few Maori tattoos. They teach taster courses to those who express an interest. What also immediately catches my eye: altogether, they are missing about a handful of incisors.
Chad pulls me towards him and presses his forehead and nose twice against mine.
»What was that?« I want to know.
»We call our greeting hongi – to smell,« he explains. »With this gesture, we share the breath of life with each other. The touching of our noses connects us.« The Maori seem to be extremely polite to each other before they eventually yell at each other.
In fact, haka simply means dance, which is why also other Maori feast dances are called haka. But internationally, haka has largely become known as a war dance, a warm-up ritual in order to scare the enemies out of their wits and to mentally adrenalize themselves for a fight.
»One of the central elements of haka is pukana,« Chad explains. »Widening your eyes and sticking out your tongue, a gesture of the greatest contempt for your enemy – and an unmistakable warning to devour him after the fight is won.«
I am given a taiaha, my fighting stick, and go on my knees, like my leading dancers Chad and Laurence, who have positioned themselves to my left and my right side. Te Whawhanga is standing behind us. Our starting formation is complete. As the leader of our group, Te Whawhanga now calls us over and tells us what to do. Because he does so in Te Reo Maori, the language of the Maori, and my language skills so far are rather negligible, I have no choice but to keep my eyes glued to Chad’s and Laurence’s movements while my body is trying to imitate similar figures.
At the end of my dance lesson, I have a feeling to have somewhat felt the spirit of haka. I now know the movements and my body has developed a certain sense of rhythm for the sequences. However, I should probably keep working a bit on my facial expression during the dance. As Thomas‘ footage later shows me quite plainly, it’s more likely my enemy would fold out at camping chair, sit down and calmly eat a cheese sandwich than lie before me, mortally terrified and whimper out of fear.
* * *
»So?« Thomas asks the next morning when we meet in the hotel lobby and check out before driving back to Auckland. »What’s the plan for today before we take off again?«
»Nothing, really,« is my answer. »Actually.«
»What do you mean, actually?«, he digs deeper.
»Well.« I hem and haw. »There’s this one thing that I can’t get out of my head.«
»What do you mean? Come on, tell me!«
It’s always the same with me: I know that I will find it awful afterwards because I have a terrible fear of heights – but each time, I am extremely tempted to find out if it might not be different this time. My little masochistic vein.
There was this idea for a task from Matze…
When we are back in Auckland three hours later, we stand in front of it: the Sky Tower. My lord, what a machine! There’s a jumping platform in 192 meters height. What happens up there is not your classic bungee jump – which is why I even consider giving it a go. Actively stepping into the void and then – free falling, I would never be able to do that. But I informed myself: the so-called »sky jump« works a bit differently.
The system is programmed in such a way that its victim is sent down the tower with a controlled 85 km/h and one lands on an exactly defined spot on the ground. No bungee, no freely dangling around, but a computed base jump – for wimps like me.
A few minutes later I am wearing a blue overall. Thanks to a yellow lightning bolt on my chest, the overall looks like the outfit of a super hero. How fitting.
For a moment, I let my eyes wander towards the platform. It’s indeed just a narrow base that, after a few meters, ends in empty space. That’s exactly where I will be standing in a minute.
»Are you ready?« Andy asks.
»Not at all,« I reply.
»Cool, then let’s go.«
In order to attach the last carabiner on my back, Andy asks me to step all the way to the front. My stomach turns. I cling to the handrail, stare ahead and do as I’m told.
Then comes the worst moment: I am supposed to turn around 90 degrees – with my face to the abyss, to the end of the base where there is no handrail. That’s where the platform stops, just like that. If I take a wrong step, I’m gone.
And then the most wretched cry that anyone in a super hero costume has ever let out, echoes through Auckland.
My body is still trembling when I get out of the overall. Nothing would have spoken against ending my 42 hours in New Zealand as relaxed as they started: a little road tripping, dancing haka, eating a ham sandwich with grilled cheese. But, as so often, curiosity won. As Heinrich Harrer, the author of »Seven Years in Tibet« once put it:
»The question, why one does something out of the ordinary, doesn’t even come up. The explanation could simply be the love for a great adventure.«
In this sense: Off to Kathmandu, my next #10days stop!
* * *
Translated by Kate Weyerer.
Get the whole movie here!
The adventure continues… in this book!