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December 11, 2011




It was time for the next adventure, and at 12:30 a red bus with balded tires screeched around the corner toward our hostel. A big bearded Maori of the mountains yelled down at us. “YOU RAFTING?”

“Yeah, sledging.”




There were eight others on the bus, most of them German. Wind was blowing around everywhere. The driver turned around while driving.



The steep gravel drive leveled off sharply to a ramshackle building. Reggae music was blaring, and it was hot. The gear was handed out by one of our river-guides, whose smile showed a half-rainbow of knocked out teeth. “Don’t pee in your suits,” he laughed. “Really, don’t do that.”

When the group had been loaded into a cramped 12-seater, he was nowhere to be found. Other vans were peeling out of the parking lot, guides were jumping into them on the fly. The driver, who looked and behaved like a Kiwi Johnny Knoxville, finally found our guide talking to a delivery man.

“Hey, get in, we’re late.” [no response] “Hey, get in.” [no response] “Hey man!” [no response] Our driver turned to the group. “Does anyone have a gun?” [no response] “We can do that ‘you-shoot-me-I-shoot-you thing’. Or the other way around.” Our guide meandered toward the van, not a care in the world – then stopped. “Forgot my vest. Be right back.” The driver groaned… then chased the guide with the van before slamming the breaks and skidding. When the guide returned, the driver gunned the van at him, stopping just in time so that the sliding door nearly chopped his fingers off. “LET’S GO!” He gunned the van toward the sharply-angled lip of the driveway, and at the very last second, accelerated. We kind of caught air. At the two-lane highway he whipped it onto the shoulder, which angled up at about 10 degrees, and then accelerated down the beveled shoulder as he prepared to cross two lanes, one of them oncoming. As he whipped across, there was a moment when all thought it would tip. The guides laughed, and the one facing backwards explained the three rules of sledging:

Hold on to your sledge
Put your head down in the rapids
Don’t put your flippers on the ground

His speech was interrupted by a hailstorm from below. The road had turned to pea-gravel, and it was too loud to talk. Every pebble that touched a wheel was being rocketed into the wheel-wells and undercarriage. You could feel the vehicle being ruined. Our guide laughed. “Not our van, we don’t care.” The driver sped up and tailgated the car in front of us..

When it ended they parked, off-loaded, and the second of our guides, an athletic Maori guy with a shaved head, gave us further instructions.

No one heard them. We were lying on a lawn just before the trail to the river, but behind it was the road we’d come in on. Semi-trucks roared by, and, as the only native English speaker in the group of eight, not much was intelligible. We were supposed to have learned how to roll-turn and what to do if we were swept over by the water. We sort of learned it by watching him handle his sledge.

Sledges are like twice-thick boogie-boards made of plastic and filled with air, and with two handles. They weigh about 30 pounds, and they’re bulky. The hike to the river was hard.

At the river’s entrance our Maori river-guide reviewed what we had “learned”, went into the history of the area for a few minutes, and then informed us about the meaning of the Maori prayer he was about to say, which was meant as an appeal for mercy to the river. It was easy to think, ‘Here goes some tourist stuff,’ but it wasn’t. Or if it was, they fooled us. When he started, the other guide bowed his head and mouthed the prayer, word-for-word. Our third guide, a Kiwi who had joined us at some point, stopped his preparations, crossed his hands, and stared at the river. Our entry point was at the base of a 20-foot waterfall, a waterfall that rafts drop down daily, full of tourists. When they hit from that height, the entire raft and the passengers disappear under the churn. Antje did it four years ago. Up to eight years ago they used to let sledgers do it, too, but, lo and behold, someone died. According to the owner of our hostel, “It was bound to happen.”

One-by-one, we ventured in. The water was just cool enough, and after the first bend, our worries dissipated. Next was a the first rapid.

“Keep your heads down the whole time, got it? And stay to the left when you get through.”

Everyone got through, but not on their own volition. It just ended up that way. And the three guides helped. Even with fins, though, humans vs. water is a joke.

On the third set we were instructed to put our weight forward and plunge through one of the rapids, the idea being that we would pop up about 15-30 feet downstream. No one really liked that idea, and instead everyone got tossed over the top of it. One of the guys lost his bootie and flipper, and a guide came up with it. “Here you are, mate. Looks like you got the wrong sized foot.”

In giving it back, though, he’d forgotten his own sledge, and when he turned it was headed down a rapid. He dove after, managed to retrieve it, and for the next five minutes the group relaxed in an eddie, watching him rock climb back upstream in flippers while carrying a sledge. A German girl decided to tell a joke:

“What does a snail say when it’s riding a turtle?”
“Wahoooo!” [because it's so fast]

The guide with the knocked out teeth had his own to tell:
Q: How many Germans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Vat do you sink, only one! Vy vould zey need more zan one?

The Maori guide had one, too.
Q: What’s the difference between an orange and a…

The filthiness of the joke appalled everyone into silence – until the tour guides realized that no one in the group (save for the American) had understood. The fact that it hadn’t been understood was then funny. Then everyone could laugh. But the joke itself, oh brother. It had to do with pedophelia.

It was time to push off, and two large rapids ended the trip. The last we were allowed to kick back into a few times to practice “surfing” the sledges. Everyone was exhausted and happy at that point, and it was time to load up and go home. The exact same driver, in the exact same van, suddenly appeared. As we pulled out of the parking lot, one of the other guides halted his acceleration simply by walking in front of the moving van, not even looking. He smiled, tapped the hood, gave a little wave, and walked off. In another area of the parking lot a river-guide was assisting a senior citizen to his vehicle. Our driver rolled the van to a stop and lowered his window. “Woo hoo hooo! Look who’s got a DATE!” Another guide jumped in shotgun. “I’m an Amerrrrrrican,” he shouted, imitating the accent. “I’m a bloody Amerrrrrrican!” At that point the German girl who’d made the snail joke announced that we had to drive back to the site where we were first dropped off because she’d forgotten her sunscreen there. It was very important to her, the sunscreen. So we did that. Zipping by all the while were beautiful rolling hills with grazing sheep. “Ze Germans like ze sheep, ja?” our driver asked the German guys. “Ze Germans loooooove ze sheep!” Next came the pea-gravel, and this time he slalomed it at high speed until the back end slipped into a tiny fish-tail. That checked him, everyone had felt it, and the guide with the missing teeth laughed and opened up his window and shouted, “Wassup gangsta!” A young Maori boy with curly hair and an oversized red t-shirt looked back at him, confused. The guide nodded at him, turned back to the group, sang a few beats of a rap song, and then prepared everyone for clean-up.

“You’ll only take your suits off halfway, because otherwise you’ll end up stepping all over them, getting ‘em all dirty. We’ll help you with the pants, we’re good at that, it’s not easy, but we’ll get ‘em off you, won’t we boys. Hell, we even like it, we don’t even have to buy you a drink.” He smiled and looked around. Not one of the sledgers had understood, and the other guides were tired now. “No, no, I’m just kidding, we’re not like that, are we boys. What are we, Aussies?”

Back at the site, when everyone had de-geared, things devolved into a lot of standing around. Reggae music was still blasting, and rumor had it that they were going to show some action shots for sale before driving everyone home. A Slovakian girl walked up to the desk, and, in very labored, painful English, said, “Um, I am wondering… about… when we go….” The man who looked to be in charge leaned forward on his elbows, drew her in, and very seriously told her, “Tomorrow.” That joke didn’t really work either, and when he’d finally given her a real answer, I stepped up and bought a Coke. A few beats later I had one that said, “Not for individual sale.”

So the kids have taken over the camp here in Rotorua – or at least at this rafting/sledging outfit.

But it worked out this time, at least for us, and hopefully it keeps working out for them, too.

December 2, 2011

REI v. Globetrotter, part deux

REI v. Globetrotter, part deux

It’s OK for rich people to go bananas in at Globetrotter. It’s OK for people with an American Express Gold card to buy rad stuff that’s from the future at REI. But for backpackers or bobos or the insecure middle class, these places can wipe an entire city off your travel map.

What they tap into, I think, is a deep-rooted human desire for safety, comfort, happiness, longevity, mildew-resistant textiles, dehydrated foods, and rock walls. They sell the illusion of control for situations that aren’t controllable. We have an evolutionary yearning for protection from dangerous animals like bears, sharks, snakes, bugs, scorpions, piranhas, jellyfish, gigantic venus fly-traps, and pigs. We therefore buy products like bear spray or shark strobes. We pick up that brand new cobra whip or a hippopatomus whistle. We completely blow our budgets, both on the defensive as well as the offensive. I bet there are more than a few dry suits out there that have never been wet. I bet there’s a SCUBA diver here or there who wears rock-climbing shoes instead of fins, just to use them.

Because Homo Sapien, god help us. We have a few known weaknesses. Our operating system has “bugs”. One common example is that we cannot hold dry spaghetti in our hand and know with any certainty whether that quantity will satisfy or disgust in ten minutes’ time. Another is Jerry Springer. REI and Globetrotter are weaknesses, too.

Some products that will probably exploit this weakness in 2020:

* Self-activating thermal gel for waterfall face dampness.

* Moss Glue.

* For extreme rainy hiking on slippery mountains, the Poncho-Parachute™

* Hiking boots that look like angry male skunks.

Take Antje’s brand new travel backpack. It’s a wonderful backpack, it was made in Colorado. But at the register it took us and our cashier (two adults and a senior) ten minutes and a phone call to find the complimentary rain sleeve. (Hidden in a pocket inside a pocket.)

Now, I like pockets. But not fifty pockets, not pockets inside of pockets. It’s tiring, unnecessary, and just like that tiny pocket in your jeans, you end up losing stuff that’s physically on your person, which causes double-anger. The backpack company’s called Osprey, and at some point, I believe, they had a Powerpoint presentation called “Pockets, pockets, pockets, pockets, pockets!” and the chairman applauded heartily with his big strong hands. Or maybe it’s just a Chinese manufacturer gone rogue.

Our most recent discovery was a secret compartment containing a five-liter plastic camel-pack that’s connected to a self-sealing hose which emerges from the backpack in a place I’ve now forgotten. Still, it’s pretty amazing. Five liters. Easily enough for an emergency bidet.

That’s not the only upside to pocket proliferation. We’ll be spending Christmas on the road, as well as Antje’s birthday. That makes for some tricky present situations. But you can bet where I’ll hide them!

Besides the backpack, the boots, and the seamless socks, we did buy a few other things. We now have water bottles and mosquito repellant and a first-aid kit. We have plastic cutlery and an inflatable travel pillow and one of those river bags that folds in on itself. We have a small pile of itty-bitties that will make our life more pleasant on the road. But, to the best of our ability, we restrained ourselves in la-la land. After touching more than a few sleeping backs of dream-like puffiness, we walked away.

So, a final warning to all travelers who’re planning to go to these stores: Be wise, be prudent. Don’t watch documentaries or drink coffee before you go, they’re too inspiring. And last, a little anecdote:

On the day of the typhoon simulator disaster, Antje’s parents were also there. But someone you might not have expected was there, too. He’s a chihuahua named Pipo*.
I don’t think he saw what happened inside that simulator. In fact, I don’t think he wanted to. But afterwards, as I was looking down at the pool, he came to my side.

He was trembling violently.

Because unlike us, Pipo knows that wind + rain in a box = 100% asinine. He knows that a little portable dog bowl made especially for trekking is not worth 29 euros. He knows that if you’re standing four stories above a pool then you should having walked up something to get there, damnit, that if you’re a believer in gravity, elevators are a blasphemy. He recognizes the superabundance of faux-dangers and real dangers at these stores for what they are: a danger cocktail. And so he trembles.

You can never have things under control. Just when you think you have things under control, your toenails fall off.

It was time for us to evacuate the store, and Pipo, his bladder.

I’m happy we did.

* Named after a Russian clown.


December 1, 2011

REI v. Globetrotter

REI v. Globetrotter

Everyone knows the feeling. You walk in with good intentions. You walk in meaning to buy hiking boots. After trying a few pairs on, though, you discover the hunting knife you’ve always dreamed of. It could easily kill a bear or cut down a tree, and it’s shiny enough to work as a mirror if you had to signal a ‘copter. Plus, people who kill bears in self defense always end up on the news. Nearby there’s a portable gas stove that you carry around for a while just to feel how light it is. Turns out it’s lighter than you could’ve possibly imagined. Then you discover a traveler’s towel the size of a silver dollar.

It’s only in the parking lot that you realize what you’ve done. It’s only then that you recognize your new hang glider for what it is: a hang glider. Also, it keeps trying to fly away on you. So you belay it to your new kayak and sit inside for a little think. “I’ll work a few extra hours next month,” you promise yourself, “and the next one, too. I’ll eat more ramen.” Unexpectedly you begin flying. Later, as you touch down on your lawn, your face turns red:

You forgot the hiking boots!

Situations like this happen every day at REI. In Germany it’s called Globetrotter. Their mission is the same:


These stores are the true “first stop” for most travelers, and there’s faux-danger all over the place.

At Globetrotter there’s a plexiglass ice box and a typhoon simulator, both for testing the thermal and waterproof qualities of jackets. That’s a good idea, isn’t it? I tried the typhoon simulator once, and it was a terrible experience. It’s all about the “jackets” in that department, and when there are too many jackets around, you develop extreme tunnel vision and fail to take into account any other portions of the human experience before stepping inside the simulator. As Antje hit the button, my heart was pounding and I hoped the goretex would hold. It did. But at about the 3-second mark I realized the goretex was delivering the water with perfect efficiency down my jeans and shoes, which were not only not waterproof, but wanted to keep the typhoon forever, as a souvenir. By the 10-second point they had.

One good thing about Globetrotter, though, is that if you’re soaked and don’t really feel like shopping anymore or being conversational, you can lean on the railing for a few minutes and look four stories down at the deep blue pool used for kayak trials and SCUBA training. It’s very peaceful. Then you can start shopping again, partly to keep warm.

It’s a writer’s duty to avoid cliches, but Globetrotter employees are about as German as [ your cliche here ]. They’re astonishingly well informed about their products and will cheerfully tell customers that approximately 40% of them are low quality “Scheisse.” You can actually be holding an expensive product in your hand, having crossed the mental “buy/not buy” threshold, only to be told, “This doesn’t work.” On the other hand, they usually follow up with something that I’ll call the “Qualität upsell”. When Antje and I decided we needed waterproof jackets, for example, we were steered away from the (expensive) jacket section toward the much cheaper poncho department. Once there, we got the Qualität upsell. It goes something like this:

Employee: “Do not buy this poncho, the stitching is not so good. Water can go into the poncho because of the stitching, they have made it wrong, unbelievable. But this one, the stitching is inside, the material is very thick, very heavy. It is more expensive, but you can use this absolutely forever, maybe for 50 years or something, maybe for your children.”
Customer: “Yes, I try it.”

Apparently jackets have an inherent flaw. Backpack straps can push water through a jacket, even “impermeable” ones. On the other hand, gigantic ponchos that billow up and over the backpack itself – a whole lotta fabric going on there – are a good way to ensure that you’re both waterproof and sensational.

My hiking boots were also an issue. My first two (cheaper) choices were rejected immediately by the sales rep. “Your feet will be wet, there is only goretex here, on this portion.” When a suitable pair was found, I was instructed to go home, blow-dry the leather until it was hot and the pores had opened up, and to then apply wax thoroughly – better twice. If not, the leather would crack. At this point Antje turned the boots over and asked (in German) if the soles would need replacing at some point. “Yes, you will have to replace the soles in ten years, there is absolutely no question.” The sales rep turned to me. After using these boots, he explained, for example on my first extended trek, I was to put the nozzle of a faucet inside and fill them to the top with ice-cold water. I asked if he could repeat that sentence in English for me. He did, and it registered the same. I asked him if he could maybe explain why I had to fill my boots with ice-cold water, what the purpose of that was. “Because this way,” he explained, “if there are any sodium crystals from your sweat then you can wash them out. If you do not then they will eat away the material inside.” Oh. That also reminded me: we should buy some hiking socks. I mentioned as much to Antje, who added that they should be seamless. Once, when she was in Norway on a scouts trip, her socks weren’t seamless and her toenails fell off.

Besides the fact that no one at REI would have been able to casually switch over into German to explain such a relevant product concern as the one above – “Lieber auf Deutsch?” – there’s another difference here. Had the REI employee even learned about that little sodium-related detail, he would have forgotten it, marijuana would have borrowed it from him. And it wouldn’t have mattered.

Because at REI the customer is KING, and if a king fills his boots with ice-cold water, it’s only because he wants to, because he’s never tried it before – not because it’s necessary. At REI, if Customer picks something up, it is perfect for him, it becomes pure gold, and he should buy it immediately. The employee is to the customer what a cloud is for an angel.

So if REI lets you sell yourself, goes along for the ride, and then rewards you for it at the end of each fiscal year, Globetrotter says the word “Qualität” until you begin to believe. Why buy low-quality “Scheisse,” anyway? What am I, a loser?


[Just after these messages, we'll be riiiiight back!]