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On the Road to Queenstown and the Milford Trek

After leaving the Cedar Flats hut tramp, our plan was to spend a couple of days in Franz Joseph town. This on the west side of Mt. Cook and also has impressive mountains, glaciers, hiking, etc. Once again however, the weather interfered. We stopped at the ranger station in the center of town, and he informed us that a cyclone was on its way, and that it might be necessary to close the coast road. Not only that, the town was packed and there was no place to stay. And so we decided to push on. The road ran directly near the water and in places it was already washing over the rocks and approaching the pavement. In fact there had been another storm a week or so before and the road was partially washed away in a few spots. We got through without any issues however, and stopped for the night in another resort town, Wanaka. By then it was pouring and so we figured we'd spring for motel and a hot shower. Unfortunately the place was also fully booked, and the only room available was in a so called resort for $300. Resort was not exactly the name I would give to a rather basic, albeit clean room, but we felt we didn't have much choice. At that point we just couldn't face another night in our tiny van.

The next day was still rainy, windy and quite cold, and we spent it wandering around the crowded streets. Everything was overpriced, but we happened into a Subway, whose cuisine I had never appreciated as much as I did on that day. We must have spent a couple of hours there trying to stay warm and out of the weather. Nobody chased us which was a good thing. Given that the weather was still pretty dreadful, we didn't have much incentive to push on to Queenstown, where we had a reservation for the following night. Neither did we want to blow another $300, and so we ended up in a campsite by a river at the edge of town. Not wanting to cook dinner, and feeling relieved about saving the money, we managed to find a pretty decent Indian restaurant , and so the evening was not a total loss.

The weather finally did clear the next day and we drove on to Queenstown. We figured on a couple of days of R and R before our final trek to Milford. For those of you who don't know ,this is probably the most famous tramp of all in New Zealand, and Bill had to reserve it almost a year in advance. It is a four day, three night excursion staying in simple huts along the way.

Queenstown is now the premier extreme sports capital of New Zealand. It was full of young people into bungee jumping, white water rafting, mountaineering, parasailing, hiking etc. And it was overflowing with people in what was peak season. We dropped our van off at the airport and were practically giddy to unload it. I should mention that we had a bit of trepidation on turning it in, because Bill had dinged the back of it trying to cross one of the many narrow, one way bridges of the south island. Each of these bridges entails a game of chicken because although someone is supposed to have the right of way, it is often difficult to see them on the other side. Oh, and did I mention that there are no speed limits on these narrow roads. Every road says 100K. I guess they figure the terrain itself will slow you down, and if it doesn't, you'll likely fly off the road and no longer be a problem. At any rate, on one of those bridges Bill had to back up the van in a hurry, and managed to dent the rear slightly on a post. This was not the first dent by any means. It was apparent that others had done the same thing. He got a can of black spray paint and covered it so it was barely noticeable.

Of course the Wicked folk didn't see it. We got an Uber back to our motel in town, and it must have taken close to 40 minutes because of the traffic. This is a town of 10,000 people, but at least at this time of year, the end of February, it felt about 10 times that. After a couple of days of wandering and eating in expensive restaurants, we were more than ready to leave.

Main Street, Queenstown with Remarkables in background
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Gondola in town center with delta wing kites
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Harbor on lake in town
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The big picture
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Posted by jonshapiro 17:40 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes people postcards Comments (1)

Kerosene Creek

Our next stop was Rotorua, famous for its hot springs and geothermal activity. However on arrival, we found the whole area to be touristy and crowded, with many of the springs using their Maori history to attract the hordes. We were not interested, and figured that the hiking would be similar. And so, after asking a number of folks, we were directed to undeveloped Kerosene Creek. Though not exactly undiscovered, by the time we got there it was close to dusk and most of the soakers had left.

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Photo by Bill Wertz

The creek meandered through the forest creating small cascades over the rocks and pools of deliciously hot water, just deep enough for soaking. There were enough pools that privacy was usually assured. And yes, they did smell like sulpher, but that was a small price to pay. Although we were never sure whether the camping was strictly legal since the creek looked to be on a private logging road, nevertheless we decided to spend the night, and, as it turned out, the next as well. Nobody chased us out, and there were a few unmarked trails that went off into the forest so we spent the day exploring, in between long periods of hanging out in the creek. After several days on the road, it felt great to get squeeky clean. You know the feeling when the tips of your fingers get wrinkled after a long time in the bath. In this case, it was more that just our fingers. Even after two days it was hard to pull ourselves away.

It took Bill and I a while to get our sleeping and cooking routines down. I have been an insomniac for more years than I care to remember, but in many ways, Bill was an ideal sleeping partner. He would be out within 5 minutes of hitting the pillow, and my tossing and turning generally didn't bother him. Alright, after time went by he did insist on putting a long pillow between us so that I would not encroach on his side of the bed. Getting up in the middle of the night to pee was a somewhat arduous process as each of us had barely enough room to squeeze by one another. Often we would end up getting up at the same time. I know, more information than you needed to know. He was also in the habit of waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, but he was quiet enough not to wake me. Usually I would get up about 6:30 and sometimes he would have the water already heating for coffee. That went a long way in making up for his grouchy periods. I really can't complain, as I was very fussy about where we would camp. I never wanted to be right next to someone, and often we would drive a long distance just to find pristine spots. He was the designated driver and was always a good sport about going out of our way.

I hadn't given much thought about what sharing a very small van for six weeks would be like, but it sort of felt like a second marriage, minus the sex. And unlike a lot of second marriages, we are still good friends.

Posted by jonshapiro 16:07 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes people postcards Comments (4)

Tepoztlan, Mexico

After arriving at the airport in Mexico City, we took a bus to Cuernavaca where our friend Yolanda met us and brought us to her home in Tepoztlan. A story unto itself, we met Yolanda several years back on a boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. She is a professor of educational psychology in Mexico City, and when we told her we might be coming to Mexico, she encouraged us to spend a few days with her and her husband Carlos, also a psychology professor.

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Tepoztlan, about an hour a way from Mexico City, is a small town of perhaps 12,000 people. It is surrounded by mountains, and its steep cobblestone streets are home to a cosmopolitan mix of local indigenous folks, a number of expats, as well as artists and intellectuals such as Yolanda and Carlos, who choose to live here to get away from the huge city of Mexico.

Carlos was not feeling well when we arrived in late afternoon, and the following day Yolanda needed to go to university as the semester was just starting. We therefore had the day to ourselves, and spent most of it wandering the streets of Tepoztlan,

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checking out the local market,

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seeing the cathedral, and eating lunch at one of the more expensive hotels in town, which had a view overlooking the whole valley.

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Although Tepoztlan did not seem very touristy to us, Yolanda said that on weekends hoards of people descend on the town from Mexico. Luckily we were there during the week. Yolanda’s condo was a mile or two from the town center, but no matter, we took our time and walked it in both directions, stopping on both the way in and out in one of the ubiquitous ice creams shops with hundreds of flavors.

Jesus in ice-cream shop with flavors along side of him
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The following day Yolanda had the day off and took us Xochicalco, one of her favorite ruins an hour or so from Tepoztlan. More extensive then Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, it has several different levels and ball fields, pyramids etc. and we more ore less had it all to ourselves.

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The most impressive part was the observatory, which is actually located in a made made cave. It has a hole in the roof of the cave which lets in a shaft of light. During the solstice it lines up with the sun in perfect position, and acts as a calendar.

Taken with flash
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There was a guide at the entrance to the cave took us through, and knew just how to position us in the shaft of light to get impressive photos.

No flash this time
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The ruins had quite a spiritual feel to them, and as always, I imagined myself among the crowds of the ancient city during a pelota game. The winning coach considered it a great honor to be sacrificed to Itzacoatal, a plumed serpent that signifies the meeting of earth and sky.

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We left early the next morning for Mexico city, after spending a few hours on the phone to change our flight, as a big snowstorm was expected at Newark Airport on Saturday, our scheduled date of departure. We spent the day at the Frieda Kahlo Museum, Casa Azul, and nearby at the Trotsky museum, of particular interest to me, given my red diaper status.

And then it was back home for a week before our scheduled road trip to Santa Fe.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:59 Archived in Mexico Tagged people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (1)

Zipolite

After an enjoyable week in Oaxaca and surrounds we headed off to the coast. Rather than an 8 hour bus ride on windy mountain roads, we opted to take a small plane to Huatulco and then hired a cab to take us over to Zipolite.

View from the plane
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The Oaxacan coast between Huatulco and Puerto Escondido is one of the least developed parts of the Pacific coastline. Mostly it consists of small towns and fishing villages that are slowly drawing more tourists, but there are no high rise hotels as in Cancun. Zipolite is an old hippie hang-out that has a reputation as a laid back place where nudity is allowed. It turned out to be delightful, with plenty of eateries on the beach, small guest houses, and a very warm sea. It also is known as a place with dangerous surf and rip tides, although the swimming was generally excellent while we were there.

Our 7 room guest house was on a hillside overlooking the sea, and about a five minute walk from the beach.

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When we first arrived, two middle aged and rather out of shape and overweight couples were lounging around the pool buck naked. A bit of a shock, but they turned out to be quite ordinary and friendly folks who are more or less professional nudists. It was at least their third trip to Zipolite, but they frequent other nudist spots as well. Sorry, it seemed gauche to take their picture, although I'm sure they would not have minded. The small pool was a great place to sit around with a beer and cool off with or without your bathing suit.

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Needless to say, there was not a lot to do at Zipolite other than swim, sun, eat or drink, but that was fine by us. Our guest house owner was a gay,white, Mexican, who looked to be in his mid 40's. Apparently he had built the place with his partner, now separated. Most days he served us breakfast overlooking the pool, usually wearing only a skimpy towel.

In the five days we spent there we developed a bit of a routine. We would go down to the beach in the morning, around 10 or so and either return between 11:30 and 12 when the sun got too hot, eat in our little apartment, or go to lunch someplace along the beach.

After lunch we'd sit around the pool in the shade, or take a nap inside. By around 3:30 we walked down to the beach again for another swim.

More like 5 in this pcture
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And then it was back to our pool above the sea for sunset and a beer, and finally a walk to a restaurant, either on the beach or in the tiny town with small shops and restaurants on the only main street. The best way to get anywhere was to walk directly on the beach, although there was a dirt road that led through palm trees into town. That took longer and was more confusing. Our guest house was on one end of the beach, and so it was a bit of a walk to most restaurants, and to "main street," one block from the water. The nearby Alchemist was a frequent choice because the food was good, if a bit pricey by Zipolite standards.

Also on our side of the beach, was a spectacular set of rocks, with a large peephole to the sea, worn away over the years by waves and wind.

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Sunset was quite a show down here, as well as up at the pool.

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So what's with the nudity thing you want to know. Well of course, it was only some of the gringoes and gringas that were naked on the beach. It was an interesting thing to watch a middle aged, fully dressed Zapotec man selling coca frio to a naked gringa of indeterminate age. And it was a real mix of ages who were naked, all different shapes and sizes but only one color, or rather two, sunburn red or white. I'd say about 1/4 to 1/3 of the white people on the beach had shed their clothes, but there was no pressure either way. Sometimes I wore a suit, and other times I did not. Nobody cared either way.

I did begin to wonder just how it was that Zipolite got its start as a nude beach, and that it somehow managed to continue this way in a very Catholic and conservative country. It all began in the 60's, naturally, when a small group of hippie types showed up in this tiny and remote backwater, at least at that time. Many of them didn't bother to wear clothes. Some of them stayed and others left, but gradually as the town developed into the low key resort that it is today, the locals decided to retain the optional nudity. As in most of Oaxaca, the people are Zapotecs, and the central government more or less leaves them alone to run things as they see fit. I would guess it was more of a business decision to continue the clothes optional policy. There are of course, other small towns and resorts along this coastline, but Zipolite is the only one that allows nudity. How much the nudity helps their business is an open question, a bit like asking if the growth in Colorado is due to legal weed. I don't think it's hurting things.

On our last night we were hoping to make it to the other side of the beach, because there was a bar on top of a promontory which had a reputation for spectacular sunsets. As you can see by the picture above, we didn't make it. That sunset was on our side of the beach, but it's hard to imagine anything better. We did however, make it to our favorite restaurant, Fish and Love, which which is located just off the beach at the far end of town.

Debbie and Nanette in front of restaurant
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It is owned and run by a friendly local family. In the morning, until mid-afternoon they fish, and then return to prepare and cook what they catch. It couldn't have been any fresher, and they made a damn good margarita to go with it. If that wasn't enough, it was an incredible bargain.

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As in other restaurants people wear clothes, though we were early and thus the only customers. They did tell us that they had a popular clothes optional night once a month.

Naked Fish and Love, what could be better.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:39 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches people food Comments (0)

Excursions from Oaxaca

After a few days of wandering the streets of Oaxaca, we were ready to go a little further afield. We went on a day trip into the Sierra Norte with a small tour group to the Zapotec villages of Lachatao. It took a couple of hours of driving on the curvy mountain roads to reach the village. It is a poor area, but the indigenous people there and in several other small villages, are trying to attract eco-tourists, and have constructed a number of bungalows just outside of town. Our first stop was a small anthropological museum, largely organized and opened due to the efforts of our guide, Oscar. After that, we went on a hike to what we were told was an ancient ceremonial place on nearby Jaguar Mountain. The hike was billed as a ritualistic inner journey, and that exactly what it was. Oscar, though not indigenous, had lived in the village for a number of years, and was convinced that he had found one of the original sites of Zapotec civilization on this flattened mountain. It was not long or difficult, perhaps two hours, but we made a number of stops en route for him to explain certain things to us about the culture and the religion, which was based on worshipping the spirits of the mountains, wind, and animals. We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate on the sounds and smells of the forest. Oscar talked about the Zapotec way of life as being in harmony with Tao, or the Way, similar to the ancient Chinese religion. I'm not sure whether this accurately described the Zapotecs, who apparently were also into human sacrifice, or if it was a reflection of Oscar's time living in San Francisco. When we got near the top, which had wide views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we were instructed to lie down in a certain spot and glance backwards over the horizon, and then describe the colors we saw. The predominant color was supposed to be indicative of a certain aspect of our mood and personality. I forget now what my color was, or its meaning.

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We then gathered around what looked like an ancient fire pit and sent out positive energy to the other folks on the hike, and then in widening circles to all living beings. It was a bit hokey, at least to me, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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On our return, we had lunch in the town's only "restaurant," prepared by local village women. Then some of us climbed up to the roof of the old church, giving us another great view of the mountains beyond.

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Oscar on church roof
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View from church roof
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The next day we hired Luis, to take us on a tour of Monte Alban and a few other nearby points of interest. Having lived in LA for several years, his English was good, and he turned out to be quite personable and informative.

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Monte Alban is one of the oldest ruins in Mesoamerica. It goes back to 500BC, although it was abandoned some 1600 years later for unknown reasons. Like the ceremonial site in the mountains, it is located on top of a flattened mountain with a commanding view of the Oaxaca valley below. It is obviously quite large, and while some of it has been reconstructed, parts of the pyramids are original. Getting there early was a good move, as the place was practically empty.

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Pelota field
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Local man at the ruins
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After Monte Alban, we stopped at a Mescal factory, just out of town. It was interesting to see how they made it from roasted agave.

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Of course we had to sample the product. Unlike most liquor, the newer stuff, made from wild agave, was more expensive than the aged ones, most likely because they are made from cultivated agave.

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Then it was on to see the Tule tree. Said to be 1600 years old, its circumference is immense, at least 50 feet or so.

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We stopped for a late lunch at favorite buffet that Luis knew. They had all four different moles, as well as a huge assortment of other meats, fish, vegetables etc.

Finally we ended the day by going to a weaving "factory." It was very much a family run business, and although they sell some of their handwoven rugs right there, they sell more at the Santa Fe Indian Market during the summer. We wouldn't see them there, but Santa Fe was going to be our destination in a few weeks.

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It was a long day, but I couldn't resist taking a shot of these kids on the way back to our hotel.

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Posted by jonshapiro 08:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes mountains people food tourist_sites Comments (5)

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