I'm sitting on the bed of a backpacker's (hostel) in downtown Wellington. The place could be described as a rat hole. Only you don't bring your two small children to spend the night (actually, 2 nights) in a rat hole, so I won't label "Wellywood," (yes, that's its real name) until we after we leave. Our tiny cell - I mean, room - includes a double bed (for the kids) and a single (for me). The walls are painted pea green and yellow and un-decorated with scuffs, nicks and paint chips. The tan carpet is frayed and stained. The bathroom's down the hall and appears clean, although I haven't showered there yet, so maybe I should reserve judgement for later.
We weren't supposed to stay here. I booked us online into the YHA (Youth Hostel Association) hostel a couple blocks away. The 300-bed mix of dorm-style and private room accomodation has a reputation as one of the best hostels in the world, with clean, new facilities, spacious common areas and en suite rooms. Long before I planned this trip, I'd clipped a newspaper article about the world's best youth hostels (which serve all ages, by the way), and the Wellington YHA lay at the top of the budget lodging pile (another's in Fiji).
But when the kids and I arrived at the YHA, fresh off the bus from the Wellington airport, the desk clerk started typing, looked up at me and said, "We have a problem." (I've heard this sentence so many times during our travels, the next time I hear it, I'm going to hurl). Of course we do. It wasn't like we had an Easter egg hunt to scurry to within the next half hour. The clerk said, "We booked a 4th person into your room, and we can't allow children to stay with an unknown person. I can't find any other rooms that'll suit you. Let me call another hostel." So YHA refunded my money and booked us a family room at Wellywood. More like Welly-hood. Sparkling common areas? The crowded kitchen, with its dim lighting and heavy cooking oil smells, feels like a speak-easy for young hippie wanna-be's. This is not the Tiki Lodge of Taupo, or even the Rainbow Lodge (which are nice hostels). I've stayed in both places and would stay there again. I'll be pretty happy to exit, Stage Left, from Welly-hood.
We caught the #14 bus just in time to make it to Otari-Wilton Bush Park around 11 a.m. for the egg hunt. It's the only thing that motivated Fiona and Finley to keep moving through Wellington. The idea of running around collecting plastic eggs filled with chocolate and jelly beans is a powerful carrot before my sweets-hungry ponies.
We wound through the hills of Wellington (Kiwis shorten the city's name to Welly), around and around, up and up. Fi and Finn got quiet – they were tired from a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call to catch our 8:15 flight (my flatmate deserves an awards for not only piling 4 kids into a car and taking us to the Tauranga airport, but making the trip twice, because I'd forgotten my purse – with money and ID on a kitchen chair. Thankfully, you can check in for your domestic flight in New Zealand without any form of ID whatsoever. Also, the smaller airports have no metal detector and no pesky control of liquids and gels. It's flying nirvana).
The Strangers on the Bus
Anyways, on the bus sat another family with 2 young children. Mum wore groovy brown striped corduroy pants, black sweater and paua shell earrings. Dad wore a black jacket and white cap with a Nike swoosh. 2 little blonde girls sat next to their parents, wearing pink rain coats. I don't know about you, but I sometimes make up stories about people I don't know. "They're a Kiwi family on holiday," I thought. "Maybe visiting from one of the suburbs. Maybe they're going to the park, too." The bus stopped at the park, and I shuffled Fiona and Finley out. "This is where we need to look for Amanda," I said. Amanda's a friend of a friend who used to live in Spokane. She and her Scottish husband moved to Wellington with their 4 children about a year ago. Groovy pants mum and Nike cap dad heard me talking and said, "Oh, we're here for the egg hunt, too. We can find it together." Imagine that. We walked a path through a thick fern forest displaying at least a dozen variations of the color green. We ended where we started, then took another path, this time, the right one, to find Amanda, her kids and parents waiting in a clearing near a stream. 8 kids, ranging in age from 2 to almost 8, scampered about the grass and the bush, collecting plastic and real eggs (Finley tossed one of the latter after we told him it was a regular 'ol egg). I chatted with the "bus couple," Rufus and Nicola, learning he's from the U.K., and she's a Kiwi. They take the bus because neither of them drives. "I still haven't gotten around to getting my license, although I should," said Nicola. The encounter made me think differently about the strangers on the bus, who aren't actually strangers. They're trailing threads of connection we can't always see.
Bonus: Amanda's parents brought graham crackers, so I got to eat a s'more.
Te Papa, or the 4-hour Play Place
Next stop, Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum of history, culture, nature and science. The kids and I have toured museums worldwide (with varying degrees of success), and Te Papa wins the prize for most family-friendly. The place has dozens of interactive exhibits, including a house that shakes as if there's an earthquake (Fi and Finn went in 3 times, which should prepare them for our trip to Christchurch later this week); a kids' zone with hula hoops, where Finn shook his little booty and kept the hoop circling for a minute or 2; a Pacific Islands display with drums and ukuleles (and a brilliant staffer who sang and played "If I only had a brain" on the ukulele for the kids. Anna told us she grew up in the States, in Georgia. "But you don't have the accent," I said. "Oh no, we didn't want that," said Anna. "It doesn't make you sound very smart."). Here's the wacky part about Te Papa: It's free. That's right, free. You pay a donation that's truly, really voluntary, unlike some of the so-called "donations" I've seen at tourist sites in Europe, where a box with "donations" is staffed and you're refused entry if you decline to "donate." Could've been something lost in translation. The nice folks at Te Papa even walked with us, minutes after closing, to retrieve Fiona's jacket. She'd left it in Samoa during ukulele practice.
My Dinner with Finley
By 6:30, the kids and are I starving. I checked out an Indian restaurant, hoping the promise of naan bread's enough to convince them to eat some mildly spicy chicken curry. No go. Fi and Finn, will, however, eat at a Malaysian restaurant, after seeing pictures of meat on sticks (satay). Nothing like meat on a stick to lure kids to the table. I ordered Tom Yum soup with prawns. "Medium spice okay?" asked the server. "Sure," I said, thinking the soup would be spicy but bearable. And it was, until about the 6th slurp. That's when something smoky constricted my airway. "Mommy, your eyes are watering," said Fiona. "Uh," I said. "The soup is spicy." I'd already gulped all my water and was trying to mitigate the myster spice/smoke with rice. I was hungry, and the soup did taste good. I powered through, finishing the small bowl with a sense of pride. It's gonna take more than a little esophageal tightness to separate me from Tom Yum. The kids were still hungry after 3 meat skewers apiece, so I ordered another half-dozen satays. Fiona hoovered through her food and sat back. Atta girl. Chip off the 'ole block. Finley tapped me on the shoulder and mumbled, "Mm, wht I'm spos'ed to do wth ths?" Finn's cheeks were chock full of lamb. He'd stuffed his mouth, thinking dinner was an eating contest. Everything's a contest with Finn. "Finley!" I barked. "You put too much in your mouth!" Finn asked, "Whr do I put it?" "Grrr...Keep chewing," I ordered.
Poor Finn. He half-bit down and tears welled in his eyes. "I can't," he said. "Oh, alright, spit it on your plate." Gross. "Now get a napkin and cover it up," said Mama Drill Sergeant. Finley will make some lovely girl a fine dinner date one day. Or his eating habits will remain so poor no one will ever dare sit across the table, unless she, too, is a competitive eater.
Where Are We?
I speed-walked the kids a block to our hostel, Wellywood. Only I wasn't seeing it. I stopped to study a map under the lights of a closed shop. A passerby who saw us stopped and asked, "What are you looking for?" He told us to walk the opposite direction of where I was heading. So much for my stellar sense of direction. I've led us through Paris, Cape Town, Melbourne, Sydney... but I can't find my way around Wellington. It's okay – the locals are very friendly.
Speaking of the Locals
By the time we returned to Welly-hood, it was 8 o'clock. The kids and I were, as they say here, "stuffed," or "knackered." Both. I asked the front desk clerk if we were likely to find anything open for breakfast in the morning, since it would be Easter Sunday. "Doubtful," he said. "I think everything's closed until 1 o'clock." Bugger. The kids and I wouldn't survive on 2 ginger biscuits and 2 lollies until the afternoon. There's a grocery store about 5 blocks away. I would have to bring 2 whinging, dog-tired kids to the store. It's what you do when you're traveling alone with littleys. Off to New World supermarket. "Can we go in our p.j's?" asked Fiona. "Absolutely," I said. "Let's go."
I give Fiona and Finley heaps of credit for tonight – we were all knackered, yet they motored along with their speed-walking mama. I grabbed a basket inside the store and we hit the produce aisle. Then, "they" walked in: I spotted them between the bananas and the carrots. 2 people in full hair and makeup – one, sporting a turquoise mono-kini; The other, wearing a black and grey short skirt and top. "Wait a minute," I thought. "Those are guys!" Cross-dressers, or something. I fished my camera from my purse and followed them. "Come on, kids," I said. "It's like Halloween." Fiona asked, "Is it really Halloween?" Well, no. But these guys think it is. I snuck a couple pictures before Crossers turned around and posed for us. That alone was worth the cost of dragging 2 small kids to the grocery store after 8 p.m.
Welcome to Welly-hood. Enjoy the ride.