I’m finally home. Actually, I’ve been home for a little over two weeks. I wasn’t supposed to get home for a while, but I got homesick. Well, it was more of a mixture of boredom, anxiousness about the future, and a lack of good Tex-Mex cuisine (they use ketchup instead of salsa in “Texas” restaurants abroad… an insult that forced me to return to my roots). I apologize for not responding to anyone over the past month as I have holed myself up in my room, and other than a few trips to a movie theater and a gym, I have become a hermit. My travels were a collage of colorful adventures across the globe, but my past week has been as devoid of passion, intelligence, and energy as an Ashton Kutcher movie. As you have not heard from me in a while, and I sadly have very few people here to talk to, this will be a long email. To help you make the most of your valuable time, I’ve divided this email into several sections:
1. My Travels
2. Movie/TV Reviews
3. Life in the USA
I miss all of you very, very, very much and I hope to hear from you soon. My email address over my trips ( email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> ) no longer works, so send me emails (love letters, advice, job offers) through email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> . I’ve been sending out postcards to many of you, but no one in Tonga is receiving them. I suspect they are searching them for “illegal” substances and inappropriate content. Perhaps volunteers in Tonga should look into whether they’re getting all their mail because I smell a conspiracy!
Expect some major changes to my tell-all website ( <http://koorse.com> ) over the next few months, as I reveal all the secrets of my Tongan experience for everyone to see! It’s going to be like Clarke’s anti-bush book… I will mention names (maybe YOURS!!!) and take no prisoners.
1. My Travels (pictures at <http://koorse.com/travels2> )
The last email y’all received from me was during my stay in north islands of New Zealand. I’m going to spend a few moments discussing the highlights of the rest of my journey through “Middle Earth” in case you make your way over there.
From Whitianga, we drove to Rotorua. The ridiculously long trip cost me my job as navigator of the “Keep Left” tour but New Zealand is a gorgeous place to get lost in. Rotorua was unique and exciting. It’s got so many geothermal wonders to keep a visitor entertained, if they can stand the smell. The rotten egg scent of Rotorua reminded me of the stunning sulfur lake of Niufo’ou and the rich palette of mineral deposit colors in the crater pools was breathtaking. My personal favorite was a portion of the Waimangu Volcanic Valley where there is a radioactive looking pool next to a spiky mountain spouting heaps of steam. The green lake had special wavy steam spikes of its own which only went up to a certain height and wandered towards the spiky geyser mountain. It eerily looked like wild spirits dancing in concert to a techno beat over a surface painted with nuclear waste. This geothermic night club had to be seen to be believed, and I think it was left out of the Lord of the Rings because it looked way too computer generated.
After Roturua, we hung out in Wellington for a few days. It was there that we made an incredible discovery. It began when we arrived in Wellington and Mark decided to stay at the ritzy James Cook Hotel and covered our huge expense. After realizing that I was running out of cash a few days previous to our arrival in Wellington (due to Tahiti!), I had begun to eat ham and cheese sandwiches instead of steak dinners. That night at the James Cook, I felt that Mark was working with a different budget than I was and it would be a problem. The next morning, after a great workout at the hotel gym and an spectacular breakfast buffet, I was prepared to discuss this issue with my homeboy. Mark had a surprise of his own – he too was running out of cash and would be cutting his trip short. Instead of skimping out on meals and room rates, he was living it up. He was keeping the trip short of sweet instead of long and painful. Mark taught me the proper way to travel! He shortened his trip to go to Bali after New Zealand for a week before heading home, and I decided to go to Australia after NZ instead of Thailand and Vietnam. I also had a couple more steak dinners, some incredible penne pasta dishes, and two more nights at the James Cook!
While I was in Wellington, I also decided to take a trip down to Whitiriea Polytech. All the classes I taught in Tonga were in correspondence with this NZ college and I had spent a large amount of my time talking/yelling at teachers there. I really wanted to see what they looked like and how “ghetto” the school was. It wasn’t too bad at all, and I had a great time attaching email addresses to actual faces. My biggest surprise was how many of my former students were at the school and performing extremely well. While I was in one office chatting with a professor, a group of 10 of my past students gathered outside and cheered for me! It was the greatest highlight of my trip. I ended having lunch at Burger King with them (their treat). It was awesome. I hope some of you teachers out there have a chance to see your students again because it is a very special treat.
From Wellington, we went to Picton in the South Islands via a ferry. We could feel the temperature drop during the ride and the scenery change from lavish green hills to white-tipped mountains. From Picton, we went to Greymouth and then to Franz Joseph to climb the glacier. It was the first time I had ever seen ice and snow. The pain of frostbite took away any pleasure from the experience. Surprisingly though, it was a really sunny day and I had to strip down to a t-shirt by the time we got to the top. The trip was astounding… the glacial ice moves so often that even the guides are never sure about the paths. It was definitely very dangerous, and I learned the hard way (many times, as I’m not a fast learner) that frozen ice can cut you up as well as rough cement can. Every time we took a trip over the bridges on the glacier, our guide would hammer in the nails holding it above deep crevasses. The way he would gingerly walk over the narrow bridge did nothing to reassure us, although some of the Euro tourists would be crazy enough to stop in the middle and take pictures of the way down. The passageways through the ice got more creatively twisted the further we went up the glacier and at times they looked completely unnatural. The view from the top of the glacier was unreal. It didn’t even seem like we were on the same planet as the valley below us.
From Franz Joseph, we drove to Queenstown. It’s built on a steep hill overlooking a very dynamic harbor and it was quite different from all the other places we had seen in the south islands. It was more about things to do than about things to see. My greatest regret on this world trip was not going parasailing, skydiving, or bungie jumping in Queenstown. Each activity is really expensive (neighborhood of $150-200 NZ) but in retrospect, it would have been worth it. We still had a good time with the gondola that takes you up to the top of the hill overlooking the entire city. The restaurant at the summit is fantastic and gives you a panoramic view of Queenstown. I really enjoyed the Wildlife Sanctuary where we saw a fascinating bird show and saw live kiwis being fed under ultraviolet light (they are nocturnal). I always thought the platypus was the weirdest looking animal on the planet, but kiwis are even stranger. It doesn’t have any wings and it lays eggs that are as big as it’s entire body! They reminded me of the strange seedy alien characters at the Tatooine bar in the first Star Wars movie (EP 4).
After Queenstown, we drove to Te Anau to check out the legendary fjords. The most popular fjord is Milford Sound, but just about every Kiwi (person not bird) we met recommended Doubtful Sound. After we made arrangements to take a cruise through the acclaimed Doubtful Sound, we took a trip to glow worm caves nearby. I don’t recommend glow worm caves unless you’re the type that can spend 30 minutes watching glow-in-the-dark stickers on a ceiling (and then ask yourself if you could do it in a claustrophobic, damp environment). The Doubtful Sound cruise took place on a very foggy day which was disappointing as we hadn’t encountered anything but sunshine on our trip, but then we realized that all the postcards they sold were pictures taken on foggy days so we really lucked out. The fjords were fantastic but ominous… endless mountains bordering the ship shrouded by clouds dangerously close to the ground. Coupled with the weather, I felt like we were on the set of a Sinbad story preparing for a battle with a sea monster or garuda. Or like a Mormon missionary before the “perfect storm” (see “Other Side of Heaven”). All we encountered were spinner dolphins who were eager to entertain us and bored seals relaxing on an island rock. At one point, our guide turned off the engines and told us to shut of everything so we could hear “the sound of silence”. I wish I could have recorded it for y’all… it was sweet 🙂
In Dunnedin, we visited an enclave of albatross and penguins. They were fun to watch, but the tour guide’s stories about their soap opera-ish lives was hilarious. They usually mate for life, but they sometimes switch partners and hold grudges. The albatross have huge spectacular wingspans, and our tour group waited for eternity hoping they would do something interesting. We would have our camera’s ready as soon as one feigned a desire for action, but it would flop down on the ground again. I began to suspect that it could see us through the one-way tinted windows, and was entertained by our growing disappointment.
When we finally reached Christchurch, we were tired of seeing any more attractions and spent some quality time in the city. After watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King one last time, we released our noble steed back into the wilderness of Ace Rent-a-Cars. It seems fit that we enjoyed great weather throughout our arduous journey but it was extremely wet and bitingly cold the day Mark left NZ for Bali and our “Keep Left” tour was disbanded. On another occasion I would have been remorseful of leaving the wonders of “Middle Earth”, but the icy temperatures made me eager to get to Australia.
My family almost moved to Australia in 1988 but we ended up staying in Kuwait until the Persian Gulf War violently jerked us back to the US. I have always wondered what my life would have been like had we moved to Brisbane 15 years ago. Maybe I’d have a funny accent! 😉
Arriving in Melbourne, I was astonished at how crowded everything was. While cities in New Zealand were very developed, they were definitely not so densely populated. I stayed with Kirsty and her family for nearly two weeks. Kirsty used to work in Tonga as a librarian last year, and now she’s writing epics for young adults. She’s going to be the next JK Rowlings, and I’m going to be an evil character in one of her books! Her house was like a habitat from the Melbourne Zoo, with 2 cats, 2 dogs, 2 chickens, and a cockatoo. Talking with her family made me realize that I was incredibly homesick. It wasn’t a gradual discovery but more of a recognition of a feeling that I’ve never had before but has been growing in me since the beginning of this year. When I figured out how much I wanted to be home, I changed my tickets again to get me there within a couple of weeks. Melbourne reminded me a lot of Austin, Texas (my favorite city in the entire world!) – lots of small narrow streets with cool little cafe and niche shops. There weren’t any weirdos roaming around or people in cowboy hats (funky boots were popular though) to capture that unique Austin flavor. I spent a weekend at Kirsty’s beach house in Anglesea and it was very relaxing. I visited the gaol (jail) and saw the armor of Australia’s greatest hero – Ned Kelley (a highwayman and a criminal mastermind). The Melbourne zoo was massive and they had lots of cool animal enclosures. My favorite was a monkey arena full of vines and hyperactive gibbons. The aerial acrobatics were fast and furious as two monkeys were duking it out for the love of their mother gibbon.
My trip to Sydney via a train was awful. The person who sat in front of me had explosive diarrhea and was rude and obnoxious. The train ride took more than 13 hours and it was miserable. I met with a lot of old friends when I was in town, and I took a long trip to the aquarium. The underground glass passage was a thrilling experience; massive sharks, manta rays, and huge multicolored fish swan above and around the tunnel. I took a boat to take pictures of the opera house, but it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be however the stunning bridge and the rich architecture of the celebrity houses on the harbor more than made up for it. I spent a lot of time enjoying the night life in Sydney, but it was dampened by my urge to go home.
Before I returned to the US, I spent one week in Singapore visiting friends I hadn’t seen since the Persian Gulf War. It was amazing how much everyone had changed and how all my childhood friends were getting married (I spent an entire night arguing against an arranged marriage for me!). Singapore is a very prosperous place with colossal buildings and modern skyscrapers towering over almost everything. I would not describe it as a beautiful country although it is clean and well-kept; calling it sterile seems more appropriate. As a hub of business in Asia and Europe, there were many choices for dining and shopping. I spent a lot of time at an area called Little India which had a plethora of restaurants and bazaars from the Indian subcontinent. My favorite place was the Sim Lim Square building which is a gadget paradise. I spent countless hours searching its six floors of hundreds of electronic stores for bargains on technology I had never even heard about or imagined.
On April 26th, I finally arrived in Houston, Texas and into the loving arms of my parents. My arduous journey was over! I still have tons of miles left on my world trip package, so I may squeeze out a trip around the US before it expires. I’ve seen the world, but I am excited about seeing the rest of my country!
2. Movie/TV Reviews
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten to see a lot of great movies. I had two 10 hour Singapore Airlines flights on my trip home, and it was phenomenal. You have your own screen and you can select any current movie (there were more than 20 to choose from!). Real movie theaters are pretty sweet too.
Here are the reviews:
*Scooby Doo 2 – The Scooby Gang has taken a major hit in public opinion after Scooby and Shaggy screw up the grand opening of the Scooby Gang Museum. While the moral of the movie is good, the execution is terrible and it is not funny. The only draw is seeing Velma in tight leather. 1/5
*Mona Lisa Smile – A liberal teacher moves to a conservative all-female university and tries to show the girls that there is more to life than finding a good husband. Typical feel good Julia Roberts fare. She has a fantastic scene when she gets really angry and tells off her students (reminds me of my time at Tupou 🙂 ) and Kirsten Dunst is great as a mean-spirited self-absorbed snob. 3.5/5
*Big Fish – A skeptical journalist wants to know the truth behind the tall tales about his dying father’s storied past. While it starts off extremely slow, it was definitely my favorite movie of my trip. The magic of love and death in the film fit into my ideals and the art direction is great. 4.5/5
*Cold Mountain – Story about a woman struggling in the South while she waits for the love of her life (who she’s met and talked to only once) to return from the Civil War. Good story, couple of good twists, and a non-clichÈ ending. Renee Zellwegger turns in the only good performance of the show, and she is awesome. My least favorite actor of all time dies in this as well so it gets a bonus. 3.5/5
*Mystic River – A young girl’s brutal death forces her father and two old friends to reunite and reexamine their past. The performances in this film are flawless but I hated it more than any film I have seen in years. If you do not want to spend two hours glued to the screen and then three weeks in therapy, do not watch this film. 4/5
*Paycheck – Cool premise but Ben Affleck is suck. .5/5
*Cooler – Guy works as a “cooler” in a casino by using his innately bad luck to make people lose their money. But then he falls in love and his luck changes. This is not a happy/fun film. It is slightly messed up, and a little more brutal than it needs to be. 3/5
*Kill Bill Volume 2 – The Bride takes revenge upon the remaining members of the Viper Assassination Squad. Lacks the action and the gore of the first volume, but has a compelling story and fun characters. Fight between Darryl Hannah and Uma Thurman is the highlight and David Carridine (of Kung Fu fame) is awesome as Bill. 4.5/5
*Hellboy – Teenage crime-fighting demon tries to stop the end of the world while he makes moves on a troubled mutant flame-throwing girl. Cheesy story but lovable characters. Maybe the start of a franchise? 3.5/5
*Passion of Christ – Final days of Jesus Christ. The movie is pretty good, but on the gory side. Should be a hit in Tonga! 4/5
*Friends Finale – Not a good ending for a great television series. Ross, Rachel, Monica, and Chandler move on, while Joey gets his own show next year. 2/5
*Survivor All-Stars Finale – Gorgeous winner got a million dollars and got engaged to the runner-up. The runner-up was a genius in the way he controlled every other player in the game, but he made tons of enemies in the process. The tribal council pounded the runner-up to little bits, but he lost by only one vote. Great show! (4/5)
*24 Season 3 – All our main characters are either cannon fodder or traitors. Not all women are evil/stupid, and not all minorities get killed (at least not yet). All our theories about the show are blown apart just as easily as innocent people become collateral damage on the show. Makes no sense at all, but is still fun to watch. (3/5)
In the next few months, Spiderman 2, Shrek 2, Troy (ancient Greek city, not your chubby volunteer coordinator!), Van Helsing, I Robot, the Village, Cat Woman, Day After Tomorrow, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are coming out.
3. Life in the USA
Over the past two weeks, I have accomplished absolutely nothing. A year ago, I spent my time thinking about what to teach my students. Now, I spend my time thinking about what color iPod mini I should get and when will it arrive. I’m enjoying my online shopping options, but I think I’ll go crazy if I can’t find something more productive to do. I haven’t lived in Sugar Land for the past seven years and all my old friends have moved out. This place has gone from being a small suburb to becoming a bustling town. I feel like I’m in a new country, and this time I won’t be going through training (I’m getting homestay with my parents though… joy). This is my new adventure!
I walked by the Manhattan Bagel Company in my neighborhood the other day and noticed it was going out of business. I had my first job there cleaning toilets and making bagels. Turns out that because of the low-carb craze, not too many people were interested in bagels these days. My father and I started doing the Atkins diet (low carbohydrate, high fat and protein) a couple weeks ago and it’s been fun. I did it mostly to be his support, but he’s only lost 5 lbs while I’ve lost more than 20. It’s interesting how popular this diet is now and how many restaurants are changing their menus.
I paid $200 for a gym membership a few days ago. It was the cheapest price I could find, which is shocking considering I paid $2 a month in Tonga. The gym is fully equipped with free weights and every single machine you can think of. However, the one thing I really miss about Tonga is the hardcore crowd. With my tattoo, I look like the toughest thing in the gym and that’s absolutely ridiculous. I growled on my last set of bicep curls, and everyone looked at me like I had issues. I definitely do, but being dedicated isn’t one of them.
One of my issues is a lack of transportation. Both my parents have 8 to 7 jobs and they need their vehicles. That’s ok, as I’m a little nervous about getting back on the Texas roads. What I’m shocked about is the lack of sidewalks to allow me to get anywhere without crossing a 4 lane highway. I’m looking forward to escaping my pedestrian prison once I get myself a set of wheels! I miss being near the ocean and my kayaking trips.
Television is awful. I’ve flipped through so many reality TV shows over the past two weeks that I now find my neighbor’s yard work fascinating. That’s reality for me. Searching for a job on the internet while looking at the unemployment rate go up is my reality right now. The news disturbs me far more often than it ever did. I’ve begun to question the agenda of the media and the spin they put on things. Was it ever objective or was just my imagination? The news definitely affects me more here than it did in Tonga where I felt detached from everything going on around the world. Again I feel bombarded by advertisements telling me what to buy, how to look, and where to go. I am overwhelmed.
When I talk to people, they ask me about Tonga. It’s so difficult to put two of the most amazing years of my life into words. Things that I no longer find unique or special after being accustomed to them in Tonga are subjects of astonishment and wonder. The things that I find incredible do not seem to faze people. I feel like I no longer share a common vocabulary with those around me. It’s almost like God added a few new colors to my palette for me to paint my history, yet I’m the only one who can see them and know what makes them special. It’s so weird that it’s disturbing. I’ve changed so much in such a short time but my peers (who’ve either been working or going to school) haven’t changed at all. I enjoy the company of others, but I feel more comfortable alone right now. Actually, I’m fine until I realize that I am alone.
I’m also facing a small identity crisis. In Tonga, almost no one would ask you about your job. Here, the first thing people ask me about is my current occupation. People define themselves by their work. At this moment, I am unemployed. I have a resume but I have no idea what I really want to do in the future or with my life. I’ve never been in this situation before and it’s almost always on my mind. The ambiguity is never a pleasant thought.
I miss the taste of coconut cream in my food, and my wonderful neighbors. I miss the superstar status, and my cat ‘Avoka. I miss students knocking at my door, and the loud broken beep of the UPS in the Tupou server room. I miss the smiles of strangers, and the flicker of the eyebrows to answer every question. I miss the singing at church and the squealing of pigs before a kai pola. I miss the flirtatious nature of the girls, and their sexy gold teeth.
But I’m in the USA now, and there’s no place I’d rather be. This is the only country in the world where I feel like I can work my tail off and have a good chance of being successful; that’s something that few places can boast about. In this country, I can have my American dream. I may have been away for two years, and I may have a long journey ahead of me. This is my new adventure!
Now would you like fries with that?