Communion Of Dreams

Matter of perspective.

This will probably come across as a little brag-y. Sorry about that. Not my intention.

The other day I got a phone call. For Legacy Art. The gallery we closed May 31, 2004. Yeah, more than ten years ago.

And after I got through abusing the telemarketer over this point, I got to thinking about the many changes in the last decade.

First thing I should say up front: I’m at a low point in my bipolar cycle, as I’ve noted recently. That means that my self-image isn’t all that great. This isn’t a debilitating depressive episode or anything — I’ve managed to continue to work steadily, as well as enjoy the usual aspects of life. So not horrid. But it is sometimes difficult to not focus on the things which haven’t gone well, and my own failings which are often a component of that. And one of those failings is a sense of not accomplishing much, of being lazy, of wasting my time and the time of others.

Anyway. I got to thinking about the changes in the last decade. And surprisingly, more positive things came to mind than negative ones. That fed on itself, and I found myself making a mental list of the accomplishments.

In no particular order or ranking: wrote two books (one of them as co-author). Most of the way done with another. Visited Wales. And Argentina. And New Zealand. And Italy. Wrote several thousand blog posts. Became something of an authority on small caliber ballistics. Wrote several hundred articles and columns for publication. Was the full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Have done conservation work on something more than a thousand (that’s just a guess … may be closer to two thousand) books and documents. Made some great hot sauces. Raised, loved, and then said farewell to a great dog. Tried to be a good friend, and husband. Tried to help others when I could.

We all fail. We all have things we’ve done that haunt us in one way or another. Sometimes, those fears and demons overwhelm. Me, at least.

I may or may not be at a turning point in my bipolar cycle. But I’m glad that at least I can think of things I have accomplished. That helps.

Back to work on St. Cybi’s Well.


Jim Downey

Looking backwards.

Remember this?

It's a backwards book!

It’s a backwards book!

Well, after wrapping up the big conservation job last week, I promised myself I’d take some time this week after the holiday and do the rest of the edition. Here’s where I’m at as of this afternoon:

Gathered & folded.

Gathered & folded.

Each stack there is one of the 11 sections of the book.  That’s actually 16 copies, which is the edition of 15 (remember, one book is already done) plus two spares. I’ll “punch” the spares (poke holes in the section spines for sewing) but then stick them into storage as a reserve in case a copy is damaged before I can get it to the client.  Collating and folding is probably the slowest part of the whole binding process.

One additional note — see that thing there in the lower right? It’s this:

Pounamu was highly prized by the Maori for use in making tools and weapons. For generations it was fashioned into chisels, axes, and adzes. While I very much appreciated the beauty of the many pieces of art I had seen created using Pounamu, for me the most memorable souvenir of the trip would be a bookbinding tool called a ‘folder’ made of greenstone. I didn’t expect to find one ready-made, but rather to find a piece of the stone which I could shape to my own use.

And I did. It’s about 5″ long, roughly an inch tall and an inch wide, slightly tapered towards the ends. One side is already highly polished, the others relatively smooth. I’ve already used it as is, and need to spend some more time with it before I decide whether it needs more shaping or not.

I’ve actually decided that the piece is perfect just as is for exactly this purpose: folding thick sections of new paper.

Tomorrow I’ll punch the sections and then start sewing the books.

Just thought I’d share that.


Jim Downey

PS: there are currently only 8 copies of this edition unclaimed. Full info here.

Leaving pennies.

Slightly cool and breezy this morning, the light rain we’d had having just moved out of our area. The dog trotted ahead, checking all the usual places for ‘messages’ left by other dogs.

“Oh, look!” My wife paused a moment, bent over and picked up a penny. It was shiny from having been rubbed on the road surface by passing cars.

* * * * * * *

So, somewhat surprisingly, and definitely suddenly, I’m going to Rome in a couple of weeks.

Yeah, Rome. As in Italy. And to environs thereabout.

You’re right – I haven’t mentioned this before. No long lead-up, as with our trip to New Zealand last fall. That’s because it just happened. Like three days ago.

So, here’s the story: A good friend is a professor of classics at a major university. He’s well known in the field, has written books and everything. Anyway, most summers he takes one or more groups over to Italy for various seminars and teaching sessions. Sometimes it’s a bunch of students from his school, gaining some extra credit/experience. Sometimes it’s high school instructors in Latin and history. It always sounds like he has a good time, and I’ve enjoyed his stories from some of these trips.

Well, as sometimes happens, at the last minute there’s an opening in the trip he’s taking next month. Since they’re committed to having a certain number of people along . . . you can see where this is headed.

Consequently, in exchange for being a warm body and helping out with some minor ‘roadie’ duties, I get to take the open seat on the bus, as it were. Minimal cost to me (which is a good thing, given how things have gone the last couple of years). Sometimes there are advantages to being self-employed: it was easy for me to convince my boss to give me some time off at such short notice.

So, yeah, Rome. With a truly expert guide to show me (and the rest of the group) the sights. Granted, I don’t really have the knowledge base to get the most out of this particular Workshop, but hey, I’m a quick study.

And while the teachers are spending time on the hardcore history stuff, I’ll have time to explore, learn, write. Such a trip will provide plenty of fodder for me to draw on for future novels.

* * * * * * *

Slightly cool and breezy this morning, the light rain we’d had having just moved out of our area. The dog trotted ahead, checking all the usual places for ‘messages’ left by other dogs.

“Oh, look!” My wife paused a moment, bent over and picked up a penny. It was shiny from having been rubbed on the road surface by passing cars. She stuck it in her pocket.

“I still do that,” I said, nodding to her pocket where the penny had disappeared.

“Pick up pennies?”

I chuckled. “Nah. Toss them out now and then. I figure others will pick them up, and for a moment feel lucky. We all need a bright spot now and again, and I figure it helps my karma.”

The dog, turning from his latest message-spot, looked back at us as if to say “C’mon guys, let’s get going.”

Jim Downey

Turn! Turn! Turn!*

This is . . . difficult.

Difficult because it is hard to see myself this way. Difficult because it is largely taboo in our culture. Difficult because I’m still struggling with it. Difficult because reality sometimes comes as a shock.

Last year was a hard year for me, as I said earlier:

Because 2011, while it had some good things about it, was mostly just painful. Literally. In many regards, I’d just as soon forget the bulk of it.

But I hadn’t quite realized just how hard it was until confronted with some numbers yesterday. Those numbers were on our tax returns, collected from the accountant.

Yeah, like I said, taboo. You’re not supposed to talk about income in our culture, at least within certain limits. I won’t stray too far over the line, but I will say that there was a reason that I was feeling frustrated and angry last year about the response to my writing efforts. That reason amounted to having an income so low that after deductions, we owed *no* taxes to either the state or federal government in the final analysis. Well, we had to pay the ‘self-employment’ tax, but that’s it.

Do you know how little you have to make in order to not pay any income tax? Well, trust me, if you don’t, you don’t want to, at least not by direct experience.

It was due to a combination of things. The recession had squeezed my book conservation business all along, limiting the money people had for something so discretionary, but last year was the worst. And the pain from my intercostal tear was very limiting until very recently. And I sunk way too much time and energy into getting Her Final Year ready for publication and then trying to promote it. Yes, I accept my own culpability for this, and I am not trying to blame or shame anyone else.

Which is why it is difficult to talk about. But facing the hard, cold reality helps me to understand some things. About my self. About my motivations and behavior over the last year or so.

Obviously, I got through the last year OK, thanks to a variety of resources I had. Hell, I was able to travel to New Zealand (a commitment made when things were more flush). And I’m happy to say that so far this year things are looking up. My book conservation work has picked up. My intercostal tear is *slowly* getting better.

And I’m actually selling books. Not too many of Her Final Year yet, but a decent start with Communion of Dreams.

Thanks to all who have helped to change the dynamic. Seriously, just knowing that people find the books worthwhile – that they are willing to tell others about them, write reviews, et cetera, makes a huge difference. I very much appreciate it.

Jim Downey


Scenes from a trip: they’re taking the choir to Isengard!*
December 20, 2011, 12:48 pm
Filed under: movies, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Tolkien, Travel, YouTube

Today is cloudy and a bit grim. No, I’m not talking about being in New Zealand. I’m talking about here, in mid-Missouri. The winter solstice is just a couple days away. And I think I have been putting off this last installment of our New Zealand adventure because I don’t really want it to be over. It was, after all, a far green country.

* * * * * * *

We had breakfast, then waited with other members of the group who were going on a bit of a private tour. No, nothing connected with the Choir. This was a LOTR tour.

Most of my friends and readers will understand exactly what that means. But just in case . . .

Lord Of The Rings was a three-movie adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s epic of the same name. Most people know that it was filmed in New Zealand by director Peter Jackson. And as a result, there is lots of LOTR-related tourism throughout the country. You can easily spend weeks in New Zealand, just doing that. There’s a great book on locations from the movies, if you’re interested.

We opted for occasional mentions from Helen, our Choir guide, combined with this 4 hour specific tour with Pure Glenorchy.

The vehicles rolled up. Four medium-sized SUVs. The drivers/guides were all pleasant, typical Kiwis. We had some laughs over the absurdity of our fandom for the movies/books. But hey, this was probably the only time we were going to make it to New Zealand, right? And where else would you get to:

Visit Lord of the Rings Locations and take a journey with us deep into Middle Earth. Explore Isengard, Wizards Vale, Lothlorien Forest, the Dead Marshes, The Misty Mountains, Ithilien and many more. Stories and secrets will be shared by guides who have a great insight into the filming.

* * * * * * *

We rolled down the highway, heading towards the hamlet of Glenorchy. This is a place about 45km from Queenstown, and is so small it has no police force, two pubs, and a “library” the size of a garden shed which is open two hours a week. When the weather is nice. No, I am not kidding. The Queenstown folk consider it something of a hippie retirement community.

It is also quite beautiful. Here’s a shot looking towards Glenorchy from the highway leading in:

* * * * * * *

As it happened, the driver of our SUV was Mark, the owner of the tour company. Young (late 20s/early 30s), outgoing, and well informed. He knew the locations and a lot of the history of the films quite well, and had fun telling us about related stories. How many people took time off from their regular jobs to go play extras in the films, since the pay was good, they were well fed, and got to be outdoors. How the caterers learned to feed the extras playing Orcs separately from the rest of the crew, since said extras tended to run roughshod over the food like the characters they portrayed. How the local rancher who owned a lot of the property where the filming was done managed to make a tidy profit off licensing his land for use, and so build quite the little odd mansion in the middle of nowhere. And so on.

We stopped first here:

From the best I can tell, we’re standing just about where the tower of Orthanc was in the movies.

And here’s a shot of the current filming for The Hobbit:

Yeah, you can’t really see much. Sorry. But you didn’t see it here first.

* * * * * * *

We next went into the Mount Aspiring National Park, a primeval red beech forest. The location is protected such that it is illegal to take anything out of the park, or to leave anything in it, for environmental reasons.

Which presented some real challenges for the film crews which filmed the scenes with the attack of the Uruk-hai and the death of Boromir, according to our guides. But we saw where Boromir died, then had a pleasant lunch.

Following that, it was back to Queenstown.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off things at the hotel room, Martha and I decided to go up the gondola and enjoy the sights. Here are some pictures:

* * * * * * *

After tromping around Queenstown just a bit following our trip up the gondola, we got back to the hotel in time to meet the rest of the group for our last adventure: taking the TSS Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm.

The steam ship is about to celebrate its centenary, and is a delight to explore for anyone who appreciates old machinery. The trip across the lake was about just long enough to enjoy a pint of beer.

Dinner at the Walter Peak High Country Farm was quite enjoyable, and the view of Queenstown across the lake at sunset gorgeous. The display of “working” dogs and sheep sheering was of little interest to me. I’ve seen both done before, and better, and not at the end of a long trip when I was both tired but not really wanting to leave yet. I decided to forgo another beer on the return trip across the lake.

* * * * * * *

When we got back, there was a final gathering in the hotel dining room for all of us on the tour. A bittersweet farewell not just because the tour was coming to a close, but also because the Choir was going into a period of dormancy. It had a good 10-year run, but now many of the key participants wanted a break. There’s nothing wrong with honest sadness at the close of any adventure, and not all tears are an evil.

* * * * * * *

The trip home was uneventful, less unpleasant than it could have been, even though it was incredibly long. I think that Monday for us was some 42 or 43 hours altogether, until we finally made it in the door and back to life as we know it.

Jim Downey

* From this, of course. Which kept running through my head the whole time we were in that beautiful valley where Isengard was located:

Scenes from a trip: beyond standing room only.
December 12, 2011, 9:11 am
Filed under: Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

The cold made the clouds that much more threatening. And sure enough, we had snow as we headed into the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

Dunedin is on the Eastern shore of the South Island. We headed almost due west towards Queenstown, which is on Lake Wakatipu, just a little ways inland from the West Coast, on the lee side of the bulk of the mountains. Getting there means winding on a lot of mountain roads, all of it through beautiful country. I was glad I wasn’t driving and could just enjoy the scenery (and not worry about road conditions).

We stopped at the small town of Arrowtown, an old gold-mining community not that far outside of Queenstown. It’s now mostly a tourist/vacation destination, and they’ve done a lot to maintain the historic feeling of the place. Many of the buildings date back to the early days of the town (mid-late 1800s), and there’s a ton of great little shops and restaurants/bars there.

* * * * * * *

I had been waiting to get to Arrowtown for one primary reason: Pounamu, the New Zealand nephrite jade which is also colloquially called ‘greenstone’. I mentioned that I had been on the lookout for some of this stone while in Dunedin. But Helen (our tour-guide) had said that Arrowtown was one of the best places to get the stone, and jewelry/art created from it.

I wanted a couple of pieces of jewelry as gifts. But I also wanted a rougher piece for my own, to fashion into a tool.

Pounamu was highly prized by the Maori for use in making tools and weapons. For generations it was fashioned into chisels, axes, and adzes. While I very much appreciated the beauty of the many pieces of art I had seen created using Pounamu, for me the most memorable souvenir of the trip would be a bookbinding tool called a ‘folder’ made of greenstone. I didn’t expect to find one ready-made, but rather to find a piece of the stone which I could shape to my own use.

And I did. It’s about 5″ long, roughly an inch tall and an inch wide, slightly tapered towards the ends. One side is already highly polished, the others relatively smooth. I’ve already used it as is, and need to spend some more time with it before I decide whether it needs more shaping or not.

Another good thing – while a small piece of greenstone fashioned into jewelry can be quite expensive, this large and relatively unworked piece was about $25. The perfect memento of the trip, as far as I’m concerned.

* * * * * * *

After doing our shopping, Martha and I settled into a nice little cafe and had a late lunch. The weather had mostly cleared off, and it was a pleasant time just sitting there and relaxing before rejoining the rest of the tour group.

* * * * * * *

We made one last stop on the way into Queenstown, at the Kawarau River bridge. It’s a gorgeous place, and also the first commercial bungee-jumping operation. No, I did not jump. Over 50 + over-weight + high blood pressure = bad idea to seek out high-G forces for fun. I’ve gone sky diving and done other crazy things when I was younger, and am happy to enjoy those memories as memories.

* * * * * * *

Queenstown is a lovely place. The city is well known as New Zealand’s center for adventure tourism. Its location on the edge of the Southern Alps means that it is well positioned for skiing, jet-boats, white-water rafting, and so forth, not to mention such mundane activities as hunting and fishing. It very much has the feeling of being a university town, say like Boulder CO, though there isn’t a university there.

We rolled into town, got to our hotel, located right on the lakefront. Got settled, then did a bit of exploring in the downtown area (which is quite small – just a few blocks total.) The choir had a rehearsal.

* * * * * * *

ML and I went over to where the choir was rehearsing, to get set up to sell CDs. It was a small but very warm & friendly church by the name of St. Peter’s. It was clear from the outset that the local Welsh community had gotten the word out about the performance, and a number of the church members were there to help us get settled into place.

This was to be the “farewell” concert for the tour. We couldn’t have asked for a better venue or crowd. The space was small enough that it felt very intimate. And it was packed to the gills. All the pews were filled. Extra chairs were put in the aisles. People crowded in the back, standing. One of the church members had to actually put a sign on the door announcing that the church was over-filled, and no one else would be admitted.

Not only was the space full, but the crowd was very enthusiastic, both with their applause and with their participation. I swear, the Welsh must have an extra gene which compels them to sing at any opportunity. That church was bursting with sound and love.

And we sold a bunch of CDs.

* * * * * * *

Following the concert, the choir was hosted to an informal reception in the church meeting hall. Refreshments and good company were served and savored.

I was exhausted as we walked the couple of blocks back to the hotel. Nonetheless, we stopped for a bit and enjoyed the fireworks being set off on the lakefront. It was Guy Fawkes Night.

Tomorrow would be our last full day in New Zealand.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: sights, sounds, tastes.
December 8, 2011, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel, Weather

The morning clouds promised rain. And they made good the promise.

* * * * * * *

We got up, breakfasted, then climbed on the bus for a bit of a poke around the sights of Dunedin. First we made a stop at the steepest street in the world (seriously – hard to tell from the pictures, but it’s pretty damned impressive). The story goes that the city was laid out by planners in London who had never been to New Zealand and didn’t think that the reports of the topography of the area could possibly be correct. So they just laid out everything in a nice grid, and let the locals cope best they could.

True or not, makes a good story.

* * * * * * *

Then we climbed up to Signal Hill overlooking the city. It was here that the clouds turned to actual rain, forcing not only the members of our group to run for cover, but likewise a vanload of students from the University of Otago who had a bunch of seismic sensors set up around the Centennial Monument.

We wound back down into the city, to the gorgeous Dunedin Railway Station.

I’m not usually a big fan of Victorian/Edwardian ‘gingerbread’ architecture – such ornate structures are a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes (even though our house falls into this category…). But there is no doubt that this station is a wonderful example of the period, and the level of craftsmanship on display in almost every facet of the building is remarkable and something I can respect. The large booking hall has an intricate mosaic tile floor made up of some 750,000 individual tiles, and looks stunning. Likewise, the contrasting black/white of the building’s exterior stone is very striking. The whole thing underwent extensive refurbishing in the 1990s, and shows it.

* * * * * * *

Following a couple of other stops, we got back to the hotel in time for lunch. Martha and I decided to go check out the Speight’s Brewery just around the corner, where they have a nice restaurant/cafe.

The lunch was good – and there was a whole lot of it, as we had come to expect. The beer was even better, on a par with most of the decent micro-brews I’ve had at brew-pubs in the States.

After, we did a bit of walking around, then went back to the hotel to rest before the late-afternoon rehearsal.

* * * * * * *

The rain started up again, and the temperature dropped. I got a little take-away Chinese food to have in the hotel room for when Martha got back from her rehearsal. There wasn’t going to be time to get a real meal before the concert that evening.

The concert was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the Octagon. It’s a beautiful old church, and certainly something to see.

But that night it mostly felt cold and almost aloof. The nasty weather kept attendance to the concert down, so it felt like the large space of the cathedral was empty. Further, there was a problem with the sound system, meaning that the usual chatter and introductions from the Choir Director couldn’t be understood through most of the space – even trying to project her voice didn’t work very well, and most people were completely befuddled as to what was going on. When the choir took a break in their performance, a lot of people thought that they were finished and just left.

My friend ML and I again tried to sell CDs. We failed dismally.

* * * * * * *

Following the concert, there was a very nice reception for everyone in the church basement meeting area. There we could actually hear what people were saying, and the whole atmosphere was warm and friendly, with tea and cookies/small cakes that were just delicious.

We stayed a while, headed out when the rest of the choir went to go. Though Helen, our guide, offered to make arrangements to have taxis on hand, Martha and I just elected to walk back to the hotel.

I decided to pop in to a little Greek place across the street from our hotel for a little something more substantial. The fellow who owned the place was friendly, but barely spoke any English. His Gyro was one of the best I’ve ever had.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: a bit of the ‘old country.’
November 25, 2011, 6:00 am
Filed under: movies, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

The cold & wind of the night before was part of a front moving in. So the morning came with a brilliant blue sky with few clouds and a significant wind chill.

* * * * * * *

Breakfast was . . . a disappointment. There was plenty of everything, but all of it was lukewarm. Here’s what I noted on Facebook at the time:

Bright & surly this morning. Our hotel specializes in gorgeous views and somewhat tepid breakfast. As this included the coffee, I’m not sure the trade-off was worth it.

One got the impression that the Peppers Resort wasn’t really set up to handle groups.

We packed up, loaded up the bus, popped down to the shore of Lake Tekapo where there is the Church of the Good Shepard, a popular tourist spot. It’s quite picturesque, and good images of it can be found here, but it’s also in the distance in this image I took the day before:

We’d hoped to be able to get in to see the church interior, perhaps for the choir to have a chance to sing in such a beautiful spot. But the local caretakers weren’t willing to open it up for our group. Surprisingly. So we had to settle for just looking around the outside, sheltering from the cold wind as best we could.

The bus was warm and welcoming.

* * * * * * *

We drove southeast, through the Mackenzie Basin, a largely empty place popular with tourists, particularly people who like to do gliding (air currents from the Southern Alps make it ideal some times of the year). It’s probably best known outside New Zealand for being the ‘land of Rohan’ from the Lord of the Rings movies.

* * * * * * *

Dunedin (pronounced “done Eden”) was our destination. We rolled into the town in the early afternoon, during a rainstorm.

After getting settled in our hotel, Martha decided to just rest a bit in the room. I opted to go out and about with our friend ML, exploring the city.

We headed down the main street, towards ‘the Octagon.’ Which features a large bronze statue of Robert Burns. That, and the bagpipe-playing buskers, kinda give some indication of the history of the city. Yeah, it was settled by Scots in the middle of the 19th century, and it has maintained a strong Scottish identity to this day. Lots of restaurants and pubs have a Scottish/Gaelic flavor.

ML and I walked pretty much the full length of the main commercial street, pausing to look into this or that shop. I was on the lookout for some nice greenstone (Pounamu – a kind of jade native to the South Island – more on this later), and ML was looking for some (more) fabled NZ woolen yarn. Between us we managed to enjoy a couple of hours walking and shopping.

* * * * * * *

After a bit of rest back at the hotel, Martha, ML, and I went in quest of some dinner, and to give Martha a chance to check out the central city. We stopped at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the Octagon – the location of the choir’s performance the next evening. The rain from earlier in the day had cleared off, and while it was chilly it was quite nice for an evening walk.

We settled on dinner at a pub near the hotel. They had good local beer on tap – I found out that it came from the brewery literally around the corner, and made a mental note to stop in there when I had a chance the next day. The pub-food we had was all very yummy, and overly generous in portion size. That was one thing we noticed at most pubs and mid-level restaurants: portion sizes were always quite large, at least as big as the (too big) portion sizes you get here in the U.S. At more upscale restaurants this wasn’t the case (also as you usually find here).

We crashed relatively early. All the travel was starting to take a toll, even as enjoyable as it was.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: into the heart of darkness.
November 24, 2011, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, Light pollution, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Science, Space

They say on a clear night you can see forever. But would the clouds ruin everything?

That was the forecast.

* * * * * * *

We breakfasted, then loaded onto the bus for the airport. A quick and easy jaunt through the security checkpoint (the agents knew we were Americans, made quips about how we didn’t have to act like cattle in their country) and then a 45 minute flight south to Christchurch.

We met our new bus driver there – like the one on the North Island, he was friendly, knowledgeable, personable. We got a brief drive around Christchurch, a chance to see some of the damage and rebuilding going on from the earthquakes earlier this year. The choir had originally been scheduled to perform in Christchurch Cathedral. We went by to see it. Or, I should say, what is left of it. There’s still a big debate going on in New Zealand over whether it is practical to salvage *any* of the structure.

After that drive-around, we went to the Canterbury Museum and the adjacent Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Martha and I opted to walk the gardens, which was wonderfully relaxing and beautiful. Many of the plants were in full bloom, it was sunny and warm, ducks were in and out of the Avon River, there were families with children and school groups.

Then it was on to Lake Tekapo, located in the center of the South Island, up in the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

It was a wet and rainy drive, very spring-like, but colder than it had been up on the North Island. The landscape reminded me very much of the inter-mountain area of western Colorado, between the different ranges of mountains. We stopped for snacks along the way, and Martha discovered the joy of hokey-pokey.

We rolled into Lake Tekapo, out the other side in an instant. There’s not much there. To our hotel, an odd sort of place called Peppers Resort. Oh, it was nice enough, but the place is sorta like an apartment or condo, with a bedroom downstairs and then a large family room and fairly complete kitchen upstairs. Which was fine, except that a second bedroom was glommed-on to some of the units, and the people in that bedroom would have to access the upstairs by going through the bedroom-bathroom hallway of the other one.

Further, the units were all scattered in clusters over a fairly large campus, meaning that you had to walk outdoors for long stretches, and most of them were some distance from the meeting areas and clubhouse. It wouldn’t be bad for someplace where the weather was always warm and nice, but here it had us scratching our heads a bit.

* * * * * * *

Martha and I got settled in, then decided that since the weather was clearing, we’d walk the short distance into the small town, have a look around.

Lake Tekapo is quite lovely, and the small town is pleasant enough. Here’s a good shot of the lake, just behind the small commercial strip:

* * * * * * *

We had a large buffet dinner that evening with other members of the tour. It was quite good.

Then after, the reason we were there: the Mount John Observatory.

It’s New Zealand’s premier observatory, operated under the auspices of the University of Canterbury. Mount John isn’t all that tall – just about a thousand meters above sea level at the top – but it is located in one of the least light-polluted places in New Zealand. The lack of other ambient light sources means that it is easier to see the stars.

They took us to the top of the mountain in vans, handing out loaner parkas. Because it is bloody damned cold up there, and the wind is always intense. One of the guides said that the location held the record for highest wind speed in NZ – some 250 km/h (150 mph), and that sent the domes of the observatory tumbling.

We spent several hours with the different guides, all grad students and staff of the observatory, looking through 16″ and 9″ telescopes and with the naked eye. Unfortunately, there was a quarter-moon up, so it was harder to see the Milky Way, but it was still some of the best sky viewing I’ve had anywhere in my life, and of the Southern Hemisphere. Wonderful!

It was getting on to midnight when they bundled us back in the vans and down to our rooms.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: feelin’ groovy.
November 20, 2011, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Art, Mark Twain, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

There’s the grey of spring, and then the grey of fall. Temps and clouds in Wellington were about the same as we had left back in Missouri, but somehow it felt warmer . . .

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I looked out the window of our hotel room. I was not expecting Richard M. Nixon wearing an afro to look back at me. This was the horror of it:

I know one can become a bit overwhelmed when traveling to foreign climes, but for a moment I was wondering whether my sanity had “lit out for the provinces.”

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Breakfast, then an optional tour through the city with Helen on our bus. First we went up to Mount Victoria, a gorgeous vantage point at which to enjoy the whole city (and location for a couple of scenes from Lord of the Rings). This was followed up with a visit to Te Papa Tongarewa – the national museum and gallery of New Zealand.

It’s a very interesting place, a mix of the traditional and the innovative. They’ve got a decent collection of modern art, and a lot of good stuff covering the history and culture of NZ, from the earliest settlements of the Maori to the present day. But what I found to be most enjoyable was the use of the built space inside the museum: it isn’t just simple layers of different floors, but rather incorporates multiple layers of open space/mezzanines so that you enjoy the exhibits from many different perspectives, creating a visual melding of the different aspects of New Zealand depending on where you are. It’s a very effective bit of architecture, and the museum staff make use of it very very well.

Martha, ML, and I spent several hours enjoying the place, including a break for some refreshments at one of the museum cafes. Then it was off for a walk back to our hotel.

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Te Papa sits right on the waterfront of Wellington Harbor, and our hotel in the city center just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. So it was an enjoyable walk back to the hotel, past docks and seaside restaurants, then into the main shopping and restaurant area of downtown. We spent a good time just enjoying and doing a bit of shopping, then grabbed some lunch at a little local hole-in-the wall place.

Back to the hotel to relax a bit. Martha had a rehearsal that afternoon, I popped out to a grocery store and got some ‘picnic’ type items for a light dinner for us.

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I always enjoy going to grocery stores in other countries. It is one of the best ways to get a handle on how local people live, and to see the differences between their culture and my own.

I’d mentioned previously I found NZ to be more like the US than like the UK or Europe. This was another manifestation of that. Yeah, there were clear differences between this grocery store and the ones at home – different brands, some different packaging approaches (such as cat and dog food in long tubes, similar to a sausage). But for the most part you could drop any American in the place and they’d feel right at home. The salad bar and deli areas were just like back home, though with meat pies and a couple of other such distinctions. There was more lamb than you’d find in most meat cases, but otherwise it was familiar. Baked goods on display were typical. Snacks and the beer/wine department like you’d find in a Hy-Vee store here.

All in all, perfectly normal.

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ML and I again went with the choir when they went to the Opera House that evening, and we set up to sell CDs in the lobby. It was a great place, and was in pretty good shape, what you would expect of a classic Edwardian structure which has been renovated and cared for.

But the weather turned colder and wetter, and attendance at the performance that evening was fairly light. The performance itself, which included the Wellington Male Voice Choir as well, was quite good. We only sold a few CDs.

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Following the performance, we were all invited to the Welsh Dragon Bar – a former public toilet which now plays off that history (and the Welsh connection) with their motto: “come in for a leek.” It’s owned by a Welsh emigre, and is generally considered the best (only?) Welsh pub in the Southern Hemisphere.

They’d made a bunch of Welsh & NZ finger food for the group, all of it welcome and quite tasty. The bar was mobbed, and we kept the place hopping with happy voices for a good while, some of the choir members staying on until closing time.

But not me, nor Martha. We went back to the hotel and crashed. We had to be traveling again early in the morning, catching a flight to the South Island.

Jim Downey