The world is in flux. A revolutionary wave of anti-government protest has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, threatening to overturn the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally of the United States. With all this going on, there are probably a million questions swirling through your mind.
Like, you must be wondering, “How was Simon’s vacation? Did he enjoy himself? Did he bring enough changes of underwear? Or any underwear? Did he maintain an appropriate level of dental hygiene or did he ‘let caution fly to the wind?'”
The answers to these questions go back to early January, as I despaired at the prospect of my impending birthday. Like a physician conducting a colorectal exam, I gaped into the geriatric abyss, and there beheld the unsavory vision of my incipient dotage.
I had to face the music. In a few days, I would turn 40. This was no laughing matter.
Jacquie observed my flagging spirits and proposed we take a trip as a momentary distraction from the disgusting march of time. Our kitchen table was covered instantly with South Pacific travel brochures. They enticed us to balmy tropical paradises. But none was suitable to my advanced state of decay, nor my special dietary requirements. The travel literature before us made few references to coral reef access ramps, no early-bird specials of which to speak. But Jacquie would not be daunted.
Jacquie suggested––after an irritating 20-minute song-and-dance review of The Sound of Music––that I was having a midlife crisis and a midlife crisis called for a road trip.
“Midlife crisis,” I said. “Pshah.”
The phrase smacked to me of man-boys stricken by mortal terror making fools of themselves with women half their age in a futile attempt to deny their burgeoning sexual irrelevance. The idea didn’t sit well with me.
But then I realized that this condition didn’t apply to me thanks to my peculiar genetic inheritance. Given my lumpy, misshapen Irish potato head and my humongous sesame-seed bagel-nose, the fact of the matter is I was never sexually relevant. Crisis averted!
“Still,” I said with a sheepish grin, “there’s one stereotype I’d like to live up to, especially if we’re taking a road trip.”
“What’s that?” Jacquie said.
“Can I blow our life-savings on a really awesome car?”
Jacquie agreed, and so the next day, I got up very early, went straight to the car dealership and recklessly purchased a 2002 Honda Civic Hatchback.
With tinted windows.
And we were on our way.
We were driven by wanderlust down the Forgotten World Highway, a 155 km stretch of mostly paved road wending through rugged pasture land and lush valleys.
We stopped for lunch in the famous-in-New Zealand town of Whangamomona, which declared itself a republic years ago (read about it here). At the Hotel, I ordered a green salad, which arrived covered in ketchup; the town’s efforts to project itself as a colorful tourist attraction had surely paid off.
“This is the best midlife crisis ever,” I said.
I liked Whangamomona. I was sad to see that the hotel was for sale, among other signs that this tiny republic was struggling through hard times. Maybe it was too remote. Maybe other tourists don’t take truck with ketchup salad. Whatever the reason, Whangamomona was getting to be a downer. We had to leave before our wanderlust turned to Weltschmerz.
We drove to the end of the highway, through the hideous town of Stratford.
We went on several hikes around Mt. Taranaki. We intended to enjoy my midlife crisis in the peace and seclusion of our romantic hotel. But we were not alone.
Three British septuagenarians checked in soon after us. We could tell they were British from their baleens. There was one male and two females. The females were curious beasts that did not fear swimming and splashing with humans after finishing their plankton suppers (Which Jacquie and I thought were quite overpriced.)
The British tourists’ attempts to communicate with us, however, were hampered by their cumbersome teeth, forcing them to rely heavily on a combination of clicks, whistles and bodily gestures, as is common among the British. We enjoyed, nevertheless, a polite, if superficial conversation about our respective itineraries.
We later bid our new British friends good night. But as we repaired to our room, we could hear them talking about us in speculative tones.
“What a lovely couple,” one of the ladies said. “And I don’t care how old and decrepit they seem to be. If two consenting adults have functioning units, why shouldn’t they experience pleasurable friction on occasion?”
Needless to say, we soured on the romantic hotel and we left under cover of darkness. We had to keep moving. We had to feel the invigoration of our powerful Honda Civic thrumming under our loins. We drove. We drove hard. Toward Wellington. We didn’t speak at all and we stopped only once to visit the Taranaki Pioneer Village because Lonely Planet said it was “creepy.”
What’s creepy about that? It’s just the human life cycle, done up in mannequins. Life, death, bank loan applications, bad moustaches and wooden meat: Taranaki Pioneer Village was, I realized, an exact replica of my own life. And seeing this taught me something. It made me think how lucky I was not to have to work at the Taranaki Pioneer Village; how fortunate I was to have been born in a time when I could get into my high-performance Honda Civic and drive away from such an awful place at great speed. And as we left, I turned to look back on Pioneer Village one last time.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for teaching me such a great lesson, you stiff, awkward, silent, life-like people.”
“No worries,” said one of the ticket-takers at the entrance. “And you come back any time.”
“Maybe I will,” I said. I pursed my lips, squinted my eyes and nodded deliberately, knowingly. “Maybe I will.”
The ticket taker smiled. A beam of light seemed to shine from her face. I turned to leave. Then I turned back a half-second later and said, “Psyche. I’m never coming back here. What are you fucking kidding me?”
Then we drove off. Me and Jacquie. We headed down south to Wellington and by the time we checked into the hotel there, the malaise of my midlife crisis had begun to lift.
We spent a lot of time in Wellington, eating in cafes and restaurants on Cuba Street, checking out the Te Papa Museum and seeing a rare Kiwi bird up close in the highly valuable Zealandia sanctuary and exhibit.
(Plenty more pictures, but I’m bored by now. Maybe another post. Stay tuned)
We saw a lot and though I was beginning to get used to being 40, I had the strangest sensation walking around Wellington that something still wasn’t right about my life.