Auckland, October 2017

I did not want to leave Queenstown, but I had a flight and a hotel and an appointment for my official New Zealand tattoo waiting for me in Auckland. I was one of only ten non-Asians on the flight to Auckland, which surprised me, until I landed and had a chance to walk around the city. All I saw were Asian shops and restaurants, and the entire city smelled like cabbage. The city was also very hilly and I got quite a workout walking up and down some of the streets.

My tattoo appointment was that day, so the first thing I did after checking into my hotel, which also smelled like cabbage, was go to the shop, Otautahi Tattoo. I wanted a fantasy dragon akin to Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and I had saved a large portion of my left upper arm for the tattoo. There was a very old piece of flash tribal dragon there that I was also going to get covered up. The spot was already cluttered with some other pieces around it, but I hoped that the artist could somehow fit in the piece, overlapping it with the other pieces to fill the space.

I initially requested another artist in a different shop, but he only did Japanese style dragons and turned me down. Jordan Newnham, however, looked like he did fantasy type tattoos and he agreed to do it. He had sent me an initial sketch when I was in Queenstown, and asked if it was okay to give me a cute, baby dragon. That description completely put me off. When I saw the sketch, as pretty as it was, I still saw a “baby,” and the shape of the head looked more like a dinosaur than a dragon. I asked Jordan to rework it and draw up an older dragon in flight, even if it meant giving me less detail. He protested because of the size and shape of the area. I sent him another reference, but he did not like it and told me he would try to come up with something else.

The second sketch he sent me looked better, in terms of the head and the look of the wings, but it was hard to tell how the dragon was placed. The sketch was a collage of various body parts coming out of other body parts. I figured I needed to see it on me, however, so I agreed to it and hoped for the best. I thought I had a full appointment on the day that I arrived in Auckland, but when I walked into the shop, I learned it was just a consultation. I was disappointed, because it meant that I would have to cancel the skydive I had scheduled for the next day, and I did not have another chance to do one on the trip.

I viewed the sketch in person and commented on the look of the leg as being too prominent and muscular. I could not get the idea of a velociraptor out of my head and I absolutely did not want a winged dinosaur on my body. Jordan admitted that it was not the most feminine of tattoos, which I lamented, and seemed very frustrated with me. At one point he said that I should just walk away if I was not happy with it because he did not want to give a client something they would hate. I seriously considered walking away at that point given my hesitation, until another guy in the shop came over and convinced me to try it out. We all agreed that I might feel better with the sketch put on my body so that I could see it on my skin and decide then.

Jordan created a stencil of the sketch and fit some of it on my body and drew the rest in. It was a lot of stencil and marker and he used a very smelly, stinging, alcohol-based cleaner to roughly rub any changes off of me. By the time he was finished, my skin was raw, but I was able to see his vision. I could not exactly tell how the tattoo would look, because it looked very messy and pieced together. He also added a lot of fire to hide any inconsistencies and tie the whole thing together. The tail was coming out between the dragon’s legs, or arms, or whatever they were supposed to be. Its belly was facing forward, but its head was in an angled profile view. There was a bit of wing behind the head and the other wing was disconnecting the head from the body with what appeared to be a very long neck. It was all meant to give a suggestion of a full grown dragon in a very oddly-shaped space. I was still unsure, but I had the night to sleep on it.

Because I had expected to get tattooed that day, I had nothing else planned for Auckland, and because I flew in so late and the consultation took so long, I could do nothing substantive besides walk around the city. The mini island tours only had ferries in the morning and early afternoon, which was a shame, because I would have liked to have gone to Rangitoto Island and climbed a volcano. Auckland’s harbor bridge looked like a copy of Sydney’s and even had a bridge climb, but I was not interested. Auckland also had a tower jump, but I found out it was basically a vertical zip line and nothing special for the expense of it. I found an Irish pub instead and drowned my sorrows.

All in all, my impression of Auckland was that it was a lesser version of Sydney with an Asian influence. There were numerous gaming and karaoke bars, and lots of shopping. I decided to dine at the Malaysian restaurant in my hotel. I ordered a noodle dish and confirmed that I wanted it spicy because I enjoy a bit of heat. That was a mistake considering I am used to the Americanized versions of foods and this was authentic Malaysian. The spice was too much for me and I left most of my food on the plate. I went up to my room to consider my plan for the next day. I had already canceled the skydive, so I sat and studied the newest sketch Jordan had sent me. He was kind of a jerk to me so that colored my view of the tattoo and if he had not looked like Dominic Cooper, I probably would have walked away as soon as he had suggested it upon seeing my continued hesitation.

I had come such a long way for this tattoo and I was not sure whether I would be back in New Zealand. I really wanted a dragon to represent New Zealand, and yet this was not the dragon I imagined nor wanted. If I never came back, I did already have a New Zealand tattoo with my Queenstown bungy, but I did not think it was enough to represent my new favorite country. I did not know if the sketch was bad enough for me to cancel my plan. I decided that the whole point of my blog was to experience new countries and new styles of tattoos and tattooing throughout the world, so I accepted Jordan’s design and went in for the tattoo.

I walked into the shop at 10 am and did not leave until 12 am and it was one of the five worst tattoo experiences of my life. When I had woken up, I scrubbed off the rest of the stencil and marker from the previous day’s consultation and my skin was quite sore from all the rubbing. Jordan stenciled the tattoo back on me and drew and then wiped and redrew some more elements, aggressively rubbing my already sore skin with the stinging alcohol. Over an hour later, and he was ready to begin. I looked at my arm and could barely tell what was going on with the design, but I had already accepted my fate and blindly agreed.

It was a large piece, so the outline took a long time, but it was on a easy body part so I did not feel much pain. While tattooing me, Jordan and I talked about my trip and our lives and other such things that came to mind. He was only 27 and had not been tattooing for very long, which was surprising to me given his already enormous ego. He used to build boats, which was interesting. As he was a comic book geek and gamer, we also discussed gaming, although I did not have that much to add to the conversation as I really only care about Zelda. I told him about the artist who did my Melbourne tattoo and he freaked out about the fact that he called himself a tattoo artist but had no tattoos of his own. He did appreciate the actual spider tattoo, however. At one point the shop had a fire drill and everyone had to stand outside and wait it out, even the kid who was getting a full thigh piece and had to walk out in his underwear.

The shading and black sections were next and by the time he finished that, my arm was already swelling up and in pain and I was starting to shake from the cold air coming in through the constantly open door and the need for food. Jordan and I took a break for dinner, and it was no surprise that it involved an Asian grocery store and food court. Jordan ordered some dumplings, which made the shop smell even more like cabbage, and I bought a pastry filled with red bean paste, which was quite tasty. It was another hour or more that my arm sat and swelled while we ate and planned out the rest of the tattoo.

In terms of color, I wanted the tattoo to be strictly red and black to match my red and black arms, but Jordan had other ideas. Coming from a comic book and animation tattoo background, Jordan like color and wanted to put in lots of texture and contrast. He thought using all red would look bad, so he wanted to add pink and blue highlights. I immediately frowned at the pink, which surprised Jordan because of my pink hair. I really did not want blue either, but it looked more grayish in the design and I do like how turquoise and red look together. Plus, after his reaction at my not wanting the pink, I was too tired and too much in pain to fight anymore. I did say it was more colorful than I wanted but had no energy to express any more dislike for the whole experience, which, of course, I regretted later.

Unlike some other tattooer favorites of mine, like Vince Villalvazo in Marietta, who worked the tattoo from one end to the other, Jordan worked one color at a time. This was the most painful way possible because he would work one piece of the arm and then move to another and then as he switched colors, would come back to an already swollen and raw section and work it again. Plus, because the design was all around my arm, I had to sit up and then lie down on my front and then sit up again, with raw body parts sticking to the the plastic. When he started working on the fire, I fortunately thought to ask how he intended to color it. Jordan wanted to color the fire from red to yellow, which is opposite of what fire looks like. When I asked him to do it the right way, Jordan said that it did not matter and he wanted to do it his way for more contrast. I had to insist that he color it in realistically, which he did not even do because he was likely in a hurry,  so although the color order is correct, he striped the transitions rather than having the color change from inside out.

The whole coloration process was very painful and upsetting. Jordan was amazingly slow and heavy-handed. I had never been in such pain in my life. And at 10 pm, when the shop closed its doors, he was still working. Fortunately, Jordan opened some beers for us to have for the last couple of hours because I would not have been able to make it otherwise. I had never broken down during a tattoo before, but the last hour was the absolute worst. I whined, I swore, and I cried to the point that I annoyed Jordan. I never want to be a bad client, but at that point I stopped caring. I just wanted to go back to my hotel and cry myself to sleep. What was worse was that I knew I would hate the tattoo, so the pain I was going through was not even worth it.

In the end, the tattoo came out way too colorful for my taste. Jordan used a zombie red for the scales, which is a beet red and looked pink next to the blue he used in the belly. The highlighted sections of the dragon scales were actually pink even though that was the one color I specified that I did not want. I realize that dragons are not real and are open to artistic license, but I wanted a fantasy or medieval dragon, which would typically be rather monochromatic and drab-looking. I wanted what a dragon would look like if they actually existed and my dragon was straight from a cartoon. I hated it. I hurried out of the shop and not only cried in physical pain that night, but in mental anguish as well.

I wished so much that I had walked away from the tattoo when I had the chance. I was so upset, that I even considered getting my left arm blackened to cover up not only the disaster that was now my upper arm, but my other lesser liked pieces, which somehow all ended up on my left arm as well, including the lightning bolt, the spiderweb, and the anchor and hibiscus which are so faded. Next to the faded pieces, especially, the dragon stands out and does not fit in with the rest of my arm. I hate how much fire there is, especially the back yellow flames, which cut across a lot of the bamboo that I actually liked. I hate the layout because the body does not make sense to me. Even though I believe it is physically possible for the dragon’s body to sit like that, it looks like a mess. And I very much hate the colors. The only thing I remotely like is the head, but even the open mouth looks off in the way that it is angled. Plus, the flame coming out of its mouth is wrong. The blue and white heat is very comic book, yet there is hardly any yellow, which is the hottest point of a flame and would be the color of all the fire coming directly out of the dragon’s mouth. Instead, it turns immediately into red and then into yellow, which is in the wrong order. I could not stop staring at my new tattoo and picking it apart. I saw nothing but flaws and wished I could reverse the entire thing.

I woke up early the next day, still incredibly swollen and sore, for an all day excursion. Our first stop was Hobbiton, one of my main reasons for being in New Zealand and venturing to the North Island. Hobbiton was situated on a sheep farm that had the right hills and valleys and the perfect party tree for Bilbo’s birthday scene. Our tour guide was an American girl from Michigan and I was thoroughly jealous of her job.

Hobbiton was so much bigger than I expected. Whether a hobbit hole was used in the forefront or the background of a scene, every detail was meticulously placed. The vegetable garden was real and still tended to. The set was built a year before it was filmed so that all of the plant and garden growth looked old and natural. The washing was hung up and taken down every day so that there was a worn path from the house to the clothesline. The tree behind Bag End was fake, but each leaf was painted so that it was the right color. The plum trees, which had all of one line dedicated to them in the book and were not even seen in the movies, were actually apple trees so that they could be hobbit-sized, with the apples plucked and replaced with fake plums. Peter Jackson’s passion shone through every single minute detail in Hobbiton, and it was surreal to see it in person. After our tour of the hobbit holes, we were taken to a replica of The Green Dragon where I tried a stout brewed exclusively for the set and had a meat pie so that I could feel like a true Middle-earthian.

The next stop on our excursion was Te Puia Springs in Rotorua, which was home to the Pōhutu geyser, a regularly erupting geyser, similar to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. It had just finished erupting when we got there and we were told it would erupt again in half an hour, so in the meantime we were given a traditional Maori lunch of Hangi. Hangi is a meat and vegetable dish smoked underground. The sides very much resembled an American Thanksgiving, with stuffing, Kumara, a New Zealand sweet potato, and corn on the cob. I did not love all of the spices on my plate, and was already full from my meat pie, but I allowed myself to indulge a bit and chatted with some other people on the tour bus. There was a nice couple from Austin and we talked bats and Fadó.

After I ate, I rushed off to see the Pōhutu geyser. It was spurting here and there while I checked out the other surrounding bits of the park. Then it started splashing and steaming a lot. I thought that was all there was to it and started walking back to see the rest of the park. I made it to the bridge right next to it and the geyser burst. It was massive and when standing so close, I felt the water spraying off of it and the heat. It erupted for a while, and I stayed and watched but then had to get back to the bus. Pōhutu definitely earned its place as the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere, erupting once or twice every hour and at a height of 100 feet. On my way back through the park, I took a wrong turn somewhere and although I found some mud baths which were fun to watch while they bubbled up, I was nearly late trying to figure out how to get back to the entrance.

Our final stop was the Waitomo glowworm cave. This was another one of those situations where I was so excited to take pictures of wondrous nature, and we were specifically told we could not. We entered the cave and like in every cave tour I have ever taken, we were given the boring introduction where visitors are taught about how the cave is formed and how to remember which formations are stalagmites and which are stalactites. Then the guide turned off the lights so we could see how dark it was. This darkness, however, was a little more interesting because as my eyes adjusted, I could see little points of light here and there. The lights were coming from the glowworms.

Glowworms are lazy feeders. When in the larva stage, glowworms let down a line of silk that is covered in droplets of mucus and glow to attract prey. Insects fly towards the light, thinking they are flying into the starry night sky, and become entangled in the snare. The glowworms then pull their prey up by ingesting both the snare and the insect. Once the worm pupates into an adult fly, they no longer have mouths or digestive systems. They live only to mate with each other and create more glowworms, and then they starve to death. After hearing about one of nature’s cruelest jokes, our group experienced the true beauty of these rather useless creatures. The guide took us out into the darkness on a lake in the cave and we marveled at the millions of points of lights all over the cave ceiling. It was beautiful, looking like a starry night sky or twinkling Christmas lights, but I could not help but feel a little sorry for them.

After the excursion, I arrived back in Auckland and went to the harbor to an Irish pub and contemplated my day and my new tattoo and tried to make the best of the situation. I decided the worst part of it was the color, because I had not minded it as much when I viewed it in its black and grey stage, so I would try to get it muted out by one of the artists for my upcoming tattoo appointments. If the pinks were more red and the blues were more gray and the fire was fixed, I might like it a little more.

The next day I had a bus ride to Tongariro National Park. Like any other bus terminal in a US city, it was in a sketchier part of town, near a mission, but the passengers on the bus seemed normal. I was dropped off on a rainy day in the middle of nowhere, but thankfully I had a hotel shuttle greeting me as it was too far for me to walk to my hotel. I was staying at Chateau Tongariro, which reminded me of The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. It was a very old hotel with a lot of history and I was sure it was haunted. The lounge is decadent and I imagine there must have been a beautiful view if I could have seen anything through the low-hanging rain-clouds.

I had dinner at the Chateau because there was not much else around for food or drink. I tried Hake, I think it was, a New Zealand white fish, and found it incredibly light and tasty. I also discovered Monteith’s dark lager, that I continued to order in the lounge where there was a piano player playing and singing old classics. The Chateau had its own movie theater and they were playing The Return of the King that night. I was going to hike around the locations where they filmed Mordor and Mount Doom the next day, so I thought that was a perfect refresher of the scenes. I watched the film and then went to bed.

The next morning I was picked up by a guide to hike the Tongariro Crossing. At the office I was given thermal leggings and overpants to wear with my jeans and some gloves. I was afraid my jacket would not be warm enough, but I was also afraid of wearing anything too heavy and become overheated as I was climbing. I had been lucky with the weather the entire trip but unfortunately, Tongariro was cold and rainy for the second day in a row. We were going to attempt the Crossing anyway and see how far we managed to get. Our group of twelve started off in the rain and were already soaked by the time we came to the base of the first volcanoes we were going to hike up.

I was walking directly behind our guide and easily climbed Devil’s staircase. It was nice to take a bit of a break, however, as we waited for the others to catch up. We were given a chance to turn back then but we were warmed up from the climb and did not feel the wind, so all of us chose to keep going. We then crossed the crater and it was so wet from the melting snow that my shoes and socks were soaked through and my feet were freezing. It was foggy out and I could not see Mount Doom as we passed it. It was the whole reason I chose to do the hike, so it was pretty upsetting. We stopped for a food break and the Chateau had packed me a nice lunch, which I was grateful to see was carefully wrapped in plastic because I discovered that my backpack was definitely not waterproof.

After we passed the crater, the guide gave us an opportunity to turn back because it was going to be even colder and extremely windy at the top. We decided to push on as a group and see how much further we could get. We reached the top of the volcano and were using our ice picks to help give us stability as we trekked on, trying to walk the rim of the crater so that we could walk down the other side of the volcano into the area where they filmed Mordor. The wind was blowing so hard, however, that it nearly knocked me over and I froze, not daring to move. I was legitimately terrified and when the guide saw my face, he decided we were going to turn back. The rest of the group was uncomfortable as well and agreed it was too dangerous to continue onward. After a quick break behind a rock to get out of the wind, we slowly made our way back down the way we came. It was disappointing to not be able to do the whole crossing, but the wind was too strong and none of us wanted to be blown into the crater.

On the way back, it cleared up a little and we were able to take some photos. Because the weather cut our trip short, the guide offered to take us on another hike around a lake, which would be around two hours. I considered it and two of the more fun people in our group were going to do it, but I think it was because they had made a romantic connection and I did not want to be the third wheel. Plus, my feet were still cold and wet and I was feeling a little pathetic and miserable and wanted to get back to the Chateau and take a hot shower.

The group split apart and after giving back my borrowed clothing to the shop, I was driven back to the Chateau. On the way back, the driver told me about a nice trail by my hotel, which would take me to Taranaki Falls. I considered waterfalls to be better than lakes, so that made me feel better about my decision to give up. I quickly took a shower, changed into some dry clothes and set out for another hike before my dinner reservation. The mossy forest that I passed through looked like it was straight out of a fairy-tale and the surrounding plant life was colorful and worth seeing. I happily bounded my way over the leaf-covered trail, and although it started raining again, I did not mind. The trail was a loop, with half of it at the bottom of the falls, through a beech forest, and the other half over the top of the falls at the canyon’s edge.

Because I had chosen the lower path first, I was supposed to return via the path over the falls, but it was raining pretty steadily and that whole path was exposed, so I chose to return through the forest back the way I came. It was such a pretty trek that I did not mind seeing it again. I returned to the hotel and had a nice dinner and then went to the movie theater to watch Gaurdians of the Galaxy. I slept well that night after all my hiking.

The next morning, I had a train back to Auckland on the KiwiRail scenic tour. I would have taken the train both to and from Tongariro, but the train did not run daily. The train ticket was much more expensive than the bus, but it was so much more interesting. Not only did the tracks wind around some beautiful landscape, but there was an optional audio tour. I happily kept my headphones on the entire time while drinking beer and eating the lamb sandwich I had pre-ordered for my journey. On the audio tour I learned about the history of the land and the people that settled it. My favorite Maori word that I learned was “fuka papa,” which means to lay out flat. Victims of a fight were laid out flat before a cannibal meal.

I arrived back in Auckland and had a quiet night in my hotel to prepare for the next day’s journey home. As exciting as it was to relive my Queenstown bungy jumps when I was writing about them, I felt sick to my stomach the entire time I was writing about my tattoo experience in Auckland. I still do not like my New Zealand tattoo, even after I had it worked on in Pennsylvania to dull out some of the colors. I also did not enjoy Auckland, unfortunately, although my adventures in the North Island outside of the city were enjoyable and will not spoil my memories of New Zealand, my new favorite country. I will return to New Zealand in a couple of years when I take a trip to Antarctica from there and revisit Queenstown and maybe attempt Tongariro Crossing again, as well as a visit to Wellington.

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