Thursday, January 26, 2012

I almost wound up in Dubai

   CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – After the fastest nine days in history, our tour group split up Thursday morning in Melbourne, Australia.
   Some went on extensions to the Great Barrier Reef, New Zealand or islands off the coast of Australia; some flew back to California; and one couple stayed in Melbourne for the rest of the Australian Open.
   Our trip from Melbourne to Christchurch was an adventure. First, we spent an hour in the check-in line for Qantas instead of Jetstar at the Melbourne airport. We were on Jetstar flight 159, which is also Qantas 201. Fortunately, we still had plenty of time before departure.
   Unbeknownst to me, Jetstar then changed our gate from 5 to 8. It probably was not a good sign that an Emirates jet was parked at gate 5. Finally, a fellow group member set me straight. Otherwise, I  might have ended up in Dubai.
   Jetstar is a discount, Australia-based subsidiary of Qantas similar to jetBlue in the United States. I got stuck in an aisle seat, which I hate, and couldn't switch because the flight was full. While others gazed out their window at Rod Laver Arena and Melbourne, I had a wonderful view to my right of a guy's ear. To my left, flight attendants kept bumping me while they barged up and down the aisle.
   Wait, it gets better. In the middle of our three-hour flight, the flight attendant came by with the food and beverage cart. I requested a lemonade and received a can of Sprite. That was surprise No. 1. Then the attendant said, “Three dollars, please.”
   That was surprise No. 2. All I had was U.S. dollars, and the attendant said Jetstar accepted only Australian or New Zealand dollars.
   Suddenly, in yet another friendly gesture by an Australian, an older man across the aisle enthusiastically told the attendant, “I’ll pay,” fished $2 and $1 coins out of his pocket and gave them to her. That was surprise No. 3.
   Whether it’s paying for a stranger, volunteering to give directions to clueless foreigners like myself or soliciting money on flights for poor children around the world, Australians seem eager to help.
   They also like cricket – along with rugby, Australian rules football, soccer and tennis. Twice during the flight, the pilot breathlessly gave us an update on the cricket match between host Australia and India. I don’t understand cricket scoring – or anything else about the sport – but I gathered from the groan by my benefactor across the aisle that the Aussies were not doing well.
   After we landed in Christchurch, I actually got a luggage cart that worked. That was surprise No. 4. When we arrived in Sydney 10 days ago, the wheels stuck on mine, as usual. The cart must have been imported from my supermarket in Sacramento.
   Sydney and Melbourne are 19 hours ahead of California. As if that’s not enough, New Zealand is 21 hours ahead. In fact, I think it’s February here. Maybe March. It’s also chilly, a relief after hot and humid Melbourne.
    New Zealand has a population of 4.5 million, about equal to Melbourne's. Christchurch is on the eastern coast of the larger South Island. Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city with a population of 1.3 million, is on the North Island.
   My group of four is on its own here, although our tour guides in Australia gave us a detailed itinerary and driving directions for our five-day stay. We went to the Hertz counter and – after some confusion about our reservation, a one-hour delay to clean our Toyota Previa van and a check to make sure our life insurance policies were paid – we bravely set off. In Australia and New Zealand, the steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle, and motorists drive on the left side of the road.
   With one passenger navigating, we somehow avoided any head-on collisions on our way to the Peppers Clearwater Resort. However, we kept using the wiper blades – which would have been fine, except that it wasn’t raining – instead of the turn signal.
   After checking in, we continued on to Pescatore, a finalist for the 2011 Restaurant of the Year in New Zealand, for an exquisite, five-course dinner. I didn’t realize that Pierce Brosnan moonlighted as a waiter. At least it appeared that way.
   Peppers, picturesquely located on a golf course and pond, is another immaculate, well-equipped hotel. But instead of being welcomed with a bottle of wine or bag of goodies on the desk, we were greeted by two rather disconcerting warnings on laminated sheets.
   One was procedures to follow in case of an earthquake, a common occurrence in New Zealand. Last February, a 6.3 temblor struck near Christchurch, the nation’s third-largest metropolitan area with a population 380,000, killing 181 people.
   The other concerned mayflies, “acquatic insects that frequent lakeside areas in the summer months. … No sooner are they cleared away than they quickly return in droves and are especially attracted to light.”
   I swatted a few last night. Otherwise, they weren’t a problem. Besides, we stayed at Peppers for only one night.
   Australian Open --  Top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan moved one step away from a record sixth Australian Open men's doubles title and fourth in a row. 
  The former NCAA champions from Stanford edged seventh-seeded Robert Lindstedt of Sweden and Horia Tecau of Romania 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), saving one match point in the third set.
   With a victory over unseeded Leander Paes of India and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, the Bryans also can break the record of 11 Grand Slam men's doubles titles they share with International Tennis Hall of Famers Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde of Australia.
   Meanwhile, Stanford-bound Krista Hardebeck of Santa Ana in the Los Angeles area and Mackenzie McDonald of Piedmont, near Oakland, reached the girls and boys singles semifinals, respectively. Both players are unseeded.
   Hardebeck upset top-seeded Irina Khromacheva of Russia 6-3, 6-3, and McDonald ousted unseeded Robin Stanek of the Czech Republic 0-6, 6-4, 6-2.    

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