Saturday, November 06, 2004

Five Dollar Thoughts

I like money. Seems like an obvious thing to say, but I like it for a reason unrelated to it's cash value. Money can be beautiful. Australia has gorgeous coins with engravings of kangaroos and echidnas. Japan has an elegant 2000 yen bill (which no one uses...) showing a scene from world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, on one side and an ancient Okinawan gate on the other. My favorite currency in New Zealand is the five dollar bill. I love having penguins in my pocket.

It wasn't on purpose, but this week has turned into a very NZ$5 kind of week. On one side of the yellow and orange five dollar bill is an etching of Sir Edmund Hillary and the summit of Mt. Everest. On the back is an image of a hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin, giant seaweed, and assorted random plants that are probably important.

In Dunedin, the Otago Museum is hosting a special exhibition on Sir Hillary. It starts out with his life as a beekeeper in northern New Zealand, follows his climbing exploits as he and Tenzing Norgay become the first men on the summit of Mt. Everest, and ends with information on the philanthropical projects initiated by his Himalayan Trust organization. In spite of my post-election depression, I made myself leave the hostel and wander downtown to see the exhibition before leaving town.

The rolling hills of the east coast of New Zealand's are not so spectacular after passing through the snow capped alps of the west coast. The drama of the glaciers and the fiords of the west seem so far away. One of the most intense experiences I've had while traveling here was a full day hike on a glacier. Around the city of Dunedin there is some interesting marine life, but mostly there are vast expanses of sheep. I hadn't expected in Dunedin to recapture the feeling of traveling on a river of ice.

Hillary and other climbers trained on the glaciers of New Zealand to prepare for the Khumbu ice fall at Everest and once on Everest itself, one man wrote his impressions.

Their way was through a chaos of ice, a labyrinth of tottering ice blocks on ground that was never sure, climbing steep walls with fixed ropes, passing innumerable crevasses which widened and changed daily as the ice ground its way down the glacier below. - Alf Gregory

The guided glacier hike I went on was not particularly dangerous. We had a guide who led the way and cut steps in the ice. I was right up behind the guide nearly the whole time, stepping where he stepped. I wouldn't have been so closely up his butt if it weren't for the woman the night before who warned that a man in her hiking group had stepped into a hole and sunk up to his neck in icy water.

Sometimes our guide had to go ahead of us and check to see if the path we were following was still navigable. The glacier is moving constantly and crevasses open and close. Our guide had been off the glacier for five days and warned us that we would pass through a tight stretch of ice walls. Being right behind him, I had nowhere to go when he got stuck between the two walls. Meanwhile, all the other hikers had piled up behind me. The ice had moved so much in five days that our guide was taken by surprise. Until he could pry himself out, I stood and thought about the fact that the walls were moving slowly closer all the time. It was like in movies where two walls slide together to crush the people inside, ala Star Wars. Finally our guide wiggled out of some of his equipment and was able to slide through. He found a different route to return by.

At some places we had to cross crevasses on bridges made out of aluminum ladders. The guide would check and triple check the bridges to make sure they would hold. The only way I could make myself go across the chasm was to look straight ahead. Looking down made my stomach curl up into a tight knot. Another group's guide liked to drop stones down into the crevasses. We could hear the stone bouncing off the ice walls as it went down down down. Sometimes the rock would fall and the sounds would continue for so long that it was disturbing to think about.

Twice we were told to go ahead along the trail while the guide was occupied with other duties. I was at the front and so I went forward while everyone else followed. We were supposed to go ahead just up to the next turning and wait there for the guide. It seems like a straightforward thing to do. We followed a path through the towering ice blocks, only walking a few meters, but both times we quickly got to a place where we couldn't go forward. We would wait and call for the guide to come check to see how we were doing. He would come and shake his head, asking if we planned to jump over the yawning crevasse that blocked our way. Then he would lead us back to where we had gone wrong and we would continue to follow him. Originally we had been so complacent following in the guide's footsteps. How could you get lost on the glacier? Just keep moving forward and up along the valley. Yep. It turns out that it really takes only about 15 seconds to get lost. Without our guide we would never find our way out again.

Back to the Everest exhibition, Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit and the rest is history. Both men were honored and Hillary became internationally known as a climbing hero. He continued his climbing career and worked in Antarctica. What is not so well known is that Sir Hillary has continued to be active in the lives of the sherpas who helped his expedition reach the summit. The Himalayan Trust that Hillary established has built hospitals, schools and initiated various projects based on requests from the sherpa people.

The importance of goodwill is frequently overlooked or ignored. Whereas gratitude has something of inequality about it, goodwill is an active and growing idea that a proud man need not feel ashamed to entertain. The basic fact is that people create goodwill - money cannot do it on its own. - Sir Edmund Hillary

Many things have more value than money. Nicely put by a man whose own portrait decorates New Zealand currency.

Looking at the reverse of the five dollar bill, there is an engraving of the world's rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed. These birds can be found along the coast of New Zealand's South Island and one of the reasons the birds are so rare is that their coastal habitat is disappearing. People are building homes and clearing vegetation for farmland and the penguin has fewer and fewer locations in which to nest.

The town of Oamaru is known for its colonies of yellow-eyed and little blue penguins. For two nights I went to watch penguins come ashore from the sea. The yellow-eyed penguins emerge from the ocean anytime from the late afternoon onward. They waddle along the beach and hop their way up the vegetation covered hills until reaching their nests. The blue penguins, on the other hand, gather together in "rafts" off-shore, waiting for darkness. When they feel confident, they arrive in groups on the beach and head for their nests.

It's possible to go to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony for penguin watching complete with grand stand viewing. One little penguin got lost and came wandering up into the grand stand. Passing within a meter of where we were sitting, I wanted to reach out, grab him, and run. Not a good method of wildlife conservation, but the penguin was so cute that it was hard to resist.... Apparently they bite. Hard.

All of these penguin encounters and the Hillary exhibition have made me think a lot about Antarctica. It's not so far away from here. It was my obsession when I was 13. Somehow, some way, I would like to go there someday. Soon I'll do one of the next best things. Christchurch is home to the International Antarctic Centre. I'm going to spend the day there and pretend that I'm actually a few thousand kilometers further south.

Time to hand over a couple of five dollar bills so I can pay for using this computer. The colony of penguins in my wallet is becoming increasingly endangered.


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