Rotorua, New Zealand – December 24, 2003
My husband and I smell like the bowels of Hell. Yesterday, we soaked for too long in the mud baths at Hell’s Gate. When we got back to the hotel, I did a load of laundry, tossing our bathing suits in with everything else. Instead of washing out, however, the sulphur smell seeped into our other clothes.
In New Caledonia, where we currently live, it’s the hottest time of the year. Santa makes an appearance at the beach and Christmas music is blasted in the shops and over the airwaves, but it’s just too hot and sunny to be taken seriously. Surely in New Zealand, a normal country, there would be a more vibrant holiday atmosphere.
“I think we were mistaken,” I say as we drive down the main street on the way out of town. The Return of the King has just been released, and Lord of the Rings fever is everywhere. Except for a cringeworthy LoTR jewelry store ad (This Christmas buy her something PRECIOUS!), the shop windows and streets are unadorned.
“Finally, there is more Christmas ambiance in Nouméa,” my husband says.
I crack the window to air our stench out of the car. I’ve had a headache since the soak at Hell’s Gate. I wonder if you can overdose on sulphur.
On our way to Taupo, we visit the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which is open every day. The parking lot is almost empty. We have the walking trail to ourselves. These are the only signs that it’s Christmas Eve. Steam seeps out of the rocky cliffs and rises from the stream that flows from Frying Pan Lake.
I pause before geothermal masterpieces – Inferno Crater, Marble Terrace, and Bird’s Nest Terrace, admiring their gemlike colors and phantasmagoric designs. Trying to ignore the ominous pounding in my skull. My vision blurs, giving the scenery a trippy glaze. Sensations are so much more intense when you have a migraine.
“I can’t stand this smell anymore,” my husband says.
I nod. “Let’s head to Taupo. I need some fresh air.”
Just outside of Taupo, we stop at Huka Falls. The crisp, clean air dissipates some of the fog from my brain. Dark clouds hang low in the sky. The locals say that it’s always rainy and cold during the holidays, and then summer arrives right afterwards.
We are alone at the lookout point. The only sound is the percussive churn of the water. My disappointment fades away. This is more joyous than the gaudy tinsel, twinkling lights, overbearing music, and fervent cheer of Christmases past, many of which I can’t recall even if I tried.