Hobbiton, New Zealand: Tourist Farm

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton, NZ

The Shire sets from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are available to visit in Matamata, New Zealand. It’s located on a farm and surrounded by other sheep and cow farms. The interesting part is the sign out front that says “Tourist Farm”. Because I don’t speak Kiwi (it’s English but it’s not English. That’s a bit of cricket, yeah?), I can’t really tell if they are trying to be funny or not. Whatever the case, the sign is pretty accurate: they grow tourists here.

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton, NZ
A typical hobbit-hole on the set.  They were even assigned to different characters from the film as their home even though it was never mentioned on-screen.

The tour is relatively well planned out. The guides give a lot of background information about the making of the films, the set, and the people that worked on it. Unfortunately for us, our guides were not great at their jobs. We had to edge closer to another group because their guide was far more informative than ours. The bus driver couldn’t seem to speak without getting horrible feedback through their microphone, so the bus ride vascillated between silence and screeching. What we were able to hear or get was pretty good.

full Hobbiton set
Here’s a look over the majority of the Hobbiton set. We are standing in the lower gardens looking up to the Party Tree (left) and Bag End, Bilbo’s house (middle farthest tree).

The Hobbit holes come in three sizes: 60%, 90%, and 100% scale. They use the smaller ones to make Gandalf look bigger when he’s in the Hobbits’ home. Fun fact: Gandalf bangs his head on the light in the home, but then smashes into the doorways’ beam as well. The first was in the script, but the second was not. Peter Jackson left it in because he thought it was funny. The normal sized homes were used with the Hobbits onscreen to make them seem normal size to them. It’s good to think that in a movie filled with CGI, they still use old fashioned movie making tricks.

hobbit hole from hobbit height
Hobbit hole, from Hobbit height!

The attention to detail was also on display. Clothes on the drying lines were changed daily to wear in natural walking paths from the home to the lines, so if the washing every came into the shot it would look as natural as possible. All of the wood around the Hobbit holes was chopped into Hobbit-sized pieces over the course of two months. It was someones’ full time job to chop wood. The wood was then aged with vinegar.

fake looking fish
We took this picture because these fish look incredibly fake… in person. Here they look pretty real. With a little lighting, they’d work just fine.
Hobbiton party tree
On the right is the Party Tree, named because it is where the large party takes place before Bilbo leaves the Shire. It was this tree that chose the location for the movie set. The producers flew over the country looking for a large tree as described in the books. They saw this tree, and went to talk to the owners of the farm.  Gandalf enters the shire in the movie from the corner in front of the row of hobbit holes.

Peter Jackson had many problems with trees around the area. First, the tree above Bag End (Bilbo’s Home) is fake. It is made with steel, foam, rubber bark, and 250K fake leaves. The Hobbit series was filmed after Lord of the Rings. This is a slight problem because in the LotR universe, the events of The Hobbit take place 60 years earlier. So they made the tree above Bag End to look a bit younger than it was in Lord of the Rings. Also in the books there are many references to Hobbits sitting underneath apple and plum trees. Well, Peter Jackson didn’t like the scale of these trees in relation to the hobbits so he dismantled them and pieced them back together in the size he wanted. In New Zealand, trees over a certain age or of a certain type cannot be removed. Here are NZ palm trees that were hidden with the leaves of other trees and/or cut out of the film. Middle Earth doesn’t have New Zealand palm trees, you know. And lastly, the party tree. This was what lead the team to pick this site for the set. It was spotted by helicopter, and then the crew went to find out who owned the land it was on. They soon struck a deal.

green dragon inn, hobbiton
Outside the Green Dragon Inn

The wildlife caused some headaches as well. Middle Earth doesn’t have native New Zealand wildlife. So there was a trained American Eagle and handler that were tasked with keeping the local birds and rodents away from the set. In the man-made pond, a crew of frogs took up shop. They were quite noisy and had to be removed from the pond. But since New Zealand is hippie country, someone actually housed the frogs in their bathtub during the day and put them back in the pond at night. HIPPIES!

bag end hobbiton
This is Bilbo’s house of Bag End. The tree above is made of foam, steel, and fake leaves.

The original set was actually made to be temporary. After the success of LotR, Kiwis came out to the farm to see the set. This tipped off the owners there was money to be made. So for The Hobbit, the sets were rebuilt and made more permanent. And since the first movies were such a success, barbed wire had to be put around the farms to insure curious fans didn’t sneak in. But now you are able to visit the Shire any time you’re in New Zealand, and maybe have Second Breakfast in their cafe.

Should you get a money belt for travel?

Should you get a money belt for travel?

People that are new to travel continually ask: should you get a money belt for traveling abroad?  The short answer is “No”, and here’s why…

It doesn’t increase your safety

I’m not sure how other people in the world behave, but in America we are very conscious of our personal space.  Everywhere 1 meter around us is basically off-limits to strangers, and we get anxious when someone comes into our “bubble”.  This is actually a great thing for traveling!

When we travel, we are voluntarily putting ourselves in potentially dangerous situations:

  • Foreign country
  • Don’t speak the language
  • Not familiar with surroundings
  • No one knows exactly where we are
  • Inept police
  • It’s obvious we are foreigners

How does a money belt solve these problems?  It doesn’t.  Keeping a healthy suspicion up around strangers will not only protect your wallet, but also your life.

Do you really think the guy mugging you believes you don’t have money?

The mugger knows you came from halfway across the world to stay here for a week or two.  You’re of a different ethnicity, dress differently, and speak another language.  You have an iPhone and designer clothing.  You flew across the planet and are coming out of a trendy bar that the mugger can’t even afford to enter.  And you really think that this guy is going to believe that you have no money?

All you’re doing is pissing off the guy with a gun.  Here’s a tip: don’t piss of a guy with a gun.

Think of it as an investment.  You’re giving him $200 so you can keep living for a few more decades.  It’s so worth it, I’d make sure to give him all the change I had as well.

The mugger is a professional, you’re an amateur

The mugger has done this before.  Do you really think that they’ve never encountered these belts?  “Darn!  Another tourist who only had $5 on him!  I guess I should stay in university, because crime doesn’t pay.”  Fuck no.  The very definition of mugging is forcibly taking something from another person against their will.  This is their job.

What about pickpockets?

Why are you letting strangers within 1 meter of you?  If you are in a subway type of situation that forces close proximity, why aren’t you paying attention to everyone around you?  Pickpockets need you to be distracted before they can work.  If you’re alert in your surroundings, you don’t get targeted.  Period.

We saw a pickpocket working on a subway in Spain.  This woman was very short, under 5 foot, with a coat in one arm.  In a crowded subway, it was very easy to lose track of this person.  Two women were with their purses hanging over their backs were talking to each other.  The pickpocket noticed the purses were open and the women not paying attention.  She put the coat over the purse so others couldn’t see she was rummaging around in there.  One of the other passengers who wasn’t completely oblivious tapped the woman on the arm to notice the pickpocket.  Everyone backed away in a circle from the would-be thief, who got off on the next stop.

Don’t let people get close to you.  It’s not like you’re missing out on surprise hugs that strangers will give.

Credit cards are extremely safe from fraud

Fraud prevention on credit cards is astoundingly good.  Two weeks after we got back from Thailand, we get a call from the credit card company:

Hi, I’m with Wells Fargo and just checking up on something.  Are you in Germany right now?

“Uh, nope.”

OK, it seems there’s been a large transaction at a convenience store and we’ve shut down the card.  Someone must have gotten the information off of it.  We’ll send you a new one right away.  You won’t be charged for their purchase.

“Thanks!”

Other times when we try to book through a foreign website, our phone will ring within a minute of the transaction.  It’s the bank wondering if it’s a fraudulent purchase and they want to confirm it.

Not only are the banks really good at catching fraud, you’re not liable if someone does rack up fraudulent charges on it!  Give it to the robber with a smile, and cancel the card as you walk away.  This is why “express kidnappings” have become popular in some areas of South America.  An express kidnapping is when they force you to make a withdrawal from an ATM and/or try to ransom you.  What exactly is the money belt going to do in this situation again?

Note: debit cards do not have this kind of protection.  You may still want to travel with a debit card to avoid cash advance fees from ATM’s, but rarely have it on your person and don’t keep a lot of money in that account.  To avoid potential losses, limit the daily maximum withdrawal limits on your cards.

Small amounts of cash are all you need

Most things and activities that you do aren’t going to be overly expensive.  Thus, you won’t need a lot of cash on your person.  Even if you do have more cash on you than you’d prefer, this will generally be a short-lived situation.  For example, you have a pile of cash on you to pay the entry fee for an attraction or tour.  But since most of these things are during the day, it’s a pretty small risk that you’ll be robbed on the 20 minute ride or walk to the tour.  That’s fine.

Most tour companies in this day and age get much of their business through TripAdvisor.  They’ll ask for reviews if you had a good time and brag about their ranking.  This means that they need to have an online presence, which means they probably have a way to pay online.  Even the smallest shop can use PayPal to do transactions.  Since you’ll be booking your tours online, this further reduces the need for a lot of cash on-hand.

Awareness trumps any tools you could buy

By limiting the amount of cash you carry, limiting the daily withdrawal limits, and primarily carrying a credit card, you’re already well protected against big financial loss.  The goal in a mugging is to get out of the situation intact.  Calmly do what you’re told and the situation should pass quickly.  Pickpockets won’t target someone who is aware of what is going on around them.

A healthy suspicion of other people works far better than a money belt ever could.  It’s free, and best of all: it keeps you safe.

6 month recap of our year long round the world trip

chiang-mai-flower-festival

6 months into our year long round the world trip, here are the weird things we’ve learned.

chaing-mai-flower-festival
Celebration at the flower festival – Chiang Mai, Thailand

“Writing in the air” will get you the check across all cultures

Restaurant servers in non-US countries will not deliver the check unless you’ve explicitly asked for it.  Wave your hand like you’re writing in the air, and the server will nod their head and run off to get your bill.  It’s the universal language of restaurants.

Pooping is difficult

western-toilet-warning
A warning in a Bangkok hotel about using a western toilet: don’t stand on it like you would a squat toilet or you’ll fall off and your butt will bleed.

How often do you think about pooping?  I bet it’s not a lot.  But when you’re faced with the prospect of wiping your butt with your bare hands and rinsing with cold water up your bum, suddenly you reach chess Grandmaster levels of concentration.

Other countries have toilet paper, but it goes in a little basket beside the toilet as the sewer can’t handle it.  Hope for clean poops or your bathroom will smell pretty badly until the waste is emptied.

Still other countries will have toilets that are physically impossible for many westerners.  These are squat toilets, and we don’t have the flexibility necessary to make them a pleasant experience.  Think of hovering an inch over the ground with nothing to hold onto.  Falling over backwards onto the poop and urine soaked floor is a real threat.  And after you throw a cup of water down your crack, you continue squatting to air dry.  It’s a humiliating, humbling, and very wet experience.  Not kidding: the recommendation for your first time in a squat toilet is to take your pants off completely.

Pointing is a valid language

yangon-myanmar-menu
The only time our pointing strategy failed us was in Yangon, Myanmar. Menus rarely had pictures on them.

Don’t know the language?  Easy!

Bring up maps, locations, or names on your smartphone in their language.  Show them to the cabbies or whoever, and point at the screen.

Go to restaurants with pictures on the menu.  Point just like a toddler.

With a little amount of preparation, the language barrier is a tiny problem.  In fact, the locals even do it with you as well.  For the total amount, they will type it on a calculator and point to the screen for how much you will pay.

Your smartphone is goddamn MAGIC

Word Lens is an app for your smartphone that will translate signs for you.  Simply point your camera at the sign, and it translates it right into English on your screen.  It’s unbelievable how useful this can be in foreign countries.

It’s mentally draining – no, really!

new-zealand-tire-swing
Stressful times at a New Zealand winery

Routine is not only comfortable, it’s very easy on the mind.  Getting to a new place is stimulus overload and it’s mentally taxing.  We are always tired the first few days in a new location from trying to re-learn how the day to day life goes.

Our first day itinerary in a new country typically looks like this:

  1. Get money from an ATM
  2. Go grocery shopping
  3. Sleep

That’s it!  That’s 24 hours worth of activities for the day in a new city.

The money issue can range from a simple 5 minute stop, to going into seedy areas of town in search of black market exchanges.  Grocery shopping in a new country is one of the harder activities you can experience while traveling.  90%+ of all the items are different.  Different boxes, names, and shapes.  Things you’ve never encountered before.  And since you don’t speak the language, it’s all guesswork.

We originally felt like idiots for not being able to accomplish much on first days in new countries, but now we see it as pretty natural.  After a few days in-country, some things start becoming routine and we bounce right back to productive members of society again.

Your isolation grows

angkor-wat-section
Our work hazards typically include dehydration and sunburn. Part of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Relating to normal people becomes harder.  Normal people talk about normal things: jobs, cars, commutes, weekend plans, etc.  As a digital nomad, you don’t have any of those.  Every day is an open book, filled with joy and terror.  Joy because each day we do exactly what we want, wherever in the world we want to do it.  Terror because we also shoulder all of the responsibility for our future.

A normal person will describe their horrific coworkers and dilemmas at their job.  We will try to relate with our own on-the-job annoyances, but all that will come out are stories of food poisoning, scamming touts, and how backpackers have ruined yet another beautiful town.

Then the normal people just tilt their head, look at us as if we are aliens, and smile.

South East Asia loves hard beds

It’s like sleeping on the floor.  I’m pretty sure Asian kids watch American cartoons and get confused: “how is that kid not breaking his ankles when he jumps on the bed?”.

South America doesn’t like it when US people refer to themselves as “Americans”

South Americans consider themselves to be “Americans” as well, so they’ll never refer to a US citizen as an American.

Culture is the United States’ greatest export, and it is everywhere

hobbit hole
On the set of The Hobbit in New Zealand. Hobbiton is a very popular tourist destination.

I have heard the song “Call Me Maybe” infinite times while traveling abroad.  Far more than I ever heard it in the US.

Trendy parts of town are often labeled with US monikers like “SoHo”, after a Manhattan district of New York.

Hollywood is pervasive and greatly shapes how other countries see the United States.  As one Spaniard put it: “I don’t need to see Boston, Los Angeles, or New York.  I already know them from all the movies”.

Strawberry Fanta is the preferred soft drink of deceased ancestors

strawberry-fantaSpirit houses are everywhere in Thailand.  They are small remembrances of loved ones long gone.  Plates of food and incense are set out each day as an offering.  It’s not a part of Buddhism proper, just something that developed in the culture.  If you see a drink for the spirits, it will overwhelmingly be Strawberry Fanta.  And a straw, of course.

Your car goes to die in Myanmar

Ever wondered where your 200K mile junker goes after you sell it?  Chances are good it winds up in Myanmar or some other third world country if it still runs at all.  Some teen that tricked out his Scion with custom wraps and rims unknowingly gave a Burmese cabbie a funky little work vehicle.

English on T-shirts is very common even though they can’t read what the shirt says (at least, I assume they can’t read it)

The other day I saw a pre-pubescent girl in Bangkok wearing a shirt that said “Angel Fuck”.  The next day a young man was eating lunch with his grandmother in a jersey that read “PERVERT 69”.  In a Myanmar airport we saw someone with a Nazi T-shirt with the caption “Final Solution”.

By the numbers

  • 9 countries – Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia
  • $32,000 spent – $5,333/month – $177/day
  • 29,000 miles flown
  • 24 airbnb/hotel rooms
  • 370 meals eaten in restaurants
  • 15 SCUBA dives across the Great Barrier Reef, a shipwreck, and night dive
  • 20 pounds lost by John since leaving the US
  • 14 wineries across Argentina and New Zealand
  • 30 days in a row with a bottle of wine in Argentina
  • $7 USD – how much I paid for a man to risk his life
  • 7 national local beers tried: Cusquena, Quilmes, Escudo, Pilsener, Chang, Angkor, Myanmar
  • 7 Batman-themed tuk-tuks across 5 countries
  • 5 new types of animal eaten: alpaca, guinea pig, frog, kangaroo, embryonic duck
  • 4 mountains climbed
  • 4 times chased by a sea lion defending it’s territory
  • 4 cooking classes – Cusco, Argentina, Thailand, Myanmar
  • 3 ancient temple grounds – Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Bagan
  • 3 ships toured – a destroyer, submarine, and 18th century replica
  • 3 fireworks displays – Cusco, Sydney, and New Year’s Eve in Auckland
  • 3 trips boogieboarding down sand dunes in New Zealand (scroll down)
  • 3 caves – 2 in New Zealand, one in the Galapagos
  • 3 types of toilets – western, squat, bidet
  • 3 times we couldn’t enter a temple because Alicia was dressed like a harlot
  • 3 zoos – Santiago, Sydney, Galapagos
  • 2 – total number of toppings on a pizza in all of Argentina (cheese and onions)
  • 2 incidents of food poisoning
  • 2 bio-luminescent worm habitats – one in a New Zealand cave, the other underwater in Thailand
  • 2 food tours – Yangon, Siem Reap
  • $2 USD – price of a good bottle of wine in Argentina
  • 1 dinner cruise – Bangkok
  • 1 broken iPhone screen in New Zealand
  • 1 time my quadcopter got confiscated by customs – Peru
  • $1 USD – price of a bottle of whiskey in Yangon, Myanmar
  • 0 – number of good napkins in Argentina
  • 0 – number of good wines had in Australia

Looking back, looking forward

We definitely made some mistakes.  It’s impossible not to!  We changed our life completely and into something we’d never done before.

Too many countries and locations.  As stated before, moving around takes a big toll on energy levels.  Our next 6 months have us moving around far less.  At a maximum it’ll be one country per month, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we linger a bit more in some places.

We probably should make a budget.  Moving around is also more expensive than staying put, so our more relaxed travel plans should help out.  Since we were going to be in each place for so little time, we tended to pay an upcharge because of our lack of planning.  We paid this tax in housing, activities, and food.

These more relaxed plans will also allow us to update a lot more frequently. =)