Friday, July 15, 2011

Missing things

As my time in New Zealand draws toward its inevitable close, I find myself becoming nostalgic over every little thing that make life here different from life in northwest Ohio. As soon as I had the idea for this blog, I started making a list on a post-it, but it got so incredibly long I ran out of room. (And I didn't really want to write a blog that long.) Of course I’m going to miss all the lovely friends I’ve made—I miss them already. I’ll also miss knitting in the local yarn store, but I already wrote about that last month. I smooshed some things together and crossed some off...and here are the remaining few that stuck out.

1. Shifting with my left hand.
This is actually a proxy for all the things I will miss about driving in New Zealand. First, my current Ohio car is my first automatic transmission; arriving in NZ and going back to standard was great. Second, shifting gears with the left hand is a consequence of driving on the left-hand side of the road, which makes driving a lot more interesting because (in addition to shifting), I’ve got things to think about. Third, the gear shift belongs to my hired Daihatsu Sirion, which from American eyes looks small enough to fold up and put your pocket. In New Zealand, it’s smallish but not freakishly so, and by no means the smallest thing on the road. Vans, SUVs, trucks, and other large vehicles are a MINORITY. Even the shipping trucks are mostly small. It makes it so much easier to see the road! Last, the roads are curvy enough to need lots of shifting!

2. Topography
Anyone living in northwest Ohio will recognize the dearth of elevation changes that region affords. (Unless they possibly have never been anywhere else, in which case a 30-foot hill probably is a mountain.) I never got lost in Christchurch, because the Port Hills are clearly visible from wherever you are. It's possible to actually see across town. On my drive south to the office, I could see west as far as the Southern Alps. From in the Port Hills, you get a huge panoramic view. Ocean to 12,000 feet, all within seeing distance. Bonus: right now the mountains have a pretty dusting of snow on them.

3. Fall weather
The southern hemisphere is actually in the depths of its winter, and the days are incredibly short. However, New Zealand’s island nature tempers the cold weather close to sea level, so I’ve been enjoying 40- and 50-degree days. In addition, the weather is so mercurial, that there’s very rarely something so dismal as a bad-weather day. Fronts don’t take days to pass over a region—they can pass over the entire country in less than 24 hours. If it was raining in the morning, odds were good the sun would be out before the afternoon finished. Since the one thing I managed to lose this trip was my raincoat, this is a Good Thing.

4. Hagley Park
The park is one of the largest inner city parks in the world (as any tour guide will tell you). The perimeter walk is about 6-7 km, and smack in the middle of the park is the Botanic Garden. (The Botanic Garden contains the Rose Garden, which I've mentioned before.) There are always people in the park—many runners and walkers, rugby and netball players, sometimes cricketers, too. Helicopters landed on the south park lawn (especially after the earthquake) and the north grounds transformed from flower show to memorial celebration site to kidfest to rugby fan zone just while I was here. I walked around this park enough times to consider some of the trees as personal friends (especially on the rainy mornings). I even pilfered a rock from the park when I needed something to open walnuts. Of all the places in Christchurch outside my little rented room, I visited this one the most.

5. The local market
Veggie growers are set up on the grounds of Riccarton House every week, year round, selling local in-season produce. A trip to the market meant a lovely walk to (and through) a historic site with fresh food as a bonus. The grounds have a pest-proof fenced off area of native bush where there are always birds--some of which I managed to see if I sat still long enough. If I got up early enough in the morning, the specialty bread people still had scones by the time I arrived. My personal favourite: the wine purveyors who also sold ripe grapefruits they’d just picked off their tree (never tried their wine).

6. Indian takeaway
Technically I suppose I could get Indian takeaway if I drove the 30-odd minutes it takes to get from Tiffin to Findlay. But it’s so much better if you can phone in the order and it’s ready by the time you walk to the restaurant, where the owner knows your name and how you like your sauce…

7. The CQ Digital Printing window
Ads show up in NZ just like they do in the US: posters, billboards, tv, magazines, the lot. There's even a lot of similar humour in them. This printing business put a local spin on their window: a big cartoon head (called Collette) with a huge cartoon bubble coming from her mouth. Every week she had something different to say, often related to the trials and tribulations of living in the earthquake zone Christchurch had become. CQ took suggestions from the public; who knows how many they used. If my regular walking routine didn't take me by that window during the week, I would detour, just for a quick chuckle.
I managed to fit about 25 other things on the post-it I was using—many of them food-related. There are some things I’ve been doing to try to mitigate the pain of leaving. I’m coming home with a cookbook and a set of metric measuring implements. I’ve also taken thousands of photos, some of which I have actually labeled. I have addresses of people and websites to stay in touch with the region. What is sad is much of the day-to-day stuff will gradually fade from memory with passing time… The only way I’m managing to say goodbye to all of this is to reassure myself that it isn’t forever; I’ll be coming back.

Friday, June 24, 2011


The Joy of Knit World
I think I may be addicted to yarn. In keeping with the local vernacular, I should say I’m addicted to wool. Many Kiwis don’t seem to know what I mean when I say “yarn”—made it difficult to locate the proper shops when I first arrived. Wool is synonymous with yarn, just like Kleenex is synonymous with tissue. I suspect this terminology differs because New Zealand fibre stores—and I’ve probably been in enough of them to have a significant sample size—stock yarns that do actually contain significant percentages of wool. Regardless of how they want to spin it, I can’t leave the stuff alone.

I am currently in possession of no less than eleven different project’s-worth of wool, only three of which have the complete projects to show for it. For any truly avid fan of Ravelry this may not seem cause for alarm, but given everything I purchase has to be schlepped back to Ohio, eleven might border on excessive. My first New Zealand wool adventures started innocently enough. I decided rather than pack a scarf and hat I could work through the mammoth plane ride and January summer and whip something together well before I actually needed them. Hat and scarf finished, I was left with empty needles, which I quickly rectified by splurging on a nice pile of 100% NZ wool in a lovely cream colour, and proceeded to cast on a set of cardigan sweaters that I thought would keep me occupied until the trip home in July—at least.

Two sweaters would likely have sufficed, too, had I not attended a Fibre Arts meeting on the uses of alpaca. What harm could a couple of balls of alpaca wool do? Wool is squishy—I was sure I could find space for the soft blue-black skeins (named “Tui” after the indigenous bird). It didn’t really matter that I didn’t know what I was going to make with this wool (that’s what the pattern search on Ravelry is for, after all). I looked forward to several months of thinking of possibilities while I periodically felt the lovely skeins. Wool, after all, is an extremely tactile medium.

In March, my parents arrived for a visit, which meant lots of driving across lots of open spaces, punctuated by many small towns...with wool shops. I found a nice natural tweedy brown New Zealand wool. The price kept my acquisition to three skeins, but I thought I might be able to stretch them into a vest. The nice thing was they fit into the same bag as the alpaca, which was still lurking quietly under my desk in Christchurch. . The tweed’s a little scratchy, but I like the natural dark wools and brown goes with everything I own. Practically.

Southland on a sunny day

Highway acquires
unexpected celebrity
It occurred to me I might have a problem when, on the return drive from one of my tramping adventures, I decided to detour three hours out of the way because I had heard there was a factory outlet just south of Dunedin. I wasn’t overly troubled at the time; the route meant I wouldn’t be travelling past views I’d already seen before, PLUS I stumbled a road that acquired the name “Presidential Highway”—because it connects the towns of Gore (pop. 12,108) and Clinton (pop. 294). And I really have to say as far as bargains go, this shop had ‘em in spades. I waffled forever over various colours of Possum-and-Merino before deciding on an attractive forest green (at $5 per skein instead of $16 in Christchurch!), found myself a nice thick undyed 100% merino (with endless dye possibilities), and then settled on some gifts for a friend who helped me through the February earthquake.

I should note, as an aside, that Possum-and-Merino is a neat example of Kiwi ingenuity. The Australian possum was unwisely imported to New Zealand over a century ago to establish a fur trade. The only mammal indigenous to New Zealand is a small bat; birds and reptiles evolved in pretty mammal-free environments. So the arrival of a possum (and, for that matter, all other alien mammals including humans) had a devastating effect on local ecology. Possum can strip foliage faster than plant communities can recover, and they also eat eggs of the ground-laying bird species. The Department of Conservation is waging a long-standing (and sometimes controversial) battle against the possum, primarily by use of poisoned baits. Possum fur is valuable because the hair shaft is both hollow, making it an excellent insulator, and soft, which is nice for garments. Rather than letting them all rot in the bush, hunters and trappers discovered there was a market for possum fur when blended with merino wool. In the space of a couple decades, possum populations dropped by about half (although at a current estimated population of 30 million they are hardly disappearing) AND souvenir shops have a great stock of ready wares.

Pavement cave-ins as a result of
ground liquefaction

With the new merino and possum wools, I now had enough to warrant shipping home in a separate box. And once you’ve made that decision, there’s really no going back. My favourite Christchurch wool shop just reopened. It flooded pretty badly during the February earthquake and its location was in the restricted zone for a while. The June earthquakes brought back more piles of silt to be shoveled. Backbreaking work, especially for those people who were doing it for the third time around. But they’re open now and quite keen to sell off slightly damaged packages of wool. Hence the five new skeins of thick wool blend perfect for slippers, plus a package of hand-dyed merino that I picked up and then couldn’t put down. I might have also accidently run into another shop on the north side of town where a skein of sock wool (superwash merino) leaped into my basket when I wasn’t looking… and then after I discovered knitting socks is much easier than it looks, well, I just had to find some more wool for practicing.
Clearing the silt

There have been upsides to my addiction. I’ve become part of two different knitting groups who form the core of the friendships I’ve forged here in New Zealand. In addition to the hat and scarf, I’ve finished three pair of socks, a pretty good-sized felted bag, and a pair of convertible mittens. The cardigans are even well-along, although without sleeves one can’t quite call them cardigans yet. There’s also something about knitting that is incredibly soothing when the earth can’t quite make up its mind about when to stop shaking.

The two aftershocks on June 13 (M5.6 and M6.3) set everyone on edge again; there’s been more flooding, loss of power and water, and disruption of regular services. The funny thing is, although these quakes probably appear as discrete events (like the news articles that describe them) to the outside world, they’re so much more of a continuum when you’re stuck in the middle. We spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not what we just felt was a shake or a big truck going by, so it seems like an externally driven city-wide outbreak of ADD. When the big ones go by, I wonder if it’s worth getting up to stand in the doorway...again. There have been 6 aftershocks in the last 24 hours, almost 2 weeks out from those main quakes. I can't imagine what it's like in Japan.

Ultimately, having the wool has been more than just a conduit into a new community. It’s been a small positive amid the uncertainty. Letting wool slide along needles and through my hands...from a ball of possibilities on one side to something concrete and useful on the other...has been a grounding influence for me, all the way back to the first jolt on January 20 (M5.1). As far as addictions go, it’s probably cheaper, and it doesn’t impair my other faculties (much), although I won’t be trying the driving-
while-knitting thing. I just hope I don’t ever have to go through withdrawal.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I'll see you on the dark side of the moon...

When you’re traveling, there’s a certain level of expectation that you will confront new experiences—those “you just had to be there” moments that you can’t explain to the people back home because they are so, well, different. People who break up the normal routine for 6 months, and transplant themselves (study abroad people—back me up here) will generally assume that most things will be a surprise, which means that generally because everything’s new, nothing actually is a surprise. You spend time thinking about how you’re going to word it all in the emails back home. This isn’t to say that if you’re expecting something to totally wow you it doesn’t actually wow you, because it still does. But every now and then you come smack up against something that is so mind-boggling unexpected and whimsical that it makes you laugh at the sheer inexplicability of the experience.
I was engaged to have dinner Friday with a University friend whose recent move from Tasmania makes her somewhat more sympathetic to feelings of being in a new place. She offered to cook, I offered to bring dessert. On Friday I learned that her family had, however, discovered a café that not only was vegetarian, but also had live music on Friday nights—and did I want to go? Of course! I wanted to go. Who doesn’t like live music in a café? We set out after work on Friday; said café was actually on the far eastern side of town (where, incidentally, port-a-loos are still a necessity), within shouting distance of the ocean.

The café itself was appropriately quirky, with no matching chairs and grab-your-own silverware. The food was fantastic. I’ve never had sweet potato in lasagna before, but I can tell you I’ll be having it again. My friend’s daughter wore a delightfully eclectic ensemble of sequins, chiffon, and fur that only looks good on haute couture models and 6-year-olds, but even that wasn’t all that startling. The live music that started up promptly at 7:00…by a man wearing a fluff-adorned pirate hat (and yes, he did have long white hair)…was actually a community group of ukulele players, who evidently come regularly to, uh, …jam… together. This, too, one might take in stride. But this was no ordinary confluence of mass ukulele-playing. No! There’s an overhead projector in this café! Words and chords are provided! We are having a sing-a-long!

Sing-a-longs are great—it doesn’t matter if you’re any good because everyone just has a go. Most participants usually have their go as loud as possible, perhaps because we think that if we can hear ourselves sing, we might actually have a clue if we sound any good. Not that it matters. However, folk music is sufficiently repetitive that after about the 2nd verse even the uninitiated and tone-deaf are doing fine. Never done a ukulele sing-a-long before (particularly after sweet potato lasagna), but it sounded like a good time to me.

There were a few lovely New Zealand folk songs, including a Māori song that I actually remembered learning way back in my junior high days at a grammar school in Auckland. Sing-a-long standby “I’ll Fly Away” made an appearance, as did “Greenback Dollar”. But what had me truly overwhelmed was that the majority of the songs we sang were things like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Stones), “Ghostriders In The Sky” (Stan Jones--cleverly segued in with theme song from “Rawhide”), “Jambalaya” (Hank Williams), and “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’” (Nancy Sinatra). The point at which my brain gave up and refused to assimilate anything more was when we all started belting lyrics to “Brain Damage” (Pink Floyd)…to the strumming of ukuleles…in a vegetarian café…in New Brighton, New Zealand. I can’t explain it. You just had to be there.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A slice of the ordinary

I walked to the grocery store this weekend. The shelves are mostly full again. After the earthquake many stores had difficulties bringing in supplies to replenish their stocks, and some things are still in short supply. (Not that I’m in dire need of specialty cheeses.) I like going to the grocery store because there’s a nice familiarity to the orderly bins of produce, followed by aisles of cereal, soup, baking needs, hair care products, toilet tissue, etc. Grocery stores in Christchurch (and elsewhere in New Zealand) are, to me, comfortable reminders of Life Back Home. Plus there’s not a whole lot there that is beyond my means, or even beyond my understanding, and even an extravagant trip into the Land of Comfort Food isn’t going to break the bank, although it may break the diet.

My favorite discovery since arrival has been the “Easy-Yo” yoghurt maker. One can, of course, buy yoghurt in 6-packs of small containers (called “pottles”), or even in vat-sized buckets I thought were generally reserved for more upscale varieties of ice cream. It’s cheaper, though, to buy New Zealand yoghurt in powdered form—in packets on the cereal aisle. Mix your packet with cold water in the specially designed container, stick it in your Easy-Yo overnight, and presto! The next morning there’s yoghurt. No electricity required. Use less water, and it’s Greek style! Use more, and it’s a yoghurt smoothie! Buy add-ins like fruit and honey in bulk, and save even more! Adding in your own goodies almost constitutes playing with your food... From all of this, I have to conclude that I am easily entertained.

Grocery stores are great ways for the non-risk-takers like me to feel adventurous. You won’t find me bungy-jumping off any bridges while I’m here—and believe me, there are lots of bridges I could choose from—but sautéed kumara cooked in pumpkin soup? Yum. Anyone for organic marinated NZ tofu with zucchini pickle on a Cruskit? Occasionally I’m lucky enough to find vegetarian pies in the deli. Meat pies, in the individual serving size, are a traditional New Zealand fall-back food, having migrated along with the British. They’re a little like a U.S. pot pie, but with a pastry crust that is hardy enough to stand up on its own without the help of an aluminum tin tray. Mostly pies contain hamburger meat and potato, but even the vegetarian ones will sit back and put their feet up in your stomach until your digestive tract cries uncle.

I went to the grocery store this weekend because I was buying ingredients to make a typical New Zealand lunchbox treat—the slice. “Slice”, near as I can tell, refers to any goodie that comes in bar form, although usually oats seem to be involved. In my case, the slice of choice was Ginger Crunch, as I’d wheedled the recipe from a friend who made me some after the earthquake. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this addiction when I get back to the U.S., as one of the key ingredients is Golden Syrup, which, for the uninitiated, is a little like the broiled sugar on the top of a flan dessert. (On second thought, it’s probably just as well I won’t be able to make it all that frequently back home. There’s enough butter in the recipe to drown your average Kiwi.) It took a little hunting around for some ingredients (fine coconut vs. long thread coconut?), but I eventually carted home the goodies in my reusable green shopping bags.

I’m not the only one who walks to the grocery store. Walking was popular before the earthquake but it’s become more common as the earthquake has done an impromptu reorganization of usable roads in, out, and around the city. Having been caught out in this traffic more than once, I’m definitely up for multiple trips of walking to the store to carry back necessary food supplies. Nothing like adding little extra weight-bearing exercise to the weekly schedule to make one feel virtuous. It makes the Ginger Crunch taste especially good.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


This has been a really difficult entry to write. Stories and images from 22 February abound; I’ve been having a hard time deciding if there is anything that I could say that would be meaningful.

I was on Skype with my partner at ten minutes to one on the 22nd of February when a M6.3 earthquake occurred 6 miles southeast of my room in a Christchurch suburb. The room bounced around, and my chair would have rolled away with me on it had I not grasped the desk. I heard glass breaking (a lamp, I later discovered). I remember wondering if it was another aftershock. (On 4 September, a M7.1 earthquake occurred about 25 miles west of Christchurch. Since then, there have been over 5000 aftershocks. For an impressive view of the aftershock sequence, visit As I moved toward the doorway, the shaking stopped. Skype had disconnected, but the computer was happily still running on battery power. It didn’t occur to me that power had gone out until I noticed lights were off. 

What followed were several hours of confusion and disorientation. I can’t, at this point, remember exactly what happened and in what order. For a time I was outside with many other residents in my complex. One had a phone that was able to receive broadcasts from a news network and was showing clips of what had happened just blocks away in the downtown central business district (CBD). Two curious residents wanted to know what had happened and headed off to the CBD, a 15 minute walk under normal circumstances. The two explorers came back hours later with stories which have since been broadcast world-wide. They evidently completed their trip before the area was completely cordoned off. In addition to knocking out power, the earthquake had completely ruptured water and sewer lines (to most of the city, I later learned). Caught between incessant aftershocks and cold rain and wind, I was inside and out all afternoon.

In the early evening, I met two men from my neighboring building, each with harrowing stories of escape from the CBD. One had been in the Central Library, the other narrowly escaped from a collapsing building which he and a group had been hired to repair after the September 4 earthquake. His legs were badly bruised and scratched, but he brought out an extra chair from his room and shared his blanket; we all sat outside under a small awning and talked about what had happened. Both thought the situation downtown was likely dire. I mostly listened, and felt extremely lucky. It slowly grew dark, and the conversation dwindled to a companionable silence. I remember staring at one of the buildings when the power and lights suddenly came back on. It seemed surreal. 

I put the TV on back in my room, and left it on for the next 30 hours. The mayor of Christchurch maintained a really calm demeanor throughout though I doubt he slept. (I later learned he had a past career in radio.) He told residents of Christchurch to stay in undamaged residences if possible. He relayed information about the damage. I remember waiting for his briefings because he seemed to be the only one with useable information for residents those first chaotic days. I rationed out the <2 liters of water I’d had left in a bottle, and wondered what to do about the nonfunctioning toilet. I knitted, because I couldn’t think what else to do. I don’t think I slept, either. The aftershocks just kept coming.

I first heard from one of my new Christchurch friends around noon two days later. A text message finally made it through the wreckage. I did not at all anticipate how it would feel to reconnect with someone that I knew locally: I dropped to the floor and just sobbed against the bed. She had invited me up to her house for dinner with her and her husband. The walk to my friend’s house took two hours, past mountains of debris and surrounded by silt the shaking had liquefied and spewed up to the surface. Seeing this on television is sobering; I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to describe how it felt to see it in person. My friends had running water (boil 3 minutes to purify), and had dug themselves a pit toilet under a sheltering pine tree at the back of their yard. I have never been so grateful to squat over a hole in the ground. They invited me to stay the night. When I left the next day, they sent me home with three bottles of freshly boiled water. 

The generosity and community spirit of the people of Christchurch are something to behold. Neighbors were out the day after the quake to help transfer congealing rivers of silt to the street for pickup. (To date, the city has cleared 218,000 tons from city streets; they estimate they’ll be clearing silt through April.) Within 24 hours, local university students had organized via facebook into a 2000-strong army of volunteers. They set up a hub for incoming texts and emails and mobilized groups of students to areas of need. This “Student Volunteer Army” is still at work. They’ve since been joined by a collaborating group from the region’s Federated Farmers, called the “Farmy Army”. Websites have been set up for the thousands of people across the country who volunteered beds where Christchurch refugees could stay for as long as was necessary. (It’s possible as many as 65,000 people, or 1/6 of the population, have left. Schools in neighboring towns opened their doors but are struggling with the influx of kids.) Outside of the city, in every shop, there are donation buckets at the counters. At tourist information centers, “We Care” posters are available with a donation to the Christchurch relief fund.

It’s not Haiti here. There’s no cholera, and food is in ready supply. Drinking water is available from distribution centers. Many are out of work, but most are making do even without basic services. People are helping each other out. Looting is minimal. The hospitals never actually closed. Still, it’s a heritage city that won’t ever be the same. It’s estimated as many as 2/3 of the downtown buildings are unsalvageable, many of them historical. Whole communities may need to move to a different area of town. Some residents may never return. Prior to the earthquake, Christchurch accounted for about 15% of the New Zealand economy. Now it will cost as much as $15 billion to reconstruct. It’s hard for anyone to know where to begin. However, if you would like to join the millions of Kiwis (New Zealanders) and others around the world who are trying to help, please visit: or

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Environmental Impact

I spent the afternoon sitting in the Rose Garden in the middle of Christchurch's Hagley Park. It’s hard not to fall prey to the 19th century Euro-mentality that we are masters of our own universe while sitting in a rose garden. Everything is arranged in beautiful concentric circles with the grass cut just so and the hedge trimmed just right. The roses were obligingly blooming in an array of colors, some of which I had never seen before and I’ve been in a lot of rose gardens. There are benches around the outside strategically placed to be quiet and serene; most of the walkers take one of the inner paths through the flowers, so even when it’s busy (as it was this afternoon), it still feels peaceful. The air even smells nice. 

I arrived at the Rose Garden after having wandered through crowds of tourists in the middle of Christchurch who were there, it seemed, to watch and sometimes take part in the International Buskers Festival (complete with “jokes better than your dad’s”). The festival, I learned from a handy program, has been part of the Christchurch landscape every summer since 1994, and while most of the acts were from New Zealand, the range of performers did almost live up to its name—at least more so than the “World Series”. I caught bits of three separate acts in three separate venues, doing similar feats of acrobatics and juggling in three extremely different contexts. My favorite gimmick of the afternoon was “Mulletman”, who, as a finale, waved his impressive locks while a multitude of tools (some flaming) from atop a 10’ unicycle. 

View toward Golden Bay
Both the severe organization of the Rose Garden and the chaos of the Festival are a stark contrast to where I was last week at this time. I was out in the relatively untouched wilderness, walking one of the 9 Great Walks. I say relatively untouched because the Heaphy Track itself was originally graded for a road, so the trail itself is wide enough and gentle enough to not truly be considered bush-whacking. Likewise, its status as a Great Walk means there are huts (cabins) along the track in which walkers can stay, complete with mattresses, gas stoves, and the occasional flush toilet. In addition, I was hiking as part of a coordinated group led by an extremely helpful (and strong!) guide, who not only produced amazing meals from a cavernous backpack, but also did the dishes afterward. (Those of you who know me well will understand what an appreciated luxury that was.)

Gouland Downs
The track itself winds across 82 km of varying vegetation over 915 vertical meters of elevation. The views are the kind you just can’t do justice to with a camera, and every corner we turned I wished my mind worked more like a 3D 360° digital recorder rather than an antique Polaroid camera. There were high grasslands, knobby mountains, mossy forests, rivers, caves, and a palm-lined shore, all underscored by day after day of sunny weather.  Arriving at the end of the track was bittersweet…the return to roads, cars, power, and the urban environment. (I have to confess, though, that first hot shower was very nice.)

As I become more familiar with Christchurch, there are lots of things about it that I really appreciate about it. It’s a small city that manages not to feel much like a city, even in the thick of downtown. This doesn’t, however, mean that I’m not already planning on when I can get myself back out to a National Park…

Friday, January 14, 2011

Landscape shock?

There’s something vaguely disquieting about calling life in New Zealand different enough to warrant a so-called “culture shock”. After all, the official language is English, and although it sounds different to the American ear, it’s extremely easy to make oneself understood. People live in apartments and family houses and work in jobs recognizable across the first world. The pervasive nature of U.S. popular culture extends to this side of the world in many forms, including TV programs (Mythbusters, My Wife and Kids), fast food establishments (McDonald’s, KFC), and even the presence of the superstore (in lieu of WalMart there is “the warehouse”). The apples in the grocery store come from the United States, as do, ironically, the green kiwi fruits. Despite the local preference for driving on the left-hand side of the road, the usual traffic rules all apply, and familiar highway infrastructure connects cities that would comfortably fit in anywhere in the developed world.

Hamilton Gardens
There are a few signs here and there that give pause for a chuckle: I’ve encountered “The Whopping Carrot”, an organic foodstore, “Missing Leg Backpackers”, an establishment at the foot of a mountain craggy enough to have stolen a few legs, and even “Pooman, City Drains, Ltd.”, for all your drainage requirements.

What strikes me most about being here is the variety of truly stunning landscape and environment which is contained in a land barely the size of Colorado. No New Zealander lives above a three hour drive from an ocean. (You can’t say that in Colorado…) In two weeks, I’ve managed to visit beaches of fine white sands and coarse black sands, and several in between. I’ve climbed part way up a volcano, visited an ecological preserve of subtropical forest, and traversed a large agricultural plain, all in the space of a week and a half. And I wasn’t even really trying. It’s all enough to take your breath away.

Mt. Taranaki
In the U.S., we are used to packing up into a minivan, SUV, or possibly even still a station wagon, and taking several days to arrive at a destination. Here, they walk. For days. There are nine designated “Great Walks” in New Zealand, and most residents I've met have completed at least one. Walking and bicycling, which can remain dominant forms of transportation in first world urban areas, here still pervade smaller towns and countryside, where cycling lanes and “share the road” signs are regularly installed. When you walk, scenery doesn’t race by, and the views become more than postcard images but living landscapes in which clouds, trees, birds, grass, and insects move. I’ve been trained to notice landscape, but
Ocean Beach
here it doesn’t take any effort at all to see it. Everyone here, residents included, sees and appreciates it, too. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011


I always forget that traveling to someplace exciting means actually having to travel to someplace exciting, and that bit isn’t really exciting at all. I’ve arrived at my first night’s accommodation in Auckland, New Zealand a sweaty, dirty, exhausted mess, roughly 46 hours after I left my home in Tiffin, Ohio. I’ve navigated airports in Columbus, Denver, Los Angeles, Sydney, and Auckland, and I’m so tired I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be not tired. I probably would have even forgotten my own name if it weren’t so conveniently typed out for me on my passport, boarding passes, and credit card.

Airports are remarkably similar the world over. There are check-in counters. There are luggage carts and security checks. There are terminals and gates, cranky babies, long lines in the women’s bathroom, and plenty of ways to part you from your money. Anecdotally I can add that airport food has gotten better, drinking fountains scarcer, and security checks more plentiful. Airports are always great places to go for a walk (particularly if you are facing a 6 hour layover). In addition to window shopping and people watching, it’s great exercise—and if you happen to fall in with a group that is late for the boarding call, you can do a little jogging. There are actually treadmills of a sort, too, but they call them moving walkways and it’s generally frowned upon if you’re using them the wrong direction when the airport is busy.

Airplanes, too, are predictable quantities, particularly if you’re flying economy class. There’s not much foot room. It’s hard to find enough space in overhead bins. Flight attendants explain in detail how to fasten your seat belt (insert the metal tab into the buckle and tighten by pulling on the strap…) Someone at some point is going to jostle your elbow. And there are still cranky babies. Getting up and walking the aisles doesn’t make a flight go any faster although it does help circulation to your feet. If you’re lucky both the in-flight entertainment and the food are free.

Having passed through multitudes of airports and airplanes, here I am, sitting in my hotel room, just outside of the airport with barely a thought to rattle around in my weary brain. I’m listening to chirping birds and the soft swish of sheer curtains as they are ruffled by a breeze, but compared to constant airport chatter and airplane engine noise, the peace and calm are amazing. The trees and shrubs are unfamiliar but the sky is a fading blue with a few fluffy white clouds. There are flowers blooming because, yes, outside it is summer. I think to myself, I’m here. I’m in New Zealand. And exhaustion just doesn’t seem to matter.