Sunday, December 19, 2010

Back on the Road

Last February I found myself homeless.  I had packed my bags and was living under the roofs of generous friends.  I left a few weeks later and the trend continued until April when I moved into my own flat in Auckland.  Ten months later I am back on the road again.  I have moved out of my flat and will now be bouncing from place to place... 

December/January:  Our office closes on December 24 and doesn’t open again until January 17 so I’ll have plenty of time to travel around during the holidays.  On the docket…lots of driving:  the Coromandel peninsula, Opononi on the south end of 90 mile beach, and possibly south to Wellington with a hike at Tongariro along the way.  And as a little present for the New Year, I’m going to rustle up some graham crackers and marshmallows from the American store to have some proper s’mores over the holidays.

February:  Look out world, as of February 3, I will be unemployed.  Why would I quit a perfectly good job in a gorgeous country?  Well, I clearly live in a world of denial so what better way to spend that time then on the South Island.  In a land of adventure and beauty with glaciers and mountains galore.  And I get to share it all with my dad and his partner, Debbie, when they come over to meet me in Christchurch

March/April:  On March 8 I will be tearing myself away from New Zealand but since it wasn’t enough to travel straight home I am flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where I will start a few more months of living in denial in places I’ve never been.  Along the way I get to spend time with my best friend in Southern Thailand and my mom who will be backpacking with me for the majority of the trip.  And at the end of it all, when the money runs out and I just can’t see another temple or eat any more rice, I’ll be flying back to the US to face reality sometime around the beginning of May.

Only time will tell what’s really in store for me in the next few months, but I do know I have a busy month of planning ahead.  Let the fun begin…

Merry Christmas everyone!

Things to be thankful for:
- Snowy white days
- Cold weather that makes you want to stay in and snuggle up
- White lights on everything making the city light up when the dark falls at 5p
- Christmas carols that start after Thanksgiving
...Christmas just isn't the same without these wonderful things.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Aging...It's Inevitable

Most days I still feel like I'm 21 without a care in the world (that is until I occasionally interact with someone who really is 21 and realize I'm a fool).  But other days, I start to feel my age and the pains of getting older and dealing with things that I usually classify as adult issues...death, illness, marriage, etc.  These aren't things kids deal with, and then I remember, I'm an adult now.

When I left for New Zealand I had to consider that I would miss major events while I was away:  friends getting engaged, people getting married, babies being born, and sadly people dying.  If these events happened, I would have to decide what was important to me and if I felt like I should go back.  This wouldn't be the first time I had to make this choice, but it was something I dreaded and not something I could escape. 

Three months ago my best friend called to tell me she was engaged.  We weren't in the same city back home so it would have been done over the phone anyway, but I couldn't be there to give her a huge hug of congratulations, help plan the wedding, etc....it wasn't much fun to feel like I was missing out.

Two months ago I got a call, my mom's uncle passed away.  It was unexpected.  It was extremely sad.  But it was fast, relatively painless and he lived a long life.  And I wasn't there to support my family.

Last week a friend got engaged to a guy I've never even met.  I missed the excitement, the wonder and the ups and downs of it all.  Another major milestone missed.

Yesterday I discovered that someone I know has cancer.  It's not someone I'm close to, but it's something I could identify with.  This person is my age.  Am I really at that stage in my life?  Reality was hitting hard.

This morning I found out my uncle passed away.  He was severely handicapped, after having several strokes more than 13 years ago.  My aunt diligently took care of him for many years, doing things for him that he could no longer do for himself.  Things as simple as brushing his teeth.  It could be argued that this isn't necessarily a sad thing.  It's still a death in the family and I am starting to feel myself age by the minute.

It's life.  I move on.  I'm living abroad and that's the choice I made.  I have a life of my own here, I'm making decisions based on only myself and moving around the world as the wind blows and that means that sometimes it's hard to remember I'm not 21.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pavlova, The Embodiment of the Kiwi v Oz Rivalry

It's funny how one small dessert can become the essense of a rivalry between two countries.  One a small unassuming country very happy to make fun of themselves; the other a much larger, more well-known and imposing country with the attitudes that go along with it.  As someone who used to live in a country similar to the latter, it's refreshing to now be living in the former.  Before I came to this part of the world the term pavlova had not to my recollection entered my vocabulary (unless of course you count my bad pronunciations of the Russian Olympians and hockey players).
From http://www.stuff.co.nz/

Pavlova, a dessert named after a Russian ballerina, is a meringue cake topped with whip cream and fruit.  And unbeknownst to the rest of the world there is a quiet war raging about where this dessert actually originated...was it New Zealand or was it Australia?

When Jessica Watson finished her round-the-world sailing voyage in Sydney last May the first thing she requested to eat was Pavlova...both countries jumped on that as further proof of her nationality (for the record: she was born in New Zealand and she moved recently to Australia). 

Today the answer has finally been solved around this tasty little dessert.  Stuff.co.nz included the above image with the simple caption:  "IT'S OURS: Oxford agrees with us."  They stuck their tongues out at the Aussies with the backing of the Oxford Dictionary.  That's right, the people behind the Oxford dictionary dedicated time to determine where the Pavlova actually originated and the answer is...New Zealand.

I particularly liked the quote from an old Australian codger who wasn't too happy about the new support for New Zealand, ''They can make all the claims they like, and the Oxford dictionary can go on like great academic know-it-alls, but I think most Australians would agree with me that the true pavlova belongs to Australia,'' the 86-year-old told the Sydney Morning Herald last night.

Let the battle rage on...in the meantime there will be more Kiwi's sleeping easier tonight.  (Read the Stuff.co.nz article here:  New Zealand wins pavlova war.)

Thank you to Meagan, my flatmate, for sharing this fun article and contributing to my further enjoyment of this wonderful country and its quirks.  I'm happy to be on the winning side.  Now we just need to work out who wants to claim Russell Crowe.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Steps to Prepare an American Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that you just don't understand unless you've experienced it.  So, I set out to create an American Thanksgiving halfway around the world. 

Step 1:  Planning the Menu/ Buying the Supplies
As a seasoned Thanksgiving eater, I really didn't take into account the difficulty I would have in planning a menu for it in New Zealand.  Unlike in the US, all of the Thanksgiving supplies aren't readily available on the end caps and sales flyers at all of the local stores...it's just not that easy to find the things I need.

For example, I wanted to actually make cranberries.  Unfortunately, they aren't in season so fresh ones aren't an option.  I asked around and found out that they sold cranberry sauce in the store.  Perfect.  Encouraged I went to the grocery store and with some assistance located the aisle.  And with some more assistance from a kind customer - he pointed them out on the shelf.  Without help I'm not sure I would have noticed the only two options of what I can only call cranberry jam on the shelves.  Definitely not what I was looking for. 

Fortunately, I have the American store.  I was told about this little wonder of a place several months ago but haven't really had the need for it (although there is comfort in knowing it's there).  Martha's Backyard (a.k.a. the American store) seems to be the place to get all those dried goods that I want from home.  They even stock graham crackers!  Kraft mac & cheese, Jiffy muffin mix, Koolaid, Jell-o, big red party cups, Heinz ketchup, Betty crocker cake mixes, Bounce dryer sheets - all the things that you don't really think about until you don't have them.  And, most importantly, canned pumpkin and cranberries along with an array of other Thanksgiving supplies.

With a bit of research, I persevered and finalised my menu (for 14 people) as the following:
  • Veges and dip
  • Turkey with stuffing
  • Corn
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Gravy
  • Green beans
  • Cranberries
  • Biscuits
  • Corn Bread
  • Apple Sauce
  • Deviled Eggs
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Apple pie
  • Pecan bars

Step 2:  Let the Cooking Begin
One of the things I wanted to be able to do was provide this elaborate feast without much help.  I know that's not a traditional Thanksgiving, but my friends have done so much for me that I wanted them to be able to just rock up and enjoy.  It's still to be determined if this means that I've bitten off more than I can chew. 

Step 3:  Sorting my Holiday Plans
With Thanksgiving, comes the Christmas and New Year holiday season!  One of my favorite times of the year, I thought it was finally time to work out my plans.  Afterall, most offices are shut down for at least two weeks.  My office is closed from December 24 - January 17 so I have a month of time to fill.  It will be prime summer months here so I'll miss the nice cold winter feeling, I think I'll make due with some quality beach time.  Camping, S'mores (one more reason to love the American store), Pub bands, hiking, friends and lots of beaches are in my near future!  I can't think of a more Kiwi-way to spend the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!!

To be thankful for:
- New experiences
- Old traditions

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The People You Meet (part 1): Janine, England's Finest

One of the best things about my time here are all of the great people.  It’s hard to convey who they are so I asked my flatmates to be guest bloggers.  I wanted their impressions of New Zealand, and a bit about their past and future plans. 

Part 1:  Janine, England's Finest
Janine (our English flatmate) fits the stereotypes I have for the proper English woman.  She speaks the Queen’s English so well that I occasionally have trouble understanding her (Meagan, the other American, and I trade off as the translator into our own bastardized American English for each other).  She has her tea and eats typical English fare.  She never goes out with out making sure she looks presentable, fully made up and wearing nice clothes, even for archery.

Janine is our entertainment guru in the house and is constantly finding events around the area to attend.  She also has an uncanny knack for finding the ones that are affordable on a traveller’s budget.  Although she was keen to put together something for my blog, with true English modesty she wanted me to write it.  So here’s a bit more about Janine (basically in her words):

I've always had the travel bug.  I have lived around the world as a nanny in places like Texas, USA, Sydney, Australia; Zurich, Switzerland.  Now I’ve also lived in Auckland, New Zealand and Darlington, England (which is where I grew up).  I've travelled around most of Europe, South East Asia, China, Australia, USA, Mexico, Africa and India.  A few other bits:
  • I was featured in a newspaper article in 2001 for all of my travelling
  • I have been an extra in a Bollywood movie
  • Met the Dalai Lama
  • Gone cage diving with great white sharks
  • Completed one of the world’s highest bungee jumps in South Africa, it was terrifying
  • Sky dived a couple of times, been hang gliding, done the world’s highest commercial abseil
  • I just finished my first half marathon, which is a real accomplishment for me as I am not a runner, I got the fitness bug from Jess.
  • And I’ve booked my trip to South America and Antarctica for February
My biggest change since I’ve been here was to start eating meat.  I was a vegetarian for 20 years and after backpacking through Asia, where it was so hard to find vegetarian food that I lived on fried rice and veges and fried noodles and veges for 5 months, I decided I would start to eat meat again. I cannot believe what I have been missing out on and how versatile mince is!

There are a few other things I want to complete before I leave New Zealand:
  • Survive any earthquakes or volcano eruptions that there may be.
  • Climb Franz Josef
  • Go camping
  • Do woofing
  • Eat a possum pie when I'm in the South Island
  • Surf successfully
  • Tongariro Crossing – one of the world’s top ten day walks
 Living with Jess, I’ve realised she is: Sparkly, has sass (but I’m not sure where it comes from), and surprises me every now and again.  And she has very white teeth (but not Ross white like on Friends).  I think it must be an American thing.

Editor's Note: Friday is her last night in the house before she starts travelling around New Zealand over the next few months.  Her quiet sarcasm and sense of humour will be missed.  Good luck, Janine!!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Bitter Sweet Vacation

For the past two weeks I have enjoyed not only some holiday time from work but the privilege of traveling with one of my best friends around both Sydney and Northern New Zealand.  Unfortunately, like many good things, it came to an end today.  This evening as we said goodbye at the airport (and I struggled and failed to keep my composure in public), I realized that this was just the beginning of all the goodbyes I will be saying in the next few months.  Here are some of the highlights of our travels:

Sydney, Blue Mountains:
We rented a car and drove west of the city just shortly after arriving in Sydney.  We stopped by a farm on the way out for the required photos with koala and kangaroo before enjoying the beauty and expanse of the Blue Mountains.  Don't be fooled by the image, it was a bright sunny day and the mountains really are that picturesque.


Inside Sydney Opera House
Opera at the Sydney Opera House:
On one of our last nights in the city we went to an opera at the Opera House.  The most famous opera house in the entire world didn't disappoint.  The atmosphere and experience was well worth it.  It was a nice night out on the town.  Although the sets weren't what we were expecting, we assumed that the number of shows at the Opera House prevent the size and cost of the permanent ones we are used to in Chicago.


Running the Auckland Marathon/Half Marathon:
An early morning start
So I didn't run the marathon as I had planned.  In fact, I didn't even train for the half marathon as I intended, but I ran it anyway.  We woke up at 4:30am on a Sunday and walked to the ferry where we met up with all the other crazy runners to start a marathon.  We crossed the start line together but I ended up falling to the back of the pack quite quickly.  In fact, I made friends with a 60+ year old man who was speed walking his fifth marathon in five months - I found this out just before he sped away.  So it wasn't the performance I would have liked but in the end I completed a half marathon in Auckland and am one of the few that got the opportunity to walk/run across the Auckland Harbour Bridge into the city.  Author's Note: For those wondering my time was 2 hours and 59 minutes, I finished in just enough time to take pictures of Dave as he crossed the finish line of the full marathon.  My flatmate Janine crossed just shortly after that (she started 50 minutes later with the rest of the half marathoners). 

Dave trying a small dune
Cape Reinga, New Zealand:
On Tuesday morning after spending Monday letting our muscles recover we drove north to Cape Reinga.  We lucked out with amazing weather which just made the experience so much more enjoyable.  Cape Reinga is the northern most point in New Zealand and is also where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean and on a clear day, like the one we had, you can actually see where the waters collide.  It was amazing!  And on our way we stopped by 90-mile beach (which isn't actually 90 miles, but that's just details) and went to the dunes to try sand boarding (basically sledding down massive sand dunes).

Waitomo Caves, New Zealand:
Blackwater rafting at Waitomo
On the last Saturday of our holiday we drove south of Auckland to see Waitomo Caves.  The caves are famous for the glow worms that line the ceilings.  We opted for a blackwater rafting tour to really experience the caves.  Blackwater rafting is hiking and tubing through the cave on a guided tour.  The water was freezing but the glow worms and the experience made it very impressive.  And along the route we found out that the "glow worms" are actually fly larvae (a.k.a. maggots) that glow to attract their food source.  Rightly so, they have been calling them glow worms since the 1800s when they first started bringing tourists to the caves.

Things to be thankful for:
- Best friends
- New Zealand - an amazing country
- Crossing more off my to do list (see the bay of islands, Waitomo Caves, half marathon and sand boarding!! It was a busy vacation!)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Time is not on my side

With only a few months left now my timeline is getting set, sometimes by things out of my control, which is making it all that more of a reality.  But it is falling into place and although I'm not sure I'm ready to face it, there is still a piece of me that is comforted by the thought of home.  Here's the latest plan (although it does keep shifting slightly):

October 25-November 7:  Vacation!  Sydney/North Island of New Zealand
November 12: Give notice at work
December 5: Move out of flat, become a drifter
January 2-17: Travel New Zealand (cross a few more things off my To Do List)
February 2: Last day of work
February 4-5: Wellington 7s game
February 8-28: Travel New Zealand (one month left to finish up my To Do List)
March 7: Fly to Kuala Lumpur
March 7-May 10: Travel Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos) and China
May 14: Celebrate coming home and my birthday in Chicago

Note: In New Zealand many offices completely close for the holidays, my current employer isn't an exception.  Our office will be closed from December 24 - January 17.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bits and Bobs (aka This and That)

It's been awhile since I've written and although nothing big has happened, there have been a lot of little things.  Sunday is my 7 month anniversary!  It's hard to believe I've already been here that long (or not longer depending on the day).  Here's what's going on in my life right now:

Visitors!!
I am so thankful for my phone calls back to the States and my emails and messages, but there's nothing better than a visit from a friend.  So for the last several months I have been looking forward to one of my closest friends visiting for the marathon.  Of course, as someone who is a natural runner (and a bit crazy) he'll be competing in the Chicago marathon, touring around Sydney for a week, then coming to join me as I putter through the Auckland run (he'll literally be miles ahead of me).  But the excitement of the visit has made the last month feel like it's been dragging.  I'll get to spend a week in Sydney before coming back to New Zealand where we'll do the run and then tour around for the following week.  It will be a nice long break from work and life.

But he's not the first person to visit me from the States.  Last week I was surprised as a friend from Chicago came through Auckland on his way home.  We got to spend a night hanging out in Auckland: I did my best to show off the awesome City of Sails and he entertained me with news and updates from the Windy City.  It was a good trade.

Running the Marathon (Well, half anyway)
Well, since I brought up the marathon I thought I should bring you up to speed on my own running progress.  About 2 months ago I got sick with some ridiculous cold/flu.  It put a damper on my running and training for the marathon.  And unfortunately, even after I recovered from the illness, I wasn't able to get my motivation back.  Now I find myself three weeks away from the marathon and I don't think I can even run a full 2 miles.  It's a pretty dire situation.  I've decided to set my sites on a more attainable goal (although not necessarily more realistic) and that is to run/finish the half marathon.  It won't be pretty, in fact, it's bound to be downright horrible, but I intend to run and finish the half marathon on 31 October.  I probably won't be sharing my time with anyone, but at least I'll be able to cross that one off of my to do list for New Zealand.


Weekend Trip - Raglan:
I have realized the benefits of the weekend trip.  I don't think I fully appreciated the idea when I was back in the US but I now see it as a great way to add some spice to a bit of monotony...not that I have time to get monotonous with my life here.  My latest was a trip to a surfing town south of Auckland, Raglan, while the largest storm on the earth was sitting over the Tasman sending torrential rain, incredible winds and other dicey weather towards the west coast of New Zealand - that's where I headed with three friends.

We took awhile to get to our destination as we were swerving around downed trees and I was nervous on the winding roads, but after we arrived we took advantage of the nice weather when we could.  Only planning on staying for one night we made the most of our time - walking in the small town (the main street was only two blocks long), drinking wine and playing games at the hostel (Catch Phrase is a big hit), visiting the local beaches where the surf was higher than the locals had ever seen, and hiking to a waterfall (the river was swollen with rain water and made for a spectacular site).

Attending the New Zealand Music Awards:
I've never been to the MTV Music Awards, and quite frankly, it's not on my bucket list.  So when my flatmate wanted to see the NZ Music Awards I was a little skeptical.  But tickets were only $20 so I decided to give it a shot.  Surprisingly, I had a great time! The radio stations in NZ are required to play a certain percentage of Kiwi music, but I can rarely tell when it's a local band or someone from the States.  So as I was watching the nominees and listening to the performances, I was shocked at how many of the songs I now love are actually Kiwi performers.  I'm going to miss them when I go back to the States and am subjected to the radio stations that play the same songs all day long.


To be Thankful:
As always, I love all of my awesome friends near and far.

Good luck to David Boonstra, Becky Dandy, and others who will be running in the Chicago marathon this weekend.  If I had stayed in Chicago this would have been my year to run it as well, nothing can be luckier than running a race on 10-10-10.  If you listen closely you might hear me cheering for you on the other side of the world, I'll be the one shouting your name. Have fun and be safe!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thank you, America

Americans have a tendency to stand out, sometimes its for good reasons and sometimes bad.  But there seems to be an endless number of things to use for friendly banter.  Afterall, we are a nation of ridiculous lawsuits, selfishness, and Hollywood, but there are a few things that stand out over others to poke fun at.

For example, I can't count the number of times that it's pointed out to me that the World Series of Baseball doesn't actually have many teams from around the world.  "Why is it called the World Series if other countries aren't actually invited?"  Laughing politely I typically point out that somehow Canada was sneeked in.  I act like I haven't heard it fifty times before or even thought of it myself - long before I came overseas.

And a few of the other comments I've heard at least once or twice:
  • "Why is everything so big in the US?  Why do you need five gallon jugs of milk and tubs of popcorn?"
  • "I've seen Cops, I know how things are done in the US"
  • Three words:  American Reality TV.  It just provides endless material.
  • "Oh!  You're from Chicago...that's the one with the governor...what's his name?" "Blagojevich."  "Yeah, that's the one!"  Wonderful.  Halfway around the world and they know my former governor for all the wrong reasons.
Weekend plans:
I'm off to Raglan on Saturday.  A popular surf town on the West Coast just South of Auckland.  In the meantime, the largest storm currently on the planet is sitting in the Tasman sending huge swells and large wind gusts across New Zealand.  The forecast:  50km winds and 18ft waves.  I'm at least hoping for some good photos.

Things to be thankful for:
- The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl and not the World Series of Football.  I'd never hear the end of it.
- Plenty of Americans to back me up
- Being an American.  I may get aggravated with my country, but there's plenty to be happy with too.  For one, I have the freedom to have an opinion and the ability to do something about it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

14K...Urgh!

I woke up this morning and it was slightly overcast, cool but without too much of a breeze...a perfect day for a 14K run.  Which was a good thing, since I had foolishly registered and paid for said 14K.  Only one problem, I didn't feel up for running and haven't for two months now, so this was going to be a feat.  Whatever, the money had been paid, I would muster through.

I started the run.  There was a lot of walking involved but I was still making it up and down the hills without too much of a problem.  The course was set up in 7K loops, which meant I had to go right by the finish line and force myself to keep running to start off the second lap.  I made it through...lap 2 here I come!  And I had a few people around me that were going at about the same pace.  The last 5 kilometers seemed to last forever, I focused on my opponents.

During the last three kilometers I was regularly trading places with another runner.  I couldn't hold the lead, but neither could she.  That's fine, I was on to her game.  As we approached the final kilometer I had some distance to make up.  I picked up the pace and then slowly, slowly I started to make up some ground.  My enemy was in my sites, I pulled from my reserves to pass her before turning into the stadium for the final lap. With a burst of speed I tore ahead, she wasn't going to be able to catch me now, the devil woman.  I crossed through the finish line and looked back at the dust I had left behind.  I sure showed that 65-year old what was up.  Better luck, next time.

Fourteen kilometers down, next up, a 16-kilometer run in three weeks.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Earthquake Watch

Seismic Activity in NZ: www.geonet.org.nz
Last Saturday as millions of Americans were getting ready to start their Labor Day weekend, New Zealand was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake just outside of Christchurch.  Many of my wonderful family and friends sent emails and messages to make sure I was ok (thank you).  But on the North Island we didn't even feel it.

What's incredible is that three days later the area is still feeling the aftershocks.  This morning a 5.3 aftershock shook the area at 7:50am.  At the office we get regular updates because we have a warehouse located just outside the city.  Apparently over 300 aftershocks have occurred since the original quake.  Imagine how that would affect a person.  You wouldn't be able to sleep and you are constantly worried about when the next quake will hit, where you might be and what kind of damage it will do this time.

The media isn't sensationalizing the event, in fact, from what I hear we aren't even hearing about the worst of the damage.  But it has monopolized the newscasts since it occurred and will probably continue for at least the rest of the week.

Even more amazing still is that there haven't been any casualties, as of yet.  (By comparison, a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed more than 200,000 in January 2010).  In true Kiwi fashion everyone is really stepping up to help out the people that have suffered from the event.  And in true Jessica fashion, I have to restrain myself from getting in my car and heading to where all the action is taking place.  I had a similar urge after Hurricane Katrina in the United States.  Like then, I'll probably have to settle for reading about everything from a distance.

I started looking into earthquakes in New Zealand and found out that they are quite a common occurrence.  Here are a few of the facts I uncovered:
  • Over three hundred 4.0-4.9 magnitude earthquakes occur each year - that's approximately 1 per day
  • On average a 7.0-7.9 magnitude earthquake occurs once every three years.
  • The last major earthquake was last year in Dusky Sound (7.8).  In 2007 an offshore quake collapsed buildings in the Gisborne down town area (6.8).  The largest earthquake prior to that occurred in 1987.
And cool websites:
Our own warehouse in Christchurch has passed structural engineering inspections of the building and the shelving on the inside, but we made out well.  Below are pictures from a warehouse of food that was heavily damaged by the quake.

A food warehouse near Christchurch.
Another shot of the food warehouse.
 Things to be thankful for:
- A solid foundation in Auckland (or at least one that doesn't shake quite as close to the earth's surface)
- A talent for being just close enough to the action is happening without being in danger
- Never a dull moment in the land of adventure


****Update****
I received an email today from a co-worker in Christchurch.  Here was her description:

"It has been, and still is, a very nervous time for us all but we are supporting each other and the continuing contact and support is helping keep morale and spirits up as each of us know of someone who has lost everything.

Although it is difficult to put into words I thought I would try and give you some idea what it was like. If you do any boating/ sailing at all it was like being at sea in a 60 knot gale in a 10 metre yacht being tossed around but we were in a house that was moving like that with the walls moving in and out!! The noise was incredible! Very very scary!"

This mornings paper has the following statistics:
  • There have been 355 aftershocks since Saturday.
  • The 5.1 one at 7:49am yesterday was only 6 kilometres deep and situated between the Lyttelton Road Tunnel and Hillsborough - practically underneath our warehouse!!
  • Saturday - 39 minutes of tremors - 5 above 5.0 magnitude and 20 between 4.0 and 5.0; Sunday - 49 minutes; Monday - 40 min; Tuesday- 21 min.; Wednesday - 20 min; Thursday - already 7 shakes today (at 9:20am) with 3 between 4 & 5 magnitude

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tonga Photos are In!

Beaches, whale watching, bike rides, bars, even a trip to church, it's all here. I have finally put together some of the photos from our trip.  Click on the album to see a slideshow of the images (double-click to open it in a larger window).




These photos are compiled from the cameras of everyone on the trip.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tonga Part 3: Getting Home

The rest of Sunday was relatively uneventful.  We had a nice dinner on Sunday night and then woke up on Monday morning to take a bike ride to the blow holes.  The blow holes occur on several of the islands in the South Pacific where water shoots up through holes in the cliffs as the waves come crashing against them.  If the tides are right and the waves are big it can look like a small geyser.  


Janine and Amanda enjoying a slush
The five us used old school bikes (the kind that don't even have hand brakes) to ride 45 minutes to the blow holes ala a new age Von Trapp family.  We traversed the Tongan roads avoiding pot holes, chickens, pigs, dogs and people.  Finally, we arrived at the blow holes which were cool but the ride itself was easily the most fun.  We stopped along the way back at a roadside shop for what we had hoped was a fruit slush, what we got wasn't really what we were expecting but at least it was cold and refreshing.

Like the rest of my experiences over the last few months, we met people everywhere in Tonga.  We became friends with our host, Sven from Germany, and his wife, Calolina from Tonga.  We met Calolina's brothers who worked on the property during the day.  We got to know the other people staying at the lodge too - a family from New Zealand, two German backpackers, and a Canadian woman who sailed up from New Zealand among others.  So it's not really a surprise that we met a few Tongan guys too - Toni and Teveta.

Teveta showing us how to climb a palm
On Monday afternoon, after cleaning up and packing up our things, we went back to Bill Fish to kill some time before our flight left (it was an 11:40p flight so we had plenty of time).  Teveta came to meet us.  After a bit of time he said he needed to go to the airport and he could take one person with him...I was the lucky nominee.

We made a few stops along the way before arriving at his family's house.  As it turned out it was two of his relatives that were flying out so the entire family was going to the airport to say farewell.  He introduced me to about 8 kids (all under the age of 17), and a few of them followed me around a bit.  Teveta explained that they hadn't really interacted with a palangi (white person) before.

Teveta and I along with his nana and aunt got into an SUV and followed a pick up truck packed with the rest of his relatives, the kids were all sitting in the back loudly chattering as we pulled out.  After about five minutes (driving at 40kph the whole way), we started to hear synchronized yelling from the back of the truck - the kids were singing at the top of their lungs.  What were they singing?  None other than Justin Bieber.

We got to the airport and a few of the kids rushed up to my door to greet me.  Then the cameras came out and they wanted pictures and to ask me questions: "How are you?" "How did you like Tonga?" "How did you meet Teveta?"  "Where are you from?" "When are you coming back?"

Just proves what I already knew, people are the same the world around, and most of them are pretty wonderful.  Maybe I will go back to Tonga...afterall, I was invited for Christmas.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Tonga Part 2: Cultural Show, Church

After cleaning up from the day of whale watching we walked down the beach to a resort that hosts a cultural show and buffet with traditional foods.

Our cultural buffet
If you like protein and starch the food was fantastic! There were more potato varieties (Taro, Kumala, and others - which are popular crops among the islands), meats, salads, a few stir fry options, and a pig that had been roasted on a spit.

The dancers started after dinner and performed traditional island dances from across the South Pacific (including the Hula from Hawaii and the Haka from New Zealand). The energy was really high and the dancers seemed to be enjoying themselves which infected the audience with the excitement. Fire eaters and dancers that spun flames on poi finished the night.


The excitement from the dancers worked it's magic and all of us felt the need to go dance in town. We piled into a van and headed to town to try the “tourist friendly bar” – Bill Fish.  Instead of calypso island music, it was songs were from the US Top 40, with a few old songs thrown in. The only difference was that they weren’t the mixes of the songs I was used to hearing, and after about an hour or two we knew the tracks by heart.  There were Tongans at the bar but there were just as many tourists (with sunburnt skin and bad rhythm they weren't hard to spot).  It was the most fun I've had dancing in awhile.  (We met enough people there that when we turned up the next night we felt like regulars as we waved to the familiar faces.)

Lindsay in her favorite hammock
Saturday was spent lying around and generally relaxing on the beach. The day was gorgeous and we took full advantage of it with naps in hammocks, reading on the sand, and snorkelling. It was exactly what I was hoping for on my vacation.

Sunday morning I crawled out of bed early enough to get some breakfast before we went off to church.  As many know, I'm not a particularly religious person so this would be my first time at a church service in years.  But it's a big part of the culture in Tonga.  In fact, everything shuts down on Sundays (even the taxis stop running) and work isn't permitted.  Tonga is primarily a Christian culture.  We found our way to the Free Wesleyan Methodist Church in a small village past our lodge.

Free Wesleyan Church
At 10am when the church was still almost empty we were a bit worried that we picked the wrong one in this small town (there were three to choose from).  But at 10:15 the bells rang and the people started to fill the church.  It was island time afterall.

It was well worth the wait and the heat for the experience.  The music was incredible!  Each voice alone may not have sounded spectacular, but together the congregation was awesome.  An older man in front of us turned around and handed us his hymnal (he knew all the songs by heart) so we sang along with the choir and conducter in Tongan - or at least attempted to sing along.  For that hour I didn't feel like a tourist as much as I felt like part of the culture...even if I couldn't understand a single word that was said or sung, I got the meaning.

More to come:  Bike ride to the blow holes, a Tongan send-off at the airport, Photos

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tonga Part 1: Exploring, Whale Watching

At first inspection the islands of Tonga are the same as many of the islands in the Caribbean, but after spending five days there, I've come to appreciate the more subtle differences.  Tonga is a group of 176 islands (only 36 are inhabited) in the South Pacific.  If you look at the International Dateline it veers around the islands just to the East, making them one of the first countries to start each day.  So for four days I saw the sun rise and the night fall before 99% of the rest of the world....pretty awesome.

Arriving at the airport
Tonga is the only Pacific nation to never have been ruled by a foreign power.  It isn't as touristy at the other islands in the South Pacific which can be great, as long as you know what to expect.  The trip to Tonga was planned about a month ago when I just needed to get away.  I would have been happy to go alone to spend some time by myself on the beach, instead I had what turned out to be a great group of friends join me.  Janine (my English flatmate), Lindsay (Janine's Scottish friend), Amanda (one of my Kiwi friends), and Robert (a South African guy I had met a few times through mutual friends) all piled into my Honda to head to the airport at 4:30am on Thursday morning.  Each of us from different countries, with different backgrounds, all seasoned travellers..this was just one more experience.

We arrived in Tonga with our luggage in tow and our duty-free liquor purchased, the weather was overcast and a bit rainy so after checking into the hotel we headed into the main town on the island and the capital - Nuku 'Alofa.  There were a few main streets and as our hostess from the Heilala Lodge (also our driver in this case) gave us a short tour she pointed out the main sights including the markets, a few cafes, a tourist friendly bar (unbeknownst to us at the time we would be regular visitors during our five day stay), and the two storey building that was until recently the tallest building in the Kingdom.  It was a nice tour around the town and we took advantage of it to get our bearings before setting out on foot.

Even with valiant efforts potatoes don't stir fry


After lunch, we found our way to the fruit and veg market where we purchased some things for a stir-fry dinner (which really just turned into a starchy mess, but tasted good despite appearances).  We stopped at the only ice-cream place in town and headed to the grocery store before heading back to our hotel on the far west side of the island.  Overall, it was a good introduction to Tongatapu (the main island) and a nice way to spend a day that wasn't ideal for the beach.

The next day we organized a whale watching tour with one of the few outfits on the main island.  It turned out to be the five of us and our Swedish skipper, Yves.  So for $750 NZD we chartered a private 54' sailboat for what became an awesome day of whale watching.

The Sea Star with our Skipper, Yves
The Southern Humpback whales migrate to Tonga every winter for mating season making July-October ideal months for whale watching.  The day was really windy so we had trouble seeing much of anything in the morning.  Around lunchtime we were distracted by a few porpoises playing in our wake when Yves slowed down the boat and pointed just off the side where he was predicting a whale was going to surface.  Sure enough a ginormous whale emerged about 20 feet off the side of the starboard side.

During the rest of the day we estimated that we saw approximately 10-12 whales, some on multiple occasions.  We saw whales surfacing, fluking (raising their tales as they dove deep), breeching (jumping into the air), and mating.  When two of them swam under our boat (we saw their huge white bellies go by in the crystal clear water) I nervously realised that we were truly at their mercy.


We finished off the day with a tour of a small island (Fafa Island) off the coast with very nice (aka expensive) accommodations.  The fales (pronounced "fa-lay" which is Tongan for house) had open bathrooms and cleverly designed power and other conveniences which meant it was a cross between a beach hut and a modern apartment for the low price of $500 NZD per night.  After our island tour, we headed back to our own more moderate hotel for a quick change and shower before walking down the beach for a cultural show and night on the town.

More to come:  Cultural Dances, Local Bar, Church, Bike ride, Tongan Men (and women), Photos

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Knowing When to Quit

In the past few weeks things have been tough at work.  It's amazing what kind of a toll that can take on a person, particularly when the job is what is restricting me from travelling around the country.  I was frustrated and miserable as I made my way into work for yet another day last week.  I'm a hard worker and I fully expect to experience highs and lows in every position but lately, I started to feel like I had lost the point of my trip to New Zealand.  I've been so busy trying to figure out how to stay longer, I didn't stop to consider if that's still what I wanted. 

New Zealand is a beautiful place with amazing people.  The landscape is diverse and there are endless activities all year long.  I'm a very independent person and I believe I can adjust to just about anything.  I work for an international company with definite possibilities to grow my career.  And I have made so many wonderful friendships here.  But in the end, it's my ability to communicate with my family and friends back home that's been my biggest demise.  I can't just pick up the phone to share stories with them, but more than that I'm not getting in the travelling that I came here for, and mostly I'm afraid I'll wake up in three years and wonder where all the time went.

So what do I do?  Well, if you're me, you quit...or at least make it clear you aren't planning to extend your visa past its expiration in March.  And, you put all of your energy into planning the rest of your time in the country and your return home. Because let's face it, when you are halfway around the world, just jumping on a flight to get back to the States isn't nearly exciting enough.  I think I'll go the long way...

"You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go."

- Dr. Seuss, "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" (1990)  I, like many others, received this book from my mom when I graduated college.  The immortal genius of Dr. Seuss lives on.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

No Wonder Everyone's Happy

I've only had to call a customer service line in New Zealand once and it was for a bank account I had recently set up.  It went surprisingly well and I was calling long after business hours for help with the website.  You can imagine my amazement when a REAL person answered the phone. This occurred at the beginning of my visit here.  I wrote it off as a freak accident. Apparently, that's not the case...

I was recently assigned the task of finding out more about getting a toll free number in New Zealand. This is an odd task to write about on my blog but bear with me because this simple request lead me to realize just how much of an alternate universe I must have stepped into.

Now, as a side note, the phone numbers here vary based on toll free numbers, local and cell. Most calls only require 9 to 10 digits but others (like cell phones) have more.  This particular call was a four digit number that promised to connect me to the NZ Telecom customer service line.  I had my doubts.  Dreading the call to a telecom company (notoriously bad in the States and a call that I have had much experience making), I sucked in my breath, bit my tongue and dialed the number.  Amazed when a real person answered (one that spoke English no less), I sat in stunned silence momentarily waiting for the beep or tones requesting an action on my part. 

On the other end of the line, the operator finally got my attention.  "Hello?"  I explained what I was trying to do and she politely said I would be transferred.  Ok, I thought, here we go - let the musical chairs begin.  But I was shocked yet again when the expected cheesy elevator music or advertising pitches didn't come, instead, another person answered!  I was a bit quicker this time and again explained my questions.  I was asked for our company's current 0800 number in order to look up our account.  I waited patiently anticipating the next questions about authority and passcodes and rights to my first born child, etc....none came.  In fact, I wasn't even privy to the background conversations of other callers in the call center.  Where was this place?

The entire call lasted 5 minutes.  I got all of the information I needed, including our current plan, who runs it in our company, what the process is for setting up a new number, and all the other details I didn't even think to ask.  I was so shocked that I asked the person on the other end where he was located..."Dunedin," he said.  Wait...what?!  That's in New Zealand!  "You aren't located on some small island off the coast of Asia?"  I was so thankful for all of his help he probably thought I was just another overly excited American.  But let me tell you - you would have been too!  There are a few American companies that could take a lesson from the customer service here...they actually treat customers...like customers!

Things to be thankful for:
- Small delights that keep my day going
- Patient family and friends that deal with my ever-evolving plans and directions
- Five successful months on the other side of the world!
- Spring is finally on its way in

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dreaming...isn't it weird

I woke up last night after having a dream that included someone from my distant past, someone I was sort of friends with in elementary school.  It wasn't a vivid dream but it was occuring in present day.  The weird part about this is that I haven't talked to this person for over 12 years and even before that we weren't really friends, so much as acquaintances. 

Me, age 7, at home in Weston, MO
It's weird to be so far from home and have someone pop into my subconscious that hasn't even been in my conscious mind for so long.  What could have triggered the memory of this person?

In my groggy woken up state I decided that I should email him to see how he is.  After all, that's one of the beauties of Facebook - I can communicate with people that I haven't seen in years.  Then the logistics of this very odd email hit me...

"Hi, How have you been?  I know it's been many many years since we last said even two words to each other but you were in my dream last night and I thought I would see how you're doing now. Ok, well, talk to you soon.  Your stalker, Jessica"  Not only would that sound creepy, it would definitely give the wrong impression about my dreams. 

After drifting back to sleep and waking up with more reason this morning, I realized why send an email when I can stalk appropriately and without shame...another beauty of Facebook.

Editor's Note:  A special note to some of my family members that are reading this as they are gathered for the reunion in Pennsylvania.  I hope you are all doing exceptionally well and enjoying the time together.  I also hope I'm able to see you all when you do it again in another two years - please pick a good location. Much love to you all!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

To Tonga! For Sunny Warm Weather

Up until now I typically avoid the topic of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.  That's because I'm much more from the "Harden Up" camp.  I mean, seriously?! Even the acronym makes me think it's a joke.  However, I like my Vitamin D as much as the next person, so I know that a lack of sun can have an affect on someone.  For me, I got some of my best work done in the Fall and Winter because I had so little desire to go outside in the frigid temperatures of Chicago.  In other words, I was a hibernator, but I didn't get depressed.

That was until I had two winters in a row...I'm starting to see the effects of my hibernating.  I've even seen the light (figuratively speaking) because without a reprieve from the shorter days, I can even accept that people may catch a case of  "SADness" during the winter months... I know I have (granted it took nearly 9 in a row).

My solution:  go someplace warm, sunny and tropical.  I ran a search online and found reasonable tickets to the Kingdom of Tonga...haven't heard of it, but what the Hell, I booked it.  Whether I had someone to go with or not wasn't important, I needed some reprieve from the darkness and chilly weather.  But I had nothing to worry about - I wasn't alone with my desire to see some sun.  Three and maybe four other women will be joining me on my holiday in Tonga for five days near the end of August.

Tonga is a small island nation in the South Pacific, it is one of the few that was never taken over by foreign rulers, because of that they still have their own monarchy within the islands.  This also means that it was never over populated by tourists, which is a positive and negative.  It means that I will get a very island experience, without dealing with all of the touristy shops and large complexes that cater to that crowd....but sometimes I am in that crowd so we'll see how the "island experience" is for someone that has come to appreciate four walls and a comfortable bed.

Here's what I have to look forward to:
- Beaches:  Like many in the South Pacific, the islands of Tonga have gorgeous beaches and great snorkeling. Without all the tourists around things aren't overpopulated and crowded so I should even have some space to spread out.

- Whale watching:  The Southern Humpback whales go to mate near the Tongan islands every winter (July - September) making it one of the best places in the world to see the whales.  On most tour boats you can even put on snorkel equipment and jump in to swim with them.  Their calls can be heard for miles around as the sound travels so well under water.

- Snorkeling and Kayaking:  Sunken ships, reefs, and other underwater marvels are all to be explored on kayak trips and snorkeling excursions around the area.

- The sun:  Did I mention that I could use some Vitamin D??  Although I still don't plan to spend much time in the sun, after all, I enjoy my pale white color, I am definitely looking forward to the longer days and sunny weather.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Solitude: Easier Said than Done

There are days when I just want to be alone; Days when I am frustrated, tired or just generally don't want to talk to anyone.  I've found that after a tough week at work, this is particularly true.  Afterall, for three years I lived in my tiny postage stamp of a studio with only my cat to get under my feet.  The problem is, here I don't have a place where I can feel at home and still have the solitude that I need to recharge.

First I should explain that I love my flatmates, as far as flatmates go, I can't think of anyone that would be better to share my life with in Auckland.  Everyone is social but lives their own lives - an important balance to have when you live with someone.  At home, we occasionally share the details from our day along with meals that are cooked for an army rather than one or two extras.  We laugh together while watching tv or telling stories about our experiences of adapting to our home away from home.

But all of this doesn't help me with my need for alone time.  It's hard enough to achieve with five people sharing a house, but this weekend we have visitors so we're up to seven in our townhome.  Despite the fact that my flatmates and the visitors are all awesome people, I find myself looking forward to the days that I'm living alone again.  Oh well.  There are still moments where I can enjoy the best of both worlds.  For instance, I am currently basking in the sun and writing my blog in an empty and quiet living room...at least for now.

And I remember that eventually I'll move back home and get my own sanctuary again - which will of course only make me long for the moments in New Zealand, when I had wonderful company and people to share my life with in the comfort of my own home.

Things to be thankful for:
- Green lights all the way home when I really have to pee
- Beautifully sunny days that help me meet my Vitamin D quotient
- A mild winter in New Zealand
- Understanding flatmates that won't take this entry personally - sometimes I just like to hibernate

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Photos...Finally

I'm finally getting around to posting my photos.  Here's a few edited albums for you to enjoy of my past few months here in New Zealand.


April/May 2010


June/July 2010


You can also check out the new "Photo Albums" tab at the top of the page to see all of my photos.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New Favorite Game: Rugby

I went to my first rugby game two weeks ago and I can now say I am convinced rugby is a great game.  I'm told there are people out there that try to make a strong case that American football is a tougher sport than rugby...they would be wrong.

While the Soccer World Cup was popular here, it is really a country of rugby fans.  I haven't quite nailed down all of the rules of the game but I understand enough to appreciate a good sport.  It combines the entertainment of American football, testosterone of hockey fights, and the padding of soccer players.  How can you go wrong? 

We boarded a train in downtown Auckland to head to the stadium with the rest of the fans on Saturday evening.  A 30-minute train ride proved to be nearly as entertaining as the game.  Half of the train car sang the New Zealand national anthem and the other half started up with the South African anthem immediately afterwards.  (We were going to the first game of the tri-nations tournament between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.)  One Springboks fan carried a vuvuzela and did his part to increase the level of noise and chanting.  By the end of the ride, the entire car was singing a New Zealand pub song - a song that is so thrashed at bars, more than one visitor has mistaken it for the national song.

We got off the train and followed the masses to the Eden Park Stadium.  The Haka was amazing and was finished off by spurts of fire that erupted just in front of us - a nice warm up for the cold evening.  Based on the bantering and commentary before the game we assumed it would be a close game and a fun one to watch live.  It was a fun one to watch but it was definitely not close.  The final score was 32-12, All Blacks.  It was a great way to start off the tournament.

Editor's Note: For those that aren't familiar with the Haka, it is part of the Maori culture.  Performed before every All Blacks game, the most common All Blacks Haka (which is actually any type of Maori dance) is called "Ka Mate, Ka Mate".  The wide eyes and tongues sticking out are to show their passion and scare their opponents before battle.  The entire audience goes crazy after it concludes.  Even when the All Blacks play in other stadiums the crowd loves to watch the Haka.  Although I took a video at the game, it's not very clear and the players are far away so instead check out this video from the All Blacks website: 



Things to be thankful for:
- Great flatmates (my flatmates, plus one neighbor, are in the first picture above)
- The thrill of a sporting event and the atmosphere that goes with it
- Another activity crossed off my list of things to do

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Independence Day

As families and friends gathered all over the United States last weekend to celebrate the country's Independence, I celebrated with a few Americans at a bar in New Zealand. 

Auckland is a small big city and given enough time you can usually find a few degrees of separation between anyone here.  Little communities crop up, often brought together by ties to home.  So on the 4th of July it wasn't difficult to find a group of Americans that wanted to go out and celebrate our country.  Fortunately, there was a bar that was prepared for our antics and even offered hot dogs, chili dogs, and specials on Budweiser for the American contingent that wanted to celebrate.  The hot dogs weren't anything like the kind from home, we didn't have a magnificent fireworks display, and it was expensive Budweiser even on special, but in the end I had exactly what I wanted:

Country music playing on the speakers, ESPN baseball highlights on the tvs, cold American beer (brewed in St. Louis, Missouri), hot dogs, and friends sitting around sharing stories of our families, friends and adventures.  A few thousand miles from home, this year we were celebrating more than our country's independence, we were celebrating our own too.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Yum Yum Yum Cha

They have a great thing here that isn't unique to New Zealand, but apparently I was unaware of it's pure genius in the States.  It's called Yum Cha and it could possibly be the best hangover food ever - aside from Ann Sather's diner on Broadway of course.  The idea is very similar to tapas only at lunch/brunch in a Chinese restaraunt.  In the US this is called dim sum which actually only refers to the dishes versus the style of eating with tea (at brunch, lunch or afternoon tea).

For those that have not tried dim sum or yum cha, this is how it works:  The wide range of food is prepared in the kitchen with 4-8 servings of a single dish on each plate, for example: BBQ pork dumplings or egg rolls, etc.  The dishes are then brought out and circulated through the restaurant by the wait staff.  As they come around they ask if it's something you would like.  When you request one of the plates, they check it off on the price sheet at your table, then set it in the center to be enjoyed (for larger parties there is a lazy susan to get the food all the way around with very little effort - perfect).  I was there with a large group which meant I was able to try a lot of different dishes: steamed dumplings, fried shrimp, pork, egg rolls, rice, chicken.  It was all delicious!

Now, many of you may be thinking that I must have been in the dark to have missed out on this fine treat.  Well, I hate to admit but I would have to agree.  However, in my defense when you have Ann Sather's cinnamon rolls to look forward to, it's just not something that seems necessary to try.  So to all of my friends and family that have yet to try yum cha...that should change.  (Please note: I suggest avoiding the plate of chicken's feet.)


Things to be Thankful for:
Since I'm on the topic of food, I should say that I was finally able to try my first mince meat pie and I was definitely not disappointed by the savoury bite sized pie.  Despite my reservations, it was delicious.  And for the record, so was the chicken, cranberry, gouda pie that accompanied it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Two Paths Diverged; Then Reunited

Over three months ago I got on a plane leaving Los Angeles on its way to Auckland.  After the flight took off I clammered up to find a new seat in a row with less people.  I came across a set of three seats with the window open and middle ones open.  Little did I know at the time, I had just chosen to sit next to the first of many great friends I would make on my journey. 

Alison came to New Zealand by herself with the plan to experience the country by working her way around.  Like me, she's a 30-year-old just trying to figure out what direction she wants to go with her life.  Two people, the same age, with similar backgrounds, and a lot in common - but with very different paths for our time in New Zealand. 

Over the next three months we exchanged emails occasionally and even tried to meet up a few times - to no avail.  Alison was sending back stories of the great people she met (hot American boys, goofy Israelis, a crazy German kid that clearly became a bit too attached) and the pictures of the places she was visiting.  She was living in people's homes while she worked on farms, staying in hostels, meeting other backpackers and changing plans on a whim to try something new. 

Back in Auckland, I was travelling some on a few of the weekends but mostly on day trips around Auckland, finding a job, buying a car, moving into a posh flat in the city and making wonderful new friends.  I was spending time with Kiwis and a few Internationals, while Alison found it hard to meet many people that weren't Internationals.
This past weekend our paths came full circle again as she came back through Auckland on her way home.  She came in on Friday night and I was very happy to have her stay with me and my awesome flatties until her flight left on Tuesday night.  Our three months apart found us slightly changed: a bit more comfortable in our surroundings, overflowing with stories, and stuffed with great Kiwi food and drink (but that didn't stop us from continuing that trend while she remained in the country).

I did my best to make sure she hadn't missed a thing on her trip, there was some ground to cover:  I took her to the best ice cream place (Movenpeck), ate the best pizza (Hell Pizza), bought scorched almonds and pineapple lumps (candy that everyone should have while they are here),  took her to a friend's house to hang out with some Kiwis and watch Rugby, woke her up at 6am to head to a bar for the US v England game, and laid around watching flicks all day while chatting with friends.  We even made time to visit Waiheke Island (just off the coast of Auckland) for some lunch and wine tasting.

It's funny to think about the choices we make and where we end up because of them.  We both have had a wonderful time in the country, but it's hard not to think about what would have happened if I had chosen the same route that she did.  The stories would definitely be more foreign, but would they make my experience any better or worse?

Things to be Thankful for:
- Meeting great people in the strangest places (like on a plane)
- Great friends who equally like meeting new people
- Gracious Kiwi hosts who help make sure visitors see the best of New Zealand

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sorry Chicago, I'm Going to Hell

Deep dish Chicago-style pizza: "a buttery crust up to three inches tall at the edge, slightly higher than the large amounts of cheese and chunky tomato sauce, acting as a large bowl"... of goodness.  Lou Malnatti's, Giordano's, Pizzeria Uno...it's all part of what makes the city great.  But I'm sorry Chicago, I have found a new love:  Hell Pizza.

Mayhem, Mischief, Pandemonium, Pride, and other sinfully good pizzas are on the menu.  My latest favorite is the Grimm:  Chicken, cream cheese, pine nuts, cheese, spring onions, apricot sauce and rosemary.  Mmmmm.  Matched with phenomenal chicken wings and surprisingly good BBQ sauce (and this is truly a compliment considering I'm picky about my BBQ), I'm slowly converting to a life of sin. 

Fortunately for Chicago they still have the market on hot dogs.  Even the "American" dogs here can't come close to a nice plump Chicago hot dog with all the toppings.

Things to be thankful for:
- A new addiction to the gym that helps me afford an occasional pizza indulgence

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Brain Power Needed: Please Send ASAP

Even now there are still things that I have trouble with in my day-to-day activity.  It's incredible to me just how much brain power I have to use to keep up with things.  For example, I don't really hear accents anymore as there are so many everywhere.  However, when someone whispers in an accent other than my own (or if I can only hear every other word at a pub) I can't understand the speaker at all.  Nothing.  They might as well speak in Latin, but I still struggle to comprehend.  
I'm regularly reminding myself of the differences so that I can act appropriately: drive on the left side of the road, the driver sits on the right side of the car (when looking out), it's capsicum and corgette not green pepper and zucchini, pronounce the "t" on fillet and the "h" on herbed but shorten other words to "caf" instead of cafe (actually I refuse to succumb to these three differences, but I'm regularly reminded of them), remember the names of the people I meet (at the gym, at work, at the pub, at parties, etc) and the ones I hear in the news including bands, singers, comedians, politicians (old and new as well as the main ones from Australia and England), and don't forget the spelling....urgh, the spelling.  It gets exhausting! 

It wasn't until recently that I realised what a toll it was all taking.  Which isn't a problem, except it means I have a lot more ditzy moments since moving here (not the impression I want to give to my new acquaintences).  For your reading pleasure, and my slight embarrasment here are a few of those instances when my brain was clearly on holiday:
  • When I see a sign that says left exit on the motorway, I automatically move to the center lane. Why wouldn't I?  That's where the left exits are in the States, forget the fact that I'm actually moving to the right. 
  • After 4 weeks of driving I still turn on the windshield wipers when I want to turn on my blinker (the levers are on the opposite side of the steering column here).
  • At a pub quiz night I struggled with the name of the first First Lady of the US.  Any first grader can recall that it's Martha Washington, but I sat there for five minutes doubting myself.
  • At the same pub quiz night I looked at a map of the world and was disoriented.  It took me a few minutes to realise that it's because the US wasn't put in the middle of the map.  Wow.  I blanched at the presumtion.  Even I fall into the "typical American" category at times.
  • I have twice now...twice!...had trouble opening doors.  I don't know what it is.  I push or pull (whichever one I shouldn't be doing to open the door) and then give up exasperated because it must be locked.  Granted, we tend to have more revolving doors in Chicago, but in reality doors tend to open and close the same the world around, yet I've struggled with this ridiculously simple task.
Fortunately I still have plenty to be thankful for:
- Joining three friends to complete a 5K run through the hills on the north side of the city.  We had the help of a good cheering crew
- Trying new things: this week it was archery in One Tree Hill Domain (the U2 song was named after the park, the subsequent TV show was based on the song)
- Beautiful weather for the entire weekend

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I've Clearly Lost the Plot

On Tuesday this week my brain must have stopped working because I signed up for the Auckland Marathon.  So not only have I registered to voluntarily run 26.2 miles, I've decided to do it for the first time in a city built on a dormant volcanic field. Genius.

Last February I signed up for my first half marathon and as I was training for that run, I decided that I would never want to run more than 13.1 miles.  Apparently pain has no memory because by the time the Chicago Marathon came in October, I was actually convincing myself that I could do a marathon if I put my mind to it.  The excitement as I watched a friend qualify for the Boston Marathon with only seconds to spare was contagious.  I did a bit of research, you know, just in case I thought I might want to sign up for the Chicago marathon.  It was scheduled for October 10, 2010...or 10-10-10.  All of a sudden this wasn't just an idea, it seemed possible (it's incredible what your mind can convince you of).  If I was going to complete a marathon I couldn't think of a better day to do it.  But, it wasn't to be, because I moved to New Zealand instead.  My goal of a marathon would have to wait...or would it?

When I arrived I resolutely decided to continue my running...which I did for about two weeks. Then there were foods to try and socialising to do (which involved alcohol, of course), and more food to try and wine to taste...and one thing lead to another and all of sudden my clothes weren't fitting like they should.

This past Monday I was at my limit.  I bit the bullet and joined the gym (which is $23/week as opposed to the $23/month I was paying at home).  With my membership (which is at the YMCA, one of the cheaper gyms in the city) came a personal trainer.  I dragged myself out of bed to make it in for my first appointment on Tuesday morning, at which point I had to admit out loud my horrible habits.  The culminating point was when I was asked to step on the scale.  Disaster.  I hesitated, I closed my eyes, I stood up tall and held my breath.  As the numbers flipped around to their final resting place, I chanced a glance down.  I didn't like what I saw, even in Kilograms I knew I didn't like it.

Well, all I can figure out is that when those numbers came up on the scale I must have gone into some sort of trance.  Who knows, maybe it was temporary insanity.  Within the hour I registered for the Auckland marathon.  If I needed something to work towards in order to get myself back in shape - I now had it.

That night I drove part of the course over the Harbour Bridge.  As my car climbed up over the bridge, my mind was trying to block out the fact that even in the car it seemed like a long way. Shit. (Pictured above is the Auckland Harbour Bridge)

I no longer need to worry about filling my days with distractions.  As of the end of June I will start training for what I can only assume will be a glimpse of a small bit of my own personal Hell.  What I can say is that barring any volcanic eruptions, I'll finish and I'll have something crossed off my bucket list to boot.

To give you an idea of what the course looks like, I've plotted it out on MapMyRun.com.  To see the elevation use the "View Elevation" button below the map.  You will get an idea of what the organisers call "rolling hills" during the first half of the course.  At least I can say I am looking forward to the views and getting back into shape as I work toward this goal.



Things to be thankful for:
- Good advice and encouragement from friends who are accomplished marathoners
- Two legs and feet that, as of today, seem to work quite well
- A ridiculous need for achievements
- Bucket lists, even if I do make it up as I go along

Saturday, May 15, 2010

One Fish, Two Fish...

Fishing is an art for some, a relaxation technique for others, a means to get dinner for many, and for me it's a new way to prove my ineptitude, but a great excuse to be on a boat.  We left slightly late on a recent Sunday morning to drive north for an hour to Martin's Bay.  Since we needed to be back in the city by 4:00pm, it would be a short trip.

I've learned that most Kiwis have grown up with, on, and around boats and water their entire lives and so it all comes very naturally to them.  Whereas, I was land-locked in Missouri for most of my life. A trip to "the lake" in Missouri was most likely a drive to the Lake of the Ozarks - a lake so packed with other land-locked drunken boaters that there wasn't even room to manoeuvre a boat.  (Author's note: I should thank my family for at least providing me with regular trips to the coast and lakes in Maine to get a bit of experience on the water.)

Fortunately I recognize my lack of seamanship, so I just attempt to just stay out of the way until asked for help.  At Martin's Bay, we were launching the boats off of a shallow beach, which sounds like a lot of fun and would have been if I hadn't tried to do it in capri pants.  I was drenched in a matter of 2 minutes.

Once launched we rode 15 minutes out of the harbor and anchored on the lee side of an island peninsula.  I learned how to bait the line (which involved chopping up dead fish and hooking two large slimy chunks on the line as best as possible).  I muscled through it all bravely.     

Although my technique of baiting my line slowly improved, it still wasn't enough.  Sadly I was only allowed to boast about fish that were big enough to take home, which eliminated the the three snapper and one yellow tail that I somehow managed to hook, and left me with nothing to claim. Picture left: One of the little snapper that I caught.

On the other hand, the sun was warm, the breeze wasn't too strong, and there were entire schools of fish jumping (at one point it looked and sounded like a stream bubbling over rocks there were so many fish).  After a few hours on the water, a few different locations, and very little fishing success, we called it a day. We headed back to the city with only one snapper (not caught by me). 

Considering the cost of the gas for the day and the bait that we basically just fed to the fish - the one fish we did keep turned out to be a highly expensive catch.  Four days later the fish was thrown out after going dodgy in the refrigerator before we could cook it. And I discovered what I already knew: Fishing here is just like all fishing experiences, it's not always about the fish you catch.