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Monday, June 26, 2006

Akaroa


Had some free time today and the weather was cooperating so I decided to finally check out some of this gorgeous scenery here in New Zealand. I just got my car yesterday, a 1994 Mitsubishi Lancer that had been well taken care of by its previous owner, an engineer who had recently passed away. His son was settling his estate, and by happy coincidence I met friends of his at a dinner party the weekend I got here. It came up in conversation that I'd be needing a car now that I'm here, and they put me in touch with him. I got a really good deal ($2800 US for the car) and was anxious to get out into the countryside.

I could go into the mountains, or drive along the shore - shoot, driving nearly anywhere in this country gets you glorious scenery - but I really wanted to check out Akaroa. It's this volcanic island attached to Christchurch (which is a swampy area that was also once a volcano) and it's apparently very pretty there. The French initially settled Akaroa, but unfortunately for them they arrived one year after the British had already laid claim to New Zealand. To this day, lots of the streets there and the surrounding communities have French names, as the streets are all called "Rues" and there are little towns like Duvauchelle, etc.

Anyways, as a sidelight to this, I stopped at a local cafe in Ashburton called Danaz. They've got great food and drinks there, but I'm starting to discover that tipping is still a very new thing here in NZ. Basically, you can't go wrong tipping someone in food service, but by and large it's still really unexpected. Meaning, you don't really have to tip. Now, some of the larger restaurants in bigger cities operate on the assumption that you'll tip at the end of the meal, but even then it's only 5-10% of the bill. That's really nice because you basically just pay what's on the menu and you're good to go. But after living in America all my life it's very hard to untrain that impulse to tip!

So after buying a coffee and some food for my trip, I tipped the pretty waitress a couple New Zealand dollars, and she immediately turned a bright shade of red and didn't seem to know what to do with the coin. She thanked me but then she hurried into the back, and I just had to laugh. Well, I guess I'd rather err on the side of caution and tip when not expected to rather than the opposite, but I am finding out firsthand that tipping really isn't expected in most cases!

Well Akaroa was pretty awesome, and the drive out to it was a bit difficult but rewarding as once you finally crest the windy roads climbing the hills out to Akaroa, all of a sudden you see the lake and town laid out before you. That picture is my first view of Akaroa on the way in.

I really wanted to check out this lighthouse, at the end of - wait for it - Lighthouse Road, but as I drove further and further along the road kept getting progressively steeper and less paved. Finally I reached a sign that said from this point on the road was even steeper and more narrow, and having only had my car for a day and still struggling with mastering the clutch I decided to skip it.

Afterwards, while talking to a woman that ran a tourist outfit that among other things lets you swim with dolphins, she said she had taken her little two-door Honda all the way to the end of the road and that I really didn't have any worries.

Oh well, next time I come back then!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

New friends


Danie, Rita, Katy and Razvan have all been good friends to me since I arrived here in NZ. Danie is from Zimbabwe, and he had been here in NZ the past 2-3 years working on a dairy farm. Unfortunately, his boss turned out to be a chump, and so now he’s leaving again. He’s headed to Perth, with warmer climes, better money, and friends from the past. He and Rita have been my flatmates since arriving here in NZ, as I am to take over the flat they're living in now. They met while working together at a dairy farm near Christchurch a few years ago.

Rita came over in a large wave of Romanian immigrants several years ago, and she had nothing but a suitcase and she couldn't even speak English (she claims she ended up learning to speak it from a Pink Floyd concert DVD she had). Initially she and Danie hated each other, as Danie was her boss and he ran a tight ship and was in charge of the milkers. Rita is quite stubborn but is a hard worker, so at first they butted heads but since then they've become close friends. They've lived together the past two years, and haven't been involved romantically but they look out for each other and have a pretty tight bond.

It's been really great for me, coming over here and starting anew, just like each of them did 5-6 years ago. In fact, they're both now full citizens of New Zealand. For both Danie and Rita, coming here provided them with better pay and better quality of life. I have six suitcases and I speak the language, but I really have a lot in common with them when they were both starting out here. They've made the transition much smoother for me, from simple things like giving me lifts around town until I get my own car, to telling me a lot of what it's like to live and work here in NZ.

So Danie is basically out of work and hanging in limbo before he moves away to Australia. Not only has his job situation here soured, but right before I got here he had his car stolen in Christchurch. Unfortunately for him, this theft occurred not 2 days after he had just amended his car insurance policy to include car theft. Not surprisingly, the police and his insurance company are suspicious of him, so they're making him wait while they investigate it fully. Danie is quite bored and he does have a cousin who lives here and has lent him his car, but basically he passes his time looking at Google Earth, chatting on Yahoo with his friends from Africa, and helping me get settled with everything.

His brother is helping to build a dam somewhere in Guinea right now, something Danie has helped with in Africa in the past. He also spent a lot of time running a coffee plantation in Zimbabwe, named Smaldeel. He showed me, using Google Earth, lots of different parts of Africa, including Lake Tanganyika. That lake is huge and had these 2 concrete bunkers with power generators blown up in a recent civil war. Since then, much water is draining rapidly from the lake and there is no hope in sight for rebuilding. There is a deep gorge formed by erosion near the plantation in Zimbabwe, which he drove right up on at one point. There is a very tall waterfall and probably some undiscovered tribes deep in the Congo, Danie says.

Danie is a really cool guy, he's completely selfless and pretty funny. Listening to him and Rita talk is funny, and usually this amounts to Rita bitching about her boss or her boyfriend and Danie providing a running commentary. He refers to Rita’s boyfriend as ‘polystyrene’ and ‘condensation’, as the guy is apparently obsessed with the amount of heat loss that goes on here in NZ.

Let me explain a little bit. It’s true about Kiwi housing that they in general have badly insulated homes. The windows are single-pane and not glazed, so they are basically huge heat sinks in the winter. The other part of this problem is that lots of condensation builds up everywhere in the house, it's really quite noticeable. Rita’s boyfriend (his real name is Terry, I think) spends a half hour each night before bed putting up large slabs of polystyrene over the windows so the heat doesn’t leak out. But there is also condensation forming on the windows, possibly from the polystyrene being there. So he keeps the heat in but now has to periodically swab all the moisture from the windows. This is fairly routine for most Kiwi homeowners! It is hilarious and referring to her boyfriend as condensation never gets old.

Rita is also a vet and she has the same boss I do for now. She's done a right good job of swaying my opinion into the negative right off the bat, but when I separate her negativity from the actual truth in her complaints, it seems I do have a real reason to be concerned about my new job here. This sucks because of course I wanted everything to go smoothly but I'll have to look out for myself as apparently our boss likes to make life difficult.

Anyways, last night Danie and Rita and I headed over to Raz and Katy's house for a get-together. They're a Romanian couple that came to NZ a year after Rita did, and Katy's also a veterinarian. Raz is a mechanical engineer and the two of them spend a lot of time restoring old motorcycles (called motorbikes here) and riding them around. They're really proud of an old Soviet Army bike they've restored from the 1940s and it's a really cool-looking bike. Raz also is really into model airplanes and builds his own and flies them as a hobby as well as in competitions.

Raz apprehended Danie and I and showed us a bunch of movie clips he had taken during a recent air show, one that's held every year somewhere on the south island. These guys all get together with all of these restored aircraft or homemade kit replicas of older aircraft and they fly them around, lots of them doing stunt flying. It looked pretty cool and I'll have to try and check it out next April.

KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonald's are all really popular here in NZ, so it was easy for us to handle the food. We brought pizza and chips (yes, the ever-present chips, or french fries as we yanks call them) from Pizza Hut, and Raz and Katy opened a nice bottle of red wine. I could only have a sip but it was good. It was good night and we talked about gypsies, planes, motorcycles and working on farms. Katy and Raz are moving north to Blenheim as she’s got a better job there and they’ll be happier there. Raz had joined the NZ Air Force for 12 days but quit because it was hard taking orders from someone 8 years his junior. I'm sure Raz won't have trouble finding work as an engineer.

It's really cool to see these other people that have come to New Zealand and are making the most out of their experience, all the way up to becoming citizens themselves. That's something I could see myself doing one day, but for now I'm happy to have made some friends and I'll focus on trying to make the best of my own situation.

For now, I'll keep a close eye on the condensation build-up in my new flat and try hard not to eat too much Subway or KFC while I'm here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Trip Over


Well, I finally made it. I am in NEW ZEALAND.

Could not have asked for much of a better trip out here, both in terms of how smooth all of the elements of travel went as well as the cool people I encountered along the way. First off, the gal at the Southwest check-in didn’t charge me for an extra bag (like $50 right there), and she let the fact that one of my bags was slightly too heavy go and didn’t charge me for that either. Sometimes, you can just tell at the beginning of a trip how it’s going to go, and so far I really liked how this one started.

You always hope that the people you’ll end up being seated next to on the plane will be interesting, although I can’t remember ever having a bad people experience on a plane. Well, there was that one time I got orange juice spilled on me and then vomited upon, but that’s another story for another time.

On the first flight out to Los Angeles, I sat next to Brian, a Navy fighter pilot, and Tom, a retired NASA engineer. Turns out Brian had been to Australia as well as NZ before and really liked both places. Tom was on his way to a conference north of Reno and they were both really cool guys. Tom turned to me at one point and said that Brian would probably be an admiral one day, and I had to agree with him.

Had a brief layover in Vegas and the guys next to me in line at the Southwest terminal were both contractors for the military, working in weapons research. They had been all over the world, except for some odd reason they had declined to go to Japan. I’d jump at the chance to go there, but I didn’t feel like asking them what they didn’t like about Japan.

The way Southwest Airlines works their seating is first-come, first-served. We were at the head of the line for boarding first, but didn’t feel like sitting on the floor for an hour, so we all tossed our bags down at the front of the line then sat on the benches about ten feet away. Foolish of us to forget about a big no-no in airports: leaving bags unattended. It didn’t matter that they were right there in front of us, and the Southwest guy standing at the gate was pretty obviously pissed at us. Needless to say, we grabbed our bags back and sat with them and he had no more trouble out of us, although the poor guy had to deal with some rude passengers who kept trying to board the plane out of order. I’m pretty sure he was ready for happy hour after that shift …

On the short flight from Vegas to LA, I sat next to another cool person, this time a guy named Niko. He was flying back to his wife and kids in LA after spending the past two days moving his parents from Palm Desert to their summer home in Utah. Having been to PD myself, I’ve experienced firsthand how hot it gets there. Niko was in the real estate game and he and his wife had traveled a lot as well, and once again he had nice things to say about New Zealand. He hadn’t been but friends of his had and they loved it.

When I got to LA, I had plenty of time to get to the international terminal for my flight to New Zealand. It wasn’t leaving for hours yet, but I still had to juggle four large and heavy bags and find a porter to help me schlep the bags a good ways. Once again I had good luck, as not only did ALL FOUR of my bags show up first on the baggage carousel (that never happens!), but I was the first one to grab the one and only porter on duty. Needless to say he got a good tip, and luckily for me the Qantas desk had no line and my plane to NZ was ‘nearly empty’ to quote the Qantas guy at the check-in. Once again, he let me slide on the extra bag at no charge, so I saved quite a bit more money here.

The only bad thing about the trip all day was that this terminal in LA had busted air conditioning. It was late June and, knowing that in NZ it was the middle of winter (as well as knowing how cold it can get on planes), I was wearing corduroy pants and a long sleeve shirt under a sweater. And I sweat easily. Yeah, I was a pretty grimy bastard when I finally turned up in New Zealand, 36 hours after leaving home. If I smelled funny, nobody seemed to notice or mind!

Worse still, after sweating it out for four hours in LAX’s international terminal, the Qantas plane was delayed in take-off for 45 minutes – because the plane’s air conditioning was busted! When we finally started boarding the plane, it was like walking into an oven. At this point I just had to laugh, because there was nothing else I could do and anyway we were all in the same boat. Well, plane. You know what I mean. Luckily, once the plane’s engines fired up, they started running the AC so we were all much more comfortable soon after.

In the terminal I chatted with a young Canadian girl, she was on her way to Sydney to visit her sister, who was in school down there. While talking to her, I couldn’t help but notice somebody who looked very familiar that turned up at the gate soon before take-off. I couldn’t quite place him, but then it hit me. It was Jake Johannsen, one of my favorite stand-up comedians. He was traveling with his wife and they had a tiny little baby with them. It was pretty thrilling to see him in person, and he was taller than I had expected. Usually celebrities are much smaller than you’d expect in person, not that I have extensive experience with this but when you have a sister who lives in West Hollywood, you’re bound to see a few of them running around.

Anyways, I would have loved to try and talk to Jake. I didn't want to hound him for an autograph or anything, just wanted to shoot the breeze. But I didn't really make eye contact and didn't feel comfortable accosting him. Anyways, I wasn’t about to disturb him with his wife and baby there. Still, I took it as yet another good sign on my trip, and I wondered if he’d be finding any more material for his airline jokes in his bit on this trip.

Qantas really looks after you on their flights, and initially I was really worried about flying 16 hours non-stop. I was especially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep much at all, but I slept for nine hours straight. They had full-on dinner and breakfast (called a ‘full brekky’), with a choice of dishes, and they had 1-2 snack meals they served in between. They brought you a sleep mask and ear plugs, as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste, and there was even a video game console on the back of the seat. There were several complimentary movies, TV shows and documentaries to watch as well. Tons of leg room in those seats, too, and I know the next time I fly I’m ruined because now I always want to fly like that!

Once again, had a really cool person sit next to me, this time a guy named John from Brisbane. He worked for a company that provides seating for large tractors, definitely a niche industry but he had obviously done very well for himself. He had worked in England for four or five years, then transferred to the States for another five years. He was just on his way back from Washington, DC, after hanging out with some ‘mates’, friends he had made while working stateside. He had a wife and two kids back home in Brisbane, where he had transferred back to after being abroad for so long. John was really helpful about everything, since I was now doing what he had once done – going to work abroad. Also like me, John had been through a divorce and he knew what that was like. He assured me the American accent would be a big hit with the women in New Zealand, a natural icebreaker. Since I’ve been over here I’ve kept in touch with him and he asked me if the accent was working. I told him it has, because it really does attract some attention. Some women are really turned on by it! Well I really dig the way Kiwi women talk, so it’s win-win I guess you could say …

It didn’t really dawn on me, what I was doing and how far I was going, until I could start to see New Zealand from the windows of the plane. It was pre-dawn so it was still pitch black outside, but that made it even better because you could see the outline of Auckland lit up in the darkness. The harbor bridge was pretty with its lights, and many of the lights reflected off the buildings as a collection of green, pink and white smudges.

I had one more connecting flight to go, from Auckland to Christchurch, and I wasn’t sure where I’d have to go through customs. I was really hoping it was in Christchurch, not only because I had six bags for them to go through, but also because our plane was late – I had only about 30 minutes to get to the next plane!

My heart sank when I realized I would have to go through customs in Auckland. I started to think I’d never make my connecting flight, and worse still I didn’t have my boss’s cell phone number and she’d be waiting down in Christchurch. There was nothing for it but to try and be quick, so I hurried towards the front of the customs line and got through that pretty quickly.

Now I had all six bags to tote, and had just gotten them perfectly balanced on the dolly when I got to the luggage inspector guy. Like the rest of the customs agents, he was dour and humorless, with a suspicious cast to his eyes. I can understand this disposition but it probably didn’t help my situation any as I was sweating from running around and pushing the heavy cart with my luggage.

Fortunately for me, he only asked to see one thing (my hiking boots, which I had to declare), but sadly they were in a bag on the bottom of my pile, which I never got perfectly balanced again. But, I had cleared the biggest hurdle – customs – and now all I had to do was make a mad dash all the way across the airport, with no porters this time, and only fifteen minutes in which to catch my plane.

Halfway to the domestic terminal, while trying to take a sharp turn too quickly, my bags tumbled over and off of the dolly but luckily they didn’t fall into a nearby rain puddle. At this point I was pretty much resigned to having missed my flight, as I was thinking I’d never make it in time.

Well, I probably should have bought a lottery ticket that day (hell, I should have bought lottery tickets every time I stopped somewhere), as when I finally made it to the check-in, not only was I in time but the pilot had actually overslept! Better still, I had beaten most of the people from my last plane over to this terminal, so I must have made it through customs more quickly than any of them.

At this point, I must have been pretty grungy but I didn’t care. Finally, the pilot did show up and we were all allowed to board. As I walked onto the plane with my two very large carry-on bags (all day they had been pushing the limit of how big a bag you can take on with you), the flight attendant looked at one of my bags with concern.

”Oh, dear,” she said. “That one might be too big for the overhead.”My heart sank, but I wasn’t worried anymore because I had made it to the plane in time.

“Should I have them check it, then?” I asked.

She thought for a second, then patted me on the shoulder and said, “No, I wouldn’t want you to have to go back out and through that line again. Here, we have a special place for occasions like this.”

With that, she opened up a small closet door at the front of the plane and put my bag in there. Once again, my stellar luck that day came through, so I thanked her profusely and then took my seat.

The flight into Christchurch was great, because now it was daylight out and I could see all the snow-covered mountains and fields out the window. It was going to be a sunny day and that fit my mood, as I had had a great trip over and couldn’t wait to start this next chapter of my life in New Zealand.