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Thursday, June 21, 2007

High Commander's Log: Status Report*

I've been here for a year now in New Zealand, and I find it hard to believe. I say that because it has absolutely flown by, but when I reflect upon it that is only because it's been such a good year for me. Not only have the times been very good, but I've kept so busy with things that it's made the past twelve months zip past and feel like no more than two or three months.

I was originally going to try and be cute and frame this post in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way by posting not on the one 'Earth year' anniversary of my arrival here in New Zealand. No, I thought I'd be clever and post on the date of my first 'Venusian year' here, since that is actually something like 283 days long. But since there are probably not too many astrophysicists in the audience (and even if there were, there are even fewer among them who might find that funny), I (wisely) decided not to do that.

So I'm not going to go on and on here, but since it's a pretty big milestone for me I'll just recap the past year and also take this moment to anticipate the upcoming year.

I have achieved my biggest goal, that being to obtain New Zealand Resident status. I just have one final technicality to take care of (pay the migrant levy) and it'll be official. That is a stepping stone to Citizenship, and I'm not sure I'll make it that far but I certainly didn't come over here for just a year or two! The more I stay here the more I grow attached to New Zealand, especially Wellington, so to have accomplished this has really put my mind at rest. As it stood on the day I flew in to Auckland exactly a year ago, I had just ten months to go from a one-year temporary work visa to getting that extended and starting the residency process. I've got a two-year visa now through 2009 and the aforementioned residency. I'm stoked!

I've made some great friends, from the ones that were easiest to meet through work like Andrew and Sarah, to completely unexpected and serendipitous ones like Lyndsay, who's yeoman-like faithfulness to reading my blog really helped get me going and keep me going in the early stages!

I've been all over both the North and South islands of New Zealand, having done things like climb two mountains, cruise a fiord, drive countless scenic routes, go deep sea fishing and explore the streets and coffee houses of Wellington and Christchurch.

There were the acting classes I've always meant to get back into, as well as the upcoming short story writing course I'm dying to take.

My cats got here with amazing ease, not to mention expen$e, and they've been great to have around to say the least!

I've found a good job and a good boss with a good team around me, so about that I feel very fortunate indeed. Hard to know just what you're getting into from all the way on the other side of the world, I can tell you that much! So I'm glad things have worked out on this front for me.

One of the most important things of all, and one of the most personally rewarding things about this experience, has been my ability to stick with this blog. If I didn't write all this stuff down and take all those pictures, this whole journey wouldn't mean half as much as it does, for you just have to savor things like this and for me that involves writing about it.

Actually I have a shocking memory and I would have forgotten many of these things if I didn't bother to record them for posterity!

All that being said about the past year, there are some other things which temper it all a bit. I do miss my family and friends from home, although I am headed back there for a visit for Thanksgiving this year. That's helped keep the homesickness away for now, and I am psyched that I'll get to see everybody again real soon.

I have to move, a near-certain fact with each passing day. It's not my choice, of course, for I love Totara Park. But a common scenario here in New Zealand is that 'flats' or apartments are often and seemingly mostly privately-owned. This means it's not like the situation back home where you have large apartment complexes that you could stay in indefinitely, should you so choose. Lots of these flats are individually owned so if the owner has to sell your flat, you may have to move. They're not selling to kick you out, but they have good reasons most of the time I am sure. But what that does to you as a 'flatter' is: 1. You now have to hope whoever buys it doesn't want to move in themselves; 2. If they don't want to move in, they have to want to keep you on as a flatter; 3. If they want to keep you on, they can't raise the rent too much; 4. You can buy the place yourself, if you are willing and able; 5. The new owner may want you to stay and not raise the rent too much, so you win after all. Odds are that won't happen, but there's still a chance. And I will get 42 days to find a place on my own, once I've been properly notified that I have to vacate. So I'll find something else, but I will miss Totara Park!

Finally, as much as I've done this past year and as big a success as I feel that it's been for me on so many levels, there's even more I want to see and do in the next year. Hell, the next several years - all of them hopefully spent here in New Zealand!

What's the one thing I haven't mentioned that I expect to happen in the next couple of years?

*Reference to my favorite TV show, 3rd Rock From The Sun.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

There And Back Again

Right. So... where were we?

Been a minute, eh?

Sorry about that. Had become quite distracted with uploading over 100 new images to Photobucket from my last trip, which was now over two weeks ago, and since I have a lowly dial-up connection it has been a less-then-engaging prospect whenever I get on the Net to upload these babies. I could do it more easily from work, where we have broadband, but I've come to realize we have a monthly bandwidth allowance there and I didn't feel right hogging it all in one go with personal photos.

But they're up now! And I'm back! What else have you noticed while I've been away? That's right, the Usual Gang of Idiots over at MAD Magazine seem to have appropriated my blog template and given it the old once-over. Actually that's not entirely true. I'm really behind the whole thing, and many thanks to my friend se7en over at Blogs Gone Wild for doing this design for me and my exacting specifications! He's worth every penny, folks, so if you ever have a hankering to customize your blog template, I can wholeheartedly recommend him.

I hope you like it! I grew up with MAD and have always loved its satire and sense of humor. My uncle Mark would sure appreciate this page if he saw it! The top artwork is from MAD's very first cover, if you couldn't deduce that already, while the other images you see are all from other early MAD covers. MAD is still great, and of course the writers have changed, but I'll always consider the first 30-50 issues to be the funniest.

Anyways. So what did I get up to when I returned to the south island last month? Well before I get into that, I have to say there is one very big omission from my last posting, about my epic journey to the mountains with friends. The night we all arrived at Chris's bach, as we were getting out of our cars and unpacking we all noticed how brilliant the night sky was. It was nearly a new moon and as we were way out in the wops of Lake Taupo's perimeter, there were no city lights to blot out the details. So I commented on how you could see the swath of the Milky Way and as cool as that was I still had yet to see the Southern Cross.

After a moment of searching, one of them pointed out, "Oh there it is, right there."

And sure enough, there it was: the Southern Cross! For the first time. Just like in that song. It's the southern hemisphere's version of our Polaris or North Star, since it usually occupies a spot near the 'top' of the heavens as you behold the nighttime sky.

So I checked one more thing off of my very long list of things to see and do Down Under and felt a bit more contented with my travels thus far.

Now on to this most recent expedition. It was certainly nothing as epic as scaling two small mountains in one day, but it was no less enjoyable as I had more stunning scenery to enjoy than even my eager camera could capture. I took the Bluebridge ferry across the Cook Strait again, as I always do, and when I got to the little township of Picton on the south island I took a hard right towards Nelson this time instead of veering south towards Blenheim and ultimately Christchurch.

I opted for the scenic route through the mountains and along some lakes as it was more direct 'as the crow flies' even though the state highway allowed for higher sustained speeds (yes they call them 'state' highways down here, very interesting). Well it was a serendipitous guess as not only did I have some great scenery along this route but I made good time and there was hardly another car on the road with me.

Basically the whole trip went like that: I had nearly every location I went to visit all to myself, which allowed not only for some good picture-taking moments but it also let me savor it a bit more, as if what I were looking at were all my own. It was a relief from the dismal feeling you get when the tour buses let out and you are crammed in, cheek-by-jowl, with hundreds of other camera-toting tourists all trying to get snapshots of the exact same thing. That cheapens the experience and adds a needless level of stress, of which I was mercifully free this entire trip.

I got the ferry from Wellington to Picton, drove over the hills west to Nelson where I spent the next day exploring nearby Rabbit Island, Kaiteriteri Beach and the exquisite setting of Split Apple Rock. I then drove down to the West Coast and spent the next two days in Punakaiki, mainly to see their famous Pancake Rocks. I also took in a nice tramp to a secluded bay off the Truman Trail and hit Westport, a coal mining town, for a coffee and that night visited a great restaurant called the Bay House Cafe & Restaurant. It reminded me very much of a great place in Malibu, California, called Duke's, for several reasons. It started out as a surfer's hang-out and was built by... a surfer. It's on a bay with great views of the sunset. And it also has excellent food and service. Unfortunately for me, it was pissing down outside so I had no views to enjoy let a lone a sunset, but Bay House made up for the lack of this in heaps of other ways and I'll certainly be bringing friends and family back there when I visit the area again.

My last day I spent driving out of the rain clouds back towards Nelson, where I had one final stop that I really wanted to make. A friend of mine, Lisa, told me all about many of the places I would see on this strip as she's very familiar with this part of New Zealand. The only spot she had recommended that I hadn't seen yet was a place called Pelorus Bridge, over the river Pelorus. I zipped past the entrance to its park and trail on the way down and made a mental note to try and save some daylight for the return trip so I wouldn't miss out on this place.

Well, I made it after all, and what follows are some details of this and the rest of my sightseeing trip and my impressions of it. You can view my pictures from this trip here, and I picked the best 103 out of the 300+ I took with my Canon digital camera. I had no sun to work with on the day I visited Pancake Rocks, but I'm not complaining because it was supposed to be raining heavily all day and there wasn't a drop until that night when I went to dinner. So I consider myself very lucky to have been able to see the Rocks and get some pictures that day!

...Halfway between Nelson and Punakaiki I drove through a farming town called Murchison. I was treated to a very cool experience in this part of the trip, as while driving in I entered the valley in which Murchison sits and there it was before me, all in a fog. The entire valley was totally covered beneath a blanket of cloud, which was hovering a couple hundred feet in the air so visibility below it was crystal clear. A combination of fading sunlight and burgeoning moonlight suffused the cloud layer with a soft white light, which dissipated into the grey drizzle below it. At every end of the valley all around its entire rim the tops of the hills ascended unseen into the mist. It truly felt magical, as it came into view all of a sudden and if you didn't know any better you might think the world dropped off at the edges of the valley, beyond the cloud-covered mountains. As you can imagine I was really keen for a picture but I couldn't take one because it was impossible to give a sense of scale with a photo or two. I could have filmed it but I had a good rhythm going on this drive and I didn't want to stop. So as with the image of the ocean off the coast of Dunedin that one night, this one shall remain in my memory only...

...“Have you seen any mushrooms yet?” one of two moms asked me as I toured the pine forest trails of Rabbit Island. Each mom was pushing a pram and also had a toddler each in tow, and all of them had curious pink and lavender circles painted in the center of their foreheads - even the little babies sacked out asleep in the prams were thusly adorned. Apparently this stretch of forest was known for its monster-sized mushrooms, and no I hadn't seen any the way I had come, I told them. I never did figure out the connection between the symbols on their foreheads and the mushrooms but they were all very sweet and it's just one of those curious things you see from time to time!...

...Dire Straits was playing on the stereo of the backpackers lounge when I got there, and something about Mark Knopfler's music set the tone for the whole trip perfectly. Once again, music and my travels coincided sublimely! I hadn't heard any Dire Straits in a while so it was cool hanging out and talking with a German woman who was also traveling with her friend. I stayed at the Punakaiki Beach Hostel, which was well-maintained and perfectly situated right on the beach (as advertised!). Lutz is the very kind owner of the PBH, and he was a font of information about the whole region. He even let me use his own phone to make a long-distance call, God bless him...

...I bought some Nashi pears ("MmmMmm" good) at a roadside stand on the way back from Kaiteriteri. Not that this is the sort of thing that would usually warrant reporting, but it was unique in that it was an uninhabited, stand-alone shack with bags of fruit within, a coin box, and a sign saying that it was being monitored. So it operated on the honor system! There were a couple of blokes working the fence a few meters down the road but they were all but ignoring me. A kindly, fat little Jack Russell Terrier came up and greeted me as I bought my pears - perhaps he was on sentry duty for the fruit stand? I gave him a few pats and then as I approached my car he wisely backed away from the driveway, allowing me to continue on my way...

...As I made my way out of Murchison I knew the next stop would be Westport, which commanded a decent enough portion of my road map to look like a big city. But as I kept getting nearer and nearer to my destination, according to the road signs, I couldn't help but noticing – where are the city lights? It was late at night yet the horizon had yet to be lit up by the inevitable glow of a nearby city, the fact that I was still winding my way down through the mountains notwithstanding. Also, usually on the way to or from a city of significant size you will encounter lots of trucks, yet I had seen precious few although this made it far easier to navigate the winding hills. Then as I reached the city limits, I read the sign proclaiming Westport's population size: 6,000. Oh...

...As I drove south of Westport towards Punakaiki, I knew that for much of the way the road wound its way along adjacent to the coastline, much as it does on the east side above and below Kaikoura. But since it was night, I knew the sea would be sneaking up on me - this time on right-hand side of the car. After a little while driving, I pulled over and killed the engine, rolling down the window. I was greeted by a cool salty breeze and the sound of waves. Don’t look now, but there’s the ocean, right outside the car! In this case it was the Tasman Sea, the vast gulf that separates New Zealand from Australia...

... This is a bit far down to put this, but as I was making my way home from the Bay Cafe at night I swear I saw a Kiwi bird sitting right in the middle of Millers Lead Road! If it truly was one, it was in the other lane, and by the time I slowed down, turned around and headed slowly back, whatever it was it had left for good. There's no doubt it was an animal, as I could see a pair of eyes gleaming back at me as I drove past it. But was it the elusive Kiwi? I'll never know and I'm not even sure they inhabit that part of New Zealand...

...The long distance call I made on Lutz's phone was to make a reservation at the Bay Cafe. I asked if they would be open and they said that as normally there are very few tourists at this time of year, most things are shut but that it would be smart to make a reservation because they might not be open unless they knew they had guests coming. It didn't occur to me until the next night on my drive up there, but I suddenly wondered if they were staying open just for me? There were damn few tourists anywhere and I could just see myself strolling in there, the only soul in the restaurant apart from the beleaguered staff, who had to come in for one overly curious tourist! I knew they had gotten great write-ups regarding their service in two of my three New Zealand travel guides, but I didn't think they could go that far! I breathed a sigh of relief when I got there and found the restaurant to be well-populated indeed. They could stay open exclusively for someone like Bill Bryson, but not a punter like me!...

...I had great luck with the weather all the way, as I was touring the south island's West Coast in late Autumn, when it's notoriously rainy. From the limitless sunshine of my first day to the rain holding off to allow me to explore Pancake Rocks in a state of dryness, to this final day as I drove home. It was raining from the moment I got into the car at Punakaiki all the way until Nelson, where the clouds duly vanished (for a bit), lending credence to this city's claim that it gets the most sunshine hours of any location in New Zealand. It's true, by the way, but it was awfully nice of the weather to accommodate me yet again and in such dramatic fashion. As if it were my cue to leave after stopping for some lunch in Nelson, the clouds began to form ominously on all visible horizons. I retreated hastily to the car, got underway and as I climbed into the hills northeast of Nelson, the cloud cover progressed to steady rainfall again. As I drew nearer to Pelorus Bridge my heart sank as I felt like my good luck might be running out and I wouldn't be able to get pictures of this last sight. But yet again the rain ceased, allowing me a good fifteen minutes or so to walk the bridge and a bit of the trail beyond, giving me a chance to take some more pictures. And this I did!...

My latest trip now over, I pulled into Picton, where the rain had thoughtfully paused for me again, and repaired to my usual haunt, the Rumba Café & Bar. I also paid my now-ritual homage to the Best Public Loo In All Of New Zealand (yes, the one that plays Burt Bacharach songs and thanks you for stopping by, as well as the Star Trek door-opening sounds).

I love the Rumba. It’s in a very good spot although really the main drag in Picton is easy to navigate in its entirety on foot, as it’s not very long. But this café is very close to the beautiful waterfront the town has constructed, and had the weather been in a better mood I’d have gone down there to pass the time away. I did have four hours, after all. But the company at the café was pleasant as always, and the friendly staff is one of the reasons I keep coming back here. The excellent fish and chips is another big reason, plus they make a good mocchacino, although I have yet to have a bad one of these anywhere in New Zealand.

“I never met a soy mocha I didn’t like.” Somebody famous said that once. I think it was before a battle. Or maybe it was in one of them Westerns.

Anyways, as I walked into the Rumba, I was carrying my newest book purchase tucked under one arm. As I was placing my order, the gal behind the desk said to me, “My you certainly look to be on a mission there with that book!”

Incorrectly thinking she meant I looked as if I were about to ask her if she had heard the Good News, I chuckled and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and convert anybody in here today!”

Now it was her turn to laugh.

Suddenly sensing my error, I blushed and said, “Oh! You’re referring to the size of my book, not that I look like some sort of missionary!”

For I was carrying a copy of Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, an excellent World War II volume recommended to me by a bookkeeper in Westport. It’s not quite War And Peace size but it’s a hefty enough tome.

I mentioned how it was different from what I had usually read, and she said she’d quite like to read it one day as she hadn’t read too many historical books either. Turns out she’s a big Stephen King and Dean Koontz fan, and of the former I’ve read some but of the latter I’ve read not a bit – yet. She did recommend Dragon’s Tears to me, one of Koontz's earlier works, so I’ll be looking for that at Arty Beez Booksellers next time I happen by there.

You know, that growing stack of unread books back home isn’t quite big enough yet, so why not add a few more inches to its height?