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Monday, April 21, 2008

Now that's a long-distance dedication ...

Ever since I saw the NBR New Zealand Opera's excellent production of Turandot last year, for which the Vector Wellington Orchestra provided the music, I have been wanting to see an orchestra perform on their own. I was highly impressed with their performance on that night. Wellingtonians are fortunate enough to not only have an active and well-funded opera company, but to also have two outstanding symphony orchestras.

So it was a few weeks ago that I wandered into Wellington and passed by the Michael Fowler Centre. As I was waiting for the light to change, I realized I was standing right next to one of Ticketek's main outlets, this being the only one that handles all of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's events, apparently.

I stepped inside their office and asked about NZSO's upcoming shows. What didn't strike me until later was that I didn't ask - or seem to care - what the show was, exactly. So enamoured of their music was I that all I wanted to know was when they were playing again and, if it fit my schedule, I would automatically go.

After a bit of give and take with the ticket girl I finally found a date when I could go, and that date was last Friday night. Not until I got to the event did I realize what I was in for as out of blind luck I had chosen quite a special occasion.

It was at the Wellington Town Hall Auditorium, an imposing and majestic tan building with a beautiful interior. The spacious ceiling offered great acoustics and it seemed like it was made just for the symphony. The seats were all quite comfortable, too, and I hope to be seeing the NZSO perform here again some day.

The purpose of this concert, which is part of the Explore Antarctica festival going on right now, was two-fold; first it was dedicated to the late Sir Edmund Hillary. The second was that it was for all the New Zealanders currently serving at Scott Base on Antarctica, a site where Sir Ed was part of the very first winter-over team.

The performance consisted of three movements, during the first of which a steady montage of images of Sir Ed passed on the screens above. This piece was the Suite from Scott of the Antarctic, by Vaughan Williams, and it was heartfelt. The nearly sold-out audience was quite caught up in the orchestra's mastery, as was I.

Between the first two movements the NZSO took a break after welcoming its new conductor to the crowd. The mucky-muck in charge of the whole shebang took the stage and thanked all of his sponsors and then explained the night's performance. Finally! Even though I didn’t need a particular reason to go see the NZSO play, it was nice for the evening to have such a unique context.

The day prior to this show, the last plane for four and a half months had come and gone from Antarctica, so the remaining scientists and staff at the base were just now preparing to dig in for a long winter on the bottom of the world. It is worth noting that the United States' own McMurdo Station sometimes works closely with New Zealand's Scott Base so a few of the Americans from McMurdo were in attendance as well.

In attendance at Scott Base, Antarctica, that is. This show was being simulcast to those stranded (voluntarily, of course) down there so it was a pleasant surprise for me (the only one in the audience not in on it until now, probably) to learn that these brave souls on the bottom of the world were part of the audience.

There was a live telecast from one of the members of the research team who gave a speech thanking the NZSO for their support. It was followed by a montage of several of the other staff down there showing the rest of us a bit of what life is like so far down the globe. Lastly another of the staff gave a warm toast to the NZSO and ultimately, Antarctica itself.

They then gave us their own rather humorous performance with their New Zealand “Sympathy” Orchestra in tribute to the 'real' NZSO. It was great and, in Kiwi fashion, very tongue-in-cheek. They even had their own home-made triangle, a gigantic one which seemed to be large pieces of welded iron pipe, clanged expertly and only once by one of the three 'musicians' that wielded it.

After much laughter and applause, it was back to business as usual but it was cool knowing that we had a distant yet appreciative crowd in Antarctica as part of the audience.

For the second movement a tall thin man returned to the fore of the stage with the conductor. It turns out this was Paul Whelan whose voice formed the centrepiece of the second movement, called Terra Incognita and this was its world premiere. It was written with Mr. Whelan in mind, and he and the Orchestra were backed up by the awesome Orpheus Choir. To this novice symphony-goer it sure seemed to me like the conductor got the most anyone could have gotten out of that very talented ensemble of voices.

I was seated five rows back, to the right of and behind the conductor. The large choir stood in two separate sections on the stage above and behind the musicians, so one bank of singers seemed to be staring straight at me although of course their rapt attention was focused solely on the conductor. It just gave this movement a neat effect, as if the choir were singing directly at me.

There was a 20-minute intermission after these first two movements. Yet, without a program and not having the cash to pay for one, I had to sheepishly ask one of the very nice usherettes if that was it or was there going to be more. She told me it was just an intermission but it was honestly hard to tell because as soon as it began a fair number of people made a beeline for the cold air outside. I guess they were probably the smokers in the crowd!

The third movement was Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No. 8 Antarctic Symphony and it was also good but this one did not use the Orpheus Choir. It was a more stark number than the first two, as its obvious focus was on global warming and the melting, splitting and breaking up of several large parts of Antarctica. That this is happening more and more lately was demonstrated just last month by the partial collapse of a huge Antarctic ice shelf.

The music certainly fit the theme, with sudden shrill outbursts, I suppose mimicking the spontaneous cracking of large sections of ice. Superimposed on images of melting ice and flowing rivers of snowmelt were sped-up movies of moving cars numbering in the thousands. There were also ominous images of oil refinery smokestacks, burning away endlessly amidst a backdrop of melting ice.

This symphony was expertly performed, including a frenzied conclusion that seemed to be flawlessly pulled off by the musicians, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the first two movements. It was harsh and jarring - purposefully of course - but its sobering effect took off some of the glow I was feeling earlier.

Plus, I missed the presence of the Orpheus Choir!

Yet just as Turandot spawned a desire for me to catch the NZSO on their own, so now has NZSO ignited a yearning in me to see the Orpheus Choir in a future performance.

So as my ‘matryoshka doll’ style of interest in the arts keeps going, I’ll be sure to find something else to experience after the choir and I can’t wait to find out what that is!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Facts in the Case of Maximillian, cont.

Part Deux: "I ain't 'fraid of no ghost!"

I returned to the hospital the next morning and, after much anxious debate amongst the staff, Veronica was 'volunteered' to call the missing cat's owner and give her the troubling news about her escaped cat. Well, it turns out this woman is the Nicest Woman On Earth as she was beyond understanding about her cat getting away from us. She even felt bad for us and how distressed we must be about having lost him!

I know that between the two of us, Debbie and I had a grand total of two hours' sleep the night before, complete with waking nightmares. I can't think of many worse things to have to tell an owner than "I hate to tell you this but your perfectly healthy and happy cat that was boarding with us has somehow escaped and we have no idea where he is or how he is doing. Super sorry!"

Bleh, as much as that sucks, truly the last thing you want to hear regarding your boarding pet is that it died unexpectedly during its stay.

Still, our current situation was less than copasetic, as you never know how people are going to take this kind of news. I know how I'd take it: Not well. I'd not be upset with the staff because accidents happen and if I could see they were making a concerted effort to find my missing pet then I would certainly be reasonable. But I'd still be distressed. Thankfully this sort of thing happens rarely, in my experience.

Anyway, the cat's owner came that day to pick up her dog, who had also been boarding with us and thankfully had not managed to escape his run - we didn't need a freakin' Milo and Otis situation on our hands! He was the missing cat's good buddy, so I had hoped his continued presence in his indoor-outdoor run would serve to lure his feline friend back. So far, not so good.

The dog went home with his exceedingly kind mum that day, who then returned to spend a good part of her day trolling the neighbourhood, mixing calls of "Maximillian!" (our missing cat's name) with avid shakes of his favourite food tin.

She had no luck, and neither did we as Debbie and Veronica had already posted 'Wanted - Lost Cat - Reward!' signs up around the neighbourhood and we all had a look for him before work started. We joined the search after work as well. Max's owner had brought in a picture of Max the previous day, which we used for our poster as well as for posting his furry mug on the glorious (and free!) website, Pets On The Net. However slightly, it would serve to increase our odds of having someone find Max and catch him for us, if not give us a hot lead as to his whereabouts.

I was still to come back to the clinic that night for the same ailing cat, and once again there was no sign of Maximillian as I had another look round. Even Tabitha made a quiet entrance into the courtyard that night, perhaps having resigned herself to the fact that I'd not be swayed by her beseeching glances to let her inside for a catnap. She was still sitting by the back door staring at me as I left, so Tabitha is nothing if not persistent.

Sunday went much as Saturday had: Maximillian's owner being beyond generous and sympathetic, spending her day searching for her missing cat (in the drizzling rain, no less), we staff coping with our frayed nerves and trying not to lose hope that Max would ever turn up. So facing dwindling prospects regarding Max, a growing deficit of sleep, and the lingering presence of my sick hospital cat*, I returned for yet another night at the clinic on Sunday.

As I had finished treating our sick hospital cat (who would eventually succumb to his disease, the poor soul), I was once again shutting off the lights when another awful, heart-stopping crash came from outside, just like the other night.

"Dammit!" I muttered under my breath. Whatever else, Tabitha was keeping me on my toes at night and giving me a little comic relief with her hopelessly persistent attempts to crash the gate, as it were, and get inside.

Because it had to be Tabitha, right? There was no way it could be a ghost. No sirree, there was no way I was letting my overly active imagination take me there. Not in all that darkness, with my heart pounding so loudly, absurd recollections of horror stories penned by Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft swirling unbidden through my consciousness.

Too much television lately? Hell, I'd been reading too many stories!

This time, as I crept stealthily to the security panel inside the back door, I noticed a little black silhouette sitting just outside. Tabitha usually made a beeline for the front building's door, but maybe she was upping the ante with this more direct approach.

This silhouetted cat, upon seeing me, began meowing excitedly and standing up on its hind legs, pawing at the door - also odd for Tabitha, who was usually more Jedi-like with her frequent attempts to get inside.

And it was also the wrong building... Dare I let my hopes escalate? Grinning, I flicked on the outside light, only to behold --

Maximillian!

There he was, the same plump grey and black tabby from the yard the other day, standing on his back legs and begging to be let inside. It had been raining so he was damp and cold but other than that he looked no worse for wear.

As quick as I could manage, I spun open the lock and flung open the door.

Still meowing, but now uncertainly, Max hesitated at the door, even backing up half a step as if he was about to bolt away.

Quickly I began calling to him and encouraging him to step inside. He was not going to get away from me now! Losing him twice in one weekend was not on, even if I had to slog through rain and mud to tackle him in the yard outside.

Not that catching a cat in the dark would ever be easy...

But my good luck continued as Max hesitated for only a few seconds before launching himself inside. I quickly shut and locked the door and turned on the inside lights.

Max was really back and now he was safely inside. He meowed to me with his every breath, as if telling me in a rush about his harrowing journey and up-til-now unsuccessful attempts to get back to the hospitality of his warm and cosy indoor cat run. He was probably also asking why the hell we locked him out and, perhaps, where in the world his canine buddy had gone.

Max never let me out of his sight, nor was he out of mine, as he excitedly ran right next to me up and down the halls as I got together a fresh litter box and food dish for him. If there was a counter nearby, he leapt up onto it and continued his chatter, gratefully accepting the pats that I was all too happy to give him.

Exulting, I opened the door to the cat ward, opened the door to the biggest cat cage I could find, and then, quite happily and quite resolutely, stuffed Maximillian into his cage. Never have I closed and locked a cage door so fast!

I took one final triumphant stare at the happy grey and black tabby on the other side of the glass, watching him gorge himself on food and water, when a thought occurred to me:

"God, I hope it's the right cat."

But it was! And I was 99.9% sure of that at the time, but the truth would not come until the next morning, when his overjoyed mother would come to finally take Max home.

He had one final meow or two of thanks for me (I like to think that's what he was 'saying' at this point) and then tucked back into his biscuits.

Checking for the fifth time that Max's cage was securely locked (it was), I then exited the cat ward (firmly closing the door behind me), the rear building (firmly closing and locking the door after achieving 'Full On' status), and finally the courtyard (which I could not lock, but believe me, I wanted to).

Blissful sleep came quickly that night. Lucky breaks will do that for you.

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* Were it not for this cat's presence and his wonderfully dedicated owners, we would certainly not have this story.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Facts in the Case of Maximillian

It had been a hectic Friday at the hospital where I work. I was a bit more exhausted than usual at the end of this week because I also happened to be on duty for the weekend. As it was now the end of my shift, I was looking forward to getting home and relaxing a little bit before the weekend began.

The practice consists of two buildings separated by a covered walkway. There is an exercise courtyard between the two buildings which is completely fenced in from the outside. I was heading through the back door of the front building on my way to the back when two things happened at once.

The first was Debbie, who was inside, asked me a question as I opened the door. And the second thing was that I noticed, with detached curiosity, that there was a grey and black tabby cat sitting in the corner of the yard.

Normally, there is no cat there.

That is, unless it is our clinic cat Tabitha, who is a white and grey tabby. This was not her and this little guy was just sitting there happily grooming himself as if he owned the place. He was rather plump and had a healthy glow to him, so he certainly seemed to have an owner. Given that there is a plank ramp on one side of the building for Tabitha to use to get into and out of the back yard when the clinic is closed, it was not at all shocking to think there could be a strange cat lounging in our backyard. This cat certainly didn't seem distressed or up to no good, but still I was briefly taken aback at seeing him there.

I suppose that the combination of my mild surprise at our feline interloper, Debbie's distracting question and my heading into the back to do something else - all occurring at the end of a day when my mind is tired and distracted and thinking of home - is why I didn't speak up like I wanted to and say, "Huh, that's interesting - there's a strange cat in the yard!" to Debbie.

I was being too polite to interrupt her as she was in another room and could not see me or the cat, and I was also too scatterbrained (more than usual) to remember to mention this cat's presence to her in another minute or two.

So it was that I went into the back, did whatever I had gone to do, came back up front, ditched the stethoscope and lab coat, grabbed my car keys and headed for the door... and completely forgot to mention to Debbie about the cat being out there.

That's when she said it.

"There's a cat missing from the cattery," Debbie said quietly, her face evincing much concern.

I stopped dead, instantly consumed with a mix of emotions. Exasperation, as I was immediately certain that the grey tabby from a few moments ago was the very one who had now obviously made his escape. Irritation, as I realized that I could have caught the little bugger had I not been so absentminded. Chagrin, as I realized this is certainly one of a pet owner's worst nightmares whenever they have to leave a beloved pet behind in the care of others. Panic, as I realized that we were these 'others' who had now misplaced one fat and happy housecat. Anger, as I realized that whoever had left the cattery door open was neither Debbie nor myself and their weekend of luxurious relaxation had already begun!

"What do you mean... 'missing'?" I asked, stalling for time and trying to get a grip on my emotions.

As if somehow, Debbie would then say, "Oh, Brandon, I was just pulling your leg! He's just gone home is all. Have a great weekend! Haha."

Eh, nope, not exactly.

Debbie then went on to explain how his cattery door was wide open (and these cattery doors are nigh-impossible for even the cleverest and most persistent of cats to jimmy open), the cat in question was nowhere to be seen (well sorta, heh), and all three doors in the cattery meant to be closed and at least keep escapees inside were also left wide open.

These were truly bizarre circumstances - and vexing as hell.

After trying to get in touch with the owner (unsuccessfully - she was in Australia but due back in town the very next day) we searched around the yards and the clinic, and then continued searching the neighbouring streets but without any luck. It was so aggravating to be looking for this poor cat who not five minutes ago was a few strides away from me but had now melted into his surroundings.

As it was, there was a rather sick kitty in the hospital with us at the time, so I had already planned to come back to the hospital later on that night to check on him and administer some more treatment. So I'd have an extra chance to maybe see our escapee come wandering back, looking for his dinner. It was a thin hope, at best, as there were lots of houses in the vicinity and as most New Zealand cat owners let them freely go outdoors, it was likely there were also plenty of cat food bowls in nearby yards of which our fugitive could avail himself.

So that night, around eleven, I returned, did a brief scouting around, treated my patient, and began to lock up. With no sign of the unintentionally stray boarder, I shut the lights inside the back building and began to walk down the darkened hallway to the security panel.

Just as I hit the lights and took a step, there was a sudden loud crash from the courtyard outside. I froze in my tracks, waiting for my heart to stop pounding so I could listen for any more noises.

There were none, so I cautiously made my way to the panel, activated it, then stepped out into the darkened courtyard. The only sounds were the now-muffled mechanical beeps of the security panel behind me, menacingly ticking off the seconds until the alarm would become 'Full On'.

My eyes had now adjusted to the darkness and I could just make out a tiny little silhouette at the back door to the front building.

I flicked on the courtyard light to see who this was, not allowing my hopes to get up too high that it might be our dear missing boarder.

Recognition came instantly: It was Tabitha! Our clinic cat, she of the rapidly-fattening belly, was sitting at the door shooting me expectant and pleading glances to let her inside.

The little gremlin had crashed over the gate into the courtyard and onto one of the rubbish bins, toppling it over and creating the ruckus that made me think it was curtains for me.

Realizing that I've been watching too much television, I walked over to Tabitha, patted her and noticed that the outside food dish of hers was still half-full. I realized she was much more keen on a good night's sleep on her favourite chair inside, but we just can't have her setting off the motion detectors so it was to be the outdoor enclosed cat bed for her.

As for me, I went home, facing the uneasy prospect of trying to get some sleep while wondering what in the world we were going to tell this missing cat's owner in the morning...

What's this? A cattery without a cat? A night without any sleep? How will this story end?

Tune in next time, same cat-time, same cat-channel!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What It Be Like

So my friend and former colleague Robb from back in the States has requested that I write a little more about what being a vet in New Zealand is like, particularly as it compares to the American experience of playing Dr. Herriot.

Robb's dad, Andy, was my boss the last six years I worked as a vet in the States, and he gave me a great environment in which to practice. I'm thankful for the time I had there and the latitude I was given by him, and I was also surrounded by great team mates. So it is the very least I can do to indulge this friend and former co-worker of mine with a post about all things vitnary!

Vetanary!


Veterinary!

There, got it finally, whew. Ironic that they don't teach you how to spell that particular word in vet school, no?

Anyway. First I'll speak generally as to what being a vet in New Zealand is like, and then I'll tell ya'll another little story.

Hey! I heard those groans. Don't worry, I promise not to turn this post into another mini-novella à la my prior entry regarding Tess the Wünder Dog (or Adventures Trapped in the Wheel Tread of a Large Crane).

Being a vet here is much like being a vet in the States. New Zealanders are just as compassionate about their animals as any people I've known and they are often willing to go the extra mile in keeping their pets healthy or trying to get them back to healthy status. It is quite common to see families with many pets and not just a solitary cat or goldfish. New Zealanders are also in general much more in touch with their agricultural roots when compared to my fellow statesiders. I mean this in that many of them live on 'lifestyle blocks' wherein they often have sheep, a few head of cattle maybe, some chickens, and a pig or three. Many Kiwis also favour horses as pets, and horseback riding and racing are more part of the mainstream culture here than modern America in general. Think of it as like moving to rural Virginia or Kentucky, in terms of what the animal-owning experience is like ‘round these parts.

As such, given the Kiwi propensity for all creatures great and small (come on now, you knew I had to work that phrase in there sometime!) the country's lone vet school, situated at Massey University in Palmerston North, turns out around 90 newly-trained vets every year. All of them, as far as I can gather, are trained for what we in the States would call 'Mixed Practice'. That is, they are pulling a ‘James Herriot’ in that they graduate ready to treat any manner of farm animal or domestic pet.

I have to say: I really admire this. For a brief time in my vet school tenure, I flirted with the notion of becoming a mixed practitioner. To give you a frame of reference, I would posit that a distinct minority of graduating American vets have tracked this in their programs. Overwhelmingly, most of them graduate having tracked 'small animal', or whatever, indicating their specialty is dogs and cats and perhaps even other household pets like birds, guinea pigs and rabbits. A good number of those that start out working in food animal or equine practices eventually migrate to small animal-exclusive practices, for a variety of reasons but chief among them better pay and lifestyle.

So you can see that given there is quite the diversity of animals to treat, it then follows that there is quite the abundance of knowledge on how best to treat them! One of my favourite phrases from vet school is "Real doctors treat more than one species", heh.

Which brings me back to my original point: I admire how every single Kiwi vet upon graduation is prepared to treat, well, everything.*

Granted, it is quite rare indeed for New Zealanders to own reptiles of any kind, and birds are a distinctly uncommon pet when compared to the American pet owning population. But rabbits, guinea pigs and the odd chinchilla are seen on a somewhat common basis.

I have found that surgical and medical techniques and the progression of those areas in small animal practice are on a par with what I've experienced back in the USA. There are frequent lecture series and online course opportunities for the continued learning that is so vital to maintaining good doctorly standards. There is also a large conference every year that rotates around Australia and New Zealand and it seems to rival the two best (in my opinion) American conferences, NAVC in Orlando and Western in Vegas.**

I have been quite happy to pretty well seamlessly integrate myself into daily private practice over here, doing what I did back home with very little adjustment.

Another positive about working over here compared to the States is the availability of certain drugs. Yeah, I know, that may sound bad but I am talking about drugs for my patients of course! Many of the new drugs that are developed for dogs and cats, of which there are thankfully a steadily growing number, are often first released down here Down Under. For at least a year or two the Kiwis and Aussies had first dibs at drugs like pimobendan and meloxicam, but I don't want to bore you with technical discussions of these medicines. I'll just say they are highly relevant drugs that we've needed for the dogs and cats and not only is it cool that we have them made for our profession but that here in New Zealand I am likely to be able to prescribe them first.

So, outside of the USA at least, I can appreciate the byzantine red-tape procedures the Food and Drug Administration has big pharma first endure before we vets get new therapies to use.

That being said, another vet I work with has said one reason for this is that New Zealand is sort of an ideal 'guinea pig' market, when compared to larger markets like the States. The population is smaller but still has a very progressive veterinary profession and pet-owning population, so their new drugs are likely to be tried and they'll be able to test the waters for a year or two before taking on the more stringent barriers the FDA has in place in the US.

That could sound bad, and I don't want to make it sound like they're unleashing drugs that cause scary mutations (like an ear coming out of one’s forehead - right, Roger?) or spontaneous combustion in our unsuspecting animals! I just do not believe that more hoops through which to jump necessarily equates to a safer product on the other end.

*cough* Vioxx *cough*

Now that the stage has been set regarding how the veterinary scene in New Zealand compares to the one I'm used to in the States, let me work my storytelling magic and get my writer on.

Eh, you know what? This post is already dangerously long, and the story is even longer. So I’m gonna give ya’ll a little break!

See ya mañana, maybe.

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*Except for you, dear human. Hell, given the Kiwi 'can-do, number 8 wire' attitude, though, I bet a Kiwi vet could manage treating a human quite tidily!

** Viva Las Vegas!

Friday, April 11, 2008

I just got an email from my uncle Barry and his wife Brenda. They came through Wellington over Easter weekend and were gracious enough to base their stay in this area around visiting with me. Not only did they treat me to dinner and dessert twice, but they also did me the courtesy of discovering a very cool spot for breakfast - right here in Upper Hutt! (They shouted for my breakfast there as well.)

Barry is a motorcycle enthusiast, especially regarding Harleys, and in the lounge where they were staying at the Totara Lodge he spied a brochure for a cafe that also rented out Harleys. Yes, any member of the public who fancies an afternoon spent atop a Hog (and who also has NZ$340 burning a hole in their pocket) can take one of these beauties out for a spin. Barry and Brenda were tempted, but given they had forked out over twice what they intended on spending on lodging in Upper Hutt, they had to decline.

Rather, we enjoyed an expertly-cooked full breakfast consisting of streaky bacon, eggs on toast, kumara wedges, and red potatoes with kiwi mint jelly. The weather was in the low 20s (Celsius, natch!) with no clouds and a brilliant blue sky. The cafe owners also have a cute but tiny garden through which you can stroll, and the hosts were all quite engaging. This cafe sits at the southern end of Upper Hutt atop a low range of hills that overlook the city. You access it via a winding, steep road and this, along with the fact that the cafe's owners do very little to advertise, made me feel a little better for not having discovered this place on my own after living here for a year and a half. I’ll certainly be heading back to the Blue Mountains Harley Cafe again someday soon.

Wanting to take full advantage of the weather and show off some of the highlights of Wellington, I took Barry and Brenda (B&B, here on in) on the Red Rocks Walk. While the weather was certainly obliging, making for a really nice walk, the seals sadly were not to be seen on that day. B&B didn't seem to mind, enjoying the views along the walk as well as our proximity to the sea (it was, like, right there dude).

It was also good to see the city council's plans for the Red Rocks Walk taking physical form, as the concrete has been poured and construction has begun on overhauling the old quarry headquarters situated at the beginning of the walk. Soon it will contain its own iSite, cafe, and souvenir shop, thus finally giving Red Rocks the showcase it deserves.

While I'm always a little leery of my favourite spots getting over-exposed and over-populated, I think this will do nothing but serve Red Rocks and make it a better experience - not least because there'll finally be a public lav right there! Up until now, it has been all-too tempting to take the phrase 'nature break' quite literally out there, as the round-trip walk most people take is 5 kilometres long. If you are anything like me, you often indulge in just such a walk after a morning coffee so, sooner rather than later, your bladder demands release.

Anyways, B&B and I (that would make up the 'B³' title of this post - clever, no?) returned to town for dinner. I took them to Monsoon Poon, an Indian restaurant where my classmates and I dined upon the completion of our Improvised Comedy class last year. Once again, the food and service were excellent, and we shared three different dishes which proved to be just filling enough for us. We had curried lamb, prawns, and chicken along with three different kinds of Indian bread, including roti and - my personal favourite - naan.

I made sure we all had room for dessert so I could take them to Strawberry Faire, a great spot for coffee, dessert and casual conversation right on Kent Terrace. We got there right as the proverbial bus let out, as it disgorged about thirty tween-age kids, all of them as excited as we were about our upcoming dessert. Busy as the Faire had suddenly become, the staff seated us and took care of us with ease in spite of the mad crush of patrons. It was my third time at Strawberry and each time I am left wanting for more, even though I am usually stuffed to the gills with coffee and either ice cream, chocolate, pastry or cheese and fruit. In my opinion, no trip to the city of Wellington could be complete without a stopover at Strawberry Faire!

I cannot remember the specific order of things in terms of restaurants where we ate or the things we did, so it may be that the above events happened on their last day here or first. It doesn't matter the order, though, as it was just great to catch up with Barry and Brenda. I had not seen them in almost exactly five years, since they visited my corner of the States for a small family reunion we held in Williamsburg in April 2003.

In fact it was during this very visit that I first began to seriously entertain the notion of one day visiting New Zealand. I had long harboured the desire to let my wanderlust expand to another country for I had only ever toured the States. As lovely as that was, I didn't want to just leave the country for a trip - say to Mexico or Canada or even Europe. I really wanted to leave and go somewhere very far away. When at dinner one night I saw Barry wearing a purple polo shirt with "New Zealand" in yellow script on the left breast pocket, I asked him the fateful (for me) question of how he liked New Zealand.

Instantly, Barry became animated with excitement and he began to regale me with tales of this faraway land. He and Brenda had gone for their honeymoon and it had been his second trip there overall - and he intended to go again as soon as he could. I heard all about the gorgeous countryside, the extreme fun one could have in it, and most of all about the New Zealanders themselves. Barry had nothing but nice things to say about them and he made it a point to tell me how much he thought I would like it there.

At this time I had just started dating the woman who would soon become my wife (and then soon after that, my ex-wife - but “that's a topic for another day and another cup of coffee,” as my boy Niles Crane would say), so the prospect of touring New Zealand held little appeal for me at the time.

It also wasn’t like ever since that moment I was gripped in a passionate, all-consuming obsession with plotting my trip - and eventual wholehearted relocation - to New Zealand. No, it wasn't anything like that. It was more like... now it was in the back of my mind. Somewhere, down one of the cobwebby dark corridors of my brain and inside the as-yet unopened room called ‘Foreign Travel,' an indicator light came to life on the instrumentation panel, right under the heading: ‘Destination'.*

No longer was I musing about Monaco, jonesing for Japan, barmy for Britain or pining for Paraguay. The 'Where to?' portion of my future international trip itinerary had been settled upon, and it would be New Zealand, mate.

The 'How in the hell...?' and 'Good lord, when?!' portions of said itinerary would come much later and be settled after much concerted effort, but let's not trifle ourselves on the details, eh?

So, in a very long and roundabout way (as is my style, don’t cha know), I have my uncle Barry - my dad's younger brother - to thank for being a significant part of a trip that has lead me to my new home: New Zealand.

Barry, if you hadn't worn that particular purple shirt to dinner that night, or - heaven forbid - if it had been a shirt from Arkansas, I may well not be here now!

Thanks for that, Barry, and thanks to you and Brenda both for coming down here and spending some time with me. It was great to catch up with you guys, and I'm glad the trip to Castlepoint proved worthwhile!

Please, enjoy the rest of your stay here in the Godzone. And come back soon, ay?

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*I'm not really a robot or a computer, by the way, I just liked this analogy.

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