Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree

I was very fortunate to be able to spend Christmas Eve with a wonderful family who Sarah used to baby-sit for. It was a very traditional (for anywhere) family-style Christmas with heaps of food and kids running around everywhere. Of course the meal was a barbecue that reminded me more of the Fourth of July, but I was happy to trade the roast turkey and egg nog for grilled steaks and New Zealand wine.

This family has a tradition of opening presents on Christmas Eve, and before some unsuspecting uncle dons the Santa suit to hand them out, the kids perform Christmas carols. The adults sing along, so when "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was put on the list, I quickly tried to remember what comes after seven swans a-swimming. But I was quickly saved by not knowing any of the words--this was the Kiwi version.

12 Piupiu swinging
11 Haka lessons
10 Juicy fish heads
9 Sacks of pipi
8 Plants of puha
7 Eels a-swimming
6 Poi a-twirling
5 Big fat pigs
4 Huhu grubs
3 Flax kites
2 Kumara
And a pukeko in a ponga tree!

Then the kids performed the haka (the non-throat-slitting one) and Santa came. I'm sure this is just me speaking as a tourist who can't resist cute little kids, but I love New Zealand Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Merry Kiwi Christmas

As I mentioned in my last post, Christmas here is a litle different than at home. It still doesn't feel like Christmas to me because 70 degree weather and talk of barbecues on the beach just don't align with the snow, ugly sweaters, and roast dinners (or Indian food) that are part of my holiday frame of reference. Still, the Kiwis have very much adoped the British holiday traditions (BTW, figgy pudding does not look at all like the picture I had in my head), while definitely making it their own. Below, a small taste of how Auckland celebrates:

Despite my general disdain for most of the decorating decisions on Franklin Road, there were a few I thought were cute--and very Kiwi.

Even the Sky Tower got in on the action:

On Queen Street, in the heart of Auckland's central business district, you can't miss this gigantic, totally creepy Santa statue. Seeing him in person is even more disturbing because during the day he is rigged to wink and make a "come here" motion with his finger. At night when he is not moving, his eyelid has usually stopped in a frightening half-closed position that makes him look like he is on heavy drugs.

New Zealand has its own "Chrismas tree," the pohutukawa. It earned its nickname because it blooms beautiful red flowers at Christmastime. The city is covered with them. Again, it's hard to feel Christmasy in the middle of springtime flowers (the freesia, birds of paradise, and heaps of others are in full bloom as well), but it's a nice change from gray skies and leafless trees.

Here, the pohutakawa in use (okay, actually it's bottlebrush, but it's still red and pretty) as my team's entry in our office Christmas tree decorating competition. I'm not sure how we lost because ours was totally the best. However, I'll concede that it's a little easier for us, Maori Health, to represent our directorate in tree form than for, say, Disability Services. I'd say the National Screening Program deserved their second place prize; it must have required some serious creativity to design their (slightly creepy) tree covered in pictures of breastfeeding babies. Anyway, in case you didn't figure it out, "Meri Kirihimete" means"Merry Christmas" in Te Reo Maori.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Auckland Christmas Aesthetics

Last week Sarah invited me to do some Christmas light viewing. Not having seen a single house with Christmas lights, I was a little confused. But she assured me that there are a few neighbourhoods where everyone puts up lights, and then all of Auckland goes to check them out.

We headed over to Franklin Avenue in Ponsonby, and the first difference to Christmas light viewing in America was that we had to wait until about 8:30 or so, and even then it was still a little too light out to see things properly. I definitely do not miss Michigan winters where it gets dark at 5pm. The second difference was that viewing was not done from inside a heated car. Since it’s spring/summer here and the weather is beautiful, we got out of the car and walked. It was a big party on the street, complete with carolers singing about the frosty weather and jolly holly. I was surprised at the age diversity represented. Of course there were little kids (who were all thrilled to be up past their bedtime), but also a surprising amount of teenagers, young couples, and others who didn't look like the Spirit of Christmas types.

As for the lights, I should first note that I’m bit judgemental (me? judgemental?) when it comes to Christmas displays. I prefer simple monochrome gold lights or multi-colored strings, and very little else. Specifically, I like heaps of them in trees (like on Main Street in Ann Arbor), or I like the ones in a netting configuration if they’re draped over bushes/shrubs because I love the effect when they’re covered in snow. No ropes of red or blue lights, nothing flashing, and for the love of god, absolutely nothing that comes in a box with the words “giant,” “inflatable,” or “animatronic.”

Kiwis, however, seem to like whatever they can find--and as much of it as they can find. I get the sense that the options for Christmas decorations are limited, because there wasn't a whole lot of variety. Just some people had more sets than others sets than others. Those white plastic reindeer and other pre-made displays seemed to be a new addition this year. Nothing was really out of control, at least compared to the US (house on Winsted Court, I’m talking you), but “more is more” was definitely the prevailing philosophy. Surprisingly, these were the houses that everyone, young and old, oohed and aahed over. I guess I am an American snob, because a lot of what I found tacky they pronounced “beautiful.”

Although I am making a sweeping generalisation here, I feel like the Christmas lights, both in the US and here, are to be a pretty good reflection of each country's overall approach to Christmas. At home, Christmas is overdone and blown out of proportion. It's a race for who can have the latest gadgets, the brightest lights, and the deepest credit card debt. Here Christmas seems more like a time to escape to your bach (translation: holiday cabin; pronounced “batch”). Most of the celebrations are fairly restrained, so the big displays stand out as something unique and interesting, rather than garish and tacky. I am not so much a fan of Christmas, but the Franklin Street viewing experience was actually rather heartwarming. I generally think all that “Spirit of Christmas” stuff is more or less just another marketing ploy, but it’s hard to argue when a holiday brings a community out into streets for a two-week long block party.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wellington to Auckland

Since I don't get to post pictures very often, here are my pics from the trip from Wellington up to Auckland a few weeks back.

First was a pitstop at Mt. Fuji. I mean Mt. Taranaki.
One of the guys I was travelling with thought it would be a good idea to take the "scenic" route from Stratford to Taumarunui. It was secnic, but we should have figured out by the name of the highway that it would take 6+ hours.
Just before hitting Auckland, we stopped in Matamata. Matamata holds a special place in my heart, though not for any LOTR fame reasons. When I came to New Zealand in 1997, Matamata is where we did homestays for a few days. It was eerie driving around this small town in the middle of rural New Zealand now in 2006 and totally recognising things like the high school and some random lookout points.


On Tuesday we went on a hike out to some waterfalls, and swam around in the pools. Amazing.

From when we first arrived in Vanuatu, it totally reminded me of Lost Island (from the TV show). Not really a surprise since Lost is filmed in the Hawaii, another Pacific Island. But I kept expecting wierd things to happen (like kava having no effect on me). Anyway, see that scary skull-looking thing in the rock? You totally can't see it when you're just looking at the rock. And if you look closely, you can see the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 in the moss. Seriously.

Vila Market

Not much to say about the markets in Port Vila, except that they were really cool. So much produce I couldn't identify, but it all looked delicious.

When we first arrived on Saturday, we bought a whole heap of fresh fruit: passion fruit, papaya, a giant grapefruit, mangoes. Below is the jackfruit that was so fresh and ripe it was literally falling apart as we were carrying it home. We also got some sugar cane, and when we asked the woman selling if if she could cut up the big piece, we thought she'd just cut off a few slices. But no, she just cut the metre-high stalk in half. I guess it was easier to carry that way.

We also got a chance to sample laplap, a very common food for the local Ni-Vanuatu. It's a paste that looks like sticky rice paste (like omochi), but is made from a root crop like taro or manioc. They also stick a piece of chicken on top. Honsetly, I didn't have high expectations for it after what I'd read and also based on my experience with Kenyan ugali, which is ground corn meal and has absolutely no taste. But laplap was delicious, a perfect combination of spices and full of flavour. I wish we'd discovered it earlier--in a choice between fruit bat and laplap, laplap wins hands down.

Here's the row of people selling laplap at the market. They are constantly shooing the flies away.

And here I am with my laplap (and bonus banana leaf plate!). Okay, it does't exactly look appetizing, but it's seriously delicious.

Flying Fox

I don't know why, but I really like trying strange foods, particularly strange animal. I have more than happily chowed down on kangaroo, crocodile, alligator, zebra, gazelle, eland, ostrich, buffalo, etc. So when I heard that flying fox (fruit bat) was popular in Vanuatu, I couldn't pass it up.

Here's the thing about trying strange animals: most of them have worked out pretty well for me. Alligator was delicious, kangaroo was succulent, zebra was tender and juicy, and eland remains the tastiest meat I have ever had in my entire life. flying fox, however, did not work out so well. It's really dark meat and is very rich, kind of like duck. And perhaps more importantly, the presentation left a little bit to be desired. If I had known that it was going to come out with everything but the wings, I may have stuck to the wild pigeon in mushroom sauce.

Lelepa Island

On Monday we took a day tour to Lelepa Island, a little island just off Efate (the main island of Vanuatu, where the capital is). Lelepa Island is where a lot of the filming for Suvivor: Vanuatu took place. I know, cheesy, but still interesting. Here's where they held tribal council. Obviously some stuff has been torn down, but seeing it in person still takes a little bit of the glamour out of it, eh?
First, we spent the morning on the beach, with some awesome snorkeling. All that dark stuff in the water is coral:
Then we went hiking around some caves, and I saw a fruit bat that reminded me of dinner (more on that later):

Next was more snorkeling, this time with bigger fish. We fed them with leftover bread and chicken bones from lunch. Unfortunately I did not bring an unerwater camera, so I've just got some shots from over the side of the boat:

And we ended the day with a stop in one of the villages on the island. There was definitely a lot of wierdness/awkwardness with being tourists in a village. Again this goes back to the whole question of what is appropriate cultural tourism. At least the Lelepa Island tour was fully owned and operated by Lelepa Islanders, but I still felt disrespectful. It reminded me that I know how I like to travel: by actually getting to be a part of the culture and the country rather than just seeing it as a tourist. I would love to go back to Vanuatu (or any of the other Pacific Islands), but it's just difficult for me to go and stay in a fancy resort and only view the people through proverbial glass.


Until about a month ago, I had never even heard of kava. It sounds like a fruit to me, but of course that's guava. Kava Pacific Island drug of sorts, more or less. They drink it on most Pacific Islands, but Vanuatu kava is the good stuff and is way mroe potent than what you'd find elsewhere. It's made from ground up root of a pepper plant (supposedly it's best made when it's chewed by pre-pubescent boys instead of ground with a rock), and then strained (usually through a sock). It's the color of grayish mud and smells horrible. It's not even that it's an acquired taste--everyone thinks it's disgusting. This is not some social thing you sip on; when you drink it you go hide in a dark corner and basically take it like a shot, then rinse your mouth out to get rid of the taste and try not to vomit.

So of course I had to try it immediately.

We decided to try it our first night in Port Vila. The first challenge was finding the nakamal (the kava bar). We asked at the hotel and the owner told us that there was one just 100 metres down the road that all the ex-pats go to. If the big light by the road was on, it was open. We wandered down and, yes, the light was on, but the light was in between two different buildings, and we didn't know which was the right one. Both looked like people's houses, but we could see inside one and there were a bunch of people sitting around on the floor. We figured that was it, but didn't want to go down there if it was the wrong place. After a good 10 minutes of standing in the street arguing about how to approach, we chickened out and went back to the hotel. The security guard who had seen us leave asked why we were back so soon--did the smell drive us away? We told him we couldn't find the place, so he offered to walk us down there. Thank god he did, because it turned out to be neither of the buildings we saw. It was down some windy path that we never would have found on our own.

We each ordered a half-shell (about 3/4 of cup worth of kava), and since we didn't know about the whole "hide in the corner to drink it" thing, we sat down at a table. Fortunately, an Australian girl who had overheard us filled us in on the protocol. We found a dark corner and chugged. It actually didn't taste quite as horrible as I expected, but was definitely pretty gross. Then we joined Michelle, the Australian girl, and her friends and waited for it to kick in. Nothing happened. We went to get some more, but it was the end of the night and they had run out, so we spilt the last half shell and gave up. Michelle said it didn't do anything to her the first time either, so we figured we'd just try again another night. If this stuff worked, it was a huge bargain--50 vatu (approx. 50 US cents) for a half shell of kava, versus 500 vatu for a beer or 700+ for a cocktail.

On Monday night we went back to the kava bar, and this time went early to make sure there was enough. After four half shells, we still didn't feel anything. But the smell/taste was getting a little much, so we went off to dinner and figured we'd give it another go on Tuesday.

Then at dinner I started to feel something. But it wasn't a good something, or a relaxing something, or any kind of something that I imagine you'd seek out from a drug. Instead it was a horrible, horrible stomach ache. Eating just made it worse. Candida mentioned she wasn't feeling too well either, pretty nauseous, in fact.

It was a race back to the hotel room and to the bathroom. Luckily Candida fell asleep pretty quickly, but I spent a good portion of the night in and out of the bathroom. I'm a little bitter about the whole thing. Not so much that I got sick--that's bound to happen when you go on vacation to a developing nation--but that the kava never had any positive effects. At least if I had to go through that, I could have gotten high out of the deal.

Paradise Found

Just a quick post... greetings from Vanuatu!

My friend Candida and I arrived here Saturday afternoon, and although it is a short trip (we are leaving early tomorrow morning), we have already done heaps, including (n no particular order):

-Snorkeling on a couple coral reefs
-Trying kava and not feeling anything
-Visiting a bunch of Survivor filming locations
-Sunning ourselves
-Fending off gigantic bugs (but luckily no centipedes)
-Meeting interesting Ni-Vanuatu folks
-Trying kava again and this time getting sick (but still not feeling anything)
-Eating delicious fresh papaya, jackfruit, mangoes, passion fruit, bananas, etc.
-Eating flying fox AKA fruit bat

Today we are going swimming in some waterfalls. More on all of this later, of course, and with pictures. The flying fox looks only slightly less appetizing than it actually is.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Morningside 4 Life!

Guess I should have added in my last post that somewhere among all the dirty flats and crazy tenants, I was able to find what I think will turn out to be a good place. It's a cute little villa ("villa"="small house") with three flatmates and a huge backyard--should be perfect for traidtional Kiwi BBQs this summer.

It's in the suburb ("suburb"="neighborhood") of Morningside. Or maybe it's in Kingsland--the suburbs here are really tiny and have questionable borders. But I'd prefer to say it's in Morningside has a much more exciting recognition factor thanks to Bro'Town. Also big on the relation-to-important-Kiwi-icons side, the house (villa?) is pretty close to Eden Park, the big rugby/cricket stadium. Eden Park has recently been the subject of much debate, as it is theoretically going to be the main stadium when New Zealand hosts the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Although I'll be long gone by then, it's highly possible that I'll get to experience the negative side effects (i.e. loud construction). But on the upside, living so close by might encourage me to go to a cricket game for some real kiwi culture. Or not.