Wednesday, May 30, 2007


One thing I promised myself when coming back to the USA is that I will take advantage of all the things that this country has to offer. I was shocked when I met Kiwis who had never even been to the South Island--how could they miss out on seeing such amazing sights right in their own backyard? But, pot and kettle, I'm not much one to talk. I've still never been to, for example, Mackinac or Sleeping Bear Dunes. Oops. So this past weekend I actually followed through on my plans and went down to Fayetteville, West Virginia for some whitewater rafting on the New River.

Now I should preface this by saying that I had an amazing time. It was so great to go camping with good friends, and whitewater rafting was exhilarating, exciting, and healthy amount of scary. Overall a fantastic weekend.

However... I couldn't help but compare it to New Zealand. It's not just that driving through Ohio was less scenic than, well, even the worst things I saw in New Zealand; that was to be expected. But the good things just weren't as good as that I've seen in the past year. The area where we stayed in West Virginia was really beautiful--nestled right in the mountains--but it paled in comparison to the Southern Alps. Whitewater rafting was super fun, but it just didn't give me the same adrenaline rush as whitewater sledging. I was less than pleased about having to think about dangerous wild animals and poisonous plants. And frankly, the West Virgina accent lacks the charm of a Kiwi one.

Am I going to spend the rest of my life (or at least the rest of the month) adding to my list of ways that America is inferior? Probably, but eventually I'll forget just how great New Zealand was and I'll start being amazed by the things here. Maybe.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

I Don't Know, Why Does Love Do This to Me?

I first landed in New Zealand on February 14, on my way to Australia. It only seems appropriate that it was Valentine's Day, because from even my first glimpses from the airplane window of the rolling hills and crashing waves, it was love at first sight. And as cheesy as it sounds, I fell deeper and deeper in love with the country the longer I lived there. Now I am back in the States and nothing here has really changed. Except for a few new strip malls and condo developments here and there, it's almost like time was frozen. Which makes me (depressingly) feel like I never left.

But I drive around listening to Che Fu and Bic Runga and knowing that even if Ann Arbor is still the same (kind of a comfort, really), I'm not the same. I've seen incredible things. From Doubtful Sound to Doubtless Bay. Havelock and Havelock North. Palmerston and Palmerston North. Lakes Rotoiti, Rotoroa, Rotorua, and Roto-ua. Braving Cape Kidnappers and Cannibal Bay. Hanging out with Four Sisters (kauri trees) and Three Sisters (limestone pillars) and two sisters (friends of mine). The mussel capital, oyster capital, gumboot capital, sheep shearing capital, art deco capital, trout fishing capital and kiwifruit capitals (not to mention the geopolitical capital) of New Zealand. Digging my toes into white sand, black sand, brown sand, and golden sand. Just to name a few.

What will I remember from the past year? Zorbing. Yellow-eyed penguins. Xtra broadband (and the lack thereof). Ward Terrace and Waiata. Volcanoes. Up north. Tim Tams, Txt, and Te Papa. Sauvignon blanc, Satay Kingdom, and the Skytower. Roundabouts and Rugby. Queries. Pohutukawa, Pakeha, Pukekos, and Pineapple Lumps. One-lane bridges and Outrageous Fortune. New World, Nikau Palms, and No. 1 The Terrace. "Maori Health, this is Geetha." Long Bay, Lattes, and Lolly Cake. Kumara and Koru. Jandals and Jafas. "I'm going to the pub, I may be some time." The Haka and Hot drinks (coffee, tea, or milo?). Give way rules. "Fine freakin' footy." Eden Park. District Health Boards and the Dominion Post. Courtenay Place and Cuba Street. Blanket Man and Blue Milk. And of course, above all else, Aroha.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


My visa has expired and I've left New Zealand. I knew I was back in America when I saw a policeman with a gun riding a segway around the airport. Questions about guns and segways were some of my favourite while I was overseas. I was stunned/horrified by how many people asked me if I own a gun. And also stunned/horrified/couldn't stop laughing when someone asked if we all ride segways. But now I understand a little better how someone could get that impression.

I am struck by how big everything in America is. The roads, the cars, the portions, the stores, the people. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It was kind of exciting to shop at a supermarket that seems to stock every product in five varieties (reduced fat, fat free, organic, extra ____, and "original"), three sizes (regular, "snack"/"travel"/"fun size", and "family"), and endless forms (fresh, frozen, dried, shredded, sliced, and separated into smaller portions). I don't know whether Americans are more practical or just lazy, but I can't imagine my Kiwi friends--many of whom still whip their own cream--buying pre-cubed cheese, let alone peanut butter and jelly that comes in little plastic wrapped squares. Yet somehow I still couldn't seem to find everything I wanted. Did American supermarkets never carry loose mushrooms?

The big people aren't necessarily a bad thing either. Kiwi men in particular are scrawny. They're probably a lot healthier than the average American man, but except for the rugby players they tend to have a significant lack of muscle mass. As for the non-muscular large ones, it's not like there aren't fat people in New Zealand, it's more that there's an instantly noticeable difference in average size of people in the US versus NZ. Maybe Americans should go back grating their own cheese and New Zealand should adopt more media with unrealistic body images.

The big roads, cars, etc. will require commentary at some point, but right now I'm just readjusting to the driving rules. I've only driven on the wrong side of the road once so far (and it was in a parking lot, so no harm done), but I have hit the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal at pretty much every turn.

I guess I've only been back for two days now, and it's not like this is serious culture shock, but I'm sure I'll use the rose-tinted excuse that "This would never happen in New Zealand" for a long time to come. Just like I blamed everything bad that happened to me in the past 15 months on not being in America.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Good Riddance

In a lame attempt to alleviate at least a little of the sadness about going home, I've decided to dwell on all the things I hate about New Zealand. True, it would probably be more productive and healthy to focus on all the things I love about America, but it's always easier to complain.

Crap Technology
Okay, this isn't completely true, but at least compared to the US, New Zealand is a little behind the times. Not so far behind that I'm in a complete state of deprivation; it wasn't like living in Kenya where I gave everyone my snail mail address and made two phone calls in three months. More like five years behind. So I can see the future--high speed internet, wi-fi, color cell phones--but it's just out of reach. Peter already wrote a blog about living in the internet doldrums, and I've already talked about my annoyance with expensive cell phones and stupid text messages, so I'll just leave it at that.

Lack of Mexican Food
I think I've discussed this before, but proper Mexican food is nowhere to be found. You can find Mexican food, but it's pretty much shopping mall food court quality at fancy restaurant prices. I can make better Mexican food myself. And I have. And I have gotten friends hooked on Mexican rice and quesadillas (which they still can't pronounce). But I still fantasize about taquerias and fresh guacamole and tamales and even about Qdoba and Taco Bell when I'm really desperate. On the other hand, I'm sure I'll get back to the US and immediately start wondering why there aren't Turkish kebab stands and Malaysian restaurants on every corner. I've gotten really hooked on laksa.

Road Signage
On long-distance trips, I like knowing how much farther I have to go at any given time, so I love American interstates with mile markers. These do not occur on New Zealand roads. You sometimes get signs that say how many kilometres left until whatever city, but you have to hope you're going to that city. And those signs can be few and far between. I quickly got used to tracking distance on my own odometer.

Also annoying is that signs never point you north, south, east, etc. They point you toward a place. So when you drive around Auckland, you're sweet if you know that going toward Manukau means going south or that you need to go through Three Kings to get from the airport to my house in Kingsland, but if not good luck. Similarly, driving around the country you need to know the geography of towns to know if you're going in the right direction, and it can be especially confusing when multiple roads lead to your destination. There are numerous ways to get from, say, Hokitika to Nelson, and if you don't know that you want to take a certain highway, you'll pass numerous signs that point you toward towns that are near Nelson, but not quite where you're going. Ugh.

"Good On You"
I've adopted or at least gotten used to most Kiwi slang, but I really hate this phrase. I hate it even more when it's used to refer to a third party i.e. "Good on him". I don't know what it is, but I just hate it.

Baskets at Supermarket Checkouts
When you take a basket to do your grocery shopping, at some point you have to put it back. You unload your groceries on to the checkout, and then put your basket... Well, in the US there's a little bin for them right at the beginning of the checkout, before the conveyor belt. In New Zealand it's after the checkout. So you have to unload your groceries, then hold on to your basket while you pay, take your bags, etc. and then put it at the end of the checkout lane. Or you have to unlaod your groceries, walk around the other people in the queue, put your basket down, and then walk past them again to get back to your place. It drives me crazy every single time. It's not hard to put a little basket corral at the beginning of a checkout, and just think of the increased efficiency.

Poor Customer Service
Maybe I have been a bit spoiled by working at organisations that place a high value on quality customer service, but see what you think of this story: When I was looking for plane tickets back to the US for the wedding in October, I figured it would be cheaper and easier to go through a Kiwi travel agent than use an American website. I asked three travel agents for quotes. One called me back the next day with a quote and when I asked if there were any other dates/times that might change the price, it took her two days to get back to me to say that no, there was no difference. I went into a store, but it took the agent too long to look anything up while I was there, so she called me a few days later with a potential itinerary. When I asked if there was any way to get into Detroit earlier in the day, she said no, that there was only one LAX-DTW flight, as if the direct flight was the only possible way to get between the two airports. A third travel agent was also unable to find flight info while I was sitting in the store, so he took my contact info and then never called. Eventually I spent about 30 minutes checking some American travel websites and ended up with a better itinerary AND price than any of the travel agents had found.

This story has not, unfortunately, been an exception to the customer service rule. In America I'm used to speed and options, and then speediness in finding more options. I want choice, and I want it now.

Excessively Friendly Customer Service
This is not to say that the travel agents weren't lovely people. Kiwis are nice. Very nice. Incredibly nice. Ridiculously nice. So I believe the poor customer service I've encountered is not a reflection of being uncaring or uninterested, but rather just a reflection of the slower pace of life. People are not in a hurry to quote you airfares, nor are they in a hurry to do much else. I, on the other hand, am an American and am always in a hurry. When I go shopping, I like to get in and out and be on my way. Kiwi shopkeepers, no matter whether they're at souvenir shops, the petrol station, or the corner dairy, like to chat. They want to know who you are, where you're from, why you're here. They want to show you things in the store and tell you stories about themselves. There's no used car salesman feel to it; they're not trying to chat you up just to get you to buy something. They just want to talk, and they're truly interested in what you have to say. But I don't want to talk. I want to have a look around, decide if I want anything, and move on. I feel bad cutting off the conversation, but as a cold, unfeeling American I get confused and uncomfortable when people are warm and friendly and genuine. I guess this is not so much something I should hate about New Zealand as something I should hate about myself.

I know this isn't a very long list; I've had a lot of trouble even coming up with these things. It seems I've developed a serious love for this country, so even the hate-able things mostly come with caveats about how they're really blessings in disguise. I don't know whether that's a good or bad sign, but it's definitely a sign that there will be a bit of adjustment period when I get back to the US.


Txt messaging is such a big part of the culture here--and such a big change for me--that it felt wrong to leave NZ without posting about it, and about cell phone coverage in general.

First, I should say that I can't really imagine how people used to travel without cell phones. Most of the time I've had a permanent address, but how would people have gotten in contact with me for the past three months? But cell phones here are, like most technology, about five years behind. Living in America, I am used to (1) getting a nice, free phone with a contract and (2) paying rates that allow me to pretty much talk as much as I want. I knew coming here that I probably wouldn't be able to get a contract because of my short stay and would therefore end up paying more, but I did not expect to have to (1) buy a phone that did not even come with a discount for buying a phone number at the same time and (2) pay exorbitant rates. I'm talking 20c per text and 89c per minute of phone call. That's worse than roaming in the US!

Interestingly, most people here have pre-paid cell phone plans. It seems like they're maybe spending more this way, but I've not looked into contracts, so maybe it's preferable (although you also get a coveted six-digit number (as opposed to my eight), so that might be worth it). What this means, however, is that in order to save money on texts, people abbreviate and shorten everything. First I thought it was because it was faster, but now most phones are equipped with predictive text/T9, so I find it faster to type most words that way. But no, many Kiwis actually turn off their predictive text. It's annoying. Very annoying.

Here are some examples of actual text messages I've gotten. Some, clearly, are better than others:

"Wen u b hr? It b gud f cn b fridae"
"Im in Welly bak late 2nite"
"How r u? Al gud i hope :-) Any hw drop me a txt n say hurro"
"Swt! Mite met up f nt busy"
"Happy birthday! Hope u'v hd a gr8 day& hav a gud time celebratin"
"Wea u?"
"Wot bout u? Hw ur nyt?"

What's even more annoying is that the automated texts I get from Vodafone use txt language too: "Ur $20 top up has been successful!" Really, you can't add two more letters to that?

I know texting is a big part of the Kiwi lifestyle, particularly for younger people, but I just can't get into it. I think the abbreviations make people sound stupid, and I've discovered that there are some people who I really like talking to in person, but hate talking to over txt. I guess with any form of written communication it's often hard to deduce tone, meaning, etc. but somehow it's a little easier to do it when there are vowels involved.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


One of the things I am most proud of from my time in New Zealand is my car. Buying it was unquestionably one of the best decisions I made in the past year.

I named my car AJA because that's what it says on her license plate. Makes sense to me. I'm not much one for naming cars, but when I was travelling alone it was nice to have a companion. AJA and I ended up being good friends. She carried my stuff for me, took me all over the country, and never caused me any trouble. She was quite worldly: she was fluent in Japanese, and even sported a little sticker with a Japanese tori on the door to the fuel tank. True, she could have gotten up hills a little faster, but if someone made me run 13,000 kms in three months, I'd be a little slow too.

Now, I get the feeling that AJA had a bit of a vengeful side, because when it was time to say goodbye, she just wasn't ready to go. I tried numerous outlets to try to sell her, but in the first few days the most interest I got was a few glances at the car market. On Friday morning I met with a friend of a friend who was looking for a car for his friend. After taking it for a test drive, he came back looking grim. "You know there's a lot of things wrong with it, right?" Yikes. No, I didn't know there was anything wrong with it. The only problem I'd ever had was a squeaking sound when I turned it on sometimes, but after I changed the oil it went away. The guy, who works at a car dealership and knows cars, basically told me that with all the work that needed to go into it, he wouldn't recommend to his friend to buy it for more than $1,000 LESS than what I was asking. Great.

I took it back to the car market dejected. I was even thinking of just going home--sitting on a comfy couch in a nice house is much better than sitting around a car yard. I started mentally preparing myself to sell it some dealer for a couple hundred bucks. But then a miracle occured and some guy started really looking at my car. He asked me if it had ever given me any problems. Nope. He took it for a test drive and seemed to enjoy it. He bounced up and down on it (testing the suspension?). I was all prepared for him to get a mechanical check done and I would offer to knock down the price. But instead he just offered to get some cash--for a total that was actually $100 MORE than I paid for it. Sweet.

But he took a long time getting the cash, and when he came back he said there was a problem with his ATM card (because it was connected to a UK bank). We planned to meet the next day after he could get it sorted. Okay, I could wait another day to make this happen.

When I went out to my car on Saturday morning, I noticed that some maps I'd left in the glove box were strewn across the backseat. Odd. Then I opened the door--which was suspiciously unlocked--and saw that the plastic under the steering column had been ripped out. Someone had definitely broken into my car and tried to hotwire it. I was shaking as I turned it on and drove it back to the car market to meet my buyer (at least hopefully he'd still be my buyer). I cannot explain the relief I felt when the plastic on the steering column popped back together and the guys who run the car market assured me that the vandals couldn't have done any damage. Even more relieving was when the buyer handed me a wad of cash and he was handed a piece of paper saying the car is now in his name. Sorry AJA, but I just couldn't take you home with me.

AJA and I had a good ride together. I'll miss her comfy seats, her pretty blue colour, and her clock that worked when it wanted to. I'll miss cheering her on as we went up New Zealand's mountains and thanking her for the anti-lock brakes as we turned the windy roads. At least we still have our memories.

AJA in front of Aoraki, the highest mountain in New Zealand:

AJA among the wilds of the South Island's West Coast

AJA looks remarkable in the Remarkables on the way from Queenstown to Glenorchy

AJA in front of Mt. Taranaki on the North Island

AJA at the Hokianga Harbour walkway in Northland

Saturday, May 05, 2007

More Raro Shots

Some miscellaneous but necessary pictures from our Rarotonga adventure.

The Black Rock. Guess where it got its name. This is where they think that the first Christian missionary landed.

Some cool rocks and shells we found on the beach.

Here is the spot where they think the Maori departed for Aotearoa.

Just some beautiful shots from around the island. Can you believe that this is a real place??

I hear that some of the outer islands are even more beautiful. I can't even imagine what that could look like.

Friday, May 04, 2007

I Like the Way You Move

Oh man, Cook Islanders can DANCE.

The first performance we saw was a fire dancing show at one of the resorts.

I can't help but wonder how someone learns fire dancing. In particular, how they learn it without sustaining severe burns. I'm sure you practice a lot without the sticks actually being lit on fire, but there's still gotta be a first time when you throw a flaming stick into the air and hope to catch it, all in time with the drumbeat of course. Rhythmic gymnasts, eat your hearts out.

April in the Cook Islands brings the annual "Dancer of the Year" competition, and we were fortunate enough to see the finals of both the junior competition (approximately ages 10-14) and the "Golden Oldies" (over 50?). This is a serious event, with people flying in from the outer islands and even from New Zealand just to compete. The juniors were extremely impressive, with spectacular costumes and hip shaking that would probably sacndalize some Americans.

The Golden Oldies were just as impressive, again for the costumes and hip shaking, but also because you could tell that they were loving every minute of it. If this is how good these dancers were now, I can't imagine what they must have been like in their heyday. My favourite was a guy who reminded me of one of my old professors. I'm not sure if I liked him because he was such a good dancer, or because it was hilarious picturing Dr. Akutsu shaking it like that. Unfortunately these aren't the best pictures, but I'm still trying to salvage some pics that I burned using Windows Vista and can't seem to recover.

Good dancers, breathtaking scenery, delicious food, crystal clear water... what does Rarotonga not have to offer?