Saturday, April 20, 2019

Happy Easter and New Zealand South Island Reflections



We have completed our month long tour of the South Island and what a trip it was. Mostly because the weather was on our side the entire four weeks, which is rare in southern NZ. The weather here can make a trip super enjoyable or plain miserable, with unexpected road closures. While I was fearing a slip blocking the main (and only) road down the West Coast, it was a bridge washout, 3 days after we drove over it, that closed this road; that was close. We felt so lucky to have been able to visit that part of the country (West Coast) before it was cutoff for 2 weeks waiting for a new bridge span. The West Coast (often called the Wet Coast) features blow holes, charming creek trails, long swing bridges, pancake rocks, blue pools, rugged beaches, and glacier hikes.

The only sad part of our trip was the Christchurch mosque shooting on our first day on the road. We, and the whole country, have been trying to grasp how something so common in the US, especially living in the state (Colorado) where some of the worst shootings took place, could happen here. Kiwis are welcoming and understanding of different races and religions. Auckland is a huge melting pot of Kiwis, British, South Africans, Australian, Chinese, Indian, Russian, Korean, Afghans, Syrians, etc... The fact than an Ozzie did it, as the prime minister Jacinda Ardern called out, is a relief: it was not “one of us”, this time. Still, we thought we escaped that type of violence in this corner of the world, and it was a sad reminder that mental health issues and white supremacy are a plague everywhere.

Spencer timed his arrival to Queenstown the day it poured all day (and took out the West Coast bridge). That worked out well for jet lag recuperation and wasn't bad enough to shut down our trip on the coal steamer TSS Earnslaw.
Mom hanging on to her treasure
Fiordland National Park was as incredible as we read about. While Doubtful Sound - the longest of the two main sounds - is worth seeing, Milford Sound definitely has the wow factor with sheer walls of rocks shooting in the sky and towering waterfalls. The road to Milford Sound is packed with gems to taunt you along the way. Because it rains 80% of the time in Milford, it felt even more special to experience it in clear weather. We swam in Doubtful and kayaked in Milford. The amount of rainfall received the week before created a deep top layer of fresh water that made you feel (and taste) like you were in a lake.
Milford Sound overnight cruise boat
An update from our previous blog entry; we now LOVE Wanaka. The town is quiet and subdued yet with superb eateries and cafés. No traffic. Great hiking trails. The Rob Roy’s Glacier track was our favorite. Mountain biking trails that follow the lake and cross rivers on a swing bridge were like biking Betasso with a river to follow. Sweet…. 
Fat time mountain biking in Wanaka
We ran into Young Adventuress Liz at a local coffee shop. We have been following her expat funny blog and thanked her for pointing out the Allbirds shoes to us. Our whole family swears by these comfy shoes.

AllBirds gang. We just can't live without those shoes

We took LOTR tours to learn about some of the movie locations. Twenty years later, the movies still generate revenues for local tour operators, most of them operated by Kiwis who were recruited to be extras on the film set. It seems that pretty much everyone in the country was involved in some form or another to help produce the film. They were even recruiting tourist extras from camp sites, and horses from wherever they could even if they had to paint them to fit the movie. Our tour guide claimed to be the best “dead person” in the movie. The best part about these tours were the stories they told us about the film logistics and insights about actors. Did you know Viggo Mortensen is an avid fly fisherman? He would go fishing between scenes. He also was arrested by police for carrying his sword in town dressed as Aragorn. And Peter Jackson is a tea addict who only hires personal assistants if they can make proper tea at their interview. They had to be pretty creative at dealing with the NZ infrastructure to do what they needed. They ended up taking out the electricity of an entire town with the generators they had on set.
3 Riders of Rohan!
While several of the hiking trails were closed from storm damage, we had a chance to see 5 of the 27 NZ glaciers - Franz Joseph, Fox, Tasman, Mueller and Rob Roy. Seeing glaciers makes you feel humble and aware of the human impact on the environment. Likely these glaciers won't be there for the next generation at the rate they are receding. Sad.
Walkwire in Fiordland National Park

The place that surprised us the most was Mt Cook National Park. The drive to the park is absolutely stunning. You are driving on a plain that used to be a glacier and you are confronted by the tallest mountain in NZ. You get there and there are icebergs floating in a lake below a glacier.

Mt Cook from Lake Pukaki
The lakes adjacent to Mt Cook (Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo) have an unreal turquoise blue from glacier water. Never saw water that blue in my life. Mesmerizing.
Lake Pukaki crazy blue water
All in all the South Island is definitely worth an extended visit; so much to see and so much distance to cover. That said we feel like the North Island is often under rated with what it offers:
  • Northern tip with Cap Reinga, sand dunes, large Kauri trees, ninety mile beach and golden beaches.
  • Rotorua and Taupo with their geothermic activity and rapids.
  • Western beaches with black sand and surfers.
  • Coromandel peninsula and its white beaches.
  • Mount Maunganui and its walking trail circling a volcano.

On the way back up we stopped by Nelson, still our favorite spot in all NZ to savour it one more time.

We are now back in Auckland, enjoying the long Easter weekend (kiwis get Friday and Monday off). Luckily we were able to move back into the same beach cottage we have been renting for the past many months. Made the re-entry to work life a bit easier, while we were readjusting to traffic, public transportation, and crowds. The entire South Island population is the size of Auckland so we have been spoiled having roads literally to ourselves for kilometres on end.

"Winter is coming" (in June here) ... GoT addiction is going and so is our addiction to warm sunny weathers.
NZ Fall colors
We will be in Boulder early June to relocate Ms. Alizée from Maine to Lake Huron, where we found a marina managed by a Kiwi (in Sanilac). We plan to sail her to the Canadian North Channel over the US summer months while keeping up with our open water swimming.  

Drop us a line (cath@blueholesoftware.com) if timing works out to connect while we are in Boulder, Maine or Lake Huron. 

Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Gone Summer…..Off to the South Island


The NZ summer came. We blinked and it went. On Christmas Day, it must have rained enough for a whole season cuz we have not seen rain for two months. Very unusual. Of course as I am writing this blog, it's pouring again! This summer has been hotter and sunnier than the past two. We spent many sleepless nights sweating away without AC. No central heating/cooling is becoming a problem around here as climate changes. In his continued search for body adaptation to cold water, Bill got into the habit of taking a bloody cold shower before going to bed. Me, I just soaked the sheets....


Day trip to Golden Bay and its humongous archways
For his birthday, Bill selected the Nelson region. It coincided with one of our ocean series swims, and we had much enjoyed our past trips to that region, including kayaking and hiking the Abel Tasman national park with daughter Shelby and hubby David. We made the best of the trip this time around despite limited access to tramping and mountain bike trails because of wildfires. Nelson is similar to Colorado in weather (dry heat) and land activities (biking, hiking) plus has ocean access for swimming, kayaking, and sailing. We found it to be the most bike friendly place we visited in NZ so far. The famous Great Walks have equivalent Great Cycling Trails. We biked parts of the Tasman's Great Taste Trail close by. Our butts reminded us how unusual this activity has become for us. We miss biking.  While in Nelson, we met the owner of the Eddyline Brewery. Our Colorado friends may know the Buena Vista location. He sold that location to employees and transported his entire family to Nelson to open Eddyline NZ. That was fun to exchange expat stories!

Bill before his 10k in Lake Taupo
This year's ocean swimming season has been challenging and invigorating - with longer distances and choppier seas (or lakes) than last year. We were having a lot of fun swimming alongside (ok way way behind) incredible athletes - some national champions, some ex-olympians, ironman competitors and some training to swim across the Cook Strait.

That all came to a stop late January when Bill’s shoulder decided it had enough, the day before we were due to fly for his season highlight race - a 10k in lake Wanaka in the South Island.







Roys Peak in Wanaka



We had already bought our flights and lodging for Wanaka so we decided to ahead anyway to scout the area. We LIKED Wanaka, the quieter version of adrenaline-junky expensive Queenstown, but while many told us "you'll LOVE Wanaka", the wow factor was diminished by the fact that it looked a lot like Colorado! Wanaka's lake is nice with its known Lone Tree but we have been spoiled by Annecy's lake when it comes to mountain lakes. Still we enjoyed visiting this new region for us. We got to hike the famous Roys Peak, a snaky straight up and down 5 hr trail to an iconic picture spot

And thankfully, after several weeks of PT as well as X-ray and ultrasound investigations that ended up with a cortisone shot, the shoulder is behaving again.




Stroke analysis with Swim Smooth coach

After two seasons of ocean swimming, and a shoulder injury, we needed something to stay excited about the sport. Swimming can become boring if you don't have something to focus on and keep you motivated.

So we signed up for professional coaching to learn about injury prevention and improve our swim stroke. The sessions involved in depth video analysis above and under water with insightful reviews on the computer, and detailed email follow-up. You have no idea how you swim until you see yourself on film. I swear my left hand was not doing this! Alas, pictures don't lie.

Two hours later, we left with a laundry list of super helpful tips that we are diligently practicing in pools with swim toys that will keep us busy for a couple of months!








We are about to embark on our long-planned much anticipated tour of the South Island. Timing (early NZ autumn) should mean fewer crowds (human, cars and sand flies). But it could also mean heavy rain and cold! Such is the weather in the land of the long white cloud. Seems like the only reliable month for guaranteed good weather is February. All other months have been great one year and depressing (cold and rainy) the next, but as they say here "she'll be right" (aka "it will be what it will be and we'll be fine"). Weather in itself is manageable but it can be quite impactful as heavy rains can cause massive slips that can even block roads for days. That only happened last year and then already this year so it is a real possibility!

You don't want to be driving there then!
The grand plan is to drive from Auckland all the way down to Queenstown leisurely over nine days, visiting the West Coast before picking up our son Spencer at the Queenstown airport to spend two weeks enjoying Lord of the Ring territory. You may be thinking that we'll rent one of those camper vans quintessential to NZ touring. Well.... sorry to disappoint but our aging bodies have requested comfortable beds and warm showers so we'll posh it with AirBnBs. That also gives us a better appreciation for the kiwi way of living. When we return to Auckland mid-April, we will officially be homeless permanent residents. Please don't send us mail! We'll look for life to talk to us on where to stay or more likely book an AirBnB. Sometimes we really miss having a home (with comfortable places to sit in) and sometimes we wake up feeling incredibly lucky to experience NZ.

Last month, fruit flies have officially landed in NZ. Everyday we get a news update announcing a new one found. Not surprisingly, growth is exponential. Those buggers reproduce fast! Biosecurity is a big deal on the island. Little creatures can destroy NZ’s crop exports - kiwi fruits, apples, etc...We can honestly say “we were there when the fruit flies arrived to NZ in 2019”. I can’t imagine they will be able to avoid the invasion.

Some noteworthy news… drum roll…..We will be first-time grandparents in September. Yeah! Yikes! Another life milestone. We are looking forward meeting grand-baby #1. The city of Elk Grove - where Shelby and David will welcome their bundle of joy - should have completely its twice delayed grand aquatic centre right in time for the delivery We’ll go anywhere where there is an outdoor 50 meter pool, especially when rent is free:)

After the South Island tour, the NZ winter will be around the corner and we vouched to escape any cold, rainy or snowy places so we booked flights on the last day of the NZ autumn
 to be back on US soil. We'll take the opportunity to move our beloved 13m sailboat (Alizée) out of her Maine shed where she patiently waited for us and take her sailing somewhere where there is swimmable water, no shark, jellyfish or lobster buoys. Looking at Lake Huron and its Canadian North Channel at the moment. Any suggestion from anyone?

We’d love to reconnect with friends while we are in the northern hemisphere! Send us a note (
cath@blueholesoftware.com)

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Merry Christmas from Down Under

The dripping rains of winter (June-July-Aug) have come and gone in NZ and we are so glad the dripping rains of summer (Dec-Jan-Feb) are here. Surely it will stop raining at some point.

Our first winter was fun because, well, it was the first, and any first is always fun (to me at least!), and also because we got to do heaps of muddy hikes. Deep, soupy mud because it rains a lot here. Oh, already said that...

Our beach and our favorite volcano - Rangitoto
The novelty of an austral winter gone, this winter was more of a slog; it felt colder. While the temperatures rarely get down to freezing ("ça descend, ça descend, ça descend"), the lack of central heating makes homes colder than Colorado homes! People rage on about poor insulation and single panes. Portable radiators only go so far to heat a room and waking up with a headache from the cold night is no fun. We read posts from Michigan folks that declared their NZ winters their coldest!

Winter was also less fun because there was simply less to do. Many of the nearby tramping tracks, and some of our favorites, have been closed to protect the indigenous kauri trees from dieback disease, caused by a pathogen that kills every tree it infects. Dieback disease started infecting kauri forests 10 years ago, and this year the Department of Conservation decided to take drastic action by closing many tramping tracks to minimize infection from trampers shoes. (Also why they are picky about inspecting your camping gear and hiking boots at the airport.)

So that left us with… brrrrrrr…. ocean swimming in 12C (54F) water. You get a full on ice cream headache from that too!

While our first year in NZ brought newness and excitement, we found our second year more of a pondering experience. I don’t know why but we tend to ponder a lot while in NZ!

We tried to pinpoint why we found NZ attractive (aside from the stunning landscape), and the words that best capture it are chill, simple (life), and quiet.

Chill - Kiwis are just chill people. They are so accepting of everyone’s way. Auckland is a big melting pot and everyone seems to get along. I just came back from Xmas food shopping and while everyone was buzzing about in the store, and the car park full, there was no honking, tire screeching, or swearing, and drivers backed up to help each other out. They are so disciplined at not blocking intersections. It is just a marvel to watch, and takes the stress levels down a notch. Even the dogs are chill. You should see them run around unleashed on the beach, never fighting or growling. The only barks you hear are of excitement to fetch or play!

Simple (Life) - A minimalist life and NZ go hand in hand. We get hardly any mail, other than love letters from our kids (and not that many actually!) We don’t use checks. Internet banking is prominent. People share their bank account to be reimbursed or paid for services. Our rent includes utilities, so we pre-programmed a weekly recurring internet banking transaction (you pay rent per week and we won’t tell you how much or you may fall off your chair). We had two medical incidents (nothing serious) that took me to urgent care on a weekend. No wait, no issue parking right in front, and a mere $100NZ ($70US) bill per visit (remember we pay zippo for medical insurance so that’s a bargain). Prescription refills are just a text away. No tipping at restaurants. And the nature is, really, simply stunning.

Quiet - It’s peacefully quiet here. Kiwis rarely honk. We rarely hear loud music. People speak softly. On most hikes we run into only a few souls. We wake up with the birds, not traffic sounds or dogs barking. Quiet in a nice, but sometimes sad, kinda way (more below).

When we start feeling native, we remind ourselves that we still have no tattoos (no plans there), we have not adopted the F bomb (no plans there either), we don’t walk bare feet on the street or supermarket, and we do like to joke :)

There is one thing puzzling us in NZ. That’s a sad sense of loneliness. As we mentioned in previous posts, making friends here is hard. You would think speaking the same language would help (ok kiwi have a special english for sure - see here!) but there is definitely a cultural difference (more here). We find connecting with people at a deeper level challenging. If you talk about yourself, you are viewed as bragging. If you ask questions, there is a reluctance to open up (very private). Maybe because people tend to come and go often - either for an OE (Oversea Experience) or going back to where they came from. The Bon Voyage card section is quite indicative of how often people say goodbye here. While kiwis are super helpful if you ask for help (and that may be all you see as a tourist), we witness little in the way of affection between couples or camaraderie between friends. We hear about domestic violence, mental health, and suicide rate being higher than other countries, which does not seem to jive with being so chill. We're still trying to noodle out those inconsistencies.

Mr and Mrs Leopard Seals

We met only a few Americans in our 2 years here, but found a US expats forum enlightening with tips and tricks on adapting to the NZ culture. Seems like, as gorgeous as NZ is, some long term expats have never come to terms with the lack of human, person-to-person connection.

Oh… Speaking of connections, we accidentally connected with the owner of Eddyline. Our Colorado friends and family may know that Eddyline pizza from the Buena Vista location. Two years ago, the owner sold the CO business to his employees and opened an Eddyline in Nelson, NZ. He reported a lot of Colorado folks in that region, which does not surprise us as that is the area we liked the most so far: hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming, craft beers, ciders, wineries, and (arguably) the most sunshine in NZ.

The other puzzle: what is up with the housing market? Houses sold on auctions, mortgage rates fixed for no more than 5 years. One of our swimmer friends (a mortgage lender) explained to us that because kiwis are unable to save (how can they with poor wages and expensive housing options), kiwi banks simply don’t have enough cash to lend. They turn to US financial institutions and, as such, take a cut of both the interest and risk compared to a US mortgage: there you are. Hardly anyone can afford to buy a house around the largest cities, especially Auckland. Outside Auckland is cheaper but there are no jobs, only sheep.

After swim brunch with chill people - highlight of our week!
NZ remains a fascinating country to us. Some crazy innovative stuff like Rocket Labs, America’s Cup boat design, Internet banking. You find gems in the middle of nowhere like first-class chocolatiers, rustic places with food out of this world, or an awesome unknown Pinot Noir. While there is (mostly domestic) violence, we feel very safe here. We are shocked by housing costs. Kiwis are shocked by US medical costs. (One kiwi in particular was looking a little faint when we had to clarify that, no, the insurance premium wasn't per year, but per month.)


Now that summer is back, ocean swimming season is in full swing. We have upgraded our distance targets from last season. Bill signed up for several 10K marathons, while I am now comfortable swimming a 3.5K in choppy water and a bit of surf thrown in. We love the swim part but, above all, we love the multicultural social scene that comes with our little swim group.

For Christmas, we will be staying put and enjoying Auckland’s holiday quiet. Like August in Paris, most of the natives have left town for the holidays. Besides, we already had our Christmas gift: permanent residency on the best little nation in the Pacific! We can now come and go (and work) as we please with no expiration date. What's next? :)

Down Under Santa
2019 will be yet another interesting year for us. Our loose plan is to visit the south of the south island (Lord of the Rings territory), take Alizée out of her shed, and figure out how to escape cold winters wherever they are found :)

One sleep left before Santa comes. Sleep tight, and make sure to leave milk and cookies, and apparently a carrot for the reindeers (first I heard of that one).

Merry Xmas, happy new year, and, above all, good health, laughter, and happiness in 2019!




Saturday, May 12, 2018

Winter is Coming.. Again!



We are approaching the 18 month milestone and I realized we have not written a single blog this year. Where did the time go? Time to reflect back and look forward at the same time.

After the kiddos fantastic visits over the Xmas holiday, we have pretty much been working during the week and ocean swimming on the weekends. We had a great visit in March from one of our dear Boulder friends, Susan, who we took along to our Bay of Plenty swim event. Other than that escapade, no exciting travel adventures to report. Sorry. We kinda visited as much as we could on the North Island and now longing to visit the South of the South Island (Lord of the Rings gorgeous sceneries) which will take some planning (and a well fed bank account) to do properly.

Family reunion: Madison, Spencer, Bill, Cath, Shelby, David
Work-wise, Bill went back to his normal job at Vesper Marine while I looked for new consulting opportunities. It turned out to be harder than expected to find another consulting gig, so I decided to take the plunge into a full-time contractor position to experience kiwi working life, complete with the same bus commute as Bill every day. Sometimes we think we are back to school sweat hearts. I am now an Agile coach at Auckland Transport, the government-funded agency managing the public transport in Auckland. It is very cool to see, behind the scenes, the bus and ferry services we have been relying on for the past many months. As a testimony to how serious Auckland is to build a bike-able city, they imported someone from the Boulder city planning group (small world!) to learn from our beloved Colorado network of superb cycleways. Replacing car lanes with cycleways is a controversial proposition in a city where people love driving their cars. As of today, it is still not safe enough to bike in town and since we now live in a beach community across the harbor, we couldn't bike to work if we wanted to. 

The work scene here has been an adjustment from the US. Due to a shortage of skills, half of the workforce in Auckland is a diverse population of contractors, many from South Africa, India, China, and Britain. Contractors are brought in for their skillset and tend to work on exciting projects while "permies" (permanent staff) maintain the new shiny things the contractors built. It makes it a real challenge to establish stable agile teams. One can't be agile purist here. You gotta figure out what works best. Because healthcare is covered by the government (yeah to socialized medical care like France), the difference between contractors and permanents is mostly higher pay (contractors) vs better job security (permanents). Contractors don’t get company training or time off, but contracts tend to be 6-12 months long so you can plan an extended vacation between contracts. See where I am going with this? Travel freak has found a gem. We’ll use my August break to visit Spencer and friends in Boulder, Shelby and David in California and my mom in France. 

Swim marathon man with his kayak escort
Weekend-wise, Bill has passed on his ocean swimming obsession to me. Heck, I was not going to watch him have that much fun alone. Turned out to be quite an experience. How hard can it be if you already are a pretty good swimmer? (hint: ocean swimming is much more of a mental game than a physical challenge. Tells you something when many 60+ folks are faster than we are). Boy was I in for a shocker. It started with frustration and even panic, but slowly grew on me. 

Our social Sunday brunch
We joined a social swimming group that swims from one bay around Auckland to the next every weekend, then have brunch together. That was a pretty good motivator to get with the program and keep up with everyone. Swim first, then you'll get your flat white Cath!. The group is pretty eclectic: an Italian working at Rocket Labs, the latest aerospace NZ endeavor (you may have heard of the controversial Humanity Star?) an Irish gent (that I can barely understand, but is funny as heck), a Canadian, a Dutch, a Zimbabwean, several Brits....We add to that diversity with our American and French flair. We finally have a social circle we feel part of and with whom we can be our funky selves! Only took over a year…: as long as driving solo on the other side of the road. As we say in France "good things take time".


Take a peek at this inspiring video from one of the NZ ocean swimming series event we did (ironically in a lake, but nevertheless part of the official series). Gives us the chills every time we watch it. We also collated our swimming season in an album, including Bill's end of season swim marathon that took 4 hours to complete. Next weekend we signed up for a “swim safari”… you swim around a harbor for four hours stopping to discover caves and jumping off bridges. 

As we approach our second winter in NZ, the water is getting colder by the week (17C right now, will go down to 12C) just like it warmed up over a couple of weeks in the summer. Water temps fluctuate 10C during the year. The goal is to equip ourselves (neoprene gloves, booties and cap) and keep swimming like Dory says. Bill is more hard core than I am but I have a warmer body temp than he does, so between the two of us we should manage. There is always the pool, but seeing a wall every 25 meters is such a drag now. If swimming gives us too many brain freezes, there is always winter muddy hiking. Never a shortage of physical exercise in the land of the long white cloud to compensate for full time work in offices.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Trip Around the Sun: Kiwi style


Good thing I put, out of pure laziness, this blog post on hold for a bit. Originally, I was heading down the literary path of explaining that “living the dream” is never quite what it seems. I drew a parallel with the cruising lifestyle where the landlubbers believe it’s all Piña Coladas on the beach: far, sometimes very far, from reality. Now that summer is in full force and the rain has stopped, our lives are indeed damn close to Piña Coladas, or at least Margaritas, on the beach. (I mean this quite literally: read on.) To our dear friends and family, we’re just really, really sorry that you can’t all be here with us to share the experience! We are importing you as fast as we can for visits!

Compared to vacationing, living, as in working for a living, in a foreign country provides a different perspective, a different take on the land and the people. It also provides a different take on ourselves. With this post, I’ll share both: a bit about what we have done and our lives here and a bit more about our take on New Zealand and New Zealanders. It’s been quite a ride!

Rewind

It has been awhile (13 months exactly), so perhaps a quick review of how we made it into NZed (not NZee) would be in order? We rode into town on a “skilled migrant” visa, which gives us two years of residency and the right to work in NZ. We’re not allowed to travel much out of the country for that period of time, but, assuming good behavior, we may petition to convert to permanent residents after two years, lifting the travel restrictions. We’re past the age limit to ever become NZ citizens, but residents have most of the benefits afforded to citizens, including health care and the right to vote and work. For my yearly physical blood test, I just walked into a lab around the corner, sat in the waiting room about 30 seconds, had the leeches applied. Just kidding, had the usual poke, and off I went without paying a dime or showing any proof of insurance. Cath had her mammogram (the squeeze was a bit strong, but in NZ you have to man-up even for a mammogram) at no cost as well.

If all that sounds pretty cool, here’s the catch. You get a skilled migrant visa by having enough points. You win points for having years of experience in a skill on an official skill shortage list. Senior software engineers win lotsa points. Advanced degrees from recognized institutions win you points as well. You also need to be under 56: I was 55 then; that was close. Oh yeah, you’d better have a job offer in hand. Then there’s being in good health and of good character. Before you fall off your chair laughing about that one, realize that Australia is next door. The bar is just not that high. The skill of zinging Australians is something you learn after you move here.

A day in the life ...


In most ways, now that we’ve settled in, our lives are not that different than anyone else’s in a first world country working in the technology sector. We live across the harbor from Auckland, a big city, and commute by bus in world class traffic. We almost always cook dinner at home, fairly late, chill, crash, and repeat. There’s definitely a Kiwi tint to it all, which I’ll get into later, but the daily grind is familiar to most.

The highlights of our existence here are weekends, vacation time, and, occasionally, an evening out of the ordinary. Take Tuesday evenings. Staying fit while living in a city is challenging. Aucklanders flood a plethora of gyms after work or over lunch. Cath is sorta OK with them, but I hate gyms. I’d rather be in the nature for my exercise. To that end, I took up distance ocean swimming (quite popular here) and dragged Cath into it. We live within a few minutes walk of Takapuna beach and every Tuesday evening there’s the Beach Series run and swim. It’s a family affair with shorter runs and swims for the kids and longer swims and runs for the adults with a stand up paddle board event to boot. We kick off work early on Tuesdays to catch the 4:50 bus, stuff a banana down (bananas are to cramps what garlic is to vampires: keeps them away), stuff our bodies into wet suits (the standing joke is that we’re ferocious leopard seals), and walk down the beach to the start area. The flag goes down and I’m off for the 2km swim followed two minutes later by Cath for the 1km swim. Swim, swim, swim we go. Out and back again a swimmer’s tale. After finishing, we strip off our seal skins, throw on some beach clothes, and head to Mexico on the beach for margaritas and NZ-style mexican food. Sated, we try to remember our swim gear and toddle back down the beach to the house, rinse, and crash. I love Tuesdays!

On the weekends, we often go out for a leisurely ocean swim in the morning(s). In fact, we did so today. Swimmers typically swim along the chain of no-wake buoys about 250m offshore, so it’s not unusual to see others while you’re out there. Today we met another couple, at buoy number 2, who was waiting for the rest of their group to catch up. Or maybe they got behind. Who knows. It was pretty rough water and about the only thing you could spot from water level was the Rangitoto volcano to the East and the Takapuna apartment building to the West. So here we are bobbing around in the middle of the ocean chatting it up. The waves were significant, so whoever you’re talking to would disappear from time-to-time, but you carry on. Very Kiwi. Eventually we swam back to shower and headed out for a hike.

And hike we do. We hit the trail just about every weekend: someplace within an hour drive. In over a year, we’ve never hiked the same trail twice! We especially love the trails around the west coast beaches such as Karekare and Piha. They are special places and rarely crowded outside of tourist season. Today was our first hike this year that we weren’t up to our ankles in mud. Yeah, NZ is muddy. Way muddy. Watch “The Piano” (filmed and takes place in NZ) to understand muddy. If the Inuits have 50 words for “snow”, I’ll bet the Maori have 50 words for “mud”. It’s no wonder the entire country is continually sliding off into the ocean.

I always struggle to talk about our life here because it comes off boasting. It would be if we deserved it, but we don’t. The reality is that we lucked out and have a naive tendency to jump blindly at opportunities. Having a job offer was almost an accident. The Visas landed in our laps some months before I would be too old to qualify. One of our favorite phrases is “Oh why not!” and it has served us well. It also feels like I should balance the scales with a dose of negativity. We have had our struggles here. There have been tears. We’ve had moments of depression, though never regret. We miss our friends and family. I wanted to be there with our son Spencer to help set up his lathe. I would have liked to hang with our daughter Shelby and hubby David to help paint their new house. Still, when looking back the negatives fade out: not a bad way to be.

In a galaxy far, far away

Much of NZ’s character stems from the simple fact that it is a small country on geographically isolated islands. In the past, this isolation had a profound effect on the culture and cultures carry forward long after the original determinants have passed. The legendary Kiwi resourcefulness and self reliance has its roots here. The flip side number-8-wire-do-it-yourself mentality is that sometimes it comes out as not-invented-here or on-the-cheap. Capital, whether to run a business or to buy a home is hard to come by. (The standard home loan is 20% down, almost 5%, fixed for only one year, and the interest is not tax deductible.) The lack of capital shifts the focus to the short term vs. the long term, to cost rather than value. Cath sees this everyday dealing with the contractor mentality. Businesses are reluctant to commit to long term employment and, thus, to building stable teams. Rather they hire contractors to write the software, let the contractors go, and toss the code to a maintenance team. If you’re in the software business, you know the result. The best known counter example is Xero (the “Apple of Accounting”? Seems an oxymoron to me, but ok...). Xero has taken the best of the Kiwi culture, combined with the best of software development practice from around the world, including a focus on value. Still, there aren’t a whole lot of Xeros ...

The same goes for the importation of labor. We are here because NZ has to import skilled labor. Higher education isn’t great and there’s an emphasis on going straight into the trades because of the building (rebuilding) boom. A longer term view would be to invest in education and grow the skills locally, but that doesn’t seem to bubble up as a priority.

Today, the distance limits tourism (whether you believe that to be good or bad, tourism has surpassed dairy in revenue) and the price/availability of goods. Obviously if you want wool, cherries, or a nice Pinot you’re in luck. Great luck. On the other hand, if you want limes or a high end computer, you’re going to have a bad time. There are funny things going on as well. For example, it was cheaper to buy our swim wetsuits, a NZ brand (Blueseventy), at a discount in the US and ship them here than it was to buy them here. Something’s not right in that story. I really miss Zappos and Amazon Prime. Shipping anything is two weeks and expensive versus two days and free.

Speaking of Amazon, there’s a worried buzz about Amazon coming to Australia/NZ. How will all the brick-and-mortar stores survive? Australians like to joke that when you land in NZ, you set your watch back 20 years. In today’s connected world that really isn’t fair. Kiwis are quite aware of what’s going on in the larger world and active participants. Sometimes though, like the Amazon rumblings, there is a feeling of déjà vu that catches you by surprise.

On a personal note, video chatting makes all the difference for us across the distance and we very much appreciate that the kiddos, friends, and family cut some time to connect with us. A hassle for them no doubt, but a lifeline for us. It helps that while NZ is a loooooong ways away from our kiddos, the time difference (summer) is a reasonable 3-4 hours. (It caught us off guard that we change 2 hours further apart in the winter because the southern hemisphere falls back when the northern hemisphere springs forward.)

Kiwis

From our first days we began building a Kiwi stereotype in our minds. I guess that’s what humans do to understand, literally and figuratively, a new people. As we became more in tune with the diversity, the stereotypes crumbled. There are so many ways to slice the demographics. Maori and Pakeha (of European descent). Northland and Southland. Auckland in particular has a significant Asian component. Even within the Asian component some come from a long line of New Zealanders (Chinese were aggressively imported for cheap labor in the mid-late 1800s), others are students, still others belong to the much maligned wealthy speculators blamed for throwing the real estate market out of whack. The push to import skilled labor has brought in people from all over the globe. In short, it’s a complicated social mix.

That said, there are well worn preconceptions about Kiwis that ring true, in our experience, for those born and raised on the Shaky Isles. (Actually, only the southern island is shaky. The northern island is more about volcanoes.) Let’s take a common list.

  • Friendly. Absolutely. The Kiwis we’ve met would, without exception, bend over backwards to help you out with a ride, advice, whatever. The other side is that while they are super friendly, they are not terribly friend making. New Zealanders are reserved and private: hard to get to know. To us, they sometimes seem lonely. On the really dark side, the high middle age suicide rate is often attributed to loneliness.
  • Humor. I threw this one in on my own. I haven’t seen Kiwi humor ever called out, but we’ve seen plain evidence of a witty undertone. It’s been puzzling for us because most individuals have no sense of humor of which they are aware, yet some, and particularly collectively, have the sharpest, driest wit you can imagine. Seriously, specifically Kiwi, funny.
  • Sunnies and such. Maybe not humor, but funny, almost childish silly. Sunglasses are “sunnies”, an umbrella a “brellie”, best friend a “bestie”, breakfast is “brekkie”, ad infinitum. Probably explains why they call pants “trousers”.
  • Chill. Oh yeah, totally. In terms of attire, more men than women (we are Auckland biased). The city women do dress up. Cath is continually perplexed that the women are so dressy and the guys don’t seem to notice. We’re not in Paris anymore! In terms of mannerisms, Kiwis are easy going, though conflict averse. They work hard not to offend, sometimes so hard they are speechless and leave you scratching your head. We’re not in Paris anymore again!
  • Work/life balance. This is the chill follow on. Coming from the US, we were looking for a better work/life balance. For the most part it’s been great, but it can be a challenge getting work done when primary goal in life becomes bach (a spartan beach house), beer, and barbecue: BBB.
  • Number 8 wire. Whew, this one is a huge topic in and of itself. From their deepest roots, and by necessity, Kiwis have grown to be independent and self reliant. Kiwi ingenuity. Kiwi resourcefulness. All a big part of Kiwi pride. Number 8 wire was fencing wire, often the only thing on hand to fix whatever was broken. The number 8 wire mentality not only rings true, it rings loudly. Occasionally it can go too far and become not-invented-here or short sighted. Kiwis can fix anything with number 8 wire. Problem is that they tend to fix everything with number 8 wire.
  • Tough. Tough as nails with a strong sense of self responsibility: legendary in that regard. The only reason some may think Australians as tougher than Kiwis is because Australians are loud and Kiwis reserved. (Search up some America’s Cup interviews with Peter Burling (NZ) and Jimmy Spithill (AU) and observe the obvious.) Whatever they may be, Kiwis are never, ever wimps. To digress significantly to make the point, my first ocean swim race (2km) was a fitting, first person introduction to Kiwi tough and, perhaps more so, Kiwi personal responsibility. The ocean was angry and we were under a gale warning. The wind and waves were moving the race course markers as we swam, the course crew battling to drag them back into position. Conditions were deteriorating. I reckoned I wouldn’t drown, but swimming did not seem plausible in the least. Nevertheless, swim we did. A few made the personal decision to sit this one out, but 70 started and 60 finished, including some in their teens and a few in their 70s. Even those that couldn’t quite make the distance came out with a smile for the effort. Without a doubt, Kiwi tough one and all. Thing of it was, if anyone was game, the race was on. No one would think of suing the organizers for racing in dangerous conditions. If it was too much, you stood down and didn’t blame someone else: personal responsibility. Kiwis get that.
  • Humble. Understated. Taciturn even. And completely turned off by the opposite: as in loud and obnoxious Americans, Germans, and Australians. Kiwis outside of the city tend to live simple, but full lives taking immense pleasure in what this land has to offer. Kiwis in the city are less so, but the roots show through if you get them out fishing or tramping.
  • Socially progressive. Hmmm, tough one. Kiwis are quick to point out NZ treats the vanquished indigenous (Maori in this case) better than other European conquests such as Australia or the US. From what I can tell, that is certainly true, but that does not mean the Maori were treated well, just better than the tragic stories of the Native American and Aboriginal peoples. The relationship and history between Pakeha (European New Zealanders) and Maori is fascinating and complex. I wouldn’t even begin to go into here, but you might find it quite interesting to read up on and compare with other countries.

    Likewise, NZ claims the earliest women's suffrage. True, yet abortion is, strictly speaking, illegal, requiring the consent of two doctors agreeing that it is medically necessary for reasons or life or sanity. Medical care is socialized, including accident insurance (ACC) that covers even tourists, but funding is tight and there are gaps, most notably in mental health: a big topic in that last election and possibly a key contributor to the high NZ suicide rate.
  • Agriculture. Tourism has exceeded agriculture as the number one economic driver in NZ, but tourists stick to well worn hot spots. Out and about around most of NZ agriculture still rules. For us, this means totally yummy, fresh produce. If you’re into slaughtering young mammals, the lamb and beef are first class. Sushi grade yellowfin tuna sometimes costs less than chicken. Dairy is a huge industry, though mostly for export to China. Food stuff not grown in NZ is harder to come by. Limes are only occasionally available, from the US. Albacore canned tuna we’ve never seen. Trout is protected. Golden kiwi fruit, cherries, custard apples: mmmm!
  • Grammar. Alright, we’re all speaking English here, but ... Kiwis have two basic sentence structures. The first goes “I reckon, <insert-something-here>, eh.” There’s more reckoning going on in NZ than in all the spaghetti westerns combined. Is the “eh” evidence of some distance connection with Canadians? Dunno. The second sentence structure is a response to a yes/no question: “<random-stream-of-conscience>, yah-nah.” The stream is the vocal expression of a real time decision process tortured by your Kiwi’s innate desire to never say “no”. You can safely ignore it; the important part comes at the end. Pay close attention. You will hear one or more yahs, nahs, sounds good, etc. Only the very last syllable of the entire monologue will answer your question. If it’s a “nah”, it means “No, but I’m really uncomfortable saying no.” That one tripped us up on several occasions.
  • Driving. What do Kiwis do when it rains? They wreck. Kiwis have a reputation as poor drivers, but we’re not buying it. There was a news story running recently that the accident rate is up and completely out of hand. Looking in the WHO accident database, Kiwis do about as well as any lower European country (as in not Sweden, ...) or the US. Some of the roads here are kinda tricky: narrow and twisty with ridiculously high speed limits. Given that, it’s rather amazing that the accident rate isn’t higher than it is! Furthermore, Kiwis are usually courteous, rarely honk, and good about leaving room for cross traffic at intersections and such. You can’t ding kiwis from a pedestrian perspective either. Culturally, pedestrians are expected to keep clear and you will get your ass run over pronto if you walk in front of a car. They aren’t trying to run you down, being mean, or bad drivers. They just never even notice you because that’s the way it is here. Best not to walk around with your face in your phone.

  • Politics. Wow. Coming from the US, politics are tame in comparison, perhaps even quaint. Yeah, they are still politicians, but predictable and it isn’t too hard to read the game. You have a few months, not years of campaigning to endure. It is also cool that the rhetoric is free of extremist groups (like the religious right in the US) and lobbies (like the gun lobby) that paralyze change in the US. Change can and does happen here, when it makes sense. The two things that Kiwis cannot understand about US politics is the price of medical care (or insurance) and why there is no effort to stem gun violence. It’s painfully hard, and embarrassing, to explain those away.
An unfortunate and sad trend, driven by (or at least blamed on) foreign speculators, is that NZ is becoming too expensive for Kiwis to live here. Housing, whether to buy or rent, in and around Auckland (and to a lesser extent the other metro areas like Wellington) is frightfully expensive and beyond the average wage earner. It is challenging to find a nice two bedroom apartment for less than $700 US a week! Given that a high tech wage is on the order of $70-85k US a year, you can see the problem. Fixing the housing crisis was a major agenda item for all the political parties for this last election. We’ll see. A couple of months ago they did shut off the real estate market to non-residents. (As an aside, Matt Lauer might lose his prime property here because he testified as being of good character as a purchase condition. Apparently he is in violation of the purchase agreement on those grounds. I hope they seize the land and turn it into a park. Asshole.)

Another struggle with a more hopeful outcome is the effort to restore and preserve the native wildlife, plant and animal. The NZ land mass has been separated from the rest of the world for some time now (that’s an understatement in case you missed it) and has many unique birds and plants that have evolved independently and not found elsewhere. The bird life, much of it ground dwelling, in NZ was never threatened by land animals because there weren’t any around. No snakes, no foxes, no coyotes, no bears, no mountain lions, no nothing. All of a sudden man comes and starts mucking everything up, as usual, by bringing rats, dogs, hogs, rabbits, wasps, ... into the picture. It didn’t take long to hunt the Moa into extinction and the Haas eagle, dependent on the Moa, followed shortly thereafter. The mighty and culturally significant Kauri tree, only found in the north of New Zealand’s north island, was threatened first by logging and now by Kauri dieback disease, brought in by man. This fungus is why you’ll get your boots cleaned at the airport. NZ is working hard to right these wrongs against the environment and has made significant progress on many fronts.



Images of New Zealand

I reckon (see) that most foreigners know NZ from images in film, a significant industry here. LOTR and the Hobbit of course, but also others, like The Piano, that take place in NZ. Some (The Worlds Fastest Indian) are obviously New Zealand, others (The Last Samurai) not so obviously. These images are no exaggeration. This land thrust up through the ocean, formed of earthquakes and volcanoes, is nothing if not dramatic. Our neighborhood volcano (Rangitoto) is 2km off our beach, an imposing sight in the middle of the harbor. The black sands (ironsand) of the west coast beaches come from Taranaki area volcanoes. Some of the harbors, like Akaroa, are ancient volcano craters breached by the sea. Auckland sits on some nineteen long quiet volcanoes. (No wonder they like electric bikes; it is hilly here to say the least.) In the grand scheme of things, California is going to slide into the ocean and the north island of NZ is just going to blow up.

There are other images of New Zealand that don’t quite hold water. One of them is being “green”. The only reason the air is clean here is because, being islands, the wind blows all the pollution elsewhere. There are no emission standards for cars. Trucks still use old school dirty diesels. People still run (and can buy!) two stroke outboards and personal watercraft. Agriculture runoff has rendered many rivers unswimmable (think the Neuse River in the US). Power is still primarily hydroelectric (followed by coal), but the dams have destroyed entire ecosystems. It will be important to both the local people and to tourism to get this mess under control. When NZ criticizes the US on environmental issues, they are right, but glass houses ...

Wish you were here

We miss you all and hope that someday you can visit New Zealand (if not us). We also hope that we have given you a peek at life here as a resident foreigner, different than either a citizen or a tourist. Finally, we wish you an outstanding 2018 of your own! Cheers!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Spring is here! (Auckland escapes)

Toto at the Hot Water Beach in Coromandel!
Since our last blog, we got lazy writing blogs and fell back to weekly updates on Facebook. We aren't sure who actually reads the blog… You no read, we no feed. Ok, in all fairness we were in a funk at month 9 so we decided to punt. Who wants to read depressing blogs? Depressed in NZ? What do you mean? How can you be depressed in NZ? Well did you know that the rate of teen suicide is one of the highest in the world? Ok, we were not that depressed. Anyhoo. Apologies to those we let down, you'll get over it. To make it up, I posted most of the pictures we took so far (there are a lot!), nicely organized by region (I really should be a travel planner). Mister does not like to include too many pictures in our blogs and I can’t stop taking pictures, so here's to “the best of both worlds”... We are halfway through the spring and the summer is approaching so spirits are on the rise!
Wet flashy green winter hiking!

The winter (June-July-August) was rainy and cool, but not to the extent we feared. We mastered mud hiking (this is a seriously muddy country: just watch The Piano) and learned to just forget the weather forecast; it changes so fast that you give it a while and the sun is back on. Mostly. The spring however started very wet, even by NZ standards. We stopped counting the days with rain. It’s finally looking like fine days ahead and suncream will be needed soon!

First month of the spring (September) was national election month and it was fascinating to watch the election campaign. The good part: it only got into high gear 3 months before election day. Public debates were friendly and respectful and overall there does not seem to be much mud slinging or bad mouthing. The puzzling part: election term is only 3 years yet most of the projects cannot be realised in less than 10 years it seems. Auckland will have a light rail from the city to the airport (yeah!). ETA: 30 years (ugh). The weirdest part: the election happened with one candidate getting 46% of the votes, but because it was less than 50%, one of the smallest political parties gets to decide who will be Prime Minister by adding their votes to whichever candidate they favor (you can imagine the negotiations and incentives: cough, cough) to build an alliance and form a government. They call this little guy the "King maker". How weird is all that? And to make matters worse that small party candidate is Trump-esque. Déja vu…. It was like the big "decider" All Blacks rugby match that ended in a draw without overtime. Wah? Must be a kiwi thing. Sigh… 

Cathedral Cove in Coromandel
After exhausting all walking, busing ,and ferrying options in the city, we bought a car in June to expand our travel horizons. Toto, as we affectionately call her (from the Rangitoto volcano across the bay, and because we are not in Colorado anymore!), Toto took us to the Coromandel peninsula (Aucklanders escape to beaches, with Cathedral Cove), the Bay of Plenty (retiree heaven of NZ), the western black sand beaches (where The Piano was filmed), and many regional national reserves surrounding Auckland. Bill is doing well driving on the left side of the road, but I am not getting much practice as he enjoys having a dedicated navigator (me). He does have to put up with my choice of music. Maybe if I keep playing Adele, Whitney Houston, and Johnny Cash, he’ll let me drive more so he can listen to the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Little Big Town.






Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty
When we arrived last year everyone was planning their Christmas vacations and we saw Kiwis flock away from work for 6 weeks at a time. With only a single NZ income at the time (yeah, you do need two incomes to live and travel here!), all we could do is watch in envy. As a diversion, one of us poured herself into some fake work to not go cray cray (“wanau ana” as they say here. That’s the first word they taught us in the Maori awareness week. We wondered why that word, but we are finding needing it quite often somehow). This year, Ms. planner (yours truly) would have none of that. I got it all ready for our kiddos to come visit us, each accompanied by their partner (I love the term they use here to keep it all ambiguous, especially as Auckland is an openly gay city). Sadly they both are stuck on US job leashes, so will only come for 10 days. What a shame, but hey we’ll take what we can get. We are actually very proud parents of a soon-to-be Doctor in Nursing (Shelby, assuming she survives) and a spacecraft engineer (Spencer) who is focusing on putting the right blades on the NASA Mars 2020 NASA helicopter. Or something like that. We're never quite sure what it is he does. Yeah compared to that, we are a bit boring :) We are so glad we’ll have them here soon, to show off our NZ chops.
Bill's latest crave: ocean swimming in 58F
water off Takapuna beach with Rangitoto in
the background.
Work-wise (yeah, we still have to work to fund our crazy travel dreams) Bill has been steady at Vesper Marine, his work leading to an innovation award for the deckWatch app he created.  After a hectic start, and some well-spent professional training, I am finally enjoying my agile and product management consulting stint.  

Housing-wise, we just decided to move out of our little under-dwelling to live in a beach community. Look right. That beach. Enough of the 6am wake-up calls, dog barking, and rugby fans screaming and stomping above us. We will be moving to a cute little cottage 2 min from Takapuna beach and we’ll be joining the slew of bus commuters (cuz ain’t no place to park Toto in the city). Bill is absolutely stoked to be so close to a beach to practice his ocean swims and maybe invest in kayaks to add balance to our "bike, sail, hike, kayak" mantra.  We haven't had much of any of those lately. Hiking may have to take a break for a while. Sailing? Well... That will have to wait for now, too. Make do with what you have and there's a lot o' ocean to swim around here!


Enjoy the pictures and look for a commemorative blog to reflect on our first year in NZ. Stay tuned! 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Winter is Coming! (Christchurch and Akaroa)



Before the winter kicked off (officially 1 June, as they say), we made one last trip to the South Island, which we learned has fewer inhabitants than Auckland alone. No wonder Auckland is bursting at the seams. We heard Christchurch was not worth visiting due to earthquake rebuilding progress - or lack thereof. Such statements always perk our interest. Our last experience in Dunedin was so good for a city ‘not worth visiting’ that we thought we’ll give Christchurch a fair chance. It did not hurt that it is only a 90 min drive from the most French region of NZ. Ok, I kinda admit it, Christchurch was a bit of an excuse...

You may recall that Christchurch experienced a devastating earthquake about 6 years ago. The whole downtown was shaken during work hours and 185 people lost their lives that day. A memorial made of 185 white chairs is a poignant reminder of the impact on the city. 
The 185 white chair Memorial
Walking the city was a sad experience seeing buildings still in need of major repairs and demolition. When we stopped by the main cathedral, a local (and earthquake survivor) was eager to share his experience and told us the current struggle the city is facing to decide what to do with the cathedral rebuild/replacement. Not long after the earthquake, they stood up the ‘cardboard cathedral’ as a temporary replacement, but the reconstruction of the original is at a standstill because the current bishop (a Canadian woman) wants to raze the original cathedral to rebuild a new one while the local kiwis want a restoration. It's a bit amazing to us that the decision would be not be an easy one to conserve the NZ history. Sometimes we feel NZ allows way more external input than they should. Did you know for instance that while we don't even have a permanent resident status we can vote?
The Main Cathedral still awaiting its fate
The rain was getting old in the city so we jumped on a tram (something like the SF street cars) to do a city tour hoping to learn more about the rebuild progress. Instead the woman tram driver pointed out all the new shopping malls sprawling as part of the rebuild. One of those malls is made of containers which happened to be a creative way to carry on with business after the event. If you think about it most of what comes to the country comes in huge container ships, so reusing those "boxes" makes sense. Some bank branches are still operating in containers. While we were hoping the tram tour would be more educational, we pondered if this was not the attitude locals had to adopt to deal with such ordeal. Many people have chosen to relocate north after the devastation. 
ASB bank container office
Artists were called on to help bring some joy back to the city and the street art they created was reminiscent of Dunedin's. We are hopeful Christchurch will become the most modern city in NZ, as it was pointed out to us by one of our recent hiking buddies. What they are rebuilding is modern, but it is just taking a whole lot longer than one would hope.
Street art in Christchurch
After a day in Christchurch we drove to Akaroa, the main town in the volcanic Banks Peninsula close to Christchurch. The peninsula is basically a big (really big) volcano crater with finger bays all around it. Quite a site from the air. I have been wanting to go there since we arrived in NZ as the French influence is apparently the strongest there. Akaroa has only 600 year-around residents yet it has 3,000 (yes three zeros) houses, most of them owned by Christchurch inhabitants. 

French bakery in Akaroa
The tourist season in Canterbury ends at Easter, but we decided to take a chance with the weather.to avoid the crowds, and crowds there were none. While the weather did not cooperate much, with heavy fog robbing us of what we read are spectacular views, we enjoyed muddy hiking in drizzling rain and soaked socks, followed by superb food for such a small place. 

Onewa hike (credit to the awesome Frenzy NZ guide)
What made up for the poor weather was access to the America’s Cup broadcast in our little La Rochelle’s motel room. In Auckland we only have the basic cable channel our landlords grant us so we have been keeping up via post-races online news reports which was less than satisfying. Having early morning live access from our hotel room meant we could deal with any weather after that. We expected a lot more excitement from kiwis about the Cup, but the lack of accessible covfefe (new word for ‘coverage’, we hear) has made the event barely an event here. Very sad.

Let's just hope the US stays true to this treaty
On our way back to Christchurch to catch our flight we stopped by the International Antartica Centre. Christchurch is known as the gateway to Antarctica, providing 5hr flights to the Scott Base for several nations, including the US. This is the location of the United States Antarctic program funded by the National Science Foundation. We got up close and personal with our favorite blue penguins as the Centre has a rehabilitation unit for those poor birds who could not survive in the wild. We got a bit more educated along the way; did you know Antarctica is the tallest continent (the Arctic is only floating ice) and that you only find polar bears in the Arctic and penguins in Antarctica, while seals are found in both?  Now that we exhausted our South Island options for the coming winter months (we are here to stay warm), the "should we buy a car while we are here" topic is coming back on the table with a vengeance. With the weather becoming finicky (and damp) in the winter, visiting the North Island will become our focus. Stay tuned....