Monthly Archives: April 2009

W.W.B.D.?

Since deciding to come to New Zealand, I’ve been asked several times what my expectations are for my time here.  My first reaction was to laugh – expectations?  Please, I learned to do without those my second year of college.  If I’ve learned anything, it’s that life is never what I expect it to be, be that better or worse.  My time in London was pure magic, so I decided the safest thing to do coming to New Zealand – to avoid disappointment and such– was to keep it simple; to hope to see the beauty of the country and anything else beyond that would be icing on the cake.

The plan was to live in Christchurch for the year, get a PA job at a university, and hopefully have a chance for a few roadtrips here and there.  I even applied for some positions at the University of Canterbury while I was home in the States – and as I received one rejection email after another, I didn’t take it too hard.  I almost hoped it wouldn’t work out, because I wanted to see if something unexpected – something I couldn’t have organized from anywhere else – might come my way once in the country.

The first job I applied for in Christchurch was everything I could have asked for – a PA role at the University of Otago’s  Christchurch campus, a fixed-term contract of one year (hence avoiding the issue of them wanting someone permanent), a great salary that would give me the financial freedom to travel, and four weeks of paid holiday.  However, I had about two weeks to wait until the closing date before I could expect to hear from them, so to get the cashflow flowing, I started temping.  I’ve written already about my first two placements, and how even though we worked ourselves out of a job at Statistics New Zealand, the post at Community Energy Action came about.

Now…not to seem like I’m changing the subject, but forgive me as I set the stage for the rest of this post.  At the same time as I started work at my new office, I talked to a friend back home who told me I should work at a ski resort in Queenstown during the winter.  I didn’t give it much thought initially, but by the next day – last Monday – I found myself thinking more and more, “Why not? Why the heck not?”  And while I thought I could just come back to Christchurch once the ski season is over in October, I found myself googling info on another job that’s popular with backpackers: seasonal agricultural work.  Pretty soon I’d come up with a plan:

Temp office work in Christchurch until June

Ski resort in Queenstown until October

Vineyard work up north in Nelson through the rest of my time here

Coincidentally (or not), one of my flatmates, Kenny, also works at a Mexican restaurant in town called the Flying Burrito Brothers.  He mentioned one night that they were short-staffed – having had some experience as a server, I thought it might be a great way to make some extra money.  He talked to his manager about me, and when I went in to see her Monday night, she told me to come in Saturday night for a trial.

Okay…so here we are come Tuesday morning.  I’ve got my new “plan” for New Zealand set up, the temp job for the time being and a potential second job in the works.  I don’t know why, but it seems that as soon as you get one thing lined up, the powers that be always seem to throw you off-course.  Eleven am Tuesday, I get a voicemail from the University of Otago asking me to come in Thursday for an interview.  Of course.

OF COURSE.

Immediately my head’s filled with numbers and possibilities.  With the salary I would be earning, I’d be able to stopover in other countries like Hong Kong and Japan on my way home next year, and have some leftover to put towards grad school in London.  I got to the point where I decided that if they offered the job, I would take it.  Too torn by the two alternatives, I couldn’t bring myself to choose.

Wednesday didn’t help.  While the chief executive of my office had joked about me staying on longer, that morning my supervisor came over and asked me if I’d definitely be available to stay through the end of June…right when the ski season begins in Queenstown.  It was all lining up a little too perfectly.  And to think I was actually stressed when my job at Statistics New Zealand finished early!  The only thing now was the struggle to figure out what my head was telling me versus my instincts/heart/gut/dare I say soul?  Did  I want to stay in Christchurch, work a “real” job, and travel other countries later?  Or take a bit of a paycut in exchange for seeing more of New Zealand while I’m here?

The interview for the PA role was on Thursday and within two hours, there were two messages on my phone.  One from my temp agent officially extending my temp post until June.  The other from the University of Otago offering me the position of PA and Research Administrator.  I could only think one thing:

CRAP.

But then…when I really thought about it, it was an easy decision, right?  The last thing I came to New Zealand to do was work in an office everyday and the motive furthest from my mind was money.  Was I really that tempted?  Was I really that thrown off by the offer?  In a way even, I was ashamed of myself, for as far as I’ve come, the idea of a bulked-up savings account still tugs at some part of me.  I knew I have to go, I have to move and travel while I’m here.  As beautiful as Christchurch is, it’s not worth staying here, in one place, for a working holiday.  In fact, you might say it would be the antithesis of the whole reason I’m in New Zealand.  I’d be not exactly wasting my time, but then again, not taking full advantage of it either.  In the end, I asked one question:

W.W.B.D.?

What Would Bill Do, of course, Bill being the preeminent travel writer Bill Bryson – one of my idols.  And as an aspiring travel writer myself, I made the decision that will give me the most experiences as possible to draw from one day.  I called my temp agent and accepted the extended contract with CEA.  I called the University and did something that two weeks ago, I would not have done – I turned down the PA role, surprising even myself.  And now I’ve switched mindsets completely and started to view New Zealand like the world itself and each city a different country with its own stories to share.  I’m so anxious to see the world, to cross as many countries off my “list” as I can, but sometimes it’s not about the numbers.  What I had to realize is that this year in New Zealand may slow down my international conquest, but I’ve got a crazy chance to get to know this country in a way many may not.  

So what’s on the agenda?

The TranzAlpine Express

Dunedin and Invercargill

Stewart Island

Queenstown

Fiordland and Milford Sound

The West Coast

Franz Joseph Glacier

Nelson and the Marlborough Sound

And that’s all before Christmas!  In my last remaining months, I hope to work on a few vineyards on the North Island and explore up there as well.  I may not have originally known what I was coming to New Zealand for, but my expectations have grown exponentially in the past week.  It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, to be mapping out routes and looking up rates and getting ready to drive on the left side of the road for the first time.  So is this what the great Mr. Bryson would do?  I can only hope.  But one thing I do know…

And that’s what I’m going to do.

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To heat or not to heat…

If I had woken up early last Monday and gotten ready for the day, even without a job lined up for the week yet, and headed into town, chances are I wouldn’t have heard from my temp agent, as prepared as I was.  But no – chance would have it I decided to sleep in a bit, have a leisurely breakfast, and didn’t get out of the shower until 10.30, when my agent called – with excellent news.  She had a placement for me for the week, one that actually paid fifty cents more an hour than my job with Statistics New Zealand.  Funny how life works sometimes.

With my new post needing me as soon as possible, I rushed around throwing clothes and makeup on and drying my hair in record time.  After my four-minute commute to SNZ last week, I wasn’t quite so spoiled this time around, but a twelve-minute walk is still pretty hard to complain about.  I soon arrived at my new post, a non-profit, charitable trust that subsidizes the cost of heating – insulation, heat pumps, etc. – for lower-income households or other individuals who qualify for various schemes.  I was given a brief introduction to the office before I assumed my role of receptionist, i.e. phone-answerer extraordinaire.  I couldn’t have asked for a cruisier job, doing nothing more my first day then take calls and log messages in an Excel spreadsheet.  And, of course, keeping track of the growing list of names customers mistakenly thought I introduced myself as:

Hannah

Janice

Janet

Kenna

Sandy

The spreadsheet itself was a way to track my “progress,” or acclimation to  the job.  By Monday afternoon, the list totaled over thirty, but as Thursday and Friday came around I took only four or five messages a day I didn’t know how to handle.  One thing that helped was learning to tell people “no” when they called asking for a quote.  As bad as I felt giving the spiel – “I’m sorry, ma’am, but our funding for this project is currently complete, but please call back in June” – it did cut down on the amount of customers other people in my office had to call back.  I also got to know the company’s online customer database, figuring out my way around the mobile agenda and answering basic scheduling questions.  Then, of course, the fun part – making myself sound professional when I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. 

When time allowed, I took care of other quite miscellaneous admin tasks, such as stuffing envelopes, running deposits to the bank, or opening the mail.  However, when I asked a colleague if I should keep the envelope after I’ve opened a letter, she looked at my stack of mail and said rather reverently, “Oh, I wouldn’t know – we’re not allowed to open the mail.”  I also soon began taking care of all the customers who came into the office to purchase plastic window insulation kits – something I would normally have not a clue about, but pretty soon I was pulling out a calculator to help figure out window dimensions (in centimeters, mind you!) and the number of kits they’d need.  I actually loved the return to frontline customer service, something data entry fails to offer.  Whether it was on the phone or in person, all the interactions with the ordinary NZ public reminded me why I worked in retail environments for so long.  And as frustrating all that bad customer can be – complaining, shouting, swearing – you always get a good one to balance it out, someone who seems so genuine when they thank you for your help and your smile.

And as a show like The Office so fully demonstrates, the dynamics between colleagues is a vital consideration in a job – who you work with can make or break your experience.  I found a little bit of everything at this office – a twenty-year old girl with a great sense of style and humor who’s fun to share a bit of harmless gossip or stories with; a few older women who take you under their wing and take it on themselves to be your surrogate mother; a surly, eccentric, middle-aged woman who keeps you guessing as to what she’ll say next; an adorable, white-haired chief executive who sits in on morning tea and tells you he’s delighted to have you around; and – of course – the cute guy who gives you a reason to look good for work.  There’s an American from Illinois who moved here nine years ago and is essentially here for good, and a New Zealander who lived in Vermont for six years and has permanent residency in the States.  They all laugh about “the American who wants to be a Kiwi and the Kiwi who wants to be an American.”  Wonder where I fit in all of that…

Now what has been perhaps most fascinating of all is my new-found understanding of the differences between how Americans and New Zealanders heat their homes.  I’ve grown up with central heating, well aware of the thermostat and the fact that my dad preferred it to stay set to a frigid sixty or sixty-five degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously).  We had a wood-burning fireplace in our old house that we used regularly in the winter, but it was by no means our primary source of heat.  It’s a different story on this side of the world, though – as I soon found out from the lack of heating in my own room.  The Kiwis seem to use everything but central heating – insulation (in the roof, walls, and underfloor), heat pumps (machines attached to a wall), electric heaters, electric blankets, pellet fireplaces, gas fireplaces, double-glazed windows – or in lieu of those, the plastic shrink film I mentioned earlier.  I don’t know if it has something to do with the houses here, on a whole, being smaller than in the States, as the majority of homes here are one-story – a rarity in my neighborhood back home.  Or maybe it’s just the energy-efficient conscience of New Zealand as an entire country, everyone striving towards the national motto of “clean, green New Zealand.”

But this seems to be where the real differences lie between here and my home country.  Like I’ve written before, I was immediately struck with how similar the two seemed, how weirdly Americanized New Zealand seemed to be.  It takes time, though, to recognize the ways this country sets itself apart – and I’m not just talking about its decision to decriminalize prostitution.  They have a three-color system for rubbish removal – red for trash, yellow for recycling, and green for “organic food scraps.”  You have to wonder if it isn’t some sort of subliminal message the government is trying to engrain in them.  The trash cans/rubbish bins/waste receptacles are all smaller, especially the ones you find in the kitchen.  I’ve also yet to see an automatic ice machine, so it’s been back to the ice-tray-in-the-freezer method.  And when I started helping out with the retail store at work, I foolishly asked where we kept the bags to use for purchases – of course these energy-conscious customers would just carry their items, leaving the plastic bags for the occasional elderly shopper needing assistance.  Some of these differences make more sense, some of them don’t.  Overall, though, it’s enough to keep me guessing and waiting to see what else will surprise me…

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Minding My Own Business (Sort of…)

In the same spirit of being in New Zealand which has led me to try Milo and Marmite, I recently picked up Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  I’d given it a try maybe ten yearse ago, but never made it through.  So far round two has gone well and even turned up a rather fitting quote:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to, while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a  good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

Whether what I’m about to say is gruesome or not, I think Tolkien’s point is much the same as what every writer knows – that every good story needs a conflict.  The conflict of my story is the never-ending quest for employment.  I was told my assignment with Statistics New Zealand would be at least two weeks, if not three.  The three other temps and I show up on Tuesday prepared for this time-frame, one of them having even turned down another post for the following week.  After an hour or so of orientations, tours, and health and safety pep talks, we get to work.  There were roughly twenty boxes of paper censuses we were to be entering.  Around 3pm the first afternoon, the online system crashed, as it apparently hadn’t been tested for mass entry yet.  While we not-so-begrudgingly took our mandatory recess from work, playing Solitaire and sending texts, I looked around and gauged how many boxes we’d finished compared to how many remained.  It didn’t look good.

At the rate we were going, the boxes would all be entered by the next Monday at the latest.  I mentioned this to Arron that night and he said that’s often the case with temp jobs.  The client hires too many workers for the job, usually at the prodding of the agency looking to make a bigger cut.  “Tell everyone to slow down,” was his advice, “or you’ll finish too quickly.”  I laughed and jokingly shared it with the other girls at lunch the next day.  But we carried on and the stack of boxes grew shorter and shorter.  By Thursday we weren’t laughing anymore about our over-productivity or uber-efficiency – it was clear we would be done by Friday.  We could overhear our supervisor on the phone with the temp agency, trying to sort out the situation of what to do with us.  And sure enough that evening, all of us got calls from the agency saying we’d done ourselves out of a job.  So much for hard works pays off, ay?

But like any fling, it was good while it lasted.  In Kiwi jargon, I couldn’t have asked for a more cruisey job.  The office was literally a four-minute walk from my flat, making for one heck of a different commute from going to work in London.  From battling the crowds on buses and the Tube – spending up to two hours a day on public transport – to a quiet walk through the suburbs.  Around 10.30 the first morning, the woman training us says, “Right, it’s about time for morning tea,” and leads us to the company cafeteria where we sit for twenty minutes, consuming free hot drinks provided by SNZ.  There was a kitchen area near our cubicles with trays of clean mugs and a machine sent from heaven to serve every hot drink from coffee and tea to hot chocolate espresso.  Apparently it’s actually New Zealand law for employers to provide tea and coffee – amazing!  As I struggled to conceal my shock and joy at the ritual of morning tea in the workplace – one in which the entire office takes part – I realized the daily schedule was one I could definitely get used to: work, morning tea, work, lunch, work, afternoon tea, work, home.

The work itself was so boring, repetitive, and monotonous (insert any other relevant synonyms) it was actually funny.  Form after form of identical questions to be entered in the same online form.  The company seems to acknowledge the ridiculous repetition of it all, though, and really stressed the importance of preventing the “hazards” of the job from taking a serious effect – pausing for ten-second breaks every three to five minutes of typing to give our wrists a break and getting up every hour to stretch and walk around – not a hard thing to do with free drinks twenty feet away all day.

But however similar the forms were, at least the actual answers were fascinating and different enough to keep me from going brain-dead on the job.  Addressing such topics as ethnic origin, age, marital status, religion, education, occupation, and salary, it was quite the look into a cross-section of New Zealand’s population.  To stay focused and interested, I found myself having conversations with the respondents in my head.  As weird as it may sound, it made the day go by that much faster, loving the chance for an inside view of the Kiwis.

To the 86-year old man who lives alone and never married, I wanted to know why not.  To the woman who listed NZ Sign Language as a second language, I said the classic Kiwi phrase, “Good on you!”  Each situation was perfect fodder for future novels, like the 78-year old woman living with her 48-year old son who responded that he has a severe illness or disability.  My favorites, of course, were ones that defied typical living arrangements.  One “dwelling” (the total group of individuals in a house or building) listed a woman, her daughter, and two grandsons.  I initially assumed the daughter was the boys’ mother, but as I worked through each individual form, it turned out she was mother of neither, and that the boys were cousins, not brothers like I’d first imagined.  It definitely caught my interest.

And then there were the rebels, who went further than just checking the “I object to answering this question” box.  One wrote MYOB every chance he got – Mind Your Own Business.  It’s a census, buddy, this is our business.  Some were cheeky, entering Jedi  in an attempt to have it recognized as an official religion.  Other responses for religion: spirituality, house church, and – the best, in my opinion – truth and justice.  But one respondent sticks out in my mind above the rest:

Languages spoken: English, subliminal messaging, oompaloompan

Religion: Jedi

Degree: Life and everything about it

Other people you live with: My imaginary friend, the Boogie Man

Address: Your Mom’s

Your mom’s, really?  I’m pretty sure that joke is only ten years old.  I guess as long as they feel they’re bucking the system, that’s what matters.  Speaking of the system, I may or may not have signed my life away in agreements of secrecy and confidentiality…good thing I don’t have to go in on Monday morning.

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Milo, maps, and RST.

I’m just settling down in my new flat to watch Flight of the Conchords with a warm mugfull of Milo – a Kiwi original similar to Ovaltine, another take on “nutritious” hot chocolate.  I am officially unpacked and it feels great.  I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this particular flat – just the idea of getting settled in a place – but it might not be so bad after all for the time that I’m here.  My landlord, Rob, says the loft in town should be ready in three weeks, but from my dealings with him I’m prepared for it to take longer.  There are some people in life who seem to live within their own Standard Time.  One was the lead singer of a band I was in – if he said practice was at 6, there was no use showing up before 6.30.  Me and the other band members called it JST – Justin Standard Time.  And so it appears Rob operates on RST.  The first day I met him, he called saying he was five minutes away.  Forty-five minutes later, he pulls up.  So when he says three weeks until the lofts are ready – and I’ve seen for myself that construction hasn’t even begun yet – I won’t be surprised if three turns into six…or ten.

But thankfully I think my present accommodation should be better than expected.  It’s a townhouse located a twenty-minute walk from Cathedral Square.  My room is on the ground floor with the garage, looking out on the back patio.  I have my own bathroom, as bizarre as it may be – there’s no separate shower, just one room with a toilet, sink, and showerhead raining down over it all.  Upstairs is the kitchen and lounge and above that are the other bedrooms.  There are four other flatmates – a Kiwi couple, Kenny and Helene; Romain, a French guy currently pursuing his PhD in speech science with a  focus on the New Zealand dialect (which, coincidentally, was the fastest accent to develop, forming in only one generation); and Yu, a Japanese student who dreams of leading winery tours in France for other tourists.  Her father runs a hotel just outside of Tokyo, so I’m hoping to get to know her well in the chance of a hook-up!  Overall, the flat is clean, safe, and warm – and with it being the equivalent of October weather right now, I am thankful.

It’s amazing how the simple act of putting away your suitcases and backpacks into a closet and having your clothes sorted into drawers changes things dramatically.  It represents you are going to stay in this place, be settled, if just for a short while.  As much as I love to travel, as much as I love to move and start afresh, there’s another contradictory desire within me – to be put in a place, to make a home out of it.  To develop a routine, discover my favorite supermarket, and where to find the best cup of chai in town.  Maybe that’s it though – the whole restlessness vs. routine debate.  It’s not that they oppose one another, it’s that they keep me balanced – they keep me moving but they keep me around.

So yes…clothes are put away, sheets and the cherry-blossom duvet cover I take with me everywhere are on the bed, and soon pictures and posters (including a Pacific-centered world map I’ve bought!) will be up – all small acts in the process of making a random room with white walls my own.  Already my spirits are lifted.  Not that I wasn’t happy at Amber and Andy’s – I couldn’t have been more blessed with a place to stay for my first two weeks.  It just didn’t feel like I had really moved here yet, it was as if I was still in transit.  Living in their house, eating their food – I was ready to get started with my life here.  And so here I am, in a room of my own, and about to start work tomorrow at Statistics New Zealand.  I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like…getting ready the night before, making your lunch, taking care of any last-minute ironing (okay, not really).  It feels like the first day of school all over again.  I just hope the teacher likes me.

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nz: getting settled and first impressions.

I’ve got nothing but time right now, and it’s a beautiful thing.  Work doesn’t start until Tuesday as today and Monday are national holidays.  Amber and Andy are off at Easter Camp for the weekend with about three thousand Christchurch youth and I won’t see Arron until tomorrow night.  And as an additional consequent of the holiday weekend, the libraries are closed – my usual source of free Wifi – and the buses are running on a sporadic schedule, leaving me more or less stranded for the time being. 

So I’ve escaped to the beach, only a ten-minute walk from Amber and Andy’s.  It is incredible living this close to the ocean.  There’s a lovely chunk of driftwood for a seat; the tide is coming in; the sun is warm and the breeze is cool.  I am at rest for the moment.  The occasional blond surfer jogging by doesn’t hurt the scene either.  Perhaps as a result of watching too many crime scene shows and thriller movies, I am deathly afraid of staying in houses alone overnight, as I am doing this weekend before moving into my flat on Monday.  In apartments or flats four floors up, I am fine, assured by the fact that there is only one way in.  But put me in a house with three entrances and innumerable windows and I’m a wreck.  I kept the TV on the whole evening and played music while I read in bed, all in an attempt to block out what I can’t handle – the silence.  I fell asleep alright, but awoke at 3.20am to the sound of screeching tires – that didn’t help my imagination.  It wasn’t until the sun came up that I could sleep soundly, and of course I did so until noon!

But on to the matter at hand – life in Christchurch, or Chch as it’s abbreviated by native Kiwis.  I’ve got things relatively settled into place the past two weeks.  For a while there, I didn’t know if I’d find work, staring at the computer screen, scrolling down the same postings I’d poured through the day before…and the day before that.  One of Arron’s friends, Laura, gave me the names of two temp agency recruiters to contact.  On Tuesday, I had an interview with one of them and, just like that, I had a job!  It’s amazing, one day you feel like there’s this big wall up, separating you from the world of the employed, and then the next second, you’re in.  The recruiter said I had the fastest typing speed she’d ever seen – “You’re a machine!”  The post she has for me is a two week assignment with Statistics New Zealand doing basic data entry work on a recent census – not my life calling, for sure, but it’s a job and for that I am grateful.  Hopefully it’ll get me through until I hear from some of the other more permanent positions I applied for. 

The same thing could be said for finding a flat – I’d just about memorized all the search results on Trade Me (a popular NZ classifieds site) every time I looked for a flat in the City Centre – and nothing really caught my eye.  It’s one thing to move somewhere with friends and have the chance to make a place your own, another thing when you come alone and have to hope you’ll be a good fit with the existing flatmates you find.  And I definitely was aware of that as I decided to come to New Zealand, it’s just a bit hard once you’re here and start to see the flats in person.  But I thought I’d found “the one” after the first place I saw – a one-bedroom flat right on the Avon River lined with willow trees, a beautiful garden, and charm like I’d only seen in the movies.  It was perfect…until I had to deal with the agent, who seemed to overcomplicate the affair by not showing up for the viewing and then contradicting much of the information given to me by the owner.  So I kept looking, viewing at least five other places,  but it was hard to be happy with any of them after my Cambridge Terrace dreamhouse.  But at the end of my first week, I just needed to find something.

I finally met Rob, a guy I found through Trade Me who owns eight properties around Christchurch.  He’s currently fixing up a loft in the City Centre, but until it’s ready we worked out for me to stay in one of his townhouses for a few weeks.  It’s located right outside the center of town in an area called St. Albans.  Much like my job, it’s not my dream flat, but for now it’ll do.  Thankfully the lease isn’t for a set number of months, so if I come across something better later on, I can take that.  Throughout the whole mission of finding a place, I kept wanting someone else’s opinion (not my usual way of doing things!)  This may be a fun adventure at times, doing this on my own, but it’s crazy hard too.

The whole process of sorting out a job and flat has fit in with my initial impressions of New Zealand as a whole.  One of the main reasons I chose NZ over Ireland as my next destination for a working holiday was for something different.  I was told Ireland was just like England, only with different accents.  I told myself I was done with Europe for the moment and wanted something raw and new.  But when I landed in Auckland, it began to feel like just another state.  There was a downtown area that spawned out to suburb after suburb via the highway – much like home.  The only immediately striking difference was the names, many of which are of Maori origin and entirely unpronounceable on my part!  One of my friends from London, Ryan, kindly picked me up from the airport and, after a tour of his house, took me to a mall, of all places, where I saw a Kmart, Target, Office Max, and several other American-owned companies and restaurant chains.  The mall was eerily reminiscent of home.  I could’ve been anywhere, malls having that ability of transcending cultural or regional specificity. 

I woke up the next day in Auckland feeling strange and out-of-sorts, with one question on my mind I was scared to admit:

What in the world am I doing here?

And there were two words on the tip of my tongue I didn’t want to say out loud: disappointed and homesick.  I could instantly tell it was going to take some adjusting after living in London.  There, you feel like you are in the center of the world.  You watch on the news as the G20 summit gathers, bringing together the world’s twenty most powerful leaders, protesters flooding the streets, and news stations around the world sending their correspondents to your city.  Here, it’s almost the opposite feeling, that you really are out of it, away from it all.  Moreover, I was initially shocked by how Americanized the country is – in addition to the stores I mentioned above, much of the television lineup is straight from the States.  I keep saying, “Oh, you have that here, too?” every time I see another product, show, or store from home.

Homesickness isn’t a feeling I’m normally used to dealing with, certainly not while living in London and traveling throughout Europe.  But while thinking about it some more here, I think I’ve pinned it down.  Those places were all so different from what I’d always known that the difference was distracting.  It kept my mind off thoughts of home.  But Auckland was so similar it caught me off guard and had me admitting to feelings I never thought I’d experience.  Christchurch, however, is a bit different, thanks to its strong English influence.  The City Centre is lovely, with the Cathedral, the Botanic Gardens, and the Avon River winding through it – complete with punting boats, just like Oxford. Christchurch is known as the Garden City, after all, so I’m looking forward to spending next summer here with the parks in full bloom. 

What I’ve come to realize so far is that my time here will be different from my experience in London – and that’s okay.  It’s okay I’m not as instantly starstruck with my flat or job.  My friends did warn me that the pace of life here would be slower and it’ll just take some getting used to.  I know I am in a place of incredibly majestic beauty and I really can’t wait to get out of the cities and explore it.  Until then, I will keep my chin up and look for reasons to smile in the small things all around me.

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fiji time, part three.

[Written about my last day in Fiji.]

Indecision threatened to get the best of me as I tried to choose the right island day cruise for my last day in Fiji.  With the cheaper options not offering the best snorkeling options, I was looking at trips priced at over a hundred Fiji dollars.  When I was at the point of just staying around the hostel for the day, I pushed myself and went for it – a trip to South Sea Island for FJ$110.  Again, I repeated the phrase that’s quickly becoming my mantra for this trip: here goes nothing.

The shuttle to Port Denarau left Smugglers Cove at the lovely hour of 7.15am, on a coach full of young backpackers lugging bourbon and tequila in their bags.  Thankfully, once we arrived at the port, I realized there were two trips going out – one with “Awesome Adventures” that was predominately young travelers, and another just to South Sea Island that had more of a mix – some young, some families, some old.  It was a short cruise to the island where we then boarded a smaller motorboat that took us straight to shore.  My thoughts began to darken with the weather – a grey, overcast sky and soon enough…rain.  I was gutted, having spent all that money to go hang out on a small island in the pouring rain all day.  We went out on a semi-submersible craft that gave great views of the coral reefs and reef-life.  While sitting on the boat, arms crossed, back hunched, fully grumpified, a woman next to me says, “You poor thing, you look so cold.”  I knew Ryan and Arron would’ve had another word for it – surly.  And surly I was, but the woman and her daughter were from Wellington and we quickly hit it off talking about my forthcoming move to New Zealand and comparing/contrasting our respective home countries.  After the short subride around the reef, I went out snorkeling – still in the rain.  They had partitioned off the zone we could snorkel in with bright yellow buoys and ropes and I had a hard time feeling like I was really “in nature.”  But sometime while I was underwater with the clown fishes and coral, the rain cleared and some of the guides decided to take a boat out farther off the island.  Bless them!

While it wasn’t the Great Barrier Reef, the view beneath the surface was still incredible.  One of the guides brought up seastars and sea cucumbers for us to hold.  The greater depth of the water felt like I was really somewhere – especially when I’d angle my line of sight just right so as to lose view of the group and feel alone with the underwater universe.  The predominant color – besides the brownish-tan shade of the coral and sea floor – was blue.  I’ve never seen sea stars in that shade of royal blue before – and little groups of fish flashing about the color of a blue raspberry Slurpee – a striking, vibrant electric blue.  And the parrot fish, bringing the most neon sparkle to the scene with all sorts of blues and pinks and greens darting about.  When you swim down about twenty feet and get right up along the reef, all the Nemos come out and seem to stare you straight down – just a little unnerving.

After the boat brought us back to the island, Kim and Sharese (the Kiwi mom and daughter duo) and I shifted to the poolside just in time for lunch – reminiscent of an American BBQ with steak, chicken, fish, and sidedish after sidedish of potatoes and pasta salad.  When I wasn’t laying by the pool (getting a ridiculous sunburn at that) I went snorkeling again, this time with beautiful rays of sunlight cutting through the surface, and I even gave kayaking a first try.  Sharese and I got in a double-seater and one of the guides, Romano, went out in a single, yelling out when to switch the direction of our paddling.  The original plan was to kayak around the island (which didn’t feel quite so big when we first landed) but about halfway around, we got caught up where the water grew rockier and the waves larger.  Despite our efforts, we capsized and had to shamefully walk to shore when we couldn’t get properly turned around. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool, attempting to read a book I’d picked up at the hostel but usually having to nod my head as Kim talked…and talked and talked.  At some points it was interesting to hear what she, an average Kiwi, had to say about life in New Zealand.  She asked about class structure in America and said there wasn’t such a division in NZ – that most everyone earns around the same amount and that plumbers and builders are just as respected as lawyers and doctors and nurses, who usually “bugger off” to the States or elsewhere to earn more.  She also talked about the pattern of attending college or university and how it’s not nearly as expected as in the States.  It’s possible to begin working for a company and work your way up, without a college degree or diploma, as her brother did for a local bank.  It’s all fascinating to me, how a society relatively comparable to my own can also be based on such different paradigms.

All in all…a great time in Fiji.  Definitely not the worst way to get over jet lag before heading on to New Zealand!

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fiji time, part two.

[This was written my second day in Fiji.]

Having gone to bed around 7.30 last night (jet lag much?) we were up before the sun today.  Breakfast at the hostel isn’t served until 6.30 (never before have I had to wait for breakfast) so we laid in bed a while longer til it was time.  It was a gorgeous morning – the humidity not yet pressing down, the sun not quite up.  The tables by the pool had been covered with bright, buttery yellow cloths and vases of fresh flowers.  Soko, one of the native Fijians who works at the hostel, first brought us glasses of orange juice and each a half a papaya – my first, but the juiciest, freshest, most vivid shade of orange I could ever imagine.  We were then served the regular breakfast – four buttered slices of toast, strawberry jam, and our choice of tea or coffee.  Simple, yet we weren’t complaining.

A word about the two men who work at the hostel – I am overwhelmed by their gentleness.  With every duty or request, they take such great care and are so sweet about it all.  It is never rushed – Fiji Time, remember? – but each action is instead so deliberate.  Despite the simplicity of the breakfast, it still took up to half an hour for it all to be served.  This afternoon, Soko helped Fiona’s niece gather two avocados from the tree in the back, and later I watched the other man set the tables for dinner.  Each placemat and coaster placed so gently, each plate of incense gingerly set beneath each table.  One thing can be said of the Bluewater Lodge – you are made to feel incredibly valued as a guest – the workers and even  Mark and Fiona (the owners) learn your name, feeling like you belong there – if just for a while. 

Jessica, Ampi, and I had an extended breakfast, sitting for hours with our journals and laptops, recording the prior day’s events in great detail.  Neither of them are native English speakers, but as they both speak different languages originally, they are writing their joint entries in English.  Throughout the morning, they would ask me for help with certain words or ask for an alternative to another word.  “What else could we say besides ‘fantastic’?”  I offer up, “Magnificient?” “Ooh, yes, that’s perfect, darling!”  Sitting there in the early morning, me with my journal, they on their laptop, all exchanging details and stories about the day before, I was filled with an incredible happiness.  However painful it was to leave, it was worth it for this.  The girls said they wished we didn’t have to part, that I could keep traveling with them – it’s amazing, isn’t it, the bonds formed in these circumstances?  It seems to me to be the camaraderie of the road.  Having left our loved ones behind, we are anxious to form new connections and new memories, to create new friendships to fill the void of the ones we left at home.

After our extended breakfast/writing session, I went for a swim and laid out while the other two went out on a walk down the beach.  I relished the morning, having nowhere to be and nothing to do.  After a rather pointless shower (my hair was back up after five minutes), I took a taxi into the “downtown” city center of Nadi.  The only thing I knew to look for was the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the Southern Hemisphere – as is usually the case, it was less impressive than the pictures I’d seen online.  I still enjoyed the vibrant colors and almost fanciful designs of the temple roofs, but opted not to pay the entrance fee.  For the rest of my time in town, it was the most interesting of looks into real, everyday Fijian life.  I don’t quite know what to make of Fiji.  To me, it doesn’t fully compare to the poverty level of the Dominican Republic (where I’ve been before on service trips), and the typical house certainly seems to be okay, but the main street of Nadi just struck me as underprivileged, or at least immensely backwards.  All of the receipts are written by hand, all of the shops seem to sell only the cheapest products available.  In the clothing and apparel shops, there are knockoffs – “Pamo” bags with the logo of Puma, and a logo based off Adidas, except with four bars instead of three and SPORT written where Adidas normally is.  The men are crass like in Egypt, yelling out at you on every street corner. 

I visited several handicraft markets where each stall displays the same wares – coral necklaces and beaded jewelry, wooden masks, bowls, turtles, clubs and the like – and each vendor jumped to their feet at my approach, except for one larger woman lying on her stomach in the center of her stall, cracking peanut shells.  I was tempted to buy from her just because she was the only one who didn’t seem to care if I did either way.  One man says to me, “You are my best customer.  For you I give you half off.  I give you good price.”  I didn’t have the heart to barter with him, for “stuff” I didn’t want or need, and I couldn’t help wondering if I wasn’t so much his best as I was his only customer of the day.  The tourists were few and far between in town – understandably so – and easily spotted from their white skin and their desperate attempts to stay cool by wearing as least clothing as permissible.   They congregated mainly in the larger stores with functioning A/C units, drawn in by overeager sales associates draping them in beads and sarongs.

I kept it simple for lunch, dining at Mama’s Pizza on a surprisingly delicious mozzarella pizza.  For an uncomplicated order, I again waited half an hour, but used the time to write a postcard home.  As if by clockwork, the rain started just as I walked to the bus stop.  The buses…what an adventure.  There are no windows, just rolled-up panels of plastic tarp that can be let down when the rain grows too strong.  And the bust stops work like this – pull the bell and the bus stops.  There are no designated stops, rather every child riding home from school was able to be let off right at the bottom of their driveway.  While this meant more stops than usual, I suppose the convenience is worth it.  It was a bit of an off-road experience as well, with the bus even riding on the beach itself at times.  It was yet another look into the real Fijian lifestyle, sitting on the rough seats among all the chattering school children in their various uniforms.

After a brief attempt at a nap back at the hostel (I don’t sleep well in oppressively humid environments), I went downstairs to enlist Fiona’s help with booking an island day cruise for the next day.  I sat outside with a book while she took care of the details and I got to talking with an English girl named Michelle.  She’s been traveling for two years now, she shared, going through nine countries in Africa, all over Asia (China, Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and everywhere in between), six months working in Sydney, road-tripping over Australia, now Fiji, with plans to go on to New Zealand, Japan again, South and Central America, the Caribbean, and finally back to the UK.  It’s amazing, just when you think you’ve been a few places, you meet someone like Michelle who seems to say, “Honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”  It’s easy to grow discontent and anxious to cross off another thirty countries by 2010, but I’ve got to remember to enjoy each and every place I visit – it’s not just about bulking up my “Been there, done that” list. 

There was an exquisite sunset to close the day with.  I walked over to the Smugglers Cove Resort to watch it from the beach and ran into Jessica and Ampi, who’d also been into town that day.  The sun was half-obscured by full white clouds, but what shone through more than made up for it, spilling over in rich shades of gold and coral.  The partial sunlight fell onto the ocean, one half of the water a dark blue and the other half burning alive with color.  A couple walked out into this division of light on the water and Ampi, camera to her eye, said desperately, “Hold hands, damn it!”  With or without the romantic cliché, it was a perfect end to the day.

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