Thursday, October 29, 2009

Waiheke - Day 2

I woke up early to the sounds of children playing and screaming. I stayed in bed for a while longer trying to catch up on any sleep I can get. After reluctantly waking up, I hung out with the family for a while waiting for a picnic they had planned with a relative and her kid, Phoenix.

Just before noon, the girls, Phoenix, and I packed into a van and drove to Whakanewha Regional Park and set up a blanket right by the water on a big grassy plane under a series of hills, one of which is a home to a vineyard. As Angie spent time with India, the kids took me up a hill to what used to be an ancient Māori pā. A short hike up a hill through native bush led to a small grassy clearing with a kumara pit. Through the trees around the clearing, I could see Auckland and the surrounding islands in the distance over water. After a short hike through the area and a climb up a large pōhutukawa tree from which I had to lift all the kids down, we walked off the path through the forest back to the grassy plane where we were based.

As it turns out, many of the parks on Waiheke, and Auckland as well, are installed with rudimentary kitchens in the forms of a water tap and large gas cooking griddles built into sturdy-looking brick bases. Over a glass of wine, Angie cooked sausages for the kids and salmon with hoisin sauce for the adults. Lunch was delicious as it also came with a tasty salad with tender greens (and flowers!) in a light sweet fruity vinagrette. The grated beetroot was surprisingly delicious in the salad. After the meal, the kids went swimming and I decided to start on a long, leisurely walk back to the house.

Walking north along Rocky Bay, I encountered a group of volcanic rocks again, which I stepped across to another beach. There was a protected colony of some kind of endangered bird there, along with a beautiful large Pōhutukawa tree. Apparently the Pōhutukawa trees are much healthier on Waiheke Island compared to the mainland due to the fact that they have managed to successfully eliminate opossums on the island. A walk through some pretty parkland surrounded by native New Zealand flora led to the road, which I followed for quite some time. I would run into others once in a while on this road, but it was mostly empty, surrounded by a green sea of grass, trees, palms and ferns. As I came to an intersection, I ended up taking a turn in the wrong direction without realising it.

After a fair bit of walking on a small track beside the road and enjoying views of Rocky Bay as I gained altitude, I came across a nice elderly couple. They asked me directions to a track, which I had no idea about. I though this would be a good opportunity to ask directions to Ostend, where I was couchsurfing, and they told me I was heading in the wrong direction. After handing me a map they picked out of an ant-filled box, we walked together and talked for a while. It turns out that the man came from England decades ago, and settled in New Zealand. He and his wife are on a weekend outing from the Auckland region and had sailed here on their boat. I had wanted to look for an opportunity to see if I can bum a ride back with them, but before I could, we reached the intersection where I took the wrong turn and it was time to part. Just as I was about to bring it up, a van came behind us, which they waved down and asked directions to Ostend for me just to make sure they weren't misdirecting me. The guy driving the van, a photographer who had settled in Waiheke over a decade ago, offered me a ride back, which I decided to take. Jumping in the van, I wondered if I had missed an opportunity to hitch a ride back with the old couple on their sail boat and had missed a great experience and an opportunity to get to know more people in the Auckland Region.

On the drive back, we passed by the Waiheke Dirt Track, where a race was going on. The Waiheke Dirt Track, well know in the area, is a track in a rough oval-pear shape where locals race old cars. There were cars parked all over the area, and kids and adults alike were mingling around the fence jockeying for a view of the cars running around the dusty track. I had meant to stop by on the way back, but had to bypass it as I wanted to learn more about the island through talking to the driver. He drove me all the way back to the house after a quick stop where I helped him load a new BBQ grill into his car from the supermarket in Ostend.

Later on in the day, I went on a walk around the southern shore of Waiheke, which I was told is very different than the north shore. The social make-up of the south shore is also different, and I'm told that as opposed to the large vacation batches of the north shore, the south shore population is "poor as." The walk was generally uneventful. the only points of interest being a swampy area I walked through, filled with air roots sticking out of the muddy ground around the path. I also walked through a hilly area filled, again, with native flora. This area was a quiet residential and farming neighbourhood where I encountered more people riding horses around, and had great views of the coastline. Walking along the shore, I came across a large tongue of water, flowing out from the receding tide, revealing an expansive mudflat where anchored boats became grounded, and the view of the mainland across the water beyond. There were dingy boathouses around here, and some people were sitting around a boathouse playing the guitar and singing songs. Finally, I walked through downtown Ostend, where there were a few restaurants and a sports bar just starting to fill up with cheerful people for the evening.

When I got back to the house, I had a light dinner of fruit with yoghurt along with everyone else before the kids were all put to bed early. Tonight, Phoenix was staying over as well, but luckily, Codi was also away for the night so there was room. I sat and chatted to Angie while she sewed for a while at night, dealing with India who refused to go to bed. Just seeing the interaction of Angie with her kids, especially India, puts a smile on my face as you can tell that although she is exhausted, she is genuinely loving and cares for her children. It made me miss my parents as I get to see them only about once a year. After Angie went to bed, I stood outside on the patio for a while, watching the stars above a valley of gently swaying trees and ferns. I could see the lights of a few houses around, but the area was generally dark if it was not for the moonlight. This was the first time I had watched the stars at night in New Zealand, and I tried to find familiar constellations as well as try spotting new ones visible only in the Southern Hemisphere. After watching the stars for a bit longer out of the window in my room, I went to bed. I didn't want to go to sleep too late as I knew that I would be woken up early in the morning again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waiheke - Day 1

It was blindingly sunny as I made my way to the upper deck of the ferry, but I decided that I didn't want to miss the view from a 30 minute cruise in Hauraki Gulf. For Labour Weekend, my fifth weekend in New Zealand, I arranged to spend three days on Waiheke Island with a couchsurfer. I was quite happy that she agreed to host me, as there were only two couchsurfers on Waiheke who were actively hosting for that weekend. This is not surprising, as Waiheke, New Zealand's third most populated island, is home to only 8000 residents, plus serving as a vacation home spot for several thousand more. In fact, Waiheke is home to so few people that there isn't even a government-owned water distribution system on the island. The residents get their water from filtered rainwater collected through their roofs and gutters, stored in large water cisterns on their property. If there is a dry spell, they must pay for water tankers to refill their cisterns using water drawn from a few bores on the island.

As our catamaran ferry cruised past North Head and out of Waitemata Harbour, I suddenly remembered to text my host, Angie. She informed me that she and her son will be waiting to pick me up when I arrive on Waiheke. We sailed past many of the islands in the Bay, including Rangitoto, Browns, Motutapu, and Motuihe. Even from the boat, it was interesting for me to see the different geologic and flora features of the different islands, as they were all created at different times over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and it really does show. As we sailed past the cliffs of Motutapo Island, the harbour of Matiatia, where we are landing, came into view. Matiatia Harbour was very pretty, especially in the sunlight under the blue sky. There was a tongue of sparkling blue water speckled with sailboats, which extended in between lush green hills. The land comes to a pincer formation with steep hills near the mouth of the harbour, so that you felt quite secure after passing by the entrance.

As our ferry docked, I met with Corey, who made eye contact with me before I disembarked, and we walked to the van that Angie was driving, along with her entire family. She took me on a quick driving tour of the west side of the island, the populated side, before dropping her son off at the paintball grounds and then heading home. Her home, a modest but cosy house, was located in Ostend, but very close to Palm Beach. What this means is that her house is nearly exactly in the middle between the north and south shores of Waiheke. She was quite busy that day, so after settling in a bit, I headed out for a random walk. As I was leaving the house, I was very amused at the old-fashioned key the doors were locked with, as I rarely get to use those types of keys nowadays.

My walk took me up north of the house, where I encountered some spectacular tree fern forests in valleys, grapevines on rolling hills, and views of the water, both north towards the barrier islands and south towards the mainland. I even caught a few glimpses of Auckland city from where I was. As I also wanted to meet some locals and possibly travellers, I took the opportunity to ask for directions and suggestions on what to do when I saw a woman tending to her horses in front of her house. After talking for a bit, I found out that she was originally from Norway and had worked in Beijing in the 1970s for a gas exploration company, one of the first foreign companies to be allowed to operation in China. She led me into her farm a little, to a crest where she pointed out to me Onetangi Beach.

I decided to follow her suggestion and soon found myself walking downhill along the water towards Onetangi. There were some very nice views on the way of the countryside as well as the cliffs above the water. Along with the patches of ferns and cabbage trees, it gave off a very relaxed and exotic vibe. I walked by two girls on a horse on their way to the beach and tried to start up a quick chat about Waiheke, but as they were teenagers, they were more focused on talking between themselves than with me. Onetangi Beach was a very long sweep of sand, and is in fact Waiheke's longest beach at just over one and a half kilometres in length. However, as the tide was in at the time, the beach was not as wide as usual, but was still quite beautiful. Soon after I arrived, the girls on the horse arrived too, and they splashed and swam in the water a ways down the beach with their horse. It was on Onetangi beach where I realized that the shell gravel I saw in Auckland was probably gathered in the area and not imported from afar. Large swathes of Onetangi Beach, and in fact all of the beaches there, are covered in a thick layer of seashells of different colours and shapes, most of them surprisingly intact. I decided to pick out a few shells to add to my collection of rocks and shells collected from interesting places, but I found this to be extremely difficult as there were so many choices! In the end, I settled for an off-white perfectly shaped scallop shell of just the right size, and a flat-ish sea-snail shell with pretty stripes and shiny sections filled with colour that looked like mother-of-pearl.

After a quick walk around the beach, I walked back to the house where I hung out with the family for a while to get to know them a bit. The three girls are quite a handful. The entire time they were awake while I was there, they were running around, playing and screaming. They were such bundles of energy and they all had such great personalities. Especially little India, at age two, was amazingly friendly and outgoing, and we got to spend a good amount of time with each other. The boys were a bit more shy and were absorbed in doing what they were doing rather than approaching me unless I talked to them. Once they were talking though, I found them to be very nice and caring.

A bit before dinnertime, I popped out for a second walk. This time, Angie and her kids gave me directions for Palm Beach, the closest beach to their home. The road took me through houses situated in a lush forest of native plants from New Zealand, including numerous ferns, fern trees, nikau palms, and cabbage trees. I was hoping to bump into a restaurant, but didn't find one. When I got close to the water, I asked an elderly couple walking around, and they told me that the closest open restaurant would probably be across the island in the town centre of Ostend. Fortunatly, there was a small convenience shop that was open there, so I picked up a meat pie in a heated case, an orange-mango fizzy and a few energy bars. I walked to the beach, found a rock to sit on, and had my meal there. As I ate, I enjoyed the view and sounds of the beach and the sight of a small island just offshore, which I thought would great to explore with a kayak. I slowly became aware that I was being surrounded by hungry seagulls flying in from all over the area who flocked all over where I was sitting as soon as I stood up and left. The seagulls looked disappointed as they few away again a few moments later.

I took a stroll around Palm Beach, around a group of craggy rocks on the west end of the beach. Much of the sand was quite wet as it appears that the tide had just gone out. Passing by this group of large boulders led to a smaller portion, which I later discovered was a nude beach. It wasn't dodgy though, as there were fully clothed couples and families strolling along as well. From here, I could see Little Palm Beach as well, a public beach surrounded by private property so that the only way to get there is by boat or swimming, if you can be sure you won't be dragged out to sea by the powerful rip currents there. I sat on some of the large rocks watching the sun go behind some hills and reflecting on where my life is heading. That evening, I returned to a full house, where the girls taught me Chinese Poker while India was sitting in my lap, naked, and having me read to book to her. At first I was a bit surprised, coming from the prude culture of the US, but I was explained that in New Zealand, or at least Waiheke, having small children arounter the girls went to bed, Angie showed me photos from her trip to Vietnam and Cambodia last year. After some more chatting, we headed off to bed. I had my own room as Corey was staying over with a friend and Codi was sleeping outside in the common room.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wine Tasting and Mount Eden

I've continued to meet people in Auckland through Couchsurfing. I've gone to each of their Wednesday meet-ups since I arrived and plan on keep attending. It's an interesting mix of locals, people here on a working holiday, and travellers from all over the world. This Wednesday, as I was on my way to the meet-up at the Buffalo Bar on Princes Wharf in Viaduct Harbour, I saw a penguin swimming in the water! It was a very small variety of penguin, called "little penguin" or "blue penguin," which is the smallest of the penguin varieties. Other interesting things I've seen at the harbour this week include a crazy-looking black trimaran ship, dubbed the "Batman Ship" by one of my co-workers. Near the end of the week, a giant cruise ship, taller than the surrounding buildings, was docked there, attracting gazing crowds of locals as well as generating its own crowds of people walking around the harbour. It glowed brightly at night and one can see the passengers walking around on its decks and the crew working busily on and around the ship. But I digress; through the Couchsurfing community, I joined a Saturday wine tour organised by Kirin, one of the two Couchsurfing city ambassadors of Auckland.

At noon, I met with two other couchsurfers at the Albert Street Food Alley, one of the many international food courts in Auckland. I've met both of them at the Wednesday get-togethers. Nadia, from Moscow, is studying English in New Zealand. Although she has a bit of trouble communicating, she manages quite well for the amount of time that she has been learning English. Sara, from San Francisco, had just arrived in the country this week on a year-long working holiday visa and still appears to be working off hear jet lag. As we waited for Kirin, it rained and became sunny in spurts, as it had been doing in Auckland for the past few weeks.

After being picked up, we picked up Craig Smith on the way to meet other other car of couchsurfers. We found out that Craig was a singer, specialising in children's song, and with the help of his illustrator friend, had just recently published a best-selling children's book based on a song of his that was named New Zealand's Children's Song of the Year in 2008. he showed us a copy of the book, and we loved it as it was illustrated very well. After a quick lunch at the Ponsonby Food Court, we headed off on our way to the wineries.

It turns out that Craig and Kirin where very much into wine, chatting with the vineyard staff and telling us about the different kinds of wine and how to enjoy them. As we drove out of Auckland, the scenery changed very quickly into a rural setting, and Kirin pointed out to us where the Hauraki Gulf, part of the Pacific Ocean, was separated from Manukau Harbour, part of the Tasman Sea, by only a kilometre.

Throughout the day, we visited four wineries. Babich Wines, still within Auckland, was surrounded by new houses built in the past five years. These houses were an eyesore in what would have otherwise been a pristine area of green, grassy hills. They didn't have a spittoon for the wine, and the owner, a very nice, distinguished-looking lady, was making fun of the people who asked for a spittoon. I quite enjoyed her stories and one of their higher quality sauvignon blancs; it was crisp and refreshing. Soljans Estate was very commercialized, but had a very interesting sparkling muscat which was quite enjoyable and tasted like pop, which I'm told is called "fizzy" in New Zealand. Kumeu River was higher-end, with a variety of wines in the more expensive price ranges. I tried and liked very much their different chardonnay wines, which Kirin told me were all fermented using natural yeast on their skins. The old lady there also told us many interesting stories, and it just happens that she is leaving for New York that evening to attend a prestigious "by invitation only" wine event with the top wineries around the world. Last but not least was Matua Valley, a relatively large and slick operation. Their wines were all reasonably priced and tasty. Their botrytised riesling was especially good, rich, and had no off-flavours; it was a steal at only $16.50 per bottle as they were running a special on it. I bought a bottle to share with my flatmates, but left it in Kirin's car as I was pretty tired and was zoning out by the end of a day of drinking.

After saying bye to the other group of couchsurfers, we decided to end the day at Muriwai Beach. It was only about a twenty minute drive from the wineries, which in turn, were about a twenty minute drive from Auckland. I was amazed at how thin this part of the country was, as it takes only about forty minutes to drive from the west coast to the east coast at this point, with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of kilometres of ocean on both sides (yes, I realize that the Coromandel Peninsula is more east than Auckland, across the bay, but hey, it extends only about another forty or so kilometres north before it ends). Along the way, we saw heaps (I'm going to start using NZ terms from now on!) of sheep, including many new-born lambs. I also saw a white horse on a farm, and immediately thought of Gandalf.

Before arriving at the beach, we picked up some food and water from a small shop, where I got hoki (a kind of fish) and kumara chips, which came wrapped in newspaper. We sat on a small grassy area overlooking the beach to eat, watching a group of kitesurfers jumping around on the crashing waves. The sand at Muriwai is mostly black due to its high concentration of iron filings from past volcanic activity. There were even plans to mine the iron sand at Muriwai in the past, but the residents successfully intervened and stopped the mining from ever happening, saving this beautiful stretch of coastline.

After eating, Nadia, Sara and I explored the surrounding. We discovered a cave with waves crashing in and out of it, but from our angle we couldn't see how deep it goes. They also discovered a path the the gannet (a type of sea bird) colony nearby, while I was walking around somewhere else. When we returned to the car, Kirin drove us to a parking lot by the gannet colony where we took a path through bush populated with beautiful native plants to one of the observation platforms. The view from this platform was breathtaking. To the left, there was a lone surfer in the water based off of a secluded beach of black sand at the bottom of steep cliffs and hills covered in delicate green spring grass. There was an ocean of majestic squaking gannets below us, spaced out evenly sitting on small mounds. Whenever one of them stood up to stretch, we could see the eggs placed carefully in the bowl at the top of the mound. Some of the gannets were
courting by batting their beaks together, and some even mated on occasion. To the right, a few people with fishing rods were on a rock outcropping battered by the pounding waves, creating periodic tall sprays of white foam. Offshore, there was a tall, steep island with a flat top that hosted yet another colony of gannets. All of this was set to the backdrop of a setting sun over a vast expanse of open ocean. As we returned to Auckland from the great day, we exchanged contact information, and Sara mentioned that she would contact us if she decided to visit Rangitoto tomorrow, Sunday, the 18th of October, 2009.

Sunday morning, I got sucked into a computer game for many hours. Since I didn't receive a message from Sara, I had nothing to interrupt my playing. I finally stopped playing games at around 3pm. I decided to take a quick walk to Mount Eden Domain, also known as Maungawhau Reserve. Mount Eden, as with many of the other hills in and around Auckland, is a well-formed cinder cone from previous volcanic activity on the currently dormant Auckland Volcanic Field. This particular lava vent, erupting about 15,000 years ago, is the highest natural point in Auckland, at an elevation of 196 metres.

On the way over, I took a wrong turn as I was using a large, green, volcano-looking hill as a visual queue to orient myself. Unfortunately, I did not take into account of the vast number of these hills around Auckland, and ended up walking towards Mount Hobson Domain. Fortunately, I corrected my course quickly after walking through the residential neighbourhood of Grafton, where I caught a glimpse of Mount Eden behind the houses. Because of this detour, I ended up walking right in front of the Mount Eden Prison, a castle-like structure constructed in the 1800s.

Following the road up, I arrived at Mount Eden Domain. Immediately, even at the base, there are shallow grass-covered basins which looked like shallow amphitheatres perfect for small concert events. I followed a path by a road winding up the mountain. Since the mountain is quite steep and the road winds up the sides , the path was one or two metres higher then the road it follows, and I felt like I was walking on a wall. As I reached the first flat area about two-thirds of the way up, I was treated to a beautiful view of Haruki Gulf, with Rangitoto and the various volcanic craters of North Shore City clearly visible. There is a flat, fenced field overlooking downtown Auckland there, where cows are led to graze from time to time.

Just beside this field there is an area in the shape of a wide mound with about half a dozen bowl-shaped depressions (*edit: I later found out that these pits may have been kumara pits dug by the Māori), each about two to three metres wide. I found this fascinating as I imagined what this area would have looked like as it was erupting millennia ago. Following up a steep path straight up the side of the main cinder cone, up through the terraces formed long ago by the Māori as a part of a pā, or a fortified village, I arrived on the north rim of the main crater. I was quite taken the first time I saw the entire crater. Other than some worn away areas around the edge, it was nearly perfectly bowl-shaped and circular, was quite steep, and was quite large at about 50 metres deep and 200 metres wide. It looked soft and pleasant as the entire crater was covered by a layer of green grass, and there appeared to be a series of small, concentric terraces, although I can't tell if they are natural or man-made.

I walked around the rim of the crater to the higher southern side where there was a 360º view, other than a few trees blocking a few small areas. The view from up there was amazing. I could see a series of volcanic islands among turquoise waters in Haruki Gulf to the north, the sparkling waters of Manukau Harbour to the south, large hills in the distance, and all around, there were numerous volcanic cones covered in a layer of light green spring grass speckled with trees. There were billowing clouds all around, travelling at quite high speeds in the windy day, forming moving patches of rain and sun in the Auckland area, which explains why the weather here seems so sporadic and unpredictable. As the rain blew over the peak periodically, I sheltered myself against a stone dedication pillar. I also met a small kid up there who was worried that he hasn't seen him mum in a while. I kept him company and reassured him for a few minutes before his family showed up and was very happy to see him.

I took a different path down, exploring a few different areas of the volcanic cone. There were some cool terrain features, but nothing as exciting as the craters at the top. One interesting thing I noticed was that in many areas the path crosses a fence. Instead of a gate in these areas, they built a series of steps which looks like half of a picnic table with a fence running through it. These steps are what people would use to step over the top of the fence, although they looked suspiciously easy to trip over. The walk back was uneventful and I didn't get lost a second time. I enjoyed the view of Rangitoto the entire way back as it was downhill all the way back to the flat.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

First Weekend Free to Explore My Surroundings

This weekend I finally settled down enough to take some time to explore my surroundings (my new flat's the building on the right of the photo above). In the first weekend, I was recovering from my flight, watching TV to get a sense of the culture and accent here, running around town viewing flats and doing research on a variety of things such as bank accounts and phone cards. I did, however, find time to grab some yum cha (the term they use for dim sum here) with some workmates and have some long talks on the phone with my parents and friends. Last weekend I was busy moving into the new flat and unpacking. (The building with the green in the photo below is the other flat I was considering - on the 14th floor with a great view of he city and the harbour, but a smaller and more expensive room)

This weekend, I finally had some time to explore. I took it easy on Saturday and took a walk to Dove-Myer Robinson Park which is about a ten minute walk from my new flat. It is a beautiful and sparsely-used park by the water on a hill. I had a great view of Mount Victoria in North Shore City across the harbour as well as Rangitoto, an imposingly shaped and sized island created by a volcanic eruption 600 years ago, and the shadow of either Mototapu Island or Waiheke Island in the distance.

From there, I went on to visit the rose garden, took a walk up a hill to an old wooden church surrounded by an old graveyard with headstones recording the passing of prominent members of Auckland society in the 1800s. I noticed that many paths are paved with crushed seashells instead of the gravel that one sees often in North America. Beside the rose garden is a charming tropical garden filled with fern trees and other tropical looking plants. There are a few narrow winding paths through this dense grove, which immediately transports you to an exotic forest with no trace of the surrounding civilization or time period. There were many interesting trees and birds around, including a fiercely fighting pair who nearly collided with my head from flying around so violently.

My favourite discovery there, however, was by the water down a series of steep paths. Surrounded by trees and ferns on three sides, and a shallow lagoon whose floor is white from eroded seashells on the other, there is a tongue of soft, green grass speckled with small flowers. This is the perfect hidden refuge I had been in search of for practising kung-fu without being spotted too often. To be fair, however, it was kind of a rainy day, so I hope that it stays as private it seemed during days of good weather. I helped with an afternoon shopping trip later in the day, as someone I was planning on meeting up with cancelled at the last minute. Apparently his family had just shown up suddenly. I had been interested in seeing him again after meeting him in Florence two years ago on my long two-and-a-half month post-graduation backpacking trip. We haven't been in contact since.

Sunday, I woke up to a cloudless sky - the first day I didn't wake up to showers since I arrived three weeks ago. After joining some co-workers for yum cha, I wandered to a Diwali festival being held at the Viaduct just a few minutes from the restaurant. There were many Indian food stalls selling well-priced and delicious looking food items, but I had already been stuffed from brunch. While I was there, I enjoyed the Indian music and shows being put on the stage. I was also impressed at the size of the masts of the giant private sailing yachts moored along the dock.

After the festival, I walked along the water, and asking for directions a few times, made my way to the Auckland Fish Market. The Auckland Fish Market, situated in a rather industrial area filled with fishing and boating shops, is the centre of the fish trade in Auckland, offering daily auctions and deliveries early in the morning. They also have a retail section with stores and restaurants selling the daily catch. They even offer seafood lessons once in a while, which sound like quite a bit of fun, but are quite expensive.

When I arrived, the buildings immediately reminded me of Sydney's fish market. I was, however, very disappointed at the size of the market. There was really only a few small restaurants and two stores selling fresh fish to the public. Although it was small, the selection was reasonable and there seemed to be a few very good deals, such as a whole barracuda for only $10. I was also very happy to see that they had skate, which is one of my favourite fish that was strangely absent from the San Francisco Bay Area. However, this was the first time I had seen whole skate, and it's odd shape mesmerised me. I also saw good amounts of fresh mussels, squid, other strange fish as well as local crayfish, which unlike the tiny crayfish of North America, are effectively lobsters without claws.

After the fish market, I wandered back towards my new flat. I ended up going through the Diwali celebrations again, where I picked up a pistachio kulfi. It turns out that was the fastest route back, across a mobile pedestrian bridge linking the western pier with the eastern pier. I had to wait at this bridge for a while as it was a long floating dock connected at one end and fitted with an outboard motor at the other, which allowed the bridge to swing open to let boats through.

Later in the day, I took a walk to Auckland Domain, a large park filled with different gardens, pitches (their term for sporting fields), and museums. I enjoyed a walk through the east side of the domain which was densely forested and contained a large variety of ferns and very interesting trees. Some of the favourite fauna I encountered there include the various ferns, including tree ferns, various rātā trees, which are straight and majestic, a variety of fig that produces abundant but hard fig fruit, the twisty pōhutukawa tree, which has beautiful flowers in the summer, the nikau tree, which is a curiously shaped palm, and the cabbage tree, which resembles those generic potted tropical plants with the long slender leaves, except these are much taller than you are. I also encountered a variety of bird species, including one species whose members all seem to be noisily digging through the dirt and dried leaves on the forest floor.

Emerging out of the bush near the museum, I enjoyed a beautiful view of Mount Victoria and Rangitoto along with the Auckland CBD. However, this didn't lend itself to being photographed well, as to get the entire view, one had to walk around a bit as there were many trees around to block the view. Mount Eden, another volcanic cone with a well defined crater, looked tantalizingly close, but I decided I'll save Mount Eden for another day as I still had all of Auckland Domain to explore.

There were a lot of beautiful things to see in the domain such as the greenhouses, the pond, and paths flanked by exotic trees. I really liked the many-branched trees there. These trees were different than the trees I am used to in that they branch very close to the bottom of the trunk, forming a spectacular explosion of thick branches travelling in all directions. Often the twists and turns of these branches would result in horizontal segments, forming benches both on the ground and in mid-air which seems quite accessible if you climb along one of these branches. One of the specimens near the duck pond was particularly impressive and large. Surrounded by grazing ducks and geese, this tree had young couples as well as small children occupying its various limbs. On the way out of the domain, I stopped in at the cherry grove, but unfortunately it appears that I had just missed the blossoms.

Coming back home, my flatmate, who cooks quite well, had roasted a large aged leg of lamb in the oven along with potatoes and kumaras, a thin-skinned and knobby variety of sweet potato used extensively in New Zealand. Served with peas and green beans, it was a good hearty meal at the end of a day of walking and exploring.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My First Week in New Zealand

So... now that I have arrived in New Zealand, got my work visa, a cell phone, a flat, a tax number, all that's left to do is get a bank account... hopefully before my first cheque this Friday so I can actually get paid. If you haven't heard yet, I secured a job in New Zealand as a tutor for games programming at Media Design School in downtown Auckland.

I've been thrown off more than I thought I would be by the accent, and everything seems very similar here... but slightly off somehow. One of my co-workers who arrived from the US a few months ago described New Zealand to me as a country that is "deceptively boring." He tells me that every time you think you've figured New Zealand out and find it similar to North America, something will always come up that surprises you. There's too many new experiences to talk about here, so I'll give you a list of things I have found cool/amusing:

- Elementary school students wear uniforms here.
- When boarding my Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, a British person sitting beside me asked me three times if I was sure this was economy class as the cabin looked very comfortable and furnished. This was in stark contrast to my horrible experience on my flight from San Francisco on United Airlines, but that's another story.
- A flight attendant asked people, for their meal choice, "chucken or beef." I found this hilarious as I stumbled upon the "Beached Whale" video on Youtube where Aussies make fun of Kiwi accents. Ben, my previous flatmate for over 6 years, and I found this video to be hilarious.
- Not really a NZ thing, but I was talking to an American businessman on the plane to Los Angeles. He made many Flight of the Conchords references, implied that NZ was hilariously behind the times and incompetent, and told me to "teach them that there is more to video games than sheep tossing."
- I applied for a work visa the day I arrived in Auckland. It took less than an hour for me to receive my visa for as long as my passport was valid. That was surprisingly fast and easy!
- I saw the actor playing Murray in the Flight of the Conchords on commercial here in NZ! Also, Zoe Bell. But Ben and I are pretty obsessed with Flight of the Conchords, so that's worth more of a mention.

- The Kiwi Prime Minister John Key was to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. The ad for it consisted of many clips from the Flight of the Conchords, to my delight.
- I sent a postcard to my mom from Auckland. The stamp I got said "DXMail." I put it in a New Zealand Post mailbox and later saw at least three different kinds of mailboxes around, including a "DXMail" mailbox. The postcard eventually did make it to my mom, but there was an inexplicable sticker from Singapore on it.
- I could not figure out how to cross the road due to a combination of people driving on the other side of the road than what I am used to, signs which I interpreted to have the opposite meaning of what they meant to convey (triangles painted on the road), and the amazing amounts of jaywalking.
- One of my co-workers told me a story of him buying a car when he arrived in NZ. When he told the guy selling the car he hasn't been paid yet since he had just started work, the seller told him to drive the car home and call him next week to pay when he gets the cash. People here seem very trusting, almost to a fault.
- Apparently you don't need car insurance to drive. There is some kind of national accident compensation committee that covers certain accidents.
- When talking to an agent at Kiwibank, I asked if they had many different types of accounts after mentioning I just arrived in New Zealand. She said "Oh! We have heaps of... [pause] ... a variety of accounts." Once again, hilarious because of the Beached Whale video.
- Saw many uses of "as," as in a tax return service called "Simple As Returns." Hilarious due to Beach Whale video, again.
- There are 2000 police cameras in the downtown area of Auckland.
- Sports here are violent! Why is Cricket, Rugby and Aussie rules football not popular in North America? I tried watching Aussie rules football and could not figure out what was happening. Apparently no one else here can figure it out either. It's been described to me as "no rules football."
- My Nokia phone has three games on it: "Nature Park" (a block dropping game), "Soccer League" and "Cricket League."
- My Nokia phone crashed the second day I got it, and some kind of setting is now activated which I could not figure out how to cancel.
- Phone numbers in New Zealand seem to have a variable number of numbers in them.
- Internet here is somewhat slow, carried by a single cable connected to Korea.
- About half of toll-free numbers, "freecall" numbers can't be dialled from a cell phone.
- New movies of September include G-Force and Up. I saw Up in theatres in the US four months ago.
- Drinking is sometimes allowed outside! Hooray!
- Don't say fanny pack in New Zealand. Fanny means a woman's private parts here.
- Surprisingly, people here sometime ask me to repeat myself and I have to ask them to repeat themselves sometimes.
- Saw an ad for a new upcoming service from Telecom called TiVo.
- Saw ads on TV with flashing slanted text which reminded me of the ad for the telephone on Flight of the Conchords.
- One of the ads on TV was for computer games, and they advertised the new game, Need For Speed Shift was only $103 (I've been told new games cost $160 here!). And the following scene, advertising a PS3 with the text "Cheap As!" popping in over it.
- New Zealanders see Auckland as both a very large city and a small city internationally... which I suppose is accurate.
- The immigration officer and others have told me they hate Auckland as it is a large city. They told me that things used to be safe before, but now you have to lock your doors, take care not to show your money and walk down dark alleys alone.
- One of the stories from another American co-worker was that he was shopping, and told a woman cashier to ring him up. The cashier was mad, as "ring up" here means to call.
- Everyone tells me that it's "not like the US" in terms of how dangerous it is here.
- When looking at apartments, I saw one on the 14th floor by the water with a clear view across the harbour. One of the people living there pointed out to me NZ's largest naval ship parked straight across in full view, which took multiple rounds of pointing and describing before me finding it.
- There's been many more little things here showing how NZ society is similar... but surprisingly different from American society.

By the way, you might have been wondering what the photos had to do with anything. Well... I haven't had the time to go around taking photos yet, so I thought you might enjoy a photo of NZ money, and a few photos I took on the way back from work today.