Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Wairarapa

On recommendation from a classmate we decided to spend a weekend exploring the Wairarapa region of New Zealand. The area covers the south eastern tip of the North Island and is named after Lake Wairarapa, a large shallow lake ringed with wetlands. The region is known for beautiful coastline, forest parks, wine making,
and lots and lots of sheep. All this only 90 minutes away from the heart of Wellington. We hired a car and I got my first chance to drive on the left side of the road--thanks for the help Dacia! Having no idea about distances we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to keep to our planned itinerary. At the end of it all we had witnessed a whole spectrum of weather, saw amazing countryside and coastline and survived an embarrassing (and frightening) off road situation that nearly left us stranded.

After an eventful overnight at the Greytown Hotel, NZ's oldest pub (which has survived into the modern day through its ability to faithfully attract a loud, enthusiastic crowd of drinkers -- not the greatest for a restful night's sleep!) we drove on until we reached the Pacific coast at Castlepoint. We're getting used to the weather in NZ, but on this day we encountered something new -- a brilliant sunny day with gale-force winds. This means that our day at the beach included intermittent clouds of stinging sand that pelted us as we walked along (at the end of the day we had sand just about everywhere -- ears, nose, shoes, pockets…) We didn't let it stop our fun though, just took off up the highest neighboring peak and made the best of it. On our hike up Castle Rock the wind was at our backs making the steep climb somewhat easier. Conversely, the way down meant that we had to lean into the wind and downhill—kind of scary when you see how steep Castle Rock is. We tried to capture the experience of being on that summit in several photos, but they somehow fail miserably to show the chaos of the situation. We had to shout to one another even though just a few feet apart. Our jackets and pants flapped as though we were standing up on the back of a pickup truck going down the highway. I kept checking my pockets to make sure my wallet and keys were still there, it seemed anything not actually attached was going to fly away, over the edge of the cliff.

We fought the wind all the way to our car and beat a hasty retreat back to the relative safety of the inland hills. It was totally exhausting being out in those conditions, like we had spent an entire day hiking when, in fact, it was just over an hour.

The roads here in New Zealand can best be described as curvy, narrow and just about empty. In an earlier post I mentioned that the max speed limit on the island is 100 kph (62 mph). This sounded a bit slow to me at the time (I’m coming from the flat plains of the midwest where 75-80 mph is not uncommon). At that point I was assuming that the main roads would be something like freeways. But I was wrong. As soon as you get outside Wellington the main roads become basic two-laners with an occasional passing lane. This means that the majority of the roads on the map, the little ones shown in white that criss-cross the countryside, are basically dirt or gravel. When it occurred to me that all these tiny, windy little roads carried the same 100 kph speed limit I soon realized this wasn’t slow at all. Many of the turns are so tight it would be difficult to take them at 30, and only a fraction of these turns have any kind of warning sign to prepare you for what's ahead. We marveled at false encouragement given by 100 speed limit signs that immediately preceded a drop into a steep valley or down a series of tortured switch backs. Driving these roads was great fun for me though, and I kept my eyes on the road while Dacia enjoyed the scenery and held on tight.

I did pretty well for my first time behind the wheel of a right hand drive automobile. Sure I got in on the wrong side half the time and I don’t think there was any danger in reaching for the seatbelt over my left shoulder (only to grope in the air) and I’m sure no one was confused when I indicated my lane changes with the wipers instead of my turn indicator… I only drove on the wrong side of the road once and that was because we did a U turn and I took it to the left which had the effect of resetting my sense of direction (you would take a U turn to the right here). Dacia noticed about 45 seconds later and luckily there were no cars on the road ahead for us to frighten.

Cape Palliser sits at the south east tip of the North Island. The road on the way to the lighthouse follows a dramatic coastline that is desolate and empty, except for a small fishing village called Ngawi. On the way we crossed Te Humenga Point. Te Humenga has been identified as one of the earliest settlement sites of New Zealand. Ancient stone walls can be seen that date back to the 12th century. Without a modern building in sight it’s easy to imagine how the land might have looked back then. Further along we reach the lighthouse which sits atop a rocky cliff. A climb up the 258 stairs offers views up and down the coast. The rocky shore is composed of lumpy ‘pillow lava’ that erupted on the sea floor over 100 million years ago. One particular outcropping is home to the only successful breeding colony of fur seals on the North Island. During our exploration of the rocks we came across hundreds of seals. Just as you might expect with puppies, the young seal pups, though timid, were also very inquisitive and friendly. After getting used to us being around they eventually approached us, sniffed us with their long, wet whiskers and even allowed us a brief pet of sleek seal fur.

The trip was almost over, but we decided there was still time for an extra adventure. According to our map, there was a 4x4 route around Cape Turakirae that would save us from crossing back over the steep and winding Rimutaka Mountains. We were tempted by the thought of a coastal drive and, given that we had a four-wheel-drive vehicle we decided to give it a shot. Four hours later, with the adrenalin slowly draining from our veins, we were back where we’d started—back on the paved roads, headed back up into the Rimutakas and thankful that at least this way there would be guard rails along the steeps.

The turn around point came a couple hours of very slow going past the last town, after the 'road' had dwindled to a narrow shelf in a pile of landslide rubble several hundred feet above the ocean. In this particular section it dipped down around a rocky cliff back to sea level and spilled us out onto the beach. Driving in sand feels like you’re trying to run on water—there is a sinking feeling, both in the pit of your stomach and in the car as its wheels spin faster and faster and bury themselves in sand. Both of us had taken turns panicking, so we decided to scout the road ahead to see if the walking helped calm our wits, and to see if the way forward might look even worse than the way back. We were in the middle of nowhere. The only other people we had encountered on the road were two angry looking teenagers on dirt bikes who came speeding past us—obviously not willing to offer any help or even sympathy. We had stopped just short of rounding a point and we walked ahead to get a glimpse of the lighthouse that would indicate the start of the paved road. Instead we saw about another 10 miles of desolate shoreline with no lighthouse in sight. Directly ahead, the trail seemed to climb vertically up a hill before disappearing completely into a recent landslide. We paused to enjoy this utterly empty stretch of coast that offered stunning views of Cape Palliser and the bay. I don't expect we'll be passing that way again anytime soon! The rest of the Wairarapa however, will definitely be seeing more of us.

You can watch a slideshow or view pictures from the trip.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Got my first NZ paycheck last week. That's right -- I am officially employed. I sent in squillions of CVs and cover letters in response to classified ads, hoping against hope that that old trick might work for me here. Never once in my entire, varied employment history have I gotten a job through such traditional channels. After about 6 weeks had passed without even reaching the interview stage with any of the CV recipients, it was time for a different tactic. I decided to go with my usual standby -- showing up unannounced at the front door and talking my way in. When I showed up, New Zealand Translation Centre happened to have a vacancy just opening for a Chinese Editor. And also a high demand for French and Spanish skills as well. And there I was. They didn't even have to post an ad in the paper.

So what is a Chinese Editor, you may be wondering? NZTC actually has quite laudable standards of accuracy and quality that they strive to uphold by using certain protocol, viz: 1) translators can only translate into their native language; 2) every translation must pass through an editor who knows both languages, and who is a native speaker of the original document's language; 3) the editor checks not only for errors and omissions, but also to make sure that the translator understood any ambiguities in the original correctly, and has conveyed the correct sense in the translation; 4) following comments from the editor, the translator makes final corrections and proof-reads one last time. We have an in-house Chinese translator, Yu Zhimin, who I partner with. He makes corrections on the odd Chinese-to-English translation I provide. Mostly, I edit his English-to-Chinese translations. In the last two weeks since I've started, we've worked on medical advisories, anti-gambling pamphlets, personal letters, on-line surveys, and a massive technical document for the mining industry. We never know what's coming next.

Kiwi Dispatch cannot resist commenting on things unique to New Zealand, so here are a couple related to the workplace.
  • Morning and afternoon tea -- a communal and social event. An official announcement comes over the loudspeaker at 10 am and 3 pm. We all head down to the common area for Nescafe, strong black tea or Milo. Sometimes there are biscuits.
  • Good Friday and Easter Monday -- both official holidays. Shops were closed, alcohol sales banned, everything shut down. Almost no one went to church.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Joys of Exploration

It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the creeks and forests of a place, discarded by developers and home builders. Growing up in suburban neighborhoods in the midst of development meant that, temporarily, some places existed undisturbed. Had they not, however, the child’s imagination could take charge and turn the known into the unknown. The joy of exploration is about discovery and there is a bigger pay off if you’re the first to find out, even if your trail blazing is only imaginary.

I’ve grown accustomed to my adult explorations taking the shape of finding a favorite café, walk, or hidden corner in the library. In most urban cities you’d be hard pressed to find an un-trodden trail or abandoned valley or forest floor. In a lot of cases the sheer number of explorers makes it difficult for a place to appear forgotten or overlooked; well worn foot paths hardly allow room for improvisation.

Thankfully, Wellington still has rocks to overturn and discoveries to be made—literally. The topography demands that certain areas resist man’s temptation to develop. In other cases, habitat is protected for wildlife. Park areas have been set aside but only a few of the most popular are maintained. There are still many forests and small valleys that have no grand entrance or paved paths. The inroads are hidden and out of the way, which means that visitors are rare and the forest has a chance to establish its own, unique character, no matter if it was once disrupted.

Dacia and I have wandered along many paths only to find them dissolve or branch into different directions. In some cases the way ahead is blocked but other times we’ve been able to continue along with only our sense of direction and enthusiasm leading the way. We have gone ahead, not knowing if we’ll have to turn back, retracing the same steps. We’ve persisted and risked the fading light at day’s end would catch us too soon and leave us in the dark. I’m dramatizing to some extent, but this a country where reports of hikers gone missing are in the news repeatedly. What a feeling, then, to push on and emerge on the other side in a completely new place. Even a known place reached by an unknown route is a success and cause for celebration.

This morning we headed up into the woods just a few blocks from our house where a path picks up at the end of a residential road. The trees have been cleared, but grasses and plants have grown in over the trail so it’s obvious that visits like ours are rare. We enter a valley that is narrowing. Gradually the sounds of the city are replaced by the rustling of our footsteps, the distant wind heard in the trees along the ridge above and the wondrous bird calls. We’ve come to recognize a few of the most common calls like that of the Tui. They never cease to sound extaordinary though. Instead I’m compelled to listen closer to the striking liquid melody—imagine a tiny brook with the water sounds amplified and musical—that’s just the beginning.

On the ground we see a handful of Amanita mushrooms scattered around—the quintessential speckled red topped poisonous (or hallucinogenic) variety. This is an old stream bed that has been filled in, the water redirected to deliver the wetness away from the houses down below. A little farther we see the stream disappearing into its catchment. Just then, a red and green flash in the tree tops. Dacia spots two Kakarikis, yellow-crowned parakeets. They walk along branches with longs tails flipping back and forth, pigeon-toed. Their fluttery, awkward flight between trees is no less comical. The two are keeping together and rummaging through the branches for food. It’s odd in a forest of so many bird sounds that these two are utterly silent. Though not endangered this is a rare sighting within the city and a first for us--we’re thrilled. Before we can get a closer look they fly off, up towards the ridge.

The path is eventually swallowed by the creek and we continue on from rock to rock. An old, rusty, round 50’s era washing machine with rollers lays half buried. An even larger metal object is sunk into the earth not revealing enough for identification. These abandoned household items and junk—a rotting leather boot, broken plastic bucket—are signs that we’ve reached the real backyard of Wellington, the place behind the shed where stuff is tossed and forgotten. Uncovering these lost objects in their final resting place ignites the excitement of discovery. Though it’s not the ocean floor, and these aren’t gold coins spilling accidentally from a sunken treasure chest, it makes me feel there’s room for happy accidents and untold pleasures.

On our way out, Dacia slips on the mossy rocks leading around a deep pool. I hear a ker-splash and look back to see her knee-deep in the dark water. Luckily she’s wearing a skirt and the only thing wet are her shoes and socks. As soon as she’s back out and on solid ground she takes them off without complaint and continues on foot. What a delight, it turns out. Unexpectedly, her bare feet thrive on the soft grasses, damp earth and even the sidewalk all the way home. Perhaps this was the plan all along.

“Do you want to go for a walk this morning?”

“Yeah, let’s go see what we can find.”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Home... at last.
Shortly after Jay and I moved our four suitcases up the stairs and settled in at the Hannah Warehouse, we were surprised to find a flyer sitting down in the lobby with a picture of our flat -- for sale. We called the landlords (who had been strangely eager to avoid signing a long-term lease) who reassured us that, "Yes, we have have put your flat up for sale, but we're only just floating it on the market. We don't expect anyone to buy it at this price!" Three weeks and a dozen real estate agent-led showings later, of course someone did. Wellington's burgeoning housing market had claimed another victim, and we received our official 6 weeks notice to vacate the premises!

Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the local paper prints its major classified sections, both for housing and for jobs. The first several weeks of my life in New Zealand revolved around these two poles, with a flurry of flat inquiries and CV writing filling the mornings of these days. Since we have decided not to buy a car here, we were on foot for all of our increasingly far-flung visits to potential flats, and an entire weekend could easily be eaten up trekking from one hillside neighborhood to another to another. (From Kelburn, to Roseneath, to Thorndon, to Brooklyn, to Mt. Victoria, to Haitaitai, to Te Aro....) Crowds of flathunters met us at most sites. One open house, scheduled for a mere 15 minutes at a tiny 1 bedroom cottage, yielded more than 20 people trying to cram inside.

Some of the things we learned during our search, mostly unique to NZ:

  • Rent is paid weekly here. When you move in, you pay a "bond" of 1,2,3, sometimes 4 weeks rent (there doesn't seem to be any agreed upon standard) to a government body that holds the deposit. When you move out, you get it back after lengthy delays. In practice many landlords keep the bond themselves, or pass it directly to the outgoing tenant to speed things up.

  • Fridges, washing machines and dishwashers are referred to as "whiteware" and in many cases are not included in rental properties. People "hire" their whiteware from special companies and pay a weekly bill for them.

  • Some flats, like the Hannah Warehouse one, are listed as "fully furnished". These are at the opposite extreme from the bare, empty flats we found on the market. They are designed to be immediately livable, and provide everything including towels, sheets, can openers, tea pots, alarm clocks, you name it.

  • Many of the best flats never get advertised...

Eventually we started to get savvy -- any flat wanting less than a certain amount of rent was guaranteed to be a) falling apart, b) mildewed to a toxic degree, or c) a basement apartment with no sunlight in an impossibly distant suburb. Flats like the one we were leaving were truly out of our price range for the long term, so we decided that our only real shot of a decent living environment was going to involve locating a room within an established house. Although we are used to living alone, it was going to be worth trading privacy for the chance to spread rent among several flatmates and to avoid the need to purchase furnishings for completely bare living rooms and kitchens.

New Zealand, sadly, does not have a well-established craigslist. It does have two sites that serve a similar function, Flatfinder and Trademe. We launched a multi-pronged offensive, involving daily checks of both sites, broadcast inquiries to flats that looked promising, and pinning down as many "interviews" as possible. The competition was intense, and households looking for a new addition could afford to be picky. Sometimes we could tell as soon as the door opened that it wasn't going to work out. Sometimes we sat down for hours-long conversations over cups of tea, only to be called back and told that someone else was more suitable. We started to become extremely discouraged, especially when people we genuinely liked and thought we'd made a good impression on told us they'd rather live with someone else!

After a particulary dismal Saturday, wasted entirely on unsuccessful interviews, we were at our low point. We had ticked through our entire list of prospects, the fruit of a hard week's labor, and we were down to our last shot. For over a week, we had been corresponding with Drake and Casey by email in response to a text-only lising for their flat on the web. By this stage in the game, we were acutely conscious that a good relationship with the people living in the flat was the only thing that was going to secure us a home. So, we'd agreed to put off this particular "showing" several times until it was convenient for Drake and Casey. We knew next to nothing about the house. It was located in our favorite neighborhood, Aro Valley. The rent was very reasonable, and their posting asked for a flatmate "who knows how to have fun, but is mature enough to clean up after themselves when it's over". When we finally learned the address, we decided to head over a coffee in the neighborhood and a sneak peek, even thought the "interview" wasn't until the following afternoon.

Our hearts sank as we counted the house numbers up to 87a Aro Street. This is what we found: Number 87 Aro Street was a creaky-looking fish and chips shop, and we could see the stairs leading up to apartment above it. Of all the places for a flat! We sat in the cafe across the street, crest-fallen. Should we cancel? They seemed so nice. Maybe it was a cozy paradise inside, despite appearances.

The following day, we received good news: one of the flats we'd seen was willing to take us. They were very far outside the city center, and it was going to take some getting used to. They wanted a commitment from us, and Jay was all for it, but I couldn't shake my intuition that it was the wrong choice. Against all logic, I was holding out for Drake and Casey. We decided to keep our appointment with them. We had climbed the stairs outside the fish and chips shop and were about to knock, when I had a sudden suspicion. Remembering Wellington's odd habits of numbering houses, I told Jay to wait while I ran down the driveway.

And our luck changed: A house with a garden, surrounded by roses, lavender and native plants. Drake and Casey turned out to be Kiwis around our age, with a lot of common interests. They were looking for flatmates to help them make a home out of a house. We sat by the gas fire drinking coffee and talking animatedly for hours. They showed us the room upstairs with windows on three sides and views of the hills, but we barely looked at it, we were so certain it was the right place for us. And so here we are now, finally moved in, settling in at last.