Friday, November 27, 2009

I've been looking so long at these pictures of you

I've tried to include as many pictures as possible in each blog posting, but it does not do justice to what I've seen and photographed. With that in mind, I've created a web album and link full of pictures for your enjoyment. I will continue to post pictures to this album. I have added this link

to the websites found under the click on this section to the right of the blog. Enjoy!

Happy Thanksgiving! Geaux Tigers!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I set out running but I take my time, a friend of the devil is a friend of mine

I had every intention of leaving Auckland and driving to Raglan last Wednesday. When I woke up that morning, it was cold and rainy and Harry told me I could expect that sort of weather all along the west coast of the north island. I sent an inquiring text message and when I received the response I was quite happy to scrap Raglan for a new destination.
I made a final trip to the Warehouse, New Zealand's version of Wal-Mart, loaded up the van with gear and snacks and hit the road. I stopped by Harry's shop on the way out to thank him profusely for everything he had done for me. I tried to explain to him how much he had aided in getting me started on this trip. He responded with a very simple but powerful remark "That's what you do for your friends."
As it turns out I would find many friends, both old and new in the days that followed. I did a city search on the GPS for Taupo and started following the illustrated directions leading me out of Auckland. I have thought about it for days now and I still do not feel that I can effectively describe the experience of driving from Auckland to Taupo. I could have had Robert Frost riding shotgun with me, spitting out descriptive poetry and it still would not do justice to the emotional high I made that drive on. The night before I left, I made a massive playlist full of driving songs. I shuffled the playlist and burned its contents to 6 CD's, unaware of the track selection of each disc. One of them came out absolutely perfect, and I will share it with you now.

This music was the perfect complement to the rolling hills, blue skies and picture perfect clouds of the New Zealand countryside. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I am still in awe of everything I have seen since leaving Auckland. It wasn't long before I arrived at the Tongariro National Holiday Park, where I pulled up next to a blue 4 person tent and a 1999 toyota mini van very similar to mine. Hanging around this site were some of my best friends from the Austin days.

Pictured above from left to right are Michael, Nate, Lacy and to my left is Ley.
I met Michael and his girlfriend lacy the summer I moved to Austin and we've been raising hell together ever since. Michael is of the rare breed of guys who I can have an in depth conversation with about the holy trinity: Live Music, SEC Football (Michael and Lacy=Mississippi State), and cycling. Lacy is one of my favorite foodie pals and might be the only person on the planet who is as passionate about chocolate as me. Nate and I lived together for about 6 months in Austin and it wasn't long before he had my stomach hurting from laughing with his vivid story telling. Ley is a friend of Michael and Lacy's and hopped a plane from Maui (where she was living and working) to New Zealand. Life's a bitch.
Although I have seen my pals as recently as September, we talked as if we hadn't seen each other in years. They have been tramping around New Zealand since October 28th and I thouroughly enjoyed hearing about their recent adventures. I was still quietly glowing from the drive down.
From time to time I address Lacy with the nickname "Team Lacy". There's a story that goes with this name and someday I might tell it to you, but for now I will refer the aforementioned group of four as "Team Lacy". As I said before, Team Lacy is traveling in a mini van very similar to mine which they have named Turbo. After a day or two of consideration, I officially named my transport Voodoo. Voodoo the van. I slept in Voodoo for the first time in Tongariro National Holiday Park and was quite pleased with my slumber. The next morning, the five of us embarked on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is regularly listed as New Zealand's top ranked walk.

Tongariro National Park includes three active volcanic mountains (Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu) and appears as pieces of Mordor and Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings films.
The hike definitely was reminiscent of Frodo and company traveling middle earth. The weather made dramatic temperature swings causing us to sweat on the steep inclines and then within minutes be shivering from the piercing wind. We walked through fog that seemed to materialize from the ground and would then suddenly disappear with a cold gush of wind. The hike included two steep climbs, one known as the Devil's Staircase. As we climbed higher the wind got brutal and we all had to put on every layer of clothing we were carrying. We reached the highest point of the hike and started to descend the other side. This is where we found the crystal clear blue lakes and snow. The vegetation and growth of the mountain changed as frequently as the weather. The final leg of the hike was through a rainforest like atmosphere with full tree coverage and plenty of small streams and waterfalls. We finished the hike in a little under six hours and were groaning and moaning in protest of our aching bodies for the next 24 hours.
Upon returning to the holiday park we cooked a huge pot of chili and potatos and then capped the day off with an hour long soak in the hot tub. Sleep came easy that evening and was more than welcome.


The next morning I split with Team Lacy and headed towards Taihape to meet some new friends. Kacee is another one of my best friends who is lucky enough to reside in Austin. As it turns out she has a cousin who lives in New Zealand and was kind of enough to invite me to her home. Elizabeth Cottrell grew up in Atlanta and met her husband Mark in Colorado on a ski trip. Mark was born and raised in the farming community of Taihape and was visiting the United States on his Overseas Experience (OE). All kiwis travel internationally at some point in their young adult life, usually before or after uni (college). Mark and Elizabeth are sheep and beef farmers and live in a beautiful home outside Taihape. This was my first visit to a farm and Elizabeth and I spent the afternoon walking through the paddocks of their land. Once again, I was astounded by the beauty of the land. The terrain is extremely hilly, but I'm not talking about the Indian mounds on LSU's campus. These are volcanic hills and appear chaotic and out of place. The colors of the grass and trees remind of the first time I saw a Pixar movie. They appear so bright and vibrant that it is almost as if they are enhanced. Elizabeth gave me a crash course in farming terminology and procedures. That night we ate a delicious piece of lamb shoulder accompanied by koura (potatos). I made her show me exactly how she cooked the meat so that I might be able to reproduce the dish someday. I got to sleep in a full sized bed that night with about 7 pillows, an electric blanket and a comforter. Luxuries like that will be few and far between over here and I soaked up the comfort like a spunge. In the same fashion that Harry did, Mark and Elizabeth provided me with extremely valuable information about the kiwi culture and traveling the land. They sent me off fully rested and carrying a bag of fresh walnuts and another bag full of fresh corned beef. I was smitten.

Mt. Taranaki

My original plans included me rushing to Queenstown as quickly as possible to find a summer job. However, as many do, I caught the travel bug after getting a little taste of the New Zealand scenery and decided to rendezvous with Team Lacy. I found them at a campsite outside Manaia, which is south of Mt. Taranaki and New Plymouth. I was particularly interested in this region of the country as it is highly likely that I could end up here for a professional job. We camped at the intersection of the black sand beach of the Tasman Sea and small river that dumps into it. Team Lacy had encountered a new friend who called himself Snow and is an accomplished fisherman. Snow had shared many secrets of the area with Nate and Michael and also given them a dozen and half fresh mussels that he picked. We ate those for dinner and hatched a plan to pick our own mussels the next day.
Nate, Michael and I gave mussel picking a try the next morning, but only came back with a handful of small ones. According to snow we needed to be out there when the tide is at its lowest point and he advised us to give it another go around 8 pm. Michael was determined to catch some fish that day so he and Lacy hung back around the campsite while Nate, Ley and myself went to go explore Mt. Taranaki.

We were able to complete the Wilkies Pools Loop which included lots of steps. Mt. Taranaki is unique in that is surrounded by a "cloud of tears" as legend has it. It is usually completely hidden by clouds. However, when it is visible, it is another New Zealand view that looks so picturesque it almost looks fake. You should Wikipedia Taranaki as it has an interesting little love story that goes with it.
That evening we went rooting about the underbellies of the rocks along the beach again. I think picking mussels might be one of the most enjoyable activities I have ever taken part of in my life. The tide was low and the weather was beautiful. Once we got the hang of it, we found more mussels than we could shake a stick at. 127 to be exact.

I had never cooked mussels before but quickly learned that there is nothing to it. We ate every single one of those little buggers on plates of imitation Ramen noodles and fresh broccoli (yes, you read that right). It was delicious and for the umpteenth time as I was totally content. We capped the night off with a bonfire on the beach.
On Monday we returned to Mt. Taranaki with the full crew this time and did a more challenging walk. As was the case the day before there was a lot of stairs involved and in general we found the hike less enjoyable than the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Before we set out for the mountain, Michael and Snow had a set a shark line in the river. I had my doubts about them actually snagging a shark, but sure enough they had one hooked when we returned. I can't recall ever having eaten shark before, but it is a bright white fish meat. Snow instructed us not to botch it up with a bunch of herbs and seasonings as it would take away from the natural taste of the meat. He showed us the best way to batter and pan fry it and we followed his instructions. As it turns out, shark is a very tasty fish. The filets were thick and a really good consistency. Not too chewy and not too flaky. The flavor is simple and not overbearing, but still savory. This meal was accompanied by a fresh green salad and a few people claimed it as their best New Zealand meal to date. For me the fresh caught shark is still in a close footrace with the fresh farm raised lamb.
I'm grinning slyly now. Who would have every thought I'd have to rate shark over lamb in New Zealand. I am totally content.

Short Circuits

  • It has been taking me forever to get these blog posts set up the way I want them. The blogspot editing software is awful and I really hate using it.
  • I went to kindergarten twice because I had a late birthday. In New Zealand, all kiwi children start kindergarten on their 5th birthday, no matter what day of the year that is. So, in my case I would have walked into my kindergarten classroom at Westminister elementary late in October, a solid month and a half after the first students would have started. And yes, to answer your question, if there birthday is on the last day of the school year, they can choose to go to school for this one day.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

You may find yourself.....

living in a shotgun shack (check) You may find yourself
in another part of the world (check)
You may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile (check)
You may find yourself
in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife (negative ghostrider)
You may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here? (check! check! check!)
I'm not the first person to feel connected to the lyrics of David Byrne and Brian Eno, but as I scurry around trying to get ready to leave Auckland, I can't get this song out of my head. It really fits me at the moment.
Hello fair readers. I apologize for the delay in posts but I do have a lot of material to cover so I'll get right to it. As you can see from the photos I have acquired a home on wheels of sorts, but to understand how I came to be a proud owner of a toyota mini van, you must first understand how I came to know Harry Bowers.
Before leaving the states my uncle phoned my dad and informed him that his neighbor was leaving to travel to New Zealand on business, the day before I was to depart. He provided a phone number and asked that I call this lady, Becky. I had a nice conversation with Becky in which she provided useful information about traveling the country and I shared my plans with her. These plans included buying a used car in Auckland. She mentioned that she had a friend who worked on vehicles and sometimes also bought and sold them and offered to put me in contact with him. Enter Harry. I emailed Harry with a list of questions and he politely replied to give him a call when I got to Auckland and he would help me sort out finding a used car.
Harry thought I was from Tuscon and I thought Harry was a friend of Becky's. Needless to say, we knew very little about each other. Last Tuesday, after one night in the hostel, when I was ready to began my car search, I rang Harry up. I was very surprised when he not only offered to help me find a used vehicle, but also offered to have me as a guest at his house where he lives with his son Jeff. While the 2 irishmen, the long haired french guy and the blond from Sweden made great dormmates at the hostel, I gladly accepted Harry's offer to stay with some real kiwis. It has been the best decision I've made since I got off the plane.
As it turns out, Harry is a "petrol head", and an extremely generous and friendly person. I have lived with him and Jeff for a over a week now and we have carried on like long lost friends. Jeff is also a petrol head and shared a boat load of information with me about the New Zealand car culture. They use an interesting term here called "boy racer" which refers to teens who drive cars that have had distinctive performance modifications made to them. The street racing scene was very prominent here until the law made a concerted effort to end the accidents it was causing. If you get three "boy racing"-type citations (i.e. illegal modifications to your car, being caught at an illegal race), then the government will impound and crush your car. Glad I'm not a petrol head. Over the weekend I had the pleasure of watching Harry and Jeff drive Harry's 1987 Mazeratti Biturbo around a professional raceway. It was my first time to go anywhere near a car racing atmosphere and I thouroughly enjoyed it.

On Sunday we attended the Auckland car fair in an attempt to sell a car that Harry had been working on flipping, and also to try to purchase a ride for me. Harry successfully sold his vehicle and I looked at lots of camper vans that tired backpackers were trying to sell before there visas expired and they had to go home. In the end, I bought a 1992 Toyota Estima from a buyer off of (New Zealand's ebay), only after receiving Harry's mechanical stamp of approval. I've spent the last few days gutting the van and building a bed and now I'm ready to roll. When I first started driving the van I was reminded of Liz Lemmon's trip to Kenneth's hometown where she painfully asks "Why is everything a little bit different here", while staring at a bottle of Pepty Bismilk. Point being, everything in my van is ass backwards. The steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle and when I try to signal a left turn, I end up with the wind shielf wipers on at full speed. But I am getting used to these nuances and I have managed to navigate the roads safely, so far....(I did purchase insurance and roadside protection just in case)

On Sunday night, I cooked a chicken gumbo for Harry, his girlfriend Brenda, and Jeff. I was lacking several key ingredients, but was impressed with what I was able to pull off. On Monday, we had a farewell dinner at a nice japanese restaraunt. And finally, I am ready to leave Auckland.
Short Circuits is a new feature of the blog I know I will enjoy. Can't really promise too much for you though. This will basically be my version of random thoughts by jack handy. It may include rants, raves, mindless ramblings, useless information and in general things that I feel like writing about that don't fit into the blog narrative, or that I just plain forgot to put in. Here we go:
  • On Kia Ora - you may have noticed that I have signed my first few blog posts with Kia Ora. This is a maori phrase meaning live long and prosper, or something like that. Pretty much every email I received from New Zealand before I left included a Kia Ora salutation. I was very excited about using this phrase, as I thought of it as Italy's version of "Ciao", which I love. It IS NOT Italy's version of Ciao. Not a single person has said Kia Ora to me and it is apparently just a catchy phrase to use in emails, not in conversation. I am not happy about this.
  • Auckland is COLD - I thought I was coming over here at the begining of the summer season. Harry keeps telling me that is spring right now. In Louisiana the definition of spring is hot, but not as hot as summer. Apparently in New Zealand the definition of spring is cold, but not as cold as winter.
  • Mussels are dirt cheap here and I've enjoyed eating about 4-5 per day on average.
  • And last, but certainly not least you know I'm representing Louisiana up in here!!!!
Ciao Bella

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Call me the tumbling dice.....

......after landing in Auckland 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled arrival time, I hustled through customs and retrieved my bike case and back pack. Both were unscathed. It didn't take me long to find "Seal N Secure" baggage services and pay for a few days of storage of my bike and then hop on an air bus that would take me to Auckland Central Backpacker's Hostel. I had some time to kill before my orientation with the International Exchange Program (the organization that provided me with my visa) so I bought some internet time, emailed, dozed in and out on an aging leather couch in the lounge, and watched 20 minutes of Charlie Rose's War in the movie room. I've been watching a lot of movies that I would have otherwise ignored on this trip.

The orientation was less than a block away from the hostel and proved to be extremely beneficial. I met a guy from Seattle who I was happy to tell all about my trip to Washington for the LSU opener earlier this year. The orientation itself consisted of presentations from 3 young women: 2 of them native kiwis and 1 an American kiwi who was actually a participant in the program years ago. They provided all kinds of useful information including where to stay, where to work, how to open a bank account and long list of do's and don'ts. They also provided a list of kiwi slang which I will share with you:

- Chur - in agreeance/Thanks. I haven't heard this one used yet, although I have heard "cheers" consistently used in place of "thanks".

- Mean - it is really good

- choice - not choosing, it is also really good. In a sentence "there's a really choice kebab stand right up the street."

- Heaps - lots of something. In a sentence "you won't make heaps of money, but it's a great experience."

- Mint - is also really good. Haven't heard this one used yet.

- Sweet as bro - Everything is great my friend/mate. This one is my personal favorite.

Another interesting fact covered in the orientation is that when referencing kiwi fruit, you actually need to say just that, "kiwi fruit", and not simply refer to it as a kiwi as we would in the states. Here, a kiwi is either a person from New Zealand or the flightless bird that resides on the south island.

They also showed a really amazing video of the "Haka". This is a ritual that the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team performs before each match.

Watch the video and then try to imagine Drew Brees and Jeremy Shockey leading the Saints through the same thing on the 50 yard line at the dome before tearing into the Patriots on Monday Night Football.

After the orientation ended I hit the pavement and got started with opening a bank account and applying for an IRD number (equivalent to a social sec number in the states, so that I can be paid my NZ employers and pay taxes here). I opened a bank account at Kiwibank which also doubles as the national post office. So now I can wait in one long ridiculously slow line at one facility instead of two. I enjoyed a mixed kebab (lamb and chicken) for lunch and got a lot done until around six when the jet lag kicked. I stretch out in my bunk with the intention of listening to an audio book for 20 minutes and fell fast asleep. I woke up around midnight when my roommates came in for just long enough to actually get under the sheets and then slept until 7:30 the next morning.

So that brings the blog up to Tuesday morning. I am still in Auckland searching for a car and staying with the friend of a friend of my uncle's. I am about to grab some food, so I have to finish this post, but I'll first share a little bit of my upcoming plans.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I was planning on buying a car in Auckland and then heading straight for Queenstown, with only stops that were absolutely necessary along the way. After attending orientation, I have changed my agenda to include a stopover in Raglan. It is described as a small relaxing surf town that serves as an artist's haven. Although I do not claim to be a hippy, I have found that I generally enjoy places that are labeled as hippy hangouts (Austin and Asheville for example) and Raglan has a well known reputation as a choice hippy hangout....

Kia Ora

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Think you could live off just these contents for a year or two?

Time to start blogging

Greetings from Auckland, New Zealand!

I have arrived safely from the United States. I am now a full 19 hours ahead of Louisiana and Texas. It is Tuesday November 10 at 1:23 where I am. I am hanging out at the International Exchange Program office and had a few extra minutes. I figured it was time to get the blog up and running.

My travels from Baton Rouge, LA to Auckland, NZ went extremely well. What a far cry from my flights from Houston to London in 2005? I awoke on Saturday 11/7 around 6 am and finished packing. I left my house with my mom with a Kelty backpack, packed to its maximum capacity, a Camelbak cycling pack - also 100% stuffed and a huge plastic case on wheels carrying my mountain bike. I was extremely nervous about moving to another country, with three pieces of luggage. The nervousness soon turned to adrenaline and excitement and I would continue this rollercoaster of a cycle for the next 24 hours.

I arrived at the Baton Rouge airport where I was to fly on Continental to LA, with a stopover in Houston. I was offered to upgrade to first class for $99 and immediately declined. I am way over budget for this trip and my first impulse at the opportunity to spend more money was to say NO. Thank goodness for my mother. While I was busy frivolously turning down once in a lifetime deals, she was parking the car. When she arrived she quickly advised me to buy the upgrade and I am extremely glad that I did. I had planned on paying continental $120 in baggage fees to get me to LA in a coach seat. $100 fee for checking the bike case and $20 for checking my backpack. After I purchased the upgrade, I was charged NOTHING in baggage fees. So I ended up paying $100 to get to LA in first class style.

The flights from BR to Houston and Houston to LA went off without a hitch. I watch Julie and Julia on the way to LA, which ironically enough is about a young blogger. I was not impressed with the film, but I was impressed with the hot towel, the shrimp salad and the extra leg room. I didn’t realize they served drinks in real glasses in first class instead of plastic cups. Needless to say, I was impressed.

I got through international security in LA in time to see Julio Jones catch a tipped pass and run it in for a long touchdown to put Alabama up 20-15 against LSU. I watched the end of the fourth quarter as LSU squandered a few opportunities to knock off Bama. I hate to see LSU lose, but I quickly got over it and started focusing on my long flight ahead.

I lucked up again and was granted an exit row seat, which allowed me to fully extend my legs in front of me. The travel gods saw fit to pay me back for years of lost luggage and sitting in front of teething babies and kicking children. The girl sitting next to me was born and raised in Auckland and we swapped interesting travel stories. I watched Twilight on this flight and I still have no idea what all the fuss is about, but I do know that the chick from that movie is unconventionally hot. I felt the same way about her after seeing Adventureland. For my money, she blows Megan Fox out of the water. I had no problems falling asleep on this flight, but I did really struggle to wake up. The two meals we received were decent, but the crew was comprised of mostly New Zealanders and I got my first taste of the kiwi friendliness.

It appears that I have rambled on about the trip over for so long now that I will have to continue at some other point. I guess time management is something I’ll have to improve upon when running this blog. Spelling and sentence structure are on that list as well. Plenty more to come from New Zealand, but for now, you can rest assured that I am safe and content.

Kia Ora