In which we make our way to New Zealand for the year

As most people reading this blog know, last year we decided to extend our time out of the US for another year and I took a job in New Zealand!

Packing for a year of settled life on an island where things are reputed to be quite pricy is a different story than last year, where we left with carryon backpacks and a minimalist attitude. This time, we asked ourselves how much we could cram into 300 pounds of luggage. Sports equipment and clothing are expensive here, so into the bags went our ski clothes, goggles, bike helmets and sleeping bags. Eric tossed in some basic tools, I brought my flatiron. The kids took along a box of legos and some card games, as well as favorite books and some art supplies. The tent didn’t make it, nor did our bikes, blender, printer, two burner griddle, waffle maker, kitchen scale, rock collection, entire library (for the boy) or guitars, though all of these were considered at some point and some people (cough the kids cough) tried to stuff them into the sacks when no one was looking. I didn’t check closely enough and the miniature amp made it, despite us not having a guitar to plug into it!

 

We initially flew to California to visit my parents, and got a few looks as we lumbered along the Southwest baggage check-in line, where despite their generous baggage allowance most people seem to travel with little more than a roller bag. “Going camping?” the check-in guy asked, fishing for an answer. “We’re moving to New Zealand,” we replied. “Oh, I didn’t know Southwest was running an international moving service now,” he said with a smile. In California we had a lovely time with family and running around the Park where I used to play as a kid.

The flight from SFO to Auckland takes 12 hours and 50 minutes, and normally I’d be too excited to sleep much at the prospect of being able to squeeze in 4, possibly 5 movies during that time. Alas, it was not to be as we were planning to drive directly to Whakatane on the day of arrival, and I’m more likely to sleep on a plane than Eric is. I ate the relatively tasty Hindu Vegetarian meal I always order (too much cumin this time) and slept somewhat fitfully for most of the ride.

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Even the currency exchange shows shade at Trump – make your USD great by making them NZ dollars!

Off we went on the 4 hour drive to Whakatane, stopping off for tasty fish and chips just outside Tauranga and rolling into our our beachfront apartment around 2 pm. By coincidence, my longtime friend Judy and her son had been traveling in New Zealand and drove over to Whakatane to see us for a few days before they flew home. We got in some fun beach walks, hot spring time and tasty food. 

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Sunrise from our window

The first few days here could be characterized by a jet lag fog. Barely able to stay awake after 7 pm and then awakening at 3 am, I was dysfunctional for a few days, not even noticing the beautiful beach sunrises through our windows. We managed to get the kids enrolled in school and had them start on Friday, with good reports from both! The boy is in middle school here, which is 6th and 7th grades.  Different from school at home, however, the classes are mixed 6th and 7th grades and most learning takes place in one classroom with the exception of specials. It’s a lot more low key than middle school in the States, which is like a pre-High school with lockers and different classrooms and the like. The boy is especially excited about the wood and sewing shop! The girl’s school is a more typical Elementary school, with the change that her class is combined with the one next door much of the time. One little quirk of Kiwi people everywhere is that they are often seen barefoot, and even on this rainy morning I spied a little boy scampering into school shoeless, splashing through puddles.

 

After the jet lag improved, a feeling of panic set in. Where were we going to live for the year? An online search of listings yielded exactly NO properties. Perhaps people don’t list online? Eric and I then went to several realty offices to ask for long term furnished rentals, and as soon as we uttered the word “rental,” the realtors’ lower lips would stretch away and downwards with a sucking in of air, making the universal expression for “you are screwed, my friends.” Housing is always tight in New Zealand, and compounding matters is that a large flood earlier this year displaced many families who are now renting the houses that we might want to rent ourselves. The other problem is that many places are only rented long term during winter, and from December through April are rented short term for the holiday season (seasons are flipped here, so that’s summertime). Eric thought it was heee-larious to keep making jokes about perhaps renting a shipping container, or just living in tents, or getting two camper units. I failed to find this amusing. We went to visit one possible rental, only available through the end of November, which was split into two separate floors, both dingy and dark, with about two feet of aluminum countertop for a kitchen. Things seemed dim, and I bought a pack of Tums out of necessity.

It’s a different culture here in that you have a better shot at things if you actually go in person to meet people, rather than the internet focused world of the US. We began to stalk our real estate agent with this in mind. Eric went in one day to find out that the rental agent was on vacation but would be back on Monday. On Monday morning, we wondered if it would help or our hurt our chances if we simply waited in front of the doors, staring through the glass until opening time like curious kittens. We decided instead to visit in the early afternoon, only find that she had gone out. We tried our luck a few hours later, and still, she wasn’t in. We were beginning to doubt her existence at this point. Tuesday morning we popped on over again, and voila, there she was. We considered shackling her to a chair lest she scurry off again, but she sat us down and told us of two places that were coming up on the market just that morning. Perhaps she was being friendly and helpful, but I think that she’d heard of our frequent visits and decided that getting us a house was the most efficient way to get rid of us, else we would take to haunting her office like wayward ghosts.  We drove by one of the houses, another dismally dark rental with a tiny aluminum countered kitchen. Our spirits drooped yet again. I popped a few more Tums and wondered if it was acceptable to start drinking at noon in New Zealand, considering the circumstances.

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Central heating doesn’t exist here, so we hang out with sweaters, warm hats, and space heaters.

That afternoon, she took us out to the other house and were happily surprised!  It’s a 3 bedroom house with a wraparound porch, no yard to speak of, but that’s okay because the yard is the beach which is one street over. Most importantly, the kitchen is nice with good counter space, made from some variety of laminate and a good step up from prison decor.

We called a few people we know here to ask their opinion, and everyone told us that we should lunge at the opportunity and take the place, and so we did. We’ve also managed to find a good car to buy here, so all in all things are looking better for now, given that we’re up to step one on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Next week, I start work, we move in, and I’ll post some pictures of the new house, our car, and the hospital!

-s

In which we go mountain biking in a California redwood forest…in New Zealand

One of the big things Eric and I were really looking forward to was mountain biking in Rotorua. California redwoods were imported there in 1901 to support the logging industry and while they didn’t really take off as a new source of timber, some part of the forest remains. The upshot is that in the middle of New Zealand is a gorgeous California Redwood forest just begging to be ridden through. 
We asked to stay at the farmstay an additional day since we figured we wouldn’t want to bike and get muddy and then have to pack up and go somewhere, and man, were we grateful for that decision later! It made me even happier that we had been able to add some flexibility into our schedule and not have everything booked solid before we left. 
We called the lovely people at Planet Bike in the morning and made sure they had rental bikes for us. They were so nice, even to switch the brakes so we wouldn’t have to brake backwards with the back wheel brakes on the left! I was so glad of this at many times in the ride. The kids were fitted on fat tire bikes, a first for them! And we were off on the muddy trails. Both kids tried to hit all the mud puddles as fast as they could so that by the end of the day they resembled little else than mini mud monsters. We had them strip before they got back in the car.


Riding through the forest was so, so beautiful. The entire time I was riding I just couldn’t believe how happy I felt. We ran into maybe another 3 people along the way and the feeling of cruising through a dappled forest with birds and animals chirping about you is unparalleled. The girl got a bit nervous at times with the isolated feeling, and I told her assuredly that it was impossible to get lost in this forest. 


About 5 minutes later we got lost in the forest. We had taken a bit of a wrong turn and found ourselves off trail. We used my phone to figure out the compass directions and headed that way, only to find ourselves in denser forest and the clear disappearance of the trail. Under his breath, Eric asked “you sure this is right?” And I replied quietly so the kids wouldn’t hear, “ummm, not really.” Out loud we acted like grown ups and kept saying that we were going the right way. 
After we came back out to where we had made the wrong turn, we simply turned around and saw the right road about, oh, 5 yards from where we had been. Eesh. We were able to make it back to the trail and then, the fun part after all the hard uphill riding we had done! Going downhill on a muddy trail with bumps over tree roots was exhilarating! 
We had initially intended to go to the Waikiti hot spring before going home, but instead decided to head back to the farmstay to make lunch and de-mud first. After this we didn’t feel like the long drive to Waikiti and instead went to the Polynesian Spa hot spring in town and loved it. There was a pool for the kids to frolic in and they made some friends with two local Kiwi kids who gave their opinion on US politics (Summary: Trump is bad, Clinton is okay but not as good as Obama). Given that I couldn’t tell you anything about who runs New Zealand, I’m amazed at the overall cultural dominance of the States in this regard. 
Back home for a peaceful night in, having made some pesto pasta at home for a simpler night of food comfort. 

-s

In which we commune with the Hobbits.

The rainy day in Rotorua continued for much of the morning. This was a blessing in that we needed some downtime to just relax and not do anything for a bit. It was going to clear in the afternoon, so the kids and I thought this would be a great time to visit the hobbits! Eric’s interest in people is directly proportional to their relation to him or how much shorter they are then him, and given that hobbits are on the low end of both, hold little fascination for him. He chose to stay in town and go for a swim at the aquatic center.

After a bit of a drive we found our way on the Hobbiton set. One of the things that’s amazed me about NZ is how little things are commercialized to the way they are in the States. I mean, if this set was in the US, there’d be some sort of big theme park around it and multiple ways for them to sell you things. Here, there’s a small car park, little cabin like building, smallish gift shop and … That’s it. You board a bus to take you to the set and the gate to enter isn’t even mechanized. The tour guide has to hop out of the bus, open it, wait for the bus to pass, then close it and hop in! A stupid bit of detail but it’s things like that which fascinate me sometimes.

Onto the hobbits! 

The set is really lovely, I have to say, and you feel like you’ve been dropped into the Shire from all angles. Given that it had just rained, everything was green and misty. They take care to keep everything as it was and real – the gardens are actually growing vegetables. I could see Frodo and Sam walking through the space, and Gandalf riding in, and the big party under the magnificent tree. 


The set is just the exterior fronts – you can’t actually see into Bag End as that was all filmed on a set. The only Americanized thing I would have liked for them to do would be to pipe in some of the soundtrack music as you walk around. As it was, some of the other people on the tour whistled and hummed it the entire way for us. 
After that it was home and some tasty Indian takeaway. TV here is a bit limited where we’ve been staying so the kids are getting a new education in prime time offerings. They’re loving the Australian version of The Voice, and are hoping to catch the next episode to follow along!

In which we make our own hot pool and chill with the sheep

It’s about 8:30 in the morning and the weather outside is foggy with a constant downpour of rain. We’re in a farm cottage where we’re staying for two nights, having rolled in yesterday. Most of my morning with the boy was spent in trying to figure out how to operate the wood burning fireplace so that it heats up these chilly rooms, and I think we’ve just gotten it figured out. The chill and wet don’t seem to bother the animals much, and we awoke to a concertina of birds, roosters and sheep.
I suppose it will surprise no one, including myself, that there will be times of friction among the four of us in such close quarters for so long. I know it’s only been a few days but the mentality is different than a week away where you know you’re going home soon. Yesterday morning was one of the first, where the boy was mad at me about having to write his blog post, the girl was mad at me for god knows what, I was annoyed at both of them and Eric had taken off for a peaceful sunrise stroll in all of this which annoyed me too. After a bit of a tearful breakdown, we managed to pull ourselves together and all cheer up again. 
Our day yesterday then turned into a lovely one, starting with hot water beach in the morning. This is a unique place on the Coromandel peninsula’s East Coast, where a hot spring that feeds to the beach runs under the sand to the ocean. If you bring a shovel at low tide and dig a little pool, it fills with hot water and you’ve got yourself a little hot tub (sans jets)! The boy had great fun trying to figure out the hottest spot to dig and how to make sure we had a nice warm pool to relax in. The weather was cooperating thankfully, and we had several hours of sunshine and low 60s weather to enjoy the hot water in. Low tide was at 9ish and we spent the next hour and a half relaxing in the warmth while the girl ran up and down the coast in a state of bliss at being on the beach. 


After this we drove down the east coast on our way to Rotorua,stopping for a nice lunch at the Sands cafe in Whangamata before heading a bit further inland to the Karaheke Gorge. Here, there was a mining facility and mining railway that are now ruins, with signs marking the way. We went for a little walk through one of the old mining trails, which was damp and verdant. I am wowed by how quickly nature reasserts itself when manmade places are left to ruin. 

We walked through one of the old mining tunnels which at one point became pitch black – I began to feel a sense of closed in panic, and the girl began to whimper as well. We had our iPhone flashlight to help, though it didn’t entirely light up the tunnel. At one point we couldn’t see an end to the darkness and all began to get scared, until a large group of Chinese tourists came through the other way and, well, I felt a bit silly for being scared. 
After this we made our way to Rotorua from where I write this post, staying at a farmstay a little way out of town, and trying to decide what to do with ourselves on this rainy day. 

-s