Gannet Colony

Yesterday we took a trip out to the Gannet Colony.  Gannets are sea birds, related to boobies and cormorants (which they call shags in NZ).  To get there, we got on a trailer hitched to the back of a tractor, and went out along a beach for 9km.  The beach was rather narrow, with the ocean on one side and tall, steep, crumbly cliffs on the other.  In places, parts of the cliffs had fallen down and blocked the beach, so the tractor, with us in tow, went out into the ocean, splashing and slipping.  It was crazy fun.

You can only do this trip at low tide. At high tide the water is too deep and there isn’t enough beach for the tractors to go on. At one point the tractor even got stuck, and at another the driver had to get out with a pickaxe and break up a meter tall boulder so we could get through.

Then at the end we hiked up to the colony, with hundreds of birds.  Apparently this is one of the largest gannet colonies in the world.  If you’ve seen the movie “Winged Migration” (which you should!) gannets are the birds that dive into the water like arrows.  But there was no diving going on yesterday, mostly raising chicks.  This is near the end of the brooding season, and the chicks were teenagers getting ready to fly.  On their first flight, they take off for Australia.  The trip is so dangerous that 70 percent or more of them will not make it back to NZ to have their own chicks.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Well, we arrived in Wellington safe and sound. Spent two days there getting our stuff sorted out. We even had time for a walk on the beach, took in an art exhibition of fantastic photographs called the “Earth From Above” (see www.yannarthusbertrand.org), went for a walk in the bush (what they call forest), and had some wonderful meals. Now we are in Hawkes Bay, staying with friends in a cute house a block from the beach. Ahhhh!

Return Visit

This Sunday, Cindy and I fly back to New Zealand for a (too short) 3 week trip. We are going to sell the car that we left there, get our stuff, visit friends, and hopefully do a little sightseeing before returning home. Both Cindy and I are excited about visiting NZ again.

Moving to NZ?

I recently received an email from someone who found our blog. He is moving to NZ and asked some questions about what he should do before he moves there. Some of the answers might be useful to other people who are moving to NZ, so here goes. I hope people find these tips useful:

Sign up for Vonage phone service and take the adapter box with you. This assumes that you have access to broadband Internet when you get over there. Buy a cheap caller-id phone and take it with you. Caller id is not all that common over there, so phones with that feature are pricey. Vonage supports caller-id, of course. And phones over there use a different connector than the RJ-11 used here (and on the Vonage box).

Vonage will allow you to call anywhere in the US and Canada for free (well, for a fixed $25/month). Very important if you are leaving friends and family behind in the US or Canada. Vonage to other countries is very cheap, too. In many cases, it was cheaper to call other cities in NZ using the Vonage phone, than using our NZ home phone!

You can also buy a Vonage adapter box from Linksys. That box works on 230v, so you won’t have to buy a new power adapter when you get there, and it is smaller and so easier to take with you. Buy.com has the Linksys adapter for $50, with a $50 rebate if you sign up for Vonage service.

Vonage worked well with DSL service from Telecom. Even Telecom at 64kbps worked fine. We tried it on one other DSL carrier (iHug) and had problems with latency. I haven’t tried any others.

If you are only going to have dial-up internet service, sign up for Skype instead. The quality is worse, but it works over dial-up. Skype now allows you to get a permanent phone number, so other people can call you.

Buy a tri-band GSM phone over here and take it with you. Make sure the charger works on 230 volts. When you get there, buy a Vodaphone SIM card and put it in the phone. Learn to love TXT messages. Everyone uses them. Actually talking on a mobile phone is NZ$0.49/minute, but a TXT message is only 20 cents.

Take some power plug adapters with you (to allow you to plug US style plugs into the NZ/Australian sockets). You can get them for cheap at Fry’s or other electronics stores. I never found 2-prong adapters over there at all, and 3 prong ones are huge (they block the other outlets on an outlet strip) and expensive. A few “cube taps” (to allow you to plug in multiple US-style plugs using a single adapter) are handy too and impossible to find over there. Don’t take any outlet strips with surge suppressors or circuit breakers, since they will blow up on the 230v.

I found, as a general rule, that things that are necessities of life (food, housing, medical care, prescription drugs, public transport, etc.) are relatively cheap over there, or at least the same price as here. But “luxuries” (electronics, mobile phones, cars, cameras, petrol, parking meters) are expensive. Books are also very expensive, for some reason, but there are good libraries and used book stores.

Keep a US-based credit card and take it with you. This will allow you to order stuff over the Internet at US prices and have it shipped to NZ. This is especially useful for books, cameras, and computer stuff. You can have your credit card statements mailed to NZ, no problem. And I can’t guarantee the same luck to you, but I never had the NZ government charge me any duty or taxes on incoming goods (but most of my orders were around US$100, and the rumor is that the NZ government doesn’t bother with that level of thing). Your milage may vary, and may depend on whether you are there on a tourist visa or something else.

the last supper

Last night our sweet flatmates made us a traditional Kiwi dinner with all the trimmings: roast lamb, roasted vegetables, and for dessert our second Pavlova. Yummy. I ate way too much!

One of the vegetables we had was called silverbeet. I’m not sure, but I think it is what we call swiss chard. There was also roasted pumpkin, kumara (which is a kind of sweet potato), onions, and (my favorite) parsnips.

Knitting Natter

The NZ dictionary describes “natter” as “talking socially”, like “shooting the breeze” or “chewing the fat”. The knitting group that meets at the Newlands Community House, every Thursday morning, is a lovely knit/natter experience . I have learned a great deal about this area of NZ from this group of women and men (as well as terrific knitting tips and projects). This group knits for charity. Wool and needles are donated. Worthy causes that need hats, scarves, mittens, jerseys, etc. are brought forward and taken on. The Newlands Community House is a feel-good place, providing some wonderful inexpensive/free community service. Through the work of the House Coordinator and a dedicated group of volunteers they maintain a toy library; drop-in care; arts,craft and yoga classes; knitting, scrabble and walking groups; a food bank; and a weekly community luncheon. You can even rent this cute space for $5. I feel quite lucky to have been a part of this community and look forward to coming back to them in September.

Here’s a photo of the Newlands Community House Knitting Group:

I walked Karori Wildlife Sanctuary today. The birds were in full chorus. The sun shone through the silver fern trees. And at night we drove to the Botanic Gardens and admired the constellation of glow-worms. New Zealand is a very special place.

Cat eyes

We’ve gone a number of times to a beach about 15 minutes away from where we live, and usually spend most of our time there picking up “cat eyes”. At least that’s what the locals call them. We’ve found them at other beaches around NZ as well. They seem to be shells that have been worn down by wave action, until just an image of the spiral shell is left. I don’t know what kind of shell they start out as, or why they stop wearing down when they get to this stage. But I do know that they are beautiful!

Here’s an image that Cindy took of some of the cat eyes we have collected. We’ve found hundreds of them!

Finishing School

Well, I reckon it is about time for a blog entry from me (that’s me, Cindy, just in case you thought Wm likes to knit). Robin and her mom, Eileen, have been working on my diction. Each day during afternoon tea, before I get too sozzled with wine, I learn a wee bit more kiwi. I have been keen as mustard to learn the proper way to speak. Although with all the wine and learning I have to make several trips to the dunny. The rest of the evening we spend nattering on about wop-wops, whipping the cat until the wee hours. Occasionally I hear a “good on you” when I have done well…but not often. The house is often chocker with kiwis laughing at our slang.

Wm and I have been packing: one box to stay here, one for the rubbish bin and one for our clothes, togs, souvenirs, etc, to bring home. Can’t wait to see you all! Let’s go for a tramp and a cuppa soon!

One Week!

Our first stay in New Zealand is coming to an end in one week! We are taking off for Australia, spending a few weeks there, then heading back to the good old (?) USA. Will be back in Portland at the end of May, to spend the summer. Current plan is to come back to NZ sometime in September.

I’m really glad we took off last week and spent some time traveling around the north island. It reminded me of why I love it here. There are so many interesting things, friendly people, beautiful sights. It is so easy to travel around here, especially for backpackers. And I continue to be impressed at the food. We had a really yummy Korean meal in Taupo, and discovered a restaurant called the Fat Dog in Rotorua that is known for their huge portions, but I was also surprised at how delicious it was. We ate there twice!

Rotorua and Taupo

Had a quick trip up to the central plateau of the North Island. I think it was the longest we have been without seeing the ocean, but there are huge lakes, including Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. It is in the caldera of an enormous collapsed volcano. When it erupted 25,000 years ago, it covered the entire north island of New Zealand under 100 meters of ash and lava.

First stop was Tongariro National Park, which includes 3 active volcanoes, two of which were used in The Lord of the Rings. Mt Ngauruhoe was Mt Doom. Mt Ruapehu last erupted in 1995 and 1996, although the major problem was that it ruined the ski season. We stayed in the Grand Chateau, one of the more famous hotels in New Zealand, which is right between two of the volcanoes. Unfortunately, this time of year you can’t actually see the volcanoes, because of all the clouds (it is autumn here). So we went onto Taupo. The entire area around Taupo, and on up to Rotorua, is covered in hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and other volcanic features.

Rotorua is also know as a center for Maori culture. We went to two different traditional dances, a traditional Maori meal, called a Hangi, which is cooked in the ground with hot rocks.

I’ve uploaded lots of photos, at http://www.leler.com/NZ-Apr/

Tramping

It is autumn here (they don’t seem to use the word “fall” to describe a season) and the days are getting shorter, but it is still nice weather for hiking (which they call “tramping”). So we went out for a quick tramp in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. I’ve blogged about this place extensively, they have a 500 year plan for putting it back to the way it was before humans arrived, including a big fence around it to keep introduced species out. We did a longer hike in it than we have done before. The sanctuary used to be the water supply for Wellington, before they discovered that a major faultline went right through it. From the entrance (where you check your bags to make sure you aren’t bringing in any mice or other pests) it is a 20 minute walk up to the old dam. We had never gone beyond that before, but we took off, walking the trail along the faultline, which is now a lovely streambed.

The sanctuary is full of birds, and they are not shy in the least. We got a good long, close look at a Tui bird, a large black bird with white tufts on its throat. The Tui is a great mimic, making the most amazing noises. Everything from whistles to grunts, squacks, and beeps. We watched for about 5 minutes while one, just a few feet above our heads, did a singing performance.

We then turned uphill, walking all the way up to the fence that surrounds the sanctuary. Just outside the fence is a wind turbine, which supplies some of the power for Wellington. There is only one here, but a few weeks ago we drove through an area that has hundreds of wind turbines. This area of NZ is smack dab in the middle of the “Roaring 40’s” — a latitude where there are strong winds circling the globe. There are no major land masses in the seas just north of Antartica, so there is nothing to slow them down. As I type this, the wind is howling — they don’t call it “Windy Wellington” for nothing.

While we were tramping up the hill through a forest, a small gray robin was following us. Everytime we would pause along the trail, he would be just a few feet away from us, just as curious about us as we were about him. Robins here are much different than those in the US, slightly smaller and very cute. We also saw a few Fantails, which are the most amazing fliers, doing acrobatics in midair, and flying right through dense patches of tree branches, narrowly missing each branch as if it were the most fun thing to do imaginable.

The other amazing thing we saw during this hike were hundreds of mushrooms. Huge red mushrooms of all kinds of sizes.

To see more photos from the hike, or larger versions of the above photos, click here.

Chinese Food!

I seem to be on a food kick lately. Probably because I’ve been working too hard. But tonight we ate at a Northern Chinese restaurant in Wellington. It was a rather modest place — not quite a hole in the wall, but nothing fancy either. We found it in a local guide book, which said it was the best Chinese food in Wellington. We agreed. In fact, it was one of the best Chinese meals we’ve had outside of China. They also had messages handwritten (taped to the window, in the menu, etc.) by people who eat there — including the Chinese ambassador to NZ, Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings), and lots of other famous people.

When we were in China a year ago, I kept asking in restaurants in various cities if they could make moo-shu pork. Never did find it, and we finally decided that like chop suey and other dishes, it wasn’t really chinese, it was invented in the US. So I was surprised that this Chinese restaurant in NZ had “moo-shi delight,” which was fairly similar to moo-shu. Well, except for it was made with chicken and shrimp instead of pork (at my request they left out the shrimp, since I’m allergic). And the pancakes were the size of peking duck pancakes (about 3 inches or so in diameter), not the tortilla sized pancakes that normally come with moo-shu pork. But it was served with hoisin sauce (like moo-shu pork). It was totally delicious.

I continue to be very impressed with the food in NZ.

Pavlova

Last week, our flatmate (housemate) Robin made for us what seems to be the national dessert of New Zealand — a Pavlova. As you can see from the photo below, it looks something like a large merengue, but it is actually quite thick and creamy inside, more like a fluffy cheesecake. After you bake it and it cools, you top it with whipped cream and fruit. We used raspberries and blueberries, but people often use kiwifruit (naturally). Very very yummy. This was the first time we tried one, so we don’t know how it compares to those served in restaurants. But for now, we can truthfully say that Robin made the best pavlova we have ever tasted! Hopefully Cindy can learn to make them.

Razz-cherries

A few weeks ago I did a big post about missing Trader Joes. Well, I knew that would come back to haunt me. Here’s the story…

One of the things I love about TJs is the dried fruit, especially the weirder kinds. One thing they had a few years ago was called “Razzcherries” — which were dried cherries soaked in raspberry flavor. Interesting taste, but they were a little too sweet, so I didn’t buy them very often. Eventually, TJs stopped carrying them. But I still like the fact that TJs would carry something weird like that. Where else would you find something called razzcherries?

How about New Zealand?

Fast forward to last weekend. We are visiting Napier (see Cindy’s post, below) and go into a small Italian deli and store. They have a large selection of dried fruits and lo and behold, they have razzcherries! So I buy a bag of them, but didn’t try them until yesterday (after we are back home). The surprise is that these razzcherries are REALLY good. Way better than the ones that they had in Trader Joes! They have a very strong, tart raspberry flavor. Very intense. And not too sweet.

So here I was, complaining about not being able to get stuff like that over here, and I can actually get something even better. It just goes to show that it takes a while to get used to a new place. When we come back to Portland, I’m sure I’ll be complaining about things I miss from NZ. Sigh.

The other funny thing is that we bought those razzcherries in Napier, which is about a 4 hour drive from here. I was wondering how I could ever find a closer place to buy them, when I realized that I could just call up the store in Napier and they would likely tell me. Most stores in the US will not tell you where they get something — they want you to buy it from them. But people are very nice here, even people in stores. I’ve frequently had people in stores tell me other places I should look for something when they didn’t have exactly what I was looking for (I’ve mentioned a couple of those cases in this blog). So when we run out of this bag, I’ll call the deli in Napier and see if they will tell me where they get them so I can find some place to buy them closer to where we live.

Added note: I did find a place here in Wellington that carries razz-cherries, the same ones we found in Napier. They were in a grocery store here, in the bulk foods section.

kia ora

Wm had been swotting for several days so we decided on a 2 day holiday. We threw our swag in the boot and headed to Napier. When we felt a bit peckish we stopped at the tearooms for some gumboot. Shark and taties were on my list but Wm is allergic. As for shopping, the op shops were closed for the holiday but we did find some antique shops to fossick about in. We stayed in a great bus within a cooee of the beach near Hastings — a romantic place for some snogging. It was a full-on holiday!

kia ora=hello (in Maori)
swot=study
swag=stuff, possessions
boot=trunk of car
peckish=hungry
tearooms=restaurant (only one room)
gumboot=regular black tea
shark and taties=fish and chips
op shops=opportunity shops/secondhand stores
fossick=rummage
bus=bus
cooee=within calling distance
snogging=kissing and cuddling
full-on=intense

On the other hand…

So, I’ve been decidedly pro-NZ the last few postings, but there definitely are things that bother us here. Today is Good Friday, and everything is closed. You can’t even go to the grocery store (although a few convenience stores are open). It will be worse on Easter, this Sunday. And even on days when things are open, they all close around 5pm. So if you work until 5pm, when do you go shopping? Many stores stay open late on Thursday night, so I guess that is your only chance. Either that or the weekend.

Not everything closes at 5pm. Grocery stores stay open later than that, some as late as 11pm. And the local video rental store is open until midnight. There is also a chain called The Warehouse, which stays open until 8pm every night, but neither Cindy nor I like shopping there (they are a bargain warehouse with cheap crap, and their prices aren’t even all that good).

So yes, this is not a country of shoppers. And that is the challenge for us — as Americans is shopping so important that we forget about things like health care, the environment, or education? Is having a choice of hundreds of things to buy more important than having a real choice in political candidates? Is being able to go shopping in the evening more important than spending time with your family and friends?

I try to be philosophical, but it still pisses me off when the stores close at 5pm and I’m not done shopping yet.

Doctors

The continuing saga of drugs in NZ. Yesterday I asked our housemates (called flatmates here) for the name of their doctor. They both use a doctor whose office is about 3 blocks from where we live — very convenient! So I called the doctor’s office yesterday afternoon and got an appointment for the first thing this morning. Before I left the house this morning, I worry that they will probably want me to fill out all kinds of paperwork, so I get my address book, contact information for my doctor in the US, etc.

When I walk into the office, they ask me if I want to be treated as a “casual patient”. I say sure, and the next thing I know I’m in talking to the doctor. No paperwork. None. Nada. They already have my name from when I made the appointment over the phone, and that’s all they need. Wow.

So the next thing I worry about is that they will want to repeat all my lab tests and everything before they write me a prescription, but as they say here — “not a problem”! The doctor does check my blood pressure, and listens to my heart and lungs, but she is fine writing the prescription for me. I do have the prescription from my doctor in the US, after all. But it is hard for me to imagine a doctor in the US writing a prescription just like that — after all they could get sued if they don’t check me out completely themselves!

The main thing we have to do is figure out all the equivalent drugs. Drugs have different names in different countries, or slightly different drugs that do the same thing. So for all 3 of my drugs, we find equivalents. Two of them just weren’t available here, and the third (Lipitor, which I talked about in the last post) is actually available, but they don’t like to use it because there are equivalents that are cheaper and do just as well. I figure I’ll try out the equivalent. Just to be safe, I’ve sent an email back to my doctor in the US with the names of the new drugs I’ll be taking.

Twenty minutes later, I’m done. I pay for the visit using my debit card (called EFTPOS here). Total bill? NZ$52. And remember, I’m paying for it myself since I don’t have insurance here. I do have health insurance in the US, but to be honest all the paperwork I know I will have to go through just for US$38 probably won’t be worth it. When I lived in Canada, I had an injury and tried to get my insurance company back in the US to pay for it, and after days of phone calls I gave up. (I’m sure all of you reading this in the US have much nicer health insurance companies that never give you any hassles at all, right?)

Bottom line? The whole experience was easy, painless, fast. No defensive medicine. No reams of paperwork for the doctor, insurance company, etc. No long waits, either for an appointment or in the doctor’s office. I spent most of the time actually talking to the doctor. The practice of medicine is alive and well. Nice. The biggest problem was that I kept expecting there to be a problem. I was pleasantly surprised.

Those people in the US who are opposed to single payer health insurance should check out the situation here in NZ. I’ve talked to other people here in NZ, and they all seem to feel much better about health care than people I know in the US do. I’ve also heard that Australia has a similar system, and it works well. Why is the US the only major industrialized country without universal health coverage?

Drugs

Ahem, I’m talking about prescription drugs. I have been alarmed at the high, and rapidly escalating cost of prescription drugs in the US. For example, my mother has diabetes and alzheimers, and her prescription drugs are her biggest expense (more than food or housing). If I were not helping her out, she would be one of those people who would have to choose between buying her medicines or paying the rent. And as a diabetic, not taking her medicines would mean death. What do people on a fixed income do? I watch in disbelief at all the fuss and millions of dollars being spent on Terri Schiavo, when every day people are dying because they cannot afford common medicines.

But the high cost of drugs in the US was illustrated to me graphically yesterday. One of the drugs I take is Lipitor to lower my cholesterol. When I came over to New Zealand I brought a three month supply, but that is starting to run low. I am still paying my health insurance in the US, so I could get my drugs there and have them sent to me in NZ, but I decided to see first what they would cost here. So yesterday I went to the mall and walked into the first pharmacy I found (called a “chemist” here). Naturally, I can’t actually get the drugs yet, since I don’t have a prescription from a NZ doctor, but the pharmacist was very helpful anyway (people here are like that). She looked up Lipitor and said that the equivalent drug here would be around $10 or so per month. Remember, this is NZ dollars, so even with the weak US dollar that is around US$7.20. A couple of years ago it would have been around US$5.

Now, I didn’t actually know how much Lipitor costs in the US because I have health insurance that covers drugs, but I have a $30 co-pay (on top of the $400/month I’m paying for the health insurance). But this pharmacist had just told me that for less than the cost of my monthly co-pay in the US, I could pay full price and get Lipitor for $10 in NZ. Then the pharmacist added helpfully that the price would be different at different pharmacies and I might be able to find them cheaper somewhere else.

So this morning I decide to look up the prices of these drugs in the US, to find out their retail price. I can’t just walk into a US pharmacy, so I look online in drugstore.com, which offers discount prices on prescription drugs. It isn’t a fair comparison, since I’m putting a discount mail order business in the US — the land of free markets and competition (which we all know results in far lower prices) — against a boutique pharmacy in a mall in liberal anti-competitive NZ. But what the heck. For Lipitor, their (discount) price is $95 for a one month supply. Which seems a bit higher than the NZ$10 I was quoted in the boutique pharmacy. Thirteen times higher.

Some of you might be thinking, hey, doesn’t NZ have socialized medicine? Aren’t their drugs prices subsidized? The answer to both questions is no. NZ does have single payer health insurance, which means that the government supplies basic health insurance to all their citizens. But you still pick your own doctors, and buy your drugs wherever you want. Since I am just a visitor I don’t qualify for their national health insurance, so I would be paying full price.

Note that Clinton tried to get single payer health insurance passed in the US a few years ago, but congress turned it down after a media blitz paid for by the pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. Maybe that’s why they need to charge such high prices for drugs, health insurance, and co-pays. National TV time is expensive, not to mention the major donations to politicians they need to make to keep being protected from that nasty competition from other countries.

So, now I’m thinking I should get my drugs over here. Even though my US health insurance probably won’t pay for me to go to the doctor here and get a prescription, it will probably be cheaper to do that than pay the co-pays for my 3 drugs in the US, and have them shipped over here. Plus I get an extra visit to the doctor out of it. Isn’t competition wonderful?

One last comment. I realize that some people might claim that US pharmaceutical companies need that extra money in order to do research to find new drugs. Well, here’s an article about a new anti-HIV drug being developed that seems to show that drug research is alive and doing well here in NZ.

Shells

One thing we find amazing about the beaches in New Zealand is that they are covered with sea shells. In the US, you hardly ever see many sea shells on the beaches, and when they do show up everyone picks them up and takes them home. It is hard to break that need to take the shells home — the windowsill in our bedroom is covered with shells we have picked up on beaches all over NZ.

Here are some photos from a beach right here in Wellington — just a few minutes drive from downtown. The large shells are Paua, which we call abalone in the US. They are beautiful (this is where “mother of pearl” comes from) and yet they are everywhere.