A last trip around New Zealand

When I first told my friend Sam I was going to move to New Zealand, she replied “I am entirely serious: I am going to visit you… Will you bungy jump with me?”   In December we both were looking through travel guides on New Zealand and Australia, and we started really planning her trip and what we would be doing back in March.  Despite all the preparation, I was still a bit surprised when it was already time to go and meet her at the Auckland airport to head to Queenstown in the South Island.

Yes, the South Island.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me “It’s a pity you’re here so long and aren’t seeing the S Island” or “You’re into the outdoors and sports, you should have gotten a job in the South Island”, etc, etc, etc.  (I don’t regret my decision to come to Auckland, especially having had a job and a place to stay upon arrival, but I do think they are correct, South Island may have been more my style.)  Though I knew when I decided to come home that I wouldn’t be seeing the entire island this trip to NZ, I was determined and glad to be seeing at least part of it- it is so gorgeous!   Sam and I spent four days in the S Island, and boy were they “full on” as we say in NZ.

Despite being jet lagged and being on a plane for ages, Sam jumped right into exploration and adventure mode after we checked in to our backpackers.  Our first stop was to Ferg Burger.  I know a number of people who have Ferg Burgers as their Facebook profile pictures in New Zealand.  The restaurant comes up nearly every time the topic of burgers is mentioned in conversation… (“Have you ever had a Ferg Burger?”) Anna went every day over her holiday, as well as to their bakery for breakfast.  Needless to say, this was at the top of my list to get to when in Queenstown, and Sam is always up for a fun food excursion.  Below, us with what turned out to indeed be very good, very large burgers…  I had a tofu thai esque one, something I had never heard of before.

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We also enjoyed a cute Outdoor craft fair before moving on to Wanaka, a cute town outside Queenstown.  Sam had kindly arranged for us to take a helicopter tour of the area.  I haven’t been on a helicopter in a long time, and it was very cool to see the snow-topped mountains and lakes from this viewpoint.  We took a lot of pictures- below, some favorites:

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After this we stopped at Lake Wanaka to see “The Drunken Tree”- I had fallen in love with a photo at the art fair and the photographer told us where he had taken the shot.  Below, a picture that will very likely be framed and put on my wall in the near future:

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We drove back to Queenstown and just crashed at the backpackers, ready to explore and enjoy Queenstown the next day.

Sam and I enjoyed this day with no plans, and started by having breakfast at the highly recommended Joe’s Garage- avery cool and laid back atmosphere.  We walked the shops and streets of Queenstown, stopped at a few wineries for tastings in the nearby quaint Arrowtown, and watched others bungy off the infamous AJ Hackett Bridge.  (No, we didn’t.)  It was an incredibly fun day, one of those ones that has very few plans and things just turn out well and are appreciated.  We had dinner at the local pub and met some Australian guys who were there to snowboard and ski (Also no, we didn’t… another time.)  Sam was amazed to learn these Aussies had traveled through more of American than she or I had; they had done a 6 week travel holiday last year.  I am always impressed at how highly valued travel and holiday are in NZ and Australia, compared to the 2 weeks most American jobs allow… and was glad to see Sam have a similar reaction.

The following day we took a quick morning trip to the Kiwi Wildlife Park because frankly, I had been living in New Zealand for seven months and still not seen a kiwi.  Seeing a kiwi bird in the wild is actually very hard-they are nocturnal and live in the bush (forest).  They’re a really interesting choice of national bird, really- seeing at it can’t fly or do much, but the conservation efforts are nice.  We ended up seeing three kiwi birds, other native birds, and a show on conservation efforts.  A little girl sat in front of us who reminded me of one of my favourite children’s books: “Can Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?”  Look below for pictures and the answer:

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Then we  drove to Te Anau, a small town just outside Milford Sound, where we had a tour the following day.  By small town I mean very small… about 500 people, and this has doubled in only the past 4 years.  Te Anau only began having electricity in 1958 (exact year?), only the few blocks in city center have cell phone coverage, and there are portions of the town where there aren’t even land lines.  Our backpackers had no internet or phone access, and I was actually kind of happy to feel removed.  It did have breathtaking views of the mountains and neighbouring farms and a cozy lounge with a fireplace- fantastic.  Sam and I did our first hike of the week on the renowned Kepler Track.  Stunning.  Pictures below:

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We took a tour of Milford Sound the following morning.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and showed us lots of native NZ flora and fauna, the Mirror Lakes, and cool falls and geological features like chasms where the falls cut straight down through the rocks.  He took us on a few nice walks on the way, and Sam and I enjoyed getting to know a nice couple in group who were visiting from Australia.  He was an Aussie and she a Kiwi, in to ski with friends, and to see the Sound.  After we got on our boat to see the Sound it almost immediately began to pour down rain.  “Don’t worry about the weather”, we were told , “The Sound is majestic in the rain, and you can take better black and white photographs.”  “That sounds like a stretch for a silver lining” Sam and I noted… but… we went with it.  The Sound IS majestic, our pictures turned out OK, and we got soaked because we wanted to be out and see what was around us.  The waterfalls all run heavier with rain as well, so that was cool.  (If you go, though, and have a few days to choose when to go, choose a nice weather day).  We were supremely lucky to see seals and penguins on our tour, pictured below.  There’s something entirely refreshing and exciting about seeing animals in their natural habitats.

In our conversation with the couple from our tour we mentioned that we would soon be leaving the South Island to do the Tongariro Crossing on the North.  “Oh!” our new Kiwi friend of the cute couple replied, “My parents own a bed and breakfast just twenty minutes from the crossing!”  She collected our information and said she would put us in touch. Sweet as.

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After our tour we dried off a bit and saw a cool short film documentary on the Fiordland region.  It truly is a gorgeous place. In general, the South Island scenery often looks like a painted background rather than reality.  Confusingly beautiful.  We headed back to Queenstown for dinner and to use Sam’s GrabOne voucher for the Ice Bar- a bar literally made of ice.  Sam and I both love to take pictures and don’t love to stay out late or be very cold.  We therefore put on the parkas and gloves, walked around the -10 degree room taking pictures at the fun spots, enjoyed a free drink each, and promptly removed said parkas and gloves to head back to the backpackers for bed.  Spectacular.

Pics on Sam’s camera…

The next morning was our last on the South Island, so we decided to have a final lovely breakfast at another highly recommended spot- Vudu Café.  I loved it.  We then tramped up the hill to the top of the Queenstown gondola, where there are activities like a luge, rope courses and zip lines.  We just enjoyed the walk up and took the gondola back down, however, keen to have to time to be ready for our flight.   Below- pictures from our hike and the very rewarding skyline views:

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Then it was off to the airport to fly to Wellington to fly to Taupo.  Domestic flights are amazing in New Zealand.  In these cases we never even went through security, and literally scanned our own boarding passes as we walked on board.  We quickly learned there was no need to be more than 30 minutes early for our NZ domestic flights.

We got our rental car in Taupo and drove to our backpackers in Tongariro… a very nice one that was lodge style.  Here we prepared for the following day’s hike, made a quick dinner, and sat looking over our New Zealand guide books while eating pavlova to determine what we wanted to do with our upcoming free day in Taupo.  Memorable, simple fun.

The next day was just amazing.  The Tongariro Track is supposedly the Best One Day Walk in all of New Zealand- and it was on my “must do in NZ” list for months.  Sam is relatively new to hiking, and has a bum knee (hence the no skiing), but she rocked it out this entire vacation… how, I am not sure. (I suspect it might have something to do with her collegiate and then ironman athlete background, vacation excitement, and overall stubbornness…)  I was very nervous, and she was very cautious about being careful, as Tongariro is an alpine crossing and can be tricky in the winter.

And tricky it was!  Our guides warned us that the weather was finicky on our crossing day… and anything could happen.  The bad news was that the weather would be rough.  The good news- we would definitely get to use all of our alpine trekking toys!  It was a cool experience to be outfitted with an ice ax, crampons, and a helmet.  Tongariro is not a very high mountain, but it’s conditions can be tricky.  We started the tramp with an easy flat walk surrounded by gorgeous National Park scenery, sweating.   Soon enough, however, we were relying on our axes to steady our balance walking uphill, in White Out conditions- unable to see more than a few metres ahead of ourselves, freezing in the blustering wind.  Sam and I, again, are not the best with cold.  She told me more than a few times “Jen, I am cursing you right now”, and I was very frequently trying to keep my arms and body moving to regain feeling in my hands and moving during the breaks to try to stay warm.  We summited without any real problems, however… and saw nothing but white.  It was exciting to summit something however, and it made me want to do more ascents in the future.  We then headed downward and around the mountain to try to find a place sheltered from the wind to eat lunch.  Here we received some bad news.  Our guides conducted an Avalanche Test using a shovel to see how the snow would crease or crack below weight… the original and follow up tests both showed a good possibility that the weight of people walking on this snow could cause an avalanche.  “We can’t fully cross as we originally planned”, they said.  “We need to go back up.”

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The bad news: Steep up and downhills on ice.  The good news:  We get to summit twice! (?)  After lunch (during which I was directed to shovel snow just to keep my body warm and prevent hypothermia, I really am terrible with cold… it was a bit like a detention in the corner shoveling while the others stood talking and eating J), we headed back around towards the lakes, in case we could see them, and up.  Everyone was very happy because, wouldn’t you know it, the weather did begin to clear and we could actually see the National Park we were standing in for a while!  We took some pictures of what Lord of the Rings fans know to be Mordor and Mount Doom on our breaks ascending the summit again.  Our guide would stop, breathing heavy to take a break, and say “This sucks!”… which made us feel like it was a legitimately hard day to do the crossing, as it’s kind of their job to keep the “This is great” attitude.  We made it up, and then had to walk down.  Crampons are really amazing- I’ve made up lesson plans about them and read about them for various projects, but had never used them before.  Our guide described them well when she said “They make you feel like Spiderman- suddenly you can walk on anything.”  Sam was incredibly impressive on this feat, handling her knee injury carefully, overcoming her fear of heights looking at the steep icy slopes downhill, and conquering a pretty technical hike as one of her firsts.  Amazing.  We eventually got back down to the end of the snowline, removed the crampons, and enjoyed the rest of the walk back to the car park.  We met interesting people (lots of teachers!) from Belgium, Ireland, and England.  Our tour guides were very fun and interesting, and we came to appreciate them even more when the “Beer Fairy” left us each a present for the van ride home. I admit I was on a total high at the end of the day.  There are few things better than spending the day in a National Park, trying something hard and new, being active and seeing spectacular views.  Sharing it with a wonderful friend, making new ones, and getting a beer were incredible bonuses.  Sam and I both felt in the end that this was our favorite day of the trip so far. … and it was about to get better, as we were about to drive to our Milford Sound friend’s parent’s B&B, hot chocolates in hand!

Chris and Peter, owners of the Founders Bed and Breakfast in Turangi- were amazingly gracious to invite us to stay with them.  I really like backpackers- I like the idea of minimalist and communal living, meeting fun people, and being able to cook meals for yourself.  However, I beyond appreciated this opportunity to stay at a B&B- a real luxury!  The Founders is done just right- the beds are wonderful, as is the breakfast.  It had so many quaint small Kiwi touches like  bedside Whittakers chocolates and Manuka honey toiletries…   We came to see that our personable, easy-going, vibrant Milford Sound friend was also raised by personable, easy-going, vibrant parents.  We enjoyed sitting around their crackling fireplace or kitchen sharing stories of home and New Zealand (Peter is American), and discussing everything from life in a digital age to the joys of knitting.   Though we only spent a handful of hours in their company, we felt as though Chris and Peter became fast friends.

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The next morning was our “Free Day in Taupo”- and we decided to take our new friends’ advice on just what we should do.  We made a stop on the way out of town to their local thermal pools for a soak in the “Magic Healing Water” (I will miss being surrounded by other people who support homeopathic remedies and treatments!) and did their thermal walk.  We stopped for a nice lake view and to see the local Maori Marae (Meeting House/Church), and then… we went on to the day’s big plan.  As discussed back in D.C., Sam and I were determined to follow through with our bungy plans.  She had purchased a GrabOne deal for Taupo Bungy, so we were financially committed.  We had told some friends we would be doing it, so there was that commitment as well.  No chickening out allowed- it was bungy time.

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We’ve both been sky diving before and generally enjoy things that appear crazy/challenging/like adrenaline rushes.  Sam had been saying she wanted to bungy jump in New Zealand since she was ten years old.  So… we did.  I’m not sure I can describe the feelings of anxiety/fear/uncertainty well, so I’ll post the video of my jump with the hope it does.  I think it’s funny how people at the bungy all start to just lose their filter and openly spew out their fears, thoughts, and mind’s inner dialogue while contemplating their jump.

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Success- holding our “Certificates of Courage”

With that officially done, we continued on with our Taupo day.  We went to a nearby café that was recommended to us, with a cute mosaic garden and art gallery.  Then we went to sample NZ honey and port wines, saw Huka Falls, and checked in to our final backpackers.  We went to Burger Fuel, my favorite NZ restaurant /burger place, one last time.  (Hardest goodbye outside of those to people).  We stopped at a very cute French café just next to our backpackers, and it was truly like we took a trip to France in the middle of our NZ holiday.  I enjoyed listening to Sam recount her travels in Paris.  Another early night because that’s how Sam and I roll, and it was off to bed.

We had an early flight to Auckland from Taupo, and Khushboo graciously picked us up from the airport.  (Have I mentioned I’m lucky to have made friends here?!)  She chauffeured us to run a couple of errands and to show Sam Cornwall Park- so she could see the city views and I could show her my local biking spot.  Then we went back to Robin and Peter’s, where the family was having a nice lunch gathering (getting me excited to return home to MY family and OUR gatherings!!!!).  It was nice to have Sam meet my Kiwi hosts and family.  It was weird to say goodbye to Kevin and Louise, who in some ways I feel like I only just met and in others feel I’ve known for ages.  Sam and I then began the pack-weigh-repack-reweigh luggage game that would go on the next two days.  Khushboo’s birthday party was that night, so we went out in Ponsonby to celebrate my energetic, positive, and glamorous friend.  It was the last time I would see her, Juliana, and Tracy… so I ended up crying in the bar, which is never a good look, but I felt so glad and thankful to have made friends here that I will truly miss.  Luckily I know we will keep in touch- and who knows when I may see them Stateside, back in NZ… and I definitely want to take a trip to Ireland one day!  I was glad Sam got to meet them.

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And then it was my last full day and night in New Zealand (what?!).  Sam and I decided to make the most of it, and the weather cooperated.  We went to the French Market in Parnell, which is adorable, and picked up a few snacks for our final NZ tramp.  We went back to my favorite part of Auckland- out west by the wild beaches of Piha and Karikari, and did a hike in the Waitakere Ranges.  Below- pictures of Fairy Falls Track with its river crossings, falls, and skyline view.

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That afternoon I sold Sir Lancey Pants the Great to a nice Uni Student and we headed to Mission Bay to take Robin and Peter to dinner.  We enjoyed spending time together, reflecting on the time we’ve spent together, and pondering the future.  I am so blessed to have had their support and kindness during my time in NZ- they opened their home, hearts and arms to me, which meant so much with every small gesture and effort.  I hope to pay forward that kindness to someone one day, they are inspiring.  It was weird to think I soon won’t be in tune with their daily life happenings, but know we will keep in touch.

And the rest of the trip was the packup, the ending of phone plans, the cleaning of my room…  with one final run around the Orakei Basin with Sam and Oscar.  Sam was a great friend to spend some of her holiday helping me settle my wrap up, and will be enjoying the next two weeks in Auckland and Australia with her brother and cousin.  I really loved traveling with her- she is open minded, enjoys exploring, and up for adventure (during the day, and early tuck-ins at night!)  It was fun to talk with her about life back home and again made me excited to return to my wonderful life there!  It was a great way to end the NZ adventure!

My next blog will be on my reflections of my New Zealand journey…  sure to be stream-of-conscious and my own form of self-therapy/diarying!

Classroom Love

Today was my last day in my classroom here in NZ… a tough one to get through and hard to say goodbye, though I am confident in my decision to return home.  My classroom has become my home in this country, and they have become my NZ family in many ways. I have learned a lot about myself, teaching, and the world from them… for which I am so thankful!

I’ve done my own personal dairying about work here in New Zealand, but have not yet shared much via the blog about my day to day and job here yet.  Thought I’d take a bit of my diarying entries and post them here- edited to not divulge much with regard to their names, disabilities, or other personal information

I absolutely adore my students.  I have six “whetus” in my room, “stars” in Maori.  I used to have seven, but one was just at a different academic and social level than the others and was moved to a “Satellite” classroom that involves more mainstreaming.  I enjoy catching up with her and her parents via Facebook, text, and on one lucky occasion a cupcake date.  On these occasions I am awed by how observant and inquisitive she is, how overjoyed she is by her favorite indulgences like fruity scents and her parents’ smiles, and her determination to work with her friends.

Each of my whetus blow me away daily with how hard they work and how much they overcome to achieve, learn and grow.

Student A is my oldest student and also the lowest functioning.  He is someone who learns on his own timeline and requires patience.  He loves adults, and loves making sure you don’t forget he’s there by touching, pushing, or gabbling at you.  He is startled by sudden sounds, and goes into hysterics at goofy sounds or when funny manipulatives are placed around him.  He seems to be magnetically drawn to computers and other technology.  Student A is also learning to control his body a lot and has made big progress this year developing his balance and control- he walks unassisted more often, doesn’t back away from a challenge like a sloping sidewalk, and is beginning to use his hands for functional purposes like grabbing a writing tool, pushing a toy car, dressing himself, or steadying himself when on a physio ball.  A has wonderful, patient, enthusiastic parents, and the hair of a boy band heartthrob.  I hate, hate, hate it when he cries.

Student B has probably made the most progress this year.  I was told not to expect much from him – “He just swipes things off tables and pulls hair”.  Not the case.  B is a doll.  He loves adult interaction and praise, getting close to everyone to greet them, and being where the action is.  He entangles and rubs his fingers together as perseverance, but has begun to learn to control his hands to accomplish tasks.  Despite vision issues, he is learning to look to make choices and using his fingers to grasp items and picture symbols.  He’s even learning to use the door knob, which I have varied feelings about!  He can sit in his chair for minutes before standing up, something he would not do at the beginning of the year.  B gabbles at appropriate pauses in conversation to respond, and laughs when others do.  His laugh should be on a radio commercial, it’s so uplifting.  His innate rhythm makes me jealous- he sways and bobs to music as if it’s flowing through his blood.

Student C is a fantastic challenge.  He is a very capable learner and person – he understands so much more than he lets on.  When given a choice of doing something himself or having me do it, he would prefer me to nine times out of ten.  Unfortunately I am not the one in school and he is, so nine times out of ten I prefer he complete the task.  Thanks to all the adults in my room being on board with this, C has made great gains in completing his work and staying with the group.  C is also someone who conquers challenges.  Despite his disabilities, including medical conditions that seem to make him feel just plain rotten, he takes on tasks and accomplishes them.    He’s beginning to explore become more social, inquisitive, and participatory- particularly at play, where he now teeters along the sidelines, watching as if he’s contemplating whether to jump in.  I admire his strength and perseverance every day.   C has chuckle fits out of the blue, and when he’s very excited he will hop up and down or run in a circle.  This often reenergizes the entire classroom, including myself, into a cheery, happy mood.  I wish every student was as interested and engaged in Circle Time as C is… he would stay there all day if he could.  We’re all proud of the effort C has put in to his toilet training.  This, like many of his achievements, are a credit to the strong, determined and consistent efforts his parents, grandparents and caregivers make- C is a lucky boy to have such support.

 Student D steals hearts.  He’s simpy adorable… and he knows it.  D is learning some basic skills like toileting, sitting in his seat, walking independently, and taking in food by mouth.  He works hard at this, and it’s incredible how far he has come in just the past six months with these goals.  D has a great memory for song tunes and rhythms, which is helpful when I’m not sure what to sing to a (on rare occasion) quiet classroom.  D is our “cheeky monkey”… because he absolutely tests your boundaries, grins wide as a canyon when he realizes he’s gotten away with something, and would select climbing as his favorite mode of transportation.  The boy loves water, all items that can be flicked or spun, mulch and paper… as well as hugs, smiles, and holding hands… if we could all find pleasure in such simple things… we’d “need” so much less.

 Student E is a performer at heart.  She wants to be Beyonce, and often sings and dances her songs.  I love watching E float around the room, replaying things she has seen, grabbing a microphone to belt out a tune, or dancing and spinning play time away.  E also performs in an attempt to get her way… in a tantrum sense…and her performances can be quite impressive.  Her behavior has been a big challenge this year, but it’s also good to see her cognitive ability maturing to the extent that she understands how much she can control her environment.  She’s learning to communicate, wait her turn, and respect class rules.  I envy E’s energy level, enthusiasm for writing, zeal for cooking, and ability to cope with a change in routine.  He smile can cover nearly half her face, and is often simultaneously accompanied by an overjoyed squeal.   This is the best.

Finally, Student F.  F is a firecracker.  She loves to be in control of her environment, and throws some of the best temper tantrums I have ever seen.  Luckily, she also loves to please people.  It’s when she has to give up control to please others that she struggles… which, unfortunately for her, can often be the case in a classroom environment.  F has made great gains this year and has really put in a lot of effort to work with me and the other ladies in our room.  When she’s working with me she appreciates praise, pats on the back, and sitting next to me… these things are reciprocated with giggles, smiles and hugs.  When she’s against me I get incoherent curses, firm grasps of my hand, and a face so angry she clamps her lips together and literally shakes.  We’re getting more time working with one another than against as we go.  F is also very clever.  She’s learning colors, numbers, and how to write her name independently.  She is observant and works hard to please, and can often complete a job after it being modeled to her only once.  My Little Pony and playdough are favorites- which I totally get and respect.  I can’t wait to hear that she has begun to read- it seems so possible for her future.

I work with some very remarkable women in my classroom, and am lucky to have the great support staff I do.  They listen, think, work hard, and voice opinions.  They come to work each day because they want to help our students.  They are great educators, and wonderful teammates.  I absolutely could not handle work without them.

I feel so lucky to have had each of these nine people in my room this year to work with, teach, and learn from.  It’s been an incredible experience.  One of the best parts of it being a reaffirmation for myself that this is a profession I love- despite being in a different country, school system, and school.  I love teaching in New Zealand for the same reasons I love teaching in the States… I love the kids, I love the challenges, I love working with and watching them learn and grow.

Some of the things I dislike about teaching in the States have also been the case in NZ, and that’s been good to realize, too.  Things like heavy paperwork, stress, not feeling like I’ve done quite enough, pay complaints, and interpersonal issues… these won’t be absent from any school system or environment.   It’s been a nice opportunity for me to reweigh the pros and cons of teaching and land again on the side of “I like it.”

I’ve learned a lot about what makes a teaching job fulfilling in this position as well.  I wasn’t paid the first term of this year (due to a nationwide problem with their payment system), and that really tempered my happiness toward work.  An unfortunate experience, but it did help me to evaluate why I like teaching and taught me a lot about myself… and finances.  I have been reminded not to take for granted a supportive, positive, and strong school administration… and realize the value of feedback, observations, monitoring and communication with supervisors.  Though these things can feel like annoyances or negative at the time, they do help to create professional relationships and development.  And of course, I learned a lot as I experienced the “information coming out of a firehouse” sensations as I maneuvered my way through a new school where I didn’t know the policies, procedures, or where anything was!

I’ll dearly miss each of my students and the ladies I work with in my classroom.  I have to remind myself sometimes that I only intended to come to New Zealand for a short period of time, and even if I had stayed the entire duration of my visa, I would feel sadness and like I still had more I wanted to accomplish more with them when the time came to leave.  I feel lucky to have had each touch my life, and I hope I can take what they have taught me and use it in my future classrooms back home.

Term Two Holiday

This post is long and in three parts.  Hope you’re in a “fluffing around and not getting real work done on a Friday anyways” kind of mood…

Part One

It’s term holiday time again and I’m taking advantage of the time by getting in some travel!  I really think the US needs to adopt year-round schooling, it’s so much better for the mental health of teachers and students alike to have periodic breaks.  Adapting back to our school calendar is going to be tough!

I’m currently writing from an airplane, flying from Cairns to Melbourne, Australia.  I’m traveling with Tracy, my friend from the rowing team who is also on a visa teaching here from Ireland.  Ironically, both of us originally thought we would be exploring the South Island over this holiday break with our sisters, but those plans didn’t work out for either of us.  I told Tracy of my plans to go to Australia instead, and was excited to have a travel companion when she decided to join!  We’re having a great time.  We intentionally planned to take a relaxed attitude toward the travel and make most of our plans once we arrived.  We’d be happy as long as we got to the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.  We did both of those things- the reef we did really well, and the rainforest… not as well.  Tired from our previous day of travel we had a late start on Sunday, and didn’t realize getting to the rainforest would take quite so much time and would close early.  We did get to Kuranda, a fun hippie village for tourists at the top of the mountain, and took the train down through the rainforest.  (Not thrilling- see pictures below.)  We were told when we bought the train tickets that we would ride down to the bottom of the mountain, take a coach bus transfer to the Skyrail, and the  ride the Skyrail back up along the treetops, with opportunities to stop and explore along the way.  We were not told, however, to buy the bus and Skyrail tickets before riding the train down.  Also below: a picture of me calling a taxi to take us back up the mountain instead.  Using a payphone was a fun yesteryear experience.

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I’m enjoying traveling with Tracy because when things like this happen we laugh about them together.  And things inevitably do happen when on travel.  For example, we arrived to our Holiday Park lodging from the airport on Saturday to discover they had decided to close early.  We walked around the park a little bit and chanced upon meeting an employee, who asked us in astonishment: “Well, didn’t you check under the mat?!  Your key is there!”  Tracy’s reactions to people and events make me laugh…. “Under the mat?  Like we’re your neighbours?  What were WE thinking?!”  Another fun aspect of traveling with Tracy is that I’m also experiencing Irish lingo… when we’re ready to leave we “Gonna head” or “head out” , exploring a new place is “routeing around” (NOT OK to say in NZ) and if we’re partying and having a good time, it’s a “craic”.  I’m enjoying the occasional “Slainte” as well.

Anyways, Kuranda was nice to see and if I went again I’d want to hike around and explore more, and arrive earlier to see more of the markets.  If you go- skip the train unless you’re into hearing the history of its creation in a monotone voice.  I felt like I was in my final history class of the schoolyear and my teacher had just popped in an old video.  At one point I told Tracy I felt like I should be signing her yearbook.

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After Kuranda we went to see Cairns City, which is a nice tropical beach/tourist town.  Lots of shops, restaurants, vendors, and backpackers.  There is a beach beside it and a nice pedestrian mall (still love them).  They also have a neat lagoon/esplanade built into the mall, and a green area with a movie screen where we saw people watching a political documentary.  We ended up getting dinner at P.J. O’Briens, an Irish pub that was recommended to us.  I thought Tracy would be a novelty in the pub, but there were actually a lot of Irish people there.  I learned this once Tracy pointed them out to me and each of their different accents, as people from each locality in Ireland seem to sound a bit different.  The bar was celebrating Bastille Day (common in NZ and Aus), so people wore red, white and blue and French people had no cover charge.  We hit the hay after dinner, knowing we had to get up early the next day for our adventure to the Great Barrier Reef!

This was super.  On the boat we met a nice couple from Quebec that were spending the season traveling Australia and are planning to go to New Zealand in November.  As Tracy described them: “Those guys were so laid back they were horizontal.”  (And therefore hereafter referred to as “The Horizontal Couple”.)  They have degrees in Adventure Tourism and were currently working on a farm in Aus.  They alternate between work and travel and have been through South America, India and Nepal, and Europe.  They were fun to talk with.  I was again reminded of how different Americans are as we talked about things like Pinterest, wedding costs, and international travel customs in Ireland, Canada and the States.  American culture, and DC in particular, seems to be a more wound-up, overworked, competitive, stressed, image-conscious country than many others.  I think this can lead to a lot of opportunity and advantages, but also has its disadvantages for mental health and well being.

We went to three reefs and were in the water for about three hours, all of which were magical.  It looked just like the scenes in Finding Nemo – schools of fish zooming past, flitting on the sand floor, eating algae off the coral.  They were fearless and you could swim right through them, I even touched a clown fish (with permission from a guide, I tried to be conscious of how sensitive the reef ecosystem is and how much damage a person can do by tampering with it.)  I saw gorgeous, colourful, and massive fish.  I also saw a sea turtle and a clam as big as a bed pillow opening and closing.  Tracy saw a white-tip shark.  And on the boat ride home we even saw a humpback whale-!  “Nice bonus,” as Tracy put it.  Overall great experience and the best open water swim of my life.

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After our reef adventure day we made some more Melbourne plans and then went to the city again.  This time we went for dinner at Gilligans Backpackers for a cheap as meal.  Then we tried The Woolshed, supposedly rated Australia’s #1 Party Bar, but it was empty.  Knowing we liked O’Briens, we went back there for a few beers.  We also tried an Aussie drink “Snakebite” which is Strongbow cider and raspberry grenadine.  I remember my sister bringing Strongbow back for us when she went to Australia, so I had one in her honor.  (Love you, Smoosh!)  With the raspberry it was far too sweet, particularly in comparison to the Guinness’ I had been drinking, but was fun to try.

The night took an interesting turn when a group of University kids all wearing matching white “Monday Mission” shirts entered the pub.  They were a group of students in a study abroad program, and coming to Cairns to snorkel the reef and do this pub crawl was a part of their orientation. (I distinctly remember the highlight of my college orientation being that we could watch a movie from the gym hot tub… ) The first kids to talk to us were American, and told me they didn’t believe I was from the States and thought I had picked up an Australian accent…  Tracy and I knew that either I was reeeeaaally good at acclimating to a new country in only 2 days, or they were already pretty far along in their pub crawl.

One of the boys from Ohio told us “I’ve only been here two days but I’m already thinking of moving here, life is so much better in Australia.”  As Tracy and I watched their pub-led games involving  jumping on each others’ backs, imitating sex positions, and dance competitions in which everyone got down to their skivvies, we could understand why he felt that way.  We had fun talking with them all, dancing on tables ourselves (clothed), and in general spectating Animal House: Cairns Edition.  I couldn’t help but laugh that their orientation professors were there as well… University Approved debauchery?  The pair that won the Simon Says-esque competition were American kids, so I bought them a drink as a congratulations.  (Their “U-S-A! U-S-A!” cheers got to me, I just had to support).  Tracy and I laughed on the taxi ride home, and decided to cancel our early morning plans to take pictures holding koala bears in order to get rest.

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In an ideal world we would have had more time in Cairns and would have seen the Daintree Rainforest, Port Douglas and Mission Beaches, and I would have loved to have camped on a neighbouring reef island.  But, our itinerary has us headed to Melbourne- to see for myself why it’s often ranked the World’s Best City with the highest quality of life.   I’m sure when it’s time to leave I will feel like I would like to do and explore more there as well!   Even in the States I can never see it all, and I’m so thankful for the time and experiences I am having.

So next stop: Melbourne… And after that, Fiji to meet up with Bobby!

I am the absolute luckiest person I know.

Part Two:

Writing now from the plane leaving Melbourne to Fiji (I know I will look back on this time of life and not believe it- I am appreciating it while it’s happening.).

Melbourne is a really grand city- it’s got a lot of fun character, diversity, and culture.  It has the artsy and hipster feeling that San Francisco can offer, interesting architecture like Chicago, and certain streets of the CBD can feel like you are in NYC or Philadelphia.  I enjoyed checking out the urban planning and snapped pictures of their trams, bike shares, and bike lanes.

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Tracy and I had a few days to spend in Melbourne, and we tried to hit the highlights.  We spent the first night figuring out new accommodations because we heard from some of Bobby’s friends (and later our cab driver from the airport) that the backpackers we had planned to stay at was in a dodgy part of town.  We read some online reviews, and went during the daytime to check it out, but decided it wasn’t for us.  We ended up in a motel that hasn’t changed its décor since the early 80s in a room with a queen bed, a bunk bed, a twin bed, and a pull-out couch.  We took in our surroundings (and loved them), then headed out to the CBD.  The “horizontal couple” in Cairns had told us about a Bavarian restaurant they had enjoyed and Tracy wanted to try out.  It ended up being in Chinatown, and I had to laugh at the multicultural layers of the event.  Eating at a Bavarian restaurant in the Chinatown of an Australian city with my Irish friend at the recommendation of two French-Canadians.  I love international travel for experiences like that.  …I ate a noodle dish I couldn’t pronounce.

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The following day we rented a car and drove the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.  We enjoyed a relaxed pace with this day, spending time at the little towns along the way and stopping frequently to watch the surfers or take pictures.  We stopped at a café for lunch and ate it on the beach.  At the end a cockatoo came up to our table trying to steal chips (French fries) from Tracy!   We arrived at the Twelve Apostles, the biggest landmark along the road, just at sunset.  It made for a truly spectacular sight- though poor pictures of us with the shadows.  We spent a while there, as it’s a truly captivating sight, before turning back for the city.  It was fun to spend the drive back singing along to the radio and wishing for a kangaroo sighting every time we passed a yellow diamond “Kangaroo Crossing” sign. We think we saw one, but it was darting back into the woods- kangaroos are a lot like deer back home.  Everywhere (except when we’re begging for one to come out) and often crossing the roads at night.

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The next day I got up, returned the car, and then went for a run on the way back.  I love running through places I visit because I notice things differently.  Sometimes my favourite memories of a city might be the young family I saw walking in a park with the parents each holding one of their child’s hands…. Or the quirky art co-op at the end of a random laneway.  Melbourne turned out to be a great example of this, as I happened upon a perfect café near our motel when I was looking for a place to grab a quick breakfast at the end of my run.  Every room in this café felt like it belonged in a magazine or blog or Pinterest page- but it sent that excited energy through my spine to see it in person.  It was an old home redone into a café, and I think D.C. probably needs one.  Below, some pictures.

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Later in the day Tracy and I hit the Queen Victoria Market, which I had been really excited to see.  The building portion of the market was great- it had a lot of character.  It reminded me some of Eastern Market in DC and some of the Ferry Building in San Fran.  Bobby had sent me a leftover $2 coin from his recent trip to Australia, so Tracy and I made a game of the market to try to find the most interesting item possible for $2.  (I remembered your story, Fred.)  A kangaroo punching pen, sumo wrestler clock, and ultraviolet whiteboard were in the final running.  I ended up getting an original Australian penny, which they stopped making in the 1950s.  I spent $1.45 on it which felt like a bonus in the $2 challenge, but at the same time it seemed silly seeing as I did buy a penny.

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After the market we went to high tea at the Windsor Motel in the CBD, also per the recommendation of “the Horizontal Couple”.  I have heard about high teas a lot in New Zealand and had wanted to attend one.  I don’t frequently get or make chances to act all prim and proper at home, and we don’t have the British influence to have things like “high teas” that NZ does.  Tracy and I allowed ourselves to get giggly and silly with the experience being out of our comfort zone.  After the waiter left with our tea orders she exclaimed “He put my napkin on my lap for me!”  I asked for a picture holding my tea cup between tiers of scones and finger sandwiches.  We both tried out British-ish accents and remarked about how “absolutely fabulous” different things were… “dahling”.   We ate too much, took heaps of photos, and then walked around the stores of the CBD.  In theme with the day’s events, I then bought something at the very posh Salvos.  See below.  Note: Australians seem to abbreviate evertything.  It took me a little while to pick up the meaning of the term “arvo” in New Zealand (afternoon.)

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That evening we were lucky enough to meet up with Bobby’s high school friend Kristy, who he met while she was doing an OE in the States.  Bobby went to Australia to visit her in November and met many of her friends, and I was happy to meet them after hearing about them.  They ladies made plans for us to see and fun bar with a kind of “country club” theme with the waiters in tennis uniforms, lawn furniture, etc.  They also showed us the best tapas restaurant I have ever been to.  We enjoyed chatting about travel, families, school, gyms… what have you.  We enjoyed learning more about Melbourne and the chance to see some nightlife.

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The following day we went to see St. Kilda, the shopping district of Melbourne.  Tracy and I were actually a bit underwhelmed by the shops, and felt like the CBD offered more, but I think it’s possible we missed something.  St. Kilda had a boardwalk-esque feel, as it is right off the beach, and we enjoyed the walk around.  We ended up going back to the CBD before we headed for our evening plans of seeing an Australian Football League game.  This was a fun experience as I like learning about new sports in different parts of the world.  In general the AFL game was a bit tame compared to rugby and NFL games, the fans at this game at least were not very rowdy.  There are four poles making up three goals, with the inner goal being worth more points than the outers.  Goals are made by the player punting the ball in.  The field is circular with a ton of referees on it, which was interesting, and they take a lot more breaks to stop and setup the plays.  Honestly, without being invested in the game Tracy and I had seen enough at halftime, and went back to the CBD to check out the Friday nightlife.

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This was a good idea.  We met a lot of people from all over the world, and appreciated the diverse and eclectic nature of Melbourne.  I don’t think I have ever been in a bar where I have seen such an array of ages (18 to 60), fashions (gym wear to formal), and crowds (work colleagues to bachelorettes).  It was a unique experience to see these people all mingle in one bar and no one seem out of place.

This was the end of the Melbourne visit, as I was off the following morning to see Bobby in Fiji!

Part Three

I never really thought much about visiting Fiji when I decided to venture to New Zealand, honestly I’ve been more after mountains and rivers than beaches… but between Hawaii, NZ beaches, Cairns, and Fiji- the tropics have been where I’ve been going- and I don’t have any complaints!  I am very lucky that Bobby has been able and wanting to visit so often during my time here… those flights over the Pacific aren’t the easiest.  Fiji seemed like a great place to meet and travel as someplace we both had not yet been, and it was a REALLY good decision.

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I love how well Bobby and I have been able to keep up our relationship via Skype, email and text… but I really love when I get to see him in person.   We had booked a hotel for the first few nights in the city of Nadi, near the airport.  Going to Fiji can be an eye-opening experience.  Most of the people live in poverty, and it was a reminder of how very fortunate I am to have so much in my life.  The roads are mainly dirt, streets can be crowded, there are many stray dogs, and cars are generally over a decade old.  The economy is based largely on tourism (and sugar cane), and people push hard to get your business.  You are asked if you need a taxi, a tour, a wooden craft souvenir, nearly everywhere you go.  It is not wise to walk around and explore alone or leave your belongings unattended.

The Fijian people are also rich in many ways, though, through the benefits of having a more simple lifestyle.  The environment is beautiful.  Communal living is still popular and villages are a source of support and strength.   Many of the people Bobby and I talked to spoke of how proud they were to be from Fiji.  Everyone is friendly and says “Bula” (Hello)… to a point of excess, actually.  Bobby and I made a few games out of the number of times we were greeted, asked the same common courtesy travel questions, or asked if we were from the United States.  (My favourite involved us pressing deeper than the surface level questions with a “What’s your favorite color?” in reply.   I was also entertained by counting how many times our waitress would giggle at Bobby’s American accent… which was absolutely every time he spoke.)

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The hotel we were first in was not lavish or what one might typically see on a travel ad.  The beach was a good walk away, the hotel was run on a generator that would frequently power off, and at one point the hot water was not working.   This was still a pretty wonderful experience, however, as we got to see a bit more of the “real Fiji”.  It was also nice to be a bit isolated from touristy temptations to just enjoy seeing Bobby again at first, and we met a lot of interesting people during the communal meal times and it being a small hotel.   Below, a picture of the beautiful river and plants just outside our room!

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We decided white sand beaches were a must for our visit to Fiji, and went the resort route for the remainder of our trip.  We passed over what I call “The Bridge Where Worlds Change” into Denarau, and were then surrounded by golf courses, docks and boats, and hotels.  This was also gorgeous- and led to a different kind of appreciation of Fiji.  It was nice to be right on the beach and under the coconut palms.  The following days consisted of enjoying all the resort offered- sleeping in, eating out, reading, walking to the marina, Bobby teaching me the basics of tennis and chess, me teaching him a bit about kayaking… and some ice cream (New Zealand Natural?!  We must!).  Bobby got a new job while we were there which was really great to be able to celebrate while we were together.  He also wanted to play and hear a piece he composed on the flight over, and ended up making friends with the musicians at a restaurant in a neighboring resort.   We spent a few nights there while he played piano with and for them.  Learning more about these people and seeing how music can connect people from very different backgrounds was actually one of my favorite parts of our trip.  By the end of the week they and Bobby had traded CDs and email addresses, they made us a fancy crepe dessert (groupie bonus for me!), and we had an offer to stay in their village when we next come to Fiji…  “Cool as”, as we’d say in NZ.

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The most exciting day of the trip was Thursday, when we took an eco tour of Fiji.  We were picked up at 8:45am and told we were the only people booked for the day, “Let us begin the tour with a brief history of Fiji….”.  An hour and a half later, our van seats held us, two Irish girls from Auckland, and a set of grandparents with their daughter and two adorable grandchildren.  Then we were told “Now we begin our tour with a brief history of Fiji…”  The day required us to dial in to “Fiji Time”, which is quite relaxed and flexible.

The day consisted of a short hike up to a waterfall, which was wonderful.  We learned about some of the native uses of different plants for medicines and cooking.  Bobby and I had tried to get to a waterfall in Hawaii and New Zealand, so arriving was an accomplishment to be appreciated.  We swam for a while and took a number of pictures.  When I learned we could jump from the top, I was in.  I climbed up to the top, and I was out.  Eventually, after watching our tour guide do the jump and mentally coaching myself through, I did the jump and loved it.

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We hiked back and stopped at a village for a traditional kava ceremony and Fijian lunch.  This was a fun way to get a bit of insight into the culture.  We had to remove our shoes before entering the church, our knees had to be covered, women sat with their knees tucked behind them and men with their legs crossed.  Prayers were said over the food and drink, and we had to perform certain rituals in terms of when to clap, drink, etc.  We enjoyed our brief visit to the village very much.

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After this we went to an Orchid Garden at the Sleeping Giant, which is a mountain that looks like a man sleeping (like spoken about in an earlier post in Colorado and Matarangi).  After this came a mega highlight of the day- visiting MUD POOLS!  As many of you are aware, I love mud.  It’s a Facebook interest of mine.  When I was given the opportunity to literally put my hand in a bucket of mud and slather it on, I didn’t need the guide to tell me it’s skin- beautifying properties to convince me to dig in.  Dream come true.  Then getting to rinse off the mud in a natural hotspring … dreams exceeded. Below, pictures in mud and water.

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The rest of our visit was supposed to consist of a trip to the largest Hindu temple in the Southern hemisphere and a stop at a local Fijian market.  Instead it consisted of about a hundred games of “I Spy” with the two girls in our van who had by this point become super friends.  They thought Bobby was “funny” (I guess I was OK, too) and we enjoyed their company and silliness a lot.

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Overall, our Fiji trip was full of happy memories, wonderful people,  and a bit of adventure.  Vinaka (Thank you), Fiji, for a wonderful holiday!

 

And that… in a very long blog post… was my very fun, exciting, lucky term holiday vacation…

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Lorde

I’ve been enjoying listening to new music here- and would like to check out more- but this artist Lorde is really big here. When Bobby came to visit in April I paused our conversations each time this song came on the radio. I still like it a lot, and see she now has made it over the ocean and there is a US Version of this music video… so I thought you might like to have a listen.

Tea

Tonight I had just asked Peter what he’d like for dinner, and was almost finished preparing it.  As I poured myself a glass of water, I thought Peter might like his standard evening beverage.

“Peter, would you like tea?”

(Peter gives quizzical look.)

I motion drinking from a teacup.  “Would you like tea?”

“Oh.  No thanks.  I’ll have tea after tea.”

Tea is dinner here.  And can also mean lunch.  Or afternoon tea, which is common.  Morning tea is a break built into workday schedules.  And if you craved a snack at any point here, you could say “I could go for some tea.”  …

People drink tea up to six times a day here.  Tea cozies are for sale at the local store.  My school has numerous tea kettles.  Tea towels now hold more significance to me than just Doby’s clothes in Harry Potter.

“I’ll have tea after tea” just made me think to post about that… cheers….

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Happy 4th of July!

I had a great time celebrating the 4th of July here in Auckland.  It was one of those nights that is easy to appreciate in the moment.  As I sat on my friend’s couch at her flat in Ponsonby I thought to myself  “This is a memory in the making”.  I enjoyed spending time with my new friends, meeting new people – Kiwis and travelers alike- and of course celebrating my country.  I always feel lucky to live in the Nation’s Capital around Independence Day when at home, barbecueing with friends and family.  But I also very fondly remember my summer in Colorado when my colleague and I were sent on a day-long resupply to a backpacking trip in Utah.  We pulled over to the side of the road, donned American flag bandanas, and sat on the hood of the camp truck to watch fireworks in the distance.  The conversation, food, and music we enjoyed this 4th will leave a lasting impression on my recollection of the holiday as well.

To prepare for the BBQ at Tracy’s I went shopping to Martha’s Backyard: The American Store.  Martha’s Backyard entertains me.  I enjoy looking at what is being marketed as “American” to Kiwis.  Mainly cheap, sugary, processed foods.  Cartoon characters and and scented lotions are plentiful as well.  I realize the store is a business and needs to have low cost items because of the high import cost, and that the novelty of the store is the real product. I am slightly saddened to see Jet Puffed marshmallows and Cheez Wiz (for $12 NZD, can you believe that?) being marketed as “American”.  That being said, I can’t pretend I wasn’t happy to see Superman, PEZ dispensers (Team Family!), and grape jelly on the shelves.  I had to walk away from the peanut butter selection.

Below, pictures of things you see every day (you may just want to scroll down?):

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ImageImage random 2 colleges with 2 sweatshirts each.Imagesoda by the can.ImageImageImageImage…OK this one I’ve considered driving back for…

I asked the cashier if “Martha” was meant to be Martha Washington (great suggestion, KGo).  Her reply was surprisingly intricate. “The name Martha was chosen for a tripod of Marthas,” she said.  “Yes, Martha Washington, as you asked: for her integrity.  Martha’s Vineyard is the second leg of the tripod: for its inspiring beauty.  And the third Martha for whom the store is named is Martha Stewart: for her ingenuity.”

I looked at the person behind me buying an integrity-filled, inspiringly-beautiful, ingenious box of Confetti Cupcake Pop Tarts, looked back at her, and nodded.

In the end I bought a few things for our 4th of July BBQ (or  “sausage sizzle” here).  Those of you who have seen my Holiday Boxes of decor back home won’t be surprised US flags and decorations made it into my basket.  I also bought red and blue Kool Aid, macaroni and cheese, and the coolest cardboard glasses ever made (below).  Later I picked up Khushboo and Anna, and they, too wanted to contribute to the party.  At the standard grocery we bought Doritos, donuts, and ice cream to contribute as well.  “Let’s pig out like real Americans!” we joked.

One of Tracy’s flatmates is American, so naturally our conversation began with the standard “Where are you from?”

“Washington, DC”, I replied.  “Oh… me too- well, just outside DC in Virginia,” she answered.  Turns out she is from Fauquier county, only 45 minutes or so away from home!  I was the first person she had met in eighteen months in New Zealand who had heard of her hometown.  Small world, eh?!

Tracy and her flatmates had also gone “American food shopping”… pictured below are the items that made up the night’s menu: hot dogs, sloppy joes, s’mores, macaroni and cheese, donuts, ice cream and Velveeta dip.  I thought of my grandfather and family as I sipped a Budweiser beer.

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We spent the night just chilling out, eating and drinking too much, finding “American music” to play on TV and making s’mores on the back deck.  I love looking up at the clear and star-filled sky in Auckland all the time, and tonight was no exception.

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No really, you’re supposed to burn the marshmallow….  Rock on, America.

 

I did miss all of you at home (as always) on this holiday and hope you’re well!!