30 August 2014

The Tale of the Tailess Cows

28 August: Our first full day in Christchurch was filled with a lot of walking. Perhaps an excessive amount. We returned to Vodafone first thing in the morning to get our phones properly working on the network. After that was successful, we went to K-Mart where Kara bought a hairdryer for $24. Yeah, that's expensive! For lunch, after deciding against the food court, we went to a frozen yoghurt bar outside the mall called SoYo. It was decent, though the range of both flavors and toppings was less than impressive. We got a donut-flavored yoghurt mixed with an intense chocolate.

From there, we went to the university where we finally got our Canterbury Cards and our on-campus internet working...mostly. We now have email addresses (two!) for the school as well as access to various places on campus. Kara got all her scholarship stuff worked out, though the scholarship lady must be one of the most awkward people we've ever met. The smile never left her face even as she proclaimed her utter lack of knowledge regarding anything.

On the way home, we decided to get Pizza Hut. Yeah, judge us. We wanted something cheap and tasty. Pepperoni Lovers was the only option with pepperonis (extra toppings cost $3, which is the same price as the special pizzas. Dumb.). We'll probably stick with extra large cheese pizzas from now on, though, since everything else is quite expensive and large pizzas are somewhere between small- and medium-sized US pizzas. We're hoping extra larges are decent upgrades. The pizza was excellent but they didn't provide napkins and parmesan topping was considered a topping (peppers not an option). We got home and our host made some additional food from leftovers, which wasn't at all tasty (chicken bits in a vegetable stew) but supplemented the small-sized pizza dinner.

29 August: Friday involved us finally being able to have bank accounts, two shared checking and savings accounts. That means we can finally actually get monies! Before we took care of that, Kara went to Subway to pick up a sandwich. We then ventured to Pak 'N Save, the bulk grocery chain that has the lowest prices in town. We picked up quite a bit of food to last us a few days including some pre-packaged pasta, some Mexican food ingredients (they have everything we need to make our own refried beans. Mmmm.), and some other bits. Overall it was quite a bit of food for a decent price, though we certainly don't have much variety in our diet right now. It's too expensive to diversify and we don't really need to make meals currently since our host covers that more or less. I went to KFC for my (late) lunch and was happy to find that the chicken tastes just the same as in the US. The mashed potatoes are a bit more flavorless but the more disappointing thing is that it always comes with gravy, which I don't really enjoy, and that there is at least as much gravy as potatoes served in rather small portion containers.

From there we went to the university where Kara failed to meet her advisor. His office was open but nobody was at home! We did pass a bloke on the way out who we decided not to follow to see where he went. We got Metro passes and a few other items from the Student Association then ventured back home after picking up milk from the New World. Overall, Thursday was a pretty straightforward day, though not as successful as we had hoped.

Niko at the Canterbury Quarantine Center.
30 August: We visited Niko today, which was a happy reunion to be sure. The journey to the kennel took 25 minutes, though we did get to see some of the Canterbury Plain on the trip to the facility. The place was just a bunch of heavily-modified trailers and containers but it was oddly nice. Niko has a two-bunk flat with an access door to the outside, though a single wall of chain-linked fence blocks him from escaping into the wild. He has a piece of tree and an actual scratching post to hone his claws upon while he is treated to a "senior" diet of both kibble and wet cat food (more than he gets from us!). Lots of blankets covered his bunks with the sheets from the top bunk cascading down to the lower bunk. Overall, he is well taken care of. He was quite happy to see us, walking back and forth across our laps, rubbing his head on our feet, and generally purring and enjoying the attention. It was painful to leave him again, but it was necessary. And we probably won't see him again until he is moved to The Catery, a different non-quarantine kennel.

The summer town of Sumner as viewed from atop Port Hills.
Santa Cruz is 6,925mi (11,145km) northeast of here across the Pacific Ocean.
After visiting our kitty, our homestay host took us on an auto tour of Christchurch. We went north of the city where we saw a lot of the devastation from the earthquake in the low income housing areas. Then we went east to the town of Sumner, a former summer resort that now is lined with stacked containers protecting passerby's from falling pieces of hillside and homes that teeter atop the cliffs. The community itself still has life, but the earthquake definitely devastated large swaths of property along the Port Hills. From there, we traveled under the hills to the town of Lyttelton, the original settlement for Canterbury (an older French settlement was only added to Canterbury much later). Lyttelton also suffered a lot of damage with three very old buildings collapsing entirely and being demolished. The Port of Christchurch is located here, and all cruise ships stop here if they visit the city. We found a nice street market while we were there and I was able to purchase New Zealander sourdough bread which, while technically sour, is nowhere near as tasty as San Francisco-style sourdough. Returning to Christchurch proper, we went through the downtown area where our host explained how many tall skyscrapers have been demolished since the earthquake. The city was a hodgepodge of ruins and surviving buildings. A half-demolished theatre was at one end of the town while the ruined Christchurch Cathedral was at the other. The devastation was extensive and somewhat depressing, even though the city has been rebounding well.

Back at the house, Kara and I tried some pre-packaged pasta we had purchased at Pak 'n Save the day before. It was decidedly not as good as Pasta Roni. Kara won't be having hers again while I will have it sparingly. I think we'll have more success making our own mac 'n cheese and other pastas. Too bad tomato-based products cost so much here. In the afternoon, we scurried over to check out an apartment to rent only to discover dozens of people already there. Not only was the place unimpressive, but it was expensive for its unimpressiveness. And people were praising it! That didn't give us much confidence in finding housing. Kara doesn't really want the place at this point while I'd take it but prefer something else. Housing is not looking good.

We went to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner where I got lemon chicken. It's basically orange chicken but yellower. I didn't mind; it tasted great. Everyone else got more traditional Chinese fair. Blah. That pretty much ended Saturday for us. I'm finally working on my book again and have set goals, so let's see how well I keep them. Cheers!

  • All pre-pay cell phone plans charge 20¢ to check voicemail. This was not told to us in advance because it is so common knowledge here.
  • Rental properties must include a washing machine and refrigerator and new tenants are required to sign a federally-backed rental agreement.
  • Dinner is often called "Evening Tea", even if they don't serve tea at it.
  • Dairy cows have their tails removed to make milking easier.

28 August 2014

The Never-ending Canterbury Tales

From this point forward, I think I will try to do this a bit more like a retrospective travelog/Medieval chronicle. I think it will be more fun that way and fit my style more. Plus, it means I get to relive my past days every time I write, which should be interesting. Retrospectives are all the rage in the Year of Our Lord 2014. Let's see how this week has turned out so far...

23 August: Final preparations were made for the journey to Los Angeles and the two-day ordeal that would be the trip to Christchurch, New Zealand. I should note that Christchurch is in Canterbury District of New Zealand on the South Island, roughly midway down the east coast of above Littleton Bay which was once a large volcano.

24 August: Last goodbyes to the Kennedy family. Socko Pocko, the family's oldest and somewhat ailing cat, was given special affection since this will likely be the last time we see him. The oldest dog, Zee, was also lightly praised since he, too, will be an unlikely companion when we return to the States. Kirk, Kara's dad, drove us to Los Angeles where we arrived at around 7:30pm. Niko joined us for this leg of the trip and did remarkably well during the car ride, though he did pant like a wolf for a while early on.

25 August: Niko required a vet appointment early on in the day so we traveled from our humble Motel 6 to the local vet where he was given his last medications for the flight. We then had to get him scanned at the Department of Agriculture center near the airport. His cage left for further fitting, Niko returned with us to the motel where we quickly abandoned him to eat lunch at Denny's. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging in antagonizing wait until 3:00 when we finally had to say goodbye to Niko at the DA office so he could be properly dealt with by the airlines.

Our last meal in the US was a local Mexican restaurant with surprisingly good food and a fun theme, though the service was slow. From there, we packed up everything one last time and Kirk dropped us off at LAX airport. We got a porter to help us out—which was an excellent idea!—and he helped us get everything weighed and and unloaded. Kara's carryon was overweight, but the lady allowed it after we took out 1kg (we returned it to the bag as soon as we made it through security). While waiting to board, I called the relatives and said farewell.

The crowded terminal with people lining up to board the flight to Auckland.
The flight itself was a long 13-hour slog. To make matters worse, we had the very definition of a bloke sitting next to us and a woman who enjoyed her reading light far too much directly in front of us. The bloke grunted whenever we needed to use the restroom and he took up his whole seat and didn't like to share the armrest. The woman only turned off the light at around 5:00 in the morning US time, which was the middle of the night regardless of the time zone. Food was served around midnight (because people are hungry then) and breakfast about 10 hours later. Neither of them were particularly tasty and neither of us ate most of our meals. We had some of our own food with us, but we discovered in Auckland that no food of any type is allowed through customs. Prudes!

Entertainment in the plane was good, at least. Lots of movies, including really new ones, and some TV shows. Neither of us accomplished anything of note—I didn't even use my personal electronics on the plane once! The seats had a bit more leg room than your usual 777s but it was still crammed and there was almost no room in the aisles.

27 August: Tuesday never existed for us. We crossed the International Date Line sometime in the dead of night and any Tuesday we had was fleeting and inconsequential. We arrived at Auckland (pronounced "Oakland" by Kiwis) at 5:45 in the morning and had to answer 20 Questions on a declaration sheet, get told that we answered questions wrong by the customs agent, and then got a bag searched for cat medicine. It was a pain and we were forced to haul all our huge luggage to the domestic terminal, which was only accessible by bus. We almost missed said bus except a nice guy got them to stop and helped us load our baggage. We got rude stares from people, but whatever. Peeps got to catch a plane! We still had some time to spare at the terminal, but they had limited Wifi so I posted our first survival notice on Facebook.

The hopper to Christchurch was fairly full and the iPad finally came out to provide limited entertainment for Kara and me. We got our first view of our home at around 9:00 as we did a fly-over before landing. Fields spread out toward the towering New Zealand Alps in the west, while the city itself is a concentrated mass near the Pacific Ocean just north of Littleton Bay, mentioned above. It wasn't an overly spectacular impression, but the snow-topped mountains were beautiful and something we definitely plan to visit soon.

Out first good view of the plains west of Christchurch. Note the mountains in the distance.
Our homestay lady picked us up at the airport and fortunately had an SUV (she calls it a truck) that was barely able to hold our 350 lbs of luggage. She took us to her home about 10 minutes away where we've been staying ever since. The place is a lovely home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, an office, a kitchen/living room, and a parlor plus a garage. None of those British crammed homes—here, they actually have space to stretch. The neighborhood is very nice and within walking distance to the University of Canterbury. She also has another homestay guest from China as well as a pet cat named Ambrose.

Since it was only about 10:30 in the morning, she dropped us off near the Westfield Mall so we could open our bank account and see about getting phone numbers. The bank account required an address but we worked something out with them so now we can receive Kara's scholarship monies. We decided to go with a Pre-Pay Vodaphone plan but our phones were not actually unlocked yet because T-Mobile stinks at giving proper directions. We went home and fixed that later in the day but had to wait until the next day to get things going again. We stopped at the New World supermarket on the way back and picked up some VERY overpriced foods there. We were told food prices were high, but things are worse than that. Except for dairy products, which are all domestic, most foods are around 50% to 100% higher than in the US, unless they are special imports, in which case they are probably closer to 200% US prices. Oh, and sales are dismally inconsequential.

Weet-Bix! Weet-Bix everywhere!
Oh, the horror! Oh, the humanity!
We also had to get enroled at the University so we got that taken care of, though it was too late in the day to also get our Canterbury Cards (student IDs). On the way back, we stopped at another supermarket called Countdown which had slightly better prices and where we discovered that bread products are sold at reduced prices late in the day. The rest of the evening was spent eating a lovely Fish 'n' Chips meal provided by our host and getting other things worked out. We've already learned a lot from our host and a few other individuals we've met along the way, so fingers crossed that things improve.

One last note, Niko made it okay and immediately fled his cage to sit in sunbeams near a window at the quarantine facility. He will be enjoying their good graces until 9 September when he will be moved to The Catery, a cat kennel with a good reputation. In the meantime, we'll be looking for housing that will allow him to rejoin us.


  • The actual New Zealand accent is midway between a British and an American accent and much easier to understand.
  • There are a lot of non-New Zealanders in Christchurch, especially Indians, Chinese, and Australians.
  • The exchange rate is 0.85 UDS to 1 NZD, so expensive things are actually a bit cheaper than they look, until we start using Kara's scholarship money.
  • The big earthquake in 2011 destroyed much of the city, but the suburbs rebounded quickly and everything looks new and beautiful because of it. The city center, though, is still in a state of constant reconstruction.
  • There are just as many American things here as British and Australian, so it doesn't feel as far away from home as living in Swansea did in 2008-09.
  • Things are still strangely proportioned here. Sinks are small, toilet rooms are separate from bath rooms and they are tiny, but there are large cars, wide roads, decent-sized rooms. Overall, strange contrasts.
  • Despite popular belief, people are no more or less polite than anywhere else in the world. They are just normal people doing normal things.

22 August 2014

One Last Call for 'Merica

So this is it: NZ-Day. The day we've all been waiting for. The day I leave the United States for at least three years to settle in a place literally on the opposite side of the world. Okay, technically Spain is the exact opposite of Christchurch, but still. Close enough.

Niko traveling to Arizona in Kara's
Ford Explorer Sport-Trac.
The past three weeks have involved two things: shopping and packing. And both have been tedious. As soon as we got to Arizona, we started unpacking the two cars. This took three days all in itself. Then the real work of storing everything in the basement and elsewhere around Kara's house began. A lot of the basement got reorganized so that all of my LEGOs, games, and our other stuff could be stored in a corner. That only got finished three days ago.

The next task was completing our collection of clothing and other materiel that will be needed in our tour-of-duty in New Zealand. The list was long and we spent about a week of shopping off-and-on to get everything, especially trying to get good quality clothes cheaply. It was difficult and in the end, a few new items had to be cut and returned due to space issues.

That bring me to our last task for the past two weeks: packing. We have six 50-pound pieces of luggage and, fortunately, discovered that our carry-ons do not, in fact, include our personal items in their 15-pound weight limit. This was a recent change but something that helped us greatly. We decided to include one large packing box as one of our pieces of luggage. We also decided to buy a new suitcase/carryon combo from Costco. It was expensive but worth it. We now have two free-spinning suitcases that will be easy to move when needed.

Trying to pack these suitcases and keep them under 50-pounds has been one giant game of Musical Chairs. It has taken two weeks just to pack and repack these things. We only finished yesterday. We leave on Sunday. Yeah, cutting it close. We probably spent around 20 hours packing, weighing, and repacking these to get them right.

Free time has not really happened. I've been busily backing up all my DVDs on my external hard drive so we have things to watch in New Zealand while also downloading TV shows. We even broke the Internet in the process. Oops! Things are mostly under control now but the next two days are still going to be busy right until the end. Niko's all prepared for his trip, probably better prepared than us.

Fingers crossed that the remaining items will come together before Sunday. Stay tuned!