Sunday, December 19, 2010


I’m back home, safe and sound. Along the way I  saw heaps of amazing places, learned a decent amount about the country, and built up a pretty good personal connection to what was once a completely foreign place.

What was I doing over there? Mostly WWOOFing (essentially working for accommodation). After staying with the Bergers (family from earlier blog post) I did some landscaping odd jobs at a native bird and wildlife sanctuary, and then some similar work a quaint 16 house Quaker settlement. As these stays were finishing up, there seemed to be a good chance that I could get a 3-month government job in Wellington, and the Dickie family generously put me up when I went down there to interview. Unfortunately though, the job didn't work out, so after the interview process I went down to the South Island to see the famouse fiords and to WWOOF one more time at a surf school on the southern coast.

My humble home for about two weeks (on a good weather day!)

These past 3 months have had their ups and downs, but the surf school was certainly a fantastic finish. Despite the fact that living in a caravan wasn’t always a dream, there were some truly amazing moments there. Daily life often included things like seeing a small bunch of dolphins jump across the water just a few feet away, or seeing a pair of graceful but intimidating sea lions dart around just under my feet, coming up every few seconds to poke their head out and maybe let out a wide mouthed bark.

It included things like walking through the fossilized remains of a 180 million year old forest to go penguin watching,

Catching some waves in a bay that you’re only sharing with two or three other people,

(Technically the tide isn't right for surfing here, but a nice picture of the bay)
And sitting on the edge of the bay at night at night with a fellow WWOOFer, enjoying some flamenco style guitar and interesting company.

It was a great place to have gotten the chance to live in, however briefly.

Wildlife Sanctuary


Curio Bay Surf School

(More details in the album captions)



Mini-lessons learned from the trip:

1) You can boil water about twice as fast if you first boil it in an electric water kettle. Whether you’re pre-heating water for soup, pasta or tea, it works really well. It's also much more energy efficient.

2) Red lentils are just as cheap, just as quick to cook, and easier to pack than pasta (especially if you count the sauce). Plus they're full of protein! I'm not sure why the vast majority of backpackers seem to eat pasta almost exclusively.

3) Lifelong vegan? Don't think I could do it. "Weekday vegetarian?" Perhaps. Many of the hosts in the WWOOF network are vegetarian, and after being forced to eat this way for a while it doesn't seem so bad.

P.P.S: Thanks!

Thanks so much to everyone in NZ who helped me get by in what was sometimes a strange and scary place. Thanks very much also to everyone who kept in touch back home, and to all you guys for reading! It's made a big difference to me to be able to share these experiences to some degree, and I hope the posts have been fun to read too.

Looking forward to seein' ya'll!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bus Trippin'

I know, I never thought I’d write a post about a bus trip either, but here we are.

Just finished two and a half days of busing, but the drivers took their time. They easily knew all the great lookout points to stop at along the way for breaks, as well as some interesting cafes and fruit markets they have relationships with. The drivers also gave us bits of history here and there. Some were sights I had been meaning to see (such as “Pancake Rocks,” above), others were ones I hadn’t heard of (Lake Howea, below).

What some of my pictures don’t show are the bus window frames or the 10-20 other people cycling through all of these viewpoints. There are plenty of multi-day trails leading up into the forests where you can pretty much have it all to yourself, but at these lookouts there’s a fairly steady flow of people. I heard a comment once that the short roadside paths through the woods like these aren’t really paths, they're highways.

But hey, with just under three weeks left in the country, this is what I have time for, and it looks good to me. So if you feel like checking out some photos, here it is: The West Coast of the South Island -- Highway Edition.

West Coast Bus Ride

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'll be home for Chanukah this year

(Nov 27 Correction: Actually I won't be home in time, I didn't know Chanukah was so early this year, but I'll still be home in time to see leftover Chanukah decorations!)

I'm flying home on Dec 15.

The job search hasn't been perfect. Lots of interesting national research departments expressed interest in hiring me but nobody had enough room in the budget this year. WWOOFing has been good but at this point there are only a handful hosts out there who jump out at me. I could give the skilled job search more time, or I could settle down in a touristy area and look for unskilled work, but I'm ready to go home.

This morning I took the ferry across to the South Island, and tomorrow marks the start of a long series of bus rides down to Fiordland National Park. After a few days kayaking and hiking there, I'll be off to work for accommodation and free surfing lessons at a surf school/hostel on the Catlins Coast before finally heading home to the chilly but lovely US of A. The Catlins Coast is, I'm told, one of the great uncommercialized parts of NZ (uncommercialized is of course a relative term, almost anything in NZ that's within eye-shot of any signs of residency or civilization is considered commercialized). The remote stretch of coastline is the natural home of sea lions, seals, and yellow-eyed penguins.

By my standards, my life here has been out of control. There has rarely been a time when my guess of where I'd be sleeping two weeks later turned out to be right. This kind of lifestyle certainly has its perks, but it's very comforting and relieving to have some kind of certainty in my plans now. And it should be a pretty amazing couple of weeks

From ferry ride through narrowish straits on the way to Picton

Next time on Kiwi Soup: Photos and blurbs from interesting WWOOF hosts/stays

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If your family moved to New Zealand, what would life be like?

It might be something like the life of the first family who hosted me as a WWOOFer, the Berger family. They’re a smart, down-to-earth group of liberals who moved from D.C. to New Zealand in 2006 (one night during my stay with them, they joke that they’re part of the select few who made good on their talk of leaving the U.S. if Bush did something else stupid). Since then, many aspects of their lifestyle have changed, as has their personal connection to the United States.

Paekakariki, their new hometown, is somewhere between the peaceful suburb you’d love to live in, and the tiny beach village you’d love to retire to (the local fire dept made a press statement in the town paper recently, reminding families that they’re always available to help in case of an emergency, and were able to do so in that week’s emergency when a child accidentally locked himself in a bathroom). Most New Zealanders live near the coastline, and in Paekakariki, many of the houses come with a stunning view of the Tasman Sea. Weather in many parts of NZ is highly unpredictable, they say that sometimes you can experience all four seasons in one day. Especially here in this coastal town, it’s not uncommon for an hour of heavy rain to be followed by an hour of blazing sunshine, then rain again. The sporadic weather has two great side effects though: one, it makes NZ a land of massive rainbows, and two, it makes the Tasman Sea never quite look the same. Around town are a couple of parks, walking trails through the hills, and a few shops and restaurants. The hip city of Wellington is 40 min away by train.

From the somewhere on the edge of the 3 block wide town

The kids, 9 and 13, go to a nice school that’s only five minutes walking distance from the house. It’s a small enough place that they know almost every other kid in each of the grades covered (up to about 8th grade). NZ schools focus on developing various core competencies in the students, but there are no national standardized tests or lists of facts that students have to learn, so teachers generally have more room to be creative in what they cover. One of the kids had the recent assignment of writing up a story for a still inhabited city of Atlantis. The story had to address why the city had never been found and how life there could carry on underwater. It may sound overly loose but apparently the system works. New Zealand's students rank third in the world for both Math Literacy and Reading Literacy, and rank 7th for Scientific Literacy. (

Another small daily life difference in NZ is the food. NZ is a 3 hour plane ride from the nearest country, Australia, so imports are not as common as they are in the states (though funny enough, the country’s finest lamb meat is exported). It’s not unusual for a supermarket to just not have something for a week or two, especially if it’s out of season. Like many families here, including city families, the Bergers keep chickens (chooks) in the backyard. These chooks are part pet and part livestock in NZ culture. They’re fed pellets and food scraps, and are traditionally eaten at the end of their lives (but this mostly vegetarian American family isn’t quite ready to make that big of a leap in their NZ assimilation).

In general the Bergers certainly are proud of their move, but they haven’t made a complete switch to identify themselves as Kiwis. Many of the family’s close friends are native New Zealanders, but several are immigrants from other western countries, like the Bergers themselves. The family pays more attention to global news now, but they still follow much of American news and culture. In addition to the local NZ papers, they still subscribe to the New Yorker and keep up with NPR. The tricky topic of the kid’s national identity is a common household conversation, and like most things discussed here (such as the “sad state of current American politics”) it isn’t dumbed down for the kids’ sake. But the two kids take up opposing views when it comes to the U.S. One hopes to go to the big city of Los Angeles one day to become an actress (“Enjoy the gang violence, pollution, racism and lack of healthcare” her parents cheerfully reply). The other wants to go even further into rural NZ.

2010-10-7 Paekakariki

Disclaimer: Actual experience of New Zealand may vary. The politicians aren't perfect, and there is some racism and other problems. It's no utopia, but it's pretty nice.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Tongariro Northern Circuit (A “Picture-Book” Blog Entry)

Last week I hiked Mt. Doom.

Or at least that’s what my guidebook says, but that’s sort of beside the point. What I really did was the Tongariro Northern Circuit Track, a 3 day hike (hike = tramp in NZ speak) that winds around Mt. Ngauruhoe (volcano) and Mt. Tongariro. It’s a mind-blowing hike in its own right.

According to my guidebook and the NZ Dept of Conservation, the LOTR shots of final the battle at Mordor were done in the ski fields to the east, with Mt. Ngauruhoe standing in as Mt. Doom (filming on the Mt. itself wasn’t allowed, as it would have shut down the park for too long). But from what I heard on the trail, the movie version is at most “inspired” by Ngauruhoe. I personally didn’t realize this was a “movie site” until 2 days into the hike. The Mt. Doom you see in the movie is more CG than anything else; the real mountain isn’t constantly spewing lava.

But it is spewing steam. It’s one of the places where you can see the geothermal activity that that the North Island of NZ is known for. A narrow flow of steam hisses out over the top of Ngauruhoe, in some spots there’s weak steam around the track, and at the first hut/campsite on the trail (you can stay at huts if you wish) there’s a view of billowing steam coming from Katetahi Hot springs. But what really makes the hike spectacular are the “Emerald Lakes” on the crossing between the two mountains. It’s almost incomprehensible, but just after you reach the highest point on the trail you look down on three brightly colored pools of water in the mountain. From here you can also see “Blue Lake” further down ON THE RIDGE. The lakes are aptly named.

Below is the full album. It might help to match the types of climate to the regions of the map, also below. Starting counterclockwise from Whakapapa Village: First come wide open plains on the way to Mangatepopo Hut. Then it’s steep climbs and wide open craters on the way to Red Crater. Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake are on the way to Katetahi Hut (grey on this map). Great views of Lake Taupo from Katetahi Hut. Then backtrack up to Emerald Lakes, down the other side, and walking across scattered volcanic rock to Oturere Hut. Dunes of gravel with patches of forest heading to Waihohonu Hut. Then more planes, forest patches, and some additional stunning lakes on the way back to Whakapapa.

2010-11-04 NZ Nov- Tongariro Northern Circuit

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I here now, one job please

It's the first post since I got here but a decent amount has happened, so I’ll do a quick summary of where I am now and what I see coming, and then talk a bit about the last couple weeks.

Present and Future: About 8 days ago I started WWOOFing (more info at: at a small house in Paekakariki, a nice family town about 40 min up the coast from Wellington. The family is extremely welcoming, and they're trying to help me find a proper job/internship through their government agency contacts in Wellington. The twist is that it's not really farm, and they're not exactly Kiwis (Kiwi is a term for a New Zealander, the fruits are called kiwifruits, and birds are called kiwis (lower case)). They're a liberal and very well educated Jewish family that moved here from the east cost of the U.S. in 2006. It isn’t the most foreign experience possible, but they’re a great group to stay with. More to say about the family and town later.

The still vague plan for the future is to try to get an interesting job in Wellington for a several months, and if that doesn’t happen then head down to the south island soon and maybe WWOOF some more. If I get a job here then I’d probably come home sometime around early march, if not then maybe around mid January or early February.

Past Couple Weeks: Finding a job has been harder than I thought it’d be, and coming into Auckland with only a very vague plan quickly led to feeling pretty stupid in a lot of conversations. Right off the bat, the guy running around cleaning the hostel says that finding a job is… possible… maybe. A few minutes later a nice Japanese girl says that there’s lots of farm jobs in one particular region, but she only found work because she's a dairy farmer by trade. Calls to hostels in Wellington and Queenstown reveal that the job market for backpackers is pretty slow, but that it might pick up in mid-late November (start of summer here). At the hostel I stayed at, all the new arrivals over 25 are trying to get city jobs in their field of expertise, and the younger travelers are expecting to work on farms. One quick friend excitedly talked about how we don’t need to worry about finding work because at the end of October there will be a flood of fruit-picking jobs – blueberries, strawberries, etc. He talks about fruit picking as if it's some kind of golden key to the world.

I’m the type of person who compulsively plans things out, so to balance that I sometimes push myself to do “impulsive things” (or as I perceive them at the time: “stupid things”). But after all these conversations it seemed like this time I’d gone too far. The trip seemed extremely foolhardy, and those first few days were spent feeling very, very, very stupid.

But since there were a few weeks to spare before any of us could expect to find work anyway, it seemed like a good time for a road-trip. I had planned at first to get my own car, but within an hour of getting to the hostel I’d met another backpacker (Lucas, a nice and extremely easy going German kid), who wanted to do pretty much the same thing I did. After hanging out for a few days in Auckland (a city not special or exotic in any way) I decided that I’d be pretty much fine without a car, and we head north to do some touring of Northland (north coast of the North Island).

Approximate route up, taking the east coast on the way down.
Staring pretty much as soon as you leave Auckland it’s a little bit easier to remember why the country is worth visiting. The highways very quiet, just one lane in each direction, and all along it is perfect rolling pastures with occasion groups of sheep or cows. It reminded me of some of the backgrounds my first computer came preloaded with. (Full album link at bottom of post)
Apparently the entire coastline is stunning beach. The water is incredibly spread out, especially at low tide. There’s a good 50 feet of beach that’s covered in a 1 inch wave one moment, and then just wet sand 30 seconds later, forming a huge reflective plane.

Our first major stops heading north were at the kauri tree forests. Kauri trees in New Zealand are, I imagine, fairly similar to the redwoods in the States. They grow much slower, so they aren't nearly as tall as the redwoods though. The biggest ones were I think about 13-16 meters around and over 1000 years old. There are tons of mid-sized ones about 6 feet wide that are spread throughout the forest.

Kauri bark kind of looks like flowing water. When there are smooth patches it feels like goosebumpy skin.

A note on some interesting animals:
*The brown kiwi, New Zealand's national bird, is a basketball sized nocturnal animal. Like many birds in NZ the kiwi has evolved to become flightless due to a lack of predators in the country. At one campsite we went to there was a cartoon reminding families to keep their dogs (predators) on a leash. A comic strip shows a lovable family dog that smells a strange aroma in the night and is drawn into the woods. Taken over my his animal instinct he mauls a kiwi bird, and once he's had one he just can't stop. Turns out this is a true story about a dog (some generic name like spike or spot) who got loose from a campsite and went on a rampage, killling hundreds of kiwibirds in the span of a couple of months.
(the kiwifruit is named so because of it's resemblance to this bird)
*Another interesting bird is the tui, which has a birdsong that my guide book describes as sounding like R2-D2. I think that description is dead on. The bird also has a low price beer named after it that's pretty darn decent. The link below has a picture and short sound recording of the bird's call. It's the best sound recording I could find but it really doesn't do it justice. The full "R2-D2" effect is longer, and spans a wider spectrum of notes/tones.

*The possums. These animals actually outnumber sheep here. They're considered a pest and the Department of Conservation (DOC) has sparked some controversy by treating wide areas with 1080 pellets, a possum killing pesticide which they claim breaks down quickly enough not to damage anything else. People are told to never feed the possums, and it sounds recidulous that anyone would need reminding, but apparently possums are totally different here. I haven't seen any, but the NZ possum is supposedly very cute.

Up at the top of the North Island is Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. You can see two different patches of color in the water, and it’s hard to believe but this is supposedly because of the clashing of the two bodies of water.

We met some interesting natives and foreigners along the way, and also got to some other key tourist attractions including the treaty grounds museum, a 90 mile beach bus tour and sand dune sledding. As we started to head back to Auckland though I realized that I was spending too much money and wouldn’t be able to sustain this if we took the long way down to Wellington, as Lucas wanted to do. Throughout it all there was the nagging knowledge that there were no specific jobs in sight, and that feeling didn't mix well with roadtrip vacationing. So when we got back to Auckland Lucas and I went separate ways, at least for the time being, and I came down to WWOOF in Paekakariki.

Since then I've again been reassured that jobs are totally easy to get in New Zealand. Michael, of the family that's hosting me, described it this way: The country is so small that the national organization are really like city organizations. Could you get a job at the Newton Bureau of Labor Statistics? 

So we'll see. I'm still not entirely sure what’s going to happen over the next few months (hence part of the delay in writing this first entry) but WWOOFing is potentially a pretty sweet deal. At it's best it's a good way to meet people, a casual lifestyle (generally involves working 4-6 hours in exchange for room and board), and good food. The scenery also makes a bit more sense for an abroad trip than city living. At it's worst though, I've heard, it's toilet cleaning for minimal compensation.

So maybe I can get a good job in Wellington for a few months. If so it would be pretty fun and a great boost to grad school apps, but if I can’t then there’s always this. I hadn't thought I'd be doing it long term when I left Boston, but it seems alright.

More Complete Album:
2010-10-06 NZ 1st week

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reasons and Reservations

Hi everyone,

This blog is part of how I hope to stay connected to all of you while I’m on the other side of the world. Please feel free to comment on the web page, or to send me some other form of message if you feel compelled to do so, I’m not trying to make a one-way thing.

Having a blog like this also follows in the footsteps of cousins of mine who have created blogs to keep family members and friends updated. There’s a mixed audience here, which is tricky, but hopefully it'll work.

So let’s get started! By the way, THIS FIRST ENTRY MAY BE REDUNDANT FOR MANY OF YOU. I’m just looking to cover the basic questions of why I’m going and how I feel about it.

So Why Do This?
 Well a lot people who come back from study or work abroad talk about missing the chance to meet new people all the time. Other travelers especially tend to be very open, friendly, and interesting. It can be a strain, at least for me, but it's exciting. With each  person you meet there's no assumptions about you, so it's a chance to reinvent yourself just a little. I think that accounts for part of the "growth" that people talk about as a result of living abroad, but a lot of that "growth" is probably bull. Anyway.. traveling is just fun, this is just one attempt to explain why.

So that was how I felt a little over a year ago when I came back from Italy. I didn't want to loose that lifestyle of meeting new people all the time, and also the aspect of trying to figure out/get a beat on foreign cities. I also had very little idea what I wanted to do for a career at that time, and I felt like saying I was going to work abroad in New Zealand just sounded much cooler (and I guess younger) then saying I was planning on being an actuary... not that there's anything wrong with that.

Later that summer I pretty much made the decision to go off again after I graduated. It's hard to remember my exact motives a year later, but I've partly just trusted that my former self made a good decision.

Why New Zealand?
The country was introduced to me by this Italian guy finishing up his trip around the world (talked for a bit at a Dublin hostel). He described Australia and NZ as his top picks for beautiful places, and said the common pass times in NZ were more focused on extreme sports, less on beaches, as in the case of Australia.

My reasons for going (in chronological order as I discovered them):
First of all, it's very pretty. There's all kinds of pretty nature. Volcanoes, glaciers, lots of variety.

Second, I found out pretty quickly that if you wanted to just go to a country and get a normal job (not teach english or do peace corps) then Australia and NZ are two of the best places to go. Doing a gap year, or an overseas experience, is much more common in NZ. As I've been told they kind of have the infrastructure there for temporary work.

Third, as I started to have this as my established plan, every now and then I'd run into someone who was also planning on going there or who had spent time there before. I always really like those people, so I assumed that I'd like people I'd meet in NZ. 

I also started to get into rock climbing this summer and I'm hoping to be able to break into the beginner's scene there.

My Main Reservation: 
People older than me almost always encouraged it, saying that now is the time to do this type of thing. One of my friends who got a full-time job (not very common among friends my age) mentioned that he was already starting to feel the commitment weighing him down.

But although I certainly have less commitments now than I will in the future, there's still a lot I'm tied to in the states. In addition to personal ties, I'm still working on graduate school applications (after shifting interests this summer from OR to Biostat) and I won't be completely home free when I get to NZ. There's still a lot to do, and in many ways I'd be better off spending my time and savings visiting grad schools. I'm sort of hoping that I get into exactly one or two schools, so I won't have to decide.

So that's pretty much where I stand. I've more or less got my backpack packed and my papers in order. When I get there (on Sept 27) I'll stay in Auckland for a little less than a week, buy a used car (they start at around 1k to 1,500), and a cell phone. I'll drive south and work on a WWOOF farm for about a week, and then head to Wellington, where Matt offered to have me stay with his parents for a night or two (Matt worked at a lodge where our family's been having family reunions). A lot of this trip will depend on how quickly I can land a paying job.

We'll see how it goes! 

(Again, if anything here jumps out at you, feel free to let me know)