Kia ora from Aotearoa

AUCKLAND/WAIHEKE ISLAND, NEW ZEALAND: January 31- February 7, 2013

Leah: In other words, greetings from the land of the long white cloud, aka New Zealand! I was last here in 2006 on a 6 week solo backpacking trip and this land of pristine nature, Maoris and Hobbits has always ranked among my top 3 favorite countries since then. This also means that as long as Steve has known me, he’s heard me extol the beauty of the islands, the warmth of the people and how it’s a little slice of Heaven for me here on earth. I hoped that I hadn’t built it up too much for him over the years and I promised him I’d keep my mouth shut when necessary and allow him to experience it for himself. However, first we had to actually get there.

When we first looked at ways to get to NZ from South America, we were looking at close to $3,000 per person to fly, which simply wouldn’t do. Fortunately, I had accrued a fair amount of airline miles at my last job due to several trips to India and roundtrips to New York (thanks, Girl Scouts!), so I had an ace up the sleeve when it came time to jump continents. However, as luck/flight routes/pricing would have it, we would have to depart from Los Angeles; Steve found a smoking deal on tickets from Santiago, Chile to LAX on Aeromexico, which meant that all told we were able to fly to NZ for about $1,500 total.

Although I had hemmed and hawed in the beginning about how flying through the US when our trip wasn’t done felt like cheating, it really worked out for the best. With a few guidelines in place (i.e. no eating at places with food we hadn’t already seen on our trip…like our beloved In ‘n Out), we touched down in LA for a whirlwind overnight. Steve went back to Orange to see his family and I stayed in LA with a dear girlfriend. Everyone went above and beyond in terms of generosity and shuttling our butts around on various errands and seeing familiar faces, let alone being engulfed by English again, was a glorious introduction to the second leg of our trip. We were even able to pick up our camping gear my folks had mailed to CA, as well as grab some new clothes, since we’ve each dropped a few sizes and all our old duds were nowhere close to fitting. Steve even had a chance to get a haircut: check out the before and after!

The next night we boarded our flight to Auckland (via Sydney) and after a grand total of 5 airports, 3 travel days and multiple time zones we hit blessed terra firma in NZ. Once we cleared customs and immigration (they allowed our foil packaged Spam to enter the country but had to open, inspect and spray our tent for potential insect stowaways) we made our way to central Auckland on the bus, where we spent the night in the ginormous Base Backpackers ($16/each in a dorm). After a quick stroll down Queens Street, where we heard a talented violinist playing one of my favorite songs, Con Te Patira, did some toiletry shopping and noshed on yummy kebab burgers, we piled into bed and a very welcome, quiet and dark sleep.

Morning saw us checking out the cemetery then boarding the Fullers ferry to Waiheke Island, 20 km east of Auckland. It’s home to about 8,000 permanent residents, which can swell to over 40,000 during peak vacation months in December and January. We had scored a Workaway position with a family of 5 and couldn’t wait to meet Simona (a German), Hemi (a Maori) and their 3 kids: Tiana (8), Keanu (5) and Mikio (2). The package also came complete with the very vocal Samoyed, Nikita, dozens of chickens (one of whom lays green/blue eggs) and a pair of guinea pigs, all of whom proved to be adept cuddle buddies over the week. Our lodging was in a separate “sleepaway” right next to the house with a downstairs sitting area and a sloped upstairs loft complete with porthole window next to the bed affording a sea view. Clean, cozy and pretty much perfect!

We immediately felt right at home with the family, especially since we haven’t had that much interaction with families on the trip and there was no language barrier of any sort. Hemi and Simona had both traveled independently growing up and also worked on American cruise ships as art/auctioneer directors before having kids, so they brimmed with stories and experiences and we found ourselves sharing a drink and colorful tales long into night on several occasions. The kids were also a joy with unique personalities…we came to adore them all, idiosyncrasies and occasional tantrums included. It was definitely never quiet around this household, especially when one or more of the kids hounded Simona with an incessant call for attention a la Stewie Griffin from Family Guy! And then there was the time Hemi "walked" Tiana on Nikita's leash after she wouldn't stop begging him...

Our days consisted of waking around 8 a.m. and eating breakfast with everyone until the kids went off to school around 9 a.m.; then we started our work, which we kept at until 1 p.m. when we broke for lunch and free time in the afternoons. We ate dinner together around 6 p.m. and saw the kids off to bed before hanging with Hemi and Simona, reading or checking email before the whole cycle repeated. The only snafu revolved around water shortages; Waiheke relies on rainwater for its water supply (every house has a giant storage tank with a rainwater collection system) and there was a serious drought while we were there. Every drop was precious, which meant short or non-existent showers (that’s what the ocean’s for) and letting the toilet mellow when yellow and only flush it down when brown. Not a huge deal but another reminder of how important our natural resources remain.

And the food…sweet Lord. The family mostly eats vegetarian and organic, from the eggs their chickens provide to their veggie garden and fresh milk from a local co-op (which they stored in re-purposed glass vodka bottles to our delight). Hemi and Simona run an online costume sales website and Hemi also works in a local cafĂ©, which means that Simona usually has time to cook during the day and cook she did! Fresh bread teeming with grain and seeds, vibrantly green pesto with a zippy garlic bite, homemade Greek yogurt, fresh pizza with unusual but delectable combinations (banana, ham and peppers) and cored apple rings dipped in crepe batter and cooked like pancakes. Even meals as simply as sandwiches turned into gourmet affairs with condiments bought at the island’s Saturday market, thick bread, tomatoes bursting with flavor and sharp cheddar cheese.

Oh yeah, and then there was the work! Our main task consisted on extending the existing chicken coop to make a giant ”free-range” enclosure around the native bush leading up their driveway. In order to be cost-effective and use materials already on hand, this meant that we creatively threw together metal poles, fresh bamboo that we cut down ourselves, stones, chicken wire and various other sundry items. It was quite the undertaking and we only finished the day before we left. Other tasks included babysitting, cleaning the house and yard in preparation for Keanu’s birthday party, doing the dishes and organizing Hemi’s storage area/workshop under the house.

In our free time we had our choice of sparsely-populated beaches to check out (we may have stumbled upon a nudist beach at one point, then stripped down to meet protocol upon seeing other swimmers, then quickly covered back up once the nudies left and we were the only naked people on the beach with fully-clothed dog-walkers heading our way), hikes to go on at the Whakanewha Nature Reserve and general lazy afternoons spent reading and napping, all surrounded by azure, pristine water everywhere we looked. The temperature was warm without being too hot and the water cool without being unbearable--flowers dripped from driveways, sailboats rounded peninsulas in the distance and we passed (and partook of) wild blackberries on our way to the beach. We also checked out the incredibly scenic Sculpture on the Gulf exhibit with the family, and enjoyed a beachside BBQ with mussels, corn, burgers, sausage and potato salad washed down by wine (me) and dark beer (Steve) as the kids ran around naked in the surf to a setting sun. Pretty much heaven.

However, much as we loved speaking, reading and thinking in English after 7 months of Spanish, we were constantly reminded that we may speak the same language, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything when it comes to comprehension. Case in point:

Keanu: “Are those your togs then?”
Steve: “My what?”
Keanu: “Your togs.”
Steve: <blank stare>
Keanu: <clearly impatient> “You, know, these” <points to Steve's boardshorts>
Steve: “Ohhh, my bathing suit! Yeah.”

OR

Leah: <helping Tiana write> “Just put a period there.”
Tiana: “A what?”
Leah: “A period.”
Tiana: <blank stare>
Leah: “Like at the end of a sentence…a period”
Tiana: “This?” <draws exclamation mark>
Leah: “No”
Tiana: “This?” <draws question mark>
Leah: “No” <makes a period on the paper>
Tiana: “Ohhh, that’s called a full stop or a point.”
Leah: <face palm>

And being a Maori, Hemi provided us with manifold insight and details related to the Maori culture, which we so appreciated. Since we happened to be with them for Waitangi Day, a NZ national holiday, Hemi walked us through how it celebrates a point in the country’s history but also stirs up animosity and protests in some Maori due to the fact that their ancestors were cheated and lied to centuries ago on that day. He also regaled us with tales of his great-great-great-great grandfather, Utiku Potaka, a powerful and revered Maori chief who maintained massive land holdings, white Europeans as servants and slaves, a palatial estate and who also counted a German Jewish woman among one of his wives. Fascinating stuff!

We easily could have stayed here for weeks and been perfectly content, but alas the rest of this beguiling country beckons and it's time to explore the rest of the North Island. We've learned so much from this family and will dearly miss the fantastic kids, great conversations, chaotic energy, loads of animals, savory homemade food and the island life that quickly hypnotized us. So far NZ is treating us right!

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Amanda February 7, 2013 at 12:24 PM

YOU WERE IN LA AND DIDN'T SAY ANYTHING!!!!!!!

Anonymous February 7, 2013 at 4:02 PM

Nice to see you guys traveling in our "neck of the woods." We head to NZ in November after a year in Australia. Thanks for the posts and keep 'em coming!

Leah February 11, 2013 at 12:24 AM

@Amanda- believe me, it killed us! However, by the time we cleared customs in LAX (wee hours of the morning) and had to depart again (early evening same day), we only had time to sleep, eat and pound out some errands. There wasn't time to see everyone and I even told my own parents not to fly out to say hi :-(
@Mike- Hope Oz is treating you well, loving your life!

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