Sunday, May 31, 2009

Samoan Independence Day

Note: Samoan Independence is celebrated June 1. I am posting this at 9:14 p.m. 1 June Auckland time... which is 10:14 p.m. 31 May Samoa Time. Apologies for any resulting confusion.

I’d already made plane reservations when I learned that my trip coincided with Samoan Independ- ence Day. And just as the 4th of July is a big deal in The States, Independence Day is a big deal in Samoa. There’s a big parade and boat races and lots of other festivities. All of the staff at my school received yards of material so we could all wear coordinated outfits in the Independence Day parade. So I felt a little guilty about being out of the country. And then I typed last night’s sophomoric post, only to receive NiuSila’s warm comments inviting me out to the Samoan Independence celebration in Mangere East.

If there’s any way to motivate me to do something, guilt is going to be your strongest method. And when guilt strikes twice, I’m a pushover. So I woke up this morning and looked up bus routes to get down to Mangere East. I skimmed the route, spent a little time studying the map, and then headed out the door.

The cell phone I use in Apia is completely non-functional here in Auckland. I could have invested in some sort of pre-paid SIM card plan, but it never seemed all that necessary. That said, I realized today that my sense of urban literacy is largely based on having my iPhone at my side.

True, I’d only had my iPhone in The States for about 15 months before I left to join the Peace Corps, but the thing was so life-changing, it’s nearly corrupted my ability to function. I should have written down the number of the bus and the cross street for where I was supposed to get off. I was vaguely aware of where to catch the bus and I knew it left hourly, 36 minutes after each hour. But as I boarded, I realized I was relatively uninformed.

To make a long story short, I wandered around Mangere for about a half hour before I found the Malaeola Samoan Catholic Community Centre. The parking lot was teeming with cars, and I could see tents in the distance. It was standing room only when I got inside the assembly hall. There was a group of guys on stage doing a slap dance.

It was a strange feeling. On one hand, New Zealand is far less exotic than Samoa; it has big city buildings and everybody speaks English. Yet in this sea of strangers in which I’ve spent the last 8 days, it felt good to be in a place where the dance and culture and food were familiar. There was palusami and pua’a out in the food tents. There were people walking around with lavalavas over their jeans. In a way, the event was pretty much Apia with jackets.

On the other hand, I was a little nervous about the whole thing. Being the only Peace Corps with a bunch of Samoans in Samoa is one thing, being a solo outsider with a bunch of Samoans in South Auckland is completely different. I found myself making assumptions about social situations based on my experiences the past 7 months, and I realize a lot of that wasn’t necessarily applicable to the people here. So I was polite, and I kept a low profile.

It was fun to use my language skill, albeit minimally. Exiting the auditorium I had to squeeze past some old men, and I threw out some tulous. And walking around food tents, I gave a lady a Malo!, and she threw it right back at me.

In the end, I was happy I made the pilgrimage down south. It was interesting, and I can say I celebrated Samoan Independence.

And I was still able to fit in a trip to Starbucks.

I hope you had a great weekend. Pictures below.

A girl performs onstage as a packed audience watches.

A Kiwi kid sporting the 685, Samoa's country code.

A lady in the crowd keeping it real with a pair of Jandals and a lavalava.

Tents outside hawking authentic Samoan goods.

Me at the bus stop near Tidal St., sporting my Seki a Samoa t-shirt.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Going Bananas

All week I’ve been contemplating what to do with the next 48 hours; that is, the plan was always for Luisa to fly out this evening, but I don’t fly out until Tuesday night (errr… Monday night for those of you behind the International Dateline). I’ve mulled a lot of things over in my head: I could do more tourist things, I could do something EXTREME!, I could spend the evening in the bar making friends with the Kiwis.

Luisa’s flight was around 7 p.m. this evening, so the first decision I had to make was what do about dinner. Since I’m back at hostel now, I thought about going back to the grocery store and making a meal for myself. But I figure I’ll be doing plenty of that back in Apia, so I nixed that plan. But where to go for dinner then? After last night’s Mexican food, there seemed only one clear cuisine for tonight: Mexican food.

I went to a different place tonight, one creatively named Mexican Café. This one is across the street from the Sky Tower. It has a big sign reading “Mexican Food” prominently displayed on its roof, so when you look down from the tower, you think about burritos. Whereas last night’s Eat Mex was somewhere around the equivalent of a Baja Fresh, Mexican Café is more like a Chevy’s. So I guess there’s some variety.

Anyway, over my chicken chimichaunga and second Dos Equis in as many nights, I got to thinking about what to do tomorrow, and without warning, a wave of American consumerism came over me. I felt the urge to spend tomorrow wallowing in modernity and technology and fast food and all of the other things that are not readily accessible in Samoa.

So once I finished my meal, I headed over to the Borders on Queens Street (The more Kiwi-esque Whitcoulls closed at 6 p.m. tonight. Oh well.). If there’s anything that exemplifies non-Samoan, it’s “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown. I was totally embarrassed to be the American who came to the conglomerate bookstore to not only seek out a trashy novel, but an old trashy novel about which my interest is only piqued because they’ve recently made it into a trashy movie. I tried to avoid eye contact.

My next move, before I caught the bus to come back to my hostel, was a stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for dessert. I’d much prefer the classic American donut (old-fashioned, devil’s food cake with sprinkles, apple fritters, etc.) to the mass-marketed donuts of Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers. I ordered a French Kruller. The more exciting part of the transaction was the “Classic DD Coffee.” Yes, Dunkin’ Donuts is known for their coffee, but more than that, it’s the first time I’ve been able to find standard American drip coffee. At Starbucks and Esquires (the local chain), they get really confused if you try and order regular filtered coffee. But Dunkin’ Donuts knew what I was talking about.

So what other technological wallowing is on the agenda? This new hostel offers 24 hours of unlimited wireless internet for $10, so I think I might spend a sizeable chunk of tomorrow on YouTube. I might also go and see a movie. Probably some more Mexican food (I know of one more Mexican place up on Ponsonby). Oooh! And maybe a meal at Pizza Hut. I need to get a Sharpie, and I want to see if I can find any print cartridges for the printer in my computer lab. And I will almost certainly spend an hour in Starbucks sitting around.

Note: I wrote this post before I read the comment about the Samoan Independence Day festival in south Auckland. It sounds fun, but I'm not sure I'll make it. We'll see.

I’m soaking it up while I can. I hope you are too. One picture below.

My reflection in the koi pond at the zoo.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Kiwi Mexican

One day in high school, a bunch of us were leaving Jim’s office, and out of nowhere, apropos nothing, April goes, “Ummm… Mexican food is hella good.” It was probably junior or senior year by then, but I remember thinking in that moment that April’s terse observation pretty much summed up my culinary knowledge up to that point in my life. And I think it underscores everything I’ve truly felt about food since then. Mexican food is hella good.

And going into the Peace Corps, one of the biggest warnings I received from friends who’d lived outside of California was Mexican food other places just doesn’t compare. Washington D.C., Boston, France—even New York City or Spain—once you get out of California, Mexican cuisine goes out the window.

And, no offense to Samoa, but this has rung true for the island. Homemade tortillas and canned black beans are a Peace Corps staple, which is cool, and they definitely suffice in a land with no Mexican food, but my heart does miss a good burrito.

It was in this state of mind that I headed to dinner tonight to a restaurant on the Mexican waterfront called Mexicali. The place has big signs just inside the door boasting that it won best Mexican food in Auckland in 2007 and 2008. Sounds good to me. I’ve seen a couple other places in town—one across the street from the Sky Tower and one yesterday in Ponsonby—but this place claims to be the best. So we’ll see how it goes.

The first thing I noticed was the guy behind the counter was clearly American. His accent and the way he carried himself were clearly mid-west. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. On one hand, it seemed an American would be more in tune with Mexican food than a Kiwi. On the other hand, the guy couldn’t properly pronounce “guacamole,” and it made me nervous.

I ordered a barbecue beef burrito, and added the unpronounceable guacamole for good measure. The customer queue overlooks the burrito assembly line, and most of the process seemed legit, save for some strange plastic canisters full of goo and/or powder. They had a full assortment of Mexican beer, except for my favorite, Pacifico. Oh well. I ordered a Dos Equis.

As I was fishing money out of my wallet (Luisa eventually paid), the one Kiwi who was in the dining area asked the ex-patriated Wisconsinite for some ketchup. The poor guy was eating there, just him and his two kids, and he felt ketchup was the only solution for convincing his daughter to finish her meal. Looking back, it probably made life more difficult for the Kiwi, but I’m still impressed they didn’t keep ketchup on hand.

The burrito was mediocre, as were the nachos Luisa ordered, but mediocre is a lot more appealing than non-existent. And who cares if the burrito was mediocre? I still inhaled it. Anyone who’s ever eaten with me at Taco Bell or Del Taco or The Burrito Shop or Maya Burrito or Tacos Del Mar or El Burrito Express will attest to the fact that I can gulp down a burrito, no matter the size, in 60 seconds or less. So in that sense, I guess Auckland’s Mexicali passes the test.

Its one true fault was the Dodgers logo on the wall. But I guess that’s something that southern California hasn’t figured out yet either, God help them.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Auckland, as seen from our ferry yesterday.

Sun setting over Auckland.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

New Zealand Odds and Ends

When I was 14 years old, my orthodontist installed a permanent retainer behind my front bottom teeth. It was about an inch and a half of braided cable that was cemented to the canines on my lower jaw. I remember the day I got it, I happened to see my cousin Eric, who coincidentally had just had his permanent retainer fall off. After having it for 10+ years, the cement had weakened, and eventually it just came off. So on Tuesday night this week, I was flossing and my permanent retainer fell off. I’m not sure which was more off-putting: having gobs of cement floating around my mouth, or realizing that I am nearly as old as Eric was back then. Here are some other odds and ends from this week:
  • In Samoa, this Monday is Independence Day. I’m a little bummed to miss it, but I’m also a little relieved to be somewhere else. Although, in New Zealand, Monday is the day the country commemorates the Queen’s birthday. So I guess I’ll be celebrating something wherever I am.
  • The anonymous commenter was right: there’s no obligatory tipping in New Zealand. How great is that?
  • Moving to Samoa last October, the hot weather made it feel like life was just one long Indian summer. And coming to Auckland in their equivalent of late Autumn/early Winter only furthers the image of one extremely slow season. It’s weird.
  • On one hand it’s been bizarre realizing how much I’ve adapted to life in Samoa and how disorienting it is to be back in a big city. On the other hand, it’s a little surprising how quickly I’ve fallen back into the routine of western civilization. On one hand nothing here is familiar; on the other hand, it nearly feels like my 7 months in Samoa never happened.
  • My session with the dentist here was my first brush with health/dental care outside the United States. The entire experience was amazingly genteel and efficient. I assumed they would just clean up the tartar and cement left from the old retainer, but they were able to install a completely new retainer. The new one is specially engineered to go up and down teeth to allow for easy flossing. Super.
  • Staying in hotels, watching premium channels, I’ve been able to re-watch “Gone Baby, Gone” and “Zodiac” while I’ve been here. The former was okay—as depressing and unnerving as a movie based on a Dennis Lehane book can be; the latter was a little bit more memorable the second time around. Brian Cox is so great. “Totty?”
  • Right now I’m watching “1408,” starring John Cusack. It’s a throw-away horror movie. It’s totally ridiculous, although I admit I’m enthralled. “The Shining” was better.
  • Another great quote of Ken’s yesterday: “There’s been a lot of Chinese immigration to New Zealand over the past 10 years. The greatest part about it is they’ve got much better food. Before it was all British food, and all they do is boil, bake, or fry anything worth tasting. Thank God for the Chinese.”
  • This crappy John Cusack movie now has a wall that’s leaking blood; a little too similar to the elevator in “The Shining.” Lame.
  • My parents talked a lot about how Auckland is just like Seattle. Luisa keeps talking about how it’s like Sydney. But I think it seems a lot like San Francisco—the rain, the bay, the people. We were trying to figure out whether Auckland or San Francisco is nearer to the equator, and no one knew for sure. Telling, I think.
  • Finding internet here has been surprisingly expensive. The hostel was $3 for 30 MB. The hotels have a deal where you get 2 hours for $10, and every MB after 20 MB is $0.10. By far, the best deal has been at a local coffee franchise, Esquires, where you get 1 hour of free internet (or 60 MB) with any purchase.
  • Back to Samoa on Tuesday. I expect it to be weird.
That’s all I got for now. I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Taking the Auckland metropolitan bus to the zoo today.

Luisa freaking out about her proximity to the emus.




I broke the rules and took a picture of the kiwi with my camera's flash on. Rebel rebel.

Afternoon snack at KFC. Hooray for American fast food!

Hanging out in Ponsonby this evening... with a good view of the Auckland skyline under the stoplight.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On Tour

My friend from back home, Ryan, used to go on vacation with his family and make friends with people wherever he went. When he eventually moved to Tucson, he started hanging out at a local pool hall and befriended a bunch of guys who taught him to finer points of billiards. I always enjoyed Ryan’s amiability, and though I found it admirable, it’s not a trait I figure I’ll ever master. But occasionally a situation presents itself where I can’t help but make friends.

We took a bus tour of Waiheke island today. There was a winery, an olive grove, and a beach. In addition to the wine and olive oil tasting, lunch was provided. The weather was great, and it was a fun day. During the tour, we drove past a place called Charlie Farley’s, and part of the tour package included an all-day bus pass. So once the tour ended, Luisa and I planned to go back to Charlie Farley’s. We asked our bus driver where we should catch the bus.

As it turned out, the bus to Charlie Farley’s had left a few minutes before our tour bus pulled up, and there wouldn’t be another for an hour. So as we climbed off the bus, our bus driver said, “Ehhh… just climb back on. Charlie’s is on the way to my house. We just have to stop at the bus depot.”

The bus driver’s name was Ken. Originally from Australia’s Gold Coast, he’s lived in New Zealand for 21 years. At one point it came out that he was born in 1948. Tomorrow is his last day of work before a six-month holiday during which he’s going to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and southern China.

When I asked if he’d ever been to Vietnam, he said, “You know, I’ve only been there once, and I’m not really interested in ever going back.” He waited a beat, and then added with a dry wit, “Of course, I should say that was in 1969 and I was there with the armed services.”

While Ken went to turn in paperwork at the bus depot, Luisa and I waited in the parking lot, taking bets on which was Ken’s car. Luisa called it: a white vintage Mercedes.

Pulling up to Charlie Farley’s, he said, “I’m going to go home and get changed, and then I’ll probably come back and join you.” And he did. Between the day of driving the bus, and the additional lift back to Charlie’s, I figured we owed him a beer at the very least. So we sat around and chatted some more and ate the complimentary nibbles from Charlie’s.

We talked about travel and tourism. During the tour he’d made a joke about how 70% of Waiheke’s hippie population left the island 10 years ago, and the rest became bus drivers. When I asked him about that, he admitted he was never a hippie, but that the joke went over well with tourists; especially given his pony tail. We talked about how the scenery on the south island is much more dramatic, but how Christchurch is one of the most boring cities imaginable… but the people are nice.

The people are nice here. Whether it’s been hotel staff or the woman at baggage claim or helpful bank tellers or the bus driver who drove us halfway across Waiheke in his own vintage Mercedes. People who work in travel and tourism are nice because their job demands it, but I’ve been impressed by New Zealand; they go above and beyond.

Anyway, I hope things are well with you. Pictures below.

Stonyridge Vineyards.

Bocce ball at Wild On Waiheke.

Tour guide at Mudbrick Vineyards.

You can see Auckland all the way across the bay from Mudbrick.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

When Peace Corps get together, one of the inevitable pastimes is bitching about all of things we miss about America. Someone usually sets off the conversation with a simple statement, apropos nothing, like “You know what I miss? Carl’s Jr.” From there, long debates are sparked about the minutia of American life. Carl’s Jr. vs. Hardy’s, Hardy’s and Carl’s Jr. vs. Jack in the Box, White Castle absence on the West Coast, In-N-Out’s absence outside of California, Nevada, Arizona. With all this, you’d think it wouldn’t be so difficult shaking off the Samoan lifestyle. But it is.

There was an advertised happy hour at a bar in Paihia last night, and we stopped in to have a couple drinks. For the first round, the bar tender calculated our tab to be $6. I had a $5 bill and a $1 coin. Done and done. When we finished the first round, I went back up and ordered another round plus some fries. $11.50. I handed the bartender a $20 bill, he gave me my change. Transaction complete. It wasn’t until I got back to our table with the second round when I remembered the custom of tipping.


See, in Samoa, there’s no tipping. In fact, I’ve heard it’s a bit offensive to tip (That could definitely be wrong). But neither at bars nor restaurants is tipping customary. It was an easy to kick the tipping habit; financial incentive gets a habit dropped fast. But getting back in meant another change in mindset.

So I fished $4 out of my pocket and went back to the bar. In America, such a faux pas could not be mended by simply leaving the tip on the bar and leaving the bartender to find it. No, if this had happened in The States, the bartender would be well aware of my stinginess, and to get back in good standing, the bartender would need to know that the tip came specifically from me. So I waited until the bartender came back over and handed him the tip, and then going further, I explained my situation, and the bartender was gracious.

This was one of the more blunt and awkward changes I’ve run into. Others are smaller. Taking Spanish in high school and college, up until joining the Peace Corps, my first impulse when talking to someone who doesn’t speak English is to speak Spanish. Clearly people from China don’t speak Spanish, but my brain’s first impulse is to go to the only non-native language with which I’m familiar.

Coming from Samoa, the effect is the same, except bigger; instead of wanting to speak Spanish to foreigners, I want to speak Samoan to all strangers. This is particularly ridiculous here since a.) everyone is a stranger* and b.) everyone here speaks English. So whereas my brain has adjusted to use “Tulou” as my go-to when I bump into someone on the street, I now have to convert back to “Pardon me” or “Excuse me,” which has been surprisingly difficult.

Another example is in Samoa, you’re not supposed to eat or drink while standing. This took some getting used to when we arrived back in October, but it’s hard-wired into my brain now. So the few instances it’s come up here, my first impulse has been one of guilt and nervousness , the same feeling you might get from inadvertently changing lanes in the middle of an intersection or making a U-turn in a business zone or whatever other menial-but-somehow-important law.

But the problem with all this now is that I’m neither in America nor Samoa, and who knows what New Zealand-ish cultural idiosyncrasies I’m violating. Hell, using the term “New Zealand-ish” is probably a violation in itself. Oh well.

I hope you’re being culturally sensitive. Pictures below.

On the ferry from Paihia to Russell, we figured we'd sit outside the wind-shielded area at the front of the boat, not realizing that the non-wind-shielded area would be windy.

Killing time at the cemetery in Russell.

Bay of Islands.

Russell, New Zealand.

Pointing out the unfortunately named Butt Design Limited. Click on the image to see it bigger.

As promised, pink sheep! Surrounding that man's head!

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Heads Up Seven Up" Anyone?

When most Peace Corps from Samoa come to visit New Zealand, they engage in some sort of extreme sport. In fact, when most American twenty- somethings come to New Zealand it’s either to hike the trail to Mordor (nerds) or to do some sort of street luge or dune luge or rock luge or bungee jump or bungee fall or hang glide or para glide or bungee glide or whatever. I was never a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and though I’ve been bungee jumping and sky diving in the past, they’re not piquing my interest on this trip. Looking at the price of things, we decided to mostly stay in Auckland with today’s exception of heading up north to Bay of Islands.

Paihia is a cute little town situated right on the bay. In fact, the walk outside is scenic beachfront. Too bad it’s pouring rain outside. The Bay of Islands website suggests that the bay’s weather is more temperate than most of New Zealand’s since it’s farther north and therefore closer to the equator. It sounded like just the destination for a trip during New Zealand’s late autumn. I guess weather is always a roll of the dice. So here we sit in rain Paihia.

But who needs scenery when there’s real television and internet to take advantage of? I just caught the second half of “Law and Order” rerun, which was bittersweet: I got to see McCoy all smug at the end, but I missed Jerry Orbach’s joke at the beginning, which was always my favorite part. Now we’re watching some backlot bash edition of Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. “It looks so nice there. I want to go to there,” Luisa just said.

Earlier I indulged in some YouTube, an internet treat that most connections in Samoa don’t allow. Luisa’s compiled a list of internet videos she considers must-see. I watched the Tim Lincecum MLB 2009 commercial where he’s giving his laconic video game counterpart lessons on player etiquette. It was clever. We also watched a Sesame Street segment that featured Will Arnett doing magic tricks a la G.O.B. Bluth. It’s pretty ripe with Arrested Development inside jokes, which is fun.

The bus ride from Auckland to Paihia was a pretty good time as well. Listening to podcasted “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me” and looking out the window, we saw plenty of sheep. At one point, we saw a lea full of hot pink sheep. They were moving, so I’m pretty sure they were real, but they were never explained. I hope we get to see them on the ride back to Auckland.

Until then, we’ll be hanging out in this rainy beach town. Paihia is a lot like Laguna Beach or Sauselito or Martha’s Vineyard (although I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard, so who knows really?). It’s small with lots of little shops that sell souvenirs and art and antiques and ice cream and jet ski rentals.

There are lots of day and half-day boat cruises that offer guaranteed dolphin sightings, and many travel books and websites strongly recommend getting on at least one boat while in town here, but with the rain, I think sightseeing tours are canceled for the day. So maybe tomorrow. Or maybe we’ll just watch more Ellen. At this point, watching TV is sightseeing for me.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Auckland skyline (I took this from the bus as we were crossing the bridge. Not sure how it came out as nicely as it did.).

Crossing Auckland's Harbour Bridge.

During a water/pee break from the bus, we stopped off at a cafe, and there were llamas chilling in the neighboring field.

Sheep as seen from the bus. None of the hot pink variety though.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sheep Pelts in the Produce Aisle

It’s no coincidence that the first Cultural Exploration I did back in January was about grocery shopping. I think the most interesting cultural differences are the small ones that affect every day life, and what could be more menial than a trip to the grocery store? A trip to the grocery store here in New Zealand provided just as much insight into the differences and similarities between Americans, Samoans and Kiwis.

After we finished brunch yesterday, the concierge at the Sky Tower Hotel pointed us in the direction of New World Market, a supermarket within 10 minutes’ walking distance from the Sky Tower building. Walking in the doors, the first thing we noticed was how crowded the place was. Luisa surmised that it was the Sunday night crowd preparing for the week. Made sense to me.

After the security debacle at the airport, I needed toothpaste and shaving cream, so before working out what to have for dinner, I headed to the toiletries aisle. When it comes to toothpaste, Samoan stores seem to carry every single permutation of Colgate: Colgate Total, Colgate Propolis, Colgate Whitening, Colgate Carbonara, Colgate with Splenda, etc. There was no such variety here in Auckland, so I opted for the cheapest, which was actually Colgate. So there you go.

Since Samoa lies within New Zealand’s sphere of influence, they get a lot of their grocery foods wholesale from New Zealand. I spent much of my time in the store going, “Oh. We have this in Apia. This too. Oh, and these!” Luisa was a sport about giving consolation nods, but eventually I think she was ready for me to shut up. But so much is the same! Pam’s is the common generic brand. C.C.’s brand corn chips. The huge white canisters of salt, similar to Morton’s, but different.

I made it a point to seek out some Vailima, Samoa’s one and only beer (and with very few exceptions, the only beer available in Samoa), but I was unable to find it. Disappointing.

It was exciting to walk through the produce section though. Grocery stores in Apia have come a long way, even in the time since group 81 arrived, but none has a real produce section to speak of still.

In Apia, there’s an upscale pizza place just up the hill from where I live, Giordano’s, and many of their pizzas contain capsicum. I have no idea what capsicum is nor do the rest of my Peace Corps brethren, so it comes up nearly every time we go there, and we all make jokes and speculate about what we think it is. But lo and behold, I walked by the bell peppers in the grocery store, and saw the sign, “Green Capsicum – 69 cents.” Aha!

We ended up picking up some pumpkin gnocchi from the fresh pasta section, and an aisle over, we found a can of tomato and red capsicum spaghetti sauce. Done and done.

There was one hiccup during checkout when we rang up the bottle of New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon in the self-checkout lane. The attendant walked over and asked me for ID. I’d left my passport in the hotel safe, so I volunteered my California driver’s license. She couldn’t accept it, so I offered my Peace Corps ID. She took a longer time to look at that, but wouldn’t accept that either. While Luisa fished her passport out of her wallet, the girl says to me, “Yeah, sorry I can’t accept it, but my birthday is 2 days after yours.” My birthday is February 8, so I said, “Oh, yours is the 10th?” And she goes, “No. Mine is the 4th.” See, she saw 2/8, which in America denotes February 8, she interpreted it the New Zealand way: August 2. By then Luisa had found her passport, and I figured I’d just roll with my new August 2 birthday. Why not?

In any case, the grocery store was educational.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Cooking at the hostel.

Last night's dinner: Pumpkin gnocchi and spinach salad.

This morning's breakfast: Crumpets with PCV Nick's papaya jelly and apples.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Traditional Maori wall carvings.

An abalone shell used as an eye.

Luisa attempting to avoid the elephant in the room.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Off the Island

There’s a song in the musical “Rent” about how when you break up with someone, the world still functions as normal, and how that makes no sense. The grass still grows, the cows still moo, etc. Leaving a place feels very similar. I got on the airport shuttle in Apia tonight, and there was a familiar DJ on the radio, settling in for another night of Akon song after Akon song. The row of nightclubs on Beach Road was at a simmer, getting ready for another night. Doesn’t everyone know I’m leaving? Don’t they know this is the first time I’ve been off the island since I’ve been on the island? It’s a big deal. But everything’s the same.

At the airport, I felt a little cool for conducting my entire encounter with the outbound Customs agent in Samoan. He noticed my occupation and asked when I was coming back and noted, “Tu’ua le ‘āoga,” School’s out. I smiled, gave him a consolatory “Seki a,” and moved on.

Peace Corps life makes menial American tasks bizarrely difficult. I was never a jetsetter, but I did a fair amount of air travel during and after college. When LAX implemented a different security line for season travelers, I felt justified waiting in it. But now I’m just a moron. My bag got flagged going through security. “Do you have any liquids or gels?” The lady (robot?) asked me.

“Just toothpaste,” I replied.

She pulled out the toothpaste. And the shaving cream. And the sun screen. She told me the toothpaste was the only one I could take as long as it was in a sealable bag.

Can we stop and talk about the sealable bag? Can someone explain to me why this is a rule? Is a Ziploc bag going to stop me from using my toothpaste as an explosion device? Is the International Air Safety Board worried about toothpaste leaking out of the tube and getting all over the other stuff that is stowed in that part of my backpack? Seriously. Does the Ziploc lobby have that much sway?

Suffice it to say, I had no Ziploc bag. No teeth-brushing for me for the next 12 hours. Oh well.

As always, while I was in line to board the plane I ran into a kid, Sue (pronounced Su-ay), who attends my school. He’s one of the smallest year 9s, and so I was able to recognize him at the same moment he recognized me, which was nice. He was happy to see me and we talked about why we were going to New Zealand. And then he got a worried look on his face. “You’re coming back, right?” It was very cute. We took a photo as we walked across the runway (Picture above).

Luisa’s flight wasn’t scheduled to get in until 4 hours after mine, so I spent the night in the baggage claim area in the Auckland airport. I did a New York Times Sunday Crossword and read my book. The only real problem is that it’s so damn cold here! It probably has much to do with how I’ve just spent 7.5 months in the Tropic of Capricorn, but still… It’s like the walls at the Auckland airport are made of tin. Don’t they have insulation in this country? Do they know about heaters? Maybe the Peace Corps should think about opening a post here. We could teach them some things.

Luisa got in fine, and other than some bumps with security (My Customs code was for 23 May, but I exited the airport after they switched codes to 24 May), we got out fine.

It’s so damn cold though.

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.

Luisa and me on the bus at 6:45 a.m.

The Sky Tower in Auckland, tallest building in the southern hemisphere.

The elevator that goes to the top of the Sky Tower has a glass floor so you can see all the way down the elevator shaft as you ascend.

The rotating restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower.

As promised, a trip to Starbucks.