(Photo above: Chestnuts foraged from hundred-year-old trees at Hagley Golf Course and Park)
In last week’s post I expected that I would be writing from home in San Francisco. Yet I want to share a few last lingering and loving thoughts about New Zealand.
I haven’t changed my mind about leaving New Zealand to return to the U.S, but I feel melancholy and wistful. Yes, it feels like I am swimming upstream and inconceivably towards more harm than away from it. For me, it is time to return to the real world, while having escaped from it for a while. I have been to the far side of paradise but I should leave it, now that I have been here.
After five months here, I relished the many positive points about this tiny island nation. Tourists rave about its pristine beauty. For those fortunate to live here beyond a dream vacation, they will find a life worth living.
Today, as New Zealand joins the bubble with its big cousin, Australia, there are new protocols. Health providers must suit up fully to administer COVID tests. The requirements change frequently as the level of safety varies. Only half of the population approve of the new bubble and another quarter are ambivalent about the changes.
In my observation and experience, New Zealanders are courteous, cautious and conservative. Those have been the trademarks of managing the pandemic successfully. They wait for the science to prove itself, so there is no rush to vaccinate. Patience is a virtue. There will be enough doses for everyone, whether you hold residency or not.
Strong family values fostered by the Maori community are often mentioned in the media. Bilingual messages delivered through public media spread the latest information about COVID-10, the importance of getting vaccinated, and personal hygiene measures to avoid COVID.
Farewell to a Cute Country
New Zealand is a country I would describe as “cute”. Its people, land formations, and customs give me a warm and endearing feeling. While it’s also “rugged” or “raw”, I am drawn to its mild-mannered people, their mindfulness, and their ability to be kind.
I don’t intend to compare the pros and cons of New Zealand characteristics with ours in the US. The world can learn alot from this tiny country that could. Over the past months, I have grown fond of New Zealanders, their tenacity, and can-do mentality. I will really miss New Zealand.
Yes, back to masks. And I will perhaps be deterred from many freedoms already offered here: get my hair cut, go to a movie or attend a concert, or ride the bus mask-free. Hug friends and family readily. But maybe one day. Soon.
The decision has been made. I am returning to the States after nearly a half year in New Zealand. Following the news on both sides of the Pacific has been fraught with uncertainty. My reasons for returning only slightly outweigh remaining in this picture-perfect island paradise on earth.
First of all, there may not be an active vaccination program in New Zealand until July. Word has it that it can be as early as May, but there is no assurance of that. Extending a stay here to complete both vaccinations would require complicated housing, flight arrangements, and family decisions.
Returning to the States involves where, when and how to be vaccinated. With anyone over 16 being eligible, the appointments will be much more competitive. The race against variants is worrying. Flights and the quarantine process on arrival require reverse-engineering the outbound San Francisco to New Zealand process.
On return, I do not look forward to the restrictions and mask-wearing, After savoring so many natural and human facial gestures throughout New Zealand, it will take some time to readjust. I’m not sure where the real world is anymore.
As part of my farewell, I made a special purpose visit to Marlborough Country. It’s famous throughout the world for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. Similar to the Sonoma Coast, the climate is milder for producing the whites that are delicate and flavorful. The vineyards are pristine and unlike other wine regions I have seen.
It’s not the Destination, but the Journey….
One of the two great rail journeys based from Christchurch plies the northeastern coast of New Zealand to Blenheim. (The other journey is through Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the West Coast). This coastal journey takes about five hours, where you can opt for a four-course dining experience during the trip or enjoy coach seating with access to a cafe and outdoor car. And yes, for now people travel maskless but are very conscientious in recording their whereabouts on a contact tracing app installed on smartphones.
The pastoral landscapes with rolling hills carved by many of the rivers and 27 earthquake faults, vast farmlands along the Canterbury Plain, and direct views of the Pacific Ocean (on the east coast here) were spectacular and helped me to momentarily forget my future travel woes.
By the way, everything in New Zealand is backwards to what Americans are used to! Driving on the left side of the road, water running down the drain counterclockwise, the strongest sun in the north, and Christmas in the summer are just a few phenomena to keep you wondering and on your toes.
Cloudy Bay and Wither Hills Wineries and Vineyards
As mentioned earlier, coming to paradise with freedom to move about can be a lonely experience. Friends and family in the States are unlikely to understand or relate to my time here. Maybe astronauts who have traveled to outer space feel the same isolation. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I came and will find ways to cope.
Sketching and Exploring at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
In a recent sketching event at St. Paul’s Church in Northcote, I couldn’t help but notice the tombstones included in my sketch. It took a second visit to the church to read the epitaphs to long lost and forgotten individuals. How fleeting is a mortal life! We are specks of dust that appear and disappear in a flash of light. The stone monuments in the graveyard attempted to extend the memories of an individual, until they also eventually disappear and are forgotten.
A few of the moving epitaphs of children who died over 100 years ago are captured in the attached slide show. It may be a bit difficult to decipher, but worth zooming . A few quotes on the stones gave me a glimpse of each individual. I could sense the deep love devoted to them by their families.
Continuing on a roll from the 100 People One Week Challenge, I found more subjects to sketch at the Mediterranean Cafe and at the Willowbank Cafe. And continuing the Zoom Portrait Parties from the Bay Area hosted by Jen and Govind has been a godsend. I painted my interpretation of a painting by Klimt below.
Before long, I will be back in the U-S-S-A. I am somewhat sad and ambivalent about the return home, as New Zealand has provided a semblance of normality in an abnormal world. As this is probably my last post from Christchurch, New Zealand. I hope you have enjoyed them! Please let me know, and look for my report next from San Francisco!
Last week was consumed with an international event for sketchers. Every year, the challenge is to draw 100 people in one week. Having done the same task last year, I was better prepared to develop a strategy to complete the exercise. First, you stake out your victims, then use the same venue each day to become familiarized with the types of poses and people you sketch.
Due to the pandemic, many people this year could only draw from photographs, magazines or online images. I was fortunate to be in a country where I could still go down the street to sketch real people in their natural environments.
I chose the Christchurch Turanga Library. It is remarkable in many ways, as a “third space” for living. It is neither home nor work, but it fills in the voids in between. It was perfect for capturing teeming humanity, primarily in the Foundation Cafe, but also at computer stations, playing chess, and at the children’s center, where tired and exhausted mothers could catch a few minutes of sleep with their infants.
The sketches provide an example of the types of characters at the library–many engaged at activities yet to be appreciated in the States–surrounded by others without distancing, staff working close together, and active conversations with friends and families while eating. Let’s hope this is a mere taste of what’s soon to come in San Francisco and elsewhere in the U.S.
The Vaccination Dilemma
Speaking of the U.S., we hear that vaccinations in California will be available to anyone over 16 by the end of April. That’s good news for my daughters. One plans to return shortly with a baby. The other daughter is comforted to know that she and her colleagues in the food business will be protected.
We are waiting to decide whether to get vaccinated in New Zealand or in the States. It’s a tricky decision that depends on where we can get inoculated first, and for both doses. There are advantages and disadvantages for either location. We are weighing them as news changes daily and impact our decision. Add a minor stress of booking tickets and accommodations timed for the yet-to-be-determined exit and you have the picture.
Willowbank Nature Reserve
In the meantime, I continued sketching with Christchurch City Sketchers, who visited Willowbank Nature Reserve outside the city last weekend. Native kiwis are featured in their natural habitat there. Unfortunately the area was pitch black so none of the four kiwis were visible!
An unusual auction of rare breeds of birds and animals was held the same day. Unfortunately, I did not take full advantage of the llamas, cows, and a Clydesdale horse on display. I focused on drawing human animals in the cafe instead. After drawing so many people the previous week, I was fixated on capturing more tantalizing eyes, noses, ears, and saggy profiles. After leaving the park, I kicked myself for missing the golden opportunity to sketch all those voluptuous animals!!
Being in Christchurch has filled our time with interesting activities and new adventures. I took my daughter for her first round of golf! We only did six holes, but that was plenty enough to entertain and challenge us for a solid morning at Hagley Park. A momentary hiatus in the sandpit was not enough to discourage me from future outings.
News Update: As of Sunday, March 7 at 6am (New Zealand Time), Auckland will drop to Level 2 and the rest of the country to Level 1
Global news can change quickly, especially with the pandemic roulette swinging wildly. This up-to-now, COVID worry-free country has stepped up its vigilance. A couple of troubling community cases in Auckland near the airport last week has moved the city into an Alert Level 3 and the rest of the country to Level 2. That affects those of us living in Christchurch on the South Island.
Here’s a snippit from a recent news article on the recent changes:
While there are renewed restrictions such as the wearing of masks on public transportation, social distancing and contact tracing, the general population was initially slow in responding to any changes. Now, there are visible differences. The news reports progress openly and transparently, and reminds everyone to follow instructions.
Public service messages also remind everyone to be kind and not to excoriate those who may have extenuating circumstances for not following the rules. Except for uniformed kids hitting town after school, fewer people populate the streets of Christchurch. Local travelers encouraged to see New Zealand are putting intercity travel on hold.
Shops, cafes, museums and cinemas are once again threatened with a downturn in the struggling economy just as it has in other parts of the world. With a chain of events that include the Mosque bombing, the earthquake, and recurrent COVID fears , the people of Christchurch have demonstrated incredible resilience and acceptance of circumstances beyond their control
As the tide was turning, we were in the midst of a weekend outing to Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps. Mt. Cook is high on the list of quintessential outdoor destinations in New Zealand.
The east side of the Southern Alps on the South Island are accessible from Christchurch within three hours. We drove through classic rolling hill countryside, passing an occasional car headed in the opposite direction. After pit stops in Fairlie and Geraldine, the snow-capped mountains appeared.
You can take a boat tour to see the Tasman Glacier on the back side of Mt. Aoraki (known as Mt. Cook). After a short one-mile hike to the lake, we arrived at the shoreline for our excursion. I had expected a big ferry with big picture windows, but the light, open-air raft awaiting at the dock was a surprise!
The German-born guide quickly sorted us into small groups to balance the boat and off we went. She described the history and formation of the lake from the ice melt. In just the past few months and years, the lake capacity has been increasing in volume.
The ice floes show only 10% of its body mass. The rest lies below the surface. On larger floes and along the glacier, you can see the water line where the waves meet the ice form. The floes have lives of their own. They play like otters when they roll over and as the mass underneath changes.
The Tasman Glacier, like those in Alaska, relies on ground cover to insulate the ice from further deterioration. The visible river of ice was only a small rendition in scale with those we saw in Alaska, but nevertheless impressive for its peaceful and serene environment. We could only get partial peeks at Mt. Cook, but we were satisfied at having seen its peak the day before.
Zoom Sketching Live Musicians
The Tuesday night jam sessions with live musicians originating from Andronico’s continues.
And a quick sketch in the Christchurch Gallery of a favorite sculpture–you can compare it to the real thing in the following slide!
A community COVID case in Auckland last week spurred the country into action, with the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring a Level 3 alert in the nation’s capital and an Alert Level 2 throughout the rest of the country.
All known contacts traced were checked for testing or review. I was impressed by the transparency and rapid response. All news sources provided updates on the situation, and the public was reminded about the need to be vigilant. Wearing masks on public transport became mandatory, and there was visible evidence of people scanning QR codes in public venues.
Though weary, everyone saw the importance of compliance. I compared the inconsistency of response in the States. Although many wore masks, it seemed as if there were as many who didn’t. The mask wearing is not mandatory here, but nearly everyone seems to follow instructions they are given.
Once the exposure from the family of three who were positive was under control, the country alerts were reduced to Level 2 in Auckland and Level 1 elsewhere. It was a relief, but nevertheless worrying and a topic of daily conversation. New Zealanders are aware how tenuous their situation is and how important it is to maintain their hard-earned freedom.
The government announced yesterday that the Pfizer vaccines have been received and the first vaccinations will begin with those who vaccinate. No other indication of when the general public will receive vaccinations, so we are waiting anxiously to find out.
Watching a Zoom Town Hall sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Ting was helpful to follow latest developments in San Francisco Bay Area. Professor George Rutherford compared statistics between the 1918 pandemic with the one today. In 1918, over 3000 people died in the Bay Area (of a population of 350,000). Today, there have been 342 deaths in a city over twice the size. While the numbers are still increasing, it is a testament to modern science and how it has protected the population from grief and tragedy.
In the mean time, life carries on as abnormally normal as possible. Daughter Julianne, grandson Felix and I took a day trip to Lyttelton Harbor. It’s a quaint port town that, despite it being the epicenter of the second major earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 that caused extensive damage, many vestiges of a historic town remain evident.
Logging has become one of the major industries in New Zealand. Just behind sheep and cattle farming, the logs are often sent to China and other countries for processing. Lyttelton, a tiny port nestled on the coast beyond the hills of Christchurch, has preserved a lot of its original character and sense of community .
The featured image above captures a warm and colorful server at the local wood-fired pizza parlor. The owners endeavored to make the restaurant a casual and welcoming environment, similar to other establishments in the neighborhood aiming to please
The evening shifted to a different tone. The Gatherings is a restaurant focusing on curated wines paired with delicious seafood. We were excited by a local “Salty White”, an unfiltered wine by Hermit Ram from North Canterbury. Mussels and chips, a mint salad, and whole flounder were a perfect combination from the Chef’s Selection.
Like many cities throughout the world, you can always find a good meal if you take the time to look for it. Thanks to Daughter Melissa, this one was no exception.
Earlier in the week, frequent walks through the park and adjacent cemetery unveiled many stories to be told from lives once lived.
Sketching with local Christchurch City sketchers at Ferrymeade Heritage Park and in Central Christchurch at Tuam and Manchester yielded opportunities to see and hear the city up close and personal.
While pandemonium in the Bay Area over getting vaccinations prevails, New Zealand has been steadfast and calm over the rush to get everyone vaccinated. Naturally, the state of health for its citizens are just as much a concern as for those in the U.S., but the order of magnitude is much more significant in the States. As a tiny country and with prudent practice, New Zealand waits to see how other countries handle their vaccination programs and whether any adverse outcomes may result from the injections or the procedures.
We are neither vaccinated here nor there. We watch the news each day to see what unfolds in both countries. I rely on news feeds as mentioned previously from RNZ, San Francisco Chronicle, NY Times, and Deutsche Welle. Most are focused on the delay of vaccination deliveries.
In the mean time, we continue to go about daily life as usual–trips to the market, going to see movies, museum visits, and mall shopping. By American standards, extraordinary. By New Zealand standards, ordinary, but still cautious. There have been a few breaches and cases. so people still scan their devices for contact tracing, a process that doesn’t even exist in the States,
Let’s Get Together and Go for a Walk in the Park!
The past couple of weeks have been filled with many delicious walks through the myriad parks in Central Christchurch. Daughter Melissa laughed at me when I told her that there were too many public spaces in Christchurch for people to consume. From Hagley Park along the Avon River, there are plenty of strolls to sooth the soul.
The New Zealand Symphony performed a medley of themes from Blockbuster movies such as “Goldfinger”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Star Trek”, “Magnificent Seven” and crowd favorite “Lord of the Rings”. In both cases, as you can see, it is inevitable for dancers get out and take advantage of the music.
Sketching in Christchurch
Along with the German Language exchange, I joined a local sketch group. We meet weekly at the library to sketch each other, work on personal art projects, and chat. I still participate in hometown sketching via Zoom. Both the monthly Portrait Parties below and the weekly Tuesday evening Jam Sessions give me an opportunity to stay in touch with San Francisco fellow sketchers as well as to engage in a variety of challenging and lively sketching tasks!
The following series was based on selecting favorite portraits, then sketching them or simulating them in costume and then sketching the simulations! A totally fun and engaging event that we plan to do again.
Sketching via Zoom has created opportunites for screen shots to freeze images while listening to live music. I also sketch from live shots to keep the eye-hand coordination sharp–but sometimes have to jump ship!
The second impeachment trial to convict Donald Trump took place this week. I captured four of the House Managers who gave their impassioned testimony claiming that Trump was directly responsible for inciting an insurrection on the National Capitol. Sadly, he was not convicted by a Senate vote of 57-43.
I follow RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, daily as a source for local information in the country. The feed earlier this week reported a COVID-19 case, where the virus was transmitted to two health care workers in a Christchurch quarantine facility last November, 2020.
Russian sea crew staying at the hotel spread the virus when they walked through hotel corridors to the smoking area outside. Sometimes they went up to 4 times an hour, so the movement was significant. They infected two health care personnel in the hotel through microaerosols in the air. After discovering that, the Ministry of Health put crew in single rooms (previously they had shared rooms) with balconies so the crewmen could smoke directly adjacent to their rooms without having to go through the corridors to do so.
This is just a good example how easily the virus can be transmitted. Knowledge about personal behavior and simple modifications can avoid transmission. But it is a huge challenge to change human behavior. It’s already difficult to convince people to wear masks. To ask them to refrain from smoking would be impossible.
In another story I read in the New York Times, a journalist traveling by car across the U.S. discovered little or no mask wearing during his stops. He was traveling from Connecticut to St. Louis to take his mother to meet a relative. The journalist was appalled at the lack of compliance in mask wearing. Signs were posted everywhere, but no one was complying.
This journalist’s report was discouraging to me. It didn’t give me much confidence in rushing back to the U.S., despite promising plans to vaccinate everyone. In the mean time, we continue to live safely in New Zealand. We take each day at a time and wait to see whether conditions will improve in the States.
We go about our daily activities, visiting the local library, shopping at the supermarket, running errands in town, and enjoying New Zealand’s beautiful, pristine environment. The oceans surrounding the islands and the mountains carved by earthquakes and volcanic activity are clearly visible everywhere. Sun, wind, and rain change constantly from hour to hour, so the weather is, yes, a major topic of discussion.
A hike up to the top of Mt. Pleasant near the house we are renting gave us spectacular views of Christchurch. The harbor at Ferrymead, beach at Sumner and many inlets along the bay provide housing sites with views to cherish. Paved and gravel roads to outlying areas lead to many walks and pathways for hikers and bikers. (See featured photo above)
Taking strolls along the Esplanade reminded me of the fancy turn-of-the-century promenades I imagine along Brighton in the U.K. Today they are filled with surfers, families, and foreign visitors. The scene looks very SoCal or something out of La Jolla. Like in Papamoa, the distance from car to beach is only a few steps.
Unfortunately, this Sumner building is a sad reminder of the earthquake in 2011. The first earthquake in Canterbury weakened the structures in Christchurch, then a second one in Lyttelton caused most of damage to buildings like this one. Buildings still standing vacant are looking for a developer to raze and renovate.
Finally, a chance to sketch via Zoom with local Bay Area sketchers!
Since arrival in Christchurch a couple of weeks ago, I am beginning to fall in love with this charming South Island city. The easy adaptation encouraged me to connect with two local meetups, one for sketching and one for German language exchange .
Before COVID in March last year, I had been following these interests in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was an active member of SF Sketchers, a group that met monthly to sketch outdoors with other fellow sketchers. Sunset Sketchers, a subset of the group, met in cafes on weekends for morning coffee and sketching in San Francisco’s Sunset District.
Since the pandemic hit ten months ago, we continued to meet sporadically outdoors but this group and other spinoffs finally settled into the Zoom meeting format. Weekly and monthly meetups allowed members to stay in touch by sketching each other, but no places and not live.
Being in Christchurch, I am able to connect with others having the same interests in person. I meet the local sketching group at the library every week, and my first field trip with them will be to the Ferrymead Heritage Park this weekend.
The German Language Exchange group meets every month at a local cafe. Led by a high school German teacher, the small group of five provides plenty of opportunity to speak and listen to German. Three of us are recent arrivals that quarantined before entering New Zealand. One is a woman from the UK, and the other is a New Zealander returning from university studies. We have plenty of material coming from abroad and explaining our experiences in German!
After the devastating earthquake on Feb. 22, 2011, the center of town is laden with new developments. It has taken a good ten years to return to life. With an injection from the government, Christchurch is now able to display its resilience and durability proudly.
Being relatively flat and laid out on a grid system, you can get your bearings quickly to navigate around the city center. The lovely Avon River meanders throughout the city and provides another means of orientation for the visitor.
A Devastating Earthquake in 2011
Unfortunately, many buildings in this area were flattened by the earthquake. Due to liquefaction, the same curse that affected San Francisco’s Marina District in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. Christchurch was not considered to be in an earthquake zone. Buildings in Christchurch were not designed at the time to take the vulnerability of soft, marshy land into account.
A few statistics about the earthquake: there were 182 deaths, and over 200 buildings that required demolition from damage caused by the earthquake. Over 300,000 tonnes of liquefaction were removed, and there was a 3-meter (about 10 feet) difference in distance between Rolleston and Kaiapoi after September 2011.
A large, block-long empty site peeks into the past: earthquake devastated sites like this one yearn for a developer to step up. A few new buildings have cropped up, but the many empty parking lots convey the extent of the damage, physically, economically, and emotionally.
New Life for Christchurch
Old Regent Street is double-loaded with period-style shops and cafes. A miniature golf park next to an amusement park and the city park provides plenty of free activities for children of all ages. Pop-up vendors selling favorites such as real fruit ice cream and chips fulfill desires for the weak at heart.
Today, many blocks of the city center are vacant or used for parking. City planners and the government have put alot of effort into urban renewal and bringing life back to this area.
Exploring the south side of the city led to a series of wall murals located on buildings. The empty parking lots in the foreground provided excellent sightlines for artwork while brightening an otherwise dreary environment.
The Avon River and scenic paths on either side calm the soul. In the adjacent Botanical Gardens, magnificent trees display themselves to strollers. Maori patterns are introduced along the paths telling the history and origins of the Maori culture.
A final stop at the City Library revealed exciting explorations for life-long learning. You can join free weekly programs to learn how to use laser cutters and 3-D printing, as well as how to use more old-fashioned skills like sewing and embroidery side by side. The weekly sketch group meets downstairs to hone one’s artistic skills.
Sketching in Christchurch
Speaking of sketching, I finally drew inspiration from a monthly zoom sketch group. We went back to basics using contour drawings, where you don’t lift the pen while you coordinate what you see on the paper in front of you. I exercised the same concept for the Tuesday night jam session with Bluegrass musicians via Zoom. Here’s what I came up with.
I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.
The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.
It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.
Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.
New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.
There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.
New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.
New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.
Mt. Ruapehu National Park
Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.
We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).
Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.
Overnight in Wellington
We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.
The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.
Ohakune Forest Walks
Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.
Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.
With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.
The song beginning with the words “Beautiful Dreamer” wafts through my mind as I ponder the sights and sounds of New Zealand. There are plenty of birds chirping outdoors. They wake me up when the dawn is breaking and continue throughout the day, but they seem to be particularly energized at dusk. Many species of birds share the stage here and give me determination to recognize them by name.
Having arrived in New Zealand a month ago, we are undergoing a transformation of normality. We can get hair cuts, go to the mall to buy Christmas presents, eat in restaurants, and more importantly, hug those outside our bubble. We follow the news in the U.S. intently and still share the lingering fear of what lies ahead. Despite the depressing news, we resolved that the best way for us to overcome unsettled feelings is to carry on with life as if it is normal…because it is.
We made a special trip to circumvent the local Tauranga area by car yesterday. As a thriving community of 150,000 people, it is no match for Auckland or other world cities, but its charm and intimate character speak volumes. There are well-heeled districts reminiscent of Auckland’s, but the beaches, country living, and resort life side by side increase its energy and promise.
We took a short walk through the “bush” along the shoreline in Welcome Bay. New Zealanders love “tramping” from very rigorous walks such as the one in world-famous Milford Sound, to tamer, local district walks.
The local radio talk show discussed the recent plight of international students. 60,000 university foreign tudents who left New Zealand to return home temporarily due to COVID-19 are now unable to come back. New Zealand’s economy not only relies on its foreign student population for income from tuition and fees, but it also funds many programs for other local students. The arts, music, labs, and research are being threatened if the students do not return. The pandemic affects everyone in big and small ways, even when the country is COVID-free.
We’ll be heading out to explore the middle earth of the North Island this week in an area known as Tongeriro National Park. It’s known for its ski area, but we are taking advantage of its off-peak seasonal rates for a family reunion.
Before that, I’ll be busy baking Stollen, my traditional Christmas treat. For the first time, I am also preparing mincemeat pie, which apparently is a recipe that originated in the 11th Century. Thanks to the Crusaders, who rocked and raided the Middle East, they pilfered the method of combining meat with dried fruit and spices. With time on my hands like many of you sheltering in place, I may also attempt to assemble and decorate a homemade gingerbread house. Give any of these a try and we can share stories of delight or disaster.
As we approach Christmas, I hope each of you will be able to spend time and celebrate with those nearest to you with joy and love, whether in person or virtually. A safe and healthy Holiday Greeting from the Fong-Chou Family!!