In Which We Decide to Move to New Zealand for a Year

We were somewhere in southeast Asia last September–I think it was Cambodia. I was perusing the U.S. section of The New York Times when I looked up from my computer and said to Sujata, “You might want to see about getting a job abroad, just in case.” She looked at me slightly incredulously and said, “Are you kidding? He’s not going to win,” but then she thought better about it and said, “Okay. I’ll look into it.”

A few weeks later, Sujata called a headhunting firm that places American doctors in New Zealand hospitals. There were emails and phone calls and then family conversations about what it would be like to live in New Zealand for a year.

New Zealand was our first stop after we left the United States in July of 2016. We spent a week there hiking and cycling on the North Island.  To my English major mind, continuing and extending our journey where it began felt apt. Returning to the beginning to assess the past and move forward into the future made sense and felt right to all of us. “We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Still, New Zealand remained a poetic abstraction until we woke up in Budapest on 10 November, the day after the American election. The political and cultural unravelling of America quickly accelerated. We didn’t like what we saw, so Sujata put her foot down a little harder on the New Zealand pedal.

One day, the headhunting firm called to say there was a position open in Whakatane, a small beach community on the North Island’s Bay of Plenty.

Was she interested?

She was.

The interview was conducted, a contract was sent and signed and, just like that, our year-long adventure turned into a two-year expatriation.

I thought the children would chafe at the thought of being away from home for another year. They have thrived this year, but they miss their friends and their life in Denver. At the same time, they have embraced the excitement of life on the road. They especially love the freedom of living in Ireland where they can walk to and from school or the public library on their own or wander around the estate gathering up their friends for a soccer match on the nearby pitches.  No matter how or when we broached the issue, they consistently said they wanted to keep rolling and landing in New Zealand for a year was quite alright with them.

Of the four of us, I was probably the most ambivalent. I have enjoyed traveling and teaching abroad for the year, but I was looking forward to getting back to Regis, getting the band back together and picking up our life in Denver.

That said, I’m looking forward to slipping into a lower gear for a year. Preparing for and then actually accomplishing the Fulbright and the semester in Ireland has taken the better part of three years, so for my part, hanging out on the beach in New Zealand seems splendid. Regis gave me a leave of absence and there aren’t any universities near Whakatane so, unless Sujata is keeping something from me, I’ll have a relatively unencumbered life. And, I’m not at all worried about feeling bored or isolated: I think I secured an unpaid internship at the local newspaper in Whakatane, so it’s shaping up to be a year of writing, reading, swimming, cycling, and running on the beach.

We may very well have packed up and gone to New Zealand apart from the results of the American election. Our year abroad has been organized around my professional life and Sujata, who is a talented physician, has been Travel Guide In Chief. I’ll let her write about how she feels about going back to work, but I do know that the prospect of working in Whakatane where she will be primarily working with the local Maori community felt like a professional opportunity that she couldn’t pass up.

Still, when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that our decision to go to New Zealand is as much a political decision to stay away from the United States. I realize that despite the political and cultural turmoil, things go on as usual for most Americans. Ordinary Americans wake up every morning, kiss their partners and children goodbye and walk out into their communities to do their work and to live their lives. At the same time, it’s hard to read news reports of white Americans shooting and terrorizing Indian Americans, defacing Jewish cemeteries and threatening people of color and feel excited about returning.

Why would we bring our kids back to that if we didn’t have to?

Would you?

We have every intention of returning to the States in July of 2018. I’ve got a job that I love, we all miss our friends and even though we’ve travelled all over the world for the past eight months, Denver still feels like our home and we miss our life there.

That said, it’s strange to think about being away from home for the space of two years. And it’s even stranger to realize/admit that a significant reason for not returning has to do with the political and cultural dynamic back in the States. Since we left the States in July of 2016 we have been ‘traveling abroad.’ When we leave for New Zealand, though, on 1 August 2017 we’ll be expatriates, a romantic and provocatively ambiguous word.

Over the course of my life, I’ve certainly harbored fantasies of leaving the States, but even now, as those fantasies become a temporary reality, I feel more American than ever. I hate what’s happening in my country and I am appalled by the level of vitriol, duplicity and arrogance that is emanating from the Twitter account and executive orders of #45. At the same time, I realize, more than ever, that American ideals are worth keeping and fighting for. My America is still the America of compassion, beauty, plurality, moral bravery and imagination. It’s the America of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. There’s serious damage being done in the States right now by low-minded people, but they will never overshadow the people and the work of the greatest American minds.

Bird Life, New Zealand & Sydney

Until I moved to Colorado, I never paid much attention to birds, but shortly after I moved to Denver, I bought a bird book and I’d go birdwatching whenever I could. I’d mark off all the birds I could identify in my Peterson’s Guide to Western Birds–Western Tanagers, Grebes, Coots, Hooded Mergansers and Lark Buntings–and I’d seek out popular birding sites.

I remember the first time I saw a pelican in Colorado—I have to say that I was surprised when I learned that pelicans even lived in Colorado, but the summer climate suits them and they migrate up from Arizona and Mexico every spring. One day I was tromping around a lake near Denver, and I saw a shadow moving swiftly over my left shoulder. I looked up and there was a white pelican swooping down toward the water, in search of dinner.

One time Sujata and I were visiting New Mexico, and we came across a colony of avocet hanging out next to a remote road near Taos. I got so excited that I forgot about how fast I was driving and a few moments later, a cop pulled me over and issued me a $75 speeding ticket. I, unconvincingly, tried to explain to the officer that I just lost my train of thought because of the avocet, but he was, rightly, having none of it. Avocets, though, are beautiful birds:

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That’s all to say that part of the joy of traveling abroad is paying attention to the bird life. I forgot my binoculars at home (I’ll buy a pair here in Australia), so I didn’t get to see as many New Zealand birds as I would have liked. I did, though, see a few fantails on the farm that we were staying at in Rotorura.

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Fantails, native to New Zealand, are jumpy little birds (about 4 inches) that pop into trees, spread their tails for a second or two and then alight. One morning I woke up, looked out our bedroom window and saw a troubling of goldfinches diving from tree branches into tall grasses. I’ve seen lots of finches in Colorado, but I’ve never seen that kind of behavior before—I suspect that species behave differently on different continents and under different environmental conditions. These goldfinch in Rotorura, were totally manic—they would dive bomb straight down into the grass and pop right back up and there were hundreds of them buzzing in and out of the tree.

New Zealand doesn’t seem to have the variety of raptors that we have in Colorado. I did, though, see a lot of harrier hawks. Harrier hawks like to hunt in marshy areas—in fact, if you go to Rocky Mountain National Park you can sometimes see Harriers prowling the mountain streams that run through the meadows on the eastern portion of the park. New Zealand also has a lot of falcons—I saw a few high above us as we were driving across the country and I could tell they were falcons because of their cigar-shaped tails.

I also saw lots of shore birds in New Zealand: oystercatchers, a wide variety of stilts and beautiful, mysterious white herons migrating from one wetlands area to the next. There’s always one elusive bird and for me, in New Zealand, it was the blue duck. Blue ducks are native to New Zealand. They look relatively ordinary except for the blue streak that cuts across their head. I saw lots of ordinary mallards, but not one blue duck. When Sujata and the kids went to Hobbiton, they came back, claiming they saw a blue duck. Later that day, we all saw a Puketo on the side of the road and Sujata said, “There, look, a blue duck.” So, even they didn’t see a blue duck.

I am very excited about the birds of Australia. Birdlife in Australia is unlike most other places. The birds of Australia have a reputation for being very loud and very aggressive, both across bird species and even towards humans. For centuries, biologists have remarked about the querulous, bellicose and screeching bird life on the continent. I’m reading a book right now Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, by Tim Low, and the author is trying to figure out why the birds of Australia are uncommonly pugnacious. What he’s come around to is the food that the birds eat. Over 80% of Australia’s birds are honeyeaters. Honeyeaters are common on the continent because, well, there’s lots of sugars in the plant life and, there’s lots of sugars in the plant life because of Australia’s infertile soil. It seems that infertile soil causes some plant life to overproduce carbohydrates and since the plant can’t convert all those carbs to more tissue, much of the plant life is dripping with sugars, which the honeyeaters love. All that said, what Low is arguing is that all the sugar coursing through the avian life of Australia basically creates an environment where the birds are like a bunch of two-year old human children hopped up on candy bars and ice cream.

Today, in Sydney, I had a chance to see some of these birds at work. We took the light rail from our house in south Sydney to the Darling Harbour area and after we ate some delicious vegetarian Jaio Ze and dumplings at Din Tai Fung, we walked to Sydney’s Chinatown district where, among other things, Eleanor found a Hello Kitty shop and spent about 30 minutes, in complete wonder. From there we meandered to the Chinese Friendship garden, a walled garden in the middle of a bustling urban area. There are waterfalls, stone steps that lead to quiet benches and lots of bamboo and jade trees.

Australian Ibis basically own the place, though. They nest in the willow trees and swoop down over the ponds, heckling the smaller birds—mostly barn swallows, from what I could tell. I did get some close contact with some of Australia’s most annoying birds, the Noisy Miner. I know, that sounds like such a cool name and the Noisy Miners, at first, looked pretty interesting . . . until one tried to attack us as we were sipping our jasmine-ginger tea and nibbling on our Taro sweets in the tea garden!

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I noticed, too, that whenever the Miners tried to get near the Ibis’ territory, the Ibis would let out a ear-splitting screech and chase after the Miner, who, without fail, got the hell out of there as fast as he could. Sujata told me after we left the garden that she saw a sign as we were going in that warned patrons of “dive-bombing” birds. So, that was our first experience with Australia’s aggressive bird life.

Coromandel Peninsula

We left Auckland two days ago and traveled east and then north up the Coromandel Peninsula. The drive out of Auckland did not have an auspicious start, as I was in charge of navigation . . . and I’m a terrible navigator. So, we ended up driving north out of Auckland, rather than south. The upside was that we got a great view of Auckland from the western peninsula of the north island, and the kids and Sujata had a good time making fun of me.

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After we oriented ourselves, we drove around the Firth of Thames–the bay that separates the two uppermost peninsulas of the north island—and then we headed north on route 25, a two-lane road that hugs the coast all the way up to Coromandel Town. I’ve never really been on a road quite like this. Besides being very narrow, since it follows the coast, it winds in and out in a way that is both sickening and mesmerizing. Sinewy beech trees create a canopy over the road and, as we drove further north, we started gaining altitude until, close to Coromandel Town, we were high above the ocean.

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From Coromandel Town, we found a gravel access road that cut directly across the peninsula. I think we passed two cars on the 60 km drive—most drivers choose to take the paved road to the other side of the peninsula–and after 20 or so kilometers, I understood why. On the way, though, we came across a Kauri grove. Kauri trees are like the Redwoods of the States. They are ancient, enormous trees that are native to New Zealand. It was late in the day—the sun was rapidly setting in the west and it looked like there was an ominous storm brewing in the east, but we decided to get of the car and hike the trail to see the Kauri.  This decision was very much against Eleanor’s wishes. She was slightly freaked out by the receding light and, I think, our isolation. She started down the path, reluctantly, and became increasingly agitated. This, if you know Eleanor, is unusual. The girl rolls with things and she’s tough and brave, but for whatever reason, she was not okay with the excursion to the Kauri grove. We continued, though, much to her chagrin, and, happily, we made it out alive.

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On the eastern side of the Peninsula, we found a little motel in Whatamanga and decamped there for the night. Not much happened there, except that I found a fantastic Indian/Thai takeaway shop that—this is not an overstatement—had the best Pad Thai and Masaman Curry I’ve ever had. We’re all still a bit jet lagged, so everyone collapsed by 9 pm . . . and we were all awake at 5:30 am.

I woke up in Whitianga, did a little yoga, got dressed and went for a walk on the beach where I was greeted by a parcel of oystercatchers. I love shore birds and oystercatchers, the Halloween birds, are my favorite of the shore birds.

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From Whitianga, we headed south to Hot Beach, a beach blessed with thermal springs just under the waxing and waning tides. We rented a spade at the local coffee shop, and started digging.

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We soaked in the hot pools for two full hours and, afterward, I was exhausted! Sujata took the wheel as we headed south to Rotorua.

 

 

 

Rotorura–Day 1

Coffee, swimming and beer.

What I remember at the end of the day.

6 am. The family reading quietly on the couch.

A pot of French press in the kitchen.

I pour a cup and join them in their repose.

Rain tapping, then beating, on the roof.

Outside, goldfinch diving into the tall grasses

Was that a skylark singing its way above the trees?

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2 pm. A rush of cold and water.

Legs kick, arms extend and push, pull, push, pull.

Follow the line to the other side, flip, repeat.

Cut through the blue water and pop out, breathless.

1500 meters, with my Colorado red blood cells,

goes like a quick breath.

Outside, children jumping into thermal pools

And clouds moving fast.

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6 pm. A tall, cold glass and a darkening sky.

Sip. Talk. Sip. Remember. Sip. Think ahead.

Like a rock star without a hit, or a fan,

Tomorrow, a new place.

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Auckland

After months of looking at the horizon of this adventure, we are finally in it. Our feet are firmly planted on new ground and we are walking our way through new places.

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We left the United States (from LAX) at 4 pm on July 26 and we landed in Auckland at 5 am on the 28th. The flight from LAX to Auckland is 12 hours. I won’t make you do the math, but what that all means, given that Auckland is 18 hours ahead of Denver, is that we lost an entire day of our lives in the journey.

Sujata and the kids slept through most of the flight, god bless them. I can hardly sleep in a comfortable bed, let alone sitting up in a cramped airplane seat, so I just read and watched movies the whole time.

After we staggered through Passport Control and Customs in Auckland, we took a taxi into the City Centre. It’s winter here, so it was still very dark, but by the time we got to the city, the sun was shining. We found a little café near the University of Auckland and the Art Museum and I had my first flat white coffee. The coffee here, from what I can tell so far, is much darker and richer than what we are used to in the States. I like it. New Zealander’s preferred coffee is called a flat white. Here’s my first flat white of our trip:

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Sujata found us an Air B and B a few blocks from the Centre, so we made our way there and relaxed until noon. Here’s the view from the deck:

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After we roused ourselves, we decided to make our way to the Auckland Historical Museum and on the way, we stopped and had a delicious bowl of ramen.

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There is a large Asian population here in Auckland, so ramen, sushi and and Chinese restaurants abound.

We took a city bus to the Museum. Happily, the drivers give you change—why can’t they do that in the States? The ride from the Centre to the Museum took us through the middle of Auckland University, which seemed like a lively and diverse place. From there, the bus climbed up a long commercial avenue and then dropped us off at a residential neighborhood just a mile or two beyond City Centre.

Even though it’s winter here, the weather is mild. It rained a bit, but it was, like they say in Ireland, a ‘soft’ rain and, in fact, it feels a lot like Ireland here.

The Auckland Museum sits on a grassy hill that overlooks the City and provides a stunning view of Auckland’s wharf. Here’s a view from the top:

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As we were walking up the hill to the Museum, we were chatting about where were we were going and a woman who got off the bus just in front of us, turned and asked, “Are you going to the Museum?” We said, yes, and she replied, “Come along, I’ll take you there.” Her name was Elena and, as it turned out, she was a guide at the Museum and as she was an hour early, she gave us a private tour of the Maori section.

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I’m going to get to some of the things we learned from Elena in a moment, but first I just want to pause to say that this little encounter with Elena was pretty much representative of the encounters we had with Kiwis on this, our first day in New Zealand. All of them: the taxi and bus drivers, the wait staff, passersby on the street and the barkeeps, were kind, polite and helpful.

Elena was particularly wonderful. As we walked through the exhibits she told us about her own history and artfully mixed that with the larger history of New Zealand. Elena told us that the island that we call New Zealand was the last large island to be settled by humans. The Maori came down from the Cook Islands, via Taiwan, around 950 AD. That’s pretty late, given that in Europe and Asia at that time a pretty elaborate, if violent and unpredictable, set of political, economic and cultural structures were set up.

When the Maori did arrive, there were no four-legged animals on the island. What you had, then, was an avian-dominated island. The most famous of those creatures was the Moa. With the human colonization of the island, though, four-legged animals came to dominate the natural landscape and, gradually many of the ancient species, like the Moa, went extinct.

The Maori term for New Zealand is Aotearoa. Any American visiting New Zealand can’t help but wonder at the role that Maori culture and history plays in the life of contemporary New Zealand. That’s to say that, unlike the way that the United States decided to ignore, eviscerate and grind down its indigenous peoples, New Zealand has made, its seems to me, serious efforts to honor and preserve Maori culture. And it’s evident beyond the exhibits in the Auckland Museum. All public signage, for instance, is written in English and Maori and last night when we came home and huddled in front of the television, we watched the official Maori channel for some time.

The Maori descend from the Lapita people who came to the Pacific region some 3,500 years ago, and they speak a language that is part of a larger set of Polynesian languages that have been spoken throughout the Pacific region for millennia.

As Elena walked us through the exhibits, she told us about the New Zealand wars, or the English invasion of New Zealand in the 1850s that culminated, 30 years later, with the establishment of the English colony here. I was struck by one part of the exhibit that told the story of a Te Pokiha, or Major Fox. This is Major Fox, on the left and his young wife on the right:

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During the New Zealand wars, Te Pohika colluded with the Brits and allegedly brought in the last remaining Maori rebel to the British forces. For his loyalty to the Empire, Te Pokiha was rewarded handsomely and he decided to conspicuously demonstrate his wealth by, among other things, building this ornate structure and using it to maintain his political influence:

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Te Pokiha’s story reminded me, to a degree, of the great Crow warrior, Plenty Coups. During the “Indian Wars” of the American West, the Crow, who had been squabbling and fighting with the Sioux for decades, decided, under Plenty Coups’ influence, to side with the United States government in the US’s attempt to control Sioux land. We all know that went badly for the Sioux, but few Americans have ever heard of Plenty Coups or even the Crow, and that’s because Americans are more interested in violence.  The difference, though, between Te Pohika and Plenty Coups, it seems, is that Plenty Coups used his political power to help the Crow thrive. If you want to know more about Plenty Coups, check out Jonathan Lear’s great book, Radical Hope. Here’s a photo of Plenty Coups:

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But of course the thing that you are most drawn to when it comes to Maori culture is the art, especially the wood carvings.

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I’ve seen photos of these carvings, but seeing them up close is something entirely different. Elena told us that the carvings acknowledge the ancestors of the iwi (tribe) and each notch in the columns represent a different ancestral generation.  The salient feature of most of the carvings, of course, are the tongues of the ancestors—generally they are sticking out of the mouths in an act of aggression. Or is it defiance?