Holy smokes, I Live in New Zealand.


Surprise Canadian Christmas.
December 30, 2007, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Actual Travelling

I left a sort of teaser about this on my website a week ago (the Grabaseat post). This is a trilogy about my Surprise Canadian Christmas that, after I finished writing it, I was too tired to thoroughly edit or make more interesting.

Summary: my parents were very happy and tears were involved, snow and cold is overrated, jaunts into cities are fun, and I managed to finish this post on 1 January (Auckland time).

Part 1

On 12 December, Grabaseat had a deal offering NZ$500 return tickets from Auckland to both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The LA tickets came up first and sold out in about 14 minutes. This, coupled with the lag time between the issuings of the sales, gave me enough time to contemplate the consequences of my actions and find an equivalent deal to Toronto from SF.

And so it happened, like clockwork. Air New Zealand ticket purchased, United Airlines ticket purchased, bus route to airport found. Cost of Christmas surprise: $1000.

The adventure started after completing a solid half day’s work on Monday the 24th. I scoured the apartment that weekend (five loads of laundry!) and packed that night so I could walk straight to the bus stop from work. I tired of waiting at the bus stop so I popped into JB Hi-Fi and bought some noise cancelling earbud headphones for enjoying music while walking (the iPod earbuds are, therefore, relegated to running duty). I spent my four hours at Auckland Airport trying to open up the package they came in. It was like a little plastic fortress. An impregnable plastic fortress.

I managed to score the emergency exit seats just behind the bulkhead. The in-flight entertainment system was personalized for each passenger. They had some 150 movies to check out, from Superbad to Eagle vs. Shark, some 200 CDs, 12 streaming “radio” stations,…. They served two meals. Nobody was assigned to the seat next to me, but after I fell asleep somebody moved into that empty seat. I was not happy. I went back to sleep.

I landed in San Francisco to find out that the third leg of my trip (Denver to Toronto) was cancelled. Having already checked in from work, this sucked. I spent my entire layover running from payphone to service counter to security line to the next service counter trying to get rebooked that day. United came through for me. I don’t think others were so fortunate. There were an awful lot of cancelled United flights originating in San Francisco. I bought a pile of M&Ms for the poor clerks stuck at the United counter, since there were a lot of cranky passengers with potty mouths at SFO that day.

Eventually I did get rebooked onto an earlier flight out of Denver. I confirmed with Air Canada (over the phone) that everybody was still on time at that end just as they announced final boarding for my flight to Denver. I am 14 hours into my trip at this point. All the overhead baggage space was taken up on my flight, leaving my bag to be shoved behind the back seats on the plane. I was looking forward to a nap and in-flight movie, but of course my seat did not have a working headphone jack. Who needs relaxation anyways?

Upon landing in Denver I dodged a few people hogging the aisle and was helped out by the rest, ensuring I got off the plane in about seven minutes. Oh, I was seated in the back corner of the second flight. Denver Airport has three terminal buildings, each separated by a large swath of pavement. One must take a train between buildings, even to pick up one’s baggage! It was a cute, automated little train, not unlike a subway for a small town. My Denver-Toronto flight was in another terminal, so I had to run to the train, wait for it to arrive, ride said train one stop forward, and finally run to my next departure gate. Highlight: when asked by a local what terminal I was looking for, I replied, “I’m Canadian. Obviously, I am looking for Terminal A.” I made it with twelve minutes before pre-boarding was called. Their computer was broken; my boarding pass was issued by Lufthansa.

Hooray for my surprise though, as there were only seven, count’em, SEVEN passengers on the plane to Toronto. Add three crew and you get one empty plane. They bumped us all up to first class and fed us like royalty. Open bar (two Heinekens), steak and pasta dinner, Toblerones and a viewing of the delightful Breakfast with Scot. It won’t make it to New Zealand, so I’m thrilled I had a chance to see it while on this vacation of mine. Loved it.

I landed at 11:55 PM on the 24th, 20 hours after starting my trip but only advancing four hours in terms of clock time. Should make the return leg adjustment quite exciting.

Part 2

My brother picked me up at the airport to drive me home. Customs asked me what my plans were AFTER New Zealand. Why, I don’t know. I don’t think the female agent was trying to pick me up…

The plan was to sleep under the Christmas tree when I arrived home. However, there was only the “small” tree out this year in front of the big teevee and the family dog would likely lick my face in the morning (worst wakeup list entry #4). I elected for the couch instead. I left one foot dangling off the couch which the family dog did manage to find. That gave me enough warning to prepare for my mother coming around the corner. Needless to say, she was very happy. After exchanging hellos, I curled up in my usual Guelph resting place – that being on the floor parallel and adjacent to the coffee table.

Seeing how I was determined to stay on Auckland time for this week back home, I promptly fell asleep and woke up around 1 PM EST (7 AM NZST).

We did family Christmas that day, including turkey, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables and dip and store-bought cheese. I brought all my mailed gifts back from NZ so I had things to open up. We ate too much chocolate and swapped stories. There were some movies. Basically it was a really quiet Christmas.

I didn’t do any Boxing Day shopping. I did go out in the evening for a Guelph Expatriates Christmas at the Jimmy Jazz. We won round one of their music trivia contest (only because we had a ringer) and proceeded to lose round two. Note to trivia team: this is why you shouldn’t trust me with any responsibility. The night was awash in great, Canadian indie rock and delicious, local, craft beers (Wellington, namely). I did get gifts though 🙂

Thursday was a Kitchener visiting day. I went to see my grandmother (not a surprise) and two friends (a well-planned, awesome reaction surprise). I got a couple more gifts 🙂 . I also went out for another, Expatriate-themed evening on the town, this time at the Bookshelf‘s eBar. I enjoyed it. I had great conversation with lots of people, including one nice girl who maybe I will see again some day.

Friday was a family day. I took the dog for a couple of walks and played video games all day. This was the day the presents stopped coming.

I am writing Part 2 on (Canadian) Saturday. I went to the vet with my father and the dog to have her ears checked out. She was surprisingly well behaved. I spent the afternoon making phone calls to Canadians I was unable to visit this week (and I will obviously be making more next week) and packing up my goods to take south. I ate corn chips and salsa for dinner (which is actually lunch on my New Zealand clock) and finished off the twelve-pack of Root Beer my brother bought for me.

Part 3

My flight to San Francisco was delayed by over two hours. I did some reading on flight delays upon my safe return to Auckland and discovered two things people blame delays on: lack of staff and weather. Weather is also supposedly code for too many planes using not enough airports and other, general infrastructure woes. In my circumstance it wasn’t exactly a bad thing, as I managed another hour of fake sleep in Guelph.

It did, however, restrict my ability to explore San Francisco. The way my discount itinerary worked, I was required to spend ten total hours in San Francisco. Rather than eating airport M&Ms all day, I decided to venture into the city with the exotic goal of taking a historic cable car from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. I figured seven hours (ten hours less three hours required for Air New Zealand international flights) would be enough to make the round trip and eat a fish sandwich. The two-hour delay left me with four comfortable hours in the city.

I had planned on taking their subwayish train (the BART) into town. On the way down, a homeless guy with a broken leg asked me for $7. I pretended to speak French so that I could keep on ignoring him. It was not a successful tactic (“French? That’s okay. You can still help me”) so I had to resort to a quick exit at my stop. BART took about 45 minutes to to make the one way trip. The airport is a fair way out of town. Therefore, I had two-point-five comfortable hours in San Francisco.

My cable car idea was so original that by the time I made it to the end of the line at Powell Street, there must have been 500 people already waiting in line! Ouch! Not wanting to navigate the city bus system, I opted for a quick walk to Union Square to take advantage of their free wireless Internet to write home. Wandering in clockwise circles away from the main park itself, I discovered John’s Grill, one of those old fashioned, place-to-be-seen kind of restaurants with old wood veneer walls covered in framed, glossy photographs of every cop, politician and celebrity who had ever visited the place. I had the prawns provencale; so good I could have cried.

On my way back to the BART, I found a shoe store having a 50% off Boxing Week sale. I picked up two pairs of super-trendy slip on shoes from Sperry (brown) and P.R. Shoes (mostly white). US$65 for both. That’s how I spent my US$50 allowance from my parents 🙂 .

I decided that enough was enough at that point, especially since I now had two pairs of shoes but no money. I went back to the airport with the intent of being first in line for checking in and securing myself the same awesome bulkhead seat (note to Air New Zealand fliers: on the 777s, that seat is 53A) that I had coming north. I was third in line and was told that the seat was unavailable. I was placed in 35A (great window view)…next to a toddler and her Republican mother. I knew that because a) she had a kid and b) mentioned that her fiancee knows Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Cute kid, liked pawing at me for the first hour of the flight. I helped put nighttime formula Robitussin into his bottle of milk (at the mother’s request) to help him sleep during the flight. He was out like a light.

They changed over the entertainment system offerings so I didn’t get to watch Eagle vs. Shark, but did get more episodes of Extras and the New Zealand-based cartoon bro’Town. The one episode of bro’Town featured a Canadian girlfriend for Pepelo, the protagonists’ jerk father. They filled her dialogue with “aboot” and “eh” references. I loved it. They also served Heinz’s Canada Fancy Grade Tomato Juice on the flight. The flight attendant apologized for not having my requested spiced tomato juice available. I told her it was okay and instructed her on how to pronounce the name in French. I had quite the francophone day of travel, it seems.

They served a chicken or beef meal on the flight. I went with chicken. It was okay. I had a cheese omelet for breakfast. It was not very cheesy. That’s about it for airplane food for me for awhile. I think what was worst, though, is that the seat I requested, the aforementioned 53A, was unoccupied when I did my mid-flight walkabout of the plane (for stretching/circulatory purposes). Even the headphones were still wrapped up! What a letdown.

After landing, Customs noticed an issue with my Work Visa for the first time: it was stamped for the wrong date as my actual Work Permit is for. Seventeen minutes later, Immigration (yes, two different agencies, just like home) decided I could keep the permit to the 30th. That one extra week of pay is nice, for sure. However, it appears as though each time I return to New Zealand from a foreign country (which will happen at least once more during my stay here) I will have to go through the long immigration line (Queue D) because they will keep on catching this glitch each and every time.

However, I did discover that Auckland Airport gives out free tea and coffee in the baggage claim area of the international terminal, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry staff let me bring it through the biosecurity examination area. How awesome is that? Free AM tea and coffee! Imagine Pearson doing that, eh?

The trip concluded with my pre-paid bus trip back into the city (the one where I got $2 off because the bus driver was feeling charitable). The driver pointed out each of the hostels at my stop for my reference. I just said, “Thanks,” as I was too sleepy/exhausted to care. He tried to prevent me from bringing my free tea on the bus as food and drink was not permitted on it. I closed my eyes to look purposefully groggy and walked straight toward a seat. I dropped my bag on my apartment floor, called home, had a shower and took a five-hour nap.

I was awoken by the sound of blood curdling screams from the concrete covered courtyard below my apartment. The New Year partying continued merrily onwards, and I started the conclusion of this wonderful trilogy.

My surprise Christmas at home, in almost every painstaking little detail. Thanks for sticking it out thus far…assuming you did.

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The Phoenix Foundation.
December 23, 2007, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags: ,

Some 23 December music for your consideration. It appears as though the retro thing is big everywhere we go.

Introducing…The Phoenix Foundation. Their latest album is “Happy Ending” and the single is “Bright Grey.”

I think they were channelling Culture Club with this video.



The Fat of the Foreign Land.
December 22, 2007, 9:47 pm
Filed under: In the News | Tags: , , ,

I am in the process of cleaning my apartment top to bottom and my last loads of laundry in advance of the holidays and I’ve decided to procrastinate by reporting on an odd piece of news from a month-and-a-half ago.

New Zealand has some very strict health requirements that foreign workers need to meet before being granted a Work Permit at the border.  I had to have a complete physical done as part of mine, where I was found to have good cholesterol levels and poor flexibility.  Fortunately for me, because of my running I am not in the predicament this poor English bloke found himself in.

For you see, it turns out that this engineer was too morbidly obese to be allowed entry into New Zealand.  It seems that the Immigration service has guidelines over who is slim enough to grace New Zealand with their presence.  His wife was also rejected as well.  When a nation is as isolated (in the geographic context) from the rest of the world, it’s easier to impose such barriers in this regard, I suppose.

The fear is that such individuals pose a threat to the stability of the health care system and may take up resources intended for the citizenry.  However, with such a shortage of skilled workers (including land use planners) in New Zealand, one must wonder how an obesity requirement serves a greater public interest than allowing the fat of the world to ply their trade here.



No Earthquake Story.
December 21, 2007, 5:42 pm
Filed under: In the News | Tags: , ,

I am using yesterday’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Gisborne to start a new feature on my website called, “In the News.”

I live in Auckland. Gisborne is roughly 500 kilometres away…equivalent to, say, Ottawa from Toronto. It looks like they took a mighty wallop as more damage reports come in. Although everyone here chats about it as if it is par for the course for that part of the country.

I also found a discussion thread online about an earthquake that struck Auckland this past March. Almost every poster not from the area only posted to make fun of Aucklanders for being so jittery about their sissy little 4.5 earthquake (“sissy” being how I described it to my geologist friend, who agreed).

Auckland is generally regarded as being very very low risk for these things. I don’t even have an earthquake kit! I noticed it was on the Star’s website, and I was told by friends that it was on the CKCO news.

Life goes on as normal here in Auckland, though. The radio station still did their AM contests, the Prime Minister followed and talked about her Christmas plans, and Nickelback continued to occupy all the musical airtime.



Musical Madness at the Office.
December 20, 2007, 10:50 am
Filed under: Music

We have a small stereo at the office.  We play it for background noise in our open concept layout.  It is currently 10:49 AM and today’s radio station (we switch it up periodically) has played THREE Nickelback songs so far today.

This is so sad/unfortunate/poor quality, I could cry.  We are spoilt with good music in Canada and all the Canadian new rock New Zealanders know is Nickelback, Nickelback, Nickelback.

  • The New Pornographers
  • The Joel Plaskett Emergency
  • older Sum 41
  • Young and Sexy
  • In Flight Safety
  • The Most Serene Republic
  • Metric
  • Great Lakes Swimmers
  • Bran Van 3000

That is a mere selection that I can come up with in the 20 minutes I can sneak a blog post in at the office today.



Run Club Update.
December 18, 2007, 9:08 pm
Filed under: Get Involved! | Tags: ,

Back in my first ever 5k race (Rotary Fun Run, May 2007, Barrie Waterfront), I set a goal to finish in under 22:00.  That day I learned that I had no concept of time, that I can’t go as fast when it is brutally humid, that I have to maintain a slow pace at the beginning of a race, and that I place too much emphasis on dominating races.  That was the best corny line I could come up with tonight.

Seven months later, it finally happened.  21:38.  The weather conditions were perfect and I actually did a good job of eating good food in the days leading up to the race.  Another mission accomplished in sunny Auckland (actually, it’s raining right now, but, you know).

My fast running friend here was still five seconds ahead of me so there is a long ways to go before I’m wearing the maple leaf for Canada in Beijing…or London for that matter.  Ha ha.

The other highlight of the night was that I won the “big spot prize” afterwards – a free, three-month membership to one of the gyms in Auckland.  I’ll let you know how that goes should I get around to activating my membership at Les Mills in the new year.

Special thanks to the Loaded Hog for making the series happen.  Tuesdays, 6 PM start (so be there at 5:30), $6 admission per week, first drink free afterwards.  5k course around the Viaduct and the fuel tanks.



Grabaseat.
December 17, 2007, 7:51 pm
Filed under: Process of Travelling | Tags: , , ,

I’m writing today to let you know about this amazing discount airfare website in New Zealand, and (incidentally) to ask the rhetorical question about why it is not done in Canada.

Air New Zealand is the flag carrier of New Zealand. They fly a couple dozen domestic routes (including large centres such as Auckland and really small places such as Hokitika and Oamaru), Australia’s main centres, the South Pacific islands (that’s how I’m going to Vanuatu in March), Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London and the west coast of North America – including direct to Vancouver. It, along with Air Canada, is part of the “Star Alliance” group of airlines offering even more international connections.

In North America, a lot of the last-seats-on-the-plane fares and pre-sale sale seats are cleared out through the Expedia, Hotwire or Travelocity types of services. Air New Zealand, however, has decided to do the job themselves.

It’s called Grabaseat, and it comes highly recommended from almost every New Zealander I’ve talked travel with.

I am told it was launched to coincide with an Air New Zealand anniversary. The attraction was $1 airfares to all sorts of interesting New Zealand destinations. Over the course of time, the fares have increased but are still as much as 75% the ordinary economy class airfare. Most of the fares are for domestic flights only, although the occasional international fare does come up. I’ve seen Australian flights come up twice and Tonga once.

Sometimes Air New Zealand will introduce a cute gimmick that will distract you for the entire day. Last week, for example, they sold 10,000 domestic airfares for the autumn (that’s April to June) with the fares dropping every hour on the hour. The attraction is that you are tempted to wait awhile to see how low the fares will go, but the sooner you buy the better the chance of actual landing a seat on the flight you want. This sale is what will take me to races in Wellington and Christchurch this May and June, with a little extra time in Christchurch to see the leaves change colour.

There are a couple of rules you need to keep in mind when shopping Grabaseat:

  • No dithering! If a price comes up that is really incredible (usually associated with a promotional day or a special event), you have to go for it or else you will lose it. There are only a certain number of discount seats available on a flight, if any. Hesitating means you will lose the seat. This happened to me trying to book a sunny holiday in the Cook Islands a couple of months ago.
  • Dates are fixed. Because these tickets are so cheap, they are non-refundable. To transfer your ticket (which I have done for a Rotorua vacation in January) will cost you $50 per leg of the journey. The novelty of the discount quickly disappears if your dates have to change.
  • If you can pack your bags on short notice, go for it. Some incredible deals are available every so often if you can travel that weekend. Both times I found Australian airfares, that was the case.
  • Remember your passport number. It makes filling out the auto-complete forms much easier…and quicker if you are in a time crunch. Besides, it’ll make online check-in possible so you can hop the queues at Auckland airport.

Oh, and so you are aware New Zealand’s Departure Tax is NOT included in the price of your airfare. Bring NZ$25 cash to the airport with you, or at least a credit card. Security loves sending people away from the clearance lineup if you haven’t paid your departure tax. Fortunately, I learned that through the experiences of other travellers.