Monday, December 26, 2011

Snowpeople

I wonder why it is that we refer to snowmen as "snowmen"? What is it about them, really, that makes them male? True, some wear top hats and smoke pipes, which are stereotypically masculine behaviors. But what about the snowpeople who simply have a smiling face, twiggy arms, and no gender-specific accessories? A friend and I gave Christmas socks to the rest of our coworkers, and one design had a snowperson with a pink scarf. Pink = stereotypically feminine. Yet at least one person still referred to her as a snowman, and when some of us intentionally called her a snowgirl or snowwman, it felt really weird.

I also noticed this assumption of masculinity (for lack of a better term) while playing a card game with my dad this week. The cards have pictures of various kinds of bean characters on them (for instance, the black-eyed bean is in a boxing ring and has a black eye, and the blue bean is dressed like a police officer). There are eight or so different bean characters in the deck, some of which are decidedly male, but most of which are fairly gender-neutral. Yet we both kept saying things like, "I'll plant this guy but let you have those other two guys."

I also find myself talking this way while driving. If I talk about (or at) another driver on the road, I almost always refer to him or her as male. "That guy was nice to let me in," or, "Dude, what are you doing?" It's almost never, "She cut me off," or even, "That person cut me off"--and I'm normally pretty conscious of gendered language.

Just an observation. Well, a few observations, really. I just wonder why we are so inclined to use masculine language over feminine.

Note: In case you've missed it in other posts or conversations, I don't hate men. I think men are pretty awesome. And I have nothing against the term "snowman," or against referring to beans or drivers as guys. I'm just observing speech patterns in myself and others . . . and I think there must be some connection between our language and our societal norms about gender hierarchies.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The saga of the Christmas Cookies ice cream

Prologue:
Early in November, I glanced through the Blue Bell ice cream freezers and discovered a delectable-sounding holiday flavor called Christmas Cookies. Here's how Blue Bell describes the ice cream on their website: "Your favorite holiday cookies – chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and sugar – combined in a tasty sugar cookie ice cream with red candy cane-shaped sprinkles and a green icing swirl throughout." Uh, yum! But since it wasn't yet Thanksgiving, I put it back it back on the shelf with a promise that I'd be back for it. Big mistake.

The Saga:
Once Thanksgiving had had its glory and it was officially Christmas season, I started looking for it again . . . but couldn't find it anywhere. One store had empty cartons of it on display, but no cartons of Christmas Cookies in the freezer. Such a tease. Eventually I asked a manager at the store with the empty cartons, and he gave a friendly but non-committal answer along the lines of, "Blue Bell only sends us a limited amount in each shipment since it's a specialty, seasonal flavor, and we keep selling out. But we restock our shelves every morning." Sad times.

A night or two later, my friend Lauren whisked me away for an evening of hunting for this elusive Christmas Cookies ice cream. Store #1: no CC ice cream. Store #2: no CC ice cream. On the way to Store #3, I called three more stores in town, to no avail. (Side note: have you ever called a grocery store and asked for a specific brand and flavor of ice cream? It feels really strange. Fortunately the store employees who answered the phones were very friendly and even went to look and see if they had any Holy Grail ice cream.) And, of course, Store #3 was also out. We settled for some Reese's ice cream bars and went home deflated.

The next day, Lauren called and said, "I've been on the phone with about seven different Blue Bell employees, and I think we can get some Christmas Cookies ice cream tomorrow morning!" I've heard her tell the tale of the Blue Bell phone calls several times, but I still get some of the sequence and finer details mixed up. But it went something like this:
  1. One of her coworkers has a family member who works at Blue Bell, and he (coworker) suggested she call Blue Bell directly to order some, even if it meant buying some in bulk.
  2. Lauren called the Blue Bell plant in Brenham, Texas. But apparently you can't buy directly from them; so they gave her the number for a transit location. The number didn't work. So she got her hands on the number for the distribution center in Big Spring, Texas.
  3. Lauren explained our quest to a Blue Bell employee (BBE). Apparently Blue Bell had already produced as much as they're going to this Christmas season, but there were still some cartons floating around in stores. So Lauren asked how she could get her hands on some Christmas Cookies ice cream. BBE: "How much are you wanting to buy?" Lauren: "How much do I need to buy?" They thought she might need to get a three-gallon container. But then the BBE remembered that they don't make three-gallon containers of the special flavors. Lauren: "So how can I get some?" BBE: "Well, let me check with my local delivery guy and see if he has any on his truck to deliver tomorrow." Somewhere in this process, Lauren got transferred to at least one other BBE and had to start over. Fortunately, all the BBEs were very friendly. Go, Blue Bell!
  4. Good news! The delivery guy had some CC ice cream scheduled to deliver to one of our grocery stores the next morning (Saturday morning). Hooray!
At that point, Lauren called me to tell me the Blue Bell story. Now, sleeping in on Saturday mornings is normally a BIG priority to both of us. But we were willing to forego sleep for the sake of guaranteeing that we'd find CC ice cream at the store before they sold out. Because by this point, we were committed. There was no way we'd get through the 2011 Christmas season without trying this ice cream! She then proceeded to call the store to ask A) what time they stock their shelves, and B) if they could set aside a carton for us so we could still sleep in. They were non-committal and less than helpful.

A couple hours later, my friend Jaron called: "I have a weird question. I saw several posts on your Facebook wall about this Christmas Cookies ice cream. Did you ever find any and, if so, where? Because I want to buy some, too." So I told him the story and let him in on the secret that Blue Bell was supposed to deliver more the next morning . . . but selfishly asked him not to tell too many people, lest the store sell out before Lauren and I could get there. But Jaron was planning to go grocery shopping right then, so oh well.

A little while later, Jaron calls again: "I'm at [the grocery store with the empty cartons on display] and I'm holding the last two cartons of Christmas Cookies ice cream. Do you want one of them?"

!!!

Of course! Yes! I'll give you my left arm in payment for it. We worked out logistics and hung up, and I could barely sit still from excitement! And when Jaron got through the checkout and pulled up beside my building, I practically skipped outside to get the ice cream from him. I might have also hugged the carton at least once. And, of course, I thanked Jaron profusely and declared him a rock star.

Dancing back into the building with the Holy Grail ice cream under my arm, I called Lauren, breathless, and exlaimed with dramatic pauses, "Lauren! I am holding . . . in my hands . . . a carton of Christmas Cookies ice cream!" Lauren: "What!? How did you get it?" I told her the tale and half-asked, half-declared, "What time do your guests come over tonight? Can I come over right now for us to eat some ice cream?" Fortunately it was the end of the work day so I could leave the office immediately, and there was enough time before her guests came over so we could eat ice cream.

And oh, what a delicious ice cream it was (is)! It's like eating a platter of cookies, complete with icing and sprinkles . . . in ice cream form! Strong work, Blue Bell. Without the whole saga, this flavor would probably be in my top ten; but with all the energy that went into this--and with all the emotional highs and lows along the way--Christmas Cookies ice cream is easily in my top five.

Epilogue:
On Saturday afternoon, I had to run some errands and buy some groceries, and I happened down the ice cream aisle. Lo and behold! There were two cartons of Blue Bell Christmas Cookies ice cream! So I picked up a carton for Lauren and a carton for another friend who had been looking for CC ice cream since I first found it before Thanksgiving.

Later that afternoon, a friend from church texted me: "They have lots of Christmas cookie blue bell at [grocery store]!"

On Sunday afternoon, while eating lunch with Lauren and two more friends, I got this text from a work friend: "Just bought you some BB Xmas cookie ice cream."

Lauren and I got a good laugh out of it and filled in the other two friends on the saga. Lydia responded, "Oh, I've seen tons of that ice cream all over the place!"

I guess when it rains, it pours.

And that is the story of the Blue Bell Christmas Cookies ice cream.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Privilege

Not too long ago I had a frustrating conversation with a colleague of mine. It started innocently enough with us mutually asserting that churches should be more inclusive of women in their services. Usually these conversations about women in the church fit into two categories:
  1. We fundamentally disagree on so much about what Scripture says about women, neither of us budges on our respective positions, and we both end up at least a little frustrated with each other.
  2. Or, we agree on basically every point, and rally together in hoping for a better situation in our churches.
I thought this conversation would be more like the second category, but somewhere in the middle of our discussion, it became more like Category 1. Which was strange because we agreed on the main point that women are created equal and, therefore, shouldn't be treated as inferior and limited to potlucks and the nursery . . . but we disagreed on several of the sub-points leading up to that ultimate conclusion.

Of all the things that frustrated me and caught me off guard in the conversation, I think the thing that got me most was his refusal to acknowledge his position of privilege as a male. Most of the men with whom I've talked extensively about gender freely admit that their maleness automatically gives them an advantage in myriad situations. Even if they don't fully grasp the extent of that privilege, they know it's there. (Or they fall squarely into Category 1 above and may know they're privileged but think that privilege is ordained by God.) This colleague, though, was willing to admit that--just maybe--he might be privileged, but he didn't really think he was.

For a while I pushed back, but eventually just stopped talking because we were going in circles and I didn't want to say something ugly. And I left the conversation exceedingly frustrated.

Upon reflection later, I got to wondering . . . in how many ways am I oblivious to the positions of privilege into which I was born or have earned? I'm not in poverty. I'm white. I have a good job with a consistent paycheck. I live in a country with a (comparatively) stable government. I have a college education. I have clean water and easy access to food. I have friends and family who love me unconditionally and will be there for me no matter what.

While I consciously know these privileges exist in my life, I know that I take them for granted, and they're definitely not in the forefront of my mind. And I don't feel the weight of my privileges in the same way I feel the weight of others' privileges that I don't share (maleness, greater wealth, a more important-sounding job title, etc.). 

I wonder how many times I've unthinkingly opened my mouth and hurt someone who doesn't share these privileges that I take for granted. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sausage- and apple-stuffed acorn squash

My mom came to visit for a few days, which was delightful! And since that meant cooking for two instead of one, it was the perfect opportunity to make this recipe I'd been admiring for a few weeks. The recipe was for four servings, so we scaled it down to two but rounded up on most of the stuffing ingredients. The only other changes we made to the original recipe were cutting out the panko crumbs and using ground turkey sausage instead of turkey sausage in casings. 

I normally don't even like sausage, but this dish was good! The sausage served as an excellent complement to the creamy acorn squash and sweet apples. And, while it looks really fancy, it's actually pretty easy to make. It's a little time-consuming, but most of the prep time is spent baking (so less hands-on time). I would gladly make this dish again!

Without further ado, here is the recipe, adapted slightly from Nicole's recipe at preventionrd.com. For those of you interested in nutrition information, she includes it with every recipe.



Sausage- and Apple-Stuffed Acorn Squash

1 large acorn squash, halved and seeded
1 Tbsp butter, melted
1 clove of garlic, pressed
1/4 tsp ground sage, divided
1/2 lb. ground turkey sausage
1/4 to 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 celery rib, finely chopped
3 oz mushrooms, chopped
1/2 to 3/4 apple, cored and chopped (we used Gala)
2 generous Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
1 small or medium egg, beaten (or beat a large egg and don’t pour all of it in)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the melted butter, garlic, and 1/8 tsp sage. Brush the inside and outside of each squash with the butter mix. Place the squash on a cookie sheet, cut side up, and roast for 50-60 minutes, or until fork tender. (Mom started ours cut side down in an inch or so of water; we took out out after about 25 minutes, brushed with the butter mixture, turned cut side up, and returned to the oven for a little longer. This method meant the squash cooked faster and was more tender and less crispy.)

In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the sausage. When the sausage is browned, remove it from the pan and place on a paper towel lined plate, set aside. To the skillet add the onions, celery, and mushrooms and cook for 3 minutes. Add the apples and cook for another 2 minutes.

Return the sausage to the skillet then remove from heat. Season with 1/8 tsp sage, salt, and pepper. Stir in the Parmesan and egg.

Divide the stuffing evenly among the two squash halves. Return to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.

Yield: 2 servings.

Acorn squash - cooked, and ready to fill 
The bottom left corner is blurry partly because of the focus setting,
but mostly because the lens was starting to steam up.

All gone!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Roasted sweet potato and pear

While grocery shopping the other day, I was captivated by the pears and had an uncontrollable urge to buy one and invent a recipe to go with it. Sweet potato seemed like a good complement to the pear, so I bought one of those, too, while visions of fall goodness danced in my head.

The result last night was good . . . but not awesome as I had hoped. But I have some ideas for how to improve it next time, so I’ll keep all two of you readers posted. J

My first mistake was roasting the sweet potato for too long. My Google searches led me to believe that sweet potatoes take much longer to roast than pears, so I gave them a 20-minute head start, and they were completely done at the end of those 20 minutes! So I’ve adjusted the instructions below to reflect a more reasonable cooking time.



Roasted Sweet Potato and Pear

1 small sweet potato
1 pear (I used Anjou)
Olive oil
Sprinkling of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger
Craisins (a small handful)
1-2 Tbsp. pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 350; line a baking sheet with foil and spray with olive oil spray. Wash sweet potato and cut into cubes. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with spices; toss to coat. Pour onto prepared baking sheet and pop into the oven to give the sweet potato about a five-minute head start.

Meanwhile, wash, core, and cube the pear, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with spices, and toss to coat. When the potato’s head start is up, add the pear cubes to the baking sheet and return to the oven for 10 minutes. It occurred to me halfway through making this that I could bake the sweet potato and pear in the same Pyrex bowl I used to toss them in the flavorings.

Meanwhile, put the Craisins into a small bowl with a little bit of water, and let them soak while the sweet potatoes and pears roast. When the timer goes off, add the Craisins (without excess water) and pecans to pan/bowl, and roast for an additional 5 minutes. Check for doneness, and enjoy!

Yield: 1-2 servings. The only other part of my dinner last night was some Greek yogurt that I ate for protein while this cooked, so I ate all of it. If it’s a side, it could easily serve two people.

Result and ideas for next time: This dish was definitely missing something. It was a little dry, and the flavor profile wasn't quite as complex enough for my liking. (Look at me, using a fancy term like "flavor profile." Can you tell I've been watching Food Network shows?) I think I will try one or more of the following adjustments next time:

  • Use a little bit of butter instead of all olive oil.
  • Sprinkle some cheese on at the end when I add the Craisins and pecans. I’m thinking Gouda or Parmesan . . . maybe Swiss.
  • Add some red onions.
  • As I’m typing out this blog post, it occurs to me that this could be awesome with the sauce from the Balsamic Roasted Pumpkin and Friends I made a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine balsamic vinegar and orange juice NOT tasting incredible with the pears and Craisins, and the added liquid would solve the dryness problem without dumping on too much oil. Hmm . . . this may be the winning idea. Now I can’t wait to try it!



Saturday, October 29, 2011

Balsamic roasted pumpkin and friends

The fall cooking bug has bitten me. Not just a quick little nibble. No, it’s latched on with iron jaws and will not. Let. Go. Not that I’m really trying to get rid of it, mind you! I spent significant portions of last weekend browsing pumpkin and squash recipes, preparation tips, recipes, articles, and recipes . . . and just drooling and wishing I could make every single one of those recipes.


Side note: Did you know that WebMD has a whole section oncooking? I didn’t! But they do, and it’s great! They have all sorts of articles on things like how to cook healthfully for one or two, how to incorporate convenience foods in a healthy way, how to make healthy changes to recipes you already use, etc. If you’re interested in eating healthy foods, I would highly recommend it.

Anyway . . . needless to say, there are a whole lot of new recipes on my “must try” list, and it will take me awhile to work through them all! Tonight I made Balsamic Roasted Pumpkin and Friends. Even before my weekend of pumpkin recipe searches, I had wanted to roast some fall/winter vegetables. I had already picked up a sugar pumpkin, acorn squash, and sweet potato, and then I came across this recipe. So I used her sauce on my veggies, and the result was phenomenal! The smell alone was enough to drive me a little crazy because it smelled so good! And that first bite was unbelievable! I think heaven is going to taste pretty awesome, and I think that roasted winter squash is going to be among its flavors. Holy cow. Okay, here’s the recipe!



Balsamic Roasted Pumpkin and Friends

Ingredients:
1 sugar pumpkin (the small kind)
1 acorn squash
1 sweet potato, unpeeled and washed
1 yellow onion, cut into wedges
8-12 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Paprika
Salt
Juice of 1 orange

I eyeballed the sauce ingredients. Probably used about 2-3 Tbsp. each of the oil and vinegar, and just kinda sprinkled in the salt and paprika. I also learned from WebMD that pumpkin and sweet potato are denser than acorn squash and, therefore, generally take longer to roast. So I cut my acorn squash into larger chunks than the pumpkin and sweet potato, so they’d all cook pretty evenly.

Directions:
Peel the pumpkin and acorn squash, if desired. I recently learned that acorn squash skin is edible—and actually has lots of nutrients—so I didn’t bother peeling mine since acorn squash can be tricky to peel. Cut squash and pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds and stringy fibers. Cube the pumpkin, squash, and sweet potato. Cut up the onion and garlic and dump into a bowl with the other veggies, preferably one with a lid. I did all the above steps the night before and refrigerated overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a couple 9” x 13” pans with foil and spray with cooking spray.

Whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, paprika, salt, and orange juice. Pour over veggies and toss to coat (or put on the lid and shake). Add more salt, paprika, or olive oil if you feel the veggies need it. The goal is to have enough sauce and spices to add a nice flavor to the veggies and keep them moist while roasting, without overwhelming them or making the dish high in fat or sodium. Pour into prepared pans and bake until the veggies are tender, about 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through.

Yield: 4-6 generous servings.

Verdict and variations: This would be awesome with some pecans sprinkled on near the end of the baking time, though it tastes divine as is. And really, you could use just about any combination of winter squash that roast well. In this dish, my slight favorite was probably the acorn squash.

I ate it with these Easy Turkey and Parmesan Meatballs from Real Simple and some embellished store-bought marinara sauce (I think I added my own garlic, onion, mushrooms, and dried Italian herbs), both of which I made over the weekend. The only things I changed in the meatball recipe were to use half-and-half instead of whole milk, and to use crushed rosemary and olive oil Triscuits instead of breadcrumbs. Oh, and I used a smaller scooper than Real Simple does. I’ve never been a huge fan of meatballs, but these are really good—and fairly healthy! I’m not positive that the combination on my plate was an excellent one, but the meatballs and marinara were delicious, and the pumpkin and friends were even more so! So I ended up a very happy camper!

All ready to roast!


Ready to eat!


Mmmmm!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Apple pumpkin muffins

As you know, I recently returned from a trip to New Zealand to visit my brother and some friends. While we did cook several times while there, it was more in the style of “let’s create something out of the ingredients we have on hand” rather than the style of “let’s scour the internet for fabulous recipes and make one or combine several recipes into one masterpiece.” And in recent years, the latter style has become my preferred style.

So when I got back from New Zealand—and back into the hemisphere where it was fall instead of spring—I just had to make something delightfully fallish. Partly because I wanted to scour the internet for mouth-watering recipes, partly because I wanted something enjoyable (i.e., baking) mixed in with my day of unenjoyable laundry and unpacking, and partly because I wanted to make a little something to share with my coworkers (especially my student workers!) for holding down the fort while I was gone. And so, I settled on these Apple Pumpkin Muffins from allrecipes.com.

I didn’t change as much as I often do, but I did cut the oil, decrease the sugar, and use part whole wheat flour to make it a little healthier. The original recipe was for 18, I increased it to 24, and actually got 30 muffins out of the batch. Also, since I took several hundred pictures in New Zealand, I was a little pictured out, so didn’t take any photos of these little autumn muffins. Next time!

Apple Pumpkin Muffins

Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/3 whole wheat flour
1-1/3 cup sugar
4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1-1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
1-3/4 eggs (I accomplished this by cracking two eggs into a measuring cup and scooping out a couple teaspoons of the whites)
1-1/3 cups pumpkin puree
2/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
2-2/3 cups finely chopped peeled apples (I used a little less than two largeish jonagold apples)

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray muffin pans (or use paper liners). I waffle back and forth in my preference. Liners are definitely tidier, whereas the spray can leave tacky residue on the pans. But sometimes liners peel off the muffin easily when it’s time to chow down, so you end up losing half your muffin.

In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients. In another bowl, combine the wet ingredients (through and including the applesauce). Make a well in the dry ingredients; add the wet ingredients and stir until just moistened. Fold in apples. Scoop batter into muffin tins, filling about 1/2 to 2/3 full.

Bake for 20 minutes, check for doneness, and cook longer if needed. Remove to wire racks to cool.

Yield: 30 muffins

Calories: Approximately 97 calories per muffin.

Verdict: Yummy and healthy! The pumpkin-apple combination is just hard to beat, especially when going for fallish flavors. I didn’t think they tasted like health food (though maybe I just like the taste and texture of healthy foods!), but at 97 calories, I could eat them without feeling guilty. They were perfect for breakfast . . . and mid-morning snack . . . and mid-afternoon snack . :) Everyone who ate one liked it (except for that one friend who doesn’t like pumpkin but tried really hard to like these). I will keep this recipe for future autumn baking needs.

Changes to make next time: I don’t feel these muffins need any changes to improve them, as I thought they were great as-is (technically, should that be “as-are”?). Chopping the apples so finely did take quite a bit of time, so I might grate the apples next time for the sake of making prep go more quickly. These would also be good with some pecans and/or walnuts folded in with the apples. Craisins would also be yummy—just be sure to cut back on the sugar measurement since crasins will add a lot of sweetness.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Zealand trip, days 14, 15, and 15 again: Hamilton and home

Friday, October 14

Last night we said goodbye to our Wellington roommates--Fabio and Nick were the only two left from that first night in the hostel. This morning we caught an early-morning bus from Wellington to Hamilton, and the day was mostly spent driving. It's worth noting that our first bus was a double-decker. Yes, we sat on the second story.

The point of going to Hamilton was to spend the night near Auckland without being in Auckland because of all the Rugby World Cuppers there for the final few games. We have heard that Hamilton is a good place to live, but there's not much to do there. We arrived late afternoon and, after checking in to the hostel, the only thing we did was walk down to a lake which was maybe a mile away. Then we made dinner, I rearranged the contents of my luggage and carryons, and we're going to bed early because my bus to Auckland tomorrow leaves at 5:45 a.m.
The lake in Hamilton

Saturday, October 15, Take 1

This morning we got up an an ungodly hour, tried really hard not to disturb our sleeping roommate, and walked to the bus station with all our luggage in tow. Normally, 5:45 a.m. is not my friend. Today, though, it was at least better than 4:55 a.m., which is when we initially thought my bus was leaving. There was no point in Josh paying for a bus fare to Auckland, only to immediately turn around and go right back the way we came, all the way to New Plymouth. So we said goodbye in Hamilton; I got on the bus, and he hitchhiked back to New Plymouth. 

Most of the people on the bus had been on it all night, so they were mostly asleep or highly groggy when I boarded. Sleeping on buses is impossible for me, so I stayed awake and soaked up the last few hours of New Zealand scenery. 

The bus went to Manukau Centre where I did not go inside again with all my luggage again, but instead caught the first bus to the Auckland airport international terminal. The Qantas desk wasn't open quite yet, so I killed time for an hour before checking in and proceeding to security. Then I still had a few hours until the gate opened for my flight to Los Angeles. Fortunately, Auckland airport has an awesome passengers' lounge with comfy chairs and plenty of electrical outlets. There's also a large, lighted sculpture in the middle of the lounge, and the color of the light gradually changes, and it plays nature sounds. How cool is that?

On the screen that shows each departing flight's status, they have little directions out to the side for the passengers. For a long time it just said "Relax" next to mine since boarding time wasn't for a while. Closer to time, it changed to something like, "Gate opens in 50 minutes," and later, "Go to gate." Quite helpful!

Another thing I like about Qantas is the way they board. First they allowed families with children and anyone needing special assistance. Then the first class and other important people. Then they started boarding from the back of the plane and worked their way up. That makes infinitely more sense to me and is so much more efficient than loading the front first and moving back!

On a large plane, you know how you have the two sets of seats along the window, with another row of four or five seats in between? Well, I was in the middle section . . . all by myself! So I could stretch out and even lie down. I took a 30-45-minute nap, had a snack, then slept for another four hours straight, which is unheard of for me on planes!

Sulley with the paddle Qantas gave us for stirring tea/coffee.


Saturday, October 15, Encore

Saturday was so cool that I decided to do it again, this time starting the day in Los Angeles instead of Hamilton. One perk of the return trip is that the flights got progressively shorter. First, because the winds were in our favor, so each of the longer flights was shorter (LAX to AUK was around 13 hours; AUK to LAX was more like 9 or 10). And second, because the longest one was first, the second one was only a couple hours, and the third was under an hour.

I would like to point out that I've been in large airports where the primary language was not English, that were significantly easier to navigate than LAX. Some signage and friendlier staff would be helpful. Just sayin' . . .

Since I was back in a hemisphere where it was autumn instead of spring, I had to get a pumpkin spice latte from a Starbucks in the airport. It was tasty and delightfully fallish!

While boarding flight #3, I ran into a friend from home, so we got to catch up for a few minutes while walking down the jetway. Apparently we were also at LAX at the same time but didn't know it. Also, they did give us drinks this time on this flight, which was nice. Then we landed, all my luggage landed with us, a friend picked me up from the airport, and I got to go home. 

And that concludes my adventures in New Zealand. Can I go back?

New Zealand trip, day 13: Middle Earth

Thursday, October 13

Before coming on this trip, my main objectives were to spend time with Josh and Team Cat Biscuit, to bask in the beauty that is New Zealand, and to do something Lord of the Rings-ish. The Shire set is currently closed to visitors (because they're filming The Hobbit there right now!), so a LOTR bus tour in and around Wellington sounded like the next best thing. We looked over pamphlets from a couple different companies, and Asia, the friendly young woman at the hostel travel desk, recommended Wellington Movie Tours, which is owned and run by a guy named Ted. We took her word for it, plunked down some money, and signed up for a four-hour tour that included stops at a handful of locations where LOTR scenes were shot. Asia did not lead us astray. The tour was excellent!

Ted took us to a number of locations that appear (or sort of appear once all the green screens and set pieces have done their jobs) in the films. While driving from one location to the next, Ted shared fun movie facts and cast/crew anecdotes, and showed movie clips corresponding to locations we had just seen or were about to see. He has a brother who works at Weta, so he had some inside scoops that you can't necessarily get by watching the DVD special features. And at each location, Ted was really good about explaining what exactly we were seeing ("Here's a picture of Frodo and Sam walking through Hobbiton woods. See that bend in the path? That's right over there. That twig off to the side if the screen shot...that's this twig right here") and also helping us line up our own camera shots ("Stand right here, camera pointed that way, and make sure you get the hill, the stump, and the twig in your shot").

Due to a slight misunderstanding, Ted thought we had booked the full day, rather than the half day, tour, so he didn't drop us off after four hours, and we didn't realize what was happening until we were well on our way to the next stop. But, although we initially hadn't wanted to invest in the full day tour, we're both really glad we ended up on it. The second half was, by far, my favorite half--well worth the extra money!

After we had visited each location, which I'll list below, we stopped at the Weta Cave where they have a number of display pieces (Gollum sculpture, Sauron's suit of armor, etc.), a lot if purchasable merchandise, and a video about some of Weta's projects over the years. Then we drove past Peter Jackson's studios where they filmed significant portions of LOTR and are filming The Hobbit right now. In fact, we drove down this one road in the studio complex, and we had to stop the bus because they were doing a take on the other side of the wall and needed quiet on the set. Once they finished the take and communicated to the traffic director that he could let traffic go again, I peered over the wall as we drove past, but all I saw was the back of someone's white ball cap.

Then Ted dropped us off at various convenient points around the city, and that was that. All in all, an excellent day! We had a small enough tour group (15) that we got to know some people and, as a group, developed some ongoing jokes throughout the day.

Oh, and after that, we tried again at Flying Burrito Brothers for Josh's belated birthday dinner, and this time were successful. The food was excellent, the atmosphere was elegantly grungy, and Josh got Argentine travel tips from our waiter.

Now, for the LOTR scene locations we saw:
  • Helms Deep / Minas Tirith – First we went to Dry Creek Quarry where they built the set for Helms Deep, then Minas Tirith. Since the set is long gone, it basically just looked like some mountains and hills. Fun fact: during filming, the LOTR films weren't a big deal to most Kiwis, so even while these massive HD and MT sets were hanging out on the side of the road, the general attitude was, “There’s a castle by the side of the road. Weird.” People weren't really interested until filming was done, the sets were all gone, and Fellowship was released in theaters.
  • Isengard – Next we went to Courtland Park, where several little snippets were shot: Gandalf riding up to the tower; Gandalf and Saruman walking through the garden discussing the ring; and the Uruk Hai starting to tear down the trees. Fun fact: they installed a path for Gandalf to ride along. When filming was finished, they wanted to put the grass back but someone wanted there to be some trace of where the path had been. So they planted a slightly different kind of grass, so the path is subtle but noticeable if you look closely.
  • Aragorn Washed Ashore – When Aragorn falls off the cliff (on the South Island) and floats down the river (also on the South Island, I believe), he magically washes ashore outside Wellington, where his horse picks him up. Here's a not great photo. The river was flooded, so we couldn’t see the actual shore where the scene happened, but we could see the rock wall on the opposite bank. Fun fact: The river he floats down flows the opposite direction as the river where he washes ashore.
  • Rivendell – We stopped for a lunch of Subway sandwiches at Rivendell. Of all the locations, this is my favorite in the movie, but to be honest, it’s really unimpressive in person—because the beauty of Rivendell relies heavily on all the CG and sets. BUT Ted was awesome and brought a Legolas costume and bow, so we could all take Legolas pictures! While our group was at Rivendell, there was another tour group there, and they did not get to take Legolas pictures. Evidence that Ted's tour was far superior to whatever company those other people used! There was also a fun swing bridge that had nothing to do with the movie but was exciting to walk on. Fun fact: Some of the trees in the park were in the way, so they had a green team who took detailed pictures of where exactly each tree was. Then they uprooted the problem trees, moved them to a nearby greenhouse that they set up, kept them alive during set-building and filming, and replanted them in their exact spots after the set was gone.
Where the Council is standing in Ted's picture is where we were standing.
  • Dunharrow Plateau – We visited the place where they filmed the smaller version of Dunharrow (where they gather armies together in Return of the King to prepare for the massive battle near the end; there was also a larger version of the camp, and I think that was on the South Island somewhere). In this picture, the men are actually standing on a ledge overlooking Wellington, but they used green screens to cover up Wellington. This area also shows up in Fellowship when the hobbits are camping at Weathertop and look over the ledge to see the Black Riders approaching.
  • Hobbiton Woods – This location was a clear favorite for me. Largely because the real location actually looks like what’s in the movie and actually appears in the movie for longer than a few seconds. Also, we had a lot of fun photo ops that Ted directed. 
    • First we recreated Frodo’s Tree, where Frodo is chillin’ in the tree and Sam is cooking. 
    • Next we recreated Shortcut to the Mushrooms, where the hobbits fall down the hill and wind up in a heap at the bottom. This was the most fun shot and involved Josh laying on the ground, me laying across him on my tummy, another girl laying/sitting on the ground with her legs over us (holding a broken carrot), and another guy with his legs intertwined with the rest of the mess. 
    • Third, we did Hobbit’s Hideaway—which happens when Frodo senses something bad is coming for them and yells, “Get off the road!” Then they hop over a (fake) tree into a little cubby. Ted recruited the four of us from the falling scene, and was very specific in his instructions on how we should pose—“Frodo, you’re holding the ring like this; Merry, you’re confused about the ring; Sam, you’re yelling, ‘Nooooo,” and reaching across Merry to keep Frodo from putting the ring on; Pippin, you have this plastic bug crawling on you, and you’re freaking out.” 
    • Finally, we went to an area in the Race to the Ferry scene. There’s a shot where one of the hobbits looks up the path and sees the Black Rider and horse. Ted’s intro went something like this: “So if you stand here and look up, those two trees up there frame the shot. Now, I bet you want a horse in your shot, huh? I need three volunteers!” Josh, the other hobbit girl, and I remained faithful to the duty of posing for everyone’s pictures, so we volunteered to be the horse. I was the head and front leg; she was the rider, horse torso, and other front leg; and Josh was the back half of the horse. I was skeptical about how much we would actually resemble a horse and rider, but we really did! See?
We're the horse and rider!
  • Weta and Studios – Next we visited the Weta Cave, then drove by the studios and some of the actors’ housing. A tree outside one of the Weta workshops was used for a mold to create Treebeard’s bark. Ted told us that was as close as we’d get to Treebeard. We also stopped at a scenic shoreline, mostly because it was pretty, but also because it loosely tied in to the films. The texture from the jagged rocks, pitted from years of salt water erosion, were used to help create the rocks in Shelob’s lair, pitted from Shelob’s venom. Fun fact: Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) injured himself while learning how to surf (we drove past the bay where it happened), so until his face healed, they had to shoot only the unswollen side of his face.
And that was that.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New Zealand trip, day 12: A squid, the haka, and some amazing pizza

Wednesday, October 12

The room smelled manly when I woke up this morning, as England, Wales, and Italy got themselves ready for the day. Ireland was still in bed when Josh and I went downstairs to make ginger apricot porridge for breakfast. (Side note: oatmeal is so much more exciting when you call it porrige.)

Today was our "walk around Wellington and mooch free things off the city" day, and we've got a Lord of the Rings bus tour (!) booked for tomorrow. First mooch stop: the library for free WiFi. After our 30 minutes were up and it kicked off our IP addresses, we continued to our second mooch stop--Te Papa (means Our Place) Museum which advertised free admission. Neither of us are big museum people, but they advertised some interesting exhibits about the Maori culture, including a chance to learn the haka, a traditional Maori war dance that has become iconic to Kiwis (for instance, the NZ rugby team does the haka on the field before games).

Te Papa is a good museum. Very kid-friendly and ADHD-friendly, and still interesting to those of us who aren't kids and don't have attention deficiencies. To be honest, I was a little disoriented at first because there wasn't a clear, predetermined, right path to go through the museum. :) Some highlights of Te Papa:
* Colossal squid - this thing was massive and creepy-looking. They found it a few years ago near Antarctica and managed to freeze, transport, thaw, study, and preserve it here on display at Te Papa. I don't remember the exact specs, but this thing was at least 8 feet long, and the blurbs said that its eyes were the size of soccer balls.
* Learning the haka - they allowed only six people in at a time, so we had to book our free tickets a couple hours in advance. They directed us to walk in and stand on a circle in the carpet, facing a giant screen, and we could see a silhouette of ourselves on the screen. We also each had a life-sized (pre-recorded) person projected on the screen in the spots that each of our silhouettes was. So a video of a woman was projected on the screen, overlapping with my own silhouette--so it was easier to mirror her movements. A Maori man on the screen walked us through how to do each move individually, then we had a practice run-through of the haka, then we did it for real. "For real" meaning we did it again with our silhouette guides. Then, after we exited the room, we could watch a video recording of what we actually looked like. As with all dancing I've ever tried to do, it did not come naturally to me, and I looked really robotic. But it was a lot of fun!
* Earthquake simulation room - they had a lot of exhibits about various forms of natural disasters--earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, water, etc. There was a room set up to simulate a level 5 aftershock while watching footage from a much stronger earthquake that happened years ago.
* Free WiFi - about halfway through our museum wanderings, we discovered free WiFi in the building. So we spent a considerable amount of time camped out with our electronic devices going.

After we had milked Te Papa for all its worth, we set out in search of food. Parents had asked me to take Josh out for a belated birthday dinner while here, so we were on the lookout for a birthday-worthy restaurant. First we tried the Hippopotamus Restaurant, but their food was pricey and sounded too fancy for our palates. Then we went by Flying Burrito Brothers, but they weren't open for dinner yet (we skipped lunch so wanted an early dinner). We looked for Fidel's, which The Lonely Planet recommended, but didn't see it. So we decided to postpone the birthday dinner for tomorrow and go to Hell Pizza tonight. HP is a widespread New Zealand pizza chain, and woman was that pizza good! We got two pizzas: the first had peanut satay, sweet chili, chicken, capsicum (green peppers), and onion; the second had apricot sauce, chicken, pine nuts, spring onions, cream cheese, and rosemary.

Because the clouds looked mischievous, we headed back to the hostel rather than walk around more. Fabio told us about the apartment he looked at today; Josh, Harry, and I swapped stories about the colossal squid and haka class, and told Nick and Fabio they needed to go to Te Papa to see the squid; Harry and Nick reminisced about UK television shows from back home; we all shared stories of all the places we've travelled. I'm really enjoying hostel life! It's cool to form community with complete strangers who will never see each other again.

New Zealand trip, day 11: All's well in Wellington

Tuesday, October 11

I wonder what cows think about--or if they think about anything. I've been pondering cows' behavior a lot lately since we've been taking road trips through plenty of pastures for sheep and cows alike. Like today on the bus ride to Wellington.

We woke up early and, since it was raining and the house is two miles from the bus station, we called a cab. A chipper cabbie named Bobsta picked us up and took us to the City Centre (downtown) where we purchased our bus tickets and hopped on the bus. It was about a seven-hour bus ride, and I spent most of the ride reading Grisham's A Time to Kill and periodically took breaks to watch the cow pastures go by.

We arrived in Wellington mid-afternoon, walked a couple minutes to our hostel, and were enthusiastically greeted by our new roommate, Fabio from Milan. If I remember correctly, he's here for a year for school--his university in Milan partners with a university here in Wellington--and he's staying in the hostel until he can find an apartment.

After Fabio excused himself to visit an Internet cafe, Josh and I went down the the lobby to read through Wellington attractions pamphlets and nail down our plans for the next couple days. Then we went out walking on the waterfront, coupled with a search for a grocery store. Architecture in Wellington is incredibly diverse. I don't know all the technical terms to describe it well, so just take my word for it that it's diverse. :)

We came back, made dinner with our newly-acquired groceries in the massive communal kitchen, discussed theology, and went upstairs to our room. Fabio was there, and was just as full of energy as our first encounter. He and Josh headed downstairs to the hangout room while I stayed upstairs to brush my teeth and read more Grisham. Somewhere in there I met Harry, another roommate from Ireland, who has been traveling in Australia, NZ South Island, and is now working his way up through the North Island. Harry left, and in came Nick from South Wales. He's here in New Zealand working with earthquake aftermath. While Nick and I were talking, our sixth and final roommate popped in and back out. He's from England, but that's about all I know about him right now. It's interesting to meet such a diverse group of people and suddenly be their roommate for a few days. This should be interesting. I'm excited about the new experience!

Monday, October 10, 2011

New Zealand trip, day 10: Change of plans and a lazy day

Monday, October 10

One of the biggest lessons I learned while in youth ministry is to remain flexible at all times.

Last night, Josh and I plotted the rest of our time together in New Zealand. We decided we'd hop on a bus first thing this morning and spend a couple days in Wellington. Then we'd hop on another bus and finish up the trip with a couple days in Whangarei (about 2 hours north of Auckland) so I could make it to the airport on time for my 2:00-something flight on Saturday afternoon. We did last-minute laundry, packed, perused The Lonely Planet for activities in Wellington and Whangarei, said goodbye to flatmates, and went to bed.

This morning I rolled out of bed, finished packing, and headed out to the kitchen to grab a quick breakfast, only to be met by Josh who greeted me with, "Okay, we need to change our plans." Due to bus route funkiness, Whangarei is not going to be a good option after all. The bus ride from Wellington to Whangarei is a beast (option A is a 15-hour all-night ride, and option B is a two-day trip with an overnight somewhere between Wellington and Whangarei). Also, the earliest bus from Whangarei to the Auckland airport on Saturday is a little too tight for comfort. So we're nixing Whangarei altogether (disappointing, since there are a lot of good-sounding, low-budget activities there) and are going to just do Wellington, with a Friday night in Hamilton and a Saturday morning bus to Auckland.

So the choices this morning were these: 1) spend an extra day here in New Plymouth and go to Wellington tomorrow, which would give us half of Tuesday and all of Wednesday and Thursday in Wellington; or 2) get on the bus this morning to Wellington, and have half of today plus all of Tuesday through Thursday in Wellington. And since I'm the visitor, Josh put the decision on me. For a number of reasons, I chose to stick around New Plymouth today and head to Wellington tomorrow.

So today has been gloriously laid-back and agenda-less! I threw some pictures on Facebook while internet usage was still unlimited, then crawled back in bed. When I got up the second time, I leisurely went through the rest of my pictures from days six through nine (so they're ready to upload the next time I have access to unrestricted internet), puttered around on Facebook, made another loaf of beer bread with Josh, caught up on email, revived dormant Words with Friends games, had a couple cups of hot tea . . . it's been a good day!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

New Zealand trip, day 9: Surf Highway with the Germans

Sunday, October 9

Julia works with a couple girls from Germany who wanted to do a day trip and invited Julia and two of her flatmates to join them. (Side note: I think the term "flatmates" makes so much more sense than "roommates." Unless you actually share a room with your roommates, they're really housemates or apartmentmates . . . a.k.a., flatmates. Why do we just use the term "roommates" in the States?) And Julia picked Josh and me to go with her!
                                          
Caroline and Stefanie bought a car here, so they have a little more freedom when it comes to travelling. They were excited about driving down Surf Highway 45, and we were just along for the ride, so we were cool with whatever. The Surf Highway stretches for 105 km (65 miles) south of New Plymouth, around a bump in the coastline created by Mt. Taranaki (map). Contrary to what the name might suggest, it actually winds through farmlands much more than it trails along the coast. But there are frequent brown signs that say something like "Surf Beach" or "Scenic Lookout" and point toward the coast. So our basic mode of operation was to drive along through the farmlands until we saw a brown sign, then follow the brown sign, get out and walk around the beach, then pile back into the car and hop back on the highway. It was a lot of fun! We took jumping pictures on one beach, picnicked on another, played Frisbee on yet another, and took pictures on/of all of them. At the place labeled "Scenic Lookout," we could look down and see waves coming in from multiple directions and colliding with each other. As in, waves from one direction would be perpendicular to waves from another direction. It looked bizarre but really cool!

On the way home, we took an alternate route around the other side of Mt. Taranaki. Then we filled up the tank, settled up on petrol (that's what they call gas here) money, and the Germans dropped us off at the house. We've spent the evening eating and chilling with the flatmates, and we've got a load of laundry going so we can pack up and head out of New Plymouth tomorrow morning.

New Zealand trip, days 7 and 8: New Plymouth

Friday, October 7

Today we just hung out in New Plymouth, did laundry, processed pictures from the trip, etc. I took over 450 pictures on the trip to the Bay of Plenty, so just touching them up and slapping a border on them in Photoshop is taking a long time!
                       
At some point in the afternoon, Josh and I set out for a walking tour of New Plymouth. It's what we had planned to do on Monday before leaving for the Bay of Plenty, but the rain encouraged us to make bread instead. New Plymouth is a cute little town on the coast. And it has some gorgeous parks. About halfway to town, we ran into Julia who was coming home from work, so she joined us for the rest of the outing. When we got into town, we walked up and down Devon Street--most of the shops and things are on Devon Street, and I read somewhere that Devon Street is the longest main street in the North Island (possibly all of NZ--I don't remember). Along the way, we stopped in a bakery because Julia was hungry, and I got a bottled lemon, lime and bitters. Growing up, we used to have these drinks semi-regularly, but I had never seen or drunk the bottled version. It was okay--reminiscent of the LL&B we drank in PNG (or made at home in the States), but kinda just tasted like Sprite.

We took the long way back to the house and went through a substantial park. If my home city was half as pretty as New Plymouth, I think I would be much healthier because I would want to walk around outside a LOT. Highlights of the park:
The magical waterfall starting to flow again
after I pushed the button.
  • The Fernery - Basically a large greenhouse with every kind of NZ fern and flower imaginable. There were multiple levels (maybe only two, but it felt like more), lots of rooms, and fountains with dry ice smoke. Extremely serene and lush. Because the floor was covered in wood chips, it smelled a little bit like we were in a huge (clean) hamster cage. I went a little crazy with picture-taking.
  • The Waterfall - When we approached the waterfall, there was water falling from it . . . because that's what waterfalls do. Then a nice man came up and talked with us for a few minutes. Then Josh pointed out that there was less and less water coming down the waterfall. The fall is obviously human-made, so I just assumed they only had the water on during certain times of the day, and it was late enough in the day that it was time to turn it off. It seemed weird, but whatever. But no! It's not just on until a certain time of day. There's a button. A magical button. And when you push it, the waterfall turns back on! It's kind of amazing, really. I mean, where besides New Plymouth could you have the power to turn on a waterfall?

Our evening was pretty relaxed. We made pasta and roasted veggies for dinner and watched a few episodes of Community, which I had never seen but am a little hooked on now.


Saturday, October 8

Today was another low-key day. Julia and I walked in to town to go to the farmer's market that they have every Saturday. We met up with Josh who came from teaching an RPM class, and shopped together for fruits, veggies, eggs, and pita bread. People in New Zealand don't refrigerate their eggs. It's kinda weird, but obviously okay. Then we walked back to the house.

It's interesting to see reactions to rain in various locations. Back home, if it even so much as sprinkles, people break out their umbrellas and sprint from point A to point B, so as not to mess up their hair or get wet. Here, you just kinda deal with it. When it rained on us on the way to the farmer's market, Julia and I did pull out my umbrella because it was raining medium hard. But when we got a light rain on the way back, none of us even bothered getting out our rain gear. It just wasn't a big deal.

Next, Josh and I rode "our" (his and Julia's) bikes up the Coastal Walkway. It's been five years since the last time I rode a bike, so it was a little unnerving to hop back on one and promptly ride through town--on the streets--up hills--to get to the walkway. The Coastal Walkway is exactly what it sounds like it would be. It's a 10 km-long walkway winding up the coast of/near New Plymouth. We passed walkers, skateboarders, parents pushing strollers, children on tricycles, and fellow cyclists. Toward the beginning, it rained on us, but we pressed on and rode all the way to the end and back. And about a third of the way into the excursion, the sun came back out to play. As with everything else we've done here, the view was stunning. Toward the beginning, the sky was gray and the sea bluish-gray and rocky. When the sun came back out, the sky got a little bluer, and the sea a little sparklier. By the end of the ride, my legs were dying but, like everything else we've done, the experience was totally worth the physical discomfort.




In the evening, all the roomies went into town to watch the Irish/Wales game (Rugby World Cup) while I stayed home and enjoyed having the house to myself. There's a takeaway place just around the corner from the Cat Biscuit house, and rumor has it that their fish and chips are the best in town. How convenient! So I called in my order, hobbled down to the corner, and picked up my first ever fish and chips. I also got a crab stick because it sounded interesting. The meal was excellent and included so much food that I couldn't finish it all.

Next week, Josh and I are going to travel some more around the North Island, ending up in Auckland for my return flight on Saturday. So I spent part of the evening looking for Lord of the Rings locations we could potentially visit. What I was most excited about was visiting Hobbiton since they still have much of the set and props set up. But the tour of the set is closed until some time in November, so it's not worth going there just to look at the active sheep farm and go to the Shires Cafe. At this point, it looks like we'll spend some time in Wellington (there are a number of LOTRish things there, and it's the capital so should be cool), then go up north to the area north of Auckland (Josh has heard it's really pretty up there). From my Googling this evening, I discovered that the mountains we saw from Taupo included Mt. Ngauruhoe which starred as Mt. Doom in LOTR. Who knew!?

And that's it for days 7 and 8. I have a lot of pictures from days 6-8 (including video of the boiling mud), but internet restrictions make 2:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. the prime time to upload pictures, and that just hasn't worked well for me. So stay tuned. Pictures will be coming eventually!

New Zealand trip, day 6: Elusive penguins, non-elusive blueberries, boiling mud, and home

Thursday, October 6

Today was the last day of our trip to the Bay of Plenty, so we were sure to pack in as many fun activities as possible along the 6-ish-hour drive home to New Plymouth. First we had peanut butter honey oatmeal again, took some coin-operated showers, broke camp, and bid Matata farewell.

Colby and I are a little obsessed with penguins, and I shared with the group that some friends of mine had seen penguins during their stay in Tauranga last summer. So we pulled out The Lonely Planet book last night and searched for a place near Tauranga where they might have gone to see the penguins. The most promising entry was for Whakatane Beach, which promised 25,000+ dolphins as well as a lot of kinds of birds, including little blue penguins. Sadly, The Lonely Planet led us astray, and there were no penguins or dolphins, but the beach was quite lovely. And we found Gandalf the Grey's staff! Best. Driftwood. Ever.

Hiking out on the jetty at Whakatane.

Josh with Gandalf's staff.

While not seeing penguins at Whakatane, we asked some locals about the penguins, and they said we needed to go to Pukehina. But Pukehina was too far out of the way, so we had to satisfy ourselves with Gandalf's staff in lieu of little blue penguins.

After a quick  lunch, we went out in search of blueberries. This time, fortunately, we were successful! We visited Mamaku Blue, a blueberry farm and winery. Remember the Huka Honey Hive from a few days ago? Well, Mamaku Blue is the Huka Honey Hive of blueberries. They had blueberry chocolates, blueberry wines, pure blueberry juice, blueberry (and gooseberry) jams and chutneys, blueberry bath products . . . you name it! Like the Honey Hive, there were lots of free samples--my favorites were the blueberry and gooseberry chutneys. I also purchased blueberry ice cream in a waffle cone. It was basically vanilla ice cream with frozen (farmed there, of course!) blueberries stirred/mashed in. Simple and amazing!

Next on our itinerary: the Wai-O-Tapu Mud Pool. Have you ever seen boiling mud? I certainly hadn't until today. The Wai-O-Tapu website has this to say about the Mud Pool:
This was the site of a large mud volcano which was destroyed through erosion in the 1920′s. It now represents one of the best opportunities to experience the unique character and sounds of erupting mud in New Zealand where the activity is always guaranteed.
The best words I can think of to describe the Mud Pool are "weird," "fascinating," and "smelly." There were several vantage points that overlooked a large pool of boiling mud. The mud didn't boil as rapidly as water usually does, but there were constantly numerous bubbles surfacing and plck-ing all over the pool. And, of course, there was a steady stream of sulfuric steam rising from the mud. One of the prettiest features of the pool was the surrounding foliage. Over time, enough mud had splattered so that ferns and branches were painted a light gray--almost white. Even though it was mud that they were covered in, they looked so delicate.

video


When we had satisfied ourselves with the number of photos and videos we had taken, we hopped back in the van and headed home to New Plymouth. From Wai-O-Tapu, we didn't really stop except for dinner, because we didn't want to get back super late. Here's a map of our basic route today.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, with lovely people and a variety of fun activities!

Friday, October 7, 2011

New Zealand trip, day 5: Mt. Maunganui

Wednesday, October 5

(I just noticed that the day of my trip matches the day of the month. As in, today is day 5 of the trip, and it's October 5. That makes me really happy.)

This morning marked another first: I used a coin-operated shower! Our camp grounds are equipped with exactly one shower, and it costs 50 cents for 7 minutes. It involves quite a bit of strategy. First, because you only have 7 minutes. Second, because the coin box is around the corner from the shower, your time starts as soon as you drop in a coin, and you should probably be clothed while running to the coin box and back. It was probably somewhere around 50 degrees outside--which meant 50 degrees inside the shower stall--which is a sure way to wake oneself up in the morning.

After my shower, Josh and I went out on the beach for a little while, then I took off on my own, walking down the beach. I'd never spent that much time alone on a beach. It was very soothing. Since it was still fairly early in the morning, there was no one else out there except a couple joggers. The only sounds were the waves, the wind, and the birds. Sigh.

For breakfast we had oatmeal with honey and peanut butter. Which tastes amazing while camping, though I doubt I'll ever make it at home. Oatmeal is just one of those things that I always want to like, but really only do like when I'm camping.

After breakfast, we loaded up and set out for Tauranga. On the way, we stopped for lunch because Neal wanted Subway, and the rest of us went to a bakery. I got a meat pie that reminded me of the meat pies we ate in Papua New Guinea while growing up. Since we were stopped in a town, we went out in search of a hat for me. I actually brought one to New Zealand but managed to leave it in New Plymouth with my swimsuit. But since we were going to be outside a lot, and since there's no ozone layer over New Zealand, I thought a hat would be good. We found one, I bought it, and we pressed on.

Mt. Maunganui rests at the very tip of a peninsula (here's a map; the green thing labeled "The Mount" is what we hiked), so the mountain is surrounded by water on three sides. Which provides a very different experience from most mountain-climbing. There are stairs built into the mountain to make the hike up easier, and by the time we reached the top, I had developed a severe hatred of stairs. Since I am not the most physically fit person on the planet, my thighs were not happy with me--and my calves were starting to complain about the long walk on the beach this morning. BUT the view from the summit was stunning and absolutely worth the burning legs. We hiked down the other side of the mountain, which had a road completely void of stairs, and which gave us a whole new set of beautiful scenery for the way back down. We hiked through a lot of sheep pastures and were far more intrigued by sheep than the average person. We were even assigning personalities to a handful of the lambs and mama sheep.

We hung out in the parkish area along the beach for awhile, then decided to walk around on the nearby Moturiki Island, which has been made into a peninsula so you can get to it on foot. It also made for some pretty pictures and backdrops for random conversations. Basically everywhere in New Zealand makes for pretty pictures and backdrops. At one point, Josh ended up throwing his Frisbee into the ocean so, logically, had to climb down the rock wall into the water to retrieve it. He succeeded, and the Frisbee was saved!

Before driving back to Matata and our campsite, we stopped at an Indian restaurant in Tauranga for dinner (India Smart, I think). It was delicious, and we all tried bites of each other's food, which made it even more delicious!

Normally when I go on trips, I have a significant role in planning them. This road/camping trip has not been that way at all, which was hard for me the first day or so. Less than 24 hours after arriving in New Plymouth, we were packing up for a trip to somewhere (I didn't really know where), with people I didn't know, and with an itinerary that no one told me about in specific terms. For awhile it really frustrated me, and then I got frustrated at myself for being frustrated that I wasn't in control. But as the trip has progressed, I've realized that my frustration wasn't really about control as much as it was about just knowing what was going on. Don't get me wrong--I've thoroughly enjoyed all the activities the team had planned, and I'm going to be happy with anywhere someone takes me in New Zealand. But last night on our girls walk along the beach, we talked about the plans for today. And I must say, just knowing what we were planning to do helped me enjoy it that much more. And it made me feel less like a control freak, which made me happier with myself (not that I'm completely dropping the control freak descriptor, because it definitely still fits at times!). And that concludes Wednesday.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

New Zealand trip, day 4: Huka, Huka, Huka

Tuesday, October 4

One nice thing about jetlag is that my body clock is so confused that it doesn’t know when to get a caffeine headache. At home, I have to get coffee almost immediately after waking up—particularly if I sleep in—lest a massive headache sets in. Here, however, I can wake up an hour and a half before everyone else (I’m also a morning person when I go 17 time zones ahead) and just lay in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, waiting for the others to wake up, with no fear of a caffeine headache. I kinda like this whole 17-hour time difference.

We had to be out of the hostel by 10:00 a.m., and I think we only barely made it. Since my phone is stuck on Los Angeles time since that’s the last place where it connected to a cell tower, it’s annoying to subtract four hours and add a day every time I want to know what time it is, so I don’t look at the time very often. Note to self: buy a watch for the next international trip. We went to a crepe cafĂ© for breakfast, and I tried a chicken, gouda, cranberry, and avocado crepe. One thing I like about this group of friends is that we share bites of our food. So I also got to sample several other people’s crepes. Theirs were good, but mine was gouda!

Then we walked around Lake Taupo, took pictures of ducks and swans, and continued to other activities. First up after Lake Taupo: Huka Falls. The website for Huka Falls has this to say about itself: 
The Waikato River, normally up to 100 metres wide, abruptly narrows to just 15 metres as it crosses a hard volcanic ledge. This of course causes a huge volume of water to collide together, forming a spectacular visual feast of powerful falls and rapids. Around 220,000 litres per second of pours over the cliff face, and then rushes under a pedestrian bridge (great photo opportunity here!) The water then bursts out of its rapids, over the 11 metre falls, and back into the Waikato River. 
Basically, a whole lot of water squeezing through a narrow space. The best part was that the water was this beautiful, foamy, ice blue color.

Next we drove to the Huka Falls Spa Park, where there’s a natural hot stream. Sadly, I left my swimsuit in New Plymouth, so I just stuck my feet in and watched the others play in the hot water. Best part about HF Spa Park: the zip line. It was small and simple, but fun and free! After everyone had had their fill of swimming in the hot water, we loaded up and proceeded to the Huka Honey Hive. This place had every kind of honey product imaginable—honey soap, honey fudge, honey wine, honey lotion, honey ice cream, and of course different flavors of honey. Fortunately for us, there were lots of free samples. They also had a glassed-in hive of honey bees, so you could watch them work. Bees are kind of incredible. Also, I would feel really stressed if I ever lived in a bee hive, because it looked really chaotic and crowded in there.

Grass in New Zealand is awesome. Where I come from, walking barefoot is extremely painful. The grass is dry and somehow sharp, most grass is also heavily seasoned with stickers, and the ground underneath is hard and often rocky. In New Zealand, however, the grass is plush, and the ground beneath is cool, moist, even spongy. Here, walking barefoot feels is soothing and freeing.

Next, we drove to Matata (not to be confused with Hakuna Matata) to set up camp for the next couple nights. It was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever camped. To enter the site, we drove over a small lake-ish-looking body of water with lots of reeds. The camping area was a flat, grassy field stretching along the lake reeds. On the side opposite the lake-ish water was a dune, and over that dune was the Pacific Ocean. We arrived late enough in the afternoon that the lake and ocean were misty and gorgeous. While the guys did manly things (i.e., throw a Frisbee and swim in the really cold ocean), we girls took a walk down the beach. We were walking along, talking about random things, when we looked up and saw a seal! A real live seal not in a zoo! She was just hanging out on the shore and hobbled into the water while we scrambled for our cameras. That was the highlight of the evening, so I’ll stop there.

Here’s a Google map to give you an idea of where we were today.