Sunday, March 29, 2009

Talk about an international adventure!

Yesterday we had the chance to visit with three girls from Southern California who are on a five-month world tour. From left is Cassandra, Alena and Katie (hope I got all those right). Alena's folks are Tom and Lori in Hawaii, and good friends of Jake's parents. I met Tom and Lori last year when we were in Hawaii for our wedding, and they are pretty awesome. I knew their kids would be the same.

Although I'd never met Alena before, we were happy to have her and her girlfriends over for a walk through Wellington. Highlights of the tour included a slide at a playground...

...Watching some local guys jumping into the harbor (I don't think he was going to jump until four girls walked up) ...

...and of course shopping in the central business district. Too bad it was Sunday afternoon and stores we starting to close. 

We had dinner with a couple of Alena's Wellington relatives at a restaurant on Cuba Street called Istanbul -- delicious. 

Two weeks ago, the girls started their big adventure in Fiji before coming to NZ. They're going to spend some time now on the south island before flying off to Bali, Europe, Africa, South America and Central America before their trip is through. Amazing! Good luck girls, and thank you so much for stopping by to see us!


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour in New Zealand

We had some friends over to our house for dinner last night, and it was a blast. I quickly realized we needed to buy a few more plates and wine glasses... and to borrow a couple of chairs from our neighbors, but it was well worth it. Everyone is sooo nice: Greg and Hannah from NZ, Mike and Kate from the UK, and Archie, Maggie and baby Cameron from Virginia.

After dinner someone mentioned Earth Hour, the worldwide campaign to shut off your lights as a symbolic gesture to highlight concerns over climate change. I'd read about it in the paper, but hadn't planned to act on it since we were having people over. Before long, we had some candles fired up and our lights out, and we were on the deck looking at the other lights in the city. Not sure if we could tell many other lights were out, but I felt good knowing our friends care enough about the earth to sip their wine in the dark. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

The end of an era

They said it couldn't be done. But the rumors are true ... I have a job! But not to worry. It's only a four-week contract, and I'll still have time to ramble on about the silly details of our lives in the evenings and on weekends. 

Many of you (or at least Cousin Jimmy) have voiced your concern for how we'll maintain the exceptional level of quality that this blog has come to achieve. Others of you (Corey) have asked how my liver will adapt to total daytime sobriety. Even I am wondering what it's like to change out of my pajamas before noon every day. Not to worry dear readers ... we'll all be on this groundbreaking trip together. Work begins Monday, March 30. More details coming soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Our first anniversary

Happy Anniversary to us! 
What a year it's been. Hard to believe a year ago we were getting hitched on the Big Island of Hawaii.

We celebrated last night with a dinner at home, topped off with a special NZ dessert, called a pavlova. It's made of fluffy stuff, whipped cream and fresh fruit. Actually, my new "Auntie" June from next door showed me how to make it, and although she did all the work, I still passed it off as my own. :) Don't tell! Jake gave me these beautiful flowers, and I found an American-style coffee machine to give him.

The pavlova looks like a big strange blob, but it's a delicious blob of fluffy goodness.

Jake's 32nd birthday
Jake spent the evening lawn bowling (think bocce ball) with the KPMG crew. He was happy to get a package from his folks, a call from his brother Jeromy, some new hiking boots from me and a long list of friendly birthday wishes from friends and family. If you haven't read these yet, you should. As promised, I gave him a big slap on the ass that morning from Jeromy and Corey. Auntie June also "helped" me make him a chocolate birthday cake. I'd call that a pretty nice birthday.

Here's his birthday card from me. 

Dinner with our neighbors
While he was out lawn bowling, I was invited over to dinner at Auntie June's next door. 

That's Auntie June in blue. Next to her is their neighbor Don, June's husband Phil, and their son Stuart.

Happy Birthday Jake!

Bring on the funny stories about Jake
Here's your chance to throw a punch from overseas. In honor of the old man's birthday, I'd like to invite readers to contribute a funny story, fond memory or friendly insult to the comment section of this blog. Allow me to get the ball rolling...

Jake, why must I do your taxes even though you have two degrees in accounting? I'm not sure if you remember tutoring me through six hours of accounting courses, but it was a painful experience for both of us. I deal with it because I love you and you're my hero. (But I don't know you if we get a call from the IRS...)

Who's next? Leave your comments below.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Oh Mexican food... how we've missed you!

It's time to give thanks to our amazing Aunt Denise and her kick-ass salsa recipe. You have no idea how much we've been dying for some Mexican food lately. The salsa here in NZ doesn't really qualify as Mexican salsa, and no other recipe would do, since this is the annual Swearingen Fourth of July salsa.

It was a bit of a challenge finding all the ingredients. You know, simple things like Rotel? After a bit of searching, I found some "Mexican style tomatoes diced with cumin, jalepenos and paprika." I guess that will be close enough. And check out these green onions -- they're enormous.

I also had to learn that peppers are called capsicums, and that cilantro is called coriander (I think). It took about a month to figure out where to find some tortilla chips that aren't flavored like Doritos. 

But it was all worth it when we chowed down to a glorious Mexican feast tonight. Hasta manana, amigos.

Castlepoint: the most amazing place on earth

We headed up the east coast of the north island for some hiking, camping and exploring this weekend and found this picture-perfect spot called Castlepoint.

The weather was perfect again, and we hiked to the top of that rock in the distance. What a view!

It was also a chance to get to travel with our friend/sherpa/photographer Brett, who was kind enough to share these pics when I forgot my camera. He's also an excellent blogger -- you can check out his more-detailed account of our weekend at his blog, "Adventure to Middle Earth."


Friday, March 13, 2009

Rubbing shoulders with a national hero

Last night Jake and I attended a charity auction dinner hosted by KPMG to benefit Cure Kids, an organization that focuses on childhood diseases. The person at the check-in table didn't hear my name clearly, and asked "Jamie Fitzgerald?" before finding me on the list. Little did I know that Jamie Fitzgerald is one of New Zealand's biggest modern-day adventurers, and he was the guest speaker for the evening. 

Fitzgerald has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat that took seven weeks, and he has walked across Antarctica to the south pole, which took an incredible 52 days. Amazing.

We also heard from Brendan Dallas, a first-year KPMGer who road his bike all the way from the very northern tip of NZ to the south in 19 days to raise money for Cure Kids. It's inspiring to hear the stories from people like these folks, who not only push themselves so hard, but do so in a way that benefits other folks. Nice work guys.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Getting lost is good for you

Yesterday was my first solo hiking (tramping, as the locals say) adventure, and I spent most of it walking sideways. For four and a half hours, the wind blew incredibly hard, as if it were daring me to keep going.

The trail ran along the hilltops between Wellington City and the west coast. It offered a stunning view, but was very exposed with little shelter from the wind. It's hard to capture the strength of the wind in a photo. My windbreaker was flapping so hard, I thought it was going to tear.

Kiwi lesson #127: In a city that's known for its wind, try picking a calm day to tackle a hike on something called the Skyline Track.

This little butterfly was resting on a trail sign, and must have known I'm generally directionally challenged, and so it pointed me in the right direction. The track, which lead through forest, hillside and rural farmland, had markers every so often so you know you're still following the right path. A few times, though, the trail would split in two, with no marker in sight. 

I wanted to make sure I didn't end up like this guy. Most of the time, it was no problem. Once after walking about 20 minutes beyond such a fork in the road, the trail fizzled out and I looked up to see these fellas staring at me. 

I had been following a sheep trail. Whoops! The map was no help. Rather than backtrack, I decided to slide past my new friends, climb the hill and go in search of the track again. I found it at the very bottom of the other side of the hill, but had to backtrack even then when I realized there was a 10-foot drop into some prickly bush at the bottom.

The feeling of not knowing exactly where I was filled me with excitement and a little anxiety. I really had to focus. Once I got back on track, I felt at ease again, and the rest of the trip was just as beautiful. I found a thousand little red mushrooms of all shapes and sizes.

The best view was the clear outline of the South Island from my high vantage point. 

I usually like to know where I'm going, but getting off the beaten path, even a little, was a great adventure. I think we should all get lost once in a while. It's good for the soul. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Adventures from the Wanganui River

Last weekend's adventure took us to Wanganui (won-ga-NEW-ee), on the west coast of the north island for some camping and river exploring. The Wanganui river is the longest navigable river in NZ, and it has a long history as a transport link between the Tasman Sea and the interior, first used by the native Maoris, and later by everyone else. Jake took this first pic -- isn't it beautiful? More on our trip...

...but first, some cute animals we saw along the way. These little guys were wandering and playing in the grass next to the road.

Yes finally, here is a sheep pic so many of you have been asking for. I'm sure we'll have many more. Also saw lots of horses, cattle, deer, goats and lots of interesting birds. 

How to Find a Good Campsite
We found what looked like a good campsite in a travel guide... It had everything, with showers, laundry and cooking facilities, cabins, river-front scenery, hiking trails. There were more little icons in its description than any other campsite on the page, so we pointed our little Nissan in that direction. What we found was an incredibly cramped and loud mini-city with screaming kids everywhere. Obviously we couldn't get out of there fast enough.

So we drove away from the city maybe 50 kms farther up the slow, windy and gorgeous Wanganui River Road to find a site hidden back in the woods called the Kauika Campsite. It wasn't very big, but it was perfect. Quiet, beautiful, empty and no wind. The only other campers there were Raymond and Andre from Belgium, who shared a fire and some friendly conversation with us. This is what camping should be.

Kiwi Lesson #129: More amenities does not equate to a better camping experience. If it has a pool, stay far away.

Next morning found us jet-boating down the river with Wanganui River Adventures, a small family-owned company that has been in the business for three generations.

I was going to say something clever about the people next to us, but I won't. They're only in the pic because my aim is off. 

It's hard to get a good pic of the spectacular scenery. I'll blame it on not having a wide-angle lens.

The Bridge To Nowhere
Finally I get to use my rain pants! Our 30-minute somewhat-rainy hike from a remote spot on the river took us to the Bridge to Nowhere. Apparently when the NZ troops came home from WWI, the government made sure to find them work. And so they put many of the guys to work building roads and bridges. This area was cleared for farmland and needed a route to transport goods, equipment and farm animals. 

It took four guys a year and a half to build this bridge that stands high above Mangapurua Gorge. Not long after, road construction in the area was called off because the area was deemed too remote and unsuitable for farming. So now this bridge stands out in the middle of nowhere, with no roads connected to it. And you can see just how the native plants have overtaken the farmland once again.

This still feels like a dream. 
I actually had a dream last night that I started waiting tables at Chili's. And it was terrifying. To be fair, there's a lot of normalcy (dishes in the sink, cleaning the lint trap, etc.) sprinkled in to our lives, but I can't help but think every day about what a ridiculous, crazy, fantastic ride we're on. We love it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New friends, giant birds and motor scooters

We just got back from our weekend in the big city of Auckland. There we met up with Danny and Jaime, a couple of Californians who arrived here for a two-year stint in October, who were kind enough to put us up for a night. Danny's with KPMG too, and he and Jake met a few months back at some training in the States. It was so great to meet them and hear how their NZ experience has been so far -- they gave us lots of great ideas. 

Because it was a little rainy, we went in search of things to do indoors. We started out at Sky Tower -- see the pointy thing in the background of these photos? That's the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. We decided not to spend the $25 to go up in the tower since it was so rainy and cloudy at the time that it would have been useless. So we wandered through the Sky City complex, with restaurants and fountains and the most obscure casino I've ever seen. 

After a driving tour of the city, we landed at Auckland museum, where we saw all kinds of Maori and Pacific Island artifacts. There were awesome carvings, artwork, and an amazing 20-meter-long war canoe. But Jake missed all of that -- he was preoccupied with a giant bird that was giving him a dirty look. 

The next day Jake and I hopped on a ferry to Waiheke Island, just 30 minutes or so from the city. The sun was out and the scenery was spectacular, so we rented a couple scooters and drove all around, stopping at beaches, shops and wineries along the way. What a great little vacation spot! I was having so much fun that I completely forgot to reapply my sunscreen and came back with a bit of a burn on my arms. 

This is a handy sticker. I wouldn't mind getting one for our car. 

Then Sunday night we drove out of the city to the Coromandel Penninsula and stayed in a fabulous bed and breakfast near Thames. We came back with so many photos from our trip that I didn't even sort through them before posting the slideshow below. So I'll warn you now there are 96 photos.

I've added a map on the right-hand side of the page for your reference. Clicking on it will take you to Google Maps, and from there you can search for any city or region that we mention, if you're curious.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jake's race pics

Check out some pics of Jake running Wellington's Round the Bays Half Marathon on Feb. 15. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Kiwi Culture, Part 2: The Sport of Cricket

Ready for a quick lesson about how Cricket works?

1. Think about the general premise of baseball: the scoring, hitting, running, fielding, etc.

2. Now throw it all out the window because none of it is helpful. I have such a shaky understanding of the sport that maybe I'll let Jake try to explain it in a future post. But we had a lot of fun at the match on Friday, in which the NZ Blackcaps took on the team from India and won.

The sky never ceases to amaze us. It turned this purpley-red color for about 20 minutes during the match.

Marc spent most of the time explaining all the rules of the sport to Jake...

...while we girls ate chocolate and sipped wine in the next row. I don't think I've ever had wine at a sporting event before. Quite a new experience. Next to me is Lisa, Sonia and Heidi. Here are a few more pics from the match in a slideshow: