Sunday, May 30, 2010

Celebrating the start of winter

I’ve heard all kinds of stories from our American friends about how lovely the weather is there. It’s 90 degrees…going to the pool…heading for the lake… the AC isn’t working…blah blah blah. :)

Oh how the tables have turned as 1 June marks our first day of winter, and that's tomorrow. We’re enjoying highs around 10 degrees C (50ish F), which may not sound that cold, but add the rain and the cold southerly gales (which come from Antarctica by the way), and it’s a bit chilly.

I learned soon after we moved here that indoor spaces are not always kept at a consistent 72 degrees. Most stores and cafés leave their doors open all day well into winter, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a home with central air and heat.

Our home is warmed by two “night-store” heaters. Apparently there are magic bricks inside that soak up heat overnight (taking advantage of the cheaper off-peak rates), then slowly, ever so slowly releases it during the day. They aren’t really designed to heat your home to a toasty 72 degrees, but at least you don’t have to wear gloves at the breakfast table. I’m just kidding – it’s actually pretty comfortable. But it does make me realise I’ve been spoiled with climate controlled comfort my entire life.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

18 months and 18 reasons to love NZ

This time of year we have lots to celebrate. While our American friends are celebrating Memorial Day and enjoying a three-day weekend, this is just another normal weekend for NZ. But we’ll get you back next week when the Queen honours us with a day off work for her birthday.

And this week marked 18 months of living in New Zealand. Or as Jake would say, six fiscal quarters.

It may be the beginning of June, but it feels a lot like Thanksgiving to me. So let me fire up my pumpkin spice candles, make some hot chocolate and tell you some of the reasons we are thankful.

18 reasons we love living in New Zealand:
  1. Pavlova -->
  2. Pinot noir
  3. Sauvignon blanc
  4. (wait this is too easy… let me try a different approach)
  5. No special occasion necessary to drink bubbles (champagne)
  6. Most people are genuinely open and nice, including the folks at my bank and grocery store.
  7. We’re surrounded by natural beauty and adventure.
  8. All the hotels we’ve visited throughout the country have been clean, friendly and affordable.
  9. Castlepoint (and congrats to Marc and Kat who just got engaged there.)
  10. We’re so close enough to visit Southeast Asia and some Pacific Islands.
  11. No tipping required
  12. Sales tax is included in all price tags
  13. Wellington’s public transportation is excellent -->
  14. We have a great view of the harbour from our living room
  15. We live in the future (but sorry Jeromy and Corey, we can’t tell you the sports scores)
  16. Words like jandals, toilet, and wee squiz (there are so many new Kiwi words we’ve adopted that they call for a blog entry of their own. I’ll explain these and more soon.)
  17. The café culture. I don’t think I can work a full day any more without my morning and afternoon coffee breaks.
  18. Phones and Facebook keep us close to friends and family.
  19. And probably my favourite: Having a good work/life balance isn’t just an HR catchphrase. People take it seriously here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Snorkel tour around island of Koh Tao

We have one last blog post to share about our Thailand vacation, and it stands in stark contrast the the article I just read on the protests in Bangkok, and how the red shirts have surrendered amid fires and rioting throughout the city.

Far from that craziness, the highlight of our Thailand adventure was a snorkel tour around the entire island of Koh Tao, which is known for its coral reefs and marine life.

The waters were clear, calm and warm, and the fish were beautiful. We took a speedboat to several spots around the island and each had colourful coral that was close enough to the surface to easily explore.

The last place we stopped was something of a marine reserve with some gorgeous blue water.

When we got on land, we learned that it costs 100 baht to sit under one of these beach umbrellas. And we understand why -- it was hot. And we had brought along exactly 0 baht. This is just about the time of day I realised I'd earned a sunburn on my shoulders, back and legs. For some reason when we're snorkeling I tend to think my skin is protected because it's underwater. Not so.

But no worries because Jake scouted out a perfect little shady perch from which to take in the scenery. We climbed up and enjoyed the view, then shared our comfy spot and some friendly conversation with a couple on a year-long holiday from England. Now that's a phrase I'd like to become more familiar with: year-long holiday.

Below is the view from our little perch.

This little strip of beach is all that's connecting the peninsula to the rest of the island. We had a great time exploring the area, but at this point I was just trying to find shade.

And that may have been our busiest day in Thailand. Other than the massages, beverages and general laziness, we spent a lot of time trying out all the various pools at each of the three resorts where we stayed.

What a gorgeous place. Thailand is definitely prepared for tourists of all budgets, and it was a great adventure for us to try to get around in a country that doesn't always speak English. Hot, beautiful, laid back -- it's exactly what we were looking for.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Should we have left a tip?

As part of the package we purchased from our resort in Thailand, we each received a free 60-minute foot massage, so we made an appointment the other day. It was glorious.

The spa was located outside near a little garden with the smell of flowers and the sound of running water. Very relaxing. My masseuse must have really known her craft because although my feet are extremely sensitive and ticklish, I didn’t flinch at all while she was working.

At the end of our session, they said something in Thai and gave us a wai (Thai greeting with hands in prayer position and little head nod) to let us know time was up. Jake and I thanked them both, looked at each other awkwardly and shuffled out – it was so strange to leave without tipping. Our guidebooks say, just like here in New Zealand, that tipping isn’t necessary or expected unless you receive exceptional service in a nice restaurant.

We’re so used to the American way – an obligation to tip anyone who drives, carries food, picks up a bag or opens a door – that it’s hard for us to change. And we’re still not sure we did the right thing, so let me ask our readers: Should we have tipped on the Thai foot massages? Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Various levels of modesty on Koh Samui beaches

Sitting on the beach in Koh Samui, one of Thailand’s most beautiful and touristy islands, is quite a sight for two Americans like us from the rural Midwest. Jake is wearing his usual swim trunks, and they cover much more skin -- by far -- than any other dude on this beach. Speedos are the norm and no one is shy about it.

As I write this, there’s a European family next to us who's getting ready to go back to their room apparently, and their 9ish-year-old boy has been changing into dry clothes. He’s been standing there naked about five feet away from me for several minutes now, and it’s making me a bit uncomfortable. I guess some folks are just more open about their bodies.

And there are some beautiful slender women around here wearing thong bikinis, including the one who chose a spot right in front of us. I swear her sunglasses offer more coverage than her togs (NZ word for swimsuit). She has spent most of her time this morning bending over her beach chair organizing her belongings. Jake is doing a very noble job of keeping his nose in his book, and I’m probably the one who’s doing all the staring. Please lady, will you sit down already? Sorry fellas, I didn't take her photo.

It’s low season for tourists and especially with all the civil unrest in Bangkok this beach is nowhere near crowded. There’s lots of people but plenty of room to accommodate us all. Instead of the fast food stands and souvenirs shops I’d expect near any American tourist spot, (we haven’t seen any after two days here at the resort), we see several locals who walk back and forth along the beach hauling armfuls of everything from jewelry, t-shirts, scarves and fabric, hats, ice cream and fireworks, which are illegal here although we’ve seen them go off each night.

And of course there are plenty of spots to get a massage, and we've each had a few already. They are amazing, and amazingly more affordable than anywhere else I've seen. Around 250 Baht (which is about $10 NZD or $7 USD), you can get an hour-long massage right there on the beach.

The beaches are beautiful and the water is clear and shallow, which means it’s the hottest ocean water I’ve ever been in. Thank goodness for the pina coladas and other cold beverages that are never far away and do a good job of cooling us down.


Monday, May 10, 2010

One night in Bangkok (is plenty)

I hope that song gets stuck in your head now because it's been in mind for two weeks now.

After about 18 hours of travel, I made it to Bangkok after picking up Jake in Singapore along the way. He spent all last week there for some training for work. Our week in Thailand is going to focus on beaches and cocktails and relaxation, but we couldn't come this far without at least checking out this amazing city. According to the news, the anti-government protests have become more intense, and we've seen lots of armed policemen, but so far we feel pretty safe in our hotel. We selected our hotel in the heart of the restuarant/nightlife/massage (read: sex industry) district thanks to a friend’s recommendation (thanks Travis). It’s a good one, as it’s right in the middle of everything, even though we're not really keen to go walking around at night.

Above is a view of the street from our hotel window, featuring a tuk tuk (three-wheeled taxi vehicle) in action. Below is looking out over the pool on the 16th floor, where I brought my new snorkel gear for a test drive.

Yesterday we made two attempts to head across town to visit the Grand Palace and the river where you can take boat tours through the canals of the city. Both attempts met with failure.

The first time we hopped in a cab and asked for the Grand Palace, the driver took us about two blocks and motioned us to get out and walk. Okay, maybe he didn't want to take such a long drive. We tried again, and the driver seemed a bit more cooperative. He quoted us 200 baht, which at $8 nzd sounded fine, and drove us through the parts of the city we'd seen on the news lately, including an area that was barricaded by tires and barbed wire. After maybe 20 minutes he dropped us off at some museum -- nowhere near the palace -- and refused to go farther.

So we'd been had. It was obvious to us then, but we made the most of it and the Jim Thompson Home Museum actually turned out to be pretty cool. (Jim was an American who made Thailand his home after WWII.) It's a very calm and relaxing place where we felt much more at ease than the busy, crowded, vendors-in-your-face feel of the other parts of Bangkok. Can’t wait to see the islands!

Across the street from our hotel was this very authentic, very affordable looking eating establishment. But after hearing numerous war stories about friends getting sick on vacation in Asia, Jake and I kept strictly to bottled water and food that is prepared specifically for foreigners. I admit our approach is neither glamourous nor culturally immersive. We're not famous for our strong stomachs -- we're just being honest.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Wish you were here: our week in Thailand

We just got back from a dream holiday in Thailand, and what an incredible experience! We have a few stories to share with you over the coming days, but if you just can’t wait to learn more, here are a few highlights:

  • Flight segments to our final destination, Koh Samui island: 4
  • Long flight duration: 11 hours (Auckland-Singapore)
  • Size of Koh Samui: 12ish miles wide by 15ish miles long
  • Cost of an hour-long massage on the beach: $250 Thai baht ($10 NZD or $7 USD)
  • Number of souvenirs for which we under-negotiated the price: all of them
  • Number of taxis that didn’t take us where we asked: 2
  • Favourite cocktail: Pina Colada
  • Favourite beer: tie between Chang and Singha
  • Number of credit cards accidentally left in ATM on busy street: 1
  • Best airport feature: free foot massage chairs in Singapore
  • Best day: snorkel day cruise around Koh Tao
  • Awkward cultural misunderstandings: several
  • Best adventures: communicating, public transport and bargaining for purchases
  • Why we’ll go back: beautiful beaches, friendly people, relaxing vibe