Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kia Ora, Aotearoa

Hi from Auckland! Fun fact: Auckland is built on top of 50 volcanoes, most of which are not extinct. That’s right, 50 volcanoes in one city. Suck it, Hawaii (15 volcanoes statewide). Nothing like the distant threat of catastrophic eruption to keep things interesting. Practically, 50 volcanoes mostly means it’s a really hilly city – I’m climbing volcanoes every time I leave my apartment. Which means my butt’s gonna look awesome by the end of two months here. Sweet.

I left home about a week ago, with the kind of flight itinerary only the US government and my favorite law ever, the Fly America Act, could dream up. For those of you who’ve never taken a government-funded overseas flight, Fly America requires you to take US flag carriers as far as possible, meaning no cushy Air New Zealand flights for me. (Actually, some people did get booked on Air New Zealand. No one really seems to know how this works.) This is the same law that got me  Washington DC -> San Fransisco -> Tokyo -> Singapore -> Jakarta -> Surabaya flying out to Malang two years ago. This time it was Hartford -> Atlanta -> LA -> Sydney -> Wellington, which sounds way less ridiculous until you realize that the layover in Sydney was 12 hours long. Air New Zealand would technically be the same number of stops, since it would stop in Auckland rather than Sydney on the way to Wellington, but not having to go all the way to Australia and then backtrack, not to mention losing the 12-hour layover, would have saved considerable time. Which, come to think of it, qualifies as an exception to the Fly America requirements, since it requires a 4+ hour layover abroad and adds 6+ hours to travel time (this according to the NIH website). Same would have been true of my 50-hour trip to Indonesia. Like I said, nobody really knows how the hell this whole thing works.

Anyway, enough with the ranting about obscure government policies for the moment. At least until I book my Papua flight for September and get routed through Timbuktu on Delta. Millions of thanks to Sean for taking three suitcases of my stuff for the summer, and Nicole for driving me to the airport. The agents at the counter were kind enough to check my bag all the way through to Wellington instead of making me pick it up and recheck it at Sydney, which becomes relevant later. The Hartford -> Atlanta flight was painless enough, meaning I slept most of the way, having not slept much the night before. Atlanta to LA was long, and my seatback tv screen wasn’t working, and I was sitting next to a chatty but bitter Australian woman who wasn’t happy about her tv screen not working, but that’s why I brought my Kindle. LA to Sydney is 14 hours, enough said. Miraculously the middle seat in my row was empty, so the guy on the aisle and I had a little extra room to stretch out.

At the Sydney airport I met up with two other EAPSI fellows who’d been on my flight, Stellar (not his real name, but he’s an astronomer so that’s what he gets called) and Brett. They had to take their luggage through customs and re-check it with Air New Zealand, which was operating the final leg of our trip. The lady at the Delta counter assured me mine was taken care of. We left our stuff with a company at the terminal that does that sort of thing and took a train into Sydney for the day.

The famous Sydney Opera House, I’m sorry to say, looks kinda dingy from close up. The roof tiles are sort of cream-colored, and look like they’re made of those tiles you see in public restrooms. I’m sure the crappy weather and construction out front didn’t help either. The botanical gardens were pretty cool though. They’ve got some strange birds in Sydney, I’ll tell you that. Long-beaked, evil-looking white ones with black featherless heads; one that looked like it was wearing a yellow carnival mask; white cockatoos flying around in the trees. At one point we crossed paths with an Indonesian tour group, two of whose members were wearing sashes around their necks with writing in Hebrew. I never got a chance to ask why. Lunch took a while to find – the Australians never seem to have gotten the memo that now that their dollar is on par with ours they should lower their prices accordingly. Eventually we ended up at a pub with a $10 burger special. I got the Roo Burger, made, as advertised, with strips of kangaroo meat, which tasted as far as I could tell a lot like well-done beef. Sorry kangaroo lovers, it had to be done.

View from the Harbor Bridge
About that time the weather started to clear up. We visited the Sydney Observatory (Stellar was over the moon) and then walked across the Harbor Bridge for a nice view of the city. And about that time my feet started to feel like they were going to fall off, so after a coffee break we headed back to the airport. Good thing we did, since this is where things got fun with the baggage. You know how I said the helpful folks at Delta had checked my bag all the way through to Wellington? Well originally they’d only checked it as far as Sydney, then re-did it and gave me a new baggage tag. And you know those little claim stickers they give you that you never ever need? Well I only had the one for the original, just-as-far-as-Sydney bag tag, and the Air New Zealand folks needed the updated tag number to match the bag with me and make sure it got on the plane. And the Delta folks had gone home for the day. (At 3:30pm?!? Really?!?) So I get sent downstairs to the baggage handling company to see if they could get the bag number from Delta’s computer system. First they couldn’t find me in the system, then they said that because it was checked more than 24 hours earlier they couldn’t access my bag on the system, but not to worry since it had already been loaded by their crew. Which the Air New Zealand people then told me was a load of bull, since records don’t close after 24 hours and the plane wasn’t even there yet. So they had no way of knowing which bag was mine, or where mine happened to be, and while they’d keep looking, not to get my hopes up about it being there in Wellington. Maybe, but, you know, probably not.

We landed in Wellington at 11:40pm local time. Miraculously, so did my bag. 40 hours of travel time, one New Yorker finished, three in-flight movies watched (The Artist: too tired to appreciate it; Attack the Block: awesome; J. Edgar: okay), and one mindless vacation novel read (The Hunger Games: meh). Five of us split two cabs to the hotel. By 12:45 I was in my room, and by 1am I was out cold.

Day One of orientation started far to early for somebody with my travel schedule. The point of orientation was to give us an introduction to the research environment in New Zealand, and then set us loose to get the culture part ourselves. In the morning we got a tour of the MacDiarmid Institute, which focuses on “advanced materials and nanotechnology”, where we looked at the electron microscope and the lasers and drank tea. Then lunch at the Royal Society, which is funding all this, and a tour of Te Papa, the national museum, given by a geologist, followed by tea. The take-away seemed to be that depending where in the country you were you were either at risk of an earthquake, regular volcanic eruption, or super-eruption, and that Auckland was in all not a bad choice because at least with the eruptions you get a bit of advance notice. (This making you feel any better, Mom?) Also eruptions only happen a few times every hundred thousand years, so it’ll probably be okay. In the free time that followed, I wandered around the museum a bit more with Mallory, an archaeologist from Alabama, and then got Indian food for dinner. The lamb, as anticipated, was fantastic.

Largish paua
Day two started with a drive to the top of Mt. Victoria for some lovely views over the city, and then what was listed on the schedule as ‘aquarium’ but turned out to be the Mahanga Bay Aquaculture Facility. We started with tea, then a tour. This is where they do research into the growth of various commercial species under different conditions, the likely effects of global warming on said species, etc. At the moment they’re working on hapuku (wreckfish), paua (abalone), and sea cucumbers. Not quite as colorful as your average aquarium, but then how often do you get to hold a big ol’ abalone in your hand, or pick up a baby sea cucumber? In case you were wondering, they’re both slimy, and the abalone is surprisingly active when it finds itself shell-side down and would prefer to be otherwise. (Video showing as much is posted on Picasa.)

On a side note, New Zealanders are extremely proud of Maori culture. (Pronounced [moɾi] if you want to be authentic.) Along with English and NZ Sign Language, Maori is one of the three national languages, and you see it everywhere in place names, street signs, and common names for plants and animals, like hapuku and paua. All government entities have Maori as well as English names. The Austronesianist in me is having a field day.

After lunch and tea back at the Royal Society we were supposed to have a Maori lesson, but the teacher never showed so instead we got free time early. A bunch of us went to get local cell phones – or in my case a local sim card for my Indo cell phone – and then Mallory, Noel, and I met a local friend of Mallory’s to go rock climbing at a nearby indoor wall followed by dinner. I fell a lot, but the floor is basically a giant moon bounce so no worries. Then finally back to the hotel, repacking my stuff, and getting some sleep.

Friday morning we dispersed to our host cities, which for me and two others meant Auckland. My plane landed at 11:15am, which gave me time to check into my aparment, grab a sandwich, and go meet my host at 1. He then had half an hour to show me around, answer some questions, and get me my keys before his next meeting of the day. I went to the weekly lab meeting at 3, where they talked about a study on facial structure and immoral behavior which I hadn’t read, and which based on the discussion seems to be wrong. It’s an evolutionary psychology lab, which in some ways ties in to my work on historical linguistics and in some ways not at all. More on the research angle in a future post though.

Auckland City Farmers Market
As for the living situation, I’m staying at the Waldorf Tetra in a two-bedroom apartment with Eliot, a marine biologist from California. The apartment rents by the week, and in all it’s pretty nice, if a little short on attention to detail – one alarm clock for two bedrooms, an ironing board with no iron, missing knobs on two of the heaters. Can’t beat the location though; only about a 10 minute walk in to my office. It’s a change to live with a roommate for the first time since college, but so far he’s made my life easier more than once – finding the supermarket on Friday, discovering a farmer’s market on Saturday, generally providing momentum to get out and explore. Saturday’s market was smaller than the one in New Haven but had some good stuff. I decided after all the paua at Mahanga Bay I should see where they end up, so I had an abalone fritter for breakfast. It’s kind of an unappetizing shade of dark grey, thanks to the black meat, and a little chewy, but it tasted alright. Glad I tried it once, but once was enough, thanks. Today I wandered through the Auckland Domain, basically the equivalent of Central Park but hillier, and saw the Auckland Museum,which is fantastic. And now my feet are killing me.

Oh, and the weather. It’s early winter here. Wellington was low 50’s and rainy; Auckland is low 50’s and sunny. It’s that kind of mid-October weather where if you’re in the sun it’s a gorgeous day, and if you’re in the shade it’s not. It even smells like October with all the falling leaves. That said, it’s the equivalent of about December astronomically, so it shouldn’t get a whole lot colder. Which is my kind of winter. The only catch is that they’re not so into insulating their buildings, or even heating them much, so indoors tends to be chilly. The heaters in my apartment, for example, have dials that turn them on for up to 2 hours, which is fine unless it’s night and you don’t want to wake up every two hours to reset them. Luckily there’s down comforters. Looks like the people here will be seeing a lot of the same rotating cast of about three sweatshirts and two scarves that I brought with me. Next item on my shopping list is a big thick pair of slipper-socks. Luckily this is a country with way more sheep than people, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

And now it’s 10pm, which is about as later as my jetlag’s been letting me stay up, and I’ve still gotta post this thing. Ciao a doppo, and goodnight. Photos here.


  1. I don't have time to read through all of this post, but it sounds like you're having a fantastic time! (Also, DC to Amsterdam, six hour layover in Amsterdam, to Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta to Malang -- except for the fact that we didn't have to fly through Surabaya, I'd say you got the better deal.) Selamat jalan! (Um, no idea if that makes sense -- we haven't started classes yet, because it turns out we needed a two-day in-country orientation, so I have no clue what I'm saying at any given moment.)

  2. Oh, hey, "selamat jalan" does make sense! Yay Bahasa Indonesia!