Wondertime. Rotating Header Image

life abroad

Interview With a Cruiser Project: our turn!

The Johnson Family 2017

I must interrupt my blogging sabbatical to bring you some exciting news! When our friend Livia Gilstrap of The Interview With a Cruiser Project asked us if we’d like to answer a few questions we said HELL YES. Michael and I have been getting ready for, actively cruising, or recovering from since 1999 and we’ve formed a few thoughts and opinions in that time. Head over to the site to read our interview. And if you do, you’ll find out what exactly it is we’re doing in the photo above.

The magic of staying put

Paekakariki Escarpment track

“You are never more essentially yourself than when you are still.”

– Eckhart Tolle

The title of this post is not our motto but an aspiration. We hate staying put. We’re counting down the days until the end of the lease on our flat (177 remaining, in case you were wondering). Our feet are itchy, our bodies ache for movement across the planet. I can look out our front window at the sea and it kills me that the whole world can be reached if we just step away from this shore.

But 178 days from now, I’m pretty sure we’ll be right here, still. And–true to my aspiration of staying put and staying present–I’ll keep trying to focus on the joy of that. And there is a lot: the school Leah and Holly are attending is amazing (Holly’s gone from reading BOB books with frustration to Neil Gaiman chapter books in less than six months) and both girls are making lots of friends. Michael’s got a new ICT position, working in the public sector again. We love this beautiful, watery part of New Zealand and are really glad we landed here. And despite my occasional threats to get a job at our local pet shop, I really do enjoy tap-tap-tapping away at my keyboard every day, stringing words together.

We’re all getting older, faster every day it seems and sometimes the urgency to make the most of this time we have is overwhelming. I can’t help but gaze longingly at Google Earth, at all there is to see in the world. We’ve tended, ahem, to jump headlong into wild ideas in the past. But right now, just resting here, we’re back in the dreaming phase. Trying out ideas, letting them simmer, tossing them aside. And then just gazing out the window, remembering how incredibly lucky we are to be here.

 

Sunset Parade

 

How to Move to New Zealand coverBut another benefit of staying still is seeing a project from idea to draft to finish. And here’s the latest result of all my tap-tap-tapping: a full-length eBook based on our most popular post ever, How to Move to New Zealand in 31 Easy Steps. Ever since I published that post three years ago, I’ve gotten countless emails from readers all over the world asking for more details on the New Zealand immigration process. Now, I’m not a licensed immigration adviser, so I’m not able to give specific advice to anyone, but I have enjoyed pointing people to resources for job-hunting, work visas, and tips to moving to New Zealand. Earlier this year I got the idea of putting it all together into one volume and I’m proud to announce the eBook is officially available to purchase (with print coming soon)! I worked with my Voyaging With Kids coauthor Michael Robertson and his new publishing company, Force Four Publications for this project and I’m so excited to send it out into the world.

The eBook is now available at:

kindleIBooksnookkobo

 

 

Here’s a gorgeous peek at our ‘hood. Can you tell why we love it here?

The Wing’n it has landed.

20160429_manabeachgirlsOne of the overarching goals of our extended tiki tour here in Zealandia was to decide which of our favorite corners we should settle down in for a while. Believe it or not, after nearly eight months together in an 18-foot long motorhome we are kind of ready to spread out a bit. Michael got to work on getting his CV out in the IT world again; I gaped at the 3-inch stack of paper that is my first printed draft of a novel (ok, single-sided and double spaced, but still). And the girls were literally begging to start back in school again (it worked…ha!).

But the problem was…where?? We loved boaty, beachy Tauranga, sunny Nelson, Scottish Dunedin. We still loved quirky, cool, windy Wellington and even Auckland with her wild west coast beaches and eastern islands. There is the Bay of Islands full of friends and boats. And what about somewhere completely off the map like Invercargill or New Plymouth? (Or, maybe not.)

Oriental Parade, Wellington

Welly

Welly train

In the end, our hearts pulled for Wellington so we pointed Wing’n it‘s bow south for one final time after we arrived back in Auckland from Tonga. But little did we know, back in early February, that our decision-making had only begun. Wellington’s not just a city, but a huge region; commuters flow into the city all the way from the Wairarapa and Hutt Valley to the northeast, and from Kapiti and Porirua on the southwest coast. And then there’s the plethora of funky neighborhoods in and bordering the city proper. All of which are serviced by Wellington’s world-class commuter train and bus networks. Now where do we go?!

Job hunting kinda sucks. Really thankful the girls love the library.

Job hunting kinda sucks. Really thankful the girls love the library.

Learning how to skate. A tiny adventure.

Learning how to skate. A tiny adventure.

And so it happened that by wing’n it, we ended up right where we needed to be. Wellington’s got some choice freedom camping spots and while Michael hunted for work we spent time at nearly all of them. We spent many nights at Evan’s Bay Marina just minutes from downtown and at parks on the south coast watching the sun set over the Cook Strait. But as much as we thought we wanted to live right in the bustling city, after a few days in town we always found ourselves aching for a quiet spot by the sea.

Freedom camping in the city (Evans Bay Marina, Wellington)

Freedom camping in the city (Evans Bay Marina, Wellington).

Ngatitoa Domain with our new 'hood in the distance

Ngatitoa Domain with our new ‘hood in the distance.

Just to the north of Wellington is Porirua Harbour. The city of the same name lies at the southern end but scattered around it are small neighborhoods and parks. We found ourselves coming back to the domain in Mana again and again. With Wing’n it parked right on the edge of the quiet turquoise sea, we most enjoyed unwinding after the busyness of the city. We’d park our camping chairs on the grass and watch: seagulls, families picnicking, kite boarders, sailboats, windsurfers, brave swimmers, fishing-folk. We’d chat with our rotating NZMCA neighbors, walk to the dairy for an ice-cream, stroll over the marina and look at boats. Eventually we stayed so long we wondered if we should register to vote there.

Then, one morning Michael came back from his morning run, all abuzz. “I just found the coolest little neighborhood…cafes, cottages right on the beach, people everywhere chatting and happy. You’ve got to come see this place!” The next day we drove the Wing’n it over for our second coffee and it was exactly as he said: a great coffee shop on the corner, a fish & chip shop, a dairy, Indian and Thai and Polish restaurants, a boating club, a beautiful primary school right there…all with kids and dogs and families milling about everywhere. It is quintessentially Kiwi. Best of all, there is a train station: hop on and it takes you to the center of Wellington city in 25 minutes.

Everything, as it seems to do, fell into place after that. We found a funky old bach to rent right across from the beach, Michael got not one but two job offers, we enrolled the girls in school, and even found the most adorable kitten ever at the local SPCA. We parked the Wing’n it in front of our little garage and moved out. It took about 30 minutes.

That was a month ago and we’re still so in love with where we’ve landed. The girls’ new school is warm and welcoming, shoes optional, and learning is fun, no pressure required. We can walk around the corner to the village for a coffee and ice-cream and hello to a neighbor. Or head the other direction, out to the coastal tracks. Michael takes the train into the city to work, and is home by 6 to watch the sun set past Mana Island, across the Cook Strait, dipping behind the Marlborough Sounds.

A lovely place to just be.

Our new wheels are a little more fun to drive. Sorry, Wing'n it.

Our new wheels are a little more fun to drive. Sorry, Wing’n it.

Just another weekday morning. We will miss this.

Just another weekday morning. We will miss this.

Moving day. Our new little place is the add-on on top of the original bach below. I'm standing on the beach, taking this photo.

Moving day. Our new little place is the add-on on top of the original bach below. I’m standing on the beach, taking this photo.

We went a bit crazy with our brand-new library card.

We went a bit crazy with our brand-new library card.

The hardest thing about coming back to NZ was leaving our beloved cats behind. We fulfilled our promise to get another as soon as possible. Then this guy showed up. Mr. Mouse. The coolest cat ever.

The hardest thing about coming back to NZ was leaving our beloved cats behind. We fulfilled our promise to get another as soon as possible. And just in time, we met Mr. Mouse. The coolest cat ever.

Sunset Parade

The walk to school really can't be beat.

The walk to school really can’t be beat.

Last days, unemployed

Sunset over Mana

Bach'n it

Bach’n it

 

Acquiescence

Fetoko YogaTonga time is a really interesting thing. (I even wrote about it the last time we were here, three years ago.) I don’t know if it’s the way the dateline snakes around this part of the ocean or that it’s so hot and muggy this time of year or that the people of Tonga truly epitomize what “island time” means. Whatever it is, time seems to stop here. And yet it seems like the march of days will never end. Weeks streeeeeeeetch out and it feels like our buckets are overflowing with empty hours.

Two months on a tiny tropical island is a really, really, really long time. It’s sort of like being at sea, except we’re already there. We watch the sky and the sea change, just like on our boat. We do have a small skiff and explore neighboring islands and run into town for food once a week. Our friends aboard Del Viento came by and there were bonfires and slumber parties and giggling girls running all over the place. We swing in the hammocks, squirt each other with the water pistols Santa brought. Books and books have been read. A novel draft completed. Games played. Bread baked. Stuff fixed. Movies watched. Meals cooked with mystery meat and cabbage (again). The cat is nearly bald from the amount of pets he’s been getting.

And thinking. Oh yes, I’ve been doing a whole lot of that. Trying to make sense of our lives, of the general upheaval of the past three years. I think about what didn’t work for us (a mortgage, Auckland, Common Core, shopping) and what is (living small, traveling light, cultivating real-life friendships, pursuing our interests, writing, minimalism). The problem with all this time to think is that I can imagine so many futures, so many lives worth living. But I’ve already lived a lot of them and some times I just want to go back: to our home in the woods, to our cozy little boat sailing on the sea, to the cute Seattle apartment I was living in when I met Michael at 23. But there comes a time when you have to accept that the only one you really have is this one.

2016 will be our year of acquiescence. True acceptance of who we are, what we need, what’s important to us. Right now. Some of this is practical (i.e. money to eat is up there on the list of immediate needs). Many more are intangible: more stability in friendships for the girls, more focus on my diabetes health (which travel is not so kind to). We want to live in a city again, where ideas and people collide in so many interesting ways. We’ll keep living small (the girls comment daily how they miss the coziness we had aboard Wing’n it). We want to plant some roots for a bit; this shy, introverted family needs time to cultivate deeper friendships. And we love New Zealand, despite all the challenges of living on a small island nation thousands of miles from our loved ones.

It is a lot like being at sea here, the more I think of it. Just like being on passage, I love all these hours with nothing else to do but simply be. Having spent weeks at a time at sea I know you can’t keep looking forward to the destination. You will drive yourself crazy with the desire for a cheeseburger, and a cold beer, and perfectly salted chips. No, you have to take each day, each hour, each minute at a time, focus on what’s directly in front of you before it slips by. I don’t know if we’ll ever get such a vast spread of empty days again so I don’t want to forget it, this time.

Santa brought water pistols for Christmas. Isn't he clever? (That's our lighted Christmas palm behind them.) They only each got one thing on their Santa wish lists (ebooks) but later said they got everything they wanted.

Santa brought water pistols for Christmas. Isn’t he clever? (That’s our lighted Christmas palm behind them.) They only each got one thing on their Santa wish lists (ebooks) but later said they got everything they wanted.

There's a bit of Christmas here, too. We miss the coziness of a northern hemisphere holiday, but not the crowds, shopping, traffic...I think it's just right here.

There’s a bit of Christmas in Tonga, too. We miss the coziness of a northern hemisphere holiday, but not the crowds, shopping, traffic…I think it’s just right here.

The Neiafu market. It's tomato salad for dinner. And pasta with tomato sauce.

The Neiafu market. It’s tomato salad for dinner. And pasta with tomato sauce.

They have no trouble keeping busy (as long as I ignore the "I'm bored" complaints)

They have no trouble keeping busy (as long as I ignore the “I’m bored” complaints)

Sand Cay

The Voyaging With Kids cover girls reunite aboard Del Viento, four years after the original was taken. They've grown a tad.

The Voyaging With Kids cover girls reunite aboard Del Viento, four years after the original was taken. They’ve grown a tad.

Exploring Swallow's Cave, courtesy of Del Viento (photo by Michael Robertson)

Exploring Swallow’s Cave, courtesy of Del Viento (photo by Michael Robertson)

The girls love taking care of the Fetoko animals. They know what to do as the temperatures have started soaring lately.

The girls love taking care of the Fetoko animals. They know what to do as the temperatures have started soaring lately.

Dad and daughter make bread. We don't have an oven aboard Wing'n it and are sure making up for lost baking time here.

Dad and daughter make bread. We don’t have an oven aboard Wing’n it and are sure making up for lost baking time here.

Wondertime Family, Tonga 2015

Wondertime Family, Tonga 2015 (photo by Michael Robertson)

Tonga Interlude

Fetoko from the airMonths and months ago, before we even left Olympia for New Zealand, our friends Ben and Lisa contacted us and asked if we were interested in watching over their island resort in Tonga for three months while they traveled over the austral summer.

Um, does the sun set in the west?

While we traveled aboard Wing’n it in New Zealand we communicated back and forth and eventually our plans coalesced: we would fly to Tonga in mid-November and stay through early February. In the meantime, our friends would brave the cold and take over Wing’n it down in N.Z. to do some land-traveling of their own.

We met Ben & Lisa on Waking Dream waaaay back in 2002, when Michael and I were working our way down the California coast aboard our Alberg 35 Pelican. (Yeah, those were different days.) Along with a handful of other boat crews also in their late 20s, we went on to have an epic season exploring Mexico together. While we returned to Seattle afterwards, they spent another season in Mexico, then continued on to the South Pacific. When they got to Vava’u, Tonga they fell in love with the place and stopped. They’ve been here ever since living the entrepreneurial dream: opening up a restaurant, adventure tourism company, and now their latest project, beautiful Mandala Resort on tiny Fetoko Island.

But everybody needs a break, even in paradise, so they’ve been having caretakers watch over the island the past few years while they do some overseas travel in the off-season. There’s a lot to do here, like feed their two adorable dogs Bosun & Higgs and cat Benzini, sweep the floor, make sure the hammocks and kayaks are in working order. I think we’re up to the job.

Our first view of Fetoko in over three years. Wondertime anchored in front for weeks and weeks in 2012. It's a little weird to not have her here with us.

Our first view of Fetoko in over three years. Wondertime anchored in front for weeks and weeks in 2012. It’s a little weird to not have her here with us.

There's even wifi.

There’s even wifi.

Leah scored the treehouse fale. I don't think she's ever going to leave.

Leah scored the treehouse fale. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get her to leave.

Leah in her treehouse palace.

Leah in her treehouse palace.

The girls are over the moon to have their own rooms, for the first time in seven years. I estimate we could fit 4 Wing'n it's in each one.

The girls are over the moon to have their own rooms, for the first time in seven years. I estimate we could fit 4 Wing’n it’s in each one.

Here's the view from my bed. Pretty much the same view from every bed, since the island is barely 3 acres big. I truly forgot how blue the South Pacific ocean is.

Here’s the view from my bed. Pretty much the same view from every bed, since the island is barely 3 acres big. I truly forgot how gloriously blue the tropical South Pacific ocean is.

We can't keep Holly out of the water.

We can’t keep Holly out of the water.

One last dinner with Lisa before she's off to NZ.

One last dinner with Lisa before she’s off to NZ.

And I've saved the best photo for last: I delivered a copy of Voyaging With Kids to my coauthor, Michael Robertson. He and his family aboard Del Viento have been working their way across the South Pacific this year and he hadn't seen it yet so that was great fun. It's also great fun to spend time with one of our favorite families, who we hadn't seen since La Paz in 2012. As is typical, all four girls picked up right where they left off.

And I’ve saved the best photo for last: I delivered a copy of Voyaging With Kids to my coauthor, Michael Robertson. He and his family aboard Del Viento have been working their way across the South Pacific this year and he hadn’t seen the actual book yet so that was great fun. Of course, as our girls did, his grabbed the book from him and wouldn’t give it back for an hour. It’s also great fun to spend time with this awesome family, who we hadn’t seen since La Paz in 2012. As is typical in the cruising world, all four girls (and all four adults) picked up right where we left off. They’re here for the cyclone season so we have plenty of time to catch up.

We Are Learning

Throwing stones - Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, South IslandA well-meaning family member recently asked us the question that every single long-term travel family hears, and often: but what about school? Aren’t they going to get behind?

I must admit that I am a reluctant homeschool mum. When we moved back to Olympia last year and the big yellow school bus picked the girls up for their very first day of American public school, I went back into the house, turned up the stereo full blast and may have danced in joy for a couple hours (or at least that’s what it felt like). I had hours and hours to myself to read and write with Michael off to work and the girls off to school.

But then the homework was sent home in my all-day kindergartner’s backpack. And the tears from dealing with mean kids at school. Also, complaints about the computer reading tests foisted upon our 3rd grader and how so-and-so got a higher score than she did. Fall conference time arrived and we sat in front of our daughter’s kindergarten teacher and tried to pay attention as she went over pages of data on our 5-year-old’s current progress. On her 6th birthday I brought in class cupcakes and asked when I should come back for the party. “Oh, I don’t know when we’ll eat them,” her teacher told me. “I like to surprise the kids sometime during the day.” In other words, get lost.

A month later I took Holly out of school. We played. Read books. Counted stuff. Shopped together. Made art. She was a happy 6-year-old again.

I took Leah out a month after that. She was becoming increasingly distressed about school. She had made some very good friends, but was bored silly in class. Most of the kids didn’t listen to her teacher and they would have to stay inside and miss recess. Totally makes sense, right? Ever since she was little she’d pick her fingernails when she was anxious; hers were bloody and sore.

So even though my days since have been a little more hectic and it’s been a challenge to carve out time for myself to write, I know that we made the right choice. The past five months of traveling aboard Wing’n it has only reinforced that: not worrying about tests, evaluations, curriculum and pointless busy work has resulted in them being kids again. Happy, curious, thoughtful, patient, and pure sponges of knowledge.

Together, we are learning constantly. We read things, we count things, we draw things. We look up topics that interest us. We look at maps and decide where to go next. We talk about history, geology, wildlife, ecology, conservation, sociology, economics. We visit libraries and read for hours, picking books off shelves that strike our fancy. We’ve learned how to get along living in a teensy space. We talk about budgeting and how we must give up one thing to choose another. We’ve learned how it’s far better to have experiences rather than wasting money on climbing the “property ladder” or buying the latest plastic junk. We’ve learned how to set goals and then go for them.

I honestly don’t know if they are ahead or behind in school. But I do know they are leaps and bounds ahead in life and I think what we’re learning together will serve them well.

Puzzling World, Lake Wanaka

Puzzling World, Lake Wanaka

Queenstown/Cardrona Snow!

Queenstown/Cardrona late spring snow…first time in the white stuff in over 5 years!

Clifden Caves near Fjordland. (I totally chickened out when crawling became necessary. Luckily Michael is braver than I and he and the girls kept exploring underground.)

Clifden Caves near Fjordland. (I totally chickened out when crawling became necessary. Luckily Michael is braver than I and he and the girls kept exploring underground.)

McLean Falls, Catlins, South Island

McLean Falls, Catlins, South Island

Dunedin Telephone Booths

Dunedin Telephone Booths

World Famous Moeraki Boulders

World Famous Moeraki Boulders

Learning about earthquakes in crumbling Christchurch

Learning about earthquakes in crumbling Christchurch

Center of downtown Christchurch, 5 years later. The stones in the giant cairn are each written upon with a wish for the city's rebuild.

Center of downtown Christchurch, 5 years later. The stones in the giant cairn are each written upon with a wish for the city’s rebuild.

NZ fur seal pups frolicking in a waterfall. It's a 10 minute walk from the ocean; the mothers leave them here in a sort of seal pup daycare. Cute overload. (Kaikoura)

NZ fur seal pups frolicking in a waterfall. It’s a 10 minute walk from the ocean; the mothers leave them here in a sort of seal pup daycare. Cute overload. (Kaikoura)

Beer tasting in Marlborough Wine Country

Beer tasting in Marlborough Wine Country

Happy to be back in Welly

Happy to be back in Welly

Back to School

First Day of School

While it seems like summer is finally getting underway here, it’s already back-to-school time. Yesterday, both girls started their new classes at their Auckland primary school. It was Holly’s first full-day of school, ever.

I was so looking forward to it. All of us were. We were all a bit tired of bumping into each other on the boat and looking forward to this week, when we could each head out into the city on our own to learn and explore. I was anxious to get started on writing down some of the stories that have been bouncing inside my head. Both girls were excited to see the friends we hadn’t been able to see over break again.

Today, after dropping them off at their new classrooms for the second morning in a row I came back to our empty, silent boat. I made myself a latte and sat down, the whole settee to myself. And felt the unease that had been looming settle in.

Yesterday after school I tried to coax the girls into telling me how their first day back at school was. “Oh, it was good,” Holly answered. “Fine,” was Leah’s response. They both had had fun at recess and were glad to be able to play together this year. After a little downtime with a snack and an audiobook, the girls threw on some ratty shorts and t-shirts. They grabbed their life jackets and jumped down to the dock and peered down into the water, their small fishing net poised to snatch any unsuspecting fishes that would soon swim by. I had dinner on the table before I was able to coax them back on the boat, each girl talking at such a rapid pace I could barely follow them: they’d seen tiny jellyfish with bright red middles, spent some time scraping invasive fanworms off the dock, caught some more shrimp, were certain they’d seen a nudibranch (“but it was dead”).

The memory of this wants to break me apart today.

Day 1 agenda

Year 1, day 1 agenda

I remember all that we experienced over the school break: hiking out at Great Barrier, Leah’s fascination with carnivorous plants (resulting in a pile of books from the library and our very own Venus Fly Trap that we miraculously haven’t killed yet), afternoons at the swimming pool, Holly singing along to friends jamming on ukeleles late into the summer’s night. It seems cruel to stuff them into these classrooms that seem boring even to me: a few books on a shelf, a couple buckets of blocks, a table of computers and some ipads stuck in the corner. Teachers that seem rushed and busy and overwhelmed, already. The days of dressups, sand boxes, fingerpaints at school gone for good. I can’t help but wonder: what are they actually learning? How to get along with others? How to sit quietly and wait your turn? How to sit in your cubicle and get your work done as told? The cynic in me sees what the end goal really is.

Leah’s hope for school this year is that there is more science this year than last. In my heart I know she’s got years before they move on to the type of knowledge she regularly seeks out on her own, before they move on from the basics of reading, writing, and maths. I just tell her, “I hope so too. But we can learn about science on our own too.”

At the age of 8, I watch Leah invent projects for herself, get interested in subjects and want to research them to death. There’s a pile of notebooks in her bed that is filling with notes and drawings. She plans outings for us, museums she wants to go visit. She asks for certain books from the library and spends hours reading in bed to herself. Maybe this is all that learning is about. After years of feeling overwhelmed by the idea of homeschooling, I think I finally understand that my main job would be to just get out of the way.

Then again, it’s been eight looooong years since I’ve had this many hours all to myself so maybe it’s just something to get used to. It’s always difficult sending your last baby off to school. But now I’m writing this at 1 in the afternoon, not at 11 pm. The girls’ primary has allowed us to immerse ourselves in the community and culture here in ways that keeping them to myself wouldn’t. Everything comes with frustration, at some level. We’ll settle in. And then it will be time again for something new.

16 Things We Love About New Zealand That Surprised Us

Auckland pohutukawasI know my posts lately have been a little whiney. But while we’ve been feeling a bit homesick and have been missing our lazy, warm tropical island days (I know, cry me a river) there still is at least one moment of each day where I feel a sudden giddiness that we’re in New Zealand, indefinitely. There is so much to love here and I’m sure you know all about the good wine, scenery, famous movies and friendly people. Here are a few things that have surprised us about our adopted land that we’ve grown to love, in no particular order.

1. Pohutukawas are quiet green bushy trees most of the year, scattered throughout the country in city parks and on beaches alike. But then in early December, a few weeks before Christmas, KAPOW! They burst forth with bright red fluffy flowers all over, just in time to celebrate the season. The New Zealand Christmas trees are certainly the prettiest we’ve ever seen.

2. Christmas at the beach Despite retailer’s continued efforts, Christmas here is still less about the stuff and more about spending time with your family, usually at the beach and followed with a sausage sizzling on the grill. The Christmases of my childhood were always a huge affair with decorations everywhere, elaborate meals, parties, piles of gifts and my mother no doubt took years off her life preparing for it all. Not me: I love the simplicity of a few basic decorations (see “Pohutukawa” or “Look girls! A Christmas tree!”), a couple of gifts for the girls from Santa and a day of just being with friends and family with sandy toes under the sun and time to enjoy it all. It helps that the school summer break starts a few days before Christmas, a time of year so good that it even has the best name ever: Silly Season.

We Love Sand

3. Bare feet Apparently, even in the city and at primary school, shoes are completely optional.

4. Jandals If they are not barefoot then Kiwis protect their piggies with a pair of jandals, otherwise known as flip-flops or thongs. Even in winter here on the North Island. Which brings me to….

5. Winter in Auckland No snow. No frost. Lots of sunny days between rain and wind and thunderstorms (which keep it interesting). Just right.

Our Auckland slip on a sunny day last winter. Locals tell us it's *never* this nice usually.

Our Auckland slip on a sunny day last winter. Locals tell us it’s never this nice, usually.

A mid-winter hike in the Waitakere. The hats are just for fun and show, it's really not that cold out.

A mid-winter hike in the Waitakere. The hats are just for fun and show, it’s really not that cold out. Muddy and wet, yes.

6. Legends Aotearoa is a land of myth and legend: the taniwhas, Tāne Mahuta, Maui, Kupe, the first wakas to sail to NZ from Hawaiki. Maori stories live rich in this land and are interwoven into life everywhere. When you walk through a great forest, or gaze out at the Tasman from a clifftop, the spirit of the land is omnipresent and it’s easy to feel why this is the land of story.

The gannet colony at Muriwai beach. Amazing.

The gannet colony at Muriwai beach looking over the Tasman. Amazing.

Tāne Mahuta. Lord of the Forest.

Tāne Mahuta. Lord of the Forest.

7. Language On a planet where languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s so refreshing to see Te Reo Māori, the original language of New Zealand, being studied and celebrated and respected here. The girls learn Māori words and songs at school, Universities offer tuition-free classes, there is even an entire TV station broadcast mainly in Te Reo Māori. Coming from a place where people are denigrated for speaking languages other than English, it’s incredibly hopeful to hear the words of the ancients freely spoken.

Holly learns about Maori traditions at Kindy during Matariki, celebration of the Maori new year which occurs in May/June.

Holly learns about Maori traditions at Kindy during Matariki, celebration of the Maori new year which occurs in May/June.

8. A Land of immigrants In Auckland at least, in addition to hearing Māori being spoken you are just as likely to hear Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Tongan, French, Spanish, German…you get the idea. Auckland is the most international city we’ve ever been to with residents coming from literally around the world. The girls’ central city school is a true united nations of students and we’ve got friends from South Africa, Pakistan, India, Philippines, Ireland, China. I’ll have to write more on this later because it’s the aspect that has had such a positive impact on the girl’s view of the world as well as really feeling what it is to be an American.

Leah and favorite school friends

Leah and favorite school friends

9. The schools It took a while for me to get used to just handing the girls over to others to teach each day but thankfully the excellent schools here have made the transition easy. New Zealand schools are not bogged down in standards and testing and constant evaluations like US schools are. While they do have general guidelines to follow, schools here are free to experiment, adjust their teaching plans to suit their students’ specific needs and take on new ideas at a rapid pace. What this means for us is that both girls have learned a whole lot this past year, but more importantly they love school and think it is great fun which is the best lesson they could learn there.

Leah hated homework - or homelearning as they like to call it here - at the beginning of the year but now she thinks it's fun. Win! She turns in her last sheet tomorrow, summer break is coming!

Leah hated homework – or homelearning as they like to call it here – at the beginning of the year but now she thinks it’s fun. Win! She turns in her last sheet tomorrow, summer break is coming!

Holly's Kindy class visited a climbing gym this year for a field trip. Adventure sports starts early here.

Holly’s kindy class visited a climbing gym this year for a field trip. Adventure sports starts early here.

10. Swimming Knowing how to swim here is akin to knowing how to add 2 + 2. Starting at age 5 at primary school all kids spend two days a week during the summer/fall terms working on their swimming skills. Most primary schools have their own pools. The Auckland swimming pools even let kids in for free to swim anytime up to the age of 16. Makes sense when you are surrounded by ocean.

Holly at the Tepid Baths, Auckland

11. An unarmed society Want to know the most shocking thing we learned after arriving in NZ? Not even the police carry handguns. No kidding. Cops walking down the street in Auckland are noticeably firearm-free; they have to call in the special armed-force for any serious crimes. This is not a land of guns, but it’s not gun-free: there is a rigorous application, education and interview process to gain a firearms licence and the guns themselves are tightly controlled and monitored. As a result, gun crime is extremely rare. 2007 data shows that for every 100,000 New Zealanders there were 0.16 homicides by firearm. For every 100,000 Americans? Nearly 3.

12. Awesome signs

Stay Sober - Get the Boys Home

Kiwisaver? Or work 'till you die.

Danger

Cheese, Kindergarten or Timber?

13. Southernmost Polynesia Just like the islands of Hawaii are the northernmost Polynesian islands, the islands of New Zealand are the most southern. For some reason we thought when we left Tonga we were leaving Polynesia largely behind but were happily surprised to find that is definitely not the case. Maori culture is very similar to that of the Marquesans (some believe the Maori came from eastern Polynesia originally). They say Auckland is the largest Polynesian city with not only a large Maori population but people from Tahiti, the Cooks, Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Fiji also have made their home here now. While it’s regretful that they are unable to make a good living back in their home islands, we love the vibrant culture that Pacific islanders have added to the already Polynesian New Zealand: the food, music, art, tattoos and color of Polynesia is all around us here and we love it.

Maori carving at the Arataki Visitor Center, Waitakere Ranges

Maori carving at the Arataki Visitor Center, Waitakere Ranges

14. Panelbeaters Our first car here was a late-90s model Subaru station wagon, just like the many others we had back in Washington but with the steering wheel on the wrong side. Well, one day Michael was turning into the parking lot at our marina and the car behind him neglected to stop and dented the trunk fairly badly. Since the car was only worth about $2000 we thought for sure the insurance company would total the car and just give us the cash. Nope. They paid nearly $2500 to fix and repaint the whole aft end of the car by a local “panelbeater” shop. (We sold that car not long after for $1800. Sigh). The whole point of this is to illustrate that New Zealanders are loathe to just throw perfectly good things out if they can be fixed. Since we are stuck on two tiny islands thousands of kilometers from anywhere, people here don’t abandon things that are broken, they fix them. Or beat them back into shape, apparently.

15. Cussing and boobs If you are offended by hearing f-bombs on the radio in the middle of the day or nekked boobies on your television after the kids are in bed, well, you should probably keep your radio and TV off here because no one else seems to mind. We get Hell Pizza delivered right to our boat on a regular basis and I nearly neglected to stop my own car on Ponsonby road one day when I looked up and saw this billboard:

Traffic Stopping Billboard

16. Kids in bars The first time we visited the local sailors pub to grab a pint and a bite to eat we tentatively stepped into the dusty dim room and asked if kids could eat inside. “Sure,” the barkeep said, “As long as they don’t drink or smoke!” Yeah, I think we’ll stay for a while.

The can get their own drinks.

They can get their own drinks.

Giving Thanks, New Zealand 2013

Sailing into the Hauraki GultIt has been three long years since we’ve had a proper Thanksgiving feast with our dear families. We both, Michael and I, come from families who gather each year and give thanks around a table sagging with roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes…the works. It’s not the food we miss, obviously, but the closeness of treasured grandparents, siblings, parents, cousins and the special feeling that a gathering of generations brings.

Perhaps it’s the time of year or maybe it’s that we’ve just passed the one-year mark since we first sailed into New Zealand waters. Whichever it is, we’ve been feeling so homesick lately. Painfully so. The other night I was a blubbering bawling mess, I wanted to be back home in Olympia so bad that the next morning I got online to get quotes to put our little ship on a big ship back home [I also learned that I’d have to start selling my organs to be able to afford that.]

We are getting pretty used to life here but I still crave the familiar so much it hurts sometimes. I want to hug my Grandma. I want my Dad to see how much his granddaughters grew last month and hear Holly’s latest “joke” live. Silly things too: I want to go to Costco and buy a tub of those salty smoked almonds I love so, I want to pop down the street and fill my growler with ice-cold Fish Tale organic pale ale. I want to drive down the street to Starbucks to have a coffee with my dear friend Stacy and talk about all the cute and annoying things our kids have been doing over vanilla lattes.

Bigger things too: sometimes, we admit, we look at Windermere.com and sigh at all the affordable houses and dream of having a little cabin of our own just a short walk to the beach. I look at Lincoln Elementary’s lunch menu and weep (our Auckland primary offers Subway on Fridays). Sometimes we just tire of the questions: “You’re not from here are you?” “You are American? What are you doing here?” “How long do you plan to stay here?” “You live on a boat?!?” Sometimes it’s fun to tell our story, but sometimes we just want to blend in. Sometimes we just feel exhausted with it all.

Now the Holidays loom which doesn’t make it any easier. I will say that the fact that it’s pretty much summertime and the sun is shining warm and bright and I’m living in jandals again does make this a bit more tolerable. And then we got a special invitation for a true American Thanksgiving up at Kawau Island. We tidied up our home and set sail just like old times.

We dropped our hook in North Cove, in front of Mickey Mouse Marine, the shop and home that Lin and Larry Pardey made over the past 30 years after they’d sailed their little boat into that bay once upon a time. There was another boat there, Ganesh, the new home of another well-salted pair, Carolyn and her husband Captain Fatty. At the dinner Saturday night, we learned Brion Toss was in town as well, along with the crew of Galactic, another cruising family from the NW. And a whole bunch of other interesting local characters.

It was as amazing as it would seem, to be in the company of such revered, friendly, funny and well-travelled writing sailors. A lot of the talk wasn’t about sailing at all it turned out. But I did pinch myself listening in to Larry and Brion banter about the merits of three-strand rope. Our daughters were playing with Lin’s slinky and got it all tangled up of course. Someone suggested “give it to Brion!” so we did. That kept him busy for a while. Lin whipped up a Thanksgiving feast of epic proportions in her small galley kitchen and when it started to rain we moved all the tables inside their cozy tidy home. We called all the kids up who had been running around somewhere playing in delight then all 35 of us stuffed ourselves around the tables sagging with roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes…and gave thanks that we were together here nearly at the end of the world. We realized we were with family this year after all: our family of sailors, a gathering of generations.

Later, after the dishes were cleared and our bellies were stuffed yet again with pumpkin pie and apple pie and zucchini bread and chocolates and more wine we sat back and listened to Captain Fatty play his guitar and sing with his sweet wife Carolyn’s voice filling in.

Our view of our world shifted a bit then in that beautiful wooden room Larry built with his weathered hands now filled with music played by legends. How lucky we are to be in this place, far from home. Experiencing things that we’d once dreamed of, things we’d never even been able to imagine. The feeling that things are unfolding as they should, that we just need to be open to them and not afraid.

Thankful for the fortune that our lives are filled with the wonder we craved when we set off into the world.

Aotearoa Trick or Treat

Auckland Trick or TreatAs we haven’t had a good trick or treating since we were in San Diego in 2011, the girls were on pins and needles for days leading up to this years All Hallows’ Eve in Auckland. They had their costumes planned out for weeks (Potato Bug Leah and Holly the Fairy, again). We invited one of Leah’s best girlfriends from school and her mum along with us for company (and to show us the best local spots for free candy). After a dinner of bloodied boiled brains (i.e. spaghetti) we set out into the bright evening springtime streets of Freeman’s Bay.

We wandered down the street and eventually ended up near an apartment complex. We were the only trick or treaters around. In fact, the street was so empty we wondered if we had the date wrong at first. Finally we spotted something — a picture of a pumpkin on the door of a nearby apartment. It was kind of difficult to see through the flower blossoms.

The three girls ran up to the door and knocked. They jumped back a bit when it opened and a nice looking woman poked her head out. Then they remembered to say “Trick or treat!” She smiled at them and tossed a handful of candy into each of their bags. Success!

Wandering around a bit more we came across a few other decorated doors. Eventually we passed another small group of trick or treaters, kids the girls’ recognized from school. They’d just come from Anglesea street, and told us that was the street to hit so we continued on that way.

Springtime All Hallows' Eve

Springtime All Hallows’ Eve

The first few houses were dark and the little white picket fence gates were closed so we continued on. Above us clouds were starting to spit out rain so we tried to hustle the girls along in case they decided to open up (which can happen at any moment in Auckland). We came to a little house that had a group of young chaps hanging out on the front porch, sipping glasses of white wine. One of them was dressed like a zombie so we figured they might be game. Our trick or treaters were rewarded with a bit more candy in their bags.

A little bit farther up the street we found a house with the gate open and a note tacked to the door: “Only knock IF you can answer a riddle…have you got what it takes to claim a reward?” The girls hesitated, unsure, but then knocked. The door was opened by a fellow wearing a bright yellow character suit. He grinned at them and asked if they knew which Pokemon he was. He was answered by blank stares, from all of us. We waited. Finally, he announced that he’d make an exception due to age (too young on the girls’ part, too old for ours, apparently) and candy was dished out.

By this time, it was raining full force and we hid under a carport for a few minutes while we waited for the cloud to pass. We looked into the window near us and watched a little Halloween party happening with everyone cozily sipping drinks and plates of treats on the tables. We were thinking those people had the right idea.

As we knew it would, the rain eased after 10 minutes or so and we continued on. More dark houses. Then we were thrilled to come across one that was decorated in the good old American style with huge fake spiders and cobwebs, a bloody “KEEP OUT” sign strung across the tall solid white gate. Which was locked. Hmm. We kept walking.

Another brightly lit house a few houses down. The girls walked up the path and knocked eagerly on the stained glass door, no longer nervous. An older fellow answered. We had hung back and overheard him saying things like “Oh dear, let me check,” and saw him go into the house. He came back a minute later. “I don’t seem to have anything. I’m so sorry. Oh wait a minute.” He was gone again for a minute and returned. “I have some money, but I only seem to have $50 notes…” Behind him a woman was wrapped in a towel, having just gotten out of the shower. We finally realized what was going on and waved to him, telling him not to worry about it. He appeared relieved.

It was dark by this time and the last few houses we’d visited while walking back on the other side of the street appeared to have emptied their candy bowls into the girls’ treat bags. Or as happened a number of times, the person who answered disappeared into the house for a bit and returned with a small bag of candy they must have retrieved from the pantry. Much of the candy in the girls bags were unwrapped chocolate pieces, marshmallows, gummy bits, pineapple lumps. We all ate some along the way.

We decided to try one last lit house on our way back to our flat. After the girls proudly declared “Trick or treat!” we could hear the woman who answered the door apologize profusely, saying that she’d just gotten home from work and didn’t have any candy. The girls didn’t mind; with their treat bags bulging and their feet and legs tired we continued on up the dark and empty street to bed.

It certainly wasn’t the San Diego Halloween of 2011, a thronging street party with houses decorated like Hollywood sets and people handing out full-sized Snickers bars and bags of M&Ms. Auckland Halloween 2013 was just as fun though, to experience people trying out this holiday that is a bit new to New Zealand and watching them see how fun a night of silliness with neighbors can be.