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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

 

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

Our Shoes Are Made For Walking

Ship Creek walking

Up until now, nearly midway through spring in early October, it’s felt like we’ve had New Zealand to ourselves. Up on the North island, we might go days without seeing another campervan or motorhome. But now we’ve been working our way south down the west coast of the South Island and are nearly to Queenstown. We’ve found ‘em.

But the whole island hasn’t been this way. After getting Wing’n It WOF’ed in Nelson (which included having her rear brakes rebuilt, some minor electrical issues fixed, and a new clutch cylinder put on—causing a night’s stay at a hotel while she was in the shop which nobody complained about one bit) we headed out to Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay. On our way back through, we stopped at a tiny coffee/wool shop atop Takaka pass and chatted with the barista. “We see a lot of locals out here, but not many tourists. It’s just too far off the beaten track. They don’t have the time.”

Pelorus River walk

After, we made our way to Nelson Lakes (which are stunning, but still frosty at night so our stop was quick at NZ$45/night for a powered campsite where we could plug in our space heater). Then back out to the coast again to make our way down the wild west coast. In sleepy Westport we felt like we’d driven through a portal to the Oregon Coast: slight gray overcast, wide sandy driftwood-covered beach, a breakwater to cut the swell for incoming boats, blooming yellow gorse (a relative to scotch broom and just as invasive).

A couple of days later we found ourselves down the road in Greymouth. What used to be, like most of the towns on this coast, a rip-roaring gold rush town has been turned into a tourist trap. Not only is Greymouth the terminus of the Tranz-Alpine train which crosses the island from Christchurch, it’s also where rental motorhomes make the right turn to cross the island via Arthur’s Pass back to the barn in Christchurch.

Wharariki Beach dune walk

In working our way down the coast from Greymouth, we found ourselves in a whole other country. The locals down here call the South Island the mainland and we’re still trying to figure out what they mean by that exactly. But considering that tourism provides 7% of New Zealand’s GDP I think we understand quite what they mean.

Life in rural New Zealand is pretty slow. We’ve passed quad-bikes on the road driven by sheep farmers, a couple herding dogs riding on the back, all of them smiling in the breeze. Sheep look up at us lazily, sometimes, as we drive past. The prancing newborn lambs seem to be the quickest thing around. Shop keepers always have time to chat. When they learn that we actually live here they are quick to divulge local secrets: from the best (cheapest) shops to buy groceries in to hidden trails perfect for kids to good free places to camp.

Takaka Labrynth Rocks walk

Yesterday we stopped at a small roadside stand that was selling whitebait patties. (It’s the season to catch these tiny juvenile fish at river mouths. They are about 2” long with clear bodies. Each delicious mouthful consists of at least 5 of these fish, which taste like sweet cream fishy butter. I wish I could show you a photo, but I left the camera in the camper). The couple who’d stopped along with us, took some photos, gulped down their patty, then jumped in their rental car and drove away. We stood around chatting with the stand owner while she finished frying ours up. “Tourist season must be starting up?” I asked her. “Do people fly in to Queenstown and start there?”

“It’s getting busy, for sure,” she replied. “Most people fly into Christchurch, then do a loop through Queenstown, up the coast then back across the pass to Christchurch. We call them ‘loopies’.”

We all laughed at that, then I mentioned that we were off to Haast to hopefully find some groceries for dinner. She grabbed her local map and gave me directions to the shop that didn’t raise their prices in tourist season.

While we chat, the tourists zip by outside. They’ll stop to take a quick photo to Instagram, then they fly away again on to tick the next box on Lonely Planet’s Must-Do List. Trails longer than 30 minutes are virtually empty. People here for two or three or four weeks just don’t have the time for anything longer it seems.

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes walk

But look, maybe we’re just jealous. While we’re currently rich on time, we’re poor on cash (it’s either one or the other, right?). At the Franz Josef Glacier visitor’s centre we held a brochure in our hands for helicopter rides over Franz and nearby Fox Glaciers. The girls were pleading please please please. Franz Glacier has receded so much that the only way to really view it is to land on it via air (earlier that day we’d walked the hour to the viewing point but were still a kilometer or two away from the face). All of us really wanted to get on that glacier.

But in the end, we just couldn’t do it. NZ$600 for a 20-minute ride (20-minutes!) was just too dear. Our denied helicopter trip joined Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (NZ$85/family), kayaking in Abel Tasman (NZ$200/pp/day), Shanty Town (NZ$75/family), and beer tasting at Tui Brewery (NZ$20/tasting). I’m going to bet we skip skydiving in Queenstown and heli-skiing on the Tasman Glacier, too.

Cape Foulwind walk

But what we can afford to do, we do a lot of and that is walking. We only need to drive an hour or two each day until we find another interesting spot to explore on foot. We’ve hiked to waterfalls via the Pelorus River; along the Abel Tasman coastal track; along the dunes to Wharariki Beach; licked anal tube excretions of insects living in trees on Lake Rotiti in Nelson Lakes (tastes like honey, I swear); through ghost towns and a 140-year-old cemetery in Lyell, Buller Gorge; atop cliffs misty with crashing waves at Cape Foulwind; read historical signs along the Hokitika river; walking along the river in Nelson we heard a Tui’s call in a tree overhead and stopped to listen to his enchanting guttural chatter. Yesterday we pulled into a small park along the west coast, meandered through native Kahikatea  (white pine) swamp and learned most of these huge trees had been shipped offshore in the form of crates for butter and cheese that the cows make that live on former forest land.

Franz Josef Glacier walk

But listen, you don’t have travel slowly to experience slow travel as we are, trail by trail. There’s an intimacy in getting to know a place step by step and we’ve always relished walking wherever we’ve traveled, even if we’re only there for a week or two. And there’s a lot of walking in New Zealand; the entire country is connected by trails (someday maybe we’ll even attempt some of the Great Walks). But the hour or two we spend on each trail with our young crew is enough for now. Each path is uniquely it’s own in history, nature, and beauty. All the things that make this country so lovely, what’s it all about.

Ship Creek swamp walk

Abel Tasman tidepool

Abel Tasman view

Abel Tasman drive

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes

Nelson beach walk

Lake Wanaka

World Class Wellington

Wing'n It family in Welly

For the past three weeks aboard Wing’n It, we’ve been meandering our way southward, trying to move fast enough to see all there is to see, but slow enough so we don’t catch up with the frost that’s still popping up now and then south of us. We really enjoyed our visit to Napier on Hawke’s Bay (freedom camping right on the beach in town, walking distance to the library, swimming pool, grocery stores, laundromat, shopping). We’d planned the perfect field trip: taking the girls to a winery that had an education center but sadly found this one, and most, wineries closed for the rest of winter. After that, we were all kind of anxious to get to the big city and zipped through the Wairarapa region (more farms and closed wineries) to get southward, frost be damned.

Freedom camping is welcomed in Napier. Many places it's not...better get down here before freedom camping is a thing of the past!

Freedom camping is welcomed in Napier. Many places it’s not…better get down here before freedom camping is a thing of the past!

Watching the daily shark feeding at National Aquarium of New Zealand (Napier)

Watching the daily shark feeding at National Aquarium of New Zealand (Napier)

You can't tell from this photo, but this random place in the seeming middle of nowhere was heaven. There are free hot unlimited showers in the building on the right and the shed next to it has couches, a TV and a VCR(!) with piles of VHS tapes. So retro.

You can’t tell from this photo, but this random place in the seemingly middle of nowhere was heaven. There are free hot unlimited showers in the building on the right and the shed next to it has couches, a TV and a VCR(!) with piles of VHS tapes. So retro.

We did stop at the Tui Brewery for a wee tour

Pit stop at the Tui Brewery for a wee tour

But first, we had to stop at Rivendell:

We only saw two elves at Rivendell. (Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington)

We only saw two elves at Rivendell. (Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington)

Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington

We’ve been to Wellington before (Anzac weekend, April 2013 to be exact). But this trip was a little bit different. Our last time here was a whirlwind long weekend drive down the North Island with a stop at Lake Taupo and two nights in Windy Welly. (It wasn’t windy that weekend, but sunny, clear, and calm which we were told not to expect again). They were right.

Spring sprung upon us while we were in Wellington this time, with typical weather: sideways rain, howling wind, and enough sun breaks just to tease. But we didn’t care. We’d built Wellington up in our minds, as someplace we might like to stop and work for a while, make some friends, put the girls in school once we’re done with our Wing’n It wanderings. But we’ve done that before and sometimes the actual place fails to live up to our vision of it. But this time, Wellington did no such thing.

We spent a week in the city and loved every minute–even with the rain and wind (we figure this is why Welly has the best beer and coffee in the entire country). The city is spotless. We felt safe walking anywhere at any time of day which is definitely something I can’t say about any town in America these days. There are beautiful museums, libraries, parks, bookstores, night markets, art galleries—all free to explore.

First day of spring (Wellington)

First day of spring (Wellington)

Downtown Wellington: clean, safe, and beautiful

Downtown Wellington: clean, safe, and beautiful

Exploring our new nation's capital (Parliament buildings, Wellington)

Exploring our new nation’s capital (Parliament buildings, Wellington)

We toured Weta Cave and learned a few movie-making secrets.

We toured Weta Cave and learned a few movie-making secrets.

Wellington's AMAZING Sunday Market (and this is in late Winter!)

Wellington’s AMAZING Sunday Market (and this is in late Winter!)

New Zealand has the BEST swimming pools ever. (And we've enjoyed showering at each and every one.)

New Zealand has the BEST swimming pools ever. (And we’ve enjoyed showering at each and every one.)

Wellington's central library. We had to drag the girls out of here, literally.

Wellington’s central library. We had to drag the girls out of here, literally.

And just outside of the city, wild New Zealand remains:

A 10 minute drive to the other side of the city's peninsula finds you on wild Cook Strait with the little blue penguins and seals.

A 10 minute drive to the other side of the city’s peninsula finds you on wild Cook Strait with the little blue penguins and seals.

Yes, we can’t wait to return but first, we’ve got another island to see.

Crossing Cook Strait aboard the Bluebridge ferry to the South Island

Crossing Cook Strait aboard the Bluebridge ferry to the South Island

#nofilter friday: beauty time

beauty time

Pelorus River, Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand

#nofilter friday: a field trip every day

every day is a field trip (Te Papa, Wellington)Te Papa Museum of New Zealand, Wellington

 

#nofilter friday: sometimes you have to stop to let ’em run

Pahiatua, Tararua District, North Island, New Zealand

Pahiatua, Tararua District, North Island, New Zealand

#nofilter friday

Lake Tutira, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand

Lake Tutira, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

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.