Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saturday Adventure to Devonport

Yesterday was Saturday here, and to my great annoyance some construction workers decided it would be great to do roadwork starting with drilling at eight o'clock in the morning. Genius! To my even greater annoyance, they stopped the drilling bit after twenty minutes which was just enough time to be fully awake.

Resigned to this fate, I examined the possibilities. The weather forecast was calling for rain (and indeed it was raining throughout the night, and looks hideous today), but the whole of Saturday was filled with warmth and poufy clouds that were just wonderful. Then I remembered that on nice fall Saturdays like this in Cleveland I would go adventuring on my bicycle to see where I ended up, so why not do the same in Auckland on foot? So I set off.
First stop- Town Center market. This market is a few blocks from me where Queen Street runs past the old Auckland government building, which provides a pretty backdrop on Fridays and Saturdays when the market's running. It's mainly a goods market (meaning a combination of practical things for Aucklanders and pretty things for the tourists), but there are a few food stalls that are good for breakfast. Which took quite awhile, honestly, because half the vendors sell food I don't encounter much back home so I was driven crazy trying to figure out what exactly smelled so good.

Brekkie in hand (mini-doughnuts and a mango-kiwi smoothie), I headed down Queen Street, which I've talked a lot about before and I am still in complete love with. I've walked down this street countless times by now, but am still always wide-eyed at all the stores and towering buildings lining this shopping street... Queen Street ends at the main transportation hub of Auckland, which includes the ferry terminal for the city-
Impulse time. I go into the ferry terminal, and check the destination of the next ferry. It's going to Devonport, which I hear is a nice and lovely Victorian suburb of Auckland only fifteen minutes away, so why not head over? Ten minutes and a ferry ticket purchase later, I am on my way across Auckland harbor.

There are few things more lovely in the world then getting out on the water on a beautiful, sunny day. Trust me. Several thousand other Aucklanders, I should point out, seem to agree with me-
You know how every city in the world has some sort of motto that they like to brandish about which proves how much cooler their city is than all the others? (My favorite of these is Melbourne, Australia, which calls itself "The Living City." As opposed to the dead one?) Well Auckland is known as "The City of Sails" because it has the most sailboats per capita of any other city in the world. This sounds like an odd thing to brandish until you realize there's a reason for this- Auckland has a lovely harbor dotted with tiny islands easily accessible in a day's sail (like the one pictured above), so right on the edge of the city is this lovely area most other people go on long vacations to see. No other major city in the world, as far as I'm aware, has this combined with nice weather, so everyone sails to the point where Kiwis follow their precious America's Cup team second only to the demigods known as the All Blacks.

Obviously this love of the water produces some really nice sailboats, a lot of which stop in Auckland during their around the world tours, and as I am a sucker for nice sailboats there was a lot to look at. Here was my favorite-
But anyway, enough of the water! I arrived in Devonport which proved itself to be the quaint little town everyone had said, and is on the slopes of Mount Victoria, one of those extinct volcanoes found nearly everywhere in Auckland. It's a rather steep climb but not a terribly long one (it's a mere 87 m tall), so I headed up for the views. Definetely worth it!
Here's another view, this one in the opposite towards Rangitoto Island accross the channel. It's a nature reserve, and if the weather's good next weekend I hope to climb it with a friend-
The other cool thing about Mount Victoria, I should mention, is how there are remains of an old Fort up there built in 1885. Devonport is at the end of the peninsula going into Auckland harbor, you see, and as such was (and still is) the main base for the New Zealand navy. At the time there were fears that the Russian Pacific Fleet might attack, so the first coastal fortification in New Zealand was built at the summit and named Fort Victoria. There are still a bunch of underground bunkers (one of which is used Sunday evenings by the Devonport Folk Music club), a tracking station for vessels, and a ginormous weapon known as a disappearing gun-
So yes, Mount Victoria was quite a fun place to hang out a little while, and the sun was rather nice, so I took the hint from the locals hanging out on the grass and read my book a little while. Lying in the grass under the warm sun, stopping on occasion to examine the view and progress of the hundreds of boats in the harbor, is a glorious way to spend a Saturday. I told you wandering to see where you end up is a great thing to do...

After awhile I got hungry and headed down, and had a late lunch at a nice little cafe/bistro place. Then a little while was spent wandering to look at the plethora of little shops dotting the town which were of interesting variety- among other things there were no less than two stores specializing in yarn, one for quilting, two bakeries, and two secondhand bookstores which shouldn't be confused with the independent bookstore just accross the street from one of them. I had fun, though I decided it would be best to head back to Auckland before the sunset (around 530pm nowadays). Interestingly the ferry from Auckland was completely filled with people- going to dinner in Devonport is a popular thing for Aucklanders to do since at night the city looks gorgeous from the harbor. Here's what Devonport and Mt. Victoria look like from the ferry by the way-
So that was pretty much where my Saturday adventure ends- I stopped for groceries on the way home which isn't particularly adventureful, and went to a party which I was already planning on going to so it doesn't count as impromptu or anything. Nonetheless, it was a great way to spend the day!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Crazy Times Down on Costello Music

Got rather quiet here, I know... apparently if you run away for two weeks, the work still catches up with you. So that's what I have been/ still am doing... no worries though, everything will get turned in tomorrow and I'm free again! Hooray!

I will admit though, this all would have been finished a lot quicker except for the fact that I discovered a new band to listen to- ever hear of The Fratellis? They started out in Britain not too long ago and are rather popular over here as an extension- lots of playtime on the radio, and they even got an iPod commercial. Not bad! They're not that big in the US yet from what I hear, you can't even buy the whole CD on iTunes yet, but with luck that will pick up soon.

The reason I like them so much by the way, and don't mind the few extra hours it's taken to complete my work, is because they are the first band I've heard in a long while that reminds me of The Beatles. This excites me. Here's my favorite music video if you want to check them out-

(Completely unrelated note- if a guy ever set up a band and started singing under my window, he'd get a date on the spot. It seems like the least one can do to repay the gesture! Of course none of the guys I know would ever think of ever seranading, or writing a poem, or sending roses or anything like that, so I am perfectly safe admitting to this sentiment.)

Though their most famous song (the iPod commercial one) is Flathead, which has topped the charts despite being downloads-only. Their third single, Chelsea Dagger, is pretty good too, and the rest of their songs have great names like Vince the Lovable Stoner and Ole Black 'N Blue Eyes.

Anyway, I'm buying my first CD in about a year this weekend once everything gets finished. You should consider doing the same... it'll give you something to do until I finally turn everything in and post my South Island pictures...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Funny Kind of Normal

The second half of our semester started today here in Auckland, which is odd because everyone I know back home is chugging through the final weeks and warily looking at their upcoming finals. Mine are still just under two months away, which I suppose is how I make up that nice, long winter break I enjoyed last January/February.

Personally, I'm viewing this second half with a touch of trepidation. You see, before break my adventure was stretching on for an infinite amount of time, and on this side of break I've realized there's not much time left in the grand scheme of things. It's a scary thing to think about particularly because when you live somewhere you never do any of the "tourist" stuff- I have yet to actually climb up to the top of the Sky Tower pictured above, or go to the museum, or the world-class aquarium, or zoo, or anything like that. Must remedy this ASAP.

Of course, things aren't all bad thanks to a revelation I had on my way back from the Cook Islands a few days back. You know how whenever you come back from a great vacation you feel a little sad because the excitement is over, and you're going back to normalcy? Well I was feeling a little sorry for myself and then realized "no wait, I'm still going back to Auckland! This isn't normal at all, the adventure's still on!"

So things are normal, or at least as normal as things can get in an enchanting country with kind people and warm sunshine, but it's still rather exciting. Normal is a few months off yet.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Kia Orana!

Around the year 1350 AD, seven canoes set out from the tiny island in the Pacific known as Rarotonga. About a century prior some exporers had followed migrating birds and discovered a land 14 days journey to the south which they named Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. So they set out "left of the setting sun," as the directions proclaimed it, and sure enough they landed in Aotearoa and founded the seven Maori tribes still in existance in New Zealand today.

Now think about this for a minute, as this entire situation boggles my mind. First of all you have a bunch of people without much by way of navigational aid (except by the stars) noticing that some birds pass through at the same time every year and figuring it would be kind of cool to follow them. They luck out with the current and return to Rarotonga with tales of trees ten men can't reach around and chickens the size of a person, leave behind general directions on how to get there, which are intriguing enough for people to set out to find a hundred years later when things get a little crowded. Finally, you are the first people to do this in the entire history of mankind, and it only happens around the time Europe is being ravaged by the Black Death and the first whisper of Renaissance is heard in Italy. You are ahead of Abel Tasman's ship by a mere 300 years in doing so, which is nothing in terms of most history of human settlement.

But for better or worse at the end of the journey you're a bit far from where you came from, so eventually the language starts to differ. Soon enough everyone thriving in New Zealand is greeting each other with "Kia Ora!" but back in Rarotonga everyone says "Kia Orana!" instead. Keep this in mind and you'll realize just how much in common New Zealand has with the Cook Islands, of which Rarotonga is the largest island and where I spent the better part of the past week or so.

Now of course the Cook Islands are tropical islands very similar, I'm told, to what Hawaii was like before statehood. I rather liked it- it's underdeveloped so tropical nature is right there, everyone is very nice and delighted to see you, and they hand out leis wherever you go, such as arriving at the airport-
As you can probably tell from that picture, I went with the American group of study abroad students I'm affiliated with, which was a rather nice and fun way of doing things (from right to left, the people in the picture are Jenny, Amy, Sarah, and me). To say the least, we had fun.

Ok, so in order to make everything a bit more readable I split up the pictures and interesting information in a few smaller posts that follow. I wrote them backwards so this introduction post would be at the top so if something doesn't make sense I appologize, but with luck things will work out. I made a special "Cook Islands" label for thse too so they don't get lost later on.

Ok, that's about all I can say about the Cook Islands for now because I am tired as the plane left very early this morning. Assuming I finish my work due when classes resume on Monday, however, I looked and I have several hundred pictures from the South Island adventures last week, so when I'm done I'll sort through them and see if I can decide which ones to post!

Until then, as it works both coming and going, Kia Orana and happy reading!

School Days

I will come clean right now- if I lived in the Cook Islands, I'd probably spend a lot of time playing traunt and going to the beach. Apparently a lot of the kids agree with me as it's a big problem there, but that didn't stop a bunch from staring at us curiously when we visited Avarea School...

The school goes from pre-school to Form II (8th grade), and there are about 500 students. They were all rather sweet and adorable in the way little kids tend to be, particularly when they're excited about "the Americans" visiting them, and they gave us leis they'd made themselves and a venerable banquet of food. (I got a few leis in the Cooks and always felt bad as they're gorgeous but you have to throw them out pretty soon.

The kids also did a performance of native dance for us while we were there and let me tell you, they were great! All Cook Islanders are required to learn at least some native dancing in school as a way to encourage pride in who they are, and it definetely works. These kids were some of the most confident people you'd ever meet- none of them shied away from meeting a bunch of random strangers, and were excited to come say hello and show us around.

By the way, there's an interesting thing I noticed about the artwork all the kids did, which you can see on the walls in the picture above. You know how back home kids always scribble something in crayon on a piece of paper in art class and it all has a similar feel? I used to think it was just the "standard little kid" style to drawing but was excited to note that the drawings displayed throughout the school were completely different- they were in bright colors and usually focused on a flower or a bird specifically, even the ones done by boys. This excited me in the sort of way you get excited when a preconcieved notion gets shattered that you didn't even realize you had.

For the record, once you graduate high school from the Cook Islands (assuming you don't go abroad for high school), most students who want to go end up getting scholarships for abroad. Most students end up in New Zealand or Australia, but the Mormon students go to Brigham Young University in Hawaii or Utah and the more technical studies are often in Japan. China is increasingly becoming a factor too in scholarships since they want to increase their Pacific influence- Russia did the same thing during the Cold War, we were told, but Moscow winters never agrees with people who spent their lives in the tropics so no one stayed there long anyway.

If you do stay in the Cook Islands for whatever reason, though, you can enroll at the University of the Southern Pacific's Cook Islands branch, which is part of the USP system based in Fiji. Your classes would mainly be via link to Fiji (USP was the first university to use satellite links in the world), and you would graduate with maybe three other students in your year.

After graduation, it should be noted, a lot of Cook Islanders don't come back home because there's very little opportunity for them. It's gotten to the point where 80,000 Cook Island natives live abroad (compare to the 15,000 who live in the Cooks themselves), meaning most citizens don't actually live there. It's an interesting situation, to say the least.

How to Paint the Sky

Beautiful, isn't it? Unfortunately we didn't have great weather on all the evenings, some nights it was overcast or even raining a bit, but when it was a little better the sunsets were fantastic!

Click to get the larger image on the above, as it looks a lot better that way... none of these images actually does justice to the real thing, of course, as photographs are poor substitutes for seeing the actual sunsets themselves. But let me tell you that the above was was a very deep, very vivid shade of hot pink that I've never seen before in the sky, and was just wonderful.

Ok, that's it for sunset pictures before someone gets really jealous and comes to New Zealand to exact revenge.

Cook Islands Government

The Cook Islands are a nation of a mere 15,000 souls, meaning the Cook Islands Government is responsible for around 35% of the number of people represented by the University of Auckland Student Government. This is tiny for a country! They were under the rule of New Zealand until 1965 (and were obviously British Empire at some point before that), but today the Cook Islands are a soverign state with free association. This means they basically get New Zealand citizenship and all the associated perks, but still get to run their own affairs.

And of course, in such a small country who's going to have a beef with a bunch of students showing up at Parliament?

Yes, this is Parliament, and has been since the 1970s when the random little building they were in beforehand was destroyed in a cyclone (Pacific hurricane- no, they do not call them typhoons here). So they needed a new building and saw the old guesthouse used by the contractors for the then-recently completed airport, and moved in "for a few years." Needless to say, they're still there.

This may sound odd to people like us, but things like this happen rather often in Cook Islands government because they just take over an old, abandoned space and convert it to whatever's needed. So you'll keep running into random governmental buildings all over Rarotonga, with occasionally entertaining results-

But anyway, back to Parliment! Which is curiously is a quarter of the island circumference away from the "capital city" of Avarua by the way... which is just a thickening of buildings alongside the road honestly...

Parliment in the Cooks has 24 members- it used to have an additional member for all its citizens abroad (you get Cook Islander citizenship if you're a decendent regardless of residency), but it proved to be too expensive so they dropped that one. We got to sit in the main chamber in the seats of the MPs while listening to a really interesting lecture about how the entire system works, so here's what the room looked like from my seat toward the Speaker's chair-
Note that little sign just to the left of the Speaker's chair, as it's very important. You see, when it says "Parliament" like it does in this picture, that means Parliament is in session. When it's flipped to say "Committee," on the other hand, that means a Committee is in session instead. Great idea, no?

If this all sounds a little silly, well, that's because it is: the government is the largest employer in the Cook Islands, to the annoyance of everyone who doesn't have a government job because, quite frankly, you don't need a big government for 15,000 people. It's rediculous, and it drains your economy terribly.

As a final note, because it's such a small population the major factor for running for MP here is to have a large extended family (and elections can be won by one vote, and in fact often are). They get to stay in office for four years, and while the salary seems decent initially it's apparently not so much because Cook Islanders expect a lot from their representatives we would never dream of from our politicians- if you need a loan your rep gives it to you without nessecarily wanting the money back, if you're from an outer island visiting Rarotonga your rep will give you a place to stay, if your great aunt dies your rep will pay respects at the funeral... all in all, a bunch of things that must be followed through with, because if they're not you'll vote for the other guy next time around.

It's all quite simple, really.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

Why did no one tell me that Kurt Vonnegut died last Wednesday? I mean yes, I was sort of travelling through some of the more inaccessible regions of the world, but some things are important and you should relay onward!

Maybe next time I head off I should post a note here- "in the event of disaster, apocalypse, or death of a major 20th century writer, please drop Yvette a line as she'd probably like to know about it." Can't hurt.

But anyway, guys, for better or worse writers become immortal in their words, and as such Vonnegut will be immortal for a long time. So get yourself a good spot of tea, grab a copy of Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five, and reminisce. Or just follow this link and (re)read Harrison Bergeron and how in the year of 2081, everybody was finally equal...

So it goes.


Christchurch is, for all intents and purposes, more British than Britain. The city center is completely done in lovely stone and the centerpiece is a marvelous stone church, there are trams that run around the city center, and the Avon River winds through the botanical gardens when it's not running past streets with names like "Oxford Terrace." I even spied red London phone booths and a statue to Queen Victoria.

A very cute and lovely city that we had a wonderful time wandering through (we averaged about one block an hour because we kept stopping at the markets, the art gallery, the river to watch the punts...). Beautiful weather too- warm with clear blue skies! Too bad by 5pm on a Saturday every single shop was shut tight along with a suprising number of cafes and resteraunts, and as I was leaving Sunday most were closed along with most of the resteraunts and cafes. All in all I think Christchurch is likely a great place to grow up in and such, but probably not very good for college students.

(By the way, lest I forget, the drive from Queenstown to Christchurch is around six hours long, but spectacular. You see Mount Cook in the distance, drive past Mount John, and go through the plains upon which the big battle in the third LOTR was filmed- stunning!)

Another thing I rather liked about Christchurch was the Antarctic Centre next to the airport, which I visited before my flight. Christchurch is the closest major international city to Antarctica, you see, meaning 70% of all air traffic heads through Christchurch on the journey South. So you can go to their little museum and poke around a replica of Scott Base and go through a simulated Antarctic storm (long enough to realize you never ever want to go through the real thing), and even see a bunch of fairy penguins that were rescued from the wild. Except, perplexingly, they don't have fairy penguins in Antarctica but no one seemed to mind this except for me... there was also, I should note, a picture and blurb about BOOMEraNG in one of the exhibits, which excited me a lot and probably confused the nice Aussie tourists next to me a little bit.

But yes, Christchurch was a nice way to end the Southern Island adventure, and I'm back in Auckland now getting ready to head out to the Cook Islands for the next one. I've also taken well over a hundred pictures this past week, so those will be coming soonish.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Plunge

Well come on now, what good are the laws of physics if you don't test them out every once in awhile? How do you know they still work?

Yes, I went bungy jumping. It's not that big a deal in New Zealand to do it, actually, so Amy and I decided to give it a go at the Kawarau Bridge, the first commercial bungy site in the world. It's a mere 43m tall, so no biggie right?

Interestingly I wasn't scared of doing this at all. I think it comes down to the fact that I knew nothing was really going to happen logically, and further I knew I'd done sillier things and am still around to tell the tale. What didn't help though was how everybody was trying to convince me to be scared- out of the 30+ people on our bus only three of us jumped, and the rest was perpetually saying things like "wow, I'm nervous for you!" and "you're not scared? you're sure? why aren't you scared?!?!"

Finally I got a little annoyed by this pestering (even the guys on the bridge were doing it!) and said in an annoyed tone "no, I'm not scared because I have faith in the laws of physics!" Silly line, I know, but it gave everyone something to mull over. It also served the great purpose of not getting me scared by listening to everyone else telling me I should be.

So anyway, the jump! When it's your turn they tie your legs together with some cushioning between them and help you waddle over to the edge. Then you wave to the cameras/ your friends on the sideline for posterity, the guy counts down from five, and you jump. I was actually surprised I did jump when he counted down though- I'm the sort of person who will jump eventually but needs to do it on her own time! Thankfully you're not supposed to look down because if you do so there's a large chance you'll fall forward in a not-so-fun dive because you usually don't take into account that your legs are tied together when you do so.

I have never thought thoughts as quickly as those few seconds of the jump. For the first microsecond (the beginning of acceleration part) I got to thinking that it was a completely stupid idea and I wondered why I was doing it. I don't like Pitfall rides in amusement parks because it's just pure freefall, abrupt, and you don't get to choose when you start falling, and that first little bit was like that. But then I rethought things and it suddenly became the coolest thing I'd ever done. See the great thing about a bungy isn't actually the freefall- the great part of it is the fact that you're tied at your legs so you gradually slow down at the bottom. Then, in an even better move, all the tightness of the cord accelerates you upward, and you repeat the whole process perhaps three times until the cord is completely slack. (At which point you get lowered into the little life raft at the bottom, lie like a tussled chicken while realizing you have massive headrush, and they undo your bindings and take you back to shore.) And the reason this is cool is because it is exactly like what it would be like if you were flying like Superman! How else in the entire world can you actually accelerate upward, do turns in the air, and do it with complete freedom in most of your body?

Ever since I was little, I've wanted to fly. And suddenly I have, and I've been smiling a little about it ever since. It was just wonderful.

More pictures and even a video are coming soon, once I get back to Auckland. But as a final note, if you ever get the chance to do a jump and have ever wanted to fly, I highly recommend you take it. I've never heard of anybody who regretted doing so.

And if you do take a jump don't be scared, even if everybody else around is trying to convince you to be. There's a reason everyone else is watching you jump instead of doing it themselves!

South Island Continued

Ever have one of those weeks when everything in the entire world is going on in such a rapid pace that you feel like you'll never catch up with just describing it all? This is one of those weeks- in the past few days I have done everything you can imagine. I have climbed through ice caves. I have had a (fake) birthday party. I have even flown.

Ok, for the sake of everything I am starting at the beginning, lest some details be lost. Which would be pretty tragic, wouldn't it? All pictures are forthcoming at a later date when I am not sitting in a cyber cafe in Queenstown trying to frantically write everything down!

Monday: Nelson-Greymouth

This day was a lot of driving down the West Coast of the South Island, which involved the beginning of the pretty scenery. The weather was nice too, which helps! This stretch of the road was primarily hugging the coast of the Tasman, which runs between mountains on one side and (more often than not) cliffs on the other- I'm told it's very similar to the Great Ocean Road in Australia, and is considered one of the top ten drives in the world. Really pretty! We even stopped at a seal colony to look at the seals basking in the sun, and stopped at the Pancake Rocks which are awesome geological formations from sandstone at the edge of the sea. They're basically flat gray rocks stacked up that are being slowly eroded, and when the tide comes in there are spectacular spurts of water careening into the air through some blowholes. Great stuff!

We then arrived in Greymouth, which is a tiny former coal-mining community on the West Coast (just like what I'm used to seeing back home!). After settling into our interesting hostel known as Noah's Ark (each room was decorated with a different animal theme, we were in the "Tiger Room" and had tiger drapes, bedspreads, wallpaper, posters, and gigantic stuffed animal) we headed over to the Monteith's Brewery for our brewery tour as there isn't much else to do in town! It was definetely good though- for a mere NZ$20 we got a nice and culturally enlightening tour of the brewery, followed by free samples of all seven of the Monteith brews... then a ten minute free-for-all at the taps... then all-you-can-eat sausage dinner with a free "Kiwi pint" of our favorite... yeah, fun night!

Tuesday: Greymouth- Franz Joseph

Unfortunately this morning we got some bad news- Erin had a family emergency back at home and made new plans to take the train to Christchurch then fly to Auckland then back to the States. (At least that's what I hope happened, we haven't heard from her since...) So after a few big hugs and best wishes, Amy and I rejoined the group for the ride down to Franz Joseph Glacier.

The weather was cloudy and a bit more wet than the previous day which is rather expected actually- this entire area is rainforest, and they get 4m of rain on the coast every year! This didn't make the mountains any less spectacular though- I started realizing just what people mean by New Zealand scenery because all the mountains are spectacularly tall and steep. The best description I can make is to say it looks very similar to the sort of mountains you see drawn in Chinese food restaurants on the walls. So we went through spectacular wilderness and towns with only two people in them (I kid you not), and arrived in Franz Joseph village with enough time to scramble and get to the half day hike on the glacier itself.

Now let me tell you up front, this was really really cool! The glacier is unique in the world because it is one of only two that reach down to rainforest level (the other being Fox Glacier 20km down the street), and is a World Heritage Site. They also filmed part of Lord of the Rings here too- remember that scene where they lit the beacons?

By the way, Franz Joseph is also unique in that it is currently growing at a rate of 70cm a day. To rephrase, you could show up tomorrow and things would be different! You really get a feeling for ice flowing too, which is a neat sight to behold.

The other cool thing about this glacier is it's rather easy to go and scramble around the ice flow, and they do guided tours to let you do this complete with special boots and crampons for your feet and such. I really liked the crampons by the way- you feel sort of cool wandering around with an ultra grip on steep ice, and it's very reassuring too!

But as I said before, I loved the glacier. It was really a neat thing to see in spectacular scenery, and climbing through ice caves and crevasses was just awesome! You don't really realize just how nifty an ice cave is until you've been in one with ice all around you and watched the deep blue tinge, honestly...

Wednesday: Franz Joseph- Queenstown

I think this day counts as one of the best in my life. Definitely top ten at least!

We started off with more rain which turned to cloud and, later on, partly cloudy sunshine. But this stretch of road was just gorgeous in the most sincere way I can say it- the mountains were deep green and so steep that they counted as cliffs in most places, and they were covered with thin white lines that were countless waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet (they'd normally be streams I think but it was just too steep to they were all waterfalls!). It was like completely unlike anything else in the entire world, and so beautiful... if you are a pilgrim of nature in any form, you need to come to the South Island. It gives you the same feelings of grandeur that you get looking at the Milky Way on a deep, dark night.

In the afternoon the rainforest abruptly gave way to true alpine surroundings complete with glacial lakes that reminded me a little of New Hampshire. The highlight of the afternoon, of course, was... well it deserves a post on its own! Hold on, once I'm done with this I'll describe it in detail.

Towards the evening we arrived in Queenstown which is just like a ski town in the American West to me, honestly. It was cold too- it froze during the night, and all the surrounding mountains were sprinkled with snow when we woke up this morning! The trees are all appropriately autumn-like too and changing color which is nice... they're primarily just yellow here though as it's pretty much all beech trees.

But anyway, the night was the most fun I'd had in awhile. See, everyone in our tour group had put in $5 for the chance to have their name in a birthday draw- whoever had their name pulled would have a (fake) birthday celebration that night at our party complete with cake, card, and all the trimmings.

Anyway, you're reading this far so I'm sure you can guess what's next. Can you believe out of all the people there my name was pulled? It's quite fun to be the birthday girl even when it's not actually you're birthday!

Thursday- Milford Sound

Milford Sound is another one of those world-famous places in New Zealand that you just sort of have to go to. It's the law, or should be... it's a 4 hour drive from Queenstown, so most people go out with a tour group, take a short cruise on the Sound, then drive back. A long, but completely beautiful and worth it, day.

It was sunny in Queenstown but subsequently got cloudier as we arrived to the Sound, and started raining the second we got off the bus. You honestly didn't care though was the incredible thing- great shading on the mountains, and roaring waterfalls!

Anyway, I need to detail this more later but the cyber cafe is closing, so that's it for now. Catch you guys later!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The South Island Adventure Begins!

Hello everyone, and greetings from Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand! Unfortunately the date there is right- our night bus from Auckland to Wellington broke down in the middle of the night, so we ended up having to spend the night in Picton instead of continuing on to Nelson as planned. It wasn't all bad, though, because we got to see the sunrise over Mount Tongariro (a beautiful, classic-looking volcano) and Mount Ruapehu, which was just a wonderfully beautiful, surreal scene to be quite honest.

Several quick snatches of sleep later we were in Wellington, the southernmost capital city in all the world, waiting for our ferry south. I didn't have much time to see Wellington to be honest but it quite frankly looks like an odd place to build a city becauese the whole thing looks like a bunch of houses living on borrowed time amidst towering mountains. I mean it's very pretty city, of course- it just looks a bit like people aren't really supposed to be there or something.

Once we were on our ferry (by the way when I say "we" here I mean me and my friends Amy and Eran, who are fellow study abroad-ers), it was really nice: the weather was great for the crossing and the boat was quite massive, so we had fun looking around. To top it off the crossing is about three hours and about an hour of that is going through the Marlborough Sounds, which are submerged valleys flooded by the sea so the mountains come straight up to the water.

For the record, the ferry crossing had to be one of the most lovely and exciting things I've seen in awhile. I was rather giddy thinking about the prospect of going to a whole new land at the bottom of the world and exploring it, and surrounding the boat were these beautiful towering mountains towering straight out of the water. (You need pictures to appreciate this, I know, but the one on the left has to do for now as I can't hook up my camera here.) It's the sort of scenery that makes you think that you're definetely not in Cleveland anymore, that anything can happen, and that this is going to be something special unlike anything you've seen before. That is, really, the best description I can make of the South Island because the feeling hasn't really left me.

The other awesome thing about South Island, I must mention, is the fact that this is really not a land that's ever been tamed by humans- it is a land where nature tolerates the presence of mortals, and you are quite happy to accept that. The first humans set foot here only in the past thousand years, about the time my Hungarian ancestors decided to stop terrorizing their neighbors and found a Christian country instead, and Captain Cook sailed in here less than 300 years ago. This is a rediculously short time span!

But anyway, to continue on we spent the night in Picton, which consisted primarily of the exciting discovery of an Irish pub and about 12 hours of sleep to make up the bus travel. We explored Picton the next morning (this morning) and it's essentially a little tourist town there for all the people passing through after arriving on the ferry. The shore itself was quite lovely, however, and reminded me a little of Center Harbor, New Hampshire where my family goes in the summers.

(By the way, in a great burst of insight I'd bought some Easter eggs in Auckland, and hid them on Amy and Eran's belongings this morning before they woke up. They didn't believe me when I insisted the Easter bunny brought them though... then Amy being the art major in our crew presented us with great little homemade cards, which are just lovely... we also got eggs when we checked out of the hostel that morning, they're like currency here today!)

Finally we found the right bus and our group, and we got to go to Nelson. Hooray! Along the way we passed lovely vinyards fringed with mountains in the background and other lovely scenery, and arrived in Nelson in the afternoon. It's a sleepy little town with streets of Victorian houses with rose gardens in front, and is rather British except with palm trees. Nothing much was open as it's Easter Sunday, save the famous Christ Cathedral, so we headed over there and admired it and the surrounding gardens. We were also rather excited because our hostel here is a very nice spot consisting of a room to ourselves, a pool, free brekkie, and all in our own little Victorian house. More like a B&B than a hostel!

By the way, Nelson's most famous claim to fame is that Lord Rutherford of Nelson was born here, and they take great pride in the fact that the man who "split the atom"came from here. I rather like it. We're going past his birthplace tomorrow I think...

Ok, that's it for now. Sorry if this is rambling but I want to make notes of things before I forget them! Don't worry, there will be lots of pretty pictures later too... alright that's it for now, I'll catch you guys sometime later down the coast.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Visitors and Comments

This blog has recieved a spike of visitors as of late for various reasons, and in fact passed the milestone of getting over 100 hits during a day last Monday. Quite exciting! Unfortunately the downside to all this is one or two spammers did post comments, so I enabled word verification so those problems won't crop up as often. It shouldn't be a problem, but let me know if it is.

Second, the more astute people will notice that there is now a counter below the links on the right hand side, which shows you how many hits this blog has recieved in the past month since I set up some stuff to do the counting. I don't know how long it will stick around because in my opinion these counters usually mean very little to anyone but the person who actually manages the site, but I figured I'd post it for a little while in the offhand chance someone beyond me is interested.

The statistical software is admittedly very interesting though. I've learned that if you really have something to say you should do it on a Monday because that's when the most people come to read your blog (the rest of the week the number of hits steadily diminishes), and this blog has recieved a surprisingly high number of hits from important research institutions where I'm fairly certain I don't know anyone. So hello and welcome, people I have never met! Please feel free to delurk sometime and add your two cents, either by posting a comment or dropping me a line. I promise I really am a nice enough person, except for all the times I'm not.

As a final note, the Easter break trip detailed earlier begins tomorrow, so while I'll try my best to update a few times it will definetely not be as frequent. Don't get into too much trouble while I'm gone, and I promise I'll try to post on the Mondays to help you get through them!

Why NZ Is Awesome- Part 2

This is a continuation of a list started earlier that seems to keep growing the more I'm down here. So to continue...

~ Sky Tower. Anyone who's been to Auckland knows it because it's sort of hard to miss, as it is the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Granted there isn't much actual competition for this title, Australia sort of puts up a fight now and again and maybe somewhere in South America does on a good day, but it is by and far the tallest thing around so it serves as a great navigational aid throughout the city and surrounding countryside. ("I don't know where I am in this strange city... oh look, there's the tower! Never mind.") At night they light it up in different colors, sort of like the Empire State Building, and I've even seen them shoot fireworks off the top.

For the record, no, I haven't actually gotten around to going up there yet. You can jump off of the top of it though, and I've watched several people do so in idle fascination.

~ The Monkey Bar. Every Friday night in order to celebrate it being, well, Friday, my residential hall runs a small bar during the dinner hours known as the monkey bar. You can get drinks for a mere $3, making this whole thing a bargain, and you have the additional excitement of having something with dinner that isn't the standard red juice or yellow juice. (It's been the same two options since I came here, and their exact contents remain a mystery. You can see a lot of attempted alchemy by seeing kids mix up the two in hopes of a different flavor... I'm a red juice fan myself.)

~ While on the point of food, unfortunately the dining hall food is of the sort whereby I am never complaining about Leutner food again. It's not that it's any worse, it's just that back at home we had more options to choose from whereby here you choose between the two dishes every night... but seeing as this post is supposed to focus on good things, I shall tell you that sometimes they give us ice cream for dessert, and I have never seen people get more excited for plain vanilla ice cream. We almost get to the point of writing songs extolling the virtues of the dining hall crew.

~ Kathmandu, the camping store, is quite simply one of the coolest stores I have ever set foot into to the point where I'd not really regret giving them all my mone. I mean yes, obviously they have all the standard sleeping bags and tents and mess kits you'd find at any other camping store in the world, but then you get into all the efficient camping tools that are just pleasing to look at, even if you don't buy them. (Sort of like how you're happy sometimes just knowing a solution exists to a problem but don't actually need to solve it yourself.) To top it off I arrived just in time for their end of summer sale, so I've aquired things like a $40 sleeping bag and other assorted goodies. I have to keep reminding myself when I'm in there that I don't really need half the stuff else I'd probably spend my money there.

~ Aucklanders really love to complain about their weather, so I found myself rather wary of the fact that overall it's quite, well, pleasant. So then I went online and looked up the average monthly percipitation for Auckland versus Pittsburgh, and every single month Pittsburgh had more wet stuff being dumped on it. (And some of that wet stuff is cold! You get hail here sometimes, but never snow.) When I pointed this out, the Aucklanders retorted by saying that their rain is unpredictable, which I'll agree with but really isn't that big a deal because usually it's just drizzling with the sun out when it does rain. So you get to keep an eye out for rainbows!

~ I don't have class tomorrow because hereabouts everything closes for Good Friday. I find this quite nice, as I get to start my break a little earlier!

~ After break the physics department will start up regular public observing nights with the departmental telescopes (the primary one used here being a Meade 12" SCT), and once I expressed an interest in using said telescopes I got recruited into helping out during observing nights. (Except my green laser pointer's at home! Oh no!) My student visa doesn't let them compensate me for this, however, so per current arrangements I get compensated by being allowed to use the telescope until whenever after all the members of the public go home. An interesting but nice arrangement to be sure... I was also offered the chance to help out in taking some light curves in an actual scientific capacity, but I don't see that as becoming very serious because a. I'm not actually here to research and b. in my experience, light curves get really boring really quickly. We shall see what happens.

~ While I miss a lot about CWRU Physics, there is a distinct advantage to being off in New Zealand because it allows you to think. I mean yes I do physics here and am progressing rather nicely in it, but if I were at Case right now I'd be in four very difficult physics classes and beating my brains over studying for the GRE. Here I have time to sit around and jot some ideas about physics down on a piece of paper and see what comes out of them for no particular reason. Sort of like Newton going off to the farm during the Black Plague to develop his laws, with the notable exception that my ideas don't get very far... Still, it's a nice experience to have, and I wouldn't have had it back home. I suppose there's a commentary on physics education hiding in this, but I shall refrain from fleshing it out here.

~ On a final note, I will finish off with a really nice picture of the Kiwi native forest. It's really incredible because it's so, well, primeval- you wouldn't be surprised to see a dinosaur tramping through the underbrush in most places. Of course this is because New Zealand split off from the rest of the continents 80-100 million years ago, during an era when the dinosaurs were alive and well, so the native bush that remains consists of gigantic ferns and conifers and all sorts of cool-looking things. Unfortunately not a whole lot of it remains, a lot of the native bush was logged for timber during the late ninteenth century, but what remains is definetely worth coming half a world away to see. I sometimes look at the pictures on my camera in hindsight, wondering if they're really real or just a photoshop!

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Golden Compass Teaser Trailer

The above clip contains the recently-released trailer of The Golden Compass, which is set to be released in movie form at Christmas later this year. Its cast includes people like Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Sam Elliott, and it looks pretty good so far.

In my life I've had a lot of favorite books that were wonderful and made me think and dream. But I think it's fair to say that there are only a precious few that I have obsessed over, and the first one of these was The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. I first read it when I was in sixth grade, and I subsequently spent all of that year (and the year after that, and the year after that) reading and rereading it. My copy of this book was signed by Philip Pullman himself and I carried it everywhere- even now it's one of the few precious books I brought to New Zealand, and it's fraying and falling apart. And it's the books that are falling apart but you nonetheless take half a world away that have truly changed you.

If you haven't actually read (or, worse yet, never heard of) this book, here's the general gist of things. The story focuses on Lyra, a girl who lives in another world parallel to ours where everything's very similar but a touch different: people have extensions of selves called daemons which appear as the animal you're most like, there are creatures like witches and armored bears which roam the Arctic, and the Church is much more powerful and meddling in people's lives. During the course of the story you run into stuff like people attempting to bridge the gap between worlds, the concept of original sin, and children who disappear due to the evil "Gobblers." It's a wonderful story, and Lyra is the heroine every eleven year old girl would want to be in it.

But the reason I loved it so much, I have to note, is because no matter how fantastic things get Pullman sneaks in such a big science base that it's ridiculous. This book was my first introduction to stuff like quantum mechanics and the many worlds theorem and dark matter, and what I loved most about it was no matter how incredible it got it the best parts could potentially happen. (And this wasn't science fiction either- science fiction distinctly covers things that you don't want to ever happen.) I still think of science the same way little kids think of fairy tales, and I'm very lucky in this respect.

So anyway, if you haven't read The Golden Compass, read it. If you have read The Golden Compass, watch the trailer and post what you think of it. Either way, you'll have a good time.

JYI Article- String Theory

My science journalism post slogs ever onward with a new report from the front- The Great Debate: String Theory. (Yes, that title is blatantly stolen. No, I am not telling you where from if you don't recognize it.) It's sort of an attempt at an objective overview of string theory and the like, including some pithy quotes from both pro and anti string physicists.

My conclusions on the topic by the way run something like this- string theory is rather nice and cute and probably teaches you a lot about theory in general, but my experimental self wonders why it doesn't belong more in the math department. I've spent too much time in physics labs I suppose, but I like experimental evidence. It keeps you in check when you mess up, and I am humble enough to know that I mess up all the time.

Interestingly, there is a long conversation right now going on over at Cosmic Variance on if String Theory is Losing the Public Debate. I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes- in my experience you have a lot of people who understand the scientific method and not enough pro-string arguments heard right now, so string theory is obviously going to suffer. And I think it's good to force string theorists (or any field, really) to go out and defend themselves on occasion if they accept public grants. Wouldn't it be rather high-minded to take a check without justifying it on occasion to the people footing the bill?

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Ghost of April Fool's Past- Athenian 2006

Krauss Calls for Vote of No Confidence In God

CLEVELAND, OH– Professor Lawrence Krauss, former figurehead of the Case Western Reserve University Physics Department, has called for a vote of no confidence in the Lord Almighty. “There needs to be a change in direction,” Krauss explained in a statement, “because I believe His lack of communication is inappropriate for a leader.” God has come under prevalent attacks for telling humanity to “have faith” in his actions instead of explaining his planned policies, and for not allowing input from His followers in His decisions. Furthermore, God has come under further fire in the past two millennia in particular for threatening nonbelievers with scare tactics such as eternal damnation.

The move has already been met by sharp criticism by some theologians. “Sure, God is a little on the secretive side, but He does some great things for those who follow Him,” said Eszti Medsource from Very Important University, citing eternal salvation and protection from harm as a few of the incentives. Several others were quick to point out God’s command to “go forth and multiply” as another prime leadership move as it encourages greater numbers in the ranks of the human populace.

Professor Krauss, however, remained unmoved. “Although I am sure God had good intentions in the beginning, His leadership has undeniably faltered in recent years and His choice of assistants has been questionable,” he explained from his office. “Also, many of the decisions throughout His time in power have been questionable at best, such as creating the month of February. And I won’t even begin to wonder what He was thinking when He decided English units would be a good idea…” Krauss was then interrupted by several thunderclaps, an earthquake, and a plague of locusts that began to rain down in his office. He could not be reached for further comment.

The vote, which will take place in the next few weeks, will require a majority of the populace to choose “no confidence” in order to pass. It is uncertain how many eligible voters will show up, however, because of questions regarding the legal aspects of the vote. “I’m pretty sure when we agreed to that Covenant thing we wrote ourselves into a corner,” explained Ms. Faith B. Leaver, citing a written document promising exclusive worship of God in exchange for protection. “By promising the Lord that we would exclusively worship him in exchange for protection, we essentially blackmailed ourselves into a position where participation in such a vote would be very conflicted.”

Further disapproval was heard from the Misdiscovery Institute, a conservative think-tank that promotes Intelligent Falling (the belief that the Theory of Gravity is flawed and instead things are pushed downward by an intelligent force). “Frankly, I’m wondering about that Star Trek guy’s credibility in proposing this,” one spokesman told us. “He has shown the Institute time and time again that he cannot come to grips with how gravity is a theory in crisis because physicists cannot explain how it works. And would you trust the motives of a man who is so closed-minded and unfair that he does not want students to make an informed decision?”

Despite several pilgrimages to Mount Sinai for a statement, the Lord could not be reached for comment. Confidential sources say He is not too worried about the outcome, however, because of its non-binding nature even if the measure comes to pass. Only the Board of Deities presiding over the multiverse would have the ability to rescind Him of His position.