Sunday, July 27, 2008

Taranaki Falls

One of the best things about being surrounded by travelers is the element of spontaneity. People from around the world with different personalities and varied interests come up with adventures that you could never have dreamed up alone. It was over lunch that I decided I wanted to jump into Taranaki Falls.

Helen and I were eating in the staff room and planning to use the internet before our shifts started when Mike, a sweet young guy from England, plopped down at the table across from us. Everyone knew that he was heading home to start university in a few weeks and was trying to cram in as many activities as possible before leaving.

“What are you up to today?” we asked.

“I’m going to jump in a waterfall,” he replied matter-of-factly, “I just wish I had someone there to take my picture.”

Helen and I exchanged a quick glance. “I’ll go with you,” I volunteered, “but if you’re jumping in the water then so am I.”

“Well I’m not going to be the only loser who doesn’t jump in,” Helen chimed in.

And so, our idea was born. We each ran home to change into swimsuits and pack a bag of warm clothes to bundle up for the walk home. We met at the entrance to the Taranaki Falls walk, checked our watches and realized that there was no way we would make it back to work in time if it actually took us the allotted hour posted each way.

Refusing to accept defeat, we decided to run the downhill portions of the trail and Manhattan speed walk the rest of the way, reassuring ourselves that the time was overestimated for dawdlers. Stopping for a few pictures in between, we reached the falls in about forty-five minutes.

Since it was his original idea, Mike stripped down and went first while Helen and I stood on the rocks armed with a disposable camera. After striking a few poses he crawled out shivering but grinning. We took turns wading to the middle, standing still long enough to get a good shot, and then trying to convince the next participant through chattering teeth that it really wasn’t that cold.

After we had each taken one turn, we concluded that we couldn’t really claim to have jumped into a waterfall while we still had dry hair, so Helen and I grabbed hands, plugged our noses, and tip toed far enough out to completely dunk our heads. Not one to be outdone, Mike followed suit, splashing water overhead as he broke the surface.

Exhilarated, and possibly delirious from the cold, we started our walk back at the same fast pace that we had taken there. Even slowed slightly by a scraped knee that I earned taking a fall around a slick corner, we made it back in time to change clothes and get to work with barely a minute to spare. For the rest of the evening, fueled by adrenaline, endorphins, and the sheer timing of coming across the idea on a day filled with blue skies and sunshine, I couldn’t wipe the grin off of my face. As fate would have it, a blizzard hit Whakapapa village the next day making the savoring of our experience even more sweet.

**This little adventure was featured on!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Just Do It.

I’ve never thought of myself as an adventure sports junkie. In fact, most people laughed when I told them I was going to live on the side of a mountain and work at a ski resort when I don’t ski or snowboard. I’m simply here for the experience of seeing another country and having some quiet time to write without the millions of distractions that New York provides on a nightly basis.

That being said, I promised myself that I would be open to new experiences and take advantage of any that presented themselves. When I heard that a group was organizing a white water rafting trip I jumped right in.

Eight of us drove down to Tongariro River Rafting ( where we met our guides Nick and Ben and changed into wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets. They corralled us onto a bus and took us to the river where we got a few brief instructions before hauling our boats into the water.

The severity of a river is rated on a scale of one to five, and my favorite explanation was that one was equivalent to a warm bath, while five was similar to dropping a live hornets nest into your pants. Our river was a level three, and of course we chose a rainy day so we spent our time between rapids (which was probably seventy-five percent) sitting on our hands for warmth. 
Luckily, our guides were full of jokes and silly banter to keep us entertained.

After a two hour ride full of gorgeous scenery, a few thrilling moments of water splashing into our faces and a few more spent bouncing up and down in the boat trying to dislodge ourselves from the top of a rock, we piled back into the busses for a soak in the nearby hot pools. Numb skin tingled against the warmth of the water the moment our toes broke the surface, but within minutes we settled in and never wanted to leave.

Before we knew it we were being called out of the water (just moments before the skies broke and began to rain again) to change back into comfortable clothes. We headed back to home base where tomato soup (homemade from Nick’s garden) was waiting for us with bread and butter. We ate, drank and laughed at the slideshow of photos already streaming on the wall and left as soaking but completely satisfied customers.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Job

So, what am I actually doing here?!
My official title is Food & Beverage Assistant at the Bayview Chateau Tongariro. I am generally scheduled to work Lounge Service, which is pretty much a combination of bartender/barback/barista/waitress /American ambassador (people LOVE to ask the staff where we’re from, what it’s like, and what we’re doing here) and anything else that gets thrown my way.

My schedule is pretty ideal- most of my days start at either noon or 3:00pm and run up until midnight, unless there is a special event or particularly rowdy crowd that keeps us open late. Our clientele make up a stew full of varied ingredients- we’ve got high-end hotel guests having cocktails before dining in the five star restaurant spiced with skiers and snowboarders looking for a cold beer after a long day on the mountain and garnished with families placating their children with hot chocolates for a moment’s peace so they can get a glimpse of the gorgeous mountain view out the enormous picture window. You’re as likely to see a cocktail dress and heels as you are grown adults tossing dripping wet coats over the backs of couches and warming their stocking feet by the fireplace.

I work in a bit of a boys club, but they’re a great crew. Jon, our bar manager, is from England and a big kid at heart who could charm the pants off of anyone who approaches the bar window. Tim, our assistant bar manager and Jon’s best friend, is a smart ass Boston boy. He can rub people the wrong way until you realize that he only pushes people’s buttons when he knows they can take it. He can also turn on a smile the second any guest approaches and knows fine-dining etiquette like the back of a white-gloved hand. Rounding out our crew is Tony W, who everyone calls “Dubs” due to the number of other Tonys running around. He’s from Northern England with a great accent to match and hides his sharp wit inside the demeanor of a big teddy bear.
During busy times my job keeps me running, and in down times I turn to silly details like organizing the six different types of coffee saucers we use or taking walks around the lounge with rambunctious rug rats. It may not be the reason I came to New Zealand, but it is my means to income, housing, and a social life, and so far it’s not half bad.

Oh, and it allows me the time focus on my real career aspirations and get an article published in an Australian newspaper…. more on that later!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Staff

Living in the lodges is basically like being in college again, on an international campus. The staff here at the Chateau is primarily from England, Scotland, and New Zealand with a few Americans sprinkled in, topped off with travelers from Sweden, Poland, Brazil, etc. Most are skier/snowboarders (we do live adjacent to a mountain and all…) or backpackers looking to earn their way to the next destination.

Like most young adults in a new setting, we turned to drinks and games to get to know each other. There is a tavern two minutes down the road that hosts pub quizzes, pool tournaments and beer pong games where you can generally find a crowd unwinding after work.

Helen, the manager and friend responsible for bringing me here, celebrated her birthday the weekend after I arrived and she decided to combat summer-sickness with a beach themed birthday party. The whole staff got into the spirit with festive gear and crazy games that lasted until breakfast was being served in the cafeteria the next morning.

And, just as a reminder that we are actually living in a small country on the side of a mountain, we awoke the next day to the news that the water supply was contaminated by sewage getting into the village water supply (and yes, I made that face that you’re making right now!). So much for rehydrating- or even brushing our teeth! It was treated within twenty-four hours but not before plenty of moaning, groaning, and missing the simple pleasure of access to boiling water.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

NY vs NZ

I definitely prepared myself for a culture shock before this trip. I went from a small island crammed full of everything one could ever need or want to a village where every building is within walking distance. Despite that, life in New Zealand is surprisingly similar to life in Manhattan, with a few distinct differences:

1. A good pair of walking shoes is absolutely required.
In New York mine were generally a good pair of black heels.
In New Zealand they look more like this:

2. Someone else cooks all of my meals for me.
In New York they’re superb quality, delivered to my door and generally overpriced.
In New Zealand they’re served in a cafeteria free of charge, and surprisingly good quality.

3. I’m surrounded by people from all over the world speaking many different languages.
In New York it’s generally Spanish or something European.
In New Zealand it’s English, Scottish, or Kiwi English and I’m still constantly asking for clarification.

4. A car is optional.
In New York I can go anywhere I want on the subway or in a taxi.
In New Zealand I’m subject to the whims of any friend who drives, and the nearest town is about an hour away.

5. You can’t always drink what you want.
In New York I would get upset if the local deli ran out of lo-carb Monster energy drink on my way to work and I had to walk a block out of my way to get another.
In New Zealand I get annoyed that the water supply was contaminated and we to boil it to have access to fresh drinking water or brush our teeth for 24 hours.

Despite the differences, I’m feeling pretty comfortable here. My access to phone, internet and amenities may be limited but I’m surrounded by friendly people with a job and a roof over my head. And the most common question to start a conversation is the same here as it is in Manhattan: “Where are you from?”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

At the Chateau

I didn't get to see much more than the mall in Auckland due to sorting out a bank account, tax ID number, and forgotten personal items (towels, boots, etc.). Then Ami and I jumped on the road for a four hour drive to the village of Whakapapa. Oh, and in New Zealand "Wh" is pronounced like an "F" so it's quite a funny town to say aloud...

Thankfully, she and I got along right from the start and were 
comfortable enough to turn the music up and sing Beatles tunes at the top of our lungs for most of the ride. Having grown up in the Northwest, I was instantly comforted by views of green trees in the dead of winter and being surrounded by water. I also saw enough livestock along the roads to erase any doubt in one of my most favorite quoted facts- that there are 5 sheep to every person in this country.

At times the drive felt almost like a Disney movie- rainbows popped up over the hillsides to welcome us to town and our first glimpse of the majestic mountains came just as the sunset painted the sky a picturesque pink. I took all of this as a good sign. 

Once we arrived I was reunited with my friend Helen, a  former co-worker in New York who recommended me for the position and a calming dose of familiarity in a new environment. 
I settled into my dorm-style accommodations, which are far from glamorous, but are easily offset by spectacular views and the old-world charm of the Chateau itself.

Thanks to jet lag, I've been up to see the sunrise once and awake before 8:00am every day so far- anyone who knows me that anything before noon can be considered miraculous! It's proven quite productive so I'm going to hold onto the routine for as long as possible, but I make no guarantees.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

First Day In

So, I've met my new boss...and she's brilliant! We had chatted online and I knew we would be friends, but I had no idea how much fun until I got here!

Backtrack- I took a shuttle from the airport to Hostel Auckland International, which provided decent accommodations for a night. Ami- the food and beverage manager and my future boss's boss- happened to be in Auckland the same weekend I arrived so I have a ride up to Bayview Chateau Tongariro tomorrow, where I'll be living and working for the next few months. 

Ami and I hit it off right away. She and her brother picked me up from the hostel and we hit the mall for the basics: a new cell phone, rain boots to wade through the snow, silly umbrellas to keep our spirits bright in cold weather, etc. We talked and laughed to the point where silly errands started to feel like fun and I knew that my next few months were the right decision.

From there, we went home to change clothes, drop off the car, and grab dinner and a drink. We picked up some local New Zealand wine and headed to Hong Thai-a restaurant that the two of them knew so well that after we walked in, we warned the staff that we probably shouldn't be seated in the small dining room in close quarters with the other guests. Our loud conversations and uninhibited laughter bought us a place in their private garden.

Our drinks and stories flowed easily through the evening until we realized our stomachs couldn't hold another ounce of food or laughter. We bundled into jackets, scarves and gloves and prepared for the road trip ahead of us the next day to Bayview Chateau Tongariro- that is if the roads aren't snowed out!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I've Arrived!

I'm officially a temporary Kiwi!

It wasn't easy to leave friends and family behind after amazing week of send offs in New York, Seattle, and Las Vegas, but they only served to remind me how much I have to come home to- and gave me a great excuse for bringing enough luggage to cover five months in four different climates!

As I sat in the San Francisco Airport, it really started to sink in. I had just turned off my cell phone and internet service and immediately felt disconnected from my own personal universe. Would I really survive without texting?! I took a deep breath, shoulders fighting to rise against the weight of carry on luggage and a winter coat and walked toward the gate.

Luckily, fate decided to throw me a bone. On every flight I sit hoping that no one claims the seat beside me, and for this twelve hour leg of my trip my dream came true. The space nestled between my aisle seat and the girl next to the window was filled with nothing but breathing room. I was free from a sleeping head drooling on my shoulder, and free to curl my feet onto the seat. I bundled under the blanket, propped up pillows and turned to the in-flight entertainment system.

At this point, I have to take a moment to adore Air New Zealand. They were the only airline not to charge me for checking a second bag, the economy class seats were comfortable, they had a huge selection of movies and games to choose from, and they served local wines with dinner free of charge.

I willed myself to stay awake through 21
and Penelope (and was struck by the similarities between Jim Sturgess and James McAvoy) and played a few rounds of Tetris before drifting off to sleep- without the help of my well-stocked sleeping pills.

By the time I woke up, breakfast was being served and I had two hours left to dive into the local culture courtesy of Flight of the Concords:

And, although I'm fully aware that expecting every Kiwi to be this awesome is about as likely as my life being as glamorous as Sex and the City, I'm holding out hope.