There is no place like home…

After crowing about how great New Zealand is, I would like to say that there are comforts of home that no flocks of sheep or gumboots can replace.Canada is my home and I treasure aspects of our culture, be they good or bad, that you just can’t get here in Kiwiland.

Filtered Coffee 

I miss sitting in a restaurant on a Sunday morning and buying  a bottomless cup of steaming hot black coffee. The endless supply of sugar packets and little milk cups. The waitress calling you “Hun” and topping up your cup every time she goes by because the coffee is cooling down faster than you can eat your greasy, trucker sized $5.99 bacon and egg special. That is what AMERICA is and it is a beautiful thing to never be taken for granted (self loathing starts to creep in at this stage). Sunday morning in NZ is almost $20 per plate for bacon and eggs and at least $3.50 for one cup of Espresso. You eat and you leave. Or you order more espresso but the waitress still won’t call you Hun.

Cheap gas 

I will try not to complain about gas prices henceforth because “petrol” for a regular vehicle in NZ is no less than $2.03 per litre. People don’t even notice the fluctuations in gas prices as they fill their mid-nineties model sedan for the week of driving to and from work. There is no such thing as just driving around here. It just isn’t economical and people seem to accept it because they live on an island. *Note: No matter the price of gas, I do take secret pleasure in driving in the 1996 Toyota Corolla with the cassette player  that is the Upper CanadaMobile. End Note*

Maple. Everywhere.

Maple smoked bacon, maple candy, real maple syrup, maple donuts…it is only for the rich here in NZ. We peasants eat honey smoked bacon, hokey pokey candy, “Golden Table Syrup” and although donuts are sold here, they are not maple and I have not eaten ONE since I landed in September. I am way overdue for a Boston Cream and a Large with one milk, one sugar.

Electric Company and Water Works

I miss turning on a light switch and knowing it will trigger the light. I miss taking hot showers and not feeling eco-guilt or wondering if there is enough water to flush the toilet later. Power is either hydro or geo-thermic here. This means that if your city is powered by water and there is a drought that there could be power outages. If you are on a “tank water” system and your rain barrel outside is dry then you have no water coming to your home. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Insulation and Screens

I miss warm houses and a fresh breeze coming through a screen with no bugs sneaking through the window. NZ homes are not heated or insulated and there are rarely screens on windows so on a fine day that breeze blows right in through an open window. Enough flies come in to drive you whacky enough to spray insecticide all through the rooms while laughing maniacally and counting fly corpses as you breathe in the fumes. “We got them, didn’t we?! Hahahah! Look at them dying!…we should probably vacuum…”

 

Why I Heart New Zealand

There is an expression that goes something to the effect “moving on to greener pastures”. Looking for something better? Try New Zealand. It’s greener than whatever pasture you are in, I can guarantee it. Thinking of visiting NZ or wondering why people come here and don’t ever go home? Here are my thoughts on the subject so far.

Hokey Pokey

This is simply sweet, sticky honey comb…hokey pokey ice cream, hokey pokey cookies, hokey pokey chocolate blocks, chocolate covered hokey pokey pieces…I will never overlook a Crunchie bar again as I think the closest thing to Hokey Pokey in Canada IS in fact the humble Crunchie bar.

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Gumboots and Safety Vests 

These two clothing items know no barriers of class, race, socio-economic or social status. They are worn at work, at play, in traffic in broad daylight, on the backs of children riding a scooter to school. They are not removed promptly at the end of a work day or for errands in between bike rides. They are worn with whatever outfit you happen to be wearing that day.  Be it a day-glo orange vest or classic black with brown sole gumboots, New Zealanders embraces these articles and make no apologies for their practicality.I even had a “last chance for romance” style offer for a 2 a.m. drink in a caravan from a gum booted gentleman at least twice my age. For the record, I politely declined but not because of the gumboots. Speaking of creepy behaviour, I have been sneakily photographing people for this blog post.Image

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No shoes? No problem!

Shoes are not mandatory here. I served people of all ages, dressed in everyday clothes, shopping for meat with no shoes or socks on. No flip flops. Not even slippers. Just feet. This is normal here. You may not see it in restaurant or certain social situations but generally speaking the rule of “ no shoes, no shirt, no service” does not apply here. These are photos from a couple of takeout places…not beachside takeouts…middle of a small city takeouts in Autumn.

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Sheep.Everywhere.

There are paddocks full of sheep and hillsides dotted with sheep all along the highways. There are souvineer shops full of sheep mugs, sheep keychains, sheep magnets, sheep postcards, sheep t-shirts. My personal favourite is a mug with a cartoon sheep with really wide, surprised eyes and the caption says “Baaa means no”. Infer what you like from this.There are kids books about sheep dogs, sheep farmers, sheep counting sheep, and learning to shear sheep. McDonalds boasts its McLamb burger because “NZ has heaps of sheep!”.  People wear marino wool clothing all year round to keep warm and keep up with fashion trends. People cook lamb, hoggart and mutton in every way possible. I have even experienced a sheep traffic jam.

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The Dunedin Chapter – Been There, Dun’ That

My Dunedin chapter was this three month long, chaotic blend of pursuits that gave me equal pleasure and torment. It has taken me weeks to even find the words to write this blog post.  Dunedin was ice skating and Coronation Street.  MTV and wildlife. Beaches and electric blankets. Putting down roots and running away. Building and de-constructing relationships. Depending on the day it could be my paradise or my personal hell.

Dunedin was falling in love and finding myself. It was heartbreak and healing at the same time. It was putting down some old baggage and picking up some new stuff I will have to learn to put down later.

I had designated 2012 as The Year of Saying Yes. Dunedin was an intense start to 2013: The Year of Margaret. The following is a current (though not complete) list of Margaret Things from the Dunedin chapter:

Ice Skating

Some afternoons I would go ice skating in my size 7 hockey skate rentals and fly around the ice with such strong emotions that I could be singing as easily as I could be glaring at the silly teenagers around me. Often having the whole rink to myself, on that ice I felt like I could fly. I would go as fast as my feet would take me around that oval. No one could touch me on that ice. It was a dance I could do with my music in my ears and my body knowing exactly what to do. There aren’t many things I do that give me true pleasure and peace in my mind, body and heart but ice skating is one of them.

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Life Modeling

After several weeks of emailing back and forth with the life drawing coordinator of the local university, I was finally scheduled in for three Thursday nights of modeling. I bought a robe from a second hand store so I looked legit and tried to act like I had modeled a lot more than I had. Fake it until you make it and all that. The tutor of the class was a very nice artist named Pauline Bellamy. She made me feel respected and welcome immediately. I disrobed and stood in the middle of that room with the hope that I could impress them and get more work down the road. After three weeks with this group I had done my best to curl, stretch, lean and bend in every way possible. I had my hands, feet and back end fall asleep. I had almost fainted in front of the heat lamp. Pauline drove me home after the last class and offered to give me one of her sketches to keep. I chose the sketch that I felt showed my least flattering angle because I wanted to remind myself that the pride I felt in my work as a model had nothing to do with how I actually looked. (Amen, Lisa, Amen.) The second gift Pauline gave me that night was a simple compliment: “You are a really good model, Margaret. You can hold a pose really well. I hope you keep going with it.”

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Sisterhood

I was lucky enough to find a room to rent in a house that felt like Home. I rented from a woman who was kind, strong, liked a good wine and a good chat. She, her daughter and her granddaughter would gather in that home and make me feel as though I was a part of the family. We would watch Coronation Street and I would pretend to not care about the story lines until I missed an episode and begged to be filled in. One night spontaneously turned into a home spa session as the four of us soaked our feet and painted our toe nails. Other nights were movies or homework or just hanging around. Having that sisterhood to come home to on the hard days and the fun days made all the difference in my Dunedin chapter. I will always remember the way my “landlord” was really a friend who knew just when to share advice or lend an ear.

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Upper Canada aka. Dave

It is plain old love: laughs, passion, torment, forgiveness, trust, promises and plans. Dunedin was finding Dave and finding me. When you put the two together it just works.

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Christmas Abroad: Romance, Sunburns and Grand L’elephant

My time as an Au Parent was officially up on December 22 and I had decided to move to Dunedin to be closer to my beloved Upper Canadian…I mean be closer to the beach. Yes. The beach. Dave showed up a day early to collect me in Queenstown and we hung out with the kiddies so I could say my goodbyes and Dave could indulge his inner legomaniac. A few apple slices, lego battles and hugs later we had the Toyota packed with my two bags and the lovely plant I had received from the family.

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Heading to Dunedin that day was so exciting because I was starting my next chapter in Dunedin with a blank slate and my man beside me. We took the long way, taking pictures and finding random roads to drive on and various gas stations selling overpriced espresso. Dave had spotted a Canadian flag at the end of farm’s driveway and we were parked next to it for a few minutes before I even noticed it. My brain was starting to be in Kiwi mode more and more already.

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After a long day on the road we arrived at Dave’s apartment and took in my two bags and my (now dead) plant so I could get settled. I would stay with him until just after the New Year and then move into my own boarding house just one street over. We spent the next days preparing for the holidays, putting up the little Christmas tree, cooking a mammoth Christmas Ham from Dave’s company and soaking up the sun.

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Christmas Eve was scorching hot with just enough breeze that it was a perfect day for a bbq on the beach. We found a stretch of sand with an amazing view and no other people unless you counted a few passersby following the water’s edge back to their cars. Dave constructed a cooking pit like a boss and cooked up hamburgers and hot dogs while I drank beer and “tanned”. A few hours without sunscreen wouldn’t kill me, right? We frolicked about in the water and took turns repeating how strange it was to be on the beach at Christmas. What neither of us would say was how alien it felt to be away from home at Christmas. There was nothing we could do to fix that so we let the grand l’elephant sit silently in the middle of our romantic beach day.

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Back at the apartment we got cleaned up and started feeling the consequences of our few hours in this scorching ozone-less hemisphere . Backs of knees and thighs and necks were unnaturally red already. Our romantic Christmas on the beach all of a sudden gave way to a thick layer of aloe lotion and a safe distance so no inadvertent contact could be made. We each opened our one present under the little Christmas tree.  I felt weird because Christmas Eve still hadn’t really started at home so there was no point in even calling yet.

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Christmas morning was painful but restful until it was time to get ready to go to the traditional Kiwi Christmas dinner in which Dave’s workmate had so kindly included us. We were part of the annual orphan guest list in this home of a friendly, easy going family. Their house was full of food and people and gifts just as Christmas was when I was growing up. We ate a meal of cold ham and salads and chicken and pickles and cheese bread with butter. I can see why no one in their right mind cooks a turkey for hours in the December weather here. It was as hot as the day before and we were barely mobile with our sunburns so we were both content to stay inside with a fan and a cold beer. My new necklace and earrings looked splendid with my summer dress and I again pushed away the feeling of being out of place for the holidays. Why did I not have boots on? Where was the starchy comfort meal? I should call home…wait, it is only Christmas Eve there…

After those festivities the holidays slipped on as we babysat Louie cat and took walks along St Clair Beach to see the seals and pretend we were lost in the fog.

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New Year’s Eve was another night of dressing up and going out with my arm candy, I mean boyfriend beside me. We had drinks and listened to the band play in the town centre until it was time for the countdown. Dunedin does things differently than I am used to and instead of 3-2-1 HAPPY NEW YEAR *Kiss hug clapping* it was 3-2-1 *CANNON BOOM AND FIREWORKS*. The HAPPY NEW YEAR was drowned out by the boom and the hugging and kissing seemed less important than holding your hands over your ears as instructed. The fireworks, while captivating as always, had everyone looking up instead of at each other in celebration of the new day in a fresh year. Did we kiss anyway until it got awkward because the crowd thinned? Yes we did! That was one piece of tradition I was not going to let go when in Rome.

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January plodded along as it does, Dave went back to work, I moved into my boarding house for real and resumed my job hunt. My plant was still mostly dead. The spell was broken and real life jumped on me again as I figured out how to fill my days in a new city with no job, few friends and even fewer dollars to spend. Louie cat became my companion while I watched MTV and ate cookies on the couch. Long walks became a necessity so I wouldn’t go shack whacky. As it turns out I am not cut out for the life of a house cat and lost my marbles a bit anyway. My blank slate didn’t seem as exciting but I am no quitter so I kept up my job search and made plans to visit my dear friend in Sydney, Australia at the end of the month.

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Moving closer to the beach was the right decision but the sun can’t shine everyday. That grand l’elephant didn’t retreat without a fight and in the end two Canucks pretending that Christmas at the Beach is the best thing is not the best thing. Dave and I were both working through our holiday blues in different ways and I am so happy that we had each other to lean on (just not on the sunburn!) through that first Christmas so far away from family and friends.

Backsides and hindsight…

Before I moved to Queenstown to take my au pair job I had done some research about artists in the area that resulted in contact with an artist named Angus Watson who might have a need for life models. I moved in with my au pair family and kept an eye on my email in case Mr. Watson got back to me. He did write me a note and invited me to visit his studio any day I was free to have a chat. A casual question to my employer about how to find the studio revealed a funny coincidence that the artist was in fact the uncle of the husband. It is a small world after all. The appointment was set and Mr. Watson, aka. Gus would come pick me up since he was going out for groceries anyway.

Gus picked me up on a sunny afternoon and we made our introductions as he drove us outside of the town to his beautiful property with a mountain view and home he built himself. The old campervan he used to live in as he traveled sits in the front yard and next to the typical garage cluttered with tools and projects abandoned for more pressing life events. As a tetraplegic living alone and working from home, Gus has a hoist in this garage to help him get out of the car and into his wheelchair. It was then that I noticed the hand controls in the car and I clued in that he wouldn’t be able to use the car pedals. How did I think he had been driving the car? Maybe I was just nervous.

After a tour of his home and studio I saw more of his watercolours and some of the influences that show up in his art. Images of landscapes, race horses, sheep in pastures and beautiful nudes were all brought to life with soft colours, bold red outlines and an absence of detail that grabs the eye and invites the imagination. We drank tea and ate homemade bread on the warm side of the porch to talk business. What does he want in a model? How much will I want per hour or would I like a painting in exchange for my poses? Where do his paintings end up? Tomorrow afternoon for three hours, a dinner break an hourly wage is agreed upon.  The sketches he does could be for sale in his annual exhibition in January.  I had negotiated my third life modeling session and was excited to be working with an artist who has made a living selling his art for the past twenty years.

The following afternoon was a chilly one so Gus stoked the fire in the living room where I would pose for his sketches. I got undressed in the next room and stood by the fireplace as Gus sat in his wheelchair and prepared his pencils to be within reach and his paper to balance across his lap and the arm of a nearby chair. He instructed me in the pose he wanted to see. As a seasoned artist, he knows what poses sell best and what gaps there were in the collection of paintings he had already done for the upcoming exhibition. A sitting pose as I leaned back on one hand. A sitting pose leaning forward on a table with my head resting on my hand. A standing pose with a ¾ profile and a hand on my back at hip level. (NOTE: I almost fainted with the heat from the pot belly stove as I stood there and tried to stay still. When I started swaying Gus pulled the patio door wide open and let the cold air and a glass of water revive me before we could continue.)

We didn’t exchange much dialogue as I focused on not moving and Gus focused on his sketches. Just over an hour into the session Gus announced that he was tired and finished working for today. I was surprised since he had booked me for three hours but got dressed and tried to pretend to be really cool about it. Was he unhappy with my posing? Were the sketches not right? Did he get at least one of the three that was usable? He did say I was more “voluptuous” than his other models…maybe that was a bad thing. My insecurities played havoc on my mind and heart as I walked back in the living room while Gus put his art supplies aside. It is amazing how I could be more self-confident while completely nude than I was at that moment in all of my clothes.

Gus offered to drive me home then or to stay for a wine. Either way I was getting paid for the three house. I love wine and I HAD offered to cook dinner for us so, in 2012 tradition, said YES, I would stay. We drank wine and chatted of cannibals and kings while I made pizzas for us. He showed me the salmon, the tomatoes, the bacon, the cheese, the spices…I didn’t want to admit I don’t cook much so I just put EVERYTHING on it. Every single ingredient went on top of my homemade Frankenstein sauce and I hoped for the best as they baked in the oven. A few bites sparked a surprised exclamation from Gus, “OH. You really did put EVERYTHING on the pizza!” We discussed the merits of using a different flavored sauce on salmon pizza before moving on to cultural differences, politics and anything else that came up. The leftovers were to be his lunch the next day…at least that is what I choose to believe as I wrapped up the remaining pieces and put them in the fridge. I laugh to myself even now as I write about that horrible little salmon and bacon pizza with the nice red wine.

As was the case with my previous experiences with the kiwi artists, the best part of the afternoon was getting to know a man who has hitchhiked around North America (only to be picked up by a car full of Black Panthers!), traveled in South America and tramped around Europe before returning to NZ. His life in a wheelchair for the last thirty years was even more fascinating as he told me of marriage, being a father and an uncle, divorce, relationships, different models he has worked with, renting out the cottage on his property…a full life being lived to the fullest by a person who gets to explore his talent everyday and sell his work to buyers all over the world.

Posing nude is a very clinical activity and Gus describes it well with a quote from his website:  “Although he focuses on figure painting, for Watson the subject is not important-it is something on which to hang the colours.” It is the chatting and swapping stories with the artist that makes it feel like a personal encounter and produces an image which captures a snap shot of not only the model’s body but the artist’s perception RIGHT THEN. Time stops for nothing and by the time that sketch was finished and we had cleaned up from dinner both model and artist would be different already because of meeting a new person and sharing perspectives. By the time the paint is hung on the structure of the pencil lines a week later the artist is different again.  He has had time to reflect on the encounter, on the mood he feels that day and any other influence which may have snuck in unnoticed with each day that passes. Needless to say, I was hoping that the sketches would turn into at least one painting and that he would be pleased with the result.

Two weeks passed and I heard nothing more from Gus. My voluptuous body and insecure heart decided to accept that not everything turns out as we hope it will. I would just keep trying to learn more about modeling and maybe my next job would be more successful. And then the email showed up from Gus. A photo attached to a simple message saying that he thought I might like to see it. I wrote back thanking him for the opportunity to work with him and that I enjoyed meeting him. And that was it. No more correspondence, no requests for more posing. The holidays came and went and I moved on from being an au pair in Queenstown to Dunedin to focus on finding a new job and exploring the sites with my Upper Canadian.

One night last week it occurred to me that I should check Gus’ website to see how his annual exhibition is going and which paintings he is selling. The current works section of his site was updated in December 2012 with thirty one paintings in a gallery showing his range of watercolour landscapes, abstracts and nudes. And there I was. Standing there in ¾ profile with my hand on my back at hip level. I clicked on the photo and saw the $2000 price tag on it. And then the title assigned to it. All of the other nudes have titles that reflect the pose…”relaxed in magenta” or “beautiful back”. What was mine to be? Maybe “3/4 standing”? Mine is titled with one word: Confidence.

There have been few moments in my life that have stunned me into silence. The kind of moments where reality makes me stand in front of a giant mirror so it can smack the dark, self-tormenting part of myself and forces to let some light in so I can really see. This was one of those moments. Forget that the pencil and paint shaped my body on that paper. Gus Watson managed to capture my inner reflection on a day when I wasn’t kind enough or strong enough to see it for myself.

http://www.anguswatson.com/currentwork.html

http://www.anguswatson.com/retreat.html

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Lightening the Load

Having recently packed up and moved to Dunedin here in New Zealand, I am painfully reminded of my chronic complaints of a backpack that is too heavy.  As I packed my bag in Queenstown I could not deny that not only had I not downsized my load but that I had in fact accumulated possessions. Few things can be considered non-essential when you have to fit everything into one bag so I am forced to evaluate my loose definition of ESSENTIAL. Choosing what to take and how to organize it is an art when backpacking. This post is my way of giving back to the blog community because I read countless posts on this topic when I was preparing for my adventure last summer. (A special thank you goes to those women who bravely admitted that they wanted to look pretty as they traveled the world. Honesty is best.)

So glad I packed:

  • iPod touch:  This small device serves as a camera , mp3 player, computer if there is wifi, web cam for Skype, and has any app you could want. Coupled with my basic pay-you-go NZ cell phone, I am connected wherever I go. I also invested in an Otterbox case for my iPod. It is splash-proof, protects from dropping incidents, completely encases the device while not interfering with the touch screen AND hot pink was the only colour available that day at Future Shop. It was obviously meant to be.  (NOTE: I am very low-tech person so here are some cons to consider if you normally can’t live without your iPhone or 3G network:  Wifi is very expensive here, free connections are hard to come by, I can’t use my itunes account outside of Canada and the battery doesn’t hold the charge all day if I am constantly using the touch screen, camera, etc.)
  • Comfortable walking shoes: Any backpacker can expect to do a ton of walking on all different terrain. Whether you will be tramping through pastures of sheep poo or exploring a new concrete jungle, you will want a good pair of shoes that are BROKEN IN ALREADY and that look half decent with your jean skirt. (ps. That last condition is a false hope really. You should actually prepare yourself to look as though you got dressed in the dark on a cold day and had to just wear EVERYTHING you own.)
  • Thermal “Cold Gear” hoodie from Under Armour : The brand name is less important than the fabric. Thermal “cold gear” is designed to be a light layer that keeps you warm, wicks moisture away and dried quickly. This pretty green hoodie has thumb holes to add to the functionality (keeps your hands warm, blocks wind from getting up your sleeve, and looks cool, of course).
  • Good socks: I splurged on sport socks that are comfortable,  moisture wicking, dry quickly and, naturally, are low cut to make those silly walking shoes look less dorky. Also, the fabric actually “resists odours” as the package claimed. All of these features are important because laundry is not an everyday occurrence and I have learned to get by with only five pairs of socks for the past few months while keeping my feet dry, warm and not smelly.
  • Good underwear: Thanks to a generous donation from my lovely mother, I was able to invest in five pairs of undies from Pantagonia that have changed my expectations of undergarments forever. These underwear have the quick dry, moisture wicking qualities I am repeating in this post AND THEY DON’T MOVE. Not even a little. I can walk, ice skate, bend, sit and sleep any which way I choose and I don’t have to worry about my underwear abandoning my butt to hang out around my neck. Just like I didn’t think I could get by on five pairs of socks, I am pleasantly surprised to find out that these underwear wash like rags and dry in no time so five has been enough. (http://www.mec.ca/AST/ShopMEC/WomensClothing/Underwear/PRD~5010-847/patagonia-active-briefs-womens.jsp) (NOTE: I did have to buy a package of cheap underwear to wear during my period once I got here but I haven’t found a way around that one and they don’t take up too much room)
  • A few accessories: I made room for a few items of jewelry, a pretty scarf, arm bands and some basic makeup because I figured I wouldn’t be tramping through sheep poo all the time. I was correct. There has been more than one occasion where I was so glad to have that pair of earrings or my multi-coloured animal print scarf to add to my yoga pants and hoodie uniform on a chilly day or a night out on the town. (NOTE: a pretty scarf can also double as a cover up at the beach, head covering in the cold, and something to tie your bags together when you are trying to carry everything at once and run for a bus)

 

Could have left it home:

  • Rainpants: I have yet to have an occasion to wear my lovely rain pants that I took months to ponder before purchasing. Unless you are planning on doing some serious hiking and camping, a day trip or hike will usually end in somewhere where you can dry out and change your pants anyway.
  • Sewing kit/First Aid Kit: I have not used these. Not once unless you count a band aid on a blister. Not one button or hem has rebelled. Not one wound has required a sterile pad. In the future, I will tuck a small pair of scissors, a safety pin and a band aid into my bathroom kit. The dental floss will do as thread if necessary and tweezers don’t discriminate between eyebrow hairs and spinters.
  • Water shoes: They are comfy and great in the water BUT I have not had to wade through many rivers. I thought they would double as walking shoes but the holes let the rocks in. Since I like them so much, though, with their structured soles and pretty purple straps, I will seek out a river to cross soon enough.
  • Long underwear, hat, mitts: I might need these as the winter comes on later this year, but so far I am dragging winter gear around in a country that specializes in soft wool clothing and therefore sells it on every street corner.
  • Extra batteries: Apparently I was under the impression that my headlamp and iPod speaker were going to go dead the moment I used them. I have yet to change the batteries in these devices. Also, New Zealand, like most civilized places in the world, have entire stores devoted to selling batteries.

 

Wish I had packed:

  • Ice Skates: Not necessarily realistic, but definitely ideal now that I have moved to a city where there is an Olympic sized ice rink open all year round.
  • Another pair of jeans: My ONE pair of jeans gets a lot of wear. Again, when you are doing normal things it is nice to have normal clothes to wear and normal clothes are expensive on a backpacker’s budget.  My other pair of “normal pants” are the magic pants you see in the picture below and dry faster than jeans but are not nearly as stylish (NOTE: jeans are heavy and take forever to dry if you are camping or staying in a damp climate. Reserve the denim for when you are a bit settled in one place for a while and you have access to a clothes dryer)
  • Bras: Another incorrect assumption I made as I packed was that I would take two bras with me and buy fabulous new bras in New Zealand as the need arose. The two bras I packed got pretty tattered over the last few months and it has been very hard to find new ones that fit and that fall in my price range. Thankfully my parents were nice enough to ship some of the bras from my bags they are lovingly storing at their house.
  • Birth control pills: Tri-cyclen Lo is not available in New Zealand and I did not take enough pills for the duration of my trip. Medications are not allowed to be shipped in either. I will be switching to another brand of pills next month after just getting my cycle adjusted from the trip across the world in September.  It is common to have irregular cycles after travelling so far so fast but you can make it easier on your body if you can at least continue your pill regime normally.

 

Words of wisdom:

Pack as light as possible – remember that there is no light load if you have to carry it for 100 paces. And you will carry it for 100 paces even on a good day, and climb stairs and run for buses and wait in line…you get the point.

Choose your gear for function but keep in mind what range of function you might want. Layer your clothing and plan for the worst possible temperature because the weather doesn’t care what season it is supposed to be. Do your research and use Twitter and blogs to find out what real people are saying about your travel destination.

Don’t be afraid to spoil yourself with a few accessories but remember that anything you take with you should be something you don’t mind losing. You never know when your things will be stolen, rained on, melted by the sun, etc.

Skip the liquids in your bag. I had all of my things in zip lock bags in my backpack as per the Girl Guide tradition of making room and organizing the items so I was lucky when my shampoo bottle came open in my bag before I even left Canada (after my beloved EcoYogini taped the bottles shut with my hot pink zebra printed duct tape!)  Lush or the Body Shop have nice shampoo bars or soap slabs that can double as shampoo and you can be sure you won’t end up with a mess in your bag. (The zip lock bags have come in handy for keeping laundry separate in my pack, putting leftovers in fridges at hostels and transporting food items between cities)

In conclusion, my pack is still too heavy for hardcore backpacking so whenever I get back on the road I will be forced to ditch some items or send some things home ahead of me. In the meantime, I hope my experience can help anyone planning their own trip abroad. Take half of the gear and twice the amount of money you think you will need. Money can buy extra stuff when you get where you are going but you can’t eat your rainpants. True Dat.

take as much of this as you can. Just put some of it in the bank.

Take as much of this as you can. Just put some of it in the bank.

the mother load

The mother load

Super ready!

Super ready!

As you can see by the genius of marketing, you can roll these pants up OR down! Don't bother looking for the loops or hooks, either, these wonder pants stay rolled or unrolled all by themselves! (rolls eyes)

As you can see by the genius of marketing, you can roll these pants up OR down! Don’t bother looking for the loops or hooks, either, these wonder pants stay rolled or unrolled all by themselves! (rolls eyes)

Sneakers

My comfy walking shoes

The pretty scarf makes this farm visit so much more glamorous!

The pretty scarf makes this farm visit so much more glamorous!

Green thermal hoodie and  hobo bag at Tunnel Beach

Green thermal hoodie and hobo bag at Tunnel Beach

Trying to look my best for my first date with Upper Canada.

Trying to look my best for my first date with my handsome Upper Canadian.

 

Life as an Au Parent

I took a job as a live-in au pair for three little blond boys (ages 3,5 and 7) in Queenstown, NZ.  The three year old calls the role “au parent”. I am the fourth au parent this calendar year and I will be gone after only two months with them.  They don’t watch T.V. or movies and therefore spend their free time playing with toys, riding their bikes, scooters, skateboards and reading lots of books. They fight each other, argue and punch each other in the crotch and run really fast in case the victim gets up to retaliate. They team up and play for hours making up stories and helping and praising one another. They laugh hysterically at each other’s jokes and bodily functions.  They whisper and spy on me after they are supposed to be in bed and giggle uncontrollably when they think that I believe they are sleeping. We crank the music in the living room and dance like rock stars before school in the mornings or while dinner is cooking.

 It is my day off. I wake in my warm bed and relish the idea that I don’t have to get up to the morning school routine. I hear banging, yelling, playing and doors opening and shutting. And then silence. It is amazing how quiet a house can be when it is empty.  I could tell you about an average day here with the kids… it’s hugs and snuggles and giggles and piggy backs and bath time and dino socks and tears and announcements.  I think the kids could tell it better in their little kiwi accents:

“Mum, our au parent is STILL in her bed??”

“Mahgret, can you read this story to us?”

“Mahgret, it’s not a counter, it’s a bench.”

“…what is your name again?”

“Can someone come help me wipe my bottom? I did a poo! Look how dirty my bottom is!”

“I want help getting dressed!” (MELTDOWN)

“I can do it myself!”

“I hate you.”

 “And do you know WHOT??”

“Maybe when you go back to Canada we could call you!”

“Can I come in? (Just a minute.)..Are you putting your ‘lothes on? (yes.)…I’ll just wait here. I’ll wait RIGHT here…Do you have half of your ‘lothes on? Can I come in NOW? (No.) You are taking SO long….”

“Mah-gret! (I am in the toilet room and a little eye appears through the key hole) Are you doing a poo? Will you be SO long? (I am hurrying up at this point) That is SO much toilet paper! Too much paper…”

I have always enjoyed taking care of children and this job has been no different. I took lots of pictures of them to show their parents, laughed and played with them, had glaring stand offs and power struggles with them. I answered questions about capital punishment , what sexy means (That’s what I get for having Right Said Fred on my iPod), the concept of nudity in various cultures (Mah-gret, the Greek statues were naughty!), why the 911 attacks were significant to North American culture (Mah-gret, if people didn’t build such tall buildings then they wouldn’t get attacked…) of course the on-going debate about whether or not Elvis is dead (Mah-gret , Elvis was NOT the King!).

The experience of living in with a family has been a great one for me as I got to see them in their familiar space and see how the parents interact with the children. It is easier to keep the rules and routine after seeing it firsthand. Being “the au pair” was hard at times because I sometimes felt like THE HELP. Not really part of the family. Sometimes the kids didn’t want me around when their mom was home because I was getting in the way of their family time. They barely know me but have to respect me as an authority figure. The kids were aware that Mom was the boss and if I varied the routine at all I was either being SO MEAN or rebelling against the rules. What kind of example does either of those perceptions set for the children?

On the other hand, the kids will come and wake me up on my days off as they jump on my bed and want to snuggle under the covers and start full-on dialogue.  They follow me around and want to know what I am doing and do I want to play with them. It is my day off…do I take an hour and play lego because they asked me to or do I set boundaries for my off-duty time? In the end, I spend time with them when they ask because inviting you to play with them is a child’s way of showing affection and acceptance. As adults it can feel like a chore to get down on the floor and play with the cars or lego. We don’t have the time or the interest in what the kids are doing so why would we join them? We tell them, “Go play, you’re a kid, enjoy it! “ If playing is so fun and so important then we should probably do more of it. At school one day their little friend asked me if I could do cartwheels. Thank goodness I can and demonstrated on the spot with the other parents watching with expressions that were impossible to read. Disbelief? Envy? Judgment?  More importantly, however, the expression of the little friend was unmistakable: approval. Simple, genuine approval from a little mind and heart that has yet to be roughed up by social rules, self-judgement and the rat race.

I have now said my goodbyes to the family and moved on to live in Dunedin and find a new job. I often think of the kids and hope that in the long run they have learned something from me and that I have had a positive effect on them. I know that I learned lots from them and they, along with all the little ones I have cared for over the years, left their little smudgy, jam-covered finger prints on my heart.

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when the climb is worth it…

Before I left for NZ I had many people ask me WHY. Why go all the way to NZ? Why go alone? Why right now? Depending on who was asking my answer would vary. I always meant to go there, I would say. I hear it is so beautiful, I would say. It is a pretty safe place to backpack, I would say. All of these responses were true but the most honest reason I gave anyone was that I was trying to find a place to feel quiet inside. I wanted to find some peace. I imagined moving to NZ and just sleeping for the first week in that hostel because my heart and mind were just so bloody tired. A funny thing happened when I got here though: I couldn’t rest. That first night in the hostel in Auckland I ended up sleeping on a couch in the common room because I needed the background noise. I sought company each day instead of the solitary experience I had come here for. Each bus trip earned me another character in that chapter to add to Facebook and keep in touch with. I stayed with families and made connections that have spanned the length of my trip so far.

But then, two months after I arrived in this country, on the most random day where the sun was shining and there was no schedule or plan to the day, I hiked to the top of Mt Iron in Wanaka with Dave the Upper Canadian. The peak of the mountain was set up with benches and interpretive plaques and amazing photo opps for the dozen people gathered there at noon on a Sunday. I took no photos, I did not marvel at the scenery with the crowd. I found a rock and sat down and just looked at what was around me. And I heard it…the quiet. The realization that I felt like I was exactly where I should be, all alone and looking at this giant, slow space around me brought tears to my eyes. I may have had to come all the way to New Zealand to find it, but I finally felt like my heart and my mind was resting.

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Floating Up From The Shit (October 21, 2012)

My interlude in Christchurch was based around a life modeling session in the neighbouring community of Amberley with Jeff Elliot, a local business owner and artist. I woke early that morning to take the Intercity bus for the 45 minute trip to Amberley. Jeff met me at 7:45 a.m. outside the petrol station with a big hello and a handshake. His energy was instantly contagious. He cooked up a trucker’s breakfast for us as we chatted about art and my trip and his life as an artist. It turns out he doesn’t sell his paintings and had no idea until about ten years ago that he even had the talent to capture what he sees with watercolours, pencils, pastel, oil or just about any medium he decides to use. After a quick tour of his family’s home we got to work in his studio attached to the garage. He showed me a variety of paintings and sketches he had done with other models which gave me a good idea of what kind of poses and effects he is looking for. I disrobed behind a giant easel and waited for instruction as he got his paper and pencils ready and got the music playing from his computer. By 8:30-ish the space heater was on full blast and the first playlist was the Dixie Chicks so I was a happy model.

How would you like me to start, I asked. He suggested that I just move to the music and he will try to capture a line here and there. What the hell, I thought…Sure, I said! So I moved and posed and turned and such each twenty seconds or so until he decided on a pose he wanted to see for a longer pose. He asked me if I could squat, like I “was shitting”. So I squatted, forward, back, side. My feet fell asleep as he drew the pose over and over from different angles on the same piece of paper. I leaned forward on my hands and he was thrilled at the weird way my fingers and toes bend too much. He wanted to accent my undercut because each side of my head looked distinct from the other. He asked me to show him my fanny (ps. A fanny here is not the fanny at home)…but don’t really show it…move a little so he can just think he can see it. Then he would erase the whole sketch and we would start over. A huge mirror was placed on the platform with me so he could put his paper on the glass and draw upsidedown from my reflection. I laid with my head hanging over the side of the platform so he could paint my face upside down.

(NOTE: Just as he started this piece his teenage daughter burst into the room crying about someone named Borat. He rushed out of the room with an apology and mumbled something about a cat…so I just waited. My one job is to not move but I had no idea how long he would be so I just waited with my head hanging down over that plywood platform and the space heater blasting on my head. At least the music was still playing. About ten or fifteen minutes later he came in the room again and started to work again. Apparently Borat was one of the family kitties and the poor girl found him in pieces on the road outside their home. My wait was the time they needed to bury the cat in the backyard. And onward with the art!)

Surprisingly, the portrait he did of my face with my clothes on was the most challenging of any pose I was asked to do. Having someone a couple of feet away from my face and studying my eyes for their expression and emotion was a slice of personal development because all defenses had to go down and I had to remain present in the moment. I have spent so much time and effort building walls and trying to project strength and independence that I felt a little panicky that it would be a relative stranger who might see the real contents of my heart that day.

As random as this all sounds, it was inspiring to watch the ideas flow and to be part of this work that was undefined, had no expectations or destination and to be part of it. I felt elation and smiled through my poses as I felt in control of my destiny and free of normal bindings. I was asked to come and look at the paintings halfway through and asked what I thought they needed. I was asked to simply fall asleep while he painted a pose with my feet propped up (my feet were filthy from walking around the studio and I appreciated the little nap). We stopped for lunch with his wife and watched a little rugby. My wedding song came on while I was posing and I couldn’t move and had to keep my concentration.  He asked me about my story and my marriage and my journey here in NZ. He painted my balloon girl tattoo and my photo-bomb buddy, Klaus, into the pictures so they would be mine. By 4:30 p.m. we were both tired and I was ready to be shipped back to the bus stop so I could make my way back to my couch surfing house in Christchurch with a day’s pay in my pocket.

In the weeks since that session Jeff has been sending me the finished paintings he has made from the sketches he did that day. One in particular features the “shitting pose” as he calls it, my tattoo and a boatload of colours. He calls it “Floating up from the shit” and he could not have done a better job of providing me with a beautiful snapshot of my life right now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow, but on that exact day.

Christchurch: couch surfing among the rubble (Oct. 20-24, 2012)

The trip to Christchurch was going to be another all day affair but I was in the mood for travel so I grabbed a seat on the mini bus and peeked around at my bus mates as we waited to hit the highway. A young Kiwi guy a couple of seats back was breaking a major bus etiquette rule by playing his music out of a tiny speaker hanging around his neck. He was playing Bob Marley though so not one person said a word. Another Kiwi guy across from me was loudly complaining about the colours painted on a van in the parking lot and a Kiwi girl with giant sunglasses told him to get a grip which started a small debate from the guy…except he was the only one talking. He talked of cannibals and kings to himself and with his phone to his ear (there was no reception at all mind you) and then just put his hand to his ear as if it were a phone and kept on. Bob Marley was keeping things chill though and we made it to our first transfer spot for a lunch break and a change to a bigger bus. The sunglasses girl and I decided to watch each other’s bag while we each grabbed lunch from a bakery across from the bus depot and we talked with Bob Marley until it was time to board again. She was a great bus friend (and now Facebook friend! Ooh!) and the trip passed quite nicely as we took pictures at each stop and traded travel stories. She was born and raised a Kiwi and was kind enough to give me advice on the important stuff like which service stations sell the best meat pies and if you lie down in the middle of a cow field and be really quiet the cows will slowly surround you and schnuffle you because they are so curious. Adding that to my bucket list NOW. We arrived on schedule in Christchurch and my couch surfing host, Mark, picked me up and helped me get settled in at his place. I had my own room where I would spend the next four nights and was more than pleased to find out he had a 9 week old puppy and another dog he was babysitting for a friend. We ordered pizza (single guy, no food in the house but who am I to judge with my non-cooking habits?) and watch Kiwi tv shows until I could not even pretend to keep my eyes open any longer. The past four nights had taken their toll on me so I retired to my comfy bed so I could get up very early to do an eight hour life modeling session the next day. After the day of modeling I had some money in my pocket and a couple of days to just explore the city but instead I took a very much needed rest day and stayed in bed until the afternoon when I could no longer ignore my hunger. Pizza and tv again tonight with my host and we chatted for most of the evening and got to know one another. One more day in Christchurch to explore so I got out there and walked about to find coffee and groceries to fulfill my promise of cooking dinner for my host. The city was largely destroyed by earthquakes in the last two years so the vibe is both subdued and exciting with too much scaffolding, blocked streets, temporary fencing and a booming construction industry. The local businesses weren’t very helpful when I was asking for directions and the posted bus times were approximate at best so I did more walking in circles than I would have liked. Walking the dogs and cooking supper for Mark and I was a perfect way to end my stay in that strange little city. Freshly laundered clothes in my pack (which was even heavier now after a silly trip to the mall…) and a generous drive halfway to the bus depot and I was all set to do the final leg of the journey to Queenstown.

 

Naomi and I rocking the South Island (Nelson to Christchurch)

Oil portrait done by Jeff Elliot in Amberley (45 minutes outside of Christchurch)

Roo made an excellent little snuggle buddy for my downtime in Christchurch.