Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dan Chang 2

We are officially teachers! Today, we were asked to teach two classes for a sick co-worker. We are finding out that Thai culture is more reactive than proactive, the sick teacher is our neighbor here at the campground, but we were not asked to teach until 9:15am, class started at 9am. We had a flight of stairs to determine our lesson place for the day. You can sympathize with us a bit when you imagine being summoned to teach your first class without any prior idea of where the students are in their curriculum and ability level. In fact, we still are not real sure of the grade we taught this morning, they were around 8-10, we think...Anyway, we were able to co-teach the class which made things a bit easier and lessons were learned on both sides. We hope the students will remember the words to Itsy, Bitsy Spider and maybe that our names are Deb and Joe and not Daab and Gogh. I learned that I cannot write a straight sentence on a chalkboard, everything angled down like it was about to fall off the board. Deb learned that even her loud voice was not enough to gain complete listening ears from 35 Thai students. The kids absolutely do not sit still, talking to others is as common as breathing and I am pretty sure the group of boys in the back were shooting a game of craps, maybe it was Pokemon...

After that we were asked to teach at 11:20am, class started at 11, see the pattern? This time we knew the grade, 3rd. Reviewing game tape from our earlier foray into the classroom, we started immediately with a quiz about parts of the body. Focusing specifically on the ears, eyes and nose we hoped the lesson of listen and look would stick, it did a little, but then Deb busted out 5 Little Monkeys and the room sounded like a Metallica concert was about to start. I will record and definitely release an album of Thai children singing nursery rhymes, they loved it! Especially when we put in place hand gestures and the jumping on the bed part of the song looked more like a bar when the song Jump Around is played, kids were moshing each other and a few heads were literally bumped! Needless to say, we are minor celebrities after that act, it was stellar.

We then spent the afternoon in an outdoor auditorium watching the children practice for the Loi Krathong festival that will occur this weekend and wrap up on Monday evening with a huge entertainment show put on by the students. Loi Krathong celebrates water and all it brings to the land. The children sing songs, perform dances and have made banana leaf boats to be floated down the local river. Deb and I along with the other foreign teachers are signing a song named Loi Krathong, coincidentally, in front of everyone on Monday night. When we practiced today in front of the children I thought I heard a faint chant of 5Little Monkeys, 5 Little Monkeys, they wanted an encore I believe. Maybe, just maybe, they will get one!

Common questions from home have included, how are you? the kids?your place? and the typical Minnesota question, how is the weather? Continually saying its hot and humid does not do it justice, hot and humid is a constant. I knew it was a hot country when I started noticing that all the cars here have only blue on the inside air temperature gauge, you turn it from light blue to dark blue, there are no heaters in the cars here, no joke. I am developing a rating for the different types of hot and humid. Like today for instance, it was about 85, with 85% humidity, that is bearable. Yesterday was 90 and humid with a boiling sun that baked the lint between my toes to a crisp. That is hotter than...

It needs refining, but you get the point. The classrooms do not have AC, but staff at the school are quick to point out that they are equipped with fans. That should make it better, right? Wrong. Next time its 85 and sunny near you turn on your car and put the heat on with blower going at you, welcome to Dan Chang.

Heat, bugs and language barrier aside, this country, the town and and people are beautiful. We have been treated to a number of spectacular sunsets and wonderful hospitality from the Thai people. It is this we came for and are most definitely receiving.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dan Chang 1

Good people of Chicago, Kentucky, Minnesota and other concerned citizens of the great U.S.A, we have arrived! Late Tuesday night we rolled into Dan Chang, Suphanburi, Thailand. Our orientation ended after a 2 night trip to Kanchanburi with the other teachers in our group. We rode an elephant, a pretty awesome animal and as you can see from the pictures I was in complete control of Walter (we named him that in memory of Wally, our campervan from New Zealand). Our day also included a bamboo rafting trip down the River Kwai and yes, we also visited the famed Bridge Over the River Kwai, it was nothing like the movie. Over 100,000 P.O.W's died building the Thai-Burma railway and the construction of the bridge alone caused over 12,000 deaths because of disease and maltreatment from their Japanese captors. Unfortunately, the area around the bridge is very touristy and not much attention is paid by visitors as to the significant loss of life the bridge caused.
On a happier note, I found chips over here that turned my tongue blue! I have no idea what they are called, the bag looked interesting and I gave them a try. Kinda of a cross between BBQ and salsa flavored, not too bad. We drove back to Bangkok and were immediately picked up by Saci and Dick, they drove us 2 hours north by northwest (another famous movie) to Dan Chang and took us to dinner. We then tried our best to settle into our “cabin”.

You will maybe remember that there was a discussion last week as to whether we were camping or in a cabin, its both. We are in a cabin in a campground. The first evening was spent removing the assorted spiders, bugs and other creepy crawly's that called our new home their home. It is not big, one room about 14 by 14, with a bed, fridge, table and t.v. That gets 8 channels of riveting Thai t.v. We have unplugged the television so Deb can plug her hair dryer in, we cannot understand the shows anyway and because Most Extreme Elimination Challenge is not showing here, I have no use for it. We are also the proud renters of a wet room, what is a wet room you ask? There is a sink, western style toilet (you cannot put tp down it though) and a shower head coming out of a wall with a drain in the middle of the floor. You turn on the shower and everything in the whole room gets wet, there are no curtains, doors, etc. its a free for all. Anyway, the first shower was quite nice as Deb could not yell at me for peeing in the shower because our shower has a toilet in it!
Yesterday we went to Anuban Dan Chang school for orientation and meeting with students and other key members of the campus. The school is K-6 and there are kids everywhere! Its like an anthill, children just pour out of buildings and then disappear into another or they chase each other around outside until a lovely wind chime type sound comes over the loud speakers and they dive into a classroom for an hour. We were brought around to 5 or 6 classrooms and in each one the entire class would stand up and in their very best English voice say “gooooooooooooooooooooooood moaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaainnnnnnnng teacha”, nicest welcome ever! Also, we were repeatedly quizzed on our age and where we were from from boldest of students. Deb was a hit with the girls because of her blonde hair and the boys were fans for the right reasons as well. Again, it made me smile as I heard a number of the little buggers mention how tall the farang (foreigner) was! Joe Wronka considered tall, can you believe it?
We are still a bit clueless about what classes we are teaching or even our schedule for work. The big concern from the staff here for us is whether or not we will be able to memorize the words for a song that we will be singing as part of a festival on Monday. Oh will they regret inviting me anywhere near a microphone...

Our orientation day ended with Deb and I getting a set of wheels for our time here. We even got to pick out the make and model. For a couple thousand Thai Baht we scored brand new bikes! Deb is rocking a fire engine red one and I went with black to ensure my masculinity is never questioned over here. Riding home was an adventure, not because we haven't ridden a bike in 10 years, but because of the vehicles that had little consideration for the foreigners cruising on the side of the road. We had a surprise waiting for us when we arrived back at he cabin, a refrigerator! Not stocked with beer, but you cannot have it all, all the time...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bangkok 2

We are done with orientation in Bangkok and will head out of the city tomorrow for a 2 night excursion to Kanchanaburi, about 2 hours from here. The plan is to visit a Thai orphanage, ride elephants thru the jungle and take a bamboo rafting trip down the local river. It will be a full 2 days and we are looking forward to getting out of the city for awhile.
The past few days have been packed full of trainings on Thai language, culture and preparing to teach English for 5 months. Learning survival Thai has been the hardest part hands down. To give you a taste of what we are trying to learn, get this. The Thai language has 44 consonants, 22 vowels, 5 tones and 21 separate sounds! For example, the word “mai” which can mean “not, new, not?, wood, or burn” is tricky because the tone with which the word is said determines the meaning. So, mai mai mai mai mai, can mean “new wood doesn't burn, does it?” if said with different tones. Basically, if you are not born and raised here, mastering Thai is nearly impossible. However, we have picked up a few key phrases to avoid being completely helpless, but we have a long way to go. We have found that taxi cab drivers and the wait staff at restaurants are the best teachers as they love to exchange Thai lessons for English lessons and everyone has a great laugh.

We got to visit the Grand Palace a few days ago. Thailand has a king and this is the home away from home for the royal family. It is absolutely incredible, the grounds are immaculate and the architecture is very impressive. Built in 1782 by King Rama V, it reminds me of the Palace of Versailles in France, but in an very eastern sense. Look at the pictures, everything is covered in gold leaf and the pillars are tiled with beautiful stones and gems. Inside the palace are a number of temples and one of the most famous is The Emerald Buddha temple. We were able to go inside and sit quietly gazing up at the extraordinary Buddha made out of jade, it was mistaken as emeralds when first discovered because of the brilliant blue/green color. The walls and ceilings of the temple are painted with numerous scenes from previous Thai dynasties and the detail rivals that of the Sistine chapel in Rome in my opinion.

The other night we had a welcome dinner and were able to meet with the school coordinator that will be our point person at the school we are teaching at. Her name is Sasi (sauce-e) and she is married to a American gentleman named Dick who also came with her. Sasi did not speak much English, but Dick was quite helpful in bridging the language barrier. He filled us in on the school and our living arrangements, which should be quite interesting to see. Sasi kept saying that we “camping living”, but Dick cleared it up saying we were living in cabins in a campground, we don't know what to expect! He also warned us about the pack of wild dogs that lives outside the campground, now its getting interesting! All in all though, we are still excited to go and will be sure to buy dog biscuits to pay the toll I suspect the mutts will charge us to pass-by.

The last two nights we ventured into the ex-Pat (westerners now living in Thailand) quarter of Bangkok. It was interesting to meet a few of the ex-Pats and get their perspective about living here. We had pizza and pasta tonight as our stomachs were asking for a night off from the spicy Thai food we have been eating for the past week. A walk thru the markets is always fun and I tried my hand at bartering with a couple of vendors. Thai people love a good bartering session and actually hold much espect for those that can do it well. I was able to get a vendor laughing, slapping my back and eventually cutting the price in half for a soccer jersey I wanted, she told me I was “A-ok number 1 deal man”, by far the best report card I have ever received!

The heat and smell of the country is hard to imagine, but tonight it dawned on me that describing it might be accomplished with this analogy. It is like putting on a sweater, winter coat and snow pants and then sitting in a sauna for 30 minutes while someone cooks a steak on a diesel engine that is leaking urine. Vivid, huh? Needless to say, leaving Bangkok for the jungle doesn't seem so bad even if there are 20 some poisonous snakes in the country!

We will update after we get settled in our “cabin”in the town of Dan Chang!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bangkok Intro

Sawatdee! We have been in the Land of Smiles since the 18th and are slowly starting to settle into the new surroundings. It was a 12 hour flight from New Zealand to Bangkok and I am pretty sure we are done traveling on airplanes for awhile after that trek, also the fact that the Thai government has our passports for the next 60 days. This is part of working in Thailand, they take your passport for 2 months of processing your work visa and by the time you get it back its only valid for another 45 days and the process starts over again. Bureaucracy of finest brand in our opinion, but oh well!

Our first outing into the big city of Bangkok (7million people reside here) was full on. Like any good tourist visiting the Thai capital we started our day in...Chinatown. Yes, here we are in Thailand and our first stop is the bustling Chinese quarter of town, but it was truly worth the trip as we were thrown into a netherworld of gold shops, food vendors, clothing and shoes stores with the same brands you are buying at Macy's and Target. Only here the price is about ¼th what you are paying the states, send us a list of your clothing needs and chances are we can secure it for you. It was incredible walking down the sidewalks, but calling it a sidewalk will conjure up the wrong image for you so let me describe it. There is a road, about 4 lanes wide, but anyone with anything wheeled is using this road and every square inch is being used, trust me. Next to the road is a slightly elevated piece of concrete that even if stripped bare of the stalls and food vendors might resemble the sidewalks you see in the states. However, when they built the sidewalk they failed to remove the trees and bushes, so adding to the mix is foliage that for the average Thai person is of no concern because the branches are 5 feet 5 inches tall, but for my towering height of 5'8 and Deb's circus like height of 5'9 the branches become spears destined to remove a retina or worse. Negotiating these streets is made even more challenging as there are most definitely not any kind of emission standards on vehicles, clouds of exhaust fumes hang in the air like storm clouds and then disappear after 1,000 people walk thru them and breath it in. Our lungs are officially clogged again after having them cleaned out in the fresh and pure New Zealand air.

After going to Chinatown and the infinite markets, we headed to the temple or Wat (pronounced Whaat) Po. It was a beautiful and peaceful place in the middle of the controlled chaos of downtown Bangkok. Buddhism is the major religion in Thailand and monks are held in the highest of regards here, every man is expected at some point in their life to become a monk. Usually they do this around 18 or 19 and for about 3-6 months, although some much younger boys join temples even earlier in life. Friendly as can be, the monks live on the generosity of other and are often seen receiving donations of money, food and drink on the street from citizens and tourists alike.

Karma, the stuff of sayings like, “what goes around comes around” and “you reap what you sow” is a also a major part of Thai culture. People here are extremely superstitious and believe that what you do today can affect your eternal well being. That being said not all Thai's seem worried about doing wrong and we can attest to that. Being a day of firsts for us we decided to take a Tuk-Tuk (took-took), three wheeled cab, to a temple with two other teachers. The driver was a friendly enough guy and seemed to know exactly where we wanted to go. Well, after a couple of near accidents and near wetting of pants (traffic laws absolutely do not exist here, kill or be killed is the only rule) on my part we arrived in PatPong, the red light district of Bangkok. Miles from our destination the driver insisted we pay and get out, having royal shafted the Farangs (white people) out of 200 baht or about $6 and stuck us in the middle of pleasure land. We didn't stick around long enough to see the underbelly of this district, but what we did see was enough to let us know that late night Cinemax ain't got nothing on PatPong!

We took a cab to Wat Tamrit and toured this temple for about an hour before eating great food from a street vendor. The food here is extremely good, but SPICY! I mean it literally makes your tongue swell up and trachea shrink. Good stuff though! We also took a water taxi up the Chao (river) Phraya to see the Wat Arun at sunset, beautiful site and we will head back for the full on tour later this week.

Our first day of orientation was too much and not enough at the same time. Too much information on Thai culture and language and not enough time to take it all in. We still have 6 more days, but something tells me that we will be shooting from the hip much of the time teaching. The rest of this week is going to be orientation and some sight seeing tours of the city and surrounding area. There are about 85 other teachers with us preparing for their tour of duty in Thailand. I have already met 7 other Minnesotans which has been fun, but Deb and I are finding out fast that being 28 means we are the elders of the group. In Thailand the elders pay for everything when in a group, part of this culture we are rebelling against though! It has been a great few days here and we are excited to be embarking on this part of our trip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Zealand Finale

We departed New Zealand on the 18th after spending our last day touring the city of Christchurch, doing some much needed laundry and catching up on emails. Oh yeah, we lost $4 in the Christchurch Casino playing penny slots, its a tough life at the top. In short, New Zealand was more than we had imagined it would be. The beauty of the country was seared into our minds and the warmth of the people will stay in our hearts for years to come. Our last days on the south island were fast and furious.

After leaving Queenstown we headed north to Wanaka and got there by crossing over the Crown Moutain Range on highway 6a, the steepest road we had encountered on the whole island. As Deb snapped pictures out the window I was negotiating hairpin turns and watching for rock slides. The view from the top was spectacular as we could see for miles in all directions, well worth the white knuckle driving it took to get there! Cruising into the town of Wanaka we stopped along the lake that was coincidentally named Wanaka as well, creativity reigns in this region...We found the hike we were in need of at Mount Iron, a 543 meter monster that had our legs burning pretty good when we made the summit.
Again, as usual, the views were breathtaking and well worth the carbs we burned to get there. All around us the signs of spring were evident, baby sheep everywhere! Seriously, they are worse than rabbits. Hawks, birds and blooming flower trees made the valley look like a painting and the walk down was hardly noticed as we were entranced with the views.

We drove from Wanaka along the coast of the Tasman Sea, at this point on the island there is no land between NZ and Antarctica, another fact that I have stored away for random trivia night when we get back home. The island is home to numerous ecosystems and within an hour of leaving the mountainous terrain of Wanaka we were cruising by the coast and it felt like we were driving out in California along the Pacific. We made a few stops to snap pictures and build a Wronka road marker on the side of the road that thousands of other folks had done previous to us. At one point we stopped to watch locals White Bait fishing in the pools formed by the high tide. A friendly Aussie couple allowed me to sample their morning catch, it was fantastic! Like Walleye with some salt, so says the Bobby flay in me. White Bait are really small, like 2 or 3 inches and are netted along the shore. It is considered a delicacy and many of the people fishing would go on to sell there haul for about $150 per kg.
I thought of using our socks to catch some and finance the trip, but the smell emanating from them was not good bait in my book.

Arriving in the town of Fox Glacier (named after the local ice sheet we would soon tour)we found a nice campervan site for the evening and settled into some dinner and most importantly the opportunity for me to get my barbeque on! I grilled myself up a nice NZ porterhouse, it was delicious and perfect. Deb enjoyed rice and canned beets, like a filet mignon for vegetarians I guess...We woke up to rain and lots of it, we decided to forgo the guided hike on the glacier and do some self exploring. For those that have not seen a glacier up close, you must! Walking out to Fox Glacier was awesome, we literally crawled, jumped and scampered our way within 100 feet of it before rope barriers (Darwin downers in my book) kept us from actually touching the glacier. It was enormous, having carved out the entire valley for thousands of years and currently receding into the mountain it shows the awesome strength these massive ice cubes have. We were pretty well soaked at this point,
(Fox Glacier) but happy we made the trip so we hopped back in Wally and drove to Franz Josef glacier where we made a similar trek to the base of that behemoth wall of ice and rock. Thoroughly impressed with mother nature again we hit the road for Hari Hari.

On the recommendation of a friend who traveled the island a few years ago we stopped in at Wildside Backpackers that is run by Dan and Kathy, a pure New Zealand family. They were not open yet for the season, but remembering our friends Blake and Erika they opened up their home to us. I also think it helped we were absolutely drenched from our walk to the glaciers, they thought we had driven a motorcycle thru the rain, that is how wet we looked. Giving us warm tea, a hot fire and good conversation we felt right at home with this lovely couple. They have two kids, 2 year old Shea and 1 month old Dylan to look after as well as their business which is an operation without rival. They live completely off the grid, the only electricity they use comes in the form of three lights in their house and the power comes from a diesel generator out back. Dan is an expert craftsman although he claims the ubiquitous title of “jack of all trades, master of none”, fitting for sure! They grow, hunt or trade with others in the area for all of their food and recycle just about anything into useful items. Dan's carpentry skills are out of this world and we got a personal taste as they put us up in a beautiful cottage that was just finished. A wood burning stove kept us warm throughout the night and heated our shower water. The floor was lined with animal skin to keep the feet warm and the bed must have been stuffed with a couple of geese because that thing was comfortable! Dan took us out to some natural hot springs for an afternoon soak. We dug our own personal hot tub on the banks of the Wanghuni River and enjoyed the thermal bath thoroughly. After getting the classic NZ spa treatment Dan and I went out to the coast for some White Bait fishing, it was a top 10 lifetime experience for me. We drove thru, I will say that again, we drove thru the river to get out to the Tasman Sea as the sun was setting for a couple of hours of White Baiting. For a first timer I think I did pretty good on my 4 passes down the shore with the net. We caught and later enjoyed a delicious dinner of about 200 White Bait. It was an amazing afternoon and made all the better by the company I shared it with.

Departing Hari Hari in the morning we made our way to Arthurs Pass for our last night on the road. Stopping in the seaside town of Hokitika we enjoyed a long walk on the beach in search of the elusive and very valuable Jade stone. We picked up anything that looked green or was on that part of the color wheel only to have our dreams of being rich dashed when a local told us that Serpentine is very similar to Jade and that our stash was made up completely of the stuff. Penniless in the sense that we had no Jade to sell local dealers we soothed our hurt pride with an ice cream cone on the way out town. Arriving in Arthurs Pass for our last night we realized the campervan options were pretty limited and opted to freedom camp down by the river. Yes, I made numerous Chris Farley jokes the whole evening about living in a van down by the river. Deb's amusement level was at an all-time low after the 30th
comment and Farley would have been embarrassed as well. That evening we had visitors in the form the Kea, a parrot looking bird that scientists claim is the smartest animal in the world. I won't argue that point, but I will say that it can also be put in the running for the most annoying animal in the world. Shortly after arriving, we pulled out the chairs and set up the propane stove to boil water for pasta and tea. The birds (think Hitchcock movie now) literally went after anything we pulled out, the bag of pasta, tea bags, a spoon and most maddening to me, my beer bottle. It took everything in me not to peg one of the little bastards with a rock, but I figured Deb would not appreciate Kea on the BBQ on the last night. We finished dinner, took a walk along the river which was swollen with snow melt from the nearby mountains and called it a night as the sandflies, a cousin of the mosquito, came out in battalions and ravaged our ankles and necks. Sitting in the van at 8:30pm and playing cribbage was a good way to end our trip, especially since I was winning, but alas the good times came to an end when the Kea I called “Hoppy” because he had a broken leg and hopped on the good one alighted on the hood of Wally. Old Hoppy began to chew and peck at our windshield wiper and before I could scare him off with a slam of my fist on the window he successfully ripped the wiper blade in two. The drive home the next day was made a bit more interesting as it rained the whole way, we had one working wiper and there were no stores to buy a new one. Kea's are smart and vengeful animals, beware!

So, the trip to NZ was a huge success and we will most definitely be back as the time we had was not enough to explore it all! We recommend your next international adventure be in New Zealand as it will surely knock your socks off or at least a windshield wiper...

We arrived in Bangkok late last night, after a 12 hour flight from NZ. Today was about sleep and getting prepped for the coming week of orientation. We are staying at the Louis Tavern Hotel about 25km from central Bangkok. A short walk around the area led to lots of strange looks from the locals and a sobering moment for us as we realized we are now the minority. Its going to be great though, there have been plenty of laughs already, just ask us one day about our taxi ride from the airport to here! More to come on our time here as we open up another round of adventures in the coming months!

Monday, October 12, 2009

New Zealand Part Deux

Back for more are you?

Day 3
Sunday funday held most true this week. We got the adrenaline pumps cranked up as we journeyed via bus to the white water rafting spot on the Shotover river. The bus ride alone was terrifying, the road up the mountain was a goat path until last

week I think and I am pretty sure our bus driver had been been up for the past 3 days drinking, he smelled like it at least. We got on the

river in a 15ft raft with two Aussie women and a French guy that got a new name because our rafting guide didn't like Fredrick, we called him Freddie or Kruger. KC was our guide and he is personified every stereotype one would have of a a whitewater guide in New Zealand. Outrageous, but full of knowledge about the history of the river as well as rafting itself, KC took us on a “SWEET AS” (Kiwi for totally awesome) 2 hour ride down grade 4 and 5 rapids. The highlight at the end was a straight drop out of tunnel into water about 15ft below, had it not been for Deb's incredible forearm strength I would have been swimming the last ½ mile outside the raft. She totally Hasselhoffed me!

We grabbed dinner that night in town (Pog Mahonies, thanks Blake for the tip) and slept easy knowing the rapids were behind us.

(Joe wishes he could catch trout this big!)

Day 4

Monday morning came pretty quick as we stayed up later than we expected chatting with an Aussie family parked next to our campervan at the Holiday Park Motor Camp. Very nice people with three kids and loads of stories about their family adventures. Anyway, it was a mad dash out the door as we had to cover 171km to get to Manoupori, home of Doubtful Sound and the Manoupori power station. We booked ourselves on an all day tour of the sound and power station which is an incredible feat of engineering.

Doubtful Sound is the cousin of the much more popular Milford Sound, but its actually 3x bigger and only hosts two tours a day compared to Milfords 50 or 60, we literally had the place to ourselves and 65 of our new friends. Deb and I braved the initial crossing of Lake Manoupori on top of the boat, it was blowing about 30mph winds, but the pictures we snapped were well worth the raw fingers and nose. After crossing the lake we hopped a bus for a short ride over a mountain to the actual Doubtful Sound, so named because Captain Cook did not think it was much more than a small harbor when he explored the region on his famous voyage. It is the closest one can come to stepping back to the times of Gawanda (not Gandolf), the ancient landmass, when all the continents were touching. Spectacular mountains rising up out of the water formed huge valleys were home to all sorts of animals and birds. This is where my mind will go everytime I read my favorite book Where the Wild Things Are. The day ended with our trip into Moordoor and me returning the ring of power I found while at Lake Tepako. Actually, it was the Manoupori power station, which, is an awesome example of human ingenuity, strength and general get'r done attitude. The details of how it works, its cool history and construction can be found with a simple Google search, but our highlight was when the bus we were on went underneath the mountain 2km to see the actual power station. There in the depths I threw the Ring of Power into the great chasm and saved mankind or we took a brief tour way down in the mountain and got a crash course in hydro-electric power. It was like a whole day of just science class and we are blessed to have had it!

So, the epic blog entry is complete. Lesson learned on waiting so long to update, expect it more frequently, but no promises as New Zealand comes first!

(Joe & Deb on Doubtful Sound)

New Zealand Part 1

Apologies for the lack of info coming out of NZ, but as you will read we have been pretty much tied up by the most excellent country of New Zealand. I broke down the update in 2 parts so you can leave room for dessert if the first two days fills you up.

Day 1
The Places You Will Go...To be quite honest, New Zealand was not a place either of us thought we would ever visit in our lifetimes and so far we are terribly pleased with our decision to go south of “down under.” We arrived in Christchurch on the south island of the country after 30+ hours of traveling, which, as you can imagine was a hard on the body and a bit on the mind. A quick breakdown of that portions of the trip reads like this. Chicago to Los Angeles to Fiji to Auckland to Christchurch. We got into LA in time to watch the best team in baseball win the American League Central against the hated Tigers (sorry Natalie) at the beloved Homer Dome. As I write this I am pretty sure they are 2 games down to the much more hated Yankees...The flight to Fiji was uneventful as we slept and read most of the way, in flight entertainment was out of order for those of us stuck in economy class. I had a pleasant if not a bit of a confessional conversation with a woman of Indian decent for 10 plus hours, I am pretty sure she is in therapy somewhere after listening to me. Deb slept happily as I had a new listening friend for that long...

Getting into Fiji was great as we were ready to be off of a plane if only for 3 hours. The weather in Fiji at the time was about 85 and sunny, there were reports of snow in New Zealand, but I passed it off as crazy Fijian weatherman trying hype up a slow news day. I was wrong, Fijian weatherman actually report the realtime weather, no speculation. Not that Al Roker or name your favorite weatherman lies to us, but it seems more times than not they have no clue as to the weather the next day. Anyway, flying into Auckland was like Christmas Eve, we could see
bits and pieces of what looked like a beautiful country below us, but the clouds never unveiled much and left us wondering what the land looked like (Dan Greene-the land is the present and the clouds are wrapping paper, we didn't know what was inside). After getting into rain soaked Christchurch and jumping a cab to Stonehurst Accommodation we were pretty well knackered. We grabbed a quick bite at Winnie Bagoes. Great pizza, better beer. Tired, full and not on an
airplane made for an easy nights sleep.The following morning was a day of firsts for us. We first found out that the weatherman in Fiji was not lying as the snow he told us about the day before was most definitely falling across the southern island and our plans to head west out of Christchurch were not possible. Before dealing with that issue we had to collect the campervan. Wally as the van (see pic) is affectionately called was waiting for us in downtown Christchurch a
friendly man name Gris Gris helped us get setup, by help us I mean he went thru a 10 point checklist, swiped my credit card, let me kick the tires, told me he did not have maps and said going to the west coast might be a bit of trouble. By this time the credit card cleared, he dropped the keys in my hand and said “remember, stay left. Good luck”. Keys in hand we picked up Wally from the garage below and after a few laps around a city block we were on the road to Lake Tepako.
(Deb and Wally)

The drive south was fine, getting out of the city was the hardest part and I am semi proud to say that I ran my first NZ red light
, got honked at the first time in another country and am pretty sure that a youth group saw me say the F word to a fellow driver, classy as usual says Deb...We headed south thru rain, snow and some sleet and arrived in the mid afternoon at the Lake Tepako Motor Inn. We parked about 75 yards from the stunning blue/green lake (see pic) I have ever seen. Lake Tepako is surrounded by mountains on 3 sides, snow peaked still and
absolutely beautiful. This is where some of Lord of the Rings was
filmed or so said the local information board. We got our hike on almost immediately, tackling the 1000 meter Mount John, it felt good to walk and the weather was clearing so we made the summit in little under 2 hours with plenty of picture stops along the way. There is an observatory on the top, but we opted to enjoy the view from a small bench on top.

Back down at the bottom we made dinner and then suffered thru a bitterly cold night in the back of Wally as the heater was not working and my expert RV repair skills were not what I thought they would be. More snuggle time with Deb is all I was looking for anyway:) I cannot put into words the beauty of Lake Tepako or the country itself. At every turn there is another “do you see that” or “WOW” site to be seen, needless to say staying on the road has not been the top priority.

(On top of Mount John)

Day 2
We did another hike on Saturday morning around the peninsula of the lake. This one took about two hours and was highlighted by our lunch on the beach after we slid down 50ft banks from the walkway above, not part of the trail, but when in Rome...After the walk we jumped in Wally and cruised south to Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. The weather had cleared at this point and the drive in was easy. Queenstown has the look of a small Swiss town, but the excitement of Vegas. And then you meet the locals and realize that Minnesota's international partner in nice is Queenstown.

Read more in New Zealand Part Deux...

(Hanging out in Queenstown)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Today we depart the USA at 3:10pm from Chicago O'Hare, tomorrow does not exist for us as we cross the international dateline on our way to ChristChurch New Zealand arriving there on Thursday the 8th. I wonder who we ask for that day of our life back, email us if you know...

The past week has been a smoreguss board (that is Minnesotan for a "mixture") of emotions, activities and experiences. Our last day of work was Thursday and it was a incredibly fast day filled with lots of laughs, hugs, tributes (good for Deb and more like roastings for Joe) and tears. The Mercy Home family has been incredibly good to us over the years and we were given a truly heartfelt and loving goodbye. And then there was the sign on my office door from a certain White Sox fan who is feeling low as he watches the TWINS head for the playoffs. The sign had a picture of a tombstone with the words "Gone and Soon to Be Forgotten" like I said, more of a roasting goodbye for Joe.

We packed up our apartment and with the help of three strong men, Deb as a forewoman we made the move out in less than 3 hours. Thanks Ron, Rob and Steve! It was bittersweet packing up number 518, but the adventure that awaits is pretty good reason to get out the storage boxes.

You can get a sense of what we are taking on the trip by looking at the picture, a brief description comes down to this. Deb has a 75 liter pack and a Vera Bradley "purse" which in my opinion is a broad interpretation of the word "purse" as it comes across as more of a duffel bag from my male perspective. Joe has a 85 liter pack and a 35 liter daypack. We each have 2 pairs of shoes, assorted multi purpose clothes and Deb's gotta have it item is her all purpose scarf/wrap that can also be turned in a turban should she need it. My gotta have it item is Gold Bond, enough said.

Joe's Deb's

We arrive in Christchurch on the south island of New Zealand and will spend 9 days cruising in an campervan (think conversion van with a mattress in the back, classy, right?) Our hope is update everyone at least once on the trip, but no promises.

Finally, Deb said I had to admit to the first "trip incident" which I dispute because we have not technically started travelling yet, feel free to weigh with you opinion after you read this. I lost my drivers license somewhere between Friday evening and yesterday. Its somewhere in Chicago, so I feel confident in my defense. Anyway, I got a new one this morning and am all set to drive on the left in New Zealand, it is the left, right?

Well, here we go, the last Dunkin Donuts coffee is going down smooth, the butterflies are reaching a crescendo and there is nothing to do but walk down the concourse and get on the big bird. Look to hear from us in New Zealand. Auf Wiedersehn!