Sunday, December 28, 2014

Earthquakes and Christmas


Yikes! Christms Eve brought 2 earthquakes in the afternoon. The first one had a couple jolts and scared me. We got under a doorframe and our cat scampered on the hardwood to get behind the couch. Then there was another one a bit later which was shorter. Our cat spooked again and ran under the bed. I can imagine the chaos of pets getting lost after the earthquakes here, and a postgrad student in my department actually just published a book on this topic with heartbreaking stories of owners searching for lost pets. I discovered I really don't like having to move around while the earth is moving underneath me. We feel fairly secure in this house, seeing as how it withstood all of the rest of them, but the many cracks in the ceiling are a constant reminder of the stress it has taken. These were only the second quakes I've felt (first one was in California while I was asleep so by the time it shook me awake it was over). After recovering from the first one only to have another one come a little while later, I now have more empathy for the folks here who went through not only the big ones in 2010 and 2011, but many aftershocks that probably rattled them every time. It was weird timing coming on Christmas Eve.

He has recovered from his shock and taken over the chair.


Even though we are careful about acquiring too many things since we won't be able to take most of it back with us, since we are here for a while and it's hard not to, we got each other a couple presents for Christmas. D got me some wall hangings, a sweet Shakespeare puzzle, and of course a bird feeder and seed. He also got both of us Civilization: Beyond Earth which is a new science-fiction-themed version of our favorite computer game that has fun alien siege worms and other science-fiction elements. I got him some international-food-section candy and a cast-iron tortilla press and corn flour. His parents got us some travel gifts: Hobbiton movie set tickets and passes for the inter-island ferry so we can get our car over to the North Island to explore. Hobbiton sounds so cool - we will be going there soon and will definitely be posting pics! 

I think this is the first Christmas where I've ever been able to wear a tank-top. Also the first one where I went on a walk on a beach. Several people had recommended a place called Taylor's Mistake where all these old holiday homes still exist -- they call them baches (pronounced "batches") - - so we had a nice drive along the coast to get there. It was super windy, but very sunny and warm with lots of other people out enjoying the water and weather. I plan to return and have a picnic soon.

Boxing Day

Sales weren't very good. The only thing I found were some beach towels on sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Gearing up for that picnic! We did get some lights at K-Mart. For some reason, almost all of the holiday lights here are solar-powered or battery-powered. And they are LED so the big strands were still $27 even at 50% off. We got some smaller strands and tested them out -- they worked! I guess the upside of solar is that you don't have to pay for power. The 6 balls change color too. I can't wait to decorate next year! :)

Next we saw Big Hero 6 at the movie theater. This time the employee let us pick our assigned seats -- we told her that we don't have those in the U.S. and she was shocked and said she wouldn't like that at all. We emphasized the importance of having buffer seats, but I still don't think she was convinced.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Jobs, Parties, Movie, and Meds


We joined the ranks of the workforce this week, having both been accepted to be notetakers for the disability center on-campus. This is nice because you get to sit through a class in your field and take notes for students who are otherwise unable to take their notes. You get to learn and get paid for it. Not too bad a deal. We had to apply for an IRD (Internal Revenue Department) number at the post office, and it was a surprisingly easy task. The form was two pages long and just required copies of our passport and student ID. The lady processed the forms, gave us a receipt, and said to expect our numbers in the mail in about a week. What won't be so simple is figuring out all the tax stuff, but we'll just have to wait until the end of their year (March 30) to deal with that.


There were two holiday parties, one with some of the arts college's departments and the other with a small group of postgrads. Unfortunately, the first party suffered from the typical clique problem where each department's people just sat at their own table and didn't interact or leave room for anyone else. The second party was at a vegetarian restaurant which suffered from the dinner party problem where you may or may not be seated next to interesting people, and you never get the chance to talk to anyone from the other end of the table. Perhaps because the university has a small but growing animal studies research group, we have been encountering a large proportion of people working on animal rights-related topics and bringing them up in conversation. One lady was against the concept of pets and another was a vet who believed all vets should be vegans. I'll admit, hearing these new points of view has made me think more about humans and their relationships with animals than I did before.

With the new year just around the corner, I decided to ask the head of school for a meeting to discuss some of my frustrations at the lack of communication and events for postgrads in my department and others in the arts. This was the professor I met the first week I arrived whom I knew it would be advantageous to have talked with, and I was right. I felt comfortable going to him and we had a great meeting going over my concerns and coming up with solutions. As I suspected, he already knew a lot of what I was saying was happening, but it took someone speaking up about it to put it back as a priority on his huge to-do list to revitalize the school. I'm encouraged that the next few years will see the build-up of a strong postgrad community that supports us and reflects well on the school.


We saw our first movie here, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, which came out ahead of the U.S. release for a change. On this side of town, the movie theater is actually reasonably priced at $10 a ticket, and the theater was very nice with stadium, comfortable plush seating. The weird thing was they have assigned seats - which we didn't realize - and someone came in and made us move because we were in their seats. This system makes sense to give an incentive to buy tickets in advance online so you can get the best seats, but it was ridiculous in the huge theater to have all of us bunched up together in the middle. We moved over one after the movie started to avoid a smelly guy - it's called a buffer seat people!

At the house, we had another visit by insurance inspectors. After about half an hour of walking around and making notes, one of them showed up on the porch wearing a haz-mat suit and told us that we should stay out of the house for the next hour while they collected samples from walls and ceilings. We said we really didn't want to leave for an hour, so they compromised and worked on one side of the house at a time with a door shut. (Hopefully they don't find anything hazardous!) So now there are masking-taped-up patches all over, as well as numbers in Sharpies so they can match photos to rooms. No care taken to make the holes in inconspicuous places - I don't think this would fly in the U.S.
generic aspirin was $2.59 for 20 300mg pills

brand-name naproxen sodium (Aleve) was $14.99 for 12 275mg pills 

We bought a 32" LCD TV at a garage sale for $100 which was a really good deal. Americans just need more than 1 television, I guess. A gift of fruit mince pies was given to us, and though I tried the raisin and apple-filled treats, they are just too sweet and weird tasting for my palate. I think you have to have grown up on them. Having to buy medicine for D since his back went out, I was reminded how expensive medicine is here and how I should have brought more with and wish someone had told me how crazy the prices are for even regular stuff like pain relief. Thankfully there are generic versions of aspirin and ibuprofen, but most other medicines and anything name-brand is at least $1 or more per pill.

Although not many people decorate for Christmas, there is a website where people can put their address if they do put up lights and want others to come see them. We drove about 10 minutes to a suburb with a lot of postings and saw several really nicely decorated houses. A couple even had signs saying come on in and see more, so we stopped at one and had a nice walk around the house full of lights, trees, ornaments, and other decorations. Definitely made me sad we couldn't bring any of our decorations with!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Making Acquaintances

I met several new students this week, and the conversations began with my prompting, so I'm discovering how easy it can be to make acquaintances in a new place if you just put in a little bit of effort and initiative. Granted, I started the conversations knowing they were probably Americans so we had something in common, but it turned out we shared other interests as well.

After hearing one young lady discuss her love of baking, I noticed she said "cookies" instead of biscuits, so I asked her where she was from. Turns out she was from California but has lived here for many years so her accent is a combo American-New Zealander. She was already walking with another young lady, so I met her as well and she was from Britain. We all stopped and chatted for a bit about what we were studying and then some of the cultural differences we had encountered. It ended with friending on Facebook which will hopefully enable some future hang-outs.

Later in the week, I had been breezing through Dune Messiah in the student lounge at school and was getting up to go to lunch when I overheard an American couple eating lunch nearby. They were talking about the housing crisis and someone they knew who was being too picky about the neighborhood (I had to agree with them - you can't afford to be picky in this city). I decided to ask if they were Americans since they sounded friendly enough. Sure enough, they were and even better, they were from San Diego so we got nostalgic together about the good and the bad of living there. It had been getting too crowded for them so they opted for a big change. We exchanged info and they are actually living just one suburb away from us. I am proud of myself for taking some risks and glad to have been rewarded with some new acquaintances from other departments. You never know what one conversation can spark!

My meeting with my supervisors went very well. It is nice to be able to talk science fiction on an academic level with people who really know their stuff. And to get a generous chunk of time in which to so: three-hour meeting! It goes by fast when you're jumping from books to theories to movies to culture to education and so on.

weather was very strange yesterday - there was a glowing haze everywhere and then this rainbow appeared

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Thanksgiving" Week

This week's theme was being aware of being international.

In order to keep my U.S. phone number, I switched it to a prepaid account and have to top it up every three months to keep it active even though I'm not actually using it (haven't turned it on since the first week I arrived). I tried to top it through the T-mobile website and that failed. I tried it again and it failed. I discovered it is free to call toll-free U.S. numbers through my Viber app, so I called the refill number which the online chat rep had advised and tried that way which failed. I called my credit card company to make sure it wasn't on their end. I then called T-mobile's customer service number and after three people and having to go through a credit card verification (which was the reason it was failing), it finally worked. So, the point of sharing this is to advertise the good news that while abroad, if you have internet access, you can call your credit card and other customer service companies for free through their toll-free numbers with the Viber app.

While we missed out on the Black Friday shopping experience, one of the Walmart-like stores here, Warehouse, which has a red logo, had a "Red Friday" 1-day sale on Friday. There were more people there than usual, but Warehouse hadn't quite learned the tactic of placing the deals throughout the store to force you to go through the store and decide to pick up other things. All of the deals were on pallets up at the front. So we grabbed the two folding tables we wanted, checked out, and were out of there in 15 minutes. Not too bad.

That evening, we went to our first Operation Friendship dinner for international students hosted by a local church at one of its member's houses. We also had to bring a wrapped gift for a gift exchange since it was the last one of the year. There was a sizable group - 45 - with international students from all over (Iran, India, Korea, Malaysia, Serbia) and older folks from the church. They encouraged mingling through a meet-as-many-people-as-you-can game. Dinner was a potluck of leftovers from someone's Thanksgiving party and other dishes like casseroles and vegetables. Dessert included chocolate cake and ice cream which I haven't had in a long time. I enjoyed meeting a variety of new people and had a somewhat intense conversation about U.S. immigration policies with a guy from India. He said it was good to get a different perspective than the media's.

This theme has been increasingly apparent as I realize how much we are all at the mercy of what gets reported in the news. I may be quite ignorant of a lot of what's happening in the rest of the world - especially since we aren't subscribing to a newspaper anymore - but most people know or at least think they know what's going on in the U.S. because certain stories make headlines. Yet I find that people's opinions are so often just based on a tiny snippet of information and nowhere near the whole story, or are missing a crucial opposing viewpoint, at least in terms of my perspective as it's my home country. This is good in a way because it forces me to reflect that this happens in reverse when I see media coverage of something happening in another country and think I have it figured out or form an opinion based on one article. It doesn't mean we can really help it, but it can help us keep an open mind when someone challenges our beliefs or opinions.

Saturday was the American Club's annual Thanksgiving party where they supplied the turkeys (super expensive here - $50-$70) and we all were supposed to bring a plate of food to share. I made pumpkin cheesecakes (gluten-free with some yummy hokey-pokey flavor cookies for the crust) in cupcake liners and they turned out great. We met up with the cool British couple and their kids whom we had met at the Halloween party last month. The guy even lent me a couple of his British science fiction books to check out. I let myself indulge a bit and got a big plateful of food and tried several desserts (pumpkin pie with whipped cream, warm berry pie with whipped cream, some kind of meringue-type cake, and a brownie).

notice how plain the picky eater's plate is
As I've been weeding the flower bed along the fence, I found that the massive dandelions were obscuring a bunch of strawberry plants with some ripe strawberries on them. Sweet! I picked a decent handful today before the critters can get to them. Free fruit is always a treat.

Tomorrow begins the last month of the year. December already!

uncovered strawberry plants

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Presentations and Networking

We only went to school three of the five days this week, but it was for legitimate reasons.

One day was the Postgraduate Showcase at the university where postgrads could voluntarily give 12-minute presentations on their research topic. It was an all-day event, starting with a good speech by the keynote speaker, a retired professor of law, and then including four sessions of 3-4 speakers per session. The professor discussed some of the changes in postgraduate work since he received his PhD, namely the limitless availability of knowledge and expectation that more will be included in research papers. He said it used to take about 2 years but now takes 3-4. One can get information overload, and I definitely know about this when it comes to looking up food, recipes, and health topics online. There is a lot out there, and that's only including the first 1 or 2 pages of Google searches and the tangents you can get on from those sites. He showed us copies of a government policy recommendation from years ago (a 12-pages booklet) and one that he helped work on recently (a 300-page bound book). And yet, he acknowledged that most people don't bother reading through any of the longer stuff because they don't have time.

In a refreshing turn, he told us not to use esoteric and hyper-intellectual language that isn't accessible and is just trying to make the author look smart. This is part of the reason that non-academics don't think the work coming out of academia has any relevance since they can't understand it. I know the humanities are guilty of this, myself having come across many articles and books that could have said the same thing and gotten the message across in simpler language (I'm looking at you, writers who include French theorists!). He cautioned us against overlong sentences as well. It was a nice pep talk about how we will be contributing to the sum total of all knowledge and will develop valuable skills in the research and writing process.

Regarding the presentations...let's just say I learned a lot about how not to present. The advice we received in the postgraduate seminars a few weeks ago really came home to roost when I saw how other people a) went over time b) hadn't practiced so didn't know how to pace c) didn't use slides effectively d) spent way too much time on boring parts like methods and didn't have time to get to results and the interesting material e) weren't able to understand or answer questions. In spite of this, it was interesting to hear about all kinds of different research topics, including a linguist researching how often certain words were used in four English-language and Arabic-language newspapers regarding the uprising in Libya; a chemist designing a program to make it faster to determine molecular shape which can affect how molecules ingested by living things might change once inside them; and a multi-disciplinary student looking at robots and ethics. One disappointing thing was the noticeable lack of arts/humanities students. There were only a couple (we heard some had dropped out, too, which was too bad), and I resolved to work hard to change that for next year by drumming up support. It doesn't do any good to slink away just because the science/engineering departments are getting all of the funding. The work we do is important too, and remaining visible and active is one way to not be completely forgotten.

The other day we didn't go to school was because I went to a networking breakfast for local women researchers put on by the Canterbury Women's Club. It turned out to be a really good experience. There was a non-political presentation by a local politician (I'd heard her speak before on-campus) on the importance and history of women researchers in this area, and she reiterated the importance of the humanities even though they don't seem to have the same "utilitarian" purposes that the sciences do. I met a couple older women as well as a few other students. I proposed more of a regular meeting of women researchers on-campus, either through this group or a separate one, since there isn't currently a network and it would be a good way to meet people and support each other, especially those of us not in the fields getting all of the attention. I know one thing: networking is important and worth investing in.

The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit location guidebooks finally came in the mail. Hello, road trips!

We discovered the Canterbury Museum has a massive collection of birds. I was excited to find out there is a type of magpie here! The ones in the UK were beautiful, intelligent, and awesome. This owl was looking very cute too.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

First Week of Work and Beware of Tomato Sauce

 First Week "Working" at School

Although working at home can be great, it can also be a curse and let time blob into expanses where seemingly nothing gets done. The postgrad seminars recommended trying to make a distinction between study and leisure time to let yourself not feel guilty all the time and to help keep the internet surfing at bay. So we went to school every day this week as if it were a regular work week and it seemed to work out pretty well. Once you're at your desk at your computer with all of your books surrounding you, it's harder to ignore the fact that you need to be working. Therefore, I felt very productive this week getting all of my quotes and notes entered in and catching up on a lot of admin things online. My to-do list is now enormous, but at least it's written out and able to be tackled. I also finished my first "old-school" SF book, one of the classics, Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

On Wednesday, a distinguished Cambridge professor, Dr. Anthony Hopkins, gave a lecture on the American Empire and argued that the U.S. did indeed have an empire much like the other European nations and that it is not right that historians, and especially U.S. historians, neglect discussing and analyzing the period 1898 to World War II as a period of American empire. It was a quite interesting argument and certainly shows how what Americans learn about their country is skewed in favor of the "independence and freedom" master narrative. He said that, contrary to the U.S. being extraordinary, it was a colony like other colonies and took about 100 years to shake off its colonial past, and only after that could it really be called independent and able to start amassing territory for itself (like the Philippines and Puerto Rico). Among other things, he also said that it was a mistake to keep referring to an American Empire today, because despite U.S. military might and cultural influence, the U.S. does not know how to effectively use that power globally (via wars, diplomacy, etc.) and it cannot claim to have the same power that, say, the British Empire once had in the world. It was well-argued (though perhaps hard to take it all in) and I wouldn't mind reading his final published book when it comes out.


After the lecture, we went out to dinner with the professor, host lecturer, and several students. It was our first time in a Vietnamese restaurant but ended up being very similar to Chinese food. Everyone else was going to get a set menu for $30 a person, but we said we would prefer to order our own meals so the table got the set menu of $26 a person and D ordered crispy chicken ($8) and I ordered beef fried rice ($12). Our dishes were plenty of food and affordable, although the set menu price would have been the minimum at a typical non-Asian restaurant here. The only reason we can see that restaurant prices are so high is that minimum wage is so much more than we are used to (and probably food costs). Yet Asian restaurants are the most affordable. It is uncomfortable to have to discuss in front of everyone that you don't want to pay $30 for a meal because a) you can't afford it (or even if you could, you would rather spend it on something else) and b) you wouldn't eat most of the things anyway. But you do what you have to do and so we had an enjoyable evening and the professor and I complained about everything wrong with the U.S. and it was so refreshing to discuss politics with an intelligent British person.

I had my first ripe strawberry from my plant (after the actual first one was eaten by something else) and it was good! Can't wait for more. I also bought a bag of golden kiwis from a farmer's market and can't believe I never knew how delicious they are. I also bought green kiwis and they are good but not as good as the golden ones (plus, you can eat the skin of the golden ones). Highly recommend!

Word of warning about tomato sauce here: I bought a can of tomato sauce to use in a recipe, and it turns out that their tomato sauce is almost identical to ketchup. My food tasted way too sweet and we looked it up and found that you have to buy tomato paste instead. Bummer.


I know, I know - we haven't been enjoying New Zealand's outdoors like we should. So I insisted we do a hike this weekend and start getting into the routine. We went on the Rapaki Track in the Port Hills for about an hour and a half round-trip. It was all uphill until we turned around, but it's lambing season so we saw lots of sheep and lambs and heard them bleating to one another. Some cows watched us lazily from the other side of the fence.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gardening, Seminars, and Holidays


It is possible I was a bit overzealous in our gardening trip. I may or may not be pinning all my hopes and dreams on these fruits and vegetables growing and thriving... But I have always wanted to have a garden so I figured I might as well go all out. We bought fertilized soil and extra fertilizer as well as a medley of seeds. We also bought a jalapeno plant and parsley, basil, mint, raspberry, and strawberry seedlings. Please, something, grow.

I spent several hours over the past couple weeks weeding the garden bed and found a large rhubarb plant still thriving which I let be but removed everything else (mostly weeds). There was a lot of rain this past week so I figured it would be a good time to plant. Today we marked out what would go where, put down fertilizer, put down some soil, spread the seeds, covered them with a thin layer of soil, then watered. I also transplanted my berry plants to the corner of the bed. Now we wait. If things happen, I will post updates. If it fails, there was never a garden attempt.

Postgraduate Seminars

We spent the past two weeks on-campus in sessions designed to help postgraduate students stay on track, progress through the writing process, network, present their research, finish their paper, and get a job. I wish I had had something like these sessions either at the start of or mid-way through college, because they really encourage you to think beyond the present moment about what your plans are for after you finish. You have to start networking and getting your resume/CV full of the things you'll need before you reach the point you need to seek employment. Even if you think you'll be prepared for the job you want, it doesn't hurt to have backup plans and support for career changes (especially as younger generations can expect to move jobs more frequently).

The first week's sessions were the first time the postgraduate office attempted to do them all together instead of spread out over a year, and everyone agreed it was better this way. We were able to see familiar faces each day and make acquaintances which made the time spent more comfortable and enjoyable. There was a large number of international students as well, and I met students from Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Sweden, and Canada, which is probably the most exposure to other cultures and accents I've had in one compressed space. It really makes you think twice about things you just assume everyone knows or does.


We had fun carving small butternut pumpkins, although the actual night was a bit of a let-down because we only had one group of kids trick-or-treat, and even then I had to flag them down through the window since they completely missed our pumpkin on the driveway. We ended up driving over to give a bunch of the candy to our previous homestay host's children since they weren't able to go trick-or-treating. I won't say we didn't keep some of the Cadbury chocolates for ourselves...

Guy Fawkes Night

Since we found out that fireworks are legal here (only during this week), we couldn't wait to buy a pack and celebrate the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes Night. The grocery store had them for 50% off the day before, so we bought a $60 Thunderstorm pack for $30. It rained all day so it almost didn't happen, but it finally let up after we started watching the awesome V for Vendetta movie, so at 9:00pm when it was dark we went out into the cold. Super cool! I haven't lit off fireworks since I was little at my grandma's house, and it is still fun. We didn't have the parachuting army soldiers or the black snakes, but we had spinners that whizzed, fountains, sparklers, smoke bombs, screamers, and a few big, loud, traditional fireworks. Can't wait till next year!


Our cat has definitely adjusted to life here, as well as becoming an "old" cat who sleeps under the covers during the day and night. He also enjoys having furniture he can scratch and/or sleep on. He does not provide a good role model for someone trying to get work done.

Friday, October 17, 2014

New House

We're moved into our new house which is a relief after almost two months of living with strangers (although the second place was okay just cramped). It's more room than we need, but with almost everything here being single-family homes, that's what you get.

There is a garden area plus a long row of soil along the fence for more garden or flowers. Any tips for starting a garden from almost scratch are welcome (it's coming into spring here so a lot of things can start to be planted now). D is going to attempt to grow jalapeno peppers -- if we can find the seeds -- since they are so expensive in the stores.

Although most homes don't have central heating, this one does have the next best things which are an HRV system and two heatpumps (the white things on the wall). The HRV system is supposed to pump warmer air from the attic into the house through vents in the ceilings of the rooms and create a kind of pressurized bubble which also prevents heat loss through the single-pane windows. It's been cold the past few days, but today it is nice again so the house is warm at 26 degrees Celsius (78 Fahrenheit). Power isn't cheap, so we're hoping the HRV keeps us from having to use the heatpumps a lot. Another plus - a dishwasher! Haven't had one of those in a long time.

There is a separate laundry room which is nice because usually they cram a washing machine in the bathroom, presumably because this is where the water supply is. It is not common for appliances to be included, so this room just has a washing basin. There is room for both a washer and a dryer, however. And a dryer is another luxury - most people hang their washing outside on the line to dry, which is fine except when the weather is unpredictable, it frequently rains or is very windy, and you don't want to wait several days for everything to completely dry. Or don't want all your neighbors to see your laundry. We decided early on that a dryer was a necessity (and since no one wants them, they're very cheap second-hand). 

In another news, I've just finished two sessions of training to become a learning advisor next year, essentially what the U.S. calls a tutor (one-to-one help to other students). It's amazing to discover how poor students' writing and critical thinking skills are when they haven't been asked to write an essay until they come to university. Universities here don't have a general education requirement, so students don't have to take a first-year English class or know how to go out and research and write a 5-paragraph essay by themselves. And there are a lot of English-as-a-second-language students who can get in with relatively low levels of ability in English (part of the turning of higher-education institutions into profit-makers), so they also struggle on the level of having to communicate in a language that may not even have any of the same rules as English. They are handed an assignment to write an essay in response to a question like "To what extent did religious issues account for the conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland?" and have no idea what to do. Or they just discuss everything they know about the topic and hope they've answered the question by the end. The training made me appreciate my high school teachers and the opportunity to take advanced-level classes that drilled into me how to write a good essay with a thesis and support for the arguments. I've never had to explain these concepts to an ESL student, however, so it will be interesting to say the least.

little patio area
lounge room

kitchen with dishwasher

dining area off the kitchen

bathroom, part 1
bathroom, part 2
they like having separate toilets

separate laundry room with wash basin
closet - they're not as much into doors, and not all the closets even have curtains to hide them!

*hopefully a future garden brimming with fruits and vegetables*
nice yard area

Sunday, October 12, 2014

TranzAlpine Train and Fox Glacier

Our first real "taste" of New Zealand outside the city came last week when we took the famous TranzAlpine train ride from the east side of New Zealand to the west coast. The train ride was around 4 1/2 hours there and had beautiful scenery, from idyllic pastureland (sheep, goats, cows, and even deer) to river gorges and then the snow-topped Southern Alps. There is an "open" train car where you get great views without the glass, although the wind was fairly extreme. It started raining when we got into Arthur's Pass -- a mountain-top town -- so the windows had rain spots on them for the rest of the trip. It was a bit scary going under the 5.3-mile Otira Tunnel, mainly because of the possibility of an earthquake causing havoc.

We then took a bus from Greymouth to Fox Glacier which was awesome! I booked a guided tour which turned out to be good because very recent slides in the area had meant they closed down some of the paths that led closer to the glacier unless you were with a group. They provided overpants, heavy-duty boots, socks, and rain coats so you didn't have to get any of your own stuff dirty. It sprinkled a little on the hike over, but then the sun came out and it was a beautiful day. Fresh air and sunshine -- good for the body and soul.

Later, we took a very long walk from the little town to see the Mirror Lake which was supposed to be a 1.5-hour walk return trip, but ended up being about that long each way. It was a lot of walking. And because of the heavy rain in the morning, the water was murky and the wind was making a lot of ripples. The short walk from the lake's parking lot to the lake was enjoyable as it was through rainforest and totally reminded us of Central America, minus the bugs.