Friday, June 18, 2010

Until Next Time

Wow, hard to believe that 4 months have already passed. Feels like just yesterday I arrived in Middle Earth to finish my teaching diploma. Instead, the last few days were the reverse; heading back to the Great White North. Ok, so I’m not writing this post while in transit; I didn’t have the time and energy between flights. I tried to get some sleep while in flight but my body didn’t like sleeping upright.

Anyway, I woke up on the morning of June 16th, took a shower, got dressed, and finished packing my suitcases. Next was removing my bedding and vacuuming the floor of my room. Since my flight wasn’t until the afternoon, I wasted time playing the waiting game, checking my email, chatting with my roommates who were studying for exams, and reserving a taxi. When it was time to go, I locked my room, and returned my key & keycard to the main office. I bid farewell to my roommate Ben (who had helped me with my luggage) before entering the taxi.

The first flight was from Christchurch to Auckland and was an hour long. Once in Auckland, I exited the domestic terminal and walked to the international under the evening sky, carrying my backpack & laptop. Once inside, I safely passed through security and waited for my 8pm flight to Vancouver. An airport hobby of mine is to search the Duty Free stores for the most expensive alcoholic beverage (just to see, not to buy). In the Auckland International Terminal, it was a custom made French cognac set for $2650NZD! An employee explained that they only sell one or two a year and that the purchasers are invited by the manufacturers to tour their facilities in France.

The Auckland to Vancouver flight was llllooonnnnggg. Twelve and a half hours through the night. On the positive side, I had an aisle seat meaning easy access to the washroom. I spent most of the flight watching movies (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, District 9, and Full Metal Jacket), and playing games such as Asteroid, Invasion, & Tetris. Sleep was out of the question because a nearby senior citizen snored loudly. Thankfully, turbulence came to the rescue and kept him awake for the later half of the journey. For dinner I had a lamb meal with complimentary Riesling wine, and for breakfast I had scrambled eggs with complimentary champagne.

Finally, after leaping into the past by crossing the International Dateline, the Air New Zealand plane touched down in sunny & warm Vancouver, Canada, at 2pm and taxied to the international terminal. Getting through customs was a pain because of the long lines and having to listen to one child that wouldn’t stop crying. I had to pick up my suitcases and transfer them over to the domestic loading carousel. Unlike my previous experiences at the Vancouver Airport, I successfully transferred both of my suitcases and made it to my Ottawa flight on time.

The Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Ottawa was the best flight because there weren’t that many passengers onboard, meaning less noise. Plus, the seat next to my window seat was empty, enabling me to stretch. It was after midnight when the plane landed in Ottawa. The landing was a little eerie because the approach was covered by fog. I didn’t see the ground until seconds before the plane touched the runway. By the time I made it home, it was close to 1am.

And so, my 2010 Study Trip to Middle Earth is now over. I have thrown my BLOG into limbo once again. Depending on how I ‘play my cards’, I’ll either return to Middle Earth in early 2011 to teach music/history/social studies or stay in Canada . . . to teach music/history/social studies. Until next time, read about my previous Middle Earth adventures spread across 103 posts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Week That Was

World Cup Soccer began just 3 days ago in South Africa, the richest country in Africa but also the most crime ridden. I certainly hope that every available police officer is on duty during the tournament because it would be a public relations disaster if the tourists go home with horror stories of being robbed & assaulted. Regardless, the World Cup will bring in much needed income to South Africa as it continues to rebuild after the brutal Apartheid Era. I'll probably pay the country a visit in a decade or so; hopefully crime won't be as big a problem as it is today. Middle Earth's All Whites are back in the World Cup after a 28 year absence and will be facing off against Slovakia today. Hopefully, the All Whites will win & advance closer to the finals.

BP Global has been in damage control mode since late April because of the ongoing Deep Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of barrels of crude oil continue to spill, damaging & further threatening wildlife, and BP still can't figure out how to fix the problem. They've tried several things but they have failed. What's worse is that the company is trying very hard to prevent the media from accurately reporting on the incident. I hope BP gets heavily penalized for this environmental disaster; also would be nice if the executives were forced to spend some time in prison for their actions. This incident is far worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill back in 1989.

Rebecca, a former flat mate from last year, was in Christchurch for vacation, and decided to pay my flat mates Ben & Heather, and I a visit on Saturday night. After spending an hour talking and drinking champagne, we caught a bus to the city centre to have dinner at the Mayur Indian Restaurant. We each brought a bottle of wine to the restaurant because it's legal & to save money. I ordered a hot lamb dish with plain naan bread and rice; as for my friends, they ordered chicken & pork dishes with naan bread and rice. My lamb dish was actually spicy forcing me to order another naan bread & bowl of rice to finish off the hot sauce. The Monkey Puzzle white wine from Chile I brought also helped in the quelling the stinging in my mouth.

From the Indian restaurant, we walked further into town to check out the club/bar scene. Since it was a Saturday night, the area was bustling with activity, from wild party goers to no-nonsense police officers. From what I remember, we visited two clubs: one had karaoke (giving bad singers the opportunity to sing) and the other had a nice quiet seating area above the bar. When it was time to call it a night, we shared a taxi ride home.

Monday was my last day volunteering at the Christchurch Cadet Unit. The cadets spent the evening getting ready for a weekend Field Training Exercise (FTX). They were instructed to bring all their gear so that it could be inspected, packed, and ready to go come Friday. I would be unable to attend the exercise because I would be flying back to Canada. The training night was also devoted to recognizing & promoting cadets for their outstanding work in the corps and on the Junior Leadership course. When the training night was complete, several officers & I hopped over to the nearby Lone Star for a drink as a final sendoff before my journey home. They shook my hand and told me to come back to which I responded, 'That'll most likely happen in the new year because I'm looking for work as a teacher.'

Well, that's pretty much the week that was for me. With my departure of Middle Earth just around the corner, I've been packing my suitcases, and deciding on what should be left behind. My next & final post (for a while) will be written when I'm in transit to Canada.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Q.T.T.: Last Day & Final Thoughts

My last night at Bumbles Backpackers was a bit noisy because a group of German students had just arrived in the late evening to unpack and get some rest before heading off on a ski trip the next morning. Thankfully, I had my heavy duty earplugs to keep out their loud voices. Despite this, they woke me up in the early morning, getting dressed, and moving out their ski equipment. I waited until they were gone before rolling myself out of bed. Once dressed & packed, I signed out of Bumbles minutes before the 10am deadline. Since my flight wasn't until 4pm, I had the option of putting my backpack into storage but I declined; it wasn't that heavy to carry around.

With six hours to spare, I decided to explore the Queenstown Gardens that occupied a small peninsula next to the city centre. For a Saturday, the park was surprisingly quiet with only a few people walking around. Like the previous days, the sun was out, and the air was cold. There are two monuments worth seeing. The first is dedicated to William Gilbert Rees, the first European who settled in the area back in 1840. The next is a large stone monument near the tip of the peninsula that's dedicated to Robert Falcon Scott, an English Royal Navy officer who died in 1913 leading the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole in Antarctica. The monument also displays the last message Scott wrote in his diary on March 29th, 1912. For senior citizens, the park is home to an established lawn bowling club. Despite the sunny weather, no one was playing when I strolled past the club's lawns.

After exploring Queenstown Gardens, I walked back into town, ordering a foot long roast lamb sub from Subway. After lunch, I decided to head towards the airport . . . on foot via the Frankton Walkway. The journey took a little longer because of the weight of my backpack but it was good exercise, it killed time, an d I saved $36 that would have been spent on a taxi. The only downside was that my legs ached by the time I reached the airport and it looked like I was limping. I sat down on a chair and passed the time reading a book and playing the waiting game. With 90 minutes to go, I checked in my backpack, and bought a light snack at the cafe. Finally, the announcement was made to board the twin turboprop plane and several minutes later I was in the sky heading for Christchurch. Once in Christchurch, I picked up my backpack and caught a taxi to Ilam Village.

Overall, the Queenstown Trip was a success. I got to see another part of Middle Earth, took around 100 digital photos, ate good food, and went tandem skydiving! I will definitely come back to try out other activities but I will need a lot more money. The best & most exciting activities Queenstown has to offer are, unfortunately, the most expensive. I can easily see myself spending close to $3000 on all thrill-seeking & leisure activities. But the resulting experiences & thrills make the prices worth it. Keep this town in mind when you're planning a trip of the South Island's Otago Region. Remember to bring warm clothing if you're visiting between June & August; it's winter down here.
End of Queenstown Trip Series

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Q.T.T.: Over 2 Days

I spent the next two days enjoying as much of Queenstown as possible after spending a lot of money on tandem skydiving. The skies were clear but the temperatures were still in the single negatives meaning that warm winter clothing was needed all around. There was even snow in some places on the ground.

After walking around snapping photos & window shopping, I decided to see the recently released film Robin Hood at the local Readings Cinema. The seats in the theater were large & comfortable but the aisles were narrow. That wasn't a problem because there were only 5 other people watching the film. Overall, Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe is similar to Gladiator . . . starring Russell Crowe in terms of story development & production. I think it might have to do with the fact that Ridley Scott directed both films. Anyway, it's an okay film that receives a passing grade from me. Once out of the movie theatre, I continued walking around, snapping more photos of the surrounding landscape at the right moments. Like a professional photographer, sometimes you have to take 10 photos to get that perfect 1. In the sky, paragliders descended towards the town in groups of three, and sightseeing helicopters circled above with curious customers.

For the late afternoon, I decided to have some fun by trying out a variety of wines at Wine Tastes. The establishment is set up in a lounge setting, with tables, comfortable chairs & couches, and dim lighting. The walls are completely covered by tall wooden shelves stocked with various kinds of NZ & Australian wines. You're given a wine glass and a card that you insert in any of the serving machines. The machines display the 3 possible selections (sample, half, full) with the attached price. Just press whichever button & fill up your glass. Your card stores the total tab and when you're finished, you return the card and pay the bill. If you want food, Wine Tastes serves plates of bread, salami, and cheese & crackers. The salami & bread plates come with a tray of assorted dips & spreads.

With my card in hand, I tried out the white wines, chardonnays, and from what I remember, a champagne. The bread plate with assorted dips & spreads which I ordered was also tasty. I should note that this isn't like professional wine tasting where you spit out the wine to prevent drunkenness; you have to swallow what you drink. And I wouldn't recommend choosing the full glass option because of the high price. It's best to always choose the half glass; that way you'll be able to try out many different wines. As for the final bill . . . um, I would like to thank my parents for letting me put it on the credit card. I would have sent you some wine bottles as a thank you but unfortunately, Wine Tastes doesn't export to Canada.

The next day (June 4th), I decided to be more athletic by walking to the airport & back via the Frankton Walkway. The walkway runs along Frankton Road next to the lake so you get nice views of Kelvin Heights, Kelvin Peninsula, Kawarau Falls, Lake Wakatipu, The Remarkables Mountains, and the town of Frankton. The walkway is estimated to be 90 minutes long in one direction. I don't know how long it took me but I do know that I walked 12 km in total. Along the way you pass many private residences, apartments, and Queenstown citizens happy to greet you even if you're a stranger.

When the evening arrived, I decided to celebrate my last full day in Queenstown by having dinner at Lone Star. I usually don't eat by myself at 'please-wait-to-be-seated' restaurants but I decided to make an exception for this trip. After being briefly surprised for not getting ID'd at the bar, I ordered a steak & a pint of Guinness beer. I watched the TVs that were displaying rugby & golf games as I waited for my meal, and while I consumed my meal. The steak was excellent, the Guinness was good, and I made it safely back to the hostel.
To Be Continued . . .

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Q.T.T.: Tandem II

I did it again. This time from 15,000 feet over Queenstown. Many people tandem skydive just once so they can say they did it, but it takes more courageous (and/or crazy) people to continue falling out of a plane. I just happened to be one of those people. Despite being unable to jump in Rotorua, I was still determined to fall from the sky & thankfully, NZONE also operated in Queenstown.

I explained in my previous post that I spent the first day exploring the town while waiting for my bed to be ready at Bumbles Backpackers. Well . . . that was only the half truth. While exploring the town centre, I stopped in the NZONE store and asked what the weather would be like for tomorrow (June 3rd). They said they didn't know but suggested that I jump today (June 2nd) because the weather was perfect. Seeing that I had plenty of time, I agreed and my booking was bumped up to 1230. NZONE offers jumps from 9000, 12000, & 15000 feet. Since I jumped from 12,000 feet back in Christchurch, I decided to start even higher.

After filling out the necessary paperwork, I, 2 Kiwi males, and 2 Asian women, were briefed by staff on what to expect. While being shown photographs & a video, I have to admit that I wasn't as nervous as I was the first time. It was also stressed that we 'Dump before we Jump' because they've actually had accidents in the sky. They also assured us that the 'tainted' jumpsuits are immediately thrown out.

The ride to the NZONE airfield took 15 minutes and was to the south of the Queenstown Airport, near Jacks Point. After dumping in the washroom, I swallowed some Gravol to prevent nausea & vomiting. Only several minutes passed before we were taken to the main hangar to suit up (jumpsuit, gloves, goggles, & hat) and meet our tandem partners. You have to leave all your loose belongings & valuables behind so that they don't get lost in the experience. They are safely stored in a locker.
My tandem instructor was a Bulgarian male in his thirties whose name I've unfortunately forgotten. After he briefed the 2 Asian ladies & myself on how we'll be exiting the plane, the aircraft in question fired up and we were led onboard. Since I was the only one jumping from 15,000 feet, I was going to be the last one out of the plane. For safety reasons, two NZONE staff members fall with you: the tandem skydiver you're strapped to, and a backup who falls beside you, making sure you don't pass out. That backup faller can also be the cameraman filming your experience.

The aircraft took off into the clear blue sky and slowly climbed higher & higher. I was anxious but surprisingly calm during the ascent because my body had already experienced terminal velocity. However, I found it difficult remembering that sensational feeling because my first jump was a year & a half ago. At 12,000 feet, the plane leveled and the door slid open for the 2 Asian ladies jumping for the first time. The plane bounced and felt lighter after each trio fell out of the plane. Once they were out of the way, my trio moved up to the glass door that slid closed, and the plane continued climbing to 15,000 feet. To combat hypoxia, I was a given a small tube of oxygen to breathe. I have to admit that I felt light headed & was slow to respond to questions but I think that helped in distracting me from what was about to happen. The plane leveled again, the glass door slid open, and my backup (without a camera) got out first. My Bulgarian tandem partner swung me over to the edge where I was greeted by a cold blowing breeze. After he did his final checks, the three of us fell towards the ground and never looked back.

The second the Drop began, my mind immediately remembered what the feeling of falling at terminal velocity (220km/h) felt like. And it felt euphoric. With my hands spread open, I waved & gave a thumbs up to my backup, stating that I was having the time of my life. It's best to breathe heavily during the freefall because it makes you feel better. As I wrote in my first tandem post, the freefall feels like you're falling towards a powerful fan blowing in your face and you're unable to touch it. The freefall from 15,000 feet lasts a minute but it didn't feel like it to me. Just as soon as it began, the Bulgarian deployed the parachute and we came to a sudden stop. My backup continued to fall & disappeared below my feet. During the six minute glide back down to earth, I gazed at the 360 degree majestic landscape, and the Bulgarian spun me around for extra enjoyment. Seconds from touchdown, I was instructed to put my knees up, and we came to a soft sliding stop.

I thanked the Bulgarian in English & Russian before heading off to the hangar to take off the jumpsuit. I was given a certificate of my achievement and guarantee of $50 off my next jump with NZONE. I guess I'll be going back to Rotorua sometime in the future. The total price tag for the jump was $400NZD ($283CAD); it would have been much more if I had decided to have the experience photographed and filmed. After watching other customers descend from the sky for several minutes, an NZONE staff member drove me & the 2 Asian ladies back to Queenstown.

Once again, I encourage everyone to try skydiving once, twice, thrice, and more. It is truly a great & empowering experience. You won't regret it. So far I'm up to 2. I think I'll make it my long term goal to skydive in as many Middle Earth places as possible. eXtreme Individuality Rules!

To Be Continued . . .

(Woohoo! My 100th post!)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Queenstown Trip: Flight

The town of Queenstown is located in the south west of New Zealand's South Island, next to Lake Wakatipu, and home to 10,416 people. The area is surrounded by tall majestic mountains as high as 7,600 feet! This area is also known for being the locations of major motion pictures, most notably The Lord of The Rings Trilogy by Peter Jackson. Tourists flock to Queenstown every year to enjoy the many activities (thrill-seeking & leisure) it offers.

I had decided to visit Queenstown because . . . I had yet to visit & explore the region. Plus, I wanted to get one last trip in before I flew back to Canada for the summer. My 4-day trip began on the early morning of June 2nd, rolling out of bed at 0730, getting dressed, and making sure that I had my plane ticket and everything was packed. My roommate Ben gave me a lift to the airport, thus saving me $26 on a taxi ride. Checking in & going through security wasn't a problem and I passed the time reading the newspaper in the departure lounge.

The 0915 Air New Zealand flight from Christchurch was only 50 minutes long and uneventful. Because I was still sleepy, the flight had gone far quicker than I expected. The only highlight was the landing because the plane had to navigate between the tall mountains. The sun was shining & there wasn't a cloud in the sky when I stepped off the plane. The surrounding mountains and minus 4 degree (Celsius) weather made me feel like I was in Vancouver, Canada. Due to the mountainous landscape, the Queenstown Airport is actually located 6 kilometres away from the city centre, near the small town of Frankton. Rather than wait for a bus, I paid for a $36 taxi ride into town.

Bumbles Backpackers, located near the city centre, would be the roof over my head for my 4 day trip. Since I was alone this time, I would be sleeping in a 6 person dorm room, but I wouldn't get it until after 1400. Having arrived at the hostel in the morning, I was allowed to put my backpack into storage. Before I did that, I changed into long underwear and undershirt to combat the cold weather. Even though it was only minus 4, I didn't want the cold to become an annoyance. With several hours to kill, I went to explore the city centre.

In short, Queenstown & the surrounding landscape are like several Canadian towns wrapped into one. Specifically, Vancouver, Banff, Lake Louise, Mont Tremblant, and Whistler. (Whistler I won't know for sure until I visit but I'm guessing because of the many ski & snoboard areas around Queenstown). The city centre is basically a large spending district, containing restaurants, bars, pubs, clothing outlets, ski & snoboard shops, cafes, and fast food outlets. Nearby are banks, and thrill-seeker outlets advertising paragliding, parasailing, bungy jumping, helicopter tours, power boating, and tandem skydiving. There's something for everyone!
After snapping plenty of pictures, having lunch, and breathing in the air that smelled a lot like a Canadian November, I backtracked to Bumbles Backpackers to check in. Dorm 3 contained 6 beds, washroom, lockers, and a heater. The heater would come in handy because the temperature would not go higher than 0 for the remainder of the week.

To finish off the first day, I travelled up the Skyline Gondola to photograph the breathtaking views of Queenstown and the surrounding landscape from a height of 790 metres. The terminal at the top also includes a cafe, restaurant, and a small theatre where Maori Hakas are performed for those people wanting to experience Maori culture. But there's more to do outside the terminal. There are walking trails to explore, luge tracks to ride down on a cart, paragliding from the hilltop, and even bungy jump 400 metres above Queenstown.

AJ Hackett operates the bungy jump & sky swing operation that sits next to the rising & descending gondolas. The sky swing is less daring compared to the bungy jump because you move from side to side whereas you dive down in a bungy jump. Nevertheless, when I was photographing the scenic landscape, a woman who was getting ready to do the swing, froze and couldn't bring herself to pull the cord that would release her. Even her friends couldn't convince her to do it. She had to be pulled back into the hut by trained staff. It takes a lot of guts to let go I guess. If I had enough money I would have done the sky swing; there's always a next time.

I descended back to Queenstown and walked back to the hostel to watch some evening television. The hostel's TV room and kitchen are side by side, and there're two computers offering Internet, costing $2 for twenty minutes. Despite the heater being set to high, it was still chilly in the dorm room. To stay warm, I wore socks and a toque to prevent my body heat from escaping.
To Be Continued . . .

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rain Rain Rain

The past week was defined by water falling from the skies all over Middle Earth. No lightning and thunder; just rain. The sun didn't show its bright face once. The only breaks in between the rainfall were grey overcast clouds. A whole month's worth of rain dumped in a day, every day. I'm surprised that I didn't get cabin fever from staying inside. Well, I did go out for groceries and to the cadet corps I volunteer at, but I had to be armed with an umbrella, gloves, and a warm jacket. Rivers overflowed, flooding roadways and buildings, causing road closures and evacuations. The scope of damage is still being assessed and residents in some areas of the country are still waiting for the water to recede so that they can clean out their flooded houses.

My debriefing at the college on Friday went without a hitch. The associate dean who looked after all teaching placements was pleased with my results and signed me off with a pass. He also fast tracked the publication of my marks so that I could apply to graduate in absentia. Yeah, it would have been nice to attend the grad ceremony but that won't take place until October & I'll still be in Canada by then.

Job searching for the 2011 year in NZ has so far turned up nothing, most likely because it's still Term 2 and too early for schools to know if there're any openings. While I search, I also have to register with the NZ Teacher's Council & the PPTA Union in order to be allowed to teach in Middle Earth. And when & if I get a job offer, I still have to apply for a working visa. Paper work is a pain.

My flat was alive on Saturday night because one of roommates was celebrating her 23rd birthday. From what I remember, the party theme was to dress like a ninja, around 15 people attended, and the birthday girl fired two champagne corks off the balcony. The corks landed on the roof of the common room so nobody got hit.

The sun has made good timing on showing itself for this week because I'll be travelling to Queenstown on my own for 4 days to explore the area. I decided to get one last trip in before I head back to Canada in mid-June. Researching the town has shown that there's plenty to do but I'm going to be spontaneous and choose activities when I arrive. The weather in Queenstown looks promising with the sun staying out and the temperatures going as high as 10 degrees Celsius. Naturally, I'll be documenting this trip so there're plenty of pictures and stories to look forward to. I can't wait.