Friday, July 27, 2007

North Queensland, Australia

July 21, 2007
Amy and I are spending a week in Australia (so she can recover from the shock of going from summer in India to winter in Christchurch). It’s been unseasonably cold here for winter but it’s not any colder than Christchurch was last summer! We started in Port Douglas, which is north of Cairns, and went to the outer Great Barrier Reef for scuba diving. I ended up having to snorkel because I had a pneumothorax once. But it was all for the best because Amy got to go with the other certified divers instead of on the intro course with me. And the snorkeling was great because the reef was so shallow. I saw Nemo! And a Moorish Idol plus lots of wrasse and parrot fish. Amy saw a sea turtle and some reef sharks.
The following day, we went to the Rainforest Habitat where they had an aweome display of birds, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, bats, emus etc from the Australian rainforest. The birds in particular were gorgeous - all sorts of beautiful colors.

For two nights we stayed at the Mossman Gorge B&B. Great spot up on the hills with the most scrumptious breakfast of homemade croissants, fresh fruit, homemade jam and passionfruit butter. At breakfast the first morning, there were tons of birds including two koukaburras.
We took a boat ride on the Daintree River yesterday and saw crocodiles, kingfishers and a green snake. Most of the crocs were juveniles but there was one big mama.
This morning we say a cassowary on the side of the road and then saw it again a few hours later on our way back. We consider ourselves lucky as there are only 1200 left in the wild. They are rather ungainly but regal looking creatures. I showed this photo to the woman taking us on our rainforest walk today and she recognized her as “Big Bertha”. The rainforest is awesome with trees that are hundreds of years old, some growing only a meter every 100 years! There are big blue seed pods called cassowary plums that have to go through a cassowary’s digestive tract before they can germinate. Apparently 37 species of plant require a trip through a cassowary before they can germinate. So that’s why they are worried about the low numbers of cassowaries. The other thing that seems to be essential around here is the mangrove trees. A lot of the fish on the reefs depend on them but I’m darned if I can remember why. Maybe they spawn around them or something. I guess I better look it up!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Winter in Christchurch

June 25, 2007

I'm learning that Christchurch is a lot like northern California in the winter, just a little colder. We get lots of sunshine - it's fun looking at the weather map on TV as there are usually clouds everywhere except around Christchurch. Yesterday was sunny and 14C. This morning it was pouring rain, 5C and there was a howling southerly (think howling northerly if you live in the northern hemisphere). There is snow on the hills on the Banks Peninsula that I can see from the beach. But by noon the sun was shining and my study is now nice and cozy from the sun shining in the north-facing window.

I'm trying to think of everything that has happened since I last posted to this blog - too much to relate so I'll touch on the highlights. I swam in nationals in May and despite being a little out of shape and swimming my worst times ever in every event, I got 4 firsts, a second and a third. That's the difference between a country of 4 million people and a country of 250 million people! The pool here is indoors and I sure appreciate it now. None of that breaking the ice out of your jandals (aka flip-flops) so you can put them on after you get out of the pool.

I'm back living in New Brighton right across the street from the beach as I moved in with Ross. We go for great runs on the beach about three times a week. The surf has been awesome. One day last week it must have been about 3 meters high. Not one surfer was out. Hopefully it will calm down a little when Amy gets here in July so she can give it a go. I still haven't tried it again. The tides have been huge too - going right up to the top of the beach at high tide and out about 200 feet at low tide. Makes for some challenging runs when the tide is in!

Ross and I have made an offer on a property in the Port Hills and are hoping that everything goes through so we can start building. It faces north and a little west so we are planning on going solar - passive solar + solar hot water + solar electric. They have this cool setup here where you can put in photovoltaic panels and then connect to the grid. When you are generating more power than you need, it goes out to the grid. When you don't have enough power, you take it from the grid. There is a meter for each direction and you only pay for the net amount! Cool, eh? The photos show the land and a view to the north. You can see the snow-covered mountains to the west on a clear day.

Ross has an awesome vegetable garden and he is still managing to grow things in the winter! In the fall we dried a ton of cherry tomatoes and grapes. I made several batches of tomato relish and spagetti sauce. I even made fruit leathers from grape juice. He has lots of strawberry plants so I guess I'll be making strawberry jam next. I really miss my Myer lemon marmalade so we bought a Myer lemon tree but it will be a couple of years before it has enough lemons for marmalade. So by the time we get our house built with a huge vegetable garden and a little orchard, I'll be a true earth mother. I'm even baking all our bread now. I better buy some Birkenstocks!

This weekend we're heading out on a winter fly fishing trip including camping out (brr!) . I'm taking all my warmest clothes. Hopefully I won't wimp out and retreat to a motel! Amy's coming in July on her way home from India. We're going skiing 90 minutes form here, hopefully doing a little surfing and then Amy and I are heading to Cairns for some scuba diving, crocodile wrestling ;o) and hiking in Cairns, Australia. So I should have more interesting news and photos next time I post.

Friday, March 30, 2007


March 2007

Having semi-prepared for it, Ross and I went to Mooloolaba for an Olympic distance triathlon! That’s 1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run. Mooloolaba is on the Sunshine Coast in Australia about an hour’s drive north of Brisbane. And what a beautiful place it is! The temperature was about 27C the whole time we were there and it doesn’t cool off much at night so you can sleep with the windows wide open. There are huge white beaches with impressive surf and the water temperature was about 24C! So no wetsuit for the triathlon.
We stayed in an apartment right on the water with Ross’ friend Paddy from Warwick. Friday and Saturday we ran, swam and biked a little and ate a lot! Paddy’s brother and son also did the triathlon and his sister and her husband plus another son came to watch so we had a great cheering section and lots of people to go out for dinner with.
On Saturday, I noticed that there were a series of buoys placed some distance out from the buoys they had set up for the swim course. I asked Ross what they were and he said: shark nets!! It freaked me out a little but I guess I should have just been happy that they put them out. Fortunately, I didn’t think about sharks once during the race. Here’s a photo of where the swim course was. We ran out into the surf, swam parallel to shore out past the breakers and then swam back in.
The triathlon was on Sunday and my wave took off at 6:51am. Fortunately New Zealand is 2 hours later than Queensland at this time of year so it wasn’t too hard to get up at 4. Actually we got up at 5 and barelygot out of the transition area in time because the program said that daylight savings ended in Australia that morning. But they neglected to say that they don’t observe Daylight Savings in Queensland at all so the clocks didn’t change! There were a lot of panicking triathletes trying to get ready in about 2 minutes as a result.
The day was perfect. The surf had been huge the two days before but it was much better on Sunday. And it wasn’t very windy so the bike was fun. They actually closed the main motorway for the race, if you can believe it! So we biked out to the motorway and then did most of the bike portion on an empty highway! It was hot on the run but then some clouds came up, which helped a lot. I enjoyed most of the race except for the first hot part of the run. Despite going easy on the swim and the bike so I’d have something left for the run, I still had to walk up part of one hill. But I did about as well as I deserved given how much I had trained for the race! I was in a new age group because they went by your age at the end of the year. But it appears that only the really good triathletes are still competing by the time they get to my age group. I only managed to beat one person! I would have beat 6 in my old age group.
Ross had a great race. He started 8 minutes after I did and caught up to me at the start of the run. Then he just rocketed and finished 12 minutes before I did (20 minutes faster over all). Paddy was less then a minute behind Ross. At their last triathlon, they were only 12 seconds apart!
So now we are inspired to really get in shape for next season. The New Zealand nationals are this weekend in Wellington but 6 days between races is a little too short so we’re going to give them a pass.
There was also a World Cup pro race the same day. That was great fun to watch. There were racers from Australia, NZ, USA, Canada, Japan, Spain, Portugal, China and several other countries. So it was a very competitive field. In the men’s race, an Aussie passed a guy from Spain at the very end, much to the local crowd’s delight.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Christmas and New Years in New Zealand

December 2006
My life was pretty hectic for 2 weeks after returning from India as there was a lot of work to catch up on. But Ross and I took off a couple of days before Christmas for a camping and fly fishing trip. The weather has been pretty bad in Christchurch with endless clouds, rain and wind. So I went online and found out where they were predicting sun and off we went! We ended up at the Awatere River north of Kaikoura, where we spent 2 nights and I received fly fishing lessons from Ross. Ross caught a 12-inch trout that he said was too small to keep and I didn’t catch anything. Then we went to the Buller River where we spent Christmas on a sandy outcropping covered with rocks, sand and tree debris. The birds were awesome in the morning. Christmas dinner did not include trout unfortunately but I made pizza over my little Whisperlite stove plus soup and steamed pudding! Then we listened to Christmas carols on my I-Pod. Very different from previous Christmases but lots of fun.
On the way home, we spent the last night on the Hurunui River and the last morning Ross caught an 18-inch trout. We took it home and Ross cooked trout plus broccoli, new potatoes and carrots fresh from his vegetable garden. What a feast! W decided that sharing one fishing rod was a little boring so I went and bought myself a Christmas present of a fly-fishing rod and a fishing vest to put all my flies, tipit, clippers, reading glasses etc in. So now we’re really set for New Years weekend!
For New Years we went up Arthur’s Pass and hiked into Lake Marymere. It was raining and cold but not as cold as a couple of hundred feet up the mountain beside us where it was snowing! After about 5 casts with my new rod, I was freezing so I decided to reach into my pocket for my gloves and at that moment I got a big strike! I was only holding on with one hand and I didn’t think to jerk the rod up quickly enough and the fish took off with my fly and all of my tippit! I guess I have some lessons to learn in knot tying! I had added an extra little knot after doing the required knot that joined the leader to the tippit. So I left that knot off the next time! I managed to get 2 more strikes at that lake but never landed anything! The last night we were at Lake Poerua (sp?) on the west coast and I saw 2 fish jump about 3 feet into the air. Quite a sight! But I still didn’t catch anything. I was a little relieved that I didn’t to tell the truth as I would have had to deal with it if I had!
I did finally catch a rainbow trout the next weekend but it was too small to keep (minimum is 30 cm/12 inches). I caught another one the next day that was also too small but it swallowed my fly and I mortally wounded it trying to get it out so I kept it and we had it for lunch. It was yummy! I was impressed that I managed to do everything myself without freaking out. It was surprisingly easy to clean – a much less complicated intestinal tract than a human! My apologies to the vegetarians and the squeamish who may be reading this.

Visitors from California

December 2006

I’ve had my first visitors from North America! Deane and Kathy came to do the Milford Track and I saw them at the start and the end of their trip. They managed a minor miracle and only had one day with rain! I heard on the radio that this spring was the coldest spring on record in Wellington! And I bet Christchurch wasn’t far off. The west coast has been better though.

Here are some photos of us in my backyard. So come on over for a visit and you too can have your picture in my blog!

Houseboat trip on the Backwaters

December 2006
There are lots of little inlets from the ocean along the southern part of the Kerala coastline. We were told that the spits of land were man-made and on one side of them there were large rice paddies. Apparently during the rainy season, there is enough flow into these areas that the water is fresh and the rice can be grown. In the dry season it gets more salty.
We had an idyllic 20-hour houseboat ride through these backwaters from Alleppey. The boats are a range of sizes but ours was about 40-feet long (see photos). The walls and roof are made from woven palm fronds and they are quite striking. We had 3 staff (the driver, the cook and the boss) and we were treated like queens. We sat on the deck in big armchairs, sipping on coconuts full of coconut water. It was quite hot out so we felt very lazy and enjoyed just sitting there reading, playing cribbage and looking at the scenery. The food was unbelievable. Kerala cooking is really delicious with lots of coconut and bananas. The stores in Kerala sell 4 or 5 different types of banana. We bought 3 huge prawns from a fisherman after lunch and had them at dinner.
Our last few days we spent at a fairly touristy beach resort called Varkala, where we could actually put on a bathing suit and not feel self-conscious. We both had come down with colds by this time so it was good timing to be able to veg out for a couple of days. The food here was great too. We sat on top of a cliff and for the equivalent of about US$8 each would have a dinner of curried fish straight from the ocean and warm rice pudding flavoured with cardamom for dessert.
The fisherman at Varkala reminded me of how cheap labour must be in India. They would set out a large fishing net about a mile offshore using boats. Ropes would be attached to each end and brought to shore. About 20 men would pull on each rope for many hours until the net was brought in and the fish collected. We saw another interesting fishing method in Fort Cochin at the start of our vacation. There was a swift current along the shore there so a net was set up with each corner attached to a frame of logs. The center of the frame was attached to a rope and pulley setup with stones attached as a counter balance. When they were ready to pull in the net, the men pulled on the rope with the stones and the frame closed like an umbrella, collecting the fish in one small section of the net.

Western Ghat Mountains aka The Cardamom Hills

November 2006
Amy and I flew from Mumbai to Kochi in Kerala for our 2-week vacation. After a couple of days in Fort Cochin exploring the markets and swimming at a beach, we took a taxi to Munnar in the Western Ghat Mountains. We ended up using taxis a lot as they are really cheap by Western standards (US$40 for a 4-5 hour trip) and much nicer than being crammed into a train or bus. In Munnar we stayed at a small 4-room hotel at the top of a ridge. There was a cooking lesson each night before dinner and we did some great hiking through the surrounding tea and cardamom plantations. We took a 2-hour auto rickshaw ride the last day up to Top Station where there are supposed to be awesome views of the surrounding mountains and the Tamil Nadu plains to the east. It was completely fogged in when we got there unfortunately but then the heavens opened for about 10 minutes while we were at the lookout and we had some great views.
The women here seem to do most of the manual labour. Only women pick tea and only women cook the meals, take care of the kids and do the housekeeping apparently. Not an easy life! But they all look so beautiful with their dark hair and eyes and their beautiful saris.
We also spent a couple of days in Kumily, which is also in the mountains. We did a jungle safari in an elephant and tiger preserve but didn’t manage to see any elephants or tigers! We missed a group of elephants by about 5 minutes but we did hear a bison and we say Nilgiri monkeys and giant squirrels as well as lots of birds. The monkeys are big – maybe 4 ft tall not including their tail – and they sound just like the monkey noises we learn to make as kids! I suppose I should be happy that we didn’t see any tigers but I wasn’t too worried as our guide had seen a tiger 3 times during the 7 years he had been working there.
One highlight of our stay in Kumily was the lizard that ran into the little spice shop Amy and I were in one afternoon. They managed to catch it and the picture I took of it was in the local paper the next day!

Jamkhed, India

November 21-22, 2006
I splurged (300 rupees [US$8] instead of 150 rupees) and took the sleeper bus to Jamkhed (see photo) for view!. It took 8 hours and I arrived in the dark at about 6am. I was terrified I’d miss the stop as the driver didn’t speak English and all the highway signs are in Hindi. As we were getting close and I was peering frantically into the dark trying to see a roadsign that would mean something to me, I noticed that there were a lot of people squatting in front of lanterns on the side of the highway. I thought that they must be saying their morning prayers, although it did seem an odd place to do it. Well, Amy told me later that they were actually having their morning poop! There are lots of pigs roaming around and they take care of things (not sure where the pigs poop though!). Apparently it has been very difficult to get the rural population to use toilets even when they are given to them for free. Although, having used an Indian toilet on the way to Jamkhed, I wasn’t completely surprised. They are called squat toilets and they are just holes with treaded porcelain on either side for standing on without slipping. And TP is not provided. It gave me a deeper understanding of the right hand for eating, left hand for less clean activities!
The two highlights of visiting Jamkhed were making rounds in the hospital and having dinner with a local Muslim family. The hospital is quite small (40 beds I think) and set up ward style. The hospital does not provide food or bedding so family must come and provide this. There’s a courtyard that is used for the families to do the cooking. So rounds are quite interesting as you get to meet the patient and several family members. The patients were either post-partum, post-op or suffering from an infectious disease such as typhoid, hepatitis or HIV.
The Muslim family was celebrating Neem belatedly with Shobha, the doctor who runs the hospital and we were included. The family was fairly well off, at least for this poor rural part of India, and 3 generations lived under one roof – the “patriarch” and his wife, 3 of their 8 children and all the grandchildren. Only the older couple ate with us and everyone else helped serve and sat around and chatted – in Marathi so I didn’t contribute a lot to the conversation! We sat on the floor in the living room and a piece of cloth was used as our table. Someone came around with a pitcher of water and a bowl and we rinsed off our right hands as there were no utensils. We had chapattis, curried chicken and biryani. It was all delicious but it sure is hard to tear off pieces of chapatti with one hand! Dessert was a kind of custard followed by paan, which is a betel leaf containing I don’t know what and all wrapped in coloured paper. The first bite tasted OK but then it seemed kind of gross but I did manage to get it down without embarrassing myself!

Mumbai, India!

November 20, 2006
I went to India for 3 weeks to visit Amy. It was an awesome trip but I think I’ll just try to cover the highlights.
It took 48 hours to get from Christchurch to Jamkhed, which is 350 km east of Mumbai. But that included a 7-h sleep in a little travelers’ hotel in the Singapore airport and a 12-h stopover in Mumbai that included giving an impromptu lecture at a college in New Bombay! India was overwhelming from before I even landed. There is a huge slum in Mumbai that extends right up to the fence around the runways. I had heard about it and even seen photos of it, but seeing the real thing come in to view as we approached the runway was staggering. It extends for what seems like miles and it looks like one huge irregular black roof. I guess the roofing material people use extends over to cover the walkways so it’s just an endless expanse of roof. I was told that nearly half the population of Mumbai lives in the slums.
Shrilathi, one of Amy’s classmates from her course in Jamkhed lives in New Bombay, a suburb of Mumbai and she picked me up from the airport. We took a taxi to her apartment and that was quite an experience also. We drove past the slums and it appeared that there were open sewers that just ran into gutters along the road. Between the smells and the noise, I did not have to open my eyes to know that I wasn’t in New Zealand anymore!
Driving in India and in Mumbai in particular is quite an experience. There are 3 million taxis in Mumbai – an impressive number when I think about the fact that there are 4 million people in all of New Zealand! The good news is that all of the taxis have been converted from petrol to natural gas to help relieve the terrible air pollution there. In addition to cars, trucks, taxis and motorcycles on the roads, there are bullock carts and auto rickshaws. Auto rickshaws are little open-air 3-wheel vehicles that are pretty cheap so everyone takes them (see photo).
The first thing I noticed is the endless honking. At first it just seemed like utter chaos but after a while I realized that there was some method to the madness. Everyone is always wanting to pass because of the range of vehicles and animals on the road. When you pass, you honk to let everyone know. There seem to be little toots for fairly safe passing and longer, more urgent honks that seemed to say – there’s another car coming towards me and they’ll probably pull over onto the shoulder to let me by if I don’t make it but just in case they don’t can you please slow down and pull over a little so I can get past you without killing everyone in this vehicle?! The first few times it was a little hair-raising but eventually I got used to it and only one driver on the whole trip managed to bruise my shins when he freaked out and slammed on the brakes. Fortunately that happened on the last day of our trip so I didn’t have a heart attack! The other interesting thing about honking as that the trucks and buses have horns that play tunes. Rather entertaining except in the middle of the night on the sleeper bus to Mumbai when the driver honks the horn about every 5 minutes!
The two other driving things that were a little hard to get used to in Mumbai were 1) everyone ignores the white lines separating lanes of traffic so there would be 5 lanes of traffic when the road was marked for 3 and 2) if there isn’t traffic coming, no one even slows down for a red light.
Shri’s husband, Solomon, came home late morning and asked me if I’d be willing to talk to some of his students that afternoon as they would be interested in meeting a doctor from the US who does research. He teaches Science at a local college in New Bombay. I said OK, envisioning sitting down with 4 or 5 students for a little chat. Well, it turned out to mean giving a lecture for an hour to over 100 students! And that after traveling for over 24 hours! I was sure happy that I got that sleep in the Singapore airport! Somehow I survived and then Sweety (Shri and Solomon’s lovely 12 yo daughter) and I had tours of all the labs. It was actually quite fun in the end.


November 2006
Well it’s actually the end of January now but I’m going to try to get my blog up to date, just touching on the highlights.
I finally had my first surfing lesson from Ross. One day when I was over at Ross’ house (he lives right on the ocean) the surf was perfect ie not too high for a beginner but not so small that you’d freeze to death waiting for a wave. I put on my wetsuit and two bathing caps and headed over to the beach. Ross took a short board and I took a long one as they are supposed to be easier.
We walked, dove and then paddled out past the breaking surf and almost right away I caught a wave! I just stayed lying down the first time and made it most of the way into the beach. The next few waves I caught I managed to get up on my knees with my hips straight. It turned out not to be scary because you are in front of the wave you’re riding so you can’t see it coming down on you. That was a pleasant surprise. So the next wave I caught, I decided to try to stand up. Unfortunately my beginners luck didn’t continue and as soon as I stood up I fell off. It’s quite a whomp on the chest when that happens!

By that time the surf was bigger and it was really hard to get back out again. Ross and I traded boards then and I gave the short one a go. After several tries, I still hadn’t managed to even catch a wave much less get up on my knees. I was pretty tired by then so we called it a day. I’m sure looking forward to the next time. Maybe I’ll manage to stand up for a few seconds!