Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dispatch 53 “Bureaucratic As”

February, 2010

Kiwis have some funny ways of speaking English. Their “e” sound is more like an “i” so my name is “Bitsy” here. They call the thing on the front of the car the “bonnet” and the place in the back where you store your luggage the “boot”, cookies are “biscuits”, “lots of” translates to “heaps of” and so on. Perhaps the most unique and charming figures of speech are where they don’t finish the similes and just say things are “good as” or “sweet as” or “cheap as.” Friends who have lived here for several years after cruising here on their boat gave us a quick seminar and we thought some of these things were quaint but perhaps not universal. But, the “cheap as” expression is even on a website for discounted airfares. They have the occasional airfare between cities of $1 (which you basically have to be on-line full time to grab) but then they have the category called, “Also Cheap As.”

Well, after dealing with the New Zealand Medical Council for over a year and now grappling with the Immigration department, I am here to coin a new term, “bureaucratic as!” Here we are, people who actually achieved a 1 year visa in Mexico in Spanish, on our own without the benefit of a translator or agent, checked in and out of French Polynesia in French, on our own, twice, without the benefit of an agent or translator and we have been brought nearly to tears by the sheer incomprehensibility of the process we are attempting to get a work permit. You might think that a country often crying out about its severe shortage of doctors would be greasing the skids to make it easy for yours truly to come and work here. But you think wrong.

First there’s the application, written allegedly in English. So far, here’s my favorite quote (one of the check boxes in the health section): “If you have not spent three months or more in the past five years in a place that is not on the list, you do not have to provide a medical certificate at this stage.” Unfortunately, we had spent three months or more in the past five years in a place that is not on the list so we did have to provide a medical certificate with a chest x-ray, we think. But, without the examples they gave I would have been undone by the triple negative.

Then, there’s the Medical Council whose job it is to decide whether I qualify for work as a doctor in New Zealand. But part of the review of documents is done, NOT in New Zealand, but in Australia--what they don’t have enough doctors in New Zealand to review your documents? – OH right they have a doctor’s shortage here. They required “original certified copies” of all my documents (are those originals, copies, or what?) which are generally referred to as “qualifications” here (as in diplomas, certifications, degrees, what have you). And, after a year of pondering my suitability, they have yet to decide. After 20 years of practicing medicine in what is commonly referred to as “the most advanced medical system in the world” (OK, don’t get me started on that one, suffice to say that I didn’t get my training in Grenada), they are still hemming and hawing and have required that I have 2 supervisors before they’ll let me work here. Did I mention that they have a severe shortage of doctors? Is it any wonder?

So between our car disaster, our boat issues (there were more, but then, there always are, aren’t there?), the rodential stowaway and the bureaucratic insanity, we have not seen nearly as much of this country as we intended and we haven’t been as favorably impressed with the place as we were initially. We hope that will all change for the better.

Meanwhile, let us admit that we’ve enjoyed the heck out of our little sojourns out in the Bay of Islands and our trip down this stunning coast to Auckland. And we’ve had a blast every time we’re in Auckland even if it’s only to get medical exams for our immigration paperwork. (By the way, neither of the doctors we saw were originally trained in NZ, hmmm, makes you wonder, huh? How did they get through that paperwork?) We’ve seen blue penguins, a Dwarf Minke whale, dolphins, identified innumerably new birds, swatted many mosquitoes and sand flies, tried but failed to participate in the national sport of running over possums (they are an introduced pest here) and “tramped” (hiked) the many Department of Conservation trails. By the way, switchbacks occur on their trails only in situations where the alternative would be rappelling—the trails go straight up and down as a general rule. So NZ has much to recommend it. The cost is similar to the US even given the exchange rate.

But living in a country where first names suffice has its charm. While in a hardware store looking at new propane tanks, we told the salesman we would go to our boat and check the size and, if it fit, we’d be back to buy a second one. He said that was fine but we’d have to buy the first one before we took it to the boat. What he then said was that if we were locals, we could have just taken it and paid for it later. At that very moment a local lady came in, grabbed something off the shelf and walked out saying she’d be back later to pay. And we went to open a bank account here. The banker gave us all the information we needed to wire money from the US to our bank account and then opened us an account, with nothing in it. Our balance was zero. We were bummed that, in the half hour we were in the bank, we didn’t even make any interest. Oh yeah, another quaint thing is that the savings accounts earn 4-5% interest here. Remember that?

So, as with any other paradise, this one has its good and bad sides.

Dispatch 52 More New Zealand

January, 2010

Here’s the latest from New Zealand. We took a road trip in our van to Cape Reinga, one of the northernmost points in the country. It is where the Tasman and Pacific oceans meet which we, of course, assumed was a symbolic description. Actually, we were there on a very calm day and, standing on the headland where the lighthouse is, we could look down and see separate wave trains from the 2 oceans which met and clashed below us in a whitewater frenzy. Fascinating! The Cape is gorgeous and a very spiritual place for the Maori—they believe that the souls of the dead depart to the underworld here. We had beautiful weather and some great camping.

We outfitted the van minimally to be able to sleep inside and prepare food. We arrived at a campsite in the midst of the busiest season of the year, the week between Christmas and New Years. Kiwis are great campers and they don’t seem to go in for the tiny pup tent approach. No, they set up camp for a week, with a large group of friends or family in their tents in whole communities. The tents have multiple rooms, and, judging from the peeks we took inside, are complete with folding cots and furniture. The temporary patio is equipped with large awnings, tables, chairs, BBQ and some of the camps had shower tents. They are amazing!
We had 2 chairs and a cooler for a table outside our van. Talk about minimalist camping! Starting one evening at around 5:30 PM, we were SWARMED with mosquitoes. We were maddened despite being fully dressed and having repellant on any exposed skin. As the rangers came by to collect from us, we asked about the mosquitoes and they told us we were in the “bush” where it was worse, but it was nearly the last site available now we knew why. They said to use repellant. A few minutes later we were visited by 2 friendly kids, perhaps age 9 and 11, brother and sister, who were fundraising for their trip to the South Island to go to ski camp. They were carrying the box we have come to associate with “World’s Finest” chocolate bars and we were momentarily distracted from our mosquito issue, eyes aglitter at the thought of helping out these nice kids while having a dessert of chocolate. (If you think we weren’t already carrying chocolate for dessert, all I can say is, you don’t know us very well… but you never turn down the opportunity to maintain your supplies.) They finished their spiel about ski camp with, “So we’re selling…sun screen or insect repellent to raise the money.” What, no chocolate? Well, naturally, we had to buy insect repellent, but we did ask the rangers if they had put the kids up to it or if they were their kids. Welcome to NZ! Next, we met the woman in the camp next to ours when I asked her if the mosquitoes were bothering them. She said, “Don’t you have fly spray? Oh you must get some, here let me have you borrow mine.” Fly spray is a product by Raid that the campers here spray inside their tent an hour or so before bedtime to rid the place of mosquitoes. Well, we were just desperate enough to spritz a little, really a lot, into our van to see if it would help. The mosquitoes were really not bad that night in our little van bedroom, but Richard wheezed all night (not a good thought about what he inhaled). By morning, we found the dashboard was covered with hundreds of dead mosquitoes. In truth, it was very satisfying.
I had learned how to make flowers from flax leaves, a Maori craft, and used the technique to mark our trail so we wouldn't get lost.

On the road back from our travels to our boat, we climbed one of many long windy hills. As we pulled off at the scenic overlook at the top, we noticed water pouring out of our van—not good we thought. Then we noticed the water was mixed with black oil. Much worse, we thought. Well, to make a long, very sad saga, very short, the car probably blew a head gasket on that climb. In our research about repairing it, we learned that this style vehicle with a diesel engine has this problem quite often and we couldn’t find anyone very enthused about repairing it or even taking it off our hands for parts. We tried to sell it “as is, where is,” with no takers and finally found a diesel mechanic who wanted to buy it to work on himself. Needless to say, we took a big loss on the thing but have emerged sadder but wiser about buying our next vehicle.

Meanwhile, since bad things happen in threes, we’ve had issues with our 30 year old diesel engine on the boat. We arrived and made the mistake of talking to other cruisers who were replacing their engine (same vintage) with a rebuilt one. Their symptoms sounded much like ours, sort of. (You’d think someone who lived through medical school where everyone gets every disease because the symptoms are fairly general and you have to understand the degree of the symptoms to understand the disease would have known better!). So we decided to do a little maintenance on it. After having the compression checked, the injectors leaked for the first time in their lives. Well, about 5 years ago, our good friend Harold said we ought to have them rebuilt, so, since they were leaking, we went ahead and had them rebuilt along with the fuel pump and, just when we thought all was good, we find that they still leak. Damn frustrating.

And lastly but not leastly, on one visit out to these very beautiful islands by boat, we returned to hear we had picked up a stowaway. That is, a rat came aboard at some point in our travels and took up residence. In 6 short nights (they are nocturnal so, other than the morning-after mess, we didn’t notice our “crew” except at night), this animal managed to reduce us to cranky, frantic, blood-thirsty crazed human beings. We could hear it chewing various parts of the boat, ripping at things deep in compartments where we couldn’t find it and generally disrupting our sleep. It got into everything—tore up foam, toilet paper and pipe insulation for nest material, chewed on fruit that was in hanging nets in the cabin, ate our CHOCOLATE, nuts, cranberries and we’re pretty sure we haven’t found the last of the destruction. Despite 5 loaded traps, rat poison and a bowl of anti-freeze (covering all the bases of the various bits of advice we got on how to do this creature in), it lived with us for 4 more nights, evading all our desperate measures. At last, one final night of no sleep, we found the thing in our galley, Betsy put a trap right by the last place she had seen it. Twenty minutes later, we heard the most satisfying sound of a trap being sprung and, upon investigation, found the critter fading into oblivion. YES!!! We gave it a burial at sea. Never have two caring, life-sustaining healer types of people been reduced to such blood thirst! “Bring it on”!

Now, having been here a while, we hear announcements on VHF about checking your boat for rodents before venturing out in the islands so the islands can remain rat-free. I know where I stand between a rat-free boat and a rat-free island! I’d put that sucker back on the island in no time!!
But to offset the series of unfortunate events, I have negotiated a job on the South Island of New Zealand in a small town called Oamaru at a rural hospital. This town is known for its Victorian history and for the colony of blue penguins who live offshore and come ashore each evening. The uniform response we get when we tell Kiwis where we will be living is, “Oooh, it’s cold there, BUT it’s really beautiful.” So we look forward to the next chapter of life and work in New Zealand. We intend to leave our boat in Auckland, where, if we find the time, we should be able to fly in and enjoy some sailing in the Hauraki Gulf. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, we should be in the US for some family events this spring before work starts.

Dispatch 51 Arrival New Zealand

November 21, 2010

New Zealand – the cruiser’s “Promised Land”. The country relishes boating on a scale known almost nowhere else—the main city, Auckland, is referred to as the City of Sails. We felt extremely welcomed from the second we arrived. The infrastructure for boat entry and processing was as efficient as it gets. First, we had the fly-overs so the officials knew we were arriving. Then there are volunteer services that we could call into to track our progress, and, if the need had arisen, to organize help for us. We arrived at Opua in the Bay of Islands where Customs has a Quarantine dock for all arriving yachties. We tied up there, and, as we had arrived after 5 PM on a Saturday, spent the night waiting to be processed the next morning, Sunday (Customs works 7 days a week here). The Q dock, is separated by just a narrow fairway from the marina and we were greeted by many of our boater friends upon arrival. However, the Q dock is locked so that we couldn’t escape or get rid of contraband before we were searched. However, two of our boat friends snuck us in some ice cream that night as a welcome gift, but I don’t think anyone would be prosecuted for that kind of trade and we made sure to get rid of the evidence so to speak.

The Customs and Immigration officials could not have been nicer. They actually came around with a welcome packet presented in a locally woven flax carry bag which they handed out to each boat. Within was a wealth of information about local services, brochures and maps and, hey, what’s this? INSECT REPELLENT!

That very morning, we learned about New Zealand’s dirty little secret, well kept from all who look forward to visiting until this very moment when I will share it with you. There are sand flies in New Zealand who will eat you alive and drive you crazy if you don’t take evasive action. While speaking with a Custom’s agent, I looked down at a little itchy spot on my ankle, innocently bare (without cover of repellant) and found a black spot which represented the sand fly. As I smacked him, I noted the spot of blood he left behind. By the end of day 1, Richard and I were covered in bites on our feet and ankles, but, it wasn’t until day 2 that we experienced the profound itching that follows. And these spots are not the type to fade in a few days time, no they leave what, to date, has been an indelible mark. UGH! But, we can learn from our errors and from the first day, we learned to wear pants and socks or smear repellent on before emerging from the boat. The good news was we have mosquito netting and the sand flies are just a bit bigger than no see ums so the netting keeps the little buggers out. Whew.

OK, so we got the worst over with at once. After that, it’s been all gravy. The country is beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly. When a propane tank we had ordered failed to arrive, the man at the marine shop lent us his off his boat. Everyone freely offers touring advice. The islands here are stunning, wooded with walking trails, protected anchorages and all within a few miles of each other. The Department of Conservation works hard to make walking trails very accessible and there are heaps of them everywhere. We took a road trip to visit the Kauri forest and saw giant Kauri trees, 15 feet or more in diameter in a beautiful forest. During the same day, after walking a few miles through the forest to view the trees, we were able to go to the beach on the Tasman Sea and walk a trail down to the headland and around on the beach. Not only is it beautiful and well maintained, but the country is of a manageable size. The roads, however, are 2 lane and very curvy so road travel is not fast—but it is stunningly beautiful.

Our guide book put the whole population of New Zealand at 4.8 million while the population of sheep is 40 million. That means that the whole country with 2 major islands, is smaller than greater Chicago in terms of population. As our friends told us, everyone is on a first name basis here. Though the scenery in the Bay of Islands reminds us of our Puget Sound area, when looked at closely, the vegetation is interesting and quite different, like the trees that are actually ferns!

And finally a few weeks after our arrival, I got word that my medical license will be approved and I can start looking for work. Now I have to look for motivation to work. Perhaps an expensive road trip around the country will be enough motivation, for, though the NZ dollar is below the US dollar, it is not enough to offset the fairly steep prices here. Sigh, when will we learn to stop looking for something for nothing?

We bought a van. It seems that everyone is in the business of either buying or selling vehicles for travel around the country. There are many venues for shopping for used vehicles, from the usual used car lots to car auctions in most major cities and huge car sale at the race track every Sunday in Auckland, and another car sale at a car park near the harbor in Auckland on Saturday. Then there’s Trade Me, the NZ equivalent of E-Bay. To say the least, it’s bewildering, that is, until you realize that some of the same vans turn up in multiple places. We started with a couple for sale on Trade Me and couldn’t come to an agreeable price for the one we wanted. That owner showed up at the Saturday sale where we finally did purchase our van. Vans poured in from 8-9 in the morning and the owners just let everyone look and take a short test drive. One guy whose van had all kinds of new parts on the engine let us drive his car. We took it 4 blocks and stopped it to check out all the features (windows, sunroof, etc.) and change drivers. When I got in to re-start it, it didn’t start and then the battery began to make that distinct sound like it was going dead, which it promptly did. OK, guess that van wasn’t for us. The owner came running back with Richard, opened the hood where he found the battery cable detached and we saw that the connection was no good. He jumped it with another battery he had in his car (battery fluid running all over the place as he turned it upside down while I winced.) Very amusing. Luckily, we found a van we like at the price that seemed good and, on the 3 hour drive from Auckland back to the boat, she continued to run.

We just finished the longest day of the year, December 22, celebrating Richard’s 60th birthday as many times as we could. We celebrated with friends in Auckland and here in the Bay of Islands. He is happy to reach this big milestone and neither looks nor acts his age.

It is Christmas season and, just like in the tropics, being in the upside down world of the Southern Hemisphere makes for some conflicting images. While I shopped in the grocery store amongst all the specials for the holidays, it was 78 degrees outside and I was humming along to “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, in the lane, snow is glistening…” or “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” I giggled to myself. Rather than the dark days with snow last Christmas, we are putting on sunscreen every morning and squinting in the bright sunshine, sipping the last of our champagne for Richard’s birthday in the fading light at 9:00 PM. Don’t worry, when you all are running through sprinklers for July 4, we’ll be battling icestorms in the dark. Fair’s fair.

Meanwhile, we are looking at job offers from far afield and trying to understand how to make a decision about where to live in this beautiful and varied country. Hope all your holidays were wonderful and keep in touch.