Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

New Zealand

Well…those 5 months went fast

Yes, yes, I have lapsed in the blogging department. I know. I’ve been rather busy flying, unpacking, repacking, visiting with family, and administering the Junior Ranger pledge to roughly 8 billion children (and two 30 year old women as well).  But now, as I sit here in the fourth different place I’ve called “home” in the last 14 days, soaking and suffocating in a pool of my own sweat, I venture it’s time for a little catch up.

By virtue of having tickets on Air New Zealand rather than Jetstar or Qantas, I was able to leave New Zealand without any delays due to the annoying Chilean ash cloud that had parked itself over much of the southern hemisphere, which, coincidentally, is where New Zealand happens to be located.  Not only this, but flying Air New Zealand offered me the added bonus of getting to watch the Richard Simmons safety video not once but TWICE! WAHOO!  Anyways, when I left Dunedin the thermometer read 3.7 C (again, that’s just a hair over freezing for all you humanities/social science majors out there).  Upon touching down in Phoenix at 10:00 PM the pilot came on the intercom and said “The temperature is currently 109 degrees. Welcome to Arizona.”  Welcome to Arizona indeed.

Clock Tower and Moon, University of Otago

I recall writing something in an early post about New Zealand not feeling like home, despite its overall awesomeness.  Perhaps this had something to do with the novelty of being in a new country that I was experiencing at the time, the fact that I was away from Dunedin more often than not during the first couple of months abroad, or maybe I just hadn’t settled in properly yet.  Whatever the reason though, by the time I left, that statement was not nearly as true as it was when I first wrote it and had I not had a summer of park ranger-ing and Mars researching to look forward too, leaving NZ would have been a lot harder than it was.  Despite all of the awesome places I visited, my favorite aspect of my semester abroad was most definitely all of the different people that I met during my time there and I have to say that it was rather weird and unpleasant saying goodbye knowing that I will probably never see many of them again.

I honestly don’t think I could have asked for a better 5 months in New Zealand.  Other than Bank of America shutting down my only source of access to my bank account and a poorly timed adverse reaction to a spider bite, everything else pretty much went 100% as planned. Despite the deceptively small size of New Zealand (at least it always looked so small sitting there in the ocean next to Australia…) I managed to see a pretty darn good chunk of it. I’ve been geotagging my photos all along and the resulting Google Earth map gives a good idea of the geographic territory that I covered:

Where I've been....

There are many things that I will miss about New Zealand: first and foremost, my five amazing flatmates; Jesse, Sarah, Stef, Nina, and Kat and all of the other people that I met while abroad, bacon butties, The Lofts, Dunedin itself, bacon butties, the relatively laid back, low-stress New Zealand lifestyle, the weather (a winter without any snow! what a concept!), traveling and hiking as often as humanly possible,  karaoke and trivia nights at the Baaa, having the time to actually enjoy my weekends rather than spending most of them doing massive amounts of homework, bacon butties, how New Zealanders pronounce “bear” and call the letter Z “zed”, a well-developed public transportation network, and never having class until 11am and consequently getting sufficient sleep for the first academic semester EVER.

Things I will not miss: incredibly expensive food, crummy internet access, only being able to contact people in the US via skype and email…yeah that’s about it I think.

Central Libray, University of Otago

Despite the noticeable discrepancy in the length of the above lists, I am thoroughly enjoying being back in good ol’ America. It’s great to return to Arizona so I can go back to legally carrying around my concealed firearm whenever I go out and knowing that my government will bail me out if I make unethical financial decisions and squander millions is really just one big load off of my mind.  But seriously folks, after two short days at home visiting family and ingesting copious quantities of REAL Mexican food (read: NOT Chipotle or Taco Bell. Yes I did just lump Chipotle in with Taco Bell. Deal with it.), I headed up to Bryce Canyon National Park for 9 days where I began working as an astronomy interpreter/ranger. The final four days of my stint there coincided with the absolutely crazy but loads of fun 12th annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival which is apparently the largest special event put on by any National Park Service unit in the western U.S.  Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute.  With amazing views of Bryce Canyon (which is NOT actually a canyon btw…) just a few minutes walk from my doorstep and easy access to the beautiful and spectacular landscape of southern Utah, I can’t wait to go back for the month of August.  However, as of this afternoon, I am in Lancaster, PA to being work on the planetary geology research project that will eventually become my senior thesis.

Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon National Park

Oh, and for those of you that were wondering, the Bryce Canyon Junior Ranger Pledge goes something like this:

“As a Bryce Canyon Junior Ranger, I promise to do all I can to help protect our National Parks. I will collect litter when I’m out exploring, and show respect for nature by not disturbing anything wild.”

The worst is when parents get out their little video camera and record you administering the pledge to their kids. I guarantee you I’m in at least half a dozen YouTube videos by the end of the summer. Grr.

Bryce Amphitheater

Hitchhiking and a Last Huzzah

My last weekend in New Zealand has come and gone.  I decided the best way to start if off was to get up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning and stand for several hours on the side of the road trying to persuade random strangers to transport me to the last major remaining destination on my New Zealand “to do” list: Queenstown.  While I could have easily taken the bus, this way just seemed like way more fun. Anyways, during what became a frustratingly prolonged shoulder standing session on the outskirts of Dunedin, I discovered that even in a hitchhiking tolerant nation such as New Zealand, the reaction of drivers when confronted with a hitchhiker on the side of the road is quite varied.  In order to pass the time I came up with a comprehensive classification system for categorizing and stereotyping the thousands of drivers that did not have it in their hearts to give me a lift. My system is as follows:

  • Ignorers:  A common species, ignorers are easily spotted as they are the people who appear to be wearing invisible cervical collars around their neck.  It’s incredible how easy it is to tell when someone is trying very, very hard to avoid even the slightest bit of eye contact with you as they drive by.  I could have been standing there wearing a chicken suit and juggling flaming chainsaws and it wouldn’t make a difference.
  • Avoiders: Avoiders are by far the most egregious offenders.  These are the people that either dramatically accelerate (despite the approaching sharp bend in the road, which necessitated a speed reduction on the part of sane drivers) or abruptly move into the lane farthest away from me as they pass me by (a lane that, I might add, ended 30 yards down the road, thus forcing them to almost immediately return to the lane that had just passed dangerously close to me and my sign).  It was as if they thought I was going to brazenly launch myself onto their vehicle and cling precariously to the roof a la James Bond until they let me inside. I call shenanigans.
  • Squinters: This group made me want to put my head through the speed limit sign I was standing next to.  Fortunately, they are easy to identify ahead of time allowing you to avert your gaze until the danger has passed.  An experienced squinter will, beginning at least 50 yards away, hunch over the steering wheel and intently stare at your sign feigning a lack of comprehension.  They will continue to intently stare at your sign, as if expecting it to do a magic trick, until they have passed you. “Whoops, wasn’t able to read that until it was too late. Guess we’re not picking him up.”  Seriously folks, there’s one word on the sign and it’s in like size-250 font.  Don’t pretend you can’t read it.
  • Nodders: Nodders own the road, or at least they think the do.  To them, you standing there with your backpack and little sign are doing nothing but besmirching the good name of the road they are driving on. They love to give you disapproving glares or stern little head-nods in an attempt to communicate this fact to you.  Demographically, nodders tended to be older drivers, an age group on which my hopes rested on the albeit small chance that, maybe, just maybe, I would bear a striking resemblance to some little old lady’s grandson, prompting them to experience enough compassion to pull over.  As you have probably guessed, this was not the case.
  • Wavers: Most truckers fall into this category, but a lot of other people do as well. Wavers always make the deliberate effort to give you a thumbs up, a smile, or flash you a peace sign in order to show that, obviously, they sympathize with your plight hope you get a ride super soon. However, they are far to worried about getting burglarized or brutally murdered to actually pick you up.  Hypocrites.

Anyhoo, just as I was beginning to reconsider my choice of transportation methods, I was picked up by Lea, an exchange student from Colorado who was heading to Wanaka and would be able to take me to within about 30 miles of Queenstown.  The ride went without a hitch (couldn’t resist..apologies); Lea was friendly, easy to talk to, and (to my relief) a safe driver, although our conversation did reveal that she was a Mac enthusiast but since she was the only person in two hours with the heart to pick me up, I decided to forgive her for this. After being dropped off in a little hamlet by the name of Cromwell, I had barely pulled my sign back out of my backpack when I was picked up by two local girls one of whom was heading to Queenstown for a job interview (I should note that all three girls who picked me up were rather attractive…apparently my conscious decision to shave prior to hitchhiking so as not to look like an axe murderer paid off 😉 ).  They drove me the last half hour into Queenstown and gave me some tips on the best way to hitchhike back out of Queenstown (which I ended up not doing due to bad weather and time constraints), thus completing my short but successful hitching journey.

Me on Queenstown Hill with the slightly humorous side of my sign that I never actually had to use. The hitchhiking community is divided on funny signs apparently. Some say they help, some say it makes you look desperate. I got where I needed to go with just a simple "QUEENSTOWN"

Queenstown itself is an interesting place.  At any given time there are probably more tourists there than permanent residents here resulting in a very resort-ish and touristy, yet at the same time very upscale, feel.  Most people come here to bungee jump, skydive, paraglide, jetboat, zip line, or to participate in a myriad of other adventurous activities in the area. In fact, for the entirely reasonable price of $189, you can even be strapped into a plastic lawn chair, tethered to a steel cable, and pushed off of a 500 foot high platform that is suspended over a rocky canyon as a video showed to me by an English girl in my hostel proved.  My plans centered more on the…er…cheaper activities: namely, hiking.  Queenstown is smack in the middle of the mountain chain that runs along the entire South Island of New Zealand and there are countless trails in and around the town.  In the less than 48 hours that I was actually in Queenstown, I managed to get in almost 25 of hiking in breathtaking mountains surrounding the town.


Shotover St, the main drag through Queenstown

Shore of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

The marquee hike in the Queenstown area is the Ben Lomond Track, which ascends nearly 5,000 feet in a distance of only about 4 miles.  I started this hike well before sunrise which made navigating the maze of approach trails on the lower slopes of the mountain rather interesting, but I managed to reach the summit by mid-morning.  I’ve never been skydiving but I honestly don’t know how it can be that much different that what I saw from the summit of  Ben Lomond. The views from the summit were undoubtedly some of the best I’ve seen in New Zealand, or anywhere else for that matter.  It wasn’t even a particularly clear day and yet from my vantage point nearly one mile directly above Queenstown, I could see peaks that were hundreds of kilometers away. To the south was Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake, with Queenstown strung out in a band along its shore.  To the north were the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps, including Mount Aspiring, New’s Zealand’s second highest peak after Mt. Cook.  My stay on the top was short however given extreme winds that prevented me from even standing up long enough to take more than a few pictures.

Self portrait from the Ben Lomond Summit. It was crazy windy. My fully loaded backpack literally started rolling away in the wind at one point.

Ben Lomond from about 1000 feet below the summit

In the evening, I explored Queenstown with some other friends who had ventured into the mountains for the weekend.  Dinner was at the famous Fergburger (supposedly the best burgers in NZ) where I indulged in the enormous and absolutely delicious ‘”Tropical Swine”, a fresh NZ beef patty topped with cheese, bacon, pineapple, aioli, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and tomato relish.  I also lost a whopping $2 in a slot machine at a casino (gambling age in NZ is 20) and would have had photo evidence had the security guard not swooped in and politely informed us that photos were prohibited. All in all though, not a bad way to finish off my time in New Zealand.

More wrap up stuff to come once I finish my last two finals and pack my bags for the trip home.

Panorama from Ben Lomond Summit. Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu at left.

College…New Zealand Style!

As hard as it is for y’all to believe that I am actually engaging in academic activities whilst here in New Zealand (judging by the sarcastic comments that have populated my inbox over the past few months), I am indeed enrolled for a full course load (Field Studies and New Zealand Geology, Philosophy of Religion, Intro to Maori Studies, and Intro to Geographical Information Systems) here at the University of Otago.  Consequently, I figured it might be apropos to comment on the educational system here in New Zealand.  I also figured it was time for some procrastination after spending the last 5 hours obediently studying for my philosophy final tomorrow.  Given that I haven’t really left Dunedin in the past few weeks (due to finals studying and my current financial predicament…), all pictures in this post are from places I’ve been over the course of the semester but never actually got around to actually writing about.

Milford Sound

Going to college (or “Uni” in the local lingo) is overall a pretty comparable experience to what it is in the US.  By far the most obvious difference for me is the sheer size of the University of Otago.  With a total enrollment that rivals the entire population of Walla Walla, merely walking from class to class feels like pushing your way through the sidewalks of New York City. The most noticeable consequence of this is that there are roughly 20,000 students partying it up across Dunedin every Thursday and Saturday night.  The most noticeable academic consequence of this is that classes here are large because (with a few exceptions) there is no enrollment cap.  In one way this is great because there is no stress associated with getting into the classes you want to take. My Maori Studies class has about 400 students (of which half are internationals, and of which, perhaps not coincidentally, only about half actually attend class on any given day), philosophy and GIS both about 100, and geology about 70.  Ultimately, the ramification of this is that there is much less discussion and interaction with other students and the professors during class time which, to be blunt, doesn’t really bother me a whole heck of a lot.  In-class discussion is not really the way I learn best nor is it something I am particularly good at (to which I am sure several of my Whitman profs could attest).  However, I know that the complete opposite is true for many people, especially the type of student that is generally attracted to a small liberal-arts school such as Whitman so I’m sure having enormous classes drives a lot of my fellows abroadies up the wall but for me it is pretty much a non-issue.  In my opinion, a more annoying consequence of the large classes is professor can’t realistically do all of the grading themselves so assignments and papers are often marked by graduate assistants, tutors, and TA’s. While I don’t have a problem with TA’s grading assignments and papers, the fact that several different people will grade the same assignment across a class is bothersome from a consistency standpoint.  It’s difficult to see how 5 different people can grade the same assignment and still have grades be consistent across the class.  Watching my graduate Kiwihost grade economic assignments over a glass of wine didn’t exactly reaffirm my faith in the whole grading process either.

My flatmates

Stirling Falls, Milford Sound

I have found the Professors here to be generally very helpful,   freindly, and accessible to students outside of class time. There is always the occasional “dud” lecturer that can’t seem to string two cohesive sentences together or those who will drone on unintelligibly for 50 minutes in a sleep-inducing monotonous drawl, but, like at Whitman, these are the exception rather than the rule.  My philosophy professor is quite possibly one of the best and most engaging lecturers I have ever had at any level and the other professors in my other classes I would say are also on par with an average Whitman professor. One major difference in classes here is that lectures are often delivered by a committee of different professors over the course of the semester. For example, my GIS class has had three different lecturers, each who covered his particular area of expertise in the subject.

Another big difference is that there is shockingly little motivation for actually attending class.  The structure of the courses and the fact that nearly all professors post their slides and lectures online means that one stands to gain comparatively little by going to class as is evident by the fact that in one of my classes, I received a perfect score on an exam that covered material for which I missed a third of  the lectures (due to travel and general apathy) while getting only a pedestrian score on the exam that covered a unit during which I missed no classes.

Milford Road, Fjordland National Park

Grading is a bit different as well.  Grades here consist of two components: “internal assessment” which is basically all of the stuff you hand in during the semester, homework, midterm exams, essays lab reports, etc…and “external assessment” which basically means the final exam.  For my classes, the final exam makes up anywhere from 50%-80% of my final grade which is WAY more than at Whitman where a final exam worth 30% of the final grade is enough to give people nervous fits and night sweats in the weeks approaching finals. I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I’m not complaining about the lack of work during the semester.  Last semester at Whitman, I had at least one “mid-term” every week from the 3rd week of school all the way up until finals week which in my opinion is a little excessive.  I don’t feel like its necessary to have an exam every 3rd week in order to assess how well a student is doing in a class.  But having no midterms (as is the case in two of my classes here at Otago) and placing such a huge emphasis on the final scares me a little too.  With little to no work being handed in during the course of the semester, its harder to gauge exactly how well you are doing in the class and impossible to get an idea of what types of questions the professor is liable to ask on an exam.  Having the final be worth so much of the final grade would seem to put people who just aren’t good at taking exams at an unfair advantage.

Orion, upside down, over Lake Te Anau

There is no debating that I spend significantly less time on school-related activities here than I do at Whitman.  Whereas in Walla Walla, spending at least several hours on homework every afternoon/evening is the norm, doing so here is the rare exception.  After becoming accustomed to working my ass off the last five semesters at Whitman, these four months at Otago have felt like a sort of glorified extension of winter break.  Whether this should be attributed more to the supposed academic rigor of Whitman or the “un-rigourousness” of Otago, I do not know.  Part of me thinks that the experience here at Otago is more similar to what one would experience at large public university in the states given that there are international students here from said large public universities that echo many of the same sentiments that I do means this is probably not a fair comparison.

Along the Milford Road

Ultimately, I am pleased with my educational experience here, even if the thought of throwing myself back into the academic fray at Whitman next Fall is absolutely terrifying right now. My geology class was, if a bit chaotic and confusing at times, a good hands on and practical experience that will likely benefit me down the road and possibly even this summer doing field work.  Same is true of GIS which I will also be using when I do research this summer. I’ve learned tons in Maori Society about the native people and society of New Zealand although given that I knew absolutely squat about the subject beforehand, this probably isn’t saying much.  Philosophy was also rather enjoyable and enlightening especially given my general dislike of humanities classes.

I head for home in 13 days.  The next few weeks will be mostly studying with hopefully one more sightseeing/hiking trip thrown in there somewhere.  Then on the 22nd I will take my last exam at 9:30 A.M and then head straight out to the airport to fly up to Auckland and then onto Los Angeles and Phoenix before a drive home to Flagstaff.

Double rainbow near Lake Te Anau