One of the perks of living in Los Angeles is the relative ease of travel to far away destinations. Higher availability of routes and destinations results in good deals for international fares, while direct flights equate to less travel time. That’s huge for us silly Americans with little to no vacation time.
But there is no way around the long journey to New Zealand.
When I thought of traveling to a place like New Zealand, I would say, wistfully, ‘one day’. This one day would be when I had money, time and who knows how many other things that I’m slowly realizing I may never have. Certainly, the thought that I’ll ever have thousands of dollars just sitting around waiting to be used for travel purposes seems so deluded at times to almost be comical. I’m now understanding why people in the United States travel when they’re retired — that’s when they finally save enough money. While I hope to still travel when I’m retired, I don’t want those to be my defining days of exploration. So when my friend and fellow study-abroad-on-a-vessel person, Courtney, found some under $1000 fares to New Zealand, I rounded up some of that tax return money and invoked the mighty power of Visa. This ‘one day’ would start happening.
How did I get here?
Our itinerary was LAX to Auckland via Honolulu, with Hawaiian Airlines. We left Monday morning and arrived in Auckland on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The flights were uneventful, and Hawaiian Air seemed slightly above average. The seats had a USB port to plug your phone or device, and a personal screen. They had a good selection of free TV shows (a few classic episodes of Arrested Development) and movies. The food was nothing special; just fruit and a cracker with cheese, but it’s more than any domestic airline will offer these days. On the flight from Honolulu to Auckland, we got free booze.
Once in Auckland, we stayed at the Ibis Budget Auckland Airport Hotel, since we knew we’d be back to the airport in a couple of hours for our early morning flight to Christchurch. The hotel was extremely basic, and I was happy with a goodnight sleep and a hot shower with good water pressure. Bright and early the next morning, we flew to Christchurch with JetStar having never really seen the sun rise in Auckland.
Before going through security at the Auckland airport, we stopped by the Dunkin’ Donuts cart to get breakfast. This is what happened at the security checkpoint:
Me: Do I have to take off my shoes?
Me: Can I go through with my coffee?
Security: Sure, just hold on to it.
Me: Can I go through with these donuts?
Security: Only if you brought me one!
Airport security personnel that was funny, not rude, and didn’t make me feel like a criminal?
New Zealand and I would get along fine.
The city of construction cones
Courtney’s friends and our hosts, Jenne and Mike, were wonderful. Jenne picked us up at the airport and gave us a tour of Christchurch. I was surprised by how small Christchurch is, because it is New Zealand’s third biggest city. This was my first clue that New Zealand is a far more rural country than I had envisioned. The country has about 4.4 million residents. For context, the city of Los Angeles alone (not the Greater Los Angeles area) has 3.8 million residents. I thought, surely, a country as lauded and, from what I had heard, so beautiful, would be bursting at the seams with people.
I suppose the earthquakes don’t help.
After a series of earthquakes and violent aftershocks in 2011, Christchurch has become one giant construction zone. Two years later, there’s still a massive backlog of repairs and rebuilding. Some homes don’t even have running water, and entire neighborhoods stand abandoned.
Essentially, the good people of Christchurch live out of shipping containers. There’s the Re:Start Mall in the Central Business District, in which all stores are remodeled shipping containers. It’s a cool, creative idea born out of necessity, and if you’ve got deep pockets, it’s a great area for shopping.
When people told me New Zealand was expensive, I thought, well, how much more expensive than LA can it be? America, I’m here to tell you, New Zealand cost of living is very high. For example, I like buying books about local history or culture when I travel. Paperback books in New Zealand range from NZ$35-40, which is about US$28-32. This was not one bookshop in one city; I looked at books in all parts of New Zealand, from rural townships to big cities, and these were the average prices I found.
Everyday goods were just as expensive. Yes, the perception of expensiveness is distorted a bit by the exchange rate, but even accounting for the difference, things were still expensive. A gallon of gas was around NZ$2.18 a liter, which my journalism math told me was about NZ$8 a gallon or US$6.40 a gallon. I can understand that a lot of things are imported, New Zealand being a somewhat remote island, but even dairy and meat produced locally were expensive. This is not so much a complaint as it is an observation, that if you think you’re prepared for high prices because you come from a large and expensive North American city, you may still be surprised.
Christchurch is also where I first found out that New Zealanders are serious about their coffee. Jenne took us to Switch Espresso, where we had a ‘Bongo’ (a triple shot espresso, I believe). We would later move to Flat Whites, which are similar to lattes except much better because, well, you’re in New Zealand and on vacation. Things always taste better on vacation. No, I couldn’t quite place why they were so good — the milk, the beans, it was just so much better than any latte Starbucks can froth up for you.
We were only in Christchurch for a day and a night, so the extent of our travels and observations were limited at best. Arguably, the largest impression I left with was of a city slowly coming to life once again, full of friendly people and a slow pace of life. Mike and Jenne even have fresh fish delivered to their house every other day or week. The only things I get delivered to my apartment are bills and Gerald J. Sullivan’s mail.
That night, we had a lovely dinner, walked by the New Brighton pier for a couple minutes, and went home to an early night (jet lag and all). Mike explained that the easiest way to calculate time difference with California was to add five hours to whatever time it was in New Zealand, and then take away a whole day. So if it was 6 p.m. on Wednesday in New Zealand, it was 11 p.m. on Tuesday, in California.
The next day, Mike drove us to Omega Rental Cars, where we picked up a little Toyota Platz that would be the vessel in our South Island road trip.
The car came equipped with a handy “Keep Left” sticker on the dashboard. Driving on the left wasn’t too difficult, until I had to use the turning signal. The turning signals and wipers are reversed and, quick, tell me which hand turns on the wipers? After driving for so long, the brain just tells the appropriate hand to do it. This cognitive challenge was surprising and infuriating. I knew the wipers and signals were reversed, but when it came time to use the turning signals, if I didn’t consciously think about it, I wound up with the wipers going full blast.
So far New Zealand was treating us very well. Coming up next: hiking and helicoptering into glaciers, rogue cows and much more… sheep. There will always be more sheep.
Today you learned: ‘sweet as’ is the Kiwis equivalent to ‘awesome’.