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Alps and gorges, oh my! From Christchurch to Greymouth on the TranzAlpine

Scenery from the TranzAlpine train

I do love a good train ride.

I’ve got fond memories of rail journeys through Europe (plus a few nightmarish ones) but I’d never done a long distance trip by train in New Zealand until this year.

Stupendously scenic, the TranzAlpine is one of the world’s most famous rail journeys. It travels between Christchurch and Greymouth through Arthur’s Pass, a national park nestled in the mountains.

I had a much needed doze in the beginning, as we rolled through the outskirts of Christchurch and the beginning of the Canterbury plains, peeking out every so often to catch glimpses of lush green fields and the darling spring lambs and calves.

Scenery from the TranzAlpine train

When things really get exciting is the point where we reach the ice-fed Waimakariri Gorge. It is jaw-dropping – pure aquamarine waters carving through the steep ravine. Take my advice and get your ass up to the observation carriage before then. It’s open air, no glass windows between you and the scenery – all the better for snapping pictures. (Be warned: it’s a little smoky up here near the engine, and if you don’t tie up your hair it WILL whip you painfully in the wind.)

Waimakariri Gorge seen from the TranzAlpine train

Waimakariri Gorge seen from the TranzAlpine train

From here the train approaches the Southern Alps and the weather gets wilder – foggier, windier, rainier. Enroute to Arthur’s Pass we snaked our way past rocky river beds and tussock, over bridges, and through tunnels and viaducts.

Scenery from the TranzAlpine train
Scenery from the TranzAlpine train
Scenery from the TranzAlpine train
Scenery from the TranzAlpine train Scenery from the TranzAlpine train

Past the misty mountains, there’s a beautifully still lake and couple of cute little settlements before the last stop in Greymouth, a historic mining town.

Lake seen from the TranzAlpine train

If you’re taking it back the other way, it departs Greymouth in the afternoon and returns to Christchurch just in time for dinner.

Here’s what you need to know about taking the TranzAlpine train:

TranzAlpine train journey: 4.5 hours one way. Departs Christchurch at 8.15am and departs Greymouth at 1.45pm

TranzAlpine train tickets: Start at $89 one way

Getting to the train stations: The shuttle from our central Christchurch hotel took about 10 minutes to reach the train station in Addington; in Greymouth, the train station is fairly central – it’s a small town – right by the big Warehouse and the i-Site and rental car depots.

For the sins of our ancestors

All parents damage their children.

One of my earliest memories is being a helpless bystander to an argument between my parents. In particular, at the end of it, being told to choose which of them I wanted to live with.

It didn’t happen. For better or worse, they’re still together, decades on.

In some ways I’m not very good at being in a relationship. I guess I just am not all that good at partnerly communication. In my very first relationship, I became acutely aware of some of the ways in which I behaved and how those habits echoed those of my parents. Years on, I still struggle with those same issues.

Like it or not, I inherited that emotional tempestuousness. It’s probably a blessing in disguise that I struggle to get words out, because honestly, some of the ugly thoughts in my head in my worst moments should never be uttered. I know, even as they occur to me, how hurtful they are, and that they’re not necessarily fair. Succumbing to the heat of the moment would be awful. I don’t want to play that game.

Do you struggle with any particular traits you’ve inherited from your parents?

Street art in colourful Christchurch

Giraffe in Christchurch square Christchurch is going crazy for giraffes.

There’s a wee cluster of them in the airport by the baggage pickup. And once you get into the city centre, they are the first thing you’ll notice in the central square.

Apparently it’s all part of a big public art project. They’re on display over the summer; there is, of course, a smartphone app and a trail to follow.

Christchurch colourful giraffe art Christchurch colourful giraffe art

Christchurch colourful giraffe art

There’s no shortage of colour around. Re:Start mall is looking vibrant, with tons of cool boutiques and souvenir shops housed in containers. And as we passed charming New Regent St I did a double take. Plus, there are countless cool murals on walls around the city centre.

Christchurch-colour

Christchurch mural on building wall

Colourful Christchurch mural Colourful Christchurch mural on building wall

But it is still very quiet in the city centre – almost deathly still in the off hours we were there (Saturday evening). It was probably 90 percent tourists, and a couple of rough looking characters (the Christchurch housing market is squeezed, although for different reasons than Auckland).

Christchurch city square in 2014 Christchurch in 2014

Abandoned buildings are scattered throughout. The iconic cathedral now houses pigeons, lined up on a perch under its roof, open and yawning onto the square.

Christchurch cathedral after the earthquake 2014

On the upside, the few eateries near our hotel that were open were humming. We had dinner at The Himalayas, a pulsing Indian restaurant. I wasn’t in love with my butter scallops, but I think it was more a personal issue with the texture of seafood in curry than a reflection of the food quality; the curry part was definitely fantastic. Chicken tikka masala = unreserved thumbs up.

The plight of the ‘banana’ (Yellow on the outside. White on the inside)

The plight of the banana
By: Steve Hopson

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, the staff speak to you in their language and look disappointed when you can only offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’. They may offer you forks, and no doubt take note of the fact your white partner uses chopsticks a million times more deftly than you do.

When an elderly Asian person tries to communicate with the bus driver, and fails, the driver casts a meaningful look back at you over his shoulder, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

When an Asian person comes up to you on the street and (presumably) tries to ask you for directions in their language, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

When people at work ask if you speak any other languages, clearly hoping that you do, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

When a white security guard says ‘ni hao’ to you as you walk past, and you don’t know how best to respond.

When people learn your Chinese/legal name and gush about how beautiful it is, and you don’t know how best to respond.

When you open your mouth and someone hearing you for the first time expresses surprise at your total lack of an accent, and you don’t know how best to respond.

I’ve had too many of these incidents happen too close together of late, and I’m tired of feeling apologetic all the damn time. It’s my own problem to deal with, I know; it’s not about malice, it’s about what’s going on inside me and my own identity issues.

I am Chinese by heritage, born in Malaysia, raised in New Zealand. I know more Malay words than I do Chinese, and I am pretty sure I know even more Maori words in total. English is the language we spoke at home – my parents grew up speaking different dialects – and while my dad briefly tried to teach me Mandarin once, I had neither the desire nor inclination to succeed. If it weren’t for, I suppose, external forces, I wouldn’t even care. Maybe in my dotage, like my mother, I’ll feel the urge to reconnect with my birthright and start taking Mandarin classes – but for now, it’s just not on my radar. But being non white in an overwhelmingly white industry makes me feel like I need to be some sort of ambassador or representative at times. But I’m not. I’m an impostor.

I am surrounded by white people for the vast majority of my waking hours. At work. At home. In the media I consume. Sometimes, despite the fact I see myself every day in the mirror, I think I actually forget I’m not white too.

Leaps of faith: On stepping out into the unknown

leaps of faith nzmuse Two years ago I was sick with wanderlust, chafing at the bonds of a reasonably awesome life and scared to risk it for adventure. T was a little sceptical and struggled at times but became a convert along the way.

A year ago I came home sated, knowing I’d made the right choice, and ready to get on with the next phase in life. I was content knowing that all things considered, there was nowhere else I’d rather settle down, with memories nobody could ever take away from me – even if, in the case of certain cuisines, those were bittersweet and unobtainable over here :)

It was a leap of faith, leaving. Leaving New Zealand with less money than projections suggested we needed to travel the way we want to travel, counting on earning enough on the road to sustain us. As life would have it, that aspect worked out almost eerily perfectly.

Thinking back, I’d been working up slowly to that big leap of faith. Baby steps.

Moving in with T, early 2007.

Signing on to be the head of a flat, with my name on the lease and relying on 2 other flatmates to pay the rent (which I’ll never do again), circa 2008.

Giving up a good, stable job for a new, riskier one in 2011 (the sign that sealed it for me was the office relocating essentially down the road from our house; I wouldn’t have taken a job at its old, out-of-the-way premises).

Changing industries this year (a series of signs pointed me in the right direction). I worried whether I would be happy; I thought there was a good chance, and my instincts were right – I never looked back.

And in July, we took another leap of faith, deciding T should quit a toxic job - before potentially being pushed out – with nothing else lined up.

It was less than ideal given it would make 2 short-term jobs in a row (the first having ended for reasons beyond his control) and the fact it had taken 3 months to land this one. Trusting that something would come up, and that being free of that mental burden was worth the hardship, was one of those tough calls you resign yourself to when you have an equal partner to consider.

This has not turned out the way I’d hoped so far, but I don’t necessarily regret this. Just hanging on to my core belief that things always eventually work out.

These past two years have been a rollercoaster, really. I never imagined marriage (in our case) would be so exciting – or stressful.

Awhile ago I stumbled across a blog named Surrounded by the Sound. Their last post is from 2013, two years after their return home from a yearlong RTW trip, and their experiences echo ours so very closely … Struggling with unemployment. Enjoying working for The Man and realising the peace that comes with being a steady employee. Relishing life, moreso than before we left. Amy sums up life Pre-Trip and Post-Trip beautifully:

The Trip, as it has become known, seems like a movie we watched about someone else’s lives, yet not a single day goes by without some memory or connection to our trip popping up in some fashion.

Like them, I think we may struggle to define our before-and-after lives. Odds are that our trip is going to be the most exciting thing we ever do; the time period from which we draw all our best stories. While that might come off sounding a little sad, I’m actually okay with it. I don’t need to live an extraordinary life. I want to live a happy life. And for me, that is largely a quiet life.

I don’t know what our next leap of faith will be or when it will come. But I’ve built up those risk-taking muscles and gotten used to gritting my teeth. I know I’ll need to draw on that again at some point, probably when I least expect it. Because … Murphy.

When did you last take a leap of faith?

Link love (Powered by road trips and jet setting)

nzmuse link love roundup

I have only three words to describe this month: Go, Go, Go.

On the plus side … I can’t wait to put together a bunch of posts about where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. I <3 NZ.

This week’s links

Are you a ‘glasses person’? Yeah, me too. Nice to know I’m not alone in my feeling that glasses > face and my amazement when people I don’t see that often recognise me in contacts

I think there’s some solid advice here on building a career with stability

Leslie on balancing creation with consumption

An open letter to chaos. Beautiful

Here are 50 things to do instead of spending money

Moving away from your hometown: the gains and losses

And finally, how do you raise a multiracial child?

 

My favourite things about Wellington

Wellington Harbour
By: Sally

Wellington really is a cool little city (region population 500,000-ish), perched on a harbour at the tip of the North Island. (Plus, I got engaged there!) In fact, I reckon I’m due for another visit soon.

Must do: Wellington Waterfront

The revived waterfront is one of the best things about central Auckland these days … but it’s still got a way to go. Wellington’s waterfront, though hits all the right notes – effortlessly. Wander down past the skate park, sculptures and artwork, and of course, the many awesome museums and galleries.

 

Sunday at Wellington Harbour
By: Graeme Churchard

Must do: Te Papa Museum

Te Papa, our national museum, will keep you engrossed for hours. Get stuck into our cultural and natural history; arts and science; and any of the special exhibitions on display at any one time. Did I mention that it’s free?

Te Papa interactive
By: Samuel Mann

Must do: Cuba St

Cuba St is synonymous with bohemian cool – bursting with great eateries and bars, vintage boutiques and street performers. It’s a registered historic area, and you have to stop to watch the most colourful feature on the street: the landmark bucket fountain in Cuba Mall. Get close enough and you might just get splashed on.

Must do: Wellington Cable Car

Who can resist a ride up a hill in a historic cable car? This one is over a century old and rides are $4 one way or $7 return. Starting from downtown Lambton Quay and ascending to Kelburn and the Botanic Garden. At the top you’ll find the free Cable Car Museum as well as the Carter Observatory and Planetarium – and, obviously, some awesome views over the city.

wellington red cable car
By: Brett Taylor

Still on my bucket list

There’s a couple of Wellington spots I’m keen to check out! One is Zealandia, a wildlife-eco sanctuary not far from the city. And, no surprise, the other is the renowned Weta Cave, for a slice of movie magic.

Where to stay in Wellington

There’s a huge range of interesting places to stay in Wellington. One new option is the Setup Hotel on Manners St, with serviced apartments handy to the inner city hotspots. If you’re heading down there between 15 November 2014 to 31 January 2015, book your stay anytime before 1 January and use the promo code trysetupmanners for 10% off!

Landlord or slumlord? The downsides of private rentals

RENTING NIGHTMARES - NZ Muse

Much as I hate paying fees to rental property managers (here, rental agents do not do anything to help you as a renter, like assist you in finding somewhere to rent – they only serve the landlord) for the privilege of being allowed to rent a place, there is something to be said for dealing with professionals over the long term. Problems get fixed quickly and with minimal fuss.

For example, it would totally have been worth it to me to pay a damn fee to avoid these nightmares we’ve experienced:

Incompetent landlord #1: The Apartment

You might recall that we once spent a year in an apartment and hated it. Suburban apartments are usually kinda ghetto. Soundproofing sucked and it was impossible to have people over, ever, or you’d get in trouble for being too noisy. We were forced to use a certain utility company (one I’d never heard of) who charged stupid prices for electricity. There may have been a small roach problem. And like basically all new intensive construction, it had weathertightness issues – earlier this year the entire building basically disappeared under what looked like Gladwrap while they reclad it.

We also had a pretty crappy landlord. It was fine up until we left – then they withheld money from our bond. Why? We had been paying rent in arrears, they said, and thus owed the last week’s rent. Uh, HELL to the NO. Nobody – and I mean NOBODY – ever pays rent in arrears. Rent is always paid in advance – at the start of the week, for the week ahead. Landlords and agents simply wouldn’t have it any other way. I was so stunned I couldn’t reply. I don’t know what they were playing at. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, the saying goes. Maybe this was their first time as landlords. Either way, once they ‘consulted’ their records they realised their mistake.

The other reason they withheld money came down to a handful of ridiculous complaints. Dust on the outdoor balcony. Lint in the dryer. Rangehood hadn’t been cleaned underneath (okay, that one was fair – I’d never lived anywhere with a rangehood before and it simply didn’t even occur to me).

I was pretty pissed off and decided to take the matter to mediation – which was a complete waste of time. Within a couple of minutes it was suggested we split the difference 50/50 (literally, $50 and $50) and that was that. I’d taken the time to bus all the way out west and it was over in less than five minutes.

I would do things differently today, but 20-year-old me was young, naive and confrontation averse – I thought it would be worth taking the time to go to mediation with a third party.

Incompetent landlord #2: The House of Horrors

The house we moved into straight after that apartment was a nightmare. We lived with a couple of T’s friends, one of whom turned out to be the flatmate from hell and will never repay me the money he owes me. It was cold and damp and our bedroom, a converted garage, was the coldest and dampest room of all. For the first time, I had to deal with mould inside my wardrobe and on my clothes. Our front window had no security whatsoever; we had to secure it by jamming a piece of wood into the track so that it couldn’t slide open unless you removed it. It was also in a super ghetto area, but nobody would rent a decent place to us (students and entry level workers). After looking for months, this was as good as it got.

While we initially dealt with an agency  – not one of the big name companies, though, and weirdly it didn’t charge a letting fee – once the landlord lost his job he got rid of the property manager and took over the job himself. And it went downhill from there

He wanted to increase the rent approximately 25%, which I talked him down from. (My first ever negotiation!) And being out of work, he dragged his heels on fixing all the things that started going wrong with the house.

The floor of the shower cubicle cracked, which he tried to blame on us. It turned out the shower hadn’t been properly installed. Duh.

The power bills started going up…. and up… and up. We couldn’t figure out why. And then we lost hot water completely. Turned out these things were related. It wasn’t a quick fix, either. We had to deal with only cold water for a couple of weeks. I was too chicken to ask him to help out with the increased power bills, since they were due to the hot water cylinder and not anything we’d done – though I doubt he would’ve agreed, since he could barely afford to fix the water.

The wallpaper on the other side of the wall from the shower in the bathroom started flaking and peeling off in ever-larger chunks. Again, due to dampness stemming from issues with the bathroom installation. By the time we moved out, that wall in the living room was basically bare.

Finally, the roof sprung some sort of leak. Of course, he tried to blame us. Which was insane.

Given all these issues, we might have had cause to break our lease. But at the time, I was under huge pressure during my last year of uni, dealing with T’s unemployment, and working all hours. I simply didn’t have the mental capacity to take on that drama. Instead, I took showers at work and ignored what was happening around me at home.

Would you rather deal direct with landlords, or property managers?

When the darkness threatens to swallow you whole

When the darkness threatens to swallow you whole

It’s been well over 10 years since I first saw what real life cutting scars looked like.

I hadn’t known her all that long, but the one thing I did know was my friend, like me, was smart, thoughtful, mature and had a lot going on inside – it’s what drew me to her. I remember being shocked and feeling completely at a loss for the right thing to say.

They say that self-harm is usually about control. Taking back, or regaining a sense of power. I imagine the same is probably true of most other destructive behaviours, from domestic abuse to workplace bullying.

It’s something I’ve never been able to fully grasp. One of those things I got the concept of, on an intellectual level, but didn’t understand on a human level.

And then one day, not so long ago, I found myself sobbing in the car as storm winds outside buffeted the car. Gazing out from the marina over the harbour, where the sea changed from green to blue, as vehicles whizzed over the bridge to the right. As the gusts agitated the choppy waters, I thought about what it might be like to float away. As I gasped for breath, I felt unbearably hollow inside, like there was an empty, endless well of blackness where a beating heart should have been. With nothing there to anchor me in that moment, I suddenly got it. Feeling so utterly helpless and so overwhelmed by emotion, it dawned on me that this was what the kind of thing that would drive a person to turn those feelings inward.

It’s not an epiphany I ever counted on having. Not one I can say I am especially glad I reached, either. It scared the hell out of me.

This is probably where I pause to reiterate that no, I did not seriously contemplate hurting myself. I’m a wuss, I’m squeamish, and I’m vain. I cried like a baby the other day when I slipped and hurt my knee (which was one enormous mass of bruises for at least a week). I find all bodily fluids pretty revolting. I’m still bummed that my legs never fully recovered from all those bug bites in Asia.

The other realisation I had was that maybe I’m not as emotionally resilient as I thought. Oh, I hold it together all right. I’m a hell of a lot better at being an adult than I am at anything else. I have my grownup shit together and I can maintain it pretty easily. But when things are turning to custard, if you crack my surface, you are tapping into an endless pit of tears and despair. It’s hard to judge, of course, but I feel a well-adjusted person would probably be a fair bit more … stable.

It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself over the years. Thinking back to other hard times, I was similarly able to cope day-to-day by withdrawing into myself, but when things really got to be too much, I crumbled like sandcastles. Today, those months are a blur – really, there’s nothing to redeem them, and so I prefer not to revisit those times. There’s no point. I survived, and moved on.

We tend to view the past with rose-tinted glasses. Who wants to look back on a long list of sad or horrifying memories? It’s a sanity mechanism, really; otherwise we’d probably never have more than one child by birth or go on to other relationships after a first heartbreak.

I don’t really think there is a way for me to not feel so acutely. It’s just how I’m wired. For this reason, I try not to dwell. It’s a tricky thing, giving yourself the space to acknowledge and just feel those big, heavy things – without letting them take over and succumbing to them. Generally they don’t tend to respect office hours – metaphorically speaking – so it’s about keeping them on a tight leash. Tucking them away into a little corner and ignoring them, for the most part. Occasionally it all bubbles to the top, and a proper meltdown is then required, but as a rule, fencing them off is what works for me. If I let them fly free all the time, I simply wouldn’t be able to function properly.

When it feels like you’ve hitched your wagon to a losing proposition and everything is coming up tails, there simply isn’t the time to roll over and be swallowed by the darkness.

Going through this in my 20s: hard enough. I simply can’t imagine dealing with this kind of thing at 11, 12, 13, like my friend must have. And my personal darkness is purely situational. The sources of my misery are beyond my control, but shouldn’t last forever. I know the same is not true for everyone else.

The one thing I do know is hurting yourself is not the best way to deal.  When the chips are down, I write. Maybe for you, it’s talking to someone. Whatever your outlet is, find it.

It feels like I’m starting (in the workforce) all over again

It feels like I'm starting (in the workforce) all over again

I’ve been at my job for six months, and as tends to happen, it feels like I’ve either been here all my life, or just a short time.

First and foremost, it’s really challenged me in new areas – particularly my soft skills – and encouraged me to consider what I want out of work.

I’ve also had a jolt of hope that maybe having kids isn’t going to be as bad as I fear. At my first job there were hardly any women, and none with kids – only the men had families. (After I left there was a spate of pregnancies – as far as I know at least one of the women went part time; I’m not sure about the others. News is a tough biz when it comes to work-life balance.) In my second job there were lots of women but they were mainly childless or with older, more self-sufficient kids. My new workplace is overwhelmingly female and mostly young. Initially I assumed most were childless but over the months I’ve come to realise a lot have babies/toddlers and are still really put together and awesome at work.

On top of that, I’ve really had to get used to a different industry and different ways of working.

Communication

I’m used to jobs that are largely self-contained, where communication with other people is fairly straightforward and transactional. Now I find myself working on more collaborative projects and interacting with people in ongoing liaisons.

Even in a flat organisation, projects can get complicated when there’s lots of players. Collaboration gets more difficult with every extra stakeholder.I have never spent so much time re-reading emails trying to decipher them and tease out meaning. (I don’t count the countless inane PR pitches I used to get in a former life – that’s a different ball game!)

I think I’ve become a better communicator since working here, and become really aware of any times when I’m not being as empathetic as I’d like to be. I firmly believe that the best way forward is understanding where everybody is coming from, but even I find myself forgetting that principle in the quest to get things done.

I’ve also come to see what a tough job it must be to run internal comms – keeping everyone in the loop and engaged within a company. This was the one aspect of PR that most interested me at uni, and should I ever move into PR that’s probably the way I’d go.

Culture

Working with people in overseas offices has its challenges. Time zones, for one. Language barriers, for another. Cultural differences. For once, those communication theory classes I sat through at uni have come in handy. (We also had a handy workshop on cross-cultural communication recently that was nothing short of fascinating.)

It’s also made me realise how valuable face-to-face contact is. In so many cases, it’s just so much easier to have people in the same room. Email, phone, VoIP or video conferencing just isn’t the same. I’ve gotten a lot better at talking slowly, that is for sure. Even collaborating with people at our agency, who are less than a 10-minute walk away … sometimes it saves so much back forth when everyone sits down in a room together to hash things out. I’m all for remote working, but it’s certainly more suited to some types of work than others.

One thing I noticed when I came in for my initial interviews was that the super open plan layout had people even closer together than in any of my previous open plan offices – but that people were constantly breaking out and going off to tables and corners for chats and meetings. Having spaces to better facilitate these kinds of collaborations and watercooler chat is so important.

Coordination/Flexibility

I’m been used to having the same basic framework for my work days. It’s true that no two days are the same in news, but you generally know what you’ll be doing from day to day, even if the content is different. You’ve got a newsletter/broadcast deadline to work to, or you’ve simply got to keep a rolling homepage fresh over a shift.

In many ways my work is now more reactive. I often don’t know what the day might hold. And rather than essentially wiping the slate clean at the end of every day (except for when I was working on bigger feature stories), there’s no hitting the reset button now. Ongoing projects stretch out over weeks or months, with multiple timelines in play. I’m not a naturally organised person, but I’ve had to get a lot better at it.

Have you ever had to get used to a totally new field or style of workplace?