Travel Tuesday: 10 questions

travel blogger nzmuse q&A

(Hat tip to Kara for this one! When I saw this on her blog I just knew I had to do this too)

1. Your most treasured passport stamp? I was super bummed to realise that I wouldn’t get passport stamps for all the Schengen countries we visited in Europe! Otherwise Italy would be top of this list. Instead, I will go with the stamp I got when we landed at JFK in New York. I’ll never forget the interminable baggage delay, the chipper customs official, and our first glimpses of the city from the Airtrain. So exciting.

2. Can you recite your passport number from memory if asked? Um, yep. And T’s too, because it’s only one digit different.

3. Preferred method of travel: Plane, train, or automobile? Probably by car, with T driving. Our road trip of the US was so comfortable – planes have nothing on it, nor do even the nicest trains.

4. Top three travel items? Smartphone, Camelbak, comfy shoes. (More on my packing style here!)

5. Hostel or hotel? Not fussed, whatever’s more cost-effective. I like the privacy and amenities of hotels, but we’ve met some cool people at hostels and had experiences we never would’ve had at a hotel.

6. Are you a repeat visitor, or do you prefer to explore new places? Definitely prefer to explore new places. So many to see! That said, if money was no object I’d love to go back to Italy and Greece (and of course I want to revisit New York).

7. Do you read up on your destination, or do you wing it? I like to read up a little so I know what I’m in for and can try to orient myself once we get there. I remember arriving in Hanoi and being dropped off at a travel agency by the bus and having NO idea where we were.

8. Favourite travel website? I don’t really use websites a lot except in the research stage. I do use Booking.com for accommodation and while in the US, Yelp for finding places to eat. But these are the travel apps I swear by.

9. Where would you recommend a friend to visit, and why? I’d have to ask them a ton more questions to narrow down what they want first!

10. You’re leaving tomorrow and money is no option; where are you going? Ooh! Well, in that case … another RTW trip. We’d hit Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Russia, the Pacific Northwest, the Galapagos, and maybe Mexico.

Renting for life: how bad would it be?

After recent conversations with friends who are flathunting (renting) and househunting (buying), I’ve been giving serious thought to a scary and depressing scenario: renting for life in Auckland.

Let me cut you off right here: I don’t want to hear your comments about the pros of renting for life, unless you live in Auckland. I have been a renter since age 17. I know all about the pros, and for me, in the Auckland context, they don’t outweigh the cons, especially because we want to have a family. I am not interested in uninformed opinions from people who don’t have any clue what it’s like to rent, buy, live in Auckland. Okay, onwards…

This post over at The Conversation tackles the state of the property market in Australia, but it could just as well have been written about New Zealand.

“Renters are the losers in the property game. Not only do they struggle with high rents but tenant protection in Australia is among the weakest in the developed world. This is not coincidental: Australia’s 1.8 million and counting property investors support and are supported by tenancy legislation heavily weighted in favour of landlords. This produces a fundamental lack of security in rental housing.”

(I note that the UK is looking at introducing tenancy reforms, recognising that members of ‘Generation Rent’ need more rights. Good for them. We could use some of our own, since “compared with many countries, New Zealand and Australia are some of the most restrictive rental jurisdictions”.)

That piece at the Conversation argues that factors like tax laws and rapid appreciation create “effectively an infinite demand for property in Australia”, which I think is also applicable to us; NZ is right behind Australia in terms of ratio of housing stock to GDP.

A Forbes post recently did the rounds warning of a housing bubble here in NZ, and much as I would like to hope that Jesse Colombo is right (being an aspiring homeowner myself and all), I am more inclined to agree with local writers Brian Fallow and Bernard Hickey’s assessment of the situation. They both lay out some high-level reasons as to why they think a huge crash is unlikely, and while I’m not going to pretend I know anything about the Reserve Bank or exchange rates, here’s my plebeian take: here in Auckland we continue to have a shortage of housing; land is limited; and there are obviously still people with the means to pay current prices – and potentially higher.

The NZ Initiative isn’t afraid to tell it like it is:

“New Zealanders face a shortage of dwellings of just about every description, while paying far more for those we do have New Zealand houses are not only expensive compared to income but their prices too have been rising. New Zealand’s house prices have increased by a staggering amount over the past 30 years, aided by a mixture of policies and social and cultural changes that have forced up the price of building or buying a house.”

Let’s break that down:

“Someone in an inner suburb of Auckland who bought a home for, say, $70,000 in 1975, lived in it for 37 years, and did little but basic maintenance on it might find the house worth $1.5 million plus today. Someone in, say, Torbay on Auckland’s North Shore, who built a ‘standard house’ (land and section) in 1969 for $16,000 and did basic maintenance would find the property worth about $1 million today. The malign effects of the MUL [Metropolitan Urban Limit] that planners produced – believing that constraining the boundaries of urbanisation would work to the advantage of ordinary people, save transport costs, and restrain unnecessary local authority outlays – are absolutely
clear. The MUL has benefitted mostly older people who hath, and hurt younger people who hath not. The MUL favours the old and the rich and it punishes the
younger and the poorer.”

Ain’t that the truth. According to a Salvation Army report:

Housing has become more and more expensive for first-time home buyers and home-ownership rates have fallen. This fall has been aided by tax policies that favour existing property owners, and easily available debt that allows those who already own property to buy up lower-valued houses as rental investments. To some extent, this rental investment has been propped up by Government housing subsidies to low-income households that have now grown to $1.8 billion annually.

We, therefore, have the worst of all worlds when it comes to housing. Housing is too expensive for up to a quarter of all households to afford without Government assistance. Much of the housing is poorly-built and now needs further public subsidies to repair.

Worst case scenario: we are permanently priced out and left with no choice but to rent for life. What would this realistically mean for us?

No dogs in our future. It is damn near impossible to rent with pets – maybe cats, definitely not dogs. That said, based on my observations, I am not surprised that many landlords don’t want to rent to dog owners. Compared to the US where even apartments allow dogs, I found the dog culture over there a pleasant surprise – overall I felt most pet dogs were well trained, well behaved, quiet and clean, moreso than my experience of dogs here. I suppose a lot of that comes from having more of an indoor pet culture rather than an outdoor pet culture, as a result of density.

Spending a fortune on heating and dehumidifying. Aside from the top-priced tier of the market, the quality of housing here is generally quite ridiculous. It’s no good having a mild climate if you don’t actually insulate your buildings – might as well sleep under a bridge. Thanks landlords who don’t care about providing healthy accommodation and updating old houses! Longtime readers will recall my stories of mould in bedrooms, in wardrobes (trying to clean spores off your favourite dress blows), being able to see our breath in front of us while INDOORS and mushrooms growing through carpet.

Poor quality housing has been identified as a public health issue of major concern in New Zealand, with evidence that dampness and “thermal inefficiency” (which I’m pretty sure is a bullshit way of saying FREEZING COLD) are more prominent in rentals. Unsurprisingly, these things are associated with higher rates of respiratory conditions, among other icky problems. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have gotten sicker more frequently and to worse degrees since I moved out of home. I started having trouble breathing a few winters back. And I know many immigrants who developed asthma for the first time after moving to New Zealand.

Most likely bouncing around and around. Literally almost everyone I can think of who has rented a family sized house for any significant period of time (think your typical 3-bedroom) has been forced out at some point due to the landlord selling. Or, in a few cases, the landlord moving in a family member (in which case the notice period is only 42 days instead of 90 – this seems to happen suspiciously frequently, actually). Cash in those capital gains, quick!

This is mildly annoying at best. At worst, if you’re settled with kids in school, I imagine it’s a freaking nightmare. We don’t exactly have an oversupply of rental housing, let alone quality affordable rental housing, and add in our lack of density and it can be a tough call to find a comparable nearby place in a pinch.

Renting is still cheaper, though the gap seems to be narrowing. I was surprised to plug in some numbers and find out that the mortgage on a $500k house would only be $550 a week; rent for a 3 bedroom house would start at about $400 for a crap place and run up into, oh, the 600s for somewhere nicer. (I’m not even talking central Auckland here, obviously, where a starter house is $1 million.)

While mortgage payments may fluctuate with interest rates, rent always goes up eventually over time. Here, rent can be increased as often every 6 months – granted, it usually isn’t raised that frequently, thankfully. And yes, there are additional expenses that come with being a homeowner, but at least they’re going into an asset. The problem of course is that coming up with a six figure down payment is a hell of a lot easier said than done, even if repayments are manageable. Thus, my fading dream of buying a humble house, insulating it, and living happily after with kids and dog. Who even knows how we’d house ourselves in retirement? The Productivity Commission itself states that people in New Zealand who enter retirement while renting may face financial hardship.

Stuff reader Susan Wells is apparently living my future fear:

We continue to rent a tiny 105sqm, three-bedroom, leaking, crooked, mouldy, old house, that barely fits our family of five.

Do we upsize our rental so we are not falling over each other and pay out to a landlord more of what we could save as deposit, or sit tight for three to four years to save that money to reach our dream of getting a small lottery-sized deposit together?

Commentators report that it is better to be renting now than buy, but what happens when we retire in 23 years at 65, and if still renting, will this be affordable on superannuation income?

Could we afford to pay a landlord rent out of our Super or Kiwisaver until our 90s if we live that long? Will we be constantly on the move when rental properties are sold, and have no solid foundation steady home dwelling in which to welcome grandchildren and our children to?

But even if leaving Auckland were feasible work-wise, I simply wouldn’t want to. T threw out the idea of re-enlisting and moving to an army base – and that’s when I realised what I am NOT willing to sacrifice for cheap housing. I would not want to move to the middle of nowhere away from friends and family and my job. Financially I can see that it might make our lives a lot easier – lower expenses, and I could do some freelancing – but I know I would be miserable in all other aspects.

The Salvation Army recommends creating an affordable housing agency with meaningful and long-term budgets actually to execute its mission, but we all know what happens to these kinds of reports. I don’t think anyone who lives here would disagree with the following:

“Any ambition Auckland has to become the world’s most liveable city will be defeated if the housing future being offered by current trends continues to play out. Access to safe, decent and affordable housing is already the single biggest issue facing hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders. This problem will grow in size if the present wishful approach of Auckland Council and the present wilfully negligent stance of Government continues.”

But any fix is probably not going to come in time for us.

“Auckland’s housing problems are at least a generation in their gestation and most likely will be a generation in their resolution. There are no short-term answers or quick fixes—the problems are too big and the causes too ingrained in our social and economic fabric for that.”

Auckland, I love you, but I’m not feeling the love back. Let’s figure this out, stat.

Link love (Powered by burgers and new faces)

The night before Good Friday a door to door salesperson came knocking. It was raining, nearly dark, and did I mention it was the night before a four-day weekend? Really? Who would think their sales pitch would be well received in this situation?

I am terrible at saying no and ending these kinds of interactions. Usually I try, half-heartedly, to cut them off. But of course, they barrel on, usually until T comes out to rescue me. In this instance, I felt really sorry for the salesperson – he looked a little terrified when T appeared on the scene. And this dude wasn’t terribly sleazy or annoying – just a guy with a turban and a mild accent who no doubt wanted to get home to his loved ones that night, too.

Are door to door sales pitches common where you live? Is it rare in cities where most people live in apartments rather than houses?

Blast from the past

This time last year we were in Malaysia, trying to acclimatise to the heat before starting the rest of our trip. But for now, the focus is on work/career, reflecting on our top travel moments, and of course celebrating our wedding anniversary.

This week’s links

LIFE

Ann Friedman offers an insightful perspective on the trap young stars face with the ‘are you a feminist’ question

Vanessa dishes out some realtalk for high school grads

Channel your inner two-year-old to build the life you want, says Cordelia

Lovely, poignant, accurate: Zen Habits on making marriage work

TRAVEL

Nomad Wallet explains how to make the most of booking flights when you have flexible dates

Your fix of panda photos for the week, via Break the Sky

WORK/CAREER

Tiny Apartment’s 10 rules for avoiding becoming an office drone

A day in the life of a writer by, incidentally, one of my fave advice columnists

Not just applicable to journalists, IMO. My biggest takeaway (which in hindsight, and from my own experience, I am actually inclined to agree with) from this sage piece on leaving a big media company: “Avoid working for a department or company where you are the only person who does what you do, unless you are hired in a senior position and have the authority and budget to staff the department or resource the project as needed.”

Finally, I was hooked from the very start (hilarious and true first paragraph example) of this piece on networking as an introvert. But what most resonated was this: “So, I may never be the most comfortable person in the room, that’s okay with me. What I want is to be able to stop passing up opportunities to meet new people, to build new relationships because I was too afraid.”

My top 10 RTW travel moments of 2013

NZMUSE TOP 10 TRAVEL MOMENTS NZMUSE It’s been exactly one year since we left on our RTW trip. All I can say about that is HOLY CRAP.

Also, time flies.

Lest I forget, I thought I’d chronicle 10 memorable moments from our RTW trip on this anniversary.

nzmuse mexican food

Our first brush with Mexican food

Eating Mexican food was one of the things I was most looking forward to in the States. But with so much amazing cuisine on offer on the East Coast, it just didn’t even register, really, until Chicago. Once we’d had hot dogs and pizza and pierogi there (and White Castle, but let’s not speak of that abomination) accompanying our friend to a local Mexican restaurant – a highly recommended one – was a nobrainer.

Everything was a revelation. Free UNLIMITED corn chips? Insanity. The tortilla soup was so complex and rich in flavours. The plates were huge, packed with the rice, refried beans, salad and wraps that you just can’t find an equivalent of in New Zealand.  

From then on, we ate Mexican at least every other day until we flew out of LA. I desperately, desperately miss it.

Serendipitously spotting the Northern Lights in Iceland

If you look north, you might be able to spot the northern lights, our Couchsurfing host texted us. 

We were just leaving Reykjavik in our rental car, so I took a look on Google Maps and directed us to what looked to be a giant piece of parkland away from the mass of houses and residential roads. (It turned out to be a golf course, I think). Driving out there utterly alone was super eerie, but we achieved the main thing: leaving the light pollution of civilisation and getting out into the real dark of night.

After parking up, we sat back and waited. Chowed down on the snacks we’d stopped to grab on the way. Stared intensely into the blackness ahead of us.

Eventually, T pointed out a faint streak of green through the windscreen that seemed to move ever so slightly. It was one of those things that’s so ethereal, so delicate, you almost can’t see it if you’re focusing intently. Rather, by looking a little sideways and relaxing my gaze, the lights seemed clearer to me. They were very faint, very subtle, very undramatic, undulating in and out of visibility – but they were there.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to see the northern lights at all, given the time of year, and it didn’t cost us a thing extra.

Our first deli subs in New York

After a weird but entertaining first meeting with our Airbnb host in Brooklyn, we headed downstairs and out to Broadway in search of sustenance. Fried chicken was tempting, but we decided to go the deli route. I can’t remember what T ordered, but I know I got a cheese steak sub, and one bite in, my eyes were rolling back in my head with pleasure. After wolfing down our sandwiches, we crossed the road to another deli (they were not in short supply around this area…) and bought two more. Sigh.

Having mouthgasms in Rome

Sorry to be crude, but that really is the only way to describe it.

We walked for ages, trying to get away from the touristy restaurants, constantly stopping to peruse menus, then continuing on our way. Eventually we came across a little square, where locals seemed to be congregating around the fountain, and just off this square was a restaurant positively teeming with Italians and not an obvious foreigner in sight.

Eating at that restaurant was one of the best decisions we ever made. An unholy cheese platter with four kinds of cheese, served with honey. Eggplant parm that melted in my mouth. Bechamel lasagne, so rich but yet so perfectly balanced, we would happily have paid double the price for it if we had to. Oh, Italy, come back to me.

Blazing through Vermont on a bike

Our friends in Vermont were super keen to organise a fun itinerary for us. Alas, we couldn’t tee up a Harley, but we did manage to get some enormous, fast and powerful BMWs (they were, of course, an eyesore, but that’s secondary).

We crossed Lake Champlain onto the Grand Isle just as the sun set and rode way past dark, before heading back to Burlington for kebabs and Ben  & Jerry’s. The next day, we rode for hours and hours, through the mountains, to Montpelier, and back, flying past the neverending crimson forests. Serenity is the best way to describe those hours. I was so relaxed, I was almost nodding off on the back (not the best time to doze, I know).

halong bay sunset nzmuse

Cruising through Halong Bay

Apparently trying to visit Halong Bay by yourself is more often than not a bad idea, so we went with a tour. It was definitely the right choice. We kayaked around, craning our necks to look up at the amazing rock formations. We saw monkeys, chattering, fighting, playing, cuddling. And perhaps my favourite moment of all – we watched the sun set, a bouquet of reds and pinks and oranges over the horizon.

I can’t imagine how crowded it must get in peak season. We went in the low season and there were still boats all over the show; I imagine they must be practically jostled side by side in the peak tourist months.

Swimming through a pitch black cave

It took me a very long time to muster the guts to even jump off the boat. High on my list of things to avoid at all costs are deep water, darkness, and small spaces.  The Emerald Cave in Thailand ticked all those boxes. But somehow I made it through, and the pristine little beach at the end of it all was so worth it. One of the most out-of-this-world experiences in my life.

Finding our American doppelgangers in SoCal

When she heard we were coming to California, S from Tiny Apartment promptly emailed with an invitation to stay with her and a ton of ideas for places to see and eat. And as if that wasn’t enough, when we finally met in person, we quickly found out we were basically living eerily parallel lives on opposite sides of the world. She and her fiance were exact mirrors of me and T in almost every way imaginable – the way we think, behave, our quirks, even the stuff we clash over, the roles we play in our respective relationships. It was like there was no need to ever finish a sentence or a thought because the other would instantly know exactly what you meant.

Wanting to freeze time at Ocean Beach

There are moments toward the end of a long trip when you feel so overwhelmed by all you’ve seen and done, you just want to gather it all up to you and absorb it like a second skin so that those memories will never leave you. When you’re so glad to be alive and feel so lucky to be where you are that you can barely swallow over the lump of gratitude in your throat. When you just don’t want that night to end, and wish you could pause time because the days are falling away like brittle autumn leaves before your eyes. 

I felt this way often, but it was particularly strong that one night in San Diego. We’d spent the day by the beach, but before heading to bed, we hopped in the car and made our way to the nearest body of water, a corner of the coast bordered by dunes, where a fire glowed softly at its base, ringed by a group of teenagers. It was just too picture-perfect – something straight out of a Sarah Dessen book, maybe – the ideal backdrop for a summer romance, the kind of life I’d never had but always wistfully dreamed of as the phlegmatic adolescent I was. But here we were, a mid-20s married couple … scaling the dune, scuffing along through the sand, admiring the waves through sound rather than sight, contemplating all that had been and what was to come, then making our way back to our Dodge and finally to our soulless motel room.

playing with dogs

Rolling around with the farm dogs

There’s something about watching a grown man tenderly interacting with his child, amirite? Well, I felt a similar squeeze around my heart on one of our last days volunteering in Italy.

It was late afternoon, the sun no longer broiling us but languidly heading for the hills. Two of the five dogs kept racing off after each other, fighting over something (a bone, perhaps). T was lying on the grass, playfighting with the others, laughing and rolling around on the ground. It was a scene of pure contentment, simplicity, connection.

The funny thing is, I saw volunteering initially in purely financial terms – a way to extend our trip by saving money. Instead, those experiences yielded some of the most memorable highlights of our whole trip.

From the Black Forest, I’ll never forget our evening plays, our campfire night, dancing to Psy, laughing my head off at students’ jokes, hearing an unfamiliar song and being teased – “Hasn’t this song come out in New Zealand yet?”, being invited to stay with our German students, our sweet little Swiss protege who I cried to farewell, even the annoying old Americans who wore our nerves down at the time.

From Italy, I’ll never forget eating fresh bread every morning, the sweet joy of tomatoes off the vine, the Beatles concert, chasing little kids around trying to supervise their leaf-raking, a night drinking at the local boat club, the countless dinner parties with musicians and artists, the oh-so-awkward topless swim (so much for it being a nude beach; my host and I were the only ones doing it).  

What are some of your favourite travel memories?

What kind of career do I want? How my thinking has changed over time

MONEY WILL HELP YOU BE MISERABLE IN COMFORT

In reading back over some of my very first blog posts, it’s clear just how much things have changed in my life.

In particular, how many times I’ve changed my mind about the kind of work I’d like to have. It’s not just a case of me being fickle, I promise – my chosen career field is a rapidly changing one.

When I first graduated I thought I wanted to be a subeditor. Thing is, there are fewer and fewer of those jobs these days – it’s a dying art – and the hours are often crappy. It wasn’t long before I ditched that idea.

Then social media took off. Everyone and their dog was becoming a social media manager or consultant. I loved that I got to play with social networks as part of my job, but the more I did it at work, the less I wanted to do it for fun, and I quickly learned that I would want to be  more than just a ‘Twitter monkey‘. (I had to laugh when someone I follow locally on Twitter, who’s been a social media champion from the early days, tweeted that she is now looking to do a project as far removed from social as possible.)

I’ve always been a doer. I wasn’t into the top-level stuff – I’m a details person, not a visionary. I like that this, at times, allows me the flexibility to work from anywhere, since all I need most of the time is a computer and internet. But I don’t love staring at a screen all day – and I don’t think it’s been great for my health. Fortunately, as I’ve gained more experience I’ve also become more interested in the strategy behind the doing and being involved in how/why things are done. I still have  zero desire to manage people but increasingly I’m thinking I’d like to learn more about doing things more strategically and getting involved at a higher level.

It’s great to love your work. It’s also great to be able to afford the kind of life you want, and to have the kind of job that allows you to have that life outside of your working hours. As much fun as my work has been so far, I knew I had to be realistic about the long-term opportunities. Publishers are struggling to make money – but on the flipside, all other kinds of organisations are investing in content.

In thinking about what I might want to do next, I narrowed it down to a few areas I would ideally like to work in:

a) the travel and tourism space

b) the personal finance space (a cool bank, or, say, at sorted.org.nz)

c) an awesome startup (though arguably my last job was pretty close to a startup job)

Amazingly, I found a role that perfectly marries my writing chops, digital skills and love of travel. It’ll be my job to help extol all the virtues of New Zealand as a place to visit – a dream gig, really.

So far, I anticipate a lot more collaboration, a lot more meetings, a workload that ebbs and flows – more facilitation, planning and strategy alongside the nitty gritty production stuff rather than a constant cycle with very tangible daily outputs.

Overall, will I love it just as much as I did my old work? I think it’s highly likely. Time will tell; I haven’t gotten too much into the ‘doing’ yet. I dig the atmospherical aspects and am pretty sure the workload will be less relentless. All things considered, higher pay, the chance to hone new skills and better long-term earning potential don’t hurt, and are definitely factors that play into professional satisfaction.

Maybe further down the track I may have to make a stark choice between money and satisfaction, but not just yet. Phew.

So that was year one. Happy anniversary to us

NZMUSE 1 YEAR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY

Is it strange that I can’t think of all that many romantic moments from our honeymoon? That might be because we’re not really romantic types, and also because we were backpacking for six months, not ballin’ it around the world.

But what an adventure. A few memories that really stand out:

Lamb, wine, filo pie, and explosive sunsets in Santorini, a stunning tourist trap that bears only idyllic memories for me

Flying through the forests in the Munich countryside on our pushbikes, feeling every bump and dip along the way

Paddling through Halong Bay, peering out for monkeys, craning my neck to look up at the strange land formations

Strolling the Highline in NYC at sunset, and late night karaoke in the East Village

Wandering along the sand dunes at a San Diego beach one night

Blazing through Vermont on a motorbike, surrounded by rosy forests and empty roads (and nearly falling asleep on the back after lunch)

Winding through Venice’s canals, marvelling at the skill of our gondolier

Enjoying a platter of mixed soft cheeses and honey in quiet ecstasy at a random Roman restaurant

And of course, all those instances of greedy face stuffing in Thailand, Bologna, Paris, New York, of spring rolls, panzerotti, cakes, gelato, cheeses, deli sandwiches and tacos.

There was enough luxury for it to feel special amongst the backpacking – the constant discomfort (Auckland’s stupidly mild temperatures have spoiled us both), the stress of navigating non-English countries (especially for him).

I am so, so happy we took that trip. It was great for us on so many levels, not just as individuals but as a couple. We’ve seen each other at our absolute worst and pushed through. Made so many memories to share. I feel it brought us closer together and strengthened our relationship. Between that, and the big scary talk that came up pre-wedding, I’m not sure what state we’d be in now. Possibly a less healthy one. Either way, it was a catalyst for us to re-examine things and work harder at them. Because when you don’t, they can deteriorate very quickly. It takes years to build what can be undone in days, hours – minutes, even, or seconds. Even after years together, you can still surprise yourselves, and even after years together  you can work toward making some things better than you’d ever dreamed possible.

Weddings are powerful events. No matter how informal, they pack a lot of emotional weight. As Elizabeth asks Philip on The Americans: “They’re just words people say. But do you think things would have been different between us if we’d said them?”

But beyond that, weddings are ultimately occasions of unbridled joy. As I write this particular paragraph, I’m in floods of quiet tears, having just gorged on a friend’s 600-odd wedding pictures. Just as with the photos from any other wedding, ours included, the thing that shines through is how happy everyone is. Imperfect as ours was, I still like to look back on photos for that little lift they give me.

I  am still not used to the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ yet. I’d barely gotten comfortable with ‘fiance/e’ by the time we got married, so maybe in another year or two?

Link love (Powered by early starts and mozzarella balls)

nzmuse blog link love

After one week at the new job, I think I can safely say that I am in love with the environment and organisation.

The people are genuinely lovely and it has the most cohesive culture of anywhere I’ve worked. The physical office is gorgeous and most importantly WARM, and the setup and lighting isn’t causing me any issues or strain. I do miss my lovely Apple keyboard (returning to a Windows environment) and shorter commute, but I enjoy the buzz of working in the CBD again … and I’ve discovered that there’s a new bus stop in town, which means I literally only have a 1-2 minute walk at either end of my trip, to the office or to my house.

So far it’s mainly been about settling in, getting up to speed and meeting people. There are a lot of systems and processes – which is new for me – and that obviously has pros and cons. We wrapped up Friday with waiata (Maori song) practice; every new hire is welcomed with a song, so everyone learns them so that they can take part. Singing in the workplace? Two thumbs up from me. And while there’s drinks and chips at the end of the week, I wasn’t the only one heading for the non-alcoholic options, so double YAY.

This week’s links

A reality check: finding purpose in your work regardless of what you actually do

How to build a career that’s both financially and emotionally rewarding

All the things that are currently wrong with freelancing, via Kommein

Amber and I are on the same page when it comes to the topic of dream jobs

Word! Why the question ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’ sucks

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an open discussion about recognising problems and committing to a relationship as I have at Married with Luggage

Her Every Cent Counts on why she’s getting married even though it’s a practically obsolete rite of passage (reminds me of a conversation we had with a guy who hosted us in Berlin)

Live alone or with flatmates? Leslie breaks it down

Wealth Informatics on the many ways other people can influence your finances

Four questions to ask yourself when you’re feeling stressed, via Jess Lively

As someone who this totally applies to, this might be my favourite Modern Love column yet: “When a writer falls in love with someone whose spelling and grammar are poor, it challenges her assumptions about the type of man she’d want to marry.”

Last but not least… I once read this breathtakingly awful line in a Harvard Business Review post about creative sector pay: “The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it.” *cue sputter* A massive part of the reason I’ve loved all my jobs to date was that they paid decently and I did not have to worry too much about money on a daily basis. Yes, we tend to accept lower wages in exchange for getting to do this kind of work, but that is not an excuse to try and get away with paying as little as humanly possible. I was reminded of that sentiment when I came across this piece on the modern knowledge worker. “When people are looking for jobs that don’t feel like work, companies can hire a guy who will take their lower salary and no benefits over the security of one of the quickly evaporating salaried jobs where he’ll be a middle manager counting up widget sales and thingamabob costs.”

Planning a budget trip to Cairns/Port Douglas? Herewith, my recommendations

Yes, those are little kangaroos! We spotted these joeys on the way to Port Douglas. I like to think of this as kangaroo school in session
Yes, those are little kangaroos! We spotted these joeys on the way to Port Douglas. I like to think of this as kangaroo school in session.

Before this month, I didn’t even know what city one would fly into to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Once I figured it out, the question was: stay in Cairns, or venture up to Port Douglas? Cairns is cheap and cheerful but lacks a decent beach; Port Douglas is nice but expensive – and, as I suspected, turned out to be a little dull. Once I figured out it would be smartest for us to hire a car, the choice was made: have it both ways with two days in Cairns city and two in Port Douglas township.

(I scrapped trying to fit in the Whitsundays – expensive, and more of a sailing than a snorkelling destination – and stopovers in Sydney/Melbourne/Gold Coast, due to time and money.)

Here are fun things we did that I would wholeheartedly recommend:

In Cairns

michaelmas cay great barrier reef nzmuse

Great Barrier Reef tour – Seastar Cruises

Seastar may not be the cheapest Great Barrier Reef tour operator but neither are they the most expensive – and they are highly, highly rated on Tripadvisor. We chose Seastar for the small numbers and good reviews and did not regret it. They include everything you might need (even optical snorkel masks don’t cost extra) and take a bunch of photos throughout the day that get posted up on Facebook straight after, too. The staff are super friendly, the food is simple and tasty and it was a fun day all around.

The only downside was the rough weather. I highly recommend buying seasickness pills for $3 onboard. Thankfully, I did not throw up, but it was a close call towards the end, even with the meds. Having ticked this off my life list, I think I’m well and truly done with all water-based activities; I am just too prone to motion illness. By the time we got out to Michaelmas Cay (Seastar is one of the few operators that go there) I was not feeling at all happy about being out at sea – and knew for sure I had made the right choice to stick to snorkelling rather than trying diving. The current was pretty strong – way more intense waves than any I’d ever snorkelled in before – and I spent most of the time following our snorkel group around trying to tamp down the rising panic and breathe slowly. We did see some cool fish and T enjoyed his introductory dive, where he got to see a moray eel, giant clam and touch a sea cucumber. (These do cost more – $75 for the first dive, $45 for the second.)

Our second stop at the outer reef was at Hastings Reef – not as picturesque as Michaelmas Cay from the surface, but way cooler underwater. The current was a lot calmer, the coral was closer to the surface – and most importantly, we saw a turtle!

prawns barnacle bills nzmuse

Seafood – Barnacle Bills

The sheer amount of dining options in Cairns is a tad boggling. T spotted an earlybird special at Barnacle Bills (order between 5-6pm and get 25% off) and I was sold. And what do you know – it turned out to be an all around stellar meal. Our dishes were huge and while nothing fancy, were perfectly executed. The salsa garlic bread appetiser was a standout: fresh but avoided falling into the soggy trap. The barramundi was beautifully seasoned with a healthy side of beans and potatoes. And you really can’t go wrong with Aussie size prawns. We loved them so much that in Port Douglas we went and bought some more prawns from the supermarket and cooked them up at our Airbnb rental. DIY seafood is a great option on a super tight budget.

crystal cascades cairns nzmuse

Greenery and swimming holes – Crystal Cascades

You will need a car to get to the Cascades! It’s about 20 minutes drive from Cairns central. Head north to Redlynch then follow the signs for Crystal Cascades. It’s an easy paved walk through the rainforest and there are spots to swim amongst the huge boulders in the river. You might spot a few birds or other wildlife while you’re at it. If you don’t have a car, the Botanic Gardens in Cairns are a nice naturey alternative, sans swimming holes.

In Port Douglas

Chips at Dave’s Takeaway

We stumbled across Dave’s while strolling Macrossan St – the main drag. It’s cheap, but it’s also freaking awesome. Great burgers and the best chips I’ve had in a long time – delightfully crisp and just salty enough.

mossman gorge rainforest walk creek

Mossman Gorge

The Mossman Gorge offers a free peek into the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. T bitched and moaned about walking the 2km from the carpark/visitor centre to the gorge, but at $8.50 a pop the shuttle bus fare was a bit steep for my liking. There’s a spot to swim and a few other places to get your feet wet but overall the idea is to walk the circuit trail through the forest. Not super exciting in my books to be honest, but no regrets.

wags free wednesday sunset sail port douglas yacht club

Free Wednesday sunset sail from the yacht club

While we didn’t wind up going (probably a good thing; we popped down to the waterfront a little later on and saw the boats setting out and the seas were a little choppy) I had fully intended on doing this and had blocked out time for it!

The basic idea is that you turn up at the yacht club at 4pm and if you’re lucky you might get to go along for a free evening  sail with a local skipper. Probably nice to buy them a beer in exchange.

Sailing at the Yacht Club – on Wednesday afternoon. Previously known as WAGS (Wednesday afternoon gentlemen sailing), now also known as WAGLS (Wednesday afternoon Gentlemen and Ladies Sailing) minimum age for participants is 18. This is a free sail. Arrive at The Yacht Club by 4.00pm sign in and a skipper will personally ask you to join their team on their private yacht for a sail. – See more at: http://www.tropicaltours.com.au/blog/free-activities-to-do-in-port-douglas/#sthash.oXzuLiiv.dpuf

Investing in precious metals: What about silver?

investing in silver

Anyone looking at alternative investments (as in, those outside of the day-to-day stock market) will probably find gold popping up on their radar. Of course, it’s not the only precious metal out there. Here’s Richard Stiger, answering a few common questions about silver investment.

What’s the difference between silver and gold investment?

The answer to this question can vary depending on what you’re looking for and your method of investment, but for the most up-to-date comparison of the two precious metals, Wall St. Cheat Sheet posted a list earlier this year of seven reasons silver is a better investment than gold. The article points to a number of factors, but the general theme is that silver is being produced more rapidly and being used more frequently (in many household devices, for example, rather than just in precious materials). These factors—coupled with the fact that you can get far more, in terms of ounces of metal, for your money—make silver a more appealing investment than its popular counterpart.

Where would someone buy silver? What’s involved?

This too depends on your specific goals and situation, but often it’s actually gold investment sites and platforms that offer the most convenient silver purchases. Investment platform BullionVault has lots of information on silver, including up-to-date pricing and details on how to purchase and store silver through the site. This particular site provides vault storage in in London, Zurich, Toronto, New York, and Singapore, and it provides investors with the option of having their silver physically sent to them or having it stored in one of these vault locations. It is also worth noting, however, that investments are not limited to people in the countries with vaults listed. In the case of this particular investment site, investment opportunity is offered worldwide. The vaults are merely designated for the actual storage of the silver (though the site only supports payments in US dollars, euros, or pounds sterling).

Why invest in silver?

Generally speaking, the reasons for investing in silver are similar to those for gold: Precious metals operate with universally decided prices, and as such do not fluctuate dramatically in response to economic shifts in any particular country or region. Therefore, precious metal is often deemed stable in comparison to currency or ordinary investments. Silver upholds this concept on a significantly smaller scale than gold, but the strategy is more or less the same. As far as how silver is performing in 2014, and what its immediate outlook is, Business Standard posted a nice breakdown of international factors and how they’re affecting the price of silver.

All things considered, silver investment is a fairly convenient alternative to gold. It’s also one that some investment experts see as favourable in the current economic climate. But the most important question is still what you can get for your money and whether or not it’s a strategic investment for you personally. As of April 20, 2014, the price of silver is roughly $20 US per ounce (depending on which vault or market you buy from, with prices varying by a few cents), meaning a $1000 investment can get you 50 ounces of silver, as a point of reference. Whether or not this would be a sound investment is ultimately up to each individual to calculate for him or herself.

The general idea is that silver may be a strategically sound investment at the moment. But again, that’s for each investor to decide!

Five first impressions from Cairns/Queensland

nzmuse queensland great barrier reef

Basically all everyday items were cheaper than they are here in NZ. I base this on a few separate supermarket visits, the price of petrol (and cars for that matter), and one ad I saw for unlimited broadband. The one bakery we went to, however, was stupidly pricey.

Portions are huge. Check this out for an entree – this is a full size plate, and the bread is loaded up with toppings (Barnacle Bill’s – stay tuned for recommendations in my next post). I assure you that the equivalent here in NZ would be half the size for the same price. It was like being back in the US! Our hosts over in Port Douglas, who we had dinner with one night, had appetites that put ours to shame, too.

barnacle bills cairns meal

The water is delightfully warm. I don’t think I can ever snorkel in NZ again – it’s just too damn cold. It was so bizarre to be standing by the water’s edge and have the air be still and warm (rather than windy and cold). Jumping off the boat out at the reef was like slipping into a lukewarm pool. Even the outdoor pool at our Airbnb rental was surprisingly unchilly.

But there are way too many things you have to watch out for. Everywhere there’s water, there’s a sign warning of crocodiles in the area. Most beaches have stinger nets you have to swim within. And bugs. SO MANY BUGS. Arrrgh.

ellis beach queensland

I saw more half Asian/half Caucasian couples and their offspring in a few days here than I’ve probably seen in my entire life to date. (If I was staring at your kid/s, I was only trying to get a glimpse into my future – sorry if I creeped you out.)