New Zealand and reflections on quality time

I’ve been back in Guangzhou for about a week now and with all the choir concerts, holiday events, Chinese lessons, and work it feels more like a whole month. With the weather in the 60F range, it feels positively wintry here. Our Christmas tree is up and the whole city is bedazzled with glitzy decorations – China really knows how to decorate.

International Choir of Guangzhou (ICGZ) with other seven other choirs at a joint holiday performance at Shamian Church

It’s wonderful to be busy because in my down time I feel hints of homesickness creeping in. It’s hard in those quiet moments to reconcile leaving my family in New Zealand with returning to my life in Guangzhou. As I got on the plane back to China, I couldn’t help wondering why I was there and not back home in Wellington starting dinner with my parents. Of course, there are hundreds of wonderful, practical, and reasonable reasons why it is right and good for me to be in Guangzhou, most of all being my wonderful husband. But all those myriad reasons don’t outweigh the compelling desire to be with other loved ones far away especially at this time of year. Instead, it is possible to feel sadness and joy and allow both to coexist bittersweetly.

But this post is not about departures! Instead, let’s look back on Amaury and my wonderful time in New Zealand because it truly was a wonderful trip.

Despite having somewhat limited time, we managed to visit quite a few places. We arrived in Auckland on November 13 and began our trip with two days of exploring New Zealand’s most populated city (population around 2 million, 50% of New Zealand’s, 17% of Guangzhou’s). On the way in, we chatted with our taxi driver who was originally from Pakistan. He gave us tips for our upcoming move there in 2019 as well as for sightseeing in Auckland. Apparently, the food in Pakistan is even better than in India (though he may be biased), can’t wait!

Auckland skyline

We were lucky to find a relatively cheap hotel just 20 minutes walk from the Central Business District (CBD), so got around easily. Since we arrived early in the morning on our first day, we wandered around a bit until our hotel room was open and then took a blissful 5-hour nap. Refreshed, we headed to the Ponsonby neighborhood for Italian-style pizza and ice cream. The spring weather in Auckland was a bit cooler than Guangzhou in fall, so we wrapped up warmly for a walk through scenic tree-lined neighborhoods to the Sky Tower. The Tower dominates views in and around the city, giving Auckland a true skyline. High above the city, we enjoyed pointing out where we’d explored and where we hoped to go the next day.

Sky Tower

After a day traipsing around the city (and many months living in Guangzhou), we were ready to get out of the urban environment and get into some green nature. For our second day, we grabbed tasty bagels at the Big Ugly and caught the ferry to Waiheke Island, just 30 minutes away from the city. Waiheke has a vibrant wine scene with wineries looking out over spectacular views of the ocean, neighboring islands, and Auckland in the distance. Apparently, the oldest winery there dates to the early 1980’s, so it’s quite a new industry there.

Of course, we had to earn our wine and tasty bitings, so we first went on a hike along the island’s coastline. Unfortunately, it was around then that Amaury gave in and admitted that he was actually nursing a bad cold that had been nagging him since we left Guangzhou. He’s usually a pinnacle of health, so him admitting he was sick made me a bit concerned. We took it slow on the hike and decided to purposefully walk towards the Mudbrick to end with food. After hiking for a while along a beautiful trail, we came to a long stony beach peppered with interesting shells and native birds.

At that point, we saw a sign that the trail ahead was closed due to storm damage, so decided to turn back in case it was more of a mess to push forward. Eventually, we came to a well-paved road and just as our patience and energy was running out, came across Cable Bay Winery rising out of the landscape like a well-appointed oasis, complete with cheese boards and wine tastings. We decided to use the excuse of our upcoming anniversary to splurge on a nice meal and thoroughly enjoyed relaxing on their covered patio.

Waiheke Wine Country

As we sat there, a light rain outside turned somewhat torrential so we waited it out for a bit and then braved it to dash over to the nearby Mudbrick for a quick tasting. By the time we finished there, the sun was coming out, so after some more brief explorations of the area, we caught the ferry back to Auckland.

As we headed back to the Auckland Airport the next day, I was full of anticipation to finally see my family and be at home with them after almost 3 years. Our Wellington flight was uneventful, which made my day since Wellington is notorious for bumpy descents due to its always windy conditions. Against all statistical odds, the more I fly, the more convinced I am that the plane will suddenly plunge us all to our deaths/ocean rescue situation/emergency landing in inhospitable environment. Hence why I think every bump of turbulence is finally it.  Apparently, it is a trait of INFJ’s (Myers Briggs), to have an existential crisis every plane flight, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

We arrived in Wellington safe and sound and met my parents waiting by the baggage claim. It brings me such joy at every arrival home to see my mother’s hand waving frantically at us, as my dad walks purposefully to take care of anything and everything. I couldn’t believe that my youngest brother M (age 14) is almost as tall as me, and my brother C (age 23) was looking very fit after all his biking up and down Wellington’s hills. It was such a sweet homecoming made better by having Amaury there. With Amaury as special guest, we spent our time exploring Wellington and visiting nearby places like Petone and Wanganui. It was fun to take Amaury to all my favorite Wellington haunts including Zealandia, the Botanic Gardens, and the Te Papa Museum. Each place offered some new things for me to do and see as well.

Zealandia is a wildlife sanctuary that is slowly but surely bringing native species out of endangered status. The best way to visit it is to bring the free map along with you and check out rare species as you find them in the park. We found 9/18 species on the list and heard the birdcalls of a few more, which seemed pretty good to us. The most exciting find was the elusive tuatara hiding along the path. These ancient lizards date back to dinosaur times and blend in perfectly with the brown ground making them tricky to spot.

Looking for wildlife at Zealandia

Wellington’s sprawling botanic gardens are starting to seem a bit like Zealandia, as native birds start to make their way over to it, repopulating the city’s green spaces. It’s always one of my favorite places to wander around when I’m in Wellington, especially the gorgeous rose garden that was in full bloom this time.

Looking over the rose garden

The Te Papa is New Zealand’s huge national museum, free to enter even for international visitors. I’ve visited it several times, so took Amaury to see my favorite things, which are obviously the most interesting- the earthquake exhibit, the giant preserved squid, and the Maori meeting house. We then spent about two hours completely enthralled by the temporary exhibit on Gallipoli, the bloody site of protracted trench warfare between Turkish and Allied forces in World War I. I knew very little about this violent and devastating chapter in the Great War, but it is integral to New Zealand’s history, as ANZAC forces were the main Allied contingent there. The exhibit was stunning in its depth, quality, and creativity, honestly the best I’ve ever seen. I thoroughly recommend visiting it if you ever come to Wellington. It left us both thoughtful and utterly exhausted, since we read every part of it in great detail.

Maori meeting house at Te Papa

About half-way through our stay in Wellington, we took a short 25-minute flight down to Nelson to spend a weekend at my aunt and uncle’s house there. They live just along the coast at an incredibly scenic estuary.

View from our tiny plane of North and South Island

In addition to catching up with my much-beloved aunt, we had a blissful time watching the tides go in and out, shopping in local markets, kayaking, biking, and lazing around eating fish and chips and drinking cold beers at the local brewery. Unfortunately, my uncle was in the hospital for a sudden and scary injury, so I very much missed getting to catch up with him. On the other hand, we were all so thankful it wasn’t more serious, and we were able to keep my aunt company during some of my uncle’s hospital stay.

Kayaking in the estuary

Biking along the coast

My yoga “studio”

Wharf near my aunt and uncle’s

Fish & Chips – not pictured: ravenous seagulls that swarmed Amaury shortly after

After ten days in NZ, Amaury had to say goodbye to us all and went back to Guangzhou for work. I stayed on for another week and a half to spend more time with my family and go down to visit my brother G in Dunedin on the South Island.

He is currently working on his Masters in archaeology at Otago University and was recently offered a full-ride scholarship to do his Ph.D. next year at La Trobe in Melbourne, Australia. Given all the exciting developments in his life, it was a particularly great time to catch up properly with him and hear about all his projects. I’d never been to Dunedin before, so he gave me a great tour of the city and surrounding area including many stops along the coast to visit archaeological sites.

Wildflowers at the Harbour Cone

Walking around with G reveals a hidden world lying right alongside the everyday one. Everywhere we went, he pointed out interesting historical aspects of the city, coastline, and Maori tribes who settled in the region several hundred years ago.

Dunedin coastline

My favorite part was hiking along the wild South Island coast discovering remnants of old Maori cooking fires. G pointed out the difference between recent shells strewn along the beaches compared with much older shells embedded in the dunes higher up from the sealine. Along the dunes were wavy dark lines marking where a Maori oven had been used to cook up seafood and fish, the shells and bones lying on top from where they were discarded after a meal. In some cases, recent erosion from just a week before had revealed new areas, meaning that we were looking at archaeological material that no one had seen in hundreds of years. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into G’s work, which has fast become his passion.

Archaeological material

Overall, our New Zealand trip had all the aspects I wanted- time with family, explorations of new and old places, delicious food made from high-quality produce, and lots of walking outside in the clean air. Oh and much time at home playing my piano loudly and enthusiastically. I have a hundred-year-old, quite out of tune, extremely heavy piano at my parents’ house that has twangy strings and clackety keys that I love to play for hours on end when I’m home. My parents are saints for lugging it around with them on their own international moves. I suppose it’s a member of the family at this point.

As this year draws to a close, I am amazed by and thankful for the sheer number of trips we’ve done. Most of all, 2017 has been a year of connection, family, and quality time. While the ex-pat life takes us away from our loved ones and friends for long swaths of time, our current assignment in Guangzhou has given us huge opportunities to travel. If we were back in the US, I would be thousands of miles away from my family in New Zealand and the UK as well as from friends in other states and countries, without as much time, space, and means to make the long trips to see them.

This year, I saw my parents, my brothers, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, many cousins, and most of my closest friends. Not to mention spending time with Amaury’s family and meeting a lot of his extended family. I emphasize this, because so often acquaintances back in the US ask reasonable questions about our lifestyle like “But isn’t it hard to be so far away from everyone?” Yes, yes it is. Thank goodness I lead this international life so I can go and see them all.

Every month, our little community of spouses has a lunch so we have an excuse to all get together and catch up (not that we don’t already do that all the time, but the standing meeting is nice!). Today marked our December meeting complete with holiday cookie swap.


As we sat around the table chatting, conversations were of the typical, serial ex-pat nature: tips for flying with small children in Africa, the challenge of having to take malaria meds in certain countries, the frustrations and hilarity of ordering food here in China, commiseration over the difficulties of getting a job as an accompanying spouse, the emotional ups and downs of adjusting to a new place and routine, what cities/countries are good places for babies/children/teens, how time abroad is measured by the age of babies there (IE I arrived when my friend was pregnant and now that child is a toddler), what food/produce was available in other places compared to here or vice versa (one friend shared that her husband has developed a new strategy to only live in places that have cheap street noodles), how expensive DC will seem once we get back, language learning stories, funny stories of how we picked our Chinese names, where we’ll all be for Christmas (Guangzhou, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, the U.S…), and of course lots of time snuggling with the three babies (ages 4-9 months) that came along with their mamas.

One thing that has become a high priority for me when considering future places to live is the quality of the ex-pat community. Here in Guangzhou, it’s stellar. Whenever I miss my family or friends or hit a low point, I remind myself that my community is rock solid and we have each other’s back.

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season. Amaury and I will be spending Christmas on the beach in Phuket… part of that whole taking advantage of travel opportunities thing. I plan to write again before the start of 2018, but, just in case, wishing you a happy start to the new year.

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