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Monday, May 30, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 43, My Last NZ Post

Jen coerced me into doing the Naseby 6 hour last weekend, and we had a ball. Thanks honey!

It’s a privilege to live in a foreign place for a long stretch. The place becomes a part of you and you of it. But this also makes it hard to leave. Dunedin is a part of me now, and that part will be torn when I leave tomorrow.
We’ve been blessed here in many ways. The kids have loved the schools and have made good friends, Jen has enjoyed more free time and being anonymous, and I have had a productive year of work, while still getting outside a lot. As a family, we were blessed with lots of experiences through our travels, visits from the grandmas, and a close friendship with our Ohio neighbors, Yo, Kate, Kellie, and Anna Chin. It’s been a great year. I can do nothing other than count myself a lucky man.
There’s still more I’d like to do here. We never made it to Mt. Cooke, didn’t surf the North Island beaches or mountain bike Rotorua, and I didn’t get that solo backpack in.
Actually, the main thing I’m not going to be able to do that I wish I could is live in Dunedin long term. Yes, I’d like to, not more than Missoula, but if I could clone myself, the other me would live in Dunedin, complain about the weather, let his hair grow, and surf his ass off all year long.
Nonetheless, I’m ready to go back to my life in Montana: big country, big rivers, dry air, real heat, real cold and snow, Missoula, my job at UM, my family and friends, the list goes on. Being away makes you realize what you left behind. As good as we have it here, our lives back home are even better.

A big thanks to all of the followers of this blog. Let's not be strangers.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 42, My Work

The Physics Building. My office is in the upper-left (ignore the red circle).

I've written little about my work in this blog, perhaps giving the impression that I've done nothing but play while here. On the contrary, there's been rarely a weekday that we've been in Dunedin that I haven't gone into the office for my obligatory half-day (4 hours on average), with the remainder of the day spent doing something outside.
My office in the Physics Department at the University of Otago is a humble one; I'm in a room with four desks: mine, Chinese PhD student Erfang Ma's, and two others that have seen more sporadic use.  I turned away the offer of my own office, liking the idea of being anonymous and perhaps even mistaken for a PhD student rather than visiting faculty.
The experience has been a good one for me professionally. I've done some work that I'm proud of, submitted several papers for publication (one co-authored with my U. Otago host), learned some more statistics, and wrote a National Science Foundation grant proposal for future work. All of the major items on my work list have been checked off, so I can leave Dunedin content with what I've accomplished.
I've been pursuing scholarly research long enough now that it begins to suit me and I it. I enjoy the process: following my esoteric interests, learning new things along the way, coming up with new ideas, experimenting and testing on the computer, writing up the results. For me, the greatest joy in the work comes from new discovery and understanding, as well as from sharing in the process with PhD students.
Professionally, I'm ready to get back out into the world,  interact with my research colleagues, and share my NZ work with others in my community; just as in Finland, I have found it difficult to maintain enthusiasm for the hard work of research (and nothing else) for an entire academic year. I'm also looking forward to getting back to my job at UM, to teaching, and to over-full days of work.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 41, Pulling it Off

Some NZ dollars.
I'm sure that some of this blog's readers have wondered how the heck, on a UM-Missoula's professors salary, we were able to pull off this NZ experience. Well, it's complicated and was a good deal more challenging than I had originally expected.
The first key ingredient is the sabbatical. One of the blessings of my job is that every 7th year, I can apply for a sabbatical. The purpose of a sabbatical is to remove the professor from university life, which is schizophrenic in its demands, so that he/she can pursue research in a more relaxed environment and rejuvenate, both professionally and otherwise. To receive a sabbatical at UM, the professor must write a research plan, submit it to the university, and compete against other applicants. A one year sabbatical comes with full pay, while a full year comes with three-fourths pay.
Needless to say, the biggest challenge of pulling off this experience has been financial. I had to figure out how to pay for a year's worth of living, and then travel on top of that, on a reduced salary.
In order to cover my lost salary, I paid myself from my current National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, which I also used to help with my travel expenses to and from NZ. The airline tickets for the rest of the family were paid for with help from both UM and my host here at University of Otago.
And finally, to give ourselves as much cash flow as possible, we rented out our house in Missoula.
What we didn't expect was that NZ living expenses would be as much as they are; even after the above measures, we were losing ground every month. Part of this is that we bought a cheap car ($3500 US) and with gas here being about $6 US a gallon, the many trips to the beach for surfing added up.
And then there was the travel away from Dunedin; we weren't going to come all the way here and then just hang out in town the entire time. So we needed more cash flow still, and for that we refinanced the house back home. We were lucky enough, with rates as they've been, to be able to pull out enough equity, while keeping our monthly payment and the pay off date for the loan about the same.  Refinancing a house from abroad, however, is a bit of a challenge.
Looking back, knowing the way things have worked out, it all seems pretty clear cut, but living through it was a challenge. There were several months where we were living and travelling on borrowed money, waiting for the refinance to come through. And although we made our Australia condo trade in the first month we were here, we didn't finalize our Australia trip until less than two months before we left, because things had been uncertain.
Quite frankly, the whole thing has been a stress for me, and it's only in the last couple of weeks, with the uncertainty and frenetic travel temporarily over, that I've felt myself come down. It would have been much more relaxing, and financially beneficial, to spend the year in Missoula, and I've often wondered why I didn't do just that.

So the natural question is, Why do something like this? And I'd answer, it's not for the faint of heart, so only do it if you must. We are among those who must.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 40, Surfing Ends

St. Clair beach -- our last outing at our local haunt :(.
Well, after our trip to Australia, the surf season ends. Here in Dunedin, folks are still surfing, but the ocean and air temps have dropped, so that you need a winter wet suit, gloves, booties, and hood. The investment required to get these things is too much to warrant an extra couple of weeks of surfing, so we've thrown in the towel.
By any measure, we surfed our butts off this year, with over 90 total outings. With Ellie and Jen typically at home, Alex and I would keep these outings on the short side (1-2 hours), so our total hours on the water probably wasn't huge, but we got out a lot and went from total beginners to solidly intermediate surfers, knocking on the door to advanced. Alex and I progressed at about the same pace, more or less, but truth be told, he's a bit better surfer than I am, the little bugger.
It's with sadness that I let this sport go. For one thing, I feel like I'm just starting to get the hang of it, and yet there's still so much to learn. For another, I really love where surfing takes me, especially here in Dunedin: out on the water in a wild ocean, at some beach with character, with a cool group of local surfers. I could easily become a surfer, letting my other sports (skiing and mountain biking) move more into the background, but this probably isn't my destiny. On the other hand, it looks like the surf boards will be coming back to Montana. I'm hoping we can find a way to surf at least once a year.

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 39, Australia

Our last big trip of our time down under was a 10-day excursion to Australia. We weren't sure about being able to make the trip until March, but we had traded our Fairmont condo for one in Sawtell, New South Wales back in September. So seven of nine nights were already paid for, and in a really nice place no less. In the end, things came together, and we felt like we couldn't pass up the opportunity.
We flew into Brisbane (only three hours direct from Dunedin), rented a car and spent the night in a downtown Brisbane hostel. It was a party hostel, with an in-house bar and plenty of early-twenties guys and gals whooping it up late into the night. Not the best choice on my part, for Jen and Ellie in particular, but we were exhausted and so conked out immediately.
Kangaroo feeding.
The next day we hit the 'Koala Bear Sanctuary', which is a great zoo containing many animals unique to Australia (platypus, koala, kangaroo, dingo, snakes, crocs, wombats, emu,..., the list goes on). From the zoo, we made the five hour drive south to our condo in Sawtell.
Ellie shows off the condo pool.
Once at the condo, we didn't venture far. Alex and I surfed every day (sometimes twice) at Sawtell beach five minutes away, and we hung out, ate, watched cable, and swam in the pool. The condo was very nice, the weather was perfect, and the location was ideal. We didn't see much, but had a very relaxing time. I could have used another week, quite honestly, and I think everyone else felt the same. Ellie, in particular, loved the pace of our condo week.
Jen at Sawtell beach.

On the way back north, we stopped at Wild Waters, had a ball, and then crashed at our nasty hostel another night. I was particularly un-popular this second night, as our room had a balcony overlooking the noisy bar. But we all survived the night, and left early the next morning for the airport and our return flight home.
It was a great trip and made me realize that I can enjoy these kind of lazy, beach holidays a great deal if there's good surfing to be had. So hopefully Hawaii and Southern California will be seeing visits from us in the not-too-distant future. A life without at least a little surfing has become hard for me to imagine.

Alex surfing Sawtell. What a great shot Jen!

Me surfing Sawtell.

Friday, May 13, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 38, Our Last NZ Road Trip ... Probably

A view near Hanmer Springs.
A few weeks back, we returned from a one week road trip with Jen's mom Karen. When I planned the trip, it was with a keen desire to maximize the possibility of good weather. The northernmost reaches of the South Island came immediately to mind, it being the sunniest region in all of New Zealand. And we had yet to visit Golden Bay, so I booked three nights in a bach (cabin) on Golden Bay, less than 10 miles from Farewell Spit, which is the very tip of the South Island.

On the drive up, the fall colors and new snow (which fell on our first night in Hanmer Springs) on the mountain peaks were spectacular. We enjoyed many scenic vistas as we followed river valleys on the way to Golden Bay, where the (non-native) deciduous trees disappeared, and the warm weather and sun helped us forget that it was fall. Takaka, Golden Bay's largest town, brought to mind small hippie towns in Oregon, like Ashland.

Karen and Ellie checking out the full moon on our second night at Kaiteriteri.
Our bach was about 25 kilomteres north of Takaka and only a few steps from the beach with good swimming in the calm waters of the Bay and great views out to Farewell Spit.  The sun rises over the Bay and the Spit were spectacular, and we enjoyed a good relaxing time. The bach itself was perfect for the five of us.
While at Golden Bay, we took two fantastic walks in the Farewell Spit area. First was Wharariki Beach, which was huge, with rock monoliths worn away by the sea, some into arch formations and caves. This is a spectacular place. Then there was Farewell Spit, where we walked at sunset, first along Golden Bay, and then about a kilometer west to the Tasman Sea on the other side of the Spit. On the walk back to the cars, it became pitch dark and the stars were magnificient.
The three days and nights that we spent on Golden Bay were some of the best and most relaxing of our travels in NZ. It was definitely worth the long trip to get there, and it was particularly nice to share the experience with Karen.

Chillin' on the bach deck.

Alex and Ellie hanging out inside.

Alex and Ellie at Wharariki Beach.
An evening walk at Wharariki Beach.
Golden Bay sunrise.
The kids on Golden Bay.

On the way back to Dunedin from Golden Bay, we pushed it to Kaikora, where we spent two nights. Alex and I had a double day of surfing at an awesome point break at Mangamaunu Beach. With the snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, misty air, great surf, and outings at both sunrise and sunset, it doesn't get much better, period. On the same day, Ellie and Karen took a whale watching excursion, and saw a sperm whale with a 10 ton tail (wow!), dolphins, and albatross, but ended up sea sick for most of the outing.
On the last day's long drive, I pushed too hard and ended up getting two speeding tickets, %#*&#% (I've picked up the Kiwi propensity for swearing). In the end, the trip was a great one, and all the more so having shared it with Karen.
Mangamaunu Beach surfing.
Kaikoura sunrise.

Thanks for coming Karen. It was great having you.