Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

After a rainy day in Auckland, we spent yesterday night in our hot tub with a couple of my new friends from work. Thoroughly soaked and with pruny fingers, we came inside, made popcorn and played Apples to Apples, adding our roommates from California into the mix. 

I have a job and this week I go full-time. I scored gently used running shoes from the consignment shop and have a regular loop that takes me down to the marina. On windy days the ocean spray catches me as I jog by. We now own bikes and a hippie camper van. We are, by all accounts, settling in. 

There are some things that take getting used to. Not just that Kiwis call flip-flops “jandels,” bell peppers “capsicum,” zucchini “courgettes,” and frequently use the word “heaps” in place of “a lot.” Electricity costs a fortune, and few apartments come with dryers. This can be a pain, since winter in Auckland means rain (much like the Pacific Northwest in America). Buying craft beer in good old Wisco doesn’t gouge your pocketbook like it does here, and you have to pay at least $10USD to get a decent bottle of wine. If you go out to a bar or restaurant, likely you’ll pay upwards of $9USD for a beer, and $13USD for a cocktail.

The road we live near, Ponsonby, attracts the attentions of upper crust folk and you often see women dressed to the nines for a lunch date at one of the many expensive restaurants that line the street. Boutiques sell hideously expensive clothing, with your average pair of leather boots starting at $255USD. The posh strip in the “big city” of Auckland (1.4 million, in a country with around 4 million people) BMWs are parked up and down Ponsonby. 

We recently learned about the “tallest poppy syndrome,” a phrase used to describe people who think they are better than others, or advertise their skills in such a way, making it seem like they could do a job better. In a country of more than 300 million, Americans boast about achievements in order to stand out in the crowd. Here in New Zealand, peppering your CV with accomplishments reads as bragging, and Kiwis are sometimes hesitant to hire an American who thinks they can come in and do it better. These fears are not unjustified. Even the local Unitarian church brought in an American preacher to liven things up with outreach and PR, and help the small congregation attract new followers. 


Though they may sometimes have “small country syndrome,” by and large Kiwis are well-traveled (perhaps for that exact reason), progressive and liberal, having just legalized gay marriage (they also legalized prostitution in 2003). The more I read about increasing violence and issues with gun-control in the states, the more I appreciate this little peaceful country where local police don’t carry firearms, only pepper spray and batons. 

We met Christine and Robert (aka Chris and Rolo) at our hostel, the Brown Kiwi – and because we found our routines, personalities and general living tendencies so compatible, decided to look for apartments together. Chris works at Southern Cross Insurance, and Rolo, a properties manager, is still looking for work. As neither Colin nor Rolo are currently employed they run the household errands together. They are, as Rolo coined the phrase, “The Kept Men of Ponsonby.” They are working up a pitch for a reality TV series based around the kept men’s activities. Today the kept men go to the Warehouse (a sad substitute for Target) for towels and a laundry rack. The kept men cook, clean, and stay up late watching The Walking Dead. They devised a way to get our mascot from the Brown Kiwi, Sonic the Hedgehog, to our new home on WIlliamson Ave. Sonic must have got wind of their plans, though, because he didn’t come round again and thus couldn’t be transported. 

It seems particularly crazy that only a couple of weeks ago I was in Singapore battling bed bugs with a vengeance, or in Vietnam shortly before that. Our last week in Vietnam, in particular, was something out of a crazy dream… 

With just under 3 weeks in Vietnam, we were always racing from one destination to the next. When we reached Hanoi we had one big task on our hands: find a suitable motorbike to rent for a 5 day trip through northern Vietnam. On recommendation, we went to Viet Motors, a 10 minute drive outside of the central backpacker district in Hanoi. Less of a rental place and more of a repair workshop, Viet Motors was what Colin described as, “the place where motorbikes come to die.” 

There were many working bikes, but not a one that didn’t need some adjustments. It took us  a good 2 hours to narrow the search, and the bike we finally went with, a Chinese version of the Honda Win 100, was just $5 a day to rent. It needed a new rear tire, rear-view mirrors, the rear foot pegs needed fixing and a new (electric) battery. All those adjustments were made quickly and efficiently by a Vietnamese mechanic wearing an old, oily pair of dress pants and a Viet Motors collared shirt. 

We drove the bike back to our hostel, quickly loaded our gear and changed hostels (the one we were in had no availability on our return, and we needed to leave luggage behind)  went to a water puppet show (a strange display of wooden puppets dancing in water with a live band, performing different traditional dances), ate dinner and then put one small backpack on the motorbike (I wore another daypack) and drove to the train station.

Nothing’s ever easy in Vietnam, and as it turned out we couldn’t board from the main train station. We needed to go the “B” station. We got back on the bike and navigated the roads the wound around the entire train station. After driving for what seemed like too long on a narrow, alley-like road, and just as we were about to give up, we reached the “B” station and delivered the bike to the cargo man. The gas tank was promptly emptied as no flammables are allowed on the train. I speculated about how these cargo men probably never have to buy gas. 

Then we wandered around trying to find out where to pay for the bike’s transport because the cargo man spoke no English. We finally got the bike on the train, found our car and compartment, and got settled in. The plot thickened when I awoke at 5:30am, realizing the train was stopped and showed no signs of moving. When I nodded off and came to again an hour later, we were still parked. The train was supposed to arrive at 6:30am in Lo Cai, so I was curious about the delay. Unfortunately none of the staff on the train, including the conductor, spoke English. All announcements were made only in Vietnamese. Around 9am the couple from Holland who were sharing our compartment also became concerned, and the guy ventured out to see what was going on. He came back with stories of a broken train, that we would be changing trains and wouldn’t arrive in Lo Cai until 11am. To confirm this we asked a passing attendant. She said we would arrive at 10:30am and made no mention of the train change. 

When 10:30 rolled around and we appeared no closer to our destination, I decided to investigate. After a line of questioning involving some Europeans in another car (French, with no better English than the Vietnamese) and finally the train staff with a Vietnamese civilian translator – I found out what was going on. We did have to change trains. Either a train crashed on our track or got derailed. We would change at the next station and likely arrive closer to noon. 

At that point it was difficult to remain positive. This delay was cutting into our drive time for the day and since it was such a short trip to begin with we needed every hour. Additionally, one of the benefits of this train was how early it was supposed to arrive – we paid more for speed. The fact that none of the staff were bilingual was surprising. 

The move from one train to the next was fast and efficient. Colin checked on the bike, which  the staff had moved without a problem. When we finally arrived we had to walk the motorbike to a petrol station. Luckily that wasn’t too far and we were very soon on the road to Sapa…

For more on our adventure-filled motorbike tour through northern Vietnam tune into my next blog post!



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