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January 2005

January 31, 2005

Where we find jobs but don’t start them yet, and learn about the health care system while waiting for the miserable weather to turn into summer. When it finally arrives, we go bush, taking on mountains and rivers. After that, we have proven worthy of becoming Kiwis and are invited to apply for residency.

All-new year

2005 somehow just snuck up on us. We went to a New Year’s Eve party at a friend of a friend’s here in Wellington, at a very cool house just minutes from downtown, or as they say here, the CBD, as in Central Business District. It was tucked away from the street and surrounded by trees, had a large open interior with hardwood floors and an all-hardwood bathroom (you see these quite a bit here and they are COOL), and good “indoor-outdoor-flow”—a big selling point for houses here. I wouldn’t have minded moving in right away myself. Well, maybe not until they cleaned up after the party.

Kiwis love costume parties. I assume this is a British heritage thing—thanks to Prince Harry, we all learned this month that a “fancy dress party” can be a rather, uhm, informal event. No scandals occurred at our party, which had a New Orleans theme. We had been wondering what the heck you would wear for that theme aside from Marlon Brando’s wifebeater undershirt from A Streetcar Named Desire (someone did just that), but people showed up in all kinds of extravagant outfits. Several people told us that in New Zealand, costume shops are a good business to be in year-round.

There are no fireworks in New Zealand to greet the new year, and people don’t count down at midnight. We just happened to check the time at some point and realised that it was past midnight and two-oh-oh-five.

Still bad: the weather

Wishful thinking? Conjuration?

Meanwhile, summer remained elusive as ever. Early in January, it was announced that the previous month had been the coldest December since 1945, and the 5th coldest on record. Not only that, it was also less sunny than normal, and wetter. And the bad weather didn’t end in December either: On January 6, a storm hit Wellington that brought more rain in 24 hours than what’s typical for the entire month of January. After that, we weren’t all that surprised any more when we read that large icebergs had been spotted off the New Zealand coast, and when penguins showed up at our doorstep, we just shrugged and went about our business. (Ok, that last part didn’t happen. Not yet, anyway.) Quite a few Kiwis have apologised to us for the weather. Of course, tourism and agriculture are the two big sources for foreign capital coming into New Zealand, and both have been hurt by the non-existing summer. For many people and businesses the cold summer was much more than just an annoyance.

Working it out

As I mentioned, everything shuts down over the holidays in New Zealand. This year, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (Dec 26) fell on a weekend, as did New Year’s Day and the Day after New Year’s Day. Because all four are official holidays, they were observed on the Monday/Tuesday following their respective weekends, so for most businesses, the holiday period extended at least through January 4th; many didn’t start again until the 10th. Of course, supermarkets and bigger stores opened again right after Christmas, often however with reduced hours. Some restaurants closed during the holidays, and those that were open often added a 15% holiday surcharge. Employees are entitled to extra pay on those days so many restaurants pass that cost on to the guests. A good week for home cooking.

Right before Christmas, I had a couple of job interviews with a web shop/marketing agency here in Wellington who was looking for a web project manager. They went very well, but because everything happened so shortly before the break, it was clear that nothing would be finalised until after the holidays. As time went on, I found myself anxiously awaiting January 10th, the day when I was supposed to have another interview and follow-up. I did, and I got the job! My start date is February 1st.

My new employer is a small but fast growing company, located centrally just minutes from our apartment. The position is very similar to my previous job in San Francisco and entails managing web projects for clients—everything from requirements gathering and specifications to managing the design and build process as well as the client relationship, to ongoing maintenance. As a project manager, I’ll be the “hub” for my projects and work with people across all functions: internally with sales, development, design, and the business side, as well as externally with clients.

I had a total of four interviews, three of them with two people each, to ensure there’s a good fit—very important in a small company. Interviews are less formal here than in the US and you get more immediate feedback, so you don’t go home afterwards and wonder how it went. Another difference is that new employees are typically going through a 3-month “probation” period before their contract changes to an unlimited one. This is because employees can’t be laid off quite as easily as in the US. The flipside of this is that they are expected to give at least four weeks notice if they intend to leave a job. Employers do not typically provide health insurance (see below) nor pension plans. Kiwis and 10 year+ residents aged 65 and over get “state superannuation”, a weekly pension of $265/week for singles or $437/week for couples. Many New Zealanders choose to save retirement money through private pension plans, and some employers now offer contribution plans as well.

The best difference to the US, of course, is the vacation policy: Three weeks are required by law; starting April, the mandatory minimum time will be extended to four weeks/year. Many employers, including Brian’s and mine, already give their employees four weeks anyway. There are also 11 days of public holidays. The work week is 40 hours, but unlike in the US, it really is 40 hours and no more. Several people made this clear to us during our interviews. Kiwis take their work seriously, but they take their non-work life equally seriously. During our interviews, everyone asked what we do for fun, and “About the team” pages on corporate websites usually include hobbies and interests along with work history.

Doctor, doctor

Earlier this month I needed to see a doctor for a check-up and learned a bit more about healthcare in our new country. New Zealand has a public healthcare system funded mainly through taxes. This means that medical treatment for citizens and residents is subsidised and in some cases even free, for example, immunisation and medicine for children and hospital treatment. Of course, like any publicly funded system, it does come with drawbacks such as long wait times for certain procedures, so that many people choose to get private health insurance in addition. The latter is quite affordable here, moreover, even people with private insurance are entitled to the free services, so it’s not an either-or choice. Unlike in the US, health insurance is entirely up to the individual and isn’t tied to a job or employer. This makes for a lot less paperwork when starting a new job!

Since I currently don’t have private insurance and I’m not a resident yet, I had to pay full price for my check-up, but at $60 including lab work, it was very reasonable. (From previous years’ claims, I remember that similar visits in the US cost close to $400, not including the co-payment. Also, the insurance would never cover the full cost and I’d end up getting a bill for another $50-60. All that, of course, on top of the monthly insurance fees.) I also can’t complain about the wait times; I got an appointment within a week of my call for my non-urgent visit.

Onward to residency


Right after the holiday break, we took the next steps towards becoming New Zealand residents. Getting residency under the “Skilled Migrant” scheme, which is what we are doing, is a multi-step process. First, you have to file an “Expression of Interest” (EOI), providing details about yourself, your education and qualification, your family, your health, etc. For certain things, such as work experience, you can claim points. All EOIs go into a pool, and every two weeks, the applicants with the highest points are selected from the pool. Those not immediately selected remain in the pool for three months; after that, the EOI expires. In reality, most, if not all EOIs are selected right now, because the New Zealand Immigration Service (NZIS) has lowered the minimum points threshold considerably over the past six months. Why? Because the country has certain yearly goals for immigration, and they didn’t make their numbers, so they made it easier for prospective migrants.

We submitted our EOI earlier this month and, as expected, were selected in the following drawing. Now NZIS will look at the EOIs and conduct some initial verification to ensure that applicants can back up the points they are claiming. At the EOI stage, you don’t have to provide any documents yet, but you may get a call for an initial interview. We hope that our verification will be easy since we already provided all kinds of documentation to NZIS when we applied for the work permits. Also, because we have jobs, we didn’t even claim some points we could have claimed, because we didn’t need them to be well over the threshold. The more points you claim, the more verification work will need to be done, and the longer you have to wait to hear back.

Once NZIS is satisfied that your application is legitimate, applicants receive an “Invitation to Apply” (ITA). This is the stage where some people are rejected because they aren’t as qualified as they claimed to be. Those who are invited now fill out the paperwork for the residency application, and submit their supporting documents which range from work references to official grades from tertiary education to police clearances and health certificates. You also have to submit your passport at this point, because residency is documented in the passport and not a separate ID like the Green Card in the US. The more complete and neat the application, the better your chances of having it processed quickly. Right now, all we can do is wait for the ITA.

NZIS, by the way, has a very good website with comprehensive information and access to all forms and guides migrants need for their applications. EOIs are submitted online, and you can log in to your account and check your status at any time. Pretty cool.

It’s our fault

On January 18, were rudely reminded of another similarity between San Francisco and Wellington: Earthquakes! It wasn’t just one quake that hit New Zealand’s North Island that day, but (count ’em) seven. I should be used to it, but this was the first time I felt the earth move in our new country and I had forgotten how unnerving it is. I didn’t even feel the first five, which occurred from early afternoon to evening. The one at 9:36 pm however made us jump up from our dinner table, where we had just finished eating and sat around drinking and talking. The house was swaying back and forth a couple times but everything stayed in place. Just 50 minutes later, when my heart had returned to its normal rate, everything repeated. The largest quake measured 5.3 and emanated from off the North Island’s coast, about 60 miles east of Wellington.

And because it’s so much fun, there was yet another quake just a few days later. This one was a 5.5 with an epicentre just 18 miles from here, and unlike the previous rolling ones, this one came as a nasty jolt. I had just stepped out of the shower dripping wet and not really awake yet, and I was in no way prepared for any evacuation, so I muttered a couple of swearwords instead. Thankfully, it seems that the worst that happened were some items in shops being knocked off their shelves. Yep, New Zealand rocks.

Holiday, take two

Tongariro Crossing (click to enlarge)

Then it was time to try for that holiday again. The second time around, the premises for our trip looked a lot better than back in December. In the week leading up to our departure, the weather had been warm and sunny even in Wellington, and according to the forecast, it was supposed to be even warmer where we were headed. Still, when we drove up to Tongariro National Park, it almost felt strange to drive this now familiar road without rain.

We spent the first three days at the Discovery Lodge near Whakapapa Village, a place I’d highly recommend. They offer everything from motel rooms to tent sites, as well as a guest lounge and various services, such as shuttle transport and packed lunches. We had a private chalet with a small kitchen, and there was also a bar and restaurant and a large deck to sit, drink, and look at the volcanoes. We made good use of all of the above.

“The sun peeks its head over the hills…

…birds are chirping, fields glisten with morning dew…another perfect day in paradise.” This is a quote from the back of our muesli box, and usually, I find kitschy marketing prose like that rather annoying. During this trip, however, it simply described reality. The natural beauty of Tongariro National Park is hard to put into words. Since it’s all volcanic, the landscape can appear harsh and barren, and it becomes obvious very quickly why this area was chosen as the filming location for the dark lord Sauron’s domain of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. It’s not all rocky moonscape, though: There are emerald green lakes, sulphur springs, active vents and crater lakes, and even lush green forests in the lower areas of the park.

Top of the world

One of the best ways to experience all this is the Tongariro Crossing, a one-day, 11-mile day hike through some of the most spectacular volcanic landscape. Apparently, during summer, 800 people are doing this hike per day. It didn’t seem crowded, however. One reason was probably that we got an early start: Our shuttle for the trailhead left at 6 am and dropped us off just 15 minutes later; at least an hour before than all the other shuttle services, so we got a good head start. And even though there were some areas where larger numbers of people tended to gather, such as hard, steep climbs, or a couple of lunch spots, there were many times where we seemed alone in the park. In other words, it was “Kiwi-crowded”: lots of people for New Zealand standards, but still plenty lonely compared to popular destinations in the US or Europe.

There are tons of detailed descriptions of this hike out there so I don’t think the world needs yet another one. Pretty much all of them are raving about it, and they are right. It’s a fantastic experience. The trail can get a bit tricky in parts (lots of rock and sand, sometimes hard to get good footing), and the long downhill stretch in the second half of the trip can be hard on the knees, but it’s well worth the effort, and the stunning views will stay with you long after the soreness has vanished.

Because of the strenuous hike we had just completed, we wanted something a bit more relaxing the next day, so we drove to the Whakapapa Ski Area and took a couple of chairlifts up Mt. Ruapehu to the Knoll Ridge Chalet at 6,630 feet. Although the weather had been quite nice, the top of the mountain was covered in clouds all day, which made for a rather eery atmosphere. We had read that there is a “little walk” that you can take from the chalet, and we decided to do that. The little walk turned out to be a steep uphill climb, partially through old snow, partially through rocks, up to Skyline Ridge at 7,545 feet. At several points we were literally in the clouds, and often the trail was only identifiable through the poles that were placed intermittently. The view from the ridge was great, even though it was still cloudy, but the funnest part was the return trip: Sliding down on the snow or through the sand, we picked up quite a bit of speed and were back down in about a quarter of the time that it took us to climb up. Who-hoo!

Tongariro National Park, Blue LakeTongariro National Park, Emerald LakesTongariro National Park, Trail up to Red CraterMt.Ruapehu, Skyline WalkWhanganui RiverBridge to Nowhere

Panta rei

And then we were off to the Whanganui River. We had booked a three-day river journey with Blazing Paddles (Kiwis looove their puns). They provided all equipment—canoes and paddles, life vests, plastic barrels, maps, etc.—, transport to and from the river, and also gave us a briefing on how to read the river, how to best get through rapids, etc. They were super-friendly and professional, and again, I’d very much recommend them.

Achtung, Kiwis

Our trip started at Whakahoro, about an hour’s drive from Blazing Paddle’s location. A large portion of the drive was on gravel road, so we had to go rather slowly. Because for once I didn’t have to drive myself, I got to lean back and enjoy the landscape. It was New Zealand overload; almost too much. We drove through rolling green hills, dotted with sheep and lined with wooden fences, under a brilliant blue sky with only the occasional cotton-ball cloud. Once in a while we went through small forests or over little wooden bridges, and once we had to stop because a flock of sheep was blocking the entire width of the street. We also saw goats, rabbits, magpies, geese, and even a pheasant. Even commercials for breakfast cereal don’t use that many props…

We had already loaded all our gear into the waterproof plastic barrels and dry bags, so when we got to our destination, we simply had to load the barrels into the canoe and tie them securely in case we’d tip over. How quickly the latter can happen became clear after just a few minutes on the water. “There’s always a few simple rapids at the start to get your confidence up”, the brochure had said under the headline “What if I have no canoeing experience?”, and that was true. “This doesn’t mean that you won’t capsize if you don’t know what the heck you are doing”, it didn’t say, but we learned that quickly. There are only a few graded rapids during the journey, and you don’t hit them until the last day. But even smaller rapids need to be approached correctly to avoid being swept sideways or worse.

Whanganui River Journey

Thankfully, there are only a few basic rules you need to know: If you see a \/-shape on the river, it means there’s an obstacle in the water, usually a rock or tree trunk, and you need to steer clear of it. The inverted /\ on the other hand indicates the deepest channel and the safest place to be. As far as rapids are concerned, it’s best to go right into them and go with the flow. You look for the /\ and start paddling, trying to be just a bit faster than the rapid itself as it carries you along. Many rapids will be curved and seem to head right for a cliff, but it’s important to trust this rule and go with the rapid rather than try to bypass it. Lastly, you’ll encounter a few commercial jet boats on the river, and when you hear them approach, it’s best to move near the riverbank and turn the canoe sideways. A passing jet boat generates a lot of waves in its wake, and those often last forever as they just bounce back and forth between the cliffs on each side of the river. The best thing to do is to surf those waves, which are perpendicular to the normal current, until they calm down. Once we had internalised these rules, we had a blast going through the rapids, and although we did get soaked a couple of times, we never tipped over.

The entire three-day journey from Whakahoro to Pipiriki is about 55 miles, which meant an average of 7 hours of paddling per day; a bit more at the beginning and a bit less on the last day. The river was very low and even shallow in some places, and there was almost no current, so we had to work quite a bit to move forward. Again, the park was Kiwi-crowded, in other words, most of the time we were by ourselves. The peace and quiet of floating down the river was indescribable. Most of the time the river was bordered by high cliffs, lush green with fern trees, moss, and rivulets and waterfalls everywhere. Sometimes you’ll pass a cave, or a side stream; other than that, the only landmarks are the campgrounds every few hours. Never have I seen such saturated green, and this was even more enhanced by the reflections of the river banks in the very clear water. Most of the time, the only sounds we could hear, aside from our own paddles hitting the water, were bird song and the occasional bleating of a wild goat (and at night, the cry of the kiwi). After a while, my imagination started seeing strange faces in the rocks and taking driftwood for skulls, and the abundant jungle scenery created an atmosphere of equal parts Indiana Jones, Apocalypse Now, and Pippi Longstocking. All in all we had a wonderful time—it was the perfect mix of tranquility in nature and exhilarating fun.

Decision successful

When we returned from our trip, I went online to check on our immigration status, more out of habit than because I really expected anything new; after all, it had only been a week since we had submitted our Expression of Interest and been selected from the pool. Based on stories from others, we knew that the typical wait time between being Selected and actually getting an Invitation to Apply is 3-4 months. Imagine our surprise when we logged in and our status had changed to Decision Successful, which means we can now submit the actual residency application. The next day, we got an email from our consultant (who had been on vacation himself), asking if we had had a chance to submit the EOI before we left. So we’re all, duuude, we’re, like, so totally ahead of you… or something to that effect. The physical paperwork should arrive within days, and then it’s on to filling out the final application and collecting all the documentation. It shouldn’t take very long to get all that together—we’re definitely in the finishing line now. Pretty cool way to end the month.


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