In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

May - The Inside Story

As I said in the last blog, the weather is getting colder. We had a couple of weeks with gale force winds that closed the airport and ferries, and it feels warm if the temperature gets into the 50s. Still, in terms of cloud and rain, the weather changes every half hour, so it is never uninterrupted gloom. Therefore, we have done lots of inside things this month: music, theater, movies, and lectures. Unfortunately, these don’t offer so many opportunities for photos, so I am putting in pictures of the Museum, Parliament, and various statues around town.

This has been Music Month in Wellington, so Te Papa Museum has been offering lunch hour music events. We saw a Maori group called Big Belly Woman. They started with a couple of songs with Maori chants, but most of their work was jazzier. They did have an interesting instrument – basically a disk spun on 2 strings to make a humming noise – I don’t know its Maori name. Another program featured a pair of young Pakeha women singer/songwriters called Harriet and the Matches. (Pakeha is a commonly used, non-derogatory term here for non-Maoris.) Finally there was a program of nineteenth century French songs in honor of the Monet exhibit and performed by students from the New Zealand School of Music.

This month we also went to the first of the two operas we have bought tickets for: The Italian Girl in Algiers by Rossini. It was performed in a marvelous huge Baroque style Opera House. We were towards the back of the top tier, which would have been ok, except that our view of the English subtitles was partially blocked. We did manage to move down a little bit after the intermission. The Italian Girl is opera buffo, so the plot is quite silly, but Rossini’s music is very lyrical. I think to help the plot seem funnier, it was staged as a TV soap opera, but on the whole I found that to be more confusing and distracting, rather than helpful. The University has been offering some opera classes, so I took one about this opera, which definitely helped, and now I am taking a couple on Shakespeare as adapted to opera, which is very interesting.

We saw the play, Blood Wedding, by Garcia Lorca, ironically on Mother’s Day. The play is about a girl who runs off with a former lover on her wedding day. Although the groom’s mother did not particularly approve of the marriage, she does approve of her son pursuing the couple for revenge and honor. It was well done.

In honor of their Monet exhibit, Te Papa also showed some French documentaries (without subtitles) about Monet, Degas, and Debussy, which I think I actually understood about half of. I learned a lot, particularly about Debussy and Degas. They also showed a film about the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, which was really interesting. There were lots of film footage and stills from the 30s on. It was made on the occasion of a reunion in 2000 of surviving members. Many were still remarkably active and interesting for being in their eighties and nineties. Both programs piqued our interest for ballet, so we have bought tickets for a ballet in July.

We also went to two programs about writers. One was a reading, discussion and book signing with Ann Thwaite about a new book Passages she has written about her New Zealand pioneer great grandparents. She talked about some of the differences between writing family history and biography. She has written biographies of AA Milne and Frances Hodgson Burnett, among others. We also went to a panel of regional winners of the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, where each person read some of his or her book and answered questions.

I went with a friend from Meeting to see a film at the National Film Archives about Maori weaving. I found it most interesting about teaching and cultural transmission. In traditional societies, the children mostly learn without being taught. They are around adults all day, and attempt to do the things the adults are doing. The adults may help them learn, but that is secondary to doing what they do. When you have a society like the Maori, where some of that cultural transmission got interrupted, you have to more deliberately learn some of the crafts as an adult, so the people in the movie were really analyzing this process and trying to figure out how to continue to pass on their skills. They were also thinking about the role of artistic innovation in traditional crafts. The woman who was the main artist decided that what mattered was who you were making the piece for. If it was for the tribe, she made it traditionally. If it was for herself or for sale, she could innovate.

I also went to see the new Star Trek movie, which I enjoyed very much. And Ron and I went to see Rocky Horror Picture Show. At last I have seen it in a theater where the audience knew how to participate in the film. So there were lots of kids in costume, dancing and throwing rice and all the rest of the stuff. It was a lot of fun.

Finally, we have gotten involved with some political activism here. We were invited by a friend to go to a meeting about a raid that happened in 2007 on some Maori activists. Like many countries, New Zealand beefed up its security after 9/11. Having actually also zero danger from outside terrorists, it justifies its security budget by going after domestic targets. A Green party Member of Parliament talked about what he has discovered about his surveillance, and even that of his mother, a Communist back in the fifties and sixties. I also went to a rally for Aung San Suu Kyi a week ago, for all the good it might have done. It was a small group of people, but we were addressed by Members of Parliament from all three parties.

Then last Sunday and Monday we attended a conference on Nuclear Disarmament. The opening keynote speech was by Malcolm Fraser, a former (and rather conservative) Prime Minister in Australia, giving an excellent speech on why we need to move towards abolition of nuclear weapons now. New Zealand also has a Minister for Disarmament who spoke. With Obama’s recent speech in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons, now is hopefully the time to move forward on this front.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Two weeks in May - the wild life

Well, it is definitely becoming Autumn here. After a lovely April, the weather is much cooler now, and occasionally VERY WINDY. We feel lucky if the high gets to 15C (app. 60F), and we’ve had winds reaching 50 mph. A piece of glass got blown out of the overhang above the door to the Quaker Centre. We’ve had quite a bit of rain, but usually it comes in gusts and showers and then the rest of the day will be ok.

We have been to two wildlife refuges this month, which is where most of the pictures were taken. But first I have to introduce a new member of our entourage. My grand-nephew, AJ Mullen, in second grade in Canby Oregon, is doing a letter writing project with his class, so he mailed us a friend of his named Flat Stanley, from a book of the same name. We have been showing Stanley around Wellington and sending postcards and emails back to AJ. So, Stanley shows up in some of these pictures

New Zealand split off from Australia about 65 million years ago, so it has a very unique set of flora and fauna which evolved here without any mammals at all, and very few predators. Therefore, there are lots of flightless birds, and reproductive rates are slow. Many of the trees grew very, very big. When the Maoris came about 800 years ago, they started the first wave of extinctions, partly thru over hunting and partly by introducing the rat and the dog. For instance, there used to be the moa, a giant bird like the ostrich. Of course, when the Europeans arrived, the changes accelerated The North Island was probably 80% forest, and although the settlers certainly harvested some wood, they were so anxious to clear the land for farm and pasture, that they just burned a lot of it. Now New Zealand is slowly trying to restore habitat and stop extinctions. Many animals are only surviving on small islands which have either never had invasive species, or where it has been relatively easy to remove them.

One of these islands is Matiu/Somes Island in the middle of Wellington Harbour. Because of its location, it was used as a quarantine stop for both animals and humans until about 1920. During both WW1 and WW2, it was used as an internment camp for enemy aliens, including Italian residents of NZ. In the 1980s, rats were eliminated and native species of plants and then animals were re-introduced. So, on one of the warm, calm days that still happen, we took a ferry out to the island for a picnic and walk. We are not good at spotting birds and lizards, etc, but we did see red-crowned parakeets, fantails, and native robins. It only takes an hour to walk around, so you can tell it is a small island. The ferry ride back took us to almost all points of the harbor, north, east and south, so it was a lovely cruise.

Then a few days ago, we took the bus to Karori Sanctuary. Wellington was planned out with green belts around it, and this area had also been part of the water reservoir system, so it probably started out fairly green. Then in the 90s, they decided to turn it into an urban wild life sanctuary. Its approximately one square mile area is surrounded by a pest proof fence, the first of its kind, although it has now been duplicated elsewhere in NZ. They have eliminated invasive mammals, and reintroduced native trees and wildlife. One of the most invasive species that they are trying to eliminate all over NZ is an Australian tree possum. It eats leaves, flowers, fruits, eggs, baby birds, etc. and reproduces very successfully. Don’t know who had the clever idea to bring it over from Australia where it is a protected species. So we had a nice picnic and hike through part of the Sanctuary. We got very good at identifying the tui, a bird with a repertoire that would shame a mocking bird. We saw a tuatara, a small green lizard native only to NZ. There was a sign board in their protected area telling us where to look. Since I have never seen one of these animals actually move, once you know where one is, it is fairly easy to find. The park also puts out logs with dens for a native insect called a weta (pronounced with a short e), which looks sort of like a 2-3 inch long cricket. The park also includes an old gold mine. (New Zealand had its own gold rush in the 1860s.) The mine is supposed to have glow worms and cave wetas, but we didn’t see any.

We continue to hike up to the Botanical Gardens fairly often. We’ve been up 3-4 times and still only walked about half of it. The Botanical Gardens are about the opposite of the wildlife sanctuaries, because they were designed for testing out exotic plants to see what would grow well in New Zealand. Apparently there are more Monterey cypress in NZ than in California because they grow so well here. None the less, we have enjoyed the Rose Garden and the Begonia House and Tropical Hot House.

We also took a drive all around the Wellington peninsula. I think I described the harbor once as like an upside down J. The peninsula is more like an H, with Wellington actually on the outside of the left line. The horizontal line is where the airport is, and that land only rose up above sea level in a large earthquake about a hundred years ago. So we drove clockwise all around with the water to our left. You go through populated areas and then wild areas. Eventually, we got views of the South Island again. After maybe two hours of driving (slow and winding and many stops), when we reached the end of the road, we were able to turn back, drive straight north up the left of the H, and get home in about 15 minutes.

In the next post, I will write about all the intellectual and cultural activities of the last month.

Monday, May 4, 2009


We have made four excursions out of town since we arrived – 3 day trips and one longer trip. We just got back from two nights in Napier, so I will start with that.

Napier was a five and a half hour drive to the east coast. An odd thing I realized, comparing driving around Australia with New Zealand, is that we were mostly driving through forest, which I did not expect in Australia, and mostly driving through pasture land in New Zealand, which is sad because I believe it was pretty much all forest before the Europeans and their sheep got here.

Most of downtown Napier was destroyed in a 7.9 earthquake in February 1931, and particularly in the subsequent fire. I am most impressed with the rebuilding effort, compared with some modern day disasters. Within a few days a temporary town was built in the town square for the businesses to relocate to until a plan could be made for rebuilding. The earthquake actually helped the town in some ways because it raised the area a couple of meters. The town had been hemmed in by a large shallow lagoon which was drained by the uplift. It also had been subject to storm surges, so they pushed the rubble over to the beach, which was now higher and much wider. In the new town center, they widened the roads and put the utilities underground. Most of the town, about 20 blocks, was rebuilt within two years.

Napier is known as the Art Deco capital of the world, because most of the new buildings were built in this style. In the 80s, when a couple of buildings were torn down, the town realized it needed to preserve and restore its heritage, so it looks very good now and is a tourist attraction.
Besides just walking around on our own, we also took the 2 hour walking tour run by the Art Deco Trust, so we learned a lot about architectural styles of the time. Most Art Deco buildings use Egyptian or Mayan decorative motifs, but a few Napier buildings use Maori ones. We took lots of pictures, as you can see. A website is

Napier is on Hawke Bay so it has a long ocean front. Only a few public buildings are built on the ocean side of the boulevard, which makes for very nice views. The beach is black pebbles, becoming almost sand size at the water’s edge. Of course, it was much too cool to think about swimming, but we always like fall beach walks.

Napier is also the home of the National Aquarium, which is the first place we went to on our first morning. There were fish from other parts of the world as well as native NZ species. They had a nice large crocodile, a large sea turtle, and 2 tanks with sea horses. Apparently NZ has the biggest sea horse in the world, although that still only means they’re about 6 inches long. They have one of those oceanariums where you are walking through a tunnel in the tank with the sharks and manta rays swimming around and over you. They had a diver feeding the fish at ten am, but the place was so packed with mothers and strollers and preschool groups that we did not stay very long. For awhile they had an octopus who put on quite a show for people, changing colors and playing games, and then about 6 months ago, it escaped! Good on him, as they say here.

We did not go to the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, mostly for lack of time and because we chose to go to a movie there, The Topp Twins, instead. The Topp Twins are a unique NZ phenomena. They are lesbian twins who sing country music, including yodeling, interspersed with comic routines, one of which has them as 2 male farmers. They appear to be very popular. The movie is a retrospective of their career since they were kids in the eighties, busking on the streets. They were and are full of fun and energy, good singers with very funny routines. They also seem to have been involved with most of the political movements in NZ, from Maori land rights, to anti-apartheid protests, to nuclear free marches, and gay rights. They even had a TV show for a few years. The movie had been recommended to us, but is no longer showing in downtown Wellington, so it was great to see it in a small town. Website:

Our expedition a week earlier had been to Masterton in the Wairarapa Valley. We forgot to take our camera. We went to the local Museum and Art Gallery, which had a very complete history of Maori and settler interaction. The Wairarapa was one of the few areas where this did not descend into warfare. Then we went to the Pukaha Mount Bruce Bird Sanctuary, NZ’s national wildlife centre for threatened species. They have been having a very successful program of breeding and reintroducing native birds. Their crowd pleaser is the kaka feeding. Kakas are large parrots who live in the wild now but do still come back for daily feedings for the public. While drinking tea we could also see a couple of takahe in an enclosure. They are a flightless bird about the size of a goose with long red legs. They had a darkened kiwi enclosure so you can see these nocturnal birds during the daytime. I still can’t figure out why they got chosen as the national bird, since no one ever sees them and although they are surprisingly big, all they do is walk around sticking their long beaks into the ground to find worms and bugs. The egg fills up almost all the body cavity of the female so laying it is quite a struggle. The male then tends the egg, since they female probably wants nothing to do with it after all that work. We also saw a stitchbird and a tuatara, a very primitive kind of reptile. We want to go back there sometime for a longer visit with a camera. Their website is

Our first expedition had been to the Kapiti coast west of Wellington, with a nice coastal walk through Queen Elizabeth Park and lunch in Paraparaumu.

The second one was around the harbor, north then east then south to Baring Head, where we were surprised by a brilliant view of the South Island, including lots of snow covered peaks. We had then picnicked and took a short hike in the Rimutaka Forest Reserve.