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Seeing New Zealand with new eyes

Arrivals at Auckland airport. Everyone looked stunningly familiar. It took forty minutes before we bumped into someone who actually was.
Arrivals at Auckland airport. Everyone looked stunningly familiar. It took forty minutes before we bumped into someone who actually was.

You travel to come home and see it in a new way.

I’ve always liked this quote about travel. Only now I come to search for its origin I can’t get the language precise enough to find its author. Maybe it’s just a much quoted sentiment. It’s true, anyway. For me never so plainly as in the first hours of arrival. Here’s what we saw:

  • We dress casually. Like, all the time. We might dress up to go to work, or for a special event, but not to go to the airport, or shopping.
  • There is a higher rate of shorts wearing per capita, per degree of temperature than anywhere else in the world. Seriously, it’s not that hot.
  • There is a strong (and inverse) correlation between a woman’s age and her hair length. I would wager the majority under forty have hair below their shoulders, and the majority over don’t.
  • We’re courteous to strangers. Everyone apologises for meager bumps of luggage trollies.
  • When the pilots on our domestic hop offered some commentary on the sights we could see below it was a simultaneous reminder of a) how note-worthily beautiful New Zealand can be and b) it is worth celebrating every time the weather is cloud free enough to provide for a decent view.
  • Other airport signs might say “trolleys not permitted/authorised/allowed…” Auckland’s say “no trolleys through here” like some neighbour is yelling at kids to get off of their lawn.


It was a year ago to the today that we left Wellington, and now we’re back.

Our first ever blog post talked of our departure card, and the questions on it that we couldn’t answer with any certainty.

We guessed Colombia was the country where we’d spend the most time. And on that front we were right.

We guessed we’d be gone for two years – a kind of halfway between the scenario of a year’s travel and a year’s travel plus a couple of years working overseas. Our arrival card shows we were officially away from New Zealand for eleven months and twenty four days, but also that we’re leaving again in one month and three days. The official purpose of our return is visiting, not living.


My arrival card also shows my high level of exhaustion, and related poor reading comprehension, when I said the last place I had lived for twelve months was non-applicable. Actually it was New Zealand, but that was twelve months ago. It just seems an awful lot longer than that.

This isn’t the end of this blog. There’s a good couple of weeks worth of posts about Japan and Spain to fill in, posts about pictures and separatist movements and my ongoing fear of sushi. The blog may even have a life after that.

But for now I wanted to confirm that we are home safe, enjoying the sunshine and looking forward to Christmas with our families.

We’re Melbourne bound for 2015 and beyond

We’re delighted to say that our inter-continental job hunt is complete, with jobs secured and our home for 2015 and beyond confirmed: we’re moving to Melbourne.

At times it felt a long and winding road but in the end we were super lucky to receive offers for jobs we are super excited about within the same hour for not just the same city, but a city that will be great to live in.

  • Fiona is joining the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet. She’ll be working in the education team, an area the newly elected Labor government has signaled as a key priority.
  • Joe is joining dandolopartners, a boutique policy and strategy consultancy which provides high quality advice to government or clients that work with government.

Strangely enough, neither of us has ever actually visited Melbourne. But every friend, relation and acquaintance that has raves about it. Plus it is, you know, objectively the most liveable city in the world. As our travels have worn on we’ve increasingly been seeking some cultural familiarity in our next home. Melbourne will certainly provide that, but still be different from New Zealand. For one thing, it houses almost as many people within its municipal bounds. Continue reading We’re Melbourne bound for 2015 and beyond

Travel with a painter

Painter goes in search of sunlight.

For almost as long as I can remember my dad has been a painter. His output has become more serious, skillful, and prodigious since he retired. Now he’s traveling with us, swapping South Island sunsets for Roman ruins as subjects.

Travel looks a little different through a painter’s eyes. I’m not sure what the painting equivalent to a photogenic scene is, but dad is always looking for it. The scene, that is, not the word.

It has a lot to do with light. Whereas we judge an absence of rain and haze as good travel conditions, dad is all about the existence of bright sunshine. Light lends shadow, depth and complexity to a painted image. It’s autumn here in Turkey and the weather is pleasant but the light has been hit and miss. That’s led to:

  • Small jumps of joy when the sun pops out for time enough to snap or sketch and scene that will be painted up later.
  • A lot of comments like “I hope the sun comes out soon”, “Maybe the sun will come out soon”, or “I’m not moving until the sun comes out”.

We’re headed on to Spain soon, and dad’s interests will no doubt turn sharply in the direction of Europe’s astoundingly good art galleries. But I have no doubt that when the sun suddenly cuts through the cloud like the hand of God, the sketch book will be fished out again.

If we go to Greece will we have been to Greece?

Fiona comes from a family of enthusiastic and accomplished travelers. So much so that, every once in a while, they circulate a spreadsheet where everyone marks down how many countries they have visited.

We’re currently staying with Fi’s uncle who is the clear frontrunner in this competition. With a career as a gold-mining geologist he has cause to go places no one else would (where is Mali, anyway?). We’re staying in Izmir with him at the moment and I recently declared we might consider taking a trip across the bay to a Greek Island. I love the novelty of new countries, I said, and another point in the sweepstake wouldn’t go amiss, either. His, not unconsidered view, was that lunch on a Greek Island did not a visit to Greece make, and was certainly not worthy of a spreadsheet point.

All this leads back to a very important question which I want to address once and for all: what standard do you have to meet to have been somewhere. There are a range of schools of thought, some legally or time based, some experiential. I have my own views which I will dress up as authoritative in a later post. But before I do I want to crowdsource the intuitions of my esteemed blog readers. Let me know what you think of the scenarios below.


Air New Zealand has done regional New Zealand a favour

My congratulations to Air New Zealand. They’ve bitten the political bullet and opted to cancel of routes that are operated exclusively by their smallest aircraft. That means the end of any services to Kaitaia, Whakatane and Westport. These routes, and the others served by the Beechcract 1900D, were loosing money hand over fist. Air New Zealand says about $1 million/month.

I have no doubt that the cities losing service will be upset, and there’ll probably be media rage in spades. But here’s what they should remember:

Flights still aren’t far away

  • For every cancelled airport, there’s another airport within an two hours drive. For Whakatane there are two within an hour’s drive.
  • For all nonstop routes cancelled (like Whangarei or Taupo to Wellington) there are options to fly through a hub (Auckland) or take a two hour drive to get a nonstop flight.

Regional New Zealand has been historically over served: we need to recalibrate our expectations

  • Most places in the world two hours drive to an airport with commercial service is nothing. Look at the US, the world’s biggest domestic market. Regional passengers routinely drive 5+ hours to get a flight.
  • Indeed, people in many big cities need to travel a good distance to an airport too. It took us two and a bit hours to get into central Istanbul yesterday.
  • And many others in big cities choose to go further to access more distant airports with low cost carriers and lower fares. That’s not dissimilar to a Wakatano driving to Rotorua to grabaseat which I am confident happens all the time.

These changes will ultimately make flying to the regions more accessible

  • The Beechcraft were tiny. Considerable fixed costs were split across just 19 passengers leading to inevitably high fares. There wasn’t much Air NZ could do to offer genuinely accessible fares to ordinary regional dwellers.
  • As it retires the ‘lil ones, Air New Zealand is adding more capacity to other regional airports with flights on fifty seat aircraft. Larger aircraft will bring lower fares, accessible to more regional New Zealanders.
  • The new low cost, last minute regional fares, are also a reasonable nod to the folk who need to travel to a funeral, or similar, and are buying fares at what would normally be the most expensive time. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re operating at scale.
  • Nowhere else in the world is there a single airline operating 19 seat and 350+ seat like Air New Zealand. Sustaining comparable fleet wide service levels for these different birds leads to a high costs base for the smallest ones.
  • It is possible that the likes of Soundsair (sponsor of the World Famous Kahurangi Marlborough Schools’ Debating Team) will step up to fill some regional gaps, as they’ve done for the former Air NZ Wellington-Wanganui route. Soundsair has a different cost structure and that allows them to offer fares that are genuinely competitive. I’d look out for them on Nelson-Palmerston North, in particular.

So good job, Air New Zealand. Do your best to weather the negative publicity storm. This is better for regional New Zealand, long term.

The richness of Turkey

Nothing says rich like a marina and a castle.
Nothing says rich like a marina and a castle.

Turkey feels rich. It feels more developed than most places we’ve been this year. We say that because:

  • the roads we drive on are good, and the hotels they lead us to are good quality (if expensive).
  • there are fewer small children, and they’re more likely to have their dads looking after them.
  • when our mini-van to Sumela monastery was pulled over by cops the driver couldn’t bribe his way out of having the wrong license.
  • there are lots of cats and dogs on the streets, but they look healthy and cared for.
  • people seem well dressed, like they’ve put time and effort into what they’re wearing.
  • the informal economy feels small: the taxis we take are marked; the stuff we buy is from shops, not the street (although apparently the number of people who dodge income tax is egregious).

We’ve often found these kinds of social markers the clearest indicators of development like when we we arrived in Argentina, got up into Colombia’s highlands or to Shanghai and Beijing. But they’re anecdotal, so I’ve gone searching to see how Turkey’s riches really compare to the other places we’ve been.

Riches in context

Our intuitions are about right. Turkey’s PPP per capita  (~$18k) slots it in between Iran (~$16k) and Argentina (~$20k). Venezuela is actually closest, just a couple of hundred dollars per person off Turkey. But I’m going to discount that as some kind of communist voodo. When we visited, Venezuela’s economy was going completely to pieces.

The problem with these kinds of per capita numbers, though, is they gloss over disparities within countries, and in Turkey these are big. In fact regional inequality in Turkey is amongst the highest in the OECD. This actually matches our observations too. It wasn’t until we got to some of the richer cities (Trabzon for starters) that we started seeing signs of richness. Since we’ve been through Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul and experienced the same thing.

All this has come as a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t conceived of Turkey as especially rich. Probably our expectations were just out of date. Turkey’s economy, especially the ‘Anatolian tigers‘, have been smashing it. Turkey just about went point for point in GDP growth with China around 2009-11, although it has dropped off the pace a little since.

More on student loans

Yesterday we said we were going to pay back our student loans because we thought that was the rational thing to do. A couple of commenters helpfully pointed out that student loan repayment policies have changed recently. The 10% lump sum repayment bonus we’d relied on when assessing our choices, has been removed. Boo.

Where does that leave us? Needing to think in a bit more depth, but still ending up at the same conclusion. It still makes sense to pay back your loan if the interest you’ll incur while overseas is greater than the value inflation will erode when you’re paying back the minimum at home. Interest is 5.5%, and you might assume inflation is 2%. On that basis, here’s a half decent rule of thumb:

  • if you think you will be away for less than half the amount of time it would take you to pay off your loan at home, you should wait to make your minimum repayments when you get home
  • if you think you will be away for more than half the amount of time it would take you to pay off your loan at home, you should repay it in full as soon as you can.

In our case, assuming constant income (which is depressingly conservative) we would expect to bash through the rest of our loans in about three years. But, assuming we get the chance, we expect to be working overseas for more than half that period so, again, we’ll be paying off our loans.

The closer you estimate you will be to being away for half the time to pay back at home, the more skeptical you should be about our rule of thumb, and the more it would make sense for you to delve into detail, using more nuance, and some more specific assumptions.

Fifty thousand views

We’ve hit a big blog views milestone. There have been 50,000 hits since we set things up in the departure lounge of Auckland airport ten and a bit months ago. When we did, we thought our readership might mainly be our mums. The interest fro far and wide has really exceeded our expectations.

Thank you to all the loyal readers out there. Your interest, comments and compliments have spurred me to write, and keep writing, far more consistently than in any travel diary. It will be a great record for us when our journey eventually ends. And hopefully it has given you some insight into what what we’re doing, and why, along the way.

To celebrate, I though I’d share some of the more unusual ways that visitors have arrived at our blog, courtesy of some unexpected search terms:

  • ‘Iranian porn’ has been popular recently, after I wrote of our wrangling on Western morality with a Yazdi hotel owner. I dare say whomever searched for ‘iranian lamb porn’ would have been very disappointed with what they found. More on the porn there… searches for ‘fagrant adulter porn’ get you here.
  • ‘Devil worshipers who are dangereous but undergroud (sic)’ is another favourite of mine. It’s this piece on the lot of Bolivian silver miners, and occasional devil worshipers that bring them here. Sadly it is the mining, rather than the devil worshiping, that we thought was dangerous.
  • Evidently there is little evidence of ‘hong kong women cardboard eating’. That search gets you to our post about the ‘cardboard city’ that Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers build in Hong Kong each Sunday, to more comfortably enjoy their day of rest.
  • I am glad to have contributed to the global literature on sloth devotion. Search for ‘do sloths kill people’ or ‘sloth bandwagon’ and you might end up here.
  • Personally I feel there should have been more than one searcher for ‘south American plumbing’ given how enlightening my treatise on why you can’t flush toilet paper in Latin America. But whatever.
  • And then, surprisingly, the most common search term, is for what I consider to be a vastly under searched for fruit: the humble lulo, king of Colombia’s tasty tropical offerings.

Rational actions: we’re going to pay off our student loans

Our quest for work outside New Zealand is looking promising enough for us to start thinking about some of the implications of earning our keep abroad. One of them is this: we need to choose whether or not to pay off our student loans.

New Zealand’s support for tertiary students is generous (though chronically underestimated by students). Beyond significant subsidies on tertiary fees, and a means tested student allowance, all tertiary students are able to access student loans to cover fees and living costs.

We both maxed out our student loans. We did this partly because we needed the money, partly to smooth our quality of life between study and work, and partly because it makes economic sense: the loans are interest free so long as you stay in New Zealand. If you invest your loan balance, you’re effectively earning free money!

Over the years we worked in New Zealand, our loan repayments came out of our salaries without us really noticing. We paid back only the minimum and made modest dents. The loans aren’t inflation adjusted, so the longer we take to pay back the less we really pay back. Since we’ve been traveling our loans have incurred interest, but we’ve exercised the year long repayment holiday we’re entitled to.

Now we have a choice to make: we have the means to pay off our loans outright, but is that in our best interests? If we were headed back to New Zealand the answer is no. We’d make minimum repayments again and let inflation erode the real value of our balance. If we never intend to work in New Zealand again, the answer is yes. We avoid interest and get a 10% bonus for lump sum repayments.

For us the situation is slightly more complex. We don’t expect to be away from New Zealand forever. So I was all ready to develop a complex model to establish the tipping point: how many years away before it makes sense for us to pay things off now. This was going to require some pretty gnarly assumptions (future earnings, inflation rates, how we’d earn interest…). Then I did some back of the envelope calculations and discovered the answer is clear enough to not get bogged down in detail.

Even with minimum repayments in New Zealand we’d chew through the rest of our loans pretty fast. Inflation wouldn’t have much time to gobble things up. The 10% repayment bonus for paying now would more than account for any time-value-of-money gains. We’ll be paying things back in full, and soon.

I have to say that this decision making process has challenged a couple of assumptions I had about the student loan policy. First, the loan repayments always felt to me like an extra tax, so automatic that I never really imagined them coming to an end. Second, I’ve generally been a big critic of the interest free loan policy. It skews incentives. Young professionals like us take advantage of the system leaving less tertiary education dollars to go round to folks more deserving than we. I stand by those concerns. But they are slightly blunted by my better understanding of how quickly loans are paid off.

I still argue, incidentally, that there should be progressive repayment thresholds, analogous to our tax system like no repayments up to $20,000 income, 10% up to $40,000, 20% up to $80,000 and 30% beyond. I’m especially keen on this idea because classic criticisms of progressive thresholds (as in tax) don’t easily apply. I doubt progressive repayment thresholds would significantly blunt graduates’ incentive to work hard for more pay. They’re building a career that will outlast the period in which they have to make loan repayments. Think progressive thresholds would encourage grads overseas? Not when they’ll incur interest if they do.

With a policy like that, this whole blog post would have been moot: we’d have paid off our loans before we ever left New Zealand.