Sunday, March 28, 2010

Moving! ... sort of

Don't let anyone tell you that ability in the classroom directly correlates with being able to function in the real world. I may have mentioned that my first act in NZ (besides running through the Auckland airport with my bags at 5:30am and oohing and aahing at Wellington harbor) was to completely fry a power converter by trying to plug my laptop into it. (Flash, pop, smoke, the whole shebang.) My second act was to go out and buy an adapter for my laptop (which apparently has a built in converter anyway and fries external convertors) and all was happy again. Until last night. As I was packing to move, I found a little single outlet surge protector I had brought with me from the states. I figured now that I had an adapter that could handle its three prongs, maybe I should plug it in.

*Note to self: Never. Ever. Assume you know what you're doing with an electronic device.
*Note to others: I am completely inept with technology. If it has wires, don't trust me with it.

As soon as I plugged it in, I saw the familiar spark, smelled smoke, etc. Oh dear, another electronic fried. Thankfully for me, I'm fairly low maintenance when it comes to things that plug in and having figured out a way to charge my laptop, I shouldn't have a problem for the rest of the time here. (Because I've fried everything with a plug that I brought other than my laptop.) Then I realized that I couldn't get my lamp to turn on, and the internet had also turned off. On my last night in my flat (or so I thought -- read on), I had managed to knock out power to half the house. Normal people would have just gone to the circuit board and flipped a switch. I did not know to do this (and was too scared to touch anything once someone told me what to do) so I frantically called my flatmate and then sat and waited until he came home to flip the switch.

As I write this I am sitting in the bedroom that I have been living in for the past month and a half. The only things currently in the room are a desk and chair, an empty chest of drawers, a small overnight bag and my backpack.

Yesterday I moved all of my stuff out of my current flat into the flat I'll be living in from now until January. Julie, Michael (our new Aussie flatmate) and I rented a van and ran all over the Wellington area picking up beds and shifting all of our stuff to our new place. (Thankfully Michael was there and used to driving 1) large vans and 2) on the left side of the road. Julie and I would have gotten ourselves killed.)

After picking up both Julie's and Michael's new beds and doing a lot of shopping at The Warehouse (basically the NZ equivalent of Target), we arrived out our new flat. There we discovered that our landlord is painting all of the bedrooms in the flat (which he hadn't told us he'd do). Also, he is painting my bedroom bright green, the same color as the nail polish I'm wearing right now. I happen to love the color but you have to wonder what possesses a guy to pick highlighter green as a wall color without consulting the future tenant.

The downside of all this painting is that, even though he said we could move in yesterday, we can't really sleep there without inhaling paint fumes. This wasn't the biggest problem for Julie (who has her flat with her insane flatmate for another week) or Michael (who's staying with family friends). It was a slightly bigger issue for me whose bed is now sitting on its side in the living room of a half painted flat. I ended up sleeping on the couch of my current flat. So that is why I am sitting in this state of limbo: living out of a suitcase in my current, soon to be former flat, in an empty room that yesterday was mine.

- Never, ever let me near something with a cord unsupervised. Unless you like sparks.
- I've sort of moved! Except not really, but kind of.
- At least it'll be green when I get there.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bruised knees and impending madness

My quest to be more outdoorsy continues. At the expense of my knees, which now resemble nothing so much as plums.

Fruit digression: Like the ones I bought at the Sunday veggie market. Apparently my vegetable impulse buying continues as well. Last week's random purchase: kiwifruit. (One has to be very careful to call the fruit "kiwifruit" not a "kiwi." "Kiwis" are people or birds but never fuzzy green things.)

Back to the outdoors: I've started rock climbing! Actually, I guess, started climbing again is more like it. I have always liked climbing (especially the whole being roped in so you can't fall thing) but haven't done it in years. The tramping club took a bunch of us out to Baring Head, a rock formation at a beach about 40 minutes from Wellington. It was a lot of fun but I was really rusty. (And climbing in sneakers, which my friend who's much more knowledgeable about these things informs me is enough to make it pretty hard to climb. Yes, it was all the shoes and not my total lack of balance or upper body strength. -- And yes, I know I'm supposed to use my legs. See my comment about lack of balance.) Long story short, I banged my knees a lot as I fell off the rock (multiple times). One time I was climbing quite far to the side of where I was roped in and managed a George of the Jungle-esque swing around the side of the rockface over the head of the (kind of cute in an "Am I still allowed to find undergrads cute?") climbing officer of the tramping club's head. I think my subconscious thinks it's my job to keep belayers (the people keeping me from cracking my skull open) on their toes. All in all a fun day though.

And just to be extra sporty I went climbing with Julie at a rock gym in Wellington last night. I also managed some spectacular falls there but this time completely avoided hitting the heads of anyone, cute or not, and actually managed to get to the top of some of the climbs. Alas, I managed to hit my knee again, so now it looks like a plum with a bruise. (I probably shouldn't have worn shorts today but the laundry situation is dire. I guess some things don't change.)

Saturday night was very interesting. I had the closest I'll probably ever come to a blind date/ the beginning of every Dateline story about children abducted by people they met on the internet. I went out to dinner and a play with a guy I'd never met and had only briefly emailed with. Long story short: I had emailed a guy upon first arriving about seeing his flat. His flatmate ended up showing me the place and I took a different flat so I never met the guy I was emailing with, an American who'd been in Wellington for a few years. He told me about an arts festival going on and invited me to a show. A few weeks later, after a couple emails about the dearth of Mexican food in Wellington, (Sidenote: it's bad. Do not take Felipe's, midnight taco trucks, Chipotle or even Taco Bell for granted.) we met. Suprisingly (it is me we're talking about) it wasn't particularly awkward and I gained a lot of good information. I have now been to the one decent Latin American (I say that because my dish had elements of food from all over Central and South America) restaurant in Wellington. Also the show we went to was FANTASTIC (especially for those of us who can still sing every lyric to every top 40 song of the 90s). It was a one man show about a boy band -- this guy managed to play an entire boy band and its manager by himself. It was incredibly impressive.

Research is going pretty well. I have hit a stumbling block, however. (Yay science!) I am looking for 5 different cell types in the blood, in smears from 1988 and 2008. I had taken tons of really beautiful pictures of tons of cells on the $80,000(!) microscope they let me play with. I thought I could consistently identify all 5 different cell types and was good to start my project. Then I realized that every eosinophil (don't worry about the name -- just a white blood cell type) I had found came from a 2008 sample and every heterophil from a 1988. Basically, I had identified everything wrong and needed to start again. The general consensus from everyone I've showed seems to be that they're cool looking, very different from mammals and incredibly confusing. My adviser told me yesterday that she thinks I'm going to go crazy. Little does she know I'm already a bit nuts. Should be interesting.

- Hannah : mountain goat :: anole on teflon : anole not on teflon. (Teflon is one of the few surfaces an anole can't stick on. Yeah, I know it's a lame analogy -- I've been staring at blood cells all day.)
- Hannah's knees : plums :: tuatara: lizard (I'm going to stop trying. I knew there was a reason the verbal section was my worst score on the GRE...)
- Say "no" to cannibalism. Eat kiwifruit, not kiwis.
- New Zealand has erased my paranoia about people I met on the internet but has not instilled in me a desire to do laundry.
- I never thought I'd say this, but I miss Taco Bell.
- There's a strong chance I'm going to go insane in the near future, or so say my advisers.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tramping is like herping

Oh dear. I keep telling myself I won’t write these epic posts that cover 2 weeks at a time. And I keep doing it. Maybe I’ll learn eventually. Maybe. So the highlights of my life:

Last weekend I went on my first “tramping” trip. For those of you who are unfamiliar with New Zealand slang, “to tramp” is to go on a multi day hiking/ backpacking trip. It has nothing to do with promiscuity. Geez, between “tramping” and “herping,” I’ve managed to make all of my outdoor adventures seem like adventures of a different kind.

The tramping: I joined the Victoria University Tramping Club last week. Last weekend was their “freshers” tramping trip, an easy 2 day, 2 night hike through Tararua Forest Park. When we left on Friday night, it was really windy and rainy but the weather was nice for the rest of the weekend. I was able to borrow a backpack and a sleeping pad from one of my office mates and off I went. I was in a group of 5 people: 3 American study abroad students and a Kiwi freshman guy led by a former member of the tramping club who was visiting from Norway and felt like leading a trip for old time’s sake. As the ovo-lacto vegetarian group, we were affectionately dubbed the “Octopussies” by the tramping club president, who after a few beers could only remember that the term “ovo-lacto” started with “o.” I didn’t mind the nickname that much but I’m not sure how fond Wilbur was of it.

The actual tramp was gorgeous. (As always, pics are on picasa and I finally figured out how to make sure I had the right links and they’re accessible. Links to each of my picasa albums are on the upper right hand of the blog.) When we got to the Tararuas on Friday night, we camped immediately. Even though it was intermittently stormy we still got some amazing views of the Milky Way and the Southern sky. Fun fact: Orion can be seen in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. I was excited about that. Another fun fact: Orion is the only constellation I can actually find. Fun fact 3: There are about 10 million “Southern Crosses” in the sky. I still don’t know which is the real one.

Saturday, we walked for 5ish hours from the carpark and over a suspension bridge (about 70m up! I was really proud of myself for getting across. The department of conservation had helpfully posted a sign about it being dangerous to cross in high winds b/c it sways so much. Thanks, DOC.) From there we walked through the forest, along a river and down to Totara Flats, a nice grassy area next to the river. I also went swimming in the river (if jumping and flailing in response to the near freezing temperatures counts as “swimming”) which was fun. Some brave people were jumping off a rock on the opposite bank into the river. Since I am afraid of heights (recall my standing on top of a rock on the senior class trip while everyone in the class jumped into the river twice before finally throwing myself off) and lack a blubber layer, I passed. That night I passed out at 9:30. I’ve never slept so well in my entire life. I did, however, keep sliding downhill in my sleeping bag only to find myself crushed into the fetal position against my backpack. My legs were also intensely sore and bugbitten. I can’t complain though – one of the girls in our group rolled her ankle 3 separate times on Saturday. She still beat me to the top of the hill though.  I’m the tortoise, not the hare. Yup, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

Sunday we walked along the river and up a huge hill (400m elevation gain – roughly 170 bottles of beer on the wall, for those of you who are wondering) to descend the other side into the carpark and go home. (Yup. I said “carpark.” I’ve also completely organically started calling “French fries” “chips.”) We also walked across another, smaller suspension bridge that was supposed to be restricted to 1 person only. Fortunately for me, the person following me was Wilbur and being the delightfully immature 18 year old boy he is and despite my pleas that he stay off the bridge as I was afraid of heights, he decided to get on the bridge while I was walking across and jump on it. At least we know immaturity is an international phenomenon. The walk itself was really gorgeous. I kept feeling like I was walking through Middle Earth. It was the classic forest, with the liverworts and moss, really pretty roots and awesome tree ferns dotting the forest. It was also kind of painful. When we stood up after the 2 hour bus ride, I almost couldn’t walk. My knees and butt have never actually been asked to pull my weight and they were very shocked that I had demanded so much of them.

I’m going rock climbing with the tramping club tomorrow. That should be fun as well.

In lab things are going well. I test stained a couple of blood smears and they came out well! I emailed one of the technicians here at the university asking for her advice on which stain to use. She told me the name of the stain and suggested that I “stain it as soon as the blood smear is dry. Don’t leave it overnight.” Which was helpful. But kind of irrelevant – the majority of my samples have been sitting unstained for over 22 years now. My “fresh” samples are 2 years old. But they worked! I was pretty excited. I’ve put a picture to show you what tuatara blood cells look like. They’re weird (for a number of reasons but mostly) because their erythrocytes or red blood cells are nucleated! Mammalian red blood cells don’t have a nucleus. That makes the tuatara blood more visually interesting but also harder to find leukocytes (white blood cells) in. However, the staining is going well, so I’m pretty stoked. It is annoying though because it takes 7minutes for me to stain 2 slides and I have definitely 50 and up to 160 slides to stain. Not to mention I still have to figure out what these little blobs actually are. A problem for next week. 

Probably the biggest news I have right now is that I’m moving! I am moving into a 3 bedroom flat with Julie (another Fulbrighter; labor attorney). Her roommate is completely nuts and she was looking for a new flat. She found one but needed two roommates and I decided to be one of them. It’s pretty close to the university and we’ll be living with this nice Australian guy doing his masters in creative writing. I actually decided to move into the flat (still haven’t seen it) a couple hours before leaving on my tramping trip. I came back from a weekend without cell reception to find out we’d gotten the flat and Julie’d already found our third flatmate. Pretty sweet. I only foresee one problem with this: Julie is half Italian, loves to feed people and is trying to gain weight.

I’m a little sad to be leaving my current flat. I really like my current flatmate and the flat; it just made more sense to live with Julie, whom I eat dinner with at least twice a week anyway. I’m hoping Marcus and I will stay good friends though. We’ve had some funny adventures. Ask me about them.

Other than that, nothing much to report. A couple days ago there was a lunchtime Fulbright lecture at the American embassy on the attitudes and perspectives of New Zealand and American scientists and to some extent the interaction of scientists and public policy. (How they feel about their jobs, what’s working, what’s not, etc.) It was a very interesting lecture although I think the more interesting part might have been trying to get into the embassy. We were not allowed to take pictures of any part of the embassy and upon entering the embassy were required to leave anything electronic in the guardhouse. Will someone please explain to me how I am going to bring down the embassy (of the government that is funding my stay here) with an ipod shuffle, a USB key and a computer charger. (I brought my laptop to work but hadn’t had to plug it in yet.) Side note: the rules don’t change if you “really love America.” Julie tried that tactic.

Hope all’s well with you. It’s starting to get cold here. Sometimes. Wellington faces directly South to Antarctica and when those Southerlies start blowing, it’s crazy. I thought I was going to fall over walking home from work one day. As Marcus told me, never leave home without your jacket, no matter how nice it looks.

- Tramping is awesome and, like herping, has nothing to do with sex.
- I’m in bad shape. My body has decided to punish me for that.
- I’m afraid of heights and the department of conservation isn’t helping.
- But I’m coming back for more. I’m so sporty.
- Tuatara blood is awesome! And confusing. But mostly awesome. And really really old.
- I’m moving! Julie and I are officially attached at the hip more so than we were before. If I start talking about “The Man” or the benefits of unions, it’ll be evidence that we share a brain too. I may also not be able to fit through doors in a short while.
- No one likes America and I’m off to google ways of using USB keys as offensive weapons.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tiny tsunamis and jumping on hills

More fun in Wellington. Two Fridays ago, my lab instituted a “mandatory pub night,” which consisted of us and some other members of the school of biological sciences going to the staff club for drinks at 4:30pm. (We were really eager to stop working. This may have largely been the result of a seminar on productivity that 4 of the 7 office mates attended the previous day. Ever since from 8 to 10am they are not allowed to do anything but sit at their desk and write. Apparently the first day, Friday, was particularly difficult.) The staff club is a bar that is only for postgraduate students and staff and sits on top of the main library. As many of you know, my roommates and I love our libraries (more so my roommates – I can’t really sit still. Sorry, Em.), but I never thought I’d be drinking basically inside one. The view was amazing, though. The university is on top of a huge hill and the library is quite tall so from the staff club you can see a lot of Wellington and the harbor. Pretty awesome. It was also nice to hang out with my office mates and get to chat.

Last weekend was pretty calm. On Saturday I saw the dragon boat races in Wellington harbor. Dragon boats, from what I understand, are basically just large canoes powered by 20 person teams. The teams were from all over (including Australia!) and consisted of work groups, school groups and just random groups of friends. It was pretty fun and it was cool to see everyone lined up along the waterfront. It was also my flatmate’s birthday. We held a party for him on Saturday. It was fun to meet all his friends. I think I have found the only group of Kiwis that actually hug. (Although there are also a fair number of Americans, Canadians and Brits mixed in with Marcus’ friends.) Sunday I spent basically the entire day in the flat because all of New Zealand had a tsunami warning due to the Chilean earthquake. After having been up until 4am cleaning up from Marcus’ party, I was woken up by two separate phone calls warning me about the tsunami… while I was in bed, on a hill 12 stories above sea level. The tsunami that hit New Zealand turned out to be 2ft tall but I stayed on the hill all day just to humor everyone.

I’m still pretty much in the planning stages of my project – lots of reading and brainstorming. I went through the blood smears we have from the population of tuatara I’m researching to figure out what I can look at. They’re stored in this locked, unmarked room in the bio building that houses the incubators for the tuatara eggs. The door’s alarmed and only a few people have keys – we have to call security every time we go in or out. It’s crazy. I got to see some of the incubating eggs and I’ll be here when they hatch! I’m excited for baby tuatara! It’s also kind of fun because there are 2 incubators, each at a different temperature. Tuatara have temperature dependent sex determination so by sticking an egg in a 20 degree or 23 degree Celcius incubator you can get a girl or a boy, respectively.

The nice thing about still being in the planning stages/ not having official classes is no homework! I’ve used this to great advantage, hanging out with people or doing something almost every night last week. Tuesday Julie and I intended to go rock climbing but instead ended up eating pasta and ice cream, watching Sex and the City and painting our nails. Clearly I’m making up for any time lost to homework during my adolescence. Wednesday, the international office at Vic (my uni – short for university, meaning university or college in the American sense; “college” here means “high school”) arranged a welcome party. It was quite fun; I didn’t meet quite as many people as I’d like but the food was good (even if they didn’t have very much of it) and they had some Samoan students perform traditional dance, which was really cool. They also had a quiz competition and a costume competition for the person with the best representation of their “national dress.” I wore a Red Sox t-shirt and jeans. I don’t think anyone thought it was a costume. The winner was a man in lederhosen, who had earlier in the evening done the haka to win a rugby ball. Needless to say, I doubt I’ll ever see that again.

(For those of you who are unfamiliar with the haka, it’s a Maori war chant done by the All Blacks, the national rugby team, to intimidate their opponents before each game. Further side note: According to our guide at Te Papa during orientation, the haka that the All Blacks do was written by a warrior who was running from some people who were trying to kill him. An old woman hid him by having him jump in a hole that she then covered with her skirt while she pointed his pursuers in the wrong direction. She was not wearing anything under her skirts and the view that the warrior saw in looking up inspired his haka. Not really the sort of thing one would expect to be shouted at a rugby game.)

This weekend was a lot of fun. Saturday Brad, Julie, Elizabeth and I (4 of the 5 Wellington Fulbrighters) went on a hike in the hills near Wellington. The suburbs of Wellington spread out from the CBD up the hills away from the harbor. They’re all really beautiful, green suburbs with a lot of public parks and a lot of nature preserves. We walked past the huge fenced nature reserve in Karori and almost to Otari-Wilton’s bush, the bush preserve. We then cut through a little valley of replanted native brush along a stream, up a hill past an old (but beautiful) cemetery and then up and along a ridge line in the hills above Wellington. We passed through pine forest which felt a lot like Southern California, except that every once in a while there’d be these huge tree ferns sticking out. Felt like being in a combination of Jurassic park, Costa Rica and Big Bear (2 hours northeast of LA). Also, ironically the Monterey pine is flourishing in NZ along with some other CA pines which are declining in CA.

We hiked through some fields that house cows occasionally. The difference between the vegetation on the two sides of the fence separating the grazing field from the native brush was striking. It’s clear what an impact livestock can have. From the top of the hills we could see water on both sides of the ridgeline (Wellington’s in a sheltered harbor on one side of a piece of jutting land), wind farms, pastures and all of Wellington and its suburbs. It was pretty awesome. It was also exceedingly windy. There happened to be a man up at the top whom we stopped to take our picture. He then proceeded to describe seemingly everything he knew about Americans while we stood in a little dip in the hill with the wind whipping through. (For those of you who don’t know, our friend informed us that getting elected president of the US is easy – you just have to win California and Texas. Simple.) When we got to the highest point of the hills, we had a ridiculous photoshoot – jumping, cartwheeling, headstands, etc. – if you’d like to see what America’s promising youths are up to, the pics are on facebook. We’ll blame it on the fact that the air was thinner up there. Yeah, that’s it… Also I’m wearing my typically ridiculous outdoors gear – between my dorky hat, hiking boots, zip off pants, my binoculars and my pigtails, Elizabeth said she could turn me into an explorer doll.

Afterwards I somehow managed to summon up the energy to attend a birthday party across town for someone in the school of biological sciences. (Two nights out in a row – I’m a party animal!) This morning I went to a farmer’s market outside Te Papa. The tsunami thwarted my plans to go last week and somehow I never made it to the grocery store so I was craving fresh fruits and veggies. Also, Wellington as a general rule is quite expensive, so I went a little crazy with the cheap produce. Still I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to eat that much stuff, let alone figure out how to cook it. I’m probably one of the few people to impulse buy corn. If you have any suggestions for meals involving spinach, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, garlic, apples, watermelon, potatoes, bell pepper or corn, let me know. Other than a large block of butter and a block of cheddar cheese, that’s all I have to eat. (Still haven’t gotten to the grocery store…) I also went bird watching in the botanical garden this afternoon with a grad student at Vic. I finally saw my first tui (a native bird with a white bib that is a very good mimic and makes a ton of calls; it also is the mascot for a brand of beer here. I knew what to look for by looking at beer bottles – who needs field guides when there’s Saturday night?) Also saw a native NZ pigeon (a bit larger than our normal street pigeons with a white body and iridescent green feathers on its head down to its chest). All in all a great but exhausting weekend. And now I’m off to bed.

- I should blog more often because these posts are getting epic.
- Studying in a library is fun. Drinking in a library with a beautiful view is better.
- Tsunamis are real. But in this case really really small.
- Not having homework is awesome. It allows you to spend time reliving 7th grade sleepovers and watching Bavarian men chant in Maori about unpleasant views of old women’s legs.
- I got to see a tuatara egg and in a couple months I’ll get to see it hatch!
- Wellington is super gorgeous and it’s even better when viewed for the top. And even even better when you attempt handstands, cartwheels and jumps at the top of hills. And even^3 better if you’re dressed like Dora the explorer.
- I’m in for a lot of vegetable eating. Almost solely vegetable eating, unless I need a beer to help me with my birding.