Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"You may ask yourself... Well, how did I get here?"

Today, in an eerie moment of clarity, I feel like I'm officially a career woman. It's kinda weird.

8:45 AM -- Arrive at work to be confronted with a last-minute event-organization emergency. Negotiate between parties, reconcile their schedueles, timelines, and technological requirements with very, very limited room availabilities. Solve by 10:45, whereby I notify my division of said event.

10:50 AM -- Join team at weekly morning teatime. Discuss our weekends, life in general with teammembers. Eat cookies. Mmmm...

11:15 AM -- Boss walks by the team, informs us of the Minister of Statistics visiting this afternoon. Warns us, when asked to shake hands, not to scream and run away.

11:20 AM -- Tea wraps up. On the way back to my desk, aforementioned boss runs an idea by me: that I be specifically introduced to the Minister. The general theme for introducing me seemed to be something to the effect of "raising StatsNZ's international visibility by reinforcing inter-organizational relations within the international statistical community". Nevermind that within mere line of sight, there are representatives from Germany, South Africa, China, Samoa, USA... it speaks highly of the esteem StatsNZ has for StatCan. Nice, huh? I tell him I'd be delighted.

11:30 AM -- Return to my desk, resume work. Begin testing data received from our systems-development branch, who had already caused a two MONTH delay in the entire survey processing. Upon brief inspection, I see immediately that crucial instructions were not followed.

11:45 AM -- Write terse email to systems developer informing him of this discrepancy, and encouraging him to reread the system specifications. CC to project managers, so that they can anticipate further delay, and know what the reason for it is.

12:10 PM -- Annoyed, I get a tasty coffee from the cafe downstairs. Upon arrival, I notice that there is a line, and remember that this is when normal people get their lunch. Change coffee order to coffee and muffin. Both are yummy. And the clerk was very nice. I feel better now.

12:25 PM -- Resume work at my desk, this time on my work for a different survey. Do research on editing and imputation methodologies for Census 2006. Make detailed notes, as this information concerns several of the projects I am working on.

2:00 PM -- Discuss the upcoming visit from Pacific Island statisticians: What information/guidance do they need in order to maximize their enjoyment of Wellington? What training will they be requiring, and at what level, and how to customize it to suit their informational/cultural needs? Brainstorm with other project helpers, distribute tasks between us.

2:45 PM -- Resume Census research at my desk.

3:45 PM -- Hear a commotion in the usually-silent StatsMethods section. Assume it's the Minister's visit. Discreetly check a handy reflective surface for muffin-bits between my teeth.

3:50 PM -- I hear the boss's preamble ("...and, representing our Foreign Contingent...") so I turn around with a smile. Then it's the usual schmooze: Stand up, handshake, introduction and brief chitchat, and usually a joke thrown in there somewhere. It went well, as he was extraordinarily pleasant.

Minister: "Canada, eh? Do you miss the snow, then?"
Me: "Not at all. Central Heating, on the other hand..." ^_^
Everyone: (ho ho ho)
Minister: "Aaah, yes, snow or not, Wellington can still get cold. My assistant's husband is from Whistler, and always talks about how he misses the snow. Where are you from?"
Me: "Originally, Winnipeg, but I moved from the StatCanada office in Ottawa."
Vince (boss): "...and to complicate matters, she's planning her wedding in a third city, Vancouver, from here!"
Minister: (surprised) "Wow! What's the statistical probability of all those cities being linked that way?"
Me: "I don't know, but the probability of getting grey hair while arranging such a thing is equal to one!"
Everyone: (ho ho ho)

3:55 PM -- Minister and his party continue their rounds, whilst I get back to work. Reflect on how I am glad I got a manicure the day before!

4:20 PM -- Work interrupted by persistent, unsettling feeling of being a manicured, high-heeled career woman. When did that happen? Scary...

4:30 PM -- Leave work a little early, humming Talking Heads, "Letting the Days Go By..." Thank you David Byrne.

(This post goes out to anyone who ever wondered what I actually DO for a living...!) ^_^

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Action Never Stops

... or at least, it doesn't seem to be slowing down.

Just when we thought that a trip to French Polynesia would be followed by uneventful, regular workweeks, we came back to anything but. I'll spare you many of the details, but here are the last two weeks, in point form:
  • Dave and I celebrated our three-years-of-dating-anniversary. Well, not so much celebrated as realized it had happened, and stammered congratulations while gob-smacked in schock. Has it seriously been that long?

  • My proposal to send some Statistics New Zealand staff to an upcoming conference -- GOVIS -- was received warmly, and with the brass suggesting that I myself attend! As to why this is a big deal, there is an international statistical megastar running a workshop... and I'm gonna be there! Now, this is not the usual statistical talk on the archaic, abstract, and largely useless minutae of statistical formulae (snore!). This guy's specialty is about using graphical interfaces and animations to make huge amounts of complex information readily understandable to regular folk. It's time to bring stats to the Information Age!

  • After a historic search spanning longer than Dave and I even KNOWING each other, I have found Bran Van 3000's Discosis album. Mike gave me a burnt copy shortly after us meeting, and it's been an absolute favourite since. Given that I wanted to support the band, I tried buying it -- the thieving HMV quoted it as costing $69.99! "But don't worry," the gum-chewing sales associate assured me, "you won't have to pay that, 'cuz it's not like we could even get it in for you anyway." Now on a mission, I checked every last music shop, used CD store, pawn shop, etc. I came across, and would only get a solemn shake of the head. "We haven't seen that disc through here in years." The situation was looking desperate, and I had resigned myself to "cheating" by buying it at once I returned to Canada.

    Then, last Monday, I was early for my art class, so went to the offbeat music shop next door. Wandering around, looking for nor at anything in particular, I saw her sitting on the shelf. Just sitting there, in front, looking right at me. It didn't even seem real, especially with the price tag of $15.99 NZ dollars (= about $13 Canadian)! I grab it, run to the counter, and exclaim "I've been looking for this for YEARS!!!!". Quoth the gum-chewing clerk, "Uhhh, yeah... do you wanna, like, buy that?"

    Good to know you can cross an ocean and still get the same staff at CD stores. ;-)

    Anyhow, it's been in the CD player continuously since getting home. I'm so happy.

  • Dave the Wonderful fought the evil Telecom dragon, who had, in December, replaced our high-speed internet connection with hacking-death-rattle-speed, left us with a "Yeah, sorry, it sucks to be you" letter, and then charged us the same monthly price as before. Dave the Wonderful was victorious, and has since secured for us a fast, reliable net connection, by New Zealand standards.

  • We have finally secured my wedding ring. It's a piece done by Peter Minturn, a Kiwi of extraordinary talent who we'd met at The Wellington Jewelry Exhibition earlier this year. Meeting him was very cool, and a story in and of itself, for he's every bit the wacky artist-type I know so well. The piece is beautiful -- both ornate and plain -- and hey, if his stuff is good enough for the Queen, it's good enough for me!

  • Aside from my usual methodological work at Stats NZ, I've somehow become a multipurpose event organizer. My latest ordeal has been planning the two-week introductory course for new recruits, and last monday was Day one. No catastrophes to speak of yet, and overall, Week One has gone quite well. At one point I had to stand in and teach a course -- the SAS Coding & Conference Technology module -- and it's gotten consistently positive feedback, despite taking place on a Friday afternoon. Hooray!

  • Lastly, Armageddon cometh. Last year, Dave and I attended this Wellingtonian Nerd Convention, and had a great time. I even got to meet Claudia Christian, who played one of my favourite female sci-fi characters of all time. This year's lineup is even bigger, though. Dave is stoked to meet Billy Dee, otherwise known as "Lando" from Star Wars. I, on the other hand, have other ambitions. First, meet Crispin Freeman, a voice actor whose work I know very well through my many years of gaming and anime-viewing. Next, get a copy of Bro'Town DVDs signed by The Naked Samoans, the writing troupe and creative force behind that brilliant show. And last but not least, meet Brian K. Vaughan, THE man behind "Y: The Last Man", a comic I follow religiously. He'll be there, and I'll have my copy of Kimono Dragons ready for him to sign. Sigh... I'm so happy! :-) (And, with any luck, I may even be attending in costume this year... but more on that later.)

Yes, life is good. :-)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Bora Bora

We landed in Bora Bora in the afternoon and spent some time hanging around the airport waiting for the ferry to come pick us up. The island is really a collection of motus (pronounced moh-too--it's the Tahitian word for small sand islands poking up out of the ocean), and the only way to access the airport is by water.

The trip across to the main island where we were staying was brilliant. The water was shades of blue I didn't even know existed. Throw this together with the sight of so many over-water bungalows, and Karla and I knew we were in 'official' postcard style paradise.

Bora Bora is the tourist centre of French Polyneisa, and so it was definitely a change of pace from Huahine. The place where we stayed, Chez Nono, was along the beach from several big time resorts (including the Hotel Intercontinental!), and there were a lot more people around. Luckily, this also meant there was easy access to a lot of fun things to do. But first on our list was getting something to eat.

Down the beach from Chez Nono was a little "Snack" where we landed some truly fantastic cheeseburgers and some gorgeous, perfectly crispy and perfectly salted fries. Washed down with some cool Hinano beer, I had 'Cheeseburger in Paradise' by Jimmy Buffett running through my mind. I swear, Jimmy probably wrote the song sitting where I was. But he probably wasn't as lucky as me, since a) he didn't have the lovely Karla sitting across the table from him, and b) he didn't have the privilege of seeing a wild stingray cruise into the beach and along the shallows right in front of us. Oh yes, paradise indeed.

The next couple of days had Karla and I mostly cruising between our beach front bungalow and a couple of deck chairs parked under the shade of a beautiful big tree. The major choices we faced were whether we wanted to swim, sleep, read or eat. I got to saw through two books: The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, that'd I'd been reading for work, and Otherland: City of Golden Shadows, by Tad Williams, that Karla had recommended. Both were goodies. It was great to have the luxury to just read for hours and hours.

We weren't total beach slugs though. We got out and did a couple of dives on the barrier reef that surrounds Bora Bora. The first dive had us swimming with black tipped reef sharks and gobs of gloriously coloured fish. The best bit was the 4 metre lemon-shark that swam along with us for a time. It was huge and beautiful, and not that interested in us. It did get close, though--so close that one of the dive instructors almost managed to catch a ride by getting a hold of its tail!

The next dive was nice but not that eventful. The neatest part of that was the bit of 'drift diving' we did--this meant just floating along as the current took us on a tour of the reef we were exploring. It was so strange to just be weightless and shifted along by the ocean's invisible hand. We were moving fast too--it wasn't exactly slow and easy, and kind of unnerving for diving newbies like us.

The other major activity was tour on our last day. It was great--we started by swimming with some sting rays. They were incredibly friendly, almost like dogs in the way they came up to us and wanted to be petted and fed. They would swim along at our feet and brush up against us. They were often pretty big too, one knocked me right off balance when it snuck up behind me.

We then went for a snorkel with some black tipped reef sharks. The guys running the tour chucked in a bunch of marlin to get them excited. It was amazing to see them swoop in on the bits and pieces floating in the water, especially when those pieces happened to be floating right near you!

After this we went for a traditional Tahitian lunch on one of the motus: barbecued marlin, poisson cru, a local sweet potato, coconut bread, and tons of other tasty tasty things. The tour guides then serenaded us with some local music, and I (with a fully belly and feeling very relaxed) promptly fell asleep. Karla had a great time during my snooze, making friends with the local hermit crab population.

We finished up the day with some snorkeling in the 'coral garden', where we spotted loads more fish, and even a couple of Moray eels. So much fun.

In the evenings, Karla and I would catch the sunset by the beach, and then go out for dinner. The food in French Polynesia is terrific, and Bora Bora was no exception. One stand out place we went was Bloody Mary's, haunt of the rich and famous (including Jimmy Buffet, and it turns out, the gentleman who took Karla and I out for dinner in Huahine, Rudy Markmiller). It's kind of a kitschy place for tourists, with sand on the floor. They even have a big sign out front of all the well known folk who have visited. But despite the hint of tackiness, the food is excellent. The fish, in particular, is brilliant. I know my Dad would be in heaven with all that's on offer.

Fun story: Karla and I got to meet the manager of Bloody Mary's thanks to a little joke Rudy asked us to play. Karla, in her most sultry voice approached Craig, the manger and said: "You know, Craig, you're not as ugly as Rudy said you were". This got some laughs from Craig, who has known Rudy for thirty years, and landed us some free drinks. Good one!

Another highlight of the trip was seeing Karla operate in French. Her skills are amazing! She was making friends with the folks at the hotel and at the dive shop, chatting up check out counter people and bus drivers. I was SO impressed with her, as were all the French speakers we met.

Our last night in Bora Bora we wandered down to the famous Hotel Bora Bora to check out how the other half live in luxury. The hotel didn't fail to impress, and we were even treated to a show! It included dancing, drumming, tests of manliness including spear throwing, rock lifting and fire twirling. It was all really interactive, with the audience members getting in on the performance. It was so much fun to watch, and a freebie to boot!

The next day we were off, and definitely sad to leave. There is so much to see in French Polynesia, I think we're definitely aiming to head back there again, if only for the poisson cru.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tahiti, Part 2: Serious Lounging in Huahine

After our hectic double-Friday, we spent the next day relaxing. There was an expedition to Fare, the main city, but we got lost on the way home. While there might be worse things than being lost in paradise, the experience would have been more fun had we not been carrying groceries and beer in the sweltering heat. Upon our eventual return to our cabin, we collapsed on the seaside hammocks and opened a bottle of champagne. It was just cheap stuff we'd brought from New Zealand, but it was cold, and utterly delicious.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging in hammocks, watching the surreally-blue ocean, and drinking champagne. It was absolute bliss. Periodically, we would go for a swim off the beach, and the sea was as warm as bathwater. It never got very deep, and you had to watch where you were going for fear of bumping into the innumerable mini-reefs here and there, all filled with beautiful fish.

Our hosts, Rande and his lovely wife, Emere, then invited us to a sunset cruise with some friends. Of course, we accepted, and at 4:30 we piled into Rande's car for the Fare dock. The boat, a pontoon-bar of sorts, was completely packed, and it seemed like half the population of the island was on it. Rande, Emere and Rudi seemed to know everyone there, and Dave and I got a chance to mingle a bit. Nobody else there was a tourist -- everyone else either lived there, or was visiting family who lived there. Huahine is very cool that way... it has a completely untouched, untrodden feel to it. As the boat sailed out to the bordering reef and into the sunset, village men picked up guitars to sing the island songs. It was magical. We arrived back in Fare well after dark, and the men's singing was still going strong even after we'd pulled into port. We thanked the boat owners with a bottle of NZ champagne (we'd brought two), and he seemed quite touched. (Almost as touched as we were for being able to share such a lovely boat ride.)
Given how early the sun sets so near the equator, we had plenty of time for dinner when we arrived back at the cabin. We'd bought burgers, buns, onions, and some BBQ sauce, and were looking forward to cooking for ourselves. They were toe-curlingly delicious, particularly when washed down with a Hinano beer or two. ;-) We stayed up awhile watching the geckos climb the outside screen and eat the bugs attracted to our cabin's light. It's surprisingly entertaining.
The next day was our last in lovely Huahine, so we decided to go sightseeing. We rented a car and toured the island, which was shockingly since there's only one road, and it runs in a figure eight. We saw a black pearl farm, a sacred ceremonial site (called "marae"), the more remote towns of Huahine, menacing land crabs, and a huge number of amazing lookouts and picturesque beaches. We stopped for lunch at a place known for its food and its view, and were not disappointed by either. After lunch, we found a deserted stretch of immaculate beach (not very hard on this island) and went for a snorkel in the gin-clear water. Sure enough, the reefs there rivalled many I've seen elsewhere... but here, we were the ONLY people in the water.
Afterward, we put towels under a big tree, caught an afternoon snooze, chased around hermit crabs, and investigated plant life. One big surprise was seeing a plant I hadn't encountered since the ruins in Belize I saw when I was 9... "sleeping grass". It's a tiny, tiny fern that grows along the ground, and gently closes up when touched or disturbed. What a thrill to see it again!
Sun was setting, and it was time to return to the cabin and pack, as we were leaving for Bora Bora the following day. I would miss Huahine... everything was so clean, so quiet, so uncommercial, and so comparatively cheap. Thanks in part to its undiscovered qualities, and in part to February being low season, we ran into a grand total of two other tourist couples in our wanderings. How much more authentic can you possibly get? Unfortunately, authenticity in this case also means a healthy population of stealthy mosquitos, little to no reliance on the English language, and absolutely no restaurants open on a Sunday night. Our last dinner in Huahine was cheese sandwiches. ^_^
The next morning, Rande and Emere came to our cabin to say goodbye. Emere gave us some shell necklaces she had kindly made for us, which was so very sweet of her. :-) She'd also given us the idea to make arrangements with the car rental company -- letting us keep the car until our noon flight the next day would save us about $20 in taxi fare. The only condition was that we picked up a staff member at the rental agency so he could drive the car back to Fare. Getting me, Dave, the car, and the Avis guy all together was a comedy of errors, but we got to the airport just in time for check-in, which happens about 15 minutes before boarding. All in all, a fairly smooth transition.
It was hard to leave Huahine... the slow, easy pace and the warm people are very easy to get used to. I'll be back, if I can help it!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tahiti, Part 1: Our Very Long Friday

French Polynesia is wonderful. It's been less than a week, and I can barely wait to return.

We left Wellington at about 8 PM on Friday, which meant we were able to work a full day beforehand. Not only did that save me having to use more precious vacation days, but I have so much to do that I could barely afford to take off the week. Nonetheless, I finished all I needed to, delegated the rest, and headed off to the airport.

Our Auckland stopover was a few hours, which gave us a chance to relax from the long workweek, have a few drinks, and generally get into holiday mode. At midnight, we boarded a plane to Pape'ete (pronounced, Pa-pay-AY-tay) the capital of Tahiti and the largest city in French Polynesia.

Approaching Tahiti, the first thing you see is her lesser-known sister island, Moorea. While Tahiti is green and rolling hills, Moorea is downright ominous. It's craggy, black, ultra-volcanic... the overall effect is like witnessing a handful of devil's teeth rising from bright blue ocean. It is said that one of the artists who migrated to Tahiti had a daily routine of waking up, making coffee, and painting Moorea. It is truly visually strange enough (and oddly, beautiful enough) to easily merit such dedication.

We landed amid the beautiful lagoons of Tahiti's Fa'a airport at 6:00 AM... Friday. After crossing the date line, we got two full Fridays. :-)

Our flight to our next destination, Huahine, was not due to leave until 5 PM, and there was none earlier. So we stored our luggage, and took the opportunity to explore Tahiti. Surprisingly, Tahiti is not at all the lagoon-and-palm-tree image I had expected. The tireless, populous bustle of Pape'ete is far more remeniscent of urban Mexico, but where the ubiquitous adobe-red colour is replaced with an aggressive, living green. Even the air smells of plants barely kept at bay by civilization.

Having long parted with the tourist-hordes headed for their five-star resorts, we took Tahiti's public transport, "le Truck" into downtown Pape'ete. I had heard good things about the market there, and it was apparently one of the few places where you could eat truly cheaply. The ride there was great -- picture a red truck with a semi-enclosed seating area on its rather large flatbed, with three benches running lengthways. It filled up as we approached the market, and we took its emptying as a cue that we had arrived. We navigated ourselves through and around all the neat sights of the Marché, and then went on a quest to find a historic cathedral, the Notre Dame.

It was completely unlike any church I've ever seen. Decidedly un-ornate, with white, tall walls and open-air windows and doors, its only decorations were the usual sequential paintings of the twelve stations of the cross. However, these too were unlike anything; they were highly stylized, with all characters of obvious Island ethnicity and garb. Each painting had a fairly long explanation under it done in rudimentary lettering, entirely in French. We sat there awhile, partly to soak it in, partly to rest. Then we made a move to the seaside.

There was very little there, but we did spot a building that looked nothing like the rest of Pape'ete. It was hut-shaped with deep-brown-coloured wood, large glass windows, and had that familiar overall gloss that reads, "money". Sure enough, it was a tourist bureau... and thanks to it being their low season, we were the only customers there. We asked the staff for suggestions on what to see, given that we needed to return to the airport by 4PM. They suggested the "lagoonarium", and then a museum.

Dodging intermittent tropical rains, we made it to the bus that would take us to the Lagoonarium. This bus was much more like the buses we know, and its rocking motions made it extremely difficult for David and I to keep our eyes open. Luckily, we got off at the right stop, which happened to be, primarily, a beautiful restaurant. We got two tickets -- $5 each -- to the Lagoonarium, which turned out to be a submerged viewing area for a semi-netted-in natural space. The viewing area is joined to the overwater restaurant by a very, very long dock. The soothing sight of pretty fish swimming by put us in danger, once again, of falling asleep on the spot, so we returned to the restaurant for a coffee. Or three.

We were so tired, we could barely get off our chairs. So we drank more coffee, and then more, and then Dave had a beer, and then we started getting hungry for lunch. The place wasn't exactly cheap, but between our total exhaustion, the fabulous view, and the luscious-looking Polynesian buffet being set out, the decision was a no-brainer. So we got some celebratory beers and enjoyed the delicious regional delicacy, poisson cru (raw fish, grated carrots and chopped onions marinated in coconut milk and lemon juice). By this time, the place had filled up with elderly tourists of all nationalities, and it got surprisingly lively even before the music started. A large, floral-shirt-clad Polynesian fellow got on a keyboard and sang for us all, which was every bit as much warmly entertaining as completely kitchy. But we had to move, if we were to see (and find) the museum.

We got back to the road just in time to catch the bus; luckily, staying awake during the ride was much easier this time. We kept our eyes peeled, continually consulting the map, and eventually passed a long, anonymous road where I could have sworn I'd briefly glimpsed a sign saying "Musée". On a hunch, we got off the bus to walk down said street.

It was long, it was well-conquered on both sides by green, green plants, and it was eerily deserted. Plus, aside from the arrow-sign I'd seen, there was no indication of there being a museum at all. But we kept walking.... after all, it was daylight, and in spots where the greenery let up enough to let us see what was behind, it seemed to be a residential area. Aside from the distance, the walking was made difficult by the brutal sun, the thick, muggy air, our exhaustion, and the general suspicion that we might be lost. But we pressed on, and eventually found another sign -- one confirming it was the RIGHT museum -- pointing us down another long, empty and unmarked street. Encouraged, we proceeded, and eventually the trees cleared away and we saw our destination... right next to an amazing black-sand beach.

Naturally, we investigated the beach first. Black sand apparently has volcanic origins, and I had only ever seen it before on certain beaches in New Zealand. One NZ beach in particular is a popular year-round resting ground for seals, who take advantage of scarce warmth by sprawling over sun-radiated black sand. Here there were no seals, and the warmth was my no means scarce. The water was this amazing light turquoise, luminous and alive in the near-blinding sunshine, washing over an onyx-black beach. A sight like that went a long way to restoring the tired bodies Dave and I had, as our Friday was already very long, and it was nowhere near over.

Afterwards, we made our way back to the museum. It covered a general history of French Polynesia, its topography, flora, fauna, culture, and anthropological significance. And best of all, it was air-conditioned. We lingered there awhile, and took off at about 3PM when the place filled up with tourists. Before getting back on the bus, we hit the local grocery store to stock up on snacks for the rest of our journey. The only thing I knew about our next destination, Huahine, is that it is the one island that has gone largely untouched by the tourist industry. Meaning, restaurants, supermarkets, and convenience stores were going to be a totally unknown quantity, particularly in relation to wherever our lodgings were.

We got back to the airport, transferred our bags from storage to check-in, and boarded the plane to Huahine without incident. Huahine is an island halfway between Tahiti and Bora Bora, and is known as the "savage beauty". We'd chosen it as a destination due to its relaxed reputation and road-less-taken status. My research had turned up a highly recommended pension (guesthouse) called Rande's Shack, with whom I had been in contact to arrange for airport pickup.

Breathing a sigh of relief, we finally pulled up to our lodgings. Finally, we can rest. Then, out of nowhere, Rande gave us a big hello, and said to hurry getting settled -- another guest wanted to go to dinner with us. Huh?! So much for an 8PM bedtime... Nonetheless, we had a great time. The other guest was Rudi, an American staying with Rande whilst doing renovations on his own hotel, Te Tiare. Well, what better endorsement could there be for our own accomodations if the owner of the island's only five-star resort was staying next door? ;-) Dinner was lovely, and Rudi was great company; he had all kinds of fun stories about his life, his family, and the resort.

Despite the enjoyable dinner, I was most grateful to see our cabin again. We were fast asleep even before our heads hit the pillows.