(F)Auckland

It was a weird time to arrive in New Zealand. Just a few days after we landed, the New Zealand immigration services were overwhelmed by thousands of desperate Americans looking for an escape route. Any smugness I felt for being ahead of this avalanche was immediately snuffed out by the looks of pity I received from locals every time I presented my passport. In their eyes, I wasn’t smart for predicting the apocalypse; I was an idiot for not working harder to avoid it. And the truth behind that judgment cut deep. From the start, I was having trouble finding my footing.

A bit overconfident with our travel savviness, we took a gamble on a used car and the deal went south. As a consequence, we were holed up in Auckland for almost ten days, chasing smoke. We had only anticipated sticking around for three so that was about the time that I started referring to the city as Fauckland and writing my first country western ballad, Can’t Wait to Get the F***k of Fauckland. Damián didn’t seem to find my passive-aggressive tone too funny or maybe I just sing dreadfully off-key. Anyway, we learned a lot about cars, communication, and the integrity of human beings.

So we were in a foreign land with few friends and a shitty car when I suddenly witnessed my country’s belief system violently convulse and send shockwaves around the world. I received the news hunched over on the couch in the mechanic’s office where we were slowly being bled of our money. The expression on my face harbored enough fear and anguish that the the mechanic dipped into his secret stash of beer and offered me a cold one. I gratefully accepted.

aucklandparks

And then, quite literally, the earth shook beneath us. On November 14th, New Zealand suffered a 7.8 magnitude earthquake which killed two people, triggered tsunami alerts, and lifted up the seabed six meters in the town of Kaikoura. It was the second biggest earthquake on record since the European settlement of the country, but to me, it just felt like the perfect metaphor for everything that was going on inside my head.

Beginnings are never easy, that’s an established fact, but fortunately, New Zealand provides the ideal scenery to clear your mind, collect your thoughts, and take a deep breath when the road gets dark. Of course, you have to get out of Auckland first. That’s the catch.

aucklandstorefront

It’s a city that can only be described as ordinary. It has no pulse, no river of culture and energy running through its streets. Just trains that always run on time and people who show up for work.

The central business district or CBD of Auckland can be navigated via Queen Street and it offers the usual score of banks, clothing shops, and fast food restaurants before you end up at the harbor. The harbor is full of luxury yachts and sailboats, giving testimony to one of Auckland’s more popular nicknames: “City of Sails.” You can walk along Princes Wharf which offers a variety of high-class dining options or head out towards Silo Park in Wynyard Quarter, an area that comes alive in the summertime with outdoor movies, night markets, and cultural activities, but it was rather empty on the Friday we explored it.

Silo Park

Ponsonby is the neighborhood that the locals recommend for nightlife, and while certainly a bit more classy than the rest of the city, we struggled to find a bar that intrigued us enough to go in. To be fair, New Zealand is expensive so a bar has to be pretty special for us to let go of 7€ a beer. Perhaps that was what was holding us back: we felt priced out from the start.

In fact, the cost of living a growing problem in Auckland, one that everyone that we talked to made a point to grumble about. Newspapers here report that there are no more affordable housing options in the city. The average cost of an Auckland house is now $1 million NZD and citizens are worried that with more and  more wealthy foreigners arriving, it’s only going to get worse.

ponsonby

However, Auckland does have some bright spots, especially its parks and people. Auckland Domain offers 75 hectares of forested walks, open spaces, and exotic foliage to get lost in. In another park, we even stumbled across girls playing Bubble Soccer next to a fierce game of cricket. I am still not sure which game I understood less.

Bubble Soccer in Auckland

The highlight of our time in Auckland was the day we spent with Mary & Wayne. I am convinced that this lovely, retired Kiwi couple was deliberately placed in our path to ensure that Damián and I would have all the inspiration we needed to start our big adventure.

Last summer, Mary & Wayne were guests at Damián’s restaurant in Bilbao. When Damián learned that they were from New Zealand, he mentioned that he was planning to travel there soon and they graciously left him their contact card. Fast forward six months later and they have welcomed us like relatives.

They picked us up at our hostel, took us to some of Auckland’s impressive viewpoints, and even gave us a tour of their fantastic retirement community, where we had lunch together. They entertained us with their European travel stories listened intently to our own travel plans. The conversation felt more fitting for a backpacker hostel than a retirement community and their glow and enthusiasm was such that many times we began to question their real age.

The view from one of Auckland's look out points
Ragitoto Island, the view from one of Auckland’s lookout points

Truthfully, I fell in love with them. I fell in love with the way that they retold the story of trying to get a table at Damián’s busy restaurant like he was some kind of knight who swooped in and saved them from peril while Damián just shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly: “I was just doing my job.” I adored the way Mary spoke of Damián’s illness by saying, “he has diabetes number one” instead of type 1, as if he had won an award or he was the best of his kind. It spoke volumes to her positive perspective on life, which she emanated with every word. When Mary & Wayne told us about climbing up five flights of stairs with their luggage on their backs in order to reach their Airbnb apartment in Spain, Damián and I exchanged looks of doubt.

“Didn’t you guys get tired?” I asked and Mary’s eyes sparkled. “Hardly! We’re as fit as a fiddle!”

Those words will stay forever caught in my heart because in that moment, Mary became one of the many old fiery souls that I feel lucky to know; those who show no fear in the face of age nor any indication that it’s coming for them. Souls like Damián’s elderly Basque aunt, Mari Paz, who seems to take secret pleasure in outsmarting her days. I once asked her how she was feeling after her recent heart attack and she retorted: “I’m as strong as an oak!” and let out a victorious laugh. I am reminded of my great aunt Elaine who, in her seventies, still refuses to give up playing volleyball, riding horses, and taking her Harley out for a spin. I want to be like these old fiery souls when I grow old, if growing old is even such a thing.

Finally, we were able to get our car trouble sorted and leave Auckland behind. We headed north to Northland, eager to get a taste of the real New Zealand.

-Ashley

Auckland Harbor

INFORMATION FOR DIABETICS

In a few weeks, we will publish a more detailed post dedicated to diabetes care in New Zealand. In the meantime, here are some basic recommendations.

It’s important that you come with a quality travel insurance policy as a tourist. This is also an essential requirement for the popular working-holiday visa that New Zealand offers. We recommend la Correduría de Seguros Barchilon, who offer a travel insurance policy specifically for diabetics.

Since Auckland is a major city, you will have no problem meeting your dietary needs or buying any emergency sugar products, but it’s a good idea to always carry some granola bars or, in our case, some Gluc Up 15 sticks, thanks to our sponsors.

WHAT TO EAT

Apart from being extremely expensive, New Zealand is not particularly well known for its food. Given its history, it borrows a lot from British cuisine while using local ingredients. Fish and Chips is the most typical dish and it consists of a simple filet of fried fish accompanied by heaps of potato fries, which means it’s really only beneficial after a hard night of drinking! Alternatively, you will find many Korean, Chinese, Thai, and Indian dining options due the high number of Asian immigrants and influence of the Pacific Rim cultures.

Fortunately, there are a fair number of new fruits and vegetables to delight our taste buds. For example, kumara or the sweet potato has long been a staple of the Maori diet and it comes in many sizes, colors, and slight variations in flavor. There are contradicting opinions on the sweet potato with respect to diabetes. Some recommend that it is best to be avoided due to its high sugar content while others ensure that it’s OK to eat given that it has a lower glycemic index than the normal potato. Either way, what you need to know is that in 50 grams of kumara contain one serving of carbohydrates and have a glycemic index of 50. In 30 grams of French fries, there is one serving of carbohydrates, with a glycemic index of 70. Your fried fish calculations will always depend on the batter, but an 85 gram filet could be considered approximately one and half servings of carbohydrates.

WHERE TO SLEEP

New Zealand is a country built for campervan, car, or tent sleeping, but anything is possible. So far, we have slept in decent $20 backpacker hostels, in our car, at Airbnb apartments or Department of Conservation campgrounds, and we have used Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing and camping are our preferred accommodations, but they are not always easy to find. Given the high number of backpackers crossing the country each year, some regions can become saturated quickly.

It is a good idea to call ahead at the campgrounds to inquire about insulin storage. Many campsites have live-in rangers who can offer their refrigerator for your cooling needs. With our Couchsurfing experiences, we communicate with our hosts ahead of time to make sure we have some refrigerator space. Everyone has been understanding and helpful in this respect. On the rare occasion, where we were stuck one or two nights without adequate refrigeration, we were amazed at the power of our Medactiv bags. They kept Damián’s insulin chilled for over 24 hours and we are so relieved to have these portable cooler bags as a reliable alternative.

Finally, we’d like to say a huge thank you to Alexa in Auckland who we connected with through the Northland Diabetes New Zealand branch. She kindly offered to let us store some of Damián’s insulin supply at her place while we traveled into the bush. From this, we learned that we should never be afraid to ask for a favor in this respect because most people are more than willing to help. Gracias Alexa!

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