Posted by: JLG | 4 April 2014

Autumnal Penguin Visit

It had been a little while since our last visit to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, and with our intern about to leave Oamaru for Australia in a few days we thought it was high time to return. This time of year the penguin evening viewing starts at 7:30pm, so we had an early dinner before making our way to the Colony. What a nice surprise it was to find that the premium viewing stands were full for the night, and the standard seating was probably half full or better. It was a pleasant evening, neither too warm nor too cool, and while we waited for the first penguins we had the charming sight of some NZ fur seals tussling on the rocks before separating and using the rocks to scratch their backs.

The first raft of penguins appeared very shortly after we arrived, startling us with the speed with which they made their way from the rocky shore to their nests. Before long, another rafter appeared, and then another one after that. In all, 72 penguins came on shore during the 45 minutes we were there, making for the largest number of arrivals in the past several weeks.

Next week we will be heading off on a little road trip to pick up our friends Naomi and Mike who’ll be flying in from Shanghai. We’ll take them to Te Anau, Doubtful Sound, Wanaka and Queenstown, and then Oamaru before heading up to Kaikoura. Should be a great trip, and we’ll keep you posted on how it progresses.

Posted by: JLG | 28 February 2014

Return of the Aggrieved Consumer (and the Blog)

In years past, I was known by some of my family and friends as the aggrieved consumer, since I was not averse to letting companies that failed to live up to my expectations of them know about it, and more often than not I wound up getting some sort of satisfactory outcome. While living in China this aspect of my personality was in remission, since not very many Chinese companies seemed to give a damn if they failed to satisfy their customers. In NZ it really wasn’t necessary either, at first, since things have largely been pretty good. But today, that old black magic came back into play, and I’m happy to say it had a happy ending.

So here’s the story: we recently decided that it might be time to replace our old TV, which we had bought in China for our old apartment. There was nothing really bad about the TV, but when we have house sitters stay here it’s always a bit of a challenge to explain to them how to use it, since the remote and physical controls were all in Chinese and a surprising number of people in Oamaru cannot read them. So I happened to be in the local branch of Smiths City last weekend when they were having their one-day sale, under which a 39″ Panasonic full-HD television was just $599. That seemed a good deal, so I bought it and set it up. Then on Wednesday I saw in the local newspaper that Smiths City was having a three-day sale, and that same television was now just $579. So I went in and asked why it was that the new price was lower than the “one-day-only, cannot-be-beat” price that they had just four days earlier. They apologised and gave me the $20 back. Then today, in the weekender edition of the local paper, another appliance store in town had an ad for a five-day sale that had that same TV for just $499! So I phoned Smiths City and pointed it out to them and asked if they’d match the price. The answer that came back was a resounding “no”, so I asked what their return policy was. Sure enough, I could return the TV to them for a full refund, so that’s what I decided to do, stopping to buy the new TV first, just to make sure that it was actually available, was the same set, and that there were no ‘hitches’. Sure enough the other store (Noel Leeming) had the set and while they went to get it I poked around the shop and found a few other things that I thought I could use, and bought J2 a Bluetooth adaptor so that he can listen to music from his new (non-Apple) cellphone in the laundry room. Then I went back to the Smiths City, returned the TV and decided that would be the last time I buy anything from them.

So that was that, and now I can try to catch you up on other matters of interest. It’s been ages since I wrote here, since this has easily been the busiest season we’ve had so far and there has been no time to do much of anything other than look after guests. The guests this year have been absolutely fantastic (so far…) and we even had our first guest cry at saying goodbye to us. We have hired a new chef to work with me in the kitchen, which has been a tremendous help, both because of the work she takes away from me, but also because she has a real eye for plating and a talent for using the produce that J2 grows in the garden.

We have also had just about the worst summer weather-wise that we have had so far, with nary a day with temperatures above 25, and a lot of rain. And today, officially the last day of summer, is rainy, gray and cold, making me a bit happier that we have planned to miss two months of winter this year while we galavant around the northern hemisphere marketing the lodge and taking a bit of time off for some R&R. More on that later!

The #gigatownoamaru campaign continues, but we are jumping the gun and signing up for UFB now, rather than waiting for Oamaru to win it through the competition. We tried to get it through our existing ISP, but they crapped out on us, so we are switching to another one (with a better reputation) so we’ll see how that comes along. Perhaps the aggrieved consumer will make another appearance before long!

Posted by: JLG | 11 January 2014

Catching Up

It’s been an age since I last wrote, I know, so I’m going to try to catch you up now on what’s happened since the last post.

December was not extremely busy for the most part, which is normal for us since I think most people are busy doing their family and business Christmas parties back home and don’t want to travel. But then at the end of the month we had a lot of bookings, so things looked set to be pretty busy. A few days before Christmas, however, we started getting a spate of last-minute cancellations. One guy cancelled after some random people whom he met on a Kaikoura dolphin tour told him to skip Oamaru in favour of Punakaiki (!), another had already checked in for a three-night stay, but during breakfast on their first morning their agent phoned to say that there was a cancellation at Whare Kea and they could spend their next two nights there instead of staying with us. Then another guy cancelled just for no reason at all, and a fourth party that had taken three rooms on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day cancelled their entire NZ trip. Happily for us, each of these was cancelled within seven days of arrival so each had to pay 100% of their booking as a penalty. We started to get a bit paranoid about this, but then we started getting some new bookings and were thus even able to make use of some of the food we had laid in for all these holiday-period guests.

January started up a lot better, with a load of guests, most of whom were dining in. We were so busy, and look likely to remain so, that we thought we should bring on a new person to help with breakfasts. We hired a lady and had her come in for a trial session and found that it was not going to work out–for one thing she talks a LOT, and for another she just does not cook the way I’d like things done. But rather than let her go, we thought we’d put her on laundry duty, where she has no one to talk to, and which gives J2 a bit of help. We were all set to do without kitchen help when, from out of the blue, a young woman came up while I was in the middle of seeing guests off, asking if we had a chef job open. After a quick chat, I asked her to put together three sample menus to show me and scheduled a sort of interview for late last week. That went well so we asked her to come back this past Tuesday to cook us a meal as a practical interview.

The day before her dinner, on Monday night, we had a houseful of Singaporeans who requested a dairy-free and gluten-free dinner. That was no problem, and they were very nice people, but we had no help in the house that night, so J2 and I were running ragged looking after them. Then, right after we served them their main course, as J2 was washing the dishes from the appetiser, he managed to break a glass bowl and slice the dickens out of his left index finger. The cut was deep, and extensive, and it was clear he needed to go to the hospital, but I could not abandon the guests, and he could not drive himself. We called our friends Toni and Derek, and when Derek answered the phone I told him I needed him to take J2 to the hospital. Before I could tell him why, he had put down the phone and was on his way around the corner to collect him. (I phoned again when I had a break in service to tell Toni what was going on, so she would not worry. Apparently Derek didn’t tell her why he had dashed out of the house, so she was in a real state of confusion!) When J2 came back a few hours later, he had a big ole bandage on his finger and his arm was in a sling to keep his finger above his heart. And, in another in the long list of reasons why we’re glad to have moved to NZ, the cost of his visit to the ER was exactly zero.

The chef’s test dinner was a real treat, with excellent flavours, creative combinations and beautiful presentation. On the strength of this performance we hired her, bringing her in the next night to help me with dinner for four guests (we also brought in a waitress, since J2 could not get his finger wet). The plan was to have me cook the dinner, and to have her help plate so that she can see how we do things. When the one couple who had booked B&B with us instead of DBB saw the night’s menu, they also asked to join in on the meal, so we wound up with six people dining. They were very pleased with the meal, so much so in fact that they the two who still had one more night with us asked to add another dinner to their booking. For that dinner I asked the chef (whose name is Ashley) to prepare the meal under my supervision and using ingredients that we had on hand. The result was a real delight, and the guests left fat and happy.

Ashley returned on Thursday and again did a stellar job, but it was on Friday that she really proved her worth. We had two rooms booked, one for a pair of older English people, and the other a Russian couple and their young child. We thought that the English would be dining in, but not the Russians, but when they arrived it seemed that the English had not booked dinner. Happily, they arrived just as Ashley did, so they realised that our ‘chef’ had arrived, and they asked to add dinner to their booking after all. Shortly after that the Russians arrived, and their five-year-old daughter had them wrapped around their fingers. No sooner did they walk in than she demanded “dessert” (it was 5pm) so they asked if we could wrangle up something sweet for her, and some tea for them. So I brought out some Christmas cookies that were lingering in the kitchen, and put them on a cute plate that our friend Jeff gave us with dogs painted on it. That was a big mistake since it persuaded the parents that they should stay for dinner!

I went and spoke with Ashley and we put together a plan to stretch out what we could and make new things to suit the Russian husband’s gluten intolerance. I set her to work on it so that I could entertain the guests while they had their canapés. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that we could not have the Russians and English dine together, since the kid just would not quiet down and the English were not in the mood to eat with a screaming child in their midst. So we set up a separate dining table in the billiards room for the Russians, and set to work. In the end, the evening went swimmingly, and all left fat and happy again.

Today was our first day off in a little while, which I spent taking care of little projects in the kitchen (including harvesting a couple kgs of sour cherries at a friend’s farm) while J2 took a nap or two. We have a few days of guests coming up that Ashley will help with, and then a few days off that I can use to teach her how to do some of our standards (mozzarella, croissants, bread, etc). Then it’s a few weeks in a row of non-stop guests.

Before I forget, and in case you’re still with me, we have booked our flights for our winter marketing trip. Here’s the itinerary:

  • 13-16 June Vancouver
  • 16-19 June Seattle
  • 19-25 June LA
  • 25-27 June Chicago
  • 27 June -3 July DC
  • 3 July – 12 July NYC
  • 13 July – 21 July UK
  • 21 July – 25 July Netherlands
  • 26 July – 5 August Burma
  • 5 – 7 August Bangkok
  • 8 August Home

If you’re in any of these places, we hope we’ll get a chance to see you!

Here are some photos of the new chef’s work:

Posted by: JLG | 7 December 2013

Gingerbread!

Gingerbread 2013 has been revealed! Work began selecting a subject a few weeks ago, a challenge considering that we had no overseas trips this year (my only foray out of NZ was for a conference in Shanghai, and J2 did not come along). We played around with a couple of ideas, mostly in the UK, since we plan to visit the UK again this coming winter and thought it would be a good conversation starter. The main prospect seemed to be Westminster Abbey, but when J2 started to work on it he realised that it was not that interesting a building to render in gingerbread. That’s when I suggested Exeter Cathedral. Although not a dramatic building in some ways, it ties in with PYB a bit better, since: a) it’s in Devon, the county from which PYB’s original owners hailed; b) it’s got the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England, which is sort of like PYB being the largest single-storey wooden dwelling in the South Island/New Zealand/Australasia/whatever it is; and c) it has flying buttresses, which people always like to see rendered in gingerbread.

Construction started just after the Victorian high tea on Nov 16, with a few interruptions for dinner events at the lodge. In the end, it was finished by last Saturday, after about a week of work, but we agreed with the local papers to embargo any photos until they could reveal it in their pages. No sooner did they print their papers than I got to work on Facebook publicising the images. What surprised me, though, was the speed with which it became known to the people in Exeter that their cathedral had been recreated in gingerbread by two guys in New Zealand! I got tweets from @ExeterCathedral and @ExeterCouncil and from a few publications out there asking for photos, and now we have followers from all over SW England. The icing on the cake (ahem…) is that Exeter Cathedral tweeted the other day with a photo of a few books about the cathedral, and two entry passes, that they have mailed us!

You can read the articles that have appeared (so far…) here and here.

#gigatownoamaru

Posted by: JLG | 24 November 2013

Thanksgiving in Oamaru

It all began with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s visit to Oamaru in March. We were invited to the little pre-concert reception in the Opera House and there J2 met a dentist with a practice in town with whom he struck up a conversation. Months later, when J2 needed to see a dentist for his regular cleaning, he decided to visit his practice, and there the two of them got to chatting and struck up a friendship so J2 came home and said he’d like to invite the dentist and his wife to dinner sometime. A few days later, I was at the farm where I buy my milk for making fior di latte (aka cow’s milk mozzarella) and stracchino cheese, and the farmer told me that in a few days they would be ‘dispatching’ some turkeys, and asked if I would I like one for Thanksgiving. It seemed like a good excuse to invite the dentist to dinner, and for me to buy a fresh-from-the-farm turkey, so I placed an order. The date settled on for the dinner was 23 November, a bit before Thanksgiving (which this year is on the 28th) but quite consistent with my family’s usual practice of having a pre-Thanksgiving dinner the weekend before at my sister’s house in Connecticut so that we could then have our echt-Thanksgiving at our own homes. In addition to the dentist and his wife we also invited our friends Toni and Derek and our other friend Catriona.

For the menu, we decided to stick with tradition. This of course meant preparing an autumnal meal in the middle of spring, but what of it? So in addition to a roasted turkey (which was dolled up with a bit of truffle butter under the skin, using a truffle that I bought on a trip to France with Abdo & Barbara long enough ago that the price tag on the jar is in Francs), I also made J2′s favourite, succotash, though gussied up a bit with the use of edamame instead of lima beans. Of course we had to have stuffing, in this case a chestnut-leek-apple stuffing with mushrooms, and cranberry relish, and it just is not Thanksgiving without my mom’s sweet potato casserole, though I make it with fresh sweet potatoes instead of canned (there’s no such thing as canned sweet potato here, anyway) and since NZ marshmallows only come in packets that include white and pink marshmallows, and pink marshmallows are gross, I made my own all-white marshmallows to top the thing with. The one truly non-traditional item on the menu was the asparagus, which are at the height of the season right now. For dessert, it was to be pecan pie and pumpkin pie, with the non-tradition addition of my new favourite pastry, a fraisier (which is a gateau made with sponge, German buttercream, strawberries and marzipan).

The guests arrived at 7pm and we started off with drinks in the drawing room. To my surprise and delight, Catriona and Derek were interested in trying my new Pen-y-bryn Negroni, which I invented when looking for something to do with the Seville orange wine that I made a few months ago. It’s the same as a Negroni, but the Seville orange wine stands in for the usual Campari, and when mixed with the vermouth and gin it makes for a very nice–and potent–aperitif. While everyone finished their drinks I got to work slicing up the turkey. The bird was only 5kg (11 pounds), so I was a bit concerned that it would not feed seven people adequately. I needn’t have worried. The amount of meat that came off that turkey was tremendous, and much to my delight it was perfectly cooked and moist throughout, with an amazingly crackly skin. And it actually tastes like something, unlike the turkeys we had in China and many of the ones we had in the US, too.

We had everyone help themselves, family style, at the table, rather than serve everything already plated, partly since I was not sure that anyone would want to eat the sweet potato casserole. Sure enough, everyone commented on the oddness of serving a dish with marshmallows on top as part of a savoury course, but once they tasted it (and they all did, gamely) they were hooked, and most of them took seconds! In true Thanksgiving fashion, however, the meal that took hours and hours to cook was eaten in a matter of minutes. And unlike a traditional American Thanksgiving, no one helped himself to thirds. Pathetic.

A brief break was observed between the savoury course and the “main” course–the desserts. Catriona is a big fan of my pecan pie, and wanted to know nothing about the other desserts on offer, while everyone else had a bit of everything. For Kiwis, the idea of a sweet made with pumpkin is very odd, so that was the topic of some discussion, but as with the sweet potato casserole, it went over a big hit. And the fraisier looked very bright and festive in comparison with the very brown and dour-looking pies.

So our second Thanksgiving in Oamaru was a success, and we have plenty of leftovers for the traditional turkey sandwiches. All we need now is a parade.

#gigatownoamaru

Posted by: JLG | 3 November 2013

Artichoke Overload

It’s spring time in #gigatownoamaru (sorry Abdo!), so it’s the time of year when my thoughts turn to artichokes. I have always adored artichokes, even as a kid, and used to love it when my mom would make them for dinner, usually served on special plates that had a spot for the artichoke in the centre, and a sort of track for the spent leaves to be placed in around the perimeter. Sometimes she’d fill the centre of the artichoke with pasta salad or something, but that always seemed like gilding the lily to me, since all that I really cared about was scraping the flesh from the bottom of the leaves, and then getting to the delicious heart. We usually used a vinaigrette to dip into, though I understand that others use butter. Perhaps our vinaigrette habit emerged from my father’s aversion to butter in all its forms, but regardless, that’s what I grew up with, so that’s what I like now. The very idea of dipping an artichoke in butter seems bizarre to me now.

One of the things that I liked the most about the lodge when we first saw it, surprisingly enough, was the existence of a very healthy-looking artichoke plant in the vegetable garden. Unfortunately, J2 did not like its location, so he insisted on moving it, though the quid pro quo was that he replaced it with several additional plants, so that today I have four or five plants where before I only had one or two. In the past, I would go out to the garden and see that there are artichokes ready to be picked, and would mean to bring out a knife next time I came out to harvest them, only to forget. After losing several good artichokes in this way to overripeness, I got in the habit of carrying a pocket knife just so that I could harvest artichokes whenever I find one ready (I carry the knife around year-round, even though artichokes are not really likely to be ready in the winter, but hope springs eternal, I guess).

My fondness for artichokes is known to several of my cooking acquaintances, and one recently told me that he has begun to work for a guy who last year said he could supply me with artichokes for the kitchen. That guy never did come through with the goods, though, so my friend said he’d make sure I got some this year, only then to quit that job (partly because the boss was so addle-headed) and to leave me in the lurch again. But then he phoned a few weeks ago to say that he was visiting a farm in Marlborough that had a huge number of artichoke plants that they were planning on removing, so they were interested in off-loading the artichokes. He’d have taken them himself if he were working in a kitchen, but instead he put them in touch with me, and on Friday a package arrived from them with around 70 kg (150 pounds!) of beautiful artichokes. Some of them were well in excess of a pound in weight, while others were somewhat more petit, but all were in good shape and ready to use. I did not think I could profitably use all of them, though, so I phoned a friend and she came round to help herself to a dozen, leaving me with probably around 85 to 100 to tend to.

So what to do with a surfeit of artichokes? Naturally, some were simply steamed to eat the way I enjoyed them as a child, but that would not do for all of them. Others I fried up in the Roman Jewish style, served with just a bit of lemon juice and salt (delicious), and a few others I braised together with some fennel out of the garden, some olives and tomatoes to make a delicious side dish for last night’s dinner of homemade pappardelle with chicken liver ragù. Still others I decided to preserve, cleaning them of their tough, outer leaves and then boiling them in a vinegar and wine solution together with some spices, and then putting them in a sterile jar and covering them with oil (this is “carciofi sott’olio”), while others I marinated, also to be stored in olive oil until ready to put in a salad or on a pizza or served as an antipasto. That left me with around 15 more to contend with, so those I cleaned up down to the heart, boiled till tender, and then froze so that I can use them in something later on.

The process of cleaning close to 100 artichokes has left my hands still smelling artichoke-y even a day later (yes, I have washed them), and the tips of my fingers stained black. But it’s a lovely reminder of the wealth of artichokes that I have to look forward to consuming over the coming months. And by the way, our plants are just now starting to produce their own crop of ripe artichokes, so the pleasure is looking likely to extend a bit longer!

#gigatownoamaru

Posted by: JLG | 1 November 2013

#Gigatown

Oamaru in 1st!

Oamaru in 1st!

On Monday, the national company responsible for telephonic infrastructure in New Zealand, Chorus, launched a year-long campaign to select the NZ town that would be bestowed with the Southern Hemisphere’s fastest internet connection, 1 gigabit per second (1Gbps). That’s approximately 100 times faster than the fastest current speed available, which coincidentally was launched in Oamaru earlier this year, along with several other NZ towns (though it’s only now starting to be hooked up to actual users). Chorus will choose the lucky town based on how many ‘hits’ they see supporting each of the candidate towns. To do that, they have assigned a pair of “hashtags” to each town. If you are not familiar with hashtags, they are unique identifying names, preceded by a “#”, that are now commonly used in social media to make tracking stories, people, events etc a bit easier. Oamaru’s hashtags are #gigatownoam and #gigatownoamaru.

To gain points for your town of choice, all you have to do is post something to any of a number of social media channels and include the hashtag for your preferred town in the text. If you are tweeting, for example, you could write something like “Just caught a fish thiiiiiis big. #gigatownoam” and the gnomes at Chorus will add a point for Oamaru. Or if you are on Facebook, you could post a status update like “The Red Sox won the World Series! Yee-haa! #gigatownoam” and that would add a point, too. (Though there is an additional step you have to do if you’re on Facebook, WordPress or Tumblr–you have to ‘nominate’ your page on the Chorus website (www.gigatown.co.nz/dashboard) to alert them to the need to monitor those pages for hashtags. They do not publicise or share any information on the page, so it is secure.)

In the five days since this competition opened, Oamaru has skyrocketed into first place, a position it has maintained (with a comfortable lead) all week. Yesterday, the North Island town of Porirua suddenly appeared out of nowhere, popping into second place before suddenly overtaking Oamaru with a walloping 30,000 new posts in a single day. Someone clearly smelled a rat, though, and the people at Chorus did a little nosing around and learned that the Poriruans were using bots to post their hashtag (a practice that the rules forbid–you can only gain points from actual human beings posting on your town’s behalf) and their count was reduced significantly.

Meanwhile, the good people of Oamaru have once again demonstrated astounding town spirit, posting away all day on Twitter and Facebook, using their hashtags with gleeful abandon. Since “retweeting” and sharing Facebook posts also adds to the point total, it has now become standard practice to take a break during the work day to check your social media feeds and retweet and share posts with your followers.

To help out, I have been busy signing up and becoming more active on social media sites that I rarely if ever used before, like Tumblr and Instagram. I have even learned that there is a site out there called “IFTTT” (it stands for “If This Then That”) that will automatically repost your tweets onto Facebook, or your Instagram photos to Twitter, or your WordPress posts to Tumblr, etc etc etc. So I alone should be responsible for a good number of points for good ole Oamaru.

This will go on for a year or so, since the five finalists will only be announced next September, and then there will be a final heat of a few months’ duration before the winner is announced. There is some concern about gigafatigue, since by the end of Day Three, there were already comments on Facebook along the lines of “how long must we keep this up?!?!”. And even I can attest that at the end of the day it is a bit tiring to sit there and keep retweeting things. But it’s all for a great cause, since the town of Chattanooga, TN, was given the US’s highest-speed internet a few years ago, which spawned a tremendous influx of investment into the town. Oamaru could certainly stand to be launched into the information age in a more meaningful way, so we’re hopeful that this could be the spark we need. Even if we don’t win by some chance, we have certainly demonstrated that Oamaruvians are big boosters of their town, and have a community spirit that no other town in NZ can match. You’d hope that that would be enough to lure some forward-thinking businesses down here, gigatown or not!

Posted by: JLG | 28 October 2013

Oamaru for Gigatown

One thing that we noticed upon moving to New Zealand three years ago from China was that internet service was slow, expensive, and capped. Though Chinese internet services had its limitations (no Facebook, Blogger, YouTube, Twitter, or, depending on what was on the homepage at the time, New York Times or Washington Post), it was reliable, cheap and limitless. In fact, it never even occurred to us when we moved here that anyone would contemplate capping how much you were permitted to download in a month. As very heavy internet users, this was a shock and a bit of a disappointment, but over time we were able to find solutions. Sure, it took us going through no fewer than four ISPs before finally finding one that was cheap, reliable (mostly) and uncapped, but we managed it.

Among the reasons for the limitations on New Zealand’s internet service is of course geography–we are a long way away from everywhere else, and we are connected to the web by just one cable. There is talk of adding another one, but who knows if or when that will happen. We are also limited by demographics–as a small country of only 4.5 million people, there’s just not enough money to be made from selling services here to recoup the investment of laying more cable. That is of course, unless the government decides that high-speed, cheap internet is a national good that could benefit economic development. Happily, that is what is happening now.

The company responsible for wiring up the country’s telephone and internet services, Chorus, has been slowly rolling out ultra-fast broadband fibre throughout the country, starting in a few key areas. Happily for us, Oamaru was one of the first to be wired, with the installation taking place over the past autumn and winter. No service is yet available, but that will surely come before too long.

But wait! There is now a competition going on, starting today, to select a town in New Zealand where Chorus will connect THE ENTIRE TOWN to ultra-fast broadband (UFB) for free, making it the town with the fastest internet in the Southern Hemisphere. Something along these lines was done for Chattanooga, TN, a few years ago, and the impact there was immeasurable, turning it from a lacklustre backwater into a cutting-edge technology centre. I am not sure how Chattanooga was chosen, but in the case of NZ, Chorus is letting the people decide which town will win. Using some sort of algorithm that takes into consideration the relative populations of each contender, Chorus has issued each town-applicant a unique hashtag that they are to use in all their social media postings over the next 18 months, and Chorus will calculate how many posts appear during that time with each hashtag and use that to come up with the winner. So, if you see #gigatownoam or #gigatownoamaru appearing in all my posts for the next 18 months, you’ll know why.

If you’d like to support us, you can Tweet posts with either of those hashtags included, or post YouTube videos with them, or post a photo to Instagram. Or, if you have a Facebook page, you can “nominate” your page on Chorus’s online form (at http://www.gigatown.co.nz/dashboard) so that they know to keep an eye on that page for the hashtag’s appearance. And keep posting like that until at least September 2014, when the finalists will be selected. I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Meantime, in the short while that the competition has been going on, Oamaru went from 40th place all the way to 1st, with more than double the number of ‘votes’ as the second-place town. Let’s hope we can maintain this kind of momentum, and help make sure that when we watch cat videos on YouTube we don’t have to wait forever for them to load!

Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from my cell phone carrier, Vodafone, advising me that my two-year contract was about to expire and that if I were to renew they would give me a brand-new iPhone 5. I had signed up with Vodafone completely at random back in January 2010 when we first landed in NZ, choosing them only because in South Africa, where we very nearly ended up, Vodafone was the biggest player in the cell phone field, so I reckoned the same would be true here. Turns out it’s the #2 carrier in NZ, after Telecom, but no matter, I have been happy enough with Vodafone, despite a few hiccups along the way, so I had no reason not to renew my contract. However, it just so happened that earlier on the very same day that the agent phoned, I had heard on NPR (which I listen to through the internet in the kitchen on my Sonos system) that Apple had just announced two new iPhone models, so this “brand new” iPhone that Vodafone were magnanimously offering me was shortly to become as passe’ as twerking. So I told the agent that I would prefer to wait until the new iPhones were available in NZ.

A few weeks later, Vodafone rang me again, with the exact same offer. I reiterated my plan to wait until the new phones were out, and the agent said that she would put a note in my account to ring me as soon as the new phones were made available in NZ.

Yesterday I was flipping through the Otago Daily Times and there was a huge ad from Vodafone announcing that the new iPhone 5s and 5c were now available in NZ! Not wanting to have to sit patiently by my phone to await the expected call from Vodafone, I got on the horn to tell them I was now ready for my new contract. The very nice agent who took my call was all eagerness and youthful exuberance, so excited to be able to help me advance from the Neanderthal-like iPhone 4s that I have been saddled with for nigh on two years, and move on to the promised land of the iPhone 5s.

After ascertaining that I was in fact me, he asked me to confirm that I wanted the 16gb model. No, actually, I had my heart set on the 32gb model, so that I could load even more useless crap on my phone than my current 16gb model can handle. He accepted that happily, and then started to explain how Vodafone have revamped their contracts since my last one, and I would now get free calls within NZ and Australia, 2gb of data (which he said was “three times” my current allowance of 500mb–and no amount of persuasion would convince him that 2gb is actually four times 500mb), unlimited texts etc etc. for only $20 more per month than I’m paying now. I said that was acceptable, and was all ready to sign up when he said that the retail price of the phone was going to be discounted by $700 and that I’d only have to pay $349. Well, I was not happy to pay $349 and said I’d prefer to have the phone for free, along the lines described in the very expensive ad in the paper. Oh, he said, that’s for the 16gb iPhone 5c, not the 32gb iPhone 5s. That was actually rather understandable, but I have lived in China for a long time, and so I immediately entered into China-shopping mode, and asked if my contract was in fact up and I could switch to another carrier that might offer me a better deal on a new phone. After he confirmed that, I said that it was all fine and thanked him for all the wonderful service I’ve had from Vodafone over the past three-and-a-half years and prepared to hang up. “Hold on!”, he said, “let me see what I can do.” Before long, he had cobbled together a new plan that would remove the Australia phoning (I have never had a need to phone Australia from a cell phone), and give me only 1gb of data per month (more than enough–I rarely come close to my current limit), but retain the other features. Then he said “oops”, since I would still have to pay $199 for the phone. As I once again prepared to ring off he said he had another trick up his sleeve, and managed to restore the 2gb of data to my new plan, throw in a free month of service, and make the phone free of charge. Oh, and my monthly bill will be less than it has been, too.

So now I will have a new phone, a lower monthly bill with additional free services, and a month without having to pay anything, instead of having to pay $20 more per month for two years, and contribute $700 toward the phone. And that was after very low-key negotiating on my part. What will happen when throngs of Chinese deploy the same tactics when trying to buy farms, houses and other things in this country? All I can say is I’m glad I speak Chinese.

Posted by: JLG | 28 September 2013

Fulfilling Our Civic Duties

 

IMG_3805Very shortly after our arrival in New Zealand in 2010 there were local elections for a new district council and mayor. At the time we were unable to vote, since we did not yet have the correct visa status, so we just had to watch while the election happened around us. Unlike American elections, this one was pretty low-key, and did not involve political parties (at least not overtly). The incumbent mayor, who had been elected at the previous election, was re-elected in a virtual landslide and that was that.

Fast forward three years to 2013, and it’s once again time to vote in a new council and mayor (election terms here are just three years). The incumbent has decided not to run again, which I consider to be a good thing, since he has governed with an apparent platform of ensuring that nothing changes and that nothing happens to cause rates (local taxes) to increase. While I appreciate as much as anyone efforts to reduce my financial obligations to the government, I also appreciate the need for government to invest in public infrastructure, and sometimes that means raising rates.

There are seven candidates for mayor this time around, of whom three are considered to be “serious”. Of the non-serious candidates, one appears to be running on a platform of reducing obesity and ensuring that the population is happy and healthy, while another appears simply to be aping the policies of the current mayor. I know three of the candidates personally, including one who I hope very much will not win, and one who I hope very much will win. The third would also not be a bad choice, I think, though I think it’s unlikely that it will go that way when the votes are counted.

Along with voting for mayor we had to vote for up to six district councillors. Some of the mayoral candidates are also running for council, which I find a bit odd, but that’s the way it works here. Even more odd, it seems that people consider it to be a bit of a lapse in character for a mayoral candidate not to run for a council seat, too, as though it means that they are only interested in the “glory” of the mayor’s office without wanting to do the “work” of being a councillor. To my mind it means that they want to focus on one job, rather than doing two.

Finally, we also were supposed to vote for members of the district health board. However we neither understand fully what its role and powers are, nor had any familiarity with the candidates, so we opted not to cast votes at all rather than inadvertently make a poor decision.

One more interesting note from this experience: the voting in Waitaki all takes place by post, with no votes at all cast by what I consider to be the “traditional” method of going to a voting booth and pulling a lever or filling a form. Voting here closes on 12 October so it won’t be long till we know who the winners are. I have no idea when the new crew takes their seats, but imagine there won’t be a lengthy turnover like there is in the US; it wouldn’t surprise me if the new mayor takes his chains of office up on the 13th! Rest assured, as we learn the answers, I will share them here!

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