Archive for March, 2009

Screwing the Poor

Friday, March 6th, 2009

– I wrote, with some passion, the other day about universal health care – and why it won’t be coming to the U.S.

– Here’s another piece by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones that speaks succinctly to this point.

= = = = = = =

Karen Tumulty writes in Time this week about her brother, Pat, who was diagnosed with kidney failure and then learned that the private insurance he’d been paying for for years wouldn’t cover him.  That’s bad enough, but then there’s this:

A paradox of medical costs is that people who can least afford them — the uninsured — end up being charged the most. Insurance companies, with large numbers of customers, have the financial muscle to negotiate low rates from health-care providers; individuals do not. Whereas insured patients would have been charged about $900 by the hospital that performed Pat’s biopsy (and pay only a small fraction of that out of their own pocket), Pat’s bill was $7,756. For lab work — and there was a lot of it — he was being charged as much as six times the price an insurance company would pay.


New Zealand Report

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

The winter behind me

I haven’t had much to say about my time in New Zealand so far but it certainly is not because there’s been nothing happening.    It’s been a busy and very eventful time but I haven’t written much because I’ve had a very hard time trying to decide what sort of spin to put on the time I’ve spent here.

You see on this end, in New Zealand, most of my experiences have been good.  But, on the other side of the world, in my ‘other’ home in the U.S., there’s been terrible chaos and disruption afoot since I left.

Snow in the parking lotIndeed, less than a week after I arrived here, the worst snow storms to hit the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest in forty years descended on my wife and our property and our business there.  And these storms continued for weeks until more than 44 inches of snow had fallen on our area.

There were many times, when it looked very possible that many, if not most, of our 52 greenhouses might collapse under the snow load – and this in spite of  the near continuous efforts by my wife and our crew day after day to remove the snow on top of them.   Snow as high as the housesIn the end, the snow between the greenhouses, which had been removed from the tops of them, had gotten so high that it was no longer possible to get between the houses to pull more off.   At that point, prayer and faith in the strength of their construction was all that was left.

The temperatures never rose above freezing and  something like five major storms rolled in and dumped snow – one after the other.  To say that it was a poor time for me to have departed to New Zealand for several months would be a major understatement.  My wife was literally and emotionally at her wits end several time during all of this trying to handle all the problems that fell to her.

As bad as it can getI remember once when she called at night, crying, and said that the snow on the roof of the house  was getting to the point where she was afraid it might collapse in on her.   None of the snow on our house’s roof had been cleared.   She simply hadn’t had the manpower to do it.   Now, it had gotten so deep and heavy, and was turning to ice, that she could hear the house making sounds she’d never heard before as it strained under the huge load.   And the TV was full of stories of houses all over the Seattle area caving in as their snow carrying capacities were fatally exceeded.  She was angry that I was not there to help and she was afraid it was going to fall in on her and she did not have any options to deal with it.   She could either stay or try to go.  And going was scarcely an option on a freezing night with a four foot embankment of snow laying against our front gate that the snow plows had pushed there and her without a four-wheel drive vehicle and alone – and all the places she might go to to stay with friends were miles away on treacherous roads.

There had been tension between my wife and I before I left over my decision to go – the reasons for which will have to remain private.  But, the weather events that followed my departure and all the things she had to go through because of my absence, threw an enormous amount of salt in the wound.

Confused emotions

So, my days in New Zealand during that period were confusing at best.   My friends here were happy to see me and I to see them and it was all just as I remembered it.  But the daily phone calls from home were a near constant agony.  My experiences were, of course, nothing to compared with what my wife was dealing with but they certainly enough to take the joy out of being here.  And, there was not much I could do to help her from here other than to offer advice and support and to listen to her frustration and anger.

So, that’s certainly colored my experiences of being here this time.   And, it’s put a huge strain on our marriage.

Once the snows had stopped, I realized that dealing with the snow emergencies was only part of the winter’s work.  Now the repairs needed to begin.  So, I’ve rescheduled my return, which had been set for March 10th, and moved it up to January 21st.   I’m sorry to be leaving New Zealand so soon.   I dearly love this place and it will be my inevitable home – come what may.   But, there’s work to be done at home and a marriage to be worked on and the time for these things is now.

03Feb09 – That earlier bit was written while I was still in New Zealand.    I’ve been back here in the U.S. now for about 10 or 12 days.

I’m going to tell the story now of what happened while I was in New Zealand and use the opportunity to put up photographs that I shot while I was there.

The first part of this story can be found here.

First week

The first week in Christchurch was rather mellow.  I had dinner and visited with several sets of friends and caught up on things in their lives.   I ate with Alex and Tobi (numerous times), I drove out to Rolleston and had dinner with Tony and Mary.   I ate with Bruce and Kathy, my hosts.   And there were several days of tennis with Graham and Judy at the Park Terrace complex.

That was kind of sad.  Graham and Judy have been very good friends to us ever since we bought our place in the Park Terrace Complex but they’ve decided to move into another building a half mile away.   I’m sure we’ll still visit but I’m less sure if we’ll be able to continue our tennis games – I hope we can.

Christmas at Wainui

I drove my motorcycle out to Wainui to Bruce and Kathy’s place for Christmas again (we were all there last year at Christmas, as well).  Alex and Tobi drove out and we all had a great time.   Here’s a selection of photos from the Wainui Christmas days:

View of Akaroa Harbor from the Wainui house Alex and Bruce on the front porch looking at the harbor Bruce and his Merkaba

Chrismas dinner laid out for us Tobi and Kathy - beautiful ladies A cruise ship enters Akaroa Harbour

On Boxing day, December 26th, I decided to head back to Christchurch and before I left, I took the ride south along the harbor’s edge towards the head.  It’s a magnificent ride with huge beauties all around you.

Wainui is on the left side of the harbour

Akaroa Harbour panorama - north towards Akaroa townAkaroa Harbour panorama - moving left to the eastAkaroa Harbour panorama - south to the head

Another harbour view to the north Another cruise ship with the head behind A simple life at the end of the earth

Convergence and the Merkaba

A day or so later, after I’d returned to Christchurch, Bruce returned home from Wainui and asked if I’d like to come along with him up to North Loburn and help him setup his Merkaba there for the Convergence Festival that he and Kathy were going to be attending over New Years.   It sounded like fun to me and so off we went.

We arrived at the festival grounds and we were two or three days before the official kick-off of the festival.   There were quite a number of folks already there setting up their camps and preparing things.   It was a beautiful spot next to a river with a big open space and other wooded areas with more privacy.   We went into the greeting tent so Bruce could let folks know that we’d come to setup the Merkaba and to find out where we could set it up.

The feeling there, as we were greeted, reminded me so much of the time I’d spent at Rajneeshpuram back in the 80’s.   There was a spirit of play and of possibilities in the air that promised both fun and growth at the same time.   I had some sense of regret that I wasn’t going to be attending the festival – other than helping Bruce to setup his Merkaba.  But then, it was a camping experience and I’d made no preparations and hadn’t even thought I’d be interested – until I was standing their feeling the fun in the air.   Ah well, I consoled my self with thoughts of future years.

We located the spot where we were going to setup the Merkaba and we began.   It was a pretty out-of-the-way spot down by the river and in among some pine trees.   Bruce wanted to be away from the main traffic paths so when and if folks came to experience the Merkaba, it would be both an intentional activity and a bit of a journey.

We started and at first, it was just us and the work.   But that didn’t last long.   Soon, we had visitors.   Zillions of small friendly visitors.   New Zealand Sand Flies  – I heard a lot about them but, as yet, in my several visits to Aotearoa, I hadn’t run into them.  Well, they were here to greet us today.

Slap, slap, brush, brush, work, work.   It was a bit of a running battle to keep the little buggers off and to keep working to get the structure put up.   But, eventually we did and and then we shot a few photos of the fruits of our labor.

Bruce and his Merkaba Myself - in the Merkaba’s sweet-spot

While Bruce and Kathy were off at convergence, I had their house to myself.  That was nice.   They have an excellent library so I had some good books to read and the weather was nice so I was out n my motorcycle a fair bit as well.

New Years Eve

News Years came and Alex and Tobi invited me down to their place in South New Brighton to share their New Years and to spend the night.   I was remiss in not taking my camera so I have no pictures of their place which is a loss because they’ve moved now (early February 09) to a new home they’ve bought inland near Rangiora.   New Years was fun.  We watched a newer Woody Allen movie.   It was very different from his previous stuff.  High tension murder stuff rather than cutesy New Yorkers having mini-life traumas.    I think I like the previous Woody better.

Post Convergence

Around the 3rd of 4th of January, Bruce and Kathy returned from the Convergence and they had a number of folks in tow with them.   One couple, Inayat and Sola, had come to stay in the house with us.   A number of other folks had come by after the festival to see Bruce and Kathy’s place and to visit and talk about the festival – sort of a festival post-mortum chat, I guess.

It was great fun.   We all sat out in the yard and wonderful conversations raged on all sides while 10 or 12 of us sat around on the afternoon’s warm lawn.   I regretted again not having attended the festival as they talked about everything that had happened.

One of the things I most treasure about my time in New Zealand is the exposure to new people.   When we’ve been settled too long in our lives, our margins become fixed and it is rare when we meet new people who are completely outside of the circles we run in.   In New Zealand, this is much less the case for me.

Here, sitting in the afternoon sun, I listened to folks with all sorts of lives and stories that were wildly beyond the edges of my life.  A German woman who’d immigrated to New Zealand, and who was living in a communue/intentional community, talked about the politics of the place and how it evolved over time.   Another was a Kiwi farmer from the south of the South Island and an inventor.  He had his young son with him and he was very interesting and I would have liked to have talked more with him.   The Kiwi boy friend of the German lady who was a teacher of a New Age theory that, even though I listened carefully, I couldn’t get a real understanding of.  He was interesting because he looked like a massive rugby player and yet he spoke so gently and sincerely.  Bruce talked about the theories behind his Merkaba.  It all flowed for several hours as the shadows moved slowly across the yard.

Sola and Inayat

The new house guests, Inayat and Sola were there as well and told us a bit about their travels.  They’d just come from five weeks in Tonga and their descriptions of the serendipitous things that had happened to them there were fascinating.

L2R: Inayat, Sola, Bruce, Kathy, Tobi and AlexThat night, or the next evening, I can’t remember which, there was a dinner at Bruce and Kathy’s and Alex and Tobi came as well as Inayat and Sola and myself.   It was here that Inayat and Sola told us much more about their time in Tonga and their plans for their future.  Again, I was struck with how my path was crossing the paths of other folks with lives so very different than my own and how rich the experience was.

The following, about Inayat and Sola, is condensed from all that they told us over a period of weeks.

Sola Radiance and Inayat Heartsun.   Two followers of one of the many Sufi paths and adventurers in their own lives.  Not their own original names, I’m sure, but intentional breaks with their own past.   They were recently married in Bali and they showed me a lot of digital photographs in their apple laptopof the festivities there.  Amazing stuff.

They’d just recently arrived in New Zealand from Tonga after spending five weeks there and had come to the Convergence Festival thinking to meet like-minded people and, perhaps, to find a place to stay for a few weeks while they prepared for their move back to Tonga.

But, let’s back this story up.   Sola has owned 90 acres of land near Hood River in Oregon for some years now.   The place is called ‘Riversong’ and I get that it is sort of an intentional community and a meditation retreat center all rolled into one.  A lot of folks live there, living the alternative lifestyle dream.   Sometime in the last year or two, she and Inayat decided to make a break from their past and decided to go find a new place to live and new lives to lead.   This bought them to Tonga with some money in their pockets and no idea of what they’d find.   Truly, they took a jump of major proportions.

Five weeks after arriving in Tonga, they left with deep friendships and relationships strewn behind them.   They were adopted members now of a fine Tongan family and half owners of a small two story house on the beach.   Again, I saw a lot of digital photos of their time there.   There was so many stories they related over the three weeks or so I shared Bruce and Kathy’s house with them.

Stories of all the expatriate folks who come to Tonga.  Some by air, some by sailing.  Some with money and means and some with two dollars in their pocket.   Many businesses are started, most fail.   Some folks leave and others stay on because the living there is very cheap.  Fish from the sea and fruit from the trees – all right there in front of you.

Stories about the Tongan people.   The laws that forbid work of any type on Sundays.   The Kava circles.   The fact that if outsiders come in and are arrogant, the Tongans will shun them and their things will begin to break and disappear until they see the wisdom of leaving.  But, if new comers meet the Tongans as warm equals and open themselves to the Tongan way of seeing things, how the doors are open to an incredibly warm and loving people.

Apparently, Inayat and Sola did it right because they were deeply embraced.

Now, here in New Zealand, they were acquiring everything that they needed to go back and live a good life in Tonga in the house they now owned half of.   While I was there, they bought a van, a kayak, all sorts of kitchen supplies, a desktop computer and lots of other stuff too numerous to mention.   Their plan is to ship it all to Tonga in a 20′ container and then set themselves up there.   They’re going to build some huts for tourists on their property and settle in.

Back home, at Riversong,  folks are wondering what the future holds for them.   Sola still owns it but she’s no longer going to subsidize it and mother it and so everyone there is being awoken to the fact that change is in their future.   Discussions were under way via Skype with various people who might want to try to try to hold the fabric together and all of it is still in flux.

Inayat and Sola are a great pleasure to talk with.   As people say, “They walk their talk”, and that is admirable.

Will it all work out for them in Tonga and at Riversong?  Will it not?   Only the future will tell.  But as I looked at them, I knew that no matter what happened, they would embrace it with open eyes and hearts and live it to the fullest.

Amberley Beach

A few days later, on the 6th of January, I had a ‘beach’ day.  Two visits with two sets of friends; both involving beaches and beach communities.

First, I drove an hour north from Christchurch to a small place called Amberley Beach which is the last town in a string of small towns that advance up the coast line from Christchurch until you reach the last one, Amberley, and after that it is only wild coast.   I’d gone to see my friends, Ann and Michael.   Ann’s an American expatriate who married Michael, a Kiwi, in the U.S. and then returned here with him to New Zealand.  They live in a small house near the end of a small road in a small town quite near to the end of the world.  Or, at least it seemed that way to me.   When I first pulled into Amberley Beach on my motorcycle before I got to their house, I stopped and shot some pictures of the beach.   It’s a stony beach so it isn’t as attractive as some but, my, was it beautiful.   I saw three people surf fishing and that was it.   80 degrees Fahrenheit out and the beach was empty.   Amazing.

Looking south at Amberley Beach Looking north at Amberley Beach Looking at the parking lot at Amberely Beach busy Amberley Beach

In the second photograph, we’re looking north from Amberley Beach and up the coast to where the hills jut out into the sea.  That’s where I had my adventure last year when I went looking for the Omihi Forest.

After shooting the beach photos, I pressed on to find Ann and Michael’s place.  I was a bit mixed up and went to the wrong house and asked if it was Ann and Michael’s place.   “No”, the answer came, as a lady stepped out of the house.   “But, I’m just about to walk down there for lunch.  Can I show you the way?”   Well, that was some serious serendipity.   She introduced herself as Karen and she and I walked down four houses to Ann and Michael’s place and a nice afternoon of visiting began.

Ann and Michael’s house is fun.   It’s small and three dogs and some cats hold court there as well as high piles of precariously piled books.   Definitely, my sort of place.   Low rent, books everywhere, the beach across the street and good neighbors.   I’m not sure what else it is that people think they need in their lives.   For my money, one dog that loves you is worth at least $100,000 off the price of the house you need to keep you happy.

Our conversations roamed far and wide.   Politics, the U.S., N.Z., Obama, Bush, all the usual suspects.   Then we got off onto cricket and Michael took it upon himself to educate me <smile>.   Actually, I was pushing for it a bit.   There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t understand and I haven’t actually had a willing Kiwi in my sights to explain some of it to me before.

So, we wandered in the whys and wherefores of cricket for sometime beginning with milk-maids and cow-herds and three legged stools and coming all the way up through scoring.   I followed basically everything until the scoring calculations began and then even the good coffee Ann had served failed me.

But, at least I now know much of what they are doing out there and why.   I still remember clearly being in Vancouver, B.C., in Canada in 1978 and sitting on a hillside in Stanley Park and watching a cricket game with my girlfriend, Kathy, and wondering what the hell those people were doing down there.

I can’t believe it but after shooting the photos of Amberley Beach, I never took my camera out again while I was at their house so I have no photos of my visit.   The mind is an amazing thing – I wish I had one.

South Brighton

Later that same day, after leaving Ann and Michael’s, I found myself down in South Brighton with Alex and Tobi.  We all went for an afternoon walk on the beautiful beach that lies only two blocks from their door.   Like all beaches in New Zealand, I , as someone raised in Southern California with its millions of people sharing the same small geographical area, find the emptiness of New Zealand’s shores to be an endless revelation.  Here are a series of photos of our beach walk.

Jules and Ella are ready to GO!Short walk to the beachOn the beach trailAnd down to the beach

Looking south to the Banks PeninsulaSome of my favorite people - Alex and TobiLooking north - in the far far distance is Amberely Beach 40 miles or so

Alex and Tobi had me over to their place this visit a number of time and they have been most excellent friends.   They’ve been living two blocks from the beach in South Brighton but they’ve recently bought a home after a long search for a place.  I got to go over there and have a look at it.   It’s out 10 K or so from Rangiora which is north and inland a bit from Christchurch.   It’s a beautiful place with some fruit trees and not far from the river.   I fully expect to be a frequent visitor there in the future, unless I wear out my welcome.

The long ride to Takaka

I’d changed my scheduled time in New Zealand from three months to just over six weeks and I was scheduled to depart back to the U.S. on January 21st.   And, I still had a few things I wanted to accomplish before I took off.   One of them was to take another ride up to Golden Bay and see my friends up there; Bob, Cynthia and their two girls.

So, on January 9th, a Friday, I took off for the north end of the South Island.    Just as last year, I rode up through the center of the island through Murchison.  Good weather and beautiful country all the way.   It was a quicker trip this time because I’d already seen the country so I wasn’t stopping to take pictures.    I arrived in the late afternoon after another amazing ride up and over the Takaka Hill.   For a motorcyclist, that hill is one amazing and fun ride.   They say it has a curve for everyday of the year and I believe it.   And then you come out on the other side and all of the Takaka valley all the way up to Golden Bay opens up in front of you.  Beautiful.   We visited that evening and the next morning, we got up and went to a Farmer’s Market in Takaka.   I enjoyed that.  Especially the tables with books on them.   There were many many books about strictly New Zealand topics and I’m sure I could have bought a dozen of them and enjoyed them.

Later, on Saturday, we went out to their country property where Bob’s building their house and looked at stuff.   here’s some pictures of the lower grounds and the building site and the goats:

The new house and garage underneath Storage building with solar power on top The road from the house down to the storage building

Another view down with the girls below, running Roof trusses for the new house are still stored below Above the storage building, you can see the higher land on Bob’s place

Some new gardens going in Bob with the storage building behind Looking back up at the garden terraces

What some of the local forest looks like by the house site Another view of the house building site Down at the storage shed with the girls and the goats

two fine goats waiting for milking Bob’s girls; Jenny and Marie Business end of a 30m head of water coming down the hill for power

How the solar and hydro power is integrated and converted for the house Ditto the last

After we wandered around the house site and looked at the goats and the home power stuff, we set off for the upper part of Bob’s property where he draws the water from that he’s going to use to generate his hydro-power.   He said the water pipe has a head of about 30 M on it which comes to about 100 feet.   That’s a lot of pressure to turn a power-generating turbine.

The trail up took us through bush (or woods, as we say in the northern hemisphere) which is typical in this area.   Remember, we are now in the upper northwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island.   It’s an area of temperate climate and strong rainfall but also a lot of hours of sunlight per year.   All in all, a nice combination.

Here are the photos I took when we went up to see the dam on the year-round creek which is the source both of Bob’s water and of his hydro-power.

We begin our way up to the top by crossing the low lands Jenny and Marie break trail for us It is a lot steeper than it looks here

Bob and the girls on the way up Bob in front of the dam he built View of the dam from the side

On the way back down through the native bush

Milking the goat with a small helperWhen we got back down to the bottom, Bob stopped to milk one of his goats.  Then it was home to rest a bit and prepare for the evening’s company.   Bob and Cynthia had invited over G. and her sister for dinner.

I’d met G. on-line a year or two before through a New Zealand oriented blog.   Bob had spent some time on that site too at that time.   I don’t recall who met who first but soon we all knew each other, at least as electronic presences on the web.   Still later, G. and her husband bought land only a few miles from Bob and Cynthia’s place in the Takaka area and they met and became  friends.

Tonight, Bob and Cynthia were having G. over so she and I could finally meet.

And a good meeting it was.   The wine and the conversation flowed well around the table.    Lady G., on the physical plane, was indeed a pleasure to meet.; a bright and engaging lady.    And her sister, was most interesting as well.

The conversation swirled in many directions including the upcoming U.S. elections, the state of the world and the biosphere and the probable ways history might unfold in the coming decades.

I don’t know if there’s any better dinner party than one at which bright people from various parts of the world have come together to talk and enjoy each other’s company.   It was a good time.

The next morning saw me up early and ready to depart for my return ride back to Christchurch.   I’d been watching the weather.  Friday when I’d ridden up had been nice but Saturday was suppose to possibly rain and then on Sunday, today, it was suppose to get nice again.   Well Saturday had been a bit gray but the rains held off and by Sunday morning, the skys were blue and as pretty as you could want.

Looking north up the Takaka Valley towards Golden BayI said my goodbyes to Bob and Cynthia and the girls and took off south down the Takaka valley and toward the ride up and over Takaka Hill.   It will be hard to get tired of the ride over the hill.   It is hugely beautiful at every turn.   I stopped at one point and took a shot looking back north up the valley and towards the curve of Golden Bay.

Then I crossed over and came down into Motueka, which is a pretty beach town on the Tasman Bay.   When I was there last year, it reminded me of a busy day at Laguna Beach in the summer.   But it seemed a bit quieter today and I liked it better.   I parked my bike on the main drag and walked up and down a bit looking for a likely place for some breakfast.   And, zowie, did I find one.   Eggs Benedict for a great price and a spot outside watching the world walk by.   When I finished, I shot a few street scenes and then pressed on.

View from my breakfast tableThere’s my motocycle across the streetLooking up and down the main dragBoth ways, mate, both ways

After Motueka, I continued south towards Murchison where I grabbed another small bite and filled up with gas.  Very soon after I departed from Murchison, it was decision time.   I could either turn south when I came to the junction of 65, or I could continue on west on Highway 6 heading for Westport.    I’d been on 65 south before just two days ago.    But, the real issue with my decision was did I want to stay out another day and see some of the west coast because the weather was looking spectacular, or did I want to be conservative and head home abck to Christchurch that same evening.

You probably know already which way I chose.   It was west on Highway 6.   This took me into new country.  And beautiful country it was.  This route took me down to the coast along what is called the Buller Gorge.   At one point, I stopped by a river and shot a panorama of the gorge:

Panorama of Buller Gorge

Once I got to Westport, I was unimpressed.   I found a back packer’s hostel but when I stopped in looking for a room, they said they’d been booked for months so that was a bust.   But, other than visiting with the other folks at the hostel, I couldn’t think of much that made me want to stay there.   Westport had a kind of a destitute feeling to it to me.    So, after looking around for a bit, I decided to go on down the coast to Greymouth and see what presented itself there.

I’m glad I did.   The coastline from Westport to Greymouth was great.   Twice I saw signs that said, “Beware of Penguins on the road”   Too cool and too strange.   I watched but I never saw a penguin once.    At one point, I stopped at a small beach and shot another panorama shot.   It was a beautiful place.

Beach panorama on the westcoast between Westport and Greymouth

At one point, I came upon some people waving at everyone to slow down and in a minute or two I came across a horrible accident scene.   I gave thanks that I hadn’t come through a few minutes earlier because it looked like it had just happened.   It sobered me abit thinking about how remote the entire west coast is.   Those folks had a long wait for an ambulance to arrive and even after it did and then made a long drive back to Greymouth, they were still only in a minor medical facility and for anything serious, they were going to have to be transported over the Christchurch on the east coast of the island.   It didn’t sound good.

Greymouth was much as I remembered it.   I’d been there in 2006 with Sharon when we’d first come over to initiate our residence visas and to buy a small apartment in Christchurch.   I’d been back, briefly, with Tobi and Alex when we took the Trans-Alpine Express (train) across and back from Christchurch on a day-long excursion in 2007.   On both occasions, I’d seen Bryan Aptekar there; he’d had dinner with Sharon and I at our hotel and he’d had lunch with Alex and Tobi and I in a small restaurant near the Greymouth train station.   But he’s gone now – returned to Portland in the U.S.   He was one of those who’d immigrated to New Zealand and then decided that it wasn’t for him.   Without him there in Greymouth, the town seemed a bit empty.

I ate a quick meal in Greymouth and considered my options.   It was about 6:30 PM and I had several hours of daylight left.   I finally decided that rather than stay in Greymouth overnight and then get up and go home in the morning, that’d I just try for home now.   I thought I could get over Arthur’s Pass while there was still light and then all I had to do was to scoot across the Canterbury Plains in into Bruce and Kathy’s place before it was too very late at night.   So, off I went – zoom.

Remember now, I’d been riding since fairly early this morning and had already covered a lot of country.   And, at 61, I’m not as much of a spring chicken as I, perhaps, once was.   The long and the short of it was that, yes, I got up and over the pass but after that, when I was going through all those enormous alpine valleys on the other side, the cold and the wind and the tiredness began to get to me.   At some point, the tiredness and the cold make you so stiff that you begin to wonder if you’ll be able to react appropriately if something happens.   Or, you wonder, if you’ll keep on making the right speed judgments as you go into one after another of those many mountain curves.

Finally, I saw a hotel on a ridge overlooking a vast scree-land of alpine rock and river wash and I decided to stop, get a room, and have a few beers and give it all a rest.   When I got off the bike, I could hardly walk, so I think it was time.

I walked inside and went into the bar which was in a big open-plan room upstairs with windows looking out onto the valley on all sides.  I found the fellow who was in charge andgot a room and went and dropped my stuff off there.   The room wasn’t much of a bargain.   It was, supposedly, a backpackers room and, as such, it was one of four connected to a large shared living room/kitchen and a common bathroom and shower. It cost me $80 for the night, which I thought was high for what it was.   But, I was cold and tired and I wasn;t going to argue anything with anyone.

I went back up into the bar with a book and a thirst for a beer or two and sat down.   Soon, I’d met the folks who ran the place.   One was the new owner, who I’d gotten the room from, and his mother and father who were helping him out.  They’d just taken possession of the place from the previous owner a day or two after Christmas so they’d only been running now for about two weeks when I arrived.  The son was a good sort.  Competent and business like.  The mother was an amazing trip.   She was half sloshed and was, when I first noticed her, sitting with some customers a few tables over.  She would break into song and really let it rip.   Irrepressible, I think might be the word.

Later, she came by my table and sat for a bit.   She had to be 60 to 70, if a day, and she was a big flirt.   She told me how she’s been a sheep-shearer’s wife all her life and had raised four kids in the south of the South Island and that times had been hard but that they’d always done what they had to do to keep things together.   She sat with me for ahile and talked me into buying her a glass of wine (as if she needed another) when I told her I’d have another beer.   I’m not sure what she was doing except trying to boost sales for her son.   But I didn’t care, I was having fun taking it all in.

Later, when I got up to go, as the place was preparing to shut down, she introduced me to her husband.   He was a small man and seemed exceedingly shy.  And I could see at a glance that she’d been a great trial to him all of their lives together.  She was flirting with me as the three of us stood there and he was just looking uncomfortable the entire time.   It was quite a scene.

I walked back to my room thinking I’d been a fool to not carry a flashlight. It was a steep downhill slope to the rooms and there was a path of sorts with stone steps that was hard to see in the dark.   And, just visible out above the building I was heading for, was that great vast glacial valley.   Emptiness there was a tangible thing you could feel.   I wondered how these folks were going to feel about their new purchase / business this time next year – out in all that openess.

The next morning, I got up and talked the folks up in the bar (basically the owner, son again) out of a cup of coffee and I was off headed east towards Christchurch.   I stopped in Darfield for an excellent breakfast at and outside table and by noon, I was home at Bruce and Kathy’s place again.

Graham and Judy

I returned home from my trip to Takaka on Monday morning, January , 12th.   On the morning of Wednesday, the 14th, I met Graham and Judy, my very good Kiwi friends from the Park Terrace complex, for breakfast at Drexels.   I’ve been to Drexel’s several times now.   It is the place to eat in Christchurch, if you are looking for an American style breakfast complete with a bottomless coffee cup and genuine maple syrup.

Graham and Judy go every year for their vacation to Las Vegas in the U.S.and love it tremendously.   So, it wasn’t much of a struggle to get them to come out for an American style breakfast.   Graham, Judy and myself at Drexel’s in ChristchurchI wanted to do something nice for them because they have been such good friends and have played tennis with me and had me to their place for meals many times.  They are always fun to spend time with and this morning was no exception.  I think even the waitress got into the spirit of it all.   She shot this photograph of our breakfast get-together.

Dinner at the Raj Mahal

My time in New Zealand was growing short (recall I was departing on the 21st) and my friends decided to give me a ‘send-off’ dinner which was very sweet of them.   So, on Thursday, January 15th, we all met at The Raj Mahal Indian restaurant on Manchester.   L2R: Inayat, Alex, Bruce, Kathy, Tobi, Myself and SolaBruce and Kathy were there as well as Alex and Tobi and Inayat and Sola and myself. It was an excellent meal and great fun.   Apparently, this is Bruce and Kathy’s favorite Indian restaurant in Christchurch and I can see why.

After our meal, we went just down the street to an ice-cream parlor that Alex and Tobi have discovered and liked a lot.  Olga and her husband run the place.  Alex and Tobi and I had already made an earlier attempt to go there and discovered that the place was closed when we arrived much to our disappointment.   But, today they were open.  Ice-creams were procured and consumed as we watched the folks walk by on Manchester.

Manchester, for those unfamiliar with Christchurch, is a very interesting place.  Inayat and Sola enjoy an ice-creamIt is the main drag for Christchurch’s hookers (legal in NZ), most of the big motorcycle dealers are located there and on Friday and Saturday nights, there’s some serious drunkenness that goes on in the area as well.

After the ice-cream, Inayat and Sola took off on a mission of their own and the rest of us walked several blocks over to Cathedral Square, which is, and always has been, one of my favorite places in Christchurch.   We sat and talked and watched people swirl about in the square.   It was a beautiful afternoon.   The square is, arguably, the ‘center’ of Christchurch.   Certainly every tourist who comes to Christchurch spends some time here soaking up the ambiance.   I’ve spent many an hour, myself, sitting on a bench, watching street performers, talking with people and sipping coffee here.

For those who don’t know, there’s a web cam over the square and it’s view shifts every few minutes.   I often watch it when I’m here in the U.S. and feeling a bit homesick for Christchurch.    The cam is here.

Here’s two photos of us siting around in the square:

L2R: Tobi, Kathy, Bruce and Alex L2R: Tobi, Kathy, Bruce and myself

The Scott Family

On Saturday, the 17th, I took a motorcycle ride out into the countryside to meet some new folks – The Scotts; Robin and Adrienne and their son and daughter; Edward and Sally.   The Scotts are British immigrants who moved to New Zealand a few years ago from the Isle of Skye in Scotland.   They live now on a farm, “Eldarlight”, out by the Rakaia Gorge area, west of Christchurch.

I first met Robin via the Internet after hearing about a book he’d written called, Fortress New Zealand.   I found his website and looked around and promptly ordered the book.

I suspected, before I’d even read his book, that it was very much along the lines of a book I’d thought many times of writing.  He and I share a huge number of common ideas about why New Zealand may be one of the very best places in the world to end up if the world implodes.   And we also agree that if any place in the world is defensible and sustainable in a crumbling world, New Zealand may be the place. After I read the book, we corresponded a bit via E-Mail and he invited me out to see his place and meet his family next time I was in New Zealand.

It was a beautiful day for a ride.  I forget now how far it was but I think it was in the order of 30 to 40 miles out there.   It was roughly in the same area (but a bit east of) where I went exploring last year when I went out to look at the Alford Forest and Mt. Somers area.

Well, meeting Robin and his family was a great pleasure, indeed.   Interesting folks; everyone of them.   They’ve had an interesting life history as a family, which is far too long to go into here, but it has been composed, I’d say, of nearly equal parts of the Human Potential movement, immersion in counterculture/ alternative lifestyles and intellectualism.   I’d also say that they have a good deal of the practical and mainstream in them as well as they all work as either teachers or accountants.

Of course, they may disagree (or laugh) at this off-the-cuff five-second ersatz analysis of the entirety of their lives – but in talking at length with Robin that day,  those were some of the impressions I came away with.

But none of that deals with the solid handshake and human warmth immediacy of my time at Elderlight that day.   Robin and I walked their property and discussed their plans for the place, his family’s history, how they make their living and what their day-to-day economic concerns were.  Intelligence, candor, warmth and simplicity are what he and his family exude in great measure.

Like-invites-like and before the day was over, I’d told Adrienne and him great chunks of my own personal business.  I found the two of them to be warm and compassionate listeners.

They live simply but well on their farm and in the coming years, they have much work before them.   All four of them work off the property to subsidize their family’s dream for what the place will become.

This account of my visit seems a bit disjointed to me as I write it.   But, there were so many strong impressions I took away from that day that there is no way to do it all even partial justice.

I have the strong feeling that I am going to have an enduring friendship with Robin and his family and the thought gives me great pleasure.   He’s an educated and erudite man and yet he’s very human and open.   He sees the world and its problems very clearly and he cares deeply about it all.   His family is strongly emotionally bonded and, in just a few hours in their home, I could see the fruits of this love among them.   Robin’s not just an ‘idea’ man.   He and his family live their convictions and have for many years.

This is not to say that I agree with everything Robin expressed in his book.  There were parts of it that I differed with. But, I don’t see these as show-stoppers but, rather, as the grist for many a good evening’s conversation.   And I am looking forward to these with great anticipation.   Here are a few photos from my visit:

Robin Scott Adrienne and Robin Edward, Adrienne, Robin and Sally Robin and myself

After my visit with the Scott family, I drove back into Christchurch and began to think seriously about getting organized for my return to the U.S.    In four more days, I was scheduled to get on a plane and make the long (nearly 24 hours) return.  There were things to be packed and stored over in our storage unit in the basement of the Park Terrace complex where we own an apartment.   There were suitcases to be organized for my flight.   I had to prepare my motorcycle for storage.  As usual, a thousand and one details always come up in those closing days.

Alex and Tobi were good enough to take me out to a last lunch on the last day at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant and then to schlep me and my suitcases out to the airport.  Many thanks to them for that!


It is now March 5th, 2009, and I am finally finishing up this long report on my time in New Zealand this past northern winter.   Normally, I would have written it out in chunks as I went along but this year, I saved it all up for one go.

Those of you whom I’ve named and shamed here – I hope you’ll forgive me.   For those of you who know a bit about my passion for New Zealand, I need to tell you that my feelings for the place have not diminished a whit since my initial visit in 2003/4.   I’ve spent nearly nine months in the country since then and my feelings about the rightness of the place for me only grow stronger.

I’ll be returning this coming November.

Cheers and love to all of you.

Healthcare for the Middle Class

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

– There’s been a lot of talk over the years about health care reform.  Hillary Clinton tried to implement deep health care reform and was rebuffed soundly.   Now, Obama’s said he’s going to try it.

– So, what’s going to happen?   No much is what, very likely.   Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote an article (the beginning of which is below) which discusses the whys and wherefores of what’s likely to happen.

– Folks like me have decried for years the fact that of all the major western democracies, the U.S. is the ONLY one without socialized medicine.  The richest country in the world and 48 million of our 300 million people do not have a health care safety net.

– Well, the corporate interests which basically own the U.S.’s health care system will resist changes tooth and nail – because profits are involved.   You can be sure that the idea that governments should exist to look after the interests of their people won’t get on the table.

– And, have you heard how very bad socialized medicine is?   No service, bad work, long lines?   Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in a country with such a system and, yes, it has some problems – but nothing like what all this disinformation and propaganda would have you believe.

– Here in the U.S., my wife and I pay $885 a month for health care insurance and each of us has a $2500 deductible on top of that.Â

– In New Zealand, which has a socialized medical system, all accidents are covered automatically by the government.  And, if it is not an accident, a doctor’s visit costs you $55 NZD maximum (about $27 US at the moment),  And no prescription costs you more than $15 NZD (or about $7-$8 US at the moment). Â

– Now, that’s what I call a government looking out for the interests of its people.

– This article makes it sound like the push-back will be coming from the 250 million of us who have health care coverage.    I don’t think so.   The 250 million will, however, be the targets for the fear-mongering campaign (by the profit oriented medical/corporate interests which have deep vested interests in the outcome) that will ensue.  That will be the real story here.  Just wait and see the ‘public spirited’ advertisements which will be out soon from the medical industry / corporate types as they compassionately share with us what’s wrong with health care reform.

– Read Kevin’s story and you’ll see why health care for everyone as a right won’t be coming here to the U.S. anytime soon.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

David Corn just got back from a breakfast meeting hosted by Nancy Pelosi, who outlined the Democratic messaging strategy on healthcare reform:

The “appeal” of this push, she said, will not be that 48 million people don’t have health care insurance. “What is important to the bigger population,” she explained, “is their own health care.”

….The bottom line: the battle cry will not be, “Health care for all!” Instead, it will be “Better health care for you — and also the rest of us.” Given how the Hillary Clinton-led crusade for health care reform flamed out terribly in the 1990s, this sort of tactical shift may be warranted. It may even be wise.

I’d go further than that.  Even as far back as 1993, Bill Clinton understood that fear of change among the already insured was the key issue in building public support for national healthcare.  Unfortunately, even though he got this, he still didn’t emphasize it enough, and that’s one of the reasons his plan failed.

Since then, however, this has become conventional wisdom.  Like it or not, universal healthcare will never get passed on the grounds that it will help the 48 million Americans who are currently uninsured.  It will only pass if the other 250 million Americans are assured over and over and over again that the new plan will be at least as good for them as what they have now.


Clean Power From Deserts

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

– These technologies are out there.  We just need the political will to implement and use them.

= = = = = = =

by Dr. Gerry Wolff

Close up view of parabolic trough and heat collector.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is the remarkably simple technique of arranging mirrors to concentrate sunlight and using the resulting heat to raise steam to drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. CSP works best where there is direct sunshine and lots of it, as in deserts.Solar heat may be stored in melted salts (e.g. nitrates of sodium or potassium) so that electricity generation may continue at night or on cloudy days. And gas or biofuels may be used as a stop-gap source of heat when there is not enough sun. With facilities for storing solar heat and hybridisation with other sources of heat, CSP can provide any combination of base load power, intermediate load or peaking power. This is a great advantage for power engineers trying to match supplies of electricity to demands for electricity which are constantly varying.

The potential

CSP plants have been supplying electricity in California since the mid 1980s, new plants came on stream recently in Spain and Nevada, and others are now being planned or built in many places around the world.

The potential is enormous. Every year, each square kilometre of desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Multiplying by the area of deserts worldwide, this is several hundred times the entire current energy consumption of the world. It has been calculated that less than 1 per cent of the world’s deserts, if covered with CSP plants, would produce as much electricity as is now used by the whole world.


Drinking bottled water is drinking oil

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

– Do you drink bottled water?   Well, if you do and you also consider yourself a green health oriented person, it is probably long past time for you to sit up and take notice of articles like this.   And believe me, if you want more information – don’t go to the companies who are selling you this 21st century snake-oil – they flat-out have no interest in telling you the sad truth on this one.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

ScienceNOW reports a new paper by Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley in Environmental Research Letters that compares the energy use of bottled and tapwater:

… From start to finish, bottled water consumes between 1100 and 2000 times more energy on average than does tap water.

Bottled water consumption has skyrocketed over the past several years. In 2007, some 200 billion liters of bottled water were sold worldwide, and Americans took the biggest gulp: 33 billion liters a year, an average of 110 liters per person. That amount has grown 70% since 2001, and bottled water has now surpassed milk and beer in sales. Many environmental groups have been concerned with this surge because they suspected that making and delivering a bottle of water used much more energy than did getting water from the tap. But until now, no one really knew bottled water’s energy price tag.

Environmental scientist Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Oakland, California, and his colleague Heather Cooley have added up the energy used in each stage of bottled-water production and consumption. Their tally includes how much energy goes into making a plastic bottle; processing the water; labeling, filling, and sealing a bottle; transporting it for sale; and cooling the water prior to consumption.