On January 7 2012, it was 15 years that I left Germany. If my status as an expat was a Kiwi, she would already be allowed to drive a car! How fast they grow up.
I’ll spare you all the deep reflections this time around. What I wrote at the 7-year mark and the 10-year mark is still quite valid, except that I’m a lot wiser now and it’s clear that everything is constantly changing and evolving and this whole re-inventing yourself thing really never stops.
And no, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Meanwhile, I’m trying a few things on for size and having much fun with it. One of them is
Which proves my point about reinvention quite nicely. When my actual self was 15 years old, I spent a disproportionate amount of energy on avoiding any kind of prescribed physical exercise. Oh sure, I’d play the occasional game of volleyball and ride my bike everywhere (unlike Kiwis, 15 year olds in Germany don’t get to drive cars, and that’s a very good thing.) But as soon as something appeared to be sport for sport’s sake, I’d fake injuries, claim lady problems (at least fortnightly), or find any number of other excuses to get out of it. Running, I hated the most.
Fast forward a number of decades, and welcome to my new bestest hobby! Bored with the same old gym routine, I decided to give running a try for a change, and I haven’t stopped since. Well, not literally of course. I’m not Forrest Gump. But I’ve been running five times a week for three months now, have heaps more energy, and on the days I don’t run I find myself missing the buzz it gives me.
Another thing I really hated about sports as a teenager was anything to do with competition. As I did my best to avoid sports in the first place, I wasn’t particularly good at it, and the idea of have to compare myself with others, who enjoyed that kind of stuff and therefore did it well, filled me with disgust. You know what’s coming, right? Yep, I already participated in two races this year and am preparing for a third later in April.
First up was the annual Round the Bays 7k run in Wellington, which I actually did once before, in 2008, although then without any prep or ambition. This time I took it a bit more seriously and came in at a respectable 34:43 – five and a half minutes better than three years ago. While I do most of my training at the gym, I had done a few runs along the waterfront, fighting gale force winds so strong that at times it was hard to move at all, let alone run. Race day, however, was calm with blue skies and sun, and simply perfect. It was a joy running along the beautiful harbour, and when Brian picked me up at the finish line, we decided to walk the whole way back to town because it was such a gorgeous day.
But then, 7k on flat surface isn’t exactly a challenge. Not that I was looking for a challenge, but it found me anyway when I happened to read an article about the rising popularity of trail running in Hong Kong. In the article, they mentioned an upcoming race on Lantau Island in March, and it just so happened that I would be in Hong Kong during that time for work. I quickly signed up before reason, caution or doubt could kick in.
Lantau is Hong Kong’s biggest island, and while it is host to both the international airport and Disneyland, most of it is green, rugged mountains with parks and trails. Easily accessible by ferry, it’s perfect for outdoor pursuits, which led to the creation of the inaugural Lantau 50. The main race was a 51k ultra marathon, with an option of a shorter 15k version, which is what I did. (Afterwards they told us it was actually almost 18k – I’m glad I didn’t know that earlier!) Based on my estimate my time was spent about half running, half climbing very steep hills, including the first ascent to Tiger Head from 0 to 450m elevation over 3km. After that, I knew I could do anything. Following Tiger Head we were rewarded with a few kilometers of beautiful rolling hills and then a gradual descent down to a fishing village back at sea level, only to climb back up again and finally finishing coming down a felt million steep steps between the highrises to the finish line. I managed to complete the whole thing in 3 hours, which isn’t bad given that I was already too old for the women’s category and therefore was classified a “lady.” More importantly though I had a blast, being out in the stunningly beautiful nature of Lantau and proving that anything’s possible if you set your mind to it.
On a more sober note, meanwhile, in Wellington,
a homeless man named Ben Hana, known to most Wellingtonians by his moniker, passed away at Wellington Hospital. He was only 54 years old. Everyone who works, lives, or plays in the central city knew who he was, and would have passed him on the street many times.
Usually he’d just sit on a street corner, legs dangling dangerously into the bus lane, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and, on colder days, the eponymous blanket. Sometimes he’d shout at you, or maybe at no one in particular. Sometimes he wasn’t there, and you’d know he’d been arrested again, usually for drug abuse, with the occasional public nudity thrown in. In fact, once he was released on bail only under the condition that he wear underpants in the future. That didn’t last.
Blanket Man was eccentric to say the least, and people’s reactions to his presence in our midst ranged from support to mild amusement to annoyance. Regardless of all the controversy, however, one thing is clear: You couldn’t help noticing him. When news of his death broke, the public reaction was equally strong and diverse, many coming to the realisation that Ben Hana was far from an entertaining mascot but a broken human being who needed but refused help.
And, as unique a character as he was, Blanket Man was just one of the many more people here in Wellington who are homeless or poor – and none of them are considered to be an icon or have their own Wikipedia entry. At best, they are invisible to the rest of us as we go about our business. While it was moving to see the outpouring of compassion for Ben Hana’s hard life, one can only hope that his death helps raise awareness of homelessness and poverty, and that it helps those living under these difficult circumstances improve their situation and live with dignity.
Hope is nice but doesn’t really affect change though. In my last post, I mentioned the
project, which set out to put a computer hub into a local soup kitchen to provide people in need with access to the internet, information, and communication tools.
The motivation for the project was the belief that poverty is not just inadequate food, clothing, or shelter, but also lack of access to information, tools, and a safe environment to communicate, learn, and create – and today, much of this is online. I certainly take the internet for granted, and rely on it to be there for me whenever I need it. Those who don’t have access to the net, on the other hand, are increasingly excluded from participation and opportunities for work, social contacts, learning, information, or engaging with others.
With the Soup Hub, we wanted to help empower those in our communities who need it the most, and we wanted to bring the internet to where people already are – thus the soup kitchen.
After more than six months planning and setting up, this idea is now a reality: On March 2, Celia Wade-Brown, the mayor of Wellington officially opened our small computer lab. We are open two afternoons a week to soup kitchen clients and migrant students of English who use the facility in the morning. All our hardware has been donated, and we’re running open source software on the machines. The hub is supported by volunteers who also provide mentoring and training to the users as needed. We share and document everything we do and thereby create a model that can also be replicated by others. It’s still early days but it’s wonderful and humbling to see that we’re already making a difference.
More background on the project, some press and latest updates can be found on the Soup Hub website.
And now for a few stories that moved the nation in those past three months. First up:
We Germans have a reputation for not always being the most subtle when in foreign countries. The latest story involving a fellow countryman here in New Zealand however goes well beyond the obsessive reserving of beach chairs or preferring schnitzel over local cuisine. Indeed, ”subtle” is probably the last adjective that comes to mind when it comes to Kim Schmitz aka Kim Dotcom aka a number of other aliases. The larger-than-life German expat, multi-millionaire and founder of file hosting service Megaupload.com was arrested in Auckland in January 2012 on copyright infringement charges. At the request of the FBI and other international agencies, armed New Zealand police raided his mansion, and Megaupload was shut down. Megakim was put in jail but has since been released on bail, awaiting his extradition hearing.
Much has been written about this story, which is strangely fascinating in a train wreck sort of way. There is the Hollywood-worthy life story of the man himself (and I’m sure we’ll hear about a movie being made before the year is over.) There is the piracy angle which I really don’t want to get into, other than saying that it seems quite a coincidence that this arrest happened exactly the day after the world-wide protests against SOPA. Whatever one’s opinion on copyright and intellectual property may be, this particular mess is not going to help find a more reasonable way to deal with the issues but will further harden the fronts. Then there’s the political and legal angle of the affair, such as why the FBI is directing the New Zealand police, or how they could have gained access to Skype logs and emails from Megaupload’s top managers up to five years back when the investigation only started in 2011. No matter how sleazy and unpleasant Kim Dotcom may be, the way this was handled may very well set a precedence for more surveillance and lead to further undermining of legal rights and data protection and privacy.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, the story also sparked a bit of a debate why New Zealand would have granted residency to a convicted criminal – albeit a very wealthy one – when they make that same process quite hard for less well-off, but quite possibly more deserving people. It’s a good question. At least Mr Dotcom provided ample entertainment to the neighbours of his $30million Auckland mansion, complete with panic room and a fleet of luxury cars with license plates such as HACKER, MAFIA, GUILTY and GOD. And they say Germans don’t have a sense of humour!
Kiwis, on the other hand, don’t think it’s funny that we’re facing what was quickly dubbed
As an immigrant, it’s a good idea to embrace and adapt to local customs and culture – after all, why else move to another country? There are, however, a few things where I draw the line. One is costume parties. Another one is Marmite.
If come across Marmite for the first time you might easily confuse it with, say, dark shoe polish, at least, that is, until the smell hits. According to Wikipedia, Marmite is “a sticky, dark brown paste with a distinctive, powerful flavour, which is extremely salty and savoury”, made from yeast extract. It was first produced in Britain and since 1919 there’s a special New Zealand version.
Kiwis love it. People who haven’t been fed this stuff since early childhood usually consider it vile.
Australians, by the way, have something similar called Vegemite. Of course Marmite fans swear it’s completely different but to the uninitiated it’s hard to tell the difference. Amanda Palmer (who, on an unrelated note, we saw in concert with the Dresden Dolls, which was fantastic) wrote a song about Vegemite for last year’s Australian tour, in which she calls it “that foul death paste.”
As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. So when the makers of Marmite announced that “a shortage was unavoidable” because their Christchurch manufacturing plant was deemed unsafe after the earthquakes and needed to be closed for repairs, panic-buys set in immediately. Overpriced auctions started appearing on TradeMe and some supermarkets have already run out of stock. Reassuring posters from the manufacturer appeared around town.
The same people who show amazing courage and can-do spirit in the wake of devastating natural disasters apparently are not prepared to cope without sticky yeast paste for a few months.
And on that strange note, that was the first quarter of 2012. I’m writing this over the Easter weekend which turns out to be sunny and warmish, which is only fair after summer failed to materialise. Although we had a few nice days, there was not a single hot day in Wellington this year.
In fact, this is what it looked like on the 3rd of March, officially the third day of autumn. Watch it and shudder:
But then, we hardly noticed the weather as our time was filled with so much good stuff – conferences, concerts, theatre, the aforementioned trip to Hong Kong etc. And that’s not going to change anytime soon either.
Pictures from Hong Kong, March 2012