Three Days on Waiheke Island

Palm Beach | Waiheke Island

Palm Beach

I begin this post with a picture, because that’s really the best way to talk about Waiheke Island. Located just a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, Waiheke has become famous for its relatively slower lifestyle compared to the city of 1.3 million. Filled with beautiful beaches, lush walkways, little harbors, and endless hills, Waiheke is certainly worth visiting if you find yourself in New Zealand.

Lonely Boat | Waiheke Island

We arrived last Sunday near sunset, when the tide was out. Because Waiheke is considered a desirable vacation destination, the island’s larger homes regularly sell for upwards of $1 million. We stayed in a smaller, cozier dwelling filled with seashells, books, and fresh flowers owned by German/Argentine couple — ah, the benefits of using Airbnb!* Although it rained a significant percentage of the time that we were on Waiheke, we used those hours as an excuse to relax, share a surprisingly delicious $6 bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and watch several episodes of House M.D. 

Sunset, water | Waiheke Island

The first day, we had just enough time to take a quick walk along the coast and snap some photos of the sunset. The sunlight in New Zealand is amplified by the frequent presence of beautiful, fluffy clouds. It’s no wonder that the Māori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, or “land of the long white cloud.”

Mountain bike | Waiheke Island

The next day, I very ambitiously insisted that we rent mountain bikes and try to see as much of the island as we could. Ambitious, because of those aforementioned hills. I must advise future travelers against renting regular mountain bikes — unless you’re a professional cyclist, you won’t be able to make it up Waiheke’s steep slopes.  For just $20 more per day, you can rent an electric-assisted bike that will enable you to cover much more terrain. I wish we had done this instead! Still, it was a fantastic, if grueling, workout.

Hekerua Bay | Waiheke Island

Hekerua Bay

We took several lengthy pauses, including one at Hekerua Bay, and another at Palm Beach to watch the tide going out and to explore the rocky coastline.

Tide going out | Waiheke Island

Although Waiheke technically isn’t a volcanic island, it’s still composed of volcanic rock, chunks of which are forcefully present along the beaches. In fact, Waiheke’s unique and varied composition is part of what makes it such an excellent place to produce wine — grapes grown just a short distance apart may taste significantly different. The semi-porous, red-tone rocks are striking to observe and easy to walk across thanks to their highly textured surface.

Volcanic rock | Waiheke Island

On our second full day on the island, we took it fairly easy — we were still exhausted from dragging those mountain bikes up the hills! Our Airbnb hosts drove us to yet another beautiful beach situated along Onetangi Bay. It was unbelievably picturesque and utterly surreal, just like the rest of our time on Waiheke.

To the beach | Waiheke Island

Onetangi Beach | Waiheke Island

Like the rest of New Zealand, on Waiheke island there’s always a rainstorm on the way. It’s also perpetually windy, meaning that most umbrellas really do get blown inside out within seconds — just as my favorite Kiwi YouTuber, Charlie Marie, warned in her “Winter Essentials” video. Bring waterproof shoes, a sturdy windbreaker that doubles as a lined raincoat, and LOTS of long-sleeved shirts for layering. The dramatic shifts in weather do make taking impressive photos fairly easy, though!

Waves crashing | Waiheke Island

Later that day, we got takeaway fish ‘n’ chips and walked down to Oneroa Beach, where we sat at a picnic table and watched dolphins swimming back and forth across the bay. I did take pictures of the dolphins, but unfortunately the zooming feature on my iPhone isn’t much good, so I’m afraid none of them are worth sharing! It was a big event, though; apparently the dolphins’ feeding frenzy in Oneroa Bay was shared on the Waiheke community news board the following day. I did manage to grab this elevated photo of the beach while exploring yet another of the island’s endless walkways.

Oneroa Beach | Waiheke Island

If you do make it out to Waiheke, I strongly suggest giving yourself a full day (or two, or three) to just wander all over the island and explore as many of its walkways as you can.

Hiking | Waiheke Island

We witnessed yet another stunning sunset, and took a leisurely walk back to our rented room in the fading light.

Sunset | Waiheke Island

Although Waiheke’s hills are studded with million-dollar homes, it doesn’t feel like a tourist destination. True, it is small, with a quaint Fruit ‘n’ Veg shop and just a handful of proper restaurants, and its population will double during the busy summer months. But the island’s pace is perceptibly slower, a feature the permanent residents cherish.  Like everywhere else in New Zealand that we’ve seen so far, Waiheke is extremely clean, bordering on pristine. Its beaches are natural and scattered with seashells of significant size, not drowned out by tons of white sand dumped in a desperate attempt to evade erosion. It has been discovered, but it was not exploited in that process of discovery. And that’s a rare thing for us to witness.

Boats in Harbor | Waiheke Island

Even the seagulls are pretty and snowy white!

Seagull | Waiheke Island

I don’t know if I’m naturally impatient and ambitious, or if being raised in the United States made me that way. Regardless, I hope that my imposition of day-to-day “goals” and stressors will slowly fade away as I continue to travel through New Zealand. The benefit of visiting Waiheke during the off season was that it wasn’t crawling with tourists and there wasn’t much of anything to do besides take in its natural beauty.

Clouds Reflected | Waiheke Island

I do think, though, that we might be returning in December/January to experience the richness of the island summer, and maybe to do a bit of work on Waiheke’s vineyards, which we weren’t able to see this time around. Even so, we appreciated the three days we spent there.

Photo credits: 1, 2, 6, 7, 10, 12, 15 and 16 by GvL; all others by me. 

*Disclosure: This Airbnb link is tied to my username. If you make a reservation using my link, you will get $25 off your first booking. I receive $25 toward my next reservation as well. 

“Is this a joke?” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”

The back cover of the book carries endorsements from no less than Madonna and Will Smith, the latter of whom identifies it as “One of my favorite books.” Gee, thanks, Will Smith. I wouldn’t have read it without your blessing.

The Alchemist

Do you remember the title of J.K. Rowling’s first book as it was published in the U.K., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Do you also remember that magic isn’t real? Ok, good. Just checking. Because the Philosopher’s Stone is a real thing in The Alchemist, as is the ability to transform lead into gold, as is the ability of people to communicate with each other and with the elements through The Universal Language of the World. Oh, I forgot to add that all of the knowledge of the world is inscribed on the Emerald Tablet. Yeah.

I wish I were exaggerating, but this book is nothing but trite aphorisms from beginning to end. The basic premise is that a young boy from Andalusia, Spain isn’t fulfilling his destiny by being a humble shepherd of sheep. Thankfully, a king wearing a gold breastplate intervenes and tells him to believe a recent dream he’s had about finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt. Boy decides to sell his sheep and travel to Tangier, where someone steals all his money but then he earns it back because he has a knack for selling crystal! Then he falls instantly in love with a “woman of the desert” after traveling via camel to an oasis in the middle of the desert! Then he meets the famous alchemist who refuses to teach him how to change lead into gold, but it’s ok because he insists that the boy listen to his heart! HE DOES AND THEN HIS HEART LEADS HIM TO THE TREASURE!!! It is written! It is a miracle!

It’s narcissistic, delusional, simplistic, and self-affirming, which explains why it’s sold 65 million copies. Let me pull a few choice examples:

The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there. (p. 77)

It’s Slumdog Millionaire all over again! Just as the universe conspired to make Jamal win one million rupees on a game show, so did the universe ensure that the shepherd boy from Andalusia would find a treasure chest filled with gold coins.

We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand. (p. 80)

Everything happens for a reason. We must not question tragedy because it is written into the history of the world. Poor people are poor because it is their destiny. Rich men become rich because they had the wisdom to listen to the omens and claim the treasure that was destined to be theirs. Of COURSE! How could you possibly misinterpret something so simple?

‘I had to test your courage, the stranger said. ‘Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World.’ The boy was surprised. The stranger was speaking of things that very few people knew about.’ (p. 117)

This book works for the same reason that horoscopes work, a little something known as the Forer, or, colloquially, the Barnum Effect after the Ringling Bros. circus. Basically, if you make something vague and profound enough, everyone will see themselves reflected in it. Give it a try. Read a horoscope that doesn’t belong to your star sign and see if it still applies to your life (hint: it will!). An article from Psychology Today explains why the Barnum Effect is so seductive:

The second reason people fall for the Barnum effect applies more to predictions about the future, the ones we find in fortune cookies and horoscopes. These provide a comforting, if not always reassuring, sense of control over the unknown. In our constant struggle to see into the unknown, these vapid pronouncements give us a handle with which we can open the door.  No matter that it’s not going to be a very clear view, nor that if we were keeping records, we’d realize that these prognostications were completely off-base. (emphasis added)

Celebrities love The Alchemist because it justifies their fame. They were destined to be wealthy and admired — the very stars in the sky prove this. Everyone else loves The Alchemist because it’s endlessly forgiving. It’s hard work listening to The Universal Language/your intuition/God/wise old men with gold breastplates, but as long as you try to follow your destiny, that’s all that can be expected of you. Something go wrong? It’s just a bump in the path to your true realization.

All of this new-age nonsense aside, let’s take one last moment to consider how sexist this book is. You remember how I said the shepherd boy fell instantly in love with a woman of the desert that he met at an oasis? Well, she’s a strong woman of the desert, so she doesn’t mind waiting while he goes off to pursue his destiny. Women of the desert are strong and are capable of waiting faithfully for their men to return.

‘You’ll remember that she never asked you to stay, because a woman of the desert knows that she must await her man.’ (p. 126)

‘I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals and the water of the desert.’ (p. 103)

“I also have Fatima. She is a treasure greater than anything else I have won.” (p. 121)

Oh, right. Thanks for reminding us, Paulo Coehlo, that women are possessions just like treasure, horses, or houses. They are prizes to be won by men brave enough to pursue their destinies. Remember: in Coelho’s world, it’s only the men who have destinies. Women just wait around, hoping to be picked up like so many gold coins.

I’ll tell you what, though. This book was good for many solid laughs. I read sections out loud to Greg, and each time, he’d ask: “Is this a joke?” Sadly, most people don’t seem to realize that’s exactly what this book is. It also means that I won’t make the mistake of reading another book by Coehlo, ever again.

Overall rating: 1/5 stars

Mini Film Reviews #1

I’ve seen quite a few movies over the last couple of months, but haven’t felt compelled to review any of them in full. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t react terribly strongly to any of them, with the exception of Biutiful, which I detested. So, instead of writing mediocre reviews of movies I don’t feel all that emotionally invested in, here are snort snippets containing my concise opinions of each film.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy poster

I found this movie really disappointing, mostly because I read nothing but favorable reviews of it. In contrast to the effusive praise it’s received, I found it to be utterly average. Then again, I’m don’t think I’m in the target demographic anymore. I feel like a sizable chunk of the new Marvel flicks are aimed toward a younger crowd (I certainly felt that way while watching Avengers) and Guardians of the Galaxy is continuing that trend. I adore Chris Pratt; he is hilarious and endearingly stupid on Parks and Recreation. However, as often happens when talented comedians are stuck in film projects and given boring scripts to work with, Chris Pratt is unforgivably underutilized in this movie. Stick in some totally random sidekicks, elaborate costumes and backgrounds, and the type of lackluster, hole-riddled plot that is so typical of superhero films, and you’ve made something that appeals to a lot of people for no good reason.

Overall rating: C

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Of the two strange movies that Scarlett Johanssohn starred in this past year, it seemed like Under the Skin was generally considered the better of the two. As such, since I had a lukewarm reaction to Under the Skin, I’m going to skip watching Lucy. Although Under the Skin is visually stunning– how could it not be, set as it is in melancholy Scotland? — it also makes very little sense. Not that that’s necessarily a negative thing; but in this case, it is. It doesn’t help that the gorgeous shots of the frosty Scottish hills are paired with some downright awful CGI sequences, nor it is a good sign when the only moment in which the film has much of an emotional impact is when a disfigured man finds himself one of Scarlett’s unfortunate victims. Points for creativity, but much was lost in the execution.

Overall rating: B

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Oh my goodness, I almost left the theater halfway through this one. Its greatest weakness was being unforgivably, tremendously boring. Honestly, at this point the “terrorist narrative” has been so overdone that if you are determined to make a movie about it, it needs to be a damn good one. Unfortunately, this movie is not damn good. It’s just damn boring.

Overall rating: C-



I’ll put my most hated film in the middle so that by the time you’ve read the next two positive reviews, you’ll hopefully have forgiven me for my vitriol. I don’t understand how someone who directed Babel could make a film that I would hate with the very core of my being. I am fine with depressing films (come on, There Will Be Blood is one of my all-time favorites!), but I am not ok with pointlessly depressing films. This entire movie is basically Javier Bardem being miserable. He has two kids with his mentally unstable, estranged ex-wife and panics when he is informed that he has prostate cancer. He’s dirt poor, of course, so he can’t afford treatment. He’s involved in illegal immigration and labor, and manages to kill 20 of his workers by buying faulty gas heaters. Butterflies show up. He can converse with dead people. There is a kindhearted Senegalese woman who is his only hope. He dies. The end. AAAAAAAAGH. Please, please don’t watch this awful movie. I feel like it was nothing more than an Oscar-bait role for Bardem.

Overall rating: D+

Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank

I recently read an article about why robotic caregiving is unethical, so I was quite surprised when I ended up liking this movie. Bottom line, it’s too sweet not to like. An elderly man with Alzheimer’s (Frank) has become a burden to his family and a danger to himself, so his son buys him a robot programmed to aid older citizens. Frank and the robot end up bonding to a surprising degree, and there are many instances in which the viewer is prompted to reflect on the nature of robotic interactions — will there there a point in which robots are so sophisticated, and in possession of sufficient emotional intelligence, to rival human companionship? Robot & Frank provides fodder for these thoughts, but is refreshingly ambiguous in its refusal to offer a solid answer.

Overall rating: B+

Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart

I’m still not sure why I like this movie so much. It does star Jeff Bridges, so that’s one huge reason. I think it just boils down to the fact that it feels genuine. Country musician Bad Blake’s mixed history of financial success, emotional drama, and substance abuse seems contextually realistic considering how high-stakes the country music industry is in the United States. Maggie Gyllenhall is wonderful as always in her portrayal of a slightly cynical journalist with a deep appreciation for old-fashioned country music, who somewhat reluctantly starts a relationship with a damaged man several decades her elder. The stereotypical Hollywood ending isn’t there, and who knew that Colin Farrell could make such a convincing country singer? It’s heartfelt, well-acted, and a pleasure to both watch and listen to. So, in my book, it gets a rare…

Overall rating: A-

Have you seen any of these films? How did you feel about them? Do you disagree with me vehemently? I’m curious to hear your reactions, good or bad!

Two Books I Didn’t Finish

Not finishing a book is a huge pet peeve of mine. Often I’ll push through and finish reading it, even if it’s terrible. In this case, though, I decided to cut myself some slack. Since I decided not to finish these two underwhelming reads, I’ve had time to polish off 4-5 good books! There are millions of books in the world and precious little time to read them, so don’t do what I do and force yourself to waste time on the ones that just aren’t worth it!

Book #1: Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza


This book has been a thorn in my side for over a year now. I included it on my list of “30 Books I want to read in 2014” way back in January. I’ve picked it up a couple of times since then, but I really just can’t stand it. Slash, the infamous guitarist from Guns ‘n’ Roses, is a flat-out terrible person. The scene that led me to condemn the book appeared relatively early on, when Slash and his bandmate Axl are drunk at a party and take turns having sex with the same girl. And no, I don’t mean a three way. I can’t think of any situation where that should happen, except on the set of a porno.

I guess I’m not surprised that it became a New York Times bestseller. It’s vicarious in the same way that The Wolf of Wall Street is.  I guess a lot of people dream of becoming assholes, and it’s somehow pleasurable for them to read about wealthy idiots wrecking havoc wherever they go? At any rate, it’s not a narrative I can get behind, and the writing is terrible and inconsistent on top of everything else.

Book #2: In the sea there are crocodiles by Fabio Geda


In the sea there are crocodiles couldn’t be more different from Slash. It’s a nonfiction Young Adult book about a 10-year-old refugee from Afghanistan named Enaiatollah Akbari (Enait for short). It was one of the few books on the IBBY 2014 Honour List that I took the time to read — but I only got about 60 pages in because I couldn’t stand it. Just as Slash is about an asshole running around doing destructive things, In the sea there are crocodiles is the polar opposite, an unbearably cozy book featuring a relatively innocent kid with some remarkably bad luck. I commend author Fabio Geda for his good intentions; i.e., bringing to light a story about a kid growing up in horrible conditions. It’s a work of altruism, really. The problem is that Geda seems hyperaware of his own heroism, and unnecessarily romanticizes the concept of childhood. Furthermore, although Enaiatollah is supposed to be (and is!) a sympathetic protagonist, he has an alarmingly narrow way of categorizing his enemies.  The book is also full of “truisms” and cutesy language. Here are a few quotes to illustrate what I mean.

Mother’s last words: An alarmingly simplistic view of work and honesty in a region of the world where skepticism is a protective mindset.

[Don't ever] cheat or steal. What’s yours belongs to you, what isn’t doesn’t. You can earn the money you need by working, even if the work is hard. (p. 4)

Romanticization and deliberate simplification of the small town in Afghanistan where Enait is from:

 I’d never have chosen to leave Nava. My village was a good place. It’s wasn’t technologically advanced, there was no electricity. For light, we used oil lamps. But there were apples. (p. 19)

Idealized recounting of parents picking kids up from school, which is not necessarily an unequivocally wonderful thing:

I watch the children coming out into the playground when the bell rings, and lining up just inside the gates, and getting up on tiptoe to peer into the crowd of adults, trying to see their parents… Then all the questions start — how was their day, what homework do they have, how was the swimming lesson — and the mothers doing up the zips of their children’s jackets to protect them from the cold and pulling their hats down over their foreheads and ears. (p. 41-42)

Perhaps the book improved as the story progressed, but I found several aspects of it distasteful and didn’t care to take the time to find out. I’m kind of perversely pleased that I intensely disliked this pair of books, which couldn’t be more different from one another as it reassures me that I’m looking at more than just the content. I would say that both of them are profoundly inauthentic and self-aggrandizing, despite the wildly different subject matter.

There you have it! Two books that I have started and deliberately abandoned. I am, however, determined to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I love so much that I have spread it out over several months.

Photos by GvL. 


Day One in New Zealand

Excuse the week-long absence here on the blog & elsewhere. Greg and I successfully made it to New Zealand after a flurry of last-minute preparations! I’m planning to do a couple of comprehensive prep/packing posts, but for now, I just thought I’d share what we’ve gotten up to since we landed approximately 28 hours ago.

We took an overnight 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, fell asleep on Friday night, and woke up on Sunday morning. Saturday, September 6 didn’t exist for us thanks to the International Date Line. For the first two nights, we’re staying with a cheerful and friendly Thai couple in a room booked via AirBnB. After we stowed our bags and took much-needed showers, we were invited to go to one of Auckland’s Sunday markets, an invitation that we promptly accepted! The market was bustling and we went a little crazy buying fruit, including a massive bag of kiwis for less than $1 USD!

Sunday market Auckland

In the right side of the photo, you can see volunteers from two different political parties competing for everyone’s attention. New Zealand’s national election is coming up very soon, and there are banners everywhere advertising the candidates and their parties.

In the afternoon, we ventured out to the town of Mangere to buy some groceries at Pak ‘n Save. The food prices don’t seem that bad so far; they’re roughly comparable to Whole Foods, so luckily we’re fairly used to them having lived in Chicago!

After our grocery trip, we spotted what looked like a modest plateau in the distance. We spontaneously decided to see if we could get close enough to climb it. We had no idea what we were getting into…

Mangere Mountain

What looked like a plateau from afar turned out to be an elaborate volcano crater that erupted some 18,000 years ago. Now, cows graze on the lush green grass at its base and a series of paths have been worn onto the sides of the volcano from visitors eager to witness the panoramic views of Auckland. In its center is a lava dome, a unique feature that few volcanic sites share.

Lava pile - Mangere Mountain

Known today as Mangere Mountain, the extremely fertile slopes of the volcano were terraced by the Māori and used to grow kūmara, among other crops. The terraces still decorate the outward slopes, giving the mountain a rippled appearance. True to its reputation, the 106-metre (~350 ft) mountain, in conjunction with the gorgeous sunny weather, afforded us spectacular views of New Zealand’s largest city.

View of Auckland from the South atop Mangere Mountain

You’ll notice, perhaps, that many of the rooftops are tiled. It may seem like a small change from shingled roofs, but the tiles, along with the numerous palm and banana trees, lend a decorative, slightly tropical vibe to the city. There were beautiful trees growing along the rim of the volcano as well.

Tree atop Mangere Mountain

My favorite view was of the Mangere Lagoon, located just to the southwest of the mountain, and the outlying Manukau Harbor. The entire area was lush, green, and radiant in the early spring sun.

Manukau Harbor from Mangere Mountain

After our unexpected hike, we were utterly exhausted. Cue a 12-hour sleeping session! The benefit of feeling like you’re 7-8 hours “ahead” is that it’s very easy to wake up early.

I’m not sure what we’ll get up to today — but our first 28 hours in New Zealand have been nothing short of spectacular! More updates to come soon.