Auckland’s Lantern Festival

Lanterns framed by the Auckland skyline

After our loop in the Northland Peninsula, we’re back in Auckland to see the city’s annual lantern festival. What began nearly twenty years ago as a small celebration with lanterns borrowed from cities in China is now a festival with hundreds of handmade lanterns and hundreds-of-thousands of attendees a year. And though the Lantern Festival is a celebration of Chinese cultural heritage (it’s part of our celebrations for the Lunar New Year), people of all races and ethnicities have turned out for the event. Here are our best shots from the festival:

Lanterns depicting the moon goddess Chang’e and the white rabbits that live with her. It’s still daytime, so the full beauty of the lanterns remains hidden.
Lanterns depicting an old fisherman with his net.
A lantern dedicated to Hong Kong (and mostly focused on food). Having now been to Hong Kong, I can say this is 100% accurately delicious.
A bat latnern in a tree. Bats are considered good fortune because the words for “bat” and “luck” are homophones in Chinese.
A boy shakes hands with a rooster mascot. 2017 is the year of the rooster in the lunar zodiac.
More people gather to admire the lanterns (and eat amazing street food). As the sun sets, the lanterns reveal their beauty.
A latnern of a boy and horse against the darkening Auckland sky.
Red lanterns hanging from the trees.
Twin dragon lanterns hover over a fountain. After dark, the full beauty of the lanterns appears.


In this lantern, woman makes hand-pulled noodles from dough.
A lantern version of a Chinese opera character.
People take photos inside of a lantern shaped like a house. Though there were far more intricate lanterns at the festival, this lantern was one of the most popular.

That’s all from us for now, but tomorrow we head out from Auckland again, this time southward to see the rest of the North Island.


Adjusting to a new continent

Stoytcho and I eat breakfast at home, part of our adjustment to the costs of Oceania (the beer isn’t ours, but leftover from our Airbnb host last night).

Travelling around the world in a year means that you’re moving between cultures and countries fast, but with few exceptions most neighboring countries don’t differ that much from each other and the gap isn’t that huge. Jumping the continental divide between South America and Oceania takes you between two vastly different cultures and economic realities, though, so we’ve had to do some work adjusting. Here are the three places where we’ve had the biggest culture shock and how we dealt with them:

A totally new economic scale

We’re poor here. After three months of living mostly under USD $20 a day per person, the prices in New Zealand come with sticker shock. A single cheap meal here costs more than a full day of meals in most of South America, and a bed in a hostel costs more than a private room for two. To reign in our costs, we eat out for only one or two meals a day and cook the rest. An Airbnb has kept our accommodations budget from getting wildly out of hand, but it’s still over our daily budget of USD $30. Thankfully, we’ve brought a camping kit, so we’ll be camping wherever possible in the rest of New Zealand to bring accommodation costs down. We still afford ourselves the little luxuries of buying and trying some things on a whim, but that budget now covers only one whimsy purchase per day instead of three or four. The upside/downside is that whoaaa there are tons of options in stores.

Drinks at a local warehouse supermarket. Hundreds of options, but so little spending power.

Speaking English again

Being fluent in the local language is simultaneously a huge relief and a huge bore. It takes less time and pantomiming to get chores done, from buying medications at a pharmacy to getting directions, but some of the sense of adventure also disappears. It also takes some time to adjust our brains to English and the New Zealand accent. We find ourselves missing Spanish so we speak it to each other while we’re out, much to the confusion of locals (Spanish speakers are nearly nonexistent here). And hey, at least that keeps it fresh in our heads. (Update from the future: we totally didn’t keep this up and our Spanish fluency has cratered. We’ll have to think of new strategies to stay fluent in the future).

Whoaaa, this newspaper is in English! And I get the witticisms!

Less public transit

I feel bad saying this, because New Zealand’s public transit is still leagues better than those you would encounter in several other cities around the world, but it still just doesn’t compare to the coverage and affordability of metro systems in South America. The primary cause is simply scale of use: in South America a high percentage of a city’s population uses the metro system. Here in Auckland, where more people own, a smaller percentage of the city uses the metro system. The result is it’s more expensive, the stops are further apart, and the metro takes longer. And outside of Auckland, there are even fewer options. Seeing many of the country’s sights requires renting a car, which is a huge chunk of our budget here in New Zealand.

A car drives through an intersection in Auckland’s downtown. The metro system here is less extensive and convenient than in South America simply because a smaller percentage of the city uses it.

A totally different culture

After living for three months in South America, New Zealand is a bit of a culture shock as well. People are more polite, although they also seem colder and more reserved. In some places, there are undertones of ethnic and social tension that we haven’t experienced in a while: on the way to the Chinese Lantern Festival, we watched some older white people who sat on their porches glaring furiously at the stream of people walking by (who were mostly Asian). While there are definitely socioeconomic tensions in South America, it took the form of protests instead of diffusing into daily life. When the haves and have nots look racially distinct, this is what happens instead. Despite this, much of the city seems happy, optimistic, and less worried about their economic future than many places we’ve been to. We feel like we have to watch our backs less here for theft, and that’s a relief.

A farmer’s market in the morning, with zero security, people leaving their phones unattended, and general lack of concern about theft. That’s nice, at least.

Auckland and the little things

Auckland is at once the same and radically different from cities in South America. It’s not the overarching categories of things that are different; there are still roads, cars, restaurants, parking lots, houses, parks. But how they look is radically different compared to South America. Gone is much of the roughness, the sensation of that the city is unfinished and in flux. Auckland instead resembles the coastal cities of the United States, with a static polish over everything. There are things under construction, but they’re politely hidden from view and fenced off by perimeters of cones and fences. All of the roads sport the glossy sheen of asphalt and sidewalks are formed by immaculately poured concrete. And the buildings form neat little units, sized and proportioned to match each other even when they differ in appearance.

But even in the static polish of Auckland, where you could for a moment mistake yourself in Seattle or San Francisco, there are little things that stand out as different. It’s the details that make a place, and here in Auckland these little things take on a form of whimsy we’ve come to associate with New Zealand.

A city block in Auckland, which looks much like a city block in Seattle or Los Angeles.
A wooden arch erected in a park for summer festivities with Maori-inspired designs. Here in Auckland, the differences are in the details.
A community garden space in Auckland. The city maintains 42,000 hectares of parks and open spaces. Compared to Los Angeles (9,700 hectares) and New York City (11,300 hectares), Auckland has more than ten times the park space per resident in the city.
Mushrooms grow at a park in Auckland. One benefit of so much parkspace is a panoply of nature is always only a few steps away.
A house in an Auckland suburb. Like most cities in the Western world, Auckland is a city center surrounded by a massive sprawl of suburbs.
An grocery ad at a bus stop. The switch in gender roles here would be nigh unprecedented in U.S. advertising, which promulgates the myth that most men can’t cook.
A coffee shop mascot near University of Auckland. Even the monsters here are polite.
Guide signs in a warehouse grocery store in Auckland. Dinosaurs are really cheap this week…
Chinese for lunch: Nearly 22% of Auckland’s population is Asian, and the city boasts an amazing array of restaurants specializing in Asian cuisine.
Election signs erected in a park in Auckland. There are nearly 10 different candidates you could vote for in this election.
“The Sound of Rain”: A miniature bronze house commemorating New Zealand’s transition from a colony to a dominion.

Travel in the time of Trump: Auckland

A flyer in Auckland’s downtown for a protest against Trump’s inauguration.

Even from afar, the image of the new U.S. president was unmistakable. We encountered the above flyer while walking around Auckland’s downtown, and when we walked across the street to read it we found it was for a protest of Trump’s inauguration. For those of you unsure of what “Aotearoa” is, it’s the widely-accepted Maori name for New Zealand’s North Island.

Though sparse on the details of their discontents on the flyer, the Aotearoa Against Trump group had plastered these flyers along the streets for nearly a mile. On some, people had scribbled a Hitler-like moustache onto Trump’s face. Others had profanity scribbled onto them. And yet others were partly ripped down, either by those angry by Trump’s election or angry at the protesters.

Trump is an unarguably a polarizing figure in the Americas, but his appearance as a protest target here in New Zealand illustrates how global that polarization is.  Some people in Auckland took the time to design this flyer, print it out, and put it up all over Auckland’s downtown. People also (ostensibly) showed up for this protest against Trump. Others vented their distaste through profanity or portraying him as Hitler. I wonder if there was also a counter-protest.

An intact poster next to a torn-down poster for the protest. These were two of about twenty posters we saw in our walk around one corner of the downtown area.

You could argue that the opinion of Auckland’s residents on the U.S. President doesn’t really matter. They’re not U.S. citizens and they don’t live in the U.S. It’s none of their business. But Auckland is the capital city of a country that the U.S. will have to work with, as an ally and a trading partner. The dislike of him here is a reminder that harsh rhetoric wins few friends and has ramifications outside of the election, influencing how other countries view the United States, and us as U.S. citizens. And while Trump and his allies may want to “put America first”, anything the U.S. does will have global ramifications and everyone outside the U.S knows it. Our country might find ourselves with fewer allies in the next four years.

Visiting a farmer’s market in Auckland

The La Cigale Farmer’s Market is our first stop in Auckland – literally. With our Airbnb host at work until 5 pm, we’ve got nowhere to go and four hours after hitting the tarmac we’re walking up the steep streets of Parnell toward the market site.

We’re so early that the market is still setting up.

We haven’t been to a farmer’s market since we left the U.S., at least not as most people in the developed western world would imagine them. There are countless markets in South America where farmers bring their produce for sale, and we’ve wandered such markets in countries from Costa Rica to Chile. But in South America they were just called markets, and it’s not where you went every Saturday morning with baby and stroller in tow, it’s where you got food to make meals for your family or customers in your restaurant. That often meant you weren’t buying just one carrot, but one hundred.

Women selling breads and pastries at La Cigale Farmer’s Market.
A man makes Gozleme (a Turkish meat-filled pancake) at the market. Here, like in the U.S., you come to the farmer’s market as an experience and expect to sample exotic foods.

That’s a bit rough when you’re only in a place for a week at a time, but finding fresh produce at local mom-and-pop shops was also less of a problem. Here in Auckland, we’re back in the world of supermarkets, with their thousand-mile-travelled veggies that look a bit past their prime. And for most of us living in cities in the Western world, that’s where farmer’s markets fill the gap. Fresher food from nearer places and friendly people happy to chat as much as make a sale, all for a moderate premium on price. Oh, and pastries astronomically better than you’d find at any supermarket.

A peach and almond tart from the market
The last remnants of a potato flour-based roll. We forgot to take pictures before we had scarfed most of it down.

Did I mention that moderate price premium? At the end of three hours we’ve spent $55 NZD, which is about $40 USD and more than double our daily food budget through most of South America. Traveling in New Zealand will take some adjusting.

Not-so-smooth entry into New Zealand

New Zealand got off to a pretty rocky start for us. We arrived exhausted from our travels, and we hit our first snag at immigration. We figured we’d rent a car and drive around the country’s North Island for a couple of weeks, then head on to Australia, but the last few days in Chile were so hectic that we hadn’t yet been able to fully plan it.

Our mistake was mentioning that to the immigration agent upon entry. She asked what we were going to see and misunderstanding it for polite banter, we answered that we weren’t sure yet. She paused, and then asked what we were doing here then. “We’re here to visit New Zealand,” I replied. “And you don’t have your trip planned?” she asked with suspicion. I realized she was evaluating us as visa overstay risk, and I wanted to respond with “Look, I’m sure your country is nice, but we really don’t want to be here for more than a couple of weeks, lest I go insane from an overdose of pastoral scenery.”

But you don’t say that to an immigration agent. Instead I told her with an exhausted sigh, “Look, we have a rough plan. We’re going to rent a car and drive around the North Island for two or three weeks. Then we’re going on to Australia. Did you want me to write out our rough itinerary?” “No, it’s fine,” she said. She stamped our passports and handed them back. “Most people arrive with a more detailed itinerary,” she added. Ouch.*

Eager to put the immigration agent behind us, we moved on to customs where we stood in line to declare that we had a tent. Most countries in the world take customs and introduction of invasive species seriously, but New Zealand takes this stuff very seriously. If you’ve got a tent or camping equipment that may have dirt on it, they ask that you declare it at customs so they can perform an examination and cleaning. When we got to the front, we opened our bag and pulled out or camping equipment, which all passed inspection as dirt-free. Our tent was the only thing that needed cleaning.

The customs agent took our tent, tagged it, and handed us a paper. “Go through the exit, then wait at the window outside. We’ll call the number on your tag when we’re done cleaning it.” That seemed super nice of them, and although we knew it was in New Zealand’s best interests to do these cleanings, I also appreciated it. “Wow, it’s so nice you give free tent cleanings,” I said cheerfully, “Thank you.” The agent didn’t smile or look up. “But it’s not free. It’s us taxpayers that pay for it, but really we should be charging you,” he replied. I didn’t try to make conversation again after that.

Everyone else at the airport following these interactions was absolutely lovely. A whole team of airport employees, including a couple of off-duty customs agents, helped us find some important medical documents we forgot while moving through customs. The young Maori guy who sold us bus tickets to get to the city had a warm smile and a great sense of humor. And our bus driver was the sweetest guy, making sure everyone got off at the stop they needed. But it’s hard to forget first impressions, and after all of the hype around New Zealand as one of the friendliest places on Earth, it was a surprise to find that not everyone here is friendly after all.


At least they have Crunchie bars here. P.S. Stoytcho had never had a crunchie bar before. 


* I have since found a much easier way to handle immigration agents, whose primary goals are to determine if you’re a threat to their country or a visa overstay risk: tell them you’re on a trip around the world, and list a few countries you’ve been to and where you’ll go next. This gives them both the reason you’re visiting their country and confirmation that you’ll be leaving for a subsequent destination (assumedly before your visa expires). They’re also usually tickled by the idea of meeting a round-the-world traveler, so it spices up their day.