Sunday, 20 January 2019

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

It was almost as crowded as China.

I'm talking about the track on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  Mama and I walked the 19.4 km on Thursday.

Mulan and Miya weren't with us.  They had a holiday at Nainai and Yeye's place, while Mama and I had our first trip away together since the girls were born.

We drove down to Tongariro National Park on Wednesday, and stayed for three nights at New Zealand's highest hotel, Skotel Alpine Resort, in Whakapapa Village.  Here's the view of Mt Ruapehu from our room:

We were up before dawn on Thursday, needing to drive the 15 minutes to National Park, where we caught the 6 am shuttle bus to the start of the walk.  This is us at 6:40 am, looking a little worried:

What can I say about the walk?  It's a must-do, and a lot of people know it.  The track was constantly busy throughout the day -- the track in the distance sometimes looked like an ant trail.

(This is a look back along the track, with Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro mountains.)

The walk starts at an altitude of 1100m, steadily rising to 1900m (the top of the track in the photo above), before dropping back down to 800m at the end.  The beginning is pleasant, the middle is stunning beautiful, and the end is a tiring slog to the finish line.

It took us 8 hours and 45 minutes from start to finish.  We went slower than most people.  But that's okay, we were probably twice the age of most of the walkers who passed us.  I was the slow one, with my old injuries and achy knee and feet, and Mama often had to wait for me to catch her up.

We weren't sure what to take with us, and in the end we probably over-prepared and took too much.  A sizable minority of people simply wore shorts, T-shirts and sneakers, and the perfect weather meant that that was all they needed.  We carried unused our thermal polypro, as well as thicker rain jackets, though I can see that if the weather turned bad, then that sort of alpine clothing would be essential.  We also wore our hiking boots and used hiking poles -- these were very useful and many people had the same.  One very smart thing we did was pack our walking sandals.  Hiking boots were important in the middle section, but for the final couple of hours or so the track downhill was smooth enough such that walking sandals were the ideal footwear.

Here's another couple of photos of the stunning middle section:

The final shuttle bus back to National Park was 5:30 pm, and those who missed it would have to pay extra.  We managed to catch the 3:30 pm bus.

The next day, Friday, we were both pretty stiff and sore.  The Crossing really was a full body workout, as even the arms and shoulders were achy from using the hiking poles.  We rested in our hotel room in the morning, before heading out in the afternoon for a slow wander around the Whakapapa Village area.  We did a couple of short local walks there.

Friday evening we drove up Mt Ruapehu, intending to walk to Meads Wall (apparently it has become quite famous because it is one of the Lord of the Rings sites).  Unfortunately, there's lots of construction happening in the area (lots of new stuff for the coming winter ski season), and the walk detour closed at 5 pm.  Instead we stayed at the road to watch the sun set.

Oh, and we did a few obligatory jumping photos:

Saturday morning, Mama did a two-hour walk from the hotel to see a waterfall.  I stayed behind and further rested my slowly-recovering body.

During the drive back to Auckland on Saturday, we stopped off for lunch at the Hamilton Gardens.  This is another must-see; the various theme gardens are both clever and beautiful.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Woodwork project and music area

Mulan and Miya's recorder teacher, Kevin, has a lot of different sized recorders.  Mulan and Miya are starting to get a fair few, too.

In class, Kevin sometimes brings along a (homemade) recorder stand for his recorders.  I thought it would be a brilliant woodwork project for Mulan and Miya to make one for themselves.

Here is the girls' completed homemade stand (I supervised/instructed, but the girls did most of the work):

The girls measured and cut the base, which was two rectangular pieces of plywood (leftover pieces from some house repairs).  They then planed and sanded smooth the edges.  We bought three thicknesses of dowel from the local hardware shop, then measured and cut the lengths (different lengths/thicknesses for different sized recorders).  Next, we measured and drilled the holes in the upper piece of plywood, then sanded the holes smooth.  Then it was time to glue the pieces together -- first the two base pieces then the nine dowel rods in the holes.  When the glue was dry Mulan stained it.  Finally, the girls stuck on four non-slip feet on the bottom (also bought from the hardware shop).

It was a great little first-off woodwork project for Mulan.  When I was her age, at intermediate school I made a few similar sorts of things in woodwork class.

At the same time, we've been rearranging our music area in our living room.  We've been getting too many new instruments!  Here it is:

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Foreign language

Mulan and Miya are bilingual.  I speak to them in English; Mama speaks to them in Mandarin Chinese.

But learning a language as a native speaker is different from learning as a foreigner.  It would be good for the girls to also learn a foreign language.

In term 4, the girls started learning New Zealand Sign Language through HASCA.  It is being offered again in term 1, and we were strongly considering continuing it as the girls' foreign language.

But after a few back and forths, we decided that instead of Sign Language the girls would learn Cantonese Chinese as their foreign language.  So, for the past several weeks the girls have been having weekly formal Cantonese lessons.

On the plus side for NZ Sign Language, it is one of New Zealand's official languages.  But we also found a couple of big minuses -- (a) it seems that there are lots of different sign languages around the world, so NZ Sign Language would only be for local New Zealand use, and (b) we (currently) don't know anyone in our daily life who uses it, so (currently) it would only be used in the classroom.  We feel, then, that the girls learnt enough in term 4 that should they ever need to know it in future they will already have a sense of what to do.

Cantonese, however, is much more practically useful for us.  It is Mama's second native language, and in everyday life she uses it with some of her friends and family.  Mulan and Miya would be able to connect much better with the extended family, and also it would allow them to fit in better whenever we return to Guangzhou.

The obvious other plus for Cantonese is that Mama is the teacher, so lessons are free!

Meanwhile, I have restarted formal Mandarin lessons (also with Mama).  I learnt for a year full time back in 2008/9, and since then I have sort-of made do with partly understanding bits in everyday life.  But we thought I should return to weekly lessons.  It is painful, but for the best.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Book review: N K Jemisin

A few months ago I read about N K Jemisin winning her third Hugo Award in a row.  Apparently this is a first -- no one had ever won three in a row before.

I'd never heard of Jemisin, but the blog post was provocatively enticing, and her acceptance speech was funny with bite.

Curious, I requested one of her books from the library.  I was hooked.  I requested more.  I've now read:

Inheritance Trilogy:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010)
The Broken Kingdoms (2010)
The Kingdom of Gods (2011)
The Awakened Kingdom (2014)

Dreamblood duology:
The Killing Moon (2012)
The Shadowed Sun (2012)

Broken Earth series:
The Fifth Season (2015)
The Obelisk Gate (2016)
The Stone Sky (2017)

And I'm still wanting more.  I have to say, Jemisin is now one of my all-time favourite authors.  When I run through in my mind the various aspects of what, to me, makes a good book, these books have it all to near perfection.

I won't suggest Mulan read them just yet.  There's some challenging stuff in there.  But in another five years or so she might be ready for it.

So, what's so good about Jemisin's writing?  Saying everything would take way too long, but I'll say a quick few things.

First off, a good novel needs to have plausible, interesting, three-dimensional characters.  Jemisin's books have those.  In fact, Jemisin is one of the best writers I can think of who can get into the heads of her characters.

This isn't all that surprising.  Apparently, before becoming a fulltime writer, Jemisin was a counselor.  Her first couple of book series above were written while also working fulltime.  I can only assume that over the course of many, many hours of helping people, she has built up a pretty good understanding of what makes people tick.  And then she is able to put that into her characters.  Her characters are uniquely flawed, contradictory, whole, real, relatable people.  It is a pleasure to spend time with them.

On top of that, Jemisin is a wonderfully creative world-builder.  For those who are not aware, the Hugo Awards are for science fiction works.  Jemisin's books (at least all those above that I read) are squarely in the speculative fiction camp, either fantasy or science fiction or some sort of mix.  Each of Jemisin's three series above are set in a uniquely different world -- each amazingly creative and unique in themselves.  That Jemisin has managed, in such a short writing time, to develop not one, but three fascinatingly complex worlds is impressive.

(Mama tells me that one of the big praises Chinese readers have for Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem is his creative world-building.  They should read some of Jemisin's novels to get an idea of what real creative world-building is about!)

The third big thing I noticed about Jemisin's books is her mastery of stringing words together.  She shows her expertise in the rules and history of writing.  And then she breaks the rules to make it even better.  Reading her writing is a true pleasure.

Fourthly, Jemisin's stories are un-put-down-able.  There are plot twists and turns and excitement galore.

Fifthly (and finally), Jemisin's stories quite clearly have social and moral messages.  Her books are not merely entertaining stories set in another universe (although they are that, too).  They also have plenty to say about our world, our society, and real people.  The Broken Earth series is her most mature work (although the other two series are excellent in this regard, too).  Part of it's message is a subtle and sensitive commentary on US race history.  It is well worth reading for this alone.

(And then we read true stories like this one.  All in combination, it hits hard.)

UPDATE 15/1/2019: I've just finished reading Jemisin's Mass Effect Andromeda Initiation, which she co-authored with Mac Walters.  It's a pretty dull read, and is absent all of Jemisin's usual distinctiveness.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Book review: Under the mountain

Mulan and I both just finished reading Maurice Gee's Under the Mountain (1979).

I suggested it to Mulan, along with Gee's O trilogy (The Halfmen of OThe Priests of Ferris and Motherstone), and she read them all within a few days.

This was the first time I'd looked at Under the Mountain since I read it when I was about Mulan's age.  It held up extremely well; I recommend it.  Mulan also really enjoyed Gee's books.

For those who don't know, Gee is a local New Zealand author who has written many excellent books, both for children and adults.  Under the Mountain was made into a popular TV series back in the early 80s, and a few years ago was remade as a movie.

At 160 pages, Under the Mountain is a short book, but each chapter is tensely exciting.  It tells the story of twins, who are about Mulan's age, coming to Takapuna to stay with their aunt and uncle over the summer holidays.

Yeah, the book is set just a short walk from where we live!  Many of our local landmarks are featured -- Lake Pupuke, Rangitoto Island, the beaches, the shops, the Harbour Bridge.  And it is all still recognisable -- not much has changed in the past 40 years.  (The main things that stood out for me as having changed were that the Harbour Bridge tollbooths are now gone, One Tree Hill lost its tree, and the city's population has tripled.)

The tense excitement happens because Aunt and Uncle have weird neighbours, the Wilberforces, who turn out to be worm-like aliens intent on turning Earth into a mud-planet.  And the twins are the only people in the galaxy who can stop them (with the help of another neighbour, Mr Jones, who also turns out to be an alien).  It is a simple, silly premise, but an excellent, exciting story.

We found the old TV series version on Youtube.  We plan on watching it over the next several days.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Gymnastics (and the gym)

For the past two years, Mulan and Miya have been attending a gymnastics class for homeschoolers at our local YMCA.  It has been brilliant for them, and I highly recommend it.

Recently, the teacher pulled me aside and suggested that Mulan has outgrown the class.  (The class is theoretically for up to 12-year-olds, but even Miya is one of the biggest there.)  The teacher was very nice about it, and suggested that Mulan do an after-school class.

Unfortunately, our after school times are almost completely booked up with ballet these days.  I don't want to add another after school activity.

So, I checked out the North Harbour Gymnastics website, and happily they have a class at one of our few remaining free times -- Sunday mornings.  Their final class of the year was yesterday morning, so we all went along to check it out.  It looks really good, so we have booked Mulan in to start there in term 1 of next year.

(Our main comment was that some of the coaches look so young -- one boy's voice hadn't even broken yet.  While they may be good gymnasts, we doubted the teaching experience of some.  I could see that sometimes the coaches weren't following up on students who weren't as involved, so my advice to Mulan was that she will need to be somewhat proactive in taking charge of her own learning.)

Miya will continue next year with the homeschooler class at the YMCA (another few terms and she will get a free T-shirt for attending 100 lessons!).

So, our next question was what could Mulan do while Miya is in her YMCA gymnastics class.

Out of curiosity, I asked about the minimum age for joining the gym at the YMCA.  And it's 11.  Perfect.  So, Mama and I cancelled our individual YMCA gym memberships, instead signing up for a family membership (at just $2 per week more).  When Miya is doing the gymnastics, Mulan can join me in the gym!

We met up with Laura, the wonderful YMCA gym manager/trainer, and she is making a training programme for each of us (Mama's and mine were ready to be updated).  Laura even said that Miya could do a bit in the gym with us, too!  We'll meet with Laura tomorrow to go through our new programmes.

We had been wondering what exercise activities to do over summer, with all our term-based activities (ballet, gymnastics, swimming, athletics) finishing.  And this fills the gap perfectly!

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Harry Potter 3

Today, I finished reading aloud to Mulan and Miya the third Harry Potter book.  As expected, we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

I reviewed it here back when Mulan and I first read it.  There's not really much more to add, except it reminded me just how horrible Snape is!  Whatever else happens, Snape is still a bad guy.