Expat Life: Nothing Simple Is Ever Easy

Those of you following along with the Facebook or Instagram may recall that I spent most of July in the “good old” US of A. I can’t write quite as much about visiting home as I do when I’m on an adventure, but I’d still like to open a little window into my life. In the next two posts, I’m going to share the ups and the downs of travel in the US as an expat. Because I like to finish on a high note, I’m going to start with the downs first. It’s OK to laugh, schadenfreude is healing.


Why Go to America?

Although there are a lot of wonderful things about America, recently I struggle to recall what they are. I have no intention of moving back, and I don’t really dream of “visiting home” with any kind of heartfelt nostalgia. Mostly it scares me.

I have a lot of anxiety about visiting America. I will admit that not a small amount is fueled by the news: will I have to punch a Nazi? Will border patrol get unreasonable about letting me in? Or out? What will I do if I’m adjacent to a mass shooting? What if I need healthcare? It’s enough to drive a sane person crazy, and I’m not terribly sure I started on the “sane” side of the goal line to begin with. So why go at all? Glad you asked.3821492016_7b1a758042

It’s our favorite game: Bureaucracy!

The main reason I needed to return to America this summer (as opposed to exploring Iceland or something) was to renew my driver’s license (DL). I needed a new license so I could drive in Ireland in August, and so I can vote in the upcoming 2020 elections. 

What’s the Word for Negative Serendipity?

Of course, I came to this conclusion through a hilarious series of unfortunate events. When I went online to try and fill out the application form for an IDP (International Driving Permit), I realized I could NOT FIND my DL! Anywhere! I remembered having it on the way back into Korea from Malaysia in February, so I knew I hadn’t lost it in some random country, but I could only imagine it fell out of my wallet in a taxi or shop in Korea and was gone forever.

The Other Bad News

Back to the DL. So there’s me in a panic because we’re planning a ROAD TRIP for Ireland, and my mom does not know how to drive on the left. I HAVE to have a DL, and according to recent EU laws, an IDP too. I go back to the WA DOL website to replace my license and it says I’m in range to renew, so I think “hey, might as well”. I go to renew only to find out that I have to come in person every OTHER renewal… so that 2 year lottery really bit me in the bum. The good(ish) news is that I have the ability to get to the US before Ireland. The bad news is that WA has the licenses printed out of state and they take 2-4 weeks to arrive by mail. Only. By. Mail.

Sidenote: I never was able to get anyone in the DOL or DMV or USPS to explain to me how a homeless person gets a license. What if you’re living out of your car? Even if you don’t drive, the license is the primary source of ID in America used for benefits, employment eligibility and voter registration. Yet one more untenable obstacle to make a path out of poverty impossible.

The OTHER bad news is that according to the internet the EU is taking this IDP thing pretty seriously. It used to be you could just show up with a US DL and rent a car, but laws change, I guess. So it’s looking like I could be in big trouble for not getting the IDP and I have to have a valid DL in hand to get an IDP. So. I applied online for a replacement DL (still expires in 12/19) to be sent to my friend’s house where I’m staying in WA so I can pick up up when I arrive, then go first to AAA to get the IDP with the soon to expire DL then run over to the DOL to renew in person and get a DL that I won’t have to show up in person again for 12 more years.

Except. It can’t be that easy.

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The Problem with the Post Office

The DL is returned as undeliverable and shredded. I’m told if you aren’t “registered” with the post office, then your official gov’t mail will not be delivered. I thought that mail would be delivered to the address written on the envelope, silly me. Now we’re registering with the post office. (BTW, when I did the DL renewal back in 2016, this was not an issue. The postal service delivered it to my friend’s house with nary a qualm. Clearly this rule is optional.)

Regardless, you’d think it would be easy enough for me to just have this sent to the address that the post office has on file for me, right? No again! My US apartment is a shitty run down poor-ppl apartment, so the mailbox is not safe AND frequently the mail carriers deliver mail to the wrong box, or just decide not to deliver it. This happened so often while I was residing in the US, that I started having anything I cared about sent to my office instead.

In addition, there’s no way to “register” multiple addresses with the USPS. In the end, I did a temporary address change for the period of time necessary to accomplish this and had the DL sent out again.

In the end, I got it all to work, and I got my updated DL and my IDP and then literally no one in Ireland even cared about the IDP. The rental company and the guard (name for Irish police) were only and exclusively interested in the American licence. So much for getting your info from the internet? But seriously, don’t take my word for it if you’re going to drive abroad it’s better to follow the laws as written, even if the locals don’t enforce them.

What’s Up Doc?

Since I now had no choice but to visit America, I had this dream of seeing my primary care provider (another weird American eccentricity that doesn’t exist here) to get refills for my prescriptions that are either uncommon or not available here in Korea (not illegal, just not here). I go to a sliding scale clinic in Seattle because when I was poor and unemployed (which in America means also uninsured) it was the only place I could afford at 15$ a visit. When I got insurance, I kept going there so they could bilk my insurance company for as much money as possible to put toward their operating budget. My care provider of many years actually left America shortly after I did and joined DRs Without Borders (cool!) which sort of means the only health care professional that knows anything about me is AWOL. But at least the office has records, right?

But if any of you have heard anything about American health care it’s about the cost. Some of the (if not THE) most expensive health care and prescription drugs IN THE WORLD. In order to afford it, I would need insurance.

l-35426-usa-accessible-healthcare-we-dont-do-that-here-e1567743486654.jpgI have great coverage in Korea, but it is ONLY in Korea. Generally speaking, traveler’s insurance DOES NOT cover the country you reside in… or the one you are a citizen of. You know, in case those are different. Even though I live, work, and am insured in Korea, traveler’s insurance policies would not cover me in the US because of my citizenship. Foreigner’s visiting America can get traveler’s insurance. People who live in the US can get regular insurance. But Americans who live overseas? Well, heck, that should only be military personnel, no private citizen could POSSIBLY want to live overseas and come home on holiday while still being exempt from medical bankruptcy! /sarcasm

Some expats can get insurance when going home by signing up for a short term insurance plan. Because of the way that insurance is linked to employment, a lot of these are available for ppl who are between jobs, but often exclusive to ppl who are between jobs, such that, if your insurance has lapsed for too long, you are not eligible. There are still some generic short term insurance policies around, but it turns out that’s another state by state law and it’s not allowed in WA state.

Sometimes I really do think that the countries of the EU have a more stable and interchangeable system of rules than the states in America. I don’t really understand how you can have health insurance in only one state. I wonder in retrospect what would have happened if I’d signed up for short term insurance in another state and then presented it in WA… probably I would have been told I was out of network.

With regular “short term” plans off the table, and regular travel insurance ineffective, I found exactly ONE expat insurance plan for my situation: short term visit to my country of citizenship but not residence. However, it excluded so much (pre-existing conditions, reproductive health, most prescription medicine, the list goes on) that it was basically useless. All too often people buy these policies without realizing what they don’t cover.

1280px-Healthcare_costs_to_GDP_OECD_2015_v1In the end, I decided against getting an additional plan. I have good US car insurance, so anything involving a car (even me as a pedestrian) would be covered by that, anything else would probably be covered in liability. For things like a cold/flu it’s cheaper to go to a drug store than a doctor anyway, and for emergencies? Well, car, crime, and accident would be covered and that basically leaves things like aneurysms, and I decided that if that was going to happen, it’s just my time. ‘Murica!

The Price of a Pill

I was able to see the doctor in Seattle, and after some awkward explaining of my situation re: employment, income, and insurance they decided to give me the sliding scale rate. I have to say I was pretty happy with the way they treated me overall, the doc was invested in my whole well-being not just “why are you here today” and was happy to help me get refills that would last me until my next bi-annual visit. The challenge came in filling those.

Even if I had gotten that expat health insurance it wouldn’t have covered the prescriptions. I found a website called “GoodRx” that does coupons (oh the insane dumbness of THAT process) and was able to cut the cost down. This still ended up being a multi-week, multi-state process because they could only use the coupon on 2 doses a day and I needed 8. I ran out of time in WA and had to finish in TN, and good on those pharmacy reps for going the extra mile to help me, but ffs would it KILL the US to just sell prescription drugs at affordable rates? I bought the same medication in Thailand for pennies on the dollar what it cost even WITH the coupon in the US. The only reason I didn’t do that again is that factoring in the airfare to Thailand it ends up being more, and I’m not planning on being there any time this next year or two.

COSTCO-SIZE ME

On the other hand OTC drugs are sold like gummy bears over there. In Korea, I have trouble getting basic things like acetaminophen, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as Sudafed and Claritin. In some cases they need a doctor and have to be refilled CONSTANTLY because the Korean docs don’t give long prescriptions. In other cases you can buy them at the pharmacy OTC, but like 5 pills at a time. I’ve actually had Drs prescribe Tylenol that is weaker than the American OTC stuff I had at home. Maybe the locals who haven’t been overexposed and built up some kind of pain med immunity can get away with that, but I cannot.

Plus, whatever weak-ass decongestant they sell here cannot attack the portal to the mucus dimension that opens in my face when I get sick. Only that good pre-meth ingredient Sudafed stands a chance. Hence, my desire for Costco sized bottles of all of those meds, and in the case of Sudafed, however much I can buy before I end up on a meth-cooker watch-list. The last refill I got was 2-4 years ago (I got a couple on the 2017 visit but some were from 2015). One short trip to Costco with my mom later and I was 100% restocked for under 50$.

Ladies and gents, the US pharmaceutical economy:

2 years of birth control = 500$

2 years of the top three NSAIDS + allergy meds +cold meds = 50$

This is what I did from April until July. I fought with banks, government offices, and healthcare providers because the US does NOT want it’s citizens to live abroad, or travel, or be healthy.

The “ex” in Expat = extra paperwork, extra hassle, I swear.Expat-Problems


Had enough of complex bureaucracy, crazy international systems, and general complaining? Me too! Stay tuned for the next episode where we explore all the happy and wonderful things I got to experience on my visit to my homeland. Good friends, good family, good weather, good food, so much goodness it will turn your brain to sugar! Coming soon: Expat life: When “Home” is a Holiday.

Alaina Goes to Ghana

My friend who is in pharmacy school had an amazing opportunity to go to Ghana this year with Global Brigades to help set up medical clinics and educate people about healthcare. She says she hates writing, but I’ve managed to convince her to let me compile and edit her Facebook posts into a story to share with you. It is written in her voice and only edited for grammar and clarity.


Day 1

I have arrived safely in Ghana. Our lodge was three hours from the nearest airport. The air was wet and slightly scented, like being in a sauna. On the long drive through the countryside, we got our first glimpses of Ghana, covered in green trees with deep red soil. We drove through countless small villages on the way. Every time we stopped at a traffic light, vibrant people would cluster around and try to sell us treats from the overflowing bowls balanced on their heads.

35427395_10155352333095824_7391464207599796224_oOur lodge is lovely and surprisingly ornate, compared to the small shelters nearby. We are sleeping in rooms of four with bunk beds and private bathrooms with showers. The rooms are air-conditioned and that is heavenly. There is a large common seating area with big windows where we meet to talk and eat the wonderful food they prepare for each meal. Most meals are served buffet style, with a chicken dish, a fish option in rich sauces, grilled veggies, salad, some sort of dessert or bread, and fresh juice made from ginger and pine that tastes like paradise. 

Day 2

This morning we enjoyed an English-style breakfast, with eggs, toast, baked beans, coffee and an Ovaltine-style malty chocolate drink. We spent the morning sorting and repackaging the medical supplies we brought. We counted out one month supplies of vitamins into zip-lock bags using plates and butter knives to hold and sort the pills as we worked. Directions for medications are marked with symbols instead of words: a circle for once daily and two circles for twice daily.

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We enjoyed a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, salad, and plantains and then headed to one of the villages. We wanted to get to know some of the people we would be seeing and invite them to join us at the clinic the next day.

The whole village was overrun by adorable animals, wandering in and out of the houses and sleeping in pots and on roofs. Baby goats, cats, and chickens stumbled between our legs. We set out in groups of six plus a translator to meet the members of the community.

Everyone was very welcoming. They have a tradition in Ghana of inviting you into their homes and offering you a seat, water, and food in ritual fashion before asking why you’ve come. We were able to ask lots of questions about their lives and culture, as well as their experiences with healthcare.

I brought a Polaroid camera and took pictures of everyone we visited. The children went crazy about it, running around and posing for us. One family played music for us on their radio and invited me to dance with them. I can’t stop smiling about how wonderful and kind everyone was. 

35490852_10155352402665824_5405476595559301120_o (1)We learned that many of them walk an hour in the hot sun everyday to farm. They can’t find buyers for their crops, so they have food but no money. That means they can eat, but can’t buy basic non-food necessities. The little kids asked us for toothbrushes by miming brushing their teeth with their fingers. I’m glad we brought lots of toothbrushes and supplies to share.

They all seemed happy to have us there and excited to visit the clinic the following day. It was hard not to give them everything I had. They were kind, beautiful, proud, and generous. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.

35634011_10155352400430824_2850625135008808960_oAfter dinner, we attended a talk from their local doctor, Dr. Cornelius to hear more about the healthcare challenges he faces in the region and the tools they are using to treat people.

Day 3

On Monday we set up our first clinic in their local hospital. It was a good building but had almost no medicine or supplies. There were only five hospital beds and otherwise it was mostly empty rooms. We set up a small pharmacy by laying out boxes of medicine on the floor.

35777187_10155357661315824_8270300656225484800_oThis particular village has easier access to medical care than most because it is so close to a facility with trained nurses. People in other villages in Ghana often have to travel on foot long distances to find a clinic with nurses and if they need any prescription medicine, they need to go farther still to reach a regional health center. This typically requires hiring a cab and taking a day off of work, which few of them can afford.

35629056_10155357662225824_2182456922446233600_o.jpgThey rely heavily on yearly medical brigades to bring medical supplies and care, however there have been several years where no aid arrived due to fear of the zika virus. I’m glad we’re here now.

The first village we went to is one that our program has visited before. It’s helpful to see that some of the positive changes brought in previous visits have stuck with them. During the first encounter with this village everyone was cooking inside, which was causing them to have respiratory disorders. We helped them create community outdoor cooking areas which they are still using.

35955080_10155362817785824_8263619722927407104_o.jpgHypertension is still a huge problem and many people came to the clinic with systolic blood pressure far over 200. (Note: below 120 is healthy, above 140 is red alert) Global Brigades has helped many people in the village become enrolled in the national Ghanaian health insurance which makes visits and medicine mostly affordable.

It is difficult to convince people to come to the clinic for chronic care if they’re feeling well. We spent a long time trying to help people understand that high blood pressure can lead to stroke, which they’re familiar with and afraid of. Those who have gotten medication in the past have only taken them sporadically, so a lot of time went into education and motivational interviewing to help people engage in maintenance care and preventative care.

35802247_10155357662475824_3485987004385067008_o.jpgWe are working to help the villages develop systems for chronic disease management, such as having a monthly day where a doctor visits from the regional center to provide care for people with chronic conditions. If we can get funding toward it, this could become a celebratory day with a meal provided to encourage people to attend. Hopefully some of these changes will help people stay healthier.

These clinics have been incredible to experience. I can’t get over how patient and grateful everyone has been. The villagers are usually lined up long before we arrive and some wait all day to be seen without complaint. When we spoke in their language or used our Ghanaian names the mothers would light up and smile proudly at us. In Ghana your name is based on the day of the week you were born. My name here is Afua, Friday born.

35894297_10155357685495824_8890960470295445504_o.jpgThe clinics are set up with a number of stations, starting with intake, triage, physician visits, optometrist visits, pharmacy, and counselling/education. We rotate between these different areas and home visits. My favorite station so far has been optometry. The doctor spent a long time teaching us about how to diagnose eye disorders and conduct exams. So many people came in with poor vision, sometimes unable to see the chart at all and restricted to finger counting at 3 meters or light only. It felt wonderful to give these people medicines and glasses and watch the change on their face as they were able to see clearly for the first time in their lives. It felt like we were peddling miracles.

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Day 5

My adventures were mildly paused when I became quite sick for a few days. It seems the food disagreed with me and after eating I had to collapse into bed with painful shivering and fever. Good news about being on a medical brigade is that you’re surrounded by doctors and medicine. After some rest, antibiotics, and restricting myself to just bread, hard boiled eggs, and rice, I’ve made it through and can go back to clinics at last. Looking forward to being back in action and grateful for the wonderful people who took care of me and luxuries I often take for granted like shelter and running water. I feel so lucky to live a life with so many gifts, when so many struggle.

Day 6

36063103_10155366573540824_2358097174769696768_o.jpgWe moved to another village called Otuam. Their health facility was much smaller and patients had to wait outside under tents to be seen. I worked with Dr. Cornelius, testing for malaria and checking blood sugar. In Ghana, Malaria is seen more as a nuisance than a life-threatening sickness. It’s similar to the way people in America relate to the flu. The flu occasionally kills people in the US, but most of us expect to get it at some point. Since we were already on malaria prophylaxis (vaccine), I followed their lead and have been mostly skipping insect repellent. Amazingly I haven’t gotten a single bite all week.

Working with the physicians was wonderful. I learned so much about how to diagnose the common diseases and developed a talent for getting blood from kids without making them cry. I was sad to see how many little ones had swollen bellies. I always associate it with undernourishment, but on our clinic intake form everyone indicated that they were able to eat.

Later in the day we went from home to home taking blood pressures and inviting people to the clinic if they needed additional care. Otuam was close to the sea and many of the houses were made out of palm fronds. There was a quality to the place that felt like Neverland, with forts hidden among the trees and laundry and nets hanging like pirate sails. Hungry cats watched as people cleaned fish and radios dangled from branches. The children were curious and wild as ever and I had fun playing and adventuring with them. It was an incredible day.

Day 7

We visited the large regional hospital that patients are referred to if they can’t be treated in the clinics. If they have Ghanaian health insurance many things are covered, but if they didn’t register or can’t afford it they have to pay cash for services. Registering can be challenging and is already closed for this year because the machine that prints cards is broken.

Getting to the hospital is difficult for people in the villages. Even those who can grow enough food to eat well still may not have any money to pay for a taxi. Those who can’t afford a cab may walk for days under hot sun.

36176328_10155366573850824_2128956022373482496_oThis hospital is rare and unique in Ghana. It has a special team to manage chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. We spent some time talking to their director and making plans to work together over the next year to bring their amazing work to more communities. We are also going to try to get them additional funding for important equipment they need, such as the ability to test HbA1c levels (a diabetes blood sugar test). We were able to tour the hospital and were overjoyed to find that, unlike the rural village clinics, they kept medical records and charts on their patients. I’m excited to see teams in Ghana working to initiate chronic condition management and hope other hospitals are inspired by their work.

36063908_10155366573485824_3676942903927635968_o.jpgOn the way home from the hospital we took some time to relax at one of the local beaches. It was incredibly beautiful, but parts were covered in litter and we were told the water wasn’t clean enough to swim in. It was nice to listen to the sound of the waves and rest in a place with a cool breeze. Such a lovely day.

Reflections

The best part about Ghana has been the people. The adults are generous, wise, proud, beautiful, sad, and kind and the children are playful, curious, clever, and mischievous. Most people wear beautiful colors and there is a tailor in the community who makes custom clothing for everyone.

While we were setting up the clinic there were always little faces peering in the windows at us or running up when our bus arrived. They were eager to play and quick to ask for treats and supplies. One boy gave me big eyes and mimed brushing his teeth. This broke my heart and caused me to skip the normal process of giving adults all the supplies needed for their family at the end of the visit to sneak a toothbrush for this boy. It was a foolish choice. Soon they were swarmed around me begging for toothbrushes. I tried to stop handing them out and had a nurse translate that their mothers would be getting some for them, but they wouldn’t release their hold on the ones in my fingers. I eventually was able to give them to one of the mothers and escape.

I distracted them further by taking pictures of them using a Polaroid camera I brought. They went wild for the pictures, posing and dancing around. Eventually I decided I had used enough of the film and wanted to save some for the other communities. I started playing with them by showing them dance steps, like the Charleston and the salsa basic and spinning them around. They were thrilled and tried to show me their version of head, shoulders, knees, and toes as well as some local kicking games. We also taught each other different clapping games and high fives.

Whenever I had to go inside to help clean up they would follow and call for “sister Afua” after me. I got lots of hugs and happy bounces whenever I would emerge again. At one point we were finishing up at the clinic and it started pouring with rain. Everyone was huddled under the shelter but the kids were being adventurous and darting into the rain. It seemed refreshing after the hot day in the clinic so I followed and played in the rain with them, spinning around and dancing. It was wonderful and by the time I got to the bus my heart was so full it could have burst.

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A Dark Past

Our last full day in Ghana was a cultural day, where we visited a local market and enjoyed Ghanian music and dancing. We also visited Cape Coast Castle, a notorious stronghold of slavery and torture.

36347144_10155376294000824_7797909770412752896_nCape Coast Castle was a trade fortress that was converted for use to house and break the spirit of slaves before they were loaded onto boats. Our visit began wandering around the open air area and looking at the canons over the sea, then into a museum detailing the history of the castle and its role in the slave trade. When I was about halfway through the museum our guide collected us for a tour of the dungeons where the people who were to be slaves were imprisoned.

36393991_10155376293940824_8802817987510796288_n.jpgTo give us a glimpse of the fear they must have felt, he had us initially descend in complete darkness, only turning on lights once we had reached the stone wall on the other side of the male dungeon. He explained that this small underground space held up to a thousand men for months at a time. They were forced into complete darkness where they had to live in their own filth and excrement, packed against their brothers. The floor we were standing on was false, built on top of the human waste that had accumulated there.

36335527_10155376294175824_8162317408808206336_nTo add insult, directly above the slave dungeons where people endlessly suffered was a Christian church. Our guide described the thought process that many slaves went through when they decided to convert to Christianity. To a person experiencing such agony, it would seem like your God had abandoned you or was weak, yet those who followed the Christian faith were clean and happy, prospering above. It must have appeared to many that the Christan god was stronger or better to his worshippers.

The men in these dungeons would never come out the door the entered again. The governor didn’t want the people of the castle to see the slaves, so they were moved, shackled together and driven forth by other slaves, through an underground tunnel to be loaded onto the ships.

36306542_10155376294415824_4634339883559682048_n.jpgThe women’s cells were similar to the men’s, except that their door was regularly opened so they could be grabbed and raped at will. Sometimes they were bathed before this occurred, and other times drunk soldiers would not even afford them that decency. Women who resisted were beaten or put into a hotter cell where they were locked without food and water and often died if their spirits weren’t quickly broken. Our guide shut us into the boiling confinement cell for about 30 seconds, which was enough to have some of us panicking.

The last they saw of their country was the Door of No Return: a portal that brought them to the water where they were lowered and packed into the ships as cargo. By the time they emerged through that door, they had been in darkness for many months and thus were blinded by the bright sun, unable to fight. Those who did not die at sea lead painful backbreaking lives in slavery.

Immediately after walking back through the Door of No Return, our guide took us up to the airy hall where slave prices were negotiated and then up to the British governor’s chambers. The governor had a beautiful set of airy rooms with large windows that looked out on the picturesque coastline. The dichotomy was so startling I felt shaken and revolted.

36350563_10155376294695824_4792468016619061248_nWe were left with a plea to remember that slavery is not gone from this world. People are still taken against their will and forced into terrible suffering and servitude. He asked us to see, to take a stand, and to remember.

We have so much work to do, in our country alone, to ensure that people are able to lead fair and decent lives. The horror of the atrocities that we do to each other when we dehumanize our brothers and sisters is echoing around in my heart.

These terrible things happen when we group people together and see them as ‘other’. We do this sometimes because we want power or wealth, other times because we don’t understand them or are afraid of them. As we band together to stand against injustice, I urge you all to avoid the slippery road of dehumanizing those you stand against. Fight them with all of your fury, but don’t follow the dangerous path of talking the humanity away from anyone.

It is ideas that we fight, not people. Fight against the idea that anyone can be treated as less than human. Our trustest goal is to stop that idea from spreading, to take it out of the minds of people, and until that is accomplished to stop those people from acting on this deadly idea through any means necessary. Stand together against the heinous crimes happening in our country. Do not let this terrible sickness enter your minds and hearts. Keep fighting.

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You can donate to Global Brigades on their website. I don’t work for them or get any kind of kickbacks or sponsorship, I just like charity.

The Tooth Saga: Cavities, Root Canals & Crowns, oh my!

Sometime in January 2017, while crunching some very hard candy, I noticed that there was a slight twinge in my left, rear, bottom molar. I made my first dentist appointment for a day in February when the students were not in class. It has taken 15 months to finish the work. Inspired by the “letters home” from early explorers on long and challenging treks into the unknown, or log books from ship’s captains lost at sea, I have assembled this saga as a series of Facebook posts, unearthed by future historian me.

Dentistry is not exciting, but this experience has shown me the solid consequence of the American health system that kept me financially barred from adequate dental care after I became an adult. I’m sure I could have found a dentist in the US who could have dealt with my issue more quickly and less painfully, but I would never have been able to afford it. However much of a struggle this was, I didn’t loose any teeth because I couldn’t afford to go, nor did I end up financially ruined because of a painful emergency. And if you don’t believe Americans go bankrupt from dental care, just ask Google.


20 February 2017
Dentist. ugh.
X-rays, told I need a root canal in one tooth and an inlay in another. Told the root canal will take 3-4 visits (not counting this one) and while it will be mostly covered by insurance, the crown will not be.

22 February
First root canal session.

28 February 2017
Root canal session 2: dentist agreed that I shouldn’t have felt pain the whole time since last appointment. Not sure what the problem was, but hopefully it it’s addressed. Only 2-3 more of these to go.

28 February 2017
I spent the week between in horrible terrible pain and when I got to the dentist to explain this, they went back in and found a second “root” of nerves that needed to be cleared out. They assured me it would be better after this, but that this would add some time to the process.

2 March 2017
I can’t find a record of the my thoughts from this visit. Perhaps it was unremarkable? All I have found is the text from the hospital confirming the appointment.

7 March 2017
Root canal session 4: actually the 5th visit to the dentist because the first was consult. We’re finally finished with the “root canal” portion of the procedure and although it hurt mucho ouchies, I was assured this is normal. I’m getting pretty fed up with this pain. Next week, we will start the crown procedure, minimum three visits, first visit extra long, show up an hour earlier.
14 March 2017
Dentist visit 4,378… I don’t know, I’ve lost count. Root canal is done but due to persistent pain, they did not start the crown process today. They put a temp back on and want me to wait two more weeks while I take some antibiotics. Yay.
29 March 2017
The root canal that would not end. They don’t want to do the crown until the pain stops, which is reasonable in case there is a real problem and they need to go back in. So after waiting for the last 2 weeks and having a decrease but not a cessation of pain, they topped up the temp crown and said to wait 3 more weeks. It’s a new form of hell.
19 April 2017
Remember that root canal I’ve been getting since February? Well, the pain in the tooth finally stopped and today we began the process toward a crown. This involved the dentist filing the tooth to a tiny square, then the dental tech making a temp crown of acrylic by hand. My gums are sore, but I’m happy to be making progress again. However due to the upcoming holiday, I have to wait about 2 more weeks to get the final crown installed. #longestrootcanalever
*From February 22 until April 19, I was in daily pain.
8 May 2017
This dentist… Same procedure from February… Turns out they weren’t making my crown at all, but just stuck a temp in there too kill time or something. So instead of getting my crown and being done with this ordeal like I expected, I have two more visits after this one to finish one forsaken root canal. I’ll be taking dentist recommendations for the other cavity.
17 May 2017
I have a crown!!!!! Let the normal chewing commence!
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From April 19 to May 17 is the time it took them to install the crown AFTER the pain had stopped. Although the pain in the tooth was better, there was still regular discomfort and irritation that would last 2-3 days after each visit when they poked and prodded me. Each visit I told them what hurt, when and for how long, and they continued to insist it was normal. 

Within 2 weeks, the tooth began to hurt again. I had read online that a crown could cause sensitivity as well and that some people had intermittent pain for up to 6 months after a root canal. However, as June continued, it became apparent that the pain was neither mild nor intermittent. It went from an occasional twinge at mealtimes to a constant dull ache with sharper pains when brushing my teeth or chewing.

16 June 2017
I couldn’t believe this pain was normal, regardless of how clear my exit x-ray had looked. I called the hospital but was told they were booked solid for the next 10 working days. When I told the nurse about the pain, she suggested I find another dentist. I don’t know if she was being helpful or trying to get rid of me, but either way, I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

19 June 2017
First visit to Dr. Kwon. It’s official. 2017 is the year of the dentist. Pray with me to the tooth fairy that the simple fix works because the alternative is redoing the root canal.

Dr. Kwon was a friendly if somewhat nervous man who spoke competent English. His suggestion was to grind down the crown a bit so that it wouldn’t hit the upper tooth anymore, thus relieving the pressure. He also gave me antibiotics and painkillers, and told me to wait two weeks.

It didn’t work.

27 June 2017
The tooth saga is not over after all. The pain resurges. The crown must go. Rage.
29 June 2017
Well, there goes 350$. The crown was cut off my tooth today.
6 July 2017
*This is a long rant about dentists and teeth. You have been warned.*

Trying not to nuke the dental industry at large. New dentist seemed so kind and helpful but keeps changing his mind, which is NOT reassuring… has changed the plan several times since the first time I visited, and I don’t understand why. He went from telling me that if altering the crown didn’t work, the next step was another root canal. Then today, asked me if I wanted to do another root canal or skip to the extraction… I don’t f*n know, I’ve never had this problem before ever, I go to medical experts because YOU’RE supposed to know. Extraction seems like it would suck if it’s anything like having my wisdom teeth out was, so hey maybe we should try the less invasive and less painful and less expensive thing first? But also can you please tell me what you’re going to do differently from the first dentist who clearly didn’t actually do it right? Now I’m being referred to a specialist who may or may not speak English…

The tooth has been hurting 80% of the time at least since Feb.

The referral of July 6:

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“He is a professor at Pusan National dental hospital”… I know English is not Dr. Kwon’s first language, but this sounds an awful lot like he knows a guy. Right?

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When Dr. Kwon finally texted me back, it was with a photo of a computer screen showing the website to Pusan National University Hospital…

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When I asked for the name of the specialist, Dr. Kwon said he didn’t know. When I asked about the referral, he simply sent the picture again and said “all the best and hope the treatment goes well”.

7 July 2017
Today the pain became so bad I couldn’t work. I got an appointment at the dental university hospital and started out seeing a resident, but got bumped up to specialist. She worked on the tooth for about 2 hours and found many more hidden nerves. She is pretty sure she got them all today. I’m still numb from the anasthetic, and my jaw is sore af from being open so long, but they think I should be pain free in a day or three. I’m going back on Tuesday and one more time after that. She’s trying to finish up before I go on vacation. It’s too soon to call it, but so far I feel like this is progress. Cross your everything.
8 July 2017
The good news is that the parts of me that hurt yesterday seem to have calmed down. The bad news is everything else hurts instead. My jaw aches, I can’t yawn. I bumped my front teeth with the rim of my water bottle and it hurt. I bit down too fast, it hurt… Oh yes and every muscle in my core and shoulders hurts from being clenched in pain and anticipation of pain for several hours yesterday. But nah, the dentists here are sure I’ll be fine with just Tylenol. -.-
11 July 2017
The dentist was surprised to hear I was still in pain. Surprised the Tylenol hadn’t helped. Surprised I was in pain even while sitting there not moving. They tried to begin *without anesthesia* and I nearly jumped out of the chair when she touched the tooth. It was clear to me that this is not what they were expecting.She used more lidocaine and after getting the tooth clear again, a microscope to see the smallest parts. She cleaned more, found more places that seared and stabbed through the local anesthetic.

Still in pain with the local anesthetic. Dentist finally agreed to pain meds, 3 days… My next appointment is in 7 days. Talked them up to 5 days of meds. Checked the medicine they offered. It’s a low-grade NSAID used for “mild to moderate pain” and not common in the US because if the side effects… Also 5 days worth of antibiotics and antimicrobials. While we wait. Again. To see if they finally got it all or if I have to lose the whole tooth.

16 July 2017
What a weekend. The tooth pain has receded from “OMG I’m gonna die” to “annoying persistent pain” which is nice because it allowed me to enjoy Pride yesterday and even march, but scary because I’ll take my last dose of meds today and see the dentist Tuesday and try to figure out a) why it improved, b) if it’s likely to keep improving, and c) how long we should wait to answer the question of whether or not to remove it…a week before I get on a plane to Seattle.
18 July 2017
My tooth of course did the most awkward thing if neither fully recovering nor staying bad. This half recovery led the dentist to want to try *one more* root canal cleaning to see if she can save the tooth. This was much better, no pain through the anesthetic. They still won’t give me pain meds because they think the meds aren’t what worked last week, and they said after a day or two of soreness from the procedure, I should be ok. One more appointment next week the day before I go on a trans Pacific flight. Down to the wire.
25 July 2017
Filled and temp capped the tooth today. It gets to rest 3 weeks while I’m on holiday then we check it when I get back. And if all is well we wait 3 months with a temp crown because of what happened last time. Still a game of wait and see but at least it hurts less and less often.
Went on vacation to North America for 3 weeks. Tooth pain was pretty rough for the first week, but Canadians have good meds.
16 August 2017
Theoretically, the last root canal procedure was done today (again), sans anesthetic and not that bad. Now we wait a healthy time before committing to another crown, I’m thinking a few months…
But wait! There’s more than one cavity! The original x-ray back in February showed ANOTHER problem on the upper right side of the jaw. No dentist wanted to deal with it, I later was told because they didn’t want me to be on a liquid diet since having work done on left and right at the same time would make chewing impossible. Considering I spent a few weeks not being able to chew anyway, this seems like a poor excuse… nevertheless- a new dentist must be found.

But first? LASIK and my bi-annual gov’t sponsored health check. After all, a girl can only visit a healthcare professional so many times a week without going crazy.

Had LASIK and recovery time, and managed to get lymphadenitis (Latin for “your lymph node is swollen but we don’t know why”) which got in the way of timely dental care while still keeping me in constant pain and regular hospital visits. Yay!

2 September 2017
Went to dentist number four to start on cavity number two. She says she’ll try to treat it by filling first but my fear that waiting and waiting (not my idea, every dentist I saw told me to finish root canal 1 first) now means it’s gotten worse and might need another root canal. She also found at least one maybe two other tiny cavities. And told me that I needed to do a full cleaning today (covered by insurance) before having more work done. Gentlest cleaning ever, tho. Now my teeth feel funny as almost 20 years of hardened plaque are gone, and next Saturday we’ll start on the problem tooth. The moral of this story is don’t wait two decades to get your teeth checked.
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Well, the bad news it’s another root canal. Good news, this is the gentlest dentist ever. Even the tool to administer the anesthetic was painless, and it didn’t numb half my face, and they let me hold this cute Teddy Bear. Still have 3-5 more visits for t
his root canal. Then the smaller cavities and the crowns. The year of the dentist continues.
12 September 2017
Supposedly the roots are eradicated. Now I wait 3 more hours for the anesthetic to wear off and find out if they missed any.
13 September 2017
Root Canal 2: My teeth seem to enjoy being ambiguous. This is just enough pain that I can’t be sure nothing is wrong, but not so much pain that I can be sure something is wrong… #dentalpainwaitinggame

18 September 2017
Although this is going much better than the first tooth, still some pain and she went looking for more nerves today. The anasthetic is somehow affecting part of my nose and right eye. It feels very strange. Next appointment, one week unless it hurts to much.

25 September 2017
My teeth hate me. Good news: still hurts less than the first one. Bad news: still hurts. Dentist 4 can’t figure it out and wants me to go back to Yangsan. But she’s writing an actual letter of referral so I can go straight to the specialist, and they’re refunding money since they can’t finish it there. Also, I am a dental mutant, my teeth are funny shapes. *Sobs quietly.

26 September 2017
Day 7/7 black and white photo challenge complete.

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It takes a long time to get in to see a specialist if you don’t have emergency level pain.

26 October 2017 
Finally got the the cavity filled today. Third (and easiest) tooth problem. Hooooraaaaay! Next week I start on getting the crown for root canal #1. I’m down to like 1.5 teeth problems!

31 October 2017
The second crown on the first root canal has been initiated. These folks are not kidding around. The amount of attention to detail is reassuring. Plus, when they made the impression, instead of multiple attempts with squishy molds, they waved a magic wand over me then and made a digital 3d image! I’m feeling pretty good about the fairly minor price bump over my last crown install.

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9 November 2017 
All the dentist. Got the crown, but extensive bite testing revealed it to be 4 micrometers too short. While waiting for this to get fixed, I got more lessons in oral hygiene including brush each tooth ten times, brush 4x a day, and use this metal mini bristle to harden your gums. Got the crown back with a temporary fixative and I get to test drive it for a week before the permanent upgrade. I can see the finish line (for one more tooth anyway).

Finally got the diagnosis on the mysterious lymphadenitis. It’s called “Kikuchi Disease”, a non-lethal, self-healing disease which mainly presents in women so no one bothers researching it, and it’s named after the man who “discovered” it.

17 November 2017
Dentist x2: yesterday I went to the specialist to work on root canal 2. They found a mysterious 4th canal. Follow up in a week. Today I went to get the crown perma attached on root canal one, but when they took it out to clean the temp adhesive and prepare for permanence, the tech dropped and shattered the crown, so now we’re starting over with a new temp crown and they’ll remake the crown again for trial next week. I swear this tooth is determined to be a hassle for the whole year. But at this point, it’s so absurd I can only laugh. Third crown is the charm?

dentist-schedule-e1521543814482.jpgI gave up posting dental updates on Facebook after this, but the third crown was a success, and by early December, I was deemed to be complete on the second root canal. Before scheduling the crown, however, I wanted to wait for the pain to fully dissipate and stay gone for at least 6 weeks. Best case scenario, that would be the end of January 2018.

On top of this, I didn’t know where I would be by the end of February and was hesitant to start what could be a month-long procedure if I would have to leave the country before it was finished.

In late February, I did have to move, but only to Gyeongju where I started a new job and spent all my free time in March handling moving, hiring paperwork, and staying legal in Korea paperwork (employment visa, etc).

The Final Crown

2 April 2018
Finally got all my ducks in a row to the point where I feel comfortable committing to several more weeks of dental work to finish this UNBELIEVABLY LONG PROCESS only to find out that the dentist I want to see has the same days off as me.
*headdesk

14 April 2018
Teeeth. I went in for the crown fitting today. Discovered that the mild pain is not related to the root canal, but instead some gum damage and a tiny cavity on the tooth next door. At least it was easy to fix. 10 days to real crown. Is it too much to hope my dental drama is almost over?

15 April 2018
Expletive deleted temporary crown came off and broke in less than 24 hrs. On bread.

16 April 2018
I think I just unintentionally haggled for dental care.

I had to go to a local dentist in Gyeongju to replace the temporary crown, since going without could change the shape of my teeth/jaw alignment enough to make my permanent crown not fit right. They tried to charge me 50$ and when I declined service and prepared to leave, they hurriedly asked if I had insurance, and then reduced the charge to 5$…

25 April 2018
Oh my fucking Christ. I need hugs now.

Although my next appointment was on this day, this post is not actually about the dentist. I went straight from the dentist office to the movie theater to watch Infinity War and the pain of Thanos was far worse than anything my teeth could muster.

2 May 2018
This dentist thing will never end. Some occasional mystery pain in the tooth and they want to wait two more weeks to see if it goes away. She checked everything today and can’t find any reason for there to be any pain. It’s not bad, and it’s very inconsistent, but they expect teeth to not hurt at all after a root canal is complete.

12 May 2018
Dentistry: my preferred dentist was in town today so I was finally able to see her about this last crown. She made some fine tuning adjustments the other dentist missed, and we did the final setting! The whole area is throbbing because as the tech cleaned the extra glue from around the crown it was rough on the gums. However, barring any further craziness. This saga is finally over! From now on I’ll try to get my regular check ups and catch any cavities before they become root canals.

Finally, my extended dental drama is complete. As long as I live in a country with affordable dental care, I’m going to make it a point to go annually for a cavity check. Here in Korea, an X-ray and basic cavity filling will cost me 50-100$ depending on the quality of dentist. It’s still not chump change, but unlike other health issues, cavities never go away on their own, they only turn into more painful and more expensive procedures. I wish that America would make the annual preventative dental care and basic filling affordable for everyone, because then I might not have put off going for 17 years until I was faced with this insane saga.

However sloggingly long and grueling this was, it is nothing compared to what would have faced me in the US where I would inevitably have waited until the pain was too severe to ignore, then been faced with emergency costs and probably lost both teeth, and just as probably been unable to afford implants to replace them. On top of health and hygiene issues, good teeth are a key to good jobs and good living situations since Americans tend to highly discriminate against visibly bad teeth as a sign of “moral failing” the same way they look at body fat. Yet both are more often a result of financially inaccessible health care. My teeth were visually fine, and didn’t actively hurt me, so I simply ignored them for almost 2 decades. Learn from my mistakes and go find a dentist you like.

Ten Days in New Zealand: An Overview

Having spent the last few days recovering from the cold I managed to give myself at the end of my trip, I’m now feeling much better and ready to tackle the slightly overwhelming task of writing about these 10 awe inspiring, action packed days and the truly daunting goal of winnowing down the over 2000 photos I took into something that is beautiful and interesting rather than something that resembles the family holiday slide show from hell. As you can imagine, this might take me a bit of time. Furthermore, I’m starting school again this week, and I have an upcoming long weekend trip to Jeju Island. I also don’t want to dump a novel on you all at once. So, be patient. The stories will come, and they will be no less wonderful just because you read them a few weeks or even a few months after they happened.


My Route:

I made a little road map to show you the relatively small section of NZ I managed to explore, and here’s the basic itinerary. (As they get written, I’ll be linking the full story to each counterpart in the short list below).

NZ drive map (1)

Day 0: Auckland (arrival, rental car, sleep)
Day 1: Auckland (Onehunga), Piha (black sand beach), drove to Dargaville (sleep)
Day 2: Waipoua Forest (giant Kauri trees), drove to Piahia (sleep)
Day 3: Piahia (Bay of Islands, dolphins!, Haruru Falls), drove to Whangarei (sleep)
Day 4: Whangarei Falls, Waipu Caves, drove to Hot Water Beach (midnight low tide)
Day 5: Hot Water Beach, Cathedral Cove, drove to Rotorua (sleep)
Day 6: Wai-O-Tapu – hot springs (Kerosene Creek, Hot & Cold, Waterfall Spout Bath)
Day 7: Rotorua (Saturday market, Kuirau Park), Wai-O-Tapu (geothermal park), Maori
Day 8: Wai-O-Tapu (hot springs), Matamata (Hobbiton), drove to Waitomo (stars!)
Day 9: Waitomo (glowworm caves, black water rafting), drove to Auckland
Day 10: Auckland (shopping, Planetarium, Cornwall Park, One Tree Hill), Airport

It was a jam-packed holiday to be sure. I intend to breakdown the stories based on geographical region and/or type of activity, therefore while it will mostly be in order, it’s not a strict blow by blow of the 10 days. In the remainder of this post, I want to share a few interesting things I learned about New Zealand that are useful if you want to travel there and are just generally neat.

Tipping:

This bizarrely internationally inconsistent cultural habit changes drastically from country to country and making a mistake while you’re visiting can be awkward or even offensive. Quick guide to NZ tipping is that you don’t. It’s not a tipping culture except…

1) let taxi driver’s keep the small change. It’s not precisely a “tip” it’s just inconvenient to make them dig out exact change.

2) similarly, tip jars if present in cafes are not looking for anything more than the small change (under 1$).

3) exceptional service – if you feel like a waitperson has just gone above and beyond, leaving a tip is a way of thanking them for that, but it is not expected at most restaurants or meals.

4) fancy restaurants – I didn’t go to one, but I hear a 10% is standard at these. Every place I ate at did not have a tip line on the credit card slip, thus it was actually impossible for me to leave a tip if I wasn’t paying in cash. Maybe big fancy places are different, I can’t say.

While I do cough up the cash where tipping is standard (don’t even get me started on tips as wages), I prefer non-tipping cultures because there is no awkward math or trying to judge my server’s performance. I typically find that I get better service when tips aren’t on the line because my servers aren’t busy calculating which of their tables is going to make them the most money. Plus, having done food service before, I’m convinced tip wages are some kind of anxiety induced torture because staff never know how much money they’ll actually make. So just be polite and courteous to your servers, say please and thank you and don’t worry about dangling a financial reward in front of them for doing their job well.

Driving:

For some reason, despite all the research that I did before going to New Zealand, I did not realize that they drove on the left until the day before I got on the plane. I even read about NZ traffic laws because I planned to rent a car and drive around, but somehow the government sponsored website failed to put that in an obvious place. As a result, when I landed in Auckland and got the shuttle to my rental car company, I was frantically trying to watch the traffic and the driver as closely as possible. On top of that, it was dark by the time I got my car, so I had to navigate my way to my airbnb in this backwards car on the wrong side of the road and in the dark. I do not think I have gripped a steering wheel that hard in years.

It turns out the hardest part of driving on the left isn’t the left lane, it’s the car itself because the driver’s seat is now in the right and everything is backwards. The turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally turned on my wipers while trying to signal. The gearshift is on the left. Thankfully, I had an automatic and the only times I was shifting were in parking lots, but I often found myself reaching for a steering column mounted shift that simply wasn’t there because my muscle memory found that to be the default when there was no gearshift to my right. Good news, gas and brake were still the same, otherwise I might have had some nasty accidents.

Driving on the left is mostly just a matter of staying in your lane. If you’ve ever driven in a multi lane highway, you’ll have experience with driving on the left as the passing lane (although here the left is the slow lane and the right is passing only). Oncoming traffic was terrifying for the first two days, and I spent about 4-5 days chanting “left, left, left” to myself every time I made a turn to help me land in the correct lane on the other side of the intersection. NZ doesn’t have many of “highways” as we think of them in America or even Europe. Much of the country is made of tiny winding wooded mountainous treks. It was a relief to get out of Auckland and have less traffic, but it was a whole new challenge to drive down roads that twisted with scant visibility and narrow lanes that ended in cliff-sides or sheer drops. I pulled over frequently. Partly because a line of impatient Kiwi drivers behind me wanted to go faster than I felt safe driving, but largely because the scenery in NZ is incredibly breathtaking, and I needed to stop driving so I could look at it properly.

There are a preponderance of roundabouts. All the roundabouts. I usually only saw “intersections” in the more pastoral areas. In anywhere with civilization, the preferred interchange was the roundabout. These were quite intimidating at first because there are no stop indicators, only “give way” or yields. You have to check to your right to see if anyone is already there, then go. Then count exits to find yours and trust that everyone else is going to yield to you once you’re in the roundabout. I made several mistakes, but no crashes.

Lastly: one lane bridges… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too much infrastructure? Maybe the bridges were built at a time when all the roads were one lane? Maybe kiwis just like driving dangerously? I lost count of how many one lane bridges I crossed. There are helpful signs that tell you which lane has right of way. It’s based on who has better visibility of the bridge. If you can see the bridge, you have to give way.  Only once did I have someone fail to yield to me when they should have, I assume another visitor confused by the rules, but I managed to stop in time.

As crazy as all of these things seemed when I started my journey, by the time I got to the end, I was entirely adjusted. I found myself driving at (or just above) the speed limit on those curvy roads. I barely slowed entering roundabouts with no oncoming cars. I learned how to pass the other slow drivers on the road, and was able to confidently navigate Auckland by the time I returned there on day 10. I met other travelers who were busing it, and a few who had rented campers. It became apparent that the busing travelers were highly limited in schedule and in events. They had to rely on tour groups to go anywhere outside the cities. I think the camper might be the best way to go, being able to park in free parking lots (of which there are many) and cheap campsites wherever you like is liberating, but I got turned off RVs when my dad explained the septic tank process. I think for my short trip the car was ideal. There are hostels near every point of interest that are cheap enough and I still had the freedom to track down some out of the way places at some less popular times. Conclusion? Driving on the left is challenging but worth it for New Zealand.

Insurance:

Ok, insurance isn’t exciting or glamorous, but most of us know it’s an important part of travelling because you never want to find yourself far from home with no way to pay for any liability you may incur due to accident or injury. Turns out NZ is one of the most traveler friendly nations in terms of coverage, so if you’re tired of expensive traveler’s insurance, this might be a good alternative.

Fortunately, I did not have any need to visit the healthcare system in New Zealand, but I did learn while I was preparing my travel plans (including insurance) that all accidental injury (regardless of the Darwinian nature of the cause or who is at fault) is 100% covered for anyone in NZ. ‘Anyone in NZ’ doesn’t just mean residents, but literally if you are injured in NZ, the government will pay for the healthcare you need. Obviously there are some limits, like long term care which you would get in your home country if you’re just visiting, but it was still good to know that if I got into a car accident or slipped and fell in a stream and broke my arm or something similar, that at very least the financial side of my imaginary tragedy would not be a burden.

Canadians reading this are probably going ‘well, duh’, because you guys never worry about healthcare costs it seems, but the Americans will get it. Accidental injury is one of the great banes of our existence where a trip to the ER can wind up costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I often get some kind of traveler’s insurance that will keep me from bankruptcy and get me back to my country of residence for real care, but those policies don’t cover too much and can still leave you with poor care choices and large bills.

It’s never fun to have to limit your adventurous activities for fear of medical bills and thanks to the NZ government, I didn’t have to! Of course, I still didn’t want any broken bones. I was careful, but it was a serious relief to know that I was covered.

Additionally, all rental car companies must provide basic car insurance with every rental. You can’t decline the basic insurance (although you can choose the included basic over the extra cost comprehensive). This matters for a few reasons. One, lots of credit cards offer insurance if you pay for the rental on the card and decline the optional insurance. I spent some time trying to get a manager at Visa to confirm with me that the insurance in NZ isn’t optional and wouldn’t count against my Visa based car insurance (which would then basically cover damage to the car or other property, but not medical bills). Two, because of the accidental medical coverage, car insurance doesn’t need to include medical. Any injury sustained in a car accident will already be covered. Three, if you’re leaving the cities, you will scratch that car. The damage from small scratches from branches on the side of the road or stones thrown up from the car ahead of you are small and easily covered by the basic insurance and because everyone has it, the rental companies don’t stress trying to get a couple hundred extra dollars out of you for a scratch on the paint.

I’m afraid if your stuff gets stolen or broken, NZ doesn’t cover you for that, but I’ve found often renter’s or homeowner’s insurance has an option to cover your belongings while you’re on the road and sometimes the flight insurance will cover belongings for the duration of the holiday.

Water:

Not the drinking water (though that’s fine too), but the ocean, lakes and rivers. The vast majority of water in NZ is considered public. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. This has actually caused some controversy with the Maori population who lay claim to some bodies of water and the rest of the NZ government who say that water cannot be owned. Take a moment to savor the idea that water cannot be owned and then go write a letter to your congressman about Nestle buying up all the clean water in North America so they can sell it back to us in plastic bottles. The issues with Maori are complex and involve things like land use rights, fishing rights, and mineral rights that give them more exclusive access to waterways in some places, but not actual ownership of the water.

In addition, there is a piece of land called the “Queen’s Chain” which exists around most waterways (sometimes it does not due to environmental or safety reasons to restrict public access, and there’s still about 30% of the coastline the government is working to get back in the public domain, again, it’s complicated). The Queen’s Chain is 20m of land on one or both sides of a waterway that are public land, free to access assuming you don’t have to tromp through private property to get there. I’m told sometimes the farmers get stroppy (with shotguns) about backpackers and kayakers who are following a stream or river from a public access point into their land, so it does pay to be aware of where your river goes if that’s your plan.  If you want to read more about the laws, you can do so here.

The upshot of all these laws is that there are almost no privately owned resorts, country clubs or homes that get restricted access to a beach, river, lake or hot spring. How cool is that? I’ve been to many coastal areas with beautiful beaches that have just been developed to death because hotels can charge big bucks for access to their private beach. When I lived in Florida, the small stretch of beach that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into was limited and often overcrowded. In tropical paradises in the Caribbean, beaches have become little more than oceanfront bars. In Dubai they are oceanfront dance clubs. In Washington state, when we want to go to a hot spring or waterfall that’s undeveloped, we have to go into a state or national park and hike for several km. In NZ, however, these things are all near roadways with easy public access and safe off road parking. Many of them are even handicapped accessible.

Many of the astonishing places I visited on this holiday were only possible for me to see because of these laws concerning waterways and the land near them. If there were a hot spring on a beach in the US it would be a private resort charging guests hundreds of dollars for the experience, but in NZ it was totally free and natural with no looming 30 story hotels and no one selling margaritas above the high tide line, just a well-heeled campsite on the other side of the highway, a few private homes scattered through the hills, a quaint local cafe, and an art gallery. Similarly, Rotorua has fancy spas that filter the natural mineral water for clean and landscaped soaking experiences, which is fine, but less than 30 minutes out of town I was able to visit 3 natural hot pools in one day and spend a couple hours in each with no rigorous hiking or exorbitant fees.

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I support paying reasonable fees to maintain public land (taxes, anyone?). I happily paid my annual public park fee in Washington when I lived there (about 30$ for all access). What I can’t get behind is the total commercialization of natural beauty.  I’m not saying visiting cities or man-made wonders isn’t worthwhile too (goodness knows, I go to ancient ruins and modern amenities all the time) but it doesn’t replace a natural experience. The earth is our home and it is full of wonders that we cannot create nor replicate. Of course sometimes that means you’ll get dirty, or get a few bug bites, but it’s worth it and you get to come home to a hot shower after all because that’s the balance. Flushing toilets and hot water can coexist in a world with fresh rain-forests and pristine beaches.  New Zealand’s water laws don’t just protect the water, but much of the land around it, preserving the environment and giving us access to nature’s best features. I think a few other countries could take notes.

Lord of the Rings & Hobbits:

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All 6 films were made in New Zealand (in case you were living under a rock). Many natural features of the land are now famous Middle Earth landmarks. Most of those beautiful panoramic views were real, and not computer generated. It’s quite popular for Tolkien fans to make a pilgrimage from movie site to movie site. Most of the landscape has been carefully returned  to its wild state so you won’t see the Hall of Rohan at Edoras or the Last Homely House at Rivendell. However, walking around the bush in NZ made me feel like an adventurer in Middle Earth more often than not (the rest of the time, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, more on that later). I also got more excited than I truly care to admit when I realized I could see “Mt. Doom” from the park in Wai-O-Tapu. I didn’t do much LOTR location viewing because most of the sets are actually further south than I ventured on my short trip, but it was fun to go to Hobbiton and see the Shire and I hope that I get to do more of the mountains and forests when I make it back to see the South Island.

Fern Gully:

Yes, that tree-hugging animated feature from the early 1990’s was based on the forests of New Zealand. Both the Maori and the British settlers contributed to a massive deforestation of New Zealand. Estimated to have dropped from 80% to 50% under Maori stewardship and then to as low as 20% under British/Kiwi stewardship, the forests of New Zealand have been under attack for nearly 1000 years. Up until 1985 deforestation was actually encouraged and subsidized by the government. However, the Department of Conservation was finally established and now native forests are protected, making up to about 15% of the land, and a further 15% are replanted forests (some of which are still logged for timber, but at a sustainable growth rate that will continue to increase forestation over time).

As a side note, Batty Coda (the insane bat voiced by Robin Williams) represents the only native land mammal in New Zealand. All other land mammals presently there were imported for fur, meat or milk. The Maori people thought of bats as a type of bird that represented knowledge and wisdom and incorporated it into their tattoos. You can see lots of NZ plant life as well as other unique New Zealand creatures in the movie including the large gecko that tries to eat Zack and the cave full of glow worms that Crystal and Jack go to be romantic in.

Whether Kiwi attitudes toward logging and preservation were impacted by Fern Gully or not, conservation has now become a significant part of life and government in NZ. With care and attention, the beautiful forests and natural landscapes that I was privileged to travel through will exist and grow richer in the decades to come.

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I hope this whets your appetite for more tales from New Zealand. I’ll be working diligently to get the rest of the posts up in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂