Saturday, June 18, 2016

48 Hours in New Zealand

Recently I decided it was time to take another IT certification test. For IMS, once you are in the Department and with certain IT certifications we can get what is called Skills Incentive Pay or SIP. Depending on the certification, we can get either a 9% or 14% bonus which is good for 3 years. Though we have to pay for the training out of our own pocket, the benefits are worth it.

I've had a 14% SIP since 2014. Knowing it expires in another year, I wanted to go ahead and have something else ready to go. Looking over the list and trying to figure out what would be the quickest cert to get, I decided to go with the Certified Information Systems Manager, or CISM. The rub with this test is it is only offered 3 times a year as it is a paper/scantron test. Yes, think back to your high school SAT. Oh and it wasn't going to be offered in Fiji. Looking around, the closest place to go and take it would be Auckland, New Zealand.

I signed up for the test back in March and began my preparations. I ordered the official CISM Guide Book from ISACA (the company that manages the test). I won't beat around the bush, it is dry. I also ordered a 12 month subscription to their online test engine. They give you access to about 2000 or so questions (possibly taken from previous tests, or questions that have been thrown out, but who knows). For my prep, I ended up logging about 87 hours in the engine. To pass the CISM, you need to score a 450. There are 200 questions, but not all questions are weighted equally. Some have more weight than others, others are just beta questions and are not scored at all. Really, there is no way to determine how many questions you need to get right to pass. I read on another blog somewhere that if you are scoring between 75-85% consistently in the test engine, you will probably pass.

So on a Friday afternoon, I took a direct flight from Suva to Auckland. Deb and the kids had to stay behind because of school and this was going to be a quick trip for me. I arrived that afternoon, checked into my hotel, and then went to find where I was taking the test (it was at the University of Auckland, but I wanted to scout out the exact building. I was glad I did, as you will see why). On my way back to the hotel, I found a Starbucks. Oh Starbucks, how I've missed you. I went back to the room, hung out for a bit and then went to eat. I found a pretty good steak house right around the corner from the room. Back to the room, I FaceTimed Deb and the kids and went to bed.

Saturday morning I woke up earlier than I planned in a mild panic. I did a quick review to calm my nerves, then went down to breakfast. Afterwards, I headed over to the University. I got to the room where I was told to go, and was waiting with about another dozen or so people to take the test. We were told we had to go to a different building, so we all hiked about 2 or 3 blocks downhill to another building. We then sat in the lobby while they could set the classroom up for us. After about 10-15 minutes, we were told the bomb scare was no more and we could move to another building (bomb scare what?!). So we hiked back uphill to another building and waited another 10-15 minutes for them to set up. I finished the test in about 3 hours (4 hour limit).

After the test, I dropped my pencils off in my room and decided to treat myself with another Starbucks run. I may have hit Starbucks the day before the test and then again right before I caught the shuttle to the airport on Sunday. Priorities people!


One thing Deb and I've started to do on our travels is collect Starbucks city mugs. So far we have a decent collection. I couldn't find an Auckland one, so I got a New Zealand one instead. When we go back hopefully I can find one (along with Wellington and Christchurch mugs, priorities!).

I decided to walk around the city some and found something I had to take a picture of just to tease Deb and the kids with!


I'm not a huge Dunkin Donuts fan (born and raised Krispy Kreme thank you very much!) so I didn't get any.

After grabbing a few souvenirs for Deb and the kids, I decided to visit the Sky Tower in Auckland. At over 1076 ft. tall, it is the tallest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere.


After a quick elevator ride I was up on the observation deck enjoying a beautiful view of Auckland. I can see why New Zealand is called the "land of the long white cloud".


Around the floor they have glass/acrylic bricks where you can look down below.


And at night, the tower is all lit up.


The next day, Middle Earth saw me off as I headed home.


Somewhere over the Pacific between New Zealand and Fiji.


Now I'm sure you are asking did I pass the test? As this is a paper test, it has to be sent back to the US for grading. So I won't know for 5 weeks or so.

I really enjoyed my trip to New Zealand. I wish Deb and the kids would have gone, but as Deb told me one of the kids would have been up all night and I wouldn't have gotten any sleep before my test. We are planning on going back hopefully twice before we leave the region and explore more of the "land of the long white cloud'.

Friday, June 17, 2016

When unpacking making makes you go hmmmm....

So I've been pondering what made getting the house unpacked so long here and I have some theories....thought I would share them so you all wouldn't think I've just been sitting on the chaise lounge drinking fruity drinks all day....lol.

So I just looked back and when I finished unpacking in Tbilisi and posted the house tour blog was about one month after our first shipment of household goods arrived and I commented on how it seemed to take forever....lol. Little did I know that would be so quick. Here in Suva, we got into our permanent housing mid march and the first of our household goods arrived a few days later. The last of our household goods arrived three weeks later. I just posted the house tour blog which was three months after our first shipment of household goods....so here goes my thinking out loud and compare/contrast (mainly verbalize stuff to make myself feel better).

So in Tbilisi, we moved into our permanent housing upon arrival, so we had time when we had no household goods to move furniture around to our liking. In Suva, we moved into our permanent housing with our UAB days before our first shipment of household goods arrived. Once we decided we wanted to do some furniture swapping that took several weeks due to the head warehouse person being on leave (which in return put organizing on hold, if we didn't get something we were requesting or they couldn't take what we were requesting to send back we'd have to possibly do more purging or figure out another place to store art supplies....in the end there was only one request that wasn't fulfilled).

Looking at housing in general, we had a big house in Tbilisi with a ton of storage (even larger than the house we had back in Charleston). So it was relatively easy to unpack and stow things 'quickly'. Here in Suva, there is a small price for paradise....get it...small....we have much smaller house. While the house is plenty big for what we need, when unpacking I had to assess is this something we truly need/want or can we donate/yard sale it? If it was something we needed/wanted, due to the long transport time followed by fumigation, everything had a lovely odor and had to be washed. Therefore, instead of unpack and stow, I had to unpack, debate, wash, dry, and finally stow.

Finally, timing and weather. When we arrived in Tbilisi, winter had just begun and it was cold, gray, and snowy! We also received our household goods within our first month of arrival, so I didn't really know anyone yet and it was easy to stay inside and unpack. When we arrived in Suva, it was the middle of summer, we were in temporary housing for two months before we moved and started receiving things. In that two months, I had signed up for a weekly French class, joined several women's associations, became one of the Year 6 parent reps (aka room mom...but with middle school less work), joined a book club, started to make some friends, Mason had gotten a part in the school production which the last month had a lot of late/weekend rehearsals I had to shuttle him back and forth to, and both kids seemed to take turns being sick. In fact one week, we made it to Friday and I did a happy dance that neither kid had stayed home sick from school that week. Also, as I hinted at here, a simple task such as getting groceries for the week can take a whole day with stops at multiple stores to get a fraction of what you had hoped to purchase. So life in general slowed me down (as it should).

Now that I have vented....I think I shall make myself a fresh pineapple smoothie and go enjoy it out on that chaise lounge by the pool....I earned it!

Cheers!


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Unpacked...the official vale tour!

So I mentioned the other day Bula is Fijian for hello. Vale is Fijian for family house....now that our language class is complete......with no further ado here is the tour of our house (for the next two years or so)....


Our front door is actually the store front looking doors (Richard wants to hang an open/close sign on them for giggles), but they use a special key and don't stay shut without said key....so it is a little high maintenance for everyday usage. So we just use the side door through the laundry/mud room which is good for dropping off dirty shoes before going into the house anyway.


We have an normal size embassy issued washer, but a mini local landlord provided dryer. Luckily, we air dry a good bit of our clothes but we still have to split loads to fit into the dryer. There is also a good bit of storage in the laundry room, as well as, a small folding shelf and a sink.


Continuing on in, you find the kids' bathroom. Which works out well, since after the take off their shoes they can immediately wash their hands after school before being distracted by toys or snacks (which as I have mentioned, hasn't appeared to help keep them healthy...lol).


Sharing sink space is quiet "enjoyable" after them both having their own bathrooms in Tbilisi.....


The shower windows vent to the laundry room....so if I am ever feeling extra mischievous/someone is the in the shower too long I can throw ice on them....muwhahahaha....


In the main hallway, we have some of our travel posters displayed. We also have a nice set of cabinets that have provided us a good bit of space for storing our consumables.


We split the main living area into two areas since it is quite a large room. A den type area and an office type area. Note the front door in the corner.


Another angle of the main room. GSO came by last week to do our one time picture hanging. We have a couple new pieces getting framed currently, so we went ahead and had some nails placed on the wall to hold their places. (If I'm feeling extra motivated, I may update this photo with the map of Fiji that we plan to hang above the printer).


As you can see the main room opens into the kitchen. The kitchen is quite large as well. Counter space is a tad limited, but we make it work. We would love to open the lever windows to let in more light, unfortunately it tends to be rather humid most days. I did open up the house this past weekend and Clarissa seemed surprise to notice there were windows along that wall.


From the opposite direction. The kitchen/dining area nicely holds our Drexel heritage issued dining set. Richard plans to get another tiki mask to balance the one we have.


Clarissa's room is cozy but cute.


We put her bed in the corner to give her a bigger play area. The kids discovered what we called poster putty growing up (it is called sticky tack here), so they have both taken creative lead on their personal wall decorations.


She has a nice built in closet set up. One side is her clothes and the other side is dress up clothes. We are definitely utilizing over the closet space for extra storage. Note the recycling of her birthday lanterns as room decorations.


I took photos of Mason's room the moment I finished unpacking/straightening up....because I knew it would never be this neat again....so he does have a few framed photos hung on the wall now....but the rest of the room now has more of a tween disheveled look.


Mason has a queen size bed this post, the Master bedroom is issued a queen bed, but since we ship our king size bed with us. We let him use the extra queen bed once ours arrived. I used command hooks to make a hat rack....


Like I mentioned, the kids used sticky tack and took the creative lead on wall decorations....I guess we should enjoy this before it comes pictures of bikini clad women......(and I can't really talk...I may have had a poster or two of a 21 jumpstreet/top gun heartthrobs on my walls back in the day).


The master suite was able to accommodate our king size bed....as I mentioned before...best decision to bring with us ever!! Much to Richard's disappointment, I nixed his idea of putting the tiki masks over our bed. (Call me weird, but I have issues with faces looking at me when I'm sleeping....I remember seeing faces in the wood knots of my grandmother's closet door and my bestie's dad mounted deer heads always freaking me out when I spent nights away from home as a kid...so creepy tiki faces, no thank you).


His and hers dressers.


So we lucked out and have a house that has a bath tub (apparently it is pretty common to not have a tub here). We only have one tub and it is in the master bath....so lots of bath toys are the norm.


It's pretty small compared to Tbilisi, but we don't really need to do yoga in the bathroom. It is completely functional for what we need.


So in Suva, bookshelves are at a premium (whereas we had a plethora at our last post). Outside our room we put the majority of the kids books on one combined shelf to make a little library.


Last but not is the bonus room we got due to our last minute housing assignment change! We are so grateful for this fourth bedroom! It provides a guest bedroom for visitors.


But if you turn the other direction, it also functions a bit as a game room with our board games stored in one of the closets and the Xbox hooked up to the other TV, as a craft room for my dabbling into sewing (I'm planning to make some bedskirts to hide the fact that we are using the space underneath mosts beds for storage....debating getting fun Bula fabric or something more plain that can be used at future posts also), as an attic to store our luggage and empty boxes, and as our basement storing all our holiday things. We do not have any outdoor or attic/basement/garage storage. So I apologize to our guests...but when you see all the other things....just remind yourself....you are in Fiji!


Guests can also head out that door next to their bed onto our lovely back porch. It runs along the entire back of the house from the kitchen to the back bedroom.


There is also access to to the pool from the porch.


Where you can sit on a chaise lounge and relish the view of palm trees (unfortunately we can't see the Pacific Ocean from our house....sigh).


You can also wander around the yard through the flowers,


meander through the banana trees,


check on the pineapple tops to see how they are growing,


and traverse through some more flowers.


So that's it.....hope you enjoyed your tour. It looks much better in person, so you will need to come visit to get the total effect. :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

InterCon Weekend

So after our first delightful resort weekend, I had decided I wanted to get away again for Mother's Day weekend. I had dove my first dive in way to many years the prior week (in my defense the diving in Charleston isn't all that great and we had been landlocked for the last two years) and my ears were still popping, so I wasn't concerned with great snorkeling for this adventure....I wanted nice sandy beaches and no cooking or unpacking to do. We have been told the nicest beach on Viti Levu (the island we call home) is Natadola Beach. A couple weeks prior to Mother's Day, we got an email for a local special at the Intercontiental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa at Natadola Beach. I forwarded the email to Richard and said book it for Mother's day weekend (hey...I wanted to do no work for "my" weekend!), we picked the kids up from school a little early on Friday (must maximize our beachtime!!) and away we went!


Parts of the drive are lovely like this stretch right along the coast. Other parts are super curvy mountain roads and while other parts are slow with giant speed bumps going through villages. There is one village we see some Momma and baby pigs crossing the road every time we drive through it! Given it was Friday afternoon, we hit a good bit of traffic as a lot of people head to visit family in other villages. The drive ended up taking close to 3 hours (we made it home in about 2.5), but being a left hand drive car in a right hand drive country makes passing tricky especially when you become the 4th or 5th car back....


The welcome at the InterCon was great. The greet all guests with the Lali drum and shell leis. We were able to watch the sunset from a porch overlooking the Pacific while checking in among the beautiful flower bowls. They then shuttled us to our room. We dropped our stuff and went to find something to eat. We choose to eat at a cafe by the infinity pool and enjoy what was left of the sunset.


Afterwards, we decided to go check out the beach. Clarissa was smart and put on her swimsuit. Mason was too cool for that and wasn't going to go swimming....


Well you see how well that turned out...lol. We didn't get any pictures of the room, but it had a true garden tub with the bathtub outside on the back porch which was somewhat buffered by a garden. I did pull the curtains across to provide the kids with a little privacy. I had headed back with Clarissa before the boys came back....she was being difficult cooperating with washing her hair....which Richard said he could hear from a good distance away....ooops....

The next morning was beautiful. Richard and Clarissa went for a walk before breakfast to pick up dropped flowers and check out the beach.


They found a beach access closer to our room....it was along an inlet and across the water were some cave looking structures. After we dragged Mason out of bed, we headed to breakfast. Our room rate included the breakfast buffet....we were super impressed with breakfast. Yum! Everyone found lots of options that they liked. We told everyone to eat up since we were planning a late lunch.


Next we headed down to the beach to play....since that was the goal of the trip!


Lots of sand visible (and still hours away from low tide) and so many shades of blue.


Clarissa and I worked on a sand castle and the boys went walking/exploring a bit into the water.


I quickly got summoned to identify what kind of marine organism that was everywhere......


So quiz time.....remember what it was? I posted photos of the kids with the mystery animal a few weeks back...brittle stars!


Clarissa got over her initial 'eeh, its prickly' and started picking them up. I told her to only get ones where you see the main body portion as a lot where hiding in tiny holes and crevices getting ready to really hunker down for low tide.


I seriously could of sat here all day and not gone anywhere....


The pool was beckoning the kids with all of its fountains, water jets, and ledge/seats....so much to explore.


Which was fine, since I had an appointment for a cabana beach massage. I debated between the warm shell and the beach massage. I really enjoy the sound of the water....so beachside won.


While I was getting my massage, Richard got the kids and himself showered and dressed. I then did the same. We then headed out for the afternoon in Nadi. Other than landing and chilling in the airport for about an hour, we haven't spent any time in the other major city on Viti Levu. On the way to the car, the kids picked up some handicrafts they had seen before breakfast for sale by some local ladies. Clarissa got a bracelet and Mason got a mini Lali drum. While waiting for the valet to bring up our car, Mason had some Lali drum lessons on the big full size drum....apparently the beat is not as important as the big Bula at the end....


So we went through Nadi and out to Port Denarau. At the port, they have a shopping center that includes a Hard Rock Cafe, in addition to boats that will take you out to the Yasawa & Mamanuca Islands....which we will venture out to at some point. We had lunch at Hard Rock Cafe. Richard was a little disappointed they were not serving any American beers, but otherwise we were all hungry and cleaned our plates....it was good and tasty. We then walked around and did a little window shopping at the souvenir shops...much to the kids' displeasure...we have 2 more years we do not need to buy it all now. We then headed back to the InterCon and made it back just in time for a spectacular sunset!


I attempted to get a nice picture of the two of them....seriously how hard is it to "smile nicely"....apparently insanely hard!


These are just a fraction of my failed attempts....I finally gave up!


And so we went down and "played" chess. Mason knows how to play chess, but Clarissa does not and was not following his directions.....eventually we found our way back to the pool for the rest of the evening.


The next morning after another delicious breakfast and requesting a late check out (benefit of being an IHG member...woohoo), we took the kids to the Planet Trekkers, the kids club. They have set drop of and pick up times, serve lunch (or dinner depending on what time slot you choose), and it does cost per session. The kids were a little hesitant after the last experience....but with a little bribery we convinced them to go. They both said they had a blast....so I guess lesson learned is you get what you pay for....


So while the kids were being entertained and since it was Mother's day, I played the let's do what I want card....lol. So we walked along the beach and I picked up a bunch of pretty shells (Richard found a few of them also).


We then headed over to the adults only infinity pool.


We noticed as the tide went out it was looking more and more doable to walk over and explore the caves. While relaxing in the infinity pool we even saw a few people doing just that. So we walked on over, on the way we found this pretty polka-dotted little fellow.


There were some strong currents towards the middle of the passage of the inlet, but since we hit it close to low tide the water never got much higher than knee deep. It was doable for us, but it would have been tricky to also help the kids navigate across since you couldn't really see where you are stepping and we didn't think to bring water shoes so stepping on shells and broken coral bits hurts a bit.


We could hear crickets chirping as we walked around.


I just couldn't pick one favorite picture.....


Richard was disappointed we didn't find anything super interesting in the tide pools...he was hoping for an octopus or something cool. We did find an anemone which I finally convinced him to touch...still not impressed.


Afterwards, we made it back across the inlet, had some lunch (including fresh tropical smoothies), got cleaned up, packed up, grabbed the kids, checked out, and drove back home. It was a very fun relaxing weekend. With this view and the tasty food, we have already another trip back in the works...