Dreams? More like nightmares....

I’d like to share a tale of warning for travelers looking to buy a car in Auckland in the future.  While there is a specific warning to those in Auckland, I think the lessons learned apply everywhere.  I came to NZ knowing I wanted a car.  I’d done a bit of research and knew there were two used car fairs each week in Auckland (one Saturday, one Sunday).  The problem was, it was Wednesday.  As nice as Auckland was, I was getting the itch to get out of town and start seeing the beautiful countryside that was the entire reason for my visit.

On the wall in my hostel, there was a brochure for the friendly-sounding Backpackers Car Market (Warning – make sure you read the entire post before doing business with them) that was only a 5 minute walk down the street.  As I didn’t have much planned for the day, I headed that way, figuring there wouldn’t be much – but at least I could have a look and get a feel for prices.

As I walk in, the owner gives her well rehearsed pitch about what makes here place so great (We don’t set the prices, the owners do.  There are a lot of cars here, but only a few that I think are a good value.  We can give an honest opinion.  We don’t negotiate for you – it is up to you.  I know the NZ market, etc, etc..  Have a look around and let me know what you are interested in.).  Very convincing, friendly and disarming.  I’m a sucker for someone that I feel is genuine – and she came across great.  There were a couple of Subaru wagons on hand that looked like they were what I was looking for – with prices around $4,400.  I hadn’t done much research to this point – but this was at the upper end of the range I’d seen.  Not enough to suggest it was a complete rip-off.

I head to the counter to speak with her – she asks if anything caught my eye I mention the Subarus.  Her eyes light up – and she says ‘Great cars, to be honest, those are the best on the lot.  Those plus one or two others are the only ones I’d drive myself (Maybe she was being honest – but I’d love for someone to go in, pick what looks like the worst car on the lot and see if you get the same reaction).  We’ve got 3 on hand, but they are going quickly.  The woman in front of you just took the black one, and I wouldn’t recommend the blue one’.  She then gives a sound reason to stay away from the blue one (inspection raised some costly red flags) – making me trust her even more.

So, I took a test ‘drive’ in the remaining Subaru (‘test drive’ for them means the customer riding shotgun, not driving…).  Rode very nicely, no noises or other issues.  Was in good condition inside – though the paint job had seen better days.  At this point, I’m not thinking too clearly.  She’s got me convinced the car will be gone soon (alarm bell 1), they never have this many in (alarm bell 2) and to top it off – I’m almost guaranteed to sell it for what I paid or more (seriously, I can’t believe I didn’t walk out then).  Maybe it was the jet lag, maybe I’m just too trustworthy – but at this point, I’m thinking the price may be a bit high, but not so much that it wouldn’t be okay just to get it over with.  What’s the next step?  Shell out $155 for a mechanic inspection done by the guys across the street (I wonder how much of that she gets?  I’m sure it is a number greater than zero).  The bad news is, I did it.  I still feel like an idiot – I NEVER do things like that.  Chalk it up to a painful but not terrible learning experience.  The good news is that gave me a four hour break to think.

I then went into full on research mode.  Prices for similar cars across various NZ websites suggested that $4,400 wasn’t insane as the car had fairly low mileage – but most of the ones for that price had been on the market for a while or had immaculate exteriors.  Then I searched about her company.  Turns out I should have done that before handing over the cash.  It wasn’t that she was stealing money – but there were countless reviews with everyone having a sour taste and wishing they’d gone elsewhere after learning how much money they could have saved.  I made up my mind – I was going to go back, see what the inspection said and offer her $3,500.  In my mind, I was willing to pay $3,700 at most.  Might be able to do a few hundred cheaper elsewhere – but I was okay with that.

Here is where I go from feeling like she’s living off the naivete of backpackers to placing the company at the dishonest end of the spectrum.  I come back, and the inspection calls out $350 worth of items that HAVE to be fixed before the car could get it’s next required government approval (WOF), plus a few hundred more of things that should be taken care of.  Suddenly this car just went from $4,400 – to a more realistic $5,000 with everything taken care of.  At this point I know I’m walking away – no way she comes down to $3,000 or less.  So I ask – how do I negotiate with the seller?  I’m not willing to pay $4,400, but would like to at least make an offer – especially one factoring in the $500 surprise that just landed on everyone’s lap.

Her response?  The minimum the seller will take is $4,200.  End of discussion.  They had no idea what the inspection had shown.  I’m certain she knew that before taking my $155 – figuring at least she’d get her cut of that if I wasn’t willing to pay the yet-to-be-communicated minimum.  Also – I’m not so sure there was a sellar.  Many of the reviews I read talked about her selling her own cars mixed in with those that had actually individuals behind them.

Maybe the whole thing was just here trying to charge above-market rates.  I don’t have a problem with that – buyer beware and all that – but the dishonesty and overall approach left me with a very sour taste in my mouth.

Moral of the story? Take your time.  Do your research.  Does it sound too good to be true?  It is.  I’ve been on this earth long enough that none of those things are new to me – but I still managed to part with cold hard cash when caught up in the moment.  Hopefully this helps at least one person avoid doing the same.  In my next post – I’ll share my positive experience of getting my new car :)



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Allow me to introduce myself…

By Steve | Filed in Pre-trip


Landing in New Zealand

As I start my journey, I thought I’d take a post to to share a bit about myself and how I came to start traveling.  Part of this post is for you – to let you know where I’m coming from, what I’m hoping to get out of my travels, etc.  However, a large part of it is for me – forcing myself to really think about all of those things – I’ve found writing to be a great door to self-reflection and hope you enjoy it.

My travel background

  • I grew up in Illinois, travelled on family vacations – a great time with family – Disney World, Florida, etc.  Travel wasn’t a passion, nor did we avoid it, but I wasn’t born into a family of world maps, road trips and summers in the National Parks.
  • After high school, I studied Engineering and Economics at Northwestern University.  A visit with my older sister (3 years my senior) studying abroad in London when I was 18, planted the seed for me to do the same after my Sophomore year at University.  That summer started off with a quick European trip with my sister.  Rome, Capri (still one of my favourite places – swimming in the Blue Grotto was an amazing experience), Barcelona, Amsterdam, ending in London.  That trip opened my eyes to the world – but didn’t give me the travel ‘itch’ that so many people talk about.
  • After Uni, I started my career in consulting.  A great, challenging job that meant I was on the road 4 days a week.  It led to such glamorous destinations as Minneapolis, Memphis, Atlanta and San Francisco.  It also, led to 100s of thousands of hotel points and airline miles – and many a free vacation.
  • Most importantly, my job led to a ‘temporary’_ move to London that has become more permanent.  It created easy access to an entirely new set of countries and experiences, including: Spain, Norway, Greece, Italy, Belgium, France, Turkey, and Iceland..
  • Looking back on it – they were all great experiences, but often lacked a sense of really getting to know the people and culture of each destination.  Some of my most fond memories are of getting to the out of the way places (e.g., leaving the tourist towns on Santorini behind and exploring the Island by car) where you don’t see a tourist for miles.
  • I’ve never done much solo travel, so my trip to New Zealand is a big jump for me.  And to be honest, pushing my comfort zone is a big part of the reason I’m doing it.  Even if I am starting safely in an English-speaking country – I’m hoping it gives me the confidence to expand my horizons even further.

Photography as an influence

  • Right after University, I picked up my first Digital SLR and started what would turn out to be a lasting love of photography.  Not a ‘traveller’ by nature – I was able to use photography to experience travel in an entirely new way.  Seeing life through a lens has driven me to take things more slowly, be patient and actually experience more of the world.   50,000+ pictures later, it has become part of who I am.  I don’t have any dreams or desires of making a career out of it – but I get a ton of joy and fulfilment when I’m able to capture a moment in time that the vast majority of people never see.  Over time, the combination of photography and travel have blended together to become one in the same for me.
  • The end result has been an amazing set of experiences and an increased desire to travel and see the world.  Once you’ve _hiked an hour in the pitch black, sat in the darkness, with only stars as light, and watched the sun come up over the Grand Canyon – it is hard not to want to do it again, all over the world!  That was truly was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  It isn’t often we have the chance to sit in complete silence as the only person for miles and look at the stars…amazing.
  • I’ll likely expand further on photography and prior travels in future posts – but given the length of this one, I’ll hold back for now.

My career

For those expecting the typical ‘I had a 9-5 in a cublice, hated it, and quit to live my dreams of a nomad’ – that isn’t my story.  I really enjoyed my job.  Loved it at times.  Hated it at others.  Depended on the day of the week and the way the wind was blowing.  I’d get some positive feedback or a promotion and think ‘I’m good at this, maybe it is the right place for me long-term’.  Then I’d be in the office yet another weekend and be thinking to myself ‘Time to move on, do something else with your life’.

So far, I’ve made it through 6 great years in consulting and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  All of the long nights, and weekends lost to work were worth it.  Looking at people that had worked at clients for 15+ years – I was getting experiences that they may never get.  I was surrounded by incredibly bright, hard working people – many of which will remain friends forever.   That being said, early last year, I started to think more about my life, who I was, and what I wanted out of it.  As many of you who have tried to answer those questions – there isn’t an easy answer.  What I do know today is that in the long run, I want family to be the center of my life, not work.  And for me, consulting wasn’t the place that was going to happen.  I am currently on a six-month leave of absence that started in July of this year.  The plan was to decompress and start to think about what was next for me.  There have been many times where I stepped back and decided that I was going to return to consulting.  A few more years and I’d have even more incredible experiences, learn even more, and be able to build out my savings.  I could jump to a senior position at a client and be set.  There were other times when I was sure I wasn’t coming back.  When it comes down to it – at this point in life, I think it is time for me to move on.  I’m not sure yet what will be next (travel, at least for now!), but I think it is the right move.  That being said, I haven’t yet officially quit – so there is still a chance I’ll go back to work in January!

What I hope to get out of this journey

I think this journey will test how good of a traveller I am – and what it really means to me.  I may come to find I love it, spontaneity is great and I don’t need a plan.  I may find that I need a daily agenda or I’ll get bored.  I may find I’m much better at meeting others than I thought.  I may find I love being alone.  The last four months of not working has made me realise that the meaning of life isn’t a question to be answered, but one worth thinking about from time to time.

On of my small frustrations with myself is my lack of thoughtfullness.  It isn’t that I am unable of thinking of the deeper meaning of things – it that my default setting is generally very trustworthly, taking things at face value.  For example – never thinking ahead on my career, to my next holiday, or much else for that matter.  While some may wish they could avoid always thinking about problems or the future – I think a healthy balance is useful.  I enjoy living in the moment, but need to give some thought to where I want to go as well.

Just forcing myself to write things such as this (for personal or public consumption) challenges me to reflect on what motivates and drives me and why I am who I am.  I think it is only then that I’ll figure out what it is and what I want to ‘do’ with my life.  Or even the next few years for that matter.  I’m not expecting a clear answer to fall from the sky – but the more aware I am of myself, the more I’m likely to see opportunities that come up.

In addition to personal relfection – I’m looking forward to meeting a ton of new people.  Locals, travellers, people fresh out of University, people that just quit their job, and the list goes on.  I’m already planning to meet with Mike (from http://travelsofmike.com) in Auckland, and am hoping to cross path with others along the way.

So, what do you think?

Think I’m crazy for leaving my job without a plan?  Think I need a better agenda for my travels?  What about you?  Were you born in a travelling family with the itch to hit the road?  Are you travelling to escape something?  To experience something?  For another reason?  Are you working up the nerve to leave a job you hate?  One you like, but isn’t right?

Hopefully this (long) post has given you an idea of who I am as I start my journey.  I think it will be interesting to look back in a years time and see who I’ve become (travel-driven or otherwise).  Welcome to my journey.




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Photography & running multiple sites

By Steve | Filed in Photography


Copyright 2010, Steve Black (click for larger version)

As I’ve started developing this travel blog, one of the things I’ve struggled with is how to link to and share any photographic work that I post on my photography site (#shamelessplug http://steveblackphotography.com/blog). That site is purely for fun – photography is strictly a hobby for now – meaning I don’t have any grand plans of trying to make a living off of it.

My current thought process is that I’ll share a larger number of pictures here (e.g., some of the ‘touristy’ shots that help people see what a location is like), not just the finished products that I would normal post as more ‘final’ work. I’m sure I’ll occasionally cross-post between the two – but haven’t yet figured out a set of guidelines for myself as to when I will / won’t do so. So far – I don’t have many people following both sites – so cross-posts won’t be annoying. Yet. Eventaully, that could be an issue.

Anyone out there have multiple blogs with topics that occasionally overlap? How do you deal with it?

Others – any thoughts on what would be good / bad as a reader? (perhaps I do a weekly wrap up on this site of any shots I’ve shared elsewhere that people might find interesting?) Would love to get any thoughts or reactions now – as well as any feedback in the future as I start my travels and am posting more regularly.

For now – expect it to be a bit all over the place, but hopefully I’ll strike a balance that most people enjoy!



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Apologies for the radio silence the past few weeks – it has been a hectic push to sell the majority of things I had in storage in Chicago, pack up my childhood room in central Illinois and get ready for my trip to New Zealand.

I’m writing this post on my flight to London – making a quick trip to activate my UK visa (long story, for another time) and then back to Chicago before heading to New Zealand on Sunday!

I’ve had a chance to reflect on my earlier post on the accumulation of belongings – and had a good discussion with a friend of mine.  I brought up my frustration with the perceived focus by Americans on accumulating ‘stuff’ – even if we don’t need it and certainly won’t use it until it has been worn out.  He didn’t challenge the reality of the situation – but did push back as to whether it is a result of American society or rather more fundamental to human nature.

Are Americans really different than those of other nations (for the time being, let’s just focus on consumerism!) – or is it just that we have more disposable income (and more space) and therefore the ability to be wasteful?  It may not be that our society is unique in desire, only in ability.  You can certainly draw comparisons of the US versus other developed nations (for the sake of this discussion, feel free to pick any Western European country) and come to a conclusion that we are more focused on goods and less on experiences – but only time will tell how big that difference is.  And more importantly – the real comparison begins as India and China move toward increasing urbanisation and capitalism.

I don’t have the statistics at hand – but from everything I’ve read, American abuse of the environment in pursuit of a capitalist dream may well pale in comparison to what is about to happen as billions of people move toward the middle class.

I don’t propose to have the answers, but it was a good reality check by my friend to push back on the all-too-often easy path of assuming problems are unique to the US.  A bit of reflection and thought can go a long way to dispel stereotypes (even those we hold about ourselves).

What do you think?  Is this truly a unique American problem?  Something we’re getting better or worse at?  Where do you think the future will head as other countries develop further economically?  Should we be scared or excited?



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Dear future Steve…

By Steve | Filed in Pre-trip

Read the remainder of this entry »

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No turning back now…

By Steve | Filed in Pre-trip

Even though this blog is still in development, and I haven’t even started my trip, I had to at least post that I’ve booked my first flight! A few things fell into place, meaning I could leave as soon as I could get a decent fare, so for $840, I now have a one way ticket to Auckland departing Chicago on November 7th!!

I’m so excited to get to NZ and start exploring and planning future phases as well. A bit of nerves certainly kicked in right before I hit ‘purchase’, but I know it is all going to work out and be an amazing experience!

Now, only minor things to do like: Get NZ Visa, figure out what the heck I’m taking, get to the UK and back before then (long story…), etc.

More to come soon…

Bonus points if you guess the emotion conveyed in this image

I’m feeling…

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Coming soon…

By Steve | Filed in Uncategorized

Welcome.  You’re a bit early, so grab a chair, kick back and relax.  My journey starts in late Oct / early November, and I’m just getting ready.  This will eventually become the place where I share my experiences, learnings, tips and suggestions from my trip.  The current plan is to start in New Zealand and take it from there…

Sign up for the feed, or follow me on twitter and you’ll be the first to know when I really get going :)

In the meantime, if you enjoy photography, take a look at my other site, here: www.steveblackphotography.com/blog


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