After a meeting with my colleague Mike recently, he mentioned that he still finds himself thinking about the week he and I spent in Antarctica last month. In addition to the raw beauty of the pristine continent, he was very impressed with the camaraderie and good humor of the folks who live and work in such isolated and often harsh environs. He said he particularly enjoyed the signage at McMurdo, which I didn’t understand until he showed me photos he had taken during his late-night walks.

Because my last few posts have focused on policy and other serious matters, I thought I’d share with you a few of those signs that tickled Mike’s fancy, as a light way to start a relaxing weekend. Relaxing for you, hopefully. I’ll be hustling through airports and spending all day tomorrow on a 16-hour flight from Washington to Hong Kong, which I generally find anything but relaxing.

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Not funny, but a sign of good humor, camaraderie, and the occasional frock party.

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Another welcome to a special community, walking distance from our friends at Scott.

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A little taste of Arizona.

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Hmmm. People or equipment?

Mogas.

A friendly reminder.

Tower Power.

Delusions of grandeur at the ice traffic control shed at McMurdo dock.

California.

A dormitory named for home.

Mammoth Mountain Inn.

Another California dormitory.

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A sign of entrepreneurship.

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Not sure what's up here.

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The door to the medical and dental clinic.

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Evidence of a misdemeanor, but still my personal favorite from Mike's sign collection.

Follow the signs. Have a great weekend.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I’m a strong advocate of engaging directly and sincerely with young people, and encouraging future leaders to voice their opinions and get involved in societal discourse early. So I listened with great interest to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the State Department’s youth engagement policy delivered yesterday in Tunisia, where young activists first launched the Arab Spring.

The speech confirmed the Department’s deep commitment to engaging future leaders and highlighted the various concrete steps we are taking to advance the economic and civic empowerment of young people around the world through the Department’s new Office of Global Youth Issues.

I urge you to view the video of the speech below or, if you prefer, to read the transcript of the event here. I particularly commend to you the robust, wide-ranging town hall that the Secretary held with Tunisian youth after her prepared remarks, including questions about entrepreneurship, Syria, democracy in Tunisia, empowerment of women, LGBT equal rights, and Muslims in America.

I was delighted to hear the Secretary emphasize the establishment of Youth Councils in US Embassies around the world to better inform American diplomats about local conditions, concerns, and policy matters. We pioneered that approach here in New Zealand with the formation of American Ambassador Adviser Councils at Kiwi universities two years ago. My regular interactions with those advisers have greatly influenced the way in which I view New Zealand and execute my duties.

Engaging and including students in that manner is obvious, natural, and right. In my view, it’s also smart. There simply is no more effective and powerful investment in the future than time spent talking with – not at — youth and equipping them to face the challenges ahead. In fact, with 3 billion people now under the age of 30, 90% of whom live in developing countries, we ignore or marginalize youth at our peril.

To paraphrase the Secretary, young people are at the heart of today’s great strategic opportunities and challenges, from rebuilding the global economy to combating violent extremism, to building sustainable democracies, to addressing seemingly intractable climate change and food security issues. It’s high time to put youth empowerment at the center of the international agenda.

One of the things that continues to surprise me is the persistent urban legend that traveling to the United States is difficult. It’s a bit like the rumor about giant alligators roaming the sewers of New York City eating homeless people and lost tourists. Titillating. Hard to disprove from a distance. Reinforces preconceptions. But patently untrue.

Come on in and enjoy the USA.

For holiday, business, and other travelers intending to stay in the US for no more than 90 days, we have an online process that takes less than 72 hours and costs about US$14 to use. This Visa Waiver system is available to Kiwis, Aussies, and citizens and permanent residents of 34 other countries.

Since I’m battling alligators in the sewers on this one, I went back and pulled statistics to illustrate my point. Since August 2008 (the earliest point I could access), 463,079 visa waiver applications have been submitted online. Of those applications, 99.78% were automatically approved.

No, you didn’t read that wrong. If you want to go to the USA on holiday or for short-term business, the statistics indicate that you have a 99.78% chance of getting to visit the US cheaply and easily without leaving the comfort of your home or needing a visa. That’s not quite as high as the chance of avoiding alligators in the sewers of New York City (which is 100%), but it’s awfully close.

Of course, if you have been convicted of a crime, or if you have lied on a prior visa application, then you are not going to be able to avail yourself of the visa waiver system. Of course, that makes sense, right?

American autumns need to be seen to be believed.

If you would like to visit the US for longer than 90 days, or you seek domestic work authorization, or you have had criminal or immigration problems in the past, then an actual visa is required. The procedure, though, is simple. You need to fill out a form online and then come into the Consulate General in Auckland for an interview.

There are almost always next-day appointments available. Interviews are usually no longer than two or three minutes. And visas are generally printed and posted within one business day.

Again, let’s get to the bottom line. The visa approval rate at the Consulate General over the past couple of years has been 96% for New Zealand citizens and permanent residents. That means that even if you don’t qualify for the visa waiver system, you have a 96% chance of getting your visa after an interview shorter than the time it takes to boil water for tea.

A few Kiwi friends enjoying the US 12-Month Work and Travel Program.

We continue to work to improve and simplify even those straightforward procedures. For example, President Obama recently announced a new visa pilot program that will “simplify and speed up the non-immigrant visa process for certain applicants, including the ability to waive interviews for some very low-risk applicants.”

More specifically, that pilot program provides that Kiwis and applicants from other visa waiver countries who need to renew a US visa can now do so completely by mail if their visas have been expired for less than four years, as long as they meet certain standard conditions (such as you haven’t changed your name or nationality).

Also, as I have discussed previously, Kiwi students and recent graduates are eligible for a special visa that allows you to travel and work in the United States for a full year. The application process is quite simple, and the visa allows you to work and travel as you please for the year. It’s a great way to see the country, establish friendships, finance your adventure, and build experience.

Dana Deree podcast

There is now an easy four-month version of the student work-travel program available as well. There is no need to arrange employment before you come to the States. You can enter the country and find temporary work, or not, as you go. To learn more about these 12- or 4-Month Student Work and Travel visas, refer back to my prior blog post and/or check out the podcast above.

There are many other cultural and educational exchange opportunities available to visit the US. Last year the Consulate General issued 2,303 visas for such programs. Our J-1 visa provides countless opportunities for international candidates looking to travel and gain experience in America. The multifaceted programs enable foreign nationals to come to the US to teach, study, conduct research, demonstrate special skills, or receive on the job training for periods ranging from a few weeks to several years. Exchange opportunities include programs for camp counselors, au pairs, interns, physicians, teachers, professors, and research scholars.

For more information about exchange and educational opportunities, take a look at the Embassy website. For more information about studying in the United States, contact our Educational Adviser (Drew) at the Consulate General and/or take a look at the podcast below.

The United States is a mindblowingly huge, diverse, dynamic, and exciting place where anything is possible and everything (legal) is readily available in permutations that suit each and every taste. It has to be experienced to be believed and understood.

And of course, we’d love you to come visit. Which is why, urban legends notwithstanding, we work hard to make our visa processes easy and painless for the vast majority of potential travelers.

Volcanoes National Park

If you think you’ve already seen everything, you need to visit Volcanoes National Park in Hawai’i.

I’ve been blessed to have lived for extended periods in 6 of our 50 States and to have visited another 30 of them thus far. So if you’d like, I’d be happy to make destination and activity recommendations …

The Grand Canyon. Cajun cuisine. Fifth Avenue shopping. Las Vegas over-stimulation. Chili relleno the way the angels make it. Monument Valley. Broadway shows. Motorcycle (or RV) roadtrips along Route 66.

Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes. The Everglades. Montana and Arizona dude ranches. Big Sur. South Beach art deco. Independence Hall. Golf in Palm Springs. Skiing in Beaver Creek. Rock climbing in Yosemite.

Heartland farm stays. Burning Man and Wolf Trap. The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. A four-year degree at one of the planet’s best universities. The glories of the collosal Smithsonian Institution museums.

The philharmonic and fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl. Mississippi paddlewheel river boat cruises. Tramping and camping in the Sierras, the Appalachians, the Cascades, and Yellowstone. High adreline amusement parks. Philly cheese steaks. Shoo fly pie. Graceland. Rodeo Drive. Pennsylvania Avenue. Bourbon Street. Memphis clubs. Napa Valley. The Texas State Fair. Swimming with manatees. Just to name a few of my hundreds of favorites.

Also, if there are elements of our visitor or immigration processes that I didn’t cover above and about which you’d like more information, feel free to let me know. I would be happy to do occasional blog posts on such topics, and to direct you to the websites and podcasts that contain the specific material you need.

I am in Christchurch participating in services marking the one-year anniversary of the tragic February 22, 2011 earthquake. I have been joined by several of my American colleagues including Al Dwyer from USAID, who headed the large US disaster response team that quickly airlifted into Christchurch to assist with search and rescue operations. I asked Al to return to New Zealand to lead our delegation with me because of the critical role he played in the days immediately following the quake.

Yesterday I attended the unveiling of the Tomb of the Unknowns. This morning Al and I participated in a commemoration service at Latimer Square, on the spot where the American and other working USAR teams camped last February. I then spoke at the opening of a commemorative garden in Christchurch’s beautiful Botanic Gardens, one of my favorite places in the city. And now, as I record this introduction, Al and I are walking to Hagley Park for the main civic service of remembrance.

Latimer Square a year ago, at 3:30 a.m., as newly arrived American urban search and rescue workers set up camp while the rest of the team deployed into the crippled CBD. They would remain in the Latimer camp for more than a month.

I am carrying with me a personal message to the people of Canterbury from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Secretary was beguiled by Christchurch when she visited the city in November 2010. She thoroughly enjoyed the warmth of Cantabrians, the beauty of the environs, the vibrant Q&A session at Town Hall, and her spontaneous jog around the edge of the CBD and through Hagley Park.

On February 22, 2011, she followed the tragic events in Christchurch closely, solicited frequent updates from the Embassy, and later held a live digital video conference with us to discuss the quake and to thank our friends at MFAT, VCO, and the New Zealand Police who were instrumental in helping evacuate the US-NZ Partnership Forum. As she said in her public statement at the time, “I saw firsthand the beauty of Christchurch, and it was heartbreaking to see the pictures of destruction.”

Below, as text and video, are the regards that the Secretary has asked me to convey at the civic service today.

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HRC: Hello everyone.

I know it has been a year since that terrible earthquake struck New Zealand, but the memories are still fresh.

I had just visited Christchurch a few months earlier and was shocked to learn and then see the scope of the damage. So many lives lost, so many homes and businesses destroyed.

Together, with the leadership of Ambassador Huebner and our embassy staff on the ground we began to work out how the United States could help. After all, that is what friends are for.

In the aftermath of the earthquake the United States, along with many other countries, sent an Urban Search and Rescue team to provide assistance. When their mission ended, the US team gave their advanced rescue equipment to their Kiwi partners so the work could continue.

When earthquakes struck Japan just weeks later, New Zealand quickly deployed its own teams along with that same equipment. In America we call that ‘paying it forward’. And it was international relations at its very best.

Even those of us who were far away on that terrible day share in your grief, and we know it’s been a struggle, but through that struggle we’ve seen the strength and perseverance of the people of Christchurch.

So Christchurch, yes, we grieve with you, and we think about you all the time. But mostly, as we celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations with New Zealand, please know we will continue to support you. And we look forward to a long future of cooperation as we work together to both solve our common problems and to seize the opportunities of the 21st century. Thank you.

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Kia kaha Canterbury. Kati ake i konei. Ma te atua koutou e manaaki.