Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Making of a Painter

Setting off at dawn, I drove past foggy vineyard hillsides and over one-lane bridges whose end I could not see. Did they consider thick fog when they built all these one lane bridges? My next host, Craig, and I had not arranged what time I should show up, so I figured earlier was better than later. I rolled into Thames (pronounced “Tim’s” like the river in London) around eight and found the hostel, which I recognized by the website picture. It was reportedly the oldest building in town. It certainly looked old, built in a traditional New Zealand colonial style. Old-timey black and white photos of the facade with horses tied up lined the walls as I walked to the office.

“Hi, Craig?” I said as I saw a guy behind the desk with a goatee, looking to be in his early thirties. He looked at me with a “Yeah, who are you?” kind of face. “I’m Trevor, from HelpX.” “Ah, bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting you yet. Most wwoofers don’t show up until the afternoon, get a free night’s stay. Well, let’s get you all sorted.”

He gave me a quick tour of the first floor, taking me back to the kitchen to meet Dan, who was also working there. Dan was a big bald English guy with a thick accent. He was pretty chipper for that time of the day. I never figured out why, but half of the time his face had the eagerness of Christmas morning written on it. I also met Craig’s mom, Cheryl, who lived on the first floor of the hostel. I thought a mother-son hostel running team was kind of strange, but I guess it works for them (Mom, sorry but don’t get any ideas). Craig walked me through the lawn to a little single-story house next door where he lived. I got settled into my back room while Dan ate breakfast.

Soon we were three men standing outside with our arms folded, squinting in the sun up at one side of the old building. Dan and I were both here for one purpose: to repaint the building...the whole thing. Craig had told me he had a little painting work, but I didn’t imagine it would be this big of a job. The building was about thirty feet high and probably twice as long with wood panel siding. Craig wanted us to sand everything, fill all gaps and holes, and give it two coats of paint, not to mention the detail work around all the windows, balcony, and fire escape ladders. This was going to be a lot of painting...

Dan had already been here for a few days, so he was familiar with the place and took us out back to get the equipment. “Ah, mate, I sure’m glad to ‘ave some ‘elp.” I soon learned that nearly everything he said started with “Ahhh, maaate...” We started sanding away and traded information on each other. Dan had previously worked on trains in England and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with himself, so he was on a working holiday in New Zealand, maybe immigrating. It was comforting to find out I can still do this when I’m 32! That’s plenty of time to play around. He came to Thames for a little while to get out of Auckland, where he had been washing backpacker rental vans by day and living in an apartment building with Chinese chefs by night.

We worked on through the day, stopping for lunch around 1 p.m. This stay was a bit different from others I had done because meals were not included. Craig certainly wasn’t going to cook for us, and Cheryl figured we would rather do our own thing, so I went out for lunch. They also wanted Dan and I to keep track of our hours so we could get proper remuneration (yes, Cheryl said that) for any labor over 4 hours a day. Also I got weekends off, or any two days of the week I chose. I decided to take off the very next day, since it was the first annual New Zealand Blues Fest.

Like most of things in New Zealand up to this point, going to the Blues Fest was not well planned, I just heard about it and decided to go (although I was strategically positioned nearby). I drove along the winding coastal road towards Whitianga (fit-ee-on-guh) that Saturday morning. My side of the road had only a few feet between the car and the water, no guardrail. It was comforting to cut into the peninsula on the twisting, steep, narrow gravel road after that. I waited in a line of cars and bought my ticket from a tent near the entrance. Luckily they weren’t sold out like Cheryl said they would be.

It was shaping up to be a long hot day in the sun. I slathered on sunscreen and donned my Indiana Jones hat. Despite the sign that said no cameras, I walked in with my big camera bag unchecked. Score. I wish more concerts were like that. They had the typical festival tents selling beer, fried food, giant bubble wands, hemp necklaces, etc. However this was their first go at the festival and they left out a few key things that I’m used to seeing: 1) Unlimited free water. Sure they had water to sell, but it was hot and you have to give people water. 2) Concert programs. No handouts to walk around with. I only saw one schedule posted, so I took a picture of it. 3) Shade. They definitely needed more spots for people to get out of the sun. Other than that it was pretty well run.

I didn’t know most of the bands, but several of the New Zealand openers were surprisingly good. I hopped between the two stages to get a little taste of everything. Although it was a blues fest, the music ranged from alternative rock to soul, with the blues being somewhere in between. The first act I really knew was Xavier Rudd, who brought his unique Aussie style of didgeridoo/slide guitar/drum rock. Then an American, Keb Mo, heading more in the blues direction with a modern twist, singing songs about women who left him, railroad tracks, old dogs, and all those things. I’m not sure why she was on the bill, but KT Tunstall’s Scottish pop-rock made for a better live show that I expected. In fact, I would even say she “rocked out.” If the music didn’t tell me, then her T-shirt did: “Too fast to live, too young to die.”

Another good American act, Wilco, brought an energetic set to fans who knew the words. I’m not sure if their lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, realizes he is turning more and more into Bob Dylan every day. The apex of blues that night was the legendary Buddy Guy. Good God, that man can play guitar. His face twisted in disbelief while he played, as if he himself could not fathom what was coming out; his hands possessed by some guitar-shredding demon. He played with his teeth. He played with a rag. He howled out unspeakable blues tales of women leaving him, and then rocked with a big smile on his face. Well, he showed everyone how it was done, and that was it for the night. I think concerts are worthwhile anyway, but it’s all the more rewarding to see an icon like that. I drove home the way I came, surprised that no one was on the same treacherous gravel road as me. I saw a few possums in the road, taking naps, so I let them be. Back out to the coastal nail-biter. I slipped back into my new house after 3 a.m. on this second day in Coromandel to dream of sugar plums, Buddy Guy, and painting.

Dan and I got to work early, because it was cooler then and the sun wasn’t so bright bouncing off the paint. He asked if I had seen any “right fit birds” (attractive females) at the concert. I told him it was pretty much the same as the rest of New Zealand. Dan was always wanting to talk about birds. “Ahh, mate, I got dis bird in me office in Auckland. She’s right nice to ‘ave a look at...” Or he would talk about a California girl he met, or this one or that one. I never determined if any were real.

During all of this talk, we actually got some work done and were slowly but surely making progress on this first side of the old building. We traded jobs between sanding, filling, rolling, or cutting in. I usually took the more ambitious hard-to-reach spots, since Dan was a little uncomfortable with heights. When he first saw me move on the scaffolding, he declared me “an absolute nutter.” I climbed up and down the inside or outside of the scaffolding with paintbrush between the teeth without thinking while he slowly assured his footing and moved platforms to safe places. This, combined with our size difference (I don’t consider myself small, but was in comparison to Manchester rugby-playing Dan) earned me the title of “me li’l monkey partner.”

As we moved to the front balcony, I decided it was a good idea to have some music to help pass the time so I brought out my laptop. We didn’t share many music interests, since Dan only seemed to like some American rap and whatever it is that’s played in clubs in the UK, but we got on okay. Dan and I painted on for about a week, with Craig alternating between doing a little supervision, working the office (surfing Facebook), and playing video games. Because of rain forecasts, Dan’s need to go to Auckland for immigration papers, and a general buildup of painting boredom, it was time to take a vacation for a week or so.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Finding the Joy in Wine

Civilization! Concrete! Tall Buildings! Power lines! Buses! People. It was strange seeing these things back in Auckland after a couple of weeks of isolation on Great Barrier Island. As I passed several bustling pubs overflowing with green-hatted patrons drinking Guinness in the fading daylight, I was reminded it was St. Patrick’s Day. I was tempted to stop in for a pint, but had to catch a bus back to my car at the macadamia farm. I wasn’t exactly sure where my bus stop was, so I zig-zagged in basically the right direction until I hit a street blocked off by a lively St. Patrick’s day performance full of bagpipes and river-dancing. I went around and hopped onto my bus just a minute before it took off. Whew, the next one didn’t leave for another hour and a half.

When Henk picked me up at the bus stop I started telling him about my time out on the Barrier and my experience with the lodge. I was offered a bed not only for that night, but a couple of days if I needed it. My situation with potential work at a vineyard was unclear so I thanked him for that. He was going on a fishing trip the next day, to which I got a special invite. I figured I could do that then head over to the vineyard afterwards.

The next morning I got to see how my silver guinea hen had grown. It was just on the tail end of being cute before it turned into an ugly vulture-headed adult. We took off to meet Butch, Henk’s South African friend that was coming on the fishing trip too. We launched the small inflatable boat from a park about an hour away. Three people and gear seemed like a lot to have on the little boat, but they said four had been done many times in the past. We landed on a little island called Motuora and set up camp. I finally got to use the tent I brought with me! Fishing would be difficult with three, so they went out to catch while I stayed behind. I walked along the beach looking at sea scraps that had come ashore. I didn’t mind that I didn’t get to fish because I’m sure I wouldn’t catch as much as them, plus I had a relaxing time by myself.

They brought back a good catch of several fish each. I watched Butch fillet (they say filleT here) the snappers, helping to wash them in sea water afterwards. They cooked the fish on a small gas camping stove with some potatoes that we brought along. It was very good, being so fresh, but we ended up with more fish than we could eat. Later on in the night, we went searching for the elusive national symbol, the kiwi. Kiwis are nocturnal and rare, so most New Zealanders have never seen one in the wild. This island was home to a repopulation program. Since it was free of pests and predators, it made an ideal spot for raising adolescent kiwis which were later transfered to other protected park areas.

We walked around the hills with dimmed flashlights, listening for the sound of clumsy kiwi footsteps. None were spotted. We gave up and went back to camp to sleep. That night I heard distant bird calls from my tent, but had no way of knowing if it was kiwis, pukekos, or something else calling out. The next morning Henk and Butch went fishing early, coming back with a catch similar to the day before. We ate breakfast and packed up camp before piling into the little boat and zooming back in the direction we came. It was a quick but enjoyable trip.

That night back at the nut farm we enjoyed some of the fresh snapper and I stayed in my old room. I was grateful to have a place to stay before it was time to move on. The other alternatives would be camping somewhere, sleeping in my car, or spending twenty-something dollars on a hostel, although there wasn’t much in the area. So far I’d seen that the help exchange hosts can be very accommodating to their helpers. I guess that is the warm Kiwi hospitality.

The people at the vineyard told me I could come for a harvest the next day, so I packed up and left at the break of dawn. I was finally going south of Auckland! In all the time I had spent in New Zealand thus far, I had really seen very little of it, so I was glad to get further away. Later in the morning I pulled up a gravel driveway in a rural area called Pokeno. Next to a shack, a petite girl in baggy, dirty clothing was unloading large open boxes of grapes from her quad bike (four-wheeler). “Joy?”

“Yes, so you must be Trevor.” This was the lady with whom I was emailing about the vineyard work. She was tiny and didn’t look older than 30. I heard her accent and asked, “Are you American?” She was indeed. Not only that, but from a town I knew of in northern Ohio. Joy had never heard of Portsmouth. “So, we’re picking grapes today?” I said. “Yep, let me show you around.” We walked over the hill and before us lay a swath of grapevines, apparently ripe for the picking, with rolling green New Zealand hillside as a backdrop.

Already picking away in the rows of vines were eight young Indian men. “Oh, looks like you already have some help,” I said. “Yeah but we can always use more.” We walked into the rows and met her partner Andrew. He was a Kiwi and seemed very nice. “Have you ever picked grapes before Trevor?” he said. “Nope, first time.” “OK, it’s fairly difficult and takes a long time to master. See the grapes on the vine here?” I nodded. Holding up some shears he slowly says, “You take these shears, and you cut them off. Then you put them in the basket. Do you think you can manage that?” He was trying to be funny. “I think I can handle it.” He handed me some shears and watched as I cut my first grapes.

There actually was one difficult part, which was taking off the bad grapes. I say difficult because it was a judgement call. How bad is too bad? They are just going to be smashed up anyway. Bad grapes are soft and mushy and juice goes everywhere when you touch them because birds had picked at them through the protective netting. The idea was to just scrape off the bad parts and throw the remaining good grapes in the basket. After a while, it was easy to get a feel for it.

I was introduced to my fellow Indian pickers: “Guys, this is Trevor.” Without stopping picking, I got some mumbled “hey” before they went back to a rapid Punjabi banter amongst themselves. Andrew took off with Joy to work on some other things and I was left with my eight Indian comrades who were having lively conversation the whole time about who-knows-what. At this time I wish I knew some Punjabi. If I closed my eyes I could have imagined I was in a crowded Indian street market. I attempted some conversation and found out that some of them had pretty poor English while others spoke it fairly well. I got their names and where they were from at least. They were all students in Auckland, with several studying geology, a couple English, and one was going to be a doctor.

They thought I was a Kiwi. I guess to them it would seem obvious that a white person in New Zealand is from there, but I told them I was from the States. “Oooh, America!?” They wanted to go there and immediately asked what I was doing here. I tried to explain the idea of the working holiday to them, but they seemed confused. “So you had a job in America, but you now do not? Why this is?” They also wanted to know how much money the average person makes in America, and how much I made. I told them it varies a lot, because it depends so much on what you do, and also how much I made as an engineer. “And you come here to pick grapes!?” “Money isn’t everything,” I told them. “Are you so sure about that!?” Raj questioned, and they all laughed uproariously. Clearly money meant a lot to them.

Picking soon became monotonous. Cut the grapes, scrape off the bad part (if there was any...ooh, variety!), put them in a basket. Next. The Indians and I weaved between each other, sliding the baskets down the rows with our feet. The person leading the way down the row pulled apart the bird netting and lifted it up on top of the vines. It was like a bridal veil, being lifted to reveal the beauty beneath...more grapes. The good grapes were easy to handle, but the bad ones made my hands and shears and everything I touched sticky. It was very sunny and hot that day, which made it difficult to not wipe my sweaty face with my sticky hands. After hours of grape picking toil, it was time for a lunch break.

Andrew and Joy didn’t really explain what the plan was, so I followed my Indian counterparts and washed off with a hose next to the shack on top of the hill. They retrieved from their car a few metal containers with homemade naan and what I believe was dal. I couldn’t identify the other dishes, but nonetheless they offered some to me, which I gratefully accepted. We all sat in the shade of a tree and sipped some hot tea they also had. The weather really was perfect as long as we weren’t in direct sun. Their offer to share food was nice, but I felt bad that I didn’t have anything to share in return...or did I? I ran to my car and returned with the only thing I had to offer: a big bag of macadamia nuts. This was the first time my new friends ever had macadamias, but they turned out to be a hit.

Just then Andrew and Joy invited me into the building, which once inside I saw was more than a shack. It had a tiny kitchen, living room, bathroom, and even bedroom. Was I sleeping here? They offered me some of what they were having: pizza they made the day before. I was not alone in thinking it was excellent, for apparently they had the reputation of being the hosts with great homemade pizza. It felt a little strange that I was invited in and the Indians weren’t, but I gathered that the rest were working for pay. Based on what they told me, it sounded like there was some kind of older Indian pimp who hustled out these students in Auckland looking for seasonal work. I was just working for pizza and a bed that night. We got to talking about the usual thing that people do in these types of social situations, which is basically how everyone came to be in the same room at the same time. It turns out Joy had been a wwoofer like me, just doing a working holiday for what she thought would be a year. Then she met Andrew. Yada yada yada, they start the vineyard and here they are years later. So it appears traveling helpers can get sucked into the New Zealand vortex quite easily! Any grandmothers with grandsons doing a working holiday in New Zealand shouldn’t worry too much, there aren’t plans like the story above (...yet).

After lunch Andrew grabbed some passionfruit growing on the fence and threw them at us like hand grenades. The Indians had evidently not seen these and were puzzled about what to do with them. I was familiar with passionfruit by now, so I popped my dark purple egg open and sucked out the sweet orange and green seed pulp. Back to work. We finished up the pinot grigio in a couple of hours, at which time the Indians took off for another nearby vineyard. Us white folk stayed behind to finish the moving of all the grapes, and eventually Andrew loaded them with a forklift onto a truck. The grapes were taken off to be crushed that afternoon. We went into Pokeno to grab some cold drinks and then headed over to the same vineyard as the Indians had gone. The owners were friends of Andrew and Joy, so out of the goodness of their hearts, they volunteered themselves (and their helper) to finish the harvest.

This vineyard didn’t seem to have a bird problem, since I didn’t find any bad grapes, so this made the picking easy. These cabernet sauvignon grapes were tasty to snack on as we went along. A couple of hours later when we finished, the Indians took off for Auckland, telling me their room number in a student housing building so that I could stop by and hang out any time. The vineyard owner had his own pressing equipment so we started processing the grapes right away. Whole grape bunches went into the top, then stems came neatly out of one outlet while grape mash was pumped through another outlet into a huge plastic container in the garage. After the processing, we went swimming in their solar-heated pool and then shared some of their wine with cheese and discussion of this year’s harvests. All in all this seemed like a pretty sweet lifestyle.

Andrew and Joy took me back to their place, which was surrounded by even more grape vines. They had a picturesque dining spot out the back door that looked too good to be true. It was the kind of setting that some people might have at their house, but never use enough. Not Andrew and Joy, they ate dinner out here almost every night. So to fit tradition, we enjoyed salad, sausages, steak and more outside that night.
I did the dishes, learning their methods in the process. I’ve found everyone in New Zealand does their dishes a little bit different. This house had a rainwater system and it had been dry recently, so there was no water to waste. Maybe a little pre-rinse if the dishes were especially dirty, then they get scrubbed in the sink half full of warm soapy water, then...that’s it. “What about rinsing the soap off?” I asked. “There’s simply not enough water,” Andrew told me. They get dried with a dish towel as-is and put away. For the most part it seems like Kiwis are much better at conservation, but I don’t think it’s because they are die-hard environmentalists out to save the world (or at least New Zealand). It’s simply a matter of necessity and cost. If they ran out of water it would be hugely inconvenient. True it would be possible to have a water truck fill their tank, but it’s not cheap. This proves to me that incentivizing conservation can work and I recalled that most Americans don’t even think about the idea of running out of water.

After dinner we had some of their wine, listened to music, and chatted. This would have been a good place to stay for a couple of weeks, but they really only needed help with that day’s harvest so this was a one day, one night stay. I got a big bed in a separate part of the house where I settled and found they had one of my favorites, The Royal Tenenbaums, which I watched before going to bed even though I was getting up early. The next day I would be headed off to the Coromandel...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Return to The Nut House

Henk and Cheryl were glad to see me again back at The Nut House. After all, I found out they really did like me as a helper after they left a reference on the help exchange website:

“Trevor stayed with us for two weeks, wish he could have stayed longer! Not often a helper comes that fits all the criteria you look for! Hard working, great sense of humour, easy to have around, interesting, and interested! Thanks for the hard work Trevor you are welcome back anytime!”

They checked out my flash new ride and I brought my things back into my familiar room. Strange to have something familiar down here... Over dinner I told them about my last place, some exploring I did, and my (gay) hosts. This prompted an exchange of a gay tale of their own. Back in their sailing days they were good friends with a couple of gay guys. Both boats followed each other around to different ports and had great times together. Their daughters would go and play on the gay boat until one day Henk found some pretty raunchy magazines laying around in the bathroom. The girls were no longer allowed to go over to that boat unsupervised. Henk continued on by telling me that those two became successful drug dealers in New York City until they were busted. One of them died of AIDS in prison and the other partner visited them once in New Zealand to tell them all of this before also dying of AIDS. While this particular one strayed from their days at sea, I always found their boat stories interesting.

The new routine was that I would perform a full day’s work, nine to five (with a lunch break), five days a week in exchange for NZ$250 a week. That sounded like a lot to me, but when I realized the time I was giving them, it was less than seven dollars an hour. Cheryl had said two weeks, and I liked the sound of that. Two weeks = half of my car. Much of the work was restoring a wetland area on their property by planting native grasses that Henk bought and that we “borrowed” from a nearby municipally-owned wetland. This felt good, as if we were doing something environmentally positive. I had this idea in my head that farming was about the creation of life, like you are playing God. Growing the nuts that feed the chickens that give you the eggs that start your day of growing nuts and so on.

I soon learned that it was not just about creation, but about destruction also. He who giveth, taketh away. I suppose that is God-like, if you believe He or She is out there making hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the occasional roller coaster death. There was a thin line between life and death on the farm, and it was undeniable that we committed genocide on many fronts. If you are not wanted, you are eliminated. The wetland areas had to be sprayed to kill all the alien grasses (such as Argentinean pampas grass; I swear I thought Henk said, “Pompous ass”) before we put in the new blond-haired, blue-eyed grasses. As I drove the tractor with the giant tank of Round Up, Henk used the long hose to spray weeds in the orchard. Anything that was not a macadamia tree was destined to die. Speaking of trees, we chain-sawed down a few more and did something more dastardly to a few big unwanted pines. I drilled holes in their trunks as Henk followed behind me, pouring diesel down the newly formed holes.

Most egregious of all was the rat baiting. We walked around with buckets of little green bricks that contained some special medicine for the nut-hungry rats. The bait contains a blood thinner that is commonly used for humans, but at a higher dose. After the rats eat enough, they begin hemorrhaging internally, causing confusion and loss of muscle control, then slip into a coma before death. A few days after some of our baiting, I found a poor young lad hunched over and quivering. He was not able to run away and it was easy to see he was on the way out. “Henk, what do I do with this?”, I said holding up the barely alive rat. “Oh we got one. Toss him over the fence.” This was the usual procedure for things not wanted. I felt bad because he was suffering. Like Lenny with more conscience, I popped his little neck and tossed him over the fence. We found several more in the following week as we did chores around the nut farm, but they had already met their maker.

On the brighter side of playing God on the farm were my little guinea hens. I say “my” because on the last visit I found some guinea eggs that we scooped up for hatching. The incubation period of a guinea hen is similar to a chicken, about a month. So adding up the weeks since I found them, they should be ready before my next departure. These eggs were slipped under a favorite chook of Henk’s named Nini. While the egg timer ticked away, the days seemed to fly by as I was doing more than eight hours of work most of the time. In the evenings I would sit by the kitchen and drink some red wine with Cheryl as she prepared dinner and as I got my internet time. Again I was treated as one of the family and went to their daughter’s house for a big family meal. Another night I went with them to a tennis and dinner party (strange sounding combination, but it worked out well).
We had beautiful weather in the middle of the week, but when it came to the weekend (my days off) there were torrential downpours and it didn’t seem worth exploring anywhere or hiking. I didn’t even go to the local A&P show (agricultural and produce...something like 4H) which was supposed to be a big deal. So instead I stayed in on a rainy day and did some reading, writing, and arithmetic. Okay, not as much arithmetic, but I entertained myself. After dinner we would eat ice cream with honey coated macadamias and watch cricket, a Gordon Ramsay show (such as The F-Word or Hell’s Kitchen), American Idol, or whatever movie was on. And when I say whatever movie, I really mean whatever. For some reason Henk and Cheryl got excited by the idea of catching a movie at the beginning even if it was bad and made for TV. “Cheryyyl! A mooovie!” Henk would call from the living room. “What is it?” “I don’t know, but it’s just starting.” Then we proceeded to watch the entirety of some dreadful Scandinavian subtitled film about an objectionable church chorus leader who always wanted to be a composer, not because he wanted to be famous but because he loved the music, and who quarreled with the priest, who turned out to be a pervert, about the role of music in the church. Bed time.

The work continued into the next week with a little creation here and a little genocide there. I felt like a boy again, digging holes and climbing trees. We built a fence that was for containing the sheep when they get moved between lots. I got my first New Zealand sheep experience when we herded them into the new enclosure...which turned out to be more difficult than planned. I walked in one direction through the macadamias to keep the sheep from running off as Henk flanked around on the tractor to drive them in. A few young ones split off and he followed on the tractor, calling with a high pitched sort of yodel that they liked. “Oodle oodle oodle ooo!” he called over the low rumble of the diesel engine. I kept walking to cut them off from the bridge over the creek when I heard the high whine of a tractor’s idle gear spinning up. I crouched to see under the trees just in time to catch a glimpse of the blue tractor careening down the hill out of control. It must have been going 50 km/h when it slammed through some trees at the bottom and went into the creek bed.

“Oh my God, Henk is dead,” I thought. I ran over to see Henk up the hill with his mouth open, speechless. He had hopped off to go after the young sheep, leaving the tractor on the hill. Since the parking brake didn’t work, he didn’t put it on. Usually that’s okay, but this time the tractor took off down the hill, all the way to the bottom where it was still running as it sat smashed between the trees on the bank of the creek bed. Luckily nobody got hurt. I’m just glad I didn’t do it! I wish I took a picture but this was serious business, no time for that. We cut the tractor out with a chain saw and reversed it up the bank, pulling with the Nissan 4x4. Amazingly there was little damage to the tractor itself since the back tray took most of the hit and got mangled. We were able to herd the sheep into the new enclosure where a local shearer make quick work of trimming off those wool coats. We treated a young sheep for fly strike, a condition when sheep are struck with flies, hence the name. The flies lay eggs in their wool, these eggs hatch, maggots crawl everywhere and eat wool. It’s pretty gross. We saw an advanced case and the more squeamish would definitely have lost their lunches. After the sheep were all sheared and we had given them de-worming medicine, I spent the rest of the afternoon giving the tractor some de-mangling medicine and it was as good as new. Well, at least as good as it had been that morning.

Another day when I took apart, cleaned, painted, and reassembled a nut de-husking machine, we had a pleasant surprise at lunch... “Come take a look at Nini,” Henk called. I came over to see her aiding a small chick out of the shell, the first one of the eggs I found. Within minutes of breaking out of the claustrophobic cell, the silver little thing was walking around cheeping. Henk said the silver ones were special and he had been waiting to get one of those. Later a brown one popped out but was kind of lame with a crippled looking foot. Over the next two days no more came out so we tossed the eggs (further elimination of those less superior). The brown one got lost as it was led around because it couldn’t keep up and so the little silver guy was the only survivor of the bunch. Before long this cute little thing would be a full grown ugly guinea hen. They grow up so fast these days.

It was a nice feeling of certainty knowing that I had a two week paid stay at Chateau de Nut, but in the background I was plotting my next move. On the help exchange site I had spotted a listing that was out on Great Barrier Island, a small place 60 miles off the east coast of Auckland. I thought it would be interesting to go visit, but it seemed like a waste to go all the way out and just camp for a couple days. Doing a help exchange was the perfect solution! I had a good place to stay, people who knew the island, and plenty of time to explore it. So after two weeks of learning some horticulture, killing things, eating macadamias, and a second rainy weekend, I left my entry in their helper guest book, which paled in comparison to some of the Asian girls who had stayed there (see picture). I was off to The Barrier.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Stay On The Left (aka Fabulous Waitakere)

At 6:30 in the morning Henk and Cheryl dropped me off as they went off to market and I found myself at a roundabout where 16 turns south. I think they were a little sad to see their helper go, but they know the life of the help exchanger and it was time for me to move on. It was a crisp Saturday morning that just begged for walking, or so I told myself. At a little over 45 kilometers, it would take me two full days of walking to get to my new place with Rob, so I should arrive there by Sunday night. I still hadn’t been able to get all my things in one bag. I had: the large backpack full of clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tent, and tools; the small backpack with books, papers, 3 bags of dry roasted macadamia nuts, and miscellaneous; and finally the camera bag strapped around me, but I assumed that would be separate anyway. This isn’t so bad, I thought, I can walk with this. About ten minutes later my hips were aching (since the big pack is designed to put the weight there). This is not good...just push on through it. Then, before seven in the morning, a car came by and stopped ahead of me. The driver popped his head out the right-hand window. “Care for a lift there, eh?”
My brain was all over, I hadn’t expected this. I did care for a ride, but at the same time I thought that would be cheating. I can’t set off for my first big walk and immediately get in a car. “No, I’m okay. Thanks though!” “Cheers mate.” I had been told many times over that New Zealand is quite possibly the last great hitchhiking country in the world. This was my first piece of evidence. Supposedly it was a viable means of transport for many backpackers, and I had figured this into my plan. I didn’t have to walk everywhere, I could take a ride when available. But I continued walking through the early morning fog with very few cars going by. It was all farmland around me and the view was pleasant, but nothing spectacular. I adjusted my straps to redistribute the load onto my shoulders more. I trudged along, just thinking about things, or nothing at all. Step after step. I came across some cows that were close to the road. They were curious and pushed by each other to get a closer look at this strange thing going past. I walked up to them to get my own closer look. Just normal cows with those dumb glazed over eyes. I could see the hot air condensing as it was coming heavily out of their wet nostrils. When I turned to keep walking they were startled, I think because of the shape of my body with the backpack on. They’re not used to seeing a creature like that...

I continued on with little action. The traffic on the rural road picked up as the day got older and I walked on the right side of the road so I could face oncoming cars (and trucks!), scooting into the thick grass to give myself room as they whooshed past. The sun was starting to beat down on me now and it was a good thing I had my new leather hat. The hat didn’t stop me from getting sweaty though, I was in a good rhythm now. Forgetting about the weight of the pack, I pressed on. Yes, I can walk a million miles like this, I’m unstoppable. I stopped. Time for a break. It’s important to take a break when you’re not tired, that way you won’t get too wiped out to carry on. I read in the shade for a little while, resting my shoulders, until I realized the ants found me and were crawling on me. I kept walking for more than an hour before I took another break, this time at a covered bus stop. I changed my sweaty socks to keep my feet dry. I recalled what Phil told me, that from his experience in the Finnish Army keeping your feet dry and healthy is the most important thing. I wanted to walk around a bit without the pack on so I crossed the street and the railroad tracks to answer the call of nature. Then I began foraging. No, not time for setting rabbit traps yet. I had seen some blackberry brambles as I walked earlier and now there was a good little supply here next to the tracks. I helped myself to all the ripe berries I could find (not many) and then ate some of the unripe red ones because their tartness was refreshing and they probably still had the vitamin C I needed. I even chewed on a few young pine needles because I remembered that Bear from Man Vs. Wild said they’re a good source of vitamin C. But chewing pine needles all day wasn’t going to get me any closer to my next accommodation, so I had some macadamias and water, then started walking again.

I was walking for more than 4 hours and it was approaching the warmest part of the day. I thought that pretty soon I should be on the lookout for a good spot to rest for a few hours to split the day in half. Then I could do the same amount of walking into the afternoon and evening and camp out somewhere, only to rinse and repeat the next day. A van pulled over on the opposite side of the road ahead of me. The van backed up towards me in the small nonexistent shoulder on the side of the road. I didn’t even have to walk up to them, this is first class service! “Hey mate, saw you walkin’ a few hours ago when we was drivin’ the other way. Thought you might like a ride,” yelled a fat, mustachioed head out the window from across the road over the noise of traffic. I thought for a second, and considering the weight of my pack, the heat of the sun, and the awkward yelling back of “No I’m okay go ahead” with hand waving motions, I instead decided to hustle across the road and go for it. My first hitching.

I climbed into the messy older van through the back sliding door and struggled to squeeze my big bag in. The driver introduced himself as Jon-Jon and in the passenger seat sat his female companion, whose name I don’t remember, but was similar to Jon. Jo? It didn’t seem appropriate to ask if they were married so I assumed they weren’t. It smelled like smoke and I saw why when they quickly lit up cigarettes. They offered me one and I respectfully declined. Jon-Jon and his little country honey had funny accents that included some kind of extra twang I didn’t hear on the morning news. He was a mechanic, which led me to ask him about the possibility of buying a car, since I was told this can be one of the best ways to get around for people on journeys of more than a few months. He recommended old Asian cars, but I could have figured that out. Jon-Jon needed to make a stop to see his mate, and they asked me if I minded. “I’d still be way back there if you hadn’t picked me up, so no, not at all.” We took a few back roads into increasingly worse looking areas and ended up in some kind of junk yard next to a large abandoned lumber mill that was being used as junk storage. As Jon-Jon wrestled himself out of the car, I could see he was more overweight than I first noticed. After he gave me and Jo a nice flash of ass crack from his sagging sweatpants, he grabbed his cane and hobbled towards the open warehouse door. Awkward silence.

I think I would have preferred the silence to feigning interest in Jo’s conversation. She let me know about some great concert coming up with White Snake, Poison, and possibly KISS. I also found out that she was mysteriously retired at her young age (mid thirties?) but I didn’t inquire further. A quick stop turned into more than ten minutes. I couldn’t help but think this must be one of those times when people meet in a junk yard to do “business deals”, things go bad, and the witness in the car is kept quiet. They won’t even find my body because it will be crushed into the trunk of a small rusty cube in the old car smasher. I promise I won’t tell anybody. I wasn’t even here. Who? Actually, we could see Jon-Jon talking to an older man who was leaning on a broken car that was not as old as the man, but still old. Eventually he made his way back to the car and as we pulled away he told us details about some cars he may or may not fix. Whew.

I told them what road I needed to go to, and it was fine if they dropped me off at some intersection, but they insisted on taking me to the place that I didn’t know exactly how to find. We spiraled up through the thick bush of Scenic Drive and every once and a while at breaks in the trees I could see why it was called scenic: without all the bush in the way you can clearly see downtown Auckland and the harbor from the road. Eventually we came to the address and pulled in to see attached to a post a piece of printer paper with “TREVOR” written in marker. I thanked J-J and J very much for the ride and they wished me a good trip. So, hitchhiking really is easy! The house looked like somewhat of a construction site, with saw horses and saw dust in the gravel driveway. There was a lot of sawing going on here. A newer Mercedes was parked there, so they must be doing okay. I went and knocked on the door expecting a warm welcome. After all, I had my own sign! But no answer. I could hear the radio on inside and figured maybe work was going on. I knocked harder. Still no answer. If I were walking I would have come in the next day, but I warned Rob I could be in early if I caught a lucky ride. I looked around and the house was totally surrounded by thick native forestry. Based on the road we came up, there was no where to go to kill time, just bush. I whipped out my laptop to check for wireless internet so I could call Rob’s cell phone, but there was none to be found. Out of options, I sat against my bag on the porch and did some reading.

About twenty minutes later, an older silver Honda Civic pulled up and I said hi to Rob. I helped him bring in the groceries and he showed me to my room, a small place with two beds and a little bit of junk. I got a tour of the house while he explained it was a constant work-in-progress. The house was about 80 years old and had been moved from somewhere in Auckland to its current location a couple years ago, via a cut down the middle, with the scar showing on one line of floor boards. There were a few bedrooms that were full of tools and construction material and my room was usually for whatever helpers they had staying there. He made some tea and we sat outside on the deck to talk. I told him about my journey there and he confirmed that I had been picked up by Kiwi white trash. He told me about the other kind: brown trash, or low income Maori and Pacific Islanders. That sounded bad, but I suppose it wasn’t any worse than white trash. I didn’t ask, but Rob looked to be in his mid-thirties. He was a native Kiwi that used to be a mechanical engineer, at one point working on large industrial rapid freezers. In goes a hot cooked meal on one end, out comes a frozen dinner in less than a minute on the other. Apparently he didn’t like it that much, because now he was a paramedic and volunteer firefighter.

Speaking of which, he had to go to work in an hour. Another guy, Andre, lived in the house but was currently visiting in his home country Brazil. So after we talked some more Rob left for his paramedic shift, which he would not be back from until 6 a.m. I was not expected to do any work until the next day and I was expected to fix myself some dinner. When I looked in the refrigerator and cupboard, it was that kind of experience where the kitchen is full of food, but you still go, “There’s nothing to eat.” I ate Ramen noodles, tuna, and canned peaches while I watched a very good documentary from a Kiwi filmmaker about the current state and direction of the worldwide nuclear industry. While a Kiwi invented nuclear power, the country is strongly opposed to it. They had no wireless internet, but a decent DSL connection so I wasted plenty of time on that. Alone in a strange house in the middle of the forest there is no bed time. I still decided to climb into my lion-blanketed bed before twelve and read.

The next morning I got up around nine and amused myself until Rob rolled out around noon. We started on the project he had for me, finishing the side of the house next to the kitchen. This required some measuring and cutting of wooden pieces to fit the contour of the siding boards and plenty of painting. It’s a good thing I’m a decent painter and it’s something I enjoy, because I had the feeling New Zealand is short on painters. We had a little late lunch and he said, “Don’t fill up too much, we’re going to a place tonight that’s got lots of meat.” Lots of meat? I didn’t ask for an elaboration and he made a phone call to a guy named Fabio. Based on the conversation it sounded like Fabio worked at the place we were going to and would be there tonight. We finished working through the afternoon, but it didn’t feel like we had done much. I showered to get the sawdust and sweat off me. Long showers were forbidden because their water source is rain collected off the roof. I had asked Rob about my curious finding the night before: “Is the hot water supposed to be uhhh....brown?” “Oh that’s just the hot water heater. Got rust in it, eh. It’s clean.”

This might be a good time to point out that in typical (especially North Island) Kiwi English, any statement, question or exclamation can, and probably should, be followed by the ambiguous “eh.” It doesn’t mean anything in particular, but I have found that it is often accompanied by a raise in the pitch of voice the same way a question is, even though the speaker is not asking you anything or expecting you to say anything in response. This often causes me to fight back some sort of confirmatory response reflex. An example of the confusion: “Looks a bit cloudy, eh(?).” The tone of this would normally invoke someone to respond with something similar to: “Yes. It does look a bit cloudy.” But really the original statement was just, “Looks a bit cloudy” and was not asking for you to confirm the observation. This ranks as moderate on the confusion scale for someone who doesn’t say “eh” after every other sentence. But I digress.

Yes, I always wanted to say that. I put on my striped long-sleeve rugby shirt and cords and we took off for a place with a lot of meat. It was a fairly quick drive right to the center of Auckland from this seemingly remote place, less than a half-hour. We found free parking and Rob led us towards the water. I recognized the harbor-front area and had meant to take a look at the Minus 30 bar there. It is a bar made completely from ice, including seats and glasses. As Rob and I got closer, he explained that you can usually see into it through windows in another bar, but they were currently closed. Since it’s really expensive, I didn’t want to go in to have a drink, just a look. We came up to a place called Wildfire that was right on the water and went in. I guessed this was the place we were eating, but we didn’t get seating, Rob just blazed ahead into the restaurant and found Fabio. Wildfire was a churrascaria, one of those fancy Brazilian barbecues that give you meat on a sword. I had always wanted to go to one but never had the opportunity.

Rob and Fabio talked about the current tables and possible replacements. Then we walked into the back and looked at the staff lockers which needed to be fixed, then proceeded on to some painting and possible carpentry. It looked like Rob was going to do some work for them fixing things up. This made sense since he seemed to know what he was doing with the construction of this own house and I guessed that he was being a freelance contractor for these types of things. “We need to get a bunch of Brazilians to do this painting for cheap. Or I can get this guy to do it,” said Rob thumbing at me. Then they looked at some gaudy purple curtains in the main entrance, which Fabio said would take about $15,000 to replace. “I don’t think so,” said Rob and they continued on. After lots of talking it turned out we were going to eat here and not just do repair jobs. We sat outside by the water and each had a beer. “So how do you know these people? What’s your relationship to this place?” I said, expecting to hear that he does some contract work for his friend here in exchange for cheap meals. “Oh, I own the place.”

“Whaaa?” said my face. Wow I didn’t expect that. I mean, gaudy purple curtains aside, this was a really nice restaurant in a great location on the water in downtown Auckland. That cannot be cheap. I pressed on with questions. It turned out that he and Andre were not just roommates, but business partners. Between the two of them and one other guy they owned this and another Wildfire location. I was impressed and I aspired to be a paramedic. He was not just doing work for them, he was doing work to fix up his restaurant. And the curtains? “That’s not happening. Fifteen thousand is fucking ridiculous to spend on curtains that are never used.” As the waitstaff brought out appetizers, some of them acted as if they knew they were serving the boss. Others must have been new. I soon learned that this type if dining is a continuous onslaught of delicious food being served faster than you can eat it. First bread, hummus, oil, and exotic dips. Then salad. Then the multitiered antipasti tower. Then garlic butter sauteed shrimp. I didn’t really like mussels, but I tried the fresh New Zealand green-shelled mussels and I could have had a whole meal of them. I had rice and some other side dishes while waves of lamb, beef, chicken, and pork swords washed upon my shores. I lost track of how many different kinds of meat they brought out, but each one was more juicy and delicious than the previous. Brazilians really know how to show that man is on top of the food chain: by killing and eating every possible kind of animal in one sitting.

Once I was full, I felt a little disappointed that I had not eaten more because a meal like this doesn’t come by every day. I consoled myself by thinking, one man can only do so much. We didn’t need to pay for anything and I thanked Rob profusely for the great meal as we walked out and towards the viaduct. They had lively bars and good nightlife there, but we just strolled by all the huge yachts as he told me about the millionaires who come here seasonally. That seemed like a great life to just sail around with money pouring out of your pants and Rob told me it’s possible to get a job as part of the crew on the boats if I find a lucky opportunity. I stuck that idea in the back of my head for later. On the ride back up Scenic Drive we passed the burned-out shell of a car on the side of the road that was not there a few hours before. Apparently it’s not unheard of for thugs in Auckland to steal cars, go joy riding, and completely torch them on the side of the road when finished. Toasted cars or not, this night was vastly better then Ramen and tuna by myself in a strange place in the forest.

Over the next week, I spent a few hours in the middle of the day doing work on the side of the house. Rob didn’t expect me to get up at any particular time and he was in an out at odd times with the paramedic work. I enjoyed listening to newly downloaded music as well as old favorites on my laptop as I cut, nailed, or painted away. I mixed it up from Astral Weeks to Cobra Starship. I mostly made my own meals out of whatever I found around the house and it was pretty easy going. One day I took a walk into the closest hiking trail that led to Waitakere dam, one of the main water sources for the city of Auckland. A few signs had historical information and it seemed amazing that nearly a century before they had hauled everything up to the site on rail with mules. Although a thought crept over my mind that the water seemed awfully vulnerable. I mean, I didn’t know what kind of treatment it went through, but it would be easy for an evil genius to poison the water supply. Must be those constant thoughts of terrorism hammered into me by American government and media. Luckily for the fair citizens of Auckland, I left my poison at home.

Rob had gone to the airport to pick up Andre, who was coming back from Brazil. When we were eating dinner together that night, I asked Andre about his trip. I noticed he was a bit effeminate, and suddenly I had a thought: Rob and Andre aren’t just business partners, they’re partners. It all started to add up. I recalled the Cher DVD I found in my room next to Brokeback Mountain. Two guys living alone in the woods and owning a restaurant together...interesting. While the house was half a construction site, some of the decoration was far beyond what you would expect for a bachelor pad. I thought about it for a day or so, wondering if the proverbial “Gaydar” was working. The final piece of evidence I needed came when I considered the layout of the house and realized they were definitely sleeping in the same bed. It didn’t bother me that they were gay, it was just a mystery and I guess I expected that they would have said something in their profile on the help exchange website since some people are not so open-minded about that. But I suppose other people don’t need to announce they are straight. I think the only thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the couple times Andre watched me paint in the sun with no shirt on. I imagine it would be similar for a girl doing help exchange and having a straight guy watch her wash the car in a bikini.

February sixth was Waitangi Day, a national holiday celebrating the official peace accord between the Maori and European settlers (essentially subjugating the Maori to the British Empire). Rob said it was a national holiday and I didn’t need to work. He gave me the keys to his Honda and told me which way the nearest beach was. I informed him I had never driven in New Zealand before. “Aw, no worries. You’ll figure it out, eh. Just stay on the left.” Off I went. The stick shift on the left was surprisingly natural (call of duty for you, left hand) and the pedals were not flipped. The strangest thing was just being on the left, especially with no other cars around. If you are doing the same thing as other cars on the road, everything seems okay. But when you are alone going around a blind curve through the woods on the left side, it feels like a bad dream in which you’re about to meet your demise at the grill of a large oncoming truck. This is not right. No, not right. Left. Just STAY ON THE LEFT.
I made it in one piece to Bethell’s Beach, which was crowded because of the holiday. Cars were jammed in at odd angles all along the road, indicating any real parking was taken. I found some grass to park on and followed the others walking towards the water. On my trip I didn’t bring any sandals, which Kiwis call jandals. Don’t ask. Sandal-less and jandal-less, I walked through the hot sand with my Pumas on. The weather was perfect...somebody must have given the Sun the memo about Waitangi Day. The path opened up to a strip of wide beach that must have been a few kilometers long with bookends of rock on each side. There was a little volleyball action going, but mostly people walking and laying in the sun. Swimming was prohibited except for in a small section monitored by Bay Watch wannabes, since there was a strong rip current. There were excellent surf waves, but not many surfers today. They were probably at even better surfing beaches.

I slowly worked my way out to the far end of the beach towards what looked like a cave in the rock. It was a long walk and my hat and shirt saved me from the harsh sun. On the way I saw tumbleweed type plants bouncing along the sand and seagulls swooping around. I took off my shoes to walk in the water and wedged the sandy things onto the sides of my bag with the straps. There weren’t many people along the stretch of open sand, but there were two fishermen at the end near the rocks. There turned out to be two caves, one large and one small, but they didn’t go that deep. If I were shipwrecked I would definitely have lived in the big cave. Soon I saw I wouldn’t be able to walk further around the rocks in bare feet, they were far too jagged. Also I wanted to go see the other end and so I turned back. A family played fetch with German Shepherds in the water on the way back and it made me miss my old German Shepherd that was long since dead. When I came back to the swim area I put my towel and camera down and soaked up sun. Now we’re talking. This is vacation. I asked the people next to me to watch my stuff as I went in the water. I had been in New Zealand for weeks and hadn’t even been in the water yet! That seemed like a crime. It was colder than I expected, but worth the refreshing dip.

I headed past the rocks at the other end I hadn’t visited and saw a whole different cove over the dune ridge. The dry sand here was burning my feet and I reached to get my shoes from where I had stuffed them on the outside of my bag. To my horror, there was only one there. The other one had fallen off somewhere along the way, but I had no idea where. It could have been several kilometers back. I considered the possibilities: go searching for a long time and heroically find the missing shoe; go searching for a long time and give up after tragically not finding anything; forget about it and go home single-shoed or barefoot. If the shoe wanted to be a beach bum, I should let it. No, these were good shoes and I needed a backup pair in addition to my hiking/working boots. Also these were special, my brother had sent me these secondhand Pumas in the mail two years ago. While I hoped it wasn’t at the far end I visited, it could be, so I started off on the long walk for a second time that day. I didn’t spot it anywhere along the way of my original path and couldn’t find it amongst the rocks at the end. I figured it must have gotten swallowed by the sea. I considered throwing the second shoe into the Tasman, hoping that one day the two souls would meet up again in a watery grave like the star crossed lovers Made in Malaysia that they were. Dejected, I walked back to the car. I thought, “It must be around here somewhere.” Just then I remembered I had taken a walk out to the dune to get a picture earlier. Just maybe... The Amber Alert was out and I scanned the sands with my 300mm zoom looking for a lost brown child. Ah-ha! There it was, awkwardly close to a new resident: topless sunbather. Well I had to get the shoe at this point, so I shamelessly walked over to grab it and put it on. I wanted to keep on exploring that second end of the beach but I had been gone for several hours, so I headed back to get dinner. Stay on the left. When I got in without crashing the car, I saw that Rob and Andre had already eaten but had leftovers for me.

Rob had been telling me we can go fishing some time, and one day was open for both of them to go. I was thinking the owners of a restaurant must have a pretty nice boat. We started to load the van and Rob blew up a little inflatable raft as I thought, “This is the boat? Are we all going to be able to fit in that and have fishing rods?” I wasn’t sure of the situation, but loaded myself into the back of the van with our boat. I was glad I didn’t ask any dumb questions, because when we got down to the marina, we strapped the outboard motor to the little raft and puttered over to the real boat, a 30-foot Bayliner. It wasn’t super nice, but it was certainly respectable. It was bad weather, overcast and rainy, but we left anticipating it would clear up. Rob cruised us out to some kind of fishing sweet spot and we tried our luck. Just bites and we kept getting our bait (squid and some other kind of cut up frozen fish) stolen. It was just the two of us fishing. Andre went down to the lower quarters and laid on the bed. I landed something! I pulled it in and found at the other end a tiny little snapper. He or she was a good orangey color, but definitely under the legal size limit, so we tossed it back. Just when the weather was starting to turn and the sun came out, Andre was not feeling so hot and the decision was made to go back. Turns out it wasn’t seasickness, Andre said it was the sausage roll he got from the Asian bakery that morning. That could have been a good day out on the water.

I continued working through the next week when the weather was good. Up in the rainforest here it could rain sporadically a few times a day which would halt any outdoor painting efforts. At night it ranged between Rob, Andre, both or neither of them being there. They liked to relax with TV at night, which I wasn’t opposed to. Although I found out that most of (and the best) TV in New Zealand is really just American programming. I felt like I should spend “quality time” with my hosts, and if they wanted to watch TV and drink bourbon, then that’s what I did. I saw shows from the U.S. that I’d never watched before like Boston Legal, Dirty Sexy Money, and House. When they weren’t home at night I was online and spent time looking on TradeMe, the New Zealand analog to eBay. I kept thinking about my transportation situation and very badly wanted a motorbike for some reason. I mean, the walking thing was a good idea, but just not practical. If I had wheels, I could go where I wanted when I wanted. I had this vision of myself whipping through the wind and sun on beautiful country roads on my beat up yet trustworthy motorbike, not unlike Diarios de Motocicleta. Rob suggested I get a car or a van because I could sleep in it if I needed to. Good point. Also the more I looked into it, the bike thing didn’t make sense because they cost as much as cars and I needed to get licensed for it. I saw a repossessed van on the site and we went to go look at it on the same day Rob was looking at a new used car for himself. It was kind of beat up, but I didn’t care about that, as long as it worked. As I was looking under it for rust, Rob was checking the engine and turned it on. “Nope! It’s fucked,” I heard from under the car. The old diesel engine was leaking fuel and pronounced Dead On Arrival. So much for that. I continued looking at cars and vans online with little success. I wanted something reliable for under $1000 and those two requirements were often mutually exclusive.

One day Rob told me he saw a car on the side of the road that I should check out. I borrowed the Honda and took a peek on the road he mentioned. I took the number down for a ’91 Toyota Corolla wagon for $1100 and called it when I got back to the house. The owner was interested in showing it that night. I wondered if this eagerness meant there was something wrong with the car. I met the Samoan man and his son back at the car and took it for a spin. Everything seemed to be all right: didn’t overheat, parking break held under a little gas, okay shocks, oil didn’t smell or look burnt, didn’t puke smoke when started, no structural rust. His English wasn’t that good, but when I asked how flexible the price was, we got it down to $950. Hey, that’s under a thousand! I told him I’d sleep on it. I thought about it and it was basically just what I needed. Right price, seemed to run fine, and the back seats even folded down so I could sleep in it. My only hesitation was that the car had over 330,000 km on it. I didn’t think that I would find anything better, so I took out the money the next day and had myself a flash (Kiwi for “cool”) new car. I gave it a good test run the day after when I took it into Auckland to watch some dragon boat racing.

Meanwhile I had been trying to set up my next farm stay. No luck on getting a vineyard job yet and other places either didn’t need help or weren’t responding. Out of the blue I got an email from Cheryl. She said they needed help with some things and were going to post a new listing on the HelpX site, but wanted to see if I was around and interested first. This time they actually wanted to pay me! Having just dropped almost a thousand dollars (keep telling yourself it’s an investment and you’ll get that back...) and at a lack for other options, I agreed. That Sunday I did some work for Rob and Andre and they took me to a thank-you and goodbye lunch at a cafe in Waitakere called Elevation that had a great view of the city and harbor. Afterwards I loaded up my bags, which my new 1.6-liter car didn’t find heavy at all. On the drive up to the nut farm I had great radio-up, window-down weather and I laughed as I easily passed my entire walking distance in less than an hour. If I were a smoker, or better yet, James Dean, I would have defiantly flicked my cigarette out the window as if to say, “take that, walking.” As Lonely Planet suggested, buying a beater did look like the best option for those traveling for more than a few months. Pulling back into the nut farm, I was happy and felt confident that I made the right choice, even if I was backtracking.

More pictures from this adventure here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Off to the Nut Farm

I woke up early at the Top Floor backpackers to catch a bus to Helensville, near where my first farm stay would be. Of course no one else was awake, so I crept to a shower and then dragged all my things in the hallway to pack up. It was raining so I slipped the waterproof sleeve over my bag for the first time. The fact that I had this and got to use it made me feel like I was well prepared and knew what I was doing. Rain? No problem, let me just slip the rain-proof sleeve over my enormous bag. The walk to the Britomart, the main transportation station in downtown Auckland, took a little longer than I thought and I showed up around 7:30 not knowing exactly where the bus leaves from. An attendant at the info desk told me the bus left at 7:25 and I’d have to take the nine o’clock. Damn. Catching a bus should be easy. I called my host from a pay phone and told her I would be on the later one, that was fine. I decided to waste some time at the cafe in the station and got a long black. There was a slightly used paper sitting around so I picked it up and took a look. They had a huge puzzle section and I very easily slew the very easy sudoku problems then wrote in my journal. I kept my eye on the big station clock so I didn’t miss a second bus, and took off with about 15 minutes to make the walk. It didn’t take that long and I was glad, because what was that I saw out the window of the bus as I waited?
A...a moa? Moa! A moa. Yes. A legendary now extinct creature that I hoped to see while I was down here. Moas were 12 foot tall wingless birds that were hunted to extinction hundreds of years ago. Some cryptozoologists (very few crackpots) maintain there could still be a few left hiding deep in the bush...but this was downtown Auckland and it was just a statue.

After that bit of entertainment, the bus took off with me on it and I was headed for Helensville. It was a short ride, only about 40 minutes. Somewhere along the way I realized there was not just one Helensville stop, but many along the way, and I had no idea which one I was supposed to get off at. Cheryl, my host, said something about a gas station? I talked to the bus driver and told him I was doing a farm stay. “Do you know where people usually dropped off for farm stays?” He mumbled a something about farms, but had no idea. Great. So I rode along not knowing what was going to happen. Not yet to Helensville, we made a stop at a shopping center. As we pulled up a woman was looking expectantly in the windows. Who was she looking for? Me? I walked up to the front as the door opened. “Cheryl?” “Trevor?” Wow, this was my host! I got my things (wrestled unwieldy backpack through narrow bus aisle) and got out to say hi and shake hands with Henk and Cheryl.

While I loaded my stuff in the back of their 4x4, they explained that this is not where I was supposed to get off, but they had instead intercepted me because they had some errands to run and it was on the way. Good thing that worked out, they had no way to contact me! They told me about themselves, expanding on my small knowledge of them based on the description of their online posting. They were an older South African couple who ran a macadamia orchard for the last eight years or so. They had a new small business this year selling their nuts gourmet style (instead of wholesale to distributors). Before all this started, they had been sailing around the world for 10 years! That was exciting. And before that they ran a banana and macadamia farm in South Africa. I had less exciting things to tell them about myself, but nevertheless they were interested in hearing about whether I had siblings and why I had come to New Zealand. I told them it was a variety of things, but mostly I was not satisfied with my job, sick of some things in the U.S., looking for an adventure, spending some time figuring out what it was I wanted to do with my life, and New Zealand is supposed to be a beautiful, fun, and nice place, so why not? They were satisfied with that and said they had helpers before with somewhat similar situations.

Our first stop was at another macadamia farm, except this one was different in that it had more processing capability and processed my hosts’ nuts, so we did a pick-up. Henk tried some nuts they had there (not his own) as we looked at a new sorting conveyor system they had. He mentioned they could be a little drier and have more crispness to them. He and the man there got into a discussion about drying and other nut-handling procedures. When we left in the car Henk told me those people’s nuts weren’t as good as his. I believed him and he seemed to know what he was talking about. Henk isn’t a nut snob, he just knows how to make better nuts. After all, he was a horticulturalist by profession. The next stop was at a honey processing place, where we picked up two 30 kilo buckets of honey. Henk and Cheryl sold a very unique product called macadamia honey. They explained to me that they often have people ask how they make honey out of macadamias. This was ridiculous of course, and only bees make honey. When they hire someone to bring in bees to pollinate their trees, all of honey from those hives is processed and voila, we have macadamia honey. The popular honey from the region is from the manuka tree ( or tea tree...as in tea tree oil) and macadamia honey wasn’t necessarily better, just different. In this facility they had huge vats of warm honey being poured, filtered, homogenized, etc. and it smelled amazing. We got to try honey straight from a warm stream and it was excellent. I didn’t see any milk, but I understood why the Children of Israel are waiting for their golden streams of milk and honey. I wanted to work there, but instead I left with my hosts that ran the nut farm.

On the way back we stopped for lunch at the Pukeko Cafe, pukeko being a common bird found in the area. I attempted to pay for my own meal, but was denied by Henk. “But I haven’t done anything yet.” It didn’t matter, I was under their wing. The quiche was good and so far in my experience they made excellent coffee in New Zealand. We talked more as we rode closer to their home and they told me about their “Princess.” Princess, or Princy as she was sometimes called was the borrowed pig from one of their daughters and was staying with them for the summer. They said she was such a sweet little thing and I envisioned one of those vietnamese potbelly pigs that aren’t very big. We pulled up to the house, which they built in a New Zealand colonial style, and unloaded the car, walking around to the garage door. To their horror, the garage door was busted open! A burglar had ransacked the place...and ate half of the dry pellet pig food. There was the guilty party, laying bloated on the cool concrete floor. And so I met Princy:

She was not a tiny, cute potbelly pig. Princess did have the potbelly, but weighed about 200 kilos, and was a large Maori breed of pig. We kicked her out and cleaned up the garage. By that time of the day it was too late to start any work, so they showed me my quarters. There was an apartment separate from the house and fully outfitted with two twin beds, bathroom, tv, and kitchenette. Apparently this was where they lived while building the main house. It was much more than I was expecting and the only downside was that the wireless internet didn’t reach out there. So far this place seemed great and on top of the beautiful house, impressive servant quarters, and general warmness of Henk and Cheryl, there was a nice view from the backyard where I could see the macadamia trees blending into the rolling hills of other property and finally disappearing into the faint blue water of Kaipara Harbour.

The next morning I had cereal and instant coffee in my kitchenette while watching the Channel 1 Breakfast show. I think I was amused by their authentic, unapologetic kiwi accents more than anything else. The biggest thing I noticed is that they say almost all their E’s different: “ten” sounded like a mix between “teen” and “tin.” I couldn’t help but think that they were pronouncing so many words utterly wrong, and they didn’t even know it. After breakfast it was time to start the first day of work on the macadamia farm. It wasn’t picking season, so instead there were lots of other miscellaneous things to be done. Top of the list was clearing the recent tree cuttings. These cuttings were not from the macadamia trees, but from the shelter belt, which is what they call a line of tall trees that divide property lines and protect whatever it is you are growing on that property from strong winds (especially important in kiwi growing). The cutting was not finished yet since the leviathan machine used to do it broke a wheel during the first go. Because of this I was lucky enough to see the cutting in action and meet the fine gentleman who did the deed. The large apparatus consisting of three massive spinning circular blades mounted on a crane, mounted on a tractor body was handled by a stout kiwi man that looked like he did nothing but cut trees and drive tractors. He was tan from long days in the sun, rough shaven, and wore tiny shorts that I think were actually swimming trunks and a faded blue tank top that read “FBI” with the subtitle “Female Body Inspector” as if to indicate his other line of work. He also was completely barefoot and smoking the entire time I saw him operating the machine, walking on gravel and stepping on cut tree limb debris. Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), I really regret not taking a picture of this man. Perhaps this was a legendary blokey bloke I was told about...although they were supposed to be wearing beaters from Speight’s, a New Zealand beer brand, not these alternative law enforcement uniforms.

But before all this second round of cutting even began, we were still clearing from the first and I got to witness Henk’s inventive use of his old blue Ford tractor. It made the clearing a lot easier when he drove it backwards, scraping the rear platform on the ground to push the branches the way we wanted. Thinking back, I really should have gotten some tractor lessons from this obvious master while I had the chance. For the pieces that were too large, almost trees by themselves, I was tasked with cutting them up. Now, holding true to my personal vow at trying left-handedness while I was here, chain-sawing went better than expected. No lost appendages. Actually it was pretty easy and Henk even asked me if I was left handed, since he noticed I started the chainsaw that way. I felled a couple of trees and we added those to the now massive burn pile by the pond. I hoped I could see this burn pile in action, which is serious enough to require permit from the local fire department. I joked that we could have a real barbie on this, to which Henk gave me a good reply. Sometimes one of the sheep in their small flock will get sick and die, and when this happens he just tosses them on the burn pile! Chops, anyone? But they don’t eat it, since you shouldn’t eat sick dead animals and also there is nothing left from this glorious summer pyre. Almost nothing. Days later I found a crispy sheep skull near the burn pile at the other end of the property.

The first day of work was physically difficult (hauling logs and branches in the summer sun is sweaty stuff), but at the same time rewarding. We had a nice family dinner together that night, mostly getting to know each other more. Cheryl told me she likes cooking, but would rather not clean up. This made me think about the unusual position I was in: some kind of mix between house guest and servant. They served dinner to me and yet I cleaned up for them. I move their tree limbs and they give me a bed and shower. I like this. After that the days flowed into each other, as they should during the summer, and I did different tasks for a few hours during the day and relaxed in the evening. They liked to get any hard outside work done early while it’s cool, so I was usually done in the early afternoon which left me free to nap or read or Skype to far off places from the porch. There was an enjoyable rhythm to our activities but at the same time there was something new every day.

I met the inhabitants of the farm. Besides Princy, there were the chooks, a colloquial term which generally refers to all genders and ages of chicken. The chooks thought they owned the place, and would walk right in the house if the door was open to eat the cat’s food. One time there was a chook in the dishwasher! Then they also had the guinea fowl, the same kind I remember from Texas. All these birds produced a large number of eggs, certainly more than Henk and Cheryl ate alone. I tried to help out in this department, but could only do so much since I didn’t have a stove top in my kitchenette to make myself an omelette for breakfast. They gave excess to their two grown daughters that live in the area. Farm fresh eggs with their deep orange yolk are much better than store bought, which come from imprisoned egg-laying robochickens. But I wondered, what about fertilization? They have a cock around, on duty 24-7, so am I going to break open an egg and have a disgusting slimy baby chicken fetus fall out? I was an ignorant city boy, so I inquired about this. You can tell if an egg is fertilized by a barely noticeable white streak coming off the yolk. However a baby chicken will not start growing unless mother nature’s built-in timer is kicked off by the precision warmth of a hen’s bum. Fresh eggs can actually be kept around for up to a whopping 3 months (!) if they are rotated every once and a while, unlike store bought eggs which are dead on arrival and will go bad very soon if left out, and don’t even last that long refrigerated.

I also met the sheep. They are quite skittish, but easily lured in by the prospect of fresh macadamias. Yes, macadamias keep the whole place running: they are fed to the sheep, the chooks, Princess, and occasionally the hired help. Despite their timid nature, we (me and the sheep that is) met again in a different way later, when we had sausage for dinner. “Henk, this is good sausage. Is it made locally?” “Why yes, that’s sheep sausage from some of ours.” This was followed another night by grilled lamb chops...all part of the great circle of life. That’s right Simba, some day all you see will one day be yours...actually they did have a nice balance on the farm and it seemed very sustainable. The water came from a bore (deep groundwater well) and was kept in a wisteria covered tank after it went through the treatment system. All the wastewater from the house went through an exit treatment system and then watered the gardens. So that’s what makes the flax grow so big...

My other main task was taming the gardens, an annual event at the macadamia farm. The New Zealand flax is different from the flax you’re thinking of; no flax seeds for Omega-3’s and not the blue flower used for dye. These are pleasant little pointy plants when young, but soon turn into huge creatures that require discipline from a bush knife (machete)...left handed, of course. I spent many hours hacking limbs off the flax and decapitating agapanthus, but it wasn’t too horrible since I usually got a tea break midmorning. Being a spinoff of British society, the Kiwis drink a lot of tea and so I followed suit. It’s no real replacement for coffee, but a nice change of pace. Occasionally we had cake with the morning tea, as if I wasn’t well-fed enough. At most every meal we had I was expected to get seconds, since I was a growing boy, and this resulted in me eating upwards of five meals a day. And if this wasn’t enough, there were snacks of macadamias whenever we worked with them. I helped with the packaging of the nuts, which they sell at weekend markets like Matakana.

Saturday morning we got out the door at about 6 a.m. to get to the Matakana farmer’s market. Like most places, the landscape looked interesting that early in the morning. The orange sunlight was absorbed by fog looming over the land we passed as we drove. I helped unload and set up their stand, but wasn’t really expected to do more. I wandered around town, but it really thinned out into farm land down the main drag within a kilometer or so on each side, so there wasn’t much to see. The farmers market had everything from local garlic to local wine, and I sampled what I could as I wandered, entertained by the all-male retiree jazz trio playing. For lunch I grabbed a whitebait fritter based on Henk’s suggestion. Whitebait is a term for baby fish of several species that are (should be) clear when raw and white when cooked. They are eaten whole like sardines or anchovies, but don’t have a strong fishy flavor. My fritter was cooked in front of me by an Asian woman and when it was handed to me on a slice of white bread, I poured chili garlic sauce on the hundred little eyes looking up at me. I regret not taking a picture of it, because I like to take pictures of my food when I’m traveling. It helps when remembering things. You can look back and say, “Ooh, that was really good!” or, “I remember getting sick after that.” But I felt slightly foolish taking a picture out in the open of my fritter staring back at me. I think in the future I should pretend I am a culinary photographer...well with no picture I still remember it being a tasty lunchtime snack. As Henk and Cheryl gave out samples and answered how honey is made from nuts, I read in the shade by the stream. They worried that I was bored, but it was really a good leisurely day. Hey, at least I wasn’t chopping at flax. They had a good sales day and when we were all packed up, we went for a picnic at a nearby beach. Besides the view of blue water, I noticed the beach was littered with immaculately unbroken shells for the shell collector. These could make a nice bathroom collage for someone, but I had neither the time nor the interest for that. The other unusual thing about this park was that next to the beach a fenced-in area began. I asked Henk about this and he told me they dropped poison in the area to kill all foreign creatures like rats and possums, fenced it in, and repopulated it with native creatures, including kiwi. Sounded like they were only keeping the Aryans, but I guess the rats shouldn’t be there. Vineyards swooshed past in the warm sun on the ride back, a good view as Cheryl and myself took naps.
Sunday we tried a new market in Titirangi for selling nuts. Similar setup procedure, but this one was at some kind of community center and Henk and Cheryl were not happy about being stuck inside the gymnasium between the lamp lady and the all-natural baby sling lady. They would have done better outside between the hot sauce lady and the biogarden family. I took the recommendation to walk down the beach and I set off not knowing exactly where I was going. Titirangi is set in the south of the Waitakere Ranges, a large natural bush park west of Auckland. There are over 250 kilometers of walking tracks in Waitakere and getting lost is not uncommon. I found an entrance to a path that was not only marked by signs for the beach, but also some kind of memorial for a lost hiker. Undeterred, I entered the path hoping I would find the beach. I didn’t see how you could get lost, the path was clear. It was quiet besides a slight hum of background insect life and the koo-koos or kee-kees of birds often heard and seldom seen. I only passed one or two other hikers on my journey. The secluded sub-tropical forest is a good place to let the mind wander: you follow your thoughts in the same way that you follow the path before you. What could lie around the next turn? One never knows, but we must be prepared for the unexpected in life. The path indeed came out to a beach, but it was not like the one the day before. First there was a community center hall that was full of middle-aged people doing Tai-Chi or some other meditative martial art, but to Caribbean sounding music. I didn’t feel like joining in at the time so I headed towards the water. This was not a sandy beach for laying down towels. It clearly had a large tide and now was low tide. There was a long stretch of mud, rock, and ugly broken mussel shells with no one around to enjoy it. Despite the unappetizing beach scene, I walked out towards the water to explore. The edges of the mudscape away from the water were more interesting, covered by rocks worn smooth over centuries, which were in turn being made un-smooth by small shelled inhabitants. I walked back feeling slightly disappointed that the beach was not white sand covered in bronzed blondes needing a fresh coat of SPF 2 from someone, surfer dudes giving free lessons on their extra boards, and spontaneous volley ball games with its participants entreating me to join in as captain. I still enjoyed my jungley walk back.

At the market, Henk are Cheryl had disappointing sales to report and asked where I went. I told them about my trip and they said, “Oh, that’s where that hiker was just mysteriously killed not two weeks ago.” It turns out the memorial I saw was not for a lost hiker, but rather one that was murdered. Nice to know after I walk through there. With this news, I grabbed a little lunch. I tried a local favorite, the sausage roll, which is exactly what it sounds like: ground sausage rolled up in a flaky crust. From what I understand it serves a similar roll to the hot dog in American society...or the pylsa in Icelandic society. In the warm weather I read about the major New Zealand ski resorts as I ate, hunting for the one I wanted to work at this upcoming winter. The market ended early afternoon and we packed up most of the nuts we brought. Henk declared it the second worst sales day in the several month existence of their business. I decided I could no longer work and play in the sun without sunglasses or some kind of hat. I hadn’t seen any sunglasses around, but earlier I had seen a man selling all varieties of hats at the market. I discussed my requirements with him and the hat man recommended an Australian style oil skin hat that could safely be smashed up in a bag. I bought it at a fair price and felt like Indiana Jones wearing it, so the day was not a total loss.

Monday was back to business on the nut farm. I was helping renovate a room in my apartment into the nut storage facility. Previously the nuts for their business were packed away into linen closets and any spare storage they had in the house. The direct quote from Cheryl was, “I feel like I’ve got nuts coming out my ears!” I wired up some florescent lights, painted, and helped refurbish some cabinets to finally make what we unofficially called “The Nuthouse” into a working space. While I enjoyed the work there and it felt like home away from home, I knew I needed to move on and see more of New Zealand. I had contacted some other hosts through a few of my networks, but with no success. I particularly wanted to go to Waiheke Island. Situated next to Rangitoto, this little paradise was full of vineyards and people wishing to be near Auckland, but still removed. There was no work to be had there at the time and I decided I should get away from Auckland, but still no luck on landing work elsewhere. I got a surprise email from a host I hadn’t contacted and that started with the salutation “Dude,” continuing something like “got some easy work if ya keen.” This could be promising!

A guy named Rob was looking for some help, but didn’t really say what kind and it unfortunately wasn’t away from Auckland. In fact it was significantly closer to Auckland than the nut farm. Through a series of emails I found out little else about the place other than they are doing some improvements and need help. At least it’s a change of pace. I decided to take off the following weekend instead of going to market again. Now, I had this original idea before I came down that it would be really cool to walk everywhere. Everywhere. While possibly (definitely) difficult, I figured it would be worth it because I would really get to soak up more of the country and hey, I wasn’t in a rush. I could take it slow, I have at least a whole year. It will make me more physically fit and carbon free! So at the end of a pleasant week of gardening and watching the Australia Open finals with Henk and Cheryl, I was headed off for my second farm stay. For my last night with them, Henk and Cheryl took me to Murwai Beach for some sight-seeing and then we ate dinner at their daughter Justine's house. The beach had truly awesome views of cliffs fighting off the Tasman Sea and was great for surfing and swimming. I was impressed with Justine and her husband Joe’s house, a hundred year old villa that they had bought from somewhere in the city, cut in half, and moved to the country. Before dinner we were all easily entertained by Lily, their chubby little nearly one year old that had spent some time with us at the nut farm. The dinner of lamb chops, chicken wings, South African sausage, New Zealand wine, and all the supporting characters of pesto stuffed mushrooms, salad, etc. were an excellent send off for my journey the next day. After all, I needed to stock up on calories since I would be walking for about two days straight! Possibly.

More photos of this adventure here.