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.