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...