Friday, February 25, 2011

South Across the Strait

Saturday Evening, 26th February, 2011
Napier, New Zealand

After two weeks in Napier and a lot of hard work, with our pocketbooks heavier it's time for the next adventure.We are saying a lot of goodbyes and are bound for another Workaway for 10 days, this time to a high country sheep station on the South Island to help with the autumn muster. Exciting and also a bit sad, it's true: after more than five months, we are leaving the North Island. We have booked ourselves and Lucy onto the 10:25 sailing of the Interislander on Monday morning, which will take us from Wellington across the Cook Strait to Picton, the gateway to the South Island. Through random good fortune on the tail end of a catastrophe, we will cross paths in Picton with my old friend Rose (we were summer camp counselors together, almost 8 years ago now), who works with McMurdo Base in Antarctica and was in Christchurch during the earthquake --thankfully she and her friends have managed to get out of the city in the last couple days and are now safely at the north end of the island. I'm so glad we'll get to see her there- we had hoped to meet up at some point, but didn't imagine it would be under these circumstances.

The North Island has been very good to us, and we've had so many magical times here that it's a bit weird to think about crossing over to the South side of New Zealand. Since arriving in September, we've done everything we set out to do on this island: we've surfed, farmed, hiked through unbelievable mountain passes, spelunked in breathtaking caves, and visted the northernmost point of the country, among many other adventures.

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 Taranaki waves and flax.

 Hiking in the ranges above Oakura in December.

 Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel.

 Mt. Ngaurahoe from the Tongariro Crossing.

Excepting a few remote areas, we've explored the entire coastline of the island, and by the time we drive down to Wellington from Napier we will have literally driven the whole perimeter, besides some pieces of the Coromandel Peninsula and the furthest reaches of the East Cape.This island has given us some unforgettable experiences and people and places we will remember forever, and has provided us with the glorious subtropical summer we came to this hemisphere in search of. Now we're headed to the land of glaciers, alpine ranges, wide high country prairies, sheep stations and beautiful autumns, and won't return to the North Island until we catch our flight home from Auckland.

 Ducklings in Opotiki.

 White Island in October.

 Surfing the Tasman.

Good times with Jessa in Taranaki.

After our Workaway in the hill country outside of Blenheim, we will be moving to Nelson, near the Marlborough Sounds, for the next month or two, where we have work from mid-March onward at the Kathmandu (outdoor retailer) store there. Back in November when we hired on with Kathmandu in New Plymouth to help with their shop move, we met the manager of the Nelson store, and native of Nelson, British Columbia, near my hometown. He told us then that he'd like to hire us to come work at his store for the Easter sale (Easter is in the fall here, which makes no sense...) if we were willing. True to his word, he contacted us a couple weeks ago and we will have 6 weeks or so of steady, non-back breaking employment in the town that is rated the sunniest place in New Zealand and one of the best places in the country to live. We will be able to explore the top of the island while working there, and then will tiki tour around the rest of the South when our work is finished. We do want to visit Christchurch and Canterbury, but it won't be for another couple of months, and we'll continue to evaluate what we want to do and have been thinking about trying to volunteer somehow for a week or two later on to help with the continuing recovery from the earthquake(s) there.

So here's to the North, now bring on the South!

Around Napier

Saturday, 26th February, 2011
Napier, Hawke’s Bay

Today we’re enjoying our last day in Hawke’s Bay, having quit our packhouse job! Our last day was Thursday, and with each of us near a thousand dollars the richer, we will be fine to get through our next bit of time in New Zealand. We still have aching backs and blistered fingers, and decided that it just wasn’t worth it to continue working under those conditions, even for the luxury of a little extra money. 

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One advantage to schlepping heavy boxes of fruit for 10 days:

 One Disadvantage:
 Keep in mind that Matt's hands got this torn up while wearing thick gloves...

With the prospect of working every day for the next month (I checked with my boss, and was told no days off for the foreseeable future. This is somehow legal because it’s casual, temporary work. I think it’s insane.), we decided to call it quits and head out. We worked for ten days straight, ten days that were got through on the promise of money, sheer willpower, and a lot of painkillers. We’re both incredibly glad that experience is behind us, and are still recovering somewhat; we attempted to sleep in yesterday, but found ourselves wide awake at 7 AM!

We’ve been enjoying the past two days, resting a lot, catching up on everything that has been neglected while we worked (laundry, grocery shopping, etc.), and seeing more of the city here. Napier is a legitimately cool town, and we spent yesterday afternoon wandering around and seeing the sights. Napier and its sister city, Hastings, were leveled in a massive earthquake in 1931, and Napier was rebuilt entirely in Art Deco style, and Hastings in Spanish Mission, although by all accounts it didn’t really take in Hastings, and Napier is the nicer place to be. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a city done in Art Deco, but I’ve been converted to it, and I think it’s very attractive (except for the Cathedral- see photo below) and the whole place is really well laid out. I’m writing today from a coffee shop on Emerson Street, right in the heart of the city, where the place is hopping with the crowds off a cruise ship that came in this morning.

Yesterday we went up to Bluff Hill Lookout, and as it was a gorgeous day, we got some fantastic views of Hawke’s Bay and the city:

 The cliffs in the distance are at Cape Kidnappers, to the south.

 A view down on the surf break by the port. 

Napier city. 

Huge piles of logs being loaded into a freighter at the Port.

You'll notice that Matt has brought back the mohawk (or "Mohican" if you're in the Commonwealth). He was overheating in the packhouse so I did the honors one night at the hostel bathroom, to many hilarious reactions from our young Asian hostelmates.

Here are just a few of the Art Deco pieces throughout the CBD (Central Business District) of Napier:

We spent last night with a group of our friends here, all neighbors in our tent city, sitting around with several guitars and the ukelele, singing and joking and enjoying the stars peeking through the clouds. It made me a bit homesick, but it was great to spend more time with the great people we’ve met here, before we move on.
 Boardwalk and marina at Napier waterfront.

 Emerson Street.

 Marine Parade, the main drag down the waterfront.

 Pania of the Reef, a figure of local Maori mythology. The details of the story are a little foggy, but basically Pania was a mermaid who fell in love with a human and then was somehow banished back to the sea, where it is said she became the reef off of Napier, with arms outstretched for her human lover. 

 Gnarly shore break at Napier Beach. Not a swimming beach- see the people for scale.

 The Six Sisters, on Marine Parade.

 Rad skate park right on the waterfront!

This morning, we decided to try and fit in a surf, and went over to the break at the harbour mouth, taking along our buddies Evan (Canadian) and Richard (German), smuggling them on the bedframe in the van, along with the three surfboards! We all had a nice little surf on tiny waves, it felt great to be back in the water after a few weeks of not surfing at all. It was cloudy and a bit chilly- while we were trapped inside in the packhouse, the season has shifted noticeably towards autumn. It’s sad to think of our delicious warm summer coming to an end soon, but fall is my favorite season so I’m not too heartbroken. Apple season signifies the beginning of the end, and late February here is the equivalent of late August in the Northern Hemisphere, and March will be September for us. It’s been a bit cooler and rainier these last couple weeks, but the sun is still hot and bright as ever. We’re just hoping the next rain will hold off a bit so we can pack up a dry tent tomorrow when we shift back into the van for the next phase. For more on that, see my next post!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Earthquake and We are Fine

I've had a number of concerned comments wanting to make sure we are ok after the earthquake in Christchurch today; we are fine, still on the North Island and a long ways from where the quake was. But there are many who are not fine- for those of you who hadn't yet heard, the quake was 6.3 magnitude but only three miles deep, and hit Christchurch at lunch hour. 65 people are dead with the toll is expected to rise; it's much worse than the initial earthquake they had in September. The photos on the news are pretty devastating- I've been to Christchurch Cathedral, and now the huge stone spire is completely gone. But I suppose that's nothing beside all the deaths and injuries. There are still loads of people trapped in collapsed buildings, so how awful it all is remains to be seen. But we are both fine, and a long ways from the damage. Although the disaster is nowhere near the likes of the Haiti earthquake and many others, it's still incredibly eerie to have such a thing happen relatively close by. The Canterbury area has had tremors pretty much every week, but this one is definitely the worst so far.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Apples, Apples, and More Apples.

Monday, 21st February, 2011
Napier, Hawke’s Bay

As of today, we have worked a full week at the packhouse (which Matt and I are now referring to as The Gulag). Well, a full week, and then some. When we were hired, we were told that we would be required to work occasional Sundays. On Saturday, we were told that this meant every Sunday for the next month, i.e. no weekends whatsoever. Sunday hours are a bit shorter, 8 AM-4:30 PM. So we have worked every day- the only perk to working on Sunday was that the bosses ordered in a massive supply of fish and chips for all of us at lunchtime. Other than that, there’s very little on the bright side besides the fact that we are making money. Matt’s hands are blistered all over, we’re both bruised all over our forearms and thighs, my fingertips are incredibly tender from handling apples ten hours a day, we ingest enormous amounts of food and water, sweat buckets, and sleep like the dead. We go to bed before 10 PM, rise before daylight, drive the 10 minutes to the edge of town in a bit of stupor, and are on our feet 10 hours per day. We spend our short breaks in the shade of the apple trees out behind the packhouse, and eat an apple at every break- the box of rejects is always available to us. I don’t actually mind the work so much- the methodicalness of it is something I can appreciate; it’s the long hours and the physical pain the work causes that make it so miserable. The people, with a few glaring exceptions, are pretty cool. Most of the packers I work with are also residents of Aqua Lodge, mostly Asian girls who are constantly cooking up amazing dishes in our kitchen. About 60 of the employees at the packhouse live here at the backpackers, so there’s quite a bit of camaraderie, even through language barriers. Matt is having a good time speaking Japanese with the Japanese guys on the stacking team, and I was told by a Kiwi girl on the packing line that she thought my accent was the prettiest she’d ever heard! (And I’ll tell you, as an American, I don’t get that very often). But pretty much, it’s ugly work, it’s hard, and we’re only going to stick with it for a few more days, at which point we’ll have enough funds to get back to Fun Times With Liz and Matt, so we’ll quit!

Philosophically speaking, this is the kind of work that everyone should probably do at some point in their life, just to appreciate how our food and other products come to market, and to experience the reality of the millions of people out there who make their living on minimum wage, doing the back-breaking labor that gets your apples and pretty much everything else to the supermarket for you to buy. When I think about how utterly knackered I am every night, and how we can barely stay awake to shower and make dinner before falling into bed, I feel so much for those people who do this work and have families at home, who they only see when they are exhausted, and only for a few hours each night, with no weekends to speak of. Appreciate that, people.

Personally speaking, it sucks. We work for almost 3 hours every morning before having a break, and it’s hot, loud, and stressful. It requires you to stay engaged but is repetitive enough that it’s not particularly interesting, and if you’re not on the ball, you create a situation that sends everyone scrambling to keep dozens of apples from rolling off the conveyors onto the floor. The management usually runs the machines at the fastest possible rate that we can keep up with, which means everyone is working flat out all day long, pulling, pushing, running, lifting, bending, to get the apples packed in the boxes and onto the box conveyor as fast as possible. Theoretically, we’re supposed to be inspecting the fruit as we put it into the trays, but usually there are too many apples coming through for that to be remotely possible. The only thing that helps is the engineer/overseer/deejay’s random, and often intentionally ironic music choices, when he decides to blast out some tunes on the loudspeaker. Some of his selections have included “Working Class Hero,” “Help!” and, with a pointed look down the line at me, “Born in the USA.” We wear ugly, heavy denim smocks and the requisite hairnets (Matt and the other packers get away without the smocks), and when I asked Matt on the first day how I looked in my uniform, his response was, “Like a lunch lady.”

Today wasn’t as bad as most, because the conveyor machine on the side where I work kept breaking down, so we got lots of short breaks from the lifting and packing. Unfortunately there’s a really stupid rule that says if the machines break down and we stand idle for 15 minutes or more, we don’t get paid for that time. Luckily, the line boss is really cool about it and tries to find other things for us to do when the machines are being fixed, so we still get paid. Today’s scintillating task was to go through a pallet’s worth of boxes of apples that had gotten the wrong sticker (thus the wrong PLU/SKU#), pull off all the stickers, and put the correct ones on. At least it gave our backs a break. Matt rarely gets a break, heaving big boxes up onto stacks and strapping them onto pallets. He and the other stackers do the most brutal work in the place, but he’s holding up well. It’s the hardest work either of us have ever done (for this amount of hours per day), it can be pretty miserable, but by now we’ve become accustomed to it, and we’ve never dreaded it. There’s a kind of comfort in knowing that we got through 7 days already, so we can definitely get through a few more.

With that tirade out of the way, I’ll tell you a bit more about our accommodations, as that is the only other aspect of our life right now-we have literally not been anywhere besides the packhouse, the hostel, the local dairy (superette) and Pak’n’Save since last Monday. We only got one day to explore the city before we started work, but we’ll do some more of that after we finish, so that will come later. Aqua Lodge is pretty cool, but not ideal. It’s a huge sprawling place, taking up three houses, and home to nearly a hundred people, most of whom are long-termers, working like we are, packing or picking. There’s not enough amenities though, only five showers in the whole place and the kitchens are very crowded- we couldn’t find any room in a fridge so keep our food in our chilly bin. The whole place is woven together by a network of courtyards, patios, and clotheslines, and has several comfortable lounge areas that we definitely appreciate. We’re only a few blocks from the city center and a couple more to the ocean, but we never have the time or energy to get out to either of those places. We are staying in the tent city in the back yard:

We're the second door on the left.

Our cheap little tent came with the van, and is pretty minimal, but serves our purposes fine. After we set it up, we dragged the mattress out of the van and into the tent, so we sleep incredibly well on a very comfy bed! It makes a nice change to sleep somewhere where we can actually sit up in bed, unlike in the van. We jury-rigged an “attic” into the top of the tent using duct tape, leftover mosquito netting, and safety pins, and have room on both sides of the mattress, so have a decent amount of storage space inside. The whole place stays pretty quiet, since everyone has to be up early and is working so hard they go to bed before too late.

In other news, Lucy’s Jankety Factor went up a few more notches this week, thanks to yours truly. Our parking spot here has a rather inconvenient tree growing diagonally out into it, which is covered in ivy and thus, if you’ve just worked a long hard day, looks like a plant that will give way easily if you drive up against it, but is, in fact, solid wood. As I pulled in (at about 2 miles per hour) after work a few days ago, I parked straight into it, and a nasty crunching sound emanated from the region of the windscreen wipers. We decided not to deal with it at the time, but as I pulled out into the street on the way to work the next morning, the passenger side wiper fell off rather dramatically and flopped down onto the hood (bonnet), hanging by only the wiper fluid cable. With no time to tie it back up or fix it in the moment, Matt yanked it off and it is living inside the van until such time as we decide to get it fixed (which I, of course, will be footing the bill for). In the meantime, we still have the driver’s side one, which is the important thing, right? :)
Matt with Georgia, the resident kitten, who provides our therapy after a hard day. 

In summary, that’s pretty much our life at the moment. You probably won’t hear from me again until we’ve quit the gulag, but trust me, you’re not missing much! With that, it’s time to hit the hay and take on another day of apples.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Of Traveling to Hawke's Bay, and 10.5 Hour Work Days....

Thursday, February 17th, 2011
Napier, New Zealand

Our trip from Kerikeri to Napier seems so long ago that it’s difficult for me to remember it! I’m completely braindead and every part of me is physically exhausted, so I apologize ahead of time for any spelling/grammar errors and such. Suffice it to say that we made the trip to Napier in three days of driving, with nice evenings at the end of every one. On Friday afternoon we left the farm and drove back to Snells Beach, just north of Auckland, where we camped at the same place we did on the way north.
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 The public toilets in Kawakawa, designed by a Mr. Hundertwasser, who was an Austrian immigrant and the town's adopted son. Pretty cool, eh?

We thought this was awesome. "Te" is Maori for "The"...

On Saturday we drove the looong, hot miles from Auckland (I got the honor of being behind the wheel for the drive through the city) back to our old stomping grounds at Opotiki. We contacted Lyn & Kate a few weeks ago to see if we could crash at their place, as we’ve always wanted to make sure we see them again before leaving New Zealand. They had other guests but were happy to have us as well, although our accommodations were our van due to the overflowing house! Unfortunately Lyn was away while we were there, but we had a great dinner, Scrabble game (with giant tiles on Kate’s new patio that was purpose built as a mammoth Scrabble  board!) and card games with Kate, a visiting friend, and a young British couple who were there as Workawayers like we were. It was a really great time, and felt a bit like coming home. It was really cool to see how different the place looked three months after our visit. The little chicks that hatched while we were there are now gangly teenage chickens, the tiny seedlings I planted with Lyn are now massive, productive tomato plants and massive cabbages.

 The chicken run is full of greenery we didn't have in the early spring!

It was very cool to see all my hard work from back in October, come to fruition (literally!)

On Sunday morning we left Opotiki and drove two straight hours through the beautiful Motu country to Gisborne, whose claim to fame is being the site where Captain Cook first came ashore in New Zealand in 1769. Unfortunately, on that occasion Cook was a bit jumpy and when he met the local Maori, their traditional challenges were misinterpreted and his crew killed several men and the HMS Endeavour sailed without proper provisions, hence the local body of water being called Poverty Bay.

 The monument at the site where Captain Cook came ashore from the Endeavour

 Poverty Bay.

Monument to "Young Nick," Cook's cabin boy who was the first on the crew to sight New Zealand.

With no surf in sight, we drove straight through to Napier, another 3 ½ hours down the coast. Our first view of the city was this:

We pulled into Aqua Lodge Backpackers around 5 PM and became residents of the veritable tent city in one of the big lawn/courtyards. More on our accommodations later, but suffice it to say that Tony, the kindly owner/operator of the backpackers, finds employment for his guests. He knows several local contractors who only hire people from Aqua Lodge, and we came here hoping to work in the apple trees, but alas, that did not transpire. Several friends of ours here are doing picking, but the companies that Tony knows aren’t hiring more pickers for awhile, and they like to hire people who can stay the whole season (through the end of April). We had a nice lazy day on Monday (Valentine’s Day), exploring Napier (the Art Deco Capital of the World…more on that later), and then Tony told us that it might not be until the next Monday that more pickers would be needed, and we’re only planning to stay in Napier until mid-March (more on this later too), so that work was looking relatively unlikely. Then, on Tuesday morning, Tony came and found us, and told us that a local packhouse was looking for a guy and a girl to start immediately. After a short, dread-filled deliberation, we took it, spurred on by our very minimal bank balances. So, we pack apples. Or rather, I pack apples, which is probably preferable to Matt’s job, which is stacking 25-35lb boxes of apples onto pallets in stacks over 8 feet high. Me, I work on the packing lines with about 40 other people (Matt works with two burly Samoan guys), including many from the hostel here, putting apples into trays and then into boxes, racing against the conveyors to get the fruit packed before it goes off the end of the belt! It’s backbreaking work, bending over, pulling heavy trays down the belts, swinging the filled boxes onto the conveyor that takes them to the stackers. Surprisingly, it’s not boring. It’s repetitive, but you have to keep your mind engaged or things rapidly get out of control. If it weren’t for the physical pain and 9 ½ hours a day on my feet, I wouldn’t really mind it. We work from 7 AM to 5:30 PM, with 1 hour of unpaid breaks, Monday through Saturday. We wake up at 5:45 in the morning, fall into bed before 10, and have constantly aching backs. But we are making money, and unfortunately that’s what it comes down to right now. But I’ll just let you know that every image you’ve ever seen of a conveyor-style packhouse or factory, right down to the ugly smocks and the hairnets, that’s us now. Yeah. But we’re ok, we have a comfy place to live for pretty cheap, and are surrounded by good people. Nonetheless, our life at the moment feels completely disconnected and at odds with the relatively glamorous experience that has been New Zealand for us up until now.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In Napier, and Working...

Tuesday, 15th February, 2011
Napier, Hawke's Bay

I don't have much time, as it's 10 PM and I have to set the alarm to get up at 5:45 AM....Matt and I are working in a packhouse, started today and hopefully can hack it for the next month. We wanted to do apple picking, but there aren't enough apples ripening yet to need more pickers for another week or so, and we only have a month in Napier, so I guess we'll do some soul-destroying assembly-line type work for awhile.

I'll catch you all up on our trip south from Russell tomorrow maybe, but until then remember that if you eat a Royal Gala from New Zealand in the next couple months, it's very possible that I packed it and Matt stacked it onto a pallet!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Russell and On the Road Again

Friday, February 11th (Happy Birthday, Mom!), 2011
Bay of Islands
2:00 PM

As soon as I finish posting this, we are taking off on the next step of our journey, leaving Northland after two and a half weeks of amazing travels north of Auckland. We’ve had such an amazing time up north, and here on the farm as well. We’ve had a lovely stay, ending with a really fun dinner up at Lloyd & Laura’s last night. We weren’t able to get the gate post replaced in the time we were here, but we did spent a fair bit of time doing other work to help out, grubbing thistles and clearing windfall branches from the recent storms out of the cattle paddocks.

Yesterday afternoon we drove into Paihia, which is the tourist hub of the Bay of Islands, left the van, and took the foot ferry across the Bay to Russell, which is a really sweet, quiet little town right on the water there. It was a major relief after Paihia, which was bursting at the seams with throngs of American tourists off of two cruise ships that were in port. We were pretty glad to clear out and take the peaceful ride across the harbour, looking at the hundreds of sailboats, charters, and everything else there was to see. Russell was beautiful, we just hung around and wandered the town, poking into shops and admiring the gorgeous buildings. We splurged and treated ourselves to a wood-fired pizza, which was worth every penny, and I finally bought new sunglasses. Mine were literally falling apart, and having only paid $10 for them in the first place and having worn them all day, every day, for the last 4 months, I think I got my money’s worth!

(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
Enjoying the ferry ride.

 Huge cruise ships in the bay. 

 Paihia from the water. 

 We think this is the R. Tucker Thompson.

We saw this boat moored in Auckland!

We had a nice relaxing afternoon and really enjoyed being out on the water a bit and seeing a few more sights before leaving the Bay of Islands.

 Amazing old tree in Russell. The building behind it is the Duke of Marlborough, the oldest pub in NZ (I think). 

The Russell Waterfront. 

 A crazy junk-rigged catamaran on the bay. 

 Russell from the ferry. 

A cool candid that I didn't know Matt took until I uploaded the photos from the camera! 

We got a slow start today, having not packed at all until late morning! But we don’t have more than a few hours’ driving today, so we’re not really on a tight schedule or anything. The next leg of our journey will take us to Napier, in Hawke’s Bay, on the far eastern coast of New Zealand. We will make the trip over 3 days (including today), camping just north of Auckland tonight, then staying with Lyn & Kate in Opotiki tomorrow night! We are really stoked to see them and their place again; our three weeks there at the beginning of our travels was such a formative and wonderful experience for us. Unfortunately, Lyn will be away in Wellington while we’re there, but it will be nice to see Kate and Opotiki again nonetheless. On Sunday we’ll cross East Cape through the Waioeka Gorge to Gisborne and drive south to Hawke’s Bay. The backpackers we’ll be staying at in Napier has (theoretically, although there was no signed guarantee or anything) arranged picking work for us, which we’ll be doing for the next month or so. Ten-hour days in the orchards will be a huge and probably difficult change from the paradisiacal weeks we’ve had since leaving New Plymouth, but we need the money and it will be good experience. It will be another new phase in our journey, but may be a bit of a shock after all the relaxation we’ve had recently.

So we’ll raise our glass to Northland, say thanks for the good times, and then look forward to the next phase of our time in this lovely country.