Saturday, May 28, 2011

To My Housemates at Oskat Forest Park

There are so many things to worry about when traveling—so many plans to be made, streets to navigate, and money to be spent on even basic things like shelter and food. So when all of these things come together perfectly it is amazingly special. For the last few weeks I have been living in a backpacker-converted farm house called Oskat Forest Park with about 25 other people. We are all working in the kiwifruit industry for the season—either picking or working at the factories—to save money and then embark on travels through New Zealand or throughout the world.

The farm house is very old and not well maintained, and there are only two showers for the 20 of us lucky enough to be in the main farm house—the other 5 or 6 live in a small shed down the hill. The work is also less than perfect. We all have very physical jobs and work long hours.

But there is something special about all of us living here together. We are from Argentina, Chile, Germany, France, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States, and we are aged from 19 to 31. In our home countries, we worked in many different jobs and had all different kinds of interests. But here we all have at least one thing in common: we longed for something more, something exciting and new.

Last night, we had a party for some of the people who are leaving our farm house to continue with their travels. We celebrated that they were saying goodbye to the kiwifruit--the fruit which haunt all of our dreams since we work 8-11 hour days picking and packing them.

Though I have only known my housemates for the few weeks that we have worked here, I feel close to them. We have spent these few weeks sharing complaints about the condition of our old farm house, learning about the food of all of our cultures and laughing about how silly we look at work and how tired we feel afterward. Everyone seems to love to learn from one another, and that interest we all have in each other creates some kind of magnetic, positive energy. It runs through the house drawing people to the kitchen table to talk about everything—our similarities and our differences.

I don’t know why this particular group of people is so special to me—maybe we hit some perfect ratio of kind, compassionate, curious people altogether. Or maybe it is that we are all here sharing this one short time in each other’s lives, when we are all on the same type of journey to discover new places, things and people. Whatever it is, I treasure it, and I want to thank all of my housemates for making this few weeks wonderful when without you, they would have been terrible. I wish you all luck, and I hope we will all continue to make great connections with new people throughout our lives.

Left to right this is Guille, me and Alex with our friends from the kiwifruit packhouse: Daniela and Mariana. I think in this picture we are showing our anger at the kiwifruit, but I'm not really sure.
Tess and Paul, from Ireland and Scotland, respectively.

One of the two Goodbye Kiwifruit cakes made for the party.

Wady, Pablo, Ingrid, and Mariana are from Chile and Argentina. This spot later became our Cumbia dance floor.

Daniel and Laura are a couple traveling together from Argentina, pictured here with Ingrid from Chile.

We have a slight Argentina vs. Chile rivalry in the house. I think it is always playful, but since I can't understand Spanish when spoken that quickly, I can't be entirely sure.

Me, Mercedes, Abe and Guille

Pablo and Ingrid. Ingrid got us all up on our feet dancing right after this picture was taken.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Adventures in Queenstown

Abe and I are now on the North Island—I will soon upload a map of all of the places I have been so far—and we both agreed that we are missing something about the South Island. Maybe it’s because we spent three months there or because we have not yet had time to sightsee here since we need to work first. Or maybe the South Island suits us better.

I read an article in a NZ magazine about the North-South divide and realized that the regions have as many stereotypes as the North and South of the United States, and they are surprisingly similar. Busy Northerners are materialistic and Southerners are provincial and conservative. In the U.S., New Yorkers are often targeted for being rude or looking down on any place that is not New York City. In New Zealand, some Kiwis have a name for the residents of the islands’ biggest city: a JAFA or “just another fucking Aucklander.”

Abe and I will visit more of the North Island and see for ourselves what is true once we have worked and saved a bit more money. But for now, we are in love with the natural beauty and diversity of the South Island. The South Island’s cities are all very different from one another, and they are spread out all over the island leaving the vast areas of land completely unpopulated. Hailing from the East Coast of the United States, I have never seen completely uninhabited land before I came here, and I think it must be similar to what our country used to look like before the Europeans arrived.

One of my favourite places in the South Island was Queenstown, and I am finally sharing the pictures now—a good internet connection is too hard to find in this scenic country! Queenstown is known as a party city and the “adrenaline capital” of New Zealand where you can do everything from the comparatively tame bungee jumping to parapenting (parachuting off a mountain) or zorbing (rolling down a mountain in a giant ball that eerily resembles a hamster wheel).

I love Queenstown because of the restaurants, nightlife, and the beautiful scenery. The city is built around the longest lake in New Zealand, Lake Wakatipu, and the lake is a perfectly clear blue-green. Little beaches, barbecues, trees, and the Queenstown Botanic Garden line the lake on one side of the city, and the wharf full of restaurants, sweetshops, and cafes line the other side. Queenstown often roars at night with young travellers celebrating their successful adrenaline rides of the day, there is a peaceful, natural beauty to it too.

The beautiful Lake Wakatipu

The Queenstown Botanic Gardens

This is one of the many beautiful forest walks that surround the huge lake.

Lake Wakatipu right before a storm

Bob's Weigh was one of the many Queenstown cafes we fell in love with.

This sunset was captured from our fantastic new hostel: Adventure Queenstown.

Nothing could be better than coffee and toast at the Patagonia Cafe. They serve jams and caramel with their toast!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Art of Picking Kiwifruit

I say kiwifruit-picking because in New Zealand, the people are Kiwis, the fruit is kiwifruit.
When I left the Bay of Islands, I had depleted more of my savings than I cared to admit, and I had stared unemployment in the face in Kerikeri. I needed to go somewhere where I was guaranteed a job, and now I was willing to do anything.

Abe found a backpacker hostel in the Bay of Plenty (southeast of the Bay of Islands and of Auckland) that advertised as a place where you could stay while you looked for work kiwifruit-picking. The owner, Owen, told us there was plenty of work to be had, so off we went to his farm house turned backpacker a few minutes south of a small town called Paengaroa.

Before I came to New Zealand I pictured fruit-picking as a fun job working outside. I imagined myself helping out on a family farm, walking through small rows of vines, casually picking fruit and placing it in a woven basket while I talked and laughed with other backpackers in the sunshine.

That vision was obviously not reality.

On our second day at Owen’s farm, a contractor showed up to see if any new backpackers had arrived looking for work. We said we would like to work, and he replied that we should follow him. “Oh, you mean right now?” Yes, he had come to collect anyone who wanted to work today.

We grabbed a few things to eat for lunch and hurried to follow him to his car. Pravin, our new contractor, was a 21-year old guy originally from Nepal. He has worked in the orchards for three years. We tried to ask him a few questions about what we would be doing in the car, but he waved his hand or answered with an annoyed, “Yes, yes.” After driving for about 30 minutes, our driver, an older South Korean guy whose name I can’t remember since I’ve never seen him after that first day, admitted he could not remember where the orchard was. “Oh, do you work at a lot of different orchards?” I asked. Yes, they worked at new orchards almost every day.

After driving around for another 30 minutes looking for cell phone service, we ran into a car they recognized and followed them to the orchard. At the orchard, we followed a sea of people to a shed where several official-looking people wearing bright orange construction vests were standing. As we passed them, they handed us giant black picking bags, hair nets, and gloves. I studied the bag to see how I was supposed to wear it, and another official barked at me to put my feet in a bucket. “What?” “You need to clean your shoes before you go into the orchard,” he said quickly. I dunked my shoes one at a time in the soapy water and followed the crowd.

Now I saw just how incorrect my vision had been. The kiwifruit vines were in thick, long rows, and there were dozens of them. I was not sure how many pickers were at the orchard, but it seemed like at least 50. Abe and I, and our new housemate Alex, a young chef from Germany, were assigned to a group of 12 to start on one row. In our group, it was everyone’s first day picking kiwifruit. We stepped under the thick shroud of vines to begin picking, looking at each other to see how to wear the picking bag. 

Noticing our confusion, a contractor, named Bhakdat, came over and showed us how to wear the bag and how to pick the kiwifruit “five or six fruit at a time in each hand” he said loudly in broken English, and then how to dump our full bags into the large wooden bins scattered around the orchard. I looked around for Pravin, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Ok, pick now! And pick fast,” Bhakdat said. “The more you pick, the more money for you. You pick the fruit gently, but quickly.” We started picking because we did not know what else to do. As we picked, I said to Abe and Alex, “How will we be paid?” They shrugged.

After a few hours of picking, someone called out, “Lunchtime!” and we followed the sea of people back to the carpark. Pravin and our South Korean driver showed up and unlocked the car, so we could get our food. We sat on the grass by the car and ate, speculating about how many kiwifruit we had picked and how we would get paid.

At the end of the day, Bhakdat took our group aside and told us that the 12 of us had picked 39 bins of kiwifruit. That sounded pretty good to me, since each bin is about the size of a double bed. He said he would pay us $15.50 per bin, which was higher than the going rate of $15 per bin. “How much is that per person?” one German girl asked. Since that rate had to be divided by 12 people, it turned out we had made about $38 after taxes for six hours of work. Six hours of hard work reaching up or bending below vines to pick handfuls of kiwifruit while carrying around a picking bag on your stomach that made me feel pregnant with a 40 pound baby.

This did not seem worth it.

Pravin dropped us at Owen’s farm house and took down my mobile number. “I will text you tomorrow morning if there is work,” he said. “What time?” I asked. “Be ready at 7:30 a.m.”

And each morning for two weeks we woke up at 6:30 to check the weather. If it rained, we could not work, if the sun was out, we got ready by 7:30 a.m. in case Pravin showed up. One sunny day, he did not come pick us up or text to say why. The next day when he showed up around 10 a.m.— we never knew what time he would come to take us to work because it depended on when the orchard told him the fruit was dry enough to pick—he told us he had a flat tire the day before. “Was your phone dead too, so you couldn’t call us or answer my texts?” I thought to myself.

We worked four days that first week and only two days the second week. Half of the days we did not work it rained, and the other half it was cloudy or Pravin just never showed. “Everyone told us you could make great money fruit-picking,” I said to my housemates one day. In Owen’s house, we lived with about 20 people, from Argentina, Chile, France, Germany, England, Scotland and Canada. It all depends on the weather, they said. And it has rained a lot this season.

Every time we got into a new car Pravin came to pick us up in, I felt like an illegal immigrant being carted off to work at a new orchard. Directions on how to handle the fruit and what to do before entering the orchard were barked at us from an orchard manager, and we picked as fast as we could. We guzzled water every two hours when we got a break and ate our sandwiches savagely at lunchtime. Physical work made me hungrier than I’d ever been.

In some orchard groups, we talked with the other workers. In others, they spoke to each other in Hindi, Mandarin, German, or Spanish. In all of the orchards after that first day, we were paid an hourly rate, which was better for us since we were slower than the fruit pickers who had been working at this for 11 years. 

Since we picked only in Golden kiwifruit orchards, we had to be gentler with the fruit than people who picked Green. An orchard manager told us that the Golden kiwifruit, became scuffed or punctured more easily than other fruit. We needed to pick fast but carefully. And we should not pick the under-sized or oddly shaped kiwifruit. None of these were saleable, they told us.

That was all there was to learn about picking kiwifruit, so we settled into the long hours of picking row after row of kiwifruit. We started bringing our iPods to better pass the time.

After two weeks of confusion, hard work, low pay, and boredom, Abe, Alex, and I decided we had had enough of our “kiwi experience,” or as Alex called it “our kiwi nightmare” because we all said we saw kiwifruit when we closed our eyes to go to sleep at night.

“Well, at least we know what fruit-picking is like now!” I said.

A girl we lived with from Argentina, Guille, told us she could get us jobs at the kiwifruit packhouse, where we could work six days a week and work regular hours. “I think we are up for anything,” I said. Because after learning the non-art of kiwifruit-picking, I really am game for anything.

Lunchtime and breaks were often spent greedily eating off-brand Nutella straight out of the jar.

What kiwifruit orchards really look like

Me in picking get up.

This is Abe stretching out his back since he spent most of his time crouching underneath the kiwifruit vines.
Owen's farm house/ backpacker hostel

We have horses and cows at our farm house! And sometimes we have to walk through the cows to get to the house which really freaks me out because the cows outnumber us.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

WWOOFing in the Bay of Islands

“We are not actually WWOOFers,” I thought to myself as Kate, the manager of the Hone Heke Lodge, prattled along enthusiastically about the work Abe and I would be doing for her for the next month. She told us that cleaning the hostel used to be a paid position, but she decided using WWOOFers was better.

WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, but the organization has grown to include employers other than farms. The idea is for employers to gain labour in exchange for housing travellers and teaching them about farming or brewing beer or making chocolate.  True WWOOFing locations, are places that want to help travellers meet new people and learn new things, but many employers now use the term to mean a straight work exchange. They see WWOOFers as cheap labour.

I should have seen Kate’s attitude as a red flag: she was getting us to do paid work very cheaply, and she was not affiliated with the WWOOF in any way. But we had travelled all the way from Christchurch on the South Island to Kerikeri in the far north of the North Island to live here, and I was determined to make it work.

Abe and I had found Kate’s posting for work exchange and agreed to clean the hostel for a few hours each morning for our accommodation and internet. She told us we could easily work in the afternoons and evenings in the town of Kerikeri to save some money.

I listened to Kate talk about the town and our duties with outward excitement and inward anxiety. Abe and I had worked in Franz Josef for two months, but after traveling for another three weeks we needed to work again. Our funds were getting dangerously low, so free accommodation plus working in town sounded like a great proposition. But we had to find paying jobs quickly.

The next morning we started work in the hostel, and our agreed upon two-three hours of work turned into three and a half. The Hone Heke Lodge was a long-term hostel for backpackers working in the kiwifruit and mandarin orchards nearby. Most people stayed there for 4-6 weeks as they tried to save money. I heard working in the orchards was hard and from state of that lodge in the morning, it must be hell. Beer bottles and cigarette butts lined the tables and the floor in the dining area and flies buzzed around dirty dishes and half-eaten food piled in the kitchen.

Abe’s job was to clean the dorm rooms and the TV room, and I was to clean the kitchen, dining room, and bathrooms. That first morning I cleaned each area with latex gloves and a grimace. The Hone Heke lodge was old and overcrowded, with five toilets and six showers for over 80 people. Dead sandflies and spiders lined the ceilings. And people stared at me as I swept the food and trash off the stone floor in the dining area.
That afternoon, Abe and I went into town to apply for jobs. I walked into the first restaurant we saw and asked brightly, “Are you hiring?” “No, our summer tourist season is over, we won’t be hiring anyone,” a woman behind the bar said. Hm. The next place said something similar, and about 30 businesses later, we realized we might not be able to find jobs in Kerikeri.

I freaked out a little that night. I travelled all the way up here on Kate’s word that we could find jobs in town, and there seemed to be none. The only work here was fruit-picking, and we couldn’t do that because we had agreed to clean the hostel in the mornings. We had spent money hiking and traveling, and then more money to get here, and I was now living off of my savings account, which I hate to do. Abe was also feeling desperate.

The next day we cleaned again and endeavoured to find work in one of the remaining businesses in town. We asked every place in Kerikeri from the Asian take away restaurant to the BP station. No, they were not hiring; summer was over. On our way back from applying to the two supermarkets in town (they were not hiring either), we passed the Kerikeri McDonalds and Pizza Hut, the only two places in town we had not applied. The McDonalds was open 24 hours, which was a big deal for a business in Kerikeri since many cafes and shops closed at 3 p.m. There was a Now Hiring sign in the window.

I searched Abe’s expression, saw his disappointment that this was the one business in Kerikeri that was hiring, and smiled. “Yeah, I would rather strip than work at McDonalds,” I joked. We would have to leave this town.

Abe and I felt guilty reneging on our agreement to work for the Hone Heke Lodge for one month, but after a few days of asking around for work and weighing our options, we realized sometimes you have to cut your losses. We gambled and lost, and it was time to go somewhere where we knew would work and save money to avoid the social embarrassment of working at a company we both hated.

Backpacking through New Zealand is often an amazing experience, but at times it is extremely challenging.
In each new place, I have to navigate through a foreign town or city, I need to find a place to sleep, somewhere to eat, something to entertain myself. I need to meet new people and try to make friends, and in some places, I need to search for a job as well. Even though I am sleeping in old or uncomfortable bunk beds and showering in community bathrooms, I need to look presentable and be energetic. Conquering a new place takes a lot of energy.

In Kerikeri, I encountered the worst case scenario for a backpacker. My lodgings were dirty and unkempt, and I did not make many friends. The unpaid work was awful, and there was no paid work at all. And in that moment, I felt depressed and thought maybe I should just go home. I thought, “I feel too old for this; it is too hard.”

But because I am backpacking, when I feel that way, I can pick up and leave. Abe and I put in our two weeks notice (because we’re responsible like that), and we moved on in search of better things.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Love in the Garden

When I first arrived in New Zealand, I spent one week in Wellington, searching for work and sightseeing. I was exhilarated as I walked through this beautiful city that was entirely new to me, but I had an underlying feeling of stress. It was my first time applying to work in a foreign country, and I had a lot of questions. Was I searching for jobs in the right places? The NZ Craigslist has only a few postings in the past few months, so I was relying on foreign jobs sites I found on a Google search for “seasonal jobs.” And why would a Kiwi employer want to hire an American traveller who had no experience working in New Zealand and who was sure to leave them after a few months?

After I had applied to a few jobs, I received a message back from an employer. He said he was not hiring because “New Zealand is experiencing high unemployment.” Anxiety overwhelmed me. I was spending money every day, and if I could not find work within a month, I would have to return home.

One day after applying to jobs all morning, Abe and I decided to visit the Botanic Gardens. The gardens are on the edge of the city, on a hill top next to the University of Victoria. As we climbed up the hill, our view of Wellington grew more and more beautiful. We stopped to take pictures along the way.

At the top, there was a viewpoint, a war monument, and a lovely forest path from out of a fairy tale. A few people were sitting on benches and others were spread out on the grass enjoying the view. I looked down; it did not seem real. The tranquillity of the buildings and the ocean waves, and the sun and light breeze on my face were otherworldly. All of the people around me seemed content, and the tension I was carrying around, melted away. I was relaxed in my awe of New Zealand and in my connection to these strangers who were appreciating the same beautiful day in the Wellington gardens. The peace I had come to New Zealand to find felt warm around me, so far away from the stress and fast-paced life of a professional in Washington, DC. I saw possibility looking down over that city.

Inspiration flowed through me, and I began taking pictures with confidence. Abe must have felt the same because he sat down and starting sketching in a notebook. That was the day this blog was born, as I overcame my feelings of anxiety and days later found a job. And though I still have moments of stress and fear, I can call on my desire to explore this country to help me overcome them.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Recipe edition: Making Mexican food in New Zealand

A travel blog I read made a great point about people when they travel. The blogger, Lauren, wrote that since we are always moving to new places and people, we serve as our own anchor, our own home. Travelers can only know themselves well to feel comforted and at home.

Whenever I find something when I am traveling that I know and like I become obsessed with it. It is a small piece of home in a foreign place.

At home, I like Mexican food. Here, I am a missionary for the cuisine, talking to everyone I meet how good it tastes.  But there are not many Mexican immigrants in New Zealand, so when Abe and I arrived here we were disappointed to find that even Wellington, the capital and 2nd biggest city in NZ does not have a Mexican restaurant.

As the weeks passed we visited many cities and towns all with no Mexican restaurants, so we decided to take matters into our own hands. We scoured the grocery store shelves for any Mexican-looking ingredients we could find, and planned to feast that very evening. Grocery-shopping for Mexican food is no small feat in New Zealand because supermarkets (or as Kiwis say, "dairys") here do not even sell tortilla chips. You have to go to a natural or organic foods store to find them, and there aren’t very many of those in NZ either.

But we were motivated, like most travelers ravenously cooking up a storm in hostels, by an intense desire for a slice of home. The result was a masterpiece worth sharing. If you are in NZ, you need to try this (you’ve been missing out), and even if you’re somewhere in the US surrounded by lovely burrito carts or even Chipotles, you will love this recipe too.

Things you need:
White long grain rice (or your favourite kind is fine too, since Abe and I have quite different opinions on rice)
3 small gold potatoes (we snagged these from an organic vegetable truck that visits our hostel each week!)
5 or 6 white mushrooms
1 can Mexican-style tomatoes (these are diced and seasoned)
1 can black beans in chilli sauce (oddly all black beans in NZ come in this sauce)
2 avocados
Shredded white cheddar cheese (since NZ doesn’t call cheese by the actual name, you will find it under “Tasty Cheese” here)
Black pepper
Your favourite all-purpose seasoning or beloved Goya seasoning, but we can’t get that here
Jumbo tortillas
Cooking oil

What to do:
Chop up your potatoes and throw them in the frying pan with some oil, black pepper and all purpose seasoning. Let the potatoes cook until they’re soft and golden. Throw in chopped mushrooms next and allow to cook for a few more minutes. Add the beans, chopped avocadoes, and tomatoes and cook until all ingredients are mixed in and sizzling. Shred some cheese over a tortilla and slap your delicious cooked mixture on top. And you’re done! This recipe is clearly perfect for backpackers since we hate to wait, but it is also extremely tasty.

If I had been lucky enough to be friends with my lovely Kiwi friend, Tessa, (who is a fantastic guide to all things Kiwi, by the way) when I was in Wellington I could have satisfied my Mexican food craving with a visit to the South American restaurant The Flying Burrito Brothers. Thanks, girl!