Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Napier

It’s Sunday, two days after Christmas. I haven’t updated in a little while, and am currently procrastinating—I’m writing an essay for a travel writing competition, so I thought I’d blog. I will go chronologically, even though I’m tempted to start with the exciting parts.

I got kidnapped by a couple of Swedish anarchists. Kidnapped is a strong word. I was pulled into their room and handed a beer. Several hours later we were out on the town with a few other victims, one of whom is Toels, a Danish chainsaw sculptor to whom I’ve since become quite close.
Apricots didn’t work out. (Things are never very certain here in terms of jobs, but they always seem to work out). By the time my car was back (150 dollars, but it seems to be fixed. Fingers crossed) they didn’t need any more workers. But I found a job that started the next day at a cherry orchard. Several people at my backpacker’s called the boss and in total, 8 of us started working there.

Cherry picking is the most delicious job I’ve ever had. At some point I realized I was picking over $1,000 of cherries a day, and earning about 10% of that. But I must eat at least another 10% of that. Even after my stomach ached and I was full, I couldn’t help but eat a perfect plump cherry. Several times a day, I’d think this is the best looking cherry I’ve ever seen, and I just couldn’t resist eating it. I knew I’d regret not eating it for the rest of my life. This is a problem for everyone.

I like this job better than apple thinning. Physically, it’s a lot easier, and because it’s hourly not contracted, there’s not this crazy urgency and people actually take breaks as opposed to scarfing down sandwiches periodically and running back up the ladder. But mostly, I feel somehow connected to individuals this way. I’m actually picking something that someone is going to eat. Directly from my hands to their mouths. Even though apple thinning is just as important as apple picking, it’s not as satisfying to get rid of the smaller fruit that will just sit on the ground and rot and feed insects. My work here is a lot more tangible.

Now onto Christmas. When I imagined being in a country alone on Christmas, before I came, I imagined crying in a bed, alone in a dingy room in a vacant hostel, getting up only once to walk around the town, emptied of all souls because everyone would be off celebrating and laughing with families. I’d tear up, and if I listened closely I’d be able to hear children playing in the distance with cousins and new toys before dinner was ready (which I would also be able to smell faintly). I’d think of all the Christmases I’d ever had. How I hadn’t appreciated them enough. How nothing is beautiful until it’s gone. There might be a homeless man in the town. It would just be the two of us in the whole town, but we wouldn’t make eye contact because neither of us could bear it. And then I’d go back into my bed and cry because I shouldn’t have come in the first place, and this might be what life feels like every day for the homeless man I pretended not to see.

It was nothing like this.

I worked until about noon on Christmas Eve Day. It was just the group of us from Toad Hall on the orchard, so it was nice. We all talked as we worked about our family Christmas traditions. When I got home people were already starting to plan for the evening. Most of the people here are South American, and Christmas is a very big party (I get the impression that there are a lot of parties in South America). I made some jam from all the leftover cherries I took from work, which was quite a mess. Nothing stains like cherry juice. I’d never made jam before. I didn’t actually know how to make jam, just knew that sugar was involved. Toels came by later and we went to the grocery store to get meat and wine for the barbecue. (We only grilled the meat). Then it was Christmas. We were all going to have pizza and champagne, but nobody really felt like organizing the whole thing. We all ate meat and drank wine on the rooftop and danced to reggae and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was very summery. Which I guess, is very typical here. Somehow, I think that made it a little bit easier to be away from home—it never felt like Christmas. At midnight, we all drunkenly kissed and hugged and sang “Feliz Navidad.”
In the morning, Toels and I tested the jam and then I headed over to the Bogen’s for Christmas Day.

Janet was really sweet and invited me to spend the day with all of them. It was nice to be around a family. I realized, watching Clare and Alice interact with one another and their cousins, and Janet with her siblings and mother how every family is exactly the same, each in its own unique way. After coffee, the kids headed off to the beach. Actually, I really like spending time with them, because in a lot of ways their family is very similar. Rachel, Claire and Alice are about a year older than me, Clare and Elly, respectively. And their dynamics are very similar to the three of us. Actually, the three of them remind me of the three of us. We each have a lot in common with our counterpart. Rachel wasn’t there this year because she’s traveling in Brazil. Clare flew in from London where she’s in school studying literature and film. She is clearly very smart. And a vegan. I get the impression that Alice is really wise. Understands the big picture, in a way. Empathetic. And Janet and Dan split up about a year before my parents split up, so we all went through a divorce at the same exact stages.
Perfect example of similarity: Alice rode in the car with me because she doesn’t like Claire’s driving and wanted to avoid a Christmas fight. It was like reliving holiday experiences with my own sisters.

I like the tradition of spending Christmas on the beach. The waves were giant and perfect for playing in. The water was warm, the sky was blue, the sun was hot. Perfect beach day. We got back to the Bogen’s and killed some time before dinner, which Janet’s sister had spent the day making. Roast lamb, sweet potatoes, broccoli, pumpkin. It was all delicious. And for dessert, vanilla ice cream with boysenberries, blueberries and strawberries. Most of the fruit and vegetables came from Janet’s garden.

Then there was the present-opening. Janet had made a stocking for me as well, filled with lots of New Zealand goodies (most of which I’ve already consumed. I’m not good at saving candy…). Then Janet’s brother played some old home movies on his computer of all the kids when they were little. I was extremely touched at being so included in such intimate family moments throughout the day.

The next day I went to see Toels. He lives in an Arts Village with other potters, sculptors, painters and carvers who are all given residence. He gave me a tour of the village and I met some of the artists, and then we hiked up a volcano and went swimming in a river. (I’ve decided to stop showering. I’ve just been going in a different body of water every day. I really want to get dreadlocks). Then we went to the grocery store with some of the artists and we all got food for dinner. We all sat outside, cutting vegetables and cheese and making salads and grilling meat. Dinner took several hours and then we sat around a fire with some beer and wine that someone had gotten from the viniculture institute down the street. It was a truly splendid, simple evening.

I got home around 12:30 and then had a beer on the roof with my friends at the backpacker’s, and was persuaded to go out dancing. I’m easily persuaded. The club was pretty empty, which was good—it gave the seven of us lots of space to move. We didn’t get home until almost 4:00, but for some reason, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Plus, Charlene, my roommate(I figured her name out, although everyone just calls her Amalie anyway) left and I wanted to relish a room to myself.

Today I went to Ocean Spa, (a bunch of outdoor pools across the street) with Roy. We swam and soaked and steamed and then I bumped into my old roommate Tony who had apparently had a pretty wild night and was trying to kill his hangover by swimming in the cold water before heading home.

This will sound stupid, because I’m in my twenties, but at the moment, I really feel like I’m in my twenties. I’m meeting all these new people, mingling, dancing, drinking, doing shitty jobs for almost no money, just…moving. I like it this way.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16 and the past couple weeks...

I don’t feel like I’m on a trip anymore; I live here. I’ve settled in this city, Napier. I’ve spent the last couple weeks working with the original apple gang. Blueberries didn’t pan out, but I eventually caught back up with my ex-roommate, Tony. (Did I mention that Tony has a “Fuck the police” tattoo on his arm. Elly—you’d love him).Unfortunately, today was the last day of apple thinning. Picking season doesn’t start until February. My goal was to only use my kiwi bank account for the rest of the trip, but now I’m not sure that will work. After getting paid last week, it is down to 33 dollars. But this week should be a bigger pay. Some of the guys there make really good money. The work is contracted, not hourly, and they can move fast. I’m by far the slowest one, but am still doing better than minimum wage. The work itself is exhausting. I basically was running up and down a ladder for ten hours a day, standing on the “Danger: Do not sit or stand on this part of the ladder” part of the ladder in the trees I’ve got quite a nice tan at the moment, actually. I’m kind of bummed to be leaving. All the guys I worked with were either Kiwis or Islanders, and I really like them. I think they like me. I’ve kind of befriended one guy, Stu, who’s a kiwi, but just travels the world working and coming back here for the summer to work on orchards. I’ve never met someone quite so intensely mentally energized. The whole time, if he’s near anyone, he just goes. Talking about travels, cooking, movies, politics, literature, anything, and it often merits a one word “ay” from the half-listener, but that doesn’t stop him. I love working near him. He gave me a book of Sam Hunt’s poetry (my impression is that he’s New Zealand’s Kerouac. Drunk and drugged and rambling all over the country in his Cadillac).

We went to the beach last weekend to go camping and surfing with a bunch of germans from another orchard. We just sat outside, talking and drinking and listening to music all night. In the morning, we didn’t end up surfing because there were no waves.

Later I went to these waterfalls and cliffs with my closest friend from the backpacker’s, Roy. (It was pretty fun—you just dive/jump/hurl yourself off of cliffs 30 feet above the water). He’s Israeli, and we’re very similar. We don’t really like large groups, get nervous in them. We’ve been watching movies at night, and taking turns doing dinner. We’ve also started running. I like him because he just intuitively knows things. “When you are at home, you eat at the table with your family and it is set properly. I reckon this about you.” I like this relationship.

I have not been a morning person since high school. Now, I wake up at 6 everyday. I can’t believe it.

Until a few days ago, Tom and I were the only native English speakers in the backpacker’s. Now there are a couple British guys, Dave and Patty (who I am going to start working on an apricot farm with on Saturday). Mostly, the people here are South American, but there are also a few French and a lot of Asians. (Thai and Japanese). My roommate is French, and it’s been over a week so I can’t tell her I don’t remember her name. I need to figure it out. For a little while, it was frustrating not really being able to communicate that well with anyone. Now, I like it. A linguistic buffet. And I just read this line in my book, The Names by Don DeLillo that really hit home:

"What pleasure in the simples greeting. It's as though one friend says to another, "How good it is to say 'How are you' " The other replying, "When I answer 'I am well and how are you,' what I really mean is that I'm delighted to have a chance to say these familiar things--they bridge the lonely distances." "

Right now I really like the comfort in familiarity as opposed to closeness.

In bad news, my car is in the shop. This concerns me. If it dies, I won’t be able to sell it and use the money for my plane ticket home. I was stupidly counting on that. Also, when I came here I wasn’t factoring in day to day expenses. I have no idea why. Part of the reason I came in the first place was because I was sick of working and not really making any profit because of things like rent and food and Nico’s. I obviously still have all of those things here (Nico’s aside). Anyway, I’m trying not to worry about the car until I hear something, but I’m counting on getting it back for the apricot farm. I was right about not being able to get a job without a car.
Lastly, I joined the library and the video store. Can you get more settled than that?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

This week has been the best and the worst since I’ve been here. I hit my breaking point the same day I bought my car. (Yeah, I drive an Audi…from 1989). I decided to spend the night in my car and then in the morning head to Lake Taupo and try to find work there. As I was napping in my car wondering what the hell I was doing in a parking lot on the beach, no blanket, no pillow, just the sound of the waves and teenagers getting drunk in a nearby car, I got a text message from my ex-roommate, Tony. He said he had work for me that was boring, but not too physically demanding. I immediately checked into Tommy’s hostel, which I could book at a weekly rate for 17 a night. (approx. 12.75 US). The next day, bright and early I picked up Tony and we started work on an apple orchard.
It’s amazing how fast things can turn around.(Which is why I’m not worrying too much right now). I was lying on the seat of the car thinking, “Dad says I always land on my feet. I don’t even know if I have feet to land on…” And then boom. Work. Things change. Things happen. When I checked out of a hostel a week or so ago, they gave me twenty dollars for my key deposit. I didn’t remember giving a key deposit. I kept it for about an hour and thought about whether or not to return it. Eventually, I did, because I thought I needed good kharma, and because if I didn’t, for the rest of my life, any time something bad happened, I’d think it could have been avoided if I’d returned it. After I knew I’d be working, I was really glad I returned it.
When we got to the orchard, Tony just picked some rows and we went to work. It seemed like there should be more to it. “Shouldn’t I check in with someone….”
Nah. Tony spent about 1 minute showing me what to do and then was off, because you earn by the tree and he goes really fast. I started, and about twenty minutes later, some guys showed up wanting to know who the hell I was and where I came from. They were not thrilled that Tony had randomly brought someone who didn’t have any experience without telling them. Fair enough. But, they also realized if they told me to leave they’d lose Tony because I’d driven him. (Yeah, Audi). They gave me a bit more of a detailed training and then I was okay.
Some facts about Tony. He is tough. I mean, 250 pounds of muscle, a reformed badass, can drink a case of beer, has a “Fuck the Police” tattoo on his arm, has been working on orchards for years tough. When he said it wasn’t physically demanding, I don’t think he was lying. But he was wrong.
I was slower than everyone there. I was the only woman, I think that had ever worked there. I felt like I had to prove myself—show that just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m weak.
I still have cuts and bruises all over my forearms. My wrists weren’t strong enough for this. They became strong. Pruning apple trees. Basically, I spent eight hours a day in the sun weeding trees.

I’ve never been more proud of myself. I’m doing really hard work that I got on my own. I did this all by myself. I was making friends, I got a job, I was networking. I had a place to live. I had a car. I was figuring everything out. I even wrote myself a letter:
“Dear you, I am so proud of you….”
And then.
Easy come easy go, I suppose. At the end of day three, I stabbed myself in the eyeball with a tree branch.
Now I’m back to square one. Don’t have a job, don’t have any leads, have even less money, and at the moment, don’t have much vision in my right eye. I had a great few days here. But this week was too rough. As soon as my sight is back and I can drive I’m moving on to another town. I’m going to head to Wellington, try to find work there.
The worst part was being alone. I haven’t really minded yet. But I had to drive myself to the hospital. When I woke up in the middle of the night and knew something was seriously wrong, and nobody else in the hostel was awake, I had to drive myself there, navigate the health system, the roads, talk to doctors, strangers for directions, chemists, the whole time thinking, “I’m going to lose my sight.” Nobody knew why it wasn’t healing. Different doctors giving me different medications and different suggestions. Try this. No, he shouldn’t have put you on that…” Walking around the streets in an eye patch. Other than that I was just in bed for three days. It hurt so much just to have my good eye open because that meant my bad eyeball was moving around. So I just had to lie here in the dark, eye covered, body burning with fever and infection and fear thinking. Couldn’t read, couldn’t write, just had to think and sleep. I lost track of time, to the point that I only knew whether it was light or dark. Periodically, the pain would become unbearable and I’d go to the hospital.
Today things seem better. They have to, because I’ve been out of bed. They transferred me to a hospital in the next town, to a specialist. This morning, they told me the scratch has mostly healed, so there’s some sort of infection under the surface, that the branch must have actually penetrated. I was so sure I was going to lose my sight. So in a way, today was really wonderful. Because I learned that I probably won’t. I got a girl in my hostel to drive my car to the hospital. It was nice. I felt a little taken care of. But it’s really hard to just ask strangers to take care of you. Even when you simply have to in order to survive. It’s hard to feel that vulnerable. But at the same time, I’ve never felt so self-sufficient in my life.
I’m still mad that this situation didn’t work out. But, I still did all of those thigns. I still found a job, made friends, got a car, found a place to live, I did that. Now, I also figured out healthcare, took myself to the hostpital five times, nursed myself back to health.
Dec. 3
I’m giving Napier another shot. I think I may be able to get work on Monday. It’s really hard to just keep trying, talking to strangers, calling random numbers from kids in my hostel, hoping that something works out, paying for a room in the hopes that I’ll get the money back really soon.
Had dinner with Janet and Alice Bogan the other night. Janet is about fifteen minutes away and Alice just a few streets. Small world. I never really knew them that well in Swarthmore, but having people here from my hometown is certainly enough of a coincidence to merit a relationship. Hope to spend some more time with them while I’m here.
More to come later.

p.s. I think I'm better at everything here. Got a car, bank account, room, all these daily things that were just too hard at home.