Divide and Conquer

Zach Fickle Creek

As we continue to work toward our goal of running a successful small farm, we’ve moved into a second stage of development: Divide and Conquer. While Christina is traveling around the US, charming butchers and market managers and scouting the surrounding area for livability and unmet demand for the products we want to produce, I’m learning how to produce these things at the kind of scale we’ll need to survive. It’s tough to be apart during this important phase in our lives (and right before we get married to boot), but we don’t want to spend years searching for a new home and we decided that this was the fastest way to make progress.

So until Thanksgiving I’m working as an apprentice at Fickle Creek Farm near Durham, North Carolina. While it’s still a small farm, Fickle Creek is pretty big. We’re nearly 300 acres spread across several properties, and active at five markets year round. But what’s best about Fickle Creek is that it’s so diversified. Similar to the way Christina and I have spread out the responsibility of our farm project, here at Fickle Creek we have a variety of products to minimize risk and spread out the workload. Everything here is dual purpose: the ducks lay eggs and eat slugs from dormant garden beds, the pigs eliminate invasive weeds while stuffing their snouts to make our bacon, and the sheep keep the grass at bay while pumping out a few lambs every spring. It’s one big organism.

It can be tempting to say that we want to just get really good at doing one or two things. But that’s not realistic for small farmers. We need to be good at ten things so that if one of them fails it doesn’t bring the ship down with it. And animals are very good at the few things they know how to do. If you provide them with a few basic things, they’ll work for you rather than you working for them. It takes a heckuva lot of planning and careful execution, but the reward is a life of pride in what you do.

It’s taken a lot of patience for us to get this far, but it finally feels like we’re moving forward on a plan that’s now been years in the making. Updates here will be less frequent than in the past, but stay tuned. Big things are happening.


2013 Superlatives

2013 has been a year of spectrums, from long work hours to not working at all, from living where folks are comfortable to traveling extreme poverty, and from diving to the bottom of the ocean to trekking at the top of the world. We’ve had some of the most serene as well as the most trying situations that we’ve ever experienced together. It feels as though we ought to reflect on our travels and pull some sort of deep insight from our experiences. But instead, we’re going for superlatives. This is our year, in a bit more than bullet points.

Lake Hawea, New Zealand

Lake Hawea, New Zealand

Favorite City Moment
Zach: Arriving in Kathmandu, seeing nothing but Nepali signage and dust and realizing I’d entered another world.
Christina:  I got my tattoo on our first day in Melbourne. That afternoon, we went to the Central Business District to explore the town, but got caught in a late afternoon downpour and ran from bar to bar on a map that our friends from New Zealand had made for us. The kind folks at Penny Blue beer bar let us in before they were actually open, where we dried off, enjoyed Aussie IPAs and started working on the guest list for our wedding.

Favorite Nature Moment
Both: Sitting on a rock at Annapurna Base Camp watching the goats that the shepherd in the Free Tibet t-shirt brought down from the mountain, listening to the glaciers crack in the background, and sitting in an amphitheater of 8,000 meter peaks.

Best Non Alcoholic Beverage
Z: Banana lassi, India
C: Super sweet chai from street vendors in the tiny cups, India

Worst Illness:
Both: Alternating turns in the bathroom while we both had food poisoning on Gili Trawangen in Indonesia.

Biggest Adrenaline Rush
Z: Third pitch of Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out in Wanaka, NZ
C: 3am in Bali, I was laying in bed, not sleeping because my two friends from NYC were on their way to come see us. Finally hearing their voices then staying up eating cashews and chatting with them, in the flesh, into the wee hours of the night.

Fanciest Moment
Z: Drinking fancy scotch at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
C: Having a lazy morning reading Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook and drinking a latte in the library at the Pen y Bryn Lodge in Oamaru, New Zealand with Zach’s dad and Janet.

Dirtiest Moment
Z: Day three of hiking Gunung Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia; so much dust and human waste.
C: The three consecutive days we spent on overnight buses and in dusty bus stations from Pushkar to Hampi in India.

Worst Decision of the Year
Z: Telling the Bollywood casting tout to get lost. One of our friends accepted the offer and came back with amazing stories.
C: Diving into the shallow end of the pool in Bali.

Best read
Z: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
C: Michael Pollan’s Cooked or John Irving’s The Cider House Rules

Favorite Photo You’ve Taken

Kaikoura Seal Pup


 Portrait Arambol Boat Man-0009

Scariest Moment
Z: Sliding down the icy Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, NZ in our 20 year old minivan with bald tires.
C: The public bus ride in Nepal. Specifically, when it tried to cross the landslide.

Animal Highlight
Z: Stumbling over a three meter python at 10:30pm on a dark trail in Hampi, India.
C: Cuddling the nice, chubby stray cats in Istanbul.

Favorite Meal
Z: The next one!
C: Tie. Either dinner at the Francesca’s Italian Kitchen Staff Party or breakfast at Privato Cafe in Istanbul. So different. Equally delicious.

Thing You’d Be Happy If You Never Did Again
Z: Take an overnight bus in India
C: Visit East Timor

Encounter With a Stranger That You’ll Remember Forever
Z: The guy on the street in Jaipur who asked us why westerners are so rude to Indians and then immediately tried to sell us something.
C: Sitting on a stoop in Kathmandu talking with a shop keeper for like an hour. He told me a story about his friends saving up for years to apply for a US visa, then the chances of actually receiving one being like winning the lottery.

Place to Which You Are Most Excited to Return
Both: Nepal Himalaya


Life is Good in Hampi

Fields and boulders at the outskirts of Hampi

We didn’t know it while we were traipsing around Rajasthan, seeing the sights, but the little town of Hampi is what we have been craving since we arrived in India.

With so much history and so many really big, really beautiful historic sites, we couldn’t resist checking out the Golden Triangle. We saw the forts and tombs, palaces and temples, and our favorite, Jantar Mantar. We got tired, rested, saw some more sights, got tired again, rested again, went to a new city and did it again. For two weeks, we were full on tourists in cities where people make their money from tourism. For two weeks, I didn’t leave the guest house without telling ten rickshaw drivers “no,” or trying to avoid begging children. We were a wallet, an opportunity.

“Hey my friend! Where you from?
“Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan! Nice country.”
“Yeah, pretty good, but we are enjoying yours as well”
“You come to see my shop? Very nice, you come.”
“No thank you.”
“Yes, you coming. Shopping. Very nice.”

And so it went until the next person came by and started from the top. “Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan!” It was endearing the first time, but got old very quickly.

We were doing the things that you do when you’re in India. It was really cool being in the presence of structures from empires ago and learning about the history of India, but it was exhausting and felt a bit like going through the motions. Is this what traveling in India is like? Is this what people do for six months? For a moment there, we forgot that long term travel is a balance of new cultures and new activities while also maintaining some routine and indulging in things you know you like.

So when Robyn and Stephen, our former room mates from New Zealand sent us a message saying, “We are in India! Smashed it out last night all the way from Bangkok to Chennai then Bangalore to Hampi! Hampi is amazing. Actually so good I cant believe I missed it on previous trips…Climbing, friends, bicycles, a risk board…,” we scrapped our plans for further sight seeing and booked three back to back night buses to go see them in Hampi.

Hampi is quiet and comfortable. We climb the famed Hampi boulders in the early mornings and cool evenings and avoid the heat of the day by flopping around the open air restaurant at our guest house, eating thalis and drinking tea. As Stephen said over breakfast the other day, “Not everything you see here is going to be enjoyable while you’re here. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here to see what it’s like in India. Well that, and to see 50,000 camels competing in a beauty pageant.”




From Amputees to Diamonds: Delhi in a Nutshell


Our first day in Delhi captures India in a nutshell. We were up and out early, walking the streets and on the Metro while the city was still calm. The Delhi Metro is a newer, cleaner, more organized version of the NYC subway system. It was easy to navigate, air conditioned and featured a Women Only car, a great response to the city’s international reputation for being an unsafe place for women.

We followed the flow of traffic through the street from the train station to the Red Fort. Zach suggested that we move to the sidewalk instead of walking in the street with the rickshaws, bicycles, and cars. But as we squeezed between two rickshaws to get to the sidewalk, we were assaulted by the acrid smell of urine amidst a crowd of homeless people, waking up on from their night’s sleep against the buildings. We worked our way through the crowd of mats and sleeping bodies, which turned into an organized line of people sitting on the sidewalk, cradling bloodied limbs in dirty bandages. I tried not to look, but couldn’t escape the line as we were both headed in the direction of the Red Fort. Hundreds of people were waiting to see the man at the end of the block who was sitting on a cardboard box with a huge roll of gauze and a giant bottle of iodine next to him. My feet kept moving, but my mind was like a deer in headlights, absolutely stunned.

Zach loves his audio tour of the Red Fort!

Zach loves his audio tour of the Red Fort!

We crossed the street and stopped to breathe for a minute before continuing toward the Red Fort. The fort was big and old; but the fort as described by the audio tour was dazzling and majestic. Zach and I have developed a fondness for audio tours, as they bring back to life places that are skeletons of their former selves, ones whose fountains no longer work and that have been stripped of their mirrored ceilings and silk curtains.

We spent the afternoon exploring the side streets and spice market in Old Delhi until the internal fuel light went on. You are about to run out of gas, it said. At which point, we made our way back to the train, back to our comfort zone.

We got off the train in New Delhi and went window shopping for jewels. The jewelry collection at Mehrasons showroom was the most magnificent collection of bling I have ever laid eyes on. It beat the Diamond Exhibit at the Field Musuem, put Elizabeth Taylor’s collection to shame and made Tiffany’s look downright boring. Indian jewelry is a bit like Bollywood: a gaudy, dazzling affair. Earrings that look like peacock feathers, studded with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and necklaces the size of a child’s bib sit next to necklaces made of gold strands woven to look like fabric, with jewels embroidered into them. For the second time that day, I was speechless. Well, almost speechless. “Could I see that?” I asked the salesman. “Sure. Why not?” He smiled as he lifted 50 grams of gold off of the mannequin. When I sighed at the price, he said “Don’t think about the money. It’s not about the money.”

But in Delhi, it is all about the money. You have heaps of it or you have none. I suppose this is the case in many places, but I’ve never seen the evidence in a more drastic way than our first day in Delhi, which will always be the day of amputees and diamonds.


When the Going Gets Tough

Most of the time traveling is fun. But sometimes being away from home is really hard.

Like when you’re sick and don’t want to learn about a new place, you just want to lay in bed and watch Modern Family and snuggle with your obese cat, not the skinny cats who eat the garbage around here. But the power is out (like it is every day) and the laptop is dead. That’s when it’s hard. So then you just lay in your bed in your cheap hotel room, sweating and staring at the wall that is painted four colors of blue and has a hose sticking out of the corner, dripping water on the carpet.

Or when you have a Skype date and you spent the extra money on a cell phone plan with the guy in the tiny stall with the dusty cell phone parts and lots of flies who said everything would work once you give him the money. And then he made you feel crazy for double checking that it would work and asking for a receipt. Ha, a receipt! And then of course, it doesn’t work. And that’s the third time this Skype call didn’t work. And the person at home is frustrated. That’s when it’s hard.

When you’ve got your fifty pound backpack on and you explode into tears on a street corner in Kathmandu, even though you’re almost thirty years old, but thirty year olds have shit days, too. And some guy is trying to sell you a wooden flute and you wipe your snotty nose and say, “No thank you,” through your tears and he says, “Very nice flute, make a good and happy price, just for you,” and you clench your jaw and try very, very hard not to scream in his face that you never, ever want his stupid fucking flute for any price. And he just stands there, waiting.

It’s hard when friends are getting married and family members are going to the doctors and there is nothing you can do about it, but just sit there. Maybe write an email or “like” it on Facebook. I Facebook like that you had a baby. Sweet.

The world is big and beautiful and we’re grateful to get to see it, but not having a home can be challenging. Often one of those shit days is followed by an excellent one and all of the details work themselves out. The Skype conversation happens eventually, the flute man finds another tourist to prey on, and I go find a pizza and a beer or a stray cat to play with. I suppose getting homesick is just as much a part of traveling as that moment of excitement when you see a turtle while diving. If you don’t have lows, you won’t have highs.

That being said, I can’t wait for some blueberry pie, a Longtrail IPA and a big group of friends and family when we get home next summer.


Five Things I’ve Learned from One Year on the Road

always bring a snack!

Christina and I have now been traveling for over a year. Holy crap. This trip has been an incredible, life-altering experience for me.  Here are some of the things that I’ve learned:

  1. Patience. I used to be a high-strung New Yorker. Now I’m far more comfortable relaxing. I can better identify when I’m getting irritated because of my impatience and cope with it better. Casual restaurants here in Indonesia are notoriously slow with service, so now I bring a notepad to meals and jot down thoughts. It’s a simple thing but one that improves my life. Easy.
  2. Communication. Christina and I have spent almost every waking moment together for the time we’ve been traveling. This has been a challenge, but one that’s made us stronger. Problems tend to bubble to the surface much faster than when we could retreat to work or out with friends. Now we’re forced to deal with all the little things on a day-to-day basis, which lets us move past them faster. For example, I hate airports. I don’t mind flying, but I have a terrible fear of missing flights or getting stuck in security or customs. Maybe its an authority thing. Christina is much more casual about these situations. This used to create tension when we traveled together, but since I’ve explained my problem she’s happy to leave a bit earlier than she normally would, and I pledge not to check the time after we begin the trip to the airport, confident that we’ve got plenty of leeway.
  3. The Art of Negotiation. I’m no Bill Shatner yet, but I like to think I’m getting better. When we arrived here my way of dealing with people trying to rip me off was to get angry and storm off. Now I can laugh at them, then they laugh back and we can settle on a price. I know I’m still paying the tourist tax, but its a few bucks at most.
  4. Priorities. When you’re inundated with one version of success it’s hard to imagine anything else. In reality, there are many ways to be successful and exposure to those has made me rethink my priorities. I’ll probably never be wealthy in a traditional, money-in-the-bank sense, but I’ll have a rich memory of experiences to recall for free, whenever I want them. I see people all around Indonesia that are “poor” by western standards but still walk around smiling because they have what matters to them: food, a home, and a family. Both here and in New Zealand we met plenty of intelligent, well-educated people that had opted out of the rat race and into a simpler lifestyle. It’s refreshing, and it has shown me that earning six figures is just one version of success.
  5. Reflection. Travel has allowed me time to think, reflect, and write rambling blog posts like this one. On a typical “vacation” you’re pressured to do so much with your two weeks paid that you feel guilty just hanging around cafes or the beach for a week. When you’re thinking in months, a chunk of time writing or staring at the ocean is nothing. And without those moments of reflection how much can you hope to get out of travel?

What’s odd is that even though so much has changed, I still feel the same. I’m the same dude that likes screaming at the television during basketball games (G’Orange!) and has a crippling internet addiction.  These new experiences have brought new things to the surface much faster than they might have otherwise.



Freedom ain’t Free


We’ve been bumming around New Zealand for almost a year now, which is an awesome amount of time to be living and working legally in a foreign country. A trip of this length is only made possible because New Zealand offers a working holiday visa to young travelers. Common in most of the world but completely alien to the US, working holidays are the backbone of international long-term travel. But, reinforcing the stereotype yet again, America can’t play nice with other countries and (usually) doesn’t allow young travelers to legally work for a short time while visiting our fair shores.

Nearly every traveler I’ve met here in New Zealand would love to travel to the United States for six months or a year. But nope, most people (notably, EU residents) aren’t allowed working holiday visas in the US. We’ve got this big fantastic country that we’re so proud of, and we don’t want to share it with a few million young travelers? Ok, they’d temporarily take some seasonal jobs away from Americans, but they’d bring an incredible amount of value to other areas of our culture. Even ignoring the jobs they’d create through spending their deutschmarks and drachmas (ok, maybe not the latter), the cultural exchange and variety of perspectives they bring are invaluable.

In the last year I’ve met people from all over the world and learned something from all of them. Here in Wanaka we’ve had travelers crashing on our couch from France, Chile, Australia, Germany, Israel, the Czech Republic, and yes, even from back home in America, and though we haven’t been actively traveling for the last few months, our lives have been enriched and enlightened. We’ve learned to make real hummus, found an awesome French internet radio station, and been entertained by many, many acoustic guitars. No, freedom ain’t free, but isn’t this worth something?

Isn’t this kind of influx of positive energy and voices just what many of our stagnant towns and cities in the United States need? Isn’t it at least worth a try? Offer a few million working holiday visas to people from around the globe, study it, and see what kind of effect it has on our communities. The risk is low and the reward is high. But then again, I’m expecting rational decision making and action from our political system. Silly me!


The Spectrum of Travel

new friends-9107

Even though we’ve been living in Wanaka since November, we still think of ourselves as travelers. Yes, we’re renting a house (or, “flat”), but we’ve never planned on staying here so it’s got a very temporary vibe. I like to think of this as just another mode of traveling, somewhere between basic backpacking and dropping permanent roots. On this trip, we’ve experienced most of the what I like to call the “spectrum of travel” and recognize that they all have their place.

Simple backpacking seems like the simplest, quickest and cheapest form of travel, but often it’s none of those things. It requires very little up-front investment, but you’re basically committing to paying for accommodations every night or finding a nice tree to sleep under (often illegally). Hostels can get expensive, and I imagine that fines can add up as well. But for short trips it often makes the most sense. If you’ve got the patience for late buses and can live simply it can be thrifty, but it’s usually uncomfortable. Your mileage may vary.

We’ve spent most of our actual travel time in New Zealand living out of a van. Yes, this has the highest initial cost, but it provides a great deal of flexibility and some comforts. We went where we wanted, when we wanted, and could carry a variety of food and cooking equipment. Hopefully we’ll recoup our investment in the van on the other end, but we’ll settle for a (hopefully large) portion of what we spent.

One less obvious form of travel is the way we’ve been living in Wanaka. We’ve rented a house, have steady jobs, and have built a community of friends, all of whom are also here for a short time so it still feels like “traveling.” This has been a wonderful opportunity to refresh our bodies and back accounts. As awesome as being on the road for a few years may sound, its pretty damn tiring and we’ve relished this opportunity to stop and take a breath.

We’ve also had a chance to make some lasting friendships here in Wanaka, which is a subtle and underrated part of this third type of travel. If you’re constantly on the move, you don’t get a chance to really get to know anyone you’re meeting along the way. Plus you suffer from a bit of introduction fatigue. You get sick of having the same conversation over and over again (“Where are you from? What brought you here? Where are you going next?”) and begin to just not bother. Traveling quickly can be like speed dating for friends: no real relationships are formed.

When we got to Wanaka we didn’t realize that we were missing having a community of our own, but it’s been great settling down for a little while and building our energy for the next step in our travels.


Internet Tendency and Dependency

Over at The Verge, Paul Miller recently published a remarkably depressing but fascinating piece on living without the internet for a year. I share a lot of his thoughts, and have had an opportunity to live for the last ten months with limited internet access…until now. We’ve recently broken down and had broadband installed in our shared house in New Zealand, and it’s been an interesting experience.

My life in the US revolved around computers. I worked exclusively on web-related things, communicated with friends and family on the internet, and parked in front of a computer for most of my leisure entertainment time. But we’ve been traveling since last August without a cellphone data plan and I’ve had to adjust to a disconnected lifestyle. These have been my stages of internet dependency withdrawal:

First comes an uncomfortable feeling of missing out. I felt as if news was happening and important emails were piling up, usually to log in a week later to discover that not much had happened and I only had a few non-urgent emails to answer.

Then comes “alone and helpless.” This is when you do nothing but think of questions that would be easily answered by all-knowing Google, but are next to impossible to find out otherwise. Stuff like “who is that actor?” and “what’s 350 degrees fahrenheit in celsius?” This is a very frustrating period.

Acceptance is next. You are resigned to the fact that you won’t be able to turn to the internet for answers and begin to strike out on your own discoveries. I like to think of this as throwing off the shackles of technology and becoming more self-sufficient, but then I remember that we operated for many years just like this and didn’t think it was difficult. It’s a skill that needs re-learning, anyway. Yes, it turns out that movie showtimes are still listed in the newspaper.

Now you start spending more time reading stuff of greater value than blog-drivel (present company excepted, of course) and Reddit comment threads. Well, considering I’ve been waist-deep in a certain fantasy epic currently being dramatized on HBO, I can’t exactly make distinctions between high and low literature at the moment. But at least it’s written in compete sentences.

And right when I’m starting to feel less dependent, the tap is turned back on. It’s nice to have the internet back in our home, because it’s a powerful tool that makes a lot of things (checking the weather!) a lot easier. But it’s also a massive distraction. The time I used to spend brainstorming, writing, and editing for this blog has been shifted toward other pursuits, mostly fantasy baseball. But if I want to research something, I can find it very quickly. As with everything, it’s about balance. Sometimes that means removing yourself from distractions and other times its using the tools that are available. I love the power and democracy of the internet, but wish it was easier to turn off.


The Boston Bombing Made Me Feel Feelings

Boston Syria

I’ve written this post four times in the past week. The titles have evolved from: Seriously? The Marathon? WTF? to On Being Mad at America to It Happens Just About Everywhere to the final and very profound title I settled on.

A few months ago I asked an American friend, who has been living on this side of the world for a few years, if he would ever go back to live in the states. “Maybe when they stop shooting one another,” he replied, only half joking.

Hmph. Good point.

Since we’ve been gone, our country has experienced the Newtown shooting and the school shootings that followed, tons of shit I haven’t kept up on, and now the Boston Marathon bombings.  I mean schools? A marathon? Is nothing sacred? It’s infuriating. I don’t want to live in a place where you can get blown up for doing something commendable and challenging. Like teaching. Or running a marathon. It’s not normal, but it seems like it is becoming so. As normal as going to see a movie.

Living in New Zealand while my country goes through traumatic times feels a little like standing on another planet and peering out at what is going on over there. It is easy to forget about the rest of the world while living in a small (hobbit) town in the middle of the ocean. There aren’t massacres, guns are for hunting, and the media isn’t totally insane. It’s refreshing, but also uncomfortable when I know friends are hurting. You can’t give hugs from half a world away.

For a minute there in the week of feelings, I was starting to think that America is totally effed. That I couldn’t go back. Canada, maybe. I was pretty down on our  country and our government (as if we are the only country that has problems). But then I started talking to our friends here in Wanaka, who are from all over the world. Our friends from Northern England who won’t walk home after dark, or those who have traveled in Africa and China and listened to stories of violence and fear all over the world. Listened to friends describe the kinds of things that I skim over in the newspaper every day (okay, once every two weeks when I look at the newspaper). The kinds of things that happen to them, in those countries, where this kind of stuff happens all the time. And to many people, this stuff happens all of the time in America. People shoot each other. Things get blown up. Unfortunate, but those things happen there .

I guess the point is that it has been an interesting experience being surrounded by non Americans and seeing the spectrum of reactions from my own quiet, livid feelings to compassion to totally not surprised. Or maybe the point is that it sometimes being away is hard. I don’t know what the point is, which is why this post is titled The Boston Bombing Made Me Feel Feelings.

Laura McClain, Matt Ford, and friends in Boston, I’m sorry we aren’t there to do some sorrow-drowning shots and have some hugs. You guys have been on my mind lots recently.

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