The Pushkar Camel Fair is a circus and camel trading show that overtakes the small town every year. When I say circus, I don’t mean an everyone sit down in the big tent for a show sort of thing, I mean a festive, chaotic, mob scene in the desert. 50,000 camels, their neon turban clad traders and their gypsy families set up a tent camp outside of town. In the week before the fair, camels are bought and sold while locals set up the stadium and ancient carnival rides. We arrived a few days before the fair started, while the barefoot locals were swinging sledge hammers, erecting a stadium in the sand. Pre-fair Pushkar was filled with anticipation for the biggest week of the year and the heavy flow of tourist dollars.
The main drag in Pushkar is one narrow street, about the width of a car (sometimes at the expense of side mirrors) from one building to the opposite building. A few tinier side streets are home to the locals. There is no space for cars in town as the main bazaar is crammed with international tourists fondling camel statues, Israelis tearing through on Enfields and Hindu pilgrims visiting the holy lake and temples at the center of town. Fruit vendors, stray dogs, chai stands, and pashmina shopkeepers all add their voices to the chaos of the one street that runs through Pushkar.
While on the bazaar, there were so many people that hawkers would shout at you, but quickly move on to the next tourist. At the fair though, they followed you around. “Only twenty rupees, m’am. Twenty rupees for a bangle. Handmade, special.” (Clearly, it was not.) “Photo? Photo? Very nice my photo. Money? Camel ride? You like happy price for camel ride? Give me money? Chai? Chai? Chai?” It was endless. I must have said “No” more in an hour at the Camel Fair than in a month at home.
In the morning, while the sun was still waking up, we visited the fairgrounds and were back for lunch before the mobs of people and camel poo dust got too intense. We wandered through the scrubs to the open space where the camels were held and stood in the sea of beasts, just listening to their dinosaur like noises. This must be what Jurassic Park is like.
In the afternoons, we retreated to the garden at our guest house to edit photos and chat with family. We met some American travelers and enjoyed their familiar accents at tourist-friendly cafes that offered falafel, pomegranate juice and real coffee (!!). We stayed in Pushkar for a week and enjoyed a bit of routine simply by staying in one city.
“Sorry, no tonight. Maybe you come tomorrow?”
“Sorry, no lunch today. No shopping yet. My son has motorbike, we only have one.”
“Sorry, no tofu, only tempeh. No pork. You like chicken? You have chicken.”
“Sorry, no more Bintang.”
Maria’s operates by Maria’s rules. It is, after all, her house and her Warung, or shop, here at the end of the main road on Lembongan. As you walk along the one lane, shoddily paved strip that is used as a two way road for motorbikes, pedestrians, chickens and dogs alike, you’ll pass twenty or so Warungs serving a similar menu to that at Maria’s. But none will be as good or as inexpensive and the diners won’t have that giddy smile that you get when you know you’re about to chow down on some delicious food.
We didn’t get served the first time we went. The bar was full, the power was out on the whole island and they weren’t taking any more customers. So, just as they suggested, we came back the next day. Again, the bar was full, but we ate inside. When I say inside, I mean inside the house, which also doubles as the dining room. We met up with a friend who had just ordered. “Hope you’re not hungry, because it’s going to be awhile,” she told us. We had a laugh and ordered a round of Bintangs, which a nine year old looking girl brought to us from the household refrigerator in the corner of the room. I laugh a little to myself every time a kid brings me a beer and it happens every other day.
We waited two hours for our food that night. Not an onion was chopped beforehand; everything was cooked to order. One appetizer came before our food, one came with a main course, and all of the main courses came at different times. Our friend who was there before us got her food last, but none of that mattered. You eat when your food is hot, offer bites to those still waiting and suffering from food envy and just hope you’re not the last one to get your plate.
I expected the mie goreng (friend noodles with veggies and egg) to be greasy and the sweet and sour sauce to be sticky and kind of gross, but nothing here is anything except exactly how it should be. It is no problem that there’s no tofu or no pork because everything is good. You eat whatever they suggest and when there is no Bintang, you just run across the street to the mini market, buy a round there, and bring it back. No problem.
Dinner for two (appetizers, mains and two beers each) was $12 USD. Unbeatable.
When I think about a mid winter’s farmer’s market, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and jams come to mind. And vendors shivering, possibly clutching a cup of coffee with two gloved hands. I didn’t expect much from the St. Kilda Farmer’s Market. So when we arrived at the colorful, bustling, market boasting roses and daffodils, oranges, pistachios and tomatoes, chai tee, coffee, beer and wine, and cuts of meat from every beast under the sun, I was flabbergasted and wishing I had a kitchen. We sampled meat pies and Mt. Zero olive oil, spinach dip and home made bread and got a recommendation for a brunch spot that serves bloody marys. It has been a year since I’d had a bloody mary. It didn’t disappoint.
On our way from the market to “the diner with the bloody marys”, we passed Veg Out, a massive community garden and oasis for creativity. It was the wonky iron fence and prayer flags that first caught my attention, and the exploding plots of green and chicken noises that drew us in. What is this magical place? Rhinestone adorned statues, mailboxes in the gardens, chickens that look like Tina Turner and food growing everywhere. I want to be here all the time. I felt like I had found my place. Zach marveled at the composting set up while I checked out the community kitchen. We walked among the plots, checking out the leeks and greens, and planned to bring a place like this to a place that doesn’t have one. That, we decided, would be a good use of our energy.
Veg Out is a shrine to healthy, delicious food. It is a place for people to come together and dig and chat and make soup.
Zach and I celebrated Christmas by going out to dinner at Francesca’s Italian Kitchen, the restaurant where I am working as a dishy. Francesca’s had opened the day before and I had only worked two shifts, but after seeing the ingredients and the plates of food that came out of the kitchen, I knew exactly where we were going for Christmas.
The meal was phenomenal, the vibe was laid back, and the sun still shining at 8 pm when we sat down to eat. We started with cocktails, beef carpaccio and beetroot agniolotti, which was easily the best beet dish I have ever had. The beet filled pasta sat in a bath of nut butter and fried sage. We worked our way through the wine list, which featured both local Central Otago wines and a few Italian wines. Zach had the Lake Hayes 2009 Pinot Noir, which went from good to perfect when paired with the carbonara he had for dinner. I went with the Montepulciano and gnocchi with italian sausage. Chubby, pillowy, delicious gnocchi. It was one of those, take a whiff of my wine and make a delicious bite of what I ordered, then sniff and taste some of whats in front of you, and back again kind of meals that ended with a tiramisu and scotch. In my book, that is synonymous with “happily ever after.”
We hadn’t been out to dinner since July in New York. Our last meal out was at Momofuku Noodle bar in the East Village and while we enjoyed it, we didn’t appreciate it. We were spoiled rotten by good food, fancy cocktails, cheap wine, and super cool restaurants, but didn’t really know how special that was until we couldn’t find that. Most places here are either super expensive or just not that good. But Francesca’s is different. It reminds me of a restaurant you might find in New York. Except that you wont. Because it’s Wanaka’s little gem.
A big thank you to Pat and Lydia for dinner
If you want to know what’s going on in Wanaka, read The Upper Clutha Messenger. It is how everyone in town finds out about job openings, cat sitters, live music, used bikes, happy hours, farmers markets, garage sales, and anything else going on about town. It also includes the Crime Line, the police blotter written by one of the four police here in town. It is a hoot to read! Here are some excerpts from the last few weeks.
**It is also important to note that no one here locks their houses, bikes are left propped up outside of the grocery store, and people regularly leave the keys in the ignition of their cars. **
We have had only a few arrests this week which is great from our point of view as it frees staff up to get stuck into crime prevention and traffic patrolling.
A letterbox was also set alight with fireworks over the weekend. Dangerous considering the close proximity of the house at the address and the wind – far higher value damage was at risk.
A local male was processed by Police under the boy racer provisions for sustained loss of traction (wheelies) in a local residential street. He will be attending Court for his driving behaviour.
I’m picking with the increase in local youth coming to our attention over the last couple of weeks, school must almost be done for the year. – Watch your behaviour and/or your alcohol consumption, – it may seem fun at the time, but the next day when you realise there are consequences, there is no fun involved.
Some good for nothing thief has helped themselves to 500 litres of petrol from one of our hard working farmer’s properties in Cardrona. Someone out there knows who did this and we want to talk to you.
On the lighter side a couple of tips: 1. If you park your car on a hill and don’t apply the handbrake, yes, it will roll away and crash into things. 2. If you sunbath nude by the lake, people will complain. Yes, spare a thought for Mel who attended both those crackers on Tuesday.
Clothing was stolen from a washing line in Albert Town, a scooter was stolen from Kahu Youth, and a mountain bike stolen from an alleyway in town. There was also a report of a vehicle stolen from a car pack in town, which was later relocated in a residential street. Please do not leave your keys in your vehicle.
A 51 year old Wanaka resident was arrested for shoplifting from New World. (the grocery store)
A vehicle crash was attended by Police on McKay Road, where the driver fishtailed and overturned into the middle of the road….I was disappointed to hear a tractor drove around the upside down vehicle while the driver was trapped inside and unsuccessfully struggling to get out. Are you serious? When did we stop looking after each other?
I love that stolen laundry and blown up mailboxes make the news. I love that the police blotter is also a reminder to be a good neighbor and caring person. I really love that last line.
While we were in Oamaru, we attended their annual Victorian Fete, a street fair in the historic district. The event was a riot. People come from all over the country to dress up and partake in ridiculous events like the beard judging competition, the Penny Farthing bicycle race, and the stone sawing competition. I’ll let the pictures and video tell the story.
Zach and I wandered into the food tent at the Amberly A&P show, where we knew the butchering demo would be taking place. Neither of knew what time it was, so we grabbed an IPA and made ourselves comfortable on a hay bale. We were chatting with Lyndal when a woman got on the microphone and asked for volunteers to guest judge for the Lamb portion of the upcoming Hoof to Hotplate competition. Lyndal, knowing how fond I am of eating, grabbed my elbow and shoved my hand into the air. Sure enough, I had a spot!
Zach also got a spot and we took our places at the guest judges table, located between the real judges table and the beef butchering demo that was taking place right next to us. We chit chatted a little with the other guest judges and were then presented with a spreadsheet and a glass of Pinot Noir. As I was trying to make sense of the spreadsheet, the master of ceremonies told the gathering crowd that we would be tasting twenty four different lambs.
Did she just say twenty four?!? But, how? Oh boy, not really sure what we got ourselves into.
The portions were about the size of a domino, prepared medium rare, and were scored on aroma, flavor, tenderness and texture. When the first bite arrived, I peered across to the real judges to check out how they were going about judging their meat, first sniffing, then cutting, chewing, pondering, and often doing it again. After about four different lambs and a refill on my pinot noir, I started to get the hang of it. The thing is though, they were all really good. Even the one that I ranked the lowest would have been a treat to have on the dinner table.
After about every six plates, there was a lull, during which we watched the butchering demo. The whole afternoon was really quite phenomenal. I had a parade of lamb bites going on in front of me, a crowd of 50 people to the side of me, and when I turned around, a cow carcass hanging behind me. The butchers wore chain mail gloves and worked their knives through this cow like a conductor in front of an orchestra. Zip, zip, zip! Three cuts and the skirt steak was out. Zip, Zip and there is your rib eye. My jaw fell open. Nick, the butcher from Harris Meats who was doing the demonstration, could butcher a half a cow in 1 minute and thirteen seconds. I did a half a pig in six hours. Hats off to you, man. During the butchering demo, Brian Harris was educating the crowd about abattoirs, knives, and why cuts are priced they way they are.
We had to leave before the finals round, so we did not get to find out how our taste buds compared to those of the judges, but that was just as well. After we left, two more volunteers took our places and got to share in the experience. I wrote down the numbers that I liked best and looked them up online afterward. For the record, my favorites were Sally and Malcom MacKenzie’s Dorset Down X and Denis Rhodes’ Poll Dorset X, Zach enjoyed Robert Sloss’ Romney Dorset Down X. We learned what type of lamb we enjoy and had the best seats in the house for enjoying the butchering demo. I couldn’t imagine a better way to experience the Amberly Show.
For some reason, New Zealand businesses haven’t caught on to the “bring customers in with clean bathrooms and free wifi” ploy. So, despite our hesitance to patronize fast food joints, we recently found ourselves at a McDonald’s restaurant outside of Taupo. Somehow we avoided the siren song of freedom fries and lamb burgers – though the latter is particularly tempting. Lambs are even cuter when sandwiched between two greasy buns and a quarter-inch of mayo. Trust me.
Anyway, it had been about a week since we’d checked our email – practically an eternity for two former members of the smart-phone set, and we were starting to twitch and scratch ourselves raw with withdrawal. Finally, the golden arches answered our call. I slid past a massive man knuckle-deep in an aforementioned lamb burger and glued to his appropriately massive laptop as I sat down in front of Christina, anxious to see what junk mail I’d accumulated in such a long period of disregard. There was a blonde German woman fussing with her connection behind us, swearing under her breath in a way only Germans can.
“Must be the computer club,” I said.
The large man at our table smiled and laughed. “You guys in town long?”
“No, unfortunately, we’re leaving early tomorrow.” I asked him about a free place to camp nearby.
“Go back up the hill out of town and follow the signs for Huka Falls.”
“Yeah. The campground is on the way. And you should go to the falls tomorrow morning before you go. The gates will open around 7:30 or 8. It’s just an immense amount of water. Oh, and–,” he looked at the ceiling and thought to himself in careful consideration. “You got a pen?”
Nope, I had no pen. But I was curious as to what this kind local would tell me. Was this an offer for free accommodation? Maybe a secret watering hole with cheap booze and hot showers? I could use lots of both after a week sleeping in the back of our van. Kiwi hospitality was legendary, so with dreams of silk sheets I eagerly found a pen. He tore his receipt in half and started scrawling on the back. He was a lefty, just like me. This is what he produced:
“Ok, so when you get to the falls, there’s this big parking lot. I put a P here, for parking lot. You can go over on this side where everyone else stands – but – if you want to see something cool, follow this.” And he described a secret trail that led down to the river after the falls and ultimately, underneath them.
“At the end of this metal fence,” he pointed to the map, “there’s a trail, you can’t miss it. After about ten meters you’ll see a rope tied to a tree. Last time I was there it was an electrical cord,” he said with a toothy grin. “But yeah – use that to get down. It can be pretty slippery so be careful. Then you’ve got to follow the trail along the river until you get to the falls. There’s a part where the ledge is really narrow. I’m only telling you this because it looks like you’re solid on your feet, just be careful.”
A huge smile crept across my face. This was going to be an adventure.
“When you get near the falls the rocks get really wet so it’s slippery. Creep up to the falls and reach in, there’s a really good handhold just inside.” He latched his hand onto an imaginary hole above the McDonald’s table. “Water will just be pounding down on your back. You’ll get fucking drenched, but you can go inside. It’s a really cool spot. Climb in on your hands and knees if you have to. There’s room for about seven or eight people in there.” I went from excited to a bit scared. I get nervous around open water, forget about immense waterfalls pounding on my back. But it was too tempting to pass up a genuine local adventure.
The next morning, we set out for Huka Falls. After checking out the scenic lookouts with all the tourists and being bowled over by the volume of water that was headed over the falls, our nervous energy turned to real worry. Was this guy messing with us? Was he a crazed local sending travelers out to their death? The whole thing seemed a bit insane.
We walked down the path he described, to the left of the falls, and noticed several potential trails. Doubting my ability to recollect what he instructed, I examined each one before deciding they weren’t trails at all and moving on. My apprehension grew stronger. But soon we reached the end of the metal fence and an obvious trail emerged, exactly as he’d said. No more than a few feet into the woods we came to the rope tied to the tree that he described, and gingerly lowered ourselves down. This was definitely the way.
“How are we going to get back up?” Christina said after we’d both descended. I scratched my head, examining the sheer wet rocks and soaking wet rope. It didn’t look easy.
“Hmm. Well, we’ll deal with that later.”
Pushing on, we followed the trail back upstream, closer and closer to water level and the pounding of the falls. There were long-fallen trees in places over the trail, but also signs of life – beer bottles and snack wrappers half-buried in mud. Yep, we were on the right track. My confidence grew. Descending on the rope proved to be no problem, maybe he was exaggerating the difficulty of this detour.
And then we came upon the narrow ledge he described. Tiny and covered with wet moss, stepping on it was akin to ballet on a hockey rink. We’re both experienced rock climbers that would have no trouble with such an obstacle if we were wearing our climbing shoes instead of hiking boots, and if it weren’t just after dawn and barely above freezing.
But we’d come too far to turn back. After carefully traversing the ledge with icy fingers and clumsy feet, the path leveled out and tucked into some very interesting caves. The acoustics of these structures gave the river a intense bass that rattled the ground better than any sub-woofer in an Escalade. It was the kind of noise that wasn’t even heard by your ears, but deep within your stomach. As if our stomachs weren’t already unsettled enough.
We continued on through a few more shallow caves and over some more fallen trees, and found the secret room just as he’d described, underneath Huka Falls. Sorry, pictures don’t begin to do it justice. The morning sun shone through the thundering water, sending delicate rainbows into the sky. The sound of millions of gallons tumbling overhead was surreal. Mother Nature, you are one powerful lady.
Thanks, stranger in the McDonald’s in Taupo. It turns out you didn’t want us to die a soggy death, you were just being accommodating and picked us for hearty adventurers. I’m flattered.
We hiked out a little damp but unscathed and saddled up for a four-hour drive south. And it was a great drive. Adrenaline is the real breakfast of champions.
In a previous post, I mentioned that we had recently witnessed the dissolution of a sand mandala at the local marae. That day also happened to be Christina’s birthday. It was a pretty rockin’ party:
Ok, so the party wasn’t for her. And it wasn’t a party. But it was amazing nonetheless.