Bumps in the Road

Photo by Mark Fischer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fischerfotos/

Travel presents a lot of chances to go off the rails of a plan, but sometimes what seems like a challenge is really an opportunity. Over the last few weeks we’ve encountered a string of problems that have left us angry, frustrated, and even physically ill, but we’ve solved pretty much all of them and now we’re way better off than we began. Sometimes it’s hard to see an opportunity lurking, but it’s always worth it to look.

After our nightmare WWOOFing job, we came to Wanaka on a whim and I promptly got sick. This wasn’t just a little cough and cold. I had a fever, chills and hot flashes, and had to run to the bathroom every hour, doubled over from stomach pain. I don’t get sick often, but when I do I get really, really sick. This was no exception. Whatever devil-spawn disease I had, it was miserable. And if being sick weren’t bad enough, being sick while living out of the back of a van made it doubly awesome. Just when I was ready to throw in the towel and go to a doctor, I was miraculously better! In your face, mystery disease.

While I was cursing every bite of food I shoved down my throat, we fell in love with this little town. It’s a little sister to Queenstown, which is an hour to the south and known around the world as an adventure sports haven. A lot of that rubs off on Wanaka, and it boasts similarly spectacular views of snow-capped peaks over a massive lake. It reminds me of a lot of Lake Tahoe, California, without the proximity to grimy Nevada. Oh, and it’s got great rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking, and we’ve made an incredible group of friends here in just two short weeks (most of which I’ve spent on the toilet, unfortunately). What else could we want? So we’ve decided to stay here for the summer and take a break from WWOOFing for a bit. We’ll be back, but we really enjoy making our own schedule and operating independently, two things that don’t exactly jive with WWOOFing. So, the reckoning is upon us: we’ve got to get real J-O-Bs. Shudder.

Christina jumped right on the opportunity (while graciously nursing me to health) to pursue her next career: working in a restaurant kitchen. It’s spring here, so local restaurants are heating up for the coming tourist season and a lot of them are hiring. She hit the pavement, dropping resumes off around town and talking to people. She had her eye on one job in particular, at a new Italian restaurant that’s opening soon and is headed by a well-known chef: James Stapley of Whare Kea Lodge.

After more than a week of silence, she was disappointed. She assumed that she’d been passed over, not only for her gig of choice, but for all the fall-back options she’d applied for as well. She was on the verge of giving up this first attempt at pursuing her dream; she had an email drafted, indicating her willingness to accept a front-of-house job for which she was more qualified and was in heavy demand. I even had a different version of this post written, whining about how sometimes things don’t work out and sometimes you need to accept your second (or third) choice.

And then, the phone rang. It was James Stapely. He wasn’t calling to set up an interview or ask her for more information. He was calling to flat-out offer her a job. He’d liked the passion she displayed enough to overlook the massive gaps in her experience. She’ll get an opportunity to learn on the job and grow in her role, as well as see a new restaurant getting off the ground. Next time, she won’t need to worry about gaps in her experience.

That leaves me. I’ve done the restaurant thing, and it’s not my bag. I want to be outside. There aren’t many paying farm jobs to be had, and other kinds of labor are less appealing to me. One can’t help but question your self-worth if you see few opportunities that you’re qualified for in a town where everyone seems to be hiring. It doesn’t help if you’re shivering and sweating and can’t stop pooping at the time. But I do have a small freelance project that I’m working on and lots of writing and photography to pursue, so I’m seizing this opportunity (while keeping my eyes and ears open) to focus more intently on developing my skills and selling my work. But hey, if you know anyone that needs some help with social media or email marketing, send em my way. I’m officially accepting new clients.

We’ve gone from a miserable situation to something that’s virtually ideal. We’re both developing important skills for our future and having a damn good time doing it. And it wasn’t hard. In Christina’s case, it took putting herself out there and taking a chance at failure. For me, its was as simple as recognizing that this was a shot to do something I’d always wanted to do: focus on writing for a chunk of time. Maybe I’ll call my first book “Sieze the Day.”  Surely no one has thought of that.


So You Think You Can Cook

Today’s challenge: One pot, one burner, no fridge. The meal must be tasty, nutritious, and cheap. You will have the duration of the days hike to plan your meal and you must use as little fuel and water to prepare the meal as possible. Bonus points will be awarded to the meal that holds heat the longest.

That’s kind of what cooking dinner is like these days. Except that Zach is my only judge and meals usually earn a thumbs up, even if it is just bean stew. The trick there is to get tired and eat late; then anything that is hot tastes good.

Rice, beans and stir fry veggies in our back of the van bistro

Growing up, my parents would pack the red Suburban full of tents, sleeping bags, food boxes, coolers, kayaks and bikes. They would leave a little nook for me and my sister, Clare, to climb in and sit with our knees about six inches from our faces on our respective sides of the Car Food Bag. The Car Food Bag was separate from the camping food bags, which were more for meals rather than in transit consumption. Example: Pringles, carrot sticks, and cheese and crackers in the car food bag, whole tomatoes, loaves of bread, and smores supplies in the camping food bag.

I don’t remember ever hearing Mom and Dad hash out the meal plans before we left for a family vacation, probably because I was in the basement watching Roseanne or cutting up socks to make outfits for my troll dolls, but there was a plan. I know there was a plan because there were always enough cheese slices to last two days, which is about how long cheese can last (according to Dad, who was the only one to eat the last three, squished together, greasy pieces of cheese from the bottom of the ziploc bag). We always ate meals and had exactly what we needed to make those meals, be it olive oil, or salt and pepper, or salad greens. There was stuff in the cooler that we couldn’t eat because it was being used for dinner in three days.

“Nope, nope, nope. We are eating that with the shrimp.” Mom would say.

“Uhhh! But there isn’t any shrimp in here!” I would counter as I surveyed my options of things to snack on in the cooler.

“Ha! Course there isn’t. Hasn’t been caught yet! We’ll pick some up from a truck on the way back from the beach.”

There was the plan. Before we even left for the trip, Mom and Dad were thinking about fresh shrimp and made sure we brought everything else. Now Zach and I are camping and we have our own food box. Some people are making babies, but we are taking it slow and making a food box.

Some notes on the fine art of backpacking and camping meals

If we are camping for a week, we usually go shopping on Sunday and Thursday for fruits and veggies. Breakfast is usually oatmeal and lunch is usually a pb&j, an apple, and some chocolate. A week of dinners may look something like this:

Dinner 1

Fresh off the grocery run, in a park with running water, on a warm evening. Spaghetti with leeks, garlic, mushrooms, broccoli and blue cheese.

Dinner 2

In a park with running water on a warm evening. Canned four bean mix, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, silver beet (swiss chard’s cousin), garlic, leeks, s&p

Dinner 3

Free camping in a park without running water. Stir fried veggies, ramen noodles, garlic, hot chili sauce.

Dinner 4

Free camping in a park without running water. Garlic and leek mashed potatoes and carrots, s&p, fried egg on top


We don’t eat much meat while camping because it is expensive, needs to be refrigerated, and adds another element to clean up. We can get away with a rinse after dinner and using the pan again the next  night. Our meals are simple, but always satisfying and make things like hamburgers that much more glorious when we do eat them. Speaking thereof, I think it might be time for a treat….


Welcome to Wanaka!

Photo courtesy of Andy Woods Photography

We left the Death Star WWOOFing experience and headed west to climb. Our plan that morning was just to get out of there and do something fun. Once we had achieved that, we would figure out the rest of the plan. On our way out of town, a friend that we had met at Castle Hill texted, “Come to Wanaka aka ‘Heaven on Earth!’” So we did.

And what did we find when we got here? Heaven on Earth. Wanaka is a funky, young town on a gorgeous lake at the base of some killer mountains. There is climbing, mountain biking, boating (note: we are actively looking for a friend with a boat), bars and really nice people our age who like the same stuff as us.

On our first day in Wanaka we went climbing, showered (!!), went to a BBQ, made new friends, and played Risk with said friends. All in one day, in a brand new town! We spent a few days sitting on the shore of the lake. Every day I thought, “I want to swim in you every day this summer.” So we’ve decided to try to stay in Wanaka for the summer season. I applied to a bunch of kitchens to work as a kitchen hand and Zach is going to look for farm work.

We are currently in this awkward position of not knowing if I have a job yet, not really having a place to shower and do laundry, not really knowing if this plan is going to work. But we are giving it a go!


Oamaru Victorian Fete

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.



The Dark Side of WWOOFing


It’s not all tomatoes and bacon, people. We’ve been in New Zealand since August, and every one of our WWOOFing experiences has been awesomely positive. Until now.

It began fine. The first few days of any relationship, let alone one that insists on working and eating three meals together, can be rough. We’re accustomed to a short “breaking in period” where conversations are a little awkward and we’re walking on eggshells. This time there were a few condescending comments sprinkled in here and there from the male head of the household, who shall remain nameless. We shrugged it off. We thought we were being overly sensitive.

But our host had continued difficulty controlling his frustration, and that manifested itself as anger towards us and his family. We talked with him about changing his tone around us and he was receptive, for a short time. We gave it another week, but little changed.

Yesterday was the last straw. He and I were moving cows to get ready for slaughter and he berated me for not moving quick enough to block the path of an angry heifer that didn’t want any part of this activity. Oh, and it was 6:30 in the morning. I’m a pretty agile guy any time of day, but diving in front of a hostile 800-pound animal is something I’m instinctually wired to avoid. No, thank you very much. He flew off the handle.

I told him that there is a nice way to give instructions, and a not-so-nice way, and I preferred that he used the former. He became more disgruntled, words were exchanged on both sides, and he stormed off, leaving me alone to move the agitated cow into the adjacent pen, where she most definitely didn’t want to go. I tried in vain to get the cow to cooperate, nearly getting stampeded multiple times, before he returned and told me to stop because he didn’t want the beast’s adrenaline to effect the quality of the meat.

This interaction proved that this situation was not tenable. First, this was the latest in a string of moments in which we were treated with disdain and condescension; not the pastoral ideal of a working environment. But most importantly, leaving a greenhorn such as myself alone with a massive, angry animal is grossly irresponsible. I could have been seriously injured, had I not been quick enough to dive from the path of the cow. So rather than endure a moment more we decided to it was time to pack up and leave before breakfast.

Now we’re sitting on a riverbank, surrounded by wildflowers, listening to the gurgling water and wind rustling the trees, about
to eat a fine feast of beans and veggies. A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Why didn’t we do this a week ago?

If it were another situation, I might have stuck it out. Sometimes one needs to grin and bear it for professional reasons. But this was no paying gig. It was a short-term work-trade arrangement on a farm. I felt no loyalty here, no reason to fulfill my intention of staying the full three weeks. We have the means to move on, so we rid ourselves of this source of stress. Suddenly, I feel powerful again.

I’m not free of regret, though. In the heat of the moment, I was so blinded by emotion that I couldn’t properly articulate the damage he’s doing to those around him. I felt as if my blood might actually boil. And I had grown fond of his wife and child. They were pillars of kindness and compassionate throughout this ordeal, and remained graceful and sympathetic when we told them that we were moving on. I hope they understand that it’s not them we were fleeing, but their arrogant, delusional husband and father. We’ve learned a lot from this experience, but my suspicion is that he, unfortunately, hasn’t. Good riddance.


Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die..


Castle Hill, from another perspective

Castle Hill

My sister, Clare, and Zach are both really good rock climbers. I like climbing, but I can’t say I’ve been bitten by the bug. Mostly because climbing scares me and is a frustrating activity. But what I didn’t realize until the past few weeks is how much climbing suits me. It is a good physical and mental exercise and attracts awesome, like minded people.

We spent the past week and a half at Castle Hill, a bouldering site en route to Arthur’s Pass on the South Island. Our initial plan was to stay for a few days, then head to another destination. But we found that Castle Hill provided us endless climbing projects and new friends from all over the world, so why leave?

Going into this trip, I was a little nervous. I hadn’t climbed much since last spring and wasn’t all that excited to be bad at something. I hate that part of cross training. The part where no matter how fit you are, when you switch sports, you start again at square one. My reaction to the rocks on the first day was: There are no hand holds. There are no feet holds. This is impossible. F this sport. I’m out. Most of my experience has been at Brooklyn Boulders, our beloved climbing gym in NYC, so here I was getting used to climbing outdoors and also climbing here at Castle Hill, which is itself unique and very technical. In a nutshell, day one was frustrating.

But we had found some other climbers from the US, from France, from Israel and Italy, and they had all been at Castle Hill for awhile. And they all remembered their first few days. They were great at reminding me that there is a learning curve here and to be patient with myself. A group of about eight of us climbed together for a few days, all of us climbing problems on different levels of difficulty. The beauty in that is that you get to spend quite a bit of time hanging out, spotting other climbers, and staring at the mountains between climbs. You get to see how other people approach bouldering problems and react to not being able to finish a problem. I was able to get out of my own head and shake off some of the “I can’t do this” by hanging out with other climbers.

Regardless of where they are from, climbers tend to be laid back, friendly, supportive people. They tend to be people I like. By the end of the first week, I was climbing problems that I couldn’t do at the beginning, I was trusting myself and I was able to pass on some words of encouragement to people who had just arrived.

I can’t wait to go back :) Mom and Dad are sending me new climbing shoes and we have rerouted our travels so that we cross through Arthur’s Pass a few times in the next few months. Like anything, it is more fun with practice and cool people.


Climbing at the Church of Castle Hill


I started rock climbing about three years ago. Since then, I only ventured outside to real rock a handful of times. I learned to climb in a gym. I took day trips or strung a few days together at the Gunks. I thought I was a climber. I was wrong.

The last ten days spent climbing at Castle Hill on New Zealand’s South Island taught me what climbing really is. It’s not a sweaty gym with dubstep blaring and colored plastic blobs marking routes. At Castle Hill, maybe the Mecca of bouldering, its a religious experience.

The two main areas at Castle Hill, Spittle Hill and Quantum Field, contain more than 3000 problems. You could walk around the perimeter of these two areas in less than an hour, but spend weeks examining its many nooks and crannies. That said, climbing there is a trial by fire. Its slabby limestone style demands intense technical climbing and superior balance. Boulderers accustomed to using power in order to overcome technical faults (like me) will have a hard time adjusting to Castle Hill. Brains are just as important as brawn here.

In the gym, foot and handholds are obvious by sight. At Castle Hill, it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk up to a climb well below our grade, drop our stuff and stare at it for a while, flabbergasted. “Huh? This is a V1? Where are the feet?! Are you sure we’re in the right place? There are no feet!” We spent a lot of time rubbing our hands on the rock and mumbling to ourselves, searching for parts of the rock that had more friction than others as a blind person would read braille. Our eyes were useless, we had to read the rock in a different way. Castle Hill makes one’s technical faults obvious.

Of course, any outdoor climbing will be vastly different than indoors. While many gyms (big ups, Brooklyn Boulders) do a great job approximating the outdoor experience with creative features and superior routesetting, nothing can replace the real thing. Footholds that seem tiny in the gym are enormous outside, and instead of being marked by giant stripes of fluorescent tape they’re camouflaged among millions of other tiny bits and blotches. Outside, falls are awkward and less protected; no amount of spotters and crash pads compensate for the huge pads at a gym. Simply topping out on a slabby climb is a skill that you can only get outside. Problems like that just aren’t set in the gym, because most gyms don’t have flat top outs. It’s more dangerous to mantle up on a horizontal slab than just jumping down from a jug, so gyms don’t build those features. Climbing inside can get you in shape physically, but it doesn’t come close to preparing you mentally for climbing outside.

After a few days, we started to trust our feet on tiny dimples and awkward smears. Movement become more efficient as we relied less on power and more on technique. As our time at Castle Hill drew to a close, we were able to send problems at grades harder than we’d ever climbed outside before. It wasn’t easy, but we left Castle Hill more complete climbers. In the end, ten days felt short, and we’re making plans to return soon.

When to go: Like nearly everywhere else, spring and fall have the most consistent temperatures for climbing. We were there in spring and it felt a bit crowded on nice weekend days, but most of the time we had the place to ourselves. It can get busy with families and sightseeing tourists during the summer.

Where to stay: Camp at Craigieburn Forest for $6 per person. Rainwater, a vault toilet, and a picnic shelter are provided. Hot showers are available at Flock Hill Lodge ($5) or a campground in Springfield ($1 for four minutes) Flock Hill Lodge also has backpacker accommodation for $31, or if you’re in a group, rent a house in Castle Hill Village.

Where to eat: The Sheffield Pie Shop has delicious sweet and savory pies. The Supreme (beef, bacon, onion, cracked pepper) and chicken/camembert/spiced apricot were both delicious for around $5. The Darfield Cafe and Bakery has awesome coffee and pastries and is a great place to kick back on a rainy day.

Note: There are no shops within 45 minutes of Castle Hill. Springfield (20 minutes) has a few cafes and gas stations, but you’ll have to go to Darfield for groceries. Load up on peanut butter and broccoli on the way. There’s also a public library in Darfield with a great staff and free wifi.


Communication is Sexy

“Something isn’t working,” I said to Zach, while staring at the road ahead of us.

“I know. What is it?” he replied, as we continued driving through the fields of sheep, toward the Castle Hill climbing area.

I sat there and thought. I could feel the lump in my throat. I hate these conversations. Zach and I usually have them about once a year, but since we have been on the road, we have had to talk about what’s working and what’s not working more often.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling stupid for not having the answer. At home, if I were in a funk, I’d go to the gym or grab a drink with a gal pal and after a day or two, things would be back to normal. But in the van, if one of us is in a funk, the other has to endure it as well.

“It doesn’t feel like we are on the same team.” It sounded totally pathetic to say it out loud.

“It’s just business, we are dealing with a lot of stuff and making a lot of decisions.”

“Maybe…. but that doesn’t work for me. I’m still your girlfriend.”

“Okay, yeah. I know that. I’m sorry. I’ll work on that. I love you.” He took his eyes off the road to glance over at me, smile and squeezed my hand.

I sat there still feeling incomplete, knowing that it takes two to tango. “So what is it that I’m doing or not doing that is making you frustrated?”

“We just have a lot of decisions to make. I need you to be clear about what you want and how you’re feeling. And to be decisive.”

“I can do that.” And like that, our team of two was back on track. There wasn’t much conversation for the rest of our drive, but we both smiled and breathed easy as we wound past lakes and through mountains back to our campsite.

Here we are, pushing thirty and we are still working on being nice, sharing, and talking about our feelings.

Before we left for our trip, I was a little nervous about spending all day, every day together. Quite simply, I was worried that I would annoy him and he might annoy me. We work great as a couple; we bring different perspectives and strengths to the table. Zach is careful, systematic, analytical. I am impulsive, creative, and light hearted. But we have never spent this much time with one another. When living in the city and working separate jobs, being greeted at the end of the day with this other personality was a great reprieve from one’s self.

Living in a van and spending most of every day together is totally different. As expected, it’s been a challenge. We work together, eat together, climb and play together. We’re constantly planning, budgeting, reworking our travels and looking at one another’s writing. It’s a lot and it is usually pretty easy. But that kind of sharing, critiquing and communicating requires an open and comfortable space so that amidst the working relationship, we can still have a romantic relationship.

When a problem does arise, there’s no avoiding it.  It sits in the center seat of the van and makes it feel crowded. We have to address it. Things like being nice to one another when frustrated, creating alone time, being organized, and communicating clearly have come up as issues that wouldn’t otherwise come up if we weren’t living in a small space and spending all of our time with each other. I can’t make a pile of my stuff in the corner because the corner is the whole room.

We’ve been together for a long time and had been comfortable in a routine, but this trip is making us face new challenges. Though it isn’t always comfortable, we share an understanding that change is a good thing and there isn’t anything we can’t do. And for that, I am grateful.


The Broken Window Saga

Sad Window

On the spectrum of ways I’d like to be woken up, “icy rain on my face” is somewhere between “gentle puppy kisses” and “SWAT team battering ram.” Well, that’s what I’ve had to deal with for the last month, as the window of our van, Nissan Serena Williams was stuck a few inches from the closed position. Or so we thought. Did I mention it rains a lot in New Zealand?

About a month ago, in the middle of the night, we were wakened by a mighty gale. Branches from the trees above whipped the side of the van and we were shoved back and forth on her well-aged suspension. Giant drops of rain came horizontal through our open windows, threatening our warm and dry cocoon of sleeping bags, pillows, and most importantly, electronic gadgets. We scrambled to close the windows, only to discover that the front passenger window wouldn’t shut completely. With heavy eyes we made a half-hearted attempt to solve the problem then plugged the hole and returned to our nest.

The next morning we decided we’d wait and deal with the window problem when it was more convenient to get it fixed. We had plans. No time to sit around an auto mechanic shop. We got used to it.

We spent the next few weeks driving around with the window nearly closed. I say “nearly closed,” but nearly closed is very far from actually closed, when precipitation is involved. Of course if it were stuck completely down, we would have done something about it sooner. We thought we could deal with it. We drove through snow, sleet, rain, wind, and what seemed like alternating freezing and miserably buggy nights hunkered down in Ms. Williams’ backseat, cursing the window that wouldn’t quite close.

Eventually, we caved. We took it to a mechanic to have it looked at. He puttered around for a few minutes, pressing the button that we’d tried hundreds of times before. He took the switch apart and hooked up some kind of electrical testing system. He fiddled with fuses and muttered something about a motor. Soon he gave up and sent us on our way the same way we’d drove in, but with our wallet a little lighter. He suggested we take it to an auto electrical specialist, as it was out of a normal mechanic’s depth. This sounded like it would be an expensive solution to an inconvenience that didn’t really impact the performance of the car. So we waited another few weeks to follow up.

In the interim, Nissan Serena Williams developed a different, slightly more serious issue that needed prompt attention, so we took her in to a different mechanic. We’ll call him Rob. I mentioned the window, but almost in passing, and asked him to take a look, if he had time, as a lower priority item. He wasn’t an electrical specialist so I had little hope he’d be able to solve it.

The next day, Rob called. “Nissan Serena Williams is ready,” he said. Ok, he didn’t address her by her full name. “Your car is ready.” He didn’t mention the window. I didn’t ask because I was sure he hadn’t fixed it, and I was resigned to the fact that it would continue to be a problem.

I arrived at his shop to pick it up, and to my surprise the window was up! It was fixed. The broken window saga was over! Rejoice! But of course, the story doesn’t end there.

He walked me through the work he’d done: replace the clutch master cylinder, fluids, some parts and a gave me a reasonable total. There was no mention of the window or any switches or motors on the bill.

“And the window? I saw it was fixed on the way in.”

“Oh, that,” he said, with a grin. “You know that button that’s above the window controls, on the driver’s side?”

“Uh, no.”

“That’s a lock for the windows.”


“It locks the window controls in the rest of the van.”

“Are you serious? That was it? Can you show me?” And he took me outside and pointed out the button. It was there, exactly as he said.

Photo proof: I’m an idiot

I couldn’t believe it. I’m familiar with power windows and their child locks. This wasn’t a great revelation. I’d just been too focused on other things to actually think about the problem.

We walked back in and settled the bill. “No charge for the window repair,” he said, grinning ear to ear.

“Thanks. Just keep it between you and me.”

“And me, ” said another mechanic said from behind a stack of tires.

“And me,” a teenage assistant with grease all over his face and hands added.

And for the final insult: “And me!” said a customer leaning into the shop from the waiting room.

This is the shame I must live with. Just remind me not to take the car back to the first mechanic. If I ever see him again I’m going to insist (not so politely) that he find another profession.

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