Our Hot Rod

We are in the midst of a transition, from Waiheke Island (A), through Auckland, to Coromandel (B) for a few days, Martinborough for a week (C) and ultimately down to Canterbury (D) on the South Island by the end of the month. We need a vehicle to make this transition and continue on with our travels. It is time.

On Sunday we attended the Auckland Car Fair, held at the Ellerslie Racetrack outside of Auckland. We have known about the car fair for awhile, but were hoping to buy a van through word of mouth. We tried that, but it didn’t work. Time to turn to the professionals.  (Professional used car salesmen? Mechanics? Scam artists?)

We got off the train with the rest of the tourists and traveled in a herd of languages: Japanese, German, Spanish, to the racetrack. Lost tourists trying to navigate their way may sound different in each language, but looks exactly the same: swiveling heads, scouring the streets for clues and signs. My instinct was to walk faster and beat the pack, but I am nursing a stubbed toe and had to accept that we were not going to be the first ones in. Dammit. I like being first. (Oh, hello little New Yorker tendency.)

We headed to the camper van row and started sizing up the cars, none of which I had heard of before. Toyota Estima? Hiace? Nissan Largo? A middle eastern guy had gutted his dented 1990 Toyota Estima taxi cab, complete with cigarette stank and stained seats, but was only asking $2,700. There was the 1985 Toyota Hiace with 300,000 km on it and completely gutted of everything except the two front seats that was going for $7,000. Then there was the dready guy and his gal pal who were lounging in tailgate chairs in front of their lifted, purple, 1999 Toyota Hiace with a bed, kitchen, and collapsable table inside. Too bad they were asking $9,500.

It seemed as if everything was either too expensive, too old, too many miles, expired this, broken that, too ugly, too small, too big, too whatever. We spent the rest of the day calling individual sellers, other car dealers, and mechanics.  Twice we thought we found something, but after the pre purchase inspection, were told to stay far, far away from the vehicle. We across town and back again to look at vehicles, which by the end of the day, all looked about the same. After the fair had shut down and we were waiting on another van to arrive, the fair mechanics offered us a mid day Heineken, which was much needed and took the edge off before we geared up for another round of “How tall are the tales you’re telling me?”

In the end, we found a car that passed inspection. It is a red, 1992 Nissan Serena, which I dismissed it at first because the interior is ugly as sin (think frayed, beige poly-rayon curtains, with a possibly used mattress covered in primary colored geometric print fabric in the back) Thank god that Zach can see beyond that stuff. There will be a funeral pyre as soon as I can find some cheap material to redecorate with. It has a good engine, good cooling system, new tires, brakes work, whatever. That’s the important stuff. And that the search is over. Now off to explore!

Home sweet home


Rethinking Seasonally

In New York, eating seasonally is cool. It is a choice that food enthusiasts, myself included, make. Sometimes. When we feel like it. But when the only thing at the farmers market is turnips, cabbages, and onion, it is off to Whole Foods to get the rest of what is on the list. In New Zealand, eating out of season is a luxury. I first noticed this when we were grocery shopping in Auckland, and two red peppers rang up as $9.98. WTF?! I begrudgingly asked the cashier to take one of the peppers out of my bag, while I  had silent adult tantrum in my head: But I waaaaant it.

I really should have removed both from my bag, but I was caught off guard and being stubborn, so I kept one. One stupid, $5 capsicum. However, this was more than just red peppers being expensive. This was cramping my dinner stye. I, like many people, express myself through food. I like to make good food for other people to say “thank you,” or “I like you, let’s be friends.” And most of us who enjoy making food have our go-to recipes and ingredients that are relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare and taste delicious. Red peppers, specifically roasted red peppers, are one of my staple ingredients. They make my dinner distinct. And now, I had to make dinner without them. (Wah.)

Well, we are on an island. Everything here is expensive. Especially things that are not grown or made here. And as it turns out, red peppers are summer vegetables and it is winter here. If you want them, you are going to have to pay for them to come over from Mexico. Or wherever they come from.

Which is how it should be, isn’t it? There is plenty of produce that I buy year round from Whole Foods and it doesn’t even dawn on me that it isn’t the season. I mean, strawberries are obvious because there is no replicating a perfectly sweet June strawberry. But how about eggplant? Or Spinach? Or bananas? They are amongst my staples, yet I am unaware of their growing season because I can get them for the same price and they have about the same taste, year round.

Until I came here and found that I can’t afford to cook the way I did in New York.

Another curve ball came when we found out that our WWOOF hosts only provide us breakfast and lunch. Usually 3 meals are provided, but we are only doing about a half a days work each day and therefore are only provided 2 meals. This makes sense, and the details of the work trade agreement do vary from host to host. However, making dinner each night was an unexpected expense.

We hit the local grocery store in search of ingredients that are equal parts healthy, hearty, tasty and inexpensive.  In New York, I would find recipes and make my grocery list before heading off to the store, whereas here we are going sans list and searching for ingredients that fit our criteria. Our first haul included onions, bean sprouts, garlic, carrots, broccoli, white button mushrooms, pasta, pasta sauce, parmesean cheese, a pineapple, Tim Tams and a bottle of wine, all for $45. We have supplemented that with rocket (a variety of arugula), lemons and rosemary from the garden and the occasional butter, sausage or eggs left over from breakfast and stretched it for 5 meals.

Big pasta dinner for us and our host family. Can’t go wrong with bacon and lemon!

$45/5 dinners= $9 per dinner, $9/2= $4.50 per person. Not bad.

Cooking here is a real lesson in back to the basics. No spices other than salt and what is in the garden. No fancy ingredients, just what’s in season and what’s cheap. The challenge then is to make it taste good. We have lucked out so far, with some hearty salads and pasta with veggies, with just one flop when I tried to incorporate some baked beans into a stir fry and wound up with barbecue sauce flavored bean sprouts, but we don’t need to dwell on that one.

So while it is taking some adjusting, shopping and eating what is in season, and what is affordable, feels a bit like an experiment, or a challenge. A challenge that we are totally dominating.


Couch Surfing

Laptop time in Auckland-4011

We found Jon through the Couch Surfing website, but didn’t meet him until Friday morning right after arriving in Auckland. He showed us around, gave us a set of keys, introduced us to Leandro, another traveler staying at his apartment, and then took off for the weekend to celebrate his neice’s birthday. He left us with a booklet that said “The Bridge…” on the front of it, with some information about how to work the television and his restaurant recommendations in the area.

Who does that? Just hands over his home to complete strangers?

Over the course of the next five days I saw exactly what he meant by “The Bridge.” As travelers arrived in Auckland and dragged their inevitably jet lagged bodies through the door, Jon’s apartment served as a bridge from one leg of a journey to the next. It was a crash pad for those getting off the plane, a computer lab where I could Skype with my sister, a writing center for Leandro to work on his resume, a hot shower and comfy couch for watching the Olympics, and most importantly a friendly place in a new city. It quickly felt like home, and our fellow travelers began to feel much like room mates, instead of strangers sharing a roof.

Javier moved to New Zealand to open a PaKua studio. Here, he gives us a lesson in acrobatics.

By Monday, there were seven of us staying in Jon’s two bedroom apartment. Zach and I representing the US of A, Leandro and Javier from Argentina, Paul from Russia, Vinnie from Brazil and of course, Jon from New Zealand. During the day, each of us went about our business, opening bank accounts, getting cell phones, hiking volcanos, Skyping in Portuguese (that wasn’t me), doing laundry, and exchanging money. As cocktail hour rolled around, each one of us trickled back to the apartment with a bottle or two of wine in hand. Obviously, no one would rather spend cocktail hour in a bar with strangers.

From the time the first glass was poured, to when dinner was served, until after the plates were cleared, the “bullshit conversation,” as Jon called it, flowed. “What guides your travels? Your mind, your heart or your soul?” Jon asked over roast chicken and pinot noir. “Is it reason? Do you choose what makes most sense, or is it love?” My initial response was that the answer can’t be categorized like that, but before I could express why I didn’t like the question, the Brazilian had already started answering. And thank god, because the conversation that ensued was thoughtful and revealed a little more about each personality at the table, whereas my response was dismissive and would have squashed the conversation.

Paul (standing) made churro- style fritters for dessert, which were promptly slathered in nutella and devoured.

I get why Jon hosts couch surfers. He creates a warm, welcoming space for people who need it and is responsible for something that other people are going to remember forever- more so than anything else Auckland has to offer. And at the same time, he gets to participate in something really, really fun and meet all sorts of new people. I’m looking forward to doing the same when I get home.


Good Morning!

Sunrise from Prince’s Wharf in downtown Auckland


School Kills Creativity

While enjoying a post-workout glass of wine and some sweets this afternoon, the conversation among my fellow couchsurfers (there are six of us here) turned to education.  Javier, a kind young Argentinian, suggested we watch Sir Ken Robinson’s related TED talk.

It has absolutely nothing to do with NZ, but a lot to do with why we’re here. It’s also bit long (20 minutes), and a bit old (2006), but it’s filled with hilarious jokes, amusing anecdotes and, of course, inspiring and eloquent speech. Highly recommended:

Personally, I’m just now starting to realize what I want to “be.” I certainly wasn’t ready to make that decision as a freshman in college, as most American students are encouraged to do. So I bounced from one course of study to another, and another again, and finally just settled on something that would get me that piece of paper in a reasonable amount of time. And I’ve never used the material I studied since.

During our recent move into storage/massive purge of old things, I was finally able to throw out my old econometrics and public policy tomes.  This was cathartic — I could finally admit to myself that no, I am not and will never be a professional economist or politician. Thank god(s). It’s not that college was useless, I learned some critical thinking and social skills.  Oh, and I met my beautiful and wonderful-in-every-way girlfriend. So I think of her every month when I’m sending in that student loan check.

But I didn’t make the most of college because I didn’t have any direction.  I wish I’d taken creative writing, foreign language, and public speaking courses. Of course it’s easy to say that now, but if I wasn’t forced into a track, any track, and rather encouraged to take a general course of study I would have inevitably hit a few of those by chance. Sure, I had some elective options, but I was so burnt out by heavy academic courses that I took bullshit like Human Sexuality and Sacred Music because they didn’t sound difficult and fit into my drinking schedule.

Back to Robinson’s point, I was never a particularly creative kid.  In fact, I rebelled against art and music classes because I thought they were a waste of time.  Why did I think they were a waste of time?  Because they weren’t given the same importance as math or science. So I don’t think that early education killed my creativity, but I do wish that I wasn’t allowed to ignore it.  I excelled in what they told me to excel in, but let the rest fall by the wayside because I could. It was a rational decision, there are limited hours in the day and I concentrated my efforts in places where I’d see results.  Wait, maybe I am an economist at heart?

Finally, this is why we travel.  It’s these conversations with strangers from far away lands that end up inspiring a rambling blog post. Serendipity is a wonderful and fickle mistress.  Grab her by the neck when you can.

Now, it’s happy hour.  Things are good. If you can believe it, winter in Auckland is 60 degrees and sunny.  Gin and tonics all around!


Day 1

Yellow Kiwis at breakfast

We landed in Auckland just before 6 am on Friday, successfully passed through customs without having to get rid of my stash of Luna bars and managed to get our tent and boots through biosecurity without any problems. We boarded a bus at the airport while it was still dark and watch the outskirts of town slowly light up as we wound through the surrounding towns and approached downtown Auckland. It is winter here, which means it is typically 55 and rainy. Yesterday was misty in the early morning hours, turning sunny then chilly at night. The jet lag wasn’t so bad, and was eased immensely by a delicious “tall black” (espresso w/ hot water, which we would call an americano) to get through the morning.



This is how the day went:

  • While still on the flight, I realized that I packed our WWOOF handbook (with the listing of farms) into storage. This was to be our survival guide and resource for work. MAJOR WOOPS.
  • Also while on the flight, I realized that I need immediate dental attention for a tooth that has become infected. When I visited my dentist in NYC a few weeks ago, he told me that nothing was wrong and I was over reacting. Turns out I’m not.
  • Arrived at Prince’s Wharf around 7:30 am, where we are couch surfing in the lap of luxury.
  • Upon checking my email, we learned that our first farm no longer needs us to work there. Heavy rains have made for little farm work. Instead of freaking out, we got right to work. Zach searched on HelpX.com for work trade opportunities for next week and sent some emails. I also requested a new handbook to be sent to Jon, who volunteered to hold any mail for us.
  • Got a recommendation from Jon, the dude with whom we are staying, for a dentist. Was in their chair at 11:00 am, got a script for antibiotics and was home by lunch time. I also think I made new friends there, with the nicest receptionist and most honest and helpful dentists I’ve ever visited.
  •  Zach and I headed out to explore downtown Auckland and check out a bouldering spot by Mount Eden, a dormant volcano. The walk there was about an hour and gave us the opportunity to see much of downtown Auckland, which Zach compared to Montreal. Mostly older buildings, pretty gritty, not dirty, just not pretty. Also realized not a place we want to spend much time. While we are here, we are taking full advantage of the conveniences of the city in getting settled. The climbing spot was on the property of  boys private school, so we cut through their athletic fields (where they were running laps barefoot) and followed a Harry Potter looking boy’s directions to the spot. It was a great area, with sport routes set and chalk from previous climbers, marking the routs. Unfortunately, it was soaking wet and pretty hard to find good, dry routes, so we didn’t climb much. We anticipate being back when it dries out.
  • On the way home, a bird took a poop in my hair. Not a kiwi bird. Just a pigeon.
  • Got home round 5pm, made beef stew, drank some red wine and watched highlights of the Olympics with Leandro, our couch surfing room mate from Argentina. Both of us were dead asleep around 8 pm.

“Don’t run, skip. As if the path ahead is full of daisies.”

Day 1 was not at all what we expected. We had a plan. It didn’t work. So we made a new one. But, isn’t that what it this all about? Being flexible and open and learning new things? Instead of farming, it looks like we are going to work for a caterer on Waiheke Island. Also looks like I’m going to have a tooth extracted (this is a good thing, that tooth has been a problem for years). And we have good luck bird poop to make sure all goes well.

An Open Letter to Airlines (besides Air New Zealand)

Dear Every Airline Ever (besides Air NZ),

I suggest you send your top brass on a holiday to NZ, post-haste.  If for no other reason than studying what air travel should (and can) be. You’re welcome. Contact me for banking info so you can send me a cut of your inevitably skyrocketing profits.

The precedent is set early. A gate attendant quickly and deftly helped me resolved a lingering visa/passport issue with a simple call to NZ immigration.  I can imagine your policy in a similar situation: “figure it out yo-self.”  Why, thank you.  So helpful.

As we pushed back from the gate, a friendly flight attendant (yes, friendly) inquired about what I’d like to drink with my special meal.  Bwah? I’d requested a special meal?  Turns out I had! Thanks for remembering, and for the delicious Sauvignon Blanc, or “Sav” as they call it in NZ.  Loogit me, learning local slang!

But the in-flight entertainment was the real kicker.  I watched about five movies and ten television episodes between nodding off from the sleeping meds I’d taken (sadly not airline provided, so there’s one point for improvement) and the tasty meal service. There were even movies I’d been trying to see for some time: Contagion, The Descendants, Fantastic Mr. Fox, 21 Jump Street (lowbrow! brilliant!); and some classic comedies: Anchorman, The Hangover.  The list of television available goes on and on: Arrested Development, BBC/NatGeo nature shows, Modern Family, Family Guy, Family Ties (jk). I know, in-flight entertainment isn’t a new or unique thing, but it’s often done so poorly its hardly worth bothering. Usually either the selection, sound, picture, or interface are so terrible that I give up and go back to reading.  How primitive!

Oh! I nearly forgot the seats! The seats in coach class are easily more comfortable than my chairs at home.  They have headrests adjustable in infinite ways, they’re wide, and they lean back nice and far.  Why pay for first class?  Which reminds me, who are the crazy people spending $10k on a first class seat for their toddler?  That kid has no idea what he’s got going for him, and will be rudely awakened when the real world (and coach class) comes calling.

So, in short, that was the fastest twelve hour flight I’ve ever experienced. I was even a little disappointed when it ended. How will I ever know what happens to the Bluth family?


International Air Travelers Everywhere

P.S. Maybe some other airlines do it right. If you know of any that pump Ambien into the air above toddlers, let me know.

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