Friday, December 28, 2007

Office Boy turns Farm boy

with Stephe Crabbe

Apple Thinning

Hi Everyone! And welcome to the Christmas edition of our wild journey in New Zealand. From Alpine to Jungle we traveled the North Island in style. A land where beer is bottled cheaply and good times are around every corner, mountain, river bend or wherever the hell you may find yourself. First I would like to apologize for the unnecessary latency time between blogs. Back by popular demand I am about to take you on a trip into the mind of an office boy turned farm boy. You are traveling not only through a dimension of sight and sound but of the mind. Where the brain is not being used but is it? What happens to a man when it is just him and a row of trees for ten hours? Read on to see…

Over the last four weeks Patrick, Simon and I have been focusing on getting some money in our New Zealand bank accounts as our Canadian accounts are now empty. Pat’s rough calculations on our newly planned trip to Melbourne, Australia for the Aussie Open Tennis Major were 2200 NZD. Ground passes are available for the very affordable price of 99 AUS Dollars per week! The recent currency hike has come at a very convenient time in an equinox of sorts as we transition from one currency valuation to another. We were looking forward to getting work primarily for the money but also in a hope that it would give us a temporary routine. After living on a boat for a month to living out of a car and a tent for two, you being to appreciate things that are normality’s to your average person. The thought of having fresh cold milk, perhaps a couch in front of a television set seemed like amenities from a past life. A dream land where a man could shower and shave in the morning in his own space…wow that would be special, I thought.

We were four people south bound to Wellington, the capital of NZ in our car which was getting less reliable as the days progressed. Hannah, a good friend, was with us as we were crammed into the car like sardines. Sometimes it the car wouldn’t start, not that the engine was going but the battery kept mysteriously dying. Fortunately jumping our car is very easy and when the battery was too dead to jump start someone was always there with a boost. The road curved and undulated as we progressed over a mountain range back toward the east coast of NZ and the South Pacific Ocean. The Whangenui River is the most central geographical location in NZ, a whopping 100 kms to either ocean. We spent a few days in Wellington, one of which was relaxing and the other a bit more exciting. We boarded the ferry with our car heading to the South Island early afternoon, destination Nelson. A costal city of 40 000 Kiwis with a vibrant tennis community and the most sunshine on either Island! Where the water is an aqua blue color that North Americans only see in an artificial state. Mullets are as cool as Dave Beckham and every young man is striving to have the loudest, fastest car. Simon and I purchased racquets in Wellington and we were all more than eager to start playing tennis. Fortunately we landed at the Palace hostel where we score our own apartment. 20 per night for a flat with a private kitchen and living room. Our initial days in the Nelson region were spent on the tennis court. Morning, Afternoon, and night we were tearing it up. For the 1st time in our lives we had a close friend that was a very competent player. Simon’s ability to consistently execute a powerful inside-out forehand had us scrambling around the court to stay in sets. His elite background in nationally accredited German table tennis was shining through. Patrick’s elbow is feeling excellent and he can absolutely “schmammer” the ball. We soon found ourselves immersed in the local tennis community playing the best tennis of our lives.
A Classified Ad and a phone call later and we were heading into the country side for an informal interview with “Nick”. Bronte Farms Ltd. was looking for apple thinning employees on a 4 contract. Perfect! Work until just before Christmas on a farm. I didn’t want to be in a factory or in a restaurant; I wanted to be outside earning money the way a man should; with his hands. Patrick, Simon and I sprung out of the car on a balmy Saturday afternoon and Nick, our boss was washing his dirt bike. A burly man in his mid thirties with unassuming good looks hidden behind a ball cap and a morning of dirty work. There were several dogs milling around looking for a hard pet as he tried to feel us out. Ten minutes later he told us to show up at eight on Monday morning to start work. With a firm country boy handshake we were heading back to our Hostel with jobs!

Monday morning came quick and with a cooler full of ham sandwiches and trail mix we were off. The training and orientation was very brief, Nick’s father Bruce had a few words of wisdom for us and we were given a daunting row of apples trees to be thinned. You may be asking yourself what is involved in the process of thinning an apple tree? It is simple; you must eliminate clusters of apples as well as purge any apples that have russet (frost damage) on them. These trees are quite tall so you are given a special ladder which becomes an extension of you legs. Each row is given a specific tree valuation depending on the size and maturity. One of their veteran thinners picks a tree from a row and thins it. Usually at a superhuman pace he sets the piece rate to determine the monetary yield for each tree. If it takes ten minutes then the tree is worth 2 dollars. If it takes ½ hour then it is worth 6 dollars etc. The ambiguity associated with this valuation process gave people rows that could be gold mines, but that was never the case for me. My first morning is a fairly accurate depiction of how the four weeks went for me in the luck category. I was assigned to an end row, like a partridge in the morning; naive ness overlooked the fact that the additional sun that an end row receives turns trees into sprawling jungles. The first day was trying but at the same time very gratifying. On the drive back to Nelson I was invigorated knowing I had a net positive gain for the day. I had also been outside in the warm Kiwi sun working with my hands and using my brain in a way which wasn’t connected to my work at all.

After the second day of thinning on Bronte’s main farm we were gratefully transferred to another location which was closer to Nelson, Redwood Valley. It was a Wednesday morning which was progressing very similar to that of the days before. The temperate evenings deposited an unpleasant layer of dew on the trees which would relentlessly drip on you until the sun had time to evaporate it. I was working alongside a young Swedish chap who informed me of his travel plans and other customary small talk. He also told me an odd story of his travel friend, also a Swede getting drop kicked in the face. Intrigued but the scenario he went on to tell me it happened mid-day at a vineyard on the North Island. His friend suffered a broken jaw and many stitches. After getting to know this travel partner if his I understood what type of a personality warranted a drop kick in the face. Our boss Nick dropped by in his truck to see how things were going. He greeted me with his consistent “how u doin’ awlright?” I replied in a very cheerful manner and we got to talking. A few minutes later and he informed me that a few people with whom he had accommodations for never showed up for the contract. He said if we wanted to stay we could for 20 a week to simply cover the electricity. I held back my joy and calmly said that would be great. He went around to Pat and Simon and explained the situation also. Since we had already paid for the night in Nelson we commuted back into the city to retrieve our personal effects and tell our friends of the change. Packing our belongings was somewhat harder than usual as we had been getting comfortable in our flat which means all our shit was everywhere. Another day, another dollar but Thursday was different. Today after work we were going to our new flat. Our supervisor had informed us with a raised eye brow that there was a dart board, pool table, living room with TV. You can imagine the excitement brewing amongst the three of us. Interstellar alignment of what we had wanted to accomplish while working. We were sure bridging the gap between ideas and results. Days end came quick as usual and were pleased to see that our new flat was right in the orchard. Expecting much more grandeur we were introduced to an old tomato packing barn. The tin roof was radiating heat like a paved road as we walked through a wood stack which was our entrance. We looked inside to see a stack of mattresses in the corner riddled with mice shit, mold, and cobwebs. There were a few couches in the opposite corner which looked as bad. Exposed rafters revealed netting used to interrupt bird flight as well as heaps of cobwebs. The walls and floor were like dirty cottage cheese as I noted at least a dozen sizeable holes. Quarter inch spacing was average between eight inch planks of wood making up the walls. The entire floor was carpeted, every ten square feet the carpet color and texture changed. We all looked at each other and despite everything optimism seemed to be shining through. We were then brought to the cooking area which was a barbecue. The kitchen wasn’t a kitchen, rather a room with a fridge and a washing machine. Hmmm…cooking should be interesting. Attached was also a toilet and shower. Bonus. I was keeping a positive outlook on everything but Pat and Simon we surprisingly pessimistic about the whole deal. After a quick meeting we were all on the same wavelength and this place would be more than fine. The barn had a true Kiwi experience written all over it. How cool is this going to be? The three of us in a barn, picking apples all day and hanging around in the evenings drinking beer, playing darts and shooting the shit! In the midst of warm air circumventing freely through the walls I was ecstatic as the potential of this space rushed through my brain. The first order of business for us was to purchase a T.V and Stereo system. After shopping around we became educated in the subject of return policies in New Zealand. An afternoon later and we had both, receipts closely behind as they were merely rentals soon to be returned due to falsified problems. With a major rearrangement and a quick cleaning our barn had transformed from a shit hole into a pretty cool spot! A man camp if I may.

We all progressed at different levels while working. Simon scorched through his row making upwards of 160 NZD per day as Pat and I struggled to make over one hundred. Pat and I worked Thursday and Friday side by side, talking away like best friends should. Questions and memories flowed freely as discussions jumped from the mystery of our basement on Ernest St. to the time when drug dogs invaded the high school during a dance. We touched on love, the future, hockey, business prospects, if the worlds problems could be solved in an afternoon could have done it. There was something about the freedom of it all which unlocked a certain something in us. We were conjuring memories which we distant to us for many years. Fortunately for me when we moved apart as our rows deviated in time per tree I had my Ipod. Music has always evoked emotion in me but this was different. With headphones you hear every lyric, ever thread, you notice that base line or effect that has been overlooked through the years. The worse thing that could happen is a dead battery. No music, no motivation. The Ipod took me through an emotional rollercoaster all day were I could relate to hip hop icon Usher when he sang “Let it burn”. Feelings of euphoria would come over me when listening to “We’re all in this together” by Old Crow Medicine Show. And let’s not forget about “Streets of San Francisco” by the Global DJ’s which would make my fingers and body move like wildfire as I squirreled up and down my ladder watching the money fall into my pocket.

So that is how our days went. Nothing spectacular. Five O’clock mornings, a bowl of muesli, a few ham sandwiches, BBQ every night, and hard work. Work that freed my mind to look into a happy and prosperous future. I though of family, friends, SWP and how this experience was exactly what I need to return to normal life and begin to focus less of party and life “out there” and more on career and my passions. Patrick said that if he could have had a personal assistant to write down his thoughts it would be unbelievably productive. Evenings at the barn were consistent, after dinner and a shower to wash off some of the pesticides we usually watched a film, listened to music read, talked. Four of the most impactful weeks of my life to date.

So…it is now between Chrstmas and New Years. We spent a perfect three days oceanside at “Shambala” which is a meditation hostel on the Northern tip of Golden Bay. A place so serene that I could run out of superlatives very fast in a description of the property. The main house reminded me of Pete Puelston’s with a comfortable alternative feel. Its only power was solar and rain water was to only source of H2O. It was so cool. There were cabins and meditation areas scattered throughout the mature property. Simon, Pat and I were joined by Leanna Davis (Josh’s younger sister) and her friend Jackie both from Vancouver. The Swedes. And six other Germans, Hanna, Eta, Elena, Doro, Karsten, and Stefan. We found ourselves swimming and snorkeling on a sunny, warm 25th and meeting some truly genuine people. It was tough talking to everyone back home and dreaming of turkey, snow, and eggnog. Being away during the holidays sure makes a man appreciate how special and important family is.

Go Giants Go! Someone have a glass of Eggnog and a box of Kraft dinner for me!