Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The land down under

Well we are finally out of the barn. It was a timely departure as summer has set in and the insects were beginning to infest our living space. There was a cyclic exchange of insects throughout the day. From the early morning to late afternoon copious amounts of horny house flies would openly show their affection for one another; sometimes three or four mounting at once. Later in the evening the house flies would mysteriously disappear and the moths and bark beetles would move in. These bark beetles are the June bugs of the southern hemisphere and they are horrific. Some trophy Juners exceeded 5’’ in length, with cephalothoraxes of an inch in diameter. They had jaws of a clam worm and when in mid flight their buzz would exceed the decibel reading of a large humming bird. Nothing is more unpleasant then being woken by five or six snapping the walls and steel ceiling.

Returning from a luxurious holiday of great food, rest and relaxation - at the Shambala - we had a week to find other work until our second term of apple thinning began. This was not a very difficult task because the Nelson region is littered with various farms that are always looking for temps. So we decided to walk next door to the neighboring vegetable and berry farm to ask for a weeks work. Sure enough he needed 3: Two to pick raspberries and one to help him prepare and package produce for the weekend markets. Luckily I ended up not picking berries. Stephen and Simon slaved for hours in the hot sun, filling punnets (500g dish) of raspberries valued at 50c/punnet. I don’t think either of them broke $80 in an 8 hour shift. On the other hand, my job entailed weighing, packaging and pricing every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. Not only did I make a hefty hourly wage, but I got to eat fresh produce and learn about one of the most famous agriculture industries in the world through lengthy conversations with the farm owner and operator named Steve. Steve is a short wrinkly man in his early forties who has a figure and facial profile of a leprechaun. He smoked easily two packs of cigs a day and drank shit juice as though it were water, so you can only imagine the potency of his breath. He is known throughout the south island for his tomato and bean varieties.
I worked very hard for the first few days, not taking any breaks and cleaning in between tasks. My hard work was recognized with a promotion to shop keep. Now my days consisted of chatting with locals and selling to them. I memorized all the prices per kg and could easily provide solutions to consumer requests such as “do you have any scarlet runners or Dutch flats in the back?” One day after my promotion to shop keep, Steve asked me if I would like to travel with him to the weekend markets. I was moving up the corporate ladder quite quickly. Now my Saturdays and Sundays began at 430am where we would load crates into the truck and make hourly commutes to surrounding towns. Not only was working for Steve a great learning experience but I made many friends.

It was difficult motivating ourselves during the second tear of apple thinning. Afternoon temperatures were becoming unbearable and there were many distractions. We discovered a great swimming hole down the road, we rented a PS2, and the one channel that our TV picked up, broadcasted the first two tennis tournaments of the season. Even Simon who would consistently put in ten hour days was knocking off at lunch time. Mid way through the week we picked up another bunk mate named Shane. Shane is an ex-convict who has been thinning and picking apples for 18 years. He is your stereotypical jail bird, littered with tattoos and is having troubles with his Miss’. His Miss’ now refuses to drive him to work every morning and that is why he is living with us. Close your eyes and picture a blonde haired villain out of a Quentin Tarantino film. That is Shane. He has some interesting outlooks on life and woman and even though he has been behind bars for a quarter of his life, Shane grew close to us. While in Australia we receive daily text messages from him making sure were O.K.

It t’was the night before Australia and all threw the barn, kids dreaming of tennis balls while bark beetles snapped the walls. I swear it was like Christmas Eve as a young child all over again. Stephen, Simon and I were overwhelmed with the thought of attending the Australian Open.
Running off little sleep we still had to finish thinning a block of Brea-burn trees before departing to the Christchurch airport. It felt as though the trees were growing larger by the minute. Productivity was at an all time low and the block was not completed until late afternoon. After saying goodbye to Shane and our boss (Who invited us back for picking season) we hit the road around 5:00pm. Our flight did not depart until 6:15am the next morning so we took our time soaking in the views of 450km of undulant roads. Just outside of Christchurch our front right tire “cooked”. God knows why or how it didn’t but it just bubbled out and made the car jitter like a bat out of hell. Our fingers were crossed in hope that she could complete the final stretch. It felt as thought we were dragging a piece of metal for the last 10 minutes of the drive, but midnight -being the veteran that she is - brought us safely to our destination once again. The time was now 11:30pm and there was no way we could make it to a hostel so we grabbed our sleeping bags and crashed on the airport floor until boarding time.

It was a sleep deprived five hour flight with no source of entertainment, no complementary snacks and no free fluids. I thought Air Canada was bad but Jet star is worse. The sky was clear during take off and landing so Stephen and I saw breath taking views of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and eastern Australian coast line. Parched and famished we landed around 9:15am Melbourne time. During the commute to our hostel, it was a comforting feeling to see North American TV shows and brand names being advertised on passing billboards.

Upon settling in, Stephen and I called home to inform everyone of our arrival. I will never forget the excitement on both sides of the telephone line. It was at this point where mom and dad blessed Stephen and I with extra funds to purchase additional Australian open tickets, other than our five day ground pass. Mom and dad we cannot thank you enough for your support! At the end of our conversation we raced to the concession stand to pick up our ground passes and view other ticket prices. Reality finally set in. Here we were in Melbourne Park in front of Rod Laver arena deciding whether we wanted to watch semi finals or quarter finals. People must have thought we were either really immature or crazy as we were jumping around - overwhelmed with excitement - capturing the moment on video camera. The final decisions lead to holding tickets for two day sessions at Vodaphone arena and a quarter final night session at Rod Laver.

It was the first morning of the Australian Open and we were at the gates an hour before opening to beat the rush. It was one of the longer waits of my life but it was worth it. Being inside the tennis grounds was very overwhelming! There were over 20 matches to choose from and too much stuff going on to know where to begin. Finally we decided to support the only male Canadian singles participant named Frank Dancivic. He was playing against Jarko Nieminin from Finland who is ranked 21st in the world. Before the match we shook Franks hand, had a quick conversation and wished him luck. It was an exciting five set match but Jarko’s machine like consistency lead to Frank’s demise. At the end of the match Frank thanked us for the support throughout the five sets. It was at this point where we realized the intimacy of the event and the influence you have on matches taking place on outside courts. Not only did we just watch a professional tennis match, but we met our favored competitor and interacted with him throughout the match with our supporting cheers. This was like no other professional sporting event I’ve attended. For five days we watched the Best players in the world, practice and duke it out behind the scenes. We exchanged words with Andy Roddick and James Blake (to name a few) and were feet away from the stunning figures of Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters. Some of the best matches of the tournament took place on the outside courts in the qualifying rounds when an unseated youngster like Jo-Wilfred Tsonga would take out the games top seats. During our Vodaphone sessions we witnessed all the top ten men and woman (besides Federer) play their hearts out in the heat of the day and under the lights at night. The stadiums were much more comfortable to watch from; you didn’t have to worry about your seat getting stolen during a washroom break, but the intimacy and influence was minimal. It was here where you were able to see a caliber of play above the norm. How these humans were able to consistently hit the ball with extreme pace and get to a return so quickly will impress me forever.

When you couldn’t ignore your restless legs, a walk around the tennis grounds was always entertaining. Live bands would be playing, sponsors had booths full of information and activities where you could win prizes and learn about new products. The weather each day reached the high 20’s and early 30’s so the men were shirtless (us included) and beautiful woman were strutting in string bikinis. If the band and promotional activities failed to entertain you could always count on drunken aussies’ causing a disruption somewhere. The environment was so relaxed and comfortable that at times Melbourne Park was more like a community than an event.

While waiting for the tournament to progress to the quarterfinals we spent a few days exploring the city and lounging on surrounding beaches. In the city we played many roles in order to be taken seriously by sales reps at high end stores. Stephen would pretend to be the American asshole who is interested in a $100,000 Bang & Olufsen entertainment system, while Simon and I would have people trying to sell us their newest sporting equipment and clothing lines. It was great to re-sync with the consumer world.

The time had finally come and we were anxiously waiting to hear from Simon who had been anticipating the quarterfinal draw all morning. Simon raced to our room the moment the updated draw was posted. He yelled “Good ol Federer vs. Blake”. We laughed as that was the best possible outcome that could have happened and also at the fact that Sy is absorbing our NB slang. Federer was the only top seat we had not seen play so it was sure to be another unforgettable evening. To take the event seriously we dressed in our best cloths, ate chicken parmesan and had a bottle of wine at a fancy Italian restaurant. It was a victory walk under the glowing Melbourne skyline to Rod Laver arena. Goosebumps riddled my skin upon entrance of one of the sports most historic icons. Federer’s presence was felt by all. During play his feet caressed the court and his racquet controlled every ball. Our seats were only three rows up and when he was close to us you could feel an aura about him. There were a few great rallies but as expected he swept Blake in straight sets.

Being in Melbourne on a backpacker’s budget is quite frustrating. There are classy restaurants around every corner - nothing would be more satisfying than sitting down, ordering from the left side of the menu (not focusing on the price) and enjoying a nice bottle of wine – there are the best shopping centers I have ever seen and there is the largest casino in the southern Hemisphere only walking distance from our hostel. We attended the casino on a regular basis not to gamble but to capitalize on the cheap meals and comfortable lounges which broadcasted the tennis matches on days we didn’t have tickets. Melbourne did not have a national distinction; it is an integration of European, North American and South Pacific cities. If you were blind folded and dropped into the city, it would be difficult to figure out what country you’re in until you herd someone say “Mate”. The city represents beautiful people from all over the world. If you obsess over one nationality of men or woman, I would suggest coming here to find them. Not only is it a potpourri of beautiful people of every ethnicity but all are submersed into a cosmopolitan English speaking environment. Personally I find it very frustrating walking by super models every second because I know I cannot meet all of them. I swear Stephen and I fall in love over a hundred times a day.

The cost of living here is much cheaper than in New Zealand. Communication costs are still the same but the price of accommodation and food is less. When in NZ it is impossible to find a restaurant with healthy food and table service for under $15. Here you can eat any cuisine and receive exceptional service for under $10. One thing we are fortunate of is the cost of Alcohol. In NZ you can always buy beer for less than a dollar a bottle but here the cost is tripled. Therefore this leg of our travels has been very healthy; we are not exposed to any chemicals (fungicides or growth inhibitors), we eat exceptionally well (other than our barbeque diet), barely consume any alcohol and play tennis or workout at least once a day. Life is good!

Now we are watching the warm colored lion king sun set over the pacific on our flight back to NZ. At the moment we are all smiles. It’s a great feeling to know that we are entering the following three months of mystery, experienced and fully equipped. Words cannot express how much Stephen and I miss you all. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday!

Thank you all for reading,