Sunday, April 10, 2011

When you finally find what you’re looking for

(Note: Although posted now in April, this post was written while on the road in January)

Like a number of my friends, I have done a few psychometric profiling tests in the past, and also like a number of my friends, the results of these tests showed a strong goal-oriented trait (among other things). So it’s not surprising that I gave myself a mission when I left New Zealand.

My mission? To find a new adventure: something new that I wanted to do, somewhere that I wanted to do it, and people that I wanted to do it with. What was my proposed method? Travel. Travel until I didn’t feel like travelling anymore, and to keep my eyes peeled for good future opportunities along the way - oh yeah, and have a bit of fun along the way.

Starting with a shortlist of London, Hong Kong, Vancouver and San Francisco (we all have dreams, right?), I made sure that my year long itinerary would take me through as may of these spots as possible so that I could get a feel for what it might be like to live and work there - with the expectation that they would all probably score quite highly on career, fun people, nice place and a good “general vibe”. So when I confirmed that I would be signing up for a year of work at a Mozambican chilli farm just before Christmas, it wasn’t what people were expecting to hear.

But the decision process was more than just an inspired “I like it here, so why not??”. After consulting those who know me best, and whose opinions I knew would really matter to me, I felt that I’d covered most of the bases and was confident in putting my name down in ink. But how could a small, half finished chilli farm 45km from the capital of the world’s 3rd poorest country compete - and beat out - a list of the most developed, cultured, opportunity-rich, and popular world cities on the planet?

Part of the appeal is that Mozambique is everything that the other options are not, but still manages to have those things that are most important. Being a poor but rapidly developing economy, there are opportunities everywhere. Initially I will just be helping to run a couple of African chilli farms (apparently the Zambian operation needs a bit of Muzungi Powa - “white man power”, which is what the farm workers say whenever I pick up a shovel - too), but Boss Mick has a few other good ideas that hopefully we will be able to pursue on the side.

True, the money isn’t what it would be should one go and chase a job in the London finance world, but the work and the people more than make up for this. With much broader and greater responsibility than what I could find elsewhere, the learning and challenge factors will be sky high, which combine well with the ability to work in shorts and jandals most days. And the people that you get to deal with are among the most friendly and cheeky that I’ve met anywhere - despite the usual tensions when money and business are at stake, Mozambicans are always willing to help you out when you need it, and can take (and give) a joke no matter who you are.

Throw in a few other positives such as weekend trips to Tofu Beach or Kruger National Park, $3 bbq dinners on the beach at sunset with the locals, a very diverse and interesting bunch of expat locals from foreign investment and aid organisations, the chance to learn a foreign language while living it (Portuguese language lessons are in the job description), and the underlying feeling that your hard work is making a real, tangible difference to a lot of people who really need it, and I found the decision approaching the category of “no brainer”.

I initially agreed with one of my trusted advisers when they described the London job vs. Chilli Farmer decision as somewhat of a head vs. heart call, but the more I think about it seems like I’ve found a way to go with both. I can’t wait to get back to the farm and see how right - or wrong - I am.

Watch this space.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Wild Travel Encounters, Part Four: “TIA, Bru”

Maputo, Mozambique:
When I left Auckland, Marie from work told me to email her friend Mick, who she used to work with in software sales but now farms chilli peppers in Africa. So I did. He needed assistance setting up an accounting system for his business, and I was looking for volunteer opportunities to help stretch my backpacker’s budget. So I signed up for “somewhere between 2 weeks and 2 months” on the farm in Maputo.
Travel Icon: 0/5. When I say, “Maputo”, you probably say, “Who??”
Fun Factor: 4/5. After being here for 2 months, the best way that I can describe Mozambique in relation to the rest of Africa is that it is like continental Europe to the UK. The people have a culture, a pride, and a sophistication that is apart from it’s English speaking neighbours. Mick’s theory is that it’s because there was an independence war where they Mozambicans threw their colonists out, and then fought a 30 year civil war - this means that the people have the passion and pride to fight, and lack don’t have the English-inspired culture of subservience of their neighbours, where the English rulers “granted” independent rule.
Despite being the world’s third poorest country, this sophistication is manifested everywhere. An early 1900’s train station designed by Gustav Eiffel is restored and used as a café, art gallery and night club where you can chat with local artists, there are French, Chinese, and Portuguese cultural centres, and best of all, there is very little racial/cultural segregation - bars and restaurants are packed with tables of people of all colours, all mixed up, and all bantering and laughing on equal terms(the rest of Africa is not like this at all).
Grit Factor: 6/5. Like Leonardo di Caprio said, “TIA, bru”(This is Africa). In fact, Blood Diamond was filmed in Maputo. A former Portuguese colony, noone speaks English, which just adds to the culture shock. As do the guards with assault rifles outside most buildings, the lack of continuous (or any) paving on roads, the police road blocks where being threatened for a bribe is commonplace, and the fact that you are a foreigner, completely out of your comfort zone, with a target on your back , all because of the colour of your skin. The best way that I could sum it up on a Skype call to Mum was to point the webcam at the inside of my apartment’s front door - there is a jail style steel grill with dead bolt and padlock, then a solid wooden door with two deadlocks and two wooden bars that get placed across it at night. This is all in case someone gets past the two armed guards and metal door 12 floors below.
My favourite part of all of this is that despite there being a reason for all of these precautions, you can walk up to anyone on the street, smile, shake hands, and (if they speak some English), start a friendly conversation with some great banter. These people are a lot of fun.

Ihla de Mozambique, Mozambique:
Mick was too busy to sit down and go over the accounts with me, so he sent me 3000Km north with his cousin who was visiting from Aussie.
Travel Icon: 3/5. Mozambique Island was the first capital of Mozambique, and the initial point of settlement for traders from across Europe, India, Africa, Arabia, and China.
Fun Factor: 3/5. Spending our days wandering the dusty streets of Stone Town, sailing on traditional fishing dhows to nearby islands and beaches, and watching the sunset from the rooftop with beer in hand, this place is the complete picture postcard destination.
Grit Factor: 2/5. People are poor but friendly, and the island is used to tourists.

Mozambican Roads:
It was time to head back South to the farm, and 3000Km is a long way, especially on these “roads”. So I set off with Joe, a fellow traveller from Ireland.
Travel Icon: 3/5. You know those pictures of Toyota Hiace vans with 25+ people packed in, plus large sacks of rice, the feet of live chickens sticking out here and there, and maybe a goat or two on the roof? That’s how we roll.
Fun Factor: 1/5. After 30 hours on buses over 3 days (the final day being 16 hours straight), it doesn’t matter if your bags are soaked through from thunder storms and a leaky roof, if your ears are ringing from being continually blasted by African beats through a cheap yet overpowered stereo system (even if the buses rarely work, the stereos always do), or if you’re muddy from helping to push the bus with the other 40 passengers when it got stuck at a toilet stop - pretty much anything will be counted as “fun”.
Grit Factor: 5/5. Sitting down all day isn’t necessarily easy. Especially when you realise that privileged white people aren’t the only groups of people on the planet which contain outspoken racists and bullies. On our second day of bussing we had 5 hours where the man behind us was shouting and making fun of us in the local dialect. How could we tell? Because every sentence contained the word “Muzungu” (“white person”) and was followed by cackling laughter. Being the only whiteys on the bus, and being at the narrow end of his pointed finger, we were pretty sure that we were the butt of his jokes, and it wasn’t nice. The nice thing was that the next day our faith was restored by a young mother with her infant tied over her back, who we spent 16 hours sitting next to, and shared lychees and bread rolls over smiles most of the way. It’s sad that small minded bigots are everywhere out there, but warming to be reassured that they are by far the minority.

Tofu Beach, Mozambique:
Initially a 3 day stop before heading back to the farm, a very cool bunch oof people and a small visa complication meant that I stayed 10 spectacular days and nights here.
Travel Icon: 3/5 I had never heard of it before, but this place is a diving Mecca and world-famous beach destination.
Fun Factor: 6/5. Open water diving certification achieved in one of the world’s premier diving locations? Tick. Swimming in the sea every day and most nights? Tick. Seeing the sun rise most days? Tick. Sleeping on the beach? Tick. Dancing ‘til sunrise? Tick. Making an amazing group of friends from around the world to share all of this with? Tick. My first night I was talking to Liz from the USA, and she warned me, “this is a great place, but don’t get stuck here!”. I thought that she was kidding.
Grit Factor: 5/5. Getting off the bus at Maxixe, we caught a quick ferry to Inhambane where we found that all the transport to our next destination (Tofu Beach) was finished for the night, and there were no beds under US$50 left in town. So Joe and I took turns at napping on a park bench under a streetlight while the other sat on the curb, pinching himself awake and concealing a large, serrated knife that Joe had bought from a Somali Pirate in Ethiopia (more for deterrent value than something that we would actually use). Yarrrr!
At around 3am a local walked up and told us to come with him - saying that we were not safe there, and that there were bad people around, he convinced the ferry terminal guard to let us sleep on benches behind his gate. Luckily the guard stayed awake (we think), and didn’t decide to rob us himself.

Livingstone, Zambia:
What to do for Christmas and New Years Eve? Head to Africa’s premier destination, Victoria Falls. Coincidentally, Mick has a chilli farm operation in Livingstone (, so we jumped on a cheap plane and flew up here.
Travel Icon: 6/5. Where the Zambezi river drops over 100m, and is 1.7Km across, the falls are one of the 7 natural wonders of the world Enough said.
Fun Factor: 5/5 Rafting on one of the world’s best whitewater high volume rivers, watching the hippos and crocs while cruising the Zambezi at sunset, driving into the bush to check on small scale local farmers’ chilli plots, or just stopping the car to say hello to zebra in the bushes - the locals aren’t kidding when they call this “The Real Africa”.
Grit Factor: 3/5. It’s hot, it’s dusty, but a cool pool and a cold beer are never far away(just make sure that the monkeys don‘t steal your food!).


Wild Travel Encounters, Part Three: Going Solo

Leaving Emma to go and chase snowballs in Vancouver, I struck out alone...

The hostile hustle of Marrakesh, solitude in the vastness of the Sahara, chilling in the fishing port of Essouira, and wandering the ancient medina of Fez all helped to paint the picture of an incredibly diverse country.

Travel Icon: 4/5. Sleeping under the stars in the complete silence of the Sahara, walking into the desert past the sign, “52 days to Timbuktou”, listening to the prayer calls reach out over the medina in Fez, or just buying a train ticket to Casablanca -it all sounds pretty cool on paper.

Fun Factor: 3/5. After a horrible start in Marrakesh, Morocco realised it‘s mistake and turned on the charm. Couchsurfing in the desert city of Zagora with Mohamed and Safouane was some excellent chill out time, and an insight as to how little opportunity people have there(and how they deal with this). 3 days in the Sahara with just the company of a non-English speaking Bedouin guide and a camel makes you appreciate the beauty of emptiness, while also becoming an expert at communicating via sand drawings. Finding like-minded travellers in the port-town of Essouira and enjoying each others company so much that a 2 day stopover becomes a 10 day epic memory. Discovering that one of these travellers is a 31 year old guitarist from Portland, Oregon, who went out with a girl that you dated when you were 16 reinforces just how like minded you all are, no matter your background! Having fun wandering around the ancient city of Fez with Pippa O and her Mum and cousin from NZ brings it all home and makes you appreciate your own background and culture in contrast to the one in which you‘re immersed.

Grit Factor: 4/5.My first week in Morocco was thoroughly unenjoyable. It was the first time in 6 months that I had been completely alone with no hope of seeing a familiar face in the near future. This can be a good thing, and puts you out of your comfort zone a bit, but when tired and hungry, the loneliness can become a feeling of isolation, which is when you become vulnerable. And then Marrakesh got nasty. Wandering the streets on my own, I couldn’t go into shops because if I left without buying something the shopkeeper would often get angry and shout. I couldn’t stand in the streets or wander slowly, because it would give beggars and touts a chance to ask me for money, and the last time I had said “no”, I was spat at and told to “F*** off”. Usually this would be water off a duck’s back, but not in my state at the time. So I would sit in the hostel, plan my walk and destination, identify safe places such as banks and reputable retail shops along the way that I could stop if I wanted to, step outside, put my head down and one foot in front of the other. I would have regretted not going at all, but I also had no regrets leaving the place.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wild Travel Encounters Part Two: Kiwi’s on the Iberian Peninsula

(...continued from part one....)

Meeting up with former flattie Georgie was something that I’d been looking forward to since she bailed out of the Godden cres flat to go travelling in March. We only had 3 weeks together, so had to make the most of it, while holding true to our shared values and goals around laidback, go-with-the-flow travel.
Travel Icon: 2/5. Lots of history, and everyone loves Spanish culture, right?
Fun Factor: 4/5. Some people are more fun than others. Whether we were sitting in a Madrid police station reporting Georgie’s stolen wallet, frantically scouring the city for two beds (or even just a wide piece of soft floor) on a Saturday night, rearranging a crazy old Spanish lady’s hotel room so that all her cluttery furniture was stacked in the wardrobe(it made sense, she just couldn‘t reach it - or communicate this to us without flailing arms dangerously close to our eyeballs), we managed to have a giggle or three.
Madrid is an excellent Sunday city - everybody comes out to the parks to watch the buskers, listen to music, go to the markets, or just drink a coffee.
As an introduction to authentic Spanish Tapas, the Sunday markets were spectacular - we wove through crowds of thousands, heading in the opposite direction to the growing stream of people with trays of tapas and cups of Sangria, until we found the most famous Tapas bar in all of Madrid - happiness ensued, lying on the grass listening to live music with a stomach full of goodness.
Grit Factor: 3/5. Within 2 hours of touching down in Spain, Georgie had her wallet stolen on the train from the airport. While she used McDonald’s free internet that night to skype home for family admin support (insurance etc), there were ladies of the night displaying their wares in the windows.
Being on a budget, Madrid was our first attempt at making our own Sangria in a darkened park one night(supermarket wine, fruit, and the trusty Leatherman knife) - but not the first time that we had to play ignorant tourist to stop the police from arresting us for drinking in public.

Itching to get to the beaches of Portugal, and with the knowledge that time wasn’t on our side, we left Madrid behind. The smart thing would have been to head towards the border, but we heard that Granada was the one place in Spain that still served Tapas with every drink - how could we resist?
Travel Icon: 2/5. As the last Muslim town of Spain, Granada has plenty of unique history, and our struggling Australian foreign-exchange-student-slash-tour-guide made wandering the town with other backpackers a great way to learn about this.
Fun Factor: 4/5. Oasis backpackers was one of the best places I’ve stayed so far - I love seeing things that have really been thought about and done well, and this place hit the nail on the head, with everything that a backpacker could want. Also, the Tapas and Sangria fuelled lunches that became afternoon tea, then dinner, then dancing gave us a real taste of why Spain has such high unemployment - why would you want to work here?
Grit Factor: 2/5. Lots of fun - clean, easy, but still unmistakenly backpacker.

Too much time in Granada (according to the waistline) - it was time to get to Portugal!
Travel Icon: 1/5 Other than having a chain of overpriced hairdressers named after it, Seville is just another very old, very cool Spanish town. Lagos is famous for parties on the backpacker circuit, but for me the name means more in reference to Nigerian music of the 70s.
Fun Factor: 3/5. Getting to Lagos was a lot of fun (see below), but by the time we got there we were tired, sore, smelly and hungry. Luckily, our hostel had Momma. Momma was a real Portuguese Momma, who came in every morning to cook stacks of pancakes for all the tired, hungover, or just homesick travellers. What could be better than a stack of hot pancakes with pumpkin/orange jam when you walk in off the street?
Grit Factor: 5/5. Having missed the direct 18 hour Granada-Lagos bus due to a good book and late breakfast, we decided to just catch buses in the general direction of West, figuring that we’d get there eventually. So we arrived in Seville with 6 hours to kill - time enough for wandering, Sangria, buskers, and a bit of a picnic on the river before a nap with the homeless folk in the bus station. After a 3 hour bus over the border, we arrived at a train station that should have been able to get us to Lagos with another few hours of rolling, but unfortunately it was closed when we arrived at 2am. So we set up camp with our sleeping bags and woolly hats on the plastic café chairs on the sidewalk until the sun came up and the trains started running at 7am. Very few Z’s were stacked, but plenty of laughs were had.

The beaches of Portugal:
Since both George and I had been doing the backpacker thing in Europe for a number of months, we were looking to mix it up a bit. We had heard that Portugal’s beaches were worth a visit, but inaccessible by public transport, so we started trawling Lagos’ rental car agencies. After discovering that a car was less than half the price if we booked it online through a Greek company which used the local rental company as its agent, rather than going direct to the local company, we had our new travel companion - (Hyundai) Getz. Bring on the beach!
Travel Icon: 1/5. When I hear Portugal, I generally think spicy chicken before I think surf beaches, though the surf and laid back culture was the closest we had felt to NZ since leaving 6 months earlier.
Fun Factor: 5/5. It had been a long time between waves, so we made the most of the surf - morning, noon, and night. The freedom that comes with having your own car was also something that we had missed, and while not quite as crazy as those of Southern Italy, Portugal’s roads still hold their own quirks and challenges(especially with George behind the wheel).
Grit Factor: 5/5. Problem #1: Where do you sleep when you’ve just blown your entire budget on cheap car rental? The beach! How do you keep warm? Build a fire! How do you chop the wood? Leatherman! How do you get the smell of smoke out of your hair when the sun wakes you up? Swim in the waves.
Problem #2: How do you make it an authentic Portuguese experience? Sangria! We became mad sangria scientists, each night trying differing ingredients and quantities, until we had concocted the perfect blend to enjoy by the bonfire, under the stars, listening to the waves. Ahhhhhh.
Problem #3: What do you do when you finally arrive in Lisbon and check into a backpackers which is essentially a honeymoon suite with bunkbeds? Sleep, wash, eat, and attempt sophistication through a great contemporary art museum and sensational coffee and pastries.

Photo: Portuguese beaches, bonfires, and Kiwi Sangria.

For more photos:

Wild Travel Encounters, Part One (of Four): The Old World

A friend emailed: “So it’s actually happened - you’ve fallen off the end of the earth”. Forgiving her lack of logic(this email could only ever be either incorrect or never received), this repeated a flattering number of requests for updates and stories for news beyond one-liner emails confirming that I still breathe. Flattering because I think of this writing as more of an open journal than something that people other than Mum actually read.

But with all that has happened over the last 4 months I had to find a way to sum things up as succinctly as possible (a constant challenge). Luckily, two nights ago we were in a bar and I found inspiration in Brady Barr’s attempt on National Geographic’s Wild Dangerous Encounters show to quantitatively analyse, summarise, and evaluate the “wildness” of various animals. So I am going to attempt to do the same with my various experiences over the recent undocumented 4 months. Unlike the tiresomely enthusiastic BB, my goal will not be to find the “Most Incredibly Ultimate Wildest Wild Animal” (or travel experience), but merely to give a brief summation of places, people, highlights and lowlights of everything since the last post…and to share just a bit of the fun that’s been had.

BB used the categories of: Icon of the Wild(when you hear the name, does your hair stand on end?); Weaponry(how wicked-cool are the eagle talons, poisonous snake fangs, or sheer size and strength of the bear?); and Danger(the probability of being maimed or killed by this beast, usually measured in deaths/year).
Since travel isn't quite as dangerously cool as wild animals, I’ll be adapting these categories for travel (using “Travel Icon”, “Fun Factor”, and “Grit Factor”) while retaining Dr Barr’s pseudo-scientific approach of trying to squeeze entirely subjective and qualitative data into a scale from 1-5.

Still reeling from the music, food, history, and romance(despite being two travellers) of Paris, we had 3 days to take in France’s second city.
Travel Icon: 4/5. If it’s French food or wine that you’re interested in, Lyon is where it’s at.
Fun Factor: 2/5. A very “nice” city, we spent our days cycling through the beautiful parks and watching young families picnic. The sort of place which makes having young children seem like heavenly bliss rather that total chaos - dangerous, in that it may convince one that this may not be such a bad idea at some point in the future. We managed to scare/impress/entertain a few locals with our attempts to save 1 euro on bike hire by doubling on the handlebars around the traffic on the city streets. By night, we discovered that it’s not people from Lyon who deserve the reputation of being snobs -it’s the people IN Lyon… even the foreign exchange students wouldn’t spare any time for these Kiwis!
Grit Factor: 1/5. See above - it’s cultured, sophisticated, interesting, tasty, and well polished. But not in a bad way.

Lutry/Lausanne, Switzerland:
For just under a week we stayed with Anne (a school friend of Emma’s Mum) in the small village of Lutry on Lake Geneva. It was the most homely pocket of comfort that we had experienced since home itself, with Anne and her three children (all back home from around the world for family reasons of the unfortunate kind) made us very welcome. Thank you!
Travel Icon: 4.5/5. Look at the snow capped mountains as you cycle along the shore of Lake Geneva to Lausanne to visit the global HQ for the Olympic movement, and get into the geek-zone to imagine the Large Hadron Collider smashing particles together deep underground to push the frontiers of human knowledge…you’ll probably be able to justify a pretty high score for this category.
Fun Factor: 3/5. Approximately 3 weeks of no exercise jarred me into an unfortunate experiment that so many former swimmers undertake - an attempt to become a triathlete. But if I was going to do it - where better than here? So I jumped on an old road bike from under Anne’s house and took to the highway, doing my best to drag off a member of the Swiss national team before he managed to see that the lights had turned green. The halfway point was a picturesque village 4km along the lake, which was at the same altitude as my starting point (lake level) while managing to feel like many thousands of feet below it, making the ride home reach near-death levels of exertion(or exhaustion). But this was just the start - I still had to train for the swim leg, which meant that my shaky legs had to power at least ten bombs off a diving platform which someone had built in the lake, before fuelling this finely tuned machine with a donut from the bakery before the run (read “walk”) up the hill to the house. Such is the life of an athlete.
Grit Factor: 0/5. Days filled with home cooking, Kiwi Mum hugs, walks through vineyards, art galleries, and swimming in the lake. Everything works like it should - efficiently and on time - and if it doesn’t, people speak friendly English with an attractive Swiss-French accent. This was our much needed and appreciated comfort zone.

Like a good brother I spread my filthy travel kit over Brad’s floor in London, and even managed to bring Emma along too for some of the time. For a week before heading to Ireland, then another week before Spain/Portugal, then another couple of days before heading to Africa, the much-missed Herring brothers show was in town. Around this I managed to get a feel for this great city, catch up with the Kiwi diaspora which is a permanent feature of the place (for example, unexpectedly running into someone that you haven’t seen since 4th form basketball), and stock up on the necessities for the next 6 months of travel.
Travel Icon: 5/5. It’s London. It’s the centre of (what was) the British Empire. It’s the Queen and those guys in the red jackets, tall black hats, and no sense of humour. It’s black cabs. More often, it’s the Tube. It’s food, pubs, parks, deer, galleries, museums, churches, palaces, all under a (usually) grey sky. It’s every country in the world, all in one city.
Fun Factor: 4/5. In the morning I would meet Miss Pizey (for those who don’t know her - a good friend and fellow Kiwi traveller) at a prearranged Tube stop. She would arrive on time, I fifteen minutes late. She with two bags of breakfast goodies, I with a spoon, pocket knife, cup, and smile. We would find a park bench - on the Thames, in a park, or in front of Buckingham Palace. The Buck’s Fizz (a superb blend of sparkling wine and orange juice) would flow, the croissants and donuts would come out, and the grapes would fly. People would look sideways at us, but, being British, would never say anything. And we would discuss everything from politics to sexuality to the benefits of a diet high in vitamin C. The day would take us through galleries, museums, cafes, and more. London days were fun, much more so due to good people.
Then of course, at night - wherever I was - it was Herring humour (does it get better?).
Grit Factor: 3/5. This was a hard call. London is one of the most developed and sophisticated cities in the world, but I was sleeping on the floor above a carpet shop. One night I went for “Fusion Cuisine” overlooking the Thames with friends working in corporate finance and local government, but on the way home had to walk around a police cordon and a large pool of blood from a stabbing outside a major tourist attraction. I could wake up, walk outside and two doors down to buy fresh fruit and veges from all around the world, but 5 hours earlier I could have just stood on the doorstep and bought hard drugs. There’s grit if you want it - but it’s balanced by everything else. Variety is the spice of life.

A week in the home of Guinness to visit former flatmate Yulia and old friend Ed O’Farrell before meeting Em and Ellie on their way back from Cork.
Travel Icon: 2/5. There’s the Guinness factory and Trinity College, but if it’s leprechauns and four leaf clovers then you’ll have to leave the city. Don’t worry Ireland, I’ll be back.
Fun Factor: 3/5. I knew that the Irish drank. A lot. But seeing is believing. Dublin’s nightlife is a lot of fun, and the people are friendly and talkative like nowhere else. So much fun that it’s a major destination for Londoners to have stag/hen nights. The daytime is like the night time, but without the friendliness ie. People still drink, there’s still not much light, but the fun people are generally at work.
Forty minutes south of the city centre, on the seaside, is the home of Ed. And craziness. Which are pretty much the same thing. Whether I was talking my way out of going paddle boarding in the near-zero water, playing indoor soccer in my trekking boots(and being taken to school by fiery Irishmen in their sixties), or just watching movies, it was great hanging out with the guy who hasn’t changed since I saw him five years ago in NZ (except for having grown himself some girly locks and bought two very girly dogs).
Grit Factor: 3/5. Taking Ed’s two tiny fluffy white dogs for walks along the seaside - negative grit. Sitting on a bench in Dublin city council grounds, eating a sandwich, and watching a junkie shoot up in the bushes - significant base levels of grit.

Picture: Triathlon training in Lake Geneva

For more photos, check out...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rockin' out in Paris

When we were in Greece in June and Emma found the website for the Rock en Seine festival, we had our tickets booked, flights locked in, and organised to cut our time on the Italian farm down to 3 weeks, all within 90min. Sometimes acting on decisions this quickly turns out to be a mistake. This time there were no regrets.

What could make a week in Paris even better? Spending 3 days of it rocking out with 105,000 Parisians to some of the best bands in the world, and discovering some new ones that you’d never heard of before. What could make it even betterer? Having former flatmate, swimming buddy, and Facebook Friend (:P) Georgie take a few days off her work in the French vineyards to come and rock out with us.

  • Escaping the real world and becoming Rock and Roll with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. These guys ARE rock. They’re bad(note to Mum: this means “good”) - not because they are scary or mean (they’re not) but because the are wild, they rock out and love their music, and they just don’t care.
  • Coming close to escaping consciousness in the 2nd row, centre stage of Queens of the Stone Age (number one priority - stay on your feet and out from under those of others). Up until this point we thought that French rock festival crowds were soft and not nearly as rough as those in NZ. This is true, except for when Josh Homme has the microphone, and plays the crowd into a frenzy even better than he can play his guitar. A lot of fun, and not nearly as bad I just made it sound - if someone falls then the writhing mass of humanity suddenly stops and clears a circle of air, helps them up, pats them on the back, then continues the craziness. So yes, maybe the French are soft, but they’re nice too.
  • Chilling out on the grass and eating a huge dish of Paella that would fuel us on through the night
  • Seeing that some Old Rockers still have it - Mr E led The Eels in his white jumps suit, huge beard, aviator sunnies and bandanna, taking the crowd on a rollercoaster ride from jumping up and down to swaying ballads to the soothing and ever popular Beautiful Blues. Who cares that he’s about to celebrate his 50th birthday? Not him.
  • Watching Wallis Bird, a tiny little Irish girl who could probably fit inside her oversized guitar, run around the stage playing all her bandmates instruments and getting the crowd up on their feet despite being the first act of the afternoon. Other great early acts revealing exciting talent were The Black Angels and Wayne Beckford (just thought I’d include these to share with those of you who are inclined to google/you tube/myspace new stuff)
  • Being there to see bands such as LCD Soundsystem, Crystal Castles and Beirut prove that they’re not just incredible recording artists, but really know how to tweak their music and make it a great live experience too.
  • Seeing Kiwi boys Fat Freddy’s Drop get the French crowds going in Paris
  • Showing French security how Kiwis apply the BYO philosophy to avoid paying NZ$15 for a beer inside the festival. Or rather, not showing them.

Pics: Mr E and The Eels, the crowd loving LCD Soundsystem, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club working the crowd

Eating Dangerously

Staying with Emma’s Mum’s friend’s daughter’s former flatmate was on of the best things about our time in Paris. Sure, we didn’t know him that well when we first got there. But we weren’t going to let things stay that way, and neither was he.

Over one of Damien’s famous quiche dinners, his friends offered to come back the next night and cook “a traditional French meal - it’s VERY French.”. We weren’t worried, until they said, “don’t worry, it’s not dangerous - but we won‘t tell you what it is or what it‘s made from”.

Our task was to contribute the wine, so we went to the local wine shop, but when new asked what goes well with Andouillette, the sommelier gave a little chuckle before recommending a couple of bottles.

While waiting for Katie (Damien’s friend who is excellent at making much more than quiche) to prepare our meal, we weren’t allowed to see in thee kitchen, and all doors in the house were closed to stop the smell destroying all textiles.

We were even told that there was a backup dinner in the fridge in case we couldn’t handle what was being created in the kitchen.

But I don’t think they quite understood it when I had said “I like all food - ALL food”. The Andouillette was deliciously rich, the sauce was superb, and perfectly complimented by the accompanying sides and wine (if I may say so).

We were even luckier than you might be thinking to be treated to this meal, having committed a serious food crime just days earlier. Being in France and having access to a decent kitchen, we thought that we would make crepes for breakfast. Our fillings were inspired by our time in Greece, where we had cheese(feta), ham, tomato and mushroom crepes, so we found our way to the supermarket to grab some ham, camembert, and tomatoes, and returned to cook up a storm for ourselves and our kind host.

Damien was far too kind and accepted his crepe with a smile and a “Thank you”, and even finished the whole thing. We sat and finished a number of them.

But the next evening when his friends were over, we had strips torn off us for committing such a crime: Crepes are from Brittany, and Camembert is from Normandy. Apparently French cuisine doesn’t look kindly on “fusion cuisine”. Eek!

Picture: Food criminals, and unrepentant to boot.

Stairs, and stairs, and stairs...

Perched on the side of mountains and cliffs that fall away into the sea, our home for 3 nights was the perfect place to do nothing. Because to go anywhere meant climbing stairs, and lots of them. We just hung out reading books, magazines, talking with the other travellers who had been put in our 7 person apartment about everything from politics(especially interesting with Americans, Aussies and a Chinese Masters student) to pizza, and from the future global economy to counting the reasons why the two American guys who had just flown in from Amsterdam were never, ever going back again (for a fourth visit). Call of the night goes to "Chinese Guy" (he told us his name, then told us not to try and pronounce it) when we got onto the topic of different political systems (both power structures and electoral processes), when he stood up with his tongue in his cheek and left the room to get some food, "we only have one party, so we don't have to worry about voting!".

Except for one day, when we felt obliged to do the 10km trail that visits the other four cliff-clinging villages (and for which the National Park is named after and best known). Four months of relative laziness takes it’s toll when climbing 368 stairs at a time, and although the views along the way were incredible, we would have run into the water at the finish if our legs would have allowed it.

Picture: Gasping for breath at the top of nearly 400 steps (not as young as we used to be)

Science or Art?

So it’s the home of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and many more Big Daddies of culture, but after we had run around to see all these past masters of their respective arts, Emma and I hid away and geeked it up inside the Galileo museum of science and technology. That’s right. And we’re not even that ashamed of it.

Seriously though, this city was a very cool place, and does a good job of making you fall in love with Renaissance architecture and art (even if just temporarily). Luckily, back in the days, the line between art and science was a bit more blurred than it seems to be these days, and we could still pretend to be trendy and cultured rather than just plain geeky by rating the Galileo museum as our favourite non-food-related location in the city. Seeing just how much of what we rely on everyday (and learn in high school and university physics classes) was first discovered and developed hundreds of years ago with the crudest (but at the same time, most elegant) technology kept us spellbound for hours on end.

Pictures: Sweet bridges and buildings, and well what is it? It tells the time, the day, the date, and where all the planets in the solar system are and will be moving to. But in it's time, it was also considered art.

Great cars, terrible drivers

I’m no die hard fan, but I’m pretty sure that the Ferrari team is a pretty big deal when it comes to Formula One. I’m also pretty sure that neither Michael Schumacher nor Reubens Barrichello - the only two Ferrari drivers that I can name, one of them probably the one of most successful in the history of the sport - are of Italian descent.

Now I know why. Italian drivers, and consequentially the challenge of driving on roads full of them, is life threatening at best.

It’s not often that you have to check your ribs for bruising after a hug, but it was a valid concern after having Emma hold on while riding on the back of our scooter along the cliff side roads of the Amalfi Coast. And I’ve never concentrated so hard behind the wheel as I did while driving the Fiat Panda on the narrow cobbled mountain roads around our farm in San Giovanni. No matter how short the journey, I would feel mentally exhausted and totally amped as I clambered out of the tiny car, mopping the nervous energy from my forehead.

Scooting around cities in Thailand wasn’t nearly as scary - at least the chaos there is (paradoxically) predictable. Italian roads seem to be a race, with no rules. People overtake on blind corners with less than 20m of clear road, often with opposing traffic. Mountain villages are full of (two way) streets that are only wide enough to fit a single, very small car, causing endless jams while normal size cars reverse around blind corners, or when miniature cars like our Panda meet other Pandas head on.

Driving NZ roads will forever be boring after this.