a blog about seeing the world

Archive for August, 2011

Rewind: Hungry?

Flashback to April, and Vietnam…

During our stay in a quirky mint green guesthouse in the Mekong Delta, our host Phat continually brought up one particular item on the house menu: elephant ear fish. He directed our attention to guest reviews of the dish in a notebook, pointed it out in his brochure, and brought us repeatedly to a tiled tank where the massive, flat fish swam about fatalistically. Finally, on our last night, we selected our unfortunate dinner guest and while it was netted and taken to the kitchen we sat down with some beer.

Shortly, we were presented with our fish, fried whole and skewered upright like a fisherman’s stuffed trophy. The fish’s large toothy jaws were gaping open in an expression that led us to believe that the poor fellow was not expecting to be dropped into a pan full of hot oil. Being inexperienced fishmongers, we were thankful when the cook, Phat’s wife, scraped off the scales and dealt out portions of the flaky white fish. We had the more straightforward task of arranging the ingredients in rice paper rolls. It was delicious, and remains one of the more memorable meals of the trip. We wrote down the “recipe” with the thought recreating the meal at home some day, and now you, if you so choose, can do the same. You’ll need:

Rice paper

Rice noodles



Mint leaves

Assorted greens (cilantro, Thai basil, and baby lettuces would work)

And, of course, the fish.  In the event you find elephant ear fish hard to come by, any firm white fish should do.  You can probably skip the grisly step of dropping it live into the fryer and simply pan fry a fillet.

Cook the rice noodles, and chop the pineapple and tomato into strips so that they might fit neatly into a spring roll. Place the desired amount of everything on a sheet of rice paper, and roll like a burrito.  Eat, and repeat.

The view from our office

While most vineyards are beautiful places to work, we spent the last few days in a particularly incredible spot perched above the Awatere Valley and the Inland Kaikoura mountain range.

Better yet, the work was paid hourly, so we actually had a chance to slack off and enjoy the view!

Rewind: Back to the future in Singapore

Currently, we spend nine hours a day six days a week wrapping grape vines around wires— a six-week blast of intensive money-making so we can get back to days of carefree vacationing.

It’s not bad work, but it doesn’t exactly make for thrilling blog material. Therefore, we’re starting a new miniseries to keep your attention, drawing on past travel moments or reflections that never quite made it online.

This week: a brief sojourn into Singapore.

Long layovers are one of the dreaded necessities that come with air travel. They vary from several hours in grimy purgatory (New York’s LaGuardia) to pleasant free web surfing (Portland, Oregon). But generally, once the book stores are given a once over and a seven dollar beer is consumed, they are something to be forgotten. We heard Singapore’s airport was one of the nicest in the world, so we were actually looking forward to stopping there enroute from Manila to Melbourne last May.

Upon arriving, we rushed through terminals to a nondescript kiosk to take advantage of something that almost sounded too good to be true: Changi Airport offers a two-hour city tour for passengers on long layovers. For free. We barely made the last departure for the day, happily signed up, cleared customs, and piled on a bus with a dozen others. As we drove past brand new high rises, the largest Ferris wheel in the world, and state of the art stadiums and botanical gardens, it was clear that this tiny urban nation was a complete turnaround from the Asia we just left. And really, a complete turnaround from much of the world.

The city was spotlessly clean, orderly, wealthy, and quiet— to the point that it kind of reminded us of the Epcot center at Disneyworld. The government also has a hand in nearly everything here: even chewing gum is outlawed to preserve the purity of the streets. As the bus wove through the gleaming streets, our cheery and funny guide tossed out tidbits of Singaporean life. Our personal favorite: “What kind of wildlife do we have here? We have no wildlife. Only cats and dogs.”

Once downtown, everyone was allowed a half hour to explore, and then it was back on the bus and back to the airport, all with brilliant efficiency.

As nice as the city was, we were frankly more amazed by the airport, which surpassed our lofty expectations. Here few of the most outrageous complimentary features:

A gigantic TV comprised of 12 mounted flatscreens along with plush chairs, complete with built-in speakers.

We did not partake in the 3D Xperience Zone, but it seemed to involve video games.

Countless gardens and orchids on every mundane surface.

A man playing soothing music on a grand piano.

And our personal favorite, a movie theater, where we watched Russell Crowe slay Frenchmen in the latest version of Robin Hood.

When the time came,  we didn’t want to leave.  It was like spending seven hours in the future.

A place to call home

New Zealand. The words evoke images of razor-topped mountains, vivid green hills dotted with wooly sheep, and clear, cold waters bathing the coast of the island nation. Our entire trip so far has been something of a prelude to nine months of living and working in New Zealand, and we couldn’t be more pleased to have arrived at our last destination.

Entering the Marlborough Sounds on the massive Interislander ferry.

Mount Ngauruhoe on the north island, the setting for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings.

It is quite amazing how fast you can recreate the comforts of your old life across the world. One week after arriving, we found ourselves the proud owners of a car, jobs, and, a few days later, an apartment in the small south island town of Blenheim.

Blenheim is in the heart of New Zealand’s famous Marlborough wine region, and the valley surrounding the town is carpeted with seemingly infinite rows of grape vines— precisely why we are here. Contractors employ hundreds of migrant workers each winter to prepare the vineyards for the coming growing season, and it only took a few phone calls and a not-so-rigorous interview to land a job for the next six weeks.

Our day is supposed to begin at 7 a.m., but thankfully our boss is Thai and possesses the same loose sense of time that we became familiar with during long days of bus travel in Southeast Asia. We show up at 7:45, with the sun just rising and frost still coating the grass and vines. Then, for the next eight or nine hours we trim and wrap vines around wires and tie them in place with twist ties. It’s riveting.

Really though, after getting past the first few days of aching hands and the shock of having to work again, it’s not so bad. All the work is done right at standing height and requires none of the acrobatics and heavy lifting of orange picking. Now into our second week, we can keep up with the rest of our co-workers and spend the day listening to music or audiobooks. Plus, on the odd occasion we look up from the vines, the sight of green hills and snow-capped mountains provides the splendid reminder that we are in New Zealand.

Best yet, once “home time” is called we return to our small but warm, fully furnished and extremely un-tent-like apartment. Unlocking a front door, watching TV re-runs, cooking in a kitchen, sitting on a couch and sleeping in a bed are still incredibly exciting experiences. We have a home— at least for six weeks— and it is wonderful.

Television has been especially fascinating, partially because we haven’t watched in a very long time, and partially because it is amusingly foreign. For the last four days straight the top new stories have been the riots in London, the self-destruction of the United States, and— equally important, it seems— the price of All Blacks rugby jerseys in retail stores. One channel even interviewed the Prime Minister to get his comment on the subject. Yes, the Rugby World Cup is hosted here next month, and naturally New Zealand is beside itself with excitement, but we cannot help but laugh. Just wait until they start playing!

Blenheim itself is a no-frills town, but has everything we need plus a few nice touches.  A river lined with a beautiful park and walkway skirts around the town center, and a movie theater plays half-price movies on Tuesdays— HP7P2 in 3D!  (more…)

Australia by the numbers

From estimating the hours left on long drives to imposing a strict budget upon ourselves, numbers dominated our time in Australia. We kept track of everything with a certain disturbing compulsiveness that made Nate realize he may be turning into his father. But it was out of necessity: after the budget paradise of Southeast Asia, it would have been easy to get carried away here in the land of $22 burritos and endless miles of road. Here is a breakdown of our time down under, in numerical format.

Home sweet home

82: total days in Australia.

77: nights spent camping. We are especially proud of this number. Proud, and pleased that they are behind us.

5: nights in a hostel. For the most part they were dirty, loud, and crowded, and made the thought of camping quite desirable.

<10: other people we saw camping in tents. It seems to be a lost art in Australia.

1000s: people traveling in caravans. The Australian dream: retire, sell your house, buy a caravan and live out the rest of your days in crowded caravan parks and grungy roadside rest areas.

12: most consecutive days of free camping. Between free rest areas, backpacking the Tabletop track, and taking advantage of lazy national park staff in Kakadu, we were pretty happy with this string of free nights.

20: an estimate in degrees F of the lowest temperature we camped in. It was a cold hollow below Alpine National Park, and we woke up to a tent caked in frost.

2:33: Minutes it takes us to set up our tent. Yes, we timed it.

Behind the wheel

15,110: kilometers driven in the Ford Falcon (plus 700 in our rental car)— just under 10,000 miles.

130: highest speed limit in km per hour— or 80 mph. In empty central Australia you have to go fast if you intend to get anywhere within your lifetime. Thankfully the government realizes this. On average speed limits were quite generous and nearly impossible to eclipse especially on curvy, narrow roads. We don’t know how anyone gets a speeding ticket in this country.

$2,595: dollars spent on gas.

$115 : most money spent on a fill-up. In the middle of the country, you can’t really afford to be picky. When gas comes along, you buy it, no matter how exorbitant the price…

$1.99: highest price per liter of gas, which works out to $7.50 a gallon. Ouch!

1: Kangaroo collision.

1000s:  Unfortunate roadkill encountered.

$500: what it would have cost us to tow our car to a garage when it refused to start outside Kakadu National Park one morning. Luckily we found a kindly mechanic on our own— thank you Rosco!

150: average length of a road train, in feet.

46: percent of our total Australian expenses spent on our car in repairs, gas, and maintenance. This doesn’t even include the purchase!


17: days where we didn’t spend any money.  Zero days were always exciting and a cause for celebration.

92: Australian cents a US dollar could buy at our dismal exchange rate.

$1.60: lowest price ever paid for a bottle of wine. Actually, this is just a 750ml portion of the two 4-liter boxes of fine Stanley wine that were on special for $18. Yep.

$2.77: most money ever spent on a single banana. Back in February Cyclone Yasi, in addition to mangling Hinchinbrook Island, took out nearly all of Australia’s banana crop. We bought this one for our Fourth of July fruit salad but otherwise refrained due to the price hike.

$12: cost of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s we spied in Melbourne.

Our Australian lifestyle

20: national parks visited.

26: degrees of latitude crossed. Ranging from 36 degrees south in southern Victoria to 12 degrees south in the Top End of the Northern Territory. The northern hemisphere equivalent to this would be driving from Virginia to Venezuela.

5,300: highest elevation reached, in feet. We hiked through snow part of the way to Mount Feathertop, in Victoria.

45: approximate kilos of pasta consumed. This is estimating three hefty pasta dinners per week.

152: kilometers we walked on our four backpacking trips. Or 94 miles, a third of the Long Trail.

36: bins of fruit (apples, oranges, and mandarins) picked.

2: longest silence in the car, in hours, after a large rock hit our windshield and the subsequent bickering.

5: longest number of days we went without showering, though we did swim!

9: approximate times we did laundry, which averages out to once every ten days. This becomes more disturbing when you factor in the number (3) of underwear Nate currently owns.

8:00: earliest bed time. There’s not a whole lot to do after dinner when you live in a tent.