a blog about seeing the world

Posts tagged “working abroad

Looking ahead, looking back

It’s been a little over a month since we disembarked from a plane at Burlington International Airport, looking about as bad as we felt after 30 hours of travel time. Despite the idyllic green image of home we held onto for our 16 months away, we were greeted by tired, wet, brown, mid-spring surroundings—a truly disheartening time of year.

But, home would not be home without our friends and family, and good times have been had. The world is now green and beautiful, our garden is partly planted, and our wiffle ball field has already seen plenty of use. It is good to be home.

There are days when it seems we might never have left, like we’ve awoken from a dream. But others bring back memories from lands far away, such as the lupines blooming along our driveway. Along that vein, we thought we’d share the whole collection of title page banners that we used rather like calendar photos along the way. Viewed together they present some beautiful contrasts that capture a bit of what travel is like.

We are not quite done posting to this blog and we’re also cutting together hours of video into a short film for entry into some film festivals later this summer. Until then, enjoy the photos. Click the pictures to see the related post.

The relentless snowfall of Hokkaido, Japan. January, 2011.

Frosted peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park. January 2011.

Birch trees clinging to steep slopes on Yarigatake, Hakuba, Japan. February 2011.

Windows into old Japan, Kyoto. February 2011.

Close up on the Buddhist temples dotting Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2011.

Burning rice fields cloud the Nam Hou river, Laos. March 2011.

The best beach ever.  El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. April 2011.

Lush eucalypt forest along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. May 2011.

First light on the Tasman Sea. Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. May 2011.

Mandarin harvest, South Australia.  May 2011.

Watching over Uluru. Australia’s red center. June 2011.

Floodplains at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. June 2011.

Filtered sun through fan palms, Daintree, Queensland. July 2011.

A sea of vines, Marlborough, New Zealand. August 2011.

The Kaikoura Peninsula, New Zealand. September 2011.

Tree fern silhouette, Abel Tasman, New Zealand. October 2011.

Glacial meltwater, Fiordland, New Zealand. November 2011.

Lupines. Omarama, New Zealand. December 2011.

Vine leaf, Marlbourough New Zealand. January 2012.

The dry and golden Wither Hills, Blenhiem, New Zealand. February 2012.

Morning light on a distant glacier, Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. March 2012.

Ferns in the kauri forest, Northland, New Zealand. April 2012.

A home in the vines

It’s amazing how much life can be improved by a roof.  After months of wandering around the south island, we’re quite pleased to pack the tent away and park the car in the driveway of our own place.

Our lovely little stone house is in the small town of Renwick, surrounded by miles of neatly hedged vines. It came complete with colorful flower beds, a cheery picnic table, and, possibly the most exciting of all, a grill on a backyard patio. A previous tenant also left us a flourishing garden full of corn, potatoes, onions, broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini.

A secondhand store provided cheap if somewhat battered furniture, and soon we felt completely at home.

Though we’d been assured of a couple months work in the vines, unseasonably cool weather slowed the work to a trickle, and soon left us unemployed once more. When not hunting for a new job, we fill our days of free time with baking, reading, and revisiting some of our travels. In the midst of what I hear is a mediocre winter back home, perhaps we could all use a day at the beach… here is a look back to the beautiful Philippines.

True New Zealand

Think of New Zealand, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably sheep. There are currently 40 million of them (and only 4 million people) in the country, filling any and every patch of useable land not occupied by people or rugged mountains.

Really, it would be hard to say you’ve experienced true New Zealand without spending time on a sheep farm, so back in early November we decided to do just that. Recommended whole-heartedly by good friends back home, we called up Ken and Sandra Closs to arrange two weeks of WWOOFing (working for room and board) at their farm, Te Hapu.

In the far northwest corner of the south island, just before you run out of land, Te Hapu is sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Kahurangi National Park. It is a bumpy two-hour drive down a dirt road to the nearest town, giving the farm a sense of remoteness and discovery. Rugged green pastures broken by clusters of tree ferns and Nikau palms roll down straight into the sea.  Mobs of fine-wooled merino and sturdy Romney sheep—along with a few surprisingly nimble cows—graze continuously, looking like big balls of wool with sticks for legs. A narrow drive leads in to their house, surrounded by a bountiful garden and tall trees, which act as a fortress against a relentless southwest wind.

Looking out to sea. The shearing shed on the left, with the house tucked into the tall trees.

Ken and Sandra spent years working in one of the shearing gangs that roam the country, saving up enough money to purchase the land back in 1980. They have a wealth of knowledge about the land and their animals, and they were always willing to take the time to patiently answer our questions. The farming has never been easy, and along with a couple thousand sheep and hundred cows they operate several holiday homes scattered about their property. Listening to them tell the story, it is obvious they are proud of the life they have built— and rightfully so. Te Hapu is simply beautiful.

Within the first afternoon, we were smitten. It is hard believe anyone just lives somewhere this incredible. Every curve of the hill holds an unexpected stunning vista, a hidden cluster of foxgloves, a yawning secret cave, or a perfect sweeping beach. Limestone outcroppings dominate the dramatic coastline, topping the steep hillsides and harboring tide pools and crab-filled crevices along the sea.


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…)

In a sea of citrus

The best part about picking oranges is the smell. From the moment you rustle the dark green leaves and pluck the first fruit, a light, fresh citrus scent fills the air.

As it turned out, that was probably the highlight of our highly unglamorous week picking citrus in the never-ending groves of Renmark, South Australia. A swath of country here, called the Riverland region, is entirely made up of rows upon rows of citrus and grapes, and it seems that half the population is transient pickers. Once again, a quick glance at the National Harvest Guide and an appearance at the employment office was all it took to land a job. In fact, our recruiter informed us that we could pick citrus seven days a week for the next seven months if we wanted. Thanks, but no thanks.

Renmark in all its glory, taken from the town's scenic lookout.



And more oranges.

It took the better part of the first day to master the twisting and snapping motion required to cleanly part an orange from its stem. After a few hours we were filling bins in 45 minutes and left feeling quite optimistic about our earning potential for the week.  But it was not meant to be.  On Tuesday, everyone was lead out to Patch 41, where we were instructed to strip the tall, thorny, under-pruned trees of their remaining oranges.  The trees had been select picked earlier in the week, meaning all of their large, plump, eye-level fruit was gone, leaving us to reach through thorns and deadwood to harvest the stragglers. It was terrible, and we before long hated Patch 41 with our whole hearts.

By the second day, we had yet to learn any of our picking compatriots’ names, as it’s hard to make friends when you have your head in an orange tree. However, we did already have clever nicknames for most of them:

–       Three jolly and well-traveled Belgians (The Belgian Troupe).

–       A rambling, rough looking fellow (The Crusticle, Ol’ Crusters, or Crusty for short) who turned out to be quite harmless. In fact, we grew a little fond of the guy.

–       A funny stout/tall and skinny duo (Boggis & Bean), who were laughably slow pickers and unfortunately lacked a short friend whom we could have dubbed Bunce.

–       An Aboriginal guy (The Zen Master) who told tall tales of fruit picking heroics and looked like he could fill bins faster than us in his sleep.

–       Our favorite was some sort of farm manager/supervisor who we never came up with a name for but looked a bit like this:

Others included a lone Irishman, a rude German who fortunately quit, and a guy from China who picked mandarins as fast of the both of us together. Countless more appeared and disappeared over the course of the week, as it seems the average turnover time for orange pickers is around 48 hours.

All this was overseen by a mob of Indian contractors. When we asked a questions (like, “how are we getting paid?”) one person would go to another, who would ask yet another, who would usually ask a surly man in Hindi, and the info would then be translated back to us. Needless to say, we took everything we were told with skepticism. By Friday we estimated a $200 range that our wages could fall into, depending on tax withholdings and getting scammed by various amounts.

Midway through the week, we abandoned our post at our manicured caravan park and moved down to a local campsite called Plush’s Bend. The whole area had been flooded recently and was scattered with dead trees, giving it the look of an abandoned hazardous waste dump. But, it was free, and we set up our tent in a dirt patch where we could wave at Ol’ Crusters in his semi-permanent campsite across a stagnant backwater. Home sweet home! (more…)

Back to the working world… for two days.

As part of our ultimate goal of having enough money in our bank accounts to return home, our plan for Australia includes finding several weeks of gainful employment. It’s part of the reason we came to this part of the world in the first place— Australia and New Zealand are some of the few countries that grant one-year working visas to Americans.  Nine months ago, we applied for Working Holiday Visas online, and it seemed like an excellent way to extend our budget and our travels.

Nine months later, in the midst of a cool, cloudy week in Victoria, the idea of working for the first time in more than four months was less appealing. Still, we took advantage of Australia’s amazing National Harvest Guide and found the nearest town with ripened fruit. A few phone calls and a drop by the employment office later, we had signed up to harvest apples for a few days in Cobram. It is a very small town on Victoria’s northern border where not much happens and, incidentally, there is little else to do but pick apples. Perfect.

As far as monotonous manual labor goes, it was a remarkably pleasant way to earn some cash. We showed up at 8 in the morning, slung a picking basket around our shoulders, and got to work. The apples were cold from the night’s chill and dripping with dew, but the broken morning sun soon warmed them, along with our fingers. We filled enormous wooden crates— worth $35 each— with crisp, tart Pink Lady apples as fast as possible. Before long, we could swiftly pluck two apples per hand and fill a crate an hour with ease.

Note the blurred hand indicating incredible picking speed.

Each night, backs and fingers sore from the day’s work, we’d return to our campsite and reward our efforts with tasty food and a $3 wine called Bowler’s Run, surprisingly good for the price. After two and a half days, we’d filled nine crates, and snagged more than a few tasty apples as bonuses for ourselves. Not bad for our first return venture into the working world. It felt good to be a contributing member of society again, and we look forward to mastering the harvesting methods of other crops.

Once the last of the fruit had been picked, we headed back south towards the ocean and soon merged with the Great Alpine Drive, another of Australia’s scenic roads. After watching the sun rise over a fog-filled valley, we entered Alpine National Park, home to some of the country’s tallest mountains. As the road ascended into the Australian Alps (nice, though not nearly as impressive as the European or Japanese versions), a few inches of snow materialized on the ground.

The view from Mount Buffalo at 7:30 a.m.

Near the top of the pass, a trail snakes off the road along The Razorback, a long, undulating ridge headed for the distant Mount Feathertop, 11 kilometers away. Though the trail was covered in snow, the sun shone down in a clear sky, and soon we were hiking in our t-shirts.  The open ridgeline provided extensive views of blue rolling mountains as the trail wound its way past alpine heath and snow gum skeletons, leftover from fires years ago.

It was an ideal way to spend a sunny day, and an excellent warm-up for our next adventure: a four-day backpacking trip along the Wilderness Coast in Croajinglong National Park.