Saturday, February 28, 2009

My Kiwi Experience

It could’ve gone either way. I could’ve kept listening to my iPod and continued wandering around the harbor looking for my sushi lunch. And in that reality I would’ve found myself at what sounded like a pretty cool vineyard for the next few days. But instead I decided to ask the group of kids with their American accents where they were from, and after about five minutes of conversation they decided to invite me on the camper van tour of the North Island that they had just decided to take.

We crammed 11 into a six person van, eight of the others from Wash U. in St. Louis, another from Miami of Ohio and a tenth from Arcadia in Pennsylvania. All of them were juniors studying abroad at the University of Auckland for the semester. Three of the Wash. U kids were from LA, including one who went to Harvard-Westlake’s rival school Loyola, and another who not only was in the same graduating class at Milken Community High School as my sister Karin, but had actually hung out at my house in middle school. Small world indeed.

Within a few hours of landing in Auckland, I got lonely. New Zealand was one of Jaime’s countries, and not only did I miss having one of my best friends with me, but it also hit me that I didn’t know a single friendly face in the entire country. If you think about that long enough, it can get you pretty down.

But I found another Nando’s, the amazing Portuguese chicken restaurant from South Africa, had a filling lunch, spent some time talking to some Uruguayans and kept on my way. I checked out Mt. Eden, the dormant volcano which lends it name to the little, very Asian suburb my hostel was in.

I made it back in time to my hostel for the meet-and-greet BBQ, and wandered around talking to people- two British girls there, a few Germans here, and more Germans there. (Germans are absolutely everywhere in Australia and New Zealand). Eventually I met a few people who wanted to go out, so four Germans, an Israeli girl and I walked to a bar playing live American hits ranging from the 50s and 60s to the latest from Kings of Leon. Two fights, or more shoving contests than full-fledged fights, broke out at the bar, the first between girls, the second guys. A little bit after the second, jetlag got the best of me and I headed back to the hostel.

Then my second day in New Zealand I met the group of Wash. U kids. I bummed around their dorms, sleeping on a different person’s couch for the couple nights before we left for our trip.

First we headed off to Waitomo, a small town that probably wouldn’t exist if not for its tourist trap, the glowworm caves. We were told that without a tent, we wouldn’t all be allowed to sleep in the campsite with all the other RVs and camper vans, so we split up. Half of our group slept in a luxurious hostel, while the other half got the van. A few of us in the van group decided to really enjoy the great outdoors and sleep next to the van. We had just stopped talking, preparing to go to sleep when a shooting star streaked across the sky. I think it was the first I had ever seen, and it had us city kids talking for a little bit longer about the stars and the Milky Way. I lasted til about 3 in the morning before the cold conquered my $15 camouflage sleeping bag, purchased earlier that day, which struggled to reach my sternum. I spent the rest of the night equally uncomfortably, if not a little less cold, in the camper van and decided it’d be hostels for me for the rest of the trip.

We chose the longest cave adventure called the Black Abyss, which started off with a long abseil/ rappel into the caves, followed by a zipline, some underground tea and cookies and then finally led us into the water for some blackwater rafting. Blackwater rafting sounds a lot more intense than it is. After finishing our tea, we jumped about 10 feet into the water, clutching black inner tubes to our backs so we wouldn’t have to experience more of the frigid water than was absolutely necessary. We then coasted through the caves on our inner tubes, admiring the glowworm larvae splattered on the wall like lime green snot and singing Don’t Stop Believin’.

Feeling adventurous we decided to choose the waterfall exit out of the caves. I found this to be the most exciting part of the excursion, because we had to scramble up through the cave and over the waterfalls without any sort of safety harness. Granted our guides were yelling through the noise of the waterfall and pointing to exactly which rocks to step on, but it still felt appreciably more dangerous than any other part of the afternoon.

Our next stop was Lake Taupo, probably my favorite city in New Zealand. I’ve heard of other cities in New Zealand on the South Island claiming to be the extreme sports capital of the world, but I can’t imagine any city squeezing more action into each square mile than Taupo did. There were a solid four different skydiving companies vying for your thrill-seeking dollars, a place to bungee jump and water sports galore.

Nine of our crew decided to go for the skydive. I thought about it, but since I had already done it last June and didn’t love it, I thought I’d give bungee jumping a try. Ben, the one who went to high school with Karin, wasn’t so big on heights, so he came to watch me bungee.

I freaked out a little right before the jump, but I ended up taking and loving the 47 meter (130ish feet) plunge. I jumped into water, maybe Lake Taupo, and asked to be dipped only head deep, but I jumped too far out and only got my hands in.

Ben and I then headed to the water sports center, grabbed a quick lunch and then decided to try our hand at sailing. After the shortest tutorial known to man, Ben and I were given the boat for an hour. We had quite the rocky start with lots of shrieking and laughing, and a few close calls. After we made it back safely ashore, we found out that in the early going, my letting go of the steering rod to help Ben on the sails, was analogous to letting go of the steering wheel on a car. But we eventually found a better (and safer) groove with Ben steering and me on the sails.

Just to put it in perspective, when I went skydiving I had to leave around 8 in the morning, drive two hours away south to Lake Elsinore, and then wait for a few hours, before heading back, getting caught in typical LA freeway traffic and finally getting back home around 6 at night. In Taupo, you could skydive, bungee and windsurf all before lunch.

Our next stop was Whangamata (pronounced fahn-gah-ma-TAH). We watched Sideways in our hostel, and went to check out the beach the next morning. Everybody else messed around in the water, but I wasn’t feeling the cold so I went running on the beach instead. After lunch, we kept on north to go back to Auckland and return the van.

I had a really fun couple of days, and am really glad I got out of Auckland and got to explore the country a little. In my few months of traveling I haven’t heard of a single city as roundly criticized as Auckland. Sure, people from St. Petes trashed Moscow and you heard the fair share of Jo’burg horror stories that made you want to scurry indoors the second the Sun set, but at least the residents of the two cities spoke fondly of them. Most people I talked to in Auckland complained about how boring it was, and encouraged me to leave and see the rest of the country.

We got back to Auckland for the end of orientation week, just in time for a pub crawl at the other international students dorm. Three of us decided to take the half hour walk there together, and on a whim we popped into a random house party. We walked straight up to the barbecue and a girl in her late 20s asked us if we were the barbecue technicians from next door. And why not? The ruse was up quickly enough, but not before we thoroughly and completely burned the shish kebabs for the dentist hygienists party that we were supposedly so expert at cooking.

We finally made it to the student dorms in Parnell village. I was sick of relaying the whole extended gap year story, so I just started to tell people that I was living in the other dorms (partially true, at least for the week) and that I was a sophomore at William & Mary (completely false). I had to disappoint a few people by admitting that I didn’t know a senior named David on the gymnastics team.

“But everybody knows David!”
“Well I mean it is a pretty big school.”

Right as I was explaining how I didn’t know everybody at William & Mary, a girl I vaguely recognized came up to the group I was talking with. She listened and then exclaimed excitedly, “I know you! You’re not in college yet.”

I had met this girl on my second day before the Wash. U group took me in, and talked to her for a little while at Dunkin Donuts while I ate a bagel and egg sandwich. She was studying abroad in Auckland and I related the whole gap year story to her, before we went our separate ways. Another one of the random conversations with a stranger never to be seen again, except this time she decided to have another cameo with some perfect timing. Nobody was any worse for my little lie, and I really enjoyed the small taste I got of what the study abroad experience might be like.

Well, my 12 hour layover in Hong Kong International Airport is thankfully wrapping up. Now it’s time for India. Fingers crossed that when I inevitably get sick from the food, it passes quickly and easily! Hope everybody has a great March. I have no idea what my computer access situation will be, but I’ll be sure to write in a notebook and throw it online at a later date if I have to.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy! Oy! Oy!


We can call the rest of my time in Australia my YPO vacation. Young Presidents Organization is an organization of company presidents and CEOs with chapters around the world. My dad, president of the third generation family business Alpert & Alpert Iron and Metal, has been a member of YPO for about a decade. In Melbourne, before and after my week at the French Island, I stayed with a YPO member my dad and my sister Karin had met on a YPO trip to Cambodia.

A hilarious, divorced father of four, he seemed to cherish his newfound bachelordom. His favorite among his series of one-liners seemed to be “a bachelor is a man who never makes the same mistake once.” His two older kids are in boarding school so I only got to meet them once, but his two elementary-aged girls were there for my last few days.

And then there was his housekeeper Joan. Within minutes of meeting her, during the car ride from the airport, the 68 year-old grandmother spilled to me (completely unsolicited on my part) almost all the secrets of her employer’s divorce and every off-color comment she could remember him making, interspersed of course with bits about Melbourne. She also seemed to be practically deaf and could drone on forever on any topic from the intimate details of the personal lives of every member in her large family to the wildfires in the 1890s. But talking to her made for some good entertainment, and she was very warm, even going so far as to give me a tour of the 19th century house she was staying in and personally renovating.

I wasn’t very productive during my few weeks in Melbourne. I slept in, took the tram (Melbourne has an extensive network of trams like San Fran’s trolleys), and just wandered around the city. I did make it to the Shrine of Remembrance commemorating Australia’s war dead in World War I, which was pretty moving.

My social life in Melbourne was also buoyed by YPO. I spent one night at the gargantuan Crown Casino for a YPO event with 2005 World Series of Poker winner Joe Hachem. I spent another night on a yacht for a dinner cruise of the Yarra River with kids of YPOers, and spent a weekend with another YPO family down the Great Ocean Road (the Aussie equivalent of PCH) in a small beach town named Fair Haven. I also hung out with the Australian sisters from my Russia program a few times.

Melbourne was hot, hot, hot during my two weeks there with temperatures reaching a scorching 47 degrees Celsius (around 116 Fahrenheit). I was there during the terrible Victorian brushfires (little taste of home), but was in no way affected. I was surprised to learn about how severe the effects of an 8 year drought were on Melbourne. Melbournians were supposed to limit themselves to 155 liters of water per day, meaning showers of three minutes or less and washing encouraged during non-peak hours.

Traveling alone was not nearly as hard as I anticipated it being. Before I left I dreamed up worst case scenarios where I’d feel so bone-crushingly lonely and starved for meaningful human interaction that I’d ambush the stranger sitting next to me on the tram with a big bear hug. Not only did it never get that bad, I actually felt happy and content almost all the time.

I chatted up strangers because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to. And it led to a pretty strange existence. The most interesting parts of my days generally were the little five minute snippets of conversations with strangers that I would never see again.

There was Curtis who stood behind me in line while I was buying my favorite breath enhancer, mint Mentos. He was wearing a red Washington Nationals hat, so I asked him if he was from DC. He told me that he was actually from NYC and that he had been playing basketball as one of the two imports for one of Melbourne’s teams for the last 8 years. We talked basketball, the NBA and the Lakers until he was finished buying and then we went our separate ways.

There was the German girl who sat across from me on the tram with a fresh bouquet of flowers. I asked her if she was giving or getting them, and she raved about her abroad experience studying tourism at one of the universities until I got off the tram.


A week of Melbourne before and after the French Island seemed to be enough, so I headed north. I got to Sydney right in time for some more bad weather, this time five straight days of rain. In Sydney, I spent a week with a friend named Lachlan I had met a few summers back on a YPO trip for teens in Switzerland. I lazed around, sleeping until noon most days and then getting up and watching TV. Lachlan’s also taking a gap year and will be spending five months living and working in Europe with friends this fall. I went out to the major nightlife district in Sydney, King’s Cross, with a few of his friends. We also went snorkeling on a beach when the weather got better on my last day.

Earlier in the week, I went up to Lachlan’s family’s farm about an hour away with him and his girlfriend. It was a ton nicer than the McLeod Eco Farm at the French Island. And I quickly found out that I may not be cut out for country living. Lachlan and I were with the horses, feeding them and petting them, when I got too close to the new baby foal. Its mother apparently felt threatened, and I was too slow to react when I saw it wheel around. Before I could think to move out of the way, it landed a decent blow to my upper left thigh.

I followed up getting kicked by a horse by crashing an ATV. I didn’t give it enough gas going up a big hill, and suddenly was rolling down a hill. I bailed out safely, and the ATV was stopped by a barbed wire fence. We decided it’d be best to have Lachlan take it up the hill after that.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We tried our hand at fishing in one of the lakes, I successfully hit a can of Fanta on my first try with an air rifle, and we collected crickets by flashlight for bait. And in the morning I tried an old Aussie favorite, spaghetti on toast. It was the canned variety of spaghetti, tasting a lot like Spaghetti-Os, and despite what the name might have you believe, it’s eaten with a fork and knife and not like a sandwich.

While in Sydney, I did a few more tourist-y things. I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Well, to call it climbing would be a stretch. It was more walking up ramps and ladders as we made our way slowly up to the summit of the bridge at sunset. But I had a lot of fun and really appreciated that the rain that had been pouring down all day paused for the 3 hour climb.

And of course, I also made it to the Sydney Opera House. It was good to see that I wasn’t jaded by traveling. As the ferry pulled up in front of the Opera House, I was snapping away with my camera like any shameless tourist. I felt a wonderful mix of awe and excitement at being so close to such a global icon and was drawn to go back again and again. After I had taken enough pictures of the Opera House, I started watching the other tourists taking their pictures. And then I decided it’d be a cool series to have pictures of other people taking pictures. So I have a few pictures of random strangers taking pictures, some of them with the Opera House in them, others not. And the pictures are coming to the blog, I promise, as soon as I can figure out how to get my memory card in my computer.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frenching (and quick NZ update)

How was it to be a farmer on a remote, deserted island? Relaxing. The work was, in the words of one of my co-WWOOFers, “piss easy,” and since we only worked from 8:30-1:30, we had lots of free time. There wasn’t much to do in that down time, which may have made it go by even faster. I stayed from Monday to Saturday the first week of February, working in exchange for my room and board.

The French Island is right next to the Phillip Island, world-renowned for its penguins, and is about as well-known to Australians as it is to Americans. I got lots of puzzled looks when I told people in Melbourne where I was going. But the locals I met on the quick ferry ride over said that they like being overlooked, even after pop star Kylie Minogue bought a house there. There is also no running water and electricity, although with generators and water tanks you could hardly tell.

The work itself consisted of watering the plants, either the pumpkin patch or the bigger field with a myriad of crops, in the morning. After our half hour mid-morning break, we were usually sent to the garlic shed to cut and beautify garlic, shucking off the bruised and ugly layers to make them look, nice, clean and white.

Despite how easy the work was, within a half hour of my first morning working, it looked like I had been working (and sleeping) in the same clothes for weeks. Mud and water splashed all over my jeans and shirt, and a few days in the dried dirt had the desired effect of allowing my jeans to stand up a little all on their own.

And for the duration of my week-long stay my face was coated with a fine mix of sweat, dirt, sunscreen, bug spray and grime. We were allowed to shower with the cold water every other day, but that only served to help move the dirt around, not actually help us get clean. I also perfected the Aussie or Outback salute of batting away the flies in front of my face who actually seemed to relish the bug spray.

In our down time, we read, took long, leisurely afternoon naps and played games like Monopoly, poker and other card games. We watched the tv, which helped to really simplify the answer to “what’s on?” since it had only one working channel.

I read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture (absolutely great) and made some headway into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (took a while to get into, but then gripping in its own slow way) and Frederick Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (thought-provoking). We rode bikes and ATVs (known as quadbikes here), and the 11 year-old daughter of the farmer’s owner taught me how to drive a stick shift in a pick-up truck missing one functioning door, a radio and a sideview mirror.

The farm was used as a prison until the late 1970s and the WWOOFers dorms were converted former prison cells. While the room wasn’t bad, if not a little sparse, it also wasn’t that much of a step up from its prison days. It had just been spruced up with a better paint job, a better bed and carpeting, but the layout remained almost entirely the same as the one cell they kept unchanged for tour purposes.

My first night at the farm I made the mistake of leaving my light on and door open. I was attacked by moths all night long, and had trouble sleeping with the feeling of them crawling all over my legs. Turning my flashlight on to try to bat them away only made more flock to me. So after some morning pest removal, I returned to my room the next night to see a huntsman spider patrolling one corner of my ceiling. The huntsman to my untrained eye resembled a small tarantula, but was supposedly harmless. I joked that I would be freaked out if I woke up to find it was no longer in the same corner, but I didn’t have to wait that long. I came back to my room later that night to find it gone. My search proved futile, so I spent the rest of the week with my friend the huntsman lurking somewhere in my cell.

There were a handful of other WWOOFers there during my stay. There was one couple from Scotland, two friends from England, and Germans who left and came while I was there, all pretty much in their early to mid-twenties. The Scots were interesting people, sort of fantasy freaks. He had “stylish” tattooed in the Elf language (Elfish? Elvish? Elvis?) on his stomach, and she was part of a paranormal investigative unit with friends back home. Not the type of people I normally hang out with, but not bad either for a change of pace.

I was real friendly with the two Brits. The guy was from Liverpool, which I’ve decided narrowly beats out the Scottish variety for hardest native English-speaking accent to understand. When I was able to understand him we had a good time, including an epic ping pong marathon that started with me teaching him how to keep score and ended with a crushing, nailbiter loss.

All the other WWOOFers were long-term travelers, in Australia for at least a year, who were using the McLeod Eco Farm as a sort of free base camp and some work to fill their days while they had recruitment agencies look for paying work. When they found out I was staying in Australia for only a short month, they exhorted me to get back to civilization and enjoy the country. So I listened and shortened what was initially planned to be a two week stay to five days.

The proprietor of the farm was probably the most interesting part. Mark Cunningham is a self-described Jewish, Christian, Muslim with a Hindu, Buddhist, capitalist outlook. The others found him to be annoying, but I always enjoyed it when he broke up the monotony of the work by preaching his philosophy on life to us. I wrote down some of his more memorable pearls of wisdom.

He talked about “making love to the land” instead of raping it as others do, to try to learn its secrets. He was also big on what he called the parachute theory; the basic premise is that we all know absolutely nothing. Once you open up your mind, like a parachute, to all you don’t know, then you’ll finally start to learn. He called all religions, stories, which is probably how he rationalized calling himself a man of so many faiths. He just simply liked the different stories.

He also loved to tell us about his own story. He told us that he was using the farm to build the Garden of Eden economically, because “the only way you can save the world is through economics.”

I personally couldn’t really connect all the dots, but he planned to open a Japanese wagu beef burger restaurant. The restaurant would turn a huge profit because he’d put it right next to one that’s currently doing good business, but sell his burgers for almost half the price. He talked about copying the McDonalds formula too, but I don’t really know how that applies considering his burgers would cost significantly more, and would hopefully be of higher quality. But I guess the fact that he’s doing all this biodynamically (you got in trouble if you said organic, but don’t ask me to explain the difference) sort of fits with the whole Garden of Eden analogy and returning the land to its natural, chemical-free state.

Oh and as a postscript, I’d like to paint the picture of the Scots’ arrival to the farm as they told it to me. From the ferry, they were picked up in the broken down pick-up by a paid employee of the farm named Jamie. The car wouldn’t start so Jamie took a sledgehammer to the engine, to get it going. Then once they hit the road for the half hour ride, he took a few swigs from his bottle of Jim Beam, explaining that it was okay because there were no cops, and all the locals kept guns anyway.

Ladies and gents, the French Island!


I'm currently in Auckland, New Zealand. I've been here for three days now, staying in a hostel. I had planned to spend the rest of my week at the vineyard I referenced in one of my earlier posts, but yesterday I met a group of Americans studying abroad here from Wash . U in St. Louis and they invited me to come with them in a rented camper van for the week traveling around the North Island. It'll be a quick, fun week in New Zealand, by far the least amount of time I'm spending in any country, and then I'm off to India this Saturday!