Nelson Lakes

•December 20, 2007 • Leave a Comment

My feet hurt. They hurt real bad. I’ve just returned from four days of plodding up mountainsides, scrambling along ridges, sliding down scree, mucking through swamps, and so forth in what will almost certainly be my penultimate New Zealand adventure. And ‘twas a worthy finale indeed, aside from all these damnable blisters.

I didn’t end up doing the Travers-Sabine Circuit. Fate, as is her wont, threw me several curveballs before, during, and after the tramp – and I was forced to tweak the master plan until it scarcely resembled my original vision. But (perhaps uncharacteristically) I didn’t let this bother me. On the contrary, I’m quite pleased that everything turned out just as it did.

Nikki and I decided that four days and some change would be a fair allotment of vacation time – just enough for a sprint through the whole Circuit, given ideal conditions. But as my departure date wended nearer, that wily Chinese monk people sometimes refer to as Reality suddenly asserted himself. Thick clouds rolled in off the Tasman and the rains came tumbling down. Conditions would be anything but ideal. I reigned in my imagination and settled on a shorter circuit from Saint Arnaud up the Paddy Track to Bushline Hut, then across the Robert Ridge to Angelus Hut and back down on the Cascade Track. This’d give me one spare day to hole up given lousy weather or track flooding. And if conditions looked good, I’d have the flexibility to slow down and take a side trek from Angelus Hut to Sunset Saddle and the (in)famous alpine route up Mount Hopeless.

Around the same time that my plans began to metamorphose, a radiant German juggler and acrobat named Katharina arrived at Jugglers’ Rest and quietly checked in. We struck up a conversation about tramping, and suddenly going to Nelson Lakes alone began to lose its appeal. When I departed for Saint Arnaud a few days later, Katharina came with me. Her companionship made an already fantastic tramp infinitely better.

This will probably be my last post here before returning to America. As such, I’d much rather tell y’all more about this adventure in person than peck it out on the keyboard. So you’ll simply have to wait – but trust me, it’ll be worthwhile.



Last Night

•December 5, 2007 • 2 Comments

Goodness, we’re just rolling in images over these last two days, aren’t we? I took this from the Jugglers’ driveway around nine yesterday.

Picton Sunset 01

Happy Hanukkah from Jugglers’ Rest!

•December 4, 2007 • 4 Comments

Fire Poi Nikki 01

Edit: This isn’t me. My poi skills are improving, but I certainly haven’t reached the point where I’d be comfortable spinning with fire.

Fire Poi Nikki 02

No, that’s definitely Nikki.  Last night we hosted eight Israelis celebrating the beginning of this holiday of lights – and wonderful Nikki decided that a fire show would be the perfect cap to the evening.  Long story short – it was.

Some Notes on Picton

•December 2, 2007 • 2 Comments

Over the past several days, I’ve lacked the energy and inspiration for another large, comprehensive narrative on the transition from bumming around Dunedin to working and tramping here in Picton. So rather than overwhelming myself, I’ve decided to babble about various little things and simply hope that a larger picture miraculously emerges. Sound good? Good.

First of all, whereas Dunedin is a bustling metropolis, Picton features maybe twelve streets. Three of them are significant: the highway, the main street, and…

…okay, two of them are significant. My point stands. Despite its important role as the cargo transportation nexus between North and South Islands – not to mention its breathtaking terrain – Picton’s totally a three-horse town. The friendly neighborhood Supervalue runs a lucrative grocery racket, and I’ve learned the hard way that it pretty much runs out of everything on Thursday nights and doesn’t restock until Saturday morning. The public library is about half the size of its nearest (and much more popular) neighbor, a Scottish pub called the Flying Haggis. Yet there are at least six hostels! It appears that Picton serves as a junction. Nearly every traveler traipses through – wending his or her merry way to Nelson or the Marlborough Sounds or Blenheim or Kaikoura or Wellington or wherever – but few hang around longer than a day or two. I kinda understand why, but for my purposes (and cash-strapped situation) the sleepy nature of the place works out just fine.

Working at Jugglers’ has been akin to sploshing into an ordinary-looking puddle – and suddenly finding yourself confronted by Scylla, Charybdis, and maybe a bunch of sea mines or something for good measure. You think cleaning a hostel for three hours daily sounds easy? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But Jugglers’ Rest isn’t just some hostel – it’s the cleanest hostel you’ve ever seen. There are three of us working here, including myself, and over the course of those three hours we scrub, dust, polish, vacuum, and mop every inch of the building until it’s shiny like a baby’s heiny. You heard me. And Nikki demands perfection – “just do it right the first time,” she told me the other day.

That doesn’t mean she isn’t a great gal. I really like Nikki, and even admire her in some ways. She’s phenomenally headstrong and independent. Yet although she always remains firm (arguably even obstinate) in her convictions, her clientele don’t seem to take offense. Her artless rapport with travelers of all stripes is just that good.

The other Jugglers’ employee is a genial former archaeologist from Winnipeg named Marvin. Since graduating from college and deciding that digging stuff up wasn’t his forte, Marv has tromped across the globe as a beekeeper, a Kiwi conservation worker, a hunting and fishing guide, and a handyman. He’s easy to get along with, has a great sense of humor, and (as you might expect) is quite the repository of unique knowledge and stories.

Marvin’s tramping experience has actually convinced me to forego tramping the popular Queen Charlotte and Abel Tasman Coastal Tracks in favor of a relatively obscure backcountry route known as the Travers-Sabine Circuit. I’m glad he mentioned this option to me; it’s much more economical than either of the aforementioned famous tracks, and the solitude and diverse alpine terrain strikes my fancy more than running into numerous day-trippers along recurrent (though admittedly gorgeous) beaches. What can I say? I’ve just got this thing for mountains. Anyway, I’ve already booked a shuttle to the track gateway at Saint Arnaud for December 14th. I’ll hopefully have some time to provide y’all with a pre-departure update on that journey a day or two before.

But right now, I’m tired of writing and, for that matter, being awake. Good night!

The Inevitable Anticlimax

•November 27, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Happy (very) belated Thanksgiving, my friends! I’d hoped to write sooner, but the business of packing my existence into a suitcase and backpack and hauling it several hundred kilometers has rightfully occupied most of my attention of late. But now that I’ve reached Jugglers’ Rest and feel pretty much settled, I’ll present y’all with the abridged version of the terminus in Dunedin. And in a few days, I’ll relate the story of my travels and new beginnings here in (ridiculously) sunny Picton.

First, though, I’ve some business to attend to. The interwebs here in Picton are somehow mildly allergic to my Middlebury email account (or perhaps vice-versa). I can receive messages just fine – and many thanks to those who have written – but the outgoing mail server won’t permit me to respond. I’m working to rectify the problem, but I anticipate failure. Bah! Perhaps I should just sign up for Gmail or whatever. I’ll keep y’all posted.

Anyway, let’s rewind two weeks and go from there. The sad business of bidding farewell to Shadowfax quickly proved a mere prelude to my other cleansing and simplifying duties. I took every effort to minimize waste during this period – making numerous trips to the Salvation Army with bag upon bag of clothes, doodads, gewgaws, and even the occasional widget. I also challenged myself to devise a nutrition regime that struck a balance between health and using up absolutely everything in the refrigerator. The health side of things ended up thoroughly compromised (I had to use up, like, seven sticks of butter), but I wasted almost nothing – and since this has resulted in neither obesity nor heart attack, I’ve declared my eating strategy a success.

When I wasn’t grazing and/or cleaning, I wandered idly about town, taking random photographs and collecting little souvenirs. With two days remaining, I (finally) spent an afternoon at the Otago Museum – and felt rather foolish to discover that such a wonderful series of exhibitions had stood literally less than three minutes from my flat all semester, and I simply hadn’t bothered to poke my head inside. There was the obligatory Maori hall, along with a series of exhibits focusing on the diversity of other Polynesian cultures. Most impressive were a beautiful gallery of Japanese textile art and the Museum’s latest addition – a three-story artificial rainforest populated by amphibians, fish, and thousands of swarming butterflies. The whole operation was quite impressive, but I think my favorite aspect was simply witnessing so many children burst into peals of delighted laughter as uncounted butterflies swooped down to perch upon them. I would have expected some to be frightened or repulsed, but there was neither crying nor cringing for the entire hour I wandered the exhibit’s footpaths and catwalks. At this point, some of you may be casting about for pictures; I can assure you, there will be plenty (and some good ones at that!) come December.

I spent my evenings hanging out with Annie – a winsome girl from Smith – and her Kiwi flatmate Simon. We chatted and watched a few movies, most notably the latest Harry Potter flick, which I found rather one-dimensional but quite entertaining nonetheless. And on the eve of my departure, Annie and I dined together at Eureka (another of Dunedin’s fantastic restaurants) and had a wonderful time. I enjoyed listening to the timbre her voice, and her enthusiastic stories of friends and home. The food, for its part, was just heavenly. Eureka’s bill of fare featured simple European and Mediterranean flavors – selected and cooked by some sort of culinary wizard. We started off by sharing a delicious flatbread accompanied by olive oil and a flavorful dipping mixture of crushed nuts and spices the menu referred to as dukkah. Not sure exactly what it contained, but coriander was definitely involved. For our mains, Annie chose a honey-glazed salmon dish. I snuck a little taste and thought the flavours and textures truly remarkable. My pork fillet with mustard and lemon cream sauce was almost as good, and I absolutely inhaled the accompanying mashed kumara and steamed asparagus. Inhaled them, I tell you! I think we were both pretty much stuffed by this point, but everything – weather, occasion, company, and so forth – conspired to encourage some indulgence in the form of pecan pie and cheesecake. The pecan pie was yummy; the cheesecake fantastically so. We lounged and talked for a while after the friendly waitress cleared our plates, then contentedly ambled home as the Dunedin sun reluctantly slid behind deserted university buildings. And that was my last glimpse of it.

For you see, the next morning I rose before the dawn. I lethargically downed a bowl of porridge and guzzled the last of the orange juice straight from its carton, then wrestled my huge suitcase down to the curb – and with a simple tug on the doorknob of 505A Great King Street, the epic chapter that was my semester in Dunedin creaked slowly to a close.

Tequila and Corona – Toyota Corona

•November 14, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Folks, the clock is finally winding down here in Dunedin.  In exactly one week, I’ll lock the front door of my flat for the last time.  I’m among the stragglers – North Dunedin has become a veritable ghost town of late.  It’s rather pleasant, actually.  The days drift by slowly but surely; they’ve become dominated simply by leisurely walks, baking experiments, and innumerable preparations for my imminent departure.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching of these came yesterday morning, when they destroyed Shadowfax.  ‘Twas the strangest experience.  I drove her to the wreckers myself, and she was purring and handling just beautifully.  Then they gave me some paperwork to sign and pried off her license plates, and that was that.  Our beloved white stallion – which faithfully carried us sixteen thousand kilometers over the last three months and continued to perform admirably – will run no more.  Instead she’ll be cannibalized and melted down because the world at large concentrates on her form to the exclusion of her function.  I felt true guilt while signing those papers.  There was nothing wrong with my car.

I might’ve wallowed in the depths of despair for some time after that, but then along came Greg Robertson.  Greg’s one of the star bartenders at Pequeno, which is arguably the classiest drinking establishment in Dunedin and certainly among my favorite hangouts (surprise, surprise).  Several weeks ago Greg offered to put me on Pequeno’s mailing list.  I never received anything, so after awhile I just forgot the whole episode – but after dropping of Shadowfax the other day and trudging home in the rain, I found a bubbly little note in the ol’ inbox.  That very night, it informed me, Greg and his bar would become the site of a swanky tasting/sales pitch by esteemed tequila producer Casa Herradura.

I’ve never really possessed the means or the inclination to make a study of tequila, so this adventure was a small revelation for me.  Brand ambassador Matt In The Hat was quite congenial and knowledgeable, and his products were altogether fairly solid – though not exciting enough to really win me over.  We tried six tequilas selected from the Herradura and El Jimador lines over the period of about two hours, which provided plenty of time for conversation with our fellows.  I ended up chatting with some doctoral candidates, bartenders, and a former executive at 42 Below (producers of Seven Tiki Rum, South Gin, and their eponymous line of vodkas) who made bank and retired by selling off his distribution rights to Bacardi last year.  I’m not necessarily a fan of globalization (or Bacardi, for that matter), but if this guy was really with the company to begin with, I suppose that on some level I defend his right to decide what happens to it.

But enough of that; on to the tequilas!  We began with El Jimador’s baseline blanco.  Priced around $30 at your local bottle shop, this stuff isn’t really marketed as sipping sauce, but I found swigging it straight rather enjoyable.  The aroma was – well, agave-ish.  My prior experience with tequilas and these spiky plants from which they are derived is sorely lacking, so that’s pretty much all I can say.  There’s some ethanol on the nose as well – it’s not unpleasantly strong, but this spirit’s spirit certainly asserts itself.  Given these aromas and the unaged nature of this beast, its smoothness on the palate was a pleasant surprise.  Sure, there was some alcohol heat, but very little harshness.  I found the taste, like the nose, difficult to place.  It was vaguely sweet, but also had strong notes of pepper and reminded me of menthol somehow.  ‘Twas quite good.  The notes were balanced, and strong but not overpowering.  The only thing that bothered me somewhat was the mouthfeel – although this blanco has beautiful legs in the glass, it feels too thin and watery on the tongue.  Nonetheless, altogether a very nice dram, and I could certainly see its flavor standing out in cocktails.

After some palate-cleansing water/snacks, Matt In The Hat presented us with Herradura Hacienda del Cristo, another blanco.  This tequila was probably the most intriguing, and not in a good way.  Y’see, the Hacienda is marketed as the world’s smoothest, most refined blanco – an ideal sipping tequila.  Its official descriptors are veritably dripping with superlatives, and its price tag seems to hover around $65.  Yet our group immediately reached a full consensus that it didn’t hold a candle to the much cheaper El Jimador blanco we had sampled earlier.  It was certainly harsher, both on the nose and palate, and maintained a similar watery consistency.  Nobody could discern any positive contributions that might justify all that extra panache and expense, aside from the pretty bottle.  Marketing bull-sheezy, for sure.

Unfortunately, the Hacienda del Cristo kinda set the tone for the remainder of the tasting.  As we traveled upward through the El Jimador and Herradura reposados and anejos, I began to feel that although they were quite solid and enjoyable (Herradura Anejo was particularly good), none really jumped out to effectively justify the cost or hype surrounding them.  I think my fellows got the same impression; everyone gradually seemed to grow weary of the tequilas and focus more on interacting with each other.

So, what’s my final verdict?  El Jimador blanco strikes me as a great deal.  I’d certainly give it a shot (so to speak) for mixing Margaritas and such.  As for the others, well… they’re certainly worth a try if you: a) love tequila, b) have truckloads of money, or c) aren’t expected to pay.  Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you’ll stick to saving for a bottle of Booker’s or Sazerac.

Sweet Source Material

•November 7, 2007 • 1 Comment

Hello there! Just dropping by to share what has rapidly become my absolute favorite food blog – Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks. It’s packed with wholesome and delicious recipes, incredibly detailed instructions, and truly gorgeous photography. I particularly recommend trying the Great Chocolate Chip Cookies from David Lebovitz’s Great Book of Chocolate or Ginger Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting. Jackpot!

Ms. Swanson has also authored a cookbook entitled Super Natural Cooking, which apparently focuses on simple ways to integrate minimally processed foods into one’s culinary repertoire and looks pretty much fantastic. If you happen to get your grubby mitts on it, please share your thoughts!

David Lebovitz’s Great Chocolate Chip Cookies