Chang is good

Let me tell you about my friend Walter Chang. We worked together in New York as A/V techs at Columbia University. Walter was always seemed reserved and went about his business quietly and competently. As we got to know each other, he would sometimes mention his plans for “a big trip” to Asia. Others would refer to it as “Walter’s Great Adventure”. He was pithy about plans and the eventual end goal. Little did I know that he was discreetly accepting all extra shifts, eating as many meals at work as possible, and couch surfing his final few months in NY to save money.

In September 2011, he had a going-away party before leaving to see family in South Korea. Over the next eight months, he hopped across to Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Nepal, India, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Then home for 2 weeks in May and back out across the US through Las Vegas, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, back to S Korea, N Korea (crazy!!), Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. Did I forget anything?!

You may have noticed we’ve traveled through a few of the same countries and in fact our paths have closely crossed. At our first stop in Delhi, we missed each other by one day (because we had to get the hell out of Delhi as quickly as possible). In Indonesia, we were always on different islands as he was moving east about two weeks ahead of us. Finally, in New Zealand we were in the same city at the same time! We made plans to meet up on a sunny Saturday afternoon in downtown Auckland and took a ferry to Rangitoto Island to hike the volcano.

I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see a familiar face on the road when you’ve been traveling this long. Despite everything he’s done and seen over the past 15+ months (and counting) he remains one of the most grounded and humble persons I know. I was oozing with questions about the things he’s done and grateful for the advice he passed along. Walter was a main source of information while preparing for this trip and certainly gave me some priceless tips.

We took a short ferry over to Rangitoto, a dormant volcano with an easy one-hour hike to the top. Along the way we shared stories of our travels and traded reviews about the different countries. The weather was perfect and the views were amazing. Once we were at the top, there were panoramic views of downtown Auckland and surrounding islands closely offshore. The water was a brilliant blue and…well, I’ll just let the pictures do the rest.

Afterwards, we walked around Auckland and continued our conversation about life on the road. The next day, Walter would take a flight back to NY, but only for a brief stay. Then it was off to Alaska for two weeks (so he could be in the North Pole for Christmas) and down to South America for four months. His overall plans include hiking Kilimanjaro in Africa, taking the Trans-Siberian through Russia, backpacking Europe, and pretty much seeing every place in this big, beautiful world over the next 2-3 years. When asked what his favorite places were so far, he answered: China, The Philippines, and New Zealand. It made us even more excited to get out and discover this country, and we just may have to tack on the Philippines to our trip…

So if you thought what we’re doing right now is a big, crazy adventure, you haven’t met my friend Walter. Safe travels buddy!

Gabriella, Blake, Walter

Gabriella, Blake, Walter

Buongiorno, Villa Romantica!

B: Our first wwoofing location was on the North Shore of Auckland at the Italian home of Raffaela and Paolo Delmonte. So much for an authentic kiwi experience! Raffaela picked us up from the bus station and took us to her beautiful home on 7 acres of land, quietly tucked away in the suburbs with a view of the ocean, appropriately called Villa Romantica. This wasn’t a typical wwoofing experience because we weren’t working on a farm, but rather helping to maintain her land and clean up around the house. There is also a small cottage next to the house that the Delmonte’s rent out for weeks at a time.

The home was made of dark wood with lots of natural light and open space. The wood provided just enough insulation that no HVAC system (heat and A/C) was needed, but the acoustics were terrible and every creak could be heard throughout the house. Our room was a large and sunny bedroom with a glass-sliding door leading to the backyard and our own newly-remodeled bathroom down the hall. Quite a treat after coming from some poorly maintained places in Asia!

G: Don’t forget the house cats: Giggo and Briccola! When they weren’t busy cleaning each other, I definitely got my fix of kitty love from them.

Giggio and Briccola

Our work schedule was broken up into four 4-hour days and one 8-hour day for a total of 24 hours per week. The jobs bounced all over, but mainly involved weeding, spreading compost, and relocating native bushes.  To Raffaela’s delight, we worked fairly quickly and moved through many projects. We were the last wwoofers she would host before the holidays, so there were many loose ends to tie up.

One of my favorite projects was the garden out back, facing the ocean in the distance. We landscaped the area to create levels along the slope and dug up various plants to move them using creative aesthetic. The permaculture varied from simple herbs like chamomile and parsley to cosmo flowers and olive and lemon trees and a blueberry bush. We found out pretty quickly that the soil in New Zealand is full of clay and farmers have to work hard with companion planting and composting to break up the clay in the soil. Later, we found out that planting chicory is a great solution for this. Often times, Blake and I would be working on different projects and there were times when I wished I were doing what he was doing. Like when it came to cleaning the chicken coop—ick!—he was fixing an enclosure for the new ducklings that would soon hatch. Or when I was clearing the thick jungle of shrubs and weeds by hand, Blake and his new best friend, the weed whacker, were bulldozing thick grass in no time.

B: You really wish you were swinging around that obnoxious thing?! I had to wear two pairs of ear plugs and even then I couldn’t hear myself think! I was probably weed-whacking over half of the time, while the rest involved hauling the wheel barrow somewhere.

I think the most interesting task was trimming the wings of the chickens. We had to sneak out to the chicken coop just after dusk when they were all settling in for the night. With Raffaella and Paolo’s help, and my creepy red headlamp, we would quietly snatch one chicken, trim the feathers off of one wing, and then put it back inside. The chickens quickly figured out what was going on and it became harder and harder to identify which ones were already trimmed because they would move around and hide. The objective was to make sure that they wouldn’t fly out of their enclosure, and by only trimming one wing they couldn’t fly straight with lopsided aerodynamics. It doesn’t hurt the chicken; it’s like trimming your fingernails.

G: Yeah, I wasn’t too crazy about the idea upon hearing it, but thankfully it really was harmless. It was also fun the day we helped Raffaella prepare for the launch of a new cookbook that used some of her recipes. The book was made by Ceres, an organic foods company, so all of the ingredients were amazing. We helped prepare four dishes that would serve 200 people! It was much better chopping, mixing, and tasting than working outside. Unfortunately, she did not host too many of her Italian cooking workshops while we were there, but I still learned about new products and a few cooking tips just from helping her make the nightly dinners.

A special treat was helping her make natural skincare, too. One afternoon we harvested rose petals from four varieties of rose bushes in the garden. It was a bit of a science experiment to put it together but the end result was truly sensational. It was one thing expecting her to be a chef and learning new things in the kitchen, but it was the cherry on top to make and have an additional cleanser, moisturizer, and lip balm with all natural ingredients. Her big tagline was making “edible cosmetics”! It doesn’t get better than this! 😉

homemade rose water

B: We had our fair share of ups and downs though; with the birds in particular. One day, a neighborhood dog wandered over to the property and jumped into the chicken pen. He thought the chickens were toys and pounced on one after another until Raffaela saw what was happening and chased him away. By then, 3 chickens and the lone rooster had lost their lives, leaving only 4 chickens left. It was quite an ordeal and very dramatic. Animal control came and the owner eventually agreed to replace the chickens.

On top of that, one of the ducks gave birth to 6 little ducklings a few days earlier, but the little yellow fuzz balls didn’t last long.

Unfortunately, one by one, they were found dead or went missing day after day. By the time of the chicken fiasco, there were 2 left, but they died the next day. It was suspected to be the work of the pukekho, a notoriously vicious bird found everywhere here in NZ that looks like a black chicken. I guess that’s just the reality of living with farm animals. Another duck was also sitting a nest of eggs for which I was building the enclosure, but we didn’t stay long enough to see them hatch.

G: All in all though, it was a good start to our wwoofing days in NZ. It was certainly an adjustment coming from Asia, with colder weather and a working schedule again. How lame does that sound, right!? We would soon find out how generous Raffaela was with keeping our tummies full, too.

B: Absolutely. It was quite a humbling experience to go from being a big shot in Asia with our own hotel near the beach, eating out every meal, and doing whatever we felt like doing, to a schedule of manual labor in an expensive country having to clean up after family dinners. We were so grateful to be accepted into the Delmonte home though and given the opportunity to learn and experience New Zealand (and Italy). Raffaela was great about taking us out in the afternoon to go on walks down the coastline or go shopping so that we weren’t cooped up in the house all week. I think this was the best place we could have landed to readjust to life back in the developed world.

Blake, Paolo, Raffaela, Gabriella

Blake, Paolo, Raffaela, Gabriella

Turbulent Landing

Welcome to Middle Earth! read the sign in the airport as we got off the plane. Man…they really take this Lord of the Rings thing seriously. Welcome back to the world of flushing toilets and clean water! is more like it. Our 10-hour flight from Singapore was thankfully uneventful and we had finally arrived in New Zealand. We felt jet-lagged and wiped-out from two days of travel, but still had to go through the formalities of customs in a new nation.

We wandered from important desk to important desk in our dazed and confused state (slightly amused at this new accent), answering questions about where we had been, where we’re going, and what we intended to see. Apparently, we may have said or done something to set off a red flag and were eventually told, “Go take a seat over there. We’ll be with you in a moment.” Is it the hair?! Another customs official then asked us to bring all of our bags over and began asking us a million more questions, including whether they could search our belongings. Can’t really say no to that one… Slowly and thoroughly, everything in our possession was spread out across a long stainless steel table and inspected by a woman with rubber gloves. We felt like our rights were stripped away in the hands of the law.

Where did you get this? India. What does it do? It’s a neti pot. Do you ever do drugs?  I do yoga.

A blatant violation of privacy, right off the plane, for no apparent reason. After everything was inspected to the fullest extent, the supervisor came over to take one last look through our food bag. A tall man in his mid-60s, with glasses, greying hair and moustache confronted us.

Did you read this and fill it out under your own free will? (in reference to our customs form). Yes. Is that your signature? Yes. Did you see the part about not bringing animal products into our country? What? We’re vegetarian! That INCLUDES bee products! Uhhh… That’s a $400 fine for endangering our billion dollar bee industry. What?! But we’re poor backpackers! Can’t you just throw it away?! Maybe if you had checked the box marked “yes” one centimeter to the left. Whoa…cheap shot dude.

Apparently, we still had a tiny bottle of bee pollen from Thailand that we forgot about. Bee pollen is used as a natural supplement for energy and to promote good circulation. Now we were facing a $400 fine because we failed to remember still having it in our bag after all these months. And even if we remembered having it, who thinks of bee pollen as an animal product?! When the grumpy old man walked away, the woman who searched us felt bad because she may have been able to toss it out and look the other way if she was the one who found it first. She said that guy hands out the fine to everyone, young or old, rich or poor. There was nothing she could do now.

During the next few minutes of feeling sick about the impending dent in our already-depleted bank accounts, there must have been a shift change or divine intervention because we never saw that cranky cook again. Instead, a different supervisor came over to assess the situation. He saw the pity on our ghost-white faces, the long scraggly hair, the tears building in Gabriella’s eyes, and asked, Is this your first time in New Zealand? Uh-huh… Do you realize the danger you could cause to our bee industry? Uh-huh… Ok, well I’m going to let you off with a warning this time, but don’t let it happen again. Ok? Uh-huh!!

We thanked our lucky stars (Grandma’s above), repacked everything we own, and got the hell out of there before anyone changed their mind! Welcome to New Zealand!!

Kia Ora Mates!

Thanks for checking out our new blog! After our 8-month adventure through India and SE Asia, we thought it would be best to create one unified place for everyone to read about what we’re up to.

Actually, we didn’t even plan on coming here when we first left home. We met quite a few travelers that spoke highly of New Zealand and Australia, and we thought, “Well since we’re this close…” We’re both fortunate enough to have the time to spare right now, but financially we knew it would be a bit tricky. Some people told us about the Working Holiday Visa and it piqued our interest. Basically, anyone under 30 can apply for a visa that allows you to work legally for one year in either Australia or NZ. Many people echoed the idea, “NZ is better for travel, Australia is better for work.” We did some research, crunched the numbers, and figured that we could WWOOF throughout NZ, and then get jobs in Australia to continue funding our travels. We applied for the Australian visa, got approved, and booked some flights!

For those unfamiliar with the WWOOF program, it stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Several countries have their own network of hosts that teach the ways of sustainable living and organic agriculture. The wwoofer (that’s us!) agrees to work a certain number of hours per week in exchange for food and accommodations. It’s actually how we met on a farm in Hawaii last summer. We plan to be wwoofing for most of 3 months throughout NZ (Dec-Feb), and then fly to Australia to find some temporary jobs. We’ll settle down in Melbourne for about 6 months, then travel a bit more before heading home. It’s hard to stop seeing the beautiful places of this world when new opportunities present themselves.

By now, I suppose you’re wondering what “38 below” means… No, that’s not how cold it is here. Although maybe that’s how cold it is for the Sikorski’s back in Edmonton! 😉 Thirty-eight is how many degrees we are below the equator (specifically Melbourne), which means it’s summer here! Wooo!! It hasn’t been as warm as it was in Asia, but it will only be getting better.

We’ve lined up a few farms to work at in New Zealand, but the real adventure will come next week when we rent a car and explore this beautiful country on our own. We’ll do our best to post updates as soon as possible and the pictures are sure to amaze. Stay with us, post comments, and don’t forget about your friends down unda!


Gili Air 008