Sunday, May 20, 2007


It has been more than a month since I arrived in Queenstown. It has been occasionally fun and often frustrating. As I wrote in my last entry, I arrived at an awkward time to be job hunting. This is a ski town and the snow won’t arrive until June, so most places are not hiring seasonal employees just yet. It will be a big relief when they do! Until then, I shall continue to do the temp jobs that have kept me busy over the last few weeks.

My primary temp job has been picking grapes on local vineyards. Lots of you at home have asked me about this - Is it as beautiful as I imagine? Do you get to stomp the grapes? What kinds of grapes? Which wine label? Do you get any free wine? What are the working conditions? How do they treat you? Does this give you any insight into the plight of the world’s migrant workers? And so on…

Here’s the deal. Most of the vineyards I worked on were about an hour outside of Queenstown, so I usually woke up at about 5:30AM and walked into town where my fellow workers and I were picked up in vans and driven out to the vineyards. Once we arrived, we were given buckets and pruning shears and proceeded to walk down the enormous lines of vines snipping off the good grapes, and then dumping them into huge tractor bins. We got three breaks over the course of the day and then were driven back to Queenstown. Not much to it, really. Almost all of the pickers were other travelers and I had lots of interesting conversations with people from all over – the USA, England, Scotland, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, France, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Germany and other spots. It was nice to be working outdoors and usually the locations were usually quite pretty. We picked Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. Riesling was the worst because they burst easily and made everything sticky. Oh, yeah. No grape stomping or free wine. Frosty mornings weren’t much fun either.

Most of the picking was for Gibbston Valley Wines and a couple of other winemakers. The owners were nice, for the most part. One of them was a guy from Providence who came to Queenstown to ski twenty years ago and never left. He had an interesting habit of wavering between his native Rhode Island accent and his adopted Kiwi one. On my last day we worked at a place closer to town where the owner was a bit of a dick. He and his daughter micromanaged everything to an insane degree. We were discouraged from talking too much, as it would slow us down and it was costing him a lot of money (minimum wage) to give us the privilege of picking his grapes. He even fired an English guy because his picking method was a bit too efficient when compared to his own. Turd.

As for gaining insight into the plight of migrant workers… well… every job I have had since college has only lasted a few months. Only one had health benefits. Work has taken me to the mountains of New Hampshire, abandoned insane asylums around Boston, the Mojave Desert, the sprawl of Los Angeles, the streets of New York City, and now vineyards in New Zealand. I haven’t had a room to myself for seven months. I’m short, tan, and can speak Spanish. Who are we kidding? I AM a migrant worker.
The harvest is done for the year, so I’ll continue doing temp jobs until places start staffing up. I spent last week working in a timeshare complex where I had to clean and then reseal the coating on stone tile floors. That sucked. I also had to replace about twenty beds and mattresses. That was an easy gig, but it made me realize how weak my arms have gotten over the last few months. Overall, I have lost some weight and my legs are strong from walking everywhere, but whatever upper body strength I had before (granted, there wasn’t much) has gone to crap from lack of exercise. Gotta start doing pushups or something.

My house is interesting. I am the only native English speaker. My roommate Max is from Argentina, but his family is from the blondest corner of Austria. I get to practice my Spanish with him, which is cool. Also in the house is Julia from Paris who is never home much and two Brazilian guys, Ugo and Ivan. Ugo is our landlord and is into music in a big way. Ivan has traveled all over the place and speaks English, Spanish, Italian, and probably a few other languages. He is a concierge at the nicest hotel in town and has lots of interesting stories about the super-rich guests that stay there. With the exception of illegal drugs, he will hook the guests up with whatever they request. This includes whores, as prostitution is actually legal in New Zealand. Every big town has at least one brothel, and there was a funny article I read recently about a formerly quiet, churchy mountain town that has now turned into a low-rent sex resort. And no, Mum, I haven’t partaken.

My house is also very cold. Apparently, Kiwis do not believe in central heating. Every house I have seen in Queenstown has a wood burning stove in the living room, space heaters for the bedrooms, and very little in the way of insulation. Problem – we just ran out of firewood and it will take a few days for a new delivery to come in. Also, I don’t have a space heater for my bedroom yet so I have to get bundled up in my sleeping bag. Having just enjoyed two summers back to back, the cold is kicking my ass and it’s gonna get colder.
As for Queenstown, it has its charms and its annoyances. For scenery, it is hard to beat. The mountain views are stunning, and will be even more gorgeous once the snow arrives. All the crazy adventure activities are at my fingertips, but I haven’t had the time or money to enjoy them yet. The cultural breakdown here is quite different from other spots I have been. The farther south you get in New Zealand, the whiter it gets (unless you count all the Brazilians). In the five weeks that I’ve been in Queenstown I have met tons of travelers and immigrants, but sadly not many locals. I miss the Maori influence that was much more dominant up north. Sometimes it feels like I could be in any ski town in the world and not necessarily New Zealand. There are way more Americans down here than I have met elsewhere in New Zealand, which is actually kind of nice. Sometimes it’s a relief to hear another voice like mine that doesn’t give a shit about soccer, rugby, or (most especially) cricket.
I’ve been hanging out with a lot of Brits lately, and I’ve made some interesting observations. These people have a deep, passionate love for the song “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers. There has not been a single night I have been out on the town where I haven’t heard it played at least seventeen times to the delight of Her Majesty’s spastic younger subjects. I am not a huge Killers fan. They have some good songs and the lead singer’s got a decent voice, but they’re a bit too Euro-synthy-prettyboy-dandyish for my personal taste. Like most people, I assumed they were British upon first hearing them, so I suppose it makes sense that the Brits love them. When I learned that they’re actually from Las Vegas, I was quite surprised. I’m not exactly sure what I expected a band from Las Vegas to sound like, but it wasn’t The Killers. Anyway, I think I could live a very happy life without hearing “Mr. Brightside” ever again.
The Brits (and really the entire Commonwealth) have a similar affection for the movie “American Pie.” I like “American Pie” just fine. It’s a funny movie. I even saw “American Pie 2” in the theater. I didn’t bother with “American Wedding.” I assumed that the world’s appetite for the naughty sexual hijinks of American teenagers had been satisfied. How wrong I was. At my local video store, I counted no less than five “American Pie” movies and they were all rented out. I asked my English buddy Xander why they love these movies so much. He’s a little younger than me, and he said that it was the first time he’d seen a funny movie about teenagers having sex. Granted, I have seen more movies than most sane people and was born in the 1970s, which makes me old, but have “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and all the lame teen sex comedies that followed it faded so quickly from the zeitgeist? Don’t young people today know that Eugene Levy walking in on Jason Biggs having sex with a pie is just an echo of Phoebe Cates walking in on Judge Reinhold pleasuring himself? Or that Sean Penn used to be funny? It’s all very sad. Anyway, so passionate is the former British Empire’s craving for all things “American Pie” that any movie that has horny teenagers doing funny things (i.e. “Eurotrip”) gets billed as “in the spirit of ‘American Pie.’” Surely there are horny teenagers in England. If they love these movies so much, why isn’t there an “English Pie” franchise?

So, yeah. It will be a big relief when a steady job comes along, not only so that I can enjoy all the crazy stuff in Queenstown but also to let me see some of the other spots nearby. It’s less than a two-hour drive to Milford Sound, which is very high on my list of places to see, as are Glenorchy, Christchurch and Dunedin. Until then, I’ll just keep on keepin’ on and searching for firewood.


Tamar said...

I don't know, harvesting grapes in New Zealand still sounds pretty damn capital-R romantic to me. (Then again, I'm probably the only Israeli of my generation NOT to trek around Asia/South I will always feel like I missed out, even if it's on waking up at 5:30am to talk about rugby in the cold.)

Hope you get that permanent job and maybe even some heat soon!

Flip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flip said...

Yeah, sorry about that last one; my spelling was lousy.

At any rate, I'll tell you why there's no British Pie: Who wants to have relations with a frisbee full of beef and bits of kidney?

G.I. Jeff said...

These are some great pics Mike, you dirty mexican you. So when you get back from NZ are you going to run for office on the migrant worker ticket. They could totaly use you!
It was good to hear from you the other day. It looks like your having a lot of fun--and I'm definitely jealous I hope I can go to NZ and Australia in the near future. Keep up with the pics!!

JudgeHolden said...

As ever, great post. Looking forward to the next one.