The best way to describe the harvest is that it was “the harvest that wouldn’t end”. Would it never end? That was the recurring question—the topic that came up in the Big House, the grocery store, the pub and any social gathering. “How long are you going to be here?” was the question our new friends would ask, just making conversation. “Until the harvest is over,” we’d reply, enthusiastically at first, then with a pleading expression, followed by, “When do you think that might be?” Few dared to make a prediction, but concerned looks became more frequent. “Oh my, this could go on for awhile,” they’d say, or if they were being a bit wicked they might say, “Could go on until March, you just never know,” sometimes accompanied by more colorful language as everyone struggled to cope with the disappointing season, marred by rain. Farmers were disappointed to lose grain, to have grain fall to lower grades bringing in less cash, farm hands accepted longer harvests, the possibility of being home for the holidays faded and farm wives braced themselves for irritable mates and more cooking. Fierce winds would blow the rain in, then die out just when they could do some good, when they could have dried out the soaked crops and boggy land that seized the ponderously heavy harvesters and held them fast in the mud. Leaden skies with an Oz-like temperament blew away anything loose as implements skittered across the land. Deep pools of water formed, stream crossings became impassable for days and the beautifully graded all-weather roads developed deep ruts. The fields took on an unwanted green hue, so pretty and welcome during the growing season, but during harvest reflecting out of control weeds or re-growth of crops at the wrong time of year. Crabby men rattled around the homestead after getting some much needed rest and fixing all the equipment they could think of—the welcome respite quickly became a source of frustration as productive work came to a halt and everyone anxiously watched the western sky and pored over weather reports.
When they finally got back out there and spirits began to rise, another setback befell them—Fire! It started out in the wheat paddock and scared the bejesus out of everyone, though Myles, Steve and Tom did a great job using the fire extinguisher, fire truck and loader to make a fire break. Within minutes of calling it in the neighbors, all of whom take part in the volunteer fire department, started arriving on scene to help put it out. Part of the crop was lost but the header was saved and no one was hurt. The adrenaline rush was pretty intense and we can definitely say that Steve got a pretty thorough indoctrination into just about everything that can go wrong with a harvest.
Finally the harvest got to the point where it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience for us to leave, when the reduced crew could manage the last bits. With a sense of regret that it was over, but a renewed enthusiasm for adventure we returned to SE Asia to try to reclaim some of the aborted part of the trip caused by a string of bad weather.
Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
If you recall, Indonesia wasn’t on our list for the Big Trip but after unexpectedly ending up there in our quest for sun in October, we loved it so much we returned there for a week of R&R in the Gilis so Steve could rest his weary bones after harvest. While it is the peak of the rainy season in January and it looked like Bali was inundated Gili Trawangan had some nice weather, with pleasant temps, green foliage and light afternoon rains for a couple of hours, clearing in time for sunset. We enjoyed the individual cabins at Eden Cottages, and Aussie host, Jim, was good company. The snorkeling was great and we enjoyed the night market for the cheapest, hottest food you could imagine. My mouth burns just thinking of it. Grilled fresh fish, satay and peanut sauce formed the basis of most of our evening meals, washed down with a Bintang beer.
We took a road trip with a hired car, driver and guide to the Plain of Jars. There are easier ways to get there, but not directly from Luang so this was a three day ordeal through winding mountain passes shrouded in mist, with all manner of vehicles dodging countless road repair sections where yearly mudslides take the paved highway out. We passed mountain villages where Khmer and Hmong tribes cling to the sides of the mountain with the only flat part of town being the highway, one of only two paved highways in the country. Here the villagers gather with babies, dogs and chickens to socialize, build warming fires, dry their rice and hang out, with trucks, buses and vans whizzing by. We stopped for lunch at a small village, Phoukoun, where Highway 7 and 13 meet, and saw the most unusual wares at the market of the entire trip—all kinds of small mammals, ranging from rats and squirrels to colorful songbirds and horned animals were enjoyed as a delicacy. We made it to the Plain of Jars and just about froze, staying in a guest house without heat, but with very welcome, plentiful hot water in the shower and thick, warm comforters. The small town of Phonsavan was relatively bereft of tourists, and the restaurant and entertainment selection was accordingly small. For those three days we mostly ate soup that was very similar to Vietnamese Pho, which I hardly saw in Vietnam, except around Hanoi. Many restaurants served only soup, or it was the only thing we recognized among various animal parts on display in the cold case. In circumstances like this where the food is good, but occasionally monotonous, we could usually find an Indian restaurant that could give us some variety. In Phonsavan it was Nisha Restaurant, which offered decent Indian food with a welcomed assortment of flavors.
The Plain of Jars was mysterious—what were all those jars used for? The current theory of the jars being used for some kind of burial seems most logical when you see the size and number. Steve was a little disappointed because, though there are many jars and we went to 3 separate sites, some of the famous images make it look like there are even more. The plain itself is ringed with low hills and is very pretty, with agricultural land dotted with small hills and trees. What made the greatest impact on us was the terrible legacy of the Secret War that was fought in Laos as an adjunct to the Vietnam war. Part of the Ho Chih Min Trail went through Laos so that was bombed, but worse are the reports that if bombs were left over as US troops completed missions over Vietnam they would dump their load in Laos. Kids are still getting blown up from Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) as they find the brightly colored, tennis ball sized metal balls, and farmers regularly hit them with their plows and suffer amputation, mutilation and death. Walking to the Plain of Jar sites requires that visitor stay on a narrow path that has been cleared of UXO and beyond that only visual inspections have been done. Sobering. We found MAG, an international organization based in the UK that is dedicated to clearing mines around the world, in Phonsavan just moments before they closed but saw enough to make a donation to the important work they are doing to clean up this mess.
We were compressing this part of the trip into too little time, so it’s almost embarrassing to admit, but we were only in Cambodia for about 36 hours. Just enough time to see four amazingly different wats, including the world famous Angkor Wat. I thought Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam might blend seamlessly into each other since the countries are relatively small and people have been migrating back and forth. Boy, was I wrong. Cambodians look different, sound different and their food is completely different. We left realizing that we have to come back to explore this country more, if only to get more of their delicious national dish, amok, a coconut curry often made with fish.
I’ve always been one to pass through cities as quickly as possible in favor of exploring small towns and villages. I don’t know if it was because we had been on the road so long, and had spent so much time in small towns, but I was enthralled with Bangkok. Shiny, modern department stores and vertical malls that put ours to shame, traffic, hub bub, glitz and sophistication. I couldn’t get enough. I took a chance on a much needed haircut and loved my new “do”. Very chic and sophisticated from a hip stylist that didn’t speak a word of English. We did all the tourist sights, the Grand Palace, boat rides through the canals, Chinatown, etc, all the while dripping with heat. We stayed in a modern hotel with multiple pools, restaurants and even a cabaret, featuring a Vegas style showgirl lineup and a Thai Elvis. I fell in love with Tom Yum soup and just about blew my brains out every time with chilis that exploded in my head, but still my spoon went in, followed by large gulps of Chang beer. Another taste sensation, not to be missed, is Mango Sticky Rice, which is simple enough to make at home if you have glutinous sticky rice, mango and some sweetened coconut milk—it’s silky, smooth and delicious.
We jetted from Bangkok to Christchurch, and back in the Western world we knew that our trip was drawing to a close. This was our second trip to New Zealand and we wanted to explore the South end of the South Island. Christchurch is still a disaster area after the relentless earthquakes so we just flew in and drove out to Dunedin, a pretty Scottish city that gets the full brunt of being at the sharp end of the only land mass to block the Roaring Forties–winds that flow from Antarctica between the 40th and 50th parallel. Brave trees are bent at odd angles from clinging to life under the brunt, and it’s a well-known fact that you can experience four seasons in a day in Dunedin. It’s beautiful country, reminiscent of the wild coast of Northern California or the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, with pastoral, rolling green grasslands dotted with white sheep against a blue sky. We were shocked into submission by the amount of inflation that has taken place, and along with the exchange rate and coming from inexpensive SE Asia, felt paralyzed by the prices everywhere. Grocery shopping, restaurant tabs and $50-100 entrance fees at every tourist venue was a bit of a turn-off but we managed to find beautiful hikes, beaches and gardens to explore.
Leaving Dunedin we toured Central Otago, a dry, warm, sunny change from Dunedin. A large dam and irrigation has opened up a thriving wine industry and we found exquisite Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and champagne more to our liking than the Marlborough region further north. Some highlights were Bald Hills Wines, Akarua, and Bannock Brae Estate, all serving very fine wines in Bannockburn.
Feeling the press of the calendar we whizzed through the dramatic scenery around Queenstown, which we had visited on a previous trip, to reach the west coast and made our way up to Nelson. We were glad to revisit it though we didn’t really improve on our accommodations, which were challenging on our previous stay due to very uncomfortable beds, this time staying at a backpacker lodge that featured cots that were equally uncomfortable. It was only one night, and after catching the ferry to Wellington, on the southern tip of the North Island, we stayed in a fantastic art-deco backpacker place, called Downtown Backpackers, a multi-story building that still featured high-end furnishings, including a comfortable bed, spacious tiled bathroom with tub, flat screen TV and satin comforter. There’s just no predicting what you’re going to find. The city is filled with amazing architecture and was pleasant to stroll around in.
From Wellington we caught the train to Auckland, a 12 hour journey on comfortable seats that took us through more pastoral lands—the scenery was attractive but not as dramatic as the South Island. A highlight of Auckland was the Auckland Seafood Market. We gorged on an incredible seafood platter from Market Seafood Brasserie, washing it down with a glass of wine from Big Picture Wine and didn’t eat again until the next day, and even then were still full. We also enjoyed a final dinner at their equivalent to the Space Needle, called the Sky Tower, and had a remarkably good dinner, considering these tourist venues often have the worst food, and thoroughly enjoyed the ever-changing views from the revolving restaurant. It was a special place for us as Steve proposed to me at the Space Needle in Seattle so many years ago so we reminisced a bit.
We did a little sightseeing in Auckland and enjoyed the sea-side city very much but, frankly, both of us were ready to go home. Five months is a long time to travel and we had seen so many amazing natural and man-made sights, and had done so many interesting activities that we were becoming a bit jaded—time to head home. Plus we were going to be flat broke if we stayed in New Zealand. We got on the Big Bird and anticipated seeing our family and friends before they completely forgot who we were.
Impact of the trip
For me, the biggest thing is that I felt completely rested and revitalized after such a long break. I wasn’t sure what the next step would be when we left but, gradually, month by month, I felt different when I considered what life would be like when I returned. After the first month, knowing we still had many months to go on our journey, I felt pretty disconnected from life back home and wasn’t ready to think about returning. After the second month I felt pretty neutral, and by the third month I knew that when we returned that I wanted to be involved in my community, contribute what I could from my skillset and be productive. By the fourth month I was actually feeling excited about the prospect of going back to work and engaging in a job search. Luckily, when I returned I had lunch with my good friend, Kim, who heard my enthusiasm but also saw danger signs. She strongly encouraged me to not sign up for too much at first and to find some balance so I could be productive in the traditional work sense and still find outlets for creative pursuits and community activities. It was great advice that I took to heart. I’m working part time, which allows time for writing and volunteering at such events as the Sonoma International Film Festival and the Tour of California.
Yes, I missed my family and friends, my cat and our wonderful, temperate climate. Facebook was so important in being able to stay connected in ways that just weren’t possible decades ago when we lived overseas. It was hard to be away from my parents for a whole cycle of holidays and birthdays, but a few phone calls and photo exchanges helped a lot. Technical difficulties on one shore or another prevented us from trying Skype though it looked like everyone else in the universe was using it at the internet cafes we visited.
My “packing light” strategy worked well, and though I got mighty tired of the five shirts I owned, I did exchange a few in Australia so I didn’t get too bored. Even though we tried to pare it down our bags still felt too heavy much of the time, and we were happy to dump the big bags in hotel storerooms at various stages as we took 2 or 3 day side trips. Carrying a daypack felt right, but you can’t go through different weather zones and look remotely appropriate without a few changes of clothes. It’s an ongoing battle to reduce, reduce, reduce.
This was a trip of a lifetime and we are both grateful for the opportunity to do it. We couldn’t have done it without a posse of people back home supporting us with pet care, mail sorting and family support. We’re glad to be back, but are already planning our next getaway.
See related stories of Phase I and Phase II of the Big Trip here on this blog, and photos of Thailand and Laos on Facebook with these public links, which do not require that you to join or friend me.
Sounds like a blast Inga! Glad that you & Steve made it back safely.
Price shock in New Zealand! Next time you go you should live as the “locals” live and find out if your cost of living is different. Good article, much to pounder. Thank you for taking the time to share your adventures.
It’s interesting to consider how the cost of living might be different living as a local. We did have a vacation exchange for a week so we didn’t have any lodging costs and were able to buy groceries and prepare our own meals–still experienced sticker shock at the checkout counter!