Friday, May 29, 2009

Tricks of the Trade

When we started managing the Kancerous Kiwi, Peter and I took a stroll around town, visiting the other youth hostels to introduce ourselves and chat. Our fellow innkeepers were glad to offer a few tips.

“Watch out for Israelis,” they warned us. “Israelis are the worst. They ask so many questions.”

“That’s terrible,” we agreed, nodding in sympathy.

“And the Asians,” people warned us. “Watch out for the Asians. They travel in packs.”

“They do?” I asked anxiously, glancing over my shoulder for the Mongolian hordes.

“And the Kiwis,” they continued, lowering their voices a notch or two. “We don’t even let them stay with us, they’re so bad.”

“Wait,” I asked, perplexed. “The New Zealanders? You won’t let people stay in their own country? Is that even legal?”

“If you do it, get a driver’s license,” they told us. “And don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

It was only the last point that proved useful in the end. The Israelis did ask a lot of questions, but then again if it weren’t for annoying Jews with inquiring minds, we wouldn’t have Christianity, quantum physics, or Broadway. Besides, most of the young Israeli men had just finished their military service, and were so outrageously handsome that I would have let them grill me all night about rental cars and bus schedules, if they’d only take off their shirts and let me bounce quarters off their abs.

As to the travelers who visited us from Taiwan and Japan, I found their numbers less disturbing than their creepy fetish for corporate America. At 46 degrees south latitude, Invercargill boasts the southernmost McDonalds in the world. And what these kids wanted more than anything, after traveling thousands of miles to the heart of New Zealand, was to snap a picture of themselves in front of an American burger joint.

Then, there were the locals.

The trouble here was two-fold. For one thing, normal Kiwis usually don’t stay at backpacker hostels. They stay in motels, or holiday parks, or with their Auntie Minnie in Whakatane. If a Kiwi checks in at a backpackers, then the chances are pretty good that he’s down on his luck. And the other problem, which I freely admit is my own fault, is that I have a soft spot for people with missing teeth.

There was Kate, the advanced bulimic, who would sneak into the kitchen at night and steal everyone’s food, then throw it all up again before slinking back to bed. This wouldn’t have been a problem if she’d had better aim, but eventually the housekeeper threatened to quit and we had to ask the poor girl to move on.

Then there was Chris, who consumed an entire canister of sugar each day as he sat on the patio, nursing his alcohol withdrawal by chain smoking and drinking cup after cup of syrupy tea. Chris had a wide, gummy smile, and we enjoyed his company well enough. But when he started screaming obscenities at the backpackers, I had to concede that perhaps he didn’t exactly fit in.

And we’ll never forget Nathan. Nor, for that matter, will the young German girl whose bed he stumbled into, before staggering over to his own bunk and pissing himself in a drunken stupor.

I must admit that each of these guests was Kiwi, and each was missing a few teeth. The coincidence is chilling. Because here’s the thing: I’m missing some teeth, too. My gaps are inherited, and not the result of hard living or a steel-tipped boot in my mouth. And I have lots of bridgework, so you can’t really tell. But still.

In just four years, when we get our New Zealand passports, I'll start scarfing Mars bars and running to the toilet. I might scream at you when you interrupt the voices chattering in my head. And if we go out for drinks, there's a slight possibility that at the end of the night I might crawl into your bed and pee on you.

Because by then, I'll be a toothless Kiwi. So don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Necessary Things

Silas is really enjoying his white fleece rug lately. He whips himself into a frothing ecstasy of sheep hair, drool and baby snot, burying his face in its fluffy folds. It’s actually a poignant sight, since I just sold the thing for ten bucks on Trade Me.

So far, I’ve hawked his rocking chair, his changing table, his curtains, most of his Christmas presents, and his bed. It’s getting cold down here at the South Pole, and when we go outside Silas looks like a baby war refugee, wearing six layers of warm-weather clothing instead of the snowsuit I sold for five bucks.

Trade Me is the New Zealand version of Ebay, an online auction site we’re using to dispose of all our worldly goods. Sometimes this makes me feel light and carefree, unfettered by the yoke of material acquisition. And sometimes I feel like a crack whore.

I think the low point was when the woman who was purchasing our full-length mirror ($20 bucks) and our shoji screen ($17.50) handed me two twenties and told me magnanimously that I could keep the change. “It’s such a good deal!” she said with her mouth, but her eyes were saying: You slut. You buy that baby some FOOD with this money, and clean up your act, you cheeky slag.

Of course, it is also possible that she was reacting to the empty wine bottles she had to step over in order to enter our home, scattered on the floor like the refuse from some yuppie frat party. But those aren’t mine. The bottles belong to Silas. He likes to bat them around the floor, chasing them like balls. Balls that can shatter into a million shards of glass. But the kid needs something to play with, now that we’ve sold all his toys.

Space on a boat is limited, and so a sailor must separate the essential from the superfluous. Silas will get to keep all of his books, because books are essential. He will get to keep a few of his toys, because it’s nice to have something to play with. But the sheepskin rug would rot into a moist and hairy sponge after a few weeks in the tropics, so that is considered superfluous. And the Talking Elmo doll, which I’ve always suspected was possessed by the Devil, has got to go.

Sometimes I panic, imagining our collection of stuff as bobbing flotsam on a rough and stormy sea. Without our possessions, we won’t have anything to hang onto, nothing to reassure us that we are decent, normal parents.

All we will have is jugs of fresh water. A few months of provisions. Books on the shelves. One another. And the waves, rocking our baby to sleep at night.

We’ll have the essentials.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Reptile Mom

I can remember breastfeeding Silas when he was about four weeks old, cuddling his warm little body close to mine, and thinking idly about what would happen if I just stashed him in the freezer. Later in the afternoon, Peter would come home from his walk, shrug off his jacket and turn to me with a loving grin, asking, “Where’s the baby?”

“What baby?” I’d respond, engrossed in my book.

An hour would pass. Maybe two. Then, after awhile, I’d look up, smack my lips expectantly and say, “Could I get a snack? I think there's some ice cream in the freezer.”

The resulting horror show, of course, would send shivers up my spine. For awhile I worried that I was losing my mind, that these ghoulish fantasies were the result of a profound personality disorder. But in retrospect, I think I was just being a good mom.

It’s not that the sick little movies have stopped. They haven’t. Take the baby out for a walk, and my brain flashes images of a speeding car and a mangled stroller. Pass an angry-looking dog on the street, and I wonder what life will be like for my son with no arms and a chewed-up stump for a leg. Push him on the swings, and I imagine pushing just a little too hard, his plump, eighteen month-old body hurtling across the playground like an errant football.

A mother loves her baby with a deeply primitive, reptile love. There have been shady-looking strangers who checked into our backpackers, with missing teeth and shifty eyes, and I found myself considering how easy it would be to claw out their eyeballs with my bare hands. Now I understand that the movies in my head are a constant scan for danger, a way for my imagination to detect and head off any potential threat before it even begins to make trouble.

And now, in a few short weeks, we are planning to move our baby on a fiberglass boat and sail him through eleven hundred miles of open sea. Reptile Mom, as you can imagine, is having a field day. The fears, though they number in the zillions, can be roughly organized into the following categories:

a) You can sink the boat,
b) The baby can fall off the boat,
c) A freighter can hit the boat, causing both a) and b) to occur simultaneously,
d) You can be struck by rogue waves, waterspouts, tsunamis, maelstroms, riptides, and/or the Ire of Poseidon.

Such animals include, but are not limited to:
a) Sharks (various species),
b) Giant squid with really gross tentacles,
c) Rabid dogs,
d) Deadly sea snakes,
e) Venomous centipedes (I’m not kidding. They have them in Fiji.)

a) Eating tainted food (including but not limited to: Hepatitis A, E. Coli, and Salmonella),
b) Eating brain-eating worms, (See related post)
c) Eating paint flecks, underwater epoxy, and/or fiberglass (with or without acetone),
d) Eating Spam.

a) Being brained by a hard object down below,
b) Being roughly detained by the Fijian military dictatorship,
c) Sunburn and dehydration,
d) Falling coconuts,
e) Pirates.

But I’m looking on the bright side. We have no refrigerator on board, so it’s very unlikely I will freeze our baby. The chances of getting hit by a car while at sea are exceptionally remote. And if a shark tries to lunge at my little boy?

Well, then it will have to tangle with Reptile Mom. And I’ll kick its fucking ass.

Friday, May 22, 2009

No Land Like It

There is a formidable work of public art at the end of our street, a monument created to impress and intimidate. It’s an enormous seal, balancing a rotating can of beer on his head. He is the Liquorland seal, a beacon of hope for Invercargill. And we love him.

The Liquorland seal always wears a smile, spinning that beer can night and day, despite the fact that the can has got to be fifteen feet high and weighs at least a ton. When the arctic wind screams and the hailstones rain down like frozen kitty litter, the Liquorland seal spins on. When the coal fires fill our skies with toxic smoke, so that just the tip of his can can be glimpsed above the haze, the Liquorland seal continues to spin. And as one, our hearts swell with pride.

I have loved the Liquorland Seal since our first night in Invercargill, when I took one look at the youth hostel we were about to manage and said to Peter, “I need a drink.” It wasn’t just the paint job, so painfully reminiscent of a child’s first poo. I’ve lived in plenty of rough places before, so when I noticed the holes punched in the walls, and the dead rat wedged in the back of the oven, I took these things largely in my stride.

It was the deliberate misspelling that made me cringe. Our new home was called—and I am changing the name here in the interest of avoiding a future lawsuit—the Kancerous Kiwi. Deliberate misspellings in an effort to sound cute have always bothered me, ever since, as a child, I felt personally insulted that Toys R Us attempted to attract young customers by inverting the letter “R” in their logo. I once worked for a doll designer who was very excited to name her new line of dancing dolls the “Kurtain Kall Kids,” until I pointed out that this produced an unfortunate acronym that might be considered inappropriate for a children’s toy.

Not everyone at this windswept latitude has been lucky enough to know the Liquorland Seal. Take John Kelly, for instance. According to a bronze plaque in town, he and his wife were the first settlers in Invercargill, building their home “in the bush 3 chains to the north,” back in 1856. There was no Liquorland seal in those days. In fact, given the religious devotion of the early settlers, it’s very likely that John had no liquor, but just a Bible and the company of his family to sustain him. As to his wife, she would have been scrubbing everything by hand, boiling water over a smoky wood fire and berating herself for ever marrying the asshole who took her out of Dublin in the first place, so she probably wasn’t very chatty.

John Kelly lasted just over a year. He died a mere fifteen months after making Invercargill his home. The plaque doesn’t say what he died of, but hard work, disease and a chronic lack of sex are a fairly good bet.

By some amazing coincidence, we also lasted in Invercargill just fifteen months. It is a hard life here. The winters are frigid and dark, and sometimes we felt we had little more than our love to sustain us.

But we did have one thing more. We had our seal. He nurtured us with Cabernet, Syrah and Pinot Noir. He never failed to offer up good cheer.

He is the Liquorland seal, and as they say: There’s No Land Like it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Being Nice

Our housekeeper called in sick today, so I spent the morning pulling clumps of decaying human hair out of the shower drain.

It’s the Mediterranean girls who are the worst offenders. I remember one olive-skinned French beauty, whose perfect curves and flawless bone structure left me feeling vaguely deformed. The next morning when she checked out, I cleaned the shower drain and discovered a dripping mass of chestnut-colored hair the size and heft of a drowned cat. It’s as though she was undergoing a particularly brutal course of chemotherapy, and had come to New Zealand to convalesce.

But the filthy drains are as bad as it gets. On the whole, running a youth hostel is a notoriously easy job. The cleaning is mindless, there isn’t that much money to count, and all you really have to do is be kind to the guests.

It’s that last part I have difficulty with.

I realize that my personality is not suited to this work. Basically, I am an angry, troll-like person, who will do anything to avoid making small talk. At one point last summer, I came up with a fool-proof plan, something that would allow me to live rent-free at the hostel without actually dealing with guests.

But then Peter ruined it. “You can’t throw feces at people,” he protested. “You’ll get arrested.”

And so I toiled on, wearily attempting to be friendly to the happy young holiday-makers. I asked them where they were from, feigning interest when they told me. I gave them reasonably clean beds, and showers that were largely hair-free. When they had trouble with English, I bantered with them in French, and stumbled through my broken Spanish and Italian. I baked fresh bread in the mornings, and gave them eggs from our chickens. Occasionally, I even dabbled in a little friendly political debate.

Last November, for example, on the evening of the American elections, an elderly New Zealand couple came to stay at our hostel. “This is a historic night!” I told them, raising my wine glass. “The end of the Evil Empire is nigh!”

“Do you think so?” they asked, peering at me over their cups of weak tea. “What’s wrong with the chap you have now?”

The glass nearly shattered in my hand. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH HIM?” I spluttered. “Besides ignoring habeas corpus, torturing prisoners offshore, starting a horrific war in Iraq and presiding over the collapse of the world financial system? BESIDES THAT, you mean?”

“But that other fellow, Obama…” they persisted. “Isn’t he dark? You don’t want him in there, do you?”

I nearly threw feces at them. But that would have been rude. Instead, I simply walked away.

There is an online message board that posts reviews of backpacker hostels in New Zealand. It is supposed to be a way for travellers to get an idea of what each hostel is like before they go there. But because the reviewers post anonymously, it is more of a virtual forum where people can say mean things and disappear. Occasionally, a traveller posts something nice about the bread I make in the mornings, or comments about how clean the hostel is.

But shortly after my chat with the racist kiwis, the following posting appeared online:


And they're right, of course. Our furniture is a lovely shade of green.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Letter From Mom

Your blog is very cute, but all those people who are your devoted fans do not have a grandchild traveling in shark infested waters to an island which has already infected 2 family members with a permanently disabling parasite.
Love, anyway --- Mama

I concede that my mother may have a point here. The last time my brother went to Fiji with his family, they contracted a variety of parasitic worm that laid eggs in their spinal fluid and caused permanent damage to their central nervous systems. The parasite, Gnathostoma, has the unfortunate habit of gnawing at the pain centers in the brain, so that my brother and his wife periodically hallucinate extreme agony in various parts of their bodies. Also, my brother is occasionally convinced that worms are crawling under his skin and coming out his eyes.

But consider the upside. Once you have been diagnosed with a permanently debilitating and agonizing medical condition, the doctors are willing to prescribe all manner of fun pharmaceuticals. I am convinced that I would find new layers of meaning and metaphor in Silas’ favorite book, Ten Little Ladybugs, with the help of a hefty dose of morphine. True, the loss of gross motor control might make it difficult to hold the book, or indeed my baby, but these are the challenges that lend richness and meaning to life.

And has anyone considered the worms? Gnasthostoma isn’t actually intended to hatch in human beings. They are supposed to complete their life cycle in the gut sack of a leopard, a lion, or a sea otter. They are supposed to be prowling the rainforest, the savannah, or the high seas, quietly maturing in style until such time as they are born, fully-formed worms, in a steaming pile of jungle feces. They have no interest in living in the spinal fluid of a couple of California liberals.

Gnasthostoma , in fact, are unable to fully mature in the human body. They are forced to wander around, from liver, to spine, to ocular nerve, idly snacking and wondering why they can’t grow up. Perhaps that’s why I feel the odd stab of sympathy for them. Peter and I, it would seem, are roughly at the same level of maturity as these larval worms, without much of a plan beyond travel, adventure and eating delicious food.

Take it from my mother: to avoid infection with Gnasthostoma, you should refuse to travel to Fiji. While you’re at it, you should probably avoid Australia, Mexico, Ecuador, and pretty much all of Asia.

Or, you can boil your drinking water.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Good News Only

The news media is in crisis. Newspapers are closing right and left. It’s the Internet’s fault, they tell us. People don’t want to pay for the news.

But if I want to be simultaneously depressed and terrified, I don’t have to buy a subscription to the New York Times. Now that I'm a mother, all I really have to do is get naked and stand in front of a full-length mirror. I can do that for free.

So I listen to the radio while cooking dinner. This is intended to be a relaxing ritual, something that takes my mind off the endless loads of baby laundry and the fact that Ten Little Ladybugs will be indelibly tattooed to my brain, forever.

But the news just makes me edgy. The nasty headlines keep on coming: Millions of jobs lost. Thousands of home foreclosures. The ongoing health care crisis. Wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Little Mexican babies with swine flu, threatening to breathe on our children. And now, I’m told, Riverside County is no longer buying four-ply toilet paper for its office workers.

It’s enough to make you want to sail to Fiji.

In Fiji, they only publish good news. This is because the military dictatorship arrests journalists who publish bad news, can hold them for up to seven days without charging them, and generally makes their lives extremely difficult.

"We have been threatened, bullied and intimidated. Our cars have been smashed, our homes firebombed," says Natani Rika, editor of the Fiji Times.

But at least he’s cheerful. So what if democratic elections have been postponed until 2014, the Fijian constitution has been repealed, the police get to use lethal force and the whole country’s under martial law?

In Fiji, they get to read about glowing puppies. They get to read human interest stories about nice mommies and turtle conservation. Why, just last week, military spokesman Neumi Leweni spoke glowingly of martial law censorship: "The people of Fiji are now experiencing a remarkable change from what used to be highly negative and sensationalised news to a more positive, balanced and responsible reporting by the media.”

All this, and clear blue water. Pristine, white sand beaches. Deliciously intoxicating kava beverages.

And nothing but good news, on and on, forever.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reasonable Decisions

Fifty million people could lose their jobs by the end of 2009.

Fifty million people is the population of a mid-sized country, like, say: France. The global economic downturn is now considered the number one threat to American security, which means that the clever people who analyze these things think an angry mob the size of France is even more scary than a few crazy guys with beards and shoe bombs. People who still have jobs are feeling extremely lucky. They're showing up to work on time, accepting pay cuts, and thanking Christ they didn’t invest with that Madoff guy.

Except us. Last week, we quit our jobs to sail to Fiji.

It is quite possible that this was not a prudent move. There is very little income to be earned as a boat bum in the tropics. It is difficult to convince a dolphin to contribute to your 401-K plan. And thirty-year old fiberglass sailboats don’t appreciate in value. In fact, if you sit in the cockpit on a quiet night, you can hear a faint gurgling noise, which is the sound of your financial future sinking inexorably to the ocean floor.

But my God, it is a beautiful way to live.

The first time I decided to go sailing, it was 1999, and everyone who knew their way around a computer was busy making their first million, while I savvily decided to drop out on a sailboat in the Caribbean. This earned me a net profit of zero dollars, though it did set my life on a fairly consistent path of seeking more boats on which to drop out, spoiling any long-term career ambitions I may once have had and ensuring that any money I ever made would quickly be squandered on marinized stainless steel and underwater epoxy.

But now I’m thirty-four years old, a real grown-up, a mother. Silas is just learning how to walk. I should be shopping for the best preschool, working my way up the corporate ladder, saving for college and retirement, buying a home and a better car and acquiring a mortgage. Or at least, that’s what the pictures on TV tell me I should be doing.

But one day ten years ago, while sailing through the Bahamas, I leaned backwards over the lifelines and I saw: the pink sky at dawn over a rose-tinted sea. The sun glimmering over the horizon and the moon, watchful in the heavens. I had the sensation of skimming over the surface of a water-washed planet, a human with a place in an intricate cosmos.

That’s what I want to give my son.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hazing Ceremony

Supposedly, that’s the ad that Shackleton placed in a London newspaper when he was looking for men to join him on his expedition to the South Pole. But when we moved down here, we didn’t do it for the honor or the recognition. We did it for the residency permit.

Last year we moved to Invercargill, which, as I may have mentioned, is at the very bottom of the South Island. It is 2,000 miles from the South Pole, which may seem like a long way, until you consider that we can drive for half an hour on a Sunday afternoon and see penguins. In the wild. Playing. And the funny thing about the South Pole is, there isn’t any land to speak of between it and New Zealand. There’s just this great, howling wasteland called the Southern Ocean. So the arctic storms that originate in the place of icebergs and bottomless crevasses just come barreling right across the frigid ocean to land in… my living room. In Invercargill.

The frozen asshole of the world.

So why, indeed, did we move to Invercargill? The short answer is that no one else wanted to. Invercargill is where New Zealand hazes its new immigrants, making it very easy to get residency if you can get a job down here and agree to move to the frozen south. And because no one wants to live here, least of all New Zealanders who know better, it is rather easy to find a job down here. This means that Invercargill is fairly crawling with South Africans escaping the wreckage of apartheid, bewildered-looking Indians rubbing their bare arms to keep warm, and Americans stupid enough to confuse a movie about elves with the real-live country they were planning to move to.

But before we could move to Invercargill, we had to find a place to live. “Why do all the rental ads say ‘North Facing Lounge?’ I asked Peter, squinting at the real estate listings on my laptop. “Why the hell should I care that it’s facing North?”

“Maybe they’re Muslims,” he suggested. “And they’re confused.”

“What’s so great about North?” I went on, examining the accompanying photos. “You don’t get sunrises. You don’t get sunsets. You don’t even get a view of the ocean, for Chrissake.”

No, you don’t. What you get, of course, is a thick, sturdy wall standing between you and the prevailing weather. A North-facing lounge means that you can sit toasty and warm beneath your heat pump, the bulk of your house protecting you from the fury of another arctic storm. But we didn’t know that then. Nor did we realize, at the time, that the heat pump is considered a luxury, enjoyed only by those with the money to install such a modern convenience.

Most people just burn coal.

That’s right, coal. The stuff that turned the butterflies black and rotted out people’s lungs during the Industrial Revolution. The thing about coal is: it’s hot, and it’s cheap. On a frosty winter's day in Invercargill, there is a pronounced chemical tang in the air, a hazy yellow funk billowing gently on the breeze. Eventually, the scent alerts your brain to start firing warning signals, such as: STOP BREATHING NOW, but as an oxygen-dependent vertebrate, this can be difficult to achieve.

So we breathe deep. We grab a penguin and snuggle it for warmth. And, like Shackleton, we dream of the day we can move back north.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why Not?

Last March, when I told my friends in the North of New Zealand that we were moving to Invercargill, several of them spat their coffee on the floor and looked at me with incredulity and horror.

“WHY?” was the overwhelming response.

“Well gee, um, I don’t know,” I’d respond. “Why not?”

“Why not,” as it happened, was the sort of considered reasoning we’d employed in our decision to move to New Zealand in the first place. Both angry at the state of America under the regime of Emperor George Bush The Younger, we’d been sailing around the Pacific for two years, employing a form of peaceful political protest known as “being an unemployed boat bum.” This was working out well for us on the whole, until I managed to get myself knocked up in an Ecuadorian boat yard, prompting us to look for somewhere relatively safe and comfortable to have a baby.

New Zealand seemed like a good bet.

“Have you ever been to New Zealand?” people asked us.

“No,” we replied with grave authority. “But we have seen Lord of the Rings nine times.”

This made us expert, we felt, on everything New Zealand. We would live in Rivendell, or perhaps Minas Tirith. We would cavort with elves. There might be a shire, on which our baby could frolic with hobbits. Even more magical, there would be national health. Clearly, New Zealand was the place for us.

Of course, we didn’t know then that we’d end up in Invercargill, a city that has less in common with Rivendell than the desolate plains of Mordor. But that was then. And in fairness, people did try to warn us.

“What’s wrong with Invercargill?” I asked my North Island friends.

“It’s bloody cold down there, that’s what’s wrong with it!” they spluttered.

“So what if it’s cold? It’s the twenty-first century. They have central heating, don’t they?” I asked this in a spirit of fun and good humor. Every crumbling, turn of the century tenement apartment I’d rented in New York had an old radiator in the corner, often spitting out so much scalding steam in the winter that you had to open the windows for a breath of fresh air.

“Central …” repeated one woman, then trailed off. Her brow was furrowed. “Is that when… the heat comes out of every room?”

I have this experience a lot in New Zealand. Everyone here speaks English, and they drive cars, and they live in houses equipped with cable television, and so my small, prejudiced American brain just assumes that everyone is like me. Then every now and then, a profound misunderstanding will occur, something that knocks me on my ass and reminds me that I am actually on a very small island at the bottom of the South Pacific, and I am in fact an extremely long way from home.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Where Dreams Are Possible

The first thing I learned about Invercargill was that the hospital had set a man’s ass on fire.

"There was a sort of flashfire and that was it,” commented a doctor on the scene, “but it was fairly alarming at the time."

The fire ignited when the man was being treated for a nasty case of hemorrhoids , a procedure that involves cauterizing the wound with an electric branding iron. Unfortunately, the patient chose that precise moment to pass gas. Perhaps he was feeling relaxed, lying there on the cool metal operating table. Personally, if a gang of white-coated men were crowded around me, pointing an electric branding iron at my anus, I might tense up a little. But such is not the Southland way. I imagine him lying back, closing his eyes, and ripping out a nice, satisfying fart as he thought, “Thank God I’m not cropping the bloody sheep today.”

Cropping the sheep, as it happens, is also ass-related. But that is a post for another day.

There are a variety of signs posted on the roads leading into Invercargill, each boasting a particular attraction of this fair city, perched at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. “Welcome to Invercargill, Where Dreams Are Possible,” reads one. “Welcome to Invercargill, City of Light,” claims another, somewhat poetically. And, on the road from Dunedin, along the East coast of the South Island, is my personal favourite:

“Welcome to Invercargill, Asshole of the World.”

That particular slogan, it may surprise you to learn, was not invented by the Southland Board of Tourism. It was coined by none other than Mick Jagger, who was pelted with tomatoes during a loud and raunchy concert in 1965, which prompted him to loudly compare the city to an excretory orifice for the planet, after which he said something rude about people who make love to sheep.

Invercargill, it would seem, has a lot of critics.

But not me. On the contrary, I feel at one with the pulse of this fair city. Why, just the other day, the Southland Times broke a story that happened right here, on my street, just a few blocks away from where I hang my hat:


It would seem that my fellow citizens, vigilant as ever, rang the police when they observed two unidentified men dragging a decapitated, gory cow's head down the middle of the road. It was approximately three in the morning. The article went on to say:

"When the police arrived on the scene the men were gone but a cow's head remained."

It was a short article. Important questions were left unanswered, such as: who were these intriguing gentlemen? Where did they acquire a severed cow's head at three o'clock in the morning? And what, exactly, were they intending to do with it?

Questions, alas, that have remained unanswered.

And as we all know, every great city has a few good mysteries.

[Amy Milne, "Cow's Head Found on City Street," Southland Times, 20 September 2008, pA4]

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sereia's Crew

Peter Murphy is Sereia's Captain. He has sailed all his life, in the US, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and across the Pacific Ocean. He has crewed in three Newport-Bermuda Races and the Hemingway Cup.

In 2007, while Antonia was too pregnant to sail, Peter completed a non-stop, singlehanded voyage from Tahiti to New Zealand, a journey of 2,700 miles.

Peter is a licensed U.S. Coast Guard 200 GT Captain, and an International Yachtmaster Offshore.

Antonia Murphy (née Antonia Tellis)
is the First Mate and Galley Goddess of Sereia. As an accomplished dilettante, Antonia has cooked in three-star restaurants in New York and San Francisco, designed toys and websites, run a children’s theatre in California and a youth hostel at the South Pole, and dropped out of art school. She has three unpublished books in a drawer, and has written articles for Latitude 38 and Cruising World.

Silas Murphy is the newest addition to Sereia’s crew. Gestated at sea and born in New Zealand in January 2008, he has spent most of his brief, easy life on land. Once aboard Sereia, his duties will include scrubbing the decks, polishing the stainless steel, and luring large game fish with his juicy baby flesh.

On October 31, 2005, Peter and Antonia set off from San Francisco on a proposed circumnavigation.

They are taking their time.

About the Trip

Peter, Antonia and Silas Murphy are attempting to sail around New Zealand.

The immediate question that people usually ask us is: “WHY?” After all, the trip involves some difficult and uncomfortable sailing. The winds are strong and changeable, the seas can be quite large, the weather has a tendency to be cold and wet, and penguins are more likely to go swimming here than people. As we come down the South Island and round Stewart Island, we will be traveling well into the Roaring Forties, a notoriously unpleasant place to sail.

There are several reasons for our madness. Our first excuse is that Antonia is writing a book about the adventure. Not a cruising guide or a sailing book, this will be a funny travelogue that weaves contemporary and historical New Zealand together with the story of our voyage. It’ll be good. When she writes it, you should buy a copy.

The other reasons are more abstract. The trip is beautiful, foolish and poetic, an irresistible combination. Since 2005, we’ve taken Sereia through more than 12,000 miles of trade wind sailing, and we found ourselves ready for something more challenging. The fact that few people sail these waters means that we will encounter more wild albatross, more untouched wilderness, and less beach volleyball.

We use the phrase “attempting” to sail around New Zealand advisedly. We have a two year-old baby on board. Antonia is pregnant with our second child, due in May. And our boat is thirty years old. As experienced sailors, we are well aware that we may get turned around by dangerous weather or nautical mishap. But we’re giving it our best shot, regardless.

We are travelling clockwise around New Zealand’s three major islands: North, South, and Stewart. As our trip progresses, safe harbours will become fewer and farther apart. Our planned itinerary is as follows: Whangarei – Bay of Islands – Whangarei – Auckland – Tauranga – Gisborne – Napier – Christchurch – Dunedin – Stewart Island – Fiordland – Nelson – Bay of Islands – Whangarei.

This blog will follow our travels, and serve as a sketchpad of sorts for the book. Please join us online, and tell us what you think! We love hearing from our readers. It makes us feel a little less lonely, down here at the bottom of the world.

About Sereia

Sereia, affectionately known as “Rei-Rei,” is a 36’ Mariner ketch, built in 1979. Typical of yachts of this era, she has a full keel and is build like a bomb shelter. The fiberglass in the hull is 1-3/4” thick in places, and she weighs 21,000 lbs, empty.

Rei-Rei has an unusual interior layout, as she has no v-berth and is open the entire length of the cabin, with the dining area located forward. Midships, the galley is to starboard. To port, there is a diesel heater and the head.

The main cabin is located aft, just to port of the companionway. To starboard of the companionway is the nav station and quarterberth. The engine is beneath the companionway.

Depending on your point of view, Sereia is painted with a whimsical, Moroccan-inspired palette… or she looks like a Pez dispenser. We think she’s beautiful. You can read Antonia’s article about Sereia, published in Cruising World, here.

Here are some pictures of Sereia’s sexy Moroccan colors:


When he moves aboard in July, Silas will be 18 months old. His drive for thrilling adventure will be at its peak, and his sense of self-preservation will be at its lifetime low… at least until he turns sixteen and buys a motorcycle. Sereia will have to be baby-proofed. The current plan is to turn the master cabin into a padded, enclosed “safe zone.” And then store him in it. And never let him out.

Stay tuned for future developments.