Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wine, sheep and lakes - Fabulous New Zealand

After Sydney, we flew to the magical quiet lands of New Zealand. Lovers of the wine, we chose the South Island (of Marlborough wine country fame) and booked ourselves into the cutest orchard farm ever in the pretty winery-infested town of Blenheim. Once upon a time a winery, the Ryland Estate is now purely a fruit producing farm, which also offers accommodations in a fabulous refurbished barn. The owners were amazing, giving us fruit and veggies every day (peaches, PEACHES!!! PEARS!! people, I have forgotten what THOSE were like), and entertaining Son on the tractor every afternoon while I pranced around in ungraceful poses attempting rudimentary Pilates on the lawn in front of the barn. They observed me in quiet amusement and then turned on the sprinklers on me.

The estate was smack dab in the middle of all the local wineries, which meant, of course, that we spent our days wine tasting, then stopping for lunch at some winery for a sumptuous feast of locally produced organic stuff like cheeses, venison salami and lamb skewers. Naturally, life without tennis is simply no life for the Diplomat, so even before we had reached New Zealand he had already found the local tennis clubs. What's more, we even found the local social hour and so we found ourselves playing tennis on the afternoons. Son found similarly bored children to play with at the tennis courts and to occasionally rush onto the court right when I was about to yield my finishing blow to the opponent (a 75-year old woman with disturbing agility) to tell me he would like to bring some stones home. We also made a trip to the green lip mussels capital of the world - Havelock (yup, we had mussels and they were spectacular) -  and drove through the drop-dead gorgeous Queen Charlotte Drive to Picton, a 35 km scenic drive over the Marlborough Sounds.

I am officially hooked on Savignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. If you are planning a trip out there, you simply MUST stay either in a vineyard (several places there offer accommodations) or at Ryland like we did. There is nothing like waking up in the crisp, cool morning, frying some locally produced bacon and fresh eggs from the neighbors, gulping those down with french pressed coffee and jumping on the road to taste some wine next door. We unreasonably bought a bottle every time we tasted somewhere, which meant that we had to go home and drink it since we could bring back to Dhaka only so much. We tried some of the Blenheim vineries' best: Cloudy Bay, Giesen, Wairau River, Allan Scott (whose delicious wine I am drinking as I am writing this!!!), Nautilus, Herzog, Rock Ferry, and No 1 (for some real authentic French methode traditionelle  sparkling goodness). They were all amazing, don't have a favorite. Go there and drink. And if you are wondering what Son was doing while we were gallivanting through the vineyards, here you go:

The child loves to draw, God bless him. In the remaining time he was just running around the beautiful vineyards, screaming with delight. Thank goodness that he is dead cute, so people around us thought he was adorable rather than annoying and almost no one gave us dirty looks for bringing a kid into the tasting rooms.  

From delightful Blenheim, we took an overnight roadtrip to Queenstown. New Zealand is PACKED with sheep, PACKED!! Everywhere you go on the road, you will see the idyllic sight of a trillion cute sheared (must be the season) sheep, gleefully nibbling on grass and bleating contentedly. The view gets diversified from time to time with large, happy cows munching grass as well. And finally, you will get a glimpse of quite a few deer farms, which could be quite striking for city people like us.
Deer farm

On the way to Queenstown we stopped to gaze thoughtfully at the picturesque Lake Tekapo, surrounded by hordes of backpackers and motel signs aimed for backpackers. New Zealand is a backpacker country. Not sure why, nothing (especially NOT its prices) screams "backpacker" to me. And yet there they are, with ginormous backpacks on their backs, and added smaller versions hanging from their fronts, two shopping bags of stuff hanging from each hand. And then they hitchhike. I have to be honest, unless I am driving a cargo plane, I simply cannot see how I could give a lift to such loaded mules. But it must work or otherwise they won't be there, I suppose. I am sure there is some sort of dubious romanticism about traveling that way, but boy, watching them, I was so glad that I was a grown up, let me tell ya.

Queenstown was a delight. Truly touristy (there was even a Louis Vuitton store on the main street), it was nevertheless beautiful, unassuming, unpretentious, filled with restaurants and sheep wool stores. First order of business for the Diplomat was to check the local tennis club, hoping for some real grass courts. Courts there were and quite pretty too, but sadly there were no partners to play with. With a broken heart, the Diplomat led Son to the nearby lake where Son fed the ducks to his heart's content (an elderly Chinese lady had brought a large loaf of bread, which she happily shared with Son). And then when there was no more bread, the ducks tried to eat Son, which was met with shrieks and horror and frantic running around the park. The child had no fear though - the next day he pestered me so much that I gave up and went to buy bread to feed the damn birds again. This time we went to the pier, and also go some olives and a small bottle of bubbly and  shared the bread with the residing ducks and seagulls. Some ducks decided to take a particularly direct approach to the bread and went under the table where we were sitting. From there, they took to biting the Diplomat's legs poignantly to get his attention after sensing his lack of interest in the entire feeding affair. He was not amused.

New Zealand was fantastic. While the Diplomat found it boring at times (the man would love nothing better than to sit at home every night after a 5-hour tennis game and then watch some more tennis on TV but found NZ lacking in action...really?), I thought it was the perfect detox to our insane hectic lives in Dhaka. I definitely have something to show for it now - entire 6 lbs more on my waist, behind and thighs. I have to say - wine, lamb and bread every day is not a diet for runway models!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

About Sydney

I am happy to report that we are currently on our second Rest and Recuperation trip, richly deserved by both the Diplomat and me since in the past one month we have both worked our little governmental tails off. As I have previously writtent, Rest and Recuperation, or R&R as it is lovingly known throughout the Foreign Service, is a wonderful perk given by the State Department to foreign service officers serving in more challenging posts. In short, State will pay for the plane tickets for your family to go either to the U.S. or to a designated R&R spot for your post (that spot varies - for most of South and East Asia, the spot is Sydney; for most of South America- Maimi; for Africa- London or Paris; you get the idea). If you serve in Afhganistan, you get 3 R&Rs in one year. In Bangladesh, we get 1 per year. In Paris you get zilch because guess what - you already ARE on a freaking R&R!

We chose to go to Sydney and from there to New Zealand where we are currently ruining our health by eating stupid quantities of lamb, mussels and helping those down with generous quantities of fantastic local wine. I really liked Sydney – to be perfectly honest, I always thought that the city had 3 skyscrapers and the rest was bush around it. People would wear fleece and Birkenstocks, carry fannie packs, drink beer and be jolly all the time. Turns out - not to so much. At all.

Sydney is a VERY modern city. Like, VERY. Downtown has plenty of shiny skyscrapers, luxury brands’ boutiques, a fast and efficient transportation system, gazillion restaurants, coffeeshops, cafes, bistros, and American fast food chains! All businessmen wear blue shirts. In fact, I am pretty much convinced that there must be an Australian law about appropriate male business attire in the city, (although I DID see one guy who was wearing a pale pink shirt, but he clearly looked very uncomfortable and ostracized – it must have been laundry day in his house). All women are VERY fit, and dressed particularly well, along with a steady stream of solid high heels. I felt my old New Yorker again!

Sydey is also wonderful for kids. They have amazing parks for children. Son spent a morning in the Darling Harbor in an amazing park filled with climbing and sliding contraptions, as well as a hundren water-based toys like mini dams, fountains, and other impossible to describe physics projects that was delighting the screaming, wet kids in the heat. We were not prepared for this, so Son was reduced to running around the playground in his Thomas underwear to preserve his pants and shirt from soaking. He insisted on taking his underwear off as well. As proud as I was of his free spirit, I had enough brains to insist on keeping the undies on. As a result, once we managed to extricate him from there, we had to take the wet undies off, put on his shorts on a naked butt, and hang the undies to dry on the camera bag. As a result, they delightfully flapped in the warm Sydney air as we walked around exploring the city. So, I really liked Sydney.

Sydney is also obscenely expensive. We couldn't comprehend it – a cup of coffee was an incredible $5 (US and Australian dollars are roughly the same value), a glass of beer $9. I know I have lived in Bangladesh for the past 18 months and that has thrown off my pricing guide somewhat, but even in New York’s little pretentious Soho coffeehouses coffee wouldn't be that pricey. A normal dinner for 2.5 people, including a bottle of wine, in a normal, non-fancy place would amount to a solid $120-50. Since the Diplomat was sporting an especially unforgiving and homely South Indian afro, I sent him to get himself a haircut – I figured modern Sydney would be a good place to give him a nice refreshing look. There were two barbershops below our hotel, which advertised $10 cuts. Sadly, they only offered 2 styles – the Pensioner and the Crew cut. So, the Diplomat walked around and found himself a nice simple salon. $55 later (???) and he came back with very little hair, combed in an entirely wrong direction, with a wad of hair on top, arranged in some semi-confused pouf a la Gangnam style. We were definitely taken aback by the cost of living in Australia until our local friends explained to us that salaries in Ozzie-land were commensurately high. Eh, more power to them.

Sydney officials are also exceptionally rude. So much for my delusion that everyone there was happy and friendly, and “G’day mate”-ing everyone else. On day 2, exhausted from the spectacular walking regime I had imposed on my troops, we decided to take a local bus to see the Opera House. We tried to buy bus tickets before getting on the bus, and for a solid 30 minutes were sent on a wild goose chase into the train terminal, where an elderly gentleman with hearing issues offered us a $44 bus ticket each. Horrified, we ran away. Fed up with the search for the elusive bus tickets, I suggested that we get on the bus, hope we can buy them on board and pretend that we are stupid tourists if we couldn’t. The opera was literally 3 stops away anyway. Not so fast. We climbed stealthily (or so we thought) through the back door of the bus and sat down, beaming. Immediately, all heads turned to us like we had tails coming from our pants or something. No one said a word and then the driver slowly looked back and yelled in incomprehensible Ozzie accent something about the back door and that I should go to him immediately. I surmised that I should, and walked to the front like a school girl called into the principal’s office. Once there, he gave us a rude tongue-lashing on the subject of the impropriety of getting on the bus from the back door (“NEVER get in from the back door, NEVER, you hear me?? Never!!”) and yelled at us to get out of the bus immediately and go buy ourselves some tickets from a convenience store. I have rarely felt so humiliated in my adult life.

Similarly, on our last day there, we happily went to the Qantas counter at Sydney airport to check-in for our flight to New Zealand. Giddy with excitement, despite the 6 am hour, I approached the counter and prepared to hand in our passports to the clerk. Suddenly, he barked at me, “Where are your boarding passes????”” Huh?? I thought we get boarding passes AT check-in, NOT before that. WTF? I meekly responded that I did not have them. He demanded an itinerary. I did not have that either, I was a real transgressor. Forgive me, but nowadays airlines elsewhere in the world (well, except for India) never ask for printed materials as they can retrieve your info at the touch of a button. Not Mr. Ticket Police here. He began hissing at me that I MUST have a printed ticket or itinerary and demanded that I tell him when we were coming back from New Zealand. He became even more agitated since we were flying into Christchurch and then coming back from Queenstown. I began fearing he might go into apoplectic shock soon – he began typing furiously something on his computer and within 2.3 seconds naturally found us and our entire itinerary. He announced that fact to us loudly, and then scowled that he was under NO obligation to do that for us and that he cannot be expected to have time to do that for everyone since he is very busy with other passengers. There wasn’t a soul behind us…What cracked me up the most, I think, is his serious concern that since we have no printed itinerary, we clearly were plotting to abscond and probably work illegally on mussels’ fishing ships or something like that. Nevermind our American diplomatic passports or anything. Always be vigilant for those potential illegal immigrants to New Zealand. Eventually, he did issue us the boarding passes but he did look like he was undergoing an enema in the process.

New Zealanders, on the other hand, are lovely people.