Month: November 2007

Wanaka, New Zealand: By ‘Timeless’ He Meant One Month

Barluga is situated in an alley/courtyard called Post Office Lane, named after the building it’s next to. Next door is Woody’s, my boss Garth’s best friend Mike’s pool and sports bar. Diagonally across the courtyard is The Cow, a pizza and pasta restaurant owned by Mal Price, friend of Garth and Mike’s other business partner Al. Above Woody’s was the Botswana Butchery, a fine-dining steakhouse also partly owned by Al.

At first I thought all these connections and relationships were tricky, but Wanaka is just one of those towns — you get used to it.

The idea of making sure both Woody’s and Barluga (and, by association, The Cow), did well, Garth, Mike and the head office would do their best to promote the entire Lane, not any one bar. By creating a relaxed-but-trendy atmosphere with great service, music and drinks, each business in the Lane could feed off each other and separate themselves from other Wanaka hospitality joints.

To that end, the head office bought a couple lampposts to sit in front of each of the two entrances to the Lane. They also attached a “Post Office Lane” sign and placards for each business to each lamppost.

The local Wanaka Sun actually did a front-page article on the two new additions, with a priceless quote from Garth: he described the stylish streetlights as adding “a certain timeless ambience” to the Lane. Mike and I vowed to use that phrase as much as possible for the next week, and also come up with a drink by the same name.

One night I came down to work and saw a traffic cone on top of the place where the lamppost had previously stood. This is what happened:

Duncan, a big-shot who used to run the Cardrona ski resort, had come down to the Lane for dinner at Botswana with his family. He drove his car down into the Lane, past one of the lampposts, so his 80-year old father didn’t have to walk down the unusually steep driveway. After dinner, they climbed back into the car and backed up the driveway.

A couple seconds later Garth heard a very loud CRUNCH, and immediately knew what happened. Duncan had run right into the lamppost, and it fractured in several places and collapsed. Duncan was profusely apologetic, assuring Garth that he would replace the fixture.

“I knew Duncan was financially good for it, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him,” Garth told me later, “Those lampposts were antiques built in the early 1900s and imported into this country from the UK. There were only two of them left in the world. That one,” he said and pointed at the other end of the Lane where the matching lamppost still stood, “and the one he just knocked down.”

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Wanaka, New Zealand: The Early Days Of Snowboarding

… that is, before I went pro.

Phil and I were definitely gonna sign up for a lesson. I mean, as confident as I was in my ability to figure things out (see Bar and Security experience), I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, and after buying all the equipment, this was an investment.

One of the girls I worked with (scratch that: the girl that I worked with), Jenny, was also an instructor at Cardrona, the resort we had chosen for our powder-surfing activities. I tried to get her to devote some time to teach us, but in the end we went with an instructor assigned by the office – Roberto.

Roberto began by getting us to push about with one foot strapped to the board and the other pedaling the snow, like on a skateboard. Finally, we walked a few meters up a small hill and practiced standing up on the board with both feet strapped.

It had been nearly 20 years since my last experience with ski/snowboard instructors, so I can’t give any inciteful criticism into Roberto’s tutelage. I could say that he clearly knew what he was doing, and by the end of the lesson I felt I had the general idea of snowboarding down: only short, quick glances at snow bunnies in tight outfits, and pray that you don’t crack your tailbone.

The one thing that both Phil and I got a kick out of was one of Roberto’s last nuggets of wisdom: “Reemember, your snowboard – eet eez like a woooman!” Later, after watching Phil eat it several times on the bunny slope, I remarked, “Phil, your snowboarding, eet eez like a woooman!!”

Phil and I had two very distinct styles of riding: he would carefully make his way down the slope, stopping himself if he gained too much speed by falling down; I, on the other hand, simply hurled myself down the hill and hoped for the best. Phil was dying with laughter when, during one such attempt, he was gradually making his way down the slope, when I came flying beside him, head first in a giant cloud of powder. I quite literally bounced, and ended up on my back, staring at the sky and groaning in pain.

After a few more days on the bunny slope, my friends Simon, Mike and Rene convinced me to try MacDougal’s, which is the next easiest run on the mountain. Phil declined, but I decided to just go for it, and, despite losing feeling in my knee for a good 5 minutes, I didn’t do too bad.

We had gotten a ride up with two of Phil’s friends, Simon and Ula, so when we wanted to go home, we had to hitch. Neither of us had ever done it before, so as we walked away from the resort, down a hill towards the carpark, we just shrugged our shoulders and stuck our thumbs. And, lo-and-behold, the first car stopped. It was an SUV driven by a man, with his wife and daughter also in the car. The husband, Richard, strapped our boards to the roof rack while his wife and kid, and my Phil, squeezed into the back. It turns out Richard owned a software development company which specialized in racetrack betting software. He works from home and spends his ample free time out on the lake in the summer and on the mountain in the winter. It was quite amazing, our first attempt at hitchhiking and we meet a really nice guy who nearly drops us off at our doorstep.

And again, in that odd, Wanaka twist-of-fate, I’d actually see Richard at Barluga two times aftewards. The first he didn’t recognize me, but more recently, as he was leaving, he looked at me and said, “Did I give you a ride down from Cardrona once?”

It had been almost 5 months, but I remembered it like it happened last week, as I normally do with these type of things. I simply smiled and said, “Yeah, you did. Thanks again.”

Wanaka, New Zealand: The 18th Birthday Party

Brent called me up one night and asked me if I would like to do a private security job with him. It seems a woman was throwing a birthday party for her daughter, and she had rented out a union hall for it. She wanted a couple security guys there to make sure only invitees were allowed in, and that the kids didn’t get into any trouble.

Eager to expand my security experience as well as my bank account, I agreed. It would be a cash job, probably lasting about 5 – 6 hours.

Brent picked me up from my hostel, though it was only a few minutes walk from the hall. During the drive over, he turned to me and said, “By the way, don’t know if I told you, but it’s a dress-up party. The theme is superheroes and villains.” Oh, you have to be kidding me.

We got there at approximately 7:30, when the parents had just finished setting things up and getting ready. We took a walk around the area to get acquainted with the layout, including entrances and exits. Fortunately there was only one way in, with the DJ booth blocking the back door. We were told that one of the girl’s friends would be at the door with a guest list and wristbands. We would just have to help her out and make sure the kids weren’t out of control or being too loud.

The birthday girl was dressed as Supergirl, and her friends ran the gamut from Batman to Duffman, to the obligatory pimps and hoes.

The job was really easy. Apart from the birthday girl, most of the kids were around 17 years old, and unlike the usual pub crowd, they listened to you. If they were being loud outside, one word from Brent or myself and they would shut up. If you wanted them to go inside or stop acting like a fool, they would immediately apologize profusely and do what you asked. It was great.

In fact, we were somewhat centers of attention ourselves. They would constantly come up to us and talk to us about being doormen. Of course, Brent told them I was a former astronaut, so many of the girls surrounded me and questioned me about space flight.

A couple rather amusing things happened during the party.

Of course, some girl ended up dancing with some guy that another girl liked, and the two got into one hell of an argument. The offending girl kept trying to smooth things over with the other one, except the latter seemed to just want to be left alone. Other friends got involved, and finally tears and screaming picked up. We got them to calm down, and at the least, head inside, but they just kept going at it. After a while, the argument seems to have died and we realized that the girls had disappeared. No one knew where they had gone, and for a while I assumed some were hiding inside and others had gone home.

I was doing a standard loop around the outside of the hall when I heard voices coming from the area well behind the hall. A caravan park was nearby, so at first I thought it was some campers who were up late. There were also some storage sheds back there, so I went with my instinct and walked back there. Sure enough, the girls had taken the fight to a dark, secluded corner, outside one of the sheds. Great. I called Brent to let him know what I was doing, and then proceeded to break up the fight. The girls were both screaming at each other and crying, and after what seemed like ages, I got them to break it up. The ‘victim’ girl went home and the others went back to the party.

The second incident involved who else, but Duffman. Duffman had done a great job with his costume, and I always chuckled when I saw him around the hall. But he soon disappeared and I found myself asking where he had run off to. Perhaps some Duff-related emergency.

Next to the hall was a small rugby pitch, separated by a low wire fence. Some of the kids had snuck over the fence and were hanging out on the dark lawn of the pitch, so Brent and I turned on the floodlights briefly to tell them to knock it off (I felt bad for one guy, he looked like he was stealing second when we caught him). Brent flicked the lights off, but not before I caught a glimpse of something in the middle of the field. “Hey, turn those back on real quick.” When the grass was bright again, I confirmed what I had seen: someone was passed out in the middle of the pitch. I hopped the fence and walked over. When I was close enough, I exclaimed to myself, “Hey, it’s Duffman!” He was on his side, with several cans missing off his Duff beer-belt. He started grumbling and rolled over when I was standing over him. “Duffman! I was wondering where you went. You alright man?” He made some kind of affirmative grunt. “You can’t pass out here Duffman, maybe it’s time to call it a night.” Rather angrily, he got up and walked away from me, across the pitch and on his way home.

There was one girl at the party whom you would probably classify as The Rebel. She didn’t seem like the cheerleader/popular/homecoming queen type, and was a rather shady character. We found out that she went into the bathroom at one point and, quite literally, tore a large hole in a closet door. It was a pretty solid wooden door to, and she absolutely destroyed it. And it was completely unprovoked, it’s not like she was unleashing some of that some-hussy-was-dancing-with-my-man rage. We had a chat with the chaperones who confronted her about it.

All the partyers were so blitzed that we finally recommended to the parents that they cut off the alcohol. At the end of the night we made sure all the kids had some way of getting home, and then we helped straighten up the hall before leaving. We got our money, thanked the parents, and went home.

To this day Brent and I will often reminisce about that night and how easy it was. No aggressive rugby players or crazy women, no arguments when we laid down the law, no backtalk. It was easy (and good) money, and it was kinda fun too.

Wanaka, New Zealand: The Astronaut Picture

Within a month of starting work at Barluga I was much more comfortable behind the bar than when I first started. Sure, I hadn’t memorized and mastered the recipes like Garth, and I couldn’t flair (bartending a-la Tom Cruise in Cocktail) like Gary, but I could make a decent drink, and I was a hit with the customers.

I think it was partly because I was one of only a handful (and by a handful I mean 5) non-white people in town, which made me unique and interesting. Or maybe it was partly because everyone thought I was black — and if it were true, I’d be the ONLY black guy in town. In the end, I think it was probably because they thought I was an astronaut. You heard what I said, an astronaut.

You see, it all began one night after working at Shooters, when Brent, Big Mike and I went to Woody’s and Barluga for drinks. Somehow we got onto the topic of people looking like people, and I told them the story of Robert Curbeam:

Robert Curbeam is one of the more senior astronauts at NASA, and his was one of the many faces that graced the Astronaut Corps poster that was pinned up all around my lab in Houston. One day, my friend Yvette came running over and told me that some new guy asked her if she had seen ‘that astronaut’ hanging around the lab. “Which one?”, she asked. “You know, the bald guy with glasses, hangs out in the control rooms?” “It was you!”, she later exclaimed at me.

She told me to go check out the photo, and even before I got close to it, from about 10 feet away, I thought, “Holy crap, that guy looks like me.” My own brother, after I found the same picture online and emailed it to him replied with, “Holy shit dude, that guy looks exactly like you.”

One morning, when I was walking from the parking lot to the lab, past the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where the astronauts train in a giant swimming pool, a man walking out of the NBL looked at me, nodded his head, and said, “Good morning, Mr. Curbeam.” I hesitated for just a second, nodded my head, and said, “Good morning.”

After I finished telling that story, Gary immediately went online and found the picture, printed it out and showed it to the others. They just ate it up. Big Mike and Brent started calling me (and still do) Buzz Lightyear, and Gary started calling me (and still does) Beamer. From that day and for the next several weeks, anyone that came into the bar would be shown that picture and told that I used to be a NASA astronaut, but I gave that glamorous life up to be a bartender in Wanaka.

During our pre-season staff party one night in June, our bar’s co-owner and I were sitting in Barluga having drinks (you’ll get the whole story about Al later). Al loves giving people a hard time, but is one of those guys who’ll only really respect you if you can shovel some crap back at him. So that night, I spent the whole night just laying into him. After seeing the picture of Curbeam, he told me he wanted me to autograph it for him. I said, “Alright Al, I’ll autograph it for you.” Then I put it in front of him and, while speaking the words out loud, wrote, “To Al, you f**king c**t,” and signed my name. “I love it!”, he said, “I want you to frame that and put it up.” The next morning I woke up fearing that I wouldn’t be employed anymore, but — true to form — Al treated me much better after that incident.

That picture was printed and put up in the back of other bars in town, and soon I was a local legend. At first I rather enjoyed convincing drunk girls that I had in fact been in space, and that the moon wasn’t really made of cheese (the latter one took more convincing than you would think … or hope), but as the months went on I began to despise the rep. You see, no one really cared about what I actually did at NASA, they simply believed the lie and left amazed and astonished. I felt it trivialized everything at which I had worked so hard for 3 years.

I finally started telling people that though I wasn’t astronaut, I did work for NASA, and that the man in the picture just looks incredibly like me. One semi-regular customer, who also works at the grocery store in town, never got the memo that the picture isn’t actually me. Even worse, he’s a bit of a space/aviation buff, so he constantly kept coming up and talking to me (while incredibly drunk) about “my training”. I only realized he was serious months later, and by then I felt bad about breaking the news to him. So … he kinda still thinks I was an astronaut.

More than half a year later, that infamous Astronaut Picture, with the signed dedication to Al, is still hanging in the cupboard at Barluga, and the notice board at Shooters.

As I’m sure you’re very curious, here it is:

And here I am. Though imagine me without the goatee. Wait, no, imagine him with a goatee.

Wanaka, New Zealand: Yeah, I Don’t Care About Testing Space Station Software, All I Want To Know Is, How Good Are You With A Squeegee?

Dan and Phil were a little more certain of their plans than I was. Phil was going to stick around town for a while and had picked Wanaka because of it’s beauty and the lifestyle. He was keen on getting into outdoor activties such as rock climbing, skiing, tramping (read: hiking), etc. Dan was only around for the short term, and had a girlfriend back home who was putting increasing pressure on him to come back.

So after I got the job at the bar, Phil and I started talking about moving out of the hostel and trying to find a house. Of course, such a step meant I would have to commit to some kind of long term plan, and after 5 months of backpacking, it was hard to do. Phil was talking about staying for the winter and learning to snowboard or ski. From what the locals had been telling me, the winter season in Wanaka is a hell of a time.

One day I finally decided to stay for the season, and Phil and I began looking for a house (literally, we were walking down the street, past the snowboard shop and I turned to fill and said “@$#& it, I’ll stay”). First things first, we went to Base, a local ski/snowboard shop, and geared up. We bought boards and bindings and stored them in our rooms at the Lodge.

Most houses around town were multi-bedroom, of course, so we found a third person with whom to share a place. And in that weird, circular, twist-of-fate kind of way in which things seem to happen around here, the third was Nina, the hitchhiker who lead me to Wanaka in the first place. Phil had gotten a housekeeping job at another hostel, the Purple Cow, and Nina was a co-worker.

After work one evening I walked in to the kitchen at the Lodge and immediately Louise pointed to me and told another traveller, “if you’re looking for a job, he’s the man to talk to. You name it, he’s done it in this town.” The other backpacker she was talking to was Nick, and American from Tahoe. He had just finished a trip of some serious hiking and had also chosen Wanaka as a home base for the next several months. I told him everything I knew about securing work in town and wished him luck. As we spent more time together in the hostel — and as he was also looking for accomodation — Nick, Phil and I became friends, and we found a fourth for our house.

We looked at ads in the Messenger, a local newsletter for classifieds, and visited rental agents. Property was being snatched up pretty quickly by all the skiiers and snowboarders who travel the world chasing winters, so it became apparent that finding one for us would be hard work.

After repeated failures — finding a house that was the size of a college dorm, several that were out of our budget, and losing Nina as a housemate — we were starting to worry. On one Wednesday, however, we saw an ad for a house in the Messenger that was exactly what we wanted. It was within walking distance of town, three bedroom, and fully furnished. I called up early in the morning and spoke to Norman, who was managing the property for his son, the owner. When I walked into the house, I knew that we had to have it. The main room was large, with a high ceiling, and it was surrounded by huge windows. In fact, two of the walls were almost all windows. The kitchen was also quite big with a lot of counter space. There was a master bedroom with it’s own bathroom and two other bedrooms that would share another bathroom. A driveway ran along the side of the house leading to a huge garage. Off the garage was another basement room with yet another bathroom. Norman was quite insistent on only having 3 people in the house, but said that if we wanted, we could have short-term dormers stay in the basement room.

Norman was quite a character himself. He spoke in a very well articulated, polite, but to-the-point manner. At end of the tour he said something along the lines of, “You know, we’ve had a lot of other people ring up about the house, so I’ll be showing the house more today, but I like to go with my instinct and I’ve got a good feeling about you two.” As we left Phil and I looked at each other dumbfounded, “what the hell just happened in there?” We found out later that we were the first of 14 people who called and visited the house that day, but in the end, it was between us and a few girls. The girls then dropped out and we got the good news that the house was ours. When signing the paperwork and giving Norman the money, Norman said, “You know, my son wanted me to get some references from you, but I told him that I had a good feeling about you two and it wouldn’t be necessary.” Again, both of us were quite perplexed about this feel-good vibe we were giving off.

Dan left before we moved in. His girlfriend back home was quite insistent on him coming back and it was starting to stress him out. So in the end, he booked a ticket and left. It was sad to see him go, I’m sure he would’ve had a great time with us, but I knew that we’d meet up again when I end up in the UK.

Since this post has been a bit boring with all the talk of house-hunting and such, I’ll end with what I think is an amusing story: In my efforts to get a job, I even stopped by the local BP gas station and put in an application. Dan and Phil were in stitches about the fact that I handed in my resume with NASA all over it, interviewing for a job as a gas station attendant. They said I would be the most over-qualified pump man of all time. The interview went well and I got the feeling that the manager was keen on hiring me. It was my backup plan in case I didn’t get the bar job, and even if I did, I could supplement my income until I got full-time hours at Barluga. However, a few days later, I found out that I lost the BP job to a local who would be in town longer than just a winter season. Fair enough. Months later, I was at the station getting gas when the manager walked out. “Man, I screwed up not hiring you. The person we took instead turned out to be a big mistake.” Of course it was a mistake, you fool.

A word of advice to all hiring managers: if you’re trying to decide who to hire for a job, whatever the position is, go with the guy who was a rocket scientist, ’cause chances are he’s gonna be pretty alright at it.