Friday, 29 March 2013

Starkbier Celebration

East of the Isar in Munich, amongst the chestnut trees on the fabled Nockherberg hill, stands the Paulaner brewery, complete with beer hall and beer garden. As far as beer drinking establishments go, it's not the most picturesque nor the best value for money in Munich, but once a year in March, this hill becomes a pilgrimage point for many a beer swilling Bavarian. Every evening for about three weeks, the space inside the cavernous beer hall fills with the tuba’s toots, the trombone’s parps and the cymbal’s clash as the crowd sways and laughs and sings along to the cheesiest ‘Schlager’ hits. Decked out in their finest Tracht they swing their giant Stein-krugs of dark, malty beer, and devour mountains of pork, chicken and Spätzle. This is Munich’s fifth season - Starkbierzeit!

With 17th century origins the beer festival takes place during Lent, which is usually a time of fasting and penance observed by catholics directly after the sinful celebrations of Fasching (Carnival). During these hungry times, the nutritional value of beer takes a greater importance (they don't call it liquid bread for nothing). Münchner monks, seeking greater sustenance, decided that a fuller, maltier and stronger beer would fortify them more effectively against the crisp temperatures of early spring. You can't fault the logic, but fasting monks quaffing beer with an alcoholic percentage of 10-12% obviously had the upshot of some rollicking good times. Eventually this tradition transformed into an annual festival and these days all of Munich’s breweries hold their own Starkbierfest. The original though, and definitely the most legendary, is that held at the Nockherberg.

Each year the beer is brewed especially for the occasion. The legend goes that to test the beer, the monks of old would pour some on a wooden bench and then sit down to drink a mug of the syrupy brew. Once finished if the bench stuck to the seat of their trousers on standing up, it had passed the test. I can not attest to the validity of this claim, what I can confirm is that after one litre of Starkbier, it can be hard to get off the bench at all.

Throughout the year there are countless beer festivals to be found in Bavaria, from the most obscure Dorf-fest to the largest festival in the world - the legendary Oktoberfest. All have their place, but it seems the Starkbierfest on Nockherberg holds a special place in Münchner's hearts. Partly because it is not overrun by tourists. Many locals will avoid the Oktoberfest at all costs, complaining about the inflated prices, overcrowded tents and the profusion of horrifically drunk tourists. At Starkbierfest on the other hand, most of the horrifically drunk people are locals, which at the very least makes it feel a little more genuine. It seems Starkbierfest encapsulates what a beer festival really means to Bavarians. It is a centuries old celebration of their unique culture, music, joie de vivre and of course, perhaps most importantly, their love of beer. As one local shouted beerily in my ear “the Wiesn is for the world, Starkbierzeit is for Munich!”

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Art of Wallet Washing

 Packing my well-wrapped two month old daughter in her buggy, so only her pink squawking face is bare, we leave her sleep-deprived mum to enjoy the peace of an empty apartment and trudge into a the bluster of a grey February morning. It’s Aschermittwoch or Ash Wednesday, an important date on the Catholic calendar and so an important date in Bavaria. It means that the festivities of Fasching (Carnival) have finally drawn to a close, and the 40 pious days of Lent have begun. According to local tradition, if you wash your wallet in the Fischbrunnen fountain at Munich’s Marienplatz on this day, it will be full for the rest of the year. That’s a good enough incentive for me, so with wallet and baby suitably stowed, and a two hour window before her next meal, we start down the Nockherberg hill towards the historic centre of the city.

Passing the empty Paulaner Biergarten the yellow tower of the brewery comes into view below us. Emblazoned on the tower is the Paulaner monks head, and the axe of their sister company Hacker-Pschorr. These companies are two of the so called ‘Big Six’ which dominate Munich’s multi-million euro brewing industry. These days they’re both massive operations, a long way from their traditional origins of centuries ago. Nevertheless I find the rich smell of yeast, hops and barley bubbling away has a way of warming the heart. It seems my daughter does too, as her indignant hollering soon subsides into sleepy gurgles.

After about ten minutes we reach Reichenbachbrücke, a bridge crossing the Isar river. Flowing from the Alps in the south to the Danube in the east, the river has been used as a means of transporting wares since prehistoric times. The Romans built bridges across it, extending their trade routes and influence north. The people they encountered here were probably pagan Celts called the Boii. As with other parts of Europe, paganism was eventually replaced with christianity, and the local traditions hijacked by the church. Seen through the skeletal trees to our left is the brooding castle-like form of the double-towered Maximilians Kirche, staking the church’s claim in no uncertain terms on the rivers banks. The water rushing beneath our feet is the colour of storm-clouds today and carries with it a snarling wind. We hurry along the bridge taunted by the call of crows.

Continuing along Ohlmüllerstrasse, we pass the neo-gothic spire of the red brick Mariahilfskirche to our right. One of countless catholic churches which rake the sky above Bavaria, standing testament to the state’s lasting relationship with the Pope, one of whom Josef Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict XVI, was Bavarian himself.

Catholicism is an integral part of the Bavarian identity, important because it separates the once independent kingdom from the protestant “Prussians” (Breiß) in the north. Many Bavarians will hasten to point out that Germany as a nation has only existed since 1871 and that before that point the southerners were really quite content taking care of their own affairs. After the power shifted to Berlin, the German Empire was soon drawn into World War One, thus turning the page to a horrific chapter in German history. Although the picture of the crazed Kaiser dragging his reluctant subjects into the great war is far from accurate, there remains an undercurrent of resentment in Bavaria towards the ‘foreign’ masters in the north.

Across the river and we are in the trendy Glockenbach quarter. Today, being a Feiertag or public holiday the boutique stores and cafes around us are closed. The streets all but devoid of the usual bearded and bespectacled bohemians. It seems in Bavaria even hipsters aren’t above taking days off.

Crossing Gärtnerplatz, I start to wonder if we’re the only people who left the house today. The often bustling space is almost devoid of life. In summer, students will laze in groups on the grass, acoustic guitars, bicycles and beer bottles scattered around them. Today though, our only company is a dishevelled old man with a bulbous purple nose. He’s sitting on a bench with a tetra-pak of red wine in his gloved hands. He nods, mumbling in our direction as if giving us permission to pass.

As we cross the deserted market place Viktualienmarkt, the bells of St Peter’s church begin to toll marking the hour. The church is Munich’s oldest. In fact the current structure which like the historic centre itself is mostly a post war reconstruction, stands on the remains of an 8th century monastery that pre-dates the city. One theory is that it was these monks that gave the city its original name,“bei den Mönchen”, or beside the monks. Passing under the iconic church tower we arrive at Marienplatz where a huddle of tourists are busy taking photos in front of the neo-gothic town hall, and probably wondering why nothing’s open.

Beside the Fischbrunnen a small crowd is gathered around the fountain. A nearby Hacker-Pschorr beer stall has been set up. Yes, it’s 11am but this is Bavaria where they literally drink beer for breakfast. In Munich there’s always someone ready to cash in on tradition, and beer of course is a sure-fire way to make a buck or two. Beer and… farm animals, as it turns out. At least that is the hope of the old man in lederhosen, checkered shirt and a forest green woollen jacket standing beside his bicycle on which a large white goose is perched. As we arrive a tourist, terror slowly seeping into her smile, poses for a picture beside the giant glaring bird. I withdraw my wallet, making eye contact with neither man nor goose. On the opposite side of the fountain, a television crew are packing up their equipment, probably after filming the city’s Mayor washing the treasury bag which he does every year. Removing the cards and the few notes and coins from my own wallet I plunge it into the frigid waters and swish it around a little, trying to look like I know what I’m doing.

A little later, homeward bound on the tram, freshly washed wallet in my pocket, and baby beginning to grumble in the pram, I’m already beginning to doubt the effectiveness of my wallet washing technique. Perhaps I was too rushed? I didn’t even get into the corners. Pondering alternative methods of filling my wallet, I find myself calculating the costs of a bike and a goose.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

New Years Revelations

 Despite its best efforts, the dusting of fresh snow is unable to conceal the evidence of last night’s festivities. Empty beer bottles and spent fireworks emerge as stubborn as chimneys, and faint smudges of ash are still visible through the thin white coat. A sulphurous fug clings to the crisp morning air. As we walk, a slightly frazzled squirrel bounds across the path in front of us and scrabbles up a nearby oak tree. Craning his head back, he inspects us warily as we pass. But he needn’t be afraid, the time for pyrotechnics has passed. The sky today is blue and still. It’s New Year’s morning in Munich.

I can understand the squirrels trepidation. I as well was caught off guard by last night’s celebrations. I rub the fresh blister on my thumb. Somehow I had been lulled into the sense that Germans were a sensible and serious folk, not prone to overt displays of emotion. Last night though, this ill-informed generalization was blasted skywards where it exploded into a million, techni-coloured fire-balls.

The first surprise came after dinner, when our host decided it was Bleigiessen - or lead pouring - time. A popular Silvester tradition where walnut-sized lead figures resembling various animals and objects are placed on built-for-purpose tea spoons and melted over a flame. Once the soft metal is completely liquified it’s tipped into a bowl of cold water. The resulting snap-hardened shape is then taken and analysed for clues as to the person’s fortunes for the upcoming year. Obviously there’s a lot of room for interpretation and, as we discovered, one person’s flamingo can quite easily become another’s grim-reaper. If there’s any confusion, a book is usually provided to help with the correct divination. Having studied and discussed these mangled pieces of metal for long enough, convinced there was no major storm clouds forecast for our immediate future, (apart from the poor soul left contemplating her tiny figure of Death) it was time for another New Year’s tradition of murky origins. The viewing of a peculiar British comedy named “Dinner for One”.

Why this 1960’s production has become so popular in Germany is a mystery as dark as the workings of Bleigiessen. Nevertheless, since first being aired on New Year’s Eve in 1973 it has become the most repeated television programme in history and a treasured part of the Silvester evening programme.

The gist of the story: a woman, Miss Sophie, celebrates her 90th birthday alone, seemingly unable or unwilling to process the fact that her four invited guests have died long ago and therefore have not shown up. Her butler James, serves their empty places with food and alcohol, proceeding to knock back all the glasses each time Miss Sophie makes a toast (which is often). In the process James gets completely hammered while Miss Sophie enjoys her evening seemingly oblivious. Slap-stick comedy scenes ensue which seem to tickle the festive funny bone of Germans no end. Perhaps a clue to the shows popularity lies in Miss Sophie’s catch-phrase: “The same procedure as every year.” With a history like Germany’s, I guess it’s good to have some things you can count on. If that happens to be a delusional 90 year old british woman enjoying a meal with imaginary deceased friends while her butler gets shit-faced - who am I to judge?

After this slightly bewildering cultural experience, there were only a few minutes remaining before midnight. So with fireworks and freshly filled glasses of Sekt in hand we ventured out of doors. Once on the street I noticed that many others from the surrounding bars and apartments were doing the same. In fact all throughout the city the streets, parks, bridges and balconies were slowly filling with revelers. Every one of us braving the cold for a single purpose: to set the sky alight in a communal release of pent-up pyromania. Coming from New Zealand, where the most extreme fireworks get is writing profanities in the air with a sparkler, I knew I had to make the most of this opportunity. So, unsheathing a 1m long rocket from it’s plastic case, I strode bravely forward, eager to prove my pyrotechnic abilities to my new friends.

Following the lead of our neighbours I thrust the stick attached to one of our rockets in a pile of snow, pointed it heavenwards and proceeded to light the funny-looking red fuse. As the new year grew ever nearer, the frequency of the skyrockets, which had been illuminating the sky all evening, began to build. Perhaps because of my excitement (and slight inebriation), I was having trouble getting the fuse of my rocket to light. More and more rockets were being set off all around me, growing in both number and intensity. Zehn, Neun... the countdown began, I could feel the expectant gazes of my friends behind me. Why wouldn’t this fuse light? Above our heads it was starting to become impossible to distinguish one explosion from the other, ...Sieben… the lighter was growing hot in my hand, the fuse was still not lighting! ...Fünf, Vier… Suddenly there was a voice from behind me “Die Schutzkappe, nimm mal die Schutzkappe ab!” That wasn’t a funny looking fuse I was trying to light, it was a safety cap! I ripped it off and lit the wick which instantly spat into life with a hiss ...Zwei, Eins… Success! My rocket flew into the sky adding to the symphony of explosions. ...Frohes Neues Jahr! The night sky filled with a thunderous symphony of light and sound, I could almost picture Richard Wagner appearing in the clouds like Mufasa, sternly nodding his approval. Frohes Neues Jahr indeed.

This morning in stark contrast though, the streets couldn’t be more quiet. The city knows when to party, it is of course famous for perhaps the biggest party of them all, but when the fest is over it quickly slips back into its sensible Haus-schuhe. My first Silvester in Munich provided some surprises, and what better way to start the new year in a new city. Like the snow was attempting to do this morning, I decided to wipe the slate clean of everything I thought I knew about this city and its inhabitants. I would treat the new year as a blank canvas on which I would let Bavaria reveal itself on its own accord. And, most importantly, next time I’ll remember to remove that damned safety cap.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Mama Afrika

Cascadas Douzoud
The Moroccan Rasta Said wants us to stay and bang out another tune on his box shaped guitar. The goat stomach strings are stretched taut by the sun and begging to be plucked, but it’s time for us to leave. So with heads still cloudy from home-made date-schnapps (shudder) we shoulder our packs and puff back up the dry, red valley leaning towards the promise of Cascadas Douzoud's sweet breathe, a thundering waterfall where local kids plummet head long off slippery rocks while tourists strike adventurous poses in the foreground. 
It is time for us to part ways, Lenny, Sam and I. It has been just two weeks that we have shared in this country but Morocco has provided us with such a plethora of experiences it feels like at least a month since we left Spain. 
The night before we boarded the ferry the three of us slept on the beach at Tarifa. It was such a pleasant night we merely spread our tent and sleeping bags on the sand and lay on top. As we reclined, sipping on some beers, we noticed lights on the horizon. Fishing boats we concluded, until we realised that these lights weren't shifting, that was land we were seeing - that was Africa.
 Of course there is a considerable North African influence left from the 800-or-so years when Spain and Portugal were controlled and ruled by the Moors. This history is evident in the architecture, the food and, at times, the language, but when we dis-embarked from the ferry in Tangier we stepped out into another world completely. It was evident straight-away that travelling here would be different to Europe, there was a looser grip on the rules; important details like prices and distances became hazy making everything negotiable.

During our trip around Morocco the three of us banded together against the hustling bus conductors, the quick witted street cons and the taxi drivers with dollar signs flashing in their grins. A lot of the time it seemed that the only people we could trust were each other. Most people in Morocco are honest, of course, but the ones which gravitate towards three lanky white-boys with backpacks should be accompanied by a cello player sawing out the theme song of Jaws. These Moroccans transcend in the art of lightening foreigners' wallets. One routine which we encountered more than a few times, but only fell for once or twice, plays out as follows:

A seemingly spontaneous conversation is struck up on the street, usually opening with an enquiry into where you come from. To our reply of New Zealand, we get in return "Ahhh, kiwi, kiwi! Kia ora! All Blacks, sheep etc..." I believe they have a similar repertoire for most tourists. This is the bait on the hook. Impressed by his knowledge of your country (this works especially well for New Zealanders) you let your guard down and start a conversation; maybe he can tell you where you might find a good place to grab some lunch. "Yes, yes of course," he replies "but first you must allow me to offer you a mint tea."
This inconspicuous offer of a small glass of hot water mixed with a lot of sugar and a little mint is the the hook on the line. Of course any refusal will be taken as a great insult. You see, he explains, he is different to all the other people who only want your money - indicating at this point the less well spoken and dressed people on the street who have also been pestering you - he is interested in your culture and just wants to welcome you to his country, then later, he promises, he will take you to the perfect restaurant so you can have some food.
This cunning ploy works on the visitors wish to show respect to local customs. How could you refuse such hospitality? Nobody wants to be the culturally in-sensitive tourist and what's the harm in a cup of tea anyway? You are then lead down a dis-orientating series of alley-ways, he distracts you and charms you further with more small talk about Morocco, where you have been and the wonderful places you should go, until finally, just before you realise you have no idea where you are, he leads you into his Uncles blanket store. Stools are produced, tea is served and the sales-pitch begins. This is the fight between angler and fish. 
Your  joy at finally meeting a local who doesn't want your money withers and dies as young men appear and begin to laboriously unroll blanket after blanket at your feet. Despite your protests your friend asks you which ones you like.
"I didn't come here to buy anything." you exclaim, exasperated.
"Then why did you come?" he asks, incredulous.
As more and more blankets are displayed you listen to the the sad story of this small family run business' struggle to put food on the table, the cup of hot tea scalding your palm. If this prodding at your conscience doesn't produce results they may switch to intimidation. The uncle will emerge and the men will begin to speak angrily to each other in Arabic all the while stabbing dirty looks your way. This reminds you that you are a long way from home and without their help, maybe even their permission, you may not be able to find your way back to your hostel.
If their scheming works and you agree to buy something, the next challenge will be deciding what to buy and negotiating a price. These guys are experts in this game. There will be a variety of quality - the cheap stuff which, they insist, only a fool would buy, the medium stuff which is OK but what you really want, my friend, is the top gear 100% camel wool blanket, Africa's finest hand woven work sourced from a remote Berber village which has been producing these blankets for centuries, I will make you a good price. In poorly-lit shops in the back streets of a strange city or town, confronted with the crocodile smile of a Moroccan blanket salesman, you are already well and truly on the back foot. How much is a hand woven camel wool blanket worth anyway? How do I know this is genuine camel wool? Come to think of it how do you get wool from a camel in the first place? If you can't answer any of these questions then the next step of deciding on a price will be like shooting fish in a barrel. Remembering, of course, that you are the fish.

Any independent travel around Morocco will inevitably lead to situations such as this one. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It awoke me to the need to stand firm and be pro-active in business transactions. In every culture, for example when buying a used car in New Zealand,  some skills in haggling may come in handy and although things may be conducted in a completely different manner, in Morocco at least you get a lot of practise. I also learnt the invaluable lesson that if you wish to buy something, first research the price.

Adding even more volts to the culture shock was the fact that we were visiting Morocco during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast, not allowing themselves to smoke, eat or even drink from the time they wake up until sunset. For a whole month. This can lead to tense times, not to mention pangs of guilt when you realise the people preparing, serving and/or smelling your dinner haven't eaten all day.

But backpacking through Morocco is not just a school of hard-knocks. The rewards for us were rich and plenty. One unforgettable experience came half way through a four day camel trek in Erg Chebbi close to Merzouga in the south east of the country. An erg is a huge sea of sand dunes with little or no vegetation cover. On our third day in this blinding, sand swept landscape we were welcomed by a wide-smiling Tuareg farmer to his oasis-fed vegetable garden blooming like green magic out of a sun baked eternity. He filled a tank with cold water, enough for us to dunk ourselves one by one, fully clothed to enjoy a cool weightless moment in the eerie blue silence.

That day as usual we found a shady spot to play cards while Mohammed prepared lunch. Before long we heard the whispers and stifled giggles of children, it was the farmers kids; two boys and a wee girl, come to check us out.
Sam produced his Frisbee, as it turns out a fantastic thing to take to an erg, and tossed it their way. To squeals of delight, mainly from the kids, we threw that thing around for what seemed like hours. Looking at our surroundings outside the garden we could have been on Mars, but to these kids that was just their humongous sand pit. The three of us with our sunscreen, blue eyes and strange flying disc were the extra terrestrials. It was the surreal, almost otherworldly moments like this which really marked our trip through Morocco.

So I say good-bye to Lenny and Sam, together we have swayed and rocked on camels backs watching as giant Saharan sand dunes swallowed the sun whole, we have peered through rounded doorways into houses painted deep blue like igloos sculpted from the sky a call to prayer echoing through the winding streets around us, we have passed under the great Blue Gate of Fes and lost ourselves in the smelly, dirty, chaotic maze of that ancient city. We have taken what Mama Afrika dished us and come out the other side smiling. I wish them well on their trip through Europe. I am continuing to Marrakesh and then proving once again that I enjoy self torture by climbing Jebel Toubkal (4167m), the highest mountain in North Africa. I'm not sure what I will find when I get up there but I do know thing Mama Afrika hasn't finished with me yet.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Where the Pendulum Slows

"Beep, beep, beep...". I slap a hand on my iPod and turn it's pale glow to my reluctantly woken face. 5 am - another day begins. I take a second to savour the cool breeze flowing in past the curtains, the moment of peace tainted by the thought of the 40 degree day ahead. My third trail building contract has brought me to Portugal's Alentejo region, as far from home as I have ever been. In fact as far from New Zealand as is earthly possible. Once again I am one of a motley crew of trail builders, sent to expand a global mountain bike empire for a mysterious billionaire we refer to simply as "Rocky". The difference this time: instead of being isolated in the wilderness, for the past twelve weeks my seven companions and I have been based in a town of around 15,000 - Portalegre, on the fringe of the Serra de São Mamede, a craggy mountain range which runs along the Spanish border. 

The town itself surrounds a cobbled historic kernel complete with castle, cathedral and steep-sided streets much too narrow for our lumbering work van. A university adds vibrancy to the township, although our clumsy pursuits of companionship among the locals have, as a rule, been received coldly. Confounded by the young women's lack of admiration for how much alcohol we can consume, or their refusal to join in the mirth when one of our friends slaps another in the balls, we stubbornly continue to do both. 

After peeling myself off the bed, I throw on a fresh t-shirt and my dusty work shorts and follow the smell of coffee to the kitchen. Sam is there already, eyeing his espresso can spluttering on the stove. Jeff  slouches at the table robotically shoveling milked cereal into his mouth. "Morning." I yawn, they grunt their replies. I move to the bench and start assembling some sandwiches - strategically placing the tomato between the ham and lettuce so as to avoid soggy bread. Just then the door swings open and Andrew enters the kitchen with a cheerful "Good morning!" Andrew's a morning person. He swings open the fridge door and takes out a bottle of water, then winking happily at me bends down to lift another from the freezer. I curse silently. Again I have forgotten to freeze a water bottle, denying myself the sweet relief of a cold drink later in the day.

Once we have our things together we go down stairs to see if the other half of our crew is ready. As usual, they are not but we don't complain. It just means more time to sit around and check Facebook, our main link to loved ones back home. The messages, updates and images offer a welcome sense of familiarity. Although not as remote as the other sites I have worked, in many ways rural Portugal is more alien, or more accurately, I feel more alien here. Whether in the mountains or the desert, the rules of nature are universal. Coping with the unpredictability of weather and wildlife is to be expected when employed as a trail builder. But here, even during Portugal's hottest summer in 80 years, it's the social aspect of our situation which has been brought to the fore. Put simply, we stand out like eight grubby sore thumbs. 

Maybe it would be different if we were chess players or something. You see, mountain bikers are not exactly wall flowers. These are the kinds of people who look at a treacherous bank covered in loose boulders and think: "I'm going to ride my bike down that. As fast as I can." I'm not sure if this indicates the presence or lack of a particular part of the brain, but imagine, if you will, taking eight of these guys, flying them to literally the other side of the planet, giving them a van, two apartments and a food allowance and saying "see you in three months". It's like some kind of low budget Hunger Games. In Chile and Mexico, our isolation sheltered most of our depravity from the locals. Here, our antics (which regularly include public nudity, the odd fist-fight and a healthy measure of light-hearted vandalism) is on full display. And there's no retreating to the wilderness the morning after. 

After packing gear and bikes in our filthy white van we clamber in ourselves. Not having to drive today, I fold myself into one of the back corner seats, plug in my head phones and attempt to doze off for the 45 min drive to our work site. Outside of the numerous ancient villages and towns the country side is dominated by stony fields of olive trees and cork oaks. Here, donkeys still count as a form of transport and sheep are tethered, front to back foot so as not to escape. The locals are a weathered, brooding folk who, on encountering a van load of scruffy foreigners, tend towards suspicion. The largest hilltop in the area is dominated by the intimidating Marvão Castle which has existed in one form or another for over a millennia. A glowering reminder of the blood shed by Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and of course the Spanish, all of which have at some stage invaded this land. It seems we're just the latest in a long line of unwanted visitors. 

As we arrive, the wide open sky begins to bloom blue in the east. Our current worksite, a plot of land we call Charcoal One, consists of rolling terrain covered with a bedraggled assortment of lichen covered boulders, with gnarled shrubs and cork trees protruding where they can. It's our task to manipulate this coarse landscape into a ride-able surface, all the while avoiding incensed scorpions, maniacal ants and that heartless brutal sun as much as possible. While the rest of the crew unload their bikes from the back of the van, I grab a couple of tools and head off on foot. Thanks to the technicalities of Portuguese import tax, my near new mountain bike is gathering dust in a warehouse in Lisbon. With the bill to release it more than I can afford, I have chalked it up as a loss. I guess some customs officer's kid is going to have a good Christmas this year.

As I walk, the sky continues to flush into deepening shades of daylight. The pick axe and rake slung over my shoulder bump softly together with each step. The rhythmic clang is answered by the lazy chime of cow-bells as animals, unseen behind dry-stone walls, awake from their slumber. All around me the world exalts as our planet turns again towards that grinning fount of light and heat. I'm in no hurry to reach our work site, especially as I know what lays in store: a particularly difficult section, which involves having to winch piano sized boulders together, filling the gaps with smaller rocks. Already I feel my t-shirt starting to cling to my back from the sweat. 

Suddenly the leathery face of a farmer appears over the dry stone wall. "Bom dia!" he booms, his eyes under the traditional beret sparkling with a grandfatherly glint. He is sitting side saddle on a donkey, which he whips lazily with a knotted rope. Recovering from my surprise, I reply, "Bom dia," but the rider and steed are already ambling off into the distance. A simple interaction, but one which helps to alleviate my self pity.

Later, on the ride home, we stop at a lake for a swim. Piling out of the van, the crew are back to their playful, silly selves after an arduous day slinging rocks around. The moment we have waited hours for has arrived: the chance to plunge head first into cool bliss and finally jettison the layer of grime which cakes our skin and hair.

After our dip, with the doors of the van cast open and music blaring, we laze on the grass, conversation coming easily. Three of the hottest months any of us have ever experienced have proved tiresome at times, but ultimately the experience has brought us together. With the end of our contract in sight, we talk of our plans. As usual most are heading back to New Zealand, returning to the security of friends and family. My desire for the familiarity of home, although strong, is outweighed by the anticipation of upcoming adventures. I have made plans with Sam and a friend of his to travel south to Morocco. Afterwards I'm boarding a flight to Iceland where another crew member William and I plan to hire a car and circumnavigate the island. Then it's on to Norway, skipping over to Scotland and Ireland before continuing to my fourth and final trail building contract in Jamaica. Well, at least that's the plan, here on the side of a lake it all seems a little surreal.

As I move on from Portugal, I look back at an unforgettable three months exploring brilliant beaches, stunning castles, and towns drenched in history. I have enjoyed great food, coffee and far too much wine. But most importantly I have discovered a proud culture, reserved yet respectful; a people who enjoy the simple things in life and who understand the value of restraint. Rural Portugal is a place where the pendulum swings a little slower than usual, whether this is because of financial, political or cultural reasons the resulting pace of life is refreshing. As always I will try to accommodate some of these values into my own life. Although, despite my lack of bicycle, I have to draw the line at the donkey.