…and now that Kiva has relocated to 5th and Howard, I am one of them:
Tonight Kiva was welcomed to the 5th Street neighborhood by The Hub, a sort of coworking space on steroids. After work we walked over to be welcomed (and wined), and I discovered none other than Wendy MacNaughton’s sketches from Meanwhile, 6th and Mission on display in the gallery space. Unlike the linear display of her sketches on The Rumpus, here she had arranged them in two dimensions, to form a sort of visual map.
Officially I’ve joined their “core services” group, which is responsible for the financial and database code that underlies kiva.org. I’ll be getting my hands dirty in the financials to start, but I’m also looking forward to helping tame their ever-growing database.
While Stephanie went down to Koh Phangan for a 10 day yoga retreat, I stayed behind in Chiang Mai to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park for a week. The park, founded in the early 1990s by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, is a sanctuary for domestic Asian elephants that have been rescued from logging and trekking operations, street begging, and performing. Many of the elephants have serious physical and mental handicaps, due to mistreatment, malnourishment, and/or the hardship of the labor they endured.
I learned about the park when while traveling in the Philippines, thanks to Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine, Smile. Their January issue had a feature on 12 must-do adventures for 2011. One of them was written by bloggers Kyle and Bessie of On Our Own Path (who I later discovered also knew Jodi, my Chiang Mai connection). I read reviews elsewhere about the park, and found people’s reactions to be overwhelmingly positive. It was uncanny. Usually someone comes away from a tourist activity with a “meh”, but almost everyone counted the visit as a highlight of their trip to Thailand—if not their lives. My curiosity was piqued.
I expected to be one of maybe 3-5 volunteers. The online application is surprisingly thorough (educational and employment history, essays on why you want to volunteer, general interests, etc.) and it actually costs money: 12,000 baht/week (~$400 USD)—a little steep for your average Southeast Asia backpacker (though to be fair, they house and feed you, and much of the money goes to the elephants). As it turns out, there were more than 30 volunteers starting with me, many staying for two weeks.
The program was very well organized. From their office in Chiang Mai we were bused to the park an hour away, which included a viewing of a well-produced documentary about the plight of elephants in Thailand on the way. The first day was similar to what one might encounter on a day tour (which Stephanie squeezed in before she left for her yoga retreat), predominantly centered around feeding and bathing the elephants. Then we continued with various volunteer orientations, including a welcoming ceremony by the local village’s spiritual leader.
After a short break in Nelson and later Blenheim, we found ourselves another wwoofing gig (previously we spent a week milking goats) at an estate vineyard and winery in the Marlborough region, well-known for its Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyard is composed of 3 separate tracts of land, totaling 163 hectares, producing around 25-30 thousand cases of wine a year (a case is twelve 750ml bottles). They also have olive trees on the estate for olive oil (did you know the oil comes from the pit and not the flesh? me neither…), some livestock (3 cows, 2 horses, sheep, and a dozen chickens), and vegetable gardens.
A week ago Friday (Nov 26) the estate manager picked us up at our backpacker in Blenheim and brought us to the house on one of their properties where we’d be staying. One of the full time employees lives there and looks after the wwoofers, which included one other person during our first week, an 18 year old from Canada. Afterwards he took us on a tour of the vineyard where we’d be working.
What are our days like? Every morning we set the alarm for 6:15 in order to have time to make breakfast and tea and get lunch together for the day. We leave the house around 7:10 on bikes they’ve provided, cycling 5km up the road to the main vineyard property. We find out what we’re going to be doing and usually start around 7:30. Most activities are done in groups, so we’re rarely alone—usually chatting with the people who work there full time. At 10:00 we break for morning tea—which amounts to a “second breakfast” given the substantial amount of food consumed for the day ahead. We resume working until 1:00 when everyone breaks for lunch—usually leftovers supplemented by eggs and olive oil from the vineyard. Then we take off after lunch and ride the bikes back to the house, to shower, relax, and eventually prepare for dinner, which we cook ourselves with food supplied by the hosts.
The primary vineyard activity we’ve been involved in is “shoot thinning”. Essentially we’re pruning the just-beginning-to-flower vines to concentrate the flavors and sugars in fewer bunches of future grapes. The more you thin, the better the grapes, the more expensive the wine. Of course very few people buy expensive wine, and cheaper bottles of wine sell in greater volumes with higher margins, so there’s a balancing act when pruning between maximizing quality and maximizing revenue. At least that was my understanding as we were taught to thin each bay (the area in a row of vines between two wood posts, about 7-8 meters apart, containing 3-4 vines) from 200 shoots to 100. Based on how much a bay had been thinned, and the variety of the grape, they could tell you how much a bottle of wine would be priced. In fact they’d often refer to certain rows as $25 Sauvignon Blanc or $45 Pinot Noir.
The other vineyard activity we’ve been involved in is “wire lifting”. The grape vines are grown on a trellise system known as “vertical shoot positioning” or VSP in which the vine grows vertically (like a tree) about 80cm off the ground, and then splits in two, running along a wire fixed to the posts about 80cm in each direction. Up from these horizontal “branches” (called cordons in French) the fruiting canes (or “spurs”) are spaced out every 20cm or so, and each branches out into six or more vertical shoots. Without any assistance, the shoots would grow in every direction and eventually be weighed down by the fruit. So once the shoots have been thinned, we walk along the entire length of each row (200-300 meters) and lift two sets of movable wires up to variously spaced clips on both sides of each post, in effect sandwiching the vines vertically.