After 4 months of silence, it’s time to give a bit of an update about what I have been up to since I arrived in New Zealand. Currently, the weather is changing, and though it seems backwards to a Northerner, winter is approaching as May is drawing to an end. I just left my temporary home of Greytown, New Zealand, where I have lived over the last 3 months with one of the coolest kiwi families you’ll ever meet. Parents Rusty and Lisa, builder/gardener and winemaker extraordinaire – with their 3 kids Lucinda, Freddy and Amelie (aged 6, 4 and 2 respectively). Living with this family of 5, I played a mix of roles including grape picker, cellar rat, gardener, nanny, horse-exerciser, web-designer, restaurant/wedding server and wine drinker. I’ll take you back through my last 3 months to catch you up a bit.
When I landed in Wellington, New Zealand, at 6:00am on a Saturday morning in February, I stepped outside and breathed in – wait for it – cool air. I couldn’t wipe a stupid smile off my face as I, having just been in Indonesia for just shy of 2 months, boarded a public bus (at a standard price meant for all people not just “rich” white tourists), and was transported through the clean, quiet, and spacious streets of Wellington. I stepped off the bus in the middle of the Wellington Central Business District (CBD), and still with a few hours to kill before I was to meet my first ever couchsurfing host, found an open coffee shop, swallowed any previous notions of a cup of coffee that cost less than $5, and set out to explore the streets with a “Flat White” in hand. As the clouds parted and signs of the sun started to come out, I found myself at the waterfront. I unclipped all my bags off my back, sat on a wooden dock, and cried happy tears as I looked out at the stunning bay, glimmering ocean, and watched the boats bob at the nearby marina. Eventually morning runners and walkers emerged and I quickly realized that this was a local spot for the active population of Wellington.
My first week in New Zealand was awesome. I couchsurfed with 3 extremely welcoming and hospitable hosts – one of whom I have kept in regular contact with over the last few months (and whose couch I am currently sitting on). A 3-night stay at a hostel quickly reminded me that I was rather sick of staying in damp, hot dorm rooms with fellow backpackers and long-term arrived-three-years-ago-and-never-quite-left-the-hostel sort of dudes. I met several people in Wellington who I immediately felt comfortable around, and who were more than willing to answer my questions and show me around the city. After 10 days of sight-seeing, walking, chatting, job-applying and flat-hunting, I set off to the South Wairarapa convinced that I would be back in Wellington in a few short weeks to start my new life in a beautiful little flat in Mount Vic. I had stars in my eyes and a plan to stay in New Zealand for as long as they would let me.
I arrived in the South Wairarapa, tired and a bit hungover after a Sunday Night beer turned into four, stepped off the train and found myself in a tiny little train station – if you could call it that – in the middle of a beautiful valley. There to greet me was my new workaway host Rusty, in one of the (sorry Rusty..) shittiest, cluttered, barely road-worthy utes (trucks) that I have ever seen. This thing was rough around the edges, but lived in, and loved. If any of you reading this know Rusty, well, you know that meeting him for the first time is nothing short of an experience. He uses more curse words than you can shake a stick at, while at the same time being one of the nicest and most welcoming and hospitable humans in all of New Zealand. Basically, it’s hard not to immediately like him. We stopped at “the hospital” on the way to their house: the old 19th century Greytown Hospital which Rusty and Lisa had purchased and are renovating into a house for their family. I was given a tour of the place, which was to eventually feature a granny flat, dance studio, vegetable gardens, a huge wood-fired boiler, and more, all to be constructed by Rusty himself. Vegetables were piled into my arms from the garden and off we went to the house to meet Lisa and the kids. On meeting Lisa, at first I was a bit intimated. She is 6 feet tall, blonde, beautiful, cool as hell, has 3 children and more energy than almost anyone I know. But I quickly found out that she is also welcoming, patient and motherly in a way that reminded me of and made me miss my own mom.
As it goes, things never quite work out the way we think they will. Thanks to Rusty, Lisa, Lucinda, Freddie and Amelie, and the various grannies and grandpa’s, I immediately felt at home in Greytown. I met a few really nice locals around my age and quickly became familiar with the local pubs. Then, 2 weeks into my stay in the Wairarapa, Ariel showed up! That’s right, my best-friend/travel-mate/dive-buddy/soul-sister was staying only a short drive from my little home in the valley for about two weeks. After almost 2 months apart, we spent some quality time at a sheep-shearing event and a wine festival (guess which was better), made pumpkin soup and talked about how each other looked different, though we couldn’t figure out exactly how.
I was getting along really well with the family, and ten days into my stay, Rusty and Lisa asked if I wanted to stay for a few months and be their nanny/au-pair. During the vintage season, Lisa would be really busy at work making wine and picking grapes, and Rusty would be busy building their new home. A few days later, I accepted their offer and fully unpacked my bags for the first time in 5 months.
With my new family, I got to experience rural kiwi life in the best way possible. Weekdays meant school and kindy for the kids, along with the occasional ballet class, netball practice or playdate. Schools in rural New Zealand towns are a unique experience, but in hindsight reflect some of the best things about New Zealand. Kiwi kids don’t like wearing shoes, so more often than not, kids are barefoot. Parents are present, but don’t helicopter, and don’t really pay too much attention to their children until it’s time to go home. Instead, they stand around holding school bags and chatting warmly amongst each other while kids swing from monkey bars and climb on jungle gyms. After school is playtime on the trampoline, being chased by dad, puzzles, games, picture drawing and train-track building time. At all times excited, energetic, going full-speed until bedtime. For me, weekdays meant playing with the kids, drawing pictures, some light housework, lots of baking, dinner prep and evening yoga at Robyn and Elly’s studio in Martinborough.
Weekend day trips out to the coast meant a driftwood fire and cooked sausages, with beers and wine in hand from when you got there until you pulled into the drive at home, and trips to Granny’s. Granny: the matriarch of the South Wairarapa. At the young age of 66, she has something like 7 kids/step-kids, 17 grandchildren, hundreds of sheep, cows, chickens, a huge pig named Precious, a horse named George, and a garden to rival that of Eden. Dotted around her farm house are trees growing limes, lemons, figs, olives, oranges, and feijoas. There are grape vines on the shed, every vegetable you can imagine in raised beds, thousands of flowers, and an array of native New Zealand vegetation. She uses her acreage to host river- and horse-trekking businesses, and to practice her golf and tennis swings. The place is a sight to behold. She almost always has a family member staying with her and her husband, affectionately nicknamed Coach by his step-children.
Granny graciously offered to let me ride her horse George at the farm whenever I wanted. About once a week, George and I trotted out a couple of kilometers through the back of the farm. When I first hopped on George, I hadn’t ridden a horse in almost ten years, but picked it back up very quickly. We eventually got into a good rhythm together and I gained enough confidence to jump him over some of the old logs dotted around the hills. Afternoons spent with George were some of my favourite times in the ‘raps, just me, a horse, no cellphone reception and the odd herd of sheep or cows running for their lives as they saw horse and rider approaching. Paradise.
I had a lot of time to think and reflect during my time in the Wairarapa, and realized a couple of things related to my future travels and my future career path. The idea of finally doing my masters came back to me, and I felt really excited about going back to school for the first time since I graduated from my undergrad in 2015. I have since explored some options, and am narrowing down the schools I would like to attend and the topic I would like to focus on. I also realized that no matter how hard I tried to deny it, that Europe is and has been calling me to it for years. NZ is different from Canada in many ways, but is culturally too similar for me to justify spending a year here at this stage in my life. What I was, and am craving, is a completely different culture, language, and cuisine. Having met many Europeans so far during my travels, I felt that gut feeling that a ticket to Europe was the right thing for me. A couple of weekend trips around the North Island also reminded me that I’m not ready to stay in one place yet. I got the travel bug again after meeting some new friends while doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing; a stunning day-long hike in Tongariro National Park. Three months in one place was a long enough break for me, and I itched to get moving again. So, after 3 months in Greytown, I said goodbye to my kiwi family and boarded the same train that brought me there.
So, where has this all brought me? Currently, to Wellington, which has become one of my favourite cities in the world. I am leaving this beautiful place tomorrow to head down to the South Island for about 3 and a half weeks, where I intend to do a lot of hiking and sight-seeing in what is apparently one of the most ruggedly stunning places on earth. I’m keeping my options open and trying not to plan too much, because if travel has taught me anything, it’s that going without a plan can gift you some of the best experiences in your life.