Even when this year long ‘mid-life crisis’ backpacking trip around the world has been hard, at no point had I ever wondered whether we were doing the right thing. Indeed, even during our second very tough stay in Thailand, or the first month in Turkey which we both struggled with, we never questioned the rightness of this year out. That was, until we went to volunteer in New Zealand and I found myself in the howling rain, sitting on my arse on wet ground digging out a drain with my hands. For the first time, I repeatedly asked myself what the **** am I doing?
Firstly let’s set the scene so you get an idea of our lives these 2 weeks. We applied to ‘volunteer’ through a website which, to be fair, is mainly aimed at students and young people. You work in return for rent and board. All our other applications through the site had not been successful. The ‘best’ rejection was from a Hostel on Hawaii. They described themselves as ‘a community of world changers’ and they invited people to come and join them in this, saying whatever your skills you’d be welcome. Their blurb could not have been more open and right on. I sent a really good application which was obvious had taken much effort. The world changers sent their reply the next day. “Thank you for your application to volunteer. We are not interested at this time”. I’ve written some ‘thanks but no thanks’ letters in my time but that one took the biscuit!
Our first choice already had someone booked, so instead we applied to work on an island. The role looked good – it mentioned a lot of outside and manual work but I think we were selective in what we read. We got the impression we wanted – childcare, helping around the home and lodgings and doing ‘food prep’ for their catering company. To be fair I did say we would be happy to do owt (tho I mentioned I’m not great at manual labour), thinking I’d get kids and food and Patrick some gardening maybe. We deliberately chose not to apply to work on any farms knowing I wouldn’t be up to it. I think the fact that one of the children of the house we went to called us “the woofers” (woofers are Workers On Organic Farms) gives you a flavour of how it ended up.
We’ll call our hosts John and Tracy, alternative types in their late 40s/early 50s. And again to be fair to them they were nice people. Actually, I think their deal was pretty good; you worked 3 hours a day, 7 days a week for bed, breakfast and lunch. (The food was really good. We had fresh baked bread every day and some great lunches too). We had a sort of self contained part of their corrugated metal built home – we had our own bedroom with a TV/DVD, a dining table and little sofa, our own bathroom and there was an outside kitchen. In the summer it would have been amazing. But we were there in winter. In the cold and wet it was a nightmare; our bedroom was freezing. In the mornings and at night our hands got so cold it made cooking almost impossible. Every time we went to the kitchen we got wet. On day 4 a heater was installed by our table. Heaven. On about day 5 we were told we could get hot water from the house to do our washing up. Even better. Washing up in the rain at night in cold water was no fun I can tell you.
But we ate well, as the strain on my trousers testifies.
First impressions – pretty good…..
Actually – it all started pretty well. The journey to the island was great on a lovely sunny day. We were staggered by how hilly it was and just how large the distances between everything.
We get the bus as directed, trying not to lose the will to live when we see the enormous hill we need to walk up with all our gear to the house. As we start to put our rucksacks on an old man in a ute stops, asking us where we’re going and offers us a lift. We were enchanted. This was exactly the New Zealand we had been told about. We find the house, meet John who was busy baking, get unpacked and discover that there’s a Supermarket just a 20 minute hilly walk away. John said we would be helping the following day doing food at a wedding and we didn’t need to start till 2pm the next day. We meet Tracy too later that evening – she seemed nice but like many New Zealanders very direct. She gives us a little tour which John had been too busy to do, pointing out where all the cleaning products and buckets are kept. We have no idea why this had been pointed out but we just smile and nod. John shows us his home brewery – all set up like a British pub on their decking outside, complete with hand pumps, saying we’ll be offered some the following evening.
Brill I thought, just what I expected. It was warm. We feel great despite the fact that I was coming down with a cold. Bring it on we both thought…..
Wedding catering here we come….
Of course, best laid plans and all that. The next day it’s cold and very, very wet. During a very cold night I woke with quite a few bites on my legs. My nose is streaming, the cold having really taken hold. Ordinarily I’d stay in bed but there was work to do. 2pm came and we set off to the wedding in John’s van. We have no idea where we’re going or what we’ll be doing. We are introduced to one of John’s staff – Mary – who will be ‘floor managing’ . I nod at this also, no idea what it means.
John informs us on the way that the road to the venue is treacherous and he’s not sure if the van will make it in this weather. Warning bells start to ring. We get to the venue – a large beach house which is down the steepest mud road you can imagine. It’s a quagmire. John parks the van and we realise everything will need to be carried down a very wet and greasy grassy slope. We start to unload and in the rain; me and Pat do the lions share of unloading. We’re both terrified of slipping and dropping plates, serving dishes or even worse, the pre-prepared food.
Once unloaded we are asked to start doing food prep, but we never really get told how it all hangs together. Two more women arrive to work – no introductions. We both chop veg. The actual wedding ceremony is going on right next to us – of course I have a tear in my eye when the bride comes in, thinking back to our wedding. I ask Mary if she’s married. No she tells me, very brusquely. She may be younger but I’m feeling more than a little intimidated.
We are given the task of preparing the buns for mini burgers which we do after very quick instructions from John. Of course we somehow mess it up (to this day we don’t know how as we were so careful). John gets irate. All 3 of the other women start panicking too. We can see they generally run a tight ship and used to everything being perfect. The disapproval and condemnation is unsaid but lays heavily around us as remedial mini burger action is taken such that they are able to serve them to their exacting standards.
By this point I’m feeling very rubbish. Then I’m asked to go round and hand out little snacky food, which I do. I take grief for there not being enough veggie stuff (oh the irony) and I am told to be firm with anyone who wants more than one item as there’s only 1 each. It’s hard as the food is so popular – the first person I say no to is the mother of the bride. Bollocks. I wonder if she’s paying!
I can’t help thinking about catering at our wedding. About a week before the wedding it was nearly all called off – over some hot dogs. I realised we had no evening food organised. Patrick, of course, was convinced that costs were spiralling out of control – but then Pat generally thinks any spending of any kind is too much. We get a quote for hot dogs – £550. Patrick says no way. I try to find a way to do evening food on the cheap but I realise I can’t do it without having to cook myself or go to shops on the morning of the wedding to pick up food. Patrick refuses to ask his friends if they could pick up food. He doesn’t see why people need evening food if there’s been a meal during the day. I am furious as I’ve not asked Pat or his mates to organise anything other than themselves (apart from one who was an usher). A screaming match ensues. I threaten to walk out and call it all off. Hot dogs are agreed upon. Of course, the hot dogs were a huge success, so much so neither of us got to have one. This still gets mentioned in our household.
Back to the wedding we are working at. Once the snacks are done, I’m put I’m charge of making some salads and then told to wait tables. I’ve never waited tables at a posh function like this with accepted catering protocols before. Mary, floor manager, has some diagrams for the tables and gives me instructions. I’m feeling so poorly I don’t quite get it and, after the burger fiasco, I’m worried about the very precise salad making instructions (they all have to look identical). I’m told in a very stern voice that timing is essential – Mary will say when I do them, and which bowls on which tables and when they can go. I help serve the rest of the food. The tables are very cluttered. I’m asked to collect empty bowls.
Now at this point you need to know that the tables are very tightly packed together in a small space and it’s hard moving around them. It may be 5 years since I lost half my body weight but I still don’t totally know how much space I need to move around. The tiny gaps between tables fill me with dread, especially when carrying lots of bowls and food. I go to clear some bowls and head for the first table but I get waylaid by other guests handing me their finished dirty plates. So I think I’m being helpful and start cleaning plates having a good old chat with the guests I as go. Mary is direct in her words. “I only said bowls. No plates.”. That’s me told. One of the other women is kinder in her rebuke. “It’s wedding etiquette to clear the top table first and only after everyone a the top table has finished eating”. Another bad mark against my name I think, sniffing. I just hope no-one saw me daring to talk to guests! Thankfully the guests have nothing but praise for the food and meal and we clean up without any more fuss.
By 8pm we’ve finally finished. We’ve cleared up and washed everything up. We’ve carried it all back up the muddy bank into the van. My nose and hands are red raw, I’m freezing cold and desperate for bed. But it’s so wet and muddy on the steep hill to the house that the van can’t get up! The best man is called to move a car in our way. He has no shoes on (which we will discover is normal in NZ. Every time we go to the supermarket we see at least one shoeless person). The car is moved and his feet get very muddy, but still the van can’t make it up the drive. Eventually we are towed up the worst bit and head back home. On the way I try to tell John and Mary an amusing story from our trip. They aren’t interested, starting to discuss something else in the middle of my story. We realise that no one has asked us anything about us, why we are there, where we are from. We felt like disposable labour. Back at the house Pat has a pint of home brew and I make my excuses and go to bed. Little did we know what work would be waiting for us the next morning…..
Next day we report for duty. Again we froze at night (the 2 hand knitted blankets we have been given and our little silk sleeping liners aren’t doing much to keep us warm; by night 3 I’ll start wearing a jumper, thermal leggings and gloves in bed.) More bites appear on my legs which were agony all night. My cold has got worse. Needless to say not much sleep had been had, but like troopers (or so we think) we present ourselves ready for action.
It’s Sunday so we are given the weekly task of a full clean down of their burger van; a 3 hour job were told. We are given a little list and told to fully clean and scrub both the inside and the outside.
We are given cleaning spray and told to get very hot water in buckets from a tap at our end of the house. The burger van is kept at the top of their drive – a gravel 2 stage drive which is incredibly steep or up some mighty steep mossy steps. Only 1 bucket has a handle. Carrying the hot water to the van can only be described as an arse. As my hands are so chapped I asked about gloves. John looks at me surprised as if this is a new concept, but he finds some latex gloves which don’t protect from the very hot water but are better than nothing and allow me to blow my nose! We set to work in the rain. I’ve never cleaned so much meat grease in my life. We lift, bend, lift, scrub, get scolded. But we think we are doing a pretty good job. About half way through Tracy arrives home and inspects our work. She goes round the van like critical mothers-in-law used to be portrayed in films, wiping their fingers along the mantelpiece to check for dust. “You haven’t done here.” “There’s a mark here needs cleaning.” “This wheelarch needs scrubbing really hard.” “Did you just slide out the fridge not lift it? You’ve scratched the new flooring.” She goes off inside the house. Patrick wants to walk out, I just want to cry. We carry on cleaning in the rain. Nearly 4 hours after we start we finish.
That evening we try to cook a meal in our outside kitchen. There’s a really bad storm and there are warnings of power cuts. We’re dry now but still not warmed up. We get wet each time we go outside. Bed early and a DVD. It’s the only way to stay warm.
That night I happen to mention my cold to Tracy. She takes pity on me. If its raining tomorrow I can work inside. It’s at this stage we discover that we’ll have to give the burger van a shorter clean each day at around 4pm, splitting our work shifts. So much for free time to explore.
So we settle into kind of routines – work in the morning or afternoon, burger van at tea time, I do a mixture of inside work (which I really am happy to do) and outside; Pat works outside. I plug in my ipod and the times goes quicker if I’m singing whilst I work. Most days it rains hard (this video was taken one lunch time just before our evening clean Rain.mov) and we never have quite the right equipment for the jobs so everything is harder than it needs to be. But we get used to the burger van and each day it gets easier, especially if Tracy has done much of the cleaning during the day.
There’s signs everywhere with do’s (mainly cleaning requirements) and don’ts. Don’t use too much Internet. Don’t use too much water. Totally fair enough as they had had droughts this summer, but it feels ironic when we are there as the water collection tanks overflow into the garden from all the rain. We are told max 5 minutes in the shower. There’s a soap dispenser in the shower made by a company called ‘NZKIWIGREEN’ As a Green I’m ashamed of myself about this but every shower as I’m trying to mentally count the minutes I just keep reading ‘nazigreen’!
I get open blisters on my hands, and collect more bites on my legs each night. I’m not sleeping. One night in the wet I fall flat on my face going to our outside kitchen. I get huge bruises on my knees. Worst of all, we hear that Bob, husband of my aunt Dinny who we stayed with in Oz and who we visited in his residential home has died. We are both so sad for Bob and for my aunt.
All is not down though. I get to know Tracy a bit and she is really nice when we talk as women of the same age. Doing catering work I learn lots from John. I prepare food (even meat) and cook and I really enjoy it. Patrick is a total trooper and works really hard outside. After the storm trees fell down. He cleans up the grounds, moves chopped down trees around, sorts fire wood.
A week after we arrive, its Saturday and there’s no van to clean. We are asked to babysit (less hours so we don’t get breakfast or lunch) but have the day off so we can go exploring which we do and which is great.
We can even cook a meal in the house kitchen. I decide to roast pumpkin which is really popular down under. As I’m cutting it the knife slips and I slice open my thumb, just near a large open blister sore. I stifle my screams and expletives so the young lad we’re baby sitting doesn’t hear. Our stay is just getting better!…..
The 2 words every backpacker dreads….
As I get more bites each night I get more and more paranoid. The bites are in clusters, often in 3s or in lines.
Now, when backpacking there are two words than send more shivers down your spine than any others – ‘bed’ and ‘bugs’! We book all our hostels online (far better than Lonely Planet or Rough Guide suggestions as you have up to date reviews from recent stayers. One place we stayed told us how got a visit from a reviewer from one of the books. They just looked at reception, that was it.). Any mention of bedbugs on the online reviews and we don’t stay. Simple as. Mind you when you read the reviews one will say so clean, the friendliest place I’ve ever stayed; the next how it was filthy and no one talked to you!
So of course because I keep noticing my bites at night I get convinced they are from bed bugs. We look at every website we can find. We watch videos on YouTube showing how to search for them. We take the bottom sheet and under-blanket off the bed twice, using lamps to inspect. I even put my sleeping liner in our freezer for a day as advised on one website. But we can’t find anything. So Pat doesn’t think they can be the dreaded. But I am so worried I can’t think what else they could be. We go over and over whether to mention it to our hosts. I say we have a duty; Pat doesn’t want us to. We agreed we are basically too scared and polite to mention it. Instead I’ll just keep getting bitten. Typical English. We fret and fret, terrified of saying anything, totally stressed out about not…..
When enough is enough….
One day we are chatting with John about how many volunteers they have. They pretty much run people back to back, most on 2 week stays. John tells us the last people left early as they had a bereavement, a grand parent. Pat sniggers to himself, later saying to me a likely story – probably the initial shock of how hard the work is!
The day I finally lose it is another rainy cold day. My hands are open sores, my thumb held together with plasters. My bites agony. I’m sitting in the rain on my arse, as my knees are too bruised to kneel down, digging out a drain with my hands. Tears mixing with the rain I say to Pat I can’t stand it any more. What the **** are we doing? Can we leave with dignity and just go home? He feels the same but neither of us can see how to leave early.
In Asia I just needed to prolong the trip. Even thinking about coming home was out of the question as I’d not achieved whatever it was I needed from this trip. But maybe the fact that in Malaysia, Singapore and Oz all that changed and I started to look forward to coming home. This made our stay even more puzzling.
We soul searched over and over about why we didn’t like bits of this volunteering, often asking ourselves whether we were the problem? Was is just that….?
* We don’t like taking orders – that I’m too used to being senior or in charge?
* I don’t like feeling like a skivvy?
* I’m hopeless at doing manual work and don’t like it?
* We resented feeling like we were told off the first time we cleaned the van?
* We’ve just got very lazy on this trip and resent having to work at all? 🙄
Or maybe it actually was an arse of a job, cheap labour for the price of some free food and a bed.
In reality, probably a bit of it all! But of course, we are people of honour! We hated seeing people working in hostels with bad odour and so we kept having words with ourselves. We decided to work in good grace. Or basically to just keep our moaning to ourselves! Lol
Birthdays and days off….
Each day we counted down the number of days left. The burger van got easier to clean as we got in a routine. The last few days I worked on catering which I really enjoyed, learning a lot. I finally told Tracey about the bites and she kindly got us some spray. Having looked at my bites she correctly diagnosed sandfly bites, probably got during the day working in the gardens. Thankfully, the spray stopped the bites. Relief was on its way. We did not have bed bugs.
One of the boys of the house had a birthday do which we were invited to which was so kind, though we got to clean the burger van out afterwards. 🙂 The next day was Pat’s 45th and we were given an afternoon off, Tracy doing our van clean. We had a lovely time watching the sun go down and a curry. We swapped cake with the boys of the house – we got some fabulous home baked banana cake in return for some slices of our shop bought chocolate mothers day cake. Result!
Towards the end of our stay I realised, though, that John and Tracy had wasted having me there. I was so determined to look like I could cope with outside manual work like a 20 year old that I just went along with it. But really I could have given them so much more – business consultancy, sorting invoicing or setting up finance systems, doing their marketing or a new website for them. My fault – I should have said, or more carefully read what we would be doing. At that moment I decided that if we volunteer again I this trip, I’m going to offer those skills and not just get carried along in the ‘when traveling you always have to do shit work’ mindset. But despite the difficulties we both agree it did us good to be working again, to shake us out of our traveling malaise. Back in the UK we are both known as grafters; it did us good to be reminded of what it’s like to graft and remember that actually when it’s work we can do we both really enjoy it.
And so our time came to leave the island and to go collect our camper van and to go on our New Zealand Road Trip. It was time for the party to re-start.
Coming soon – The Global Adventure goes stateside and we have a ball of a time. From a luxury flat in Hollywood to a homeless hostel in San Francisco; living it up in Vegas to 22 hours on a Greyhound, starving in Honolulu to huge breakfasts in Death Valley, the USA delivers all the extremes you would expect……