Saturday, October 16, 2010

I here now, one job please

It's the first post since I got here but a decent amount has happened, so I’ll do a quick summary of where I am now and what I see coming, and then talk a bit about the last couple weeks.

Present and Future: About 8 days ago I started WWOOFing (more info at: at a small house in Paekakariki, a nice family town about 40 min up the coast from Wellington. The family is extremely welcoming, and they're trying to help me find a proper job/internship through their government agency contacts in Wellington. The twist is that it's not really farm, and they're not exactly Kiwis (Kiwi is a term for a New Zealander, the fruits are called kiwifruits, and birds are called kiwis (lower case)). They're a liberal and very well educated Jewish family that moved here from the east cost of the U.S. in 2006. It isn’t the most foreign experience possible, but they’re a great group to stay with. More to say about the family and town later.

The still vague plan for the future is to try to get an interesting job in Wellington for a several months, and if that doesn’t happen then head down to the south island soon and maybe WWOOF some more. If I get a job here then I’d probably come home sometime around early march, if not then maybe around mid January or early February.

Past Couple Weeks: Finding a job has been harder than I thought it’d be, and coming into Auckland with only a very vague plan quickly led to feeling pretty stupid in a lot of conversations. Right off the bat, the guy running around cleaning the hostel says that finding a job is… possible… maybe. A few minutes later a nice Japanese girl says that there’s lots of farm jobs in one particular region, but she only found work because she's a dairy farmer by trade. Calls to hostels in Wellington and Queenstown reveal that the job market for backpackers is pretty slow, but that it might pick up in mid-late November (start of summer here). At the hostel I stayed at, all the new arrivals over 25 are trying to get city jobs in their field of expertise, and the younger travelers are expecting to work on farms. One quick friend excitedly talked about how we don’t need to worry about finding work because at the end of October there will be a flood of fruit-picking jobs – blueberries, strawberries, etc. He talks about fruit picking as if it's some kind of golden key to the world.

I’m the type of person who compulsively plans things out, so to balance that I sometimes push myself to do “impulsive things” (or as I perceive them at the time: “stupid things”). But after all these conversations it seemed like this time I’d gone too far. The trip seemed extremely foolhardy, and those first few days were spent feeling very, very, very stupid.

But since there were a few weeks to spare before any of us could expect to find work anyway, it seemed like a good time for a road-trip. I had planned at first to get my own car, but within an hour of getting to the hostel I’d met another backpacker (Lucas, a nice and extremely easy going German kid), who wanted to do pretty much the same thing I did. After hanging out for a few days in Auckland (a city not special or exotic in any way) I decided that I’d be pretty much fine without a car, and we head north to do some touring of Northland (north coast of the North Island).

Approximate route up, taking the east coast on the way down.
Staring pretty much as soon as you leave Auckland it’s a little bit easier to remember why the country is worth visiting. The highways very quiet, just one lane in each direction, and all along it is perfect rolling pastures with occasion groups of sheep or cows. It reminded me of some of the backgrounds my first computer came preloaded with. (Full album link at bottom of post)
Apparently the entire coastline is stunning beach. The water is incredibly spread out, especially at low tide. There’s a good 50 feet of beach that’s covered in a 1 inch wave one moment, and then just wet sand 30 seconds later, forming a huge reflective plane.

Our first major stops heading north were at the kauri tree forests. Kauri trees in New Zealand are, I imagine, fairly similar to the redwoods in the States. They grow much slower, so they aren't nearly as tall as the redwoods though. The biggest ones were I think about 13-16 meters around and over 1000 years old. There are tons of mid-sized ones about 6 feet wide that are spread throughout the forest.

Kauri bark kind of looks like flowing water. When there are smooth patches it feels like goosebumpy skin.

A note on some interesting animals:
*The brown kiwi, New Zealand's national bird, is a basketball sized nocturnal animal. Like many birds in NZ the kiwi has evolved to become flightless due to a lack of predators in the country. At one campsite we went to there was a cartoon reminding families to keep their dogs (predators) on a leash. A comic strip shows a lovable family dog that smells a strange aroma in the night and is drawn into the woods. Taken over my his animal instinct he mauls a kiwi bird, and once he's had one he just can't stop. Turns out this is a true story about a dog (some generic name like spike or spot) who got loose from a campsite and went on a rampage, killling hundreds of kiwibirds in the span of a couple of months.
(the kiwifruit is named so because of it's resemblance to this bird)
*Another interesting bird is the tui, which has a birdsong that my guide book describes as sounding like R2-D2. I think that description is dead on. The bird also has a low price beer named after it that's pretty darn decent. The link below has a picture and short sound recording of the bird's call. It's the best sound recording I could find but it really doesn't do it justice. The full "R2-D2" effect is longer, and spans a wider spectrum of notes/tones.

*The possums. These animals actually outnumber sheep here. They're considered a pest and the Department of Conservation (DOC) has sparked some controversy by treating wide areas with 1080 pellets, a possum killing pesticide which they claim breaks down quickly enough not to damage anything else. People are told to never feed the possums, and it sounds recidulous that anyone would need reminding, but apparently possums are totally different here. I haven't seen any, but the NZ possum is supposedly very cute.

Up at the top of the North Island is Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. You can see two different patches of color in the water, and it’s hard to believe but this is supposedly because of the clashing of the two bodies of water.

We met some interesting natives and foreigners along the way, and also got to some other key tourist attractions including the treaty grounds museum, a 90 mile beach bus tour and sand dune sledding. As we started to head back to Auckland though I realized that I was spending too much money and wouldn’t be able to sustain this if we took the long way down to Wellington, as Lucas wanted to do. Throughout it all there was the nagging knowledge that there were no specific jobs in sight, and that feeling didn't mix well with roadtrip vacationing. So when we got back to Auckland Lucas and I went separate ways, at least for the time being, and I came down to WWOOF in Paekakariki.

Since then I've again been reassured that jobs are totally easy to get in New Zealand. Michael, of the family that's hosting me, described it this way: The country is so small that the national organization are really like city organizations. Could you get a job at the Newton Bureau of Labor Statistics? 

So we'll see. I'm still not entirely sure what’s going to happen over the next few months (hence part of the delay in writing this first entry) but WWOOFing is potentially a pretty sweet deal. At it's best it's a good way to meet people, a casual lifestyle (generally involves working 4-6 hours in exchange for room and board), and good food. The scenery also makes a bit more sense for an abroad trip than city living. At it's worst though, I've heard, it's toilet cleaning for minimal compensation.

So maybe I can get a good job in Wellington for a few months. If so it would be pretty fun and a great boost to grad school apps, but if I can’t then there’s always this. I hadn't thought I'd be doing it long term when I left Boston, but it seems alright.

More Complete Album:
2010-10-06 NZ 1st week