On a rainy July day in Auckland, I bid farewell to Jessica, got on a bus and headed off to start woofing.
For those who don’t know, woofing (a verb that I made up) is the act of working as a member of WWOOF, willing workers on organic farms. This is an organization that allows volunteers and hosts to connect. As a volunteer, I am fed and housed by a host in exchange for work (usually on their farm). There is a website full of hosts and you simply message one that had a description that matches what you are interested in doing.
Throughout my travels with Jessica, we often commented, ‘I bet this place is hopping in the summer’. Arriving in New Zealand during the winter wasn’t one of my most well thought out plans but I’m not letting it get me down. As you could probably guess, there aren’t a lot of WWOOF hosts that need help on their farms during the winter…not much grows this time of year. Luckily for me, a component/associated organization is called Cultural Exchange. Cultural Exchange focuses on all kinds of experiences bit with all emphasis on introducing visitors to New Zealand culture. These can be anything from helping out in a house, childcare, working in a locally owned bookstore, and many more things. These also tend to be things that run all year round.
Messages were sent and hosts were arranged and before I knew it, my adventures with Jessica were over and I was off to Tairua, a very small town on the Coromandel Peninsula. First impressions were positive. I had arrived directly from our adventure in Wellington, featured in 23 hours in an airport, so I was running on very little sleep and don’t actually remember much of the first 12 hours in Tairua other than positive feelings.
At my first woofing location I met 3 other woofers: Annie, Luis and Jacky (yes, having the same name did lead to some moments of confusion). They were absolutely delightful. It is fascinating how quickly you can bond with people when you spend almost every hour together for a few weeks. I almost instantly felt as though the four of us had been friends for years as we goofed around, watched TV together, broke Annie’s bed (on accident…there were just too many of us on it for it to handle), ran around at night in an absurdly windy storm on the beach, worked together, cooked together, and just generally having a great time. They were, by far, the best part of my woofing experience in Tairua.
The actual job I was doing varied. Most of the time I was working in the All Organics shop owned by my host family. In addition to working in the shop, I often helped out around the house, cleaning, tidying, and all sorts of other things. Initially, when there were four of us, it felt like there were too few jobs but it wasn’t a problem because we just got more time to ourselves. As time went by, it seemed that work piled up but we didn’t ever really know what we were supposed to be doing. Our hosts had been working with woofers for years and had probably had over a hundred but they still gave off the impression that they didn’t know what to do with us. This was quite confusing and a little frustrating.
In addition to the weird and unreliable work schedule, there was also a weird vibe around the house. Firstly, I would like to clarify that I did have a good time in Tairua and with the family but there were some weird things too. When I first arrived, it very much felt as though I was supposed to feel like one of the family: joining in on family dinners, eating whatever I liked from the kitchen, hanging out with the children, and chatting with the adults. As time went by, it felt less and less like we were wanted. It was requested that we didn’t go upstairs (woofers live in the basement rooms) when the kids were getting ready for school and in the evenings when the kids were going to bed. This gave off the vibe that we were welcome to cook and clean and eat with the family but otherwise we shouldn’t be seen. I have a new found understanding of how the servants in Downton Abbey (and the real world) must have felt.
In addition to feeling like I wasn’t really welcome upstairs, there was a weird vibe about how long I was staying for. When I first arrived, it was decided that I would stay for two weeks and then we would evaluate if I wanted to extend. About a week in, it was offered that I could stay as long as I liked. About a week after that, I was being heavily encouraged to move on in the following week or so. As far as I know, they were never unhappy with my work or me, as an individual. By this point Annie and Jacky had already left (and Luis was getting similarly weird vibes) and I was getting sick of commitment anyways, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to move on but it is sad because it turned what had been a positive experience, into one that has a little bit of lingering bitterness attached to it.
Even if my first woofing experience wasn’t quite what I would have wanted, it gave me a great introduction to other woofers, setting my host standards high, valuing my own work, and just generally experiencing new things. It could have been better but it also could have been much worse so I can’t complain too much.
Now I’m off to work on an AVOCADO farm, so we will see how that compares. I’m very excited (due to my love of avocados) so hopefully my hopes aren’t set too high!