Two Island Experiences Inspires Two Ways of Traveling and Working in New Zealand
The two words I would use to describe my lifestyle during my first three months working and traveling in New Zealand is wandering backpacker. I arrived in Auckland, like every other traveler who comes to New Zealand, and went straight to my first ever hostel experience.
I spent most of my first two months planning no more than a few days in advance, bouncing between hostels and positions I found on HelpX, a website that connects volunteers with working experiences in exchange for accommodation and food.
Working on New Zealand’s North Island
This new found freedom to explore the city and eventually more of the North Island with no concrete plan was liberating and relaxing, especially compared to my often 60 plus hour workweek I had in the United States, where the only places I ever saw were my office and the grounds of my apartment complex. I loved being able to see the sites and wander around, not knowing what I would find that day, but this quickly grew from being liberating to being exhausting and often frustrating.
At 26 years old and coming straight from working full time for the past eight years, I was older than the typical backpacker and found I am most comfortable in a more stable and quiet environment—not something found in any hostel I had come across so far. For example, I was in the process of applying to graduate school for my return to the United States in the fall and found the perpetual hunt for Wi-Fi to be quite a setback turning my peaceful wandering into a frustrating hunt for connectivity.
Plus I will openly say I hate sharing a bedroom. I am an only child who has lived alone since a bad stint with roommates my first two years of college and sharing a room with something between 3-20 other “kids” always younger and more rambunctious than me was almost as bad for my sleep as the middle of the night phone calls I got during my time working in emergency response. And a good night sleep is something I consider vital for a successful vacation.
I began to lean more towards HelpX positions, still something entirely new for me but more fitting with my volunteerism background and homely lifestyle. With HelpX while I was working for no actual pay, I lived with a local family and had all of my living costs and meals covered.
During a one month au pair position on Waiheke Island that I had found through HelpX, I started my search for jobs on the South Island, wanting to split my six month New Zealand trip between the North and South Islands equally.
A Different Way of Experiencing New Zealand on the South Island
I ended up landing another live-in au pair position with a family of two kids in Ashburton, a rather sleepy suburban town about an hour south of Christchurch. This position would take me from the middle of May until I travel back home to the United States in August. I will openly admit that Ashburton is far from the most exciting town in New Zealand, however the set up was absolutely perfect for me. I work about 15-20 hours a week for pay, have my own bedroom, a car provided by the family, but most importantly I am included in the family life of my host parents/ employer.
My days are often filled with mundane tasks such as picking kids up from school, walking the dog, making school lunches, and playing lots and lots of board games. But I can confidently say I am part of a family. I eat dinner almost every night with my now New Zealand adopted family instead of alone in a hostel kitchen or at the cheapest fast food joint I could find in town.
I am invited and included on all family activities and through this I have gotten to see some special things I would never have gotten to opportunity to see if I had continued to travel entirely on my own.
I have watched my five year old complete his first ever cross county match and heard thirty kids sing New Zealand’s national anthem at end of term school assembly. I had been in the county for five months and didn’t realize until the kids starting singing that I had never even considered what New Zealand’s national anthem sounded like until getting to hear it here.
I went sheep shearing my first weekend in Ashburton. I couldn’t even properly spell shearing— I thought it was “sheering”— until after this experience. Farming is such an integral part of New Zealand’s culture and economy but something that I would never have thought to seek out on my own, especially since I haven’t seen “go see a sheep be sheared” on any New Zealand’s top 10 best things to do lists.
With the car provided by my family, I have still been able to do plenty of solo traveling around the South Island, as they have allowed me to use the car for both kid-related trips and for my own personal adventures.
I’ve seen New Zealand sea lions under a rainbow in the Catlins, toured the Speight’s Brewery in Dunedin, checked out a ski resort in Queenstown but not actually gone skiing (Man, it is expensive… and cold. All right, let’s be real, my main issue was the cold), seen the earthquake damage in Christchurch, and cruised down the South Island’s West Coast.
While I love being able to do these solo individual trips, blasting non-kid appropriate music in the car and hiking up mountains that a three-year-old’s legs would never be able to make it up, often the best part of my weekend trips is coming home on Sunday night and being greeted by a giant hug from a five year old who tells you over and over again how much he missed you.
In some ways my life is still the same now as it was during my wanderings of the North Island. I still get woken up in the middle of the night, but it’s from an excited three year old instead of drunken teenagers showing up to the hostel room at 2 a.m. I am still incredibly broke but it’s because I am spending my funds on weekend trips all across the South Island instead of endless hostels, crappy fast food, and bus tickets. I often still wake up at 6 a.m. to try and catch by boyfriend in the U.S. on FaceTime before his day is over, but I am sharing the Wi-Fi with two working parents instead of hundreds of 20 somethings with their endless movie downloads and social media posts.
To me, the most important part of visiting a new county is try to and get a sense of the culture and see what life is really like there. I want the “real view” of a place, behind the scenes of the show the tourism industry puts on for us foreigners. By living with a Kiwi family, I feel like I am having a full immersion type of experience that not only gives me unique insight into the life of New Zealand but is also most suitable for my lifestyle.
I know it isn’t the way to travel for everyone, but I would highly recommend it and most importantly, it is what works best for me.