One of the biggest things I’ve had to get used to in New Zealand (apart from the thick accents, and narrow roads, and one-lane bridges, and other strange and wonderful peculiarities) has been the overwhelming lack of cell phone service and internet access. Over the past four months, I have not had cell phone coverage at a single one of my host homes (despite the fact that my latest family lived in a residential neighbourhood just 10 minutes from central Wellington, NZ’s capital). I’ve also had very little access to the internet, and have had to do all of my blog posts and photo uploads from internet cafes. While all of my hosts have had internet access in their homes, it is usually unavailable for blogging purposes because most people in NZ pay for their usage by the (very expensive) megabyte. While they can pay for their own usage, most hosts understandably cannot afford to have their volunteers racking up hundreds of dollars of extra data usage via photo uploading, video downloading, and Skype conversing! Instead I’ve had to postpone my updates until I’m in a large city with internet cafes, and when I have several hours to dedicate to writing and uploading photos. So I hope you’ll forgive me that I’m a little bit behind on my progress!
I’m currently updating from Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city and the windy gateway to the South Island. I made my way here from Matiere (where I was staying with Sean and Alix T., the hard-working, horse-breeding, cow-milking country couple), and after which I made a quick side-trip to hike the full Tongariro Northern Circuit (more to come on that debacle later!). I arrived in the Wellington area on the 25th of January after spending a couple of days in Palmerston North (another post pending) and then spent two full weeks living with a family in Lower Hutt, a town just on the outskirts of Wellington Central.
My latest hosts in The Hutt (as it’s so imaginatively called) were the M’s, a well-travelled family of four that own and operate their own naturopathic medical clinic out of a converted three-car garage on their property. On the morning of the 25th I found myself driving a winding, narrow road through a suburban New Zealand neighbourhood, wondering how anyone could possibly own a health clinic and medicinal nature retreat in the middle of it. But when I found myself descending steeply into a secluded, wooded driveway just a few minutes later, I quickly had my answer. Their home, set in a small valley surrounded by acres of native bush, is their very own urban oasis thanks to the nearby Belmont Regional Park. (It’s also widely thanks to the valley, and their position at the bottom of it, that their house manages to escape cell phone coverage despite their proximity to the city!) Inside the yard, thick native bush muffles the sound of the road while a stream cuts its way down the slope, and the famous Wellington winds ruffle the leaves in their acres of terraced vegetable and sculpture gardens.
The M. family itself is made up of parents Ian and Alicia, and their children: daughter Indigo (21), and son Ryan (15). Ian and Alicia are British transplants who ended up in New Zealand after spending many years travelling the world, including a 6-year stint working at a Buddhist centre in California and a year’s worth of travelling with their teenage children through India and Asia. (Don’t ask me how they got away with taking their kids out of school for all that time!) Both had spent many years travelling before they met (Alicia in India and Asia, and Ian throughout Europe), and they felt no need to stop exploring when they had a family. Indeed, their children clearly benefitted from their parents’ joint obsession: Ryan, who was born in California, has triple citizenship in New Zealand, the UK, and America (jealous much?!), and Indigo is currently studying at Berkeley in San Francisco. Pretty lucky kids!
Both Ian and Alicia came from holistic medicine and homeopathic backgrounds – Ian’s mother was an herbalist whose four children almost all followed in her footsteps, and Alicia found her passion for herbal medicine during her travels through Asia. Ian spent his professional career as an osteopath (massage therapist), and Alicia is a registered medical herbalist. Ian owned his own business in England before the couple went travelling and moved to the United States to work at a Buddhist temple for six years, and then the two opened their own clinic from their home in New Zealand. When they moved to their home in Lower Hutt several years ago, they began extensive renovations on the land and opened Belmont Park Retreat from a detached three-car garage on the property. Ian has since retired, but Alicia still works several hours a day in the clinic alongside two other partner practitioners. Their family is entirely vegetarian and they live as organically as possible, growing their own vegetables and depending on solar power as much as they can. They’re also semi-Buddhist and interested in alternative religion, energy healing, and meditation – their home is full of artifacts from their travels, and evidence of their philosophical pursuits hung from every surface (including my bedroom!):
As if their immediate nuclear family weren’t interesting enough, the M. family as I knew it was also made up of Ian’s 90-year-old German mother Hilda, and Indigo’s 30-year-old German boyfriend, Tom. (I think the German trend is purely coincidental, but who knows!) Hilda, the hard-of-hearing but otherwise cheerful and opinionated family matron, was visiting from England and staying for six weeks with her beloved eldest son. In earlier years she owned and operated her own (very successful) herbal export business, and was acquainted with some of the most famous medical herbalists of her time. Tom, on the other hand, is a professional pastry chef who lives with Indigo in a separate cabin on the family’s property. He and Indigo first met when they were both working as professional chefs in the kitchens at Parliament, two years ago (did I mention Indigo’s only 21?). Oh yeah, and Tom? He’s now the head pastry chef at Te Papa, the hugely famous National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Feel free to start feeling inadequate any time now.
The M’s are basically professional hosts by now, having had more than 500 volunteers come to stay through WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) and HelpX (short for HelpExchange, one of the international volunteer programs I’m traveling with). Thanks to their nearly constant flow of visitors from all over the world, my stay with the M’s was also overlapped by those of two other volunteers. When I arrived, Wouter — a 30-year-old Dutch man who’d been staying with the M’s for nearly 3 weeks — showed me around the house and the grounds while I got settled in. Over the past few weeks, he’d been working on everything from the irrigation system to the family computers (using skills he learned from several years working at the Dutch Botanical Gardens), but his real passion was wood carving. He’d come to New Zealand as a WWOOFer, but was also using the experience as a way to explore the possibility of pursuing a life as an artist. (Based on his website and the tree spirit he’d carved out of a tree stump as a surprise for the M’s when they came back from a long weekend away, I’d say he has a pretty good future ahead of him!) When Wouter left just a couple days after I arrived, Amandine — a 30-year-old French make-up artist — came to stay a week later. She’d already been in the country for 7 months, and had already spent a couple of months working with a professional photographer in Petone (right outside of Wellington). We became good friends and, thanks to her awesome camera, many of the photos in this post are hers (thanks, Amandine!).
When I arrived on the morning of January 25th, the M’s were busy at their respective jobs (Alicia in the clinic, and Ian supervising his mother). I got straight to work varnishing the deck (after a cup of tea, of course), and from that point on I had a long list of potential jobs to do! On my first full day I turned their (massive) compost system and collected horse poo, but moved up from there to several days of painting, weeding, trimming, digging, and — my favorite — cleaning and organizing! I spent a full three days cleaning out and re-organizing their garage, and could not have been happier. (Now if only I could put that on my résumé!)
Apart from working I also spent a good chunk of my time reading books from their extensive collection – I managed to work my way through two 1000-page books in two(ish) weeks! The first was The Pillars of the Earth, an epic novel about building a cathedral in 12th century England, which has been described to me by fellow readers as the “best book they’ve ever read” but in fact left me rather disappointed. The second, Shantaram, was quite a hit though! The book is based on Gregory David Roberts‘ true life experiences, in which he was sent to prison after a series of armed robberies due to his heroin addiction. He escaped over the front wall of a maximum security prison in Australia in broad daylight and escaped to India. He then lived in a slum in Bombay where he established a free health clinic for its 25,000 inhabitants, spent several months in an Indian prison, became involved in the Indian mafia, became a passport smuggler, acted in Bollywood, and smuggled arms to and fought with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan (among other things) before eventually being caught and taken back to Australia. He re-wrote the book three times (!) after prison guards trashed the first two versions, and is now a best-selling author. The book is not perfect — Roberts has a tendency to wax poetic in a way that gets particularly annoying after 950-something pages — but it’s a fascinating read and an incredible depiction of Bombay in the early 1980s. Highly recommended, overall!
While much of my time was spent desperately trying to finish the aforementioned books, I also found a few spare moments to accompany the M’s on some outings around the Wellington area. Their busy household was joined by Ian’s sister and her fiance, who were visiting from England, and I went with them on their family tours to the Red Rocks Reserve and Te Papa. I was also lucky enough to joing them at a huge family dinner party, where they also invited their neighbors and the visitors they were hosting from Wales! The neighbors, Deb and Di, were both professors and international lecturers in business innovation and management, and Di was a Rhodes Scholar who spent several years studying and traveling in the United States. I felt very lucky to meet them and make a new connection – who knows how that could develop in the future?!
As if I didn’t get to do enough during my stay, the icing on the cake was the paintball battle waged on my second-to-last day between myself, Amandine, Tom, and Ryan. Ryan, an avid paintball fan who bought two new guns in as many weeks while I was there, had built himself a huge natural paintball course in an un-used section of the property. Not wanting to leave without ridding myself of my paintball naiveté, I put on some old clothes and gum boots (donated by the M family), strapped on a face mask, and joined the other young ‘uns in an all-out series of ‘Capture the Flag’ (paintball style). Of course, Ryan dominated all of us — at one point he challenged us, 3 against 1, and still beat us! — but it was an exhilarating game. Plus, I only got hit twice! Poor Amandine and Tom didn’t fare so well, though…
All in all, my stay with the M’s was one of the best periods of my time in New Zealand so far. Ian taught me to meditate, Alicia talked about naturopathics and herbal medicine, we talked about traveling and politics and organic living, and I even learned a new card game! It was a beautiful two weeks and I know that I will stay in touch with them for years to come.