It’s a refreshingly different adventure when you are working and travelling in a foreign country.
By ELIZABETH LIEW
I’M known to be quite stubborn. When my mind is set to do something, there’s usually nothing anyone can do or say to change my mind or sway my decision.
When the earthquakes hit Christchurch in February 2011, and then again in June, many of my friends and family were concerned and advised me against going there for my working holiday. They suggested I change my flight to Auckland instead. After all, what were the chances of finding work in a quake-stricken city?
But I stood firm on my decision. I was travelling to a new country, and if the earthquake was part of it, I wanted it to be a part of my adventure and experience whatever else that came with it.
Ironically, I landed my first job in Christchurch because of the quake. I was hired as a data entry temp, starting at NZ$16.50 (RM41.25) per hour, working under the “Chimney Replacement Programme” (CRP) in Christchurch. The CRP’s main goal was to replace heating systems damaged in the quakes. My job was to key in some of the 20,000 work orders, a fraction of what was destroyed in the quakes.
I sat next to the call centre, and often saw my colleagues in tear-jerking moments. A 90-year old man rang up and politely asked if there was any way for him to get a heat pump as there was no other source of heating in the house for him in the freezing winter. He said he understood the queue was long, and asked that we did not put him ahead of expecting mothers and the handicapped. For now, he would put on some warm socks and go to bed. It reduced many of us to tears.
In the month I spent in Christchurch, I must have felt at least 40 aftershocks, some that lasted up to five seconds. The roads had cracked and buildings had crumbled, but people were united. The Christchurch City Council had put up signs all around the city, encouraging people to hang in there. If I had changed my flight to Auckland, I’d never have experienced any of this.
My winter was spent working in Christchurch and travelling the eastern part of the South Island – from Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Queenstown, Dunedin to Te Anau and Franz Josef. In September, I arrived in Franz Josef for a ‘cleaning for accommodation’ job in a backpackers’ hostel.
In return for two hours of cleaning every day, I was given a bed in the 10-bed mixed dorm, free Internet use (on the slowest computer of the millennium) and free weekly laundry service.
I had planned to stay only two weeks in Franz Josef, but a chance job offer in one of the local restaurants saw me stay a whole month. I learnt to open and close the restaurant by myself, work through lunch and dinner service alone and calling up to 12 steaks over a 20 minute period. I felt accomplished and happier than I ever had in my working life because I learnt I could do what seemed impossible.
The hard work paid off, and I saved almost all of the money I earned. During my time there, I was given plenty of “local treats”, ranging from the dizzy 30-minute helicopter-ride (free for locals), the breathtaking three-hour glacier climb in one of New Zealand’s most astounding environments to discounted relaxing soaks in the Glacier Hot Pools of Franz Josef.
From Franz Josef, I worked my way up to Kaikoura, Blenheim, Marlborough Sounds, Nelson and eventually Picton where I took my ferry to Wellington. Marlborough Sounds, is one of New Zealand’s most well-kept secrets, tucked in the north-east corner of the South Island.
I spent a week in an extremely “back-to-basics” house but had the most rejuvenating time of my life, and a well-deserved break after working 12-hour days. There was no TV, radio or any form of social media to disrupt the peace and quiet I had every day. My days would seem pretty mundane to some – watch waves crash in and out, look up from my bed to the blanket of stars in the sky, take walks on the beach and in the forest, hop on a boat and stand back as host scoops 50 mussels from the mussel farm.
Anyone who wants a taste of the mussels can get out on a boat and do the same, but must stick to the limit of 50 per day.
When it got cold at night, we used the fireplace to warm up the house and relied on the solar panel that had been charged up during the day for electricity. Marlborough Sounds remains the most relaxing experience I had in New Zealand.
From the rural pocket of the South Island, I went onto the ‘coolest capital’ of the world. Having only three and a half weeks in Wellington meant that I had to make the best of my time, and I didn’t want to spend it doing the usual city tours and shopping. Instead, I tried to see if there was anything I could do in the big city, and so I helped out at a Community Breakfast for the homeless.
From the ‘life is dandy’ South Island life where I never saw homeless roaming, I was thrown into a complete shock. The “Blanket Man” roamed the streets in Wellington and was known to sit around naked with only a blanket covering him.
When I jogged in my neighbourhood, I bumped into several of the homeless people I had served; they seemed like normal people having a good chat outside the convenience store. The only difference was they had no home to go to. Come nightfall, they would be paying NZ$7 (RM17) for a bed in the men’s shelter.
2011 was a historic year for New Zealand, as the nation went into a frenzy after winning the Rugby World Cup. Seeing the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw in the Wellington parade, just 10 metres from me, felt so surreal. Being a part of the cheer and the crowd that drew people from all over the world made me realise that I missed my own multi-cultural society in Malaysia.
When summer rolled in, I took off on a road trip around the North Island with a girlfriend. We rented a station wagon that became our wheels during the day and bed at night. We drove into farms, held piglets, lazily threw Frisbees at each other, watched the mesmerising Maori performance in Rotorua, showered and washed up in public toilets, wore the same clothes for days at a stretch, ate bread and jam for breakfast, lunch and sometime dinner . . . and finally, after driving for 1,500km alone (my friend didn’t have a driving license), we ended our journey with a piping hot dinner in Wellington.
There is only one way to describe my working holiday in New Zealand – unexpectedly amazing. I am happy to have worked in two of NZ’s major cities, lived in the aftershocks of Christchurch, done all the adrenaline activities I’ve wanted to do like snowboarding and bungee jumping, stayed in the remotest parts of the country, travelled on my own as well as with a companion, met people from countries as far as Malta, French Guyana, Macedonia, Peru and even Israel, and helped out at local charities. I can’t say that everyone will have similarly wonderful (and nasty) experiences that I did, but I can only say this, to anyone who is thinking of taking a gap year – be ready to embrace the beauty of the unexpected in life.
q Elizabeth blogs at chroniclesofmadlove.wordpress.com.