The last three weeks have been quite possibly my nicest two weeks in New Zealand. I left Hastings, feeling a bit sick of the backpacker scene. I came up north to work for accommodation on a farm near the Coranandel Peninsula, about an hour southeast of Auckland. After two days, I felt completely a part of this family. Mark and Kanani (He’s from England, she’s from Hawaii) are some of the nicest people I’ve encountered. She’s an artist and was getting ready for an exhibition on Wednesday and Mark is a principal at a Rudolph Steiner school. They have a four year old daughter, Kamea, and Mark has a twelve year old son, Charlie from a previous marriage. (He’s a kid twelve, not a teenage twelve).
Every morning, I woke up and fed the animals—chickens, pigs, and goats. I got into some scuffles with Lucy (the goat ringleader) a few times, (I guess you could say we really butted heads…hahahha), but in the end, I think we respected one another as worthy adversaries.
For my birthday, Kanani made a raspberry apple pie, and we all went out to dinner. It was a very simple, beautiful day, and I’m happy to say that my sunny birthday streak continued (24 birthdays of absolutely perfect weather). This birthday made my top 5 of all time list. Other birthdays include 20, (caveman dinner in Prague), 16 (made friends), 8 (Mom made cake shaped like a roller skate. What could be cooler?) And the other two haven’t happened yet.
During the day, Mark and I started making a new pen for the pigs, I spent a while in the garden, Mark, Charlie, Kamea and I went to the beach and filled a trailer up with shells for the driveway, then we spent about an hour throwing small rocks at bigger rocks, which, while it sounds dumb, is actually one of my favorite games, followed closely by “hit this board in the hopes that you will break it (and not your hand) mostly with your mindpower,” “chase/manhunt,” and “guess who I’m imagining having sex right now.” We all went out to dinner at the Bayview Restaurant, which feels like it was transplanted in New Zealand from 1950’s Minnesota. It was kind of awesome. Lots of doilies and pictures of ducks and maps and it kind of felt like we were eating in an old lady’s living room.
The next day, we went to the nearby hot pools and Kamea learned to swim without her floaties. We all played games in the water and took turns pretending to be the arms behind someone else. I felt like I had parents, and siblings, in the way I did when I was young. Actually, it’s kind of strange, but Mark is an exact combination of my dad and my mom’s husband. The fact that he’s English somehow seems appropriate, though I can’t quite figure out why.
The day after my birthday I had a life changing experience. Mark and Kanani really try to live off of their land as much as possible, and slaughter their chickens and piglets and (soon) goats from time to time. It’s kind of funny, because they were both vegetarians for like a decade, but then decided they wanted to really do this lifestyle all out. I admire this. I figured as long as I’m eating meat, I should be able to be a part of the entire process, it seems fair. So, Mark and I got the net, and as I fed the chickens, he grabbed a few of the roosters. But as we walked over there to do the deed, I knew it would be a problem for me. I felt like God with this net. These roosters didn’t suspect a thing. They went on pecking at grass and dirt and one another like they always did. They didn’t know the last time they sipped their water bowl that it would be their last. They didn’t know that the food I was scattering on the ground was their last meal. All I could think was they don’t need this. They don’t know that they will never need energy again. But I do. I didn’t like knowing this. Mark caught them and one by one took them over to the stump by the tool shed to chop off their heads. Oddly enough, he’s squeamish at the sight of blood, but just decided when they started farming to plow through.
We took the dead headless chickens to the grass by the house where Kanani was waiting with buckets of water and knives. We each grabbed a chicken and Mark and Kanani began ripping feathers out by the feet. I pawed at the carcass and in no time they were slicing theirs open and carving off the skin layer until they each had what resembled a bag of baby skin in their hands, which they then reached into and de-gutted. At this point, I’d ripped out a few feathers off of the warm bird, stroking its legs with each tear and whispering “I’m sorry.” I didn’t want to cry, I wanted to impress this family that had so quickly adopted me with my farm savvy ways. Instead, I just sat there with my knife, tearing up and imagining the chicken’s whole life. This rooster was once a chick. This rooster had a mother who loved him, and daily habits and routines, and it played with the others, and it fought desperately for its life which I could say was meaningless, but then, so is mine if I think about it that way. Meaningless or not, this rooster did not want to die, it wanted to survive. I didn’t like being part of the reason it couldn’t.
Mark and Kanani felt bad when they looked up and saw how disturbed I was. Mark took me for a walk to check on the goats and then I went and dug a grave for the chicken skins and feathers in the orchard. I sobbed while digging. In the end, it was actually a really good experience for me. I don’t think I’m capable of killing. Until this summer’s MN camping fiasco, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to kill a mosquito, and in the south with Jan, I had no choice but to kill sandflies. But the point is, I can’t kill something that’s warm and reminds me of a human in any way. It’s not like I was ever really worried about becoming a serial killer or anything, but it’s nice to know that (at present, at least) it’s completely impossible.
The week went by. I played with Kamea (we set up a university for potions and spells; it was pretty intricate and I kind of got really into it), met a couple getting ready to move to Pittsburgh (friends of Kanani and Mark), bonded and fought with the animals, (Lucy frustrated me so much that at some point I said to her, despite my chicken experience, “I’ll show you…we’re going to eat your baby,” built a pig pen, started building an earth wall out of mud and clay and rocks, and decided to stay with them a little bit longer so that I could see Kanani’s art exhibition.
That Friday, a Taiwanese girl, Milly, arrived. It was nice to have some company up in the shed where I was sleeping, and in the end was extremely fortuitous because she bought my car, which was money I was really hoping for, but not completely expecting. I half thought I would spend a few hundred dollars getting it ready to sell and then just leave it in the parking lot at the airport. I got along with Milly really well; it was nice to have someone just arriving to be excited for, and pass along contacts and ideas and warnings. For me, it was a nice way for my time here to come to an end, for me to think about what was important over the last several months, what I would have wanted to know, what I hadn’t expected.
That Saturday, we went into Auckland for a protest against mining for gold in the Coromandel. Kanani and Mark stayed in Auckland for the night to see part of the comedy festival going on now. We all hung out in their hotel afterwards and tried to go swimming but the pool was under renovation. Milly and the kids and I drove home, where we all fed the animals, made dinner, and watched Coraline. It was nice—I got along with the kids quite well. I think I liked these kids so much because I liked the parents so much. Mark and Kanani live the way I would ideally live. I think I’d probably be a similar kind of parent, so to some extent, I’d probably have kids who were similar. This experience sort of made me think I do want kids, because it made me realize that if I live the kind of life I want to live, and am the kind of person I want to be, I’d probably have kids that I’d get along with pretty well, and not super annoying ones who I’d just want to give away.
I wouldn’t trade my family for any other family in the world. But….if I had to choose a new one, it would definitely be this one. Mark and I even noticed at some point how much I seem to take after him. Mostly, because I injure myself (not usually too seriously) every day, and so does he. We’re coordinated, but clumsy because we try to rush through things. We had the same kind of start this task, finish later and start another task in the meantime approach to everything, which I think, had Kanani not been so busy working on her piece, would have driven her crazy.
There was one catastrophic day. Mark, Mily and I went into the closest town to pick something up from the shop, and to put the car into Milly’s name at the post shop. Afterwards, we went to the beach to shovel more shells into the trailer. We’d done this several times over the last few weeks. It was one of our favorite tasks. Sometimes, we would hand select an entire trailer full of rocks just because it was kind of meditative to be on the beach, toiling peacefully. At some point, Mark moved the trailer, and backed down a small drop off, beaching the trailer. After about forty minutes of struggling and nearly beaching the car, we found a strap with a metal piece (like a seatbelt), and tied it from the car hutch to the trailer. Mark drove while Milly and I tried to guide the trailer. (I should mention at this point that we were using all of our strength—I’d fallen down several times trying to use my body to push the trailer). Unfortunately, the tension was too much for the strap and it snapped back into my arm and chest. In hindsight, I was really lucky it didn’t hit my head because it absolutely would have knocked my teeth out, at best, but at the time, all I could think was “Fuck. Two weeks to go and I break a rib…”
Then a Maori woman came and yelled at us for taking shells, telling us that it was illegal and she was going to call the council. Then, when we got back I realized that my car keys were gone, and that they must have fallen out my pocket somewhere on the beach when I was hurling my body against the trailer and falling all over the place.
Milly and I took Mark’s car back to the beach (although at this point I could only drive with my left hand because my right side was killing me) and began our search. There was a school group picking up trash and we asked them, but nobody had seen them. I kept thinking about the money I’d have to spend getting someone to make 5 new keys to my car (my car uses 5 keys. It’s annoyingly quirky). I figured I wouldn’t be able to go to Budapest while in Romania, and was trying to think how to tell Lindsey. After a 15 minute search, I found them. I was so relieved that I actually thought to myself “I should do things like this more often.”
That night was Kanani’s show. It was a cool concept. She had burned lots of shelves, that had all been made from other materials, and written on them their histories. “I was a desk,” “I used to be a door,” and made coverings for all of them. You had to lift them to see what they used to be. She included a short story about how her father’s house had burned down and how the fire had transformed everything in his life into nothing. How we all wear different outfits over the course of our lives; she was once an artist, a surfer, a child, a teacher, she is now a farmer, a mother….
The opening was in a café, along with one of her friends who was also exhibiting. It was nice to go, the small community feel really reminded me of Pittsburgh. You go to galleries, and you see the same people, you bump into people you know, you talk to the artists, you talk to others around. All the kids from all the alternative parents played on the sidewalk outside. After a couple hours, Mark, Milly, Kamea and I went to an Indian restaurant down the street. Kanani met us later.
It was hard to say goodbye to this family. I caught a ride with Mark into Auckland on Friday, but we all got up super early and Kanani made pancakes, which I thought was sweet, and also reminded me of my mom because that’s often what she does on the last day I’m home.
Mark had made made me several cd’s of music he thought I’d like. We all took turns playing cd’s each night, and I always ended up choosing his cd’s, mostly new wave. We talked a lot about music, and he gave me some fantastic stuff I’d never heard of.
Leaving them was hard. But Mark said they’d take me out to dinner the night before I left somewhere in Auckland. And Mark and Kanani really want to rent a house in Havana for a week or two in 2012 and have all the wwoofers they really got along with to come. I’m planning on going. I will figure out a way to get into Cuba.
Mark dropped me off at the zoo where I met Amanda, Kurtis and Kasey (the family I stayed with when I first arrived in New Zealand). I spent the weekend with them. They moved into a new house, and I got to stay on the huge bus in the backyard. Kasey and Kurtis hadn’t forgotten me, and seemed excited to see me. After a few days, I met Holly and Danielle at the Auckland train station (My David Sedaris-y train station story below)and went with them to their friends outside of Auckland, the lesbian family, to wwoof for my last week. This is where I am now, and it’s nice to see Holly and Danielle again, and the family seems really great, but I clicked so well with Mark and Kanani that I think I had unrealistic expectations. I felt I really had a place in their family. Here is fine, but it feels more like a true exchange, a deal. You do work. We feed you and give you a room. I know that was the same deal as at Mark and Kanani’s, but it really never felt like that. It just felt like I was doing my part. It was very organic, whereas here, things are spelled out and said and never just understood and I don’t really feel like I connect too well with either of the women.
But I’m leaving on Monday, spending the night in Auckland and then….gone. Home. And then…
David Sedaris-y Train Station Story…
Monday morning I packed up and left Amanda’s. For the first time in the last six months, I had to put everything neatly into two bags. In these months, I’ve managed to literally wear out some of my clothes, but what I’d lost in clothes space, I’d gained in shells (plus my whale bone!) I walked up the street to the train station, one hundred percent sure that both of my bags were over the flight weight limit, and working up quite a sweat in my five minute walk. I squeezed into a seat with all of my stuff and relaxed for the half hour ride. When I got into the station, I had four hours to kill before meeting up with Holly and Danielle. I assumed that the train station of the largest city in the country would have storage lockers. I was unfortunately wrong. So, faced with the prospect of spending four hours in the train station with nothing to do but guard my bags, I bought a newspaper. In hindsight, I dropped my bag on the floor a bit roughly when I went in to the newsstand to pay the cashier.
I grabbed a bench. I read the paper. I attempted the crossword puzzle. I called my Mom to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. I edited the headlines to my tastes—“Ferry Hits Pier. Says Ferry, “Pier deserved it,”” and began a letter to the four year old on the front page who had gotten stuck in a toy machine at the airport, causing authorities to remove the machine. “Dear Melanie, Thanks for ruining it for everyone…” In this way, an hour drifted by.
The train station, which had before smelled of fast food and grime was beginning to reek of lavender. Strange, I thought. But pleasant. I reached for the zipper on my bag to put away my newspaper, and jerked my hand back when I touched a cold wet liquid on my bag. Fantastic, I put my bag in someone’s spit. The lavender wafted towards me. I picked up my bag and there was a huge puddle, the size of a doormat underneath. My soap. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like everyone in the entire station was watching me figure out how to deal with this mess. I began ripping up pieces of newspaper and trying to absorb the soap in my bag. I ignored to good on the floor for the moment. At first, I tried to act like it wasn’t my mess. I shook my head at the imaginary hoodlums who’d made such a mess of the station. I glanced at the woman across from me and smiled as if to say, “Really! I can’t believe I’m the one cleaning up this mess….” Later, my looks changed from innocent to accusatory. Scowling at the man nearby, my frown saying, “Did you do this? Are you responsible for this mess? You’re just lucky there are good samaritans like me around.” I had no idea how to go about getting the puddle on the floor—I’d used up all the newspaper on my backpack and it was still a mess. My hands and clothes were covered in goo. I did what any sensible asshole would do and pretended not only not to notice the puddle, but to not notice the floor at all. If someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I knew anything about the puddle on the floor, my response wouldn’t be “Ah, no didn’t see that puddle down there.,” but “Oh, wow. I didn’t even know there was a floor here.” So out of the loop I couldn’t possibly be responsible. I think I use this approach a lot. If you think I’m stupid, it probably just means I’ve used this tactic on you, and it’s worked which, frankly, makes me smarter than you.
Anyway, I knew I had to get out of there before I was made. I threw on my bags and waddled through the closest doors as fast as I could without looking suspicious. I braced myself for yells and shouts to come back, but I was too fast for everyone.
I needed to get to a trashcan, but didn’t want to stop too close to the station where people coming or going may be able to associate me with the spill. I made my way towards the library, stopping at the atm on the way (mostly so that I could have an alibi, but also because I needed some cash). I walked about 3 km to the library, my back killing me under all the weight. At stop lights people sniffed the air and looked around to find the source of the overpowering lavender. At one point, I crossed the street just to walk by a Lush so nobody would know it was me. Finally, I found a relatively secluded city park and began cleaning.
I should mention at this point that about a week ago my soap bottle broke, and I poured the contents of the plastic bottle into a glass jar. There’s a reason slippery substances that you use in the shower aren’t typically sold in glass. There are, I’m sure, proper ways to clean up messes like these, but sticking your hand into a compartment filled with slippery goo and broken glass isn’t one of them. I’d clasp a big piece, only to lose my grip and stab myself. Smaller shards would stick to me, and I had no way to get them off. My hands were now covered in blood, glass, and soap. I was feeling pretty hopeless and frustrated, and then I realized I hadn’t eaten in a very long time.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with four year olds lately. One thing I’ve noticed is that they often throw temper tantrums or become grumpy when they’re hungry. I decided this might be the case for me as well. I sat down, took a deep breath and counted to ten, like I’d been teaching Kamea to do. I decided that yes, I should eat something. I’d feel better on an empty stomach. I dug around in my smaller backpack and eventually fround two packets of peanuts from Southwest Airlines. That’ll do! I thought.
Halfway through my first packet, I realized they tasted….odd. They couldn’t be bad—I flew here in November, that’s not that long in terms of peanut shelf life. A couple chews later I had a two-part revelation. Part one: I did not fly Southwest Airlines to New Zealand. Part two: in March of2008, Southwest Airlines donated packets of peanuts that were close to expiration date to Silk Screen for our festival. I was eating peanuts that expired two years ago. As I contemplated this, pigeons gathered at my feet and began pecking at a couple that had dropped from my slippery hands. Each did the same thing. Peck at the peanut. Pick it up. Mull it over for a moment. Spit it out. Pigeons were literally spitting out my peanuts. They then went on to better things to eat like cigarette butts and other birds’ poop.
About an hour later I got a very bad stomach ache. I’m not sure of the cause—ingesting soap, glass, or ancient peanuts.