My friend Yoan and I arrive in Auckland in the wee hours of the morning after a hellishly long flight, three hours later than scheduled. Amazingly, in the arrivals hall, we spot someone holding a sign with our names on it. Merrit, who is from Estonia, has shock red hair and looks in need of a good wash and has actually stuck around to wait for us and take us to our hostel that Yoan has booked. She leads us to a battered old van and introduces us to Gabi in the passenger seat, an equally grubby Polish girl. We are bundled into the back of the van which has no seats so we have to sit on our bags and lean against a huge sign marked FRESH FRUIT FOR SALE. The dodgy little van sputters into life and we head off. After an hour at a steady pace of 30kmph we arrive in the darkness at what appears to be a derelict shack in some kind of farm in the middle of nowhere. Instead of going inside the shack we are shown to a shabby caravan in the garden which looks like it’s about to collapse. Inside is a questionably sized double bed with sheets that look like they’ve never seen the inside of a washing machine.
‘I take it we’re sharing.’ I glare at Yoan who is looking a bit sheepish. I should never have left him in charge of booking a hostel. We were miles from anywhere and probably about to either get murdered in our sleep or freeze to death in this stupid caravan. But we’re both too exhausted to care much about the sleeping situation and within minutes we’re passed out.
I wake up with Yo’s feet in my face. Through the ratty curtain I can see signs of life stirring around the caravan. Reluctantly I head outside to the main house, which looks only slightly less shack-like in daylight, and step into the kitchen where a group of people appear to be making breakfast.
‘Hi’ I say brightly.
‘Shoes!’ one of them barks at me.
I look down at my clean flip flops and red nail polish and then at the sea of bare, dirty feet in the kitchen but think it better not to protest. I grudgingly add my flip-flops to the pile of shoes by the door and try entering again, wincing as a potato peel squishes itself between my toes. I manage to locate Rafa, Gabi’s boyfriend and resident boss man of this hippy hell-hole (who seems, surprisingly, the most normal person here) and request a wi-fi code. I skulk out of the house, retrieving my flip-flops, and join Yoan who is sitting on a wooden swing looking shell shocked.
‘They don’t wear shoes’ I mumble. Yo puffs on his cigarette.
‘Have you seen the washing machine?’ he asks. ‘It’s by the vegetable patch. You have to sit on a bike and pedal.’ I look at him blankly. There’s no electricity, ’he explains.
‘How long did you book us in here for?’
I am contemplating all the different ways of murdering him when we are approached suddenly by a short, stocky, very hairy man who introduces himself as Lucio from Argentina.
‘Are you joining for parillo tonight?’ he asks. Yo and I exchange confused glances.
‘Parillo’ he repeats, rolling the r’s impressively. ‘Big barbecue down by fire pit. $6 each. You don’t want miss out, believe me.’
We have no food and no one has mentioned any supermarkets nearby so we hand over our money and Lucio grins and heads off, probably to hunt wild animals with his bare hands for the barbecue. Poor possums.
Back in the kitchen we attempt to socialise. ‘Oh you guy are just backpacking’, Annoying American Girl #1 says with a definite air of disdain. She nods at Annoying American Girl #2. ‘We’re WWOOFing.’
‘WWOOFing.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s, like, a totally enlightening, organic experience.’
‘Oh right’ I reply. ‘Did you know there’s a slug on your foot?’
That evening we discover the fire pit, located in the centre of the large camping area behind the house by the vegetable garden and a ramshackle treehouse. A huge circle of people are seated around it on a mish mash of furniture; old sofas, garden chairs and the occasional disembodied car seat. Lucio is in the centre, roasting giant slabs of meat over a pile of hot embers. The atmosphere is lively, a buzz of contented travelers who have somehow found themselves in this strange, tucked away place. Everyone is friendly and open and happy and I realize my first impressions may have been slightly off…
The next morning I head to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, flip-flops dumped outside. I’m starting to get into the hippy swing of things. At least I think I am until I make the fatal error of dropping my teabag into the general waste bin.
‘Worms!’ someone shrieks behind me. I am almost knocked over by Estonian guy with the worst mullet i’ve ever seen who dives into the bin to retrieve my soggy teabag. He holds it up triumphantly and drops it into a pot on the windowsill which, I now see, is marked WORMS.
‘Worms’ he repeats, grinning.
Apparently I’m still learning. But after a few days I realise that, actually, despite the cold, smelly caravan and the bare feet and the general lack of personal hygiene, this place might not be as bad as I thought. In fact, with each colourful new person I meet, each home-made shared meal I enjoy, each evening spent drinking a copious amount of goon and listening to people’s stories and experiences I finally have to admit it.
I absolutely love this place.