The Life of Lettuce

I’ve been in New Zealand for three months already. It’s just about the same amount of time that it takes lettuce to grow from clay-covered seed to the packaged form you see in the supermarket. By the time my seasonal work ends at Easter, I will be just a few days shy of seeing the seeds I planted my first day on the job be harvested.

During this life cycle of lettuce, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of little things on the rare days when I’m not living in a van.

  1. Floors! Duvets are common here, but mine isn’t 100% square. I haven’t quite figured out which direction the lines on my cover should be going, nor which direction makes the duvet fit in said lines. Do you know how lovely it is to have a floor where it can drape on the ground when freshly washed so I can figure it out instead of trying desperately to keep something longer than I am tall off the mud?
  2. If I get to have both soap AND running water to wash my hands, I’m practically dancing with giddiness.
  3. A proper sink where I can wash my dishes and feel more than vaguely optimistic that they are actually clean.
  4. A bed that is parallel to the ground. It seems like no matter how carefully I park, as soon as I lie down blood is rushing to my head, or I’m sliding to the bottom of the bed, or I wake up practically squashed against the side of my van.
  5. Speaking of lying down – it is really nice to be able to stand up when I’m getting dressed instead of writhing on my back trying not to lay on curtains or decapitate myself with the fairy lights strung across the ceiling.
  6. A shower with hot water that lasts more than seven minutes. It is an absolute luxury to linger after a long day!
  7. Walls! I’m doing physical therapy for my knees and need walls to sit against and know that my knees are in the right position.

Okay, that was fun, but I’m really here to talk about something a little more serious: the practicalities of doing a working holiday in New Zealand. I just got word that a dear friend from college will be arriving in May to start her own visa, and I’ve befriended a Redditor who just got to Christchurch to start his. So for them, and for the curiosity of other readers, here’s some important things to know when you get to this country.

The DON’Ts:

Two things I recommend you skip would be any sort of starter pack if you’re a reasonably competent human being (the address is nice, but that’s the only useful thing I’ve had from it), and an international driver’s license (you don’t need one if your license is in English).

 

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New Zealand Rail has some beautiful history

 

Phones:

You can walk into any phone store or hostel and get a travel SIM or generic prepaid SIM. Make sure that you have an unlocked phone though, if you bring your own from home! Spark and Vodafone are the two biggest networks. Word on the street is Vodafone has the better plans, but Spark has the better coverage. You can also go to the Warehouse and get a cheap phone/plan from there.

Money Money Money:

In order to work in New Zealand, you need an IRD. In order to get an IRD, you need a New Zealand bank account. In order to get a NZ bank account, you need an address.

No worries, dear friends! You can get an address from your hostel. Simply walk up to the front desk and ask for a letter for the bank. They’ll print off a piece on their letterhead that says you’ve been staying there which will be copied at the bank. If you can, set up an appointment in advance so that you don’t have to wander all over town finding a bank that can see you that day.

Now all you have to do is hop online and send off your IRD application. It takes about ten days, and you can opt to have them text you the number when it’s completed.

If you choose to start working before you have this number, you have two options. You can either have your pay withheld until the IRD has been completed, or you can still get money withheld at a higher rate. Most Working Holiday Visa-makers (hereinafter known as WHV) make under $48,000 and are taxed at 17.5%. If you don’t have an IRD or make too much money, you’ll be taxed at the highest rate of 33%.

 

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Dunedin, one of the oldest cities in New Zealand, and quickly becoming one of my favorites

 

But, bills?:

If you’re paying for things using your US credit card, TransferWise is your best friend. You have to make sure your Kiwi bank has verified your account (I literally walked in and asked instead of waiting the 30 days to prove I’m a real person), but after that the set up is pretty straight forward. Just make sure that you do a bank transfer instead of the default debit transfer to save yourself a few dollars!

Take note, though, my US cards struggle in New Zealand. I can get crazy discounts from shopping at PAK’nSAVE, but the petrol station won’t take either of my Visas, my Amex, or my Diner’s Club. If I use the Diner’s Club card at the supermarket, I have to swipe it and put in a PIN. Most places won’t take that though, so I have to use Visa chip and sign for it. New Zealand is all paywave, where you tap your card in front of the reader and the transaction is done… it becomes obvious I’m foreign when my card takes so long! Kiwis are astounded that the US just got chips a few years ago and that it isn’t even common to have a PIN on your credit card chip yet – they’ve moved miles beyond that technology by now.

Finding Work:

I really wish that I were a construction worker. They make bank here, especially in Queenstown and Christchurch. But it’s all good. I got connected with a staffing agency as soon as I got my IRD. We text back and forth throughout the week for various jobs – I call it the sampler plate of life. I’ve done a lot of housekeeping for a few businesses, a lot of waitressing for weddings, and a dishwashing gig. I know someone who got a job at the airport through them, working on the steamship, and they connected me with my lettuce job.

As I’m wrapping up this time in Queenstown, I’m not concerned. I’ll either find another staffing agency or hop into the kiwi/apple picking on the north island for a while. If you’re not looking for a permanent, full-time job, it’s super easy to find a job.

 

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I think this hostel is what backpacking was like 30 years ago: on your way to Stewart Island to find work, make sure to stay here the night before.

 

Living:

I’m actually the wrong person to ask about this as I’ve been contentedly hiding out at Twelve Mile Delta campground since I got here. New Zealand does rent by the week, so I fork over $65 every Sunday to the Warden for the privilege of a long drop toilet and not getting a $200 fine for freedom camping. I get a little cranky when Kiwis moan and complain about freedom campers, because they don’t realize that most of their complaints apply to all tourists living in hotels or vandwellers staffing their businesses. My coworkers tell me “Oh, but you’re not like them! You’re just living frugally!” I pay more for this spot of ground than I did for my first college apartment and I still pay for a gym membership so I can shower instead of jumping in the lake because there’s no public showers or sinks that you complain about. But I digress…

Queenstown is kind of astronomical. It’s a small town that literally doesn’t have room to grow with mountains on three sides and a lake on the fourth. But since everyone wants to live here (and Frankton is a decent hike away), I’ve known people that spend $175/week to share a bedroom with a complete stranger. The utter lack of privacy and skyhigh rent are enough to make me shudder away from trying to stay here over winter, but also most places demand multiple references from Kiwi landlords. Yeah, you can eventually get around that, but with a large bed in the back of my van and the freedom to roam, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’.

Van Life:

I love living in a van, I really do. And I’m madly in love with Goldie, but she’s not self-contained. Seriously, buy a self-contained (SC) van if you plan on living in it while working. Do it. If you’re just going to go on random weekend adventures and live in an apartment, you can get away with a nonSC vehicle and park in the middle of nowhere. But New Zealand is cracking down on backpackers parking anywhere outside of a DOC site where you pay $5-13 per person per night anywhere near a town.

As for stuff? Stop stop stop stop stop! Your backpack is full enough! Bring ONLY the bare necessities! If you’re buying a van, 99% of them come fully, fully, fully stocked with every bit of camping gear and cutlery and stoves and solar showers you could need. New Zealand is a first world country. The Warehouse is an even lower quality Walmart where you can get anything you need for dirt cheap. But there’s normal malls and stores, too. For online shopping, people use TradeMe (a bit like ebay) and Alibaba (Amazon doesn’t work very well here). You will be FINE, don’t bring so much stuff!

 

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Make sure and invest in some spices, and you can create delicious van meals to share with your new mates

 

Last thoughts:

  • Get WhatsApp. Seriously. Port your US number to Google voice, and then download WhatsApp using it. It is so much more efficient as a way to stay in touch with backpackers. Vodafone freaks out when sending pictures, group messages, or locations. But WhatsApp is clear and simple, and you’ll be able to stay in touch with the Germans, French, Argentinians, South Africans, Uruguayans, Brits, Pakistanis and Canadians you meet along the way. Everyone has their home number, so it won’t disappear at the end of the visa and you can stay in touch as they disappear to Thailand and Bali and Australia for a few weeks.
  • The Salvation Army (The Sally’s, as it’s called around here) is going to be your best friend. That and PAK’nSAVE for your cheap groceries.
  • Facebook groups are super useful for backpackers and local communities. Even if you have deactivated your facebook, make a new useless account just to be able to utilize those resources.
  • Be prepared for the politics talk. I’ve been traveling for over ten years and three presidents: you will be talked to in a drastically different way than you have in the past. During the ’08 election, people asked “Obama or McCain?” and then moved on from the conversation. In June 2016, nobody said a word to me about politics. They do here, they do now. You do not get to escape it here, and even if you try to stay below the radar, you will have Kiwis (and every other continent’s nations) ask you questions about the days news or current events in general. If you want to avoid that conversation, prepare ways to deflect in advance. Otherwise, just go in knowing that for the first time, people will want to know more about your country than which state you’re from and telling you where they’ve been/want to visit there.
  • Seasons – and daylight saving time! – are flipped. I started out 17 hours ahead of my mom. When we “fall back” next week (after y’all already sprung forward), it’ll be 19 hours difference. Momma, Skyping with you is getting difficult!
  • Solo travel: you’re only alone if you want to be. Social butterfly me is getting worn out from being around people so much. I’m taking a few days to wander by myself and recharge. Make sure you take care of yourself!

 

Whew! All three of you that read this massive list, well done! I’ve been having a hard time writing lately – I usually write best when I’m processing something, but life has been so even-keeled that I haven’t needed the outlet of late. So, sorry for the word dump rather than stories. Maybe Easter will change things 😊

 

Always,

Eliska

 

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