Oamaru & the Search for Christmas

My sister & I have recently returned from 14 months on BUNAC's Work New Zealand programme and have been reflecting on many of our experiences, good and bad. One thing that we did learn from our trip was that whenever anything bad happened, it was always followed by an amazing experience that may otherwise never have occurred, and we have returned home determined never to be too downhearted at a bad experience, but to start searching for the silver lining that will inevitably follow.

One very good example of this was our search for Christmas last year. We were a bit blasé about arranging work over the Christmas period in advance as we had recently finished a 2-month job and were enjoying a little road trip, so we didn’t give it the attention it deserved until it was too late, forgetting that employers wouldn’t want to hire casual workers so close to Christmas and New Year as they would have to pay them lots of holiday pay.

Eventually we realised that we wouldn’t find paid work so moved to ‘damage limitation’ mode and searched for a WWOOF instead. We had participated in several WWOOFs in NZ and had accumulated many good memories from time spent with our WWOOF hosts so it was with high expectations we set off on a very wet drive from Christchurch to Oamaru to meet Peter & Glenys.

I think it is fair to say that from the moment we arrived at their house we had bad vibes about our Christmas home. We parked on the drive of a lone house surrounded by some beautiful countryside and headed in to say hello. It wasn’t immediately obvious which side was the main entrance so we walked around the front and knocked. Glenys appeared, opened the door and without a smile or word of welcome told us to enter from the other side – well hello to you too! A rather awkward introduction followed, then we were shown into our rooms to settle in before dinner, which was yet another uncomfortable occasion: Glenys made a huge show of us helping with dinner, which we always did without fail, then we witnessed a little ‘discussion’ of whose recipe they were using for dinner “well, if you’re going to cook it your way, you can scrape the burnt bits off the bottom”, before we were served the most tasteless meal we had eaten in New Zealand – I can only describe it as sawdust with a little sauce. To make polite conversation I commented on the sauce, only to be told that they eat it with every cooked meal. Suddenly I wasn’t looking forward to my Christmas day meal! After dinner we sat with them in the living room while they had a communal teeth-flossing session, then we made our excuses and retired for an early night.

I sat in my room for a long time after that, unwilling to unpack much of my stuff as I didn’t want to stay, and unable to sleep as I was desperately trying to think of a way to leave, a tricky point as we were low on funds and knew it would probably be about 10 days before we could find paid work. The following morning I called Su into my room and asked her how we were going to escape, but she wanted to give them another chance as she felt perhaps her tiredness had contributed to the atmosphere the previous day. At this point I broke down into tears, sobbing frantically that I didn’t want to spend Christmas, my Birthday and New Year in a house of no love and no joy. However, her enthusiasm for allowing them a second chance waned as we joined them for breakfast and asked Glenys what we could do to help, only to be advised that she was preparing their breakfast, with no mention of what we could eat.

By the time we had witnessed another uncomfortable exchange between them, had a tour of a badly organised property and been set to work spreading seaweed around trees and spraying trees with essential oils to rid them of black spot, Su was in full agreement with me. We had never felt so uncomfortable and so unwelcome. The question was how to get out, as despite everything we didn’t want to hurt their feelings by being brutally honest. In the end we spun them a story about our parents sending us some money to indulge in a little luxury over the festive period and tried to keep a straight face as Peter explained that he understood and that many of their WWOOFers had to leave at short notice! We finished our morning’s work, threw our stuff in the car, said our goodbyes and drove off, collapsing at the bottom of their drive in hysterics.

Before we could start thinking about what we were going to do next, we had to find some food as we were both starving, so we drove back into Oamaru, found a little cafe and here we stumbled upon our silver lining. The waitress, Mandy, asked about our plans for Christmas and we briefly explained that we had no idea after a very bizarre 24 hours, and she immediately offered us a caravan at her house, free of charge, while we sorted ourselves out.

Then another lady, Joy, piped up from behind us that she couldn’t see her family this year for various reasons and wasn’t particularly looking forward to Christmas alone, but we could make her Christmas if we joined her! Aware that we needed to eat some food and think this over, she left us her address and invited us around once we had made up our minds. So an hour later we appeared on her doorstep to ask if she meant it and after offering to help with food, gardening and her electricity bill we were welcomed in to a warm, comfortable, loving environment.

We ended up staying with Joy, a.k.a. our Fairy Godmother, for a week over Christmas, and it was a perfect Christmas, despite being so far from our family and friends. Joy provided us with a lovely safe home, found a Christmas tree for us to decorate, put on some Christmas tunes for us to sing along to and shared everything she could with us unreservedly – even free minutes on her phone and internet so that we could phone and email friends and family. We had a car and were able to take her out to see the Little Blue Penguin and Yellow-Eyed Penguin colonies in Oamaru and also to the Vanished World Centre and corresponding fossil trail that she had never done, despite living in the area for a long time. We also helped her with her garden, and between us we planned and prepared for a Christmas day feast mixing British and Kiwi traditions.

We discovered from several people in Oamaru that our WWOOF hosts had a reputation for ‘losing’ WWOOFers after only a few days, and we also had at least another 2 offers of a bed over Christmas from complete strangers we met in town, proving that the famous Kiwi hospitality is not a mere rumour, and that Oamaru is quite possibly the friendliest place in NZ. But most of all we shall always remember our NZ Christmas with a warm glow as one where we found love and kindness in an Intercity bus café, from a stranger who became a friend.

Check out BUNAC's Work New Zealand Essentials package - your ticket to spending Christmas in New Zealand!