Facing Fears On My First WWOOFing Assignment

I used to be irrationally afraid of spiders.  I was infamous for scrambling on the highest piece of furniture to avoid any potential contact with even the littlest arachnid.  I’d like to think I’ve gotten better.  I can squash the little guys without too much anxiety or hesitation and have become rather skilled in keeping my cool. 

I can handle the outdoors.  I don’t get too freaked out with bugs.  I can be caked in dirt and not feel the instant need to bathe.  I can pee outside and not wash my hands.  I’ve been a city girl for a while, but I don’t mind embracing the dirt and grit of nature.  I was fairly certain I could handle anything New Zealand could throw at me.  They don’t even have any terrifying mammals or deadly snakes.  So it’s with great embarrassment I have to report I’ve immediately reverted to my old spider fearing ways.

Let me back up.  After I bought my car, I left Auckland and began my trip with a WWOOFing host in the Northland.  The host owns 40+ acres of land and the self-developed property is completely off the grid.  This means compost toilets, solar panels, rain collected water, and homegrown vegetables.  

Using the toilets turned out to be especially stressful for me. In the toilet room, he had specified one toilet for liquids and one toilet for solids.  Under no circumstances should paper ever be thrown into the liquids-only toilet.  Easy enough right?  Unfortunately, peeing in one toilet and throwing the paper in another is completely unnatural to me (and most women?) and even when I concentrated my hardest, I’d space off for one second and I had caught myself dropping the paper into the urine-filled abyss, never to be seen again.  I’m mortified to say I tried more than once to fish out toilet paper from the wrong toilet.  I’m so ashamed. 

The house is what I imagine Dr. Suess would build if Dr. Suess did (more?) drugs.  Maze-like hallways, staircases to nowhere, hidden bedrooms, tiny crawl spaces.  The house is genius really and you can tell he’s put a lot of thought and work into it.  It seems if he had more time to devote to the house (which he really doesn’t, to be fair) it could be a very cool place.  

There’s one glaring issue with the house I couldn’t quite look past:  it’s infested with spiders in every corner of the house.  No big deal right?  New Zealand only has one type of poisonous spider found in the remote sand dunes in the South Island.  The species is also endangered, so best not to squash it if you come across it, but the odds of you encountering it at all are pretty slim.  The spiders in this particular house are not poisonous.  I know this.  I know they cannot cause me any physical harm and yet I can’t sleep at night because this monster looms over me.

My bunkmate, Beelzebub, is a real asshole.

My bunkmate, Beelzebub, is a real asshole.

WWOOF is an organization that unites organic (or organic-ish) property owners with travelers who can provide some labor in exchange for accommodation and usually food.  It’s a pretty neat set up and has worked out for many people.  This is the first time I’m trying WWOOFing and since it seemed to be popular in New Zealand, I wasn’t too worried about jumping right in.  

This particular experience was far from typical.  The host built the property with his now ex-wife and raised his three children there for many years.  Without getting into too many details, he’s currently navigating a sticky divorce and a cross-ocean custody battle which is enough to make even the most level-headed person mad.  To cope with the stress, he channels all of his energy into building expansive and intricate Lego lands.  Good idea, right?  Good to have something to focus on during tough times.  For my host, this has become his safe haven to zone out  which is fine except it kind of makes him a terrible host.  He spend most of his free time with the Legos and seems very closed off to conversation.  I was able to engage in conversation with him a few times, but he never seemed really present.  It seemed like he always had something else on his mind, understandably so.  His second favorite activity seemed to be smoking weed and walking around the house, making lists of things he should do eventually.  He invited a few friends and their young kids from Auckland to spend a night in his house and immediately neglected them, unable to make conversation.  

He had one flatmate who has three children of his own.  They were all friendly enough.  The kids were fascinated with my accent and were just sure they had seen me in a movie before.  They later conceded that perhaps they thought this only because of my accent.  Neither my host nor his flatmate seemed to have much for me to do.  My duties included sifting through boxes of junk and sorting it into neat little piles in the corner where they would inevitably be mixed up again in a few months time.  The flatmate did ask me to plant some things and when I asked what exactly he wanted to be planted, he responded with “whatever you think would be good.”  This non-directional instruction made me incredibly anxious.  I felt guilty for not contributing a lot to the house but at the same time didn't know what exactly I should be doing.  

Hare Ma means Welcome in Maori.

Hare Ma means Welcome in Maori.

I guess since I’ve never WWOOFed before I can’t say exactly how a typical experience would go, but it’s hard for me to imagine the setup is having the WWOOFer clean and cook for the household while no one else does anything.  I guess that’s not entirely fair: the flatmate did work outside a bit, but the host only played with Legos.  I felt weird about doing his laundry and cooking him meals when he was just sitting in other room all day, every day.  

At one point, I mentioned to the flatmate I’m happy to help if he needs it to which he replied “There’s always something to do around here.  You could always clear out the cobwebs.”  To which I responded (internally) with a “HELL NO.”  Under no circumstances will I be the one to displace these content little spider communities.  

Every day I would wake up in my bed and take inventory of my resident spiders.  Beelzebub, the monster at my feet, luckily never showed much motivation for leaving his web.  I had a few more on the ceiling, but they were less terrifying to me because they had long skinny legs and tiny little bodies, which for some inexplicable reason terrifies me less.  (Easier to crush, perhaps?)  Only when I’ve confirmed all spiders are where they should be would I exit my sleeping bag.  There’s no way in god’s green earth I would disrupt their happy homes, causing them to move to locations unbeknownst to me.  Also, if I destroy their delicate homes, the first person they are going to retaliate against is their destroyer.  I’m almost certain of it.  They will come in droves and they will enter all of my bodily crevices until I have spiders seeping out my pores until I die.  This is a legitimate fear. 

Still there...

Still there...

But, part of the beauty of travel is overcoming stupid, irrational fears that make no sense whatsoever.  Comfort is the enemy that makes us lethargic and repetitive.  Maybe at the end of my stay I’ll be as comfortable as the Kiwis in the house, who watch a little spider crawl across the kitchen table and continue eating their meal as if nothing even happened.  Maybe I’ll embrace that harmony of live and let live.  Or maybe I’ll be totally consumed by angry spiders.  Could go either way, really.  (Editor note:  this was written before I left the WWOOF house and I can confirm I most definitely never got comfortable with them) 

The views were undeniably beautiful though.

The views were undeniably beautiful though.

After five days, I told my host I was probably going to continue on with my travels.  I hadn’t really set any timeline but was planning on being there longer than a few days.  My host was going back to Auckland where he worked as a tattoo artist 5 days a week to help payout his ex in the divorce.  The flatmate’s kids were going back to their mom’s house to finish out the school year.  I wasn’t very keen on spending more days in a very remote area with almost no human interaction so I decided I’d continue on, much to the surprise of my host.   It was an odd beginning to my year and despite the oddities, I’m nonetheless grateful to my host for taking me into his home, sight unseen, and deeply sympathize with his current situation.

Up next:  The quiet and often forgotten Northland. 

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