On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

Sustainable buildling and light habitats. to transform the act of building and rethink our relationship with living things.
Transition tales. towards an ethical, sustainable and united future.
Travel dispatches. discovering the world between solo journeys and life experiences.
Creative approach. photographic work and videos.

29 October 2016

Life and work in Fiordland

Spend the summer in Te Anau and working as a housekeeper and waitress.
Te Anau, Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand © Claire Blumenfeld
DISPATCH

Do not be fooled by appearances, the vast majority of the time in Te Anau, the weather is bad. Especially this year. According to locals, this summer is particularly bad. Since I arrived in October, I have seen a whole bunch of skies parading with incredible gray variations. I have experienced light rain, torrential rain, hail and even snow. I was cold, very cold, pierced by gust of wind to uproot the trees in the forest behind the campsite where I live. And sometimes, in fleeting moments, I saw the sun appear. It wasn’t quite the summer I expected. So when the sun finally deigns to show its nose, life takes on a different color.

Life in Te Anau is peaceful. The landscape that surrounds me with view of the lake and the mountains of Fiordland is a permanent delight for the eyes. The village is well located for access to hikes in the region or to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Queenstown, Invercargill. The main destinations in the area. Tourists are not too visible despite the fact that they make up 80% of the population. The small town which lives mainly on tourism, stretches along the shores of Lake Te Anau on the edge of Fiordland National Park. On one side, the sheep meadows. On the other, the mountains covered with New Zealand beech trees. The lake seems to mark the delimitation between civilization and wild life. In Te Anau, there are many hotels and campsites, a few restaurants including one called the Fat Duck, a bunch of tourist agencies selling cruises in Milford Sound and Doudtful Sound (the two main fjords in the area), a helicopter and seaplane offering hour-long flights at prices to make your eyes go out of your skull, a library with New Zealand’s best wifi and a tiny trout observatory. There is plenty to do. Unless you are a fan of nightclubs or nightlife. You won’t find that in Te Anau. I bought myself a cheap second-hand bike which I use permanently. It is my best friend. Except it creaks like hell when I pedal, but that’s okay. We stroll around when it deigns to be sunny for more than an hour, it takes me and brings me back from the restaurant where I work in the evenings and I use it to carry my bags of food when I go shopping at the only supermarket of the village. Life is beautiful.

Better not leave your food unattended in the West Arm kitchen. A second of inattention and your meal is gone, swallowed up by a couple of ravenous sparrows having made the kitchen their hunting ground. The lodge where I live since I arrived in Te Anau is located at the end of Lakeview Holiday Park campsite in a peaceful corner. Named West Arm after the name of one of the arms of Lake Manapouri, it is built in six blocks around a common space housing the kitchen and the lounge. The buildings are made of wood, slightly raised above the ground and surrounded by a whole bunch of shrubs and flowering plants. It is rural and pleasant to live in. The kitchen is a large room full of shelves, fridges, cookware and hot plates with windows and doors always open. Of course, it didn’t take long for the surrounding birds to understand that this is Alibaba’s cave. All the little sparrows in the area come to feed here. Their behavior is extraordinary. They learned not to smash against the windows and to enter and exit through open spaces. When one of the glass doors to the outside is closed, well they realize it! It is amazing to see them hopping in front of the door as if they were trying to make me understand that it has to be opened. And then they are there all the time, hopping around the room, pecking at all the abandoned crumbs, hovering over my head while I cook and uttering little cries that seem to say “Give me your crumbs”. Some campsite guests do not like the fact that the kitchen is full of birds. I think it adds charm to the place. Besides, it is fascinating to watch the behavior of these little birds.

It is the first time I live and work in a campsite. Before that, it would never have occurred to me that people could live permanently in a vacation space. For the record, the film crew and actors of The Hobbit, the second trilogy of Peter Jackson, stayed in the park, in the five-star block called Marakura, when they came to shoot in the surroundings, a few years ago . Living in the same place as the Hobbit team makes me feel happy! Most of the seasonal staff live in West Arm area. My little room is located in the block named Chalky, named after a small island in the south of New Zealand. The first time I entered my room, I thought it was old, small and not very clean. Then I cleaned up, put my things and got used to it. And the bed is comfortable. It takes little to be happy.

Self-service horse poop on the side of the road. For only two dollars you can get a big bag full of animal droppings to use as fertilizer for your garden. It is inexpensive, biodegradable and without chemical junk. Today it is beautiful weather. What a change compared to the last ten days of catastrophic weather. I take this opportunity to go for a bike ride around the village. The sign is on the side of the road behind the very small industrial area. Every day, the little boy from the nearby farmer collects with his shovel and wheelbarrow the droppings of the grazing horse in its small enclosure. The horse is very productive! I do not know if the business is profitable, but given the number of farms and gardens in the area, I think there must be buyers. Signs with fertilizers, vegetables or self-service farm products are everywhere in New Zealand. It reminds me of Japan where that was also the case. I am always amazed at the confidence people have in leaving their products unattended. In Te Anau, despite the hordes of tourists from all over the world, the locals do not tie their bikes or leave the doors of their house unlocked. This feeling of calm and confidence is very pleasant.

This morning I wake up at 8am, my mind a bit clouded with a dream I do not remember. I have barely thirty minutes left to prepare and eat a quick breakfast. I leave West Arm and cross the park in a light rain to reach the small office of the housekeepers team. The sky is covered. Lill, Veronica, Joy and Summer are already here as usual. I take a look at the breakdown of the teams. Again West Arm! For the past few weeks, I have spent most of my time cleaning West Arm. Big day ahead. Alex, Joy, Tim and I have fifty rooms to clean at West Arm (plus six bathrooms, one in each block, the kitchen and two lounges) and thirteen Standard Cabins to do. The other four teams are also full of work.

Alex leaves on foot while Tim, Joy and I embark on Grandma’s car, an old automatic car with its broken ceiling. We cross the park at reduced speed. As usual, Alex attacks by cleaning the bathrooms, which suits me, not being my favorite part. I go to the Bauza block and start to undo the beds in the bedrooms for which I have the key. Ten rooms are still occupied in my block. It is 9am, the occupants have until 10am to vacate the premises. I lend a hand to the others and we start to make the beds and clean the rooms. Making a room in West Arm is only supposed to take six minutes. Unless you’re a robot, this is rarely the case. The more the customer pays, the longer the cleaning time. In the five-star block, where the rooms are real studios, cleaning takes around 1.5 hours per room.

It is 10:30am, time for the sacred morning break. Fifteen minutes of rest in order to drink the inevitable tea and nibble on something to give me strength for what’s ahead. Of the fifty rooms at West Arm, we only made thirty. And the thirteen Standard Cabins await us. I have doubts about our ability to finish cleaning for 2pm, the time of check-in opening. Back in West Arm, I mop the bedroom floors with Archi the Elder, an old vacuum cleaner who doesn’t vacuum up much and has a knack for getting stuck in improbable places. We finish the last rooms and head off at full speed towards the Standard Cabins, leaving Alex to his bathrooms.

And here we go again. Unmake beds, redo beds, clean tables and windows and vacuum. An unalterable cycle. I have chapped hands that hurt because of the cold and the use of cleaning products. And my stomach is starving despite the morning break cereal bar. A ray of sun suddenly lights up the park and the atmosphere instantly changes. We manage to finish the thirteen Cabins for the meal break. Barely thirty minutes to swallow a quick meal. All the staff arrive in the West Arm kitchen to make sandwiches or reheat a previously prepared dish in the microwave. It speaks English, Czech and also French since Manu and Quentin arrived. I go back to the office where the teams change a bit to help those who still have rooms to clean. The check-in being at 2pm, there is barely half an hour left to finish everything. Supposedly. Most of the time the rooms are finished by 3:00p.m.

We return to West Arm. Tim helps Alex to finish the last bathroom while Joy and I clean the kitchen. It looks a little like hell on earth, with an endless number of dirty plates and cutlery not cleaned by customers. Despite the posters inviting people to clean and put away their dishes, posted everywhere, few people do. Once West Arm is finished, we go to Luxmore, another common space in the middle of the park. As in West Arm, the bathrooms, toilets, kitchen and lounge are to be cleaned. It is 3pm, we are the first to arrive, the kitchen is for us. The other two common areas in the park, Kepler and Coronation are being cleaned by the other teams. I sigh, tired and tired of having to clean another kitchen again. But it is like that. The first team to arrive at Luxmore begins with the kitchen. Thirty minutes later, Jordan, Quentin and Stephanie disembark. They just finished Kepler. They attack women’s bathrooms and toilets. Followed by Manu, Summer and Sarah who start on the cleaning of men’s bathrooms and toilets. Veronica, Natasha and Sophie arrive shortly after to clean the laundry, barbecue and spa. The day finally ends around 5pm. Last task, filling up the empty bottles with cleaning products. I record my hours on the time sheet. And I go back, a little exhausted, to my little room at West Arm.

The work is not very complicated. But it is not very extraordinary either. The days go by and are alike. The team is friendly without being extraordinary. In addition to daytime work at the park, I also work four to five evenings a week in the Kepler restaurant. The menu is mainly focused on fish and seafood with meat dishes and some Chilean specialties, the owner / chef being Chilean. The food is very good and the presentation of the dishes extraordinary. In return, the restaurant is full all the time and the pace is fast and tiring. But the work is interesting. This is the first time I have worked as a waitress in a restaurant and I really like it. The atmosphere is good, the team is pleasant, the food is delicious and the customers (most of the time) very friendly. The majority come from all over the world and it is always very interesting to discuss our respective journeys. I usually finish at 10p.m. Between my two jobs, I do not have time to do much. Time passes and the routine settles. A little too much for my taste. During my rest days, I usually wander around, squat the library’s wifi (the fastest in the country) and have lunch at Mile’s pies, a tiny store that makes the best filled pies in the area.

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