I didn’t want to tell Sarah, but secretly I didn’t mind Crowded House…but this wasn’t the time or place for truths like that. For her, hearing ‘Weather With You’ through the floorboards at 3am was a special kind of torture, and I certainly wasn’t wildly impressed myself. The flippys had got us again.
A New Years on Waiheke Island, north of Auckland, seemed a great idea. There would be sun, there would be friendly backpackers at our hostel to have a few vinos with, we’d see the wineries and generally swan around the island like ladies of leisure for a few days. Done. Sold. Tickets booked.
We went with a spirit of adventure. I packed highly unsuitable things like a large sunhat that cannot be folded, a tent even though we had booked hostel accommodation, tuna snacks that are messy and annoying at the best of times, several bikinis and hardly any warm clothes. (This need to pack silly things first manifested itself when I was 12 and insisted on carrying flippers up a mountain bush walk “just in case” we came across a suitable occasion for their use. No such occasion presented itself…).
The ferry crossing from Auckland to the island was choppy, because – as we and the rest of New Zealand’s North Island were about to find out – New Years 2011 would be a wet one. Aside from a mild dose of sea queasiness, and that queasiness that comes when tourists ask you for tips on your home country and realise you don’t know enough, we emerged on to the island unscathed. Our hostel promised relaxation amid native bush – sheer pleasure surely awaited us surely!
Our hostel host was a young kiwi; seemingly the essence of the laid-back, island hippy (requisite tan, bead dreadlocks and pantaloon pants all in place). He showed us to our room. A small smell of mould can always be overcome. In fact we mused: the musty smell reminded us of flatting days in Wellington. And the shared kitchen? Well, hostel kitchens are not known as bastions of hygiene and order but this one had particularly weird odour. Like pig…not pork, but actually pig…and was it coming from the fridge?
Shuffling slowly away from the fridge, something else was becoming clearer. None of the other guests were acknowledging us…in fact, we were struck by that unsettling feeling of ‘Did I turn invisible and not realise it?’ At one point, I stood for several minutes cooking in the kitchen, surrounded by a bunch of girls all dancing along to their iPods (occasionally one would shout ‘I Sexy Beast!) and not one of them made any sign that they realised I was there. Sarah and I retreated to our room, drank our gin, and pondered.
Over the next couple of days, amid awkward interactions, overheard conversations and desperate attempts to ignore that porcine smell in the kitchen, something became clear. This wasn’t a laid back hostel run by a hippy but a weird little sweatshop of foreign workers. The ‘guests’ were in fact hostel employees. All still-young backpacker types, in New Zealand on their working holidays. By day they were kitchen hands and waitresses, and in their downtime they worked at the hostel in exchange for cheap rent. A great deal for the ‘hippy’ owner- no wages to pay, and income from the rooms!
We overheard conversation after conversation about how many hours they’d worked and not got a break, how resentful they were about being moved into the camping site (fair point: it was pouring rain) so the ‘real’ guests could use the rooms. No wonder we felt like we’d crashed a private party- it was like walking into the staff kitchen of a poorly-run restaurant.
As the rain poured down, and ferries off the island were cancelled, we increasingly felt trapped on this sinister version of the New Zealand working holiday dream. The owner and his crew were not hippies at all, but ‘flippies’- fake hippies whose recycling bins overflowed with rubbish just as their pockets overflowed with the cash from ‘real guests’ like us, and the cohort of underpaid workers.
It was an unsettling feeling to realise that New Zealand’s famed tourism industry was staffed by underpaid foreign workers. It was equally disturbing to glimpse the version of New Zealand that these young foreigners were consuming. The hostel presented an image of NZ which was at least 20 years out of date. The music of Finn Brothers, along with Dragon and The Exponents, blasted 24/7 from the speakers. (Poor Sarah, whose workplace playlist is almost entirely Finn Boys, was driven slightly mad by this.) The DVD player showed ‘Once Were Warriors’ , and I wondered just what a quiet young German was making of her holiday in paradise when I walked passed her watching one of the film’s grisliest scenes.
On my final day on the island, the skies had cleared a bit and the mysterious piggy smell had gone. But, as I had a final coffee in town – served to me by a girl who I’d seen in the communal bathrooms that morning – I couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that all wasn’t right in this corner of one of New Zealand’s Fantasy Islands.