Manawatu-Wanganui is a region in the lower half of the north island, which spans all the way from the east coast to the west coast. It is named after the districts of Manawatu and Whanganui (which curiously, unlike the region, is spelled with an "h" in its name), which in turn were named after the exclamation "Ka tū taku manawa" ("My heart stands still") of Hau - the great Māori explorer - at the sight of the mouth of the Manawatu river, and the Māori term "Whāngā nui", which literally means "great harbour".
Ironically, neither Manawatu nor Whanganui are the biggest centres of population in this area. Instead, that title foes to a town by the name of Palmerston North, which houses a little more than 80,000 of Manwatu-Wanganui's 234,000 inhabitants. In comparison, Marton, the town where I'm staying, doesn't even have a population of 5,000. Nonetheless, it is still the 6th largest town of the region, and consequentially has two (!) supermarkets.
The first few days are rather lazy due to the weather being persistently rainy, but my hosts, and their kids soon show me the jobs around the farm, and I start making myself useful. This part of my adventure should - due to an unexpected turn of events - later become known as...
The Friendly Farmhouse Fail
This time, I'm staying with a family of four and their pets and livestock. My hosts are the easygoing Max Varney, who is only a few years older than me, and his middle-aged wife, the more austere Suzanne.
Their kids are Lennon, a spirited boy of almost 11 years, and Hazel, a tomboyish girl of 8 years. Both of them are home-schooled, meaning that they are at home all day round.
The two of them are not only enthusiastic minecrafters, who soon built their own place on my realm...
...but also find Ecchnasi quite fascinating...
...and soon get the entire family to play it.
The Varneys also have a pair of dogs and cats each, who are very much a part of the family. The dogs are a loyal male bolognese by the name of Floyd, and a playful female fox terrier named pup.
Unlike the dogs, which can frequently be encountered together, the cats usually go separate ways, the bigger one is an independent female named Mona, while the smaller one - also a female - is more domestic, and answers to the name of Kitty.
The Varneys have housed a good number of WWOOFers in the past, sharing their lives with them, and working together to make their little farm even more awesome. Now, it's my turn to help them out!
Max & Suzanne run a neat little family farm of about 8 acres. They generate their own power using a small wind turbine (though they are still connected to the power grid for those few windless days), and gather rainwater in huge tanks which they then use for drinking, cooking, and to water plants and animals. Not wasting anything, they use all sorts of organic refuse to fertilize their plants - there is even a couple of composting outhouses. In the summer, they often sleep outside the house in the tent or the yurt, while I get to stay in one of the indoor bedrooms.
Apart from the human inhabitants and their pets, this place is also populated by a large number of farm animals, the biggest of which would be Silky the cow, who provides us with fresh milk every day.
Staying in the bovine department, there's also Silky's frisky daughter Pretzel (Ever had a cow step on your foot? No? Lucky.), as well as two young calves, whom I like to call Spot and Arrow.
Next there would be the goats, of which we have three adult females, who get milked every morning while also receiving a nutritious breakfast snack...
...as well as a trio of goat kids, who often like to play "The Three Goateers" on their daily walks.
To finish up the ungulates, there are also three little piglets, who regrettably didn't built their house of stone, and as a consequence will most likely be looking into careers as bacon providers.
Continuing to the avians, there is almost two dozen chickens around (at least one of which is a rooster), that provide us with a daily supply of 10 or more eggs. They live scattered all around the farm, ans sometimes even try to steal food from the poor goats!
Then, there's also a flock of ducks around, some of which had their wings clipped. They come in a range of different colours from black over grey and brown, all the way to pure white, and while the pure whites all had their wings clipped, and subsequently stay in their paddock, the others frequently turn up at our front perch, and bless us with their special duck songs.
We also have a mated pair of goose, who are quite protective of their nine chicks. They show no fear whatsoever, and even chase the cow Silky away when she gets too close to their little protégés.
By now you're probably thinking that that's already a lot of animals to have around, but wait: There's more! Across from the house, a tiny little manor provides a luxurious perch for a flock of carrier pigeons, which in this day and age are purely ornamental.
There's so much to do here on the farm, that I don't often leave the premises, but when I do, it might be for a visit to the town...
...or to visit one of the parks with the kids...
...and maybe go on a little treasure hunt with them.
Overall, the landscape is quite tranquil. Most of it grazing land for cows...
...or the ever-prevalent sheep...
...but occasionally, there is also the odd field of wheat, across which specks of sunlight filtering through the clouds can be seen racing.
With so much variety of livestock on the farm, as well as a number of gardens and orchards, there's a lot to do. My daily routine beings at around 7'o clock, when I get up to feed the ducks and chickens. Occasionally, the rooster provides the stereotypical wakeup call, but either way, I manage to get up on time and hand out their bowls of feed to them.
Interestingly, the pigs get fed the same mush as the avians - only their portion is usually augmented by a scoop of sour milk, as well as leftovers from dinner.
Afterwards, it's time to prepare the next day's portions by mixing the dry food with a good amount of whey that naturally accrues as a side product of Suzannne making cheese. One of the biggest challenges here is keeping the ducks from nibbling away at the acidic-smelling mixture.
Next, it's time for me to collect the eggs. Doing so involves walking to the far side of the property, past the goats, pigs, geese (watch out for these!) and calves, and raiding the hen house. Beign the fox that I am, I particularly enjoy this part of my day, although I have to content myself with only the eggs. But oh well, that's nice too. It's 10 eggs a day for me on average, though sometimes the kids manage to find a couple more which the chickens had hidden all over the farm. It's like an all-year-round Easter Egg hunt!
Another typical morning job is feeding and milking the goats. Suzanne usually does this since Max is away at work in the morning, milking cows. However, on one occasion I am allowed to try myself at milking goats as well, and while I diligently work at filling up the bucket, a number of creatures are watching prospectively, hoping to get a little bit of the delicious white fluid.
After that, the next thing in line is feeding the goat kids. This usually is a task that Lennon, Hazel and I do as a team: Lennon usually fills the bottles, Hazel holds up the kids, and I feed them - although occasionally, we shuffle the tasks to keep things more interesting. The kids are naturally fed fresh goat milk, watered down to stretch it for the three of them, and although they already consume their fair share of the nostalgic greenery around, they are not quite weaned yet.
After that, it's usually around 10'o clock, and time to have a hearty breakfast. Max usually returns from his first shift around that time, and stays around for a couple of hours before departing again on his afternoon shift.
Apart from the morning routines, I also work in the afternoon for a couple of hours. Among other things, there's planting and mulching garlic with the kids...
...mulching more garlic...
...under the watchful eyes of a feline observer...
...as well as cutting grass with a sickle aaand (guess what)...
...using it to mulch up young fruit trees! I get the feeling that there's generally a lot of mulching up to do in the spring. But that's alright. After all, the summers here can get quite hot, and all that mulch keeps the plants from drying up.
On one of the days, we make a trip to a local sawmill to pick up a big load of sawdust to use for additional mulching, and also to freshen up the floor spread in the goat's paddock. Pup is coming with us, and she's quite excited about the trip.
Eventually, I also get a shot at milking the cow, Silky, and although I certainly cannot match Max's pace, he is pleased enough with me that he allows me to help him with milking the following days. We're rewarded with a nice bucket of fresh milk.
After a week at this place, I feel that the farm life is growing onto me, and am quite looking forward to more of it.
In the evening, after the second return of Max, we have dinner, which due to mysterious circumstances is called "tea" in this house. Usually either Max or Suzanne cooks up something yummy on the wooden stove...
...and then we eat it together as a family.
The available food around here is usually some combination of eggs, minced meat, vegetables, bread and cheese, all home made...
...which is usually quite delicious. On one of the days, we might have totally-not-Fleischpflanzerl (they've got not meat in them)...
...an on another we have tacos with creative toppings.
And I, in turn, bake them some of my delicious chocolate chip cookies (Hazel even asked me for the recipe), as well as a luscious cheese cake.
Oh, and speaking of baking utensils:
That's not a knife...
THAT is a knife!
Apart from the two shared meals each day, all members of the household are encouraged to prepare their own snacks when they get hungry. For me, that usually means cutting off a few slices of the delicious home-made bread (normally, you can't get proper bread in New Zealand, only white bread) and garnish it with a bit of home-made cheese or honey obtained from a local old couple.
Altogether, the food is quite good in here, and certainly beats having cooked vegetables and rice all the time. I can already tell that I'm going to miss the hearty meals here when I move on to the next place, and spare no efforts to let Max and Suzanne know that much.
Even without leaving the farm, there's of amusing situations that occur as a result of the animals' antics. Take this example of a chicken and a goat fighting over their food. Guess which of them needed my help in the end?
And there certainly is something relaxing about watching a cat lolling about in the sunlight.
Meanwhile, observing a spider catching and mummifying a mosquito may seem gross, but I personally find it weirdly satisfying to know that one of those parasites that tried to feed on me has ended up becoming lunch instead.
And if you're up to it, you can participate in the afternoon activity of the thrilling and heart-stopping X-Treme Goat Feeding.
Sometimes the cats like to play hide and seek. Can you find the cats hiding in the following pictures?
It's a little bit easier when they're moving:
Trying to work? Well, I hope canine spectators are welcome!
And when it's not the animals, it's the kids getting up to all sorts of mischief.
Sometimes they even get reinforcements in the form of their friend Levi.
Conveniently, there's also a bike at my disposal for when I want to make shipping trips or explore the surrounding area. The brakes are approximately one step up from "non-existent", but hey, who needs brakes?
On one of the days I take a bike trip all the way across the Rangitikei River (not to be confused with the Rangitaiki River)...
...and visit the Manawatu district...
...where I find some curiously packaged Geocaches.
The way back home proves difficult. Not only do I have to face a steep slope (come to think of it, these signs on the way down should probably have given me pause)...
...but also gales so fierce that I barely make any progress even in the lowest gear. I don't even need the brakes on the way back, since all I have to do is to stop pedalling for 3 seconds, and the howling winds not only bring me to a standstill, but also make me change direction. When I finally arrive back at the Varneys' place, I am completely beat, and happy to relax to some X-Treme Goat Feeding. It was a fun trip, but from now on, I'll make sure to remember not to cycle on windy days.
So far, I am perfectly happy. I have settled down to nice daily routine, and get along with both the people and the animals of this farm. The kids absolutely loves me, and Max frequently tells me what a great job I'm doing, and how good it is to have me here.
However, all this changes one faithful morning when Max tells the kids: "I think you should feed the goats without Kira today. We've got something to talk to him about."
My ears perk up at that. I don't need a human-fox dictionary to know that this spells "Trouble" with a capital "T". It's about the equivalent of having your mother call you by your full name, including the middle name. I don't know what it is they want to talk to me about, but I'll try to mentally prepare myself for it as good as I can.
I have only a couple of seconds to go over potential scenarios in my head as I walk up to Max, tail held high. I'm not a kit who is afraid of being scolded any more. I'm a grown fox, and whatever it is that Max and Suzanne wish to speak to me about, I'm sure we can settle it like proper adults.
Naturally, I am completely wrong, for the thing they want to speak to me about is not a complaint or a scolding. It's a sentence.
"So Kira, I'm going to drop you off at Bulls today," Max begins, still maintaining his cool and casual tone of voice. "I'm sorry, pal, but Suzanne and I've been over this, and it's simply not working out for us."
I haven't gone through decades of mobbing and mental cruelty without picking up a couple of emergency response patterns for certain situations, and one of them kicks in right now. My face assumes a neutral-friendly look that doesn't let any of the intense feelings I experience right now filter through. It's one of the masks I have grown used to wearing, and although I don't need that one often, it has served me well on many accounts.
Experiencing the situation from a safe distance away, I patiently listen to the things that Max and Suzanne have to say to me, while making my own comments silently in my inner monologue. I've lived with humans for long enough to know that trying to talk back in a situation like this is pointless, so I figure I'll just carefully analyse the situation while they do the talking.
One of their points is that they don't feel like I participate enough in their lives, and don't get enough work done. This statement instantly makes me recall two things:
1.) Their profile on the WWOOFing page, which proudly states "We don't count hours. Work is enjoyable and relaxed....." and
2.) The many times that Max has praised my work thus far, making me feel really appreciated.
Another thing they criticise is that they feel I'm not showing any interest in their way of life, which I find completely absurd, since I've frequently asked them questions about various farm-related things, and learned so much during the 12 short days I spent with them already. What's worse, being a fox, it truly hurts being accused of displaying a lack of curiosity, and being wrongly accused of it only adds insult to injury.
The next point on the schedule is me being uncomfortable with the cold. I might have mentioned it already, but New Zealand houses a poorly insulated, and rarely have radiators installed. How fortunate, then, to have wooden stove that keeps the place reasonably warm, right? Only they don't keep it running every day... or when it gets cold. Still, I'm a tolerant fox, and accept that these people may have different values. I only bring up the subject a few times, never actually complaining about it, but rather, making jokes about it, mentioning it as part of a discussion about the weather, or asking a question in the process. I eventually learned that their supply of firewood is limited, which is the reason why they have to use it sparingly, and that's something I can relate to - after all, I, too, travel on a limited budget - so I tried not to bring it up any more. However, it appears that the few light brushes we had with the topic were still too much, since it has obviously made it onto their "reasons to kick Kira out"-list. Oh well. I make a mental note to crank up the mindfulness-meter from "Eggshell", to "Soap Bubble", and prepare myself for the next part of the tirade.
The next point they have is about me not liking the food. It's really hard to maintain my mask at this point, since my inner self just goes "WHAT?!?!". Sure, I haven't been particularly happy with cooked vegetables being added to perfectly good fried eggs and minced meat, but I'm pretty sure I never said anything about it. The two mistakes I appear to have made, however, was mentioning that I prefer their delicious home-made cheese raw, not grilled (but boy did I ever bubble-wrap that one in compliments to the tasty cheese), and telling them of the home-made pancakes with strawberry jam that my grandmother used to bake. For some reason, they must have taken this the wrong way, and are now holding it against me.
By now, any other person would probably be fed up and start arguing back. Not me, however. I've analysed enough of the situation by now to realize that talking to them is useless, so I patiently wait for the next thing they have to say to me.
Now, this one's a good one. Surely you remember me mentioning how the kids enjoy playing Minecraft with me? Well, it wasn't me who introduced them to the game, but rather their friend Levi. Even before I came to the Varney's place, they had a system in which they kids got one hour of Minecraft time each day for free, and could earn up to a second hour by performing various tasks around the house. It was wildly successful, and the children constantly kept asking their parents for jobs they could do to earn Minecraft time. They vacuumed the floor, helped with the dishes, and did other little tasks, and were rewarded for their work, while the parents got their workload alleviated. Eventually, however, they abolished the system, fearing the kids would spend too much time in front of the screen. That was also one of their reasons for sacking me, namely that they found it too difficult to keep the kids away my screen. It should be noted at this point that the kids barely - if ever - watched me play Minecraft outside their allocated time frames, and only occasionally peeked over my shoulder to watch me work on the Chronicles of Ceal. Also, I had chosen my workspace in a position where the kids literally had to climb behind me to watch, so the possibility of them watching without me noticing is also right out. It adds a nice touch to the situation that the "too much screen time"-approach did not stop Max and Suzanne from allowing the kids to watch a good number of the Star Wars movies on their computer during my stay (each of which was significantly longer than the kids' normal daily Minecraft time). Why would they be opposed to having the kids play something on the computer or watch someone do work on it, while simultaneously being open to them mindlessly watching movies on it? Truly, the human mind works in mysterious ways...
In the end, it boils down to them not being happy with me, and when they mention that they feel I'm not happy here either, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Sure, after 29 years, you'd think I'd finally gotten used to humans not being able to properly read me, but it just keeps surprising me every single time. Me not being happy here? These last weeks have been the best time I've ever had since coming to New Zealand! And yet they insist on their faulty assessment of me being discontent with this place, and try to sell my sacking as an opportunity for improvement. Yeah, right. I don't think I'll find a place I've felt so much at home with as this farm for a long time - maybe never.
With all that being said, they finally stop talking and even ask me to tell them how I perceive the situation. But really, at this point, I know there's nothing I can say or do that will make them change their mind. The decision is made, and now they expect me to accept it, maybe apologize, or maybe throw a tantrum so they have an even better reason to kick me out.
Well, they'll not get any of that from me. Instead, I give them a homeopathic dose of my mind, and point out the most significant inaccuracies in their assessment, namely that:
1.) I really like living here with them
2.) I learned a lot of things on the farm
3.) I absolutely enjoyed the delicious food
...and most importantly...
4.) I worked for an average of 4.5 hours every day, inculding weekends (the WWOOFing norm is only 28 hours per week)
There is some more pointless talk after that. Previous statements are being repeated, condolences are vocalized, and counterpoints are made, but it doesn't matter. I feel crushed and betrayed inside, and I don't think I can take much more of this. Maybe the one thing that hits me the hardest about this is the fact that they agreed to keep me until Sunday, and are now going back on their word. I feel like lying down on my bed and crying - but not having a bed or a room anymore, I am forced to hold the tears back. So I quietly leave the room and start packing up my things. Halfway through the process, Hazel comes in and tries to cheer me up. We start talking, and before I know it, my backpack is fully packed. I check around to make sure I didn't forget anything, and in the process come across Lennon, who sits cowering in a chair in the living room. His parent's decision to sack me has hit him hardest of all, and when I give him a final hug prior to my departure, he doesn't care to let go anymore.
I don't want to let go either. Too much has this place grown dear to me. But the decision is not mine to make, and there's nothing I can do at this point. It is with great sadness in my heart that I finally enter Max's car, and leave this wonderful place behind.
All things considered, I really liked this place. It might not have been perfect, but the good things significantly outweighed the bad. I had a comfortable bed in a single room, and although it sometimes was cold, the times when the wooden stove was burning were cosy and warm. The food was quite tasty, and while it was not the best I've ever eaten, it was still a good cut above many of the things I had been served here before. The atmosphere was great, and even though the children were bickering some of the time, I generally enjoyed having them around. I also liked spending time with the animals, and while the final sacking certainly did put a bummer on things, I still quite enjoyed it here. There was a shower, and even a bathtub, a washing machine... maybe no drier or dish washer, but hey, there was unlimited WiFi, and that's a great thing! And finally, even though there wasn't much sightseeing to be done around, I definitely enjoyed being able to ride a bike again for the first time in over a month. So yes, I'm definitely going to miss this place.
I was planning to draw a family picture of them and give it to them, as well as whip up a little Ecchnasi game board for Lennon and Hazel, but unfortunately, being kicked out like that robbed me of the opportunity to do so. Oh well...
The Road Beyond
Max eventually drops me off at a small motel at the edge of Bulls...
...where I get a tiny little cabin to stay until Sunday.
My next stay is already booked, and I have already purchased my bus ticket. It was all planned for me leaving on Sunday.
And now I'm stranded here, crushed and betrayed, all alone on the far side of the world.
I guess it could be worse.
After all, now I have plenty of time to work on my blog, and the Chronicles of Ceal, and although there isn't much to explore around here, I'm sure I'll be able to find a number of Geocaches wandering around.
And so, I try to banish despair from my heart, and make juice out of this lemon life has served me. Only time will tell whether I'll succeed.