Setting off at dawn, I drove past foggy vineyard hillsides and over one-lane bridges whose end I could not see. Did they consider thick fog when they built all these one lane bridges? My next host, Craig, and I had not arranged what time I should show up, so I figured earlier was better than later. I rolled into Thames (pronounced “Tim’s” like the river in London) around eight and found the hostel, which I recognized by the website picture. It was reportedly the oldest building in town. It certainly looked old, built in a traditional New Zealand colonial style. Old-timey black and white photos of the facade with horses tied up lined the walls as I walked to the office.
“Hi, Craig?” I said as I saw a guy behind the desk with a goatee, looking to be in his early thirties. He looked at me with a “Yeah, who are you?” kind of face. “I’m Trevor, from HelpX.” “Ah, bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting you yet. Most wwoofers don’t show up until the afternoon, get a free night’s stay. Well, let’s get you all sorted.”
He gave me a quick tour of the first floor, taking me back to the kitchen to meet Dan, who was also working there. Dan was a big bald English guy with a thick accent. He was pretty chipper for that time of the day. I never figured out why, but half of the time his face had the eagerness of Christmas morning written on it. I also met Craig’s mom, Cheryl, who lived on the first floor of the hostel. I thought a mother-son hostel running team was kind of strange, but I guess it works for them (Mom, sorry but don’t get any ideas). Craig walked me through the lawn to a little single-story house next door where he lived. I got settled into my back room while Dan ate breakfast.
Soon we were three men standing outside with our arms folded, squinting in the sun up at one side of the old building. Dan and I were both here for one purpose: to repaint the building...the whole thing. Craig had told me he had a little painting work, but I didn’t imagine it would be this big of a job. The building was about thirty feet high and probably twice as long with wood panel siding. Craig wanted us to sand everything, fill all gaps and holes, and give it two coats of paint, not to mention the detail work around all the windows, balcony, and fire escape ladders. This was going to be a lot of painting...
Dan had already been here for a few days, so he was familiar with the place and took us out back to get the equipment. “Ah, mate, I sure’m glad to ‘ave some ‘elp.” I soon learned that nearly everything he said started with “Ahhh, maaate...” We started sanding away and traded information on each other. Dan had previously worked on trains in England and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with himself, so he was on a working holiday in New Zealand, maybe immigrating. It was comforting to find out I can still do this when I’m 32! That’s plenty of time to play around. He came to Thames for a little while to get out of Auckland, where he had been washing backpacker rental vans by day and living in an apartment building with Chinese chefs by night.
We worked on through the day, stopping for lunch around 1 p.m. This stay was a bit different from others I had done because meals were not included. Craig certainly wasn’t going to cook for us, and Cheryl figured we would rather do our own thing, so I went out for lunch. They also wanted Dan and I to keep track of our hours so we could get proper remuneration (yes, Cheryl said that) for any labor over 4 hours a day. Also I got weekends off, or any two days of the week I chose. I decided to take off the very next day, since it was the first annual New Zealand Blues Fest.
Like most of things in New Zealand up to this point, going to the Blues Fest was not well planned, I just heard about it and decided to go (although I was strategically positioned nearby). I drove along the winding coastal road towards Whitianga (fit-ee-on-guh) that Saturday morning. My side of the road had only a few feet between the car and the water, no guardrail. It was comforting to cut into the peninsula on the twisting, steep, narrow gravel road after that. I waited in a line of cars and bought my ticket from a tent near the entrance. Luckily they weren’t sold out like Cheryl said they would be.
It was shaping up to be a long hot day in the sun. I slathered on sunscreen and donned my Indiana Jones hat. Despite the sign that said no cameras, I walked in with my big camera bag unchecked. Score. I wish more concerts were like that. They had the typical festival tents selling beer, fried food, giant bubble wands, hemp necklaces, etc. However this was their first go at the festival and they left out a few key things that I’m used to seeing: 1) Unlimited free water. Sure they had water to sell, but it was hot and you have to give people water. 2) Concert programs. No handouts to walk around with. I only saw one schedule posted, so I took a picture of it. 3) Shade. They definitely needed more spots for people to get out of the sun. Other than that it was pretty well run.
I didn’t know most of the bands, but several of the New Zealand openers were surprisingly good. I hopped between the two stages to get a little taste of everything. Although it was a blues fest, the music ranged from alternative rock to soul, with the blues being somewhere in between. The first act I really knew was Xavier Rudd, who brought his unique Aussie style of didgeridoo/slide guitar/drum rock. Then an American, Keb Mo, heading more in the blues direction with a modern twist, singing songs about women who left him, railroad tracks, old dogs, and all those things. I’m not sure why she was on the bill, but KT Tunstall’s Scottish pop-rock made for a better live show that I expected. In fact, I would even say she “rocked out.” If the music didn’t tell me, then her T-shirt did: “Too fast to live, too young to die.”
Another good American act, Wilco, brought an energetic set to fans who knew the words. I’m not sure if their lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, realizes he is turning more and more into Bob Dylan every day. The apex of blues that night was the legendary Buddy Guy. Good God, that man can play guitar. His face twisted in disbelief while he played, as if he himself could not fathom what was coming out; his hands possessed by some guitar-shredding demon. He played with his teeth. He played with a rag. He howled out unspeakable blues tales of women leaving him, and then rocked with a big smile on his face. Well, he showed everyone how it was done, and that was it for the night. I think concerts are worthwhile anyway, but it’s all the more rewarding to see an icon like that. I drove home the way I came, surprised that no one was on the same treacherous gravel road as me. I saw a few possums in the road, taking naps, so I let them be. Back out to the coastal nail-biter. I slipped back into my new house after 3 a.m. on this second day in Coromandel to dream of sugar plums, Buddy Guy, and painting.
Dan and I got to work early, because it was cooler then and the sun wasn’t so bright bouncing off the paint. He asked if I had seen any “right fit birds” (attractive females) at the concert. I told him it was pretty much the same as the rest of New Zealand. Dan was always wanting to talk about birds. “Ahh, mate, I got dis bird in me office in Auckland. She’s right nice to ‘ave a look at...” Or he would talk about a California girl he met, or this one or that one. I never determined if any were real.
During all of this talk, we actually got some work done and were slowly but surely making progress on this first side of the old building. We traded jobs between sanding, filling, rolling, or cutting in. I usually took the more ambitious hard-to-reach spots, since Dan was a little uncomfortable with heights. When he first saw me move on the scaffolding, he declared me “an absolute nutter.” I climbed up and down the inside or outside of the scaffolding with paintbrush between the teeth without thinking while he slowly assured his footing and moved platforms to safe places. This, combined with our size difference (I don’t consider myself small, but was in comparison to Manchester rugby-playing Dan) earned me the title of “me li’l monkey partner.”
As we moved to the front balcony, I decided it was a good idea to have some music to help pass the time so I brought out my laptop. We didn’t share many music interests, since Dan only seemed to like some American rap and whatever it is that’s played in clubs in the UK, but we got on okay. Dan and I painted on for about a week, with Craig alternating between doing a little supervision, working the office (surfing Facebook), and playing video games. Because of rain forecasts, Dan’s need to go to Auckland for immigration papers, and a general buildup of painting boredom, it was time to take a vacation for a week or so.