Atamai

Atamai Eco Village sits on a large chunk of hilly land in Motueka, a small town on the top of New Zealand’s South Island. I’ve spent the past two months wwoofing and working at the village in an attempt to experience their vision of resilience and self-sufficiency. But now I’ve been here for two months–twice as long as any other place I’ve been in New Zealand, and it’s time to move on.

It’s about that time of year when I feel a hankering for a cider donut and a Vermont-brewed pumpkin beer. Except my mind and body are all sorts of confused. Wasn’t it just fall? And five months later here it is again? I guess that’s what happens when you go to the other side of the world! Here at Atamai, a thick covering of leaves blankets the ground, which is now more of a mud pit thanks to the incessant rain we’ve been having as of late. But there are apples to be eaten as I walk through the orchard and grapes to be clipped from the vines at the village vineyard. I guess the rain is a small price to pay for such bounty. And fresh apples and grapes are a solid (and healthier) alternative to donuts and beer. So needless to say, I’ve been enjoying myself these past few months.

First to host me was the village farm manager, Bob. Bob is a Kiwi and just about the nicest guy around. Bob also knows how to do everything–build stuff, grow stuff, fix stuff, drive stuff–you name it, Bob can do it. Without him, Te Mara farm (and perhaps the village, too) would be in shambles. I was lucky enough to arrive when Bob was about to tie the knot with his lovely now-wife. Experiencing a Kiwi-Filipino wedding in my fanciest flannel was not something I would have expected, but it was certainly a welcome surprise.

The jagged corners of the house I stayed in rose up out of the hillside like daggers, piercing the sky. It’s an old house. Take one look at the decaying mustard-coloured carpets and that’s clear. But the view at sunrise is unbeatable.

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Most afternoons were spent digging gorse–a terrible, invasive prickly weed introduced to New Zealand from Scotland–and tricking sheep into standing still while I tried to hug them. If I distracted them with a bucket of chicken pellets I usually got what I wanted before they realized what was happening. Bob entertained me with stories of a particularly cunning sheep who would miraculously move from closed paddock to closed paddock (or simply escape entirely) whenever she felt like it. Flossie was a Houdini sheep. All the other sheep would be snug in the paddock at night and you’d wake up the next morning and there she’d be–Flossie, chomping away on some grass on the other side of the farm. She had a low, scratchy old lady’s voice and if you called out to her, she’d always respond. Flossie was also the most willing recipient of hugs and naturally became my favorite. I spent a decent amount of time trying to win her affections.

Later on after I’d switched hosts within the village, I built a firewood shed, watched heaps of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, and was able to pick the brain of Nicole Foss–an international lecturer on economics. She’s amazing and could easily write a book called “Everything you ever needed to know about everything, and more.” I spent 10 hours of a day canning tomatoes, learned to be a good wood chopper, read endless issues of Organic NZ, began to learn about plant families, celebrated a one-year relationship by seeding a hillside with grass and red clover, got raw milk from a vending machine, and peed outside more times than in.

I respect Atamai for what they’re trying to do. In the beginning it looked to me like the eco-suburbs: lots of wealthy, highly educated people with composting toilets and solar panels out to save the world with their book knowledge and lack of practical skills. Some have dishwashers. Some don’t like to eat in season. Lots spend more time on the computer than they do in the garden. The meetings seem to be spent ratifying this and voting on that instead of making actual decisions. But they’re trying, and everyone I met in the village had skills that contributed to the village in some way, whether it be weaving, woodworking with hand tools, producing beautiful veggies, making baskets, cooking, or something else entirely. Everyone was lovely to me and I felt like the village was my home for a while. If it were up to me, I’d model things differently, having more community work hours and not paying people to do things I could be doing myself. But my stay at Atamai opened my eyes to one possible way of living in a community, and I find myself thinking of it often even now that I’ve left. Plus I ate lots of amazing Filipino desserts, so I’ll count that as a success!

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