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New Zealand: The story of the Crows Nest

Wellington June 2016 – January 2017

A home for travelers

Homesickness – every traveler knows it, although not everyone admits it. For some folk homesickness means missing your own home, your own family, mom, dad and siblings. It´s the desire to be at that place where you lived before your trip or even where you grew up.

But homesickness can also describe missing any home, missing the feelings which are associated with a home. To have a safe place and shelter and space to create your life.

The following story will show you that such a home can be created anywhere.

A home for travelers, that´s how I already described Crunchytown, the community house where I lived in Melbourne. Not only I was impressed by that kind of living but Andrea was as well, whom I met there on my last visit in April 2016.

Andrea, wild red curly hair, power woman, goal orientated and a hard to disguise Spanish temperament, had a flight to New Zealand at the same evening as me. I was about to fly to Christchurch and Andrea had a flight to Wellington. While waiting at the airport she told me about her plans to start a similar shared house. I gave her the advice to get in contact with Tim and Harry. These two lads had been a part of Crunchytown as well and were in Wellington at that time.

Tim, blond hair, self confident, a little bit cheeky sometimes and talented with words. I remember one time in Crunchytown, when we found a brand new blender in the supermarket bins. Just the part with the blade was missing, so Tim called the service line and convinced them to send a replacement, even without having any receipt of the purchase. Two days later the spare part was in the letterbox and the kitchen had a new blender.

Tim is quick witted, can convince people easily and can talk himself out of any awkward situation.

Harry, as well from great britain, is more the relaxed and well balanced guy, always a smile on his lips. With gentle calmness and confidence radiating, he is that kind of person you want to have around you, especially if it gets hectic.

While I cycled across the south island for two months, Andrea and the other Crunchys had combined their forces and had turned the plan of a house into reality. Together the three of them had overcome all hurdles to find a suitable house and to sign a tenancy agreement, not an easy undertaking in New Zealand. The housing agency wants to have certain requirements met, a reference of a past landlord is necessary as is a bond of a month rent. It requires quite some courage and confidence to take this responsibility, especially with the knowledge that the rules in the tenancy agreement are going to be bent.

The first night in the house, the three founders slept alone in the empty house on the floor, was the only night in that the number of persons in the house didn´t exceed the number in the tenancy agreement. But three people don´t make a community.

Building the Nest

The house is situated on a hillside and only accessible by foot. From the road by the sea you have to take some stairs and walk up an extremly steep path. It is calm here, there are no sounds of cars and the area is surrounded by trees. Crows Nest is found as an appropriate name.

The concept envisions the use of four rooms as bedrooms to rent them out to people. The last room is the living room and a space for guests and couchsurfers. There is a huge kitchen as well as a corridor and one single bathroom.

To find housemates is easy. Many travelers are in town, looking for work and cheaper and better accommodation than at a backpacker hostel. There you pay at least 25 Dollar for a bunk bed in a dormitory.

The house is completely empty and the first days the furniture hunt is in full swing. Online you can find a lot of old furniture and household items, often for free if you pick it up. Another treasure box is the second hand shop at the rubbish tip. Everything that people throw out but is still usable gets collected there. For a few dollars you get everything for a new household. Simple furniture can be made out of old palettes and timber.

The nest is furnished cozily, the first crows moved in and the costs for the rent are covered. But how is it possible to create a lively community in the nest, where every crow feels at home?

Learn to fly

Andrea, Tim and Harry show the new crows how to fly. They take care of the finances, the organizational matters and manage the couchsurfers. Around ten people have landed in Crows Nest by now, it is still manageable. However, as more people live together, the more complex the dynamics get. Every person has their individual ideas and needs and their own vibe. To combine all that into a harmony is easier said than done.

Living together is constantly about compromises. To compare your own view with that of others and to find together a way. To be flexible and to have the mutual things in focus. To be spontaneous and to improvise. Permanent changing people and situations require continuous adjustments. Such a house community is always in movement, changing and transforming. It is an experiment, there are no rules how anything should be, but we create and see from day to day what happens.

There are times where it is rather quiet with just 10 people in the house. The doors to the bedrooms are often shut, people want their privacy and do their own things. Some buy their own food and prefer to cook something quick just for themselves. Not many Couchsurfers get invited as no one has time, or desire or energy to deal with them and to be a good host.

And then there are times where the house is overcrowded. Almost 20 people sleep in the house, a few more in their cars parked in the street. The idea of private rooms gets dismissed, it is only about a place to sleep. Sometimes five or six people sleep in one room. There is no real bed in the whole house, just mattresses on the floor or on palettes and a few couches for the couchsurfers.

Couchsurfing is how most people end up in the Crows Nest. It is a social network to make new friends and to find or offer a place to sleep. It´s about hospitality and intercultural exchange, but nowadays couchsurfing has become so popular and many new users misunderstand or even misuse it. Many just want to save the money for a hostel and send hundreds of unpersonal copy paste requests in the hope for an positive answer. As a host in Wellington you can get more than 20 requests in a week and several people in the Crows Nest are hosting. You have to be lucky to get invited.

Be a guest in Crows Nest

Imagine you are a couchsurfer. In Wellington you got accepted for a night. A girl called Andrea invited you to stay a night in her home. You looked up the address, only reachable by foot. You walked up the stairs, then the steep hill. You stopped to catch your breath. More steps. Is this the right way? Then two houses at the hillside start to appear out of the dark. No number is visible and the street lamp brings more shade than light. It has to be here, the green house on the left side. No doorbell, so you knock. You can hear voices but no one opens. You knock again, wait. The door opens, „Heeey you made it up the hill. Welcome to Crows nest. Come in!“, someone pulls you inside and hugs you. Was your host not a girl? Andrea? „Just put your bags down here for now, this is the room where you can sleep later.“

You can catch a glimpse of a room which doesn´t look like there is place to sleep. The guy brings you in the kitchen, the door slides open and you stare in a room full of people. They sit on the armrest, on the floor, you can see two sharing a chair. Around 20 persons sit there, everyone with a plate in his hand and a party hat on his head. Before you know it you have one of these party hats as well and someone gives you a plate with food. „Just arrived or what?

It can be overwhelming for new guests, especially if it is one of these crowded party evenings. But it is a good thing as well to get people out of their comfort zone, because then there is space for change and growth.

For many this kind of life is something new and opens so many possibilities. People from all over the world, well mostly from the richer countries, come here together to exchange, to learn from each other and to have a good time together. They are all travelers who are in general open for new experiences and people.

For me it feels good to invite strangers in my home and to make it theirs. The last years it was mostly me who was the guest and now I can be the host and can offer a place to sleep and often unforgettable experiences. Many couchsurfers stay longer than planned or they even move in.

The culinary Crow banquets out of the rubbish bins

The supplies in the kitchen are there for everyone. The fridge is full and the pantry provides a good selection of groceries. Most of the food is for free, out of the bins of supermarkets. Things which can´t be sold anymore, but which are still good to eat, with sometimes little defects or bruises. Fruit and vegetables are always there, as is bread, dairy products, basically anything what is on offer in a supermarket can end up in the bin. Rice and noodles get thrown out in boxes, as soon as one package is ripped open. The box of eggs ends up in the bin, even if it is only one egg which is cracked. Technically it is theft of rubbish and forbidden by law, but actually it is rescuing and using of food, which would otherwise end up at the landfill. So not only the food would be wasted but as well all the resources which were necessary to produce it. Dumpsterdiving is a small step to change this world, in which 30-40% of the food ends up in a landfill instead in a hungry mouth.

This rescued food gets complimented by a weekly shop at the local market, everything else comes from the supermarket, paid for by communal money. There is the Wellington Free Store as well, a charity which gives out free food every evening. Bakery’s and cafes donate their leftovers after closing time which gets collected by volunteers and then distributed at the free store.

There is almost always enough food in Crows Nest and if someone cooks they make more than enough for just themselves. Every night there is usually a big dinner for everyone. Sometimes we are so many that all four cooking plates plus the oven are constantly running. It is so crowded in the kitchen that you can´t move easily through the room and it is easier to pass things on from the pantry to the stove. There is just one big pot and it is not often that there is too much food.

These communal dinners are always an important moment for me. Everyone is in the kitchen and anyone gets food, no matter if he helped out, lives in the house or is just there as a guest. Everyone is thankful to get some food and it is a satisfying feeling to see that everyone likes it and that you can feed so many people, especially if you were involved in the cooking.

On some evenings the cooking is quite organized, people try out certain recipes or buy special ingredients. But it can be chaotic as well and new dishes out of random ingredients get created by several cooks. I like to see what is there and then create something out of it. It never gets boring this way and with housemates from different countries there are many culinary delights or new creations from all over the planet. French crepes, breakfast bacon the puerto riconian way, or asian fried noodles, no dish tastes the same. I discover the German in me and try myself out in making bread, beer and sauerkraut.

The kitchen is the biggest room in the house and it´s not only the place for eating but as well the place to play.

Still working or playing already?

What do you do all day if you don´t work?“ (because someone is traveling and lives off savings!) „Isn´t it boring?

Isn´t it boring to work all day?“ I could ask back. „When do you have time to play?

I love to get up in the morning and to have no plans for the day. Because then anything can happen. Make a first coffee in the kitchen, twinkle into the sun or mock the rain in front of the house. Watch people walking down the stairs into the city, probably on their way to work.

Little by little the house wakes up. I´m one of the early crows, aside from the people who leave the house early for work. People come into the kitchen, make another coffee, start to make breakfast. Someone puts some music on, 10 people are in the kitchen by now, the morning tranquility has passed.

There is always something going on. Someone wants to go into the city, another to the beach. Others prefer to stay in the house and to cook a feast. It is winter and it´s raining a lot. And it is windy as always in Wellington. Sometimes so strong that you can´t walk properly and need to hold on to lamp poles. It is most appealing to stay in the warm and cozy nest. There is always something to do, always someone is there and something is happening. No time for boredom.

My friend Harry brings some structure to my day and we try to do Yoga and Meditation everyday. That is not only good for us but for others as well who join from time to time or teach us new positions.

Music is played a lot in Crows nest. It can be the lonely guitar player who sings dreamy lovesongs in the garden, or a spontaneous Caribbean drum circle in the kitchen. No day passes by without someone playing some instrument.

I partook in many jam sessions with plenty of different instruments and got often carried away by the music.

 

Photo by Liz

There are creative moments and the living room transforms into an art studio to draw, paint and tinker.

There are philosophical discussion about topics like „Origin, purpose and nature of Love“ or „What is the self?“. Card games get played (Vedak anyone?), board games, people circle around the fire, cook, discuss, laugh together and sometimes cry together, life gets lived together in Crows Nest and most of the time quite harmoniously.

It get´s crowded in Crows Nest

But of course there is some friction with so many people in a confined space. There is just one bathroom and you have to get up in the right moment to be able to do your morning business without waiting too long. For a wee there is the garden and for urgent cases, the next public toilets is just 5 minutes away as the crow runs. If you make it into the bathroom though you can be sure that someone will impatiently knock at the door or even come inside to use the toilet while you are showering.

Many people make a lot of dirt, especially in the kitchen. Dirty dishes are constant housemates which pile themselves up to rickety towers just to get rigorously ignored by someone. But there is always someone who picks up the fight, usually even at night so that the kitchen is reasonably clean in the morning.

Sunday is cleaning day and the whole house gets tidied up and cleaned. Everyone who is at home has to help and gets even woken up for that. But one or another sneaks out through the backdoor and just returns Sunday afternoon.

There are always people who feel more responsible and do more things for the house than others and that can lead to frustration and arguments.

There are differences how and by whom decisions which affect everyone are made. Who is allowed to stay longer or to move in? How to manage certain things? It is good that there are these differences, that there are different point of views and that we try together to solve these problems. Often it is difficult to get everyone together for a house meeting and to communicate open and truthfully. It is a gigantic learning process for anyone in the house.

And then there is the task to keep up the appearance that this house is a normal house. It is not always easy to keep the volume down to avoid complaints of the neighbors. The rental agency as well needs to believe that there are just three people living in the house. In New Zealand it is common to inspect a house regularly. Someone from the agency comes to check the condition of the house and to even take photos of everything. At such an occasion all backpacks have to be hidden. The beds and the toothbrush jar out of the bathroom have to dissapear as well as the rat cage and the ash trays. And of course everyone has to leave the nest for a couple of hours.

Photo by Liz

Sometime I ask myself if it is the right thing we do. To deliberately break the rules of the tenancy agreement and to deceive the agency.

At least it doesn´t feel wrong. Why should only three people live in such a big house? Why shouldn´t we have a compost in the garden and a fireplace in the backyard? Why shouldn´t we be loud sometimes and celebrate life? And invite anyone to do the same.

Is is about the way you live your life. Do you just reproduce the majority? Or are you brave enough to go new ways, to try out new things, ask other questions?

Desire for more

The circumstances in Crows Nest make it possible for anyone to feel at home, to take a rest from traveling, at a safe place with wonderful people. Everyone learns something here, everyone can grow and flourish and go on an inner and outer journey. New friendships are made, old friendships are deepened, travel mates and lovers find each other. No matter how long Crows Nest was a home for someone, the people who were there at that time and the experiences that were made – most likely they were positive and inspiring.

It must have been hundreds of people who landed in the Crows Nest and who are now part of the story.

By now the Crows Nest is history and the crows are scattered in all directions. But the memory stays and from time to time the homesickness for a home, which every traveler knows but not always admits, returns.