The WWOOFers Guide to Exploding Machinery

It started with Rob shouting for us from under the house.

Lauren and I looked up at each other over the table, dropped our bits of breakfast back onto our plates and scrambled over chair legs, out the door, and around the side of the house, ducking through the wooden doorway that led under the floor.

Our first wwoofing host was crouched over a macerator sewage pump, the rounded rectangular box chewing waste from the downstairs toilet and shower like a squat tooth. Water was spewing from the pump onto his shins, pooling around his feet.

“Girls, grab a towel!” he directed. “Help me with this.”

We hurried inside, snatching towels from cupboards and closets, then skidded back under the dirt hollow beneath the house, tossing them down, pulling them up soaking and muddy. I squatted beside Rob as he used a screwdriver to disconnect the pipes from the pump. The gushing leak slowed to a sputter, then dribbled away. Rank water spilled over our hands as we lifted the box away from the wall.

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think. The mud floor stank of mildew and sewage, and so did we.

We loaded the pump into a plastic bin and stuck it in the back of Rob’s hatchback. I scrubbed to the elbows with soap and scalding water, my skin still prickling as I changed clothes. Rob had to get ready for work, he was already late; he’d called a repair shop down in Auckland, a 40 minute drive from Laingholm.

Our task for the day? Get the pump to the shop, and bring back the repaired version or a new model, which he would pay for in advance.

After he left for work on his motorcycle, I slid uneasily into the driver’s seat of his car, everything made unfamiliar in reverse.

I had practically no experience driving on the right side of the car, on the left side of the road.

Lauren in the passenger seat, gear shift in my opposite hand, I pulled onto the road, reciting “left” like a breathing exercise. When I went to hit the turn signal, I turned the wipers on.

My “what-side-of-the-car-am-I-on” face.

But it got easier. Driving on the left wasn’t so bad–at least until we got to a roundabout, where I could make even the simplest left-flowing carousel curve an exercise in survival.

We made it out of suburban Laingholm to the motorway (where the 100 kilometer-per-hour speed limit felt reckless, before I learned it’s a grandmotherly cruising speed of 62 mph) and finally to the busy streets of central Auckland.

The repair shop looked bafflingly like a knock-off Apple store, clean lines, nothing but phones and computer gadgets in neat boxes and under glass, but the clerk was expecting us and took the filthy plastic box after hesitating only for a moment.

We walked across the street and ate lunch in a narrow coffeehouse that served an equally baffling combination of American-style burgers and Asian cuisine, and by the time we’d finished we received a call to come pick up the pump. It was a new one; we received the old one back in a trash bag of dismembered parts.

We loaded them both up and turned out of the parking lot, task accomplished, the day already brighter. Look at us, two capable women who can navigate roads on either side, successfully running errands in a strange city, in a new country, getting shit done (no pun intended). I hit the turn signal correctly as I peeled onto the onramp.

Then the radiator exploded.

A loud pop and water slammed over the windshield as if we’d been hit by an atomic water balloon. Lauren screamed and threw her hands over her face as I blindly yanked us onto the onramp’s slim shoulder. The car was overheating, steam–or was that smoke?–curling from under the hood. I twisted the key from the ignition, and we sat in silence, breathing raggedly. Water dripped down the glass, blurring the curious motorists who slowed to stare.

We stumbled out and opened the hood. The hose over the radiator had split open, steam still licking the metal. I dialed Rob, trying to be precise as I described our location, the state of the car. After a disoriented exchange, he groaned.

“I know what it is,” he said. “You’re still in four-wheel drive, aren’t you?” Four-wheel drive, the last gear the car had been in when the three of us had pulled it out of two-day-old mud early that morning. A gear which, like driving on the left side of the road, I had zero experience with, and which, yes, we were still driving in. According to Rob, our grandmotherly cruising speed had killed the radiator. “Let’s just hope it didn’t blow the engine,” he said.

Ah, so this was what it was like to come face to face with one of my worst wwoofing fears: wrecking or ruining a host’s car. 

We made it to a BP station just at the end of the ramp; twenty minutes later, Rob pulled up on his motorcycle. Sunlight was already fading in the early winter dusk, the day exhausted and heavy.

But there was a double-silver lining: First, Rob remained gracious. He didn’t assign blame, and stayed level-headed, efficient, even good-humored. He arranged a tow, and an Uber to take us back to Laingholm with the new pump.

Also, the view from Rob’s house is pretty sweet.

Second, Lauren and I could have turned on one another, snapping out of stress and frustration, but we didn’t. We worked together, two sides of an emotional see-saw: when I started to fall apart, she remained upbeat, practical and positive. Once I was level again, it was her turn to break down a bit, and I was able to say, “It’s really not so bad, everything’s going to be ok…”

The classiest builders.

We worked together back at the house as amateur plumbers, learning to install an unfamiliar new pump.

We worked together when we learned to build a wall in Rob’s basement, beginner builders swapping measurements and tools as we fitted builders paper and plywood.

We worked together to purchase a campervan, browsing listings, circling parking lots, arranging car inspections, exchanging phone numbers and later, money and keys. We bought a van that doesn’t have 4WD; our radiator rejoices. 

And we worked together to devour a delicious barbecue Rob hosted to celebrate our last day in Laingholm. 

Our takeaway for the week? Greater resilience in the face of household crisis and unfamiliarity, and greater reliance on one another.

Oh, and now both of us know how to install a sewage pump.

And at the end of our week, we piled into our new van, finally able to venture beyond the outskirts of Auckland to our next wwoof stop: Piha, on New Zealand’s “wild west coast.”


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