Working at a Fish Market in New Zealand

Written by  December 11, 2013
A last-minute plan turns into a lasting impression when Taylor moves to Raglan, New Zealand.

A couple weeks ago, I was out for a morning run with a friend when a commercial truck, painted blue with funky wave designs, drove by.

“That’s Todd. He lives in his truck, and he makes wooden fish,” Jordan said. “All the people are starting to come back for summer.”

“What does Todd do in the winter?” I asked.

“Just drives around the country in his truck.”

“Selling wooden fish?”

“Yup.”

If I needed something to signify my arrival in Raglan that could well have been it. It also could have been the mother I saw correcting her young daughter’s tree pose on the beach the other day.

The coastal surf village on the North Island’s west coast, known worldwide for its epically long left-hand breaks, is a place full of interesting people. Most have come for the laid-back beauty of a largely undeveloped paradise. There are no McDonald’s or Subways, no flashy million dollar beach homes and the nearest large supermarket is an hour’s drive away. The people who call Raglan home are a mix of locals and expats who’ve come for a simpler life of veggie gardens and flexible business hours. The main drag is made up of art studios, an ‘herbal dispensary’ for all your organics, a local coffee joint that doubles as neighborhood watch and a handful of surf shops.

Coming to Raglan after finishing the ski season in Queenstown was a last-minute plan. With only a month between the end of my job at Coronet Peak and when I would fly back to the States, I wanted to earn some extra cash and see a little bit more of New Zealand. My friend Jordan, who manages a fish market in town, was flying back to the States for a while and the shop needed a few extra workers. So my partner, Richy, and I said goodbye to the mountains, jumped on a plane and moved into our friend’s guestroom in a house by the beach.

I’d spent some time in Raglan before and was looking forward to the pace of a quiet, rural town to wind down from the winter. Our first week was a little bit of an adjustment. There was settling into a new routine: having days free and working nights. Not knowing many people in town meant lots of time spent alone and I had to remind myself that’s what I came here for. When we first arrived it was mid-October and the rain didn’t stop for days.

After a while, though, the weather finally broke and we were able to start doing Raglan things—going for surfs on the main beach, then getting beat up by bigger waves at Manu Bay, learning to play backgammon outside Raglan Roast, visiting that same coffee shop three times in one day because there was nowhere else we needed to be, and going for bike rides and runs along country roads.

We were staying at Jordan and her partner Christian’s house, which backs onto a slice of water coming up from the inlet. One morning, Richy and I dug out some old kayaks from under the house and launched them in the backyard, letting the incoming tide push us further inland past rolling farmland so bright green it looked airbrushed. I paddled in close to one section of land and could hear the lazy chewing of cows staggered across the hill above me. Across the water on the other shore stood another herd and I wondered if they ever stared over thinking that the other’s grass looked greener.

Much of our time in Raglan was spent working down at the fish shop on the wharf, where the local fishermen dock their boats outside and unload the days catch right through the doors. Hughie, an old local who’s been in the industry for years, fillets the fish in the corner of the store, then passes it behind the counter for us to sell fresh or fry up. It took a while until I could tell apart the different New Zealand varieties. Snapper looks identical to Tarakihi except for its thin black veins. There was John Dory and Lemonfish, which is actually shark, sometimes Granddaddy Hapuka and Ling. Gurnard is the kiwi staple, and when the boats couldn’t get out for days because of rough seas, we ran out of Gurnard and the locals were in an uproar.

It felt pretty fitting that before I left New Zealand I’d wind up in a place like Raglan Fish. I don’t know if there’s a more kiwi experience you can hope for, apart from working on a sheep station, and it was the freshest fish and chips I’ll probably ever eat.

We only called Raglan home for a matter of three weeks, but toward the end of our stay I started to feel like we’d been adopted into the fold. A few nights ago, Richy and I sat having a beer on the porch of the only pub in town. A woman who worked at the pottery place next to the fish market walked by, noticed us, turned around and came back for a quick chat.

“Hey, good to see you guys!” A second later a passing truck beeped and waved in our direction. We finished our drinks and walked across the bridge to our temporary home. The night was dark—there are no houses along the shoreline to illuminate the snaking water—and the only sound was the distant beating of waves along a wild coast.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Taylor St. John

Taylor St. John is a freelance journalist and native Jersey girl who has spent the last couple years living and working in New Zealand. Now she's jumping across the Tasman Sea to find out what adventures are waiting for her in the other Land Down Under, Australia. Follow her travels at An Alternate Route.

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