Blog: You can’t get good help these days

Polly Greeks mudbrick

Mudbrick construction underway.

As the mudbrick  house construction progresses, Polly finds some workers are more help than others.

Recently James has been on what can only be described as a mudbrick bender. Taking advantage of spring sunshine after months of rain, he’s been out carpe-dieming with the concrete mixer; shovelling in sieved clay and other aggregates and churning out volumes of mudbrick batter for the new room of our house.

We’re at the wattle-and-daub stage of building. This involves cutting young Cyprus branches and weaving them through steel mesh for the upper parts of our east and west walls. The earthen mixture is packed in and around the framework.
As construction is so laborious, we’ve been taking on HelpXers to assist on the job. HelpX is an international website connecting (mostly) willing workers with people requiring a helping hand. We provide meals and accommodation in exchange for our guests’ sweat.Welcoming complete unknowns into one’s house is a peculiar thing.

At its best, an international smorgasbord of personalities and skills enhance our lives. We love that in our remote location, hands from a dozen countries have helped shape our home. However, experience has taught us that selecting which HelpXers to greet into the family is rather like choosing a lucky dip. No matter how slick an applicant’s profile may seem; it’s not until they’re on site that their true colours emerge.

Although every guest’s been essentially nice, we’ve had a few hit-and-misses lately. A sweet-voiced Japanese woman with a penchant for cutesy cartoons, had an astonishing ability to vanish whenever we went to assign her a task; a French girl armed with mudbrick batter hid behind the house and invested hours in the sculpture of a cat, while sometime between 10 pm and dawn, a young German man would slink into our kitchen and ransack the pantry. Thankfully, we’ve struck gold amongst our HelpXers as well as brass, but on numerous occasions, James and I have needed to beef up our management to achieve what we’re after from the young backpackers settling into our home.This is a skill that’s still in development.

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It’s our natural inclination to be hospitable when taking in guests. We want people to enjoy themselves in our company, and to have a positive experience of off-grid living.
‘Just help yourself,’ I say, during tours of the kitchen. ‘We’re pretty relaxed about when we start,’ I add, plumping their pillow and placing fresh flowers by the caravan bed.

A friend in a neighbouring valley says this sort of talk is ridiculous. ‘Get them working the moment they arrive,’ she admonishes sternly. She presents her workers with a strict list of rules including what time they need to rise in the morning. Her pantry is out of bounds. ‘And don’t serve second helpings!’ she warns. ‘They’re just there to help.’

But for James and me, unknown travellers are potential friends, and we operate with an expectation that if we treat workers well, they’ll reciprocate energetically. With the golden HelpXers, this is true.
They’re the ones reporting in for duty during breakfast. They spontaneously pitch in with dish-washing, work with enthusiasm, provide interesting ideas and initiatives, make the kids laugh, are a pleasure to be with and are happy to spend time alone as well.


The two young men we recently took in to help with earth building were very nearly gold.
‘We’re just speechless!’ the email application began. ‘Your place is our wildest dream.’Elaborating on their rapture, they declared they would willingly sleep in a cave just to be with us.
‘Are they taking the piss?’ James asked suspiciously but finding their enthusiasm contagious; I emailed back that they were welcome to stay.

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There is a sense of magic involved in taking two 18-year-olds fresh from a crowded European city and immersing them in nature. They’d never seen a night sky ringing with starlight. They hadn’t slept on the edge of vast forest or been woken by birdsong, and they loved it. They marvelled at the vegetable gardens, frolicked in the stream and were silent for a long time at the foot of our giant Kauri.
Their passion for eating, however, was alarming. They left dirty dishes, dumped piles of soiled laundry, and their dedication to sleeping-in began to get us uptight.
‘Teenagers!’ we groaned, suddenly remembering all over again why we’d vowed to avoid HelpX applicants under the age of 25.

Following firm supervision from James, they eventually settled into work; spending a week on the scaffold as well as stacking next winter’s firewood.
Three days of rain followed, during which they ate our cupboards bare but we comforted ourselves we’d get our investment back via mudbricking during the upcoming sunshine forecasted.
On the night the rain ceased, however, they suddenly announced they planned to move on in the morning.

Luckily for us, our next HelpXer is proving to be of the 24-carat variety. Yesterday, he graciously worked alongside James until well after dusk, packing mudbrick under the house eaves and sculpting the wall into beautiful curves. When he stopped for lunch, he played a quick game of pirates with the children and at dinner he shared traveller’s tales. This morning he offered to cook tonight’s meal.
Exchanges like this keep us opening our home to strangers.

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