6 Lessons from Life Abroad – The Working Holiday Jobs that Changed my Life

“There’s no shame in hard work” is what grandpa used to say. For most travelers and expats the path for becoming citizens of the world is paved with anything but glamour. And this is a lesson most working holiday-makers learn, sometimes literally; by blood, sweat, and tears.

Living the Working Holiday dream!

Living the Working Holiday dream!

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If I was to make a movie of my life I’d call it “Tales of a Working Holiday. Trying to save money, one toilet at the time”

It’d go like this…

Scene 1: Martina cleaning up a toilet that’s anything but clean.

2: Me again but sweeping floors in a construction site.

3: I’m at the packhouse squeezing kiwis with band-aids all over my hands.

Did I know becoming a full-time foreigner was going to be like this? Yes, I did… kind of. But trust me, even though it wasn’t always easy, it’s been a hell of a ride.

Overcoming the fear of not getting a job

The biggest fear I’ve seen in travelers, expats and experienced myself, is not getting a job or totally running out of money. On top of all of it, stands the so-called language barrier.

Considering that knowing the local language is the key to most of the better-paid and qualified jobs, you can imagine that expats may feel like running out of choices sometimes.

But at the end of the day, that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. It can be quite the opposite. Let’s say it’s a shortcut for getting out of our comfort zone.

Even though my English was already good, my confidence when I became an expat wasn’t.  I was willing to do almost anything to keep the adventure going. So I ended up working under the rain in the middle of the winter, laboring in a construction site; or packing kiwis 70 hours a week.

Throughout time, though, I began noticing deep changes. I wasn’t scared of trying new things or thinking “I can’t do this”. I stopped labeling others or myself and started having the feeling that no matter how challenging things may be, I could always land on my feet.

Getting ready for life-changing decisions

In order to change the expected course of our lives, we need to make decisions, maybe even shift to a new paradigm.

Many of us grew up with some very clear, maybe even unquestionable goals: get a degree, get married, become a parent. I do think life evolving this way is beautiful and awesome, it’s not about the label. It is about what we make with the time that’s been given to us, and if it’s coherent with what we wish for us.

Every decision comes with a price. Moving overseas or traveling the world have a high cost. For NZ, see my in depth guide on the cost of living in New Zealand.

I have given up the chance of having a career in what I’ve studied -–at least in the traditional way–. Also not seeing my friends getting married or having babies, the chance of getting a big job and spending heaps of time with my family.

But during all these years I have come to make something new from all this experience, thinking about life in a more creative, broad way.

When I say there’s no shame in hard work, I really mean it. During this time I’ve learned to put myself in someone else’s shoes, to work very hard, to give my best at any job, to let go of prejudice. This is what I mean when I say that traveling and becoming expats transforms us.

Sometimes I just think we worry too much. About status, about how we define ourselves. We hold onto things without taking the chance to choose something different.

My fanciest job lol

My fanciest job lol

“I didn’t study to end up packing kiwis” – Attitude matters!

Welcome to a dilemma. It’s true that a lot of people work and travel as professionals getting great jobs and scholarships. But it’s important to understand that they may have devoted their lives to achieve this because they really want it.

But this is not the only option to become a working holiday-maker or a super-charged-world-expat-traveler. It may be time to start thinking outside the box, broadening our perspectives.

It goes without saying that each person has its own experience. During my years as a foreigner, so many times I’ve heard “I didn’t study  -insert your university degree- here end up cleaning toilets”. And I am like -I’m sorry the queen didn’t come to pick you up at the airport.

I respect that, but come on… try not to expect a CEO job just because you hold a degree. I’m not pulling you down, I think ambition well-focused is great but…if you want it…you gotta work for it. I know it’s hard not to think like that when you are dirty, tired and sore. But keeping a positive attitude will help you out a lot through all the tough moments. Trust me on this one.

Let’s not takes ourselves so seriously! Don’t let your degree or fear of judgment keep you from doing what you really want!

So to prove my point, I want to share with you 6 lessons I learned during my working holiday years…

1 – Leave a place better than it was before – Housekeeping in Denmark

Living in Denmark was one of the most challenging experiences of my whole life. This working holiday also has that reputation! It was the year I took the leap into my new life.

I was literally cleaning 30 toilets a day in this huge office building. There were over 100 desks to be cleaned in each floor, and I won’t even start talking about taking the garbage and vacuuming. Taking chewing gum, banana peel, pizza boxes, sorting the rubbish.

I even developed a technique for cleaning a toilet in 40 seconds.

What did I learn from this job?

To be aware of other people’s hard work. It was a humbling experience and definitely learned that a big job in a fancy company doesn’t make you respectful or well educated if you are not able to leave a place better than it was before.

2 – Be aware of my body and its needs – Packing kiwis 12 hours a day

Packing and repacking kiwis are the 2 “entry-level” working holiday jobs in New Zealand. After a long day at the packhouse, we would still go to another housekeeping job.

During that first month, we were working an average of 16 hours a day. Re-packing kiwifruit was hard work. I was all day doing the same movement -softly squeezing the kiwis in my hands. It was a very small movement, but doing it 70 hours a week was hard. My hands where bleeding and I got a very bad episode of stiff back and neck.

Packing was no different. I was only flicking a plastic sheet with my finger to prepare the box for the packers. But I was doing that a thousand times a day. Guess what? It was very hard, especially psychologically, some days I would end up crying of boredom.

What did I learn?

At that point, I realized how a very small task, carried out non stop for so many hours can become a torture.

3- Attitude can open doors & respect comes first – Labouring in a construction site

The city I live in suffered two major earthquakes a few years ago. It was totally destroyed therefore it became a huge hub for workers from all over the globe.

So I worked for 6 months in the re-build of a building. 44 hours a week sweeping. All my workmates hated it and would hide in the toilets for hours. Fair enough I get it. There were so many of us, and barely anything to do.

But I cannot play hide-n-seek if  I’m at a job. So my manager figured I had the right attitude and got me into doing others tasks, and it ended up being quite a fun,  life-changing experience actually -for other personal reasons though.

In the long run, thanks to this one job I was able to create better opportunities for myself in the long run.

But, there’s another side to this. At times we were treated quite badly. Even experienced racism on site, which is a very serious allegation in New Zealand -and a topic for a future blog post.

What did I learn?

I was too naive. Strong, but sometimes kind of living in a fairy tale. This job made me grow up in many ways. I promised myself I would always be respectful.

At the same time, I learned that I get to choose my attitude towards things, which was a total game-changer.

4- Stronger than I thought – Planting at the hills

At this stage of my working holiday, I needed to have some agricultural-related job to extend my visa. So this is why I got a job in a plant nursery. This was right before a very cold winter.

We were working under the rain, digging into icy soil, or even planting with mud up to our knees -not exaggerating, this literally happened. At some stage, I even realized it was a kind of fun job. I was outside all day, and when it was sunny I’d take a nap laying on the grass. I was starting to feel free and savage.

What did I learn?

That if rain, spines, cold, ice and mud up to the knees didn’t stop me -even being skinny, not fit, not muscular whatsoever- nothing would.

Working Holiday New Zealand

5- Acknowledging the time for a change- Traffic control, the ultimate Working Holiday job

This is the job that made me realize it was time for a change. At this point, after 2 years of “working holiday” jobs, I figured that I was in a comfort zone again. These “working holiday” jobs became my comfort zone.

It was time to make space and create energy for something else. With all these new life experiences, I knew I wanted more of it.

Traffic control was beyond boredom. At this stage, I couldn’t deal with that. It required me to wake up at 3 am to get to the parking lot at 5. And work for 12 hours. Standing, not even lunch break.

Honestly, after one week I stop replying to the phone calls. It was a casual job but I really needed to do something different.

I knew I had to own my decisions and be coherent. I could feel something new was brewing I just didn’t know what it was. Since that moment I decided that I would go for an office job, just to have the time to develop a project on my own. I was missing using my brain!!!

6- I Learned to land on my feet and choose my attitude

To tell these stories is the main reason why I created The Global Curious. To encourage others to go out there and see the world. Regardless of the effort and the fear.

Stop overthinking or worrying too much, just be confident that you can adapt and be flexible. Be smart about the fact that times are changing and if you go back home you can use all these new skills to be in a better position.

I was able to use all this for my own benefit. In my job interviews, I talk about these jobs with pride because they are an important part of who I am today.

These jobs helped me to blend in different societies, to connect with people, to step in someone else’s shoes and appreciate all types of jobs.

I do not regret my working holiday years for a second. It was a big leap, and at times I thought I couldn’t do it but…

Before making a big decision I would ask myself, what is the worst that can happen?


That’s it. Looking back and realizing that fear owned my days. Not for me.

Tell me about your experiences! How was adapting to your new life? Loved it? Hated it?

Stay Global, Curious!

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Hey u! I’m Martina, from Argentina. I’ve been combining travel and life overseas since 2013 in a quest for living alongside with creativity, joy and personal growth.

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