30 Jul 2015

My quarter life crisis

10:56 am on 30 July 2015

Ayisha Jaffer took a working holiday in New Zealand and ended up being part of the management for Lorde. She explains what fuelled her need for adventure.

Listen to the story as it was told at The Watercooler storytelling night or read on. 

I’ve been living in New Zealand for two years and I'm now officially a resident. How the hell did I go from New York to New Zealand and stay? Well, now I can tell you my story.

I guess this begins with my dad. My wonderful, colourful, immigrant dad.

Kampala, Uganda - Population 1.2 million

He grew up in the times of Idi Amin. If you are not familiar with this historical event, let me break it down for you very quickly.

Idi Amin was a rebel who overthrew the existing regime of Obote. He was crazy, kind of like the Mad King in Game of Thrones. His paranoia overtook him when he thought entire tribes were trying to re-overthrow his regime on behalf of Obote, so he would kill the entire tribe. On top of this, he used to eat people on occasion, just out of curiosity and to instill his power.

Eventually Idi Amin caught on that the Asian Indians who were living in Uganda had a great deal of wealth so he “kindly” gave them a heads up that they had 90 days to “get the fuck out of Uganda or Imma’ kill you.”

The UN intervened and evacuated the Asian people from Uganda while Idi Amin took every bit of wealth and possession away from these people. My father’s massive family was then split up into different countries and my dad ended up in Naples with his half-brother (my uncle).

Naples, Italy – Population 950,000

My father and uncle were refuges in a village, partying it up and drinking wine from wine bottles on trees… literally until the UN said “knock, knock, hey dudes, stop using our stipends and choose a country to live in.”

My dad always loves telling me this story, that he had the choice between Italy, Norway, Canada, and the USA (which is the hardest to get into) and he says to me, “Ayisha, I know more American history than all Americans. So I wrote essay and went to America.”

He had the choice between somewhere in Wisconsin and New York City and so obviously he chose to stay in Wisconsin where he then met my mum and created the mass melting pot structure of a Persian, Indian, French, German, and Luxembourg product which is me.

Only up until recently did I realise that this is the story that I grew up with which has fueled my need for adventure.

My Dad left, not by choice, but what an epic journey.  Even from his local escapades in Africa (that I found normal) like jumping into the Nile for a swim until the Crocodiles came or crossing quick sand pits on a tightrope without dying (one friend actually died), to his forced voyage en route to America – it's from these that I think built up my extreme anticipation for an expedition of my own.

Here is when I freaked out and thought, “Do I even want to work in music anymore, maybe I want to be a wine maker or a ship captain?!” So naturally, I applied for a New Zealand working holiday visa.

The funny difference is that now that my dad is in America, he is the biggest patriot I know and will never leave. Wherever I am in the world, when I talk to my dad I get the spiel “Goddamit Ayisha, America is the best country in the world. There are so many jobs here. There is nothing in (INSERT ANY PLACE THAT IS NOT MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN IN USA).”

And here’s where my personal story begins…

Milwaukee, Wisconsin – Population two million - where I grew up.

Can you pick this on a map? I bet not. It’s a national treasure, but there is a reason I associate ‘leaving’ with ‘freedom’.

Chicago, Illinois - Population 10 million - where I got my education and learned by street smarts.

New York, New York – Population 20.1 million - where it all begins.

So I get there, it’s great and I thrive in this city and really make it my home.

But then like any normal 25 year old, the quarter life crisis hits.

Here is when I freaked out and thought, “Do I even want to work in music anymore, maybe I want to be a wine maker or a ship captain?!” So naturally, I applied for a New Zealand working holiday visa.

I was told New Zealand was the adventure capital of the world and I was just over the trend of Australia and it’s “everything can kill you” buzz.

So a year passes and I totally forget I’ve applied for this visa.

Life was good.

At this point I was about to become a partner at this very successful music management company, I was in a punk band that was handed a label deal from Universal somehow, I had my crew, and was dating…period. Life was all in place for me.

So then I got a call from the New Zealand consulate …


“Um, hello?”

“This is New Zealand”

“Oh hi, New Zealand”

“Miss Jaffer, just a reminder, you have three months to use your visa you applied for last year or you can’t come to New Zealand ever again.” Or…that’s how I heard it.

Should I stay or should I go became the life question.

This could be my opportunity of a lifetime.

The pros and cons list that I made kept evening out.

I just went into a panicking frenzy until I fell into a chair and ended up watching The Life Aquatic (as you do). I have an affinity for the ocean and always dreamt my adventure would be on it somehow, so I found this fitting as I pondered my decision. 

And there was a point in the movie where I was like “that’s it!” Zissou stares off into the distance and says, “I’m right on the edge, I don’t know what comes next”. That affected me so much that immediately as the film finished, I called New Zealand and said, yes I’m coming and they were like, “Ok, thanks for telling us, you don’t need to call us again.”

I basically jumped; I jumped all the way from New York to New Zealand that month.

I gained port in Auckland with a friend of a friend, and then landed my first WWOOFing job on Great Barrier Island.

If you don’t know what WWOOFing is, it’s an agricultural job in exchange for food and accommodation.

Great Barrier Island – Population >1k OF THE ENTIRE ISLAND

So here I am, someone who’s grown up in major city hubs my entire life heading to Great Barrier Island - the opposite of everything I know.

Not only that, but in the email from the Woofee, I had to count 14 days from the date he sent the email to make sure I make it on the correct boat ticket he bought for me to ferry over. I asked for a time and like how I would even find him at the port on the other side and the response was “there is only one boat/1 time and I’ll know its you.”

The value of living life is so much more valuable than really anything and I didn’t fully realise this up until this experience. 

I make it on the boat. I make it to the other side, he finds me, and I’m taken to the most beautiful spot I’ve ever seen and in great New Zealand fashion, Kim my host takes me on my first job which is harvesting a weed plant and smoking it.

Did I mention this island’s population derives from a hippy colony started in the 60s, at least some of it?

Anyway, so I dived into a lifestyle opposite of everything I know, in turn only getting to know who I was better. I learned how to live a permaculture lifestyle, learned about the Māori culture, climbed a mountain in a fur coat (I had no idea what I was doing), hitchhiked for the first time, did a radio show in a shack in the mountains where people would knock on my door for requests, and enthralled myself into the culture. 

Knowing a place like this existed and surviving in it changed my life. If I could do this, I felt I could do anything. I ended up realising that everything really is accessible. If I want to find the jewel of the Nile, I freaking can. The value of living life is so much more valuable than really anything and I didn’t fully realise this up until this experience.

So in my new realisation, I continue to travel through New Zealand and then one day I got this call from this guy my old boss recommended I meet, the only guy he knows in New Zealand, Scott. So we set up a time to meet and after several conversations, he offers me a job.

“I have this girl, she’s going to blow up and I could use your help as I’m opening an office soon.”

I’m hesitant and refrain from committing to this idea a few times, as I of course am committed to being a ship captain.

Then I get a call again. And another.

“Every time I call you, you’re on a boat.”

“I know, right?”

Eventually I run out of money and am falling in love with this country and decide to jump on board for what becomes the long and exciting journey of Lorde.

It must mean something if I escape to a holiday in a country that sometimes doesn’t even make the map, to now being part of the management of the biggest artist on earth from middle earth.

I must belong here. “Here” being in this space, the adventure space, and in the arts, I must belong.

So here I am Auckland. And once again, as the wise Steve Zissou says, “This is an adventure.” (Puts red hat on.)

This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email thewatercoolernz@gmail.com or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: Josh Drummond

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.