As told to Elisabeth Easther.
I was brought up in Ngāraratunua, a small rural community just outside Whāngārei. Life was centred around the farm and the marae and for holidays we'd go camping at the beach with whānau, usually to Whananaki or Taiharuru. My grandmother loved fishing and she and I would fish off the rocks — old-school with a handline — then we'd take our catch and cook it up for lunch.
After high school, I moved to Auckland for a year of discovery, mainly working on a shovel, doing roadworks. When the time came to go to university, I went to hand in my notice but the boss said if I stayed on, and changed my degree from architecture to civil engineering, they'd pay for my studies, working part-time and studying part-time. It was too good an offer to refuse.
I was really focused on my career and I moved up the ranks quite fast, but one Christmas I went to Sydney for a holiday. Growing up in small-time Whāngārei, Auckland was the big smoke but seeing Sydney really opened my eyes. When I returned home, I handed in my notice, even though I only had a few papers left to do. I gave up the chance of having my tuition reimbursed and moved to Australia. I had the travel bug.
After three years in Sydney I headed to London. When I booked my ticket, I asked the travel agent about Europe and she gave me a Contiki brochure. I picked out a 21-day trip from London to Athens.
As a solo traveller, it was quite daunting going on a trip with 50 people, but strangers become friends so quickly. By the end of it, having only known each other for three weeks, tears were shed when we said goodbye and I'd had such an amazing time I was determined to work for Contiki.
In Barcelona, I saw a group of people watching that trick with three cups, and you have to find the ball.
I was so fresh, I didn't know it was a scam. I'm watching and I can spot the ball every time. The guy next to me says I should go for it, he builds up my ego. I chuck down €20 and end up losing my money. The man said I was just unlucky and he convinced me to go to the ATM. I'm not a chump but I was about to do it when this older gentleman came over . . . he's intellectually disabled and he grabs me and turns to the scammers and yells at them. "You leave him alone." That man was my Good Samaritan.
When I applied for Contiki, at the group interview, everyone was required to give a three-minute presentation and mine was on Greek gods. Then during the interview they put you on the spot and nothing you say is right. I walked out feeling I'd bombed but a few weeks later a letter came, inviting me to join a 70-day European training trip. During training they push you to the brink and, just when you think you're at your wits' end, they push you further. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
After my first season, I followed a group of Contiki people to Thailand. It became my favourite spot, and every off-season I'd go there. One year, some guys I knew were setting up a resort and they asked if I wanted to get involved so I moved to Thailand, and spent five years building and developing an island resort.
Part of visiting a country is getting to know it as locals do. It can be hard to get Western ideologies out of your head but, at the same time, you can't judge. So I've tried dog, horse, snake but I avoided tarantulas. I also tried to introduce the resort staff to avocado, hummus and Marmite. I gave one of our Burmese chefs avocado and it made her feel sick and she vomited just from tasting it. And Thai people just don't get Marmite.
Today I'm the operations manager for Contiki in New Zealand, doing product development, looking at the places we go and the experiences, recruiting and training staff. But my favourite thing is introducing travellers to Māori culture. A lot of people, the only thing they know of te ao Māori is the All Blacks doing the haka so with Contiki, we introduce people to the history and culture and teach them the basics of the language and tikanga.
When I was on the road, even though it was really challenging, I had the time of my life. I will always cherish the places I went and the people I met along the way. Being in charge of 50 people on holiday, when the trip ends and they cry and say how it's changed their lives, that is one of the most gratifying experiences ever. When I got my first taste of travelling, I loved the excitement of being on an adventure, so being able to make a career out of travelling has been so special.
Richie Pepene, operations manager, Contiki, New Zealand.