Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, clang, clang, clang.
As I down shifted into fourth gear to stop at the tollbooth outside Tauranga, the engine stalled out. This wasn’t one of the regular stalls I had become accustomed to on frosty mornings. The temperature gauge had been slowly rising and I had been looking for a place to stop since I entered the motorway seven minutes ago.
I roll up to the tollbooth with the engine silent and a trail of smoke following me. I hand over a two-dollar coin and try to turn the engine over. Crung, crung, crung. The poor old lady in the tool booth shuts her window to escape the smoke and jumps in the adjacent booth. I realize this isn’t going to end well.
I scoot out, get down real low, and push my van through the boom gates with one hand on the steering wheel. Once I have some momentum I hop into the driver’s seat try to start it again using the old trick from Little Miss Sunshine. It’s not happening. But suddenly my van lurches forward.
“Steer to the side,” I hear from behind me. A young tradesman wearing a high vis jersey magically appears to give me a push.
Strangely enough the only thing that brought me to Tauranga is my AA membership that is now my saving grace. If you buy any 28-year-old vehicle it’s probably smart to sign up for a service that provides free roadside assistance, tows to the nearest workshop and a free eye exam at an optometry chain with the nearest location conveniently located 45 minutes away from where I’m staying. I was on my last set of contact lenses and my prescription had expired so I decided to take advantage of the latter. An eye exam turned into an excuse to take a day off of work on the farm to drive over the Kaimai ranges to see the coast and the short-but-sweet Mount Maunganui.
It was a great day until I started to drive back to Matamata. Now I find myself on the side of the road by a tollbooth on the phone with the Automobile Association. Raj is on the scene 20 minutes later. He takes a look at the engine.
It’s hot,” he says in a thick Indian accent.
He instructs me to start up the engine with some revs. He wants to check the radiator cap but we would have to wait until it cools down.
“I recommend you don’t drive this vehicle. It might be a couple hundred dollars to fix it now, but if you keep driving you can blow the head gasket.”
I don’t know much about cars but I know when to trust people who know more than me. He says if I chose to drive it home, then the AA won’t be liable to help me if it dies.
I take a seat in his van loaded with Hindu relics and car batteries while he calls the office.
“Hello Lisa, how are you, love?” he says smoothly with a big smile. Raj hooks me up with a tow back to Tauranga and I search for a hostel in town on his oversized Samsung smartphone.
I wait in the New Zealand winter. Eventually a tow truck backs up to my van and out jumps a burly Kiwi man.
“Howzit?” he says in a deep, cheerful voice.
“Not too good right now,” I explain what happened.
He bends down to connect the winch and his short shorts stretch to reveal the majority of his ass crack. When the van is loaded he looks around and doesn’t see anyone here to pick me.
“Where do you go from here?”
“I’m gonna stay the night at a hostel down the road from the AA workshop.”
“Then I guess you’re riding with me,” he says. “Do you have fleas, lice, mites, bedbugs or any communicable diseases I should know about?”
“Neither do I, hop in.”
He drives like a maniac. He powers through a wide roundabout that I would normally negotiate in second gear in my van. His CB radio buzzes.
YO CUZZIEEEE,” he yells to his work mate.
I hear a gargled response.
“Roger Roger, Churrrrr Brotha. Catchya.”
I can’t help smiling. I forget about my car trouble and just enjoy the situation I’ve somehow found myself in.
We quickly arrive at the shop, which I am surprised to find is still open at 8:20 in the evening. The mechanic drives my precious off the tow truck and into the shop. It still runs, but there’s no way it would make it over the steep climb through the Kaimai’s. He tells me I’m second in line for tomorrow morning so it shouldn’t be too long.
I walk a couple of blocks down the main drag of Tauranga to the quaint Loft 109 hostel. There’s a friendly English couple making dinner in the kitchen and two guys playing cards and drinking a half empty bottle of whiskey in the living room. I remember seeing them on top of the mountain earlier, and hearing American accents. The older of the two gave me a very strange, familiar feeling, like I’ve met him before. But I’m on the other side of the world in a small coastal town in a tiny hostel and quickly forget about the crazy notion.
I check in, find my room — there’s only six — and walk across the street to grab a lamb kebab with garlic yoghurt sauce. I return and take a seat at the dinner table with my new friends.
“Where are you from?” the older American, Will, asks.
“Virginia.” He looks shocked.
“Fairfax.” The shock grows.
“We’re from Montgomery County.” Opposite sides of D.C.
We talk about where exactly we are from and how crazy it is that we all ended up here. Me with my eye exam and broken down van. Them on a short holiday around the North Island. Will and I are the same age and graduated university the same year. He asks me to tell my story.
“After I graduated I worked on Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for Governor.”
His jaw drops. I realize where that strange feeling came from when I first saw him on the mountain.
“Region two,” explaining what part of the state I worked, knowing he was there too.
I fucking worked on Terry McAuliffe’s campaign!” he yells across the table.
“Get the fuck out of here! I was a DFO for Rob Hamilton in Fairfax Station,” I say in this strange encounter.
“I was a fucking DFO in Centreville!” That’s just down the road.
After we get over how insane it is that we, two Deputy Field Organizer’s for Terry McAuliffe’s campaign two years ago, met at the Loft 109 hostel in Tauranga, New Zealand, I mention that I’ve been out of the American media loop for 13 months. They fill me in on a few major issues and then me their story.
The younger brother, Chris, just finished a study and work abroad program in Sydney. Before taking the long flight back to the states, Will decided to meet his brother in New Zealand and tramp around for a brief twelve days. I think how only an American would travel across the world for that short of a holiday. That’s probably his entire year’s worth of leave.
After the McAuliffe campaign he scored a job for Martin O’Malley, Governor of Maryland. Last year, O’Malley was replaced by a Republican, but Will stayed on the staff and fell in love with this new, real fiscal conservative. Most Republicans in America are social issue zealots but this guy actually knows what is best for his people and focuses on the economy. Then he delivers the zinger, the Governor was diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer and has around eight months left.
I suddenly realize the extent of news, culture, movies, TV shows, commercials and advertisements I’ve missed out on. How many “Jake from State Farm” and “IDK my BFF Jill” jokes have been programmed into the minds of every American in the past year? It’s going to seem like a foreign country by the time I return.
I regale the American brothers and the English couple of my experiences on the cow farm. How the payout for milk solids is at a six year low and most farmers won’t make any money this year. How cows are fucking idiots. How annoying is it to change the rubber wear on the milking cups. How frustrating it is trying to get the calves to drink milk.
Will tells me I’m the first genuine traveler he’s met on his trip.
I’m glad my car broke down. If I safely made it back to the farmhouse in Matamata, I would probably smoke weed and play Minecraft before going to sleep. In this alternate universe where Clifford, my big red van, got a bit too hot and forced me back to Tauranga, I had a much more interesting night. I met Raj, the extremely helpful AA roadside assistant, Gazza, the exuberant tow truck driver with the ass crack, Shannon and Ben, the kind English couple eating roasted chicken, potatoes and frozen veggies, Chris, the young Michigan University frat boy who came from Sydney, and his older brother Will, my long lost field organizing comrade.