Freedom

From sunrise to sunset I am required to traverse New Zealand’s narrow, winding roads and stop at every scenic overlook for at least a half hour and watch the endless supply of travelers cycle through to take a quick selfie.

The three Canadian girls in a rented Jucy Campervan at Hot Water Beach are touring the North Island in just two weeks. Poor souls. A Honda Civic hatchback with a couple from Switzerland and Germany appear. He is here for a year but she is going home tomorrow and we all groan and tell her not to leave. Never leave.

They are everywhere.
They are everywhere.

I stop at the next spot and I think I’ll just stay here for a bit and put on a cup of tea and cook up some noodles and drop in a few eggs and the organic kale I picked up at a booth on the side of the road somewhere along the Coromandel Peninsula. I might as well read another chapter of the Hobbit and imagine I’m traveling with Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves. I wish there was more danger and adventure in this world, but I am content being armed with a camera instead of a sword.

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Not the first time I’ve met wild chickens at a rest area.

I can do whatever I want. I have no obligations and no one to worry about but myself. I can’t imagine being in the group of six Germans divided among three minivans at the campsite last night. It’s hard enough deciding how to spend my day, where to sleep and what to eat for myself.

The boots I bought in Ireland two years ago have betrayed me. My feet feel the morning dew as I walk through the Wentworth Campground. Useless. I spring for the leather Kathmandu hiking boots with Vibram soles. They make me look like a weekend warrior. In a few years the leather will be seasoned and they will have taken me to places I can’t imagine.

Morning walk.
Morning walk.

I sling my hand-me-down Canon over my shoulder and stick my GoPro in the cargo pocket of my brown travel pants and walk though the thick, fern-covered native bush or maybe I’m strolling along a serene beach where the local elderly have been admiring the same sunset for seventy years. The beauty of this place is never ending. And everyone says the South Island is where all the amazing landscapes are found.

I feel the compulsive need to sift through the hundreds of pictures I take everyday and pick out the 42 best shots to share on Facebook. What did travelers and writers do before social media? How did they share what they were doing? Talking? Photo albums? How arcane. What would Henry David Thoreau Tweet from his hut on the Walden Pond?

So many thoughts cloud my mind as I drive down the expressway to Te Puke. I haven’t blogged in eleven days. Wait a second, I’m pretty sure this side of the four lane divided highway is one way. Is this cunt driving on the wrong side of the road? Jesus. The station wagon in the lane next to me pulls behind my van to let the Idiot pass. We give each other bewildered looks once he’s gone.

Bugger Auckland, I can barely stay in a small, coastal city like Tauranga for more than a few hours. Anywhere that forces me to pay or parking is too big. I like Te Puke, where a sign in the library reads:

Dress Code: No gang patches. No gang insignia. No pyjamas.”

Two Maori’s sit next to me playing rap music from their Samsung.

Wait a second, you may be asking yourself, I thought Sean was supposed to be covered in cow shit and breaking fence posts with the tractor. How every perceptive of you, Dear Reader, and thanks for paying attention. Let me take you back to the penultimate day of August…

It’s 5:15 in the morning and I’m sitting in the international arrivals area of the Auckland Airport. A little girl yells “Daddy” and runs to give him a hug. A group of Chinese business men stop to take a picture in the area marked by yellow lines that reads, “STAND CLEAR.” Leigh’s flight is delayed by an hour so I have to sit here and watch families and loved ones reunite. OK, she should be here by now. I get a text:

Sean, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. My luggage is still not here :(“

After nearly three hours, she sneaks up behind me and grabs my beard. It’s weird seeing her after 73 days apart but after a few hours together it’s like nothing has changed.

She is from the Philippines but she recently earned her Australia permanent residency, thanks to her skills and reliability as a chef at the Casino where I was a barista and bartender. Dating a girl from a third world country is exciting and full of surprise. I never know what to expect and she makes me burst with laughter and joy without knowing why. Tagalog, the Filipino language, doesn’t use gender specific pronouns so she regularly mixes up her he’s and she’s.

Once she finishes the two years left on her contract with the Casino, she will be an Australian citizen with a blue passport. Apparently people from third world countries have maroon passports, which restricts travel. If you have a blue passport, you can enter many more countries without needing a visa or extra paperwork. I’ve never thought about the color of my passport.

The Philippines is corrupt, she says. After typhoons, for example, the government receives international aid money and most of that money doesn’t actually go toward helping people in need. Also, the wages are abysmal compared to Australia. Instead of a solid hourly wage, workers are paid by the day.

“omg, the traffic here is so insane!! i can’t stand it. Look at the red lights… Everywhere!!!!”

In order to travel, she went to culinary school for two years and then applied for an internship in the US, and then in Australia. Now she has accrued six weeks of holiday and is spending one with me and five with her family. It’s good to have an excuse to leave the farm behind and travel around this North Island of New Zealand.

First we went to Northland to camp on Uretiti Beach then down to Waitomo to take a tour of the famous glow worm caves. There were options to do adventure black water rafting, tubing and abseiling but I just wanted the simple tour of the caves guided by a soft spoken Maori who ended every sentence with “aye.” He says it takes 500 years for a stalactite to grow one inch, aye. Then he takes us on a twenty minute boat ride through the glow worm cave, aye. The American Dad in front of us with crew cut and brand new hiking boots — Now I’m like him — sits the wrong way.

“You’re facing the wrong way, mate,” he tells him, aye.

The glow worms will stop glowing if we make any noise, but the Spanish family that barely speaks any English keeps chatting and our guide says, “Shhh.”

The boat comes to an opening with nothing but green, glowing orbs above us, and our guide stops the boat for ten minutes and we all sit in silent awe. It is peaceful.

I realize now that it’s a losing battle trying to write about every day and every experience we had on this trip. I could write thousands of words, but no one wants to read that. So here are some pictures:

We attempted, and failed, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
We attempted, and failed, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The filming location for Mordor and Mount Doom.
In the middle of five days of rain and high winds.
In the middle of five days of rain and high winds.
We sought refuge at the Mangatepopo Hut and then turned back to the carpark.
We sought refuge at the Mangatepopo Hut and then turned back to the carpark.
Then we stopped at some pine forests and I called the courier to send Leigh's luggage to the farm house.
Then we stopped at some pine forests and I called the courier to send Leigh’s luggage to the farm house.
We stopped at a thermal spring outside of Taupo.
We soaked in a thermal spring outside of Taupo.
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It was hot and refreshing.
We ran into some real Kiwi celebrities, Jono and Ben, goofing around in Taupo.
We ran into some real Kiwi celebrities, Jono and Ben, goofing around in Taupo.
They were goofing around in Taupo a few days before sailing a bouncy castle across the largest freshwater lake in Australasia.
The next day, they sailed a bouncy castle across the largest freshwater lake in Australasia.
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Next it was off to Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland to see geysers, craters, sulfur caves and boiling lakes.
I didn't know the Earth could look like this.
I didn’t know the Earth could look like this.
No trip to New Zealand is complete without visiting Hobbiton.
No trip to New Zealand is complete without visiting Hobbiton.
Bilbo's house.
Bilbo’s house.
On Leigh's last night we watched the sunset from the top of the Kaimai Range.
On Leigh’s last night we watched the sunset from the top of the Kaimai Range.
Beautiful spot.
Beautiful spot.
The Whakatane Rugby team joined us.
The Whakatane Rugby team joined us.
They were drinking beers and sitting in my van with us and being hilarious.
They were drinking beers and sitting in the van with us and being hilarious.

On one of the last nights we had together sleeping in my van, she asked, “After I leave, is this the end?”

It was like she was reading my mind. We had already said goodbye when I left Alice Springs and it was really hard. I didn’t think we would see each other again. She has two years left in Alice Springs and I am living a life of travel and adventure. I need to be free.

I feel like I’m a puzzle piece in your life and one day you will be complete and I will be so happy for you.”

People underestimate her because her English isn’t perfect and she is small and soft spoken. But she is smart and intuitive and cheeky and funny and when she says things like this I realize how incredible she is and how lucky we are to be with each other right now. She understands me and she believes in me.

She is 23 and she is young and she wants to be free. After two years of learning and developing her skills as a chef, she will be a talented Australian Citizen with the entire world and all of it’s food ready to be diced, sautéed and plated. One day I will dine in her 5-star restaurant.

She asks me if it is hard to always be leaving. The emotions come in waves. I’m anxious in the process of making my preparations and saying my goodbyes. But once I’m packed and charged and on the road, it’s pure euphoria. I can stop at hostels to find work if I want or I can keep camping and traveling.

As we drive to the airport, she says, “It’s so hard not to cry because that’s all I can do.”

The second goodbye was easier for me. When I left Alice Springs I was leaving a steady job, my best friend from back home, an easy life in the outback and my girlfriend and I was heading to a new country where I had to start all of that over again. This goodbye is different. She is the one who is leaving and I  know what I’m doing.

I’m not sure if this is the end, but I’m so glad you joined me.

…And now I’m alone with the road and the wild chickens and the travelers and the sunset. This is where I’m supposed to be.

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