Meet the Crazies

I never expected to encounter religious zealots or political conservatives in Australia and New Zealand. I thought they could only be found in the wilds of America. But somehow they always manage to find me.

Josh and I weren’t prepared for the cold and wet of the Adelaide hills. We had been living in the desert for months, where the perpetual dry heat makes life easy. We sought refuge at a holiday park to dry our clothes and gear. I made the short walk to the facilities to put in a load of laundry.

“Good morning! Where are you from?” a middle-aged woman immediately asks me, as if she has been waiting for someone to talk to.

I say the States and she says that’s amazing. She spent time with some ranchers in Oklahoma and loved it. I try to shake her off and get back to my washing, but she appears to be brainwashed or maybe she is a robot because her wide eyes seem blank and her smile is way too big.

Yeah, I love America,” she continues, deadpan. “The only problem is that the military is controlled by the devil.”

The crazy inside of her is no longer able to contain itself and I take that as my invitation to stop giving her my time. I tell her to have a great day as I walk back to the site with a great story to tell Josh.

Then there was the old man in the Auckland CBD who found me on a cold Monday morning. It was my third day in New Zealand and I was sitting on a bench smoking a rollie and drinking a flat white between opening a bank account, registering for a tax number and applying for my driver’s license.

“Mind if I join you?” he asks.

I always welcome a random conversation, so I invite him to take a seat. He hears my accent and tells me I must be an American. He says he’s a born again Christian. I get really excited and tell him I’ve studied you, what do you have to say?

I have something very bad to tell you about America,” he tells me, grimly.

Great! Lay it on me. I realize he isn’t the type of person to be straightforward as he begins his exposition. He says in the New Testament, there is a story of the sign of the devil, 666, marked on the right hand of sinners. I finish my cigarette and become impatient. He produces a small copy of the New Testament full of dog-eared pages and annotations and tells me to read the line he is referring to. I finish my coffee. Yeah, that’s great, man. What is this terrible thing you have to say about America?

He reaches into his coat pocket again and gives me a printed off article about Obamacare. It’s from some religious blog and it says as part of Obamacare, all Americans will be required to have a tiny microchip implanted in their right hand. And there you have it, folks, certified proof that Obama is the devil. But he’s not done yet. He tells me Obama is a Muslim at heart and there it is again, my queue to leave.

Looking back on these interactions, it would have been much more fun and interesting if I egged them on agreed with them. I should have taken it further, donned my tin foil hat and thought up some ridiculous conspiracy theory that would make them uncomfortable.

Now I’m in a rural farming town in New Zealand where Christian Farmers don’t pay any taxes and racism toward the Māori, Chinese and Indians is casual. And conservatism is king. Digger’s Father stopped by the farm yesterday morning and we had a little chat.

So, Sean, who do you have for President?” the typical American question.

The first thing I have to say is how the Republican race is a reality show with Donald Trump fear-mongering to get the support of angry old white people. Then I say I’m not a big fan of Hillary, she is too establishment and too boring. I don’t trust her. I’m a big supporter of Bernie Sanders. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now but I never expected him to blow up like this. He is the first politician I’ve ever seen who actually tells the truth and focuses on people, not money.

We talk about this for a bit and he asks me what I want to do when I go back to the states. I tell him I want to be a journalist. I want to talk to people and ask questions and write. That’s the dream, for now.

He says all of the journalists here in New Zealand and way too far to the left. It takes me back to the days of Sarah Palin repeating the words “lame-stream media” on Fox News. I nod and think about how I’ve fallen in love with Susie Fergusen, host of Radio NZ’s Morning Report, and the way she ruthlessly attacks politicians and speaks truth to power. I don’t think of her as liberal. I think of her as trustworthy.

This is the way I see it: It is the job of the journalist to seek out the truth. If the majority of journalism is “liberal,” does that mean that journalists have a liberal bias or does it mean that the truth has a liberal bias?

Next we arrive on the issue of climate change. First it was global warming, now it’s climate change, now they say we are going into another ice age.

I don’t buy it.”

He has read a lot about the issue and looked at it from both sides and decided that it’s all a bunch of bullshit from the UN and Obama to make money. He mentions a guy from NASA who retired and wasn’t on the payroll anymore so he could finally write about how climate change isn’t manmade, it’s just nature. I nod my head and remain silent but what I really want to do is yell in his face.

Then it’s on to Labor Unions, which are huge in New Zealand. Digger’s Dad is an engineer and was on a job one day with a truck driving union member. The union guy assumed they were both on the same page and brought up some recent issue. He said he wasn’t a union supporter.

“Well, what would you do if you thought you weren’t getting paid enough?” the truck driver asked.

“I would talk to my boss and tell him to pay me more. If he disagreed, I would go find another job,” he replied.

That shut him up.”

I think to myself, Wow, what a ridiculous oversimplification of the role of unions. What if you can’t just go to the job store and pick out a new job? And of course Digger was sitting there agreeing with everything his Dad said.

It doesn’t matter what country you are in. People in rural, less educated areas will mostly be conservative. Digger has often told me that he didn’t get into farming because he was good at school. They resent the big university boys from Auckland and Wellington who never worked a “real” job, who take their hard-earned money and give it to the Māori and the other dole bludgers. There are often racist undertones to their political thoughts.

On my first night drinking with real Kiwis around a giant bon fire, these white farmer guys and girls kept talking about Niggers. I had to stop to ask, who are the Niggers? The Māori.

I have heard jokes like: “What’s the best place to hide a Māori’s dole check? Under his work boot.” Māori’s can often earn more on the dole than they can working, which creates a lot of resentment, but calling them Niggers seems a bit extreme. That word has a lot of history to it.

I thought I was traveling through one of the the more enlightened areas of the world, but I guess there are different types of people everywhere. I’m kind of glad though, it keeps things interesting.

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Road Magic

Are people always kind to travelers? Or are travelers always kind and people reciprocate?

I drove 30 kilometers south to Putaruru to get copies of my passport notarized for my Medicare exemption form so I can, hopefully, get some extra money back on my Australian tax return. I walked into the law office of Tim Kinder. The receptionist wasn’t at the front desk but a middle aged man wearing a beige sweater vest was toying with the photocopier.

“Hello, I need to get some documents notarized.”

“Oh, ok, I’m the notary, come on back to my office.”

I love small towns. Everything is easy. No one is in a rush. It’s not like the bustling suburbs of Northern Virginia where a five mile drive consists of 10 traffic lights, high school traffic, university traffic, city traffic, all kinds of traffic. And then you would wait in the office for 20 minutes.

A Boston cream donut and a cup of black coffee were waiting on his desk.

“Ahh, my assistant was nice to me this morning.”

I explain my situation as he examines my copies and my passport. He signs, stamps and presses his seal into the documents.

No charge for that one,” he says as we walk out of his office.

I was expecting at least a $20 fee but I guess his donut and coffee put him in a good mood. And I suppose his business does not rely on budget travelers looking for a notary in the middle of cow country.

Then there was the generous AA mechanic who fixed my van in Tauranga. He was toiling away in the shop at 8:30 on the night it broke down. He said he would look at it in the morning. I picked it up the next day around six. Same guy was there with the same sweaty hair and goatee.

“Another long day?” I say as I walk up to the reception desk.

“Yea, and tomorrow will be the same.”

He gave me his diagnosis. The van passed the compression tests, the TK tests and whatever other tests he put it through. Awesome. He replaced the thermostat, housing gasket and radiator hose. Air was getting into the radiator making steam, and heat.

“These old Mitsubishi’s don’t like heat.”

Another mechanic, wearing motorcycles leathers, walked by on his way out. He said he drove it down the expressway and back. Thermostat didn’t budge. They both trust it. But it is old. The sweaty mechanic said he knows this situation. You get a car fixed and think it’s great and then suddenly the head gasket blows and its a couple thousand dollars to fix. He’s been there before.

Look, this is a 700 dollar job. I found some cheap parts and worked it out for you. I’m gonna charge you 300 plus GST.”

After I paid up, he said to meet him at the garage around back. He gave me a 1.25 litre water bottle full of coolant.

“You’re a fucking legend,” I tell the fucking legend before I get in my van and listen to Dark Side of the Moon on the peaceful drive over the Kaimai’s with a cool engine.

I never had any drama with my 2000 Ford Falcon in Australia — except when I got stuck in sand one night just off the road and waved someone down for a quick tow — but I’ve heard a couple of amazing stories from backpackers.

Shit.
Shit.

Three german girls — Laila, Alex and Ari — drove an SUV with a mattress in the back from Sydney and almost made it to Alice Springs. They broke down on the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t have the $500 needed for a tow.

A true-blue stopped to help. He heard their situation and paid for the tow. Five hundred dollars to three strangers. This encouraged a fierce debate around the fire barrel at the hostel about how that would only happen to three beautiful girls. Damsels in distress.

No! He was just a nice guy, it wasn’t because we are girls!” Laila said, drawing eye rolls and suppressed chuckles from all the men.

I think Laila was right. When I was in Cairns I met three Belgian guys who broke down along the east coast. A tow truck was on the way. A friendly Australian mechanic happened to be driving by. He took a look at the car and got it going in a few minutes. They called off the tow and bought the mechanic a bottle of Bundy, an Australian rum. Before they parted ways he gave the boys his phone number and told them to call if they broke down again.

They drove for forty-five minutes the next day before the car died. True to his word, the mechanic drove out to them and fixed it up, this time for good. I have a theory that locals help travelers for selfish reasons. They know the broke and broken travelers will share their stories of generosity from hostel to hostel then back to Belgium and eventually the story of the nameless Australian mechanic ends up on a blog somewhere.

I try to give back to other travelers when I can. Ono hitch-hiked into Alice around 11 on a Thursday night. No accommodation booked, no familiar faces. The town was dead except for the Rock Bar and its bouncer standing guard. Ono asked the bouncer if he knew where he could stay for the night. He pointed to Kenny, an extremely Australian tour guide with a booming voice. Kenny approached Jeremy, maintenance worker at the hostel and my roommate, and asked if we can help a brother out. At this point Jeremy and I were sharing a six bed dorm. Four empty beds. We agreed to let this stranger into our room.

Ono is from Amsterdam but his parents are Indonesian. He speaks softly and is always smiling. In the pub full of drunk backpackers, I asked him what he does. He is a shamanist preacher. With a beer in my hand and a suitcase in his, he tried to explain the different planes of existence. I wasn’t getting it.

“Like, what do you do, man?” I ask.

I’ve been traveling for twenty years with no money.”

Imagine the generosity he has seen in those years. He told me about his time in Coober Pedy, the tiny mining town on the Stuart Highway. Josh and I drove straight through on our way down to Adelaide. Ono got a ride there from a local miner and stayed the night in his dugout. Most of the houses in Coober Pedy are dug into the sides of hills to take advantage of natural insulation to escape the 40 degree summer days with no humidity and no clouds. Ono met this man’s neighbors and friends and slept in his unique underground house. Some people spend thousands of dollars to travel around Australia dining at the finest restaurants, lodging at four star hotels, and here is Ono seeing a side of Australia they would never dream of.

When I asked about his plans, he said he wants to hitch-hike to Uluru because he feels an overwhelming need to perform a shamanist ceremony near the sacred rock. I guess he found a ride because when I woke up the next morning he was gone, leaving only a note:

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I forgive you for misspelling my name.

I love meeting people like Ono. He presents himself and people give him food and shelter. He gives them his company, his stories and his advice.

Travelers like Ono understand that if you are kind to everyone, everyone will be kind to you. Fast food workers, lawyers, preachers, hotel housekeepers, mechanics — it doesn’t matter. We can all learn, share and grow with each other. We are all just people.

Past, Present, Future

Two years ago I studied abroad in Ireland for six weeks to finish my remaining two university courses. I wrote the following reflection paper on my last day:

July 23, 2013

Dublin, Ireland 

This is the first time in my life where nothing is planned for me. My future is a blank canvas. The thought excites me. I honestly have no clue where I’ll be in two weeks or two months or two years. I don’t know what to expect or what will happen or where I will work or what I will do. My life is mine to be molded. I’m ready to find out what I want to do.

I’ve always thought I would get a job in the D.C. area and eventually move out of Fairfax when I have enough money, but I don’t have to limit myself to that. Ireland has opened my eyes to the world. There are so many opportunities to consider. I’m willing to try anything and everything. Maybe I’ll look into seasonal employment or some kind of work experience abroad. I just don’t think I’m ready for a 9-5 for the rest of my life.       

Ireland has renewed my love for nature. My favorite times on this trip were spent wandering through fields and mountains with cows and sheep. I want to hike part of the Appalachian Trail as soon as possible. I don’t need much to be happy. I’m a simple man. Hopefully I will find something to do that satisfies that desire to be outside.

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Getting lost in Connemara. July 10, 2013.

Even if I do end up working and living in the D.C. bubble, I will definitely still want to travel. I’ve realized that traveling can be easy and affordable, if you know what you’re doing. Nothing is stopping me from going wherever I want. Well, maybe money, work, bills and commitments. But that hasn’t hit me yet. I’m still a college student for one more day.

When I walked out of my last final exam in May, I felt a strange sensation. Of course I was happy that I was done with finals week, but I felt empty. I wanted to keep learning. My time in Ireland has made me realize that learning out of the classroom is just as important as formalized college classes. Traveling through Ireland has taught me how other people live. I’ve learned more than history books could ever teach me.

Ireland has been everything I needed it to be. I wanted to travel and find adventure, and I needed a break before I start working. Now that it’s over, I’m looking forward to finding my place in this world. I’m ready for the next chapter.

Killarney, Ireland. July 1, 2013.
After hiking Mangerton Mountain in Killarney. July 1, 2013.

Past Sean certainly was bright-eyed and optimistic, Present Sean thinks, looking back on the past two years. I was completely broke when I started working on Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for Governor of Virginia — earning a monthly salary which amounted to less than minimum wage — a few weeks after I left Ireland. For the next 11 months I became entrenched in job applications, failed interviews, unpaid internships, temp jobs, suits, ties and endless commutes around Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. I was too lost in trying to save enough money to move out of my old man’s house to even think about traveling.

As months went by my resume and job experience grew stronger. I was getting used to the formulaic interview questions and was firing off answers from the hip. I walked out of every interview feeling like they would be crazy not to hire me, but as the rejections started crowding my inbox I thought they must be going for candidates with a stronger personality or better qualifications.

My spreadsheet filling, key-word searching temp job at the Bipartisan Policy Center was set to end on Friday, May 30, 2014. My Dad, with the new Step Mother, told me he was kicking me out of the house on June 1, 2014.

I had been Facebook messaging my long-time friend, Josh, who was living in Alice Springs, Australia. His Dad got a job at Pine Gap, the super secret satellite tracking station in the middle of the desert, and relocated there about three years back. Josh moved there in January 2014 to get away from some legal trouble in the states and found a bar tending job at the casino hotel resort.

May 13, 2014

Josh: my new boss is Scottish and tonight was his first night and he got so drunk he had to be carried to his hotel room by security lol he is like 50

Me: is he like craig ferguson? cause hes a really funny Scottish man and that who Im picturing

Josh: actually he looks quite like him it was just funny to watch this guy it was his second night in alce first night working and he got fucking trashed with all of us the F&B workers plus i got to hook up with this french chick which was dope lol

Me: hahaha thats awesome congratulations on that. im jealous man it sounds like youre having a good time. im getting kicked out of my house at the end of the month.

Josh: wtf?!? r u serious

Me: yea I dont fit in with andrea’s ideal life

The Step Mother was constantly complaining me slamming the front door and the kitchen cabinets. I never noticed I was doing it and it wasn’t on purpose. She sat up in her jewelry studio and said she was startled whenever I left the house or made some food. One night I was watching a TV show in my room. As she was going to sleep she told me to turn it down, a very reasonable request. I was in the process of getting out of bed to lower the volume when she naggingly told me to turn it down again. I walked out of my room and slammed the door as loud and hard as I could. She did not approve of my flagrant act of rebellion. I was so frustrated with her constantly asking me and my family to change. Why can’t she change? It was clear we could not continue living in the same house.

May 30, 2014

Me: so ive had 5 job interviews in the past 2.5 weeks. i got 2 rejections yesterday and im like 95% sure im gonna get rejected from 2 others. so now i have one possible job that i have a chance of getting an offer from. so im pretty much fucked. how is it in australia? easy to find a job?

Josh: man two days and y can find a job

Me: really?

Josh: really and 22 dollars an hour

Me: do you need a visa or some shit?I think they are going to kick me out this weekend so im trying to think of my options and going to Australia seems like a pretty good option.

Josh: yes u need a visa i got a work and holiday visa it took me like three days to get it it wasn’t hard but ye man really consider it we could get a place some jobs and we could just see the world money is great here jobs are everywhere its paradise

Over the next week I was offered a second interview for Communications Assistant with Chesapeake Public Strategies, and first interviews for Assistant Press Secretary at NextGen Climate and Communications Assistant position with American Farm Bureau Federation. I declined. I was so close. I gave up. I was sleeping on my college buddies’ couch with no job, no car, no savings.

June 3, 2014

Me: ok so ive been homeless for a few days and Ive talked to kerri and my mom about going to australia and they both said they dont want me to go and i was hoping my mom would pay for my plane ticket and i dont think shes willing to do that. i think im going to stay here and apply for jobs and work at my moms house shes gonna pay me to help with her kitchen and other jobs around her house and ill do that for a week or so and i really want to do a trip on the AT like a ten day hike or something. sorry man but i dont think australia is in the cards for me. if i wasnt dating kerri and if i had more money it would be a no brainer though.

Josh: mannn no worries just know uf u come over here things would be dope man but do whatcha gotta do bro but it was funny tonight… wait so i fucked this tiny lil asian chick pretty cute but today i found out she has a girlfriend and literally today a gir came up to me and told me back off her woman it was one of the most backwards things i have ever experienced

Australia felt like too much of a stretch. I couldn’t leave my girlfriend who, I thought, was O.K. with our current arrangement. She was, is, a nurse and she was, maybe still is, living an hour away. Sometimes our work schedules overlapped and we couldn’t see each other for a week or two. We didn’t communicate well. Our personalities were too similar. Opposites attract.

Deep down I knew it was inevitable. That it wouldn’t work. One night she called me and we talked and cried and expressed what we had repressed for so long and at the end of the conversation I asked, “Did we just break up?”

“I think so.”

June 7, 2014

Me: I’m coming to Australia. Kerri and I just broke up so I have nothing here for me.

June 9, 2014

Me: i dont know what the fuck im doing man this has been the craziest week of my life. i just want to get out of here for as long as possible

Josh: man i get what u are saying before i came over my life was going fucking insane an honestly this place has given me an incredible amount of self worth and purpose plus i got to get away from the most fucked up situation in my life. to me this place is an eden man its perfect i get that u don’t really know what is good for u but this place…. its perfect if u focus urself on coming over here it will be rewarding in more ways than u can count i promise

I felt so lost at this point. Josh was my best friend and he told me he found paradise. I would be crazy not to trust him. Reading back on our conversation I realize that everything he said was right. Alice Springs is good for the soul. Especially for someone who was content with spending a total of three hours and $15 a day to catch the bus to the train to arrive at an unpaid internship for a United States Congressman. Life is easy in Alice Springs. The arid heat, the diverse travelers, the hardened locals, the misunderstood Aboriginals. Transplant anyone, from anywhere, there for a year and they will grow into a better, more complete person.

Walking around the outback with Josh on my first day in Australia. June 22, 2014.
Walking around the outback with Josh on my first day in Australia. June 22, 2014.

I realize now that being forced out of my childhood home — the most difficult decision a parent can make — was the best thing my dad has ever done for me. He gave me a beautiful gift: Freedom.

I remember walking through the kitchen checking for any leftover possessions. The kitchen where years ago my Father, Mother, older Brother, baby Sister and I recorded a home video of a peaceful Saturday morning making scrambled eggs and bacon with smiling faces and laughter. I will never be with family like that until I have my own wife, children, house, scrambled eggs and bacon.

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Those carefree days are gone.

I stood in that kitchen for the last time and thought about the far off possibility of going to Australia. I felt an incredible wave of euphoria pass over me. The Past Sean on his last day in Ireland knew exactly what Future Sean would want. Now the Present Sean is in New Zealand wandering fields with cows and sheep still thinking the same thing: Where will I be in two weeks or two months or two years?