Women from Argentina are not “ladies.” They are strong and beautiful and they tell dirty jokes. I am constantly mesmerized and infatuated by their version of Spanish. It is passionate, flowing, comical and improvisational. They love to laugh and share. English is a buzz kill. Clumsy and awkward. Just look at these words. Gross.
Juan asks Juli if she wants some yerba mate, a popular South American tea.
“Yes. I always want mate,” she says matter-of-factly with a furrowed brow.
“Sean, why are you traveling?” she asks abruptly.
We are sitting on the grass by my van and their tents on a small, tiered campground in Frankton. There is little privacy here. There is nothing to stop anyone from unzipping a tent and stealing passports and other valuables. Large houses flank us on either side and only a small apple tree serves as a barrier to State Route 6. We must look very out of place to the cars driving by on their way to Queenstown. But that’s why I chose to stay here. It’s interesting.
“That’s a big question,” I say.
“No, it’s a long answer,” she says.
I give a convoluted explanation about my Dad kicking me out of the house, my temp job ending, and my girlfriend breaking up with me in the first week of June 2014 and then moving to Australia to live with my best friend in the middle of the desert and then not wanting to go home so I came to New Zealand and then I somehow ended up here.
My journey chose me—I never planned this—but Juli was more deliberate.
“I was spending my day going to work and then at the end of the month I get a paycheck and then I save it. Why?” she asks. “I thought I would come to New Zealand for six months but now I want to travel the world. I don’t care if I don’t have any money.”
A month later I’m standing on the side of road a few kilometers outside of Motueka. I’ll tell you how I got there some other time.
Two tasty-looking Porches with empty passenger seats scream by and I fully extend my arm but they ignore my thumb.
A small blue sedan stops in front of me.
Bronson asks where I’m going. He is wearing a black baseball cap and has a few days of growth on his face.
“Takaka,” I say.
He shoots me a hang loose surfer gesture and says hop in.
Bronson is forty-years-old and has four kids. The oldest is 19 and he is off traveling the world. Bronson looks after his three younger children and works three days a week.
“I work to live,” he says. “I don’t live to work.”
He is heading to Takaka on this beautiful Sunday morning to play in a football match, a sport referred to as soccer where I’m from. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.
He lived in Portland, Oregon for a couple years and loved it.
I say you hear a lot of bad stuff coming from the U.S., but traveling is all about the people you meet. There are nice people everywhere you go.
The conversation drifts to U.S. politics and of course, Trump. I say there are a lot of Americans out there who are conscious about the world but there are also lots of Americans who rarely leave their home state or hometown. Maybe they are uneducated or live in poverty but they are more likely to support Donald Trump. The system has failed and Trump is bringing out the worst in people.
He asks if I smoke as we pull over. He rolls a cigarette and says you can have a cone if you want. He already had one this morning.
He shows me the “Sneaky Toke” he’s had for years. It’s a self-contained metal tube with one end to light and one end to inhale. It works like a charm and I thank him for brightening my day.
We drive on and talk about some deep shit, most of which I have forgotten.
We crest a hill and a wide valley opens up between green mountains and the coast. There are pine forests and dairy farms with a few houses dotting the landscape. I talk about how there are so many landscapes in New Zealand. Otago is a sub-alpine desert. The Fiordlands, in the southwest corner, reminded me of Jurassic Park.
“Isn’t it just,” he says. “A land lost in time.”
I mention that I’ve spoken to a lot of people about the ecosystems in New Zealand and how introduced humans and animals have changed the country over the past 1,000 years.
New Zealand is known for its clean and green environment, he says, but that’s not the reality. It seems like every Kiwi I’ve talked to would agree. Tourism is New Zealand’s No. 1 export, so the whole “clean and green” thing gets repeated ad nauseam, especially from Australians. But if you get off the tourist track and spend time observing and talking to locals, you realize the entire country has been sold off to the dairy and logging industries to the detriment of the environment. Stay tuned for more on that, my loyal readers.
Bronson talks about how there needs to be a big change in the way we view the world. I feel you, man.
The conversation drifts and I talk about a Bob Marley interview I saw on YouTube. He is asked if he is rich. Marley replies, what do you mean rich? The interviewer says, do you have a lot of possessions and money in the bank? He responds, “My richness is life, forever.”
With one week left in New Zealand and my Australian savings pretty much depleted at this point, that’s how I feel right now. I don’t have a lot of money, but I feel rich.
“Rich with experience,” he says.
We’ve been driving for a while and Bronson starts to worry that he has taken a wrong turn. He doesn’t want to be late for his match.
“Isn’t there only one road?” I say.
“I just thought we should be there by now,” he says. “But yeah, when you said that it reassured me.”
Now we are getting close to Takaka.
“So you’re heading back home in a week,” he says. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, man,” I say.
“I thought the point of traveling was to figure out what you want to do,” he says.
“No, traveling just makes you want to travel more,” I say.
I take my time in the mornings because I know everything will work out.
If I need to cross the entire south island on a deadline, I will be thumbing by seven but today I just need to get back to civilization. Three days of oats and cous cous is enough.
I start walking the two and a half kilometers from the campsite to the road out of this isolated national park under the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
I put down my guitar and take off my backpack and take a seat on the side of the road with my flannel jacket over my head to block the sun and I wait for a kind stranger to take me somewhere I’ve never been. I was freezing last night in my $30 tent from the Warehouse and my $107 sleeping bag from Macpac. The alpine chill woke me at four and couldn’t go back to sleep so I got dressed and took a brisk walk to Kea Point, under Mount Sefton, and listened for avalanches and waited for shooting stars. I was not disappointed.
I’m thinking about how this mountain range looked one million years ago and what it will look like one million years from now. When will the next earthquake hit? Time feels different here. Short and long all at once. It is difficult for humans to comprehend the infinite peace of nature. The aboriginals of Australia learned the truth from the desert. The mountains and the forests don’t care what happens to them but they can teach you everything if you are open.
In 1991, the year I was born, the top ten meters of Mount Cook fell off in an avalanche. I always thought mountains were sturdy and stable. But the longer I sit here listening and watching, I can see that the mountains live. They radiate energy. I am not alone here. Woah. Now I can see it. Those long white scares are waterfalls. The mountains are crying. Their mighty tears slice through the delicate Earth. The water roars because it knows it always wins.
The mountains swing and sway with the wind. Ice and rock waxes and wanes. They scream in ecstasy as the time finally comes for them to jump and crash and break into something new. Entropy. Chaos. Order.
Yesterday, I sat here and observed the blue grey slurry of the glacial lake. But some pockets of water are a vibrant, bright blue, untouched by the dirt. Red rocks create islands and green moss grows in random patches. I can hear the camera shutters of tourists. I sent my camera back home when I sold my van and started hitching. It is non-essential. I used to look at landscapes through a viewing hole but now I watch people look at landscapes through a viewing hole. It is a new perspective. I look at everyone I pass in the eye because I might see someone I know. It’s a small world. They are loud, these humans, I can’t wait for them to pass so I can listen again to the bird songs.
The purples, oranges and yellows are peaking out now as the sun rises. No sign of the humans yet. They always come when the sun is poison and the colors are hot. Everyone cares about sunset but what about sunrise, moonrise and moonset? You can see them all come and go out here. It’s one big cycle. It never ends. But it might break if the humans keep reproducing, consuming and destroying. They never learn.
There is a cold, eerie silence at this hour. I hear another rumble—a chunk of ice or rock falling—and I can’t believe humans have climbed these mountains. They can be brave. Or stupid. They mock the power of nature. Thinking they are above it. The clouds are long, pink strands and the stars are pulsing. The skies have been miraculously clear while I’ve been here except for a few during sunrise and sunset. The sun wanted something to splash its color upon. They dance and swirl above the mountains.
I climbed up a rock wall to get closer to the mountains. A young man appears and then a small woman a minute later. They sit on the wooden platform overlooking the glacial lake and the mountains. We watch the soft light slowly conquer the snow and the ice. The eternal fight between night and day rages on. The light changes from red to yellow and the sky is blue now. The stars are gone.
I walk down to the platform.
“I don’t understand why no one comes out here at this time,” I say to the two strangers.
“I think it has to do with waking up in the dark and walking up a big hill,” the small, trim English woman with short grey hair says with a big smile. “I don’t mind being the only one out here.”
I linger for a moment in silence and smile at her response. We all look to the mountains again.
“Well, have a good day.”
Everyone driving by nudges their passenger and gestures at the hippy on the side of the road sitting behind a sign that reads, “HOME.”
It is slow out in the middle of nowhere at Aoraki.
A station wagon pulls off after a half hour wait.
“Hi, Where are you going?” a young woman asks as I gather my belongings.
“I’m not sure exactly,” I say. “East.”
“Well, I’m going to Lake Tekapo,” she says.
“Sweet. I’m happy just to get back to the main highway.”
She speaks fluent English with an American accent because she lived in Idaho and Alaska for nine years but she is German. It becomes obvious when she says Stutgart. No way of hiding a German accent when speaking German.
She shares this car with her friend, a French guy, and she wanted to go off and be alone for a day—but I don’t think she minds random company.
She says she knows how it is to get out of an isolated place like this. She’s hitched before and she loves it. She says it’s so exciting and everything always works out. You can wait for a while but then you get picked up and you think of course this had to happen.
“Yes! Exactly!” I say. “No matter what happens everything always works out.”
We drive to Twizel—which she pronounces like the licorice candy but it is supposed to be Twizel like in twilight—because she needs food.
“I need food too,” I say. “I’m getting really tired of cous cous and oats.”
Twizel’s size is deceptive. You can’t see much from the highway but the suburbs are expansive. We stop at the Four Square and I stock up on oats, nuts, seeds, bananas, carrots, dark chocolate and a couple tins of baked beans.
“I feel like I’m buying way too much food,” I tell her when she rounds the corner and I’m looking at something new called flaked rice which intrigues me but I decide to not take the risk.
“Yeah, I put some things back,” she says. “I had to say OK, Anna, you don’t actually need this.”
And now I know her name.
I run next door to the camping store to buy a fuel tank for my stove and we meet back at her car.
We drive to Lake Pukaki and pull off at an unmarked free campsite on the lake with a view of the backside of the mountains. It is warmer here.
She says she is going to make some lunch. Boiled pumpkin and fried onions. I grab my guitar because I always try to repay people who pick me up. Music and a sense of humor is all I have to offer right now.
She was playing Neil Young in the car so I play a couple of his tunes and then play some more classic rock and Bob Marley. We don’t talk much.
“Thank you for the music,” she says as she stirs the onions. “I’ve always wanted someone to play and play while I just sit here.”
“It’s my pleasure. I could play for hours.”
“I know,” she says.
“Well, I think I’m gonna stay here for the night, now that I have enough food and this place is free. I was thinking I need a shower and to do laundry but…” I point to the lake.
“See! Everything always works out,” Anna says.
She eats her lunch and I grab my bags and walk up the small hill into the pines. The sun is poison. I need shade. There is so much more freedom in not having a car. I can go places no one else can go. I can hide among the trees. There is a toilet here and even a water spigot so I don’t have to drink questionable lake water. I would if I had to.
I set up my tent and the stakes go in easily in this soft ground covered in pines needles and cones. I find a few of pieces of human shit and toilet paper scattered about even though there is a toilet about 150 meters away.
“If you are using this toilet, you are not one of the people shitting everywhere, THANK YOU,” says the back of the latrine door in black magic marker.
It’s dark now and I’m reading the Bible in my tent. I think it’s time to go sit by a fire. I’m on top of the world hidden among the pines and I can see at least eight campfires by the lake. Most are small and meant to be shared by a couple in an RV, but one fire looks like it was made for company. It is on the pebble beach with long flames reflecting off the deep blue water.
I walk down with my guitar and there are two men cooking by their van a few meters away. I ignore them and sit by their fire. I start to play.
“Ahh, you bring music!” one of them says.
“You make a fire, I bring my guitar,” I say.
Leor sings along to some ’70s classic rock and Amit says, “This is what we needed, some soul!”
They are brothers from Israel.
Everything comes in threes. I have been reading about Israel in the Bible and then I meet an Israeli woman and now two Israeli brothers. The trinity is sacred. Jah Rastafari.
A few days ago I hitched with a young woman named Dekel Goldstein, she is short with chubby cheeks and rusty brown hair. She told me people all over the world believe the Israelites are the chosen people so they give them free accommodation and food. She just came from a three-night stay at a lodge in Wanaka. I was just reading about the Israelites and the Egyptians, but I didn’t know people out there still believe this shit.
“Dude, I’ve been reading the Bible,” I say to the brothers. “And God is a total dick.”
I explain my take from reading Revelation, Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus: You gotta get over all the weird shit like people living to be 800 years old, slavery being totally cool, woman only seen as beautiful pieces of property, Abraham getting circumcised at 99 and you gotta just try to take the story for what it is. A bunch of really old, dumb stories.
First of all, I have to say God was such a petty asshole that he caused one of first two sons of Adam and Eve to kill his brother. Cain is a misunderstood, pissed off vegan. And rightly so. Seriously. Cain was a farmer so he brought God a bunch of fruit from his fields and God was like, WTF is this bullshit? Abel was a shepherd so he killed a bunch of animals and God was like, Yes!! This pleases me very much! Thanks for killing all those nice animals I created. So Cain killed Abel and God cursed him to be a wanderer forever on the Earth, so there is a really pissed off vegan to this day wandering from place to place, never finding satisfaction. Thanks, God.
Let’s talk about the Israelites. Can we talk about the Israelites? A new King of Egypt thought there were too many Israelites so he enslaved some of them and then God went absolutely crazy ex-girlfriend revenge status. He did super evil stuff like turning rivers to blood, unleashing plagues of frogs, flies, locusts, sores and boils and killing the livestock, oh yeah, and killing all of the first born sons in Egypt.
Here is a loving, totally not racist excerpt from Exodus, Chapter 11:
“5. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. 7. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal. Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”
That shit is hardcore. We’re talking Trump level racism here. What kind of God is this to worship? He’s also really jealous and he demands that everything in the church be made out of gold. In Exodus 25, God uses the word “gold” 17 times to describe all the materialistic bullshit he wants and if you don’t make it then you are going to suffer. Seriously, God really likes gold on everything. Damn, Trump is God. God is Trump.
I ask Leor about Exodus and he says, “Yes, Passover is a very happy time for us, but looking at it from the outside it is not happy.”
“They are just stories though,” Amit says. I ask about the free accommodation thing and he says there are “crazy religion” people that will give Israelites free accommodation. They have used it before, and they know a few people who jump from free spot to free spot for months.
Amit is the younger brother. He practices Poi, the glowing balls on the ends of strings you hold in each hand and spin. He works as a builder and looks much more laid back than his older brother. Leor is an officer in the Israeli army. They did a long hike today and are rolling their backs out on a wooden plank with an odd shaped ball that relaxes muscles.
Amit says Leor wanted the fire closer to their van but Amit told him there is already a fire pit on the beach and it is more inviting over there. I tell Amit thanks, that’s why I came here, you guys have the best spot. All the other fires are not inviting. Everything happens for a reason.
Leor goes to sleep but Amit and I stay up and talk for a couple of hours.
He tells me about Israel. There are about 8 million people in Israel. Around 6.5 million are Jewish and the remaining 1.5 million are Muslim. It is like apartheid.
“I remember the age when I realized my parents are brainwashed,” he says.
He says he hopes Donald Trump is elected as president so he will give all the Israelites a visa.
Amit tells me more about the “crazy religion” people. The religious people in Israel are very intelligent and philosophical and they can quote people from 300 years ago. Here in New Zealand there is a website for free accommodation for Israelites. You sign up and they let you in their house and they say Jesus loves you so I want to help you. It is very simple.
He says humans abuse drugs all the time. He likes to take LSD and dance. It can help you tell you who you are. It can be very powerful.
Amit doesn’t believe in politics because it is all bullshit and nothing is going to change. I disagree with him and say I have hope for the future. I say climate change will make us realize we have to change. At least that’s what I said when this conversation took place five months ago. I don’t know what I believe anymore.
Amit says it’s not enough to go green and recycle.
“We need to realize that all life is the same,” he tells me as he picks up a handful of beach pebbles. They fall through his fingers. He looks into my eyes.
“The Earth will be OK. But we won’t,” he says. “The Earth will take care of itself.”
I left New Zealand 27 days ago and now I’m staying in the spare bedroom at my Mom’s house in Virginia.
I made a desk from two saw horses and a door I found in her garage and I’m reading through my journals. I thought I was going to be able to write something from all of this. I wanted to write a book or a series of short stories but this is hard. There is too much. I can’t process this. My brain is weak and I can’t get the big picture. I want to smoke weed to help guide me, but I need to pass a pre-employment drug screen so I can get a menial job because I’m in America.
I’m not even close to when the good stuff started. When I left the hostel and started traveling with the Irish girls and the California girl and the guy from Uruguay and the Kiwi busker we picked up. We would camp out and play music and get dirty and swim in the rivers and eat cous cous and vegetables. But I’m not there yet. Baby steps. Crawl before you can walk, right, Chris?
I’m sorry I haven’t updated my blog in a long time but I’m working on it, OK? This is going to take some time. The word document I wrote from my final month in New Zealand, when I was hitch hiking and camping and communing with nature, is 65 pages single-spaced. Most of it is word vomiting but with a bit of refinement, I believe that vomit can be turned into gold. But I’m not even close to cracking into that document. I’m at the point right now where I start to read my journals and take notes and find themes and I end up with even more hand written notes and that is just making even more work to do and then I have to stand up and walk around the house and look in the fridge even though I’m not hungry and then I go back to my “desk” and I can’t control the demon inside of me that opens up Facebook and the Reddit and then I check my e-mail but nothing has changed.
I know what I need to do, what I need to write and what I need to focus on but I don’t want to say it until it is done. I feel the compulsion to read everything I’ve written in chronological order and not just jump to the good parts because I don’t know what I will have missed. And then my guitars distract me and then my Mom gets home from work.
Meanwhile, I’m broke and I need to get a job so I can buy a car and move somewhere new because I don’t want to stay here.
At first I was hesitant about Virginia. Then I watched the Washington Nationals play baseball. It’s like nothing has changed. F.P. still says, “And there goes the no-hitter” at the first hit and Bob still says, “SEE, YOU, LATER!” when we get a home run. I sat down and watched my first game in two years and I felt a sense of belonging and community with my hometown. The team has barely changed. Life goes on. I can be happy here for the summer but this is a means to an end. The Drifter in me needs to stay on the move.
Don’t fret, loyal readers, Stories From A Drifter is still running. The resident Drifter is just working out this whole life thing and trying to live while also trying to re-live the past and show people what I have experienced. I have changed. I am different than I was two years ago. Even one year ago. My year in Australia revolved around working. My year in New Zealand was about learning and growing and being a soul rebel, soul adventurer, soul capturer. I’m here. I’m working on it. I promise (eek!) something good will come. But I can’t say when.
Everything was so easy in New Zealand. I had my rucksack on my back and my guitar in my hand and all I had to do was stick out my thumb and after a few minutes or a few hours I would summon a car. Some kind soul would give me teleportation, conversation and positive vibrations and then I would end up at the next campsite, pitch my tent, eat my oats and breathe the air. Constant high speed Internet, cable television and hot showers didn’t distract life in New Zealand. Life was simple over there. I was a wild animal. We all are.
“Can you keep an eye on my stuff while I go peeing into the wilds?”
The German hitch hikers asks as she places her bags next to my van.
My van is overheating so I pulled over on the gravel car park at the bottom of the Cardrona Ranges to let her cool down. I’m practicing some songs to pass the time. The hitch hiker came over to ask if she can borrow a piece of paper and a marker to make a sign. She is headed to Cromwell to start a WOOFing job on a farm in two days.
“I wish I were just a backpacker like you,” I say and explain the problems that come with owning an old van.
“I wish I had a van like you,” she replies.
“What color are your eyes?”
The French violinist asks before he leaves and I take off my sunglasses.
I’m busking at the grocery store in Wanaka and they stop to listen with their big backpacks. They are carrying everything they own. He has a slim and shiny, jade-green hard case.
They emerge with food ten minutes later and he approaches me.
“Can I play with you? I don’t want any money,” he asks.
“Actually, I have a problem. I’m going on a hike tomorrow and this is too heavy,” he says as he reaches into his pocket and drops a couple of coins in my case.
“Do you need to know the chords or do you just want to follow along?” I ask.
“I’ll figure it out,” he says with confidence.
“All right, how about Jammin by Bob Marley?”
I start to play the chords and he immediately picks out the melody. I sing the verses and the chorus and he follows along like we have been practicing this song for years. I play the chords and he has a solo then I sing again.
There’s a Kiwi family standing in front of us with smiles and the father gives his daughter a few dollars to put in my case.
I thank him. He is Xander from France and I’m Sean from the States. I give him the pack of milk chocolate biscuits that someone left in my case because I don’t eat dairy. He says, we will probably see each other again, I’m the guy with the violin. And I say, Yeah, New Zealand is so small.
He turns around and a couple has been watching us. The man says, “Xander?!” And they can’t believe they have met again. They share a kiss on either cheek. It has been ten years. They are friends from back home in France and Xander tells me he knew his friend was in New Zealand, but he forgot to message him and he can’t believe they met right here.
New Zealand is so small.
“I usually hate guys with a beard and that hat but you are fucking inspiring standing there with your guitar.”
The drunk tourist from Denmark says as we share a six pack of Blue Moon on a bench on the Queenstown Mall late on a Friday. He starts to punch an imaginary douche bag in front of him. I’m wearing my plain black beanie that holds my hair up out of my face.
It is my first time playing late in the night like this and a group of 18-year-olds from New Caledonia are sitting on the bench next to me drinking tall cans of beer. They have been listening to me for at least a half-hour and they throw in 20 cents and then offer me a beer.
The man from Denmark sits on the end of the bench and when I finish a song he leans forward and asks, “Can you play Stairway To Heaven?”
I start to play and sing and when I get to the third verse, I start to fumble the lyrics. He says, I knew you couldn’t play the whole thing, but I am going to buy us a six pack because I want to drink with you.
“Ok,” I say.
It’s a much different scenario busking at night. Instead of being ignored, everyone wants to request a song.
“What can you play?” Uhh.
“Can you play any Ed Sheeran?” Who?
“Do you know any Bruno Mars?” No.
“Play us a love song!”Ok.
I stop to look at the set list taped to the back of my guitar and a woman with frizzy hair and a green stone necklace stops with a big drunken smile and asks if she can pick a song.
I start to rock out and when I start singing she dances and smiles and then she walks away.
I’ve been playing for over three hours today, with a break in the middle, and I decide to call it a night. But it’s a dangerous game sitting on the Queenstown mall with a guitar case and beers.
Three gray-haired English men walk up and ask what I’m doing and where I’m from.
“The States. Virginia.”
“Ahh, that’s John Denver country.”
And now I have to play Country Roads.
They give me five dollars and I think this is a pretty good life.
“Do you know how to play Wonderwall? I knew a busker once who could play Wonderwall.”
The Kiwi chef asks after he welcomes me into his car at midnight on a Friday.
“Uhh… I mean I know the chords but I haven’t memorized it,” I say. “Wait, are you taking the piss?”
“Fuck yeah I’m taking the piss!” he laughs.
I thought I might struggle to get a ride this late on a Friday night, but I stuck out my thumb and he was the first to drive by. I knew from the second I saw his shitty little sedan that he would stop.