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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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.

Doubt

I almost left the farm.

I want to be free and drive south to Taupo, with her beautiful lake and mountains, or some quaint coastal town. Everyone else is traveling around the country and having fun and I’m slaving away on a farm communicating with one human and 200-something cows and 30-something calves. I want to go skiing. I want to live at a hostel. Work at a cafe. Meet new and exciting people. I want to drive my van around the countryside and sleep in the back. No Internet, read books. Go on adventures. Go tramping. Get into silly situations. Drift and create the stuff from which stories are made.

After a day of traveling and facing strange encounters, I immediately feel the need to write and it flows out effortlessly. They are novel and interesting, I think, but the best stories take patience. Some stories evolve and get better with time, like chili in a crockpot. Maybe your feelings change. Maybe you develop a new perspective. Some stories never end.

I wanted to leave the farm because I felt like a burden. When I first met Digger, he didn’t want to hire me. This story started when I met Jeremy…

I stayed at a hostel for my last month or so in Australia. I had moved out of my flat and needed an easy place to stay until my visa expired. The receptionist recognized me from the Wide Open Space music festival and knew I was “cool.”

I’ll put you with Jeremy,” she says as she looks at the hostel notebook.

I get my key and enter a dark room with a small TV playing Spiderman on DVD. There are three bunk beds covered in dirty sheets, candy wrappers, empty coke bottles, and one outline of a human body underneath a blanket.

I hear a raspy, cigarette voice come from the top bunk in the corner.

“Hey, bro. I’m Jeremy.”

I set my bags on the bottom bunk bed on the opposite side of the room and introduce myself. I tell him I’ve been living in Alice for about 11 months, just came back from a three-week road trip to Adelaide and Melbourne, and I’m going to New Zealand soon.

He slowly lifts his fist into the air and says, “New Zealand,” with as much enthusiasm as his hangover can handle.

Jeremy works at the hostel as the maintenance guy. His job consists of fixing shower heads and repairing the table he broke last night when he was on the piss. He can usually be found around the hostel, barefoot and shirtless in the desert sun wearing raggedy denim shorts with a black peace sign bandana holding up his unwashed blonde surfer hair. Just yell his name and you will probably hear a response. He walks tall on the balls of his feet with his chest puffed out. And he is loud. Very loud.

He's a loose cunt.
He’s a loose cunt.

When I come back from work and step out of my ute I hear his booming voice greet me from the other side of the hostel.

I wave because I’m too soft-spoken to yell across the hostel courtyard.

I’m not sure where the desire came from, but something told me I should work on a dairy farm in New Zealand. I didn’t know why or how, but that was my goal. Luckily, there are heaps of Kiwis in Alice Springs. They are drawn to the easy lifestyle and high wages. I had been talking to Jeremy and Matt, both from the Waikato, about farming in New Zealand.

Don’t work for an Indian,” Matt advises me.

They tell me I’m coming at the perfect time — late June — because the farm season begins on June 1 so everyone will be looking for help. They say some farmers prefer hiring new workers because they don’t have any bad habits. They say it’s easy to find a job. They say to expect a weekly salary of about $800, free accommodation and a freezer full of meat if the farmer kills a beast.

It seemed like a great gig, almost too good to be true.

I asked Jeremy if he could help me find a job on a dairy farm. He is from Matamata, right in the middle of some of the best farmland in the world. The next morning he tells me he called his old lady and she said I have a job starting on June 31. That would give me 10 days after I fly into Auckland to buy a car and make my way to the farm.

Once I made it to New Zealand and talked to his Mum, I found out he lied and there was no dream job waiting for me.

I thought I would have to try something else and give up on my farming pipe dream. The dairy payout in New Zealand is the lowest in ten years and most farmers are set to lose at least a quarter of a million dollars this year. Farmers are culling their animals, laying off workers, and not spending any money. That means no one wants to hire a completely inexperienced American guy who used to work in sterilized Washington, D.C. offices and tourist town bars in Australia.

Jeremy’s parents let me stay in his bedroom for a few days while I figure out my next step. On my second night they invited Digger, one of Jeremy’s best mates, over for dinner. He seemed like a very genuine guy. I told him my situation. He said he couldn’t hire me. He has been on his farm for less than a month and he doesn’t have a budget for me. I told him I’m looking into WWOOFing and willing to work for free. I just want experience.

Digger decided to give me a chance. The next morning he picked me up and we drafted his cows. The next day I put up a fence. The next day we lit some big bonfires and I took the thin foam mattress out of my van and onto the floor of one of the four empty bedrooms in his cold house.

For the first few weeks it was easy work and I would come and go as I pleased. Preparing the farm for calving, fixing fences, readying the milking shed. I was learning something new every day and I enjoyed being outdoors in the beautiful Waikato.

Once calving started, he said, “Well, I guess I should start paying you.”

Now we were talking hours and pay and everything was confusing. I didn’t want to be a burden and every time I fucked up and dropped a tape gate or let a cow escape I felt like I should be paying him for lost time.

He said he likes working alone because if something goes wrong he only blames himself. I could tell when he didn’t want me around.

I would work with Digger during the week but he said he would quiet happily work alone on the weekends. So I would sit in my cold room and smoke and watch movies and TV shows and browse inane travel blogs, not understanding how something so trivial and boring could muster 400 followers and 20 likes on every post. Just because you are somewhere noteworthy, doesn’t make your 200 word listicle post noteworthy. I would search for the bloggers who write with passion, who actually have something to say besides the best place to get a coffee in Queenstown.

I am happier when I’m on the farm, but the new rules about money and time relegated me to only being needed at certain hours. It’s a strange relationship having your boss, roommate, workmate and friend all rolled into one. It takes time to get a feel for how to communicate with each other.

After being in a funk all weekend, I perform my morning tractor duties and when I return to the farm Digger drives up and skips the greeting and says a heifer jumped a fence and can you stand here and be on traffic control duty. My mood immediately picks up and I remember that I have a place here and everything is right with the world.

I’ve realized that Digger and I both like having our own space and being alone, but we need each other. It’s getting busy now so there is always work to do. I am more confident and independent and we know how to work with each other. Digger can go into town to buy Mastitis drugs and I can milk the first two rows myself and hopefully not fuck anything up.

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After a victorious milking.

I can’t believe I wanted to leave this place just a few days ago. I love being here. I did so much badass shit today. I drove a tractor down the highway with a full load of silage. I taught two newborn calves how to drink and fed eight buckets of milk to the heifer calves. I shoveled soiled sawdust from the calf pens into the bucket on the tractor and then changed to the forklift to dump the rubbish bins into the trash pile. I rode a two-wheeler around the farm and chased cows and set up temporary fences. I got poo flung in my eye. My finger was caught between a cow and a metal bar. A cow kicked my arm into a beam. A cow stood on my toes while I was wrestling her back through the gate with her head in my arms grimacing, “Fuck you, cunt,” through my teeth. I’m sore and I’m tired but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This story isn’t over yet. I can’t just cut a story short because of a brief period of doubt. I have to see it through. It’s OK to be uneasy. It’s ok to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you want to move on and leave everything behind. I always want to travel and drift, but right now my place is here on the farm.

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At peace.

There is no right time to write. Everyday I become a new person. Sometimes I read back on what I wrote in my journal last year and I wonder how I ever thought these thoughts. I think that is the purpose of writing. To make yourself immortal for a day. Maybe there is no write time, it’s just right all the time.

American Loathing

I felt a terrible gut-wrenching pain while watching the Fox News Republican Presidential Debate after being away from American conservative extremism for the past year and two months. That feeling returned the next morning while I was listening to New Zealand public radio on my tractor run. Radio NZ’s short coverage consisted of one outrageous Donald Trump quote. He said moderator Megyn Kelly, “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

This is the one small piece of American news many people across the world heard today. How sad is that?

It’s not surprising though. The first Republican debate is always a race to the bottom to see who is best at pandering to their conservative base. All 10 candidates came in with carefully crafted one-liners intended to garner the most tweets and shares and likes. It’s a popularity contest. It’s the result of the dumbing down of journalism and online media. Click bait. You’ll never believe what Donald Trump just said. It’s not about the truth anymore, it’s about getting the most page views. It’s all fake. America.

The first debate is always moderated by Fox News, and all of the candidates are chosen by Fox News. They set the agenda. If you aren’t a Christian and don’t believe in God, then don’t even try running as a Republican. These candidates are expected to fit into a tiny box created by Fox News, the Republican Party and the Christian Right. They are all one and the same. The holy trinity.

The status quo of the debate scares me. The way the words “terrorist” and “freedom” and thrown around like they actually mean something. The complete rejection of abortion in all cases. The way God and religion are completely intertwined in a country where separation of church and state is the law.

Credit to Fox News Channel.
If you have, please consult a psychiatrist. (Screenshot credit to Fox News Channel.)

I’ve studied the Christian Right and I wrote my senior thesis about their education policy. It all stems from biblical inerency, that the Bible is completely without error and contains all answers to life’s complexities. Everything is black and white. They are simplistic and can’t comprehend that, hey, maybe if a pregnant woman’s life is in danger, or if a young girl was raped or a victim of incest, maybe it would be OK if she had an abortion.

Nope. Not to Fox News.

The Republican status quo on abortion is that life starts at the exact moment when the sperm fertilizes the egg. From that point, the tiny fetus is an American citizen with all of the protections of the constitution. If you are a gay fetus, however, just stay in the womb. You have more rights there.

Megyn Kelly turns to Marco Rubio and says he has favored rape and incest exceptions to abortion bans. She asks, “If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently, through no fault of the baby?”

RUBIO: Well, Megyn, first of all, I’m not sure that that’s a correct assessment of my record. I would go on to add that I believe all–

KELLY: You don’t favor a rape and incest exception?

RUBIO: I have never said that. And I have never advocated that. What I have advocated is that we pass law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection.

In fact, I think that law already exists. It is called the Constitution of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

RUBIO: And let me go further. I believe that every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws, whether they can vote or not. Whether they can speak or not. Whether they can hire a lawyer or not. Whether they have a birth certificate or not. And I think future generations will look back at this history of our country and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies who we never gave them a chance to live.

Great job, Rubio, if you want a crowd reaction just namedrop the constitution. No matter what position he has taken in the past, he has to say he was never in favor of any abortion exceptions if he wants to remain in the competition. All of these candidates have to pander to their conservative base and double down on the extremism. But as soon as one of them wins the bid, they turn into a different candidate so they can gather a wider audience.

“Alright, gentlemen,” says moderator Kelly. “We’re gonna switch topics now and talk a bit about terror and national security.”

Chris Christie says the NSA should be able to run bulk collection of Americans’ home phone records, while Rand Paul says we should only collect information from terrorists.

CHRISTIE: And — and, Megyn? Megyn, that’s a — that, you know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!

CHRISTIE: What are you supposed to…

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment!

CHRISTIE: …how are you supposed to — no, I’ll tell you how you, look…

PAUL: Get a warrant!

CHRISTIE: Let me tell you something, you go…

PAUL: Get a judge to sign the warrant!

CHRISTIE: When you — you know, senator…

(CROSSTALK)

They skate to center ice and throw a few punches before the referees break it up.

The word “terrorist” bothers me. There are definitely terrible people in the world who are committing terrible acts of torture and violence. But there is a serious problem with using the word so casually and frequently. It’s a great strategy, though, if the intention is to keep Americans afraid of a straw man and let their rights slowly be dismantled.

Think of it from all perspectives. If a strong global power illegally invades countries and kills an estimated 210,000 civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, who is the terrorist? It can’t be the Americans, because we are fighting a war on terror, so we are incapable of committing any acts of terrorism.

Americans are extremely self-centered. We are the best country in the world and we are the global police force and it is totally justified to have military personnel in 130 countries and over 900 overseas bases. If we have an ideological (read: economic) difference with a country, we need to invade to protect our diplomatic (read: monetary) interests.

The system is genius. Everything is so well-thought out and the propaganda is so subtly-incorporated into society. The goal is to keep a large class of misinformed, uneducated, poor workers who are passive consumers of media and merchandise on the bottom and a rich, powerful ruling class on top. It’s all good though because this is America, where even if your father was a mailman or a bartender — as Kasich and Rubio were so eager to share — you can still be a presidential candidate. This is America, where there is less social mobility than Canada and Western Europe, I mean, wait… What happened to the American dream? Oh yeah, Reagan killed it with deregulation and lowering taxes on the rich.

The joining of the Republican Party and evangelical churches streamlined this system and changed American politics forever. Now, everyone in the Republican Party is assumed to be a devout Christian.

Credit to Fox News Channel.
You can’t force me to serve a gay person at my restaurant, I might get cooties! (Screenshot Credit to Fox News Channel.)

This makes me feel so helplessly sad. That there are actually people, lots of them, who think like this. My gut reaction is to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and make them travel the world and try to talk like that in any other country in the world and see what happens.

Carol Fox brings up the same self-centered worldview I mentioned earlier. White, heterosexual, God-fearing, Bible-thumping, gun-owning Americans are the most important people in the world. We shouldn’t worry about the possibility of gay people being “prosecuted” and discriminated against, we should be worrying about the Real Americans who don’t like these faggots being allowed to have the same rights that I enjoy. I mean, for heaven’s sake, how am I supposed to explain two men kissing to my five-year-old daughter?

Watching the Fox News debate at a time when the only other American media I have recently consumed is the new season of Rick and Morty is like only watching Damo and Darren videos to understand contemporary social issues of Australia. I can’t imagine a politician from New Zealand saying Scott Walker’s quote: “I’m certainly an imperfect man. And it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins.” I know this debate is extreme and it doesn’t accurately characterize what America is all about.

I actually have a lot of hope for America. Future generations won’t look at us as baby killing barbarians as Rubio predicts. They will wonder why we didn’t legalize gay marriage and allow women to have control over their bodies earlier.

Historians are going to look back on the Obama years as a transformative time for America. He will be remembered as one of the best Presidents of modern history. He is the first African-American president, elected a short 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. He passed comprehensive health care reform resulting in millions of Americans having access to affordable health insurance. He ended one inherited war and scaled down another. Gay marriage was legalized under his term. Recreational marijuana was passed in three states.

America is changing and it is only going to get better. We are becoming more diverse and our national skin color is getting darker. We are changing our minds on social issues and economic justice is becoming an issue that cannot be avoided. It doesn’t matter what Donald Trump said today. What matters is how he will be remembered: as a gigantic asshole.

The Untouched Homeland

I feel extremely lucky to be from the United States. No, I don’t think it is the best country in the world. There is alarmingly high income inequality. Racism is ingrained into the social and economic system. There are regular mass shootings. Health care is privatized. Corporations are people. Money is speech.

I feel lucky to be an American because I can travel around America whenever I want. No visa required. I can stay there for as long as I want and do whatever I want. It’s so exciting.

Before I started traveling, I thought everyone hated America and Americans. After 13.5 months of meeting people from all over the world, working behind bars and espresso machines, living in hostels and flats and staying at friendly houses, I’ve realized it’s quite the opposite.

Everyone wants to go to America. People from all over the world have watched American movies their entire lives and they want to see Times Square, Hollywood, Las Vegas. They ask me if I’ve seen any movie stars and do I own any guns. Then they tell me about their aunt or brother or step-father who lived in Chicago for five years or they want to talk about how dangerous it is but it’s OK because they could easily disarm a man with a gun.

Usually if an older Australian or New Zealander has traveled to America, they do it big. They are the grey nomads who roam the world after retirement. They tell me they rented a camper van and traveled from Washington to Nevada to North Dakota to Louisiana to Virginia to Maine. They comment on how very few Americans travel, even to their neighboring states. Sadly, I’m guilty. Tennessee and Kentucky are adjacent to Virginia, but I’ve never been. These nomads remind of how little I have seen of my country.

Caravan park full of old people in Port Vincent, near Adelaide.
Caravan park full of old people in Port Vincent, near Adelaide.

I’ve traveled all over the East Coast. Family in the North East, ex-girlfriend went to Clemson University in South Carolina, and my grandparents — of course — have a condo in Florida. I’ve visited some family in Oregon and took a trip to California after my little sister was Miss Virginia and we had to go to the nationals. I’ve skipped over the entire middle area. There is so much land there. I need to see what that’s all about. I feel like it is a foreign country.

I’m lucky because traveling and working in America is very hard if you don’t have a US passport. The United States only has reciprocal working holiday agreements with five countries: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and South Korea. That’s a lot less than most other developed nations.

Last night I talked to Hannah, a German girl who just came over to New Zealand after her Australian working holiday visa ended. She made me realize that travelers who want to work and holiday in America have to get creative. Hannah is looking into working as a summer camp counselor. There are programs that hire foreigners for three months to play team building games with little American boys and girls. The summer camp organizations apply for the work visa, pay for flights and accommodation and include three weeks of free travel time. These opportunities, however, are much more complicated than applying for a working holiday visa and hearing back in three days.

Europeans like Hannah have the benefit of easily traveling around the Eurozone, but there are 50 unique mini-countries I can choose from. The only downside is that Americans inhabit all of them.

Working in hospitality in a tourist town in Australia has taught me that Americans are by far the worst customers. They come in busloads to see Uluru and I can spot the yanks from a mile away. It’s the pure white New Balance tennis shoes purchased the day before the flight, the mispronunciation of Melbourne, and the general disregard for manners. Stereotypes are dangerous — there are plenty of considerate Americans — but this one is usually true.

They think because their tour includes a free breakfast, they can blow right past the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign and somehow completely ignore the guy standing behind the desk asking for their room number.

As soon as I started to criticize American tourists, my co-workers suddenly realized they can speak freely.

Why don’t they ever say thank you?” Sonny, my manager, would say.

“They think they own the world,” said Maureen, the morning supervisor.

The problem is simple. Americans are used to their waiters and bartenders being forced to either give good service or go home empty handed. The two dollars an hour they earn in their fortnightly paycheck is a pittance. If they forgot to bring that bottle of ketchup table eight requested 15 minutes ago, they just lost money.

Meanwhile, here I am staring at my phone behind a pool-side cafe in Australia, getting paid $24.60 AUD ($17.97 USD) an hour regardless of whether if I serve one cappuccino or 20 cocktails. If I’m slightly rude or inattentive to the occasional customer, my paycheck doesn’t change. The American tipping system, however, forces the waiters and bartenders to resent their co-workers and teaches the customer that they are the center of the universe. It’s capitalism at its finest. They have been trained to think they are entitled to everything and if something is different from the way it is back home, they don’t like it.

Umm, excuse me, what kind of bacon is this?” It’s the kind of bacon that won’t cause you to have a premature heart attack. It’s what the rest of the world eats.

Americans don’t like none of that fancy espresso coffee either.

“I just want a regular cup of coffee!” No worries, sounds like you want a long black. No? You just want a regular black coffee? Uhh, all we have is espresso. Can I please just make you a flat white? You’re not at the Waffle House, try something new.

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Leigh holding the last cup of coffee I made in Australia.

They are loud and they have no self-awareness. There was an American woman with a slight southern accent who barged into the restaurant to refill her water bottle during the lull between brekkie and lunch. The general manager was having an important meeting with a client near the bar where I was polishing water glasses in silence.

“You don’t look Australian! Where are you from?” she asks Rena, the unsmiling, overworked and under-appreciated morning chef in the open kitchen. We can’t hear her response from the other side of the restaurant — I assume she said Sri Lanka — but everyone is taken aback by the loud American.

How’d’ya end up here?” she asks. This became my go-to annoying American tourist impersonation phrase.

It is certainly not the Americans I’ve met abroad who have changed my mind about the untouched homeland, it’s everyone else I’ve met along the way. It’s the adventurous Aussies, the curious Kiwis, the happy-go-lucky European backpackers on a gap year, the incredibly brave Asian travelers a who barely speak english: They all tell me they want to go to America. If everyone else wants to see this country I grew up in, shouldn’t I?

I would have never viewed America as such a diverse land with amazing landmarks and opportunities if I never left. I’ll just have to make it my mission to find the state with the least annoying people.