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.

DCIM100GOPRO
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.

DCIM100GOPRO
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.

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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.

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?