Juli is a badass Argentinian.
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.
Juli was right.