When I was learning to drive, my Dad would tell me that people are stupid. People are stupid, he would say, they might pull out or slow down or turn off. People are stupid and you shouldn’t trust them.
He was talking to me, a teenager, about how to drive, but I knew that he meant it about people in general. I thought people are stupid for a while and then I lived and traveled and met people from from the World and I thought maybe people aren’t stupid. I thought my Dad was wrong. He felt superior, maybe. And then I came back to my own country and I’m not so sure anymore.
I went shopping in a Walmart in Utah this morning and just looking at people I wondered about their lives, about what goes on in their heads. What do they think about when they pick out the milk and the meat and the sodas and the processed foods. What do they think about when they put on those clothes or put their hair up in that way or put that makeup on their eyes. I wondered why they would have so many children and why they all just stand in front of my cart until I say excuse me after 30 seconds, just waiting. I wonder if they know what it’s like to just be alone and think. Do they just live?
I wonder about people when I write stories for the newspaper and I read the comments from people in this isolated valley and I wonder why people think these things. I wonder how people can be so stupid. Why do they hate people who are different when their God tells them to love. They water their lawns in the desert and they drink sodas and eat meat and they farm dairy and they drive big, loud trucks and they have a boat, a trailer, a camper, a four-wheeler. They fly Confederate flags and pray.
All these things I am morally opposed to. The Hydrologist told me there isn’t going to be snow in Utah by 2080 if humans continue emitting carbon. That’s where the water comes from out west, from the snow up in the mountains. Like a bank. They won’t be able to keep their lawns green and they won’t have water to grow crops to feed their dairy cows. Why don’t they think about this. It will be 2080 in a few days. Why doesn’t anyone care?
They have lived here for generations, in this isolated valley, like their grandparents and parents and they always hear the same thing. Life here is one big tradition. But I am an outsider and I have been to the upside down. I have seen the Truth and I have seen what we are. We are wrong and we are killing ourselves and we consume consume consume without thinking. I don’t think they have seen that. They think their god tells them that everything is for them and they are the Israelites. Everybody thinks they are the Israelites. But there are no Israelites. Somebody just made it up to make you feel special.
I dropped acid with my sister at our cousin’s wedding with our whole family in the hotel, below, and I was compelled by the forces there to do yoga in the hotel room. I saw it. When I did yoga I was able to see it. Everything. I saw us. We are all in the twisting, shifting, malleable nether and we are all floating through, in, out, up, down, around. Across. We are moving in it. I saw everyone. I saw my Mom. She had so many dark hands and arms pulling her down. My brother was holding hands with his wife and they were floating on, in peace. That’s how I saw them. But my Mom, she had so many dark pulses around her. It was her Mother, her Sisters, telling her she is a coon ass. Her husband telling her who to be. Her children sucking the life out of her. They made her. We all made her. I understood, just then, that you can’t judge anyone for anything. We are all a product of moments, relationships, struggle. We didn’t live the life they lived. How would they know any better.
None of us are ourselves. We are a reflection, a mirror. I have lived for 27 years and six months and I am here, now, thinking these thoughts because of every insignificant decision and random event. I went to a therapist in Virginia when I returned from it all and she told me I should do what I want to do. Dance in the rain, she told me. Dance in the rain. If she didn’t tell me to dance I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t write for the newspaper and see the stupid comments or go to the Walmart in Utah and see the people. I don’t know why they wear those clothes or why they put that makeup on their eyes because I am not them. I wasn’t born where they were born. I didn’t grow up with parents and grandparents telling me to move the cattle, to get up early and milk the cows. I grew up with sidewalks and property taxes and well-funded schools. I grew up with a Dad who told me people are stupid.
But we change. We see things, experience things that change us. If I didn’t work on that dairy farm in New Zealand with Digger and steal the baby cows I wouldn’t be vegan. I would still be lost and ignorant. Before the farm, before I was me, I slammed the cabinets in the home where I grew up and my Stepmother kicked me out. So I went to the other side and saw everything and I would never have gone there or be here if I didn’t slam the cabinets. Maybe people aren’t stupid. Maybe they just never slammed the cabinets.
The hostel is the state of nature. It is our reality but it is not real. We govern ourselves. We sleep together, we play together, we drink together, we smoke together and we laugh together.
What happens when you throw one hundred young travelers together? Inside these fences — which provide us with a pool, sauna, spa, volleyball court, table tennis, slackline, guitars scattered about, free breakfast, soup and bread — we have our paradise. But how long can this last? Is this sustainable? Mentally? Emotionally? Financially? I don’t know. That doesn’t matter. We are a family of friends and travelers, we care about each other and we learn everyday.
I teach impromptu yoga lessons in the park to whoever wants to join. An ever-changing assortment from France, Argentina, Greece, Uruguay, Germany, Holland, England and Canada. The sexy girls bow to me and say Namaste while the boys stay and smoke joints. I practice Spanish and correct improper English grammar. We are vigilant with language. We play soccer and I scored two goals and got a ball kicked in my face when I was goalie. We play music and sing.
We all have a unique story. No one is here by accident. Some people are running away from their problems. Some people just need a break from their careers. Some people are trying to find their careers. Some people just graduated high school and they want to get drunk and party, yeah! Some people are lost souls trying to find a purpose.
No one is happy all the time, but some people are better at pretending.
What will you find within these walls? Sexual frustration and desperation.
Philina walked in to the kitchen and flashed me the innocent, pure smile that can only come from the gentle faces of the young, female warrior-angels traveling the world on their own.
I know this smile. I’m used to it. But it catches me by surprise and I think about what she is thinking about and what she thinks I’m thinking about and what if we are thinking about the same thing?
Sean, you live in your own little world. None of this is real. But what if it’s not? I can’t stop thinking about a line from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?”
We cooked on the same stove in the empty kitchen. I was making pasta with vegan eggplant Parmesan, substituting ground almonds for cheese topping. She was cooking pasta with beans and spinach. Clean.
She talks to Johannes in German. She has a slim face with shoulder length brown hair, strong eyebrows and dark eyes. Tiffany, the hostel manager, interrupts our silence and asks me why I am vegan and I tell her for the environment. It’s one change I can make as an individual to lower my carbon footprint.
When Philina hears this, she tilts her head down and whispers, “I’m vegan too,” with that smile.
She is the first vegan girl I’ve met. We share a moment and I continue my conversation with Tiffany. But all I can think about is, what is vegan sex like? My body feels better than it ever has. What is she like? I expect many vegan orgasms.
She sits down at a table by the window, alone. I join her.
We talk. She likes to eat, but she doesn’t like to cook. She makes the simplest vegan meals possible. Raw veggies, pasta, rice, beans. She looks at my salad of spinach, cucumber, tomato and sprouts with fresh squeezed lemon juice and my baked eggplants with tomato puree.
“I used to have a gourmet vegan cookbook,” she says. “But now I just do what is easy.”
The next day, we meet again in the kitchen. She is eating a plate of free bread after the communal vegetable soup has been devoured by the masses. I’m cooking a tasty concoction of crushed tomatoes, butter beans, Portobello, onion, garlic, spinach and oregano.
“Just bread tonight?” I ask across the table.
She says she is too lazy to cook. I ask her if she wants some food and before she can reply I fill her a bowl. I sit down next to her at the long wooden dining table.
“Oh my god, I am in heaven,” she says. I don’t think she is used to other people cooking for her.
I am awkward when I talk to girls that I have any interest in. Juan walks by and saves the day. He tells me how good he feels from yoga that morning. “Philina, you come tomorrow?”
Once darkness falls, I am the night porter. The watcher on the wall. The shield in the darkness. Protector of the realms of backpackers and hostel managers. I don’t tell the managers who has the weed connection. I don’t tell the backpackers what the managers do when no one is around. The bourgeoisie hides from the proletariat and the proletariat hides from the bourgeoisie. I am in the middle of these realms for three nights every week, in exchange for a private bedroom in this house and a bit of cash. Drink your beers and smoke your joints, no worries. But if you have the audacity to leave your pots, pans, plates and cutlery, I will playback the video footage and I will find you. And I will smite you.
I see everything and I keep the secrets.
Philina, you are sitting by the pool drinking a bottle of vodka with your roommate, Anthony, the French guy with a topknot and manicured goatee. You are laughing together while I pick up beer bottles.
You both disappear and I hear you giggling together in your bedroom, just down the hall. You both emerge with red faces and sex hair. The topknot is now a mop. You play card games together in the kitchen. The two of you ignore the crowds of international travelers.
You go to bed and Anthony comes out for a cigarette. He talks to friends while I clean the kitchen. They make fun of him, “Who was that? Your girlfriend?”
He is disappointed. “Psh, I spent all day and all night with that German girl and nothing happened.”
I laugh inside. C’mon man, think about this. She is your roommate for the next week, what did you expect? Girls in hostels have to be guarded. Don’t shit where you eat. Yeah, a bottle of vodka, that will definitely make her want to have sex with you. C’mon man.
I don’t proclaim to know how to win a woman’s heart, but I do my thing and sometimes it works and sometimes I am hurt. But what is hurt? It is a teacher. It makes you stronger and you learn and try to avoid the hurt next time. Maybe that means avoiding a woman, or maybe that means kissing her at the exact right moment.
Elevate yourself above the momentary and remember the infinity. There is an endless supply of females on this great Earth. Just stay at this hostel for a week, see how many warrior-angels flash you the smile that makes you melt. Put in some time and get to know her.
Anthony says she is 19 and she is cute. Nineteen. I’m twenty-four. As the week progressed, Philina and I shared more conversations over soup and bread. I see her young face and her young clothes. She is probably tired of every guy making a move on her. She’s too young. On her last day at the hostel, we say goodbye and I tell her to keep being a good person and now she is just a memory. I don’t know what she expected from me or what she wanted from me or if she wanted me. All I know is that I am different from the stocky South African lout who flirts with girls by splashing them from the pool. Different, not deficient.
I am back in college. But this is far from the homogeneity of Virginia yoga pants, north face and ugg boots. Here, everyone has a story. Everyone is from somewhere. But all people are pretty much the same. We all share the same desires and urges. We are all here for the same reason, to find paradise in ourselves and in others.
I’m at a hostel for the first time in a long time and all the smiling young people are clustered in little groups speaking alien languages.
The soft, pink boys with fashionable haircuts are laughing with the girls who have nice butts. They aren’t like the French girl sleeping in her car with her greasy ponytail at the oceanside campsite at Owhira Bay. Here they are clean and polished and talking about going out tonight. I haven’t showered in three days and my beard is unruly. My face is sun and wind burned, tired and creased. I feel like I don’t belong. I’m exhausted. For the past month I have been driving, cooking, cleaning, and finding a place to park my van every night, all while taking the time to go on walks to admire the beautiful New Zealand landscapes and watch my bank account dwindle. (Don’t worry, Mom, I’m doing fine.) There’s so much to think and worry about. I don’t know if I have the energy for anything anymore.
I came to a hostel because I’m tired of fleeting human interactions lasting only a few hours until we drive on. I have no friends and no one to fuck and no one to love and no one to care about.
I’ve been in the South Island for five and a half hours and I feel defeated. If the roads were straight, the drive to Nelson would have been quick and painless. But this is New Zealand. They cut through mountains, narrowly, switching back and forth. The Kiwi drivers have been zooming around them for years and they cut corners and ride the lines like assholes while I stay in my lane like a sane person and take the steep turns at a reasonable pace.
Twenty-eight-years-old and just cracked 415,000 kilometers, my van has plenty of oil and the thermostat is steady but I think she is wanting more coolant because she just started to give off puffs of white smoke as we head up a hill that lasts forever. I renewed her Warrant of Fitness last week and they said the engine was fine, I just had to replace a tire. Still, my stomach sinks and I start to sweat with an annoyed line of cars behind me. I just hope she isn’t going to eat more of my money.
Why do I think about it so much? Money. It rules our lives. Everything I do costs money. I can’t go anywhere or do anything without it. People work everyday of their lives to save it and never think they can pick it all up and travel because they need more.
I go back to my room and take a shower. I emerge feeling refreshed and there’s a group of eighteen-year-old Germans sitting in cheap plastic chairs smoking cigarettes and a tattooed French guy standing by them. I intrude on their circle.
“Hey guys, I’m Sean.”
The French guy asks me where I’m from. I’m American.
“American! Texas?” he asks and I crack a smile and say, Nah, Virginia.
Suddenly the alien monsters turn into cuddly teddy bears and they start speaking my language and we are all the same.
I return to the kitchen to cook my chicken thighs and red kidney beans and everyone is full of life and excitement. I can barely squeeze around the island to grab a frying pan. Apparently it’s pizza night. Groups from every European country are spreading flower on the table, throwing down their dough and rolling it out. Plates and cutting boards covered in sliced capsicum, onion, sausage and peperoni occupy the tables. Someone plays “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance on a portable speaker and the Italian guy sitting on the arm of a wooden end-chair starts to fist pump.
Now I’m writing these words on the patio outside of my dorm and suddenly a familiar scent fills the air. I sniff and turn my head. The lounging Germans say, “You want a joint?”
I’m the foreigner among friends from Berlin so they ask me questions about America and we talk about international news media and Merkel, Obama and Putin. They are fascinated by American news from Vice.com. Especially a story about rednecks tricking out diesel trucks to emit huge clouds of black smoke at unsuspecting victims.
“I hope they are just stories,” he says.
Coming to a hostel was a good idea. Maybe I’ll stay here and work for accommodation while I find a job. Or maybe I’ll leave tomorrow. It’s all good. In the mean time, I can relax and enjoy the town and the people. I’ll take a walk to the “geographical center” of New Zealand and admire the bay and the far away mountain range with peaks reaching above the snow line. The world isn’t such a scary place after all.
They are eating vacuum-sealed, dehydrated Fettuccine Alfredo flown in from California, sitting on folding chairs outside of their rent-a-van covered in a tiger mural. They are still hungry when they join me on my yoga mat. I’m slicing onions, garlic and cabbage with shoulder bacon waiting for a hot skillet by candlelight with my iPod on shuffle.
Americans. Fresh off the plane. Always in a rush.
We first saw each other at a scenic cove overlooking the eternal meeting place of blue-green water, forest-covered cliffs and smooth-stone beaches. We greeted each other and kept driving. I start down the unsealed road to the East Cape, the most easterly point in New Zealand and home of the most easterly lighthouse in the world, when I see their van behind mine. Awesome, I’ll have some cool people to hang out with tonight, I think to myself.
The drive is filled with cows and calves grazing unfenced on both sides of the gravel road. I have to stop to encourage the little ones to get out of the way.
I see the hills reflect off of a still pond and I have to pull over to take some pictures. Their van stops next to me and he says,
“Are you looking for the same campground we’re looking for?”
I tell him I’m going to the lighthouse. I’ll see you there?
I didn’t know about a campground, I just wanted to check out the lighthouse to see if I could camp there for easy access to sunrise. Unfortunately, it is private land so I told them I plan on walking to the top tomorrow morning for sunrise. They agreed with my plan so we drove the slow, scenic six kilometers back to the campground, which was just a paddock with a spigot and an outhouse.
I’m excited to meet them and they want to learn about me. Britney and Tim lived across the hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were both planning on traveling to New Zealand and when they met each other, they thought it would make sense to split the costs and go together. They are sleeping in a van about the same size as mine and they aren’t having sex. Weird.
Tim has long California hair and he lives two minutes from the beach. He is studying engineering and he works for some technology company. I assume he is well paid because he is able to take a three-week holiday to New Zealand.
Britney is graduated and is now working at REI, which explains why she brought along the backpacking meals-in-a-bag and why she is going on about her “Campsuds” when I say I’m going to wash my dishes.
After sitting and talking over the candle, we part ways and I fall asleep early to prepare for the next day. They said they would join me for sunrise at the lighthouse.
I woke at 5 am, brushed my teeth and flashed my lights at their van. No response. The lovely young Czech couple next to us shows signs of life. I give a double honk as I leave the campground, hoping Britney and Tim won’t be far behind.
I drive faster than I usually would on a gravel road with cows, calves, sheep, lambs and horses grazing unfenced in the dark. But I can’t wait to lie down in the grass with my camera on my tiny, flexible tripod to take a long exposure of the purple hues of early dawn.
The Czech man crests the hill with his GoPro recording every second. They don’t speak much English but we don’t need to speak much to share such a special and beautiful moment. We are at the edge of the world witnessing the first sunrise together.
While the boyfriend is on the other side of the lighthouse taking pictures, I ask her where they are from and how she likes New Zealand.
She says they wanted to get away and travel and see beautiful places, and she was surprisingly eloquent with her limited English. I wish I knew more languages so I could have a full conversation with people from all over the world.
Then it was time for them to leave. They said Goodbye and then I said Goodbye. They were very happy and polite and not like the Americans.
Britney and Tim never made it to the lighthouse. By the time I returned to the campsite, they were gone.
They were probably driving all day. Meanwhile, I had a relaxing day of preparation and adventure. I cooked bacon, eggs and toast with blueberry jam over two cups of coffee, waxed my leather boots, sharpened my hand-forged knife gifted from my step-mother, mended holes in my merino wool underwear and socks, and packed my bag for a long walk.
I set off toward the paddocks and forests away from the coast, and as I’m walking out of the campsite, the farmer drives in. He kills his engine and motions for me to come around to the driver’s side.
“Kia Ora,” he says.
“Kia Ora,” I reply.
He tells me his name is Len and I tell him my name is Sean.
“Kia Ora, Sean,” he says as we shake hands. His are callused, hard and dry.
“Nice to meet you,” I reply.
I ask him if he lives out here, Yup, the homestead is down by the lighthouse. I say it’s beautiful and isolated.
“Very isolated. My neighbor is just down the road, about four k’s,” Len says.
He says I look like a keen photographer, and I do with a full backpack and camera slung from my shoulder. I say I’m headed out for a walk and I’m wondering if this is all private land and if he minds if I wander around.
Without hesitation he tells me it’s fine.
I assure him I will shut all the gates behind me but he doesn’t seem to care at all at the thought of some random tourist tramping through his land. I’ve realized the importance of having a camera in hand. You can go anywhere if people see that you are just a photographer. As I walk away, though, I’m a little surprised that he didn’t tell me where his bulls are. I know they are out there so I’ll have to tread lightly.
He heads down the road a bit to shift his springer mob, the cows that are calving soon – and the only herd that are actually fenced in – and I open a gate and close it behind me and walk on his tyre tracks.
There are paddocks with wire-less fence posts on either side of the road. On one side, the paddocks end at the beach, and on the other, they end at pine forests and native bush.
I follow his track to the edge of the forest and jump in. The pine trees are planted in neat rows, like every pine forest in New Zealand, and this helps me to not get lost. Where the pines end, the native bush takes over and I’m overwhelmed by its thickness. There is a bloated, decomposing cow in a ravine. I realize if I keep going forward I will get lost in the dense forest or I’ll fall or something bad will happen and I’ll end up like the cow so I turn back. I decide to walk along the road but then I see a logging track and decide that would be perfect. This is obviously not Len’s land, but he said I could go anywhere and I doubt there is anyone out here right now.
I walk down the path and practice my stealth skills so I can sneak up and capture birds with my time traveling device. It is futile. The birds have been evolving for thousands, or millions, of years and they fly away before I have time to draw and shoot. But my stealth skills still work on humans.
After walking as silently as possible for about 90 minutes, I turn a corner up a hill and see a small all-terrain-vehicle with three people standing around with coffee and smokes. They think they are alone out here so I don’t want to frighten them. I walk much closer than I expect before they notice me. I say, Hello. The Maori man facing away from me jumps. I say Kia Ora, I’m sorry, I’m just going for a walk. The man on the side of the vehicle is rolling a thin cigarette and asks me where I came from. Uhh, the end of the road, I’m staying at the campsite, I tell them. This is a very isolated area and they don’t understand how I made it up here on foot.
He says I’m not allowed to be up here, “We don’t give a shit, but the site manager would.”
He says there is a wild bull out here somewhere and I should be careful. I tell them Len said I could go anywhere and they all laugh.
I decided my best course of action is to head back the way I came so I don’t get caught here in the dark of night where I’m not allowed to be with a wild bull lurking.
I’m extra careful to listen for oncoming trucks and I look for places I can jump to stay out of sight. But I’m alone.
I make it back to the road and walk into the unfenced paddock and head toward the beach. A small group of cows and calves run away from me and I see a big black cow with its head down by the boundary fence.
I sneak behind the big cow expecting it to hear me or sense me in the way that only animals can but it keeps its head down in the grass.
I make it to the boundary fence and – by force of habit from working on Digger’s farm – I check it for electricity with a blade of grass. Of course there’s no power so I straddle the wire fence up to my crotch and step over. I walk in front of the big cow, now on the other side of the fence, and it finally acknowledges me.
It lifts its head. It is broad and heavy and powerful. His body is a mass of muscle and I realize, Holy Shit, I just walked a few meters behind a bull. I’m either really lucky or really stupid or this bull was just really hungry.
Cows can be controlled and guided while bulls are unpredictable. They don’t care how confident you are, they will charge you and pin you against a fence without thinking twice. On my first day milking cows at Rian’s farm one of his monstrous bulls hulked through the shed, after the girls were milked, with the swagger of Gregor Clegane. They are terrifying.
As I’m getting over how lucky I am, I see a self-contained Britz caravan trying to find the perfect spot to park for the night.
When I return to the campsite, I approach them. They are from Switzerland, on a two-month holiday.
I love the Swiss. They take their holiday seriously. When I was a waiter at the Overlander’s Steakhouse in Alice Springs – the real “Outback Steakhouse” – we had to place flags on every table to show the assortment of nationalities. Every night we had at least one table with the square red flag with white cross. They travel often and travel well. They don’t fly to the other side of the world for a measly fortnight.
Unlike the budget travelers I meet, who are usually a year or two or three younger than me, this efficient couple went for the camper with room enough to stand, cook, clean and have wild sex. He hasn’t shaved in four days and his English is more practiced than that of his wife.
She says with a hard accent that their car locks automatically and they have been locked out before so if it happens again they will come sleep in my van. We all laugh with the joy of meeting strangers in a strange land.
We tell each other how long we are here, the second mandatory question among travelers. I say two months is a good chunk of time, they aren’t in a rush and they can see most of the country without driving for seven hours a day. He says, Wow, a year. He says I have the best way to live. Work and little, travel a lot. He’s right.
There are difficulties, however, like finding a balance between going on adventures with wild animals, wild humans and wild landscapes and sitting down at my laptop somewhere with power and Internet to write about said adventures.
And what book should I read next?
When the Swiss couple leaves the next morning, we share a happy, hearty wave. I love the Swiss.
After another relaxing morning of seaside breakfast and yoga, I leave the East Cape and think about Britney and Tim.
They didn’t see the first sunrise and they didn’t meet Len and they didn’t trespass through crown forest and sneak behind a bull or see the sunrise the next morning with magical horses grazing through the campground beneath the magical sky. I can’t blame them, they don’t know any better. I’m on a completely different schedule than them. I can afford to spend two nights on the Cape and then spend three nights at a motor park in Gisborne to wash my body and my clothes and renew the Warrant of Fitness for my van and buy contact solution and thread and darning wool.
Len is the luckiest man in the world. He owns the most easterly land in New Zealand. He spends his days with his sheep, cows and horses. His animals are happy — they graze freely and babies stay with their mums — and he is happy. He can go fishing or collect shellfish from the bountiful sea. And he can stop to talk to travelers who come to camp on his land.
I’m glad I decided to tour Eastland instead of heading straight to Gisborne to sit in the library and write all day. Adventure comes first. Blog comes second. You gotta have priorities in life.