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.

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.