Pete talked to me for about two hours last night. He didn’t allow me to say much.
He is the 40-year-old guy from Rarotonga, one of the island nations in the South Pacific, who has been staying in an apartment at the hostel for five years. He doesn’t really come out much but over the past few weeks he is always around, talking to the young travelers. Some consider him a nuisance. Some might say he has mental disabilities. He is tall and wiry and has a slightly raspy voice that can quickly change from normal volume to yelling in seconds.
I’m on duty as night porter and everything is clean and no one is drinking. I’m watching a movie in the big green hippy tour bus that has long been converted into a TV lounge, late-night joint smoking and hook up spot. The couches and pillows are not recommended for germophobes. But travelers ignore those little details.
He pushes the door and steps up and says, oh it’s you. Goodonya for keeping everything peaceful and quiet. You’re a good sort, he says. I say thanks, it’s just because no one is drinking tonight but he says no, really you do a good job.
This is my first time talking to him one on one. One of the receptionists, a white New Zealander, said Pete has called him a “nigger” several times. The only time I’ve interacted with Pete was when I was putting my laundry in one night when I wasn’t on duty and I heard a scuffle. I run over and see two men fighting in the bushes and I pull Pete out and a smaller Maori guy is yelling “Black Power, Black Power,” a motorcycle gang in New Zealand. The following night, I look back over the security camera footage and see the two of them having a calm chat and then Pete stands up and starts pointing in his face and motioning with his arms and then they started to push each other then they started swinging.
He launches into a one sided discussion on spirituality and being comfortable with yourself. He says people in Rarotonga don’t care about gay people and it doesn’t matter if a guy wants to suck your dick but they used to be cannibals. It’s a hard life over there. He was the smallest one in the family so he was beat when he was younger. He has been beaten a lot.
It’s hard to follow him and half of my attention is on the movie, but I enjoy listening to him. I like listening to people who don’t stop talking. They are interesting. I don’t care if I disagree with them or if they are crazy. I just nod and mmhmm to see where he goes.
Then he starts talking about when he worked on a farm. They had all sorts of animals and he would abuse them. He doesn’t know I’m vegan. He says he would kill chickens with his hands just for fun.
He asks me if I believe in God and I say no. He doesn’t understand.
“So who made the Earth?” he asks.
“Umm…no one,” I say.
“Oh, was it a woman?” he asks.
“No…I don’t think anyone created the Earth,” I say.
“So, who made Man?” he asks.
“Umm…evolution,” I say.
“Ok, interesting. Wow. And how did life begin?” he asks.
“Uhh…well I’m pretty sure it started as bacteria and then evolved over millions of years,” I say.
He doesn’t understand.
I like the word ephemeral. And transient. That’s what life is like here. Some days I am so happy with the joys of walking into the communal kitchen with the giant wooden table and seeing new faces to meet and sometimes I just think, what am I doing? Where are my friends? The people I have been hanging out with for the past three weeks just left and these are all strangers. It’s a low and it’s a high at the same time.
Over free vegetable soup and bread, I talk to a 30-something Canadian man traveling around New Zealand for a few weeks and I tell him my story and he asks, “How can you do it? How can you live here?”
It must seem so foreign and abstract to someone with responsibilities. He has a wife and kids, a house and a career. He can’t just drive a 28-year-old van into a new town and create a new life for four months. He can’t imagine that. But now that I’ve been back in Virginia for a month and my former travel buddies have returned to that giant wooden table and are currently surrounded by new faces, soup and bread, I want those feelings again. Freedom and adventure. You can’t live that life in this country. At least not around here.
We are walking home from the pub after closing time.
We are getting close to the bridge over the slow, shallow river and the French guy takes off all his clothes and throws them all over the street. Half of our group—most of us just met tonight—follows him up the beams about three meters above the street while the rest of us take the sidewalk like a bunch of pussies. He dives head first into the water and I’m sure he just broke his neck because I’ve seen that river and it is rocky and shallow but somehow he comes up laughing. A German girl is stuck at the top of the bridge—like a cat stuck in a tree—because she is scared and here comes a cop.
He is young and he doesn’t turn on his flashing lights or anything at the sight of a bunch of drunken backpackers, one of whom is naked and soaking wet and one of whom is above him, stuck on a bridge.
“Make sure you get home safe,” he says casually as he drives off.
Sitting next to each other while watching the Hobbit leads to laying down next to each other while watching the Hobbit leads to meandering hands leads to the night porter walking into the bus at 2 am to put up the new “NO SMOKING” signs and turning on the lights and seeing you sit up naked and look me in the eyes and kind of smile and kind of laugh as I slink out. I’ll put up the signs in a half hour.
It’s another quiet night and everything is clean and I come back to the office after smoking a joint with the Irish girls and I check the security cameras and see Pete smoking a cigarette outside so I grab my guitar.
We sit in the smoke-o room and he tells me the devil is his best friend.
He is a beautiful man. He is a musician.
He launches into a biblical rant about Jesus, Samson, Nebuchadnezzar, Jerusalem and Babylon. I accompany him with quiet fingerpicking on my guitar.
I ask if he is talking about leaving Babylon and going to Zion, one of the fundamentals of Rastafari. Babylon and Zion mean different things according to different interpretations of the Bible. According to Christianity and Judaism, Zion is Jerusalem. For Rastas, Zion is Africa, specifically Ethiopia.
I start to play “Africa Unite” by Bob Marley. “We moving right out of Babylon, and going to our father’s land.”
He says, Sean, you get it. Wow.
He starts talking about how he only eats good food like oysters and how he knows what the body needs. He takes care of himself. I tell him I’m vegan. For the environment. He asks me what I use for a meat substitute. I tell him I don’t think of it like that. I don’t need a substitute. Before I was vegan I would always think of dinner in terms of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. Now it is just all goodness. I just eat a lot of different plants of different shapes and colors. I don’t think about everything as separate anymore.
After I play a song he tells me I have a very clear mind and it’s because of my diet.
He suddenly starts professing his love for Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old President of Zimbabwe. So, naturally, I play “Zimbabwe.”
Then I play “So Much Trouble in the World.” The bridge goes, “So you think you found a solution, but it’s just another illusion.” And he says, Wow. To hear you play Bob Marley songs, just the chords and singing, really makes the lyrics more powerful than hearing the full band version. You understand. You know your shit.
Bob Marley and Pete both love the Bible so he inadvertently quotes Marley lyrics. When I hear one, I play that song. He says, “Why do you cry for me?” So I play “Concrete Jungle.”
He keeps talking and I keeping playing and I hope we do this again. I want to record us. We are the only people in the common areas and we are creating something beautiful and unique.
He asks me how I can play Bob Marley songs if I don’t believe in God.
I say God is just an escape from the real question. It’s a scapegoat. I don’t know the answers to the big questions but I’m not just going to say it’s all because of “God.” What a strange concept.
He changes the topic a few times and then he stands up with fists and says he quit fighting in ’89 but he is acting very aggressively right now. He tells me he used to get in fights all the time and he never won. He tells me he has fallen off of five-story buildings and he was fine. He has jumped out of cars and he was fine. He knows how to make his body absorb the impact.
He tells me the owners and the receptionists say they have become worried about him these past two weeks. But he tells them, don’t worry about me, I worry about you. God speaks to me.
He says he has lived here for five years and he loves talking to the backpackers.
“I see youze as spiritual beings,” he says.
The next day I talk to the receptionist and he tells me Pete was kicked out of the hostel a couple of hours ago.
Everyone here hates him and thought he was the crazy guy who causes trouble. I’m sad that I won’t have any more late night talks with him. I’m sad I will never see him again. I wonder where he will go.
A few weeks later I look through the hostel complaint book and see a series of notes:
Hostel: Other guests complained that you were behaving strangely and making them feel uncomfortable. You also left strange notes about being “the messenger and child of God.” We are a backpackers and you are not a backpacker. Sorry.
Pete: last night I was helping out in the kitchen. I am not God’s messenger. what the fuck? im just being a dick, I love this place. The other guys accused me of stealing stuff the other night too. Does Ben have a grudge against me because I told him NOT to give you that silly shit… it was a game OK?
Hostel: You are not staying. Please leave or I will call the police. I do not like your swearing or your behavior.
Pete: what the fuck, you will regret it later. Can I please have my stuff from my room?!
Hostel: I am calling the police as you have just threatened me!
Pete: ? no I didn’t?!
Maybe Pete doesn’t exist. Maybe I made him up.