Corn

Two-hundred-and-fifty-three miles to Des Moines.

It’s five AM and it’s dark and cold. I’m sipping burnt instant coffee out of the mug they gave away freshman year and eating porridge with tropical fruit trail mix out of the aluminum bowl I got a thrift store in New Zealand. I’m listening to a story on public radio about refuge children who went missing in Europe.

Please stop telling me how many miles to Des Moines. You just told me ten miles ago and that city means nothing to me. It is just a reminder that I’m still in Trump country and I still have a long, long way to go. It’s too early to be thinking about Des Moines.

An Irish immigration expert is talking about something but all I hear is her accent. She is from Dublin so she doesn’t talk like you. And then she says one word and I start to time travel.

“Stuck.”

I can imagine you saying that word exactly how the woman on the radio says it.

Maybe it was when we were cooking mushrooms, brown rice and lentils by the river and our family of mischievous ducks wouldn’t stop trying to steal our food.

Or maybe it was when walked through the forest with big bottles of beer and made up stories about the lives of trees and you told me all the things you never told anyone else.

No, it was when the status of our relationship was determined by the texture of peanut butter and the variety of jam in my sandwich.

It’s before dawn and I barely got any sleep and I’m idealizing women from my past again.

Ninety-eight miles to Des Moines and all I can see is corn.

 

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Just Relax

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.

Good views, though.
Good views, though.
Like a painting.
Like a painting.

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?”

Yes, please.

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.

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It’s not really the center, but that doesn’t bother the Kiwis.
But they make it precise.
They make it precise.
Nelson.
The town of Nelson with The Twins, Winter Peak and Mount Arthur on the distance.
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Devil River Peak and the Anatoki Range.

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.