How to Avoid Pickpockets and Other Stories

A small brown face rounded the length of booths that separated the sellers from the buyers. Her eyes were deep and her face devoid of expression. Nothing moved beyond the reaches of her mouth as questions and short answers were pushed at me, neither begging nor demanding, but landing solidly between the two.

I had purchased a plate of papaya from the woman she was with. Five Fijian dollars for five of the sweet ripe fruit. I had noticed the girl watching where I pulled the equivalent of $2.50 in American currency from my bag. Her gaze had grabbed for the few fives I had kept in that pocket.

At her second appearance, I swung my small backpack to the front of me. She’s going to try to pickpocket me. Maybe she won’t, but my traveling mama Heather taught me too well to think otherwise.

I purchased a mango from an Indian man, languishing in conversation behind piles of sticky fruit. He passed the plastic bag and a dollar coin into my hand.

I turned and gave it to the girl. Maybe she wasn’t going to steal. Maybe I could give something small. I wasn’t afraid of her. It was worth a shot.

I asked if she knew of good pineapple. Without an apparent thought, she pointed to the stall directly beside her. It’s likely she didn’t care. Maybe helping the stupid foreigner would get her a few more dollars.

(The pineapple did end up being good.)

“Do you need anything else?”

Nope. Thank you for your help. See ya!

I made my way to the bus stop. After two hours in a foreign city, encountering friendly temporary guides who got me where I needed to go, a creepy old woman leering into my face about hotel activity expenses, flirtatious men, beautiful and bored Indian women, a small boy playing peekaboo with me among the dress racks, and a swindling restaurant manager, I was ready to just go back to the hostel. Perhaps it wasn’t very brave of me. Perhaps I could have kept on and continued collecting stories.

But God I was tired of the internal alert I had set to make sure I was okay.

The heat I loved was licking energy from my body. An apt description would be to say the South Island had frozen me and now Fiji was using me for popsicle. I was dripping enough. No matter how much I was happy to sweat instead of shiver, I could not deny the drain it has initially.

I tried to stride with purpose past groups of men who I knew meant me no harm but instinct devoloped in California streets kept me moving forward intently. I could not count the number of “Bulas” called over my shoulder with a smile that did not mean I would chat.

“Wailoaloa Beach/New Town” read the piece of wood dangling over about 18 inches of sidewalk. I didn’t heave a sigh of relief, but I did look over my shoulder to see if the girl had followed me. If she did, my bag was staying firmly in my arms.

I didn’t see her and my flip-flops slapped against uneven concrete to the bus stop.

A stony face appeared again at my side.

Okay. Well. “What’s your name?”

“Patricia.”

“Pretty name.”

Nod.

And then she asked if I had any more money.

I fished $3.50 out of my otherwise empty pocket.

She asked if I had more. If I had my card with me. What my name was. My parents’ names. More cash. Am I staying with a Fijian or Indian family. Stand closer to her. Am I coming into Nadi tomorrow. She needs a helper for something. Am I sure I don’t have anymore money.

I don’t condone dishonesty. But my parents’ names are not Em and Allen. I am not leaving Fiji 3 days ago. My money is never left at a hostel without me.

I don’t care what I looked like with my bag sagging into an artificial beer belly and my hand on my ass holding my phone, I climbed onto that purple bus with all of my belongings and a small thank you to the woman who took me across the world throughout high school.

Patricia, if that was her name, has a story I don’t know. I don’t blame her for anything. After all, she technically didn’t do a single thing wrong. I gave what I felt I could without jeopardising much more than a few dollars.

No matter where I go, each new shift wrecks me from the inside out. I churn with the uncertainty of a different country, my safety, and the creation of another home. Do other backpackers and travelers feel like this?

Maybe it’s just me wrestling with a significance I assign to another country. Or it’s everyone. I’m not sure.

For now I’m on an island, removed from all but the occasional ego of an Israeli and the enthusiastic greetings of comforting staff.

I’m liking one of my new nicknames though. “Locke and Load.”

Bula, Bro.

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Blurred Out.

If something is worth saying, it should be worth hearing. That’s the filter I ought to use.

I am not good at marketing myself or even presenting myself on social media. I constantly have to remind my ego that what I say and do isn’t for anyone else’s benefit. And I still forget that sometimes.

It doesn’t help that I have a high opinion of who I am coupled with a desire to never make people feel inferior or incapable. But I definitely know that I can be an asshole. After all, people can just be so stupid.

But that is a product of the society they have been born into, stories I can never know, and a variety of psychological factors produced by genetics, nurture, and scientists don’t even know what else.

The belief that I am completely unique resides alongside the knowledge that I am no different from anyone else. It is hard to define the gap between faith and reality. And often I can find my mind blurring the two.

“Brag girl! Brag all you want. You are amazing! You are living.

“Yeah and if they are annoyed with you, tell ’em they can go suck a fat one.”

I am also trying to find the border between bravado and confidence.

But borders are myths. Creations designed to keep us functioning on scales larger than we usually take time to fathom. (This is true if we subscribe to the Yuval Noah Harari method of thinking. He is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. An intensely beneficial subscription when held in careful balance with the games we play to survive the present.)

It all comes back to I’m just winging it. And so are you. You have no idea what you’re really doing.

It’s okay though. You’re not alone.

You can’t be. There are 7 billion people.

Rock Up

“Abiel!!! Welcome home!”

A few months back I fretted about how I was going to make my way up the North Island. I was fraught with self-made pressure to see things I hadn’t seen. Try not to spend money better saved for next destinations, but still get yourself to those places you ought to check off your list.

I’m so damn thankful I stopped letting my mind spout that BS.

I bought a plane ticket from Queenstown to Wellington. I listed the 3 places I wanted to go because they held people I wanted to say goodbye to. I have hitchhiked and bused my way north, reflecting on how much has changed since I last did this.

I did it. I f*cking did it. I am 10 days short of a solid year away from home and 3.5 months shy of seeing that home again.

And yet, as I rocked up to Howard’s Mountain Lodge, my first workplace, and poked my head into reception, I grinned widely. Man. I made this my home.

“Abiel! You’re back! We have a bed for you upstairs or wherever you like. You know how it works. It’s so good to see you. You’re home now.”

Yeah. I am. I woke up to reggae pounding through the room. I baked cookies and wandered streets I loved so well. I watched snow drenched mountains show off their majesty. I knocked on doors hoping for hellos.

Hugs enveloped me. “You’ve changed Little Blue. You don’t talk down to your hands anymore. You are so confident.”

I guess I just know it will work out now. I actually know it.

I baked one more batch of cookies, watched Romeo + Juliet, curled around reflections of who I was before. “I reckon I’ll hitch up to Taupo for a night.” My manager called the sister hostel. “They’ll give you a bed free of charge.”

If you find a new way to say “thank you so so much” please let me know. I think I’ve exhausted my quota.

I’m the experienced one now. I remember watching the people who had been here for almost a year or more. The understanding they had that you can manage anything. I get to reassure other young women that they can hitchhike. I can give them advice on where to go. I can sit in a corner of the common area and feel completely comfortable with all I have done and seen. I can go to hot pools alone and watch the girls who are there be surprised that I’m doing this without anyone. I’ve done it. With all the work and self doubt that came first.

“Aw mean! When did you get in?”

“The guys who picked me up outside Taupo just dropped me off here. They said they didn’t trust Rotorua to leave me anywhere else.”

“Come in! You know where your room is. You picked the perfect time to rock up.”

And she hugged me, fed me, talked to me, welcomed me.

I will make my home as hospitable as you have made yours. I will model my generosity off of yours. I will always remember the home you gave me. I will always be thankful that instead of pushing my way through new places, I cultivated the relationships who shaped me as I worried my way through the beginning of 18.

“Love ya, girl!”

Pingponged Intensity

A pigeon ran into my leg today.

And I have accumulated 3 good bus stories since my arrival in Wellington.

1. If you and another teen sprint past a bus through the outskirts of the capital while looking amused and panicked at the prospect of walking 45 minutes, the bus driver will wait a split second longer for you as you come puffing up to the next stop.

2. If a look of extreme panic passes over your companion’s face when she sees a bus coming and you can’t make it to the next stop, the driver will stop for you just before he is supposed to, (provided you are the only people about to be on the service).

3. “You know this bus doesn’t depart for another 10 minutes right?” Yes. But it’s warmer in here than out there. “Fair enough.” The following conversation was genuine, kind, and was a good solidifying reminder to talk to bus drivers. There is a high chance they are bored out of their minds.

I also developed a way to deal with my body’s fear of turbulence on my way from Queenstown to Wellington. Close my eyes, breath deeply, listen to Eminem. (Worked better than anything else I’ve tried so far.)

The city is a good place to think. Most people seem to be preoccupied by this activity, or at least the act of trying not to do it, here in concrete worshipping centers of population. It is also a good place to nurse depression into a worse state of being. No wonder everyone is so damned pessimistic about everything. My most cynical theories develop in direct correlation to how many people I’m around apparently.

But at the same time. I love it. I love how many stories there are. How much potential for creativity and niches. How I am reminded of my futility and possibilities. How I am no different from anyone else.

No matter what my ego tries to whisper in my ear.

I also happily pingponged my way through the museum today. The interactive bits are the best. (Like when they let you play with shadows.) OR when they dedicated a giant space to playing with colored light. If I don’t balance ridiculous amounts of cynicism with ridiculous amounts of happiness, I shall be crushed.

Sometimes I wonder if there are less intense ways to live. Probably. But they usually sound much less fun.

Borax Mines

Four deep, rich eyes filled with curiosity watched me as I answered their questions one by one.

“Is there Borax in America?”

“What kind of cars are in California?”

“Can you send me pictures of the big cities?”

“What sort of music do you listen to?”

“How do you solve a Rubiks cube?”

“Why do you have to leave?”

I’m rarely at a loss for words. And I definitely wasn’t here, but at the same time, it gave me pause.

Why do I have to leave? If I really wanted to, I could have stayed.

And then I remembered, I don’t want to stay.

I’m not good at hiding. Or being quiet. Or subtlety. I hate feeling stuck. I am constantly aiming to expand the places I feel at home so I have more places to return to. I’m addicted to thinking and consequently I always see the possibilities beyond my current place.

With each home my roots grow, and the rest of me shudders with the anticipation of my next move.

Yes there is Borax in America. I’m pretty sure the mines are near where I live.

I think there are more kinds of cars in California than here.

Of course I can send pictures.

Not the kind of music you know well.

You memorize steps and practice.

Because I was not created to simply stay.

.

.

.

And because I’m getting emails from the New Zealand Department of Immigration saying I have to leave…

Putting the I in Write

Why do I write?

I’m in the process of considering this question and I came upon a piece of the answer today.

It’s a less obtrusive photography.

I can pull out my notebook and highlight what I want to remember about you. The pieces that stand out. The funny thing you said. But my camera may just make you uncomfortable.

I stood in The Spice Room kitchen trying to photograph what I could with the gentle shutter clicks. Still it felt…off. Maybe their stories didn’t need photographic evidence or maybe I just told myself that so I didn’t have to admit how little I know about my craft.

But with a pencil, it is not immediately known that I have seen. Omit a name and it was never about you. Rearrange a few words and suddenly the world gets what I wanted them to notice.

With words I can show you that pureed spinach actually looks closer to an emerald or the jungle than it does vomit. I can note the scars of chefs who have burnt and cut and created until their bodies subtly reflected the lives they lead. I can tell you that some of my favorite smiles come from these men who sing to themselves and say “the curries will miss you.”

I write because it’s how I think.

I write because we are saturated with images.

I write because this way, you see what I see.

And sometimes my occasionally egocentric self just prefers it that way.

(also I’m constantly in awe and it’s nice to share that)

You F***ing Idiot

The amount of times I have almost been run over in Wanaka is too many to count.

To be fair. Most of them were my fault.

Some of it comes from a “I can totally make it if this person doesn’t think I’m an idiot” type attitude. Others are from a “sprint! If I was in Asia, it would be fine!” kind of outlook.

And most of them usually happen while I’m longboarding.

“Do you wear a helmet?”…no…

I remember watching skaters go by and thinking “show offs” or “I wish I could do that.” Since I taught myself to not easily be killed by a plank of wood on wheels, I have found I am in the loop.

Skaters are totally showing off.

Because they can. No breaks. Speed. The ability to swerve through people and traffic. Stunts. Hell, just the knowledge of how to stand on one comfortably endows the rider a confidence that they definitely know the world can see.

And it is not that hard to learn.

Believe it or not, I am far less afraid on a longboard than I am a bike. I am far less afraid careening down a hill than behind the wheel of a car. I am far less afraid of the prospect of falling off than I am of tweaking my back injury some other way.

I’m not sure why. I have less control. I have a high chance of injury. I often find myself distracted by the stars overhead or the mountains beside. It is the characteristic stupidity of the young.

I guess maybe I’m just showing off.

…then damn, I look cool.

Something that Prisoners Do

“Why are you digging ditches? Isn’t that something that prisoners do?”

Sure. But I get to be outside, use my body, and I’m not cleaning toilets. Your point?

The last thing anyone between the ages of ten and twenty-five wants to hear is “It builds character.” Whatever you are trying to get us to do or endure, we know it builds character and we know it’s good for us. It just feels like you’re giving us a condescending pat on the head and a “life gets better, sort of and we know what we are doing, sort of.”

That being said, you are right most of the time. If there is something that more of the Western world needs to have experience in, it is physical labor.

When I first arrived in Wanaka, I answered an ad for a job for yard work and wood stacking. I sent a text and before I knew it, I was scheduled to arrive at a suburban address the next day. Slightly nervous and ready to fight anyone who told me I couldn’t work in the dirt, I knocked on the door.

“Hi! Nice to meet you…I thought he got a boy.”

Knew it.

“My name is a bit gender neutral.”

“Well it’s quite heavy digging. Do you think you can handle it?”

A flicker of uncertainty sent my thoughts to the bulging disc in my lower spine and my occasional limp. “Yes. I do.”

Sure enough she brought me outside and explained the job. I was to dig a trench around the back, side, and part of the front of the house in order to install insulation. It needed to be well over a foot deep in some cases and about six inches wide at least. Stubborn and determined to prove myself a hard worker, I attacked it.

Seven hours later and covered in dirt and sweat, I climbed into my friend’s car with a request to return the next day.

My employers wanted to keep me around. I dislocated my knee cap and they asked if I could be back at work four days later. Upon my return I was told “Under no circumstances are you to push your knee too hard.” They fed me lunch, sent me home with loads of organic apples, and recommended me to friends as a reliable laborer. After being gone only a week, I walked up the driveway to warm smiles and genuine hugs. Homes are good places to be.

When you are relatively small and female, there are bound to be stories associated with your penchant for hard labor.

As I was moving dirt one day, two electricians walk around the corner. The first to arrive engaged me in polite and pleasantly surprised conversation. Then the second walked around the corner.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Locke.”

“You don’t look like the sort of person to be digging ditches!”

Mm. Don’t I? Well. “I don’t look like the sort of person who should be doing a lot of the things I do.”

One hour later: “Wow. You’re good at stacking wood.”

The funny part was, I wasn’t at that point. Maybe he was just surprised I could carry armfuls of wood???

Half an hour later: “Bye doll!”

F*ck. You.

That was the only time I spilled a wheelbarrow of logs.

I walked up to my boss. “I don’t really like being called ‘Doll.'”

“Did he call you doll?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. People can be a little backwards down here. I’m sure you noticed.”

There are a lot of reasons why I loved working for them, but I think that response to the condescending sexism is the top reason.

If you are able, I encourage you to work in the dirt. Have your kids do garden labor. Help them see that the world needs those who sweat and haul as much as they need the artists. The fruit pickers, the construction workers, the garden workers, the factory workers, the miners are all doing the things you have the privilege of ignoring.

And to those who have left all they know to find grueling conditions and a culture that does not want them,

Thank you for “stealing” those jobs.

Because we all know the U.S. doesn’t want to do them anyway.

An Open Letter to the MAW

Dear Mums Around the World,

You have brought the world into being. Literally. You are directly and indirectly responsible for all of the achievements ever to have been made. You create life. Not entirely sure where equal rights for women got lost in the jaws of the patriarchy, but probably somewhere around the point guys realized “oh shit. moms are the ones we owe everything to and therefore are far stronger than us.”

Mothers are those who teach you the ways of the world, and wish they could shelter you from it. We have been gloriously built up and f***ed up by their strengths and weaknesses. We forget to give credit for how much they have given us, and we forget that they are human…or we focus on it far too much. They work, they teach, they encourage, and they hold far more power than any other group of humans on earth.

If you are a mom, you are badass. You have raised the world.

Thank you.

Of Hot Chocolate Evening Proportions

“What if I’m not the main character?” I think it ought to be more understood that we should be the main characters of our story. I think it should also be understood that we are not the main character in anything else. Your life is a hardly a flash in the span of the universe’s grandeur and time and all of our delusions can be easily removed from the cosmic scale with hardly a ripple.

Scary, isn’t it? All that we are is laughable. For if we don’t at least snicker at the comedic value of living, than we are overwhelmed by its tragedy.

I spent a part of yesterday playing mandolin the park, letting my moment be photographed by passing tourists. I ate dinner with two of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I curled into the warmth of knowing I am loved by forces and people far wiser than me.

And today we hiked and drove. I ran from a bird. I swear to god these Keas are scary.

It was a good day.