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.

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.

“Like a Slingshot, Eh?”

I entered a travel writing competition on the transformational power of travel. I realized I write because I like to and I hate being judged for it. This is the first competition I have participated in for my writing. Here’s hoping.

“Like a Slingshot, Eh?”

My fingers strolled up the neck of my mandolin, wishing for the experience only practice gives. However if wishes were fishes, we wouldn’t have a severe overfishing problem in our oceans, so I set my instrument aside and began learning foreign words from the backpackers sitting nearby.

Bat’se. Czech for “afraid.”

People often choose to tell travelers that we are brave. They act as though our discomfort within the comfortable is something to be deeply admired. They tell us that courage is being fearful and doing it anyway.

But to be honest, most of us just feel like we are backflipping off the tightrope spanning bravery and stupidity.

I entered my first solo venture to New Zealand terrified of ATMs and banks. I knew nearly nothing of cooking and it would be my first experience in applying for a job. I had no clue what I was doing. On the worst evenings, I would curl up beneath the covers of a borrowed bed, tell myself “But I’m doing it anyway,” and find a way to move forward.

Provalo. Italian for “try it” or “prove it.”

Comparisons run rampant through hostels and travelers. The constant appraisal of your priorities becomes exhausting. The drinkers, the campers, the partiers, the hitchhikers, and those who fit all of the above share rooms and subject themselves to the scrutiny of social interaction. But I don’t fit.

I value hiking.

But not as much as the Englishman who chose to hike the length of New Zealand.

I value home.

But not as much as the German who dreamed of being home for Christmas and will likely not return to this part of the world.

I value community.

But not as much as the Irish girl who stayed at her hostel job for nearly the full duration of her working holiday.

At what point will I realize my values will never align with another’s and my achievements can only matter to me? Glancing at dusty camping gear and watching the intrepid walkers taking on mountains, I breathe deeply to remind myself there is nothing to prove and everything to try.

Selbstbewusstsein. German for “self confidence.”

I adore the moments of falling in love with a stranger, not for their body, but for something I cannot explain. I don’t speak to them, but I watch them, glance behind me, and wish I was wearing sunglasses so my gaze could linger. Some strange magnetism, or maybe just their style, drew me in for that space. My favorites are the confident ones. Their stride catches my eye and I wonder what inspired their sureness of self. Who was inspired from childhood and who found it in the satisfaction of jobs well done? Who learned to love themselves from a significant other and who chose to reinvent themselves?

And which of them is just a bit of an arrogant prick?

My gait has changed since being away from home. I walk and wonder if others see the person I have become. The limp from a chronic injury is fading and my shoulders are straighter with the experience of being alone. Even on my worst days, I find myself smiling with the privilege of wandering the world.

For comfort zones expand and life becomes a process of exploring its boundaries.

Jilear. Peruvian Spanish for “flirt.”

“May I kiss you?”

There are many reactions to that simple question. My favorite is the look of surprise. “I mean sure. But why?”

Why not? I find you attractive. Perhaps I just want to know how you taste. Perhaps it is my way of telling you that you are absolutely fascinating and worth my time.

Or perhaps it is a desire to grow a little more aware.

I don’t measure my growth as time passes overseas, but if I did, I would observe who I was at each kiss. Nervous and unsure. Temporarily infatuated, but aware of my own beauty. Amazed and willing to take the first step. Mutually attracted and curious. And straight up “I wonder what would happen.”

Sometimes I ponder who I would be if I was still home. Possibly searching for some relationship built to last or discovering my polyamorous nature while surrounded by people whose opinion I fear. In its own way, it would still be a journey. But there is something about the average American mentality that avoids those odd girls rocking faded blue hair who ask for a kiss.

Or maybe I just wasn’t looking before I left.

Transformera. Swedish for “transform.”

“You are facing new things all the time, Abiel. People who haven’t had to deal with that will never quite understand.”

Mom somehow manages to say it best.

I worry about coming home. I left just after highschool. I will return God knows when. I chose travel as my first adult lifestyle and the chrysalis I emerged from, cannot be what I return to. I guess it is meant to be just another adventure, another season of transformation.

Yet even with this thought process, you can never go back. Not to a place, not to a memory, and definitely not in time. You can only watch yourself accelerate towards the end.

“Time is relative and linear, but it always seems to go faster.”

“Well maybe time is like a slingshot, eh?”

Maybe so, my friend. Maybe so.

Welcome to the Whānau

The past few days I have sat wondering if I’m truly a traveling type. I seem to have a hard time with the whole “3 days here, 1 night here, just keep moving” thing. Maybe I’ll get better at it as I move on, but I have a deep need to feel at home. I spent a month in Wellington, three months in National Park, and almost two weeks in Rotorua. Each place I have cultivated friendships and connections and a feeling of home.

I sat and worried myself into a corner, trying to figure out why I can’t bring myself to just take my backpack and stick my thumb out to the next spot.

Today I learned why.

“Abiel would you like to come to my women’s meeting? It’s just a small group of us learning how to rediscover ourselves through this program.”

Of course!

I found myself in a cozy church with a bowl of candies, a pile of magazines, and a large orange piece of paper set out on the table. The semi circle of five ladies each greeted me and settled into the next hour with a curious mixture of obligation and enthusiasm, cutting out clippings representing our identity. (I greatly enjoy things of that nature.)

At the end of the meeting, the things I had said in the middle of it apparently hit home and I got some of the biggest hugs I’d ever received.

From there I went to Anthea’s grandmother’s house.

Upon leaving National Park, I had been given a beautiful NZ jade necklace from my manager and her family. “Have it blessed by a minister and it will never leave you.”

It just so happened that Anthea’s grandmother and aunt were both ministers.

I walked into a home lit by yellow bulbs and papered with photographs of a family stretching further than my Western understanding could grasp.

Five minutes later, my hands were held by the soft weathered palms of two Maori women pouring their belief in God into my necklace and life.

“Would you like a cup of tea? Biscuits? I’ll pick you and Judaea up for church on Sunday. You’re how old?!”

Tears came to my eyes as I pondered the privilege of these moments. Were I simply to move on, drifting only with the wind, the roots I cherish would never land. I could not find myself in situations such as these: cared for by some of the most interesting and beautiful people, willing to love me as I love them.

“You’re whānau (family) now. You’re never getting rid of us,” Judaea chuckled at me when I told her of my evening.

Whānau. I think I’m just fine with that.

Practice Dying

“What is the hardest part of being on the trail with people?”

“They get boring.”

I have been reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It basically talks about death, life, and meditation. I’ve been thinking a lot about these topics and the futility of ignoring and avoiding death. At literally any moment we could die. I had a person tell a suicidal friend that they didn’t want to continue a close friendship because they didn’t want to become close to someone who could die at any moment.
I swear if I was in America that person would not be having a good day right now.
But that’s not the point of this. The point is death is inevitable, anyone could die at any moment, and everything Western culture perpetuates is a facade trying to help us forget that fact.

As I was talking to a new friend who is in the process of hiking the length of New Zealand, I realized that so many people choose to find themselves in the clutches of futile worry and allow themselves to become uninterested in the world around them.

I don’t quite understand.

Perhaps it is because we feel that if we allow ourselves to find everything fascinating, we reduce our problems to the rather minuscule thing they are. (I understand that there are many people who are dealing with actual very difficult problems. Trying to survive war, starvation, natural disasters, and many other things are not small problems. My readership though is primarily made up of individuals privileged enough to avoid such things.)

Nor am I trying to say that life is easy. It isn’t. It hasn’t been. It never will be. Period. Life is change and change is our chance to practice dying. Therefore, life isn’t easy.

But,

Our world is overwhelmingly full of beautiful things and interesting things to learn. I have had two people ask me if I feel fully alive now that I am in New Zealand. I responded that yes I do feel fully alive, but I did before I came. Before coming to New Zealand I was trying to learn guitar (work in progress-will update next time I actually pick one up to practice). I pointed out every butterfly I saw and complimented people with cool hair. I planned a day trip up to Sequoia National Park on the $15 shuttle with my best friend. I let myself love where I was and made it beautiful, even when I was ready to be in New Zealand.

Now I’m in New Zealand, I’ve taught myself to longboard. I weaseled my way into volunteer firefighter training. I still point out every butterfly I see and I compliment people on their hair.

“Though we travel the world over in search of the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Travel does not automatically make you interesting. As someone around a LOT of travelers, I can verify this. It is what you pull from your travels. How are you at conversation? Can you listen? Do you need a drink in your hand in order to be comfortable or can you be drawn into the life experience of people ten years older, or younger, than you? What do you love? You think birds are cool? Awesome! What’s your favorite? Please please please get excited about it!

Have you ever watched someone in love with something talk? Not someone, but something. They smile and gesture and laugh as they speak of clouds, Jazz, herbs, fitness, food, baking, life.

Read. Watch butterflies or documentaries. Be bad at something. Color your hair. Look up a YouTube tutorial on hip hop dance and shut the bathroom door as you move. Go for a walk and wander into a random store. Find a moment and watch the sunset.

Be alone.

If you can be alone, without music, without a person, without a device, you will watch the world and even as we find ourselves barreling towards a death we do not understand, we will be living.

I Got a Milkshake Out of It

“Oh you used to install these? Can you break mine?”

I curled against the car door, my head braced against my stuffed Eeyore and the glass of the window. Drunk backpackers, teenagers, and homeless mingled in the 3am fluorescent lighting of Taupo’s McDonald’s. My eyes drooped shut as Moritz and I sat waiting for our coworker to come back with food. We were not planning on being awake this late…or early depending on how you look at it.

We’d had wonderful intentions for this outing. My roommate’s friend, Natasha, from his Fiji visit had come to visit National Park and we quickly grew to love her. She extended her stay and one of my coworkers, Amy, offered to take her to Taupo to catch the 1:20am bus to Northland. She figured we’d stop at the local hot springs first and be home by 2:30am.

I’m learning that if you don’t have a plan, it’s a lot harder for plan wrecking shit to happen.

Because, uh, I crawled in bed at 5am that morning.

Taupo’s hot springs are lovely. Even at midnight. I highly recommend it.

Making it back to the car with 20 minutes to spare before someone has to catch a bus and realizing that the alarm is refusing to let you turn on said car is not quite so high a recommendation.

Thankfully, Natasha caught a taxi to her bus and made it with time to spare.

We sat at the end of a back road and wondered what the f*** we were going to do.

Roadside assistance gave us quotes of $800-$1000 and our first call to a friend came up empty-handed.

Throughout this process I thanked my lucky stars that time zones exist and one of the most practical people I know was awake 6 hours ahead of us. She had immediately began throwing out suggestions for dealing with the car.

We managed to get a hold of someone willing to drive the hour and a half to pick us up. Practically singing his praises, we relaxed into the seats, well aware that by the time we got home, we would be exhausted. Hell. We were already exhausted.

My friend in New York was still giving us ideas of possible ways to fix the vehicle. We had come to the conclusion that it was pretty much definitely something to do with the alarm system, but it was suggested that we check our battery cables anyway.

Amy stepped out of the car to lift the hood.

Now there aren’t many people out at the end of Spa Road at 2am on a Friday night, but thankfully, the two guys who did find themselves out there were kind and willing to help. Well, more importantly, one of them knew how to help. I watched the four skull rings on his left hand as he dismantled the alarm system and rewired the car to function without it. “Do you have a screwdriver?” Uh…no. “All good. I might have one.” whew. “How about a piece of wire?”…probably not. “I’ll take one from my speaker. Now when I put these wires back in and jostle it a bit, the car should turn on and work. You won’t have an alarm system, but if you want to put it back in, put these wires back in this order. Here, take a picture.”

I’m pretty sure our jaws hit the floor when he turned the key and the car coughed to life.

I delegated the job of letting our rescuer know our new situation. I had woken him up. I didn’t really want to let him know that it was highly possibly his early morning drive had been for nothing.

“Meet me at the McDonald’s in 30 minutes.”

Adventures like this are never convenient. They can cost money. They stress people out. They are unexpected and frequently tiring.

But they make damn good stories.

And hey, that’s all we have aside from the present anyway. Stories.

I liked this one. I got a milkshake out of it.