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…

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.

“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.

Invested in Some Fruit Company

“Run Forrest, run.”

And he ran. For “no particular reason. People just couldn’t understand it.”

I had never seen Forrest Gump before this evening, and like so many before, I found myself falling in love with the careful southern drawl sharing his mama’s wisdom.

He ran and fought and saved lives. He loved and cried and spoke. He worked. Most importantly, he was loved.

“My mama used to say you can tell a lot about a person from his shoes.”

His mama cared for him. Told him he was no different. She loved him just the way he was and was never ashamed of him. He was exposed to travelers and happenstances. He remembered clear lakes and sunrises. He collected a feather and his favorite book was Curious George.

He is a character.

But I’m pretty sure we are too.

Characters waiting to see what shows up in our box of chocolates.

I met two Canadian protagonists today. Matt and Liam have surfed and wandered their way through Australia and New Zealand. Unlike the many backpackers who choose to mosey about, they have chosen this temporary lifestyle for a vastly different reason than most. They are not here to drink. Nor are they here to find themselves. They are here to be themselves.

And that makes a huge difference.

Play guitar and piano. Know goodbyes aren’t necessarily forever. Travel alone. And go home.

But not because you have to

Because you want to.

perhaps I’ll tell your story to a stranger at a bus stop, just to see how long they listen

Sauntering in Love

I have a weird aversion to the phrase “in love” when it comes to a person. I am always in love with so many things. I fall in love with places and moments like there is no tomorrow, because I am aware that there may not be one. I fall head over heels with stories and poems and memories.

And I wholeheartedly love people. I can adore who they are and all that they offer the world without a thought of what that could look like to anyone watching.

However I cannot use the phrase when I am romantically interested in an individual.

Maybe I am the sort of person that could use that phrase genuinely. I instantly know when I want to understand an individual more deeply. I habitually understand that if I wanted to, I could easily see that person as many times as I wish, even if they live across the globe. I’m hopelessly romantic and my words to those I love reflect this. I genuinely live my life as if it is a story going to be told through writing, film, and photography. When you look at the world that way, interesting camera angles and beautiful words just kind of pop up everywhere.

So I suppose I could use the phrase “in love.” Perhaps I have fallen in love many times and I am in the middle of another casual stumble that sent me careening over a cliff edge. Writing this out, I think I’ve figured out my reasoning a bit clearer.

I don’t want my choices undermined.

If I say I have fallen in love with a person, it sounds as though I tripped into something unexpectedly. It sounds as though my world was suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of this perceived to be wonderful person and oh goodness I can’t live without them and how did I live without them before? That is just not the case. With every question I ask, I understand an object of my current affection more deeply. I can smile at the thought of them, tell stories of conversations, and sing along to love songs with a face in mind. But it is not because I fell there. Maybe I jumped or ran or sauntered or swam or got a little lost and kept walking in a general direction, but that still requires purpose.

I am not falling. I am not helpless. And I certainly don’t need whoever I happen to sing for.

But I’ve chosen them for a while.

And I would rather say that to a person’s face than any sonnet of the unexpected rush of hormones that comes with a desire to be held.