Teaching English in Thailand, Traveling, Bone-Dry Humor, Other Stuff Too

Things I Could Never Make Up

After I got fired from the restaurant, I stayed two more weeks in Kaikoura working at the hostel, getting back into running, going to the beach, and writing. In the following three weeks after I left, I started a meandering trip to Queenstown, then to Wanaka, then back to Queenstown. I blew through the money I’d saved up in Kaikoura; got my foot all messed up and stomped on by a giant dude when I filled in on a bunch of Italian construction workers’ rec soccer team in Christchurch; met up with some friends in Wanaka who had a car they wanted to sell soon, decided to sleep in said car to save some money, found out they had found a buyer and sold the car that very night, decided to sleep on the floor in their hostel instead, somehow got caught by management and then I got kicked out of the hostel; missed my one opportunity to do a hike I’d been looking forward to since getting to New Zealand due to an isolated day of early snow; broke two guitar strings and ran out of replacements; and slept four nights in a bunk next to a man with the most volatile digestive system I have ever encountered, who came back at 3:00 a.m. every night after pints and ate a cheeseburger, then spent the rest of his time releasing various gases to prepare for round n (let n ≥ whatever round it was).

Views from near Queenstown, way up

Views from near Queenstown, way up there

Queenstown is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, but I didn’t want to stay there very long. Aside from the gorgeous views, the incredible runs and hikes I went on, and the people that didn’t suck, this was what Queenstown was like for me: People bragging about how long they’d been there, people desperately searching for jobs when everybody else was doing the same thing and nobody was hiring yet, people spending the last of their money and getting more wired to them somehow, people spending what I live on for two weeks on a single night of drinking and then spending quadruple that amount skydiving hung over the next day, telling me I just had to do it, man. It was exhausting, but not without its own kind of appeal, like a self-destructive friend. I couldn’t find any reason to stay there much longer than a week. I didn’t like my odds of finding work in Queenstown, everything was really expensive, and I knew my friends were going further south to do some tours I didn’t feel up to and probably wouldn’t be able to afford anyway. And the car was gone. I let my friends go on without me, and resolved to try and start fresh in a new place. This time also coincided with the era of the sharting cheeseburger menace and his infamous nth rampage.



I started looking into finding work far away from Queenstown and spent a few more days there on my own to see the rest of what I wanted to see. I felt down on my luck and a bit stupid after my job ended so unexpectedly in Kaikoura and I hadn’t been able to save up enough to properly travel the South Island. I had no plan, no clue where my best shot at a new job was, and no idea what I would do when I eventually returned to California in another two months.

But I was ready to be on my own again. It makes life a lot simpler and easier sometimes. I knew, too, this would be one of the last opportunities in my ten months of travelling to dive alone into complete uncertainty. Truthfully, you are never really alone for long when you travel alone; there are good people everywhere, and you can better appreciate that reality when you let yourself drift unattached.

People in a Picture

Some friends from Kaikoura I traveled with

On my first day alone, I met an English guy (we’ll call him Cletus) who travelled around with an acoustic bass. I spotted him playing in our hostel, and we got to talking about music. We decided to go busking the next day, providing the context for probably my goofiest story to date.

Some background on Cletus: Cletus had completely run out of money. Foreseeing this problem, he had planned to sleep on the couch of a friend until he got a job or figured something out. Then “Klepto” Cletus was caught trying to shoplift twelve dollars’ worth of food from a grocery store, and had to wait around in Queenstown to make his appeal to local police and await whatever community service or fine they charged him with. Because he couldn’t leave Queenstown before this undetermined date, he couldn’t go stay at his friend’s place yet, and in the meantime he was forced to spend the rest of his money in grossly overpriced, beer-fart Queenstown. He ate instant noodles for every meal. He was brilliantly unreserved, unashamed, and unconcerned when it came to his predicament, shrugging it off and smiling as he explained it to me. “These things tend to work themselves out,” he would say of all things. Classic Cletus.

So when we set up to go busking at the wharf on the lakefront, we planned to keep going until we made enough money for Cletus to afford another night in the hostel with his half of the earnings. He opened up his bass case for people to drop money in. At times we drew a crowd. Lots of nervous Japanese girls wanted to take pictures with us, and others tried to sneak pictures without us noticing, in which case I did fancy tricks with my face. There are a few videos of us out there somewhere. I even sang for these Koreans that were really impressed with us. They all pulled out cameras and swayed self-consciously while filming us, like we were an actual band or something. It was surreal.

The wharf where I busked

Long periods would drag on without any coins falling in the box, then suddenly we would make five dollars in five minutes. The two-dollar coins make a distinctly deeper clink when they land, and every time we heard it felt like a rush of endorphins. It’s not a unique or impressive accomplishment really, but the feeling that people like your music enough to pay you for it is its own reward, just as a principle. Sometimes, if nobody stopped to listen, we would play a song for almost an hour, since nobody who walked by would know the difference.

At times I wasn’t really thinking at all, just lost in our playing, always looking for small ways to change things up and keep the music from getting too repetitive, grateful to leave my internal monologue behind for sustained periods of time. “Clutch” Cletus would always pick up on my cues and let out a cheer if I did something innovative. Though we cycled through the same ten or so songs, we always kept it new. We sounded good. After the first few hours, we hadn’t come close to our goal, but I tried to borrow from Cletus’s well of optimism. I had much less at stake than old bass-slappin’ Cletus, so I was just along for the ride. I’d always toyed with the idea of busking, and now I was all like doing it and junk.



At one point three Kiwis, probably 18 or 19 years old, came up and stood there watching. They were conspicuous among the crowd, cheering loudly, and eager to engage with us, way more than most of the people listening. They wore baggy clothes, smoked cigarettes, and swung their knotty hair around to the music. Immediately there was something off with them; they teetered on the edge of acting belligerent and simply enthusiastic. Yet there was also something uneasy in their mannerisms, like they were seeking some kind of validation from us. I suspected they were tripping the balls, but I didn’t say anything. They sat down on the concrete wall on either side of “Cross-legged” Cletus and I, and they camped out there with us as if we’d all broken out of prison together years ago and reunited in Queenstown. We talked a bit whenever there wasn’t much of a crowd listening, and it turned out my suspicions were right. They had taken LSD that morning and had been wandering around since. Our performance was a shelter for them; they were lured in by our homeless appearance, our music, and by our acceptance of them.

The wharf where we played is on the very left edge of the little cove in the bottom right corner of this shot

When the sun started shining in my eyes, I put on my sunglasses, unaware of the chain of events this would set in motion. One of the Kiwi guys who was bouncing around asking people for a lighter for his cigarette looked at me with my glasses on and gave a start.

“You look like the [email protected]#% from American Sniper!” he yelled. The revelation was evidently crucial to his psyche.

Still strumming the chords, I raised the body of my guitar up to my shoulder and pointed the neck at him like a rifle. “Bang,” I said. He jumped up and down laughing and punching the air, creating an image for himself somewhere between a pirate and a lost boy from Neverland. Suddenly inspired, he started freestyling along as we played Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” (a song I’ll never get tired of playing). At first his voice was harsh and out of place, and his content was vulgar. But his verse became melodic and curiously endearing as he continued. Just when he started singing really well, as simultaneously confused and impressed with himself as everybody else present, he burst into sweet, juicy tears.

There we were, strumming our instruments on a beautiful sunny day at the wharf in Queenstown, looking out at the snow-covered mountains surrounding the lake and the diverse groups of travelers walking by drinking coffee and wearing those beanies with the little asterisk poofs on top, and this neck-bearded Peter Pan character on acid was sobbing lyrics while the rest of the lost boys encouraged him to just let it all out.

Another lost boy put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Bro, have you ever made somebody cry with your guitar before?” I recalled a fuzzy memory of accidentally smacking somebody in their head with a guitar once when I was packing up in a hurry, but I answered, “No, I guess I haven’t.” It was kind of beautiful when I thought about it, and in my opinion it wasn’t completely illegitimated by the LSD. I’m sure plenty of Jimmy Page’s fans were (and are) in the same state of mind.

Likely Mount Fyffe, back in Kaikoura

Likely Mount Fyffe, back in Kaikoura

As mysteriously as he began crying, so did he cease. He grinned and fished a ten dollar bill out of his wallet. He waved it around in the air, dancing, then held it up to me, now entering the more pirate-like end of the spectrum. “What you gonna buy with that?!” he said half to me and half to nobody. The bill floated down into the case, and Cletus “The Courteous” began showering the lost boys with thank-you’s. I was at a loss for words—ironic, considering how many words it’s taking me to describe it now. They stayed with us for about two hours, and over that span of time they must have given us about 20 dollars.

By the end of the day, “Killer Callous” Cletus’s fingers had left streaks of blood on his bass strings, and when I looked down at my own, the tips were completely white with dead skin, and frayed bits of callous stuck out like little hairs. We made just under 65 dollars. We multiplied the sum by 197 then divided it by 394, leaving us each with 32 dollars and some change, enough for “Cot-Loving” Cletus to sleep indoors one more night and even treat himself to a slice of pizza. I trust old Cletus is still doing okay, whatever he’s up to now.

Since then, I’ve busked one more time on my own and I only made eight dollars, three of which were Australian. Somebody gave me weird Chinese coins too. Nobody was on acid that I was aware of. I made a dumb cardboard sign that said “Reformed Super Villain.” I’m a couple dollars away from earning back what I paid for the guitar back in Thailand.

I left Queenstown for Christchurch two days later and set out to hitchhike as far as I could get from there to the North Island.


New Zealand's Highway 1

New Zealand’s Highway 1

1 Comment

  1. July 10, 2015    

    By the time you finish your travels, you’ll have enough material to write an interesting travel book! I thoroughly enjoyed your blog.

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