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

The Journey North

Part of a 34k hike through Whakarewarewa Forest

Part of a 34k hike through Whakarewarewa Forest

I’ve been refraining from doing this, but I’ll start with a quote this time. This comes from Walden, one of two books I brought with me from home and still haven’t traded for another. You’ve surely read this before, or at least been told to.

In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and head-lands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not til we are completely lost–for a man needs only to be turned around once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,–do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature…. Not til we are lost, in other words, not til we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”


The day after my busking shenanigans, I spontaneously decided to go to the north island, abandoning “Melancholy” Cletus to his fate. I found a hostel all the way up in Rotorua looking for another worker in exchange for accommodation, and within a day it was all arranged for me to work there as soon as I confirmed my arrival date, a complete mystery to me. I gave a rough estimate and promised to get back in a few days with a firm date.

I tried to book a bus to Christchurch, then was told I could only go part way there because the bus picked up more passengers en route and would be full after a certain point. Somebody had booked the last ticket through to Christchurch seconds before I could confirm mine in the information site. Not a particularly big deal—I could always take a bus from however far I got to Christchurch the next day. But it’s worth mentioning that a delay like this meant I had even less of an idea how long it would take to get to Rotorua, and I feared not reporting back or showing up soon enough could cost me the position. Obviously, I didn’t know what the people at this hostel were like or whether they had other backpackers lining up for the same spot like I saw in Queenstown. They certainly didn’t owe me anything. With so much up in the air, I also thought I might end up getting sidetracked enough to do away with the Rotorua plan entirely and keep improvising until I found a new goal or something else presented itself.

Sunset of my first night in Rotorua

Symbolic representation of my window of opportunity for employment in NZ

When I boarded the bus out of Queenstown, the driver told me that in the event one of the passengers didn’t show up for their scheduled pick-up, I could have their seat to Christchurch. Exactly one passenger failed to catch the bus, and there was one spare seat for me to go to Christchurch after all, effectively making my first set of decisions for me.

I arrived in Christchurch well after dark and wandered around until I found somewhere cheap to stay. From there, I planned to hitchhike my way to Picton to save some economy dollars, slips of paper-like materials used to purchase hot dogs, love, and several other items. I’d heard from tons of people it was easy to hitchhike here. There was just one highway, the 1, stretching from Christchurch all the way to the northern tip of the island on the East side.

I sat in the common room of the hostel eating a piece of bread with peanut butter, minutes away from going to bed, when a German guy asleep on the couch in front of the T.V. woke up and started talking to me. At first I was more interested in sleeping—nothing personal; I just meet so many people all the time (on average more than five a day every day for the last five or six months) that it’s hard to consistently give everyone the interest and attention they deserve. Groggily, I stopped chewing and made some conversation. We quickly realized we were both headed the same direction the next day. He, along with a Dutch girl and another German guy, had rented a recreational camper van suited for four people, leaving one seat available. I met them all the next morning, and they graciously offered me their extra seat for as long as I wanted it.

Ferns and Redwoods of the North Island

Ferns and amoebic meningitis-ridden thermal pools of the North Island

I took them up on their invitation and spent the next day-and-a-half travelling north with them. They were awesome people, so easygoing and thrilled to be in New Zealand. I chipped in a quarter of the daily cost of the rental for the time I was with them, plus some fuel cost, and it was well under the price of one night in a hostel, let alone the money and time I’d have spent on buses.

The van was a green and purple monstrosity with a giant, busty, red-headed, knock-off version of Marilyn Monroe painted across both sides, some ingenious marketing ploy, the ubiquity and apparent utility of which will forever astonish me. I guess it catches your eye, anyway. Some of my money is now some of their money, so they must be doing something right.

In Blenheim my new buddies turned West on a different highway, heading towards Abel Tasman. So I thanked them, said goodbye, and walked out past the intersection to where I had to wait for somebody to pick me up and take me to Picton. It began raining within minutes, all over my two backpacks and the sonorous, trusty “Porn Thong” (my guitar’s Thai name) at my side. After 25 minutes, a Hungarian in a tiny Honda gave me a ride halfway to Picton before turning off to a little beach town I forget.

I waited in the rain again, thumb in the air and my guitar in the other hand. Passing semi-trucks sprayed up water at me, just like in the movies. I felt so cliché, it was almost enough for me to cave in and just find some hostel to crash for the rest of the day. If I would’ve driven by and seen me standing there, I would’ve thought, “What a douche.” I came up with all these wild theories about how the angle of my thumb would influence my chances of getting a ride. Each minute felt slow because I was unsure how many more would follow it. But I never had to wait very long.

These thermal areas are so dangerous, the signs tell you not to even be a human

These thermal pools release hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, carbonizing wood and the occasional unsuspecting person, but mostly they smell like sulfur. Back in the day, the earliest tourists in the area would bathe in the pools and found the gases to produce an effect similar to nitrous oxide, sometimes resulting in uncontrollable laughter and drowning.

After 30 minutes a white car pulled over. A German couple got out to help me load my bags and said they were going to Picton as well. After we talked for a bit, they told me they were staying in a friend’s house, and that their friend wasn’t going to be there for another day or two. They invited me to stay there with them, and I accepted, offering to cook them dinner. So we ate a feast of pasta and chicken, played Rummy, drank wine, and enjoyed the luxuries of an actual house, the only actual house I’ve slept in in the last nine months.

In the morning, they dropped me off near the information site on their way into town. I thanked them profusely and went inside to get a ticket on the ferry to Wellington. I had booked over the phone, but since I wanted to pay cash they couldn’t confirm the booking until I showed up. If I was too late they wouldn’t give me a ticket, assuming I would miss the ferry. The next one wasn’t for hours, and wouldn’t leave me enough time in Wellington to figure out what to do from there the next day. When I got there, they told me I was too late. Little did they know, teachers, professors, employers, and various adults have been telling me the same thing my whole life, and it’s never stopped me from casually getting shit done. So I walked over to the ferry port and decided to try my luck anyway. It turned out the ferry was delayed due to stormy weather, leaving me plenty of time to get a standby ticket. I even sat in a chair.

The beginning of all my runs in Rotorua

The beginning of all my runs in Rotorua

That night, in Wellington, I walked into another information site to find a hostel and look up which bus I needed to catch the next day to make it to Rotorua. I had been on the road for three days and hadn’t been able to access the internet at all since Queenstown. There was free WiFi at the I-Site, so I decided to check my email and confirm my date of arrival at the Rotorua hostel while I waited for the nice lady to finalize my bookings, even though the I-Site was going to close in ten minutes.

To my surprise, I’d been contacted by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports and offered a job as a teaching assistant in La Rioja. I had applied to this job months ago during my frantic last weeks of teaching in Thailand, but had long since assumed they turned me down because I never heard back after inquiring. The email explained I had to accept the offer within three days of receiving it, or else they would retract the offer. It had been sent more than two-and-a-half days ago, leaving me a matter of hours to reply before it was redacted. Normally, I don’t bother checking email until I settle down wherever it is I wind up sleeping for the night, and I often can’t be bothered to pay for internet. I often don’t use it for days at a time unless I seek it out. It was a huge stroke of luck for me to even think of checking my email at this time, and all the more unbelievable to me after all the random events and reckless decisions that led me to this moment.

Every ride I hitched could’ve panned out differently and kept me away from that job offer for another half of a day. I could’ve been just ten minutes later getting to the I-Site, which nearly happened because I was briefly lost walking around Wellington looking for it, weary and delirious. I could’ve missed the ferry if there weren’t weather delays, and had to take a later one, arriving in Wellington too late and not seeing the email until the next day. I easily could’ve been somewhere else that night that didn’t have free internet. Everything could’ve happened exactly the same way it did, but I could’ve just decided not to check my email until morning. In Christchurch, I could’ve gone to bed before getting the chance to meet the friend with the camper van, or he could’ve just not woken up while I was still sitting there—tagging along in the camper saved me at least one full day. That one person who never showed up for the bus to Christchurch could’ve rightfully claimed the last seat and left me a half-day behind schedule (plus, then I also wouldn’t have met the Germans and the Dutch girl before they left). The people who gave me rides could’ve shot me in the head. I could’ve been picked up by vegans, kidnapped, or tricked into joining a cult. I could’ve not applied for that job in Spain in the first place. I could’ve been born without a face—what then?

In all seriousness though, the odds of me seeing that email in time were extremely, extremely low. Just reading a computer-generated email in Spanish and clicking on the right links in the order it described was the difference between which continent I would live in for the next year. Those little details–those mechanical correspondences, the initially arbitrary but ultimately necessary deadlines, the strength or the absence of WiFi–determine so much.

Looking down at Rotorua. The geyser-looking mists are misty geysers

Looking down at Rotorua. The geyser-looking mists are misty geysers

I had mixed feelings about accepting the job. It would mean at least ten months in Spain, doubling my time abroad and cutting my return home down to about seven weeks, seven weeks out of 20 months, and likely more than 20 depending on what I might decide to do at the end of my contract in Spain. I was also weighing the knowledge that my working holiday visa in NZ (only granted once per lifetime) would still last until next April. If I came back later instead of going to Spain, it’d be spring and then summer, meaning a huge increase in work opportunities, a boom in seasonal harvesting, warm weather, and the ability to go on treks and climb mountains that are inaccessible during winter. I decided to just accept the offer for the time being, with the assurance I could back out later if I changed my mind. But by now, as I write this, I’ve already made up my mind to go to Spain.

I took a bus to Rotorua the next day because I wasn’t sure about hitching in the North Island yet. Everything worked out fine with the hostel.

I was on some kind of bizarre luck streak that completely made up for the bad fortune that left me jobless and aimless on the road in the first place. Everybody on a working holiday in New Zealand has their story about weird coincidences, generous strangers, and crucially timed good luck, but mine came at the point when I probably appreciated it the most. Every spontaneous decision I made since Queenstown had ended up working in my favor, generating a momentum that gave me the confidence to take chances I would normally deliberate until I was immobilized with indecision. That same momentum is now carrying me all the way to Spain to start work in October, making my debut return to teaching, continuing to explore and preserve the infinite extent of our relations in a vast, strange world.

Rotorua again

Rotorua again

1 Comment

  1. Allysa's Gravatar Allysa
    July 6, 2015    

    You’re sounding as optimistic as ol’ Cletus.
    It’s convenient that you were born with a face.

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