New Zealand is a wonderland. Just as glorious as your parents told you it was when you were a kid. Green hills roll; mountaintops cut into morning’s first light; emerald lakes glisten.
But it’s too immaculate. No blemishes; no calluses; neither scrape nor scar. Quite perfect and complete, really. Idyllic. Geography’s supermodel. And every day falls into the same cycle:
1. Hop on a tour bus crammed with other tourists and all their bulky luggage and chattering voices;
2. Drive through amazing landscapes that make you wish you were off the steamy bus so you could take a breath of the fresh air drifting off that nearby mountain;
3. Arrive at destination;
4. Get off tour bus;
5. Skydive or soak in hot springs or hike on a glacier or partake in some other scenic activity;
6. Get back on tour bus with same group of tourists;
7. Drive through more amazing landscapes toward the next destination.
Everything is so regimented. I have a picture of Ivana and me before we hopped on a daytime cruise. In this picture you can see two brown paper lunch bags, each marked with a little note from the tour company that says, THIS LUNCH BELONGS TO: _____________.
In town, it’s always, “Over here to the right, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll see a bunch of well-accessorized rich people. And over here to the left…a bunch of well-accessorized rich people.” Make sure the batteries in your camera are charged: out of town, it’s infinite sheep and exquisite backdrops.
New Zealand isn’t real life. It’s a fairy-tale, except there’s no evil in the good-versus-evil scenario. I need glimpses of reality to keep me in touch, to help me appreciate the beauty of these lush landscapes, to keep them from feeling like a movie set. Just drive me through the ’hood one time. Please. One indication of the real world. Show me a gritty defect, harmless even, a benign brown mole on the skin of this fine country. Show me a street or two of the downtrodden, whose tired bloodshot eyes follow you as you pass by. Give me a guy with a tomato wrapped around his toe. Okay, I’ll settle for a shady-looking dude with a baggy jacket and a scowl. A mean person, mad at something? Maybe you could introduce me to someone—just one person—to be short with me when I’m asking for directions to the cinema. No? Everybody is so jolly all the time in New Zealand. It’s like stepping into a country full of peppy golden retrievers. It’s always “Cheers!” and “No worries, mate!” and “Sweet as!” and “Enjoy the show!”
Oh, go blow yourself with all of your eternal elation and gourmet dishes at waterfront restaurants.
Central America? Gritty. I might get invited over for dinner or I might be squeezed by vicious glances to cross to the other side of the street as I stroll to the market. Nobody knows. I wake up with no idea what might happen. I could find myself hanging on to the top of a chicken bus on Ometepe Island or leaping from a thirty-foot platform into the blue waters of Lake Atitlán. Let’s visit a women’s craft cooperative in the village of San Antonio in the morning and leave time to roast marshmallows at the summit of Volcán Pacaya in the afternoon. In Central America, I took chances, tested the edge, and came out the other side satisfied that I cleared my own little path rather than waking up with everything set up for me. Faced a little uncertainty. Figured some things out on my own. In Guatemala or Honduras or Nicaragua, as soon as I stepped wide of the Gringo Trail, I was different, unique, an anomaly among a group of natives. Even on the Gringo Trail, my skin color and gawkiness outed me so clearly as a sightseer, but at least I had an identity. On my own. In New Zealand? Nobody looked twice my way.
If you neglect to go to the bathroom before hiking in New Zealand, you can pretty much count on toilets positioned at the beginning of the trail, end of the trail, and along the trail itself. If you neglect to go to the bathroom before hiking in Central America, you can pretty much count on taking a shit in the woods.
In Wellington I watched a guy throw his chewed wad of gum to the edge of a sidewalk, just short of the grass and thus in the path of passing pedestrians. I quickly grew bitter. What kind of lazy upbringing, I thought facetiously, led that young man to behave in such a reckless manner. Is there still hope for his future?
Everybody is a sweetheart. The plane ride to New Zealand opens a portal to a new world. These people aren’t human.
Feeling rebellious, Ivana and I stepped off the bus and hitchhiked from Rotorua to Taupo, and dammit if Richard Adams, some random dude, didn’t pick us up in his white truck, give us a tour of his hometown, take us to his shop to show us where his team of engineers builds geothermal machinery, and stop short of inviting us to stay at his house only because we had already arranged accommodation.
We overnighted at Lake Wanaka, where I had a chance to catch up on a little writing over a glass of wine. Well, that glass of wine turned into a bottle, and that bottle turned into, “Hey, let’s go out and get a drink.” You know how it is.
Guests and regulars in New Zealand pubs rave about this game called Killer Pool. Each player gets three lives, and each time you miss a shot, you lose a life. Last man standing wins a bar tab.
I, obliterated and staggering slightly, bowed out after three ungraceful shots, one of which didn’t make it to within six inches of any pocket. So, I settled on my barstool to the side of the table. One of the remaining players stood directly in front of me, sizing up an easy gimme shot. Drunk as I was, I poked him in the ass. Like a jerk. One pointer finger for each cheek. A little he-he moment for the crowd. He missed the shot and turned to me. Broad shouldered and with fists big enough to do damage, he just smiled off the awkward moment. Back in Raleigh, I would have gotten slugged in the nose, and I would have deserved it, but this fellow smiled and shrugged it off.
I felt bad about it, so I careened up to the bar to order him a beer. And one for me, too. You know how it is. I walked up to him, handed him the beer, and slapped him on the shoulder, proclaiming, “Cheers, mate. Sorry ’bout that shot, mate. No worries, mate. Enjoy the beer, mate.” Problem was that he was standing on the other side of the pool room and I had delivered the beer to some random dude. Like a jerk. I mean, sober up, Shep. Jesus.
But dig this: the guy I poked ended up the last man standing out of the twenty-five or so players. And don’t you know that, instead of pointing and laughing, he waved me over into his group of four to share the bar tab he’d won?
One afternoon, I embarked on a search for a couple of ripe avocados, essential to completing Ivana’s and my dinner plates. The lady at the fruit and veggies shop near my hostel had only hard ones, but of course she—without my urging—referred me to her competition. “Have you been to Romano’s yet?” she asked. “Two blocks down that way, turn right, half a block on your right. They probably have your avocados.”
One of Ivana’s teeth had been bleeding lightly at the gumline for several weeks, and she feared it could worsen or apply pressure to her other teeth. We were heading to the Australian outback next to work on a remote million-acre cattle station for two months; if she had a serious tooth issue, she needed to fix it pronto. So we stopped in at Advanced Dental Care in Nelson for a consultation.
“We’re booked for the next three weeks,” the receptionist explained with a sympathetic grimace. “Booked solid.”
We had three more days in Nelson, and it was our last stop of two days or more.
“But hold on,” she said. “Let me go speak to Dr. Quin.” It was late morning, minutes shy of lunchtime, and Dr. Gerry Quin, one of four dentists at this office, had just performed an emergency procedure. He was on his way home to read. As she passed, the receptionist smiled and mentioned that “He’s one of ten doctors in the world chosen to study [some long, scientific word that you and I can never hope to pronounce] in Boston. He’s very busy.”
Well, would you believe it—that dude stepped out, introduced himself to Ivana, ushered her back to the chair for a checkup on her tooth, and ensured her that nothing was seriously wrong? “I’m certain you can wait until you return home in July to see your own dentist,” he said, smiling and patting her arm. “You’ll be fine until then.”
And he didn’t charge Ivana a nickel! “Enjoy the rest of your time in New Zealand,” his receptionist piped merrily. She gave Ivana a sample pack of pain medicine and offered to write a prescription for more. “For your tooth or in case you get kicked by a cow in Australia,” she said.
I mean, come on, man. Who are these “people?”
I’m not asking you to rob me, but I know there has to be somebody out there who wants to tell me I’m so ugly it looks as if I’ve cycled through a dryer full of rocks. A cross word? An evil glare? Nothing? No matter our scrupulous search, we couldn’t get away from smiling faces for a single, momentary dose of a daring situation.
What I’m trying to tell you is that traveling in New Zealand is incredible. They’re backwards about which side of the road to drive and how to write the date—is it March 5 or May 3?—but they got everything else exactly right. I can’t recall all the seven deadly sins, but I’m pretty sure Ivana and I committed each of the pleasure-seeking ones while in New Zealand. We swam in natural hot pools; hiked Tongariro, the “greatest one-day walk in the world” (and it was); Rollerbladed along the Auckland waterfront; and watched the sun set at Wanaka. We went hang gliding. We rolled down a seven-hundred-foot-long hill inside a gigantic inflated ball. We ate fish and chips as a warm sun kissed our skin on Tahunanui Beach. In Dunedin we sprinted up Baldwin, the world’s steepest street (and when we got halfway up, Ivana looked over at me and said, “This street sure is steep.”) We cruised Milford Sound, toured Abel Tasman, learned all we could about the history of the Māori, and fed sheep out of the palms of our hands. We skipped rocks at Lake Tekapo, Ivana making my tosses look silly. We cheered with seventy-five Japanese tourists as two of their comrades bungee jumped from a bridge in Queenstown, and I tell you that I’m rarely as entertained as I was that sunny afternoon. In two and a half days, I went to Fergburger four times, only one of them during normal mealtime hours. We gorged on meat pies, drank unreasonable amounts of wine, and took naps when we didn’t deserve them. We tried, in vain, to spot a kiwi in the wild.
We spent a damned fortune on this hedonism, and I don’t regret a dollar.
But on day twenty-three, I started to lose perspective on reality. It wasn’t just New Zealand but also being away from the familiarities of home for an extended period of time. My professional prospects were at a standstill, had been, would continue to be. I had no regular workout routine, and I could feel the consequences when I jogged or climbed that steep hill in Dunedin. The conversations I found myself in weren’t the same conversations I’d participated in six months before. The people I was meeting, fantastic people indeed, weren’t like people I knew. After lunch or a ride on a hang glider, they split, forever. Ma, Pops, Easy, Korey, Surry, Jordan. I wanted to sit in the steam room with Tony and just talk about our day as my muscles relaxed. I wanted a heaping plate of fried chicken and dirty rice and a glass of sweet tea.
The absence, the homesickness, drained me. My energy faded slowly.
Save the first day or two of shock in Guatemala, this was the only time I longed for home. I encountered momentary bursts of depression. Sinister thoughts, disturbing thoughts, began to slip into my mind, along with urges to create a problem in my life, since there weren’t any in New Zealand for me to solve. Darkness caught me idle, swept over me like a cloud swelling with rain. Happiness at dawn was genuine and, by late morning, manufactured. I was missing. My life lacked depth. In Nicaragua, in Honduras, numerous activities filled my every waking moment—and they were activities that mattered to the people around me. They were important moments of connection as I aided children or dug wells. In New Zealand, I had no purpose other than to make sure my camera was focused and the harness around my waist was taut. There was no pressure, no obligation or responsibility; if I overslept, everything moved along the same path as it would have otherwise. At the end of the day, I had a beautiful picture, but I couldn’t grasp its true beauty. The last picture was beautiful and the next one would be, too. They all were. So what was so great about any one of them?
I tried to hide my gloom, and mostly I succeeded. But as the days passed, I started taking everything for granted. I’d saved for this trip, I’d paid for this trip, I’d planned this trip, I’d overcome the doubts about this trip, and then I had the balls to actually get on a plane and embark on this trip. But all those ideas knotted together and sat dead in the corner while I was in New Zealand. I forgot where I came from, forgot what it took to get there.
Here I had a wonderful young woman with me in a wonderful place, and I started getting snappy over trivial things. She wanted to go grab sandwiches for dinner, and I got an attitude. Like a prick.
Everything was perfect, but so much perfection day after day made me uncomfortable. Even perfection can become monotonous.
I needed to get away, just for a day. So I went fishing. For backpackers, fishing off the coast isn’t advertised in any bus guide. It’s more difficult to arrange. You have to do a little legwork. I wanted this badly, not only to get away from the tedium of vibrant normalcy that New Zealand offers, but also because “fish off the coast of New Zealand” was the only New Zealand item from my list of 142 good times. I received three polite rejections in other towns, but then I called up Moeraki Fishing Charters and told Callum, the skipper, “I’ve been here twenty-three days, man. My time is running out to have the opportunity to do this. Tell me you have a spot on your boat.”
“When do you want to go?”
He paused a moment. I heard the sound of paper crinkling and imagined him flipping through a planner, pages covered in appointments scrawled in blue ink. Then he replied slowly, as if still mulling over the paper. “I have a fishing club going out next Saturday, but let me ask my wife if we can get you in there.”
The skipper, ostensibly the man in charge, then asked his wife if I could go. She said yes.
I hitchhiked the seventy-six kilometers from Dunedin to Moeraki, stayed over Friday night, and met the fishing club at the dock at 7 A.M. We rode the fishing boat an hour out to sea, bouncing over light waves, and dropped our lines.
There were some nibbles on our lines but nothing coming up. We sat in the gently rocking boat, staring down and out across the glittering water. Breathed in the fresh salty air. Waited.
Steering from the center of the boat, Callum moved us to another spot.
Another and another and another. By eleven o’clock, we’d caught one bin full of blue cod and the less coveted sea perch. The crew from the day before had caught five bins by noon. They’d drifted at one point for two hours straight; by comparison, my group hadn’t been at any one spot longer than ten or twelve minutes.
I sat near the front of the boat, holding my rod loosely in my hands. My gaze swept over the sea around us, the calm waters devoid of boats, save for our own. I inhaled deeply. Before long, we all shed our jackets as the sun warmed the air around us. The salty aroma of the ocean filled our nostrils; the soothing slap of waves buffeted the boat’s hull.
Staring earnestly at two screens in the wheelhouse, Callum couldn’t believe that his navigational tools could be leading him to the wrong hotspots. Fish were biting—as one could see from sudden and erratic yanks of our poles—but we pulled few of them up to the surface on our hooks. Eighty mollymawks, a cousin of the albatross with a wingspan reaching eight feet, surrounded our boat and pecked at our bait. John caught an octopus, a mess of bulbous, deep purple arms; the old man next to me caught a little shark.
So at eleven-thirty, Callum stopped the boat and grabbed his own rod. He U-turned out of the wheelhouse and onto the deck, starboard side. He dropped his line and waited for it to feed out to the bottom, about thirty-three meters. He reeled in once to lock in his hooks just off the ocean floor. He waited maybe twenty seconds. He yanked up once. I leaned over the edge, curious to see whether he could do what we hadn’t yet managed. He paused another ten seconds. He yanked up again, his stocky arms flexing. He started reeling in his line with a sort of illogical enthusiasm. Moments later he pulled in two of the four biggest blue cod that we, as a boat, caught all day. Ten of us men, grown men with beards and farts and graphic language and at least some knowledge of the sea, caught the other two throughout the duration of the entire day.
Callum, a faint smirk painted on his chapped lips, dropped his fish in the second bin and went back into the wheelhouse to light a cigarette. He looked around with a single raised eyebrow but didn’t say a word. “There are fish down there to be caught,” he wanted us to know. “I’m directing you rookies to the right place. You namby-pambies just need to start pulling ’em in.”
Committed to catching our quota, we arrived back to shore by late afternoon rather than by lunchtime as the website advertised. Filleted, our catch as a boat measured forty kilos of blue cod and sea perch, which meant each man walked away with four. I estimated that I caught two-and-a-half of those and then realized that I was that guy on the team who doesn’t pull his weight.
I hitchhiked an hour-plus back to Dunedin to meet up with Ivana. She smiled, brushed a kiss on my cheek, and peered into the bag in my hand. A playful smirk washed over her face as she said, “Don’t even lie to me and tell me that you caught all that fish.”
She hooked her arm with mine, and we walked to the store to buy a couple of bottles of sauvignon blanc. Ivana fried up the fish and prepared some scrumptious mini–potato cakes. Put this girl in any kitchen, with any ingredients. Give her some leftover ham, a couple eggs, some all-purpose seasoning, some soy sauce, two ripe bananas, an old rusty pan, some duct tape, and a match, and she is going to come back at you with the tastiest soufflé you’ve ever known. That night we sat for dinner with the college students we were couchsurfing with in Dunedin: Dave, Tyler, Dan, Jeremy, and Evan. Ivana put her hand on my thigh. I smiled. Everyone was in good spirits, seven of us around the table in that tiny kitchen. We raised our glasses. The guys congratulated me on my expedition at sea and complimented Ivana on the best dish they’d had in a year.