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Tales From Random Travels.

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Posted 08/03/08 - 5:39 AM:
Subject: Tales From Random Travels.
The car stopped next to a glacier. He'd studied the things in Geography lessons at school and they had bored him senseless but to see the blue lip of ice up close was surprising and woke him up a little from his stupor. The paranoia seemed to be wearing off now, they'd driven with the strangers for an hour or more through forest and then gradually back up into higher altitude. Everyone began taking photos and then returned to the car. The couple driving were going to stay in prearranged accommodation at Milford but would drop the three of them at a hostel there. They arrived at the hostel as it was getting dark and after settling in played some pool while getting slightly drunk in the common room. Stephen was feeling a good light headed now after the bad light headed of Christchurch airport and after smoking the dope earlier. There was something charming about being with the two slightly eccentric seeming women in such a remote corner with no firm itinerary ahead. Before darkness had begun to fall more glaciers and mountains had come into view and the car had taken some dramatic inclines and bends; it had lead him to expect something quite spectacular the next day when they were to take a boat ride out into the sound which he now learnt was some kind of dramatic sea inlet.

It was dramatic. The pretty Israeli girl had just finished a telephone conversation with her boyfriend back home was feeling a bit delicate and tearful but when they all saw the spectacle before them she started to forget him for a while. The sound seemed like a very large lake at first then Stephen spotted inlets on the horizon worked out of the surrounding rock. This rock was high and Jurassic looking, one could imagine dinosaurs positioned around; high walls surrounded the inlets, the two tiered boat took some time to sail out into the middle of the water. Waterfalls fell high up from cliffs and islands of stone outcrop formed small islands around; the open sea could be glanced through the inlets on the horizon and gave the whole natural phenomenon a certain awe inspiring scale. Full size cruise ships had diverted from their course to wander around the sound for a while for their tourists to get a view and could be seen moored in the distance like distinguished and still beautiful actresses at a dinner party. They sailed on for a couple of hours and ate a packed lunch on board. Towards the end of the sight seeing tour the Israeli girls told him they had another trail they planned to follow and were going to head for the first hut that afternoon. Stephen had his heart set on a more mountainous route than they had chosen and he said he was going to stay at the Milford hostel for one more night and then take a bus to the start of his trail in the morning. They said goodbye and wished one another well.

He was secretly a little relieved to be alone again. The hiking had proven more of a social experience than he had envisaged and he realised one of the reasons he had come all the way down here was to be alone with his thoughts and find some solitude. He was dropped off by bus the next day in a car park at the bottom of what was going to be a tough trail. Even though it was summer now it was cool at the height they were at and he even started to see snow on peaks that were occasionally revealed between the high hills around. This time there were far fewer walkers around, the carpark was almost empty except for a couple of buses including his own dropping off hikers who mostly seemed to be around middle age. Mid-life crisis cases he sardonically thought to himself; whereas he was undergoing an early twenties crisis it seemed. What the hell would his mid-life crisis be like? Perhaps, he thought, he was getting it over with now and his middle age would be spent in meditative contentment yet somehow he doubted it. Life, he was coming to see, is more an art of keeping some degree of control over the crisis always ready to break-in to whatever small island of calm you have fashioned within the chaos.

The trek began and the well made maps generally provided him with reliable predictions of the surrounding terrain. However, with few other walkers around and little in the way of landmarks and a generally less clear pathway he felt a little uneasy. Nevertheless he found his way to the first rest hut where he made himself a cup of tea and some soup feeling self reliant and in the midst of probably the most adventurous thing he'd ever done. As he continued on the gradient got steeper and he found at every new turn a more impressive view of snow covered peaks could be found; he had never expected to find such a bounty when he had been half heartedly planning his trip back in Christchurch. It was almost dark when he eventually and with some self congratulation found his hut for the night. He'd barely seen anybody along the way and the tiny wooden structure looked uninhabited. However, when he entered he found a New Zealand man somewhere in his late twenties with his girlfriend fiddling with a camp cooker. They were pretty friendly; there was already another man as well staying in the shack and so he wasn't disturbing some kind of ideal romantic setting as they were already compromised in their intimacy. The girl only seemed about twenty and a little mismatched with the older man who immediately struck Stephen as a friendly surf bum. She was at college and her mind seemed in a different place from his but they were clearly making a go of things. There was a bunk room and a cooking area. After a day without company he felt now, again, the charm of being in a remote and interesting situation but more or less safe from harm. The backpacker's mentality no less. Indeed he was coming to know what his new identity was; he had joined the league of backpacker's that can be found at remote regions about the globe at any given time. Why he hadn't realised this before he didn't know but now he had it would make talking of 'what he was doing here' in conversations a little easier. The New Zealand man told him that the young people of New Zealand were a restless lot generally; the towns offered little of the distractions that Europe offered in the form of careers and entertainment and many took to the road and became backpacker's for a time in their own country and then graduated to Australia or Europe or elsewhere. He and his girlfriend were on the road for a while, with the easily accessible and unspoilt natural beauty everywhere on the island it was a natural thing to do and little real effort in planning was necessary. It was easy to hitch a ride because people were naturally friendly and trusting of strangers in a country of only three million or so. There had been none of the gruesome backpacker murder's that had sullied Australia's reputation as a safe hitch-hiking zone.

The door opened and a man with his arms full of fishing gear entered; for a moment he appeared a little surreal. He was a Scot about the same age as Stephen, he was on a fishing expedition to mine the well stocked rivers in Fiordland. The shacks, apparently, were ideally located close to many of the best rivers and he was planning to visit a number of locations in the area. They got along quite well that night for a group of complete strangers, youth perhaps making up for any difference in temperament. They went to bed early as they all had big days ahead in the morning.

His breakfast was some less than appetizing soup made from one of the packets of dried food stuffs he was carrying; there was some fast disintegrating bread too. He said goodbye to the others and worked his way back onto the trail. The weather was more unpredictable at this higher altitude and as he entered late afternoon a thin drizzle began to fall. He hadn't seen anyone all day but had already stopped off at one hut so thought he was heading in the right direction, a vague path seemed to be still existent as he walked. However, this path grew less and less apparent and soon he was left wondering whether he was just making his own path up as he went along. The rain was falling harder and he found himself climbing then descending then climbing then descending again as streams of water flowed beneath him. The ground itself seemed to have turned into a shallow stream. His Lonely Planet hadn't provided any particular warnings that the trails were dangerous beyond the usual warnings about being careful in obvious ways. He started to feel a slight panic, there was nothing and nobody around; the rest of the afternoon passed into evening and he still wasn't confident the thread of space he followed was anything like a real path. He began to think it was unlikely he would find the next hut and started to think about some kind of emergency survival routine he should be adopting. Luckily since the Israeli girls had told him about his exposed sleeping bag he'd realised he needed to rethink his rucksack. He actually held a Gold Duke Of Edinburgh Award, a quite high level outward bound qualification, and in Christchurch had bought the thick plastic bags that would waterproof his belongings in an emergency. On the first trail he decided to use these - as he should have done originally but in his lax stupidity had failed to - to seal up his clothes and sleeping bag. He therefore knew that despite getting wet now he could quickly take off some of his wet clothes, climb inside the sleeping bag and then put the survival bag over this and he should be able to stay warm. As these rapid calculations went rapidly through his tired brain besides the panic was an almost equal exhilaration; he was now at a lower latitude surrounded by marshy grassland and wild birds flew overhead. He was actually out in a wilderness of sorts all by himself and he couldn't help but feel a certain awe. The panic did balance with this, though, he had never actually imagined himself using a survival technique. What if he were seriously lost? Even morning might not bring enlightenment. Thinking was just going in circles and his limbs were starting to feel a little numb from the cold water treatment he was getting. He found a raised piece of the land where the water was running down rather than rising up and a tree to shelter him from the worst of the rain, which was now falling quite hard. He was soon inside the survival bag and feeling quite warm, though less than secure. After a while he fell unconscious and when he awoke he was in dark woodland looking out on the grassland; there was a full moon providing some light. He didn't get much sleep.

The next morning it was dry and he had another unappetizing breakfast of dried packet soup with more or less dry bread. He didn't want to think too much about not finding the path; he had to find it. Then, as he was finishing squeezing out his wet clothes he saw some bright coloured jackets in the distance making their way over the wild grassland. He'd been on the right path all along it seemed but just panicked when it had started to rain and convinced himself his map wasn't correct. He hurriedly got dressed while he could still see the walkers and followed some way behind so he didn't have to explain why he had been lurking around in the woods - if they had seen his semi-naked 'wild man' figure - and soon came upon the hut he should have spent the night in. He felt a little foolish but was a more enlightened about the nature of solitude; it doesn't always promote clear thinking and rational action; at least not in the place he was at that time in his life. There was another day of hard walking ahead and despite his getting lost being somewhat of an anti-climax the experience of panic coupled with the other distorted emotions when smoking dope left him feeling rung out and vulnerable. It is perhaps the cumulative effect of such experiences that lead young men toward maturity and the realisation that they are not supermen but something else entirely.

He finished the trail earlier than expected in the end. He was now going to get a bus back to Milford Sound so he could catch another to Queenstown which lay on the route back to Christchurch. There, he thought gratefully, would be civilisation and comforts though he wouldn't have enough money to go white water rafting, bungee jumping or any of the other adrenalin rush activities. He didn't particularly want to either. He arrived at Queenstown late and found there was space in the first hostel he found. He was ready for some substantial sleep but his dorm room was full of imbeciles, pack animal males who found courage in numbers; they woke people up purposely and when anybody complained there was an air of possible violence. He put his pillow over his head and found himself again lost on the trail though now without the panic; he was developing a new taste for remote places where humans had little foothold.

It was a very attractive town, situated around a large lake and surrounded by mountains, like an Austrian resort. On a budget he spent his first day there watching life pass by; he thought he would wait out a couple of days there so as to get a sense of the atmosphere as it seemed such a hub, from what he had been reading in the guides and from what had been told him, for the backpacker brigade as they continued their onward pilgrimage of pleasure without particular goal. There was even a backpacker bus he had spotted a couple of times now; it was painted bright colours and depicted on the side were all the adventures one could expect from the pre-packaged New Zealand in cartoon form. He imagined a fleet of them operated at any one time between both islands, syphoning cash from those without the energy or independence to fashion their own passage. If he was a backpacker then he was not of the most conventional caste and only called himself such to aid, what had always been for him, the rather difficult task of initiating conversation. The second evening in the town he found himself in a nightclub having accompanied a group of backpackers from the hostel; he found himself sharing their adventures in a gradually increasing intoxication, having only his brief expedition to Fiordland to present himself, though he exaggerated the degree of his disaster on the second trail to gain attention. The imbeciles were on form again that night, appearing like ghouls from the night only to disappear again amid a cloud of cackles and cruelty. He decided right there to only spend one more night in the nicely situated hostel overlooking the lake and mountains. He would book a ticket back to Christchurch the next day.

Again he walked around just watching people and taking the town in. Years later, he realised the importance of just being in places, poking around, allowing that unique characteristics of a location to filter into memory. Even then, he was thinking, if he were to stay on in this country for some time yet, he would like to build a mental map of the islands; this was an opportunity to come to know a whole country in a far more lively and immediate way than he had ever known his own. He'd travelled only in a very piecemeal way around Great Britain and mostly only 'knew' the ten mile radius around the town where he grew up and a smaller distance around his university town. If, as he had started to sense in the Christchurch hostel, there is a part of the human psyche devoted to exploration (we surely wouldn't have got to where we had without there being something in the make up of the mind that desired the conquest of the earth or even more..) then he was only now coming to feel its presence in earnest.

On his final night there he met a woman a few years older than him who had come down from the North Island to do some rock climbing with her friend. She had quite a powerful build, for a woman, but was attractive and had a pleasant though quite shy personality. They talked in the tv room for a while and Stephen had started to philosophise about why he was travelling and what he hoped to achieve. He got a little carried away, perhaps, but he must have impressed her. He packed the following morning and was heading out to get his bus when he heard a voice behind him. She wanted to know how he was planning to get to Christchurch; she was quite anxious. He told her he had a ticket and was going to catch a bus back and she asked whether he would prefer to get a lift with her and her friend as they were going to Christchurch too. He quickly said he would definitely prefer it to a bus journey and thanked her; they went to her car which was quite a bashed up old thing but had character. New Zealand, he had begun to notice, seemed to be a country where cars stayed on the road much longer than he was used to from home, perhaps it was something to do with the climate. Her friend was a robust and friendly woman, he imagined she was a dependable companion when scaling cliff faces; they were both cheerful and independent women to first appearances. The two of them taught outward bound courses, one of their specialities was to take groups of executives into the wilds for team building exercises he learnt as they left Queenstown and began a journey that would probably take the rest of the day back to Christchurch. In New Zealand there are plenty of those relatively carless open roads; the kind that are often the backdrop for scenes in American road movies. It would be best to imagine something like this as we hear some of the things they spoke about while in the car. The girl who had offered him a lift was named Helen.

"We give these team building courses every few weeks. A lot of the men are in their mid to late thirties but they behave like adolescents some of them. You start to wonder whether most men ever really grow up. They have these responsible jobs and deal in huge amounts of money sometimes but when we're trying to get them to do simple things together you feel like you should call their mums to give them a good talking to." Helen revealed as she discussed what her job involved. Her friend was nodding in agreement; they'd managed to avoid the woes of the average nine to five but still had to work with the fragments of the work-a-day world in their unusual profession.

"I've done my share of office work and I get your meaning. I remember when I used to think you had to be a responsible grown up to go to work." Stephen unleashed some of his own pent up frustrations about what the world of the modern office seemed to lead the average mentality. Then he got on to his father, he'd been discussing how he seemed to use his job as a way of escaping his emotional obligations toward his family. "I suppose the moment of truth with him came when we were out in his car one afternoon for some reason. I'd heard the word 'incontinent' used to describe certain personality types. Well he'd had quite a responsible office job his whole life and I guess as a child this created an aura I didn't much question; he was what adults are meant to be. Then I realised that this aura or image was all there was. For some reason - I was about twenty one at the time - he hadn't found time to go to the toilet. We drove around with him in a panicked state. That's all I ever knew about him ultimately, his fuss and neuroticism. He couldn't find a toilet and so I sat next to him in a carpark as this curious expression spread over his face and he started whimpering and the seat took on a darker tinge." They all started laughing, Stephen thought he might be considered cruel and ungrateful but he couldn't help the way he was made to feel and such talked helped him face up to certain realities.

Helen's friend, Kim, said. "That's a good story. You'll probably be a writer or something, it sounds like you have a lot going on in your imagination. So that is when you realised how you really felt about him, that he was incontinent?"

"Well it wasn't that he actually was but I realised at that moment the other sense in which it was used and that it fit him. It was the only word I could think of that really suited him; in his relation to his family at least. On some level, before, I was still believing the image I'd made as a child that stopped me thinking too much about what he really was."

"Some people stay at the high school mentality their whole lives." Helen said wistfully.

Helen told him that she was going to visit an aunt who lived in Christchurch and the two of them were going to do some climbing there.

"So wherever you go you start climbing?"

They both giggled. "No, not everywhere. Christchurch just has some excellent short climbs outside the city centre. Have you ever tried climbing Stephen?" Helen queried, gently gathering information about the man she'd only known since the night before.

"Well, although what I'm doing might seem adventurous to the average person, I'm really not a very adventurous kind of personality actually. It did it once because I was on an outward bound course and had to but I was quite poor. The abseiling was ok, that's easy, but my legs start getting shaky for some reason on the way up."

"Well maybe it's time for you to face up to your fear, you said this trip is about trying new things yeah?" Kim asked in what he assumed was her 'outward bound instructor' voice. He had given them a brief overview of what lead up to him coming to New Zealand and how he hoped to stay for a while if he could. In the end they decided they would find a hostel together in Christchurch and introduce him to some easier climbing routes. He liked the way Helen was making such an effort despite barely knowing him; she was in her late twenties now and the frustrated way she talked about the men she had to coach at work made him sense she was looking for somebody who she could bare being with.

Their first break had something of a spectacular view. They pulled into a car park next to another large forest rimmed lake and a large mountain loomed in the distance, so high its top was covered by cloud.

"Wow, this is one of the few times I've seen a mountain like that that wasn't on television, and I think the others were when I was flying over them and that isn't the same." Stephen said.

"That's Mount Cook, it's the highest in New Zealand, it looks even better when there's no cloud."

They arrived in Christchurch early evening and as can happen when travelling in new places the city seemed like an entirely different one when entered by car after a long journey. It was a little less quaint and toy town now; he saw a few undesirables hanging around in the more run down areas and there seemed generally more rubbish and decay around. They found a cheap hostel and after preparing a quick meal together with some wine went to sleep in separate dorm rooms. Stephen doubted there would be much opportunity for anything to happen between he and Helen. He thought it was a rare thing, in his experience, for a woman to make such an effort with a man she only knew from a short conversation.

The next day they drove to see her aunt who was in her late middle age and lived in a charming little bungalow not far from the centre of the city. They talked about family and ate some lunch with her and Stephen saw the first real, authentic New Zealander in situation and felt a certain privileged perspective on the culture. They went climbing later and Stephen watched the two women scamper up a rock face, knocking some pegs into the walls as they went. Helen's strong thighs gripped the rock face with precision and Stephen wondered whether such an active girl would be compatible with such in introspective man. However, she seemed mostly quite dreamy and gentle; the sport gave her the opportunity to travel and live a less conventional life but she was probably hankering after a little stability. They threaded the ropes into the loops so that he could climb in a safety harness. There were quite a few groups of climbers around and there was a good view of Christchurch from the area of woodland on the edges of town where the stone outcrops jutted out; they must have been a tempting sight for those who liked the sport. He tried his best but failed to impress; they seemed to more or less pull him up the rock face. He watched them tackle some more difficult routes and was impressed by their skill and concentration. They spent another evening in the hostel but the women had decided they were going to start heading back north, probably to do a little more climbing before getting the North Island ferry. There had been something between Stephen and Helen however undeveloped. There was something sensitive about her, a certain uncomplicated passion he didn't see often in British girls. She gave him a number and said if he made it to the North Island he should drop by; he was coming to see New Zealanders really did mean it when they said such things, that strangers were welcomed into their homes readily, it was a culture where people still hadn't developed complex prejudices with which to navigate in society and to a British man it was a revelation. The next morning he was quite sorry to see them both go but his mind was also turning to other things; he was a little anxious about whether Norton would turn up when he said he would.

He didn't. Stephen had now been waiting a few days since he was due to arrive and still had no news. He'd left his number with a friend of Norton's from Brighton who he'd told Stephen to give his location to when he'd found a hostel. His money had dwindled to such an extent he'd sold his new rucksack and moved into a cheaper hostel. The strange thing was he didn't feel any great panic. The travelling had mellowed him and filled him with a new sense of initiative and he told himself that if Norton didn't arrive he could just hitch to one of the farming collectives he'd seen in the backpacker brochures. Apparently there were farms all over New Zealand where you could turn up and be offered food and board in return for working on the farm. Although he hadn't researched this option he seemed to feel it was something that would save him if the worse came to the worse. However, eventually he did get more restless and called Norton's friend again. Norton had told him previously that she was an attractive blonde in her late twenties; she sounded lively on the phone. She told him that Norton always messed up arrangements but just to hold on and he would be arrive soon; it wouldn't be like him to leave a friend in the lurch. Stephen wondered how well she really knew him; he realised they were more acquaintances than friends and he had no solid feeling about whether he would or wouldn't turn up.

He even went as far as looking for work and was offered a trial run in a bar in town but when he turned up for his shift they decided they no longer needed him. He knew he supposedly needed a work visa but he was willing to take the risk of getting caught; they could only send him home and he would have to do that anyway if he didn't find some way to make money soon. He'd pawned just about everything of value by a week after the time Norton was supposed to arrive and would be in a fix if he had to move since he no longer had a rucksack. The rickety hostel he'd fallen to was owed a weeks money; he had explained his situation to them. He didn't let on to others there what his situation was. There was a young man from Australia in his room who'd been hitch-hiking around New Zealand for months picking up bits of work as he went.

"I arrived in Auckland with hardly any cash and got going, it was so easy to get rides. I've done all kinds of jobs; farm work, kitchen work, building sites. You just ask around. I met this guy on the road, a New Zealand lad, we hitched together for a while. He's staying with my family in Australia now, I told him to get a flight out there and my dad would find him some work. He's loving it, I just got an e-mail from him." He was a tough looking young man about the same age as Stephen, anxious to talk about his travels. Stephen told him about what he had been doing in London. "Oh yeah; I met this American dude when I was travelling in Oz - see I was travelling there before I came out here. He was training to be a lawyer, there was all this pressure from his family and that but he'd just dropped out and come to Oz. I got an e-mail from him not long ago. He's working on a fucking cruise ship, can you believe it?"

He seemed enthralled about the life style he'd discovered. A revelation perhaps after the limited expectations of small town Australia. Stephen quizzed him about hitching, if he'd managed to get a hitch every time he'd tried. "Mostly. You might have to wait an hour or so sometimes, I think I've only given up once. There's been times when I didn't have any money but there was always a hitch around, say, to take me somewhere else if a place didn't seem to have much work available. Sometimes people even give you a bit of cash if you feed them a sob story. Shit, I've been hungry, hungriest I've ever been! I think your stomach just expands after a while and you seem to stop feeling it; I always seemed to land on my feet, something always turned up. One thing about hitching - single mothers. They see a young man waiting at the side of the road and get excited I think, they don't seem afraid over here. I've been invited in for the night a few times and I got more than a Marmite sandwich mate." Stephen wondered whether he was exaggerating but from the look in his eye he seemed fairly earnest, as if he discovered one of those secrets that few people find out about. He was one of the unconventional backpackers that made it up as they went along, Stephen thought he too might follow such a path if Norton arrived with his crazy plans.

He got his call soon after he finished off his last bowl of noodles. Norton's blonde friend had got a call saying he'd be arriving on the following morning. Stephen felt very relieved and spent the last few dollars he'd been hoarding on something substantial to eat. The woman had said that Norton would be staying at her house for a while and she would pick him up in town the next day and they could meet up at her house. So the next day he met her in town, a chirpy, slim blonde in her late twenties who worked as a hairdresser. As they drove in her white sports car to the family home she told him of her own travels in Great Britain and how she had felt 'like a different person who could do anything' when she got back to New Zealand a year later. He thought this a nice sentiment but not a transformation he could see himself going through, though minor transformations of outlook had been beginning to occur already. It was another bungalow they pulled up outside of, a perfectly respectable piece of New Zealand real estate. She was living at home with her parents still. When they walked in Norton was trying to charm her mother, looking his usual hyperactive and restless self. He apologised for keeping Stephen waiting and told some story about having to arrange a school matter for his son. There was a child who he had fathered at university who he was still involved with though the boy lived with his mother. It obviously was not enough of a concern to stop him flying half way around the world to sell henna tattoos.

He already had a map of the country laid out on the ground and had been describing his plan of conquest to the mother of his friend. He told Stephen that in a few days he, not Norton, would make the first step in the campaign. For some reason he had decided the coastal town of Nelson to the north was a good place to begin and Stephen would be required to hitch out there and wait for him. Stephen said he would do anything as long as he got some of the cash he was owed so he could pay the hostel back and buy a cheap rucksack and sleeping bag. Norton thought the predicament he had got himself into rather amusing and couldn't believe he had pawned the excellent rucksack he had purchased under his guidance in London. Stephen reminded him that he was only driven to these desperate measures because he, Norton, had arrived over a week later than he had stated. Norton laughed some more but Stephen was too relieved that his New Zealand experience was still 'go' to feel angry. Despite having a child close to entering his teens, Norton was only twenty nine years old. How he made his living has been mentioned and his appearance was equally unconventional. He was of mixed race and sported dreadlocks; he had a strong physique and probably his most memorable features were a quite lengthy nose and a dark eyed, penetrating stare; there was also a well kept set of white teeth that stood out even more due to the brown skinned face. He had a degree in a science subject but had drifted toward his current life style perhaps through a certain disillusionment with the world though he had never put this into words. Rather, Stephen had experienced a certain dynamic cunning; it was his refusal to 'live like everybody else does' that his younger acquaintance had always been intrigued by though he was coming to see it was less of a choice than he perhaps liked to let people imagine.

Stephen spent a few more days in the hostel and met up with Norton again to make some final arrangements before he made his first foray north. As they wandered through Christchurch market place to the pawn shop where Stephen had posited his last items of value they passed by The Wizard. He was an old man with a white beard - as well may be imagined- who stood on a box and spoke about eccentric things to those passing by. Stephen would see him again on a number of occasions and never remembered the subject matter of his discussions but always remembered him when he thought back to Christchurch and New Zealand. In a larger city or a larger country that took itself more seriously such a figure would never have gathered the attention he had among the local people and tourists that passed through. Indeed, it was said that he drew a salary from the city government. He would speak to traveller's and New Zealanders during his future travels and they would talk of The Wizard; it was fascinating to see how people in a smaller scale society shared common pool of experiences and connections of a kind that he had never dreamed of in his over crowded home country. Indeed, New Zealand was a similar geographic scale to Great Britain and perhaps by experiencing its smaller scale culture at close hand he was seeing how a medieval European culture might have seen itself to some degree, of course, not neglecting the huge changes created by technology and science. However, he was sure there was something in the idea that a certain intimacy is lost when the population in millions starts to stray toward double figures and beyond.

They picked up a cheap metal framed rucksack for Stephen and an old sleeping bag. It was hardly the state of the art gear he had bought in London but it would do for now. They even spent a few hours in the market place trying to sell henna tattoos but to no avail and Stephen became worried that they would never be able to generate the money they needed to keep travelling the islands. Norton managed to persuade his friend's mother to drive them over to Brighton to pick up some supplies of henna powder for the tattoos. She, like other New Zealand people he had met so far, was very accommodating and friendly and chatted quite freely about family life and her past to virtual strangers in way the British hardly ever did. Norton had initially seemed very sure of himself when he arrived talking of how Stephen should consider the tattoo trade like a new job; they had both visited Christchurch library to look for traditional Maori tribal tattoos and art that might be incorporated into his portfolio. However, after their lack of success on the market place he was seeing a lack of focus, a certain irritableness that hadn't been so evident before and that left him feeling increasingly sceptical about the project and Norton himself. However, on his final evening in Christchurch he turned up at the house and they made excited final preparations, again consulting a map and deciding a place to meet when Norton arrived by bus. In all the rushed planning Stephen had forgotten the date; it was the 24th of December. It would be strange hitch-hiking on Christmas Eve but it was better than being in a hostel or being in the way with Norton's friend's family. The mother's partner drove he and Norton to a good hitching point on the outside of town, they asked him how he felt about the Maoris.

"Well I've spent my whole life around them and I don't like them. Never met a Maori I would trust; they're always complaining about what the whites did to them and all that rubbish but when it comes to just sorting their lives out and doing a decent days work they just can't do it."

He went on in this way in a mean and thoughtless tone that Stephen instantly saw through. The man had lived off hearsay and prejudice as far as the Maori community was concerned and Stephen wasn't about to trust his perspective; this was the kind of ignorant rant that can be heard among the barely educated anywhere in the world where the white man has taken lands off the native peoples, enforced their system of control and paid little heed to what was going on before expecting those ancient peoples to adjust without question.

He got out the car and said goodbye to Norton and the small minded man and began his wait for the first ever hitch of his life. It was a beautiful evening and he couldn't believe it was Christmas Eve.

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Posted 09/07/08 - 11:13 PM:

years ago i had an internet friend who lived in new zealand. in our conversations he had made a number of observations on behavioral differences among new zealanders, americans, aussies & brits. i was reminded of him and his observations (which were in many ways confirmed) as i read this.

this piece felt very much like watching an altman film ("the company", for example). altman had a particular knack for character studies and an unusual style of glimpsing into other cultures. some of your other pieces are also reminiscent of altman's style, but this one to me in particular.

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