In Another Life

I flew into Auckland Airport from the West as the sun rose over it from the East. I enjoy airports in the same way I enjoy all excessively solemn, overly official places. My mind becomes an oasis of impertinence behind the facade of a blank face. It makes me secretly giddy.

I pity every straight-backed, tight-lipped, stern-looking customs officer. They may take pride as sentinels for their country, but they must be molded by their profession. Personifying duty for eight hours a day, for years without end, must harden them.

I have the same thoughts every time I line up at the immigration checkpoint. It was no different then as the customs man wordlessly stamped me into New Zealand. Then I hopped on a bus into the city.

I rocked along down a concrete ribbon as the sun went about its morning chore; raising the grey veil of early-morning fog. I recognized a fellow traveler sitting beside me. He had one arm threaded through the strap of his backpack. He glanced regularly toward the bag rack at the front of the bus. I struck up a conversation. I asked him what brought him to New Zealand. He told me his travel plans; about glow-worm caves, boiling mud, Mt. Doom, and the Shire tour.

He told me he bought a hop-on hop-off bus ticket, one that would take him anywhere he wanted to go, for as many stops as he wanted, all month long. I asked him how much that cost. He told me it cost $800. I smiled and nodded in dismissed understanding.

Oh that polished piece of purchased liberty. Convenient, but expensive. Too rich for my taste. This is the kind of traveling I imagine most people envision. The kind of expensive vacationing that deters people from seeing the viability of long term travel. Adhering to a beaten path, hitting all the major sites. This guy had his trip planned to the hour. That is exactly the style of traveling that I don’t abide by. It makes me cringe.

The reason for that is the cost is too high, financially, but qualitatively too. He closed the door on the fortunes of chance, and overlooked the gems of serendipity. He’ll remain blind to the dazzling flashes of accident, and the magical surprises in the mundane. His trip will lack all the little experiences, of simple pleasures and frenzied stress, that come to define a place and a people and a journey. That style of travel lacks the unknown, the true substance of adventure.

I have no problem with people who travel on a schedule. Perhaps they aren’t willing to throw as much caution into the wind. Perhaps they don’t want to deal with the discomforts and uncertainties of an un-regimented travel style. Many people only have a few weeks of holiday, so they need to spend more on expediency. I understand all that. How people go about capturing awe is none of my concern.

But I connect deeply to those with more time and more grit than money; who dream of seeing the world without superfluous frill; who seek genuine experiences that cannot be purchased. I love those people because, as result of their experiences, they are polished into interesting, unique characters.

The bus dropped me off, and with a small token of a stranger’s kindness I was able to locate my hostel. I checked-in, shoved my stuff in a corner, and took a nap.

When I woke up, I went for a stroll through Auckland city. It was my first day back on the road. In a sense I was climbing out of a coma. My muscles were atrophied and wobbly. My eyesight dim and flickering. I needed some time to readjust to life on the road. So I let myself warm up to the slow pace of freedom.

All my actions that day glimmered with the novelty of being the first on a brand new adventure. I made my way to Albert park because parks have the dual benefit of containing nature and being free to utilize. As I sat on a bench, the sun was basking brilliantly in the sky. It was there, beneath the enormous canopy of a Moreton Bay fig, that I was suddenly faced with a big looming “Now What?”

I didn’t mind the floating uncertainty. Because with eternity laid out before me, it was easy to sit peacefully idle. So I did, in stark contrast to the rush of folks all around me.

After a few minutes I stood up and aimlessly sauntered up and down the streets of Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. A city like any other. Loud, crowded, bustling, mildly hostile, and expensive. A towering triumph of capitalism; its physical manifestation.

That’s the thing about cities, movement and bustle. Of people, of cars, of everything. Especially money.

Cities aren’t built for quality of life. They’re built for commerce. Money is their purpose and lifeblood. Hard earned cash flowing into pockets and exchanging hands. If you are not earning money, or spending it, you are in the way.

As a consequence cities are brutal places to exist in. They’re lifeless, stony, and grey. There are few places to rest in. There is a bare minimum of art, a scarcity of natural space. It’s no wonder hardly anyone makes eye contact. It’s no wonder hardly anyone is friendly. Life in cities is a service to an economic end.

There is little inexpensive pleasure to be found in cities, Auckland included. A drifter like me just doesn’t belong.

I did manage to find a ‘hiking’ path though. A contrived activity for the outdoorsy who find themselves in Auckland. A sorry excuse of a hike that merely leaps from park to park; “The Coast to Coast Walk” it’s called. 14 kilometers of paved sidewalk, road crossings, and manicured parks. Exactly to be expected. Hiking in Auckland is like booking a hotel room to admire the art.

It was free to walk, and it wound around every natural oasis in the city, so I followed its poorly marked route.

Ambling along I met a German couple as the sun reached its zenith. Our shared search for a missing route marker sparked conversation, and we wound up spending the rest of the day together.

We quickly descended through the minutia of superficial topics. We delved into work, politics, and travel. We shared stories from the road, and the places still unseen.

The more I learned about them, the more they reminded me of my parents. In their intellect and demeanor, their sense of humor, and in their calm assuredness. But also in an ineffable expression of character, and in the way those characters reflected off one another. In them I saw my parents.

I shared the thought, which lead to a conversation about life course. For one reason or many, they’d chosen not to have children. And it’s for the following conversation that the day became the first gem of experience on my trip.

Science fiction stories often imagine parallel universes containing alternate versions of ourselves and our loved ones. I see humanity as all those universes stacked atop each other, compressed into the single timeline down which our lonely planet slides.

The spiritual belief of souls, on the other hand, scatters the essence of humanity across an inconceivably vast metaphysical expanse. Under that view, we are incomparably unique, and thus inherently dissimilar. I see humanity as fundamentally similar, and profoundly connected through that.

So that day in Auckland, I met a version of my parents, deviated by an alternate answer to the simple question, “Kids?” To me, for the day, they were my parents.

They asked me if it was difficult growing up. I told them I’d never known anything different. I told them that I’d had my struggles, but that I’d grown past them. The obstacles decayed into the soil that nurtured me. And now there is no trace of regret, nor anger, nor sadness. Only a sweet understanding of how my world came together. I told them that since I grew into someone of strong character, self-possessed and proud, I cannot but feel gratitude for all that lies behind me.

We finished our hike together in splendid anticlimax as the sun set in the same puddle of grey fog in which it rose. No banner, sign, or plaque signified the finish. Just a boring bus stop. So we took a bus back to the city, and went out for Thai dinner.

The conversation flowed, but all I remember is that it was fun and funny. We were friends by that time. They bought me a couple beers, and offered me the contact of a nephew in Singapore. I only offered the wit and insight of a peculiar mind, and due gratitude.

Finally we said our goodbyes on a busy street corner. We hugged, and bade farewell. I returned to my hostel charged with happiness. It felt like I had a shiny gold coin in the palm of my hand. And I traded that coin for a ride the following day.

People were milling around when I arrived at my hostel. Jubilance is a fine social lubricant, and I used mine. I started talking to an Italian, Aussie, and Canadian who, it turns out, were heading South. There was an open seat, I asked for it, and they assented. And so traveling goes. Good will leads to good will. Fortune leads to fortune.

To anyone who dreams of floating on the tides of pure wander, if you’re open and perceptive, you will find gratifying experiences. Even in places you don’t like. On uninteresting pursuits. The people around you may be from somewhere else. They may not be your age, or share your priorities. You probably won’t become best friends. But you’ll meet people who impact you. And you can turn a mundane day into something memorable, something formative, by running with what the road hands you.

It’s that kind of serendipitous spark that I love about travel. We happened upon each other. Struck up a conversation. Spent all day hanging out. Ate dinner, drank beer, were human. And then said fond goodbyes on a crowded street corner under the flamboyant lights of a million advertisements.

The interaction was a fruit of traveling. The exposure to people I’d never meet who share insight I’d never glean. People who are fully alive because they aren’t burdened with the stress of work-life.

That German couple became the first in a long long series of interesting characters that I’d meet, and that I continue to meet daily.

Thank you for reading.


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