I’ve learned that I need to take periodic breaks from life at the hostel in order to maintain my sanity. The other day I worked the morning shift at the hostel and I didn’t have to be back in Raglan until 4PM the next day for my Marlin shift, so I decided to hit the road. I packed my toothbrush and a change of underwear in my backpack and walked to the edge of town to give my hitching thumb a workout.
Ohio was still in working in Te Kuiti for another couple days, so I thought I’d head South to visit.
My first ride was a strangely stoic Malaysian guy who worked for Sky TV as a “door knocker.” Even the fact that I’d spent a month in Malaysia, his motherland, didn’t get him to open up at all. He drove the whole way to Hamilton without saying more than 3 sentences. He just stared straight ahead, with his gold-rimmed sunglasses and an emotionless face. Still more entertaining than a bus ride, I guess… and free, so I’m not complaining.
A few hitches later…
I was standing on the highway just south of the little village of Kihikihi for ages. On my side of the road there was a small farm with a curious horse who would lazily wander towards me every few minutes to see if I had any food. Across the road was a service station with an adjacent café.
North and South were nothing.
I juggled rocks for a while. Three, then four, then I tried to juggle two in my right hand while wielding my hitching thumb with my left hand. I found it hard to make eye contact with my prospective rides (an important part of hitchhiking) while still concentrating on the rocks.
A cute girl (or at least cute from the other side of the highway) pulled into the service station. She ordered something from the café counter and then sat and waited, pretending to read the newspaper. I could tell she was watching me from over the top of her paper. She was wondering what I was doing, wearing a fedora and juggling rocks on the side of the road like some kind of vagabond performer from the 1950’s.
She was still waiting for her café order when a voice from the service station called out to me from across the road. it was a squat old man, filling his car with petrol.
“where you going anyway?”
“Te Kuiti” I replied.
“Waitomo.” He said.
And he just said it. Not like he was saying that he was only going as far as Waitomo. And not like he was asking if that’s where I was headed (the towns were only about 10k apart.) He just said it. And then he got into his car and sat there.
It was weird, so I crossed the road.
The passenger window was cracked open so I asked if he was going to drive me to Waitomo. He mumbled some kind of yes. The car was full of shit. The back seat was covered with books and papers and three large plants in plastic pots. He grabbed a pile of clothing off the passenger seat and stuffed it into the trunk, instructing me to put my bag inside. While we were standing at the back of the car, a small black and white puppy got out of the car and began wandering about, sniffing the petrol pumps.
The man yelled at the dog, but the dog ran around, looking at us, then at the horizon, then back at us.
“Sit!” yelled the man. But the dog didn’t sit.
I finally coaxed the pup back into the car and we were on our way. Car was old and smelled like dogs and dirty old man. There was a coffee mug sitting on the dashboard, rattling against the windshield. The man occasionally would take a sip from the cup and I could smell alcohol on his breath when he talked to me, babbling about race horses.
When the cup was empty, he reached under his seat and pulled out a bottle of Okibwa Cabernet (the $8 a bottle stuff from South Africa – I drink it all the time) and refilled his cup. The car drifted gently from right to left and I kept my right hand ready to grab the wheel, just in case we drifted too far, all the while I held his mongrel puppy on my lap.
Randomly, he put on his turn indicator and took a right turn down a dirt road. Not cool.
“whoa, buddy – where are you going?” I asked.
“Oh, we just have to make a quick stop,” he mumbled as we bounced down the corrugated dirt road. “This is my wife’s place,” he said, “actially my ex-wife’s place.”
I didn’t trust him, but he didn’t scare me, so I decided to let the events unfold. He parked the car in front of a nice looking house, surrounded by bush at the end of the road and left me in the car with the dog. My window was still partially open and I could hear him yelling and pounding on the front door, “hello? Anyone home? Helllloooo?”
He yelled over the fence to the left, then to the right, then the garage, then he wandered down a garden path and I couldn’t see him anymore.
A minute later, the front door opened and out came a disheveled looking man in a bath robe.
He looked at me in the car, holding that squirming mutt.
I looked back at him, but didn’t know what to say.
He threw his hands up and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “what the fuck do you want?”
“uh, he went that way,” I said.
“ok” said the bathrobed man, as if this wasn’t first time.
I could hear muffled talking from down the path, but I couldn’t make out the conversation, nor could I tell if it was amicable.
A few minutes passed and my strange driver came hobbling back with a hurried step. He was saying something over and over, repeating the same word rapidly and as he approached, I made that word out to be “panic.”
“Panic, panic, panic, panic,” he opened the door and got in.
“Panic, panic, panic, panic,” he put on his seatbelt.
“Panic, panic, panic, panic,” he started the car and began to turn around as the bathrobed man watched from the top of the driveway, shaking his head.
“chill out man, why are you panicking?” I said, trying to calm down this old drunken stranger.
“I’m not panicking, he’s the one who’s panicking. Probably because he married the wrong woman,” he said with a smile and a wink.
Then with a serious face, “I made the same mistake myself once…”
We drove on in silence for a while. Both of us trying to make sense of the strange series of events that had just taken place. I felt like I had been an accidental accessory to some sad and wine-fueled attempt at winning back a lost love. I looked at my driver, his brow was furrowed and his eyes wrinkled at the edges with concentration. It was as if he was contemplating his life and his ex wife and trying to find the words to tell me something important. Or maybe it was just the squinty-eyed concentration of a man who had drank too much Okibwa Cabernet and needed to focus on the road.
After a while he said to me, “to love is the greatest feeling. Being loved is just a bonus.”
He dropped me off at the Waitomo turnoff, not even bothering to pull over to the side of the road, just stopping in the middle of the turn lane and popping the trunk. I thanked him for the ride and he wished me luck in life.
I ran across the road to a good hitching spot where I could catch my last hitch into Te Kuiti.
The sun was beginning to set, but I only had 10k to go.
Spray painted on the concrete in yellow paint with a big smiley face and the words, “have a nice day.”
I was alone, but I spoke out loud, “ Thanks,” I said, “I have had a nice day.”