Jul 1, 2017
By Karen Lethlean
Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.
About the Author
Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher, whose essay ‘When Did We’ was included Caught in the Breeze: 10 Essays, concerning Australian identity published by Blemish Canberra. ‘The Fake One’ appeared in Journey: Experiences with Breast Cancer BusyBird Publishing. She won the Torquay Froth and Bubble literary festival competition in 2010. Karen’s work has been published in some literary magazines and has won writing awards such as runner up Winter Solstice, Wild Words.org with Red, Yellow & Bl