September 3rd, 2015
Are you looking for a great way to travel? Do you like making new friends? Do you dislike having a head? Then have I got an offer for you: hitchhiking!
Anyone with half a brain knows that you must have a death wish if you are hitchhiking. Of all the modes of transportation available in this day and age, you are going with the one that is the most likely to have you end up on the news? TONIGHT: Tourist found headless in ditch in New Zealand! Truly a terrible way to make a name for yourself.
And anyone with half a brain will also know that picking up a hitchhiker is equally, if not more, dangerous. Especially if the hitchhiker is carrying a bag that is large enough to fit an axe and a couple of heads to keep as trophies, like the backpack I was carrying on September third, 2015 on the side of State Highway 1 in the sunny region of Northland in New Zealand.
Only God knew how far it was to the closest town. Google Maps didn’t even have a name for the place where I stood. I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. A whole lot of nothing, and a whole lot of farmland.
I had started hitching from Kerikeri at nine in the morning, and thanks to three kind drivers I had gotten here in just a few hours—a Linda had even bought me ice cream. I was alive, and so were the drivers that had given me rides. I love a good head-chopping just as much as anyone, but it would simply be ungrateful to decapitate anyone who’s kind (or naïve) enough to give you a free ride.
What was even more impressive of them was that they picked me up even though I had an axe with me. No, not the head chopping kind of axe, but the kind with strings: a guitar. Paul, the guy that had left me where I now stood, said he had picked me up thanks to it. “We musicians have to take care of one another!”
No, maybe hitchhiking isn’t as dangerous as one may think. I myself had given my fair share of rides to people back in the days when I had a car of my own. “Back in the days” was just a week ago, but still—I lived in that car. How’s that for letting people into your personal space? I must admit that one feels a bit homeless when living in a car, despite the freedom it may provide. But now I had sold it to an American couple to save up some money in order to become even more homeless, and even more free.
A few cars had passed me by, but it seemed my thumb wasn’t large enough for them to notice that I wanted a ride. Hitchhiking is a numbers game—but when the passing cars are few and far in between, you must be lucky to have anyone pick you up. Hopefully the green car that was headed my way would stop to give me a ride.
I straightened my back, gave them the best smile I could, and stuck out my left thumb. There was no way that the Chinese couple in the car weren’t heading my way, because Cape Reinga was all there was north from here. Yet going there in the company of me was not part of their plans for the day.
So I took out my guitar from its case, sat down on the grass, strummed a C-chord and started singing in Swedish.
Se på luffarn som går mitt på vägen…
Se på luffarn guds lille fyr…
The song was fittingly called Luffarvisan, the song of the tramp, and only a few verses in I noticed another car approaching from the south. I didn’t feel much like standing up—what were the chances that the two people in the blue station wagon would become part of the countless amount of people that I in the future would owe my eternal gratitude? No, those chances were slim, because anyone with half a brain knows how dangerous it is to pick up hitchhikers.
“Why would anyone want to do that?” asked the tall blond guy in the passenger seat when I told him and the girl in the driver’s seat of my plans for the upcoming months. It was a justified question on his part.
“You know how expensive gas is nowadays,” I answered him. I didn’t really have a better answer at the moment.
“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Naima’s the one paying for gas here!” he responded.
“Oh, you owe me Craig!” said the short blonde driver, Naima, and laughed. “Well, I think what you’re doing sounds sweet as!” she continued.
“Sounds sweet as what?” I asked her.
“You’ve been to New Zealand for four months and you don’t know about sweet as?” Craig asked me. Somehow, I had missed the whole sweet as thing, despite it being the most famous of all New Zealand, or Kiwi, slang. Craig was no Kiwi however—his accent revealed that he was from the British Isles. He was so tall that if the car had been a coupe and not a station wagon his head would have stuck out of the roof, like Dino’s in The Flintstones. Naima, the short blonde driver sounded just like any other New Zealander, and I suspected she was from Auckland. Not because I had such a keen ear for all the different Kiwi accents, but because all New Zealanders seemed to come from Auckland. Aucklanders were commonly called Jafas, and if you ask a Jafa what that stands for they might say just another friendly Aucklander, but most other Kiwis would use another f-word in that acronym. I wondered if the two were a couple. If so, they were an attractive one, both around my age or a few years older, in their mid-twenties.
“So speaking of slang and language… where are you from? I can’t really place your accent,” Naima asked me. She wasn’t the first one to ask that.
“A few people have asked me if I am from Australia. One guy even asked me if I was German,” I started. “Somehow that offended me.” There was a great abundance of German backpackers in New Zealand, so it would be as good a guess as any to ask if anyone foreign sounding is German. “Not that I think it’s bad to have a German accent!” I added. I took pride in my ability to mimic the sounds of the natives. Or perhaps it was that like many other backpackers I simply believed that to be the case.
“You better not think it’s bad to have a German accent!” Naima answered. “I’m half German! But hey, so where are you from then?”
“Sweden,” I answered her.
“Ah, Sweden! The country that’s not Switzerland,” said Craig, and I laughed. A lot of people had asked me what living in Switzerland is like, despite having told them I’m Swedish just minutes earlier. “That’s cool! What city are you from?” he then asked.
“So I’m from the second largest city, on the west coast—” I started before Craig interrupted me.
“Malmoe?” he guessed, wrongly. “No wait, that’s the third largest city… It’s Gothenburg, right?” I nodded. How this knowledge had found its way into Craig’s head was beyond me—no one ever thinks of Sweden outside of Sweden, except every fourth year when some Canadians thinks of us as the guys they beat in the Ice Hockey finals in the Winter Olympics.
“Impressive! That’s right,” I said. But it wasn’t really right. I was from a much smaller place just south of Gothenburg, a village called Vallda. No one outside of Vallda has ever heard of Vallda. It doesn’t have an ATM, but it has two beautiful harbours, lots of horses, lots of cows, and lots of fields—just like the place that we were now driving north through. Naima and Craig had started out in Auckland in the morning, where Naima lived. She had been to the cape at the top of the country once before. Craig was from Bedfordshire in England and for him, like for me, this would be his first visit to the top of the nation.
“So you have a guitar with you,” Naima said. “Are you any good? Can you play us anything?” she asked, and at once I reached for the guitar case in the trunk. I took the musical instrument out of it and strummed an A-minor chord.
“Well, I’ll let you guys decide if I’m good or not. Now, do you guys like Taylor Swift?” I asked them. Naima laughed, and Craig turned around and gave me the kind of smile usually reserved for young kids on Christmas.
“Does the catholic bear shit in the Vatican woods?” he asked. I had found a soul mate.
Craig had sung along with glee as I played the very best of Taylor Swift—he was every bit as much of a fan as I was, if not more so. She had been in the country recently, and Craig had visited the very same beach that she, as the rumours went, had visited.
Now the guitar was back in its case, and were making our way north along the fishtail of Te Ika-a-Maui, to the very top of Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.
“Well, now we are getting close! Are you excited Alex?” Naima asked me. Alex, or Alexander Andreasson—that’s me. A twenty-one-year-old blond guy from a small village on the Swedish west coast. I couldn’t get much farther away from home than I now was.
”Extremely,” I answered Naima’s question. I had been excited for months, and nervous for weeks.
“What was it called, the trail you’re tramping?” she asked me. Tramping was the correct nomenclature for hiking in New Zealand.
“Te Araroa, I answered her.
“Te Araroa… what does that mean?” Craig asked.
“The long pathway,” I answered.
“Good name. Three-thousand kilometres, that’s a bloody long way!” he said. “But really, why are you doing this?” Craig asked me. I thought about it in silence for a long while, so long that Naima and Craig both must have suspected that I didn’t really know the answer. They’d be right—despite having been asked the question by everyone I knew—family, friends, strangers, I had yet to come up with any answer better than why does a dog lick itself?
“Eh, you know what? I think you’ll find the answer along the way,” Naima said. Maybe she was right. “I bet you’re gonna be pretty lonely for some time then now eh?”
“I suppose,” I answered. “But every Frodo needs a Sam, so If anyone wants to join me now here in the last minute, I won’t stop you!”
“Oh, I’ll join you. We can re-enact Brokeback Mountain every night!” Craig said and we all laughed. “We can play Taylor Swift songs every night, and maybe write some love songs of our own!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sounds sweet as! But my backpack is heavy enough as it is, so I don’t think I’m gonna bring the guitar. Anyone of you two want it?”