south island (beautiful) disasters

I was almost homeless in Queenstown. It was 5 PM on a Tuesday and every single accommodation was fully booked since I didn’t have the foresight to book in advance. Fantastic! I remained calm. I sent out some requests to work exchange hosts in the area, not because I was prepared to do a work exchange but because I wanted to maybe possibly sleep somewhere other than a park bench in the city in the pouring rain. As expected, I received many no-sorry-not-possible-tonight-maybe-tomorrows. I began to scout out some benches in the botanical gardens. They seemed cozy. I selected my spot—surprisingly didn’t have to fight anyone for it! Somehow, I continued to remain calm. Things were looking up! My bench was in a supreme location. The rain had stopped. I had a book and a sleeping bag. What more does a girl need? I went to get dinner to celebrate my good fortune, and when I returned, just as anticipated, SOMEONE HAD COMMANDEERED MY HOME. This person did not literally take my bench by force but he was definitely over-enjoying the place where I intended to rest my head for at least six hours. I planned an elaborate retaliation attack but decided to spare him as I was feeling generous. 7 PM rolled around. I wandered the streets with all of my possessions on my back, hoping someone, anyone, would take me in. 

I continued to remain calm. This scared me. I was lacking a most basic human need and was completely nonchalant about it. This was when I decided, I am no longer the person I was twelve weeks ago. Or maybe I’m finally becoming myself, stripped of the thickly applied layers of who I have been or who I think I’m supposed to be. Stripped of the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the what-ifs. To stand in the rain with my pack and my boots and my sleeping bag and my devices and all these seemingly important things and just laugh maniacally about the fact that I’m vehemently protecting a PARK BENCH from INNOCENT PASSERSBY. This may be greatly concerning to my mother (“Shit Annie! You be careful!!!”) but it is the most beautiful, liberating sensation I have ever experienced. I am so acutely, terrifyingly conscious that I am alive and that everything is going to be okay. Even if I feel lonely, even if I get robbed, even if I have to sleep on a park bench. 

How did I end up like this? It started in Nelson. Actually it started in Picton, because I missed the opportunity (aka forgot) to book a bus from Picton to Nelson. My plan was to hitchhike, but then I saw this large, heavily bearded lumberjack-looking Dutch man whom I recognized from the ferry because he fell for the same Scone Scam that I did. They make a public announcement about fresh hot scones being served at the cafe as if they’re a free, fun snack but then you have to pay for them??? What. This lumberjack and I discovered that we were staying at the same hostel, and somehow I maneuvered my way onto the bus that he was smart enough to book. That was the last time that either one of us made a responsible, premeditated decision. 

We quickly developed a reputation for ourselves as disasters. My newfound disorganization simply reflected off of his and magnified tenfold. Our friends (yes, someone I met three minutes ago is a friend) would not even come to the supermarket with us because we were so terrible at getting things done. (A common discourse: “What should we get at the store?” “I don’t know!” “Me neither.” “We’ll figure it out.” One hour later, three items in hand, and we still have no idea what we’re getting. And we realize our wallets are back at the hostel.) We spent most of our time in Nelson with a very efficient American couple. They work in finance in Minneapolis. By the time we had woken up from a nap, they had showered, gone to the store, prepared a gourmet meal, and were enjoying some fine wine while watching the sunset. The four of us went on an overnight hike together. Apparently some preparation is usually helpful for that kind of activity. They had proper hiking boots, toilet paper, 6L of electrolyte-filled water, insect repellent, sunscreen, freeze-dried strawberries and organic protein bars, several changes of clothes, you know, just in case there’s an apocalypse. We had some tap water. When we arrived at our destination, Bearded Man and I painfully peeled off our socks and shoes and tended to our calloused, blistered, wet, cold, bleeding, snack-less selves. What did the Americans do after a 24km hike? They happily munched on their damn strawberries and felt like going for ANOTHER WALK. The bastards! They would laugh at our lack of productivity and preparedness. “How do you live like this?” But they were also envious. What’s not to envy about dancing down the juice aisle and determining how many pumpkins you can hold in one arm instead of actually buying groceries?

Sure, it’s completely unproductive, but it’s fun and it’s free and it’s living. And our difference in lifestyles seemed to parallel a difference in perspectives. Our bus ride from Nelson to the start of this hike, for example. Two of us found it to be unforgettable; the other two, well, don’t mention it to them. This bus was not a tour bus. Simply a transport service. But Chris, the driver, talked for the entire two hour journey. Chris is an absolute legend. He knows ALL of the points of interest between Nelson and Motueka (including every parking lot and every herd of sheep), and he is excellent at commentating on the traffic. “And now here we have a very large truck that looks as though it wants to merge into my lane! But don’t worry, I know what to do.” And all of this was delivered over the loudspeaker. Lucky us. Every person on the bus was furious, including our American friends. The wrath was actually tangible. They wanted their precious beauty sleep before the hike. We, however, could not get enough! Look at this guy! He’s so excited and passionate about this boring little drive and just can’t help but to share his boring knowledge with all of us. At a very high decibel. “This here to the left is the APPLE JUICE FACTORY. They make apple juice there! They take the apples, they squeeze ‘em, they get the juice. That’s how they do it.” I think that not worrying so much about the things that don’t really matter gives you more space to appreciate the things that do. Like Chris.

And the Orchestra of Snorers. After our hike, we stayed at a hut along the track where everybody sleeps in sleeping bags next to each other on a large mat, like a big slumber party of strangers. The four of us were in a room with ten old ladies. That’s a lot of old ladies in one room. These ladies went to bed early, and DID THEY KNOW HOW TO SNORE. Toscanini could not have conducted a more precise or thrilling performance. It started softly with the strings, then the shrill piccolo made its entrance, then the French horn with rich, warm clarity, and of course Sharon with the epic percussion. While the Americans ferociously tossed and turned and grunted and emitted audible exhales of frustration, us disorganized, unprepared, and insouciant ones were absolutely overjoyed. We were basically at the Symphony! We didn’t care if we didn’t get enough sleep. How often do you come across a group of old ladies who can snore in perfect harmony???

Of course, this is not to say that you must be a disorganized person to appreciate the beauty in life. But for me, it has certainly taught me to dust off the debris more easily. And now, a week after the night I was nearly homeless, I am sitting in a stunning designer home in a tiny town called Glenorchy. Everywhere I look in this house there is something striking—brilliant white walls, African mementos, and big north-facing windows. I step outside, and I am swallowed up by still snowy mountains and Middle-earth magic, full of radiant colors that make me want to paint again. Clearly I did something right. This lovely family of four took me in off of the streets (literally). They immediately trusted me and welcomed me wholeheartedly. And they have offered me a job as a personal assistant for their photography travel company. Oh hello, dream come true, nice to see you there. So I will be returning to Glenorchy for three months after a brief trip to Australia for the holidays. I would never have stumbled into this opportunity if I had not been almost homeless in Queenstown. Sometimes being a disaster pays off.

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