I stepped off the three hour bus ride from Auckland to Whangarei brimming with curious excitement. The verdant, hilly landscape had my face pressed to the glass the entirety of the ride up in wondrous awe. Here I was to meet my very first couchsurfing host. Matt and I had been exchanging emails for a few weeks as I was planning my trip up to his hometown on the eastern coast of the North Island, but all I really knew about him at this point was that he was adventurous, loved to travel, loved to surf even more, and was thirty-six years old. I wandered about the small bus stop with the confused, searching face of a lost traveler until I caught the eye of a weathered, oddly handsome stranger who wore his travels in minute canyons etched like dry river beds from his eyes. The questionable recognition in our glances slowly transformed our curious faces to smiles and reserved introductions. “Taylor?” He said with a note of apprehension. With a wide smile and a firm handshake, I introduced myself to the stranger who would be hosting me for the five days as I settled my plans to head up and explore the rest of the Northland.
It was past seven when I arrived and after stopping at the store to pick up the necessities (milk, bacon, eggs, cheese, bagels, and beer) we headed back to his house, a cozy summer style ranch with a stone edged pool in the welcoming backyard. An older German woman with windblown strawberry blonde hair like straw (another couchsurfer being hosted by the gracious flatmates) sat at the table overlooking the pool. She reclined in front of an open journal and a glass of white wine sweating in the warm summer night, a pensive look draped across her face. This was the last night of her travels in New Zealand and once I got settled the three of us rolled through beers, wine, and the easy conversation of cultural and linguistic nuances that make for good entertainment between any travelers. Around midnight on the Friday night as I was getting ready for bed, Matt’s flatmate, Stu, arrived to a quiet house save for the quiet clicking of my keyboard. An eccentric looking man with wiry grey hair sprouting from his head in scattered patches, his smile was instantly hospitable. We chatted briefly in introduction and by the time I slid myself beneath the sheets, I felt nothing but welcome in the comfort of their home.
The boys wasted no time getting started on Saturday morning, and after a seven a.m. trip to the farmer’s market with Stu, Matty took me his parents sheep farm about twenty minutes outside of Whangarei. As we entered the barn, consumed with the smell of sheep and shit, I pulled out my camera to begin documenting the day. I was instantly interrupted by Matt’s father, “You never seen a sheep before?” he asked incredulously with a hint of sarcasm. After informing him that I had, in fact, seen a sheep before, we continued on with our chores for the day.
And by we, I mean I watched Matt, snapping photos as he dirtied his hands, both of us grateful for the cover of clouds from the unforgiving sun. Between bouts with a chainsaw and the massive Australian Eucalytpus that had fallen during the last storm, Matt pointed out the various trees his parents had planted from around the world, the history of the farm, and the miraculous fact that American Monterey Pine had saved the native New Zealand forestry. I sat smoking cigarettes and watching his wide, toned arms struggle to load the cross sections of smooth trunk into the trailer, feeling utterly and completely useless, but glad to have a ticket to the show.
After the work was done, we headed back to the house for a home cooked meal and an ice cold drink. I spent an hour or two chatting with his garrulous parents, happy to have a willing ear, about our respective travels while the sounds of Matt heaving and grunting as he chopped the wood wafted into the living room. Exhausted just from watching Matt, we headed back to his place with a sense of accomplishment and a bag full of freshly picked apples.
The remainder of my days in Whangarei were relaxed to say the least. I passed the time lazing by the pool reading in the strong New Zealand sun. I took full advantage of the free internet to catch up with the people I loved and missed the most back home, and began forming tentative plans for my sojourn north. I wandered into the center of the small beach town on a bike the boys had for me to use taking care of various errands in preparation for my departure. For the first time in my life, my travels had no expiration date in sight and I was taking full advantage of the ability to lackadaisically enjoy my days at what would become my unofficial base camp in the Northland. On my fourth day in Whangarei I bought a prepaid phone and, in predictable fashion, sent my very first text from the future to the poet. In the days before I left the States, the embers that were left of our complicated flame had begun to slowly burn again, and his desire that I had craved so urgently before, began to show its elusive self. But this time, something was different. Where before my very breath hung on every word he dared to give or keep from me, something in me was unchained. I was free to hold his affection close but free to find love on these rolling roads in this mystical place. I was boundlessly happy with or without him, as everything here was still brimming with the sparks of the unknown. And as we spoke through the summer twilight, he could hear the smile stapled to my face for this adventure that was nourishing my soul. Either way, it was good to hear the earnest caring in his voice, and I missed him in a way I didn’t think I would.
On Tuesday afternoon, after five days of my first couchsurfing experience, Matt drove me into town to catch the six thirty up to Paihia. My newfound friend gave me a firm, lengthy hug and said with honest sadness in his eyes that he was going to miss coming home to my cheerful greetings after a long day at work. As I left about half of my stuff at his place and was using his address as my personal post office box, I assured him I would be back soon enough. Besides, he still owed me a surfing lesson after our plans were dashed once by tsunami warnings, and once again by less than ideal conditions. With his promise to pay up upon my return, we hugged one last time and the next leg of the rolling unknown unfolded.