Monday, March 9, 2009

Thumbs Up

The first time I stood on the side of a highway with my thumb out in New Zealand was back in a tiny town called Otorohanga, on my way to Waitomo. It wasn't planned. I'd told the Intercity bus employee in Auckland that I wanted to go to the Waitomo caves. She'd said there was no direct bus, but that I could get their bus to Otorohanga and there would definitely be a shuttle to Waitomo. I came back to get on my bus and told the driver where I was headed, he gave me a sideways look and said the last shuttle usually left within five minutes of our scheduled arrival. Then he volunteered to call ahead and arrange matters.When we got into town and I got off, he told me that the last shuttle had left, but suggested that I stay in the town's hostel, just around the corner, and catch the next morning's shuttle. I walked around the corner as he drove off. No hostel. A little investigation revealed that it had shut down two years ago.

It was starting to drizzle. I walked into a filling station and asked about hitchhiking, having been told this was possibly the safest country left in the world to do it. I was expecting an opinion on how safe it was. Instead, I got a explanation of which way I wanted to go, as if I'd been asking driving directions. Clearly this was a question they fielded all the time.

So, feeling pretty sheepish, I walked a ways out of town, near a spot where someone could pull over, and stuck up my thumb. Cars went by, more or less as I expected. I got less shy as more passed and I got a bit discouraged. It wasn't until a girl gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up back that it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't doing something right. I went back to the filling station and came away with a cardboard sign that said “Waitomo please.” The very first car that saw me pulled over.

A few minutes later, I was bumping along the road listening to my driver go on and on about his dream motorcycle in the thickest New Zealand accent I ever got two out of five words from. He dropped me off near a hostel with a smile and the typical small-town kiwi good-bye, “Maybe I'll see you around. Not such a big place, after all.”

Since then, I've hitched other rides, once even at the clandestine advice of a tourist info center employee (“honestly, you'll get there before the first bus will”) and gotten not only to meet more people, but to see a lot more stuff. If I'd been busing, would've gone more or less straight from the ferry dock into the nearest national park via the big inland highway. Instead, I got a scenic drive through the mountains, a stop at a gorgeous bay for a swim, and a Saturday night in a small town dancing with the ladies from a local “hen party” (I think they're just called bachlorette parties in the states).

So that's been my life for the last few days. Hike for five hours through the woods of giagantic ferns along beautiful beaches, and hitch to my next destination across mountain passes, and learn all about the local water taxi business, a local campaign aiming to make cigarettes illegal in NZ except for small amounts issued to serious addicts by the government, and a “storm chasing,” which seems to be more or less exactly what it sounds like, trying to get good photographs.

And, because the public transportation on the west coast is so scarce, it's thanks to hitching that I've arrived where I am now: Paparoa national park, on the west coast of the South island, with the most dramatic coastline I've ever seen in my life-- massive limestone cliffs covered in lush ferns, trees, and bush getting smashed into by lines and lines of waves. I've never seen rows of waves rising all at once like that before-- all in the face of sunbreaks through the clouds just so you can see that actual rays hitting the sea. If only I'd given myself a bit more time until my flight out, I'd stay here for days.

Working on the pictures still. The move from Picasa to Flickr isn't going quite the way I expected. They're there, comments aren't yet, and neither is the system I was trying to put in to make them browsable by entry. Once I don't have to pay for wireless with data caps, things will improve. (UPDATE, 3/18/09- all entries now have photos attached! order is screwy and I think a few might have escaped, but they're there now.)
Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Chris Shaffer's daughter (Teresa's niece) is in NZ going from south to north. You met at Inch. Days a few years ago. If Chris reads this comment, I hope she will email and let you know her daughter's facebook/email in case you get close enough to run into one another. May be unlikely, but who knows.
    lv from anonymom.

  2. Just reread your entry and can't help notice that it included "feeling pretty sheepish" in an entry about New Zealand. Intentional humor or not.....very funny. lv, anonymom....oh yes, thx for picture of the Hereford.

  3. Joel, I am downright green with envy over your adventures. One day, I'm going to take your example and see the world like this. Maybe I'll bring someone with me, or a whole group. I can dream, can't I? :-D


  4. I am very jealous of your life. But now I get to live part of your past life over - so tell me where I should go in Chicago (I'm there at the end of the week to visit the grad school. On their dime, no less).

    Also, I'm perpetually impressed by your ability to rely on the kindness of strangers and get away with it. Best of luck going forward!

  5. Ananymom- You never know. Most countries have a few traveler hubs we all cross at some point. The only catch is that NZ has more crammed per square mile than I've seen just about anywhere. But if we run into each other randomly anywhere, it'll be in Queenstown, and I'll be there in a day or two. The sheepish comment was actually completely unintentional.

    Starbuck- Do it. Sooner rather than later. Dollar is strong, crowds are down. You don't actually need that much money if you're aren't bull-headedly dead set about getting all the way around the world. Go to and search through a city that sounds good. I've just stumbled across too, which comes recommended.

    Speaking of recommended websites, this is completely off topic, but you'll love it (actually everybody will like this, but you will in particular). A friend of mine from high school who's a really talented artist is working on comic: There's spaceships. And knitting. Need I say more?

    Count C- Yeah, I'm still pretty impressed myself. People are awesome. There is no other explanation.

    Anyway, Chicago. On someone else's dime. Sweet! Which school? Mine? What part of town will you be in? Do have ideas what kind of stuff you want to see already? Send me an email-- I have contacts and tips for you should you need more than you already have.

  6. When yo hitchhike in Fiji you stretch out your arm, palm down, and wave your hand. In Ireland, if you don't do this at a bus stop (outside the urban centers) the bus won't stop for you. In England, when David asked for information, the people always told him what they thought he wanted to know, not the information he asked for. Maybe it's a Commonwealth thing.

  7. "The first time I stood on the side of a highway with my thumb out in New Zealand was back in a tiny town called Otorohanga, on my way to Waitomo. "

    On reflection, it's obvious what you mean since I'm an American (I go "he's hitchhiking!") but given the rest of your post, I'm thinking of the friends you pick up on your travels reading this and going "what obscure ritual is he talking about? Thumbs?" This has brightened my day, thanks.

  8. Catherine- In Brazil it's palm down and wiggling your fingers, and in Waitomo, the lady who gave me the cardboard said it was sticking your fist out in front of you, arm crooked, with your thumb sticking out sideways, but no kiwi I've talked to since then had ever heard of that, and I haven't seen it since. As for the English answering thing, Indians will very often try to be helpful and say "yes" to anything you ask-- kind of a problem if the question is "Is ____ this way?"

    Count C- ...good point. We'll chuck that one in with the "sheepish" bit, shall we?

  9. Reminds me of my Peace Corps Days... always something to figure out in a new culture.