I was fighting with my ever-growing number of bags and my over weighty backpack, not thinking of anything other than getting rid of this wretched luggage when he passed me in the hallway. He was tall and slim, with masses of sun-blonded curls, but what really made him stand out was that he looked straight at me said "hello" – this was Auckland, and in the hostels of New Zealand no one ever seemed to look at each other, much less say hello.
Of course, as I was soon to find out, this was no ordinary hostel. This was the cheapest hostel in Auckland – in fact, the worst hostel in the western world…
I trudged along corridors that smelt like the horrid, musty, damp prefabricated building we had been required to spend several terms in, as punishment for being first-years at my secondary school. Then came the treat that was my dorm: the beds looked like they had been made from old shipping crates, the place was dank, the smell was of old socks mixed with certain substances not quite legal but generally tolerated in NZ. The rapidly rotting roof appeared to be sagging right over my bed. There was no way I was going on the top bunk!
The place was full of tents, being spread out in an effort to dry them I supposed. There was a dirty old bicycle and even some sort of metal towing contraption, which looked like it might have been abandoned after it fell of the back of a combi van. I was baffled as to what it might be doing in a dorm.
After a brief look at the kitchen I went right off the idea of cooking (in fact I went right off the idea of food!). After wandering around aimlessly looking for anyone to talk to I went to bed. In the dorm I met Sheila, a young pom of the squealing variety recognisable by their fresh faces, high pitches and over-the-top enthusiasm for everything you have ever done and anywhere "exciting" you’ve travelled. Still, it was nice to have a conversation for once.
New Zealand had been beautiful but was one of those places that wasn’t hugely welcoming for lone backpackers. Most people seemed to have come with their social groups preformed, and clearly you had to be some saddo not to have friends of your own. Hence the hectic three-week tour had been enjoyable but somewhat solitary. The following day was to be my only respite from a touring schedule that might have made an Olympic athlete think twice – and I was no Olympic athlete – however I didn’t relish having to spend it alone, in the winter grimness of Auckland. I did however relish the thought of a much needed lie in…
Over 12 hours of blissful sleep later – despite having several mysterious bites on my hands and feet – I was in bed and slowly regaining an awareness of my surroundings. My eyes still closed, I could hear Squealing Sheila giving an English guy the third degree about his travels. Apparently he’d been cycling round New Zealand and was clearly the cause of both the bike and the contraption being in the room. He was polite enough, but even a blind man could see he was trying to wriggle out of giving Squeila his email address. In the end he got away with just accepting hers.
I turned to say hello to Sheila and thereby rescue the cyclist when there he was – the tall guy with the gentle voice from the corridor last evening.
I had started to say to Sqeila how despite the bed bugs I’d had a great long sleep as it was my first opportunity to do so since I arrived in NZ over two weeks before; he immediately interjected with concern that he hoped they hadn’t disturbed me. Hmm – gentle voice and a sensitive nature… this guy was certainly someone I wanted to talk to more. And somehow we did.
Squeila disappeared and I was still in bed and he was still crouching down beside me at eye level. I didn’t want to get out of bed in case he left – he was only supposed to be in Auckland for the night, he hated cities and wanted to get moving after having spent the previous three months fruit picking "up north."
I got up to have a shower and oh joy! – he was still there when I returned. The afternoon pressed on and we talked about all sorts of things, about where we had been, where we were going, when we had left, what we had done in the real world and why we didn’t want to go back. It was the usual fodder for the type of information transactions between people on the road but we’d brought to it a strange intensity, as if it was the very first of such conversations that either of us ever had, as if it was the only conversation we might ever have. It was each of us recognising our sense of isolation from the travelling world we inhabited at present and from most of the people in it; the type of calmness tinged with loneliness only gained from long hours, days and even weeks alone. "Ainimnigh ciarog ciarog eile" – one beetle recognises another, as they used to say at home.
We then began a show-and-tell session where we each dug out our favourite souvenirs, or at least the subset of which we carried with us, and recounted the stories that accompanied them. I remember him looking up from rummaging in his daypack at one stage, we stopped for a moment, and pausing I saw those piercing blue eyes hold mine. It was the first time I thought about kissing Martin, with the exquisite uncertainty as to whether it would actually happen and with the growing awareness that he wondered the same.
A little later he stood up to show me something; I stood next to him, feeling the heat from his body, drawing it in, moving imperceptibly closer, picking up the scent of him and breathing deeply. Every sense in my body was heightened and focused as the desire reverberated through me… And yet we kept talking. As every good traveller knows, it’s not a matter of whether you get there, the pleasure is in the journey itself.
Read Part 2