After leaving my farm in Hawkes Bay on the east coast, my plan was to head south to Wellington for a few weeks and enjoy New Zealand’s capital city. But travelling is a lot about being flexible, and instead I agreed to take up a WWOOFing position at a hostel in Nelson on the South Island. I stopped over in Wellington for one night on my way down, enough time to know I’ll definitely go back in a few months. It was an early start the next morning to catch the Interislander ferry from Wellington at the bottom of the North Island to Picton at the top of the South Island.
The ferry journey lasts around three-and-a-half hours in good conditions, although someone on the boat told me a horror story about a journey in a storm that took over ten hours, with water coming over the side of the enormous liner. Fortunately, on the day I cross, conditions are perfect, and there’s picturesque views of Wellington as it falls behind, as well as the famous Marlborough Sounds that the ferry passes through on its way into Picton.
I spend almost the entire journey outside on the deck, taking in the view and the salty air. It’s incredibly windy but relatively warm, and for a while, I’m lost in thought.
Eventually I end up chatting to a man from Ohio called Tom. He’s in his sixties although he looks good for his age. The rest, I’ll let him tell you:
“New Zealand’s beautiful, but a lot of it looks the same. You can probably take like ten photos and you’ve taken them all, you know? There was more variety in Australia. I was supposed to be here with someone else, but now I’m by myself. I decided to come anyway. I don’t really know what I’m doing, because I didn’t plan the trip, so I’m just taking it as it comes.
I’m an engineer. Both my daughters are engineers as well. One of my daughters wanted to study religion but I wasn’t going to pay for that so she majored in engineering and took on religion as a minor. I raised my daughters with contracts, that’s probably quite different from most families. I made it clear what I expected of them and then I encouraged them to be as independent as possible. When they turned 13, I opened bank accounts for them and they handled all their own purchases.
I said to my daughters: you can dye your hair any colour you want, you can have tattoos, piercings, whatever. Just don’t come home with bad grades. That’s what I cared about, you know? When they went to college, I didn’t want to know anything about what they got up to, who they were sleeping with, anything like that. Once they were both at home and one of them was telling the other one a story about how the whole cross-country team ran naked across campus. I was eating my dinner and I just kept on eating! Stared at my plate and didn’t say anything. I could see the other daughter staring daggers though. Just don’t tell me!
I used to be a teacher but I quit because it’s all bullshit now. When I started teaching, I was like 22, and this 18-year-old kid called me an Italian meatball, so I slammed him into the school fence. The next day, the father came in to see me and told me never to touch his son again. I said: ‘If your son calls me an Italian meatball again, I’ll do exactly the same thing.’ And his dad said: ‘He called you what? I’ll take care of this.’ He apologised to me and that was that. Now it’s different. Now parents are always on the sides of the kids. I’ve heard stories of parents calling up college professors and asking them to change the grades of their children.
I quit teaching in the middle of a school term. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and I was having a conversation with a kid in school, and I told him I was thinking about quitting. He asked me when I was going to quit, and I looked at him, and I said: ‘Right now.’ I walked straight down to the principal’s office and I told him I was quitting and then I went back to the classroom. The kid said: ‘Did you quit?’ And I said: ‘Yes!’
It’s funny, I used to coach track, and a few years ago someone came up to me in the street. He was in his fifties, and he recognised me as his cross-country coach from when he was at school. He told me how mad he’d been that I’d quit. That was the thing about teaching then, it was more than just a job. You really got to know the kids. I’d have the team over to my house for dinner and things like that. He was mad at me ‘cause I just quit in the middle of the season, and he still remembered that all those years later.
Life’s funny that way. You’re never sure what’s important. It’s been a weird year. My sister died and then my girlfriend died, so now I’m here by myself. What can you do? You just keep going.”
The boat sails on through turquoise waters, with jungles rising on both sides. Tom and I chat all the way till we dock in Picton, then we shake hands and part ways. The adverts for the ferry play up the magnitude of the journey, but it’s small really, as journeys go.
Snapshots of NZ