I look for my best friend of six years. His seat is empty, but in some ways he’s here: the essence of his soft fur and good-morning face licks, his tail thumping the van door, his liver breath, that deep groove between his eyes that I always rubbed with my fingers. My chest tightens, but my grief must wait; a crisis looms.
My van and I claw up a formidable hill, faint headlamps parting the blackness. The hill steepens, and the van sputters. I straighten up, take a few deep breaths, and grip the steering wheel a little harder. Dented guardrails hug the road on one side, a crumbling cliff on the other. There is nowhere to pull off of this road—the maps call it a highway—in my current location, Middle of Nowhere, New Zealand.
It’s easy to find yourself in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand. While roughly the size of California or Japan, New Zealand only has a population of four million people. By comparison, California has thirty-six million, and Japan one hundred fifty million. It’s well known that New Zealand has more sheep than people. In fact, the ratio is twelve to one. So if I break down and no one is around, maybe a dozen sheep will help push us. Us I should explain, is my old red van named Lonna and me, a Chinese American on a mission to find a primary school teaching position in New Zealand.
Rain batters Lonna’s windshield and pounds her roof. Her dented roof can hold enough water to help me survive for days, but our erratic ascent causes the roof water to cascade down the back window. Her worn cylinders lose compression; the RPM needle dances. She’s barely holding it together, but her pride—and our safety—is at stake.
“C’mon, girl,” I say, rocking back and forth in my seat in an effort to be more involved in our ascent. “You can do it.”
The voltage light flickers, so I turn off her wipers. Lonna likes that and revs up a little. I concentrate all remaining power and turn off her lights. I downshift into first gear and squint into the darkness. I’ve had some adventures, but driving with no lights and no wipers on a pitch-black, rain-soaked night is entirely new for me.
Darkness and more darkness, I’m still inhaling, and still rocking. As we crest the hill, I finally exhale, raising my hands overhead like the speedy kid on the schoolyard who beats everyone to the fence and back. With the hill behind us, I flick the lights back on. If Toughy were here, he’d be giving me the look: Laughing again? What’s so funny now?
Toughy, my first dog, a chow chow–golden retriever mix, passed four months ago. Even though I’m in a different country, driving a different van, I constantly find myself cracking the windows for him and waiting for his tail-wagging, face-licking greeting whenever I return. But when I look at the seat next to mine, there are nothing but CD cases, notebooks, and overripe bananas—and that’s just the tip of the emptiness.
Toughy and I found each other during a drive I took from Chicago to San Francisco. Fresh out of college and on my way to my first career job, I was determined to create my own life. With the cruise control on, my feet on the dash, and the blur of the Arizona desert out my van window, I decided it was time to have a dog. The next day I stopped to see an old friend in San Diego and learned his dog, a golden retriever, had mated with a chow chow. I figured it was no coincidence, and we walked up the street to check out the pups.
I unlatched my friend’s gate and walked into a small yard. Four puppies and a protective, barking mother swirled around me. The largest puppy reared up, put his oversized paws on my leg, and began licking my hand.
“All the other ones are for sale, but you can have him,” said the chow chow’s owner. “His name is Toughy. You’re the first person he hasn’t bitten.”
I quickly scooped him up and was out the gate with my first dog. For six years he taught me to share my time and the joys of caring and love. He knew that he was holding me back from my dream of living overseas, and I’m certain that’s why he passed.
Since my arrival in New Zealand, I repeat a sort of daily mantra: “You’ll find a full-time teaching job here. You have to. He left you so you could do this.”
Despite my belief in fate, it’s not looking too good: broken van, big hills, and hundreds of applicants for every permanent job for which I’ve applied. It all brings an overwhelming and confusing mix of emotions: worry, fear, depression, determination, excitement, hopelessness, liberation. I want to promise Toughy, “I won’t let you down, boy.”
Lonna and I pull into a picnic area next to a lake, relieved we’ve made it to a good nesting spot for the night. We come to a skidding stop in the wet grass next to a sign that reads No Camping. I turn off the engine and stare into the darkness, while still holding the steering wheel. When blood returns to my hands and my heart drops out of my throat, I fumble for my headlamp and toothbrush.
Will Lonna start in the morning? Who knows? It’s not the best situation, but for the time being I’m totally sorted. Sorted is a local term I’ve picked up recently. Once you make it up and over a hill in an ailing, twenty-year-old van, you turn to your imaginary passenger and shout, “We’re sorted, mate!”
The rain lightens up, and I shuffle over to the lakeside to brush my teeth, disrupting the placid surface with a mouthful of spit. Soon, the rain stops altogether, and the stars come into focus. Watching their shimmering reflection, my eyes follow the tiny waves; they disappear into the darkness but I can still see them—like Toughy. I can’t help but let a sigh leak out before I trudge back to my home on wheels.
My eyes open to sunlight, and I’m up in an instant. I walk up to the so-called highway expecting to see a car mechanic and tow service business, but all I see are a few country houses. It’s Friday and a temporary teaching job I’ve landed starts on Monday, leaving a couple of days to go about one hundred miles. I’ll make it even if I have to abandon Lonna and hitchhike.
I jump in Lonna, ready to go. But is she ready?
She is. I give her some gas and release the clutch. Her old engine spins the tires in the loose gravel, sending the small rocks spitting and pinging Lonna’s underside.
Looking at the night’s campsite in the rearview mirror, I hear my mom’s directives to stay in hotels. She definitely wouldn’t approve of my sleeping arrangements, but she’ll never know. It’s in the job description of sons to withhold worry-inducing information from their mothers. For years I rock climbed and never went into any detail about what it actually entailed. I’m sure she thought I was just scrambling around on some rocks, not high on some wall with my legs shaking, wondering how I was going to continue going upward or retreat downward.
Mom and Dad would be cool parents in anyone’s book. In the book of Asian parents, however, they are super cool. Both were born in small villages in southern China, and both came to America in their early teens. If you went by stereotypes, you’d think they’d be very traditional with a rigid idea of success. The opposite is true. They never made me play the piano (although I wish they had), and they never pressured me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Back when skateboarding was looked down upon and there were no skate parks, my dad helped me build my own ramps and my mom drove me to the next town to buy skate equipment. All the love, support, and gentle guidance they provided must be part of the reason I’m so driven to succeed on this current endeavor of mine.
Despite Lonna’s great start, she quickly shows symptoms of the previous night’s malady. I gather as much speed as possible on a descent into a canyon, swoosh across a bridge spanning a large river, and grit my teeth for the hopeful climb out of the canyon. Her will, my will—it’s just not enough, and the climb halts our northward progress. Lonna’s rusted rims and worn tires come to a crunching stop in some gravel on the side of the road.
I stare at the map for a moment and toss it aside. Who knows what’s nearby? What difference does it really make? I have no cell phone signal and no idea how far I will have to walk until I get a signal or reach a pay phone. I take a few deep breaths with my forehead on the steering wheel, a few allotted seconds of despair, and then I’m on it.
At least the view is good. We’ve managed to climb about four hundred feet above the river. Off to my right is a drop-off into a valley and to my left, a short cliff. Although I can’t see the ocean itself, I can see where the broad, green river valley and its dotted pastures end. The river has a hint of color, as many rivers in their lower reaches do; it probably runs clear during dry periods, but the sinuous sandbars tell me this river moves a lot of sediment. Down in the valley, the weak morning sun has given way to more intense spring rays. But up here where I’m standing, there’s still a hint of the night’s chill.
Opening Lonna’s back hatch, I shake my head, staring at the mountain of items I’ve accumulated in such a short time. I’ve heard more than one story of sticky-fingered locals making slick work of a tourist’s car on the side of the road. I don’t worry, though. I’ve got the plan.
My laptop, documents, money, cameras, and anything else important fly into my backpack. No cars coming? No sound of cars? Anyone watching? No? All right. Go. I stash my surfboards in the bushes and cover them with a spattering of ferns. I’m ready.
Heading north on foot, I’m ready to crawl over this most recent hurdle in my mission. There will be no jumping hurdles today—my backpack is too heavy. Shouldering all my valuables, and enough provisions to paddle back to California, I begin my chug up the hill that sidelined Lonna. I begin to think of the e-mail I will send my family and friends who are following my adventure: Lonna grew ill, and I trekked for hours and hours and days and…
Just minutes into my epic breakdown trek, the road levels out and I’m looking at a few buildings with peeling paint. The sign on one reads Raupunga Post and Store, on another, Te Huki Arts and Craft. Both have closed doors and cheerless, sagging windows. I seem to be in a small town—or what used to be a small town. Across the street from the buildings is what looks like an outhouse, covered in graffiti. A little farther back lie some railroad tracks, looking shiny enough to be active. Cows, sheep, and birds do what they do best: moo, baa, and tweet. I see no one.
A passing stock truck breaks the silence, sending me scurrying from the road. The stench lingers for a moment before a slight breeze wisps it away. By the time the hum of the truck fades, I’m back on the road, staring blankly at this ghost town. Where is everyone? Do people live here? I imagine a few dust devils and a tumbleweed or two bumping into my leg. No pay phone, no one in sight, but graffiti: what is this place?
But wait. Is that singing? I start to feel at ease. Yes, I can make out the faint sound of children singing. In the distance, a single road branches off from the highway, curving hard to the left and passing a white building atop a hill. It must be a school. My mind races—They will have a phone, and maybe I can make a connection. Maybe I was fated to break down here. For months I’ve been trying to land a permanent teaching job for the 2003 school year and maybe, just maybe, this is it.
First, though, an open door in a one-storey brick building catches my eye. I walk toward the house and call out from the porch, but I get no response. Everything seems to be at a standstill. The birds have stopped chirping, as if they’re waiting to see what my next move is. There’s an old phone with a tangled cord on a table near the door. I think of helping myself, but something about the place tells me to be cautious. Then, the sound of an engine breaks the spell, drawing my gaze away from the phone.
A lone motorcycle makes its way down the road from the school. Even at this distance, I feel the driver’s eyes on me—the gaze of a lone rider on a mustang clip-clopping into a lawless town. I dare not move. Best to just stay put on the front porch. A small boy sits on the driver’s lap. Unhurried, yet purposefully, they close in on my position. The rider, a Maori man about my height but much stockier, eases the motorcycle to a stop at the building’s edge, and I wait for him to cut the engine before I speak.
“Howzit, mate! My van broke down just down the hill. Could I use your phone?”
He lowers the small boy to the ground, never taking his eyes off me, and I grow a little nervous. What if he thinks I’m lying, a thief who was ready to walk in the open door?
“I can give ya a few bucks,” I add, taking my backpack off and setting it on the porch.
He sizes me up for a bit, saying nothing. Like many other New Zealanders I’ve met, he seems momentarily thrown off by an Asian dude with an American accent. Even in Auckland and Wellington, the two largest cities, many people have assumed I don’t understand English well. In the smaller towns, I’ve gotten a few Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan catcalls.
“No problem,” he finally replies, swinging off the bike and striding toward the open door. Unlike his father, the boy seems a little unsure of himself, struggling just to keep upright, clinging to whatever he can get his hands on. Still in diapers and not a day over two, the little boy will learn to be a tough guy soon enough.
As the man lumbers past me, I realize he isn’t large. He doesn’t have the tree-trunk stockiness typical of many Maoris—the indigenous people of New Zealand. That said, his forearms bulge and a rugged air surrounds him. His shaved head accentuates his face, and a tank top shows his lean yet formidable shoulders.
I’m glad he brings the phone outside, as caution keeps whispering to me and I don’t want to be cornered. I call AAA, and it turns out I’m only about a twenty-five minute drive from a full-service town. A tow truck will be here as soon as possible. The tough motorcycle man, meanwhile, tells me I’m in a town called Raupunga, and the singing is indeed coming from a primary school. I’d like to drop off a mini-portfolio and résumé at the school, but the last thing I need is for the tow truck driver to get to my van before I do. I give the little boy some lollies—candy—and thank the man with a thumbs-up and, “Sweet as, mate.”
In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve become a proficient user of the term sweet as. It can mean “Thank you,” “It’s all good,” “Goodbye,” “See ya later,” or—most useful for me—“Chill out, man. I don’t want to fight!” I was in a bar in Auckland one night when a monster Maori man sarcastically mimicked an Asian language, attempting to get a rise out of me. I looked up—and up—at him, unflinchingly, straight in the eye because I knew he’d respect that, and replied, “Kia ora, koe Ryan ahou!”—Maori for “Hello, my name is Ryan!” Then, in the instant before he would have pummeled me, I smiled, extended my hand, and said, “Sweet as, mate!”
Now, the motorcycle man simply nods at my thanks. As the little boy rips into the lollies, I race back down the hill to load my surfboards into Lonna. Total time spent packing my stuff for the walk and hiding all my belongings: about an hour. Total time I was away from Lonna: about twenty minutes.
Soon I’m headed north again, only this time in the tow truck. I still want to drop a mini-portfolio off at the school just in case I was meant to break down in Raupunga, but my conversation with the driver distracts me and the town is quickly behind us.
“Yeah, mate.” The driver chuckles. “Ya picked a staunch place to break down. There’d be nothin’ left of your van tomorrow.”
Staunch is another word I’d never heard before coming to New Zealand. In this case it means Raupunga is the real deal, a tough place, an area full of men like the one I just met—and probably not the best place for a lone Chinese dude to break down.
As the town fades in the rearview mirror, the driver tells me stories of gang warfare, and all I can do is sit there with my lower jaw hanging. As he describes it, that peaceful little town has an underlying madness. The stories confirm the sense of wariness I felt, but none of it really makes sense: Aren’t gangs a big city thing? Had I been in danger? I look at the rolling green out the window and think, Oh well, I’ll never set foot in that place again.
How wrong I am.