This was Auckland, and in the hostels of New Zealand no one ever seemed to look at each other, much less say hello.
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 Squeila 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.
By now it was late afternoon. Darkness was descending on the grey skies of Auckland, and having had no breakfast or no dinner the previous night I was entering advanced stages of starvation. I couldn’t leave the room though, not without him; I had to see what was going to happen. It was then that Martin tentatively enquired, “Would you like to go for a drink?” to which I replied with unladylike haste that I would.
Along the way we grabbed some much-needed food, and over some happy hour beers we proceeded with tales of the good, the bad and the very bad from our respective trips and those of other people we’d met along the way. We sat there talking for hours, all the while looking intently into each other’s eyes, leaning closer and closer with the passing time until our hands almost touched. Sometime in the midst of all this his hand reached over and held mine. How delicious it had been to touch someone again. My mind was sent reeling with it, and my body bathed in the long-forgotten sensations. I began to lightly brush his arm and he pulled back slightly; a moment of panic set in – had I done something wrong? Picked up false signals? What?
But then I looked up to see that he had merely been startled by my reciprocation and perhaps a little astonished himself at what was beginning to happen. As he stood up to buy the last round of drinks he kissed me on the lips with a softness and a tenderness that I would not forget. After that it was time to leave, and we both knew it.
We got outside the door and he said “If you don’t mind I’m going to give you a hug now,” and we stood there in the rain, neither of us wanting to move until he said “This is going to sound awful but I don’t mean it that way – it’s just, it’s a pity we’re going to have to go back to a dorm.”
I knew what he meant. I’d been thinking the same thing myself; he had no seedy intentions – but a world away from any friends and family, lost and alone in a cold city, we had found each other and the thought of being physically separated was not an attractive one. To hell with sex, this was the opposite of sex, this was soul comfort and an acknowledgement that no matter how long you travel or how hard you think you are and irrespective of how many people you can “pull,” sometimes what you really need is a hug and someone to connect with.
Martin and I certainly found it that night. He arranged a single room, which I sneaked into. And we hugged and touched and kissed like we were the first people we had ever done this sort of thing with – and like we were the last people we would ever do this with.
Just for a night neither of us was alone, and we reveled in it. Sometimes we would simply lie there looking at each other, drinking the other in. One of these times I knew he had something on his mind. I thought to myself, “Say it, whatever it is, say it, it’s ok.” My eyes must have asked the question for me; a minute later he quietly said, “You’re beautiful.”
“And you’re wonderful,” I thought, but my inhibitions betrayed me and I could not get the words out. Strange how even in situations like this we are conditioned not to give an inch, never to reveal how we truly feel, strangled by pride or fear. Instead I pulled him towards me and tried to let my embrace tell him what I could not bring myself to say…
And so the evening continued, and the evening turned to night and the night turned to early morning until we could stay awake no longer. Just a few hours later my alarm rang. It was time for me to continue on my journey and he on his. When I kissed him goodbye at seven that morning, we had known each other for less than 36 hours.