11.4.14

Freedom

The very best comparison I have, for that moment of logging into a big game for the first time, is stepping off the plane in a foreign country. You’ve got a backpack full of things you may need. You’ve got your experiences till now, as a human being. Maybe a little cash in pocket.

Everything else is new.

I tend to fuck up those first few hours.

In a bus that was rapidly leaving downtown Auckland, I distinctly remember walking up to the bus driver and asking him, “We pass that hostel yet?”

Him saying, “Oh yeeh mate, sorry! We passed it fifteen minutes ago, but I keen drop you off here.”

And he did, he dropped me off at one of the biggest, most beautiful graveyards I’d ever seen. Old stone markers and tombs in tall grass, the waterfront off in the background, gentle breeze. My first time traveling alone, outside the country, and I’m in a graveyard where my anus was bleeding. It was the “synthetic fiber undergarment” a friend had been kind enough to get me, for long days of hiking. I never did tell them how or why those sandpaper undies made it to a Kiwi trash bin.

Nor did it help that, being an American traveler in 2004, fresh after George W. Bush’s somewhat unpopular invasion of Iraq, most walking directions I got were comically incorrect. With my enormous backpack and chafed undercarriage, I discovered the hostel after approximately five hours.

Pretty stoked to be alive. And able to gingerly lay down.

Even after that, neither the pain in my ass nor the sniggering locals could come close to the simple joy of just wandering in a place that was new. Seriously, I understand that this it may seem strange, at first, that I regarded this rough introduction with boundless gratitude. Stumbling into a hole-in-the-wall with one of the most delicious baskets of fish and chips I’ve ever encountered. The light off the water, at the end of a pier. A group of regular folk playing rugby at a park. Trees producing what appeared to be oversized ferns, along with the subtle botanical and cultural differences around every corner. Dropped off in the graveyard, with a history of free-form exploring in games, I forget the pain and have an adventure.

A few days and a train ride later, I found myself in a city named Hamilton, where at 8AM two men were hanging out the window of the local pub, both blindingly drunk. With startling coordination, one latched onto my arm.

“Yer a backpacker! Yer ass better get back here once you drop that pack. I’m getting married today.”

My ass had not yet properly healed. I wanted to sleep. I stammered, decried his aggressive drunken insistence, then acquiesced like a good nerd. I could have just stayed in the hostel.

Stepping into the pub, I was immediately greeted with “not quite proper, but surely not the worst,” Guinness. It was cold, and good. The youngest at the table was a 13-year-old girl, the oldest a leathery-tanned 81-year-old who still surfed the Gold Coast of Australia. Or so he said.

“Ya see, we Kiwis love backpackers,” said the groom-to-be. “Because we’re all backpackers.”

“It’s true,” says his brother. “If everyone came back at the same time, the island ’d sink!”

And it’s to do with love, too,” says the groom, putting an arm around his fiancĂ©. “You need to travel the world before you find the right woman for you. I been to Asia, France, Germany, Sweden, I been everywhere. But this lady here, she’s from Scotland!”

Then we talk about love, weddings, beer, and before I can promise to attend the ceremony I drunkenly vanish from the party, stagger across six lanes of traffic, and pass out in a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The next day I meet back up with a German traveling buddy. We travel across an ocean to the South Island.

The stars there are brighter than anywhere I’ve seen. I go back across the ocean. On a hill overlooking Wellington, I watch part of a cricket game with the proper British version of a womanizing bro (“I always go for the ugly ones, you see. They’re quite a lot more energetic, and the lights are off anyway.”). At the hostel I get cornered by three Australian forensic scientists, and their 2-liter bottle of duty-free vodka.

That kind of exploratory chaos is a lot like the beginning of most games. Before grinds and weirdos and routines get their claws in us, we’re free to pursue every new thing. It’s a beautiful feeling, wherever you find it.

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