Mercury Bay and thank god for Snoop Dogg

Whitianga Travel Blog

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All aboard the Kiwi Express
I turned my ticket into the bus driver. He said, "I hald ento thaze while you're en the bus, mate. When you git off fer lodging, I'll give et beck, bet don't you lose et, or I won't let you en me bus again, right?"

Our bus driver's name was Bells. He stood about 6'4 (188 cm), with some girth around the belly and a cleanly bic'd bald head. As he spoke into the bus microphone in a fuzzy kiwi accent, one could tell right away that he was cheeky - more likable than laughable because his jokes were god awful. Perhaps it was just to break the ice on the bus, after all, it was just like the first day of summer school. As he went from hostel to hostel picking up travelers, a slow group of not-so-average people assembled inside the bus.
A Ben Stiller lookalike got on and sat in the seat directly behind the driver. I noticed a Canadian flag sewn onto his pack. A couple from Denmark got on and sat next to him, the man close to 7 feet tall (2 m) and skinny. Two Korean girls and a Chinese Malay got on and also sat in the front. Two French Swiss took the seat behind them and a Belgian couple behind them.

I had grabbed a seat a little more than half way back of the bus. It was just close enough to the jokers I knew would eventually settle into the last row (they always do) and just far enough to disassociate myself from them if I needed a break. I unpacked some junk from my travel pack and spread it out on the seat next to me. I hoped the bus didn't get too full so I could have both seats to myself.

Three girls got on and took seats around me. Right on, I thought. After they settled in and spoke a little to each other, I could tell they were from Australia. Our last stop, we picked up a colorful group from northern Europe by their accents, who went immediately to the back. Ah hah, our jokers, I thought. They were loud and weird, and you could smell whatever they were intoxicated on coming out of their sweat. A group of English who looked a bit like a bunch of jocks on holiday also settled into the back. They struck up a conversation that made the rest of us envious.

Besides the occasional laughter from the very back, the bus was quiet. Definitely felt like the first day of school. I tried at first listening to Bells commentary about the features we were passing, but I couldn't really understand him.
I slipped on my Ipod and tuned out.

The bus stopped and I snapped awake. I didn't even realize I had dozed off. It was drizzling outside and when I took the earbuds out of my ear I could hear Bells saying something about a walk down to Mercury Bay. Since it had started raining, he put it to a vote whether we stopped and got out for the walk or not. I was craving a cigarette. I raised my hand immediately. The Aussie girls followed suit and soon more. I grabbed my jacket and climbed out of the bus before Bells had finished counting the vote. He smirked at me through the door as he saw me light up.

People climbed off the bus and we made our way down to the little cove in the drizzle. Along the way, I broke the ice with a pretty girl from Switzerland named Sandra and the male half of the Belgian couple whose name was Beniot (pronounced Ben-wa).
The first two travelers I became acquainted with, Benior and Sandra
It was pleasant, but not really worth the stop in the rain to be honest. I bought an ice cream from the snack stand, used the loo and got back on the bus.

The bus started rolling and we pulled into a little town on the eastern coast called Whitianga. In Maori, the "wh" is pronounced with an "f" sound, so effectively it was called Fitty-unga. Bells began his spiel about where we were going to sleep and how the rooms were settled. He said that we could arrange lodging anywhere if we had a specific hostel in mind, but in every town there was one hostel that the Kiwi Express had a deal with and could guarantee vacancy. He passed back 2 clipboards. The first one asked us to put down where we wanted to lodge and what kind of room we wanted, single double or dorm. I could hear there was a lot of talk around the bus about which hostel to go to, etc, as this was the very beginning of the trip and most everyone was still used to traveling on their own and hostel shopping out of their tour books. However in the end almost all of us put our names down for the hostel Bells recommended.

The second clipboard was to sign up for a bone carving activity. Bells explained that there was an artist living in town who made her living cutting and polishing bones into Maori designs and making medallions out of them. If we chose, after checking into the hostel, he would drive those who signed up out to her shop where we could make our own bone pendant. I thought it sounded interesting. I signed up and passed the clipboard back.

We pulled up to the hostel, unloaded and queued up to the counter. It was a sprawling 1 story house that had been converted long ago to accommodate travelers. The woman shouted above the throng that each dorm room had 4 beds, so unless we didn't care, choose the the group of 4 you wish to sleep with. I honestly didn't care who I roomed with since I hadn't really befriended anyone yet, so I haphazardly waited my turn in the crowd until one the three Australian girls said over my shoulder, "We're three, so we'll just join you in your room. Is it okay?"

Nothing like women asking to stay in your room to puff up a man's ego. Stoked, I said sure. I paid first and went to the room, grabbing a bottom bunk and a quick shower. When I returned, the girls had already started settling in and were back and forth between the kitchen making dinner. They offered some food to me but I refused since I wanted to go out and explore the town a bit and probably grab some food at a bar somewhere.

We introduced ourselves. Victoria was thin, had wavy brown hair and had just changed out of her contacts to put on glasses. I thought she was a little bookish, if not a little snobby, but I liked her because you could tell she was smart and respected herself. The other two girls' names were Linda. Linda K was short, cute and had dark hair. Her face was round like a baby and her cheeks were rosy. She was the quietest of the three, perhaps a little naive., but you couldn't help liking her. Linda V on the other hand, was blonde and extremely outgoing and wore an air of toughness like armor. She talked a lot of shit and laughed about it, and we got along immediately because I tend to do that too.

Bells came around and collected us. The girls were going too. We drove over there and entered a little workshop. I chose a little circle of a bone, cut a wave out of it and put a necklace string on it. Funny, but my first thought was, Now who can I give this to? See, in Japan, there is a custom called Omiyage, which means souvenir-giving. The way it works is that whenever you leave to go on vacation, you are supposed to bring back small gifts for everybody you associate with, kind of as a way of saying I'm sorry for my absence. For me, an English teacher at two schools, that was a shitload of little gifts I had to return with. In Japan, where the custom is established, you can find omiyage boxes of cookies or other edible things individually wrapped for this purpose. But anywhere else, putting together enough gifts was a mission in itself. So when I returned to the hostel afterward, I put my bone-carved necklace in my backpack and made mental notes of who I might give it too.

Upon returning to the hostel, the girls started changing into jammies and nighties and I made my excuses and went out. I stopped in the parlor to see if there was anyone else going out, but everybody had either left already or was going to bed. Alone then.

I stopped at the first public phone I came to and tried calling my mom, hoping to sort out some transfer of money, but my phone card from Japan didn't work. It was late evening, after the sun was set and everything looked blue. I hadn't encountered anyone on the street, no cars rolling by, most places closed. I walked through town until I found a large restaurant style sports bar. A couple local guys, maybe in their 50s were drunk and smoking outside, talking shop about one thing or another. They got quiet and stared at me as I approached, but it was the only place open, so I went in.

The place was big inside, but cozy. I spotted the English jocks from the bus but didn't feel like befriending them at the moment so I walked across to the bar. I chatted with the bartender, a young Australian who was working there for the summer to save up enough money to continue his travels. I ordered a kiwi beer and looked around the place. Just then I noticed the unbelievable smell of barbecue floating around and followed the smell to a grill in the corner. Next to the grill was a wall-sized wooden sign with 12 different burgers and details about each one largely painted on it. My head tilted back, I scrutinized the list from top to bottom and realized that I had to try one. I love jalapeños and I'm pretty sure I'd never had a jalapeño burger, so I decided that was the one.

The grillman was Australian like the bartender, about as young and I assumed probably working for the summer too. With a smile he shouted, "What'll it be then, mate?" and laughed like I was about to be let in on some great secret.

"A jalapeño burger. Are they hot?" I shouted back.

He dropped his smile, sized me up and and returned his smile all in the span of about a second, but I noticed it. "You want it hot?"

I had just screwed myself. What was I going to say? No, I was just asking because I'm weaksauce? Fuck that. If I were a caveman I would have promptly beat my chest and screamed at the ceiling. I resisted the urge and said, "How do the locals like it?"


"Make mine hotter."  He laughed again and smiled like I was back in on the secret. I paid and got my receipt. I grabbed my beer and walked through the loud families of Kiwi and Maori filling up the benches and tables in the eating hall to smoke a cigarette out back. Outside there were two fireplaces and a bunch of tall tables to stand at. I put my beer on the table nearest the door and lit up.

I was about halfway through my cigarette when a tall Maori man came out, placed his beer on my table and lit up a cigarette. The cigarette came away from his lips and he stared at me with a hard look. He was wearing a basketball jersey and a baseball hat sat skew on his head, which he held aloof. In a gruff voice he said, "I ain't sin you before. You frem here?"

I looked back at him, flight or fight hormones immediately shooting through my body. "No,"  I said and took a swig from my beer to negate the need to say more.

"Where you frem then?" he said, continuing to stare and thoroughly giving me the creeps.

Now, in this day and age, as an American abroad, when posed with the question of where I'm from I rarely say America (thanks and fuck you very much Bush). I usually go with California, or if the interrogator appears to be pretty hip, I'll say the States and go from there. But this guy... It was the first time that I contemplated saying I was from Canada. I gave myself a 50/50 chance of getting out of this without a fight no matter what I said, so I decided to go with the truth.

"Well I'm living and working in Japan now really, but originally I'm from California. Long Bea--"

"AMERICA?" he yelled and I flinched.

But suddenly his hardass stare went away to be replaced by the biggest toothy smile I've ever seen... I mean a complete 180 from hostile to friendly. "I love America! Hell, I thought ya was Australian," he beamed at me and threw up his hand. It hung up there for a second until I realized he wanted to high five, so I stuck my hand out and sure enough he slapped it and even did a little snap with his fingers. Funny, but it reminded me of a buddy of mine back when I was doing manual labor at UPS, this guy named Nick from Diamond Bar who used to do that little snap after a hand slap because he used to hang out with some vatos from Brea and would call everybody dog---

"...and my lady, she got me thaze fer my birthday," he was saying though I hadn't been paying attention. "Disneyland, yeh, we always wanted ta go there."

Did he just say Disneyland? "Oh yeah?" I threw out tentatively. What the hell was he talking about?

"Yeh, man, I love America. 2Pac." He took a hit from his cigarette. "Snoop Dogg..."


"You like Snoop Dogg?" I said. "I'm from Long Beach! That's where he's from. Do you know Sublime?"

"Ah yeh, ev course!" And next thing I knew we were deep in conversation about music like we were old friends. I lit up another smoke and finished my beer, eventually remembered my burger and went back inside just in time to hear the grillman calling my number.

I grabbed the tray and worked my way to an empty table in the corner so I could people watch. There was a mountain of fries the size of two healthy stomaches and the burger was about as wide as a small pizza. I could feel my eyes widening and I dug the burger out of the yellow paper and hot sauce-covered jalapenos fell everywhere onto the tray. I laughed out loud and tore as big a bite into its soft belly as I could... and chewed it down... and waited... my mouth beginning to sear... and then it felt as if my tongue might actually burst into flames like smoking wood sometimes does, so I took another bite, this time bigger and before I knew it I had eaten half and was literally in tears and could feel my t-shirt wet with sweat under my arms. Absolutely the best jalapeño burger I've ever had and to date the only jalapeño burger I've ever had.

rich_mkii_rs2000 says:
great stuff, made me laugh
Posted on: Jan 08, 2009
goezi says:
Vivid stuff. Nice!
Posted on: Aug 25, 2008
Ape says:
I enjoy reading your blog, I'm getting stoked for NZ already XD
Posted on: Jan 16, 2008
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All aboard the Kiwi Express
All aboard the Kiwi Express
The first two travelers I became a…
The first two travelers I became …
photo by: carpefunk