March 2010


The morning was cloudy, but as Paddy and I stumbled down the main road of Paihia, curved smooth as a bow around the bay, we wore our hangovers heavy on our shoulders. To our disappointment, the sun broke through those saviors of clouds and beat our weary faces further. We were on a mission to see about a tattoo and had only a vague idea of where we were to go. Heading to the gas station across the street from the supermarket in Waitangi we were to find a man covered in moko, the traditional Maori tattoos that cover the bodies and faces of the native tribes. The moko tell the stories of those who wear them and today I was searching to be read by a Maori and blessed to have my moko forever inked on my eagerly tattooed skin. For three years I have wanted a tattoo on my left side, twisting from my ribs around my back. I wanted something that would represent me, from where I have come, the never ending struggle for personal growth in my life, and my need to be free from the chains whose burdens our souls heavily bear. Curiously we entered the gas station to inquire about the tattooed stranger. “Oh you mean Damien, eh?” The cashier responded without pause, “well ‘e’s jus gettin’ into that car right there to be on ‘is way, eh? But if it’s the moko you’re after jus’ walk down to that roundabout there, eh? Take a left and find the house with the totem out front and ask after Tracy.” We thanked the Kiwi clerk with a cheers and made our way to the house with the totem. Not far past the roundabout, just as the helpful clerk described, we came across the house we assumed to be Tracy’s and instantly confirmed that fact as we came up to the driveway and saw the makeshift tattoo parlor set up in the garage. It was either that or a crazy dentist, anyway. I hesitantly knocked on the frosted glass door and a small blonde boy around ten or so peeked his head out and called for his mom. As Tracy came around the corner my eyes were immediately drawn to the moko that wound its way from her lip, around her chin and down to the top of her neck. Her hair was black, her skin the deep sienna of a true blooded Maori, and she wore years of laughter in the lines of her eyes and mouth. She escorted Paddy and me to the garage and we started talking shop. The moko are sacred to the Maori and Tracy was pleased as Paddy remembered to request permission for the symbolic language to be inked on my foreign body. She granted us both permission and I set up an appointment to return the next afternoon to have my reading done. When Paddy asked how much the tattoo would cost, she jokingly replied’ “five hundred an hour and a bag of oysters” and we left a bit perplexed and still unsure of how much the tattoo was going to cost. Upon returning and excitedly relaying the story to some Kiwis that work at our hostel, we learned that payment for the moko is a gift from the person receiving it, and one is to offer as much as they believe the tattoo is worth. Early as it is in my trip, I was prepared to give her several hundred dollars, the equivalent of what I believed the tattoo would cost in America.

Anxious from the moment I woke, excitement bubbling in my belly, I made the thirty minute walk and arrived early for my one o’clock appointment. Hungover yet again, Tracy invited me to sit on one of the couches in the garage overlooking the bay and offered me a much needed glass of water. She pulled out a stack of photos of her work and we began discussing the meaning behind the animals represented and the flowing lines within each of the tattoos. Each tattoo must have the Manawa, the lines of the heart and blood flowing through it, represented by the negative space created by the ink. If the Manawa cannot flow through the moko, the body is dead. As I flipped through the stack of pictures she handed me, Tracy began to explain the moko on her chin. Her partner had died just over a year ago and she was asked to wear the moko on her face, a sign of respect and something which greatly humbled her, and which she is honored to wear. With her neck lifted up you see the shape of a stingray, and with her face forward the symbolic image turns into the eyes and face of an owl, which represents her fatidic connection to the spirit world. It is here that she tells me her name is no longer Tracy, but that she was given the name Paitangi when she was asked to wear the moko after his death. Knowing the day he was going to die and seeing his spirit still often in her home and the sacred Maori temples of Waitangi, Pai is an honored and respected member of the local Maori community.

Felix's fresh and bloody moko


For the next four hours Pai and I bared guts to one another. Being as unapologetically open as I, the story of my life, and in turn hers, poured from our mouths dancing easily between us. I told her of my family’s past, of the distance and alienation felt between my brother and sisters, the lack of any real parental connection between myself and my father and mother, and the independence I had defiantly willed from them in turn. We talked about spirituality and our mutual distaste for organized religion. We talked about booze and drugs and vices and addictions (one of the rare things we do not share) and of the unraveling I felt in the last year that brought me here to her. But more than anything else, we talked about love. Incapable of anything but unconditional love, and willing to give it completely freely, we found a true bond. Her husband was a proud man, a distant man, and a hard man to know. And while she was willing to give him everything of herself, she found hurt again and again. Always falling in love with damaged goods, we are. Thinking through the countless times I have loved those unable to reciprocate the love in return, I told Pai that perhaps people like us are always meant to love those that can never return it. Our hearts are simultaneously too soft and strong, endlessly willing to give, no matter what blows are struck against us. Perhaps we are the only ones able to take on these closed doors, these projects of loves. And though it may be hard at times, when the next love comes along our hearts are no worse for the wear. I felt a bit better as we laughed in resigned agreement for our collective fate.

The four hours passed without pause and by the time her fourteen year old son returned from school, I needed to get to work and we made an appointment for the inking in the early afternoon of St. Paddy’s Day. When the morning finally came, the excitement emanated from my eager face. I made the thirty minute walk with music in my ears and a lilting stride. We took our time easy when I arrived and chatted over a cup of tea. After an hour, it was time to begin. Stripping down to my bikini top I climbed into the deranged dentist’s chair and laid on my side for her to draw the tattoo I had yet to see. The pen ran smooth from my ribs down to my hips in curls and tips as the anticipation to see the creation boiled stronger inside of me. When she finished the outline I jumped from the chair to gaze for the first time at what would adorn my body until I die.

Pai's Tattoo Parlor/Garage


It was perfect. I smoked one final cigarette, and laid back on my side, preparing myself for the excruciating pain I knew was to come. As the hard buzzing of the needle began I closed my eyes tightly and Pai reminded me to breathe. The first piercing vibration penetrated my tender skin and my eyes winced tightly shut as I forced myself to take oxygen into my tensed body. The breaths in wavered through the pain and then exhaled in miniscule relief. After the twenty seconds of tension, she lifted the needle, my muscles relaxed, and I opened my eyes onto the sage-toned waters of the bay. And in just two sweet, deep breaths, the needle was tearing into my skin again. With each successive torture and release I could never prepare for the pain that was to follow again. At times it ate my nerves for breakfast, chewed them tense and down to pulp. Others grinded and carved my bones, sure they bore the same pattern as my sore, swollen skin. And in each relief of breath as the needle paused its relentless assault I again opened my eyes to the pale Kiwi sky and remembered that the pain I was enduring was not for naught. This symbol, this moko, this ink was the same as all of the pain we endure in life, and I would be the better for it in the end. With each tortured, tenuous breath I fought the urge to squirm and retract from the needle, and was occasionally blessed with a simply irritating vibration in place of the ingratiating pain. My private prayers to no one for the tattoo to be finished were granted after only an hour and a half. Beyond relief, I peeled my sore, sweaty side from the leather of the chair and hopped excitedly to the mirror. I was stunned.

View from the Dentist's Chair


We stood in the mirror as I admired the work and Pai described the various symbols that married themselves to my ribs that afternoon. The Huruhuru, the Maori word for feather, swept itself down the soft indent of my waist, barely peeking out onto my back. Simultaneously representative of my windblown soul and the ancient writer’s quill, it was the perfect symbol. Knowing the freedom of my spirit would be blown wherever Tawhiri, the guardian of the wind, wanted to take me, Pai etched my Maori guardian in the negative space along the Huruhuru. The three seed pods of the Kapé that curled up my ribcage represented my three brothers and sisters and the seed we share. The tiny curling point that offsets the negative space of the Manawa line, the Te Ao Hurihuri, is symbolic of the ever turning world and the constant change for which we search as we spin. Three curly cues lie sleeping like peas along the lower ridge, forever reminding me of the three most influential people of my life: my three best friends. I gave Pai three hundred dollars, for my three siblings, for my three best friends, for the three times I have truly been in love in my life, and a firm and honest hug to boot. Pai will forever be in my memory, her art will forever be on my body, and she assured me I was not one to be forgotten either. Walking back to the hostel with a furtive, knowing smile that couldn’t be beaten from my face the only thing left to ponder was where my next tattoo will land and on what continent will it be done.

All finished!

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eight thousand
six hundred
and seven
thoughts crossed a lost
wanderer
sauntering soul, slow
eyes high, shoulders low
Who was the last to know?

He comes, he comes
He goes, he goes

she burned off her hair
chopped her ribbons and bows
turned in her shoes
for dirty bare knuckled toes

she showed him the future
of sticky fire-tarred roads, tolling
soles scalding
suitcase in hand on a highway of ash

gave him the last
of the baggage they’d packed

and with the crooked division
of a traveler’s math
sliced the half-sharpened smile

said she’s not coming back

The days in Paihia seem to slip out from under you. This small beach town and main port on Bay of Islands is the Mecca for backpackers in the north. The beaches and bars are filled with traveling twenty-somethings, largely European, looking for a drink and a tan and staying at any one of the hostels littering themselves from the shore down Kings Road as if washed in with the tide. After three drunken, sun-drenched days casually flirting with a couple of Irish boys, I dragged my half-drunk, loudly stumbling body from the top bunk of my hostel bed in the still dark hours of morning. I heard the bodies of my sleeping dormmates stirring as I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pack my bag without waking them further. The boat ride from Paihia to Urupukapuka passed quickly as I slept awkwardly in the rigid seats, sheltering my throbbing head from the adamant sun that grasped selfishly at every corner of the sky. As the boat arrived at Urupukapuka, I stretched the soreness from my limbs and wondered in sleepy anticipation what my second couch surfing experience held in store.


Still half asleep on the water taxi from the shuttle to the island, I looked out over the spring green ridges of the island, speckled with the deep piney tones of native bushes and trees until I heard someone call my name. Turning to my left I met vibrant blue eyes with blonde hair tumbling in salty curls over dried, sun beaten skin. His surfer look and mentality could do nothing, however, to hide the Midwestern accent I heard peeking out from his friendly banter. Still in a bourbon induced daze, I apologized for not remembering his name. When he introduced himself as David, I realized this was not some guy I had drunkenly danced with at the bar the night before, but was, in fact, my next couch surfing host. I apologized for my lack of mental clarity as I stumbled through tales of the genesis of my debilitated state and we made our way onto the island for some much needed breakfast and coffee.

As soon as I finished eating, David got me set up with a kayak to explore the many isolated bays spotted along the twisting shoreline. Knowing well that the ocean is the best cure for a hangover, I packed my camera, phone, cigarettes, journal, and a pen into a wetbag and paddled out around the bend of Otehei Bay. Barely before I began, the various warnings and advice about winds and currents David had rambled through as he pushed me off vanished from my mind like a dream. I’m sure I’ll be alright, I thought, as my paddles sluiced through the soft jades of the South Pacific, propelling me forward, my muscles still potent and fresh as I passed the first of the secluded bays. I recognized a young, bearded backpacker from the boat setting up his camp on the quiet, grassy knoll above the shore and decided to push through to the next beach, leaving him to the seclusion most come here searching for. Sharp rocks in deep grayish browns jutted out from the tips of each of the bays, the water deceptively shallow over them. And as I recalled David’s advice to stay close to the shoreline, I found the bottom of my kayak scratching their surface as the ebb and flow of the currents sucked the ocean back, exposing the massive, jagged plateaus. With small struggles I made it around the bend from Sunset Bay, tucked into the scalloping coastline like a well-kept secret, and came upon Cable Bay. Its sandy length swept itself across the southern coast in a lazy smile that welcomed mine.

Smiles from the Bay

There were no secrets on this exposed stretch of arching sand, crawling in soft greens up to the island ridge, and I made my way to shore to relax and let the scenery and the sun warm and dry my salty skin. After an hour of swimming and writing, I packed up the kayak, satisfied, and continued on tracing the coastline. Around the threatening rocks I winded until I came upon a few patches of sand, barely large enough to be considered beaches. As I pulled my kayak up onto the small cove and swung my feet over the edge I began to sink. Each foot swallowed by the sand, six or eight inches deep until I pulled it out against the vacuuming force, pressed in the next, and began the struggle again. Suddenly the “Prohibited Anchoring” sign posted in the thin strip of dry sand before the thickly forested incline that I had chosen to ignore started to make sense. An eerie feeling crept its way up my body in uneasy vines and I felt frighteningly alone on this beach that could disappear, or make me do the same, without a trace. Though I had docked here with the intention of swimming out to a small cave I had seen in the base of the rocks nearby, the unsettling feeling this forbidden corner gave rise to in me had me shortly back in my little vessel and on my way.

Warnings Unheeded


Paddling away from the beach the subtle whisper of discomfort stayed with me. I wasn’t sure how much farther I was to go before David told me to turn back. How many bays was I to pass? Recalling warnings of strong currents and open oceans around one last bend, I started to turn back. Just before I did, I recognized the silly fears getting the best of me for what they were, and felt with some certainty there was at least one inlet left to be seen. My arms were starting to tire from fighting the strong currents and relentless winds, but I pressed on, determined as I approached the last rocky corner to conquer. As with the others, the stony tips peeked above the water far from the actual coastline and I found myself grinding against them as I struggled to push myself further out. But each time I did, a surge of water from the open ocean, now just on the other side of the bay, slapped me back into the razor blade coast. Again I pushed and fought to beat the wave I could see rolling towards me, scared as I knew my weak paddling a sorry match for its careless power. Determined now to make it to the final bay, I pushed my ore in long, hard strokes, deep into the water, quickly flipping it, straining the muscles in my now sunburned arms, until finally I broke free from my laughing, crashing opponent and into the calm, deep, turquoise waters of Urupukupuku Bay. I paddled my way to shore and collapsed from the tiny boat, letting my muscles relax in the warm sand as the amiable waves of the protected bay rolled and crashed over my newly browned toes. This place was incredible, I had made it here on my own, and I let the sun pierce my eyes as I looked out over another place in the world I had never seen before, until now.

No one for miles.


Calmer waters.


Once my skin was dry and my strength returned, I pushed off once again into an ocean like none I had seen before. Varying from rich sage in the shallow bays to vibrant cobalt on the endless ocean it is hard not to feel awe with every breath. I wonder if the people that have seen this every day of their lives still feel the same overwhelming sense of beauty each time they set their eyes upon it again. I couldn’t imagine ever taking something so serene, yet so powerful, for granted. Proud of myself for making it to the final bay before the calm waters turned to turgid ocean and the sweet secrets of beaches to towering unforgiving cliffs, I found new strength in my acidic muscles and stopped at nearly every beach on the return trip to write , and to explore. The pristine isolation of this place haunted me as I climbed to the top of a ridge through grass that deceptively swallows your legs the same as the sand on that mysterious beach. Looking out over what I could see of the island from the quick climb, I knew I would be returning here to hike the twisted trail round the island, rising and falling like breath with the rolling hills.

After a beer and Barbie filled weekend with my endlessly positive host, I did return to Urupukapuka. With the same essentials for my kayak excursion hanging from my shoulder, I began the slow climb in the relentless midday sun. The stunning, lonely hike was as long and hard as it was rewarding. And though my legs burned in protest on the twisting ascents, and my flip-flops fearfully slid with the dirt rolling under my tractionless shoes like marbles in each countering trek down, every second, every struggle, every heaving breath was beyond worth it. Amazed, overwhelmed, exhausted, contented, and inspired, I was back at Otehei Bay in fewer than four hours for one of the more rewarding beers of my life. As I have already passed fifteen hundred words in my rambling descriptions, I will let the pictures say the next thousand or so.






Breatheeee

I stepped off the three hour bus ride from Auckland to Whangarei brimming with curious excitement. The verdant, hilly landscape had my face pressed to the glass the entirety of the ride up in wondrous awe. Here I was to meet my very first couchsurfing host. Matt and I had been exchanging emails for a few weeks as I was planning my trip up to his hometown on the eastern coast of the North Island, but all I really knew about him at this point was that he was adventurous, loved to travel, loved to surf even more, and was thirty-six years old. I wandered about the small bus stop with the confused, searching face of a lost traveler until I caught the eye of a weathered, oddly handsome stranger who wore his travels in minute canyons etched like dry river beds from his eyes. The questionable recognition in our glances slowly transformed our curious faces to smiles and reserved introductions. “Taylor?” He said with a note of apprehension. With a wide smile and a firm handshake, I introduced myself to the stranger who would be hosting me for the five days as I settled my plans to head up and explore the rest of the Northland.

It was past seven when I arrived and after stopping at the store to pick up the necessities (milk, bacon, eggs, cheese, bagels, and beer) we headed back to his house, a cozy summer style ranch with a stone edged pool in the welcoming backyard. An older German woman with windblown strawberry blonde hair like straw (another couchsurfer being hosted by the gracious flatmates) sat at the table overlooking the pool. She reclined in front of an open journal and a glass of white wine sweating in the warm summer night, a pensive look draped across her face. This was the last night of her travels in New Zealand and once I got settled the three of us rolled through beers, wine, and the easy conversation of cultural and linguistic nuances that make for good entertainment between any travelers. Around midnight on the Friday night as I was getting ready for bed, Matt’s flatmate, Stu, arrived to a quiet house save for the quiet clicking of my keyboard. An eccentric looking man with wiry grey hair sprouting from his head in scattered patches, his smile was instantly hospitable. We chatted briefly in introduction and by the time I slid myself beneath the sheets, I felt nothing but welcome in the comfort of their home.

The boys wasted no time getting started on Saturday morning, and after a seven a.m. trip to the farmer’s market with Stu, Matty took me his parents sheep farm about twenty minutes outside of Whangarei. As we entered the barn, consumed with the smell of sheep and shit, I pulled out my camera to begin documenting the day. I was instantly interrupted by Matt’s father, “You never seen a sheep before?” he asked incredulously with a hint of sarcasm. After informing him that I had, in fact, seen a sheep before, we continued on with our chores for the day.

Matty's Parents' Farm


Baaaa!


And by we, I mean I watched Matt, snapping photos as he dirtied his hands, both of us grateful for the cover of clouds from the unforgiving sun. Between bouts with a chainsaw and the massive Australian Eucalytpus that had fallen during the last storm, Matt pointed out the various trees his parents had planted from around the world, the history of the farm, and the miraculous fact that American Monterey Pine had saved the native New Zealand forestry. I sat smoking cigarettes and watching his wide, toned arms struggle to load the cross sections of smooth trunk into the trailer, feeling utterly and completely useless, but glad to have a ticket to the show.

Big PuttPutt


Manlyman


This used to be a tree.


After the work was done, we headed back to the house for a home cooked meal and an ice cold drink. I spent an hour or two chatting with his garrulous parents, happy to have a willing ear, about our respective travels while the sounds of Matt heaving and grunting as he chopped the wood wafted into the living room. Exhausted just from watching Matt, we headed back to his place with a sense of accomplishment and a bag full of freshly picked apples.

The remainder of my days in Whangarei were relaxed to say the least. I passed the time lazing by the pool reading in the strong New Zealand sun. I took full advantage of the free internet to catch up with the people I loved and missed the most back home, and began forming tentative plans for my sojourn north. I wandered into the center of the small beach town on a bike the boys had for me to use taking care of various errands in preparation for my departure. For the first time in my life, my travels had no expiration date in sight and I was taking full advantage of the ability to lackadaisically enjoy my days at what would become my unofficial base camp in the Northland. On my fourth day in Whangarei I bought a prepaid phone and, in predictable fashion, sent my very first text from the future to the poet. In the days before I left the States, the embers that were left of our complicated flame had begun to slowly burn again, and his desire that I had craved so urgently before, began to show its elusive self. But this time, something was different. Where before my very breath hung on every word he dared to give or keep from me, something in me was unchained. I was free to hold his affection close but free to find love on these rolling roads in this mystical place. I was boundlessly happy with or without him, as everything here was still brimming with the sparks of the unknown. And as we spoke through the summer twilight, he could hear the smile stapled to my face for this adventure that was nourishing my soul. Either way, it was good to hear the earnest caring in his voice, and I missed him in a way I didn’t think I would.

Bacon egg & cheese Kiwi style...fresh from farmer's market and on the barbie


Pataua Beach


On Tuesday afternoon, after five days of my first couchsurfing experience, Matt drove me into town to catch the six thirty up to Paihia. My newfound friend gave me a firm, lengthy hug and said with honest sadness in his eyes that he was going to miss coming home to my cheerful greetings after a long day at work. As I left about half of my stuff at his place and was using his address as my personal post office box, I assured him I would be back soon enough. Besides, he still owed me a surfing lesson after our plans were dashed once by tsunami warnings, and once again by less than ideal conditions. With his promise to pay up upon my return, we hugged one last time and the next leg of the rolling unknown unfolded.