short stories

~ Living on an Edge ~

~ Living on an Edge ~

His eyes were bloodshot and demonic. His remaining hair fluffed off into wild little quiffs. Almost half of his front teeth were missing and sporadic drops of saliva shot out his mouth when he spoke. I was in New Zealand and the thought hit me whether I was actually staring at an orc of some sort. I mean presumably the Lord of the Rings movies used costumes and make-up, but this creature in front of me wasn’t too far from looking like he was spawned in the dark pits of middle earth itself. To be fair, after hearing how he and his son frequently smoked crystal meth together, it was no surprise that he looked like he did. It was understandable. What wasn’t understandable was how this man was in charge of the entire floor of a wine factory. I had been working here for over two months and every day I had to listen to this snarling beast shout and spit orders at a bunch of backpackers who were simply too tired with him to listen. Still, it was my final day and I let his words fly far away over my head. His reign of bullshit was over. His superiority complex would have to be suffered by whatever backpacker was going to walk through the door next. For me it was time to hit the road again. I toiled away until the end of the day, took one last look at the orc and then strolled out the door onward to the next adventure feeling like Bilbo Baggins himself.

The job itself had been a much needed bank top-up. It had been over six months since I arrived in New Zealand from Chile almost completely broke. I had blown all my savings travelling around South America and had consequently limped into the country on the other side of the world from home with a bank account in as worse state as the orc’s teeth. What followed was a tempestuous time of bumming around, hitch-hiking, sleeping in airports, bad diet habits, and scraping by off random agricultural jobs. It wasn’t all bad. Sure, I had been subjecting myself to a life of struggle and financial stress, but everyday I awoke with wide eyes ready to face the world before me – and being in one of the most beautiful countries out there, well, that helped too naturally. Of course, I would always lie to my parents whenever I contacted them – telling them I was fine and had no problems with money. I knew that if they knew I was living the way I was it would leave them in a state of panic and worry. Maybe I should have also been more concerned about living so precariously on the edge, but often in this life that’s exactly where the excitement and adventure was at. It was true that there was desperation and depravity out on that edge, but sometimes there was a little majesty and magic too. Sometimes the edge was a beautiful place.

I continued loitering on that edge as I hitch-hiked down the south island, stopping in a town for a week to party, before eventually heading to a job I had heard about off my Chilean friend. It was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, among the fjordlands, and allegedly you could make good money sticking some plants in the ground. I had the plan to save up some more money to continue travelling in Asia after I was done in this country. Working consistently in one place with no distractions (mainly drink and women) would ensure that this was possible.

It was on the third day of that job, somewhere in the morning, that I decided to quit. I quickly concluded that I was never going to last the duration. The work itself was quite literally backbreaking and it turned out that I was the only backpacker working there. On top of this, the hostel I was staying at was a sort of abandoned shack without electricity, close amenities, a warm shower or even another traveller. The idea of staying there for three months made me shudder and I decided to get out of there fast. I grabbed my backpack, hit the open road once again and hitch-hiked all the way back to Queenstown – the place I had stopped in to party for a week on the way down here.

Now, aside from its spectacular scenery, New Zealand is a more or less a boring country to live. I mean, the sort of place that is best to retire, walk dogs, or work in a wine factory and become a meth addict. But Queenstown itself was the exception. Hailed as the adrenaline capital of the world, the town is a little wonderland of bars, restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and overcrowded houses that sit tightly packed together between the surrounding mountains and Lake Wakatipu – an enormous mass of sparkling blue glacial water that stretches out into the neighbouring valleys. When people weren’t skiing, bungee-jumping, skydiving, or riding speed boats, they could be found drinking in the array of bars that were stuffed into the small town centre that was no bigger than a couple of football fields. At night one could find any nationality of backpacker twisted in one of those establishments. It was the sort of place that was as far away from home as possible for most people – the sort of place where they were there ‘for a good time, not for a long time’ – and consequently this led to the chaos, debauchery and sexually-promiscuous behaviour that was rife at any given evening in any given bar. In all honesty it was probably the worst place in the world to save money and avoid the distractions of drink and women, but my will had been broken after just a couple of days of tough work out in the sticks and I needed a drink. The town was notoriously hard to find a place to stay, but luckily for me I knew a girl from my previous job in the wine factory who could get me a bed in a house a little out the centre that overlooked the lake and mountains. By New Zealand standards, I had hit the backpacker jackpot.

I arrived to that house and saw a Kiwi guy dragging a bed out the front door and attaching it to the roof rack of his car. I stood and watched him curiously. “Don’t mind me” he said. “I’ll be outta your way in a sec.” He and his friend proceeded to lift the bed onto the car, throw some straps over it, tighten it up, then get in and drive off down the road. It was an interesting sight to arrive to, and also an illegal one I quickly discovered. The Kiwi had decided to steal the bed after being kicked out of the house by the landlady. And he wasn’t the only one. The landlady was in the process of kicking most tenants out after so many had failed to pay their rent, or moved in secretly to sleep on couches, or threw wild parties and damaged the house – as was evident by the gaping holes in the walls of the hallway. Over twenty people had been living in this seven bedroom house, and now over half of them would be kicked out to be replaced with a new set of backpackers, including my good, respectable self.

After settling in, I decided it was time to go out there and look for some sort of job that would support my temporary existence in this chaotic town. As always my CV was a mediocre read which wasn’t going to help me too much. Most jobs in Queenstown were in hospitality or tour agency work – both of which I had zero experience in. With this in mind I headed straight to a labour agency that was located on the outskirts of town. As soon as I walked in they took one look at me and saw what type of person I was – another drifting backpacker with no discernible skills or trade or talent. It turned out I was in the perfect place. A new DIY store was opening soon just outside of town and they needed a bunch of helper monkeys to assist the store’s staff with setting up the interior. They gave me my work helmet and high-vis vest; I was to get started the very next day.

Settling into the job was an easy affair and I soon made friends. The labour agency picked up and shipped off a group of people to the work site everyday. There must have been over fifteen people crammed into that mini-bus every morning, most of which were hungover or asleep. When we got to work we were given an inspiring team briefing before everyone dispersed and went and found ways to keep themselves busy with some simple task that would normally end up taking an entire day. The team itself consisted entirely of backpackers, all of which were male. Speaking to them all, it was clear that most of them were like me: young guys scraping by and travelling around in whatever way they could. Naturally this had led them to this no-skills required job. I thought I had been living like a bum but after a week it was clear that I was an amateur at fringe-living compared to this team of delinquent drifters. Among the team included: a Mexican eighteen year-old who had overstayed his visa and was working illegally; an English guy who was running away from debt collectors back home; an Irish guy who was penniless and sleeping in the town park; a dutch guy living in the back of his van; another English guy who arrived drunk and smelling of booze every morning; and a couple of guys who spent most of their time using the work materials to build items of furniture for their house they were renting. To single out the English guy as an alcoholic was a little unfair I quickly realised. Most people not only in this job, but also in this town, were living lives that left their livers and bank accounts in damaged states. The allure was simply too great. Every night the town’s bright neon lights shimmered below beside the lake – the enticing glow of a bunch of people partying and enjoying the temporary buzz of being young, free and far away from the suffocating world of normality back home.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I was lured into that lifestyle myself. Most weekends quickly became a blur of hedonistic partying. Sometimes there was some hiking or camping, but that usually involved large amounts of alcohol too. Not only did I have the influence of all the guys working at the labour agency, but also I had a house of about twenty people residing at the house. Coming home from work everyday, there was usually at least a couple of people knocking back the drinks and preparing to make an assault on the town centre. There was simply no escape. Chaotic weekends soon turned into chaotic weekdays. Summer was here and I could do nothing but prepare to strap myself in for the ride. The drinks had been served – the madness had begun.

Now in this life, a man or woman lives on their edge more than you think. So many people out there in those towns and cities are limping by in ways you can’t see on the surface. What a person needed to survive in this world was food, water, shelter and normally a drink or something to take the edge off existence. If you had those things, then you could get by in some rudimentary way. Well, like many people in this town, I was getting those things and not much else. After a while I was making it to work just three or four days a week. This was usually enough to afford rent and cheap groceries, and then concentrate on the main expense of enjoying the summer festivities of this chaotic town. The whole thing quickly began to feel like I was in some sort of amusement park where I would do just enough to afford the entrance fee and ride out the rollercoaster of life. The thought hit me: wasn’t that what life was anyway? Finding a way to get by and survive while trying to find time to actually enjoy the ride? Still, often I thought I had taken it too far. I was on the other side of the world from home and I had a tooth problem I couldn’t afford to address, my remaining clothes were now tattered and frayed, my passport was considerably damaged, and the lack of sleep I was getting left my mind in a constant state of delirium. Some days I awoke and stared into morning mirrors of realisation and saw the sanity slowly fading from my eyes. At this point it had also become clear that my plan to do some travels in Asia was down the drain, and instead I was just concentrating on surviving the summer here and making it back home when my visa finally expired. My two year trip was coming to an end and I wanted to go out in style. The neighbourhoods of normality beckoned back home and I was going to exploit this brief chance of living young, wild and free in a beautiful place.

And so onwards the descent into madness continued. House parties. Work parties. Festivals. Christmas. New year. My birthday. More house parties. Camping trips. Climbing mountains. Sleep deprivation. Sleeping with strangers. Sleeping with friends. Not sleeping at all. Eventually the job at the DIY store was finished and we were all left searching and fighting for whatever form of work the agency could give us. This included traffic wardening, furniture removal, construction, and, on some weeks, nothing at all. Consequently my bank account began to slowly sink down and down towards the depths of true poverty. I was slowly falling off that edge into the abyss of being homeless, penniless and possession-less on the other side of the world from home. Naturally I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in such a fate. By now I had become good friends with the English alcoholic James from work. Many nights we spent together getting twisted in town or down beside the lake. Hearing the stories from his life, it was clear that he had set up camp and made ‘the edge’ his home. The last years of his life back home had consisted of travelling around the U.K with a cheffing agency, staying in hotels and drinking heavily every night. After a couple of years he had finally saved up enough money to travel. He flew one-way to Bangkok and drove around South-East Asia for eight months on a motorbike before arriving here skint in Queenstown where he was now scraping by week by week, paycheck to paycheck, living in a hostel dorm with nothing but a few items of clothing to his name. Like the orc back in the wine factory, he was another man loitering precariously on the precipice of total destruction, all the while still managing to be an integrated, working member of society. Meeting all these random characters in New Zealand, I came to realise that in a way there was a little bit of this insanity inside all of us. I could see it in the orc’s eyes. I could see it in James’ eyes. And now, facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I could gradually begin to see it in my own eyes: the anarchy of the human mind that must be suppressed so we could all fit into society and get money to survive in some elementary and socially-acceptable way.

As the time went by, mine and James’ influence on each other slowly and surely caused us both to descend deeper into those pits of madness. On one temporary job we both took turns controlling the traffic flow into the town centre during a busy festival period. One of us would stand on the road and aggregate the traffic in and out of the city centre, while the other went next door to the bar to drink red wine and chat with our friends who were working there. Under the influence, we decided to blog and post our exploits online and quickly became famous in town as ‘the traffic terminators’. Many cars drove past waving and offering us free drinks and food. Some people took pictures with us. Journalists even came and interviewed us for the local newspaper. With our new found fame, we felt like the kings of Queenstown – two drifting backpackers, somehow the momentary heroes of this famous town. Of course we always tried to keep the town oblivious to the fact we were really just messing around and taking it in turns to go next door to the bar to drink and talk crap with our friends.

It wasn’t until we worked one job that I realised we had perhaps gone a little too far. Through the agency we had been tasked to help set up and take down the stage for a gig somewhere about half an hour outside of town. The deal was that if we set up the stage and took it down after, we could each get a free ticket to the show. Like responsible employees we set to the task in the early morning and helped finish off setting up the stage. Then, like irresponsible employees, we went back to town where we spent the afternoon in the sun by the lake joining in an all-day DJ party. What followed was a day of drinking, dancing, swimming in the lake, a free concert, and then swiftly being dismissed from the job of taking the stage down the second the supervisors saw the state of us after the gig.

It was safe to say that the owners of the labour agency hated us after that fiasco and consequently assigned us the worst jobs they could, or nothing at all. Either it was a day of no work, or a day of doing menial tasks alone at some millionaires house in the middle of nowhere for the minimum wage. By this point any hope of travelling in Asia was over and I was hoping that a week stopover in Bali would suffice. I now had just a few hundred dollars of borrowed money left in my account. The entropy of the universe had worked its force and slowly ground me down. I was now a man holding on – living life to the fullest you could before death and destruction claimed you totally. Still I kept holding on as I was nearing the flight, picking up the scraps of employment, counting the pennies, living off packs of instant noodles – napping on my lunch breaks to catch up on some sleep. In the meanwhile the house had become a circus of insanity. We had created a rota in which you had to sign in when you started drinking and then sign out when you stopped. This soon created a competitive nature amongst everyone and our house quickly became some sort of perpetual party. It was a literal madhouse in moments and often I went and stood alone on the balcony staring out at that beautiful lake view, appreciating that my life was truly more absurd than ever before.

Eventually the day had come and it was time to escape Queenstown with whatever remnants of sanity, money and possessions I had left. I took one last look in that mirror and realised I had done it; I had lasted out the summer – five months of utter chaos on the other side of the world. Good friends had come and gone, the original group of the house was now being broken apart – the time in paradise now over. I said goodbye to all the friends I had made there and headed alone as always again to the airport. I was flying to Bali with basically nothing but a few tattered items of clothing, a damaged liver and mind, a faded passport, and money that most likely was not going to be enough to get me completely home to the U.K. Still, I felt more alive than ever and as the plane took off, I looked out the window at Queenstown to soak in the last glimpse of the town below. It was then that I caught my reflection in the window pane. Staring deep into my tired eyes, I could see a specific stare now seared into my soul. It was the look of my English friend James. It was the look of the orc in the wine factory. It was the look of every crazed soul who was living their life precariously close to the edge of sanity and society, trying to live their life to the fullest they could without completely destroying themselves. I smiled to myself and then stared down at my shoes – beaten and battered and bruised – little bits of material hanging off the outer section. Right then I realised that the edge was a place I had gotten to know all too well whilst out on my travels. It was a place of chaos and madness – a place of fire and destruction. It was a place where I was going to be for a long time yet.

With that thought in mind, I ordered a red wine and toasted to the next adventure.

short stories

~ A Christmas Abroad ~

~ A Christmas Abroad ~

“It was December 25th, Christmas Day, and I was sat alone on a sofa in the hostel reception sipping a caipirinha cocktail. I was in sunny Brazil, Rio De Janeiro, out travelling the world with a beach right out on my front doorstep – yet I couldn’t help but feel slightly depressed. For the first time on this trip I was homesick. Christmas was the time to be with family and friends back home – not getting drunk half way around the world by yourself. That was fun of course normally, but in this instance it felt a little out of place. It wasn’t my first Christmas abroad, but it was my first one not shared with a large group of people in a home of some sort. It was a strange feeling – a feeling which lead to me drinking more and more sugary, high-strength cocktails.

While wallowing in my own tipsy self-pity, my roommate came over and asked to join me for a drink. He was an eccentric, middle-aged, bald Greek guy who been travelling most of his adult life. He had stories from just about every country and continent and still maintained that child-like excitement about the world around him. He sat down and shared some drinks and travel stories. I told him of my first trip to Ghana and he told me of his life of perpetual gypsy travel. It turned out this was his eighth Christmas abroad in a strange country far from home. He told me about them all as we sipped our drinks down in an orderly manner. After chattering away like excitable children, we decided to go down to beach to catch some Christmas day sun – the world-famous Copacabana beach was right on our doorstep after all.

We reached the beach and slumped ourselves down in the sand. We ordered a few beers off a vendor walking past and carried on drinking in the midday heat. I sat there staring out into the Atlantic ocean, sipping that cold beer, chatting away with my new friend. While there in the heat of the sun, I gradually began to think about my own future, and whether I would be spending the next Christmas at home or somewhere else in the world on a beach with a stranger. Was I heading down the same path as him? Was I sailing further away into the unknown? Was I becoming a perpetual traveller? As I pondered these questions a man came over across the sand trying to sell us sunglasses. Now drunk, I bought a pair and invited him to sit and drink a beer with us. We got chatting and I soon found out that he too was a foreigner travelling in Brazil. As we drank, he spoke about his life, his journey and his aspirations for the future.

It was strange; in those moments as I sat there and listened to those two nomadic strangers, I suddenly felt the homesickness begin to subside. Listening to excited people who were travelling alone in a foreign country made me feel like I was back home, wrapped up warm around the glowing lights of a Christmas tree. It made me feel like an excited kid again. It was then that I realised these were the kind of people in life I shared the greatest affinity with. Not the settlers or static souls, but the wanderers – the aliens – the nomads and outcasts. The people who didn’t try fit into a society that didn’t fit them. And the more I travelled, the more of them I met. They were the ones with the wild eyes that – if you looked deeply enough – beheld the scorching sunsets, the jagged mountains, the wide oceans and gypsy madness. They were the ones who laughed in the face of soulless monotony and declared war on the normal – the ones who took life by the scruff of the neck without compromise and hunted the horizon until the very end.”

thoughts

~ Into The Wild ~

~ Into The Wild ~

“The choice between a conventional life and an unconventional life was one we all faced at some point. The period of your life where this happened was mostly in the post-education years. The first part of your life, you don’t have any real agency over – you simply follow the law and go to an institutional education facility for the best part of two decades. But when that was finished you suddenly were given an opportunity to walk whatever path you wanted to. Although there are many vehicles, there are essentially only two roads: A) You start a career and follow a linear and safe path of mortgage, kids and retirement, or B) you go down the rabbit hole and try something different. For me, the only desire I had was to travel and so, two months after my graduation, I caught a one-way flight to South America to begin my journey into wonderland. Over the next few years I continued walking down that path. The way took me to peaks of mountains, to seedy hotel rooms, to erupting volcanoes, to almost dying stranded with a friend in the woods of winter.

While it was thrilling and invigorating, I would be lying if I said at sometimes I wasn’t anxious or worried. Often I reflected on everyone else back home busying away, building their nests and bank accounts while I basically had nothing but a backpack and a worn-out passport. At my lowest point I was on the other side of the world with $50 to my name, sleeping in an airport lounge with no plane to catch. Suddenly I began to question myself; suddenly the homeless people on the sidewalks became society’s warning about where I could end up should I drift too far from the road of normality. Where was I going? What was I doing? Was it all really worth it? Yes, I won’t lie. I won’t lie and say sometimes I wasn’t apprehensive, or concerned, or that I didn’t think about turning around back onto the safe path, but it only took the thought of me slowly dying inside in a life I hated over many years to pick up that backpack and continue walking wide-eyed into the wilderness of the unknown.”

into the wild

(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)

thoughts

~ Contrast Settings ~

~ Contrast Settings ~

“When the colour of your life begins to dim – seek adventure. For though the world can often appear bleak in the adult way of work and survival, the open road provides moments where the greyness fades and you return to the infant-like state of seeing. Suddenly, among new sights and new smells and new possibilities, everything is again magical and mysterious. Suddenly you face the world like a wide-eyed child in an amusement park of flashing lights. Suddenly the mist of monotony clears like early morning fog, and life shines bright in brilliant colour once more.”

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(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)

thoughts

~ The Art Of Go ~

~ The Art of Go ~

Go. Beyond those desks; beyond those suburbs. Go with a heavy heart and a light backpack. Go to the lands beyond your horizons, beyond your doubts, beyond your cosy little comfort zones. The most extraordinary things will not come knocking on your door; the greatest treasures are not discovered by those dwelling in their caves. This world is a living dream waiting to be explored. Every day it creates heroes, moves mountains and changes people forever. So go and explore. Don’t let the others drag you down. Go beyond them and their fences of fear; go into the lands which you have not yet trampled; go to the places where the lightning strikes as the eyes blaze bright like burning stars.

Just get up now and for god sake Go.”

the art of go

(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)

thoughts

~ In Case Of Emergency ~

~ In Case of Emergency ~

“It was a backpack; it was just a backpack. But sometimes I felt like it was the best friend I had. It was one thing that had stayed with me on my solitary journey through the wilderness. It was the thing which embodied the freedom my soul desired: to be able to throw a few clothes in and hit the open road of discovery. In the times when I stayed and worked in one place, I kept that backpack within sight at all times. Just seeing that lump of worn and weathered material slumped in the corner after another day of menial work reminded me that it was all worth it; it reminded me that I still had a way to return home to the wild lands of adventure and exploration in which I belonged. I saw it as my ‘break in case of emergency’ tool. No matter how much the bosses choked me, no matter how much the monotony suffocated me – and no matter how much society scolded me – with that backpack there I knew I still had a fighting chance to taste the air of life and freedom once more.”

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(taken from my book ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ available here)

thoughts

~ Stepping Off The Conveyor Belt ~

~ Stepping off the Conveyor Belt ~

“Whenever I started a new trip, I always delighted in grabbing my backpack from the airport conveyor belt. It was a standard act everyone went through when you flew to a new place, but I felt like it symbolised so much about what it was to travel. All throughout our lives we are continually placed on conveyor belts; from the mechanical process of education, to the roundabout of the 9-5, to the circular nature of riding back and forth down the same highway everyday – perpetually we rotate around and around in a repetitive and predictable fashion. To travel to a new place with no plans was to finally step off from the carousel of routine; whether for a week or a year, it was a journey away from the robotic process of normal life which required you to do the same things every day. Whenever I looked around at the people collecting their bags, I rarely saw the defeated faces that were found in those Monday morning traffic jams. Instead I saw hyper kids and hyper adults; I saw burning eyes and wide smiles; I saw the wild faces of those who knew a great adventure awaited them. And the more I collected that backpack, the more it became clear to me that we all loved to collect those bags. The reason we love it is because we know a new journey awaits us. The reason we love it is because we know the world is rich with possibility. The reason we love it is because – if only for a short and bittersweet period – we know that we are finally free.”

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