“Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.”
– Simone Weil
At least once in every backpacker’s journey (usually more than once) there will be the hostel. You know the one—the price seemed suspiciously cheap for the high ratings; the photos were blurred and suspicious but “FREE INTERNET” was in capital letters, which overwhelmed your senses. I mean, capital letters, this must be big stuff.
And with that you were stuck—a naive traveler, ready to accept that the stars do indeed align, that value and quality can come marching down the aisle and smooch in a blaze of hope, faith, and love. The mouse or track pad clicks; a reservation is made.
After a long trudging walk through the earthquake-ravaged Christchurch—the largest city in the New Zealand’s south island—I came to the dilapidated hostel, berating my past self for such a questionable decision, and entered a long, sterilized cinderblock corridor lit by dim fluorescent light. Oh no. It looked like one of those asylums where sadistic doctors conduct experiments on war criminals presumed dead by their country.
A trudging walk and then room four showed up on my right. I opened the door, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Across the floor spread every manner of traveling shit—underwear (probably not clean), dusty jackets, half-used lotion bottles, rumpled shirts, cereal boxes that looked to have been torn apart by rats, backpacks, spare pieces of bread, and jeans with legs in a twisted tangle of disarray.
Besides the clothes on the floor, the room itself did nothing to dissuade me from my early impression of a POW camp designed to “rehabilitate” prisoners. It was constructed of cinderblocks painted white, and the only small window was darkened by a shade. I was just waiting for a shabbily dressed guard to shove me my gruel, toss me rags for clothing, and command me to start reading Mao’s Little Red Book.
I spent another day and a half in that city, making it my goal to spend as much time out of the hostel as possible, entering only to consume a hasty meal and to sleep. But the morning before I was to leave, I noticed a new character while I made my porridge, who, unlike the usual riffraff, had a respectable air about him.
He was stocky—that farm-hand body type—and bore long, tough blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. From his cautious demeanor and his intensive map gazing sessions, I ascertained that he was a newbie, both to New Zealand and to travel in general. Although he was at most four years younger than me, I remembered those days, hesitant in my first adventure alone in San Francisco.
“Excuse me,” he said, “do you know… where nearest store for food is?”
Yep, a definite German—I could tell from the dull thudding way of speaking English typical of all Germans. And I’m not meaning that to be offensive; it’s just how it is.
“Yeah. If you head down the street right outside the hostel, and go that way,” I waved my arm in a northerly direction, “you can’t miss it… You just get here, man?”
“When did you, uh, arrive… come in to New Zealand.”
“Oh, yes. I… flew into Christchurch last day… yesterday.”
I wanted to tell him that it got better than this, that as far as introductions to countries go, Christchurch was akin to flying into Atlanta. And that right now, he was among the discarded socks and used hankies of the hostel world. But I couldn’t find the right words.
After further conversation, I found he was away from Germany for six weeks, not long but long enough to be homesick.
“I leave my family. I don’t know… I have never been this far away… for so long.”
“Yeah. I feel you there…” I paused, not knowing what to say next. “Uh, have you had breakfast?”
“No. I have not been able to go to the store.”
I knew then what I had to do. It was what so many kind travelers had done for me in my journeys—a little kindness, a little “pass it on” grace in the form of shared food. Sure, it’s not much. Indeed, it’s a small step towards such broad concepts as “world peace” or anything of the sort.
Hauling out my bag of uncooked oats, I offered to rustle up my famous oatmeal for him—a recipe renowned for its minimalism, ease, and holding power. When I first bought rolled oats at New World (the local grocery), I had them plain in hot water, but after cringing through the first several bites, I realized that eating plain oats is like eating your own depression. In desperation, I discovered the secret—diabetic loads of sugar spooned over the top of cooling mash. With that, the recipe was born.
“You ever had oatmeal before?”
“Okay… well I can’t say it’s going to taste amazing but it will keep you on your feet… keep you going.”
“Oh… I don’t mind. Thank you.”
It took several minutes for the water to warm, but in good time, I handed him a steaming bowl of gruel. I find it uncomfortable to watch or hear someone eat (hearing someone eat a banana has to be one of the worst things on this earth), so I left him with a “safe travels” and went to gather my things from the room.
With an uplifting clink, I deposited my keys in the locked box outside the closed reception booth and soon breathed the invigorating air of liberation outdoors. As I walked the ghostly streets to my bus out of Christchurch, I reflected. It’s comforting to know that in the very pit of hostel hell, on a desolate roadside with thumb outstretched, or boiling some noodles, we can find and provide such light as this: a connection of vagabonds on their lonely way through the world, a little intentional pass-it-on karmic kindness.
Ben Rietema (’14) lives in Wanaka, New Zealand at the moment. Besides staring at and running in mountains, he makes a wicked hospital corner and can clean a bathroom like Gandhi (if he were a housekeeper) at his job at a local lodge. He also enjoys saying “HOUSEKEEPING” in the highest pitch voice he can muster before entering a room to service it. benrietema.wordpress.com/