Travelling isn’t a series of endless awesome moments – at least, not in the world of the budget traveler. There are interesting moments that are uncomfortable to live through, but make for somewhat amusing life lessons later. Such was the day I lived with hippies.
Rewind: May, 2010.
Wellington had won me over. The moment I stepped off the bus and found myself at the corner of Courtenay Place and Cambridge, I was in love. The weather was far colder than that of Sydney and the wind was harsh — but there was something about Wellington – the charm, the friendly atmosphere, the touristy excitement of Wellywood, the endless amount of Lord of the Rings tours to choose from – and I knew I could settle in this corner of the world for awhile and be contented.
My first night in Wellington, I struck couchsurfing gold with a young couple named Charlotte and Vaughan. By this point, I’d become used to the concept of couchsurfing and the idea of just wandering into an unknown place, making new friends, and adjusting immediately. Charlotte and Vaughan had only hosted one other person a few months earlier, so the whole idea was still new to them and they were friendly and accommodating with a nervous excitement.
Charlotte and I hit it off, as we both worked in production. She worked at a local TV station, and we both had a love for travel that was difficult to fund, given our limited incomes. The night I stayed with them, Charlotte and I went for pizza on Cuba Street (awesome part of the city with dozens of quaint shops and restaurants; the pizza wasn’t so impressive).
Before turning in for the night, I checked the location of my host for the following night. He lived in Island Bay, which was about a 10-15 minute bus ride out of the part of town I’d come to love. Staying with Charlotte and Vaughan another night wasn’t an option, as they were planners that had only anticipated housing me for one night. But Charlotte was still gracious and offered to drive me out there the next afternoon.
After a nice day of some solo walking around the trails of Mt. Victoria, I packed up my things and Charlotte drove me out to Island Bay. She’d looked up the address and we were searching amongst the numerous houses to find it.
At long last, we discovered an older, white house hidden by overgrown trees. The white paint on the house was severely chipped, and there was no door to be seen on the front of the house– but we’d deemed it was the right house due to the mailbox. After venturing towards the house and stepping onto the tired wrap-around porch, I saw that there was a door along the right side of the house. The porch was littered with potted plants. I started feeling a little anxious. I knocked on the door.
After knocking for thirty seconds with no reply, I was about to leave when a dirty looking guy answered the door. He looked to be in his 30’s, and he had long, curly red hair and an untrimmed beard . The picture I’d seen of my host was a young blonde guy with short hair. Perplexed, I began apologizing profusely as I planned my escape – “I’m sorry, I thought Dave lived here,” I stammered.
“Oh, no, he does live here,” bearded guy answered. “He’s just out at the store right now. Come on in.” He gestured to come inside.
Everything the American media had taught me told me to run.
My host had told me there were other couchsurfers staying with him, but after my amazing couchsurfing experience in Sydney, I hadn’t anticipated surfers of the unkempt variety. Although I was uncomfortable with the way my new couchsurfing house was panning out, my gut was trusting. Bearded guy didn’t seem to give me a second glance nor did he appear to be calculating how he’d lure me into his home to strangle me; he also seemed to be of the peace-loving sort.
I went back to retrieve my bag from Charlotte’s car. She was nervous leaving me there–in the middle of the overgrown foliage and dirty house– but she didn’t exactly know what to do with me, either. I promised I’d text if things got shady. Somewhat reluctantly, she drove off, and I headed into what ended up being my most memorable couchsurfing endeavor while in New Zealand.
I followed Bearded Guy through the front door and into the kitchen, which was small and crammed with dishes, pots, pans, and more potted plants. There was a healthy coat of grittiness covering everything– the kitchen counter, the floor, the windowsill, bearded guy’s bare feet. From the kitchen we stepped into the living area, where there were five or six other people hanging out under a hazy cloud, none of whom looked at all like Dave. Even though it was still daylight, the room was fairly dark, lit only by candles. No one seemed disrupted or surprised by my entrance, or even aware that a complete stranger had sauntered in. They were speaking amongst themselves slowly and melodically.
I awkwardly shuffled over to a chair where I plopped my bag down, surveyed the room once more, and quickly realized there were more people than couches. When you’re travelling for weeks at a time, your needs are the basics: food, shelter, bed/couch. As a couchsurfer with five different houses and sleeping arrangements under my belt, I thought I could handle anything. I’d slept on a beanbag chair on Jim’s balcony and I’d shared a small 8×8 room with a 38 year old Irish man. But, communal living and the thought of sharing two couches with six dingy people was a scenario I hadn’t considered.
There was no place to sleep, no place to leave my bag other than the dusty old chair I’d just thrown it on. My anxiety grew. Where did all of these people sleep? Maybe they’re just over for the afternoon. My tense aura eventually permeated their cloud, and their conversation fell silent. I seized the opportunity.
“Um, so, are you guys all couchsurfers?” I asked as cooly as I could manage, awkwardly fumbling with my backpack.
Starlite, the somewhat leader of the group, smiled broadly. “You could say that,” she said slowly. She had a charming gap between her teeth and a little bit of hair on her upper lip. She also had a New Zealander accent.
“Um, so, where are you all from…?” I asked, my eyes scanning the faces for someone who’s eyes weren’t glazed over; holding out hope for a little cultural diversity — and that maybe, just maybe someone else from a faraway country had wandered in unaware as I and could be a source of comfort.
“Here,” was the collective answer.
Feeling somewhat defeated, I sat down and made a concerted effort to join in their conversation, beginning with a classy “Where’s Dave?”, meaning, where the hell is he and why did his profile fail to mention a commune?
They assured me he would be home shortly.
And Dave did arrive shortly thereafter, much to my relief. Young and clean-cut, he looked as out of place as I did amongst the hippies. He gave me a warm welcome, explaining I was the first “official” couchsurfer he’d ever had, but based on my request, I’d sounded “pretty cool”.
Dave, from what I could gather, grew up like most non-hippies. He was renting the house with a girl who wasn’t home, and he was holding down a job that required a collared shirt and ironed pants. He’d recently met his other “couchsurfers” and had gotten into the hippie lifestyle at a rainbow gathering, and it was such a magical experience of communal living and fellowship he wanted to continue the lifestyle in his day-to-day. Dave struck me as a 23 year old trying to find himself; trying to pave his own way and be different from his parents.
After we’d all sat around talking for three hours, Starlite went to the kitchen to put together a stew.
Bearded guy was giving me a lesson in economics; explaining how “once you live without money, you realize how easy it can be”. He hoped to plant enough food the following year to survive the winter (as it was too late for this winter), with the goal to be entirely self-sufficient. It was different, but admirable.
Another girl talked about how she had no desire to travel beyond New Zealand, but if she ever did venture to the Northern Hemisphere, she would have a hard time getting accustomed to the sun’s placement in the sky. I know the earth is tilted on it’s axis — and we all take science classes for many years in our schooling– but that was one fact that was never stated explicitly.
I also had an interesting discussion about religion and my personal beliefs with them. They were extremely open; asking questions out of genuine curiosity. With every answer, I grew a little more secure in my beliefs, and they reacted positively. They shared their viewpoints, and it was an overall enlightening discussion.
Around this time, the stew was done. I was a little skeptical, but I was starving, so I gave it a try. It was straight out of an adventure novel, when the characters are stranded in the middle of the forest and must make use out of anything edible: leaves, twigs, random herbs, pumpkin seeds, any and all plants. It was brown and not very appealing to look at, but it was very organic and had a distinctly sweet taste.
As the evening went on, everyone got more and more mellow. I was opening up to the hippies and was beginning to feel at ease (or maybe it was the second-hand pot smoke having its way with me). They were all smoking, taking turns passing the joint around the room, and were more than willing to share– which I politely declined. But I was warming up to them; learning how to co-exist with people that had initially frightened me. Not having a solid couch to sleep on didn’t bother me anymore.
It was then that Bearded Guy shared the story of his out of body experience he had one time when he dropped acid. It was the most in tune with nature he ever felt, he told me. The colors were deeper, purer; it wasn’t at all a bad thing. People needed to do this once in awhile to get in tune with Mother Nature. This could get bad very fast if all of these people start doing LSD, I thought. Fortunately, no one made any moves to do any harder drugs – quite the contrary, actually- someone began writing a collaborative story, just for the heck of it.
Every person wrote a sentence, passed it on to the next person, who then wrote another sentence, ultimately creating a story. Once it was completed, one of the hippies sang it to an improvised melody, and the rest of the hippies thought it to be so good they had him sing it again. I sat there, cross-legged on the floor, genuinely enjoying myself again; wondering if this was what the 60’s had been like.
It was now really dark in the communal living room, and everyone started to get tired. Dave pointed me in the direction of blankets.
The blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, etc. were all wadded up at the end of a hallway in a gigantic pile, and like everything else in the house, they were covered in a layer of grime. After a few moments of sifting through the wreckage, I picked some of the “cleaner” items, but was so disgusted by the pillow that I wrapped it up in my sweatshirt.
Everyone made their individual beds on the floor in the main living room in a tight-knit rectangle. I opted for a spot on the outskirts. Starlite blew out the candles, and surprisingly, I slept soundly, deeply, and comfortably.
It was early morning when I opened my eyes, staring at the potted plants that were directly next to me. I heard Starlite’s melodic voice speaking slowly; to no one in particular. I rolled over and took a quick look around the room. No one had gotten up yet. I closed my eyes, and dozed off again.
Halfway in a dream state, I heard someone say, “It’s a beautiful morning,” and I was kissed on the cheek. This wasn’t uncommon for Gunner to do, and for a moment I forgot where I was, and smiled dumbly. Then, I opened my eyes, and realized Starlite had just kissed me good morning.
Appalled, I sat upright. I looked around at the communal living room, which was still covered in horizontal hippies and dirty blankets. I looked down at my filthy pillow, still wrapped in my sweatshirt. The morning light was pouring into the room. The same peace I’d felt the night before had been vanquished. I grabbed a change of clothes and scampered to the bathroom to change.
When I emerged, I realized Starlite and Bearded Guy, who had been sleeping near the foot of my corner of the hippie rectangle, were under the same cover, and they didn’t appear to have any shirts on. They were chuckling amongst themselves, and Starlite’s bare leg poked out from under the blanket. Like a middle schooler, I realized with horror: they were both naked.
Alright, so…people get naked.
People have sex.
I know these things.
But they had been sleeping right next to ME!!
What happened while I’d been asleep?! I was afraid of the answer. I knew I’d slept very heavily; deeper than usual. Starlite had kissed me awake — had something happened to me while I’d been asleep?!
I bolted out the door, where I called Gunner on my rip-off of an international cell phone. I was quite uncomfortable – I still enjoyed the hippies’ company, but the conversation about harder drugs kept coming to the forefront of my mind. What if they decided to do LSD today and I was there? People did weird things on LSD, I’d heard; I’d heard a story about two teenagers on LSD who got so disoriented and confused, they ended up dying in a ditch somewhere, of hunger. What if something like THAT happened? What if the cops showed up? I didn’t want to take any chances. As I explained to him my night of living with the hippies, Gunner was mildly amused, but once I mentioned acid, he agreed with my decision to leave.
And so, I packed up my stuff quickly. I folded the dirty blankets while asking about the bus schedule. If I was fast, I could make it – one would be passing by in 20 minutes, but the stop was half a mile from the house.
Bearded Guy, who’d now put on some clothes, invited me to go on a walk with him over the mountain to visit his garden. I politely declined. I scribbled a Thank-You note to Dave, who was still asleep; posted it on the fridge, and all but ran out the door.
They were nice, kind, and trustworthy; but naked kisses and the threat of harder drugs ultimately scared me off. Plus, it didn’t seem like they were going to leave the house that day, anyway — I only had a few days left in New Zealand; I really didn’t want to spend it just lazing around.
Thus concludes the tale The Time Laryssa Lived with Hippies.
(Ending note: TV lies about a lot of things, but it depicts hippies fairly accurately.)
* sign photo credit: Jeremy Brooks