“What are you cooking?”
“It’s like a potato soup thing.”
“Is that like, a German thing?”
She had a pretty smile. Really straight teeth, too. I always liked girls with straight teeth.
I turned back to my chicken, steaming slowly in my pan. Hostel kitchens are always interesting. Everyone’s trying to cook something healthy, but with the cheapest and lowest quality ingredients. There’s a sparse selection of kitchen tools. And there’s the whole international thing, too; the Asians are always boiling stuff, the Aussies are eating like four packs of instant noodles, the Brits usually go for a quick and dirty pasta, and of course there’s that one gourmet chef trying to make gnocchi or falafels or something. It’s the most diverse kitchen in the world, only the food quality is about as good as an upside-down prison.
I peeked into her pot as I passed by to collect some cutlery. I cracked a smile. It looked like glue. Hot, steamy, bubbly glue.
“Are you going to let me try it?”
“Sure, when it’s ready,” she smiled.
She was a petite little thing, dressed in simple shorts and a tank top, with a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. The typical travelling girl’s outfit.
When my chicken was done I scooped it onto my salad and took it out to the dining area. Five minutes later, she walked around the corner and plonked her soup on my table, along with a plate of salad, salt and pepper, a glass of water, a fork and spoon, and an apple cut into quarters, all arranged nicely in front of me. I smiled inside. Germans.
“It’s not the best soup I’ve ever made.”
I looked it over, grinning.
“Alright, here we go. Do you mind if I use your spoon?”
“No not at all.”
I took a small scoop, blew on it lightly and slurped it down. I didn’t know what to think. It just tasted like potatoes. Soupy potatoes.
“Yeah. It’s not bad.”
“You can be honest.”
“I’m always honest,” I said, smiling. “If it was shit, I would’ve just said, yo, this soup is shit.”
We chatted away like old friends as we ate our lunches. I’d known her maybe fifteen minutes, but there’s something about meeting people in hostels. It’s like you already kinda know each other – I know this girl ain’t a princess because she sleeps in a bunk bed, I know she ain’t a rich kid because she’s not at the Radisson and I know she’s cool because she’s out here travelling the world by herself. It’s easy to talk to someone after that. You already have so much in common without even knowing each other.
I scooped the last bit of salad out of my bowl.
“So, what are you up to today?”
“I don’t know, I’ll just go sit in the sun probably and do nothing. Then I have to go to work.”
“Cool. Can I join you?”
“Yeah, of course.”
We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about where to go. I had just spent the weekend at a friend’s wedding down south, and had stopped in Rotorua for a couple of days to break up the long drive home. I didn’t know this city at all. She, on the other hand, had supposedly been living here for a few weeks now. I bugged her to think of somewhere cool. She was the local here, at least out of the two of us.
When we finally made it out the front door she was still clueless.
“Okay, so how about we drive,” I suggested. “You tell me where to go.”
We jumped in my car and headed off. She directed me left and right through the town centre, along Lake Rotorua and then off on some road out of town.
“Where the hell are we going?” I asked.
“I dunno. Somewhere,” she laughed.
As we chatted away, it struck me how absurd this would’ve been to me five years ago. Going off with a complete stranger, driving to nowhere, talking as if you’d known each other since graduation. People aren’t so open in the real world. You can’t just say hello to a stranger without them thinking you’ve got Asperger’s. I guess that’s why you can’t be away from the road for too long. You miss the openness, the traveller’s spirit, the ability to just say hi for the sake of saying hi.
“So tell me, why do all Kiwis drive in bare feet?”
I looked down at my feet. Indeed, I was driving in bare feet. I’d tucked my flip flops under the seat before we took off. I guessed it was one of those quirks she had noticed, the same way I’d been noticing them about her. I didn’t have an answer – sometimes there aren’t reasons for these things. They just are.
Eventually, after leading me down some winding roads we found ourselves lakeside at a place called Blue Lake. There were a few people around, but it was mostly empty. I’d never heard of this place before. I guess she was like a local after all.
“C’mon, let’s walk down there,” I said, pointing to a small enclave by the water’s edge.
We sat out there and talked, on the rocks, throwing pebbles into the water like little kids at the beach.
“So, I don’t even know your name,” I laughed.
“Don’t tell me though. I’ll guess.”
She looked at me, grinning.
“But you have to tell me the first letter, at least.”
“J..is it a German name?”
“Yeah, it’s really German.”
I didn’t even think.
“What the hell!”
She looked to the sky, laughing.
“Is that really it?”
She nodded, still laughing. I sent my own laugh to the sky. I didn’t even know Julia was a German name.
We sat there for over an hour, talking about nothing, looking out over the glassy lake. It was easy to talk to her; she was youthful, bubbly and free spirited, not jaded by a cubicle or dead-end job. When you meet people out on the road, there’s a certain twinkle in their eye; not a metaphorical one but a real one. You can see it. In the office, it’s nowhere to be found. Eyes are glazed, uninspired. But on the road, the eyes shine. You can’t miss it. It’s a difference as clear as night and day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting out there, talking about life. It was playful, relaxed – a reminder of the simple joy of doing nothing in the company of another human being. In the morning we’d been strangers. Now, friends. I flirted hopelessly. She laughed at my cheesy jokes.
I didn’t see her again until the following evening. She walked into the kitchen while a few of us were sitting on the benches chatting, and gave me a smile as she came to flick on the kettle beside me.
“Hey you. Do you want tea?”
She was wearing all black after her shift at her waitressing job. Her dirty blonde hair was up in a small ponytail, glasses on, not a speck of makeup on her. She looked nice.
She pulled two cups off the shelf and popped in the tea bags.
As she passed me my cup, I noticed how short her nails were and smiled. Over the last few years I’ve developed a theory – the longer a girl’s nails, the crazier she is. I hadn’t sensed any crazy in her the day before. I guess the nails were just an affirmation.
We stayed in the kitchen that night, tucked in the corner, chatting away until one in the morning. I have no idea what we talked about – travel, Germany, school, work, life – probably a bit of everything. I told her I’d take her on a date if she came to Auckland. She said she’d take me on a date if I went to Germany. It was fun to talk about, but we both knew neither was likely to happen. I was heading back to Auckland the next day and the sad reality was, we’d probably never see each other ever again.
The next morning, as I handed my keys into reception and lugged my bag down into the car, I sent her a message.
“I’m off. Come say goodbye?”
I watched the ellipses flashing on the screen before it dinged.
“Ok one sec.”
She came out in her pyjamas two minutes later, still half asleep. Hair in a mess, sleepy eyes. I could only laugh.
We sat in reception and chatted for five minutes. There wasn’t much to say. I liked her, sure, maybe she liked me too, but all we could really do was hug and say “It was nice to meet you.” As we walked our separate ways, I sent her a smile and wave. She sent one back. Then it was over.
Five years ago, goodbye wouldn’t have been that easy. I might have dwelled on it, wondering what could have happened, where things might have gone. That’s the true challenge of life on the road. The long flights and the lost sleep and the rickety bus rides – you get over that stuff in a day. It’s the goodbyes that leave the marks. They come too soon and too often, each one chipping away at you, little by little. The road leaves you more what-ifs than you care to remember. But sooner or later, you accept this is just the way it is.
When you travel, you don’t get to explore every story. The time between hello and goodbye will always be short, and that’s just a part of the life you chose. You can have the most epic boys’ night, and then suddenly everyone’s gone the next day. A second date with a pretty girl that never gets to happen, no matter how amazing it could be. But that’s also the reason we love it so much, because you never know what’s waiting for you at the end of the next bus ride. Perhaps a fleeting romance, a new best friend, maybe even a special someone who might just change your life. When you travel, there are stories waiting behind every bowl of potato soup. A simple hello is all you need to find them.
To your next adventure,
Which hellos and goodbyes do you remember most from your travels? What short stories have made your trips memorable? Share them in the comments below!