19 April 2017

Hitch-Hiking Horror Story in Rarotonga Cook Islands

Memory from June, 2012, aged 23.

Rarotonga, Cook Islands, New Zealand. 

When I was studying to become a primary school teacher, my university offered third and fourth year student teachers an opportunity to teach overseas. One of the options was to teach Maori children living on an island called Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands governed by New Zealand. A group of about 20 dedicated student teachers flew over together and lived in shared accommodation close to the main part of town. We were grouped according to specialisation and dispersed throughout the island. All of the schools were situated on, or a short distance from the 34 kilometre coastal road which looped around the entire island.

The school where I taught

On the day we arrived, our university supervisors gave us a quick tour of the island to point out where we’d be teaching. I felt relieved my school was no more than 5-10 kilometres from where we stayed, as we were expected to find our own way home each day. One of the supervisors who’d chaperoned past trips told us it was considered safe to hitch-hike with locals, which usually meant riding in the tray of their ute. Since there were two other young female teachers appointed to the same school as me, we agreed to walk home together until we got to know our surroundings and the local culture.

We couldn’t wait to get home each day after school because our backyard was a beach lined with palm trees. While the sun was up, children would be knocking down coconuts and scouring the sand for unique shells to sell to tourists. They would bring us pieces of fruit and expect us to entertain them for hours after if we accepted their offerings. Since most of us were in our early twenties, all we really wanted was a sun tan and a glass of wine. I remember becoming agitated whenever one of us got held up after school because it meant sacrificing the opportunity for quality sunbaking.

Our backyard

We quickly grew tired of kicking up dust as we walked home under the scorching sun each day. The local cars passing by went from looking unfamiliar and scary to convenient and comfortable. The first time we hitch-hiked, we met a lovely family who were fascinated to know why we were visiting. The second time the driver didn’t speak much English so we sat in silence. Hitching a ride home worked its way into our daily routine; the same as eating taro root and passing goats in the street.

Friendship quickly developed between the three of us who taught at the same school. Each day we took turns to stick our arm out towards the cars and ask for a lift. On a particularly sunny day with about a week left of teaching, one of the girls had to stay back longer than usual. Since my grade 5 students had already drained my patience, I decided to head back solo without a second thought. Both girls looked at each other tentatively before giving their approval. They told me to enjoy the sun as they waved goodbye. As I began walking, I wondered whether I remembered to hang my bikini out to dry overnight.  

Me trying to get us a ride home

Several cars drove past me as I walked the first 500 metres with my thumb out. I kept reminding myself it was still better than sitting around at school. Finally, an old commodore heading in the opposite direction pulled over; the wheels churned up dust as one side veered off the asphalt. A man who looked to be in his thirties lower his window and asked where I was going. His eyes were concealed behind a pair of sunglasses with colourful reflective lenses; the type only bogans wore back home. There was something off-putting about the tone of his voice and he had bad poster like a gangster in a rap video. I smiled politely and thanked him for his offer before saying I was fine, as if he’d mistaken my gesture. He continued driving the other way which struck me as odd, but during my stay I’d gotten used to witnessing unusual behaviour so I wasn’t really concerned or surprised.

I’d listened to at least two songs on my iPod before another car pulled up. It didn’t stop straight away so I jogged over, mindful not to keep the driver waiting. I was so eager to get out of the sun, I practically had one leg in the car before I acknowledged the person behind the wheel. I went to say a cheerful hello, but just as my voice box started to produce the first sound, my brain caught up with my eyes. My tone noticeably altered mid-sentence as I recognised who I was speaking to.

Now up close, I noticed the man’s shabby clothing matched his gangster lean. The interior of his car door was resting on my back leg; the leg which felt abandoned by its daring counterpart. Earth gave me a microsecond to replace the hovering leg back down onto the roadside. But my body ignored all panic signals and flopped into the fabric seat. Why did I feel too guilty to reject the man again? I immediately regretted my actions, starting with how I behaved back at school.

The man gave off a wild, nervous energy. He kept wriggling in his chair and his breathing was loud and irregular. He asked me a few questions, but I got the sense he wasn’t really interested in what I had to say. He was staring straight ahead and driving as fast as he could. Whenever he got an opportunity to overtake, he got so close to the car in front I stopped breathing. His erratic driving matched the way he spoke. He told me he was thinking of getting a haircut in town, but drove as if he was delivering a beating heart to a hospital. His explanation about why he decided to turn around and travel in my direction made no sense, but he didn’t seem to care what I thought anyway.  

Working with my students

As we started to near town, I contemplated opening the door while moving and flinging myself out. Each time we got stuck behind a turning car, I wondered whether it was the right time, visualising how my body might roll along the road. At one point we almost came to a dead stop, but I hesitated for a microsecond too long. My brilliant imagination depicted a graphic array of where and how this journey could end, unfortunately none of which featured a smile or wave goodbye. It was like I was on a real life version of the rollercoaster of death. I desperately needed to create an emergency exit.

I wasn’t prepared to do something drastic like grab the wheel, so I needed to figure out a way to steer his mind instead. I wanted him to regard me as person, and know why I had come to the island. I told him the name of the school I taught at and how I loved getting to know the whole school community. I mentioned a big group of us were living on the island, adding how our arrival even featured in the local newspaper. I wanted him to know I wasn’t a lone backpacker just travelling through on a whim. I wanted him to feel accountable for whatever he was planning to do to me. I kept talking without taking a breath, and eventually he interrupted. He said the name of the school where I taught, then asked which grade I worked with. When I told him grade 5, he said I must teach his little nephew, who he believed was a good student. We spoke about his nephew for a few minutes, then I asked him about his own schooling. He kept his answers to the point, but his demeanour seemed to lighten ever so slightly.

A stall in town

The traffic slowed right down as we came into town. Just after we passed my accommodation I asked him whether I could get out. As soon as I felt the car stop, I clutched at the door handle. I flicked it up like I’d done thousands of times before, but the door remained shut. I started rattling it up and down in panic, like someone trapped inside with a Huntsman spider. He just sat there watching me for what seemed like minutes, but was probably a matter of seconds. The stress had caused my brain to tire and my face to crack. As I turned to him for help, the mask I wore throughout the car ride shattered, revealing a terrified, tortured, young girl underneath. My red sweaty face and wet eyes spoke the words I couldn’t.

“Reach out the window,” he cooly ordered, gesturing for me to grab the outside handle. I can only assume he child-locked me in when I first entered the car. I did as he said and the door popped open. I burst out onto the street and slammed the door behind me. I thanked him through the open window; can you believe it? As soon as the traffic cleared, he ripped a dramatic U-turn and sped off down the road, back in the direction we came. Just before he lifted the window, he gave me an eerie little smirk, as if to say “you’re welcome.”

16 April 2017

Nan Was a Creative and Unique Lady But She Never Knew It

My nan was really creative, although it wasn’t a trait she was known for. When she passed away, everyone said they would miss her warm hugs and kind-hearted nature. She was known for giving lots, while having very little. She would deny having any creative ability and deflect compliments from friends and family. Having never worked, obtained a driver’s licence, or travelled far from home, I think she thought her opinions counted for less. She was so proud of her children’s and grandchild’s achievements, but spoke as if they weren’t tied to her in any way. Nan’s eyes would turn wet every time I’d share my wins with her, no matter how trivial. She’d shift her weight on the wooden dining chair and smile until her lips revealed her little teeth. She’d laugh softly while keeping her mouth closed, causing air to become trapped behind her teeth, creating a soft wheezing sound. She knew how to share in someone else’s happiness like no other; perhaps because she had difficulty recognising her own. I prefer to think it was because she loved us so deeply, our happiness was all she ever needed.

I loved getting dropped at Nan and Pop’s, especially when one of the other cousins was there. We would play Nintendo in the back room while Pop snored his head off in “his” room just down the hall. When Nan would finish cleaning or preparing lunch, she’d come and play Mario Cart with us. She’d sit on the floor and move her whole body with the controller, as if her on-screen steering would improve if she really leaned into the corners. Pop owned a rude joke book which I’d sneak from the bookshelf when I was left alone. If he or Nan walked in unexpectedly, I’d shove the book under the couch and pretend to watch old episodes of Mr. Bean.

Nan would call out when it was time to eat and we’d all sit around her big wooden table. My cousins would usually get Coke and I’d ask for a big glass of cold strawberry milk. I was fascinated to learn how Nan made her cigarettes using a little plastic machine. One day she taught me how to insert the loose tobacco and inject it into a paper filter. As I thrusted the slider across, I imagined I was loading a gun. As we’d sit and chat, I’d restock her empty packets with half-filled cigarettes. It just occurred to me now that she probably had to redo them as soon as I left.

When it was just Nan and I, we would walk to the local park. It was next to a milk bar owned by a Chinese family, who’d stock random items like big silk undies right next to a stand of chips. I’d buy a paper packet of sherbet with a lolly dip stick that looked like chalk. Then we’d walk around the back of the shop, careful not to step on shards of broken glass, to reach the park. I’d convince Nan to sit on one side of a modern see-saw that resembled a maroon coloured spider. It’s black rubbery legs would hang down and widen to form a seat only suitable for very small bottoms; I imagine Nan would have been rather uncomfortable. I’d be dangling in the air while waiting for Nan to push off from the ground. As she floated upward, my feet would barely skim the tanbark before gravity would pull her back down. I cherished alone time with Nan, but when we played on the see-saw I wished my cousin Jai was there to take her place.

Nan invented a treasure hunt game in the park that went on for years. Despite its simplicity and grunginess, somehow she managed to make it far more exciting than any Nintendo game or joke book. It involved collecting up all the used icy pole sticks littered around the playground. Once we had a huge bundle, we’d bury them deep into the ground under various pieces of play equipment. There was never a set amount or system to keep track of which ones were part of the game, but it was the job of the next cousin to find as many as possible. It was usually the first thing I’d do upon arriving at the park. Nan would join in at first, then plant herself on a piece of equipment and watch on with a smile. It was her job to judge whether the sticks were from the game, based on how old and soiled they looked. Even when they looked fresh, she’d pretend she didn’t notice so we could add them to our total. Her relaxed attitude helped to dilute my intense competitiveness.

Nan had a unique ability to make everyone and everything seem special. I love how she made new boyfriends instantly feel like part of the family, despite knowing they probably wouldn’t be around come next Christmas. She asked questions with such genuine interest and gave the kind of kisses everyone actually loved to receive. She had an open-door policy all year round, even on special days like Easter and Christmas. I used to find it annoying when random people would turn up to take part in our family events. I think the reason why we had so many extras around Christmas time was because there was never any expectation to come or play a particular role. When I got my car licence I enjoyed popping around to Nan and Pop’s on the way home from work. Nine out of ten times I’d walk in to find them sitting at Nan’s wooden table; often a neighbour would be visiting and the women would be in dressing-gowns. If they weren’t home, they were either out buying groceries or playing the pokies just around the corner.

One day I dropped in for a cuppa just after Nan and Pop had returned from shopping. Nan was unpacking the groceries while I was chatting away. She pulled a box of Home Brand ice-cream cones out of her shopping bag and noticed the cardboard box was damaged. She opened the box and held up the plastic tray filled with crumbled wafer. She questioned whether 20 crushed cones out of 100 warranted a refund (of about $2). She decided to keep them because she hated confrontation, despite feeling ripped off. It wasn’t until Nan passed away that I found out how much she sacrificed to make us happy. Apparently she would buy a small pack of lamb ribs each week and freeze them until she had enough to invite my cousin and I around for dinner. We’d always eat more than our fair share of the delicious BBQ ribs and fight to take home any left overs. Even now, Dad and his siblings recall Nan inventing dishes using left overs and cheap cuts of meat to feed the whole family.

When I was about eight years old, Nan bought each of her daughters and seven grandchildren a “lucky duck” for Christmas. She got them from the local Chinese two-dollar shop, which has since doubled in size. The ducks were made of cheap porcelain and coloured to represent each of our birth stones. They came in a small velvet pouch and had a round sticker on the bottom which read “Aussie Lucky Duck.” Mine was cream with multi-coloured flecks of glitter fixed to its back; it was meant to represent a diamond. At the time I was envious of my cousins, who had colourful birth stones like sapphire and aqua marine. Nan made me believe the duck was truly lucky, encouraging me to clutch onto it whenever she bought me a two-dollar scratchy ticket. I often won between $3-12, which helped validate her belief. Over the years, some cousins misplaced their duck or forgot about it altogether; but I kept mine close by, even when I started to explore overseas. Each time something good happened to me, I considered myself lucky and thanked the duck for working its magic. Throughout my adulthood the duck has been clutched in moments of distress, or tucked away in a bag while I’m out having the time of my life.

Before Nan died, I attributed many of my greatest experiences to having good luck. I think that’s partly because the term luck is often thrown around by friends and family when discussing my achievements. “You’re so lucky,” friends would say with equal parts excitement and envy. While I agree I’m extremely fortunate, I have grown to learn the luck they speak of is mostly self-created or sought out. I think Nan taught me luck is generated through genuineness and creativity. She had the ability to turn a bunch of rotten icy pole sticks and a $2 duck made in China into something worth seeking and holding onto.

Nan’s Lucky Duck still tags along with me when I go on trips, even though I now know I create my own luck. It reminds me of all the beautiful memories I made with Nan and symbolises her best traits. Despite what she’d say, I believe she nurtured the creativity within me and majority of Dad’s family. Without even knowing it, I think she demonstrated the importance of family and shared joy. Every now and then when a friend shares a happy or sad story, I feel my eyes turn wet just like hers did. I like to think I developed this somewhat humiliating trait from my beautiful humble nan, Shirley Grace Hawkins.

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