Asleep in the passenger seat of my car, crammed in with the entirety of my worldly possessions, I was awoken by a rapping on my window. I blearily peered out of the window, only to be peered back at by an extraordinarily skinny young man in camouflage trousers and an undershirt. I recognized him as Michael, who for some reason had asked to be called Biggles.
“Hey mate! You want a beer or something?”
I replied that I would surely be along, once I had put some pants on.
“Right mate. Come on over when you're ready.”
I was in New Zealand for a month. New Zealand is a rather expensive country, especially if you’re on a limited income and are used to Bolivian prices. After hiking in the Southern Alps, I paid too much for a rental car in Christchurch. Only afterwards did I realize that I would only have enough money to make it back to Auckland for my flight out of the country if I could pass at least three days without spending any money. This sequence of poor decisions led to the subsequent one of driving to a free campsite outside of the off-season ski town of Methven, southwest of Christchurch. I had a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, four cereal bars, a collection of Jack London short stories, The Great Gatsby, and Wuthering Heights. I supposed that I would pass the time by eating sandwiches, reading books all day, and sleeping in my car. Not necessarily “fun,” but I switch off pretty easily, and it wasn’t like I would starve, or be attacked by wolves, or have to do anything at all.
The campsite was a dismal green-brown roadside swamp. It was separated by a line of trees from a small river, and possessed two pit toilets, a trash can, and a single picnic table which had been set on fire on more than one occasion. I parked my tiny Suzuki Alto next to that, since it was the least odious landmark. Over the course of my three days there, the car would become caked in the droppings of the gigantic wood pigeons that clattered through the forest, sounding like a nightmare of bats. There were hardly any other campers there, and nobody who seemed homeless like me. Biggles was there, however; Biggles & Co.
Not the most glamorous way to celebrate New Year’s. Not, in fact, the high point of my life. I might even go so far as to use words like nadir and rock bottom to describe my time with the self-identified “bogans.” For the non-Kiwi, “bogan” is an originally Australian term with a meaning and class history similar to “redneck” in the United States – something used by the rich whites in power to describe the poor whites who keep them there. Like that term, “bogan” has come to be used as a point of pride by some.
* * * * *
The bogans were camped close to where I parked my car. Their campsite had an ancient Ford Laser and a campervan, a ragged yellow pavilion and two smaller tents, small, incredibly dirty children shooting each other with toy guns, and an illegally built firepit. Biggles was incredibly friendly, but that wasn't terribly odd. Wherever I went, I was constantly being taken under wing by the legendarily hospitable Kiwis. Biggles, despite this characteristic hospitality, was also a little bit off. There were the oblique references to “those people” who seemed to be at fault for everything that was wrong with the world. Despite his cuddly nickname, there was violence in Biggles' words. Also, one of the first things I learned from the bogans was that Biggles had something like a seizure the night before, “from too much speed.”
After a few beers, Biggles indicated that he was likely to go to prison for arson in a few weeks. He told me that the police were framing him for burning down a house. After a few more beers, it became apparent that he had, in fact, burned down a building. It just happened that the building was a meth lab. His reasons for having done this, as far as I was able to piece together, were either to destroy the evidence of his complicity in said meth lab, or as revenge against a friend-slash-partner in the manufacture of methamphetamines for narcing on him. He was also fond of changing the lyrics of songs on the radio to include “Biggles” or “Biggs.” The night would echo to his strains of “You Shook Biggles All Night Long” and “Sweet Home Biggsabama.”
Later that night, the illegal fire was lit using soaking wet wood, several gallons of gasoline, and a roman candle shot by Biggles from an incredibly unsafe distance. A Scottish couple, who had been separated earlier from their folding table (with an actual tablecloth, and metal silverware!) and nice wine and sautéed vegetables, forced to join us for the spectacle, quickly retreated into their campervan and did not emerge until morning.
* * * * *
A very large woman named Katy walked into the ancient plastic tent where we sat, all of us hopelessly intoxicated. Outside, the drizzle continued and the ground gradually turned into mud.
“I need a man to stand under my kid. She wants to climb a tree.”
Gaz, who builds plastic tanks for a living and who had spent the last night on a pile of his dirty clothes in the same tent in which we were all currently smoking cigarettes, protested.
“No, love, I think I'm too fucked up.”
Similar sentiments were expressed all around our circle.
Katy sighed. “Ah, well. She'll probably be fine.” She sat down on a folding chair and lit a cigarette. Later, using her cell phone, she would play a never-ending set of popular songs from New Zealand, without which my trip would apparently be incomplete. She told me that her daughter, while only five, was already an excellent musician, with a natural sense of rhythm.
“Her father's a drummer.”
She also warned me about the dangers of traveling north of Christchurch and the possibility encountering persons of a darker skin tone than herself.
“Wellington and Auckland are full of black bastards. Offer them a cigarette and they'll take the whole pack!”
Jimmy and Amy, who between them had the most years of high school education in the group, not to mention the most children and the largest tent, told me that I was lucky to be at this campsite outside of Methven. Elsewhere in New Zealand, they told me, I wouldn't find “people like them.” I was obviously all right, though. I was one of “their kind of people,” they said. They could tell just by looking at me, and they were happy to share their campsite and beans with me if it would save me a couple of dollars.
To be fair, none of this stopped me from drinking their beer. I've always suspected myself of a fundamental cowardice.
* * * * *
The rain stopped sometime in the first hours of the new year. I stepped out of my car into an ocean of sunlight. The bogans were asleep in their various tents and vans. I took a walk down to the river. The water sparkled and flashed in the bright morning as I picked my way over the boulders.
I thought about my possibly-inadequate bank account. I hoped that one of the non-Bogans I had met in New Zealand would let me sleep at their house on the way back to Auckland. I worried that smoking hash oil off aluminum foil might have been bad for my lungs.
As the warm golden light washed over me and I dipped my head into the stream, it occurred to me that if this was the low point of my life, it wasn't all that bad. At the very least, it was all up from here.