I have never picked up a hitchhiker before. If it were up to me I still would be continuing that streak.

Studying abroad in Australia was a amazing experience. Traveling all across the country will be something that I never forget. Although the trip that I had the most fun on was when I went to New Zealand for a week. I went with a group of five and we traveled all across the North island. Our plan was to rent a car and to just drive all around traveling to different towns. We started in Aukland and then made our way in our station wagon down to Waitomo. From there we drove to Rotoro and then to Taupo. Between Rotoro and Taupo we decided to make a pitt stop just to relax and take some pictures. We one a shot with all of us in it so we went up to a scrappy looking man and asked if he could take a picture of all of us. He graciously agreed. So we took the picture and as he handed the camera back he kindly asked where we were headed. We responded “Taupo.” He found that interesting because that is where he was headed to as well. And then he said something that nearly froze all of us. He asked for a ride there. None of us knew what to say. We just looked around at each other. I came to a revelation when I stated that there were no seats in our car. To which he responded, “That’s fine, I could just squeeze in the trunk.” We were left speechless again. I was always told not to pick up hitchhikers because they could be dangerous. Suddenly dozens of stories were flashing through my mind of terrible hitchhiking stories.  I remember hearing about one person picking up a hitchhiker who robbed him.  There was another of a couple picking up a man who was accused of being a drug dealer.  I even remembered one story of some people picking up a strange man and that man started tormenting and trying to kill the people.  That last one might have been a movie but I couldn’t remember if it was based on a true story.  This one didn’t look scary (although his unkempt beard didn’t him appear innocent), help he was probably only a few years older than us, but still, you never know. Then with a million thoughts rushing through my head one of the girls blurted out, “Ya, we could give you a ride.” A couple of gave the girl a stern look, but it was too late, the guy was already heading towards our car. We weren’t very far away from our hostel that we were headed towards so for some reason that made me feel better. Also since I was sitting in the front and was therefore the farthest away from the hitchhiker that would give me more time to react if anything happened, at least that was something that crossed my mind.

As we were driving we asked our new companion what he was planning to do in Taupo and where he was thinking about staying. He said from the back of the station wagon that he wasn’t sure. He thought that if the hostel we were staying at looked nice he might think about staying there. Oh no. I have seen to many horror movies that this whole situation felt like a cliché. Completely unsettled about everything I nervously made chit-chat to break the nervous silence. He said his name was Markus and was from Germany and was traveling all around New Zealand for several weeks. We continued talking and oddly we got more comfortable with him. He seemed relatively normal that time actually went by pretty quickly. Most Americans are told to say away from hitchhikers, but what many don’t realize is that it is quite common in many of the other places around the world, and it may becoming a more popular way to travel again (here).

By the time we got to the hostel none of us minded that he stayed in the same hostel, although we had our own room so we knew he wasn’t going to actually be sleeping in the same room. That would be too much. We parked and all got out and we went to our room and he to his. And that seemed like the end of it.

The next morning we were in the kitchen eating breakfast talking about what to do. We were debating which trail to hike. Suddenly Markus chimed in with his thought. He told us that he has hiked each of the trails we were talking about and which was the best. Since nobody had any idea about which trail was the best we went with Markus’s choice. He then asked to join us for breakfast. This seemed like a much safer move than driving in a closed car with a stranger. Again he charmed us with his personality that he was rapidly becoming less of a stranger and more of a friend.

It turns out Markus was right because the trail Markus suggested to us was perfect. It had everything we wanted from giant waterfalls to beautiful scenic shots. We knew this would not have been possible without Markus. Later on when we were back at the hostel we ran into Markus again. We told him all about our day and he was just glad that we had a good time. Markus then had an idea to cook all of us dinner that night. Since we hadn’t had a home-cooked meal in a long time we declared without hesitation yes. But to show that we were not just a bunch of moochers, we offered to get the alcohol.

I don’t remember what Markus cooked that night but I remember it tasted good and was very colorful. It might have been some type of stew filled with fresh vegetables, I’m not sure. But I do remember the alcohol tasted good. As the night wore on and the bottles emptied we shared stories from back home and talked about where we came from. As the common room emptied and the clock approached midnight Markus asked if we had seen the hot springs yet? We didn’t even know there were hot springs. He then asked if we were up for it he could show them to us. Now? Sure, why not. It’s not like we had anything better to do so we grabbed the rest of the alcohol and went for it.

It was about a mile walk from the hostel but it seemed shorter. We arrived at the park and it was pitch black. We just followed Markus’s voice. He led us to these pools filled with natural spring water that was probably about 90 degrees. It was like a spa. So we all dressed down to our underwear and jumped in. It felt amazing. To be under the clear sky staring at the blanket of stars in a place I have never been before and knew that I might never be again, was such as surreal experience. And then I thought that this wonderful moment was due to this stranger that we picked up only the day before. I’m not going to lie but I was very suspicious of him having no idea who he was. Now here I am with my stomach full of food that he had made and sitting next to him and drinking wine in a hot spring in the middle of the night nowhere near any other people. Even thinking about this now it seems rather stupid, but it felt peaceful at that moment. After some time we headed back to the hostel and to our beds. We had to get up early the next morning because we were moving on.

We were all packed up that morning, we were just waiting for Markus. He asked us to give him a ride a few miles down the road. It never even occurred to us not to help him out. When he arrived he squeezed into the trunk and we drove off. We got to a roundabout and Markus asked to let him off there. It seemed rather deserted around but he told us this spot was fine. So he got out and we all said our good-bys. We even exchanged contact information with him in hopes to keep in touch. Then our group got back in the car feeling like we just lost a friend because in a way we did. We slowly drove off with all our attention behind us as we watched this mysterious man walk down the road not knowing where he was going but were just thankful that we ran into him.

As we were driving I continued to reflect on Markus and his impact on our trip. Sometimes you have to leave room for the unexpected and take a chance on people. I have a feeling I was not the only one in the car thinking this. I’m sure all of our thoughts were preoccupied because we just drove by a group of hitchhikers without a single thought to stop, barely a glance.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/hitchhikings-time-has-come-again.html?_r=0

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