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Illuminations from the throne

Backpacker's karma.

The Golden Holden in New Zealand.
Photo Credit: Eileen Thornton

Backpackers tend to help each other out when they're travelling. Loaning gear, sharing accommodation, swapping advice and recommendations. Nothing is expected in return except perhaps, that somewhere along the line, someone might do you a favour. It's the backpacker's karma. But like all karma, it works both ways.

I often provided a free shuttle service whilst travelling around New Zealand in my Holden Camira (a.k.a The Golden Holden) and reaped a lot of good karma for that. But this is the story of an occasion when I was less helpful than I could have been and karma paid me back.

For a few months I shared an apartment with a revolving door of fellow backpackers in Auckland. Before too long a flatmate would move out and it would be up to me to find a replacement. Here's where our protagonist enters. I don't remember much about him except that he initially seemed like a good guy to live with before quickly becoming a true pain in the ass.

The day after moving in, he moved out. I assumed he'd found a cheaper place but this made things awkward for me. Rent was due and, as the longest serving tenant, it was my job to collect it and pay the landlord. I did have a safety net however: he'd already given me a month's rent in cash. Which of course he now wanted back.

I told him that if I could find a new flatmate in the next few days, I'd return his money, otherwise I'd need it for the rent. As far as I was concerned he'd committed for at least a month. Luckily for him I did find someone and that should have been the end of it. I tried to arrange a meeting but he'd already left town. The reason for him suddenly moving out was becoming somewhat more clear.

On top of that he had yet to open a bank account in New Zealand, meaning I was expected to be the custodian of his cash until he did because, unluckily for him, by the time he was due to return I would also have left Auckland. As we were unlikely to meet again, he would have to send me his account details when he had them.

This guy was starting to annoy me. I had no intention of keeping his money but didn't feel inclined towards making any great effort to get it back to him. I figured his own bad planning had caused the problem, which I would solve at my own convenience. That wouldn't be anytime soon as I was planning a few weeks off grid to do some hiking and camping, one of the primary reasons for visiting New Zealand.

By the time I arrived in Wellington a month or so later, I'd received an email from him. He was all set up for me to find a branch of his bank and deposit the cash. All good, but my first priority was finding some work to finance the next part of my trip and I had a meeting with a recruiter.

I was offered a job for 5 or 6 weeks, starting immediately. My new boss had a proposition for me: if I worked the whole period without taking taking time off for any reason, was never late - even by a minute, never left early - not even a minute and never took more than half an hour for lunch - not even a minute over, then he would pay me a bonus at the end. This might seem a bit archaic in today's working environment but I think he was just fed up with being let down by temp workers. The deal seemed reasonable to me.

Matey's cash was still burning a hole and would have to for the next six weeks. The banks didn't open until after I started work, closed before I finished and there was no branch I could get to within 30 minutes. The simplicities of online banking had yet to arrive in New Zealand and I wasn't going to risk losing my bonus.

I was staying in one of the smaller, more homely hostels, where people tended to hang around for a while rather than bed down for a night or two before taking off. One evening, I was chatting to a girl I'd gotten to know a little. Backpackers swap stories and the subject came up - I'd been carrying around quite a lot of someone else's money since I'd left Auckland because paying it back had become rather problematic. She offered to take it to the bank for me and I took her up on that.

Perhaps this was ill considered but I justified it by applying my tried and tested two good reasons theory. This theory states that if there are at least two good reasons for doing something, then it's worth doing, even if there might also exist a few not-so-good reasons. Ok, it's a rubbish theory. I don't use it anymore. Anyway, I had two good reasons:

1: I decided to trust this girl because she was a fellow backpacker. Backpackers help each other out and get good karma. Screw over a fellow backpacker and you get bad karma. Everyone knows that. Obviously it had occurred to me that I didn't know her very well and trusting her with this money was quite a leap, which led to the second good reason...

2: I didn't actually care that much if she turned out to be a thief. This guy and his money had been pissing me off for months and now I had an opportunity to get it sorted. If it went south, well, it was 90% his fault, 10% mine. Maybe 80/20.

Job done, my hostel buddy informed me the next evening and I passed on the good news. Of course, by the time I'd received an email to say the money wasn't in his account, that he'd given up on me ever returning it and how disappointed he was in me, she'd left Wellington.

I did feel a bit guilty but to be honest, it didn't weigh too heavily on my conscience. Matey had mostly brought this on himself and I didn't steal his money. But I was responsible for it. I was due some karma.

After some good times in Wellington, I met up with a friend to tour the South Island. Our itinerary included Fox Glacier, one of the famous moving glaciers you can hike on. We checked into a hostel in the tiny nearby town then went out for a few drinks.

The whole place was dead when we headed home around 1-2 a.m.... except for one car, crawling so slowly that we caught up to it. Slightly suspicious, I glanced over and realised it was probably another group of backpackers looking for the hostel. I was right, they turned into the car park behind us.

I was literally walking through the door when I heard the crash and even before I turned around, I just knew.

“Oh dude”, said my friend, “they've hit your car.”

It was one of those remarkable coincidences. A remote town, deserted in the early hours of the morning, only two other people in sight and it's their car you manage to hit. If they'd waited a few minutes we would have been passed out in bed.

The three girls who'd postponed my beauty sleep that night had been on the road all day and were clearly exhausted. The poor driver had lost concentration in the very last moment of their journey. The damage to my car didn't look too bad. They'd hit one of the rear indicators but the light was still working - only the casing was broken. The good news was they were driving a rental so they should be insured. We checked through their documentation and confirmed that.

So no huge deal. My car was still functional, all I had to do for now was make a claim. It was obvious who was at fault and there were five witnesses. Should be straightforward. Time to get some sleep before an adventure hiking on the glacier.

At my next stop, I called the rental company, gave my account of events and asked how to make a claim. The guy I spoke to was very cagey. Without confirming that I had a case, he told me to get back in touch when I knew how much it would cost.

Not only did I have a repair job on my hands, but the WoF was due; Warrant of Fitness, the NZ equivalent of an MOT or TÜV. Fortunately I was heading to Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island and probably the best place to get it fixed in time. But it did mean I'd have to fork out upfront.

I'd hoped a patch-up job to the indicator's casing would be good enough before I took my car in for its WoF. Predictably it failed. The whole indicator needed to be replaced. No easy task - it was getting on for 20 years since the last Camira had left the factory, but the mechanic had some ideas where I could start looking for the part I needed.

It took some hunting before I tracked down a place that had one. By then my WoF was up. If I didn't get it fixed that day, I was liable to be fined every time the police spotted my car simply parked in a public place, even if I had no intention of driving it. So I was feeling quite relieved as I drove out to an industrial estate somewhere on the outskirts of Christchurch.

When I arrived, a guy came out, took one look at my car and shook his head. He only had a right indicator light. The left one was broken. It hadn't occurred to either of us to check that detail on the phone. He said he'd make some calls, see if he could find a supplier who had one. He wasn't hopeful.

Now I had a big problem. The first thing I had to do was find a hostel with private parking so I wouldn't rack up daily fines. I was going through a backpacker's accommodation guide when my phone rang. The guy at the industrial estate had rummaged through his stock room again and found a left indicator light! I couldn't believe my luck. I drove straight back and there he was, waiting for me, holding just the right part. He even fitted it for me. Maybe he felt a bit guilty for the two trips but Kiwis are good guys.

I made it back to the WoF garage before they closed. The mechanic was surprised to see me.

“I didn't think you'd be able to fix that.”

“Well, I guess I've had a lucky day.”

WoF passed!

The new indicator had been quite expensive but no problem, I'd be reimbursed. I called the rental company, this time with everything I needed to make an insurance claim.

“I've spoken to my lawyer”, said Mr Cagey. “He's advised me that I shouldn't pay out in this situation.”

An odd choice of words I remember thinking. 'My lawyer.' Not 'our lawyer' or 'our company's legal department.'

The rest of the conversation/argument is a bit blurry in my memory but it ended something like this:

“So let me get this straight. You rent cars with 3rd party insurance included. Someone causes damage to a 3rd party and you're not accepting the claim?”

“I'm not compelled to pay out for this incident.”

“Ok, I'll give you one last chance to do the right thing before I tell you what I'm gonna do if you don't.”

“And what would that be?”

“I'll post warnings on all the backpacker's forums to avoid your company because you don't honour insurance claims. There are plenty of others to choose from and if even just a handful of people take my advice, your loss of earnings would exceed what you owe me.”

“I'll sue you for that.”

“Good luck with that. So, is this how we're leaving it?”

“This conversation is over.”

Hangs up.

I carried out my threat. I even made a point of boosting my posts to the top of the message boards every now and then to make sure they stayed prominent. I like to think I tarnished their reputation to some small degree. I felt they deserved it. I say 'they' but I'd come to suspect I was dealing with a dodgy one-man operation.

I wasn't sued but I was out of pocket. That was my karma for not making sure that Mr One-Night-Flatmate got his deposit money back. I have faith that Miss I'll-Take-It-To-The-Bank-For-You got hers as well.

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