After we travel, it’s often the people we’ve met that we remember the most.
Mountains and meals blur over time until they’re lost in the haze of memory. Moments disappear in our minds, sometimes resurfacing years later when we hear a song or smell something on the air. Tour guides and hotel receptionists meld into one in the mind. But sometimes you meet a person that is impossible to forget.
Maybe they touch your soul or you just have such a strong connection that you feel like you’ve known the person your whole life. You can make friendships while travelling that are so fleeting, yet so powerful. Sometimes it hurts when you have to say goodbye to a person that you’ve barely even met.
For me, the most memorable people teach me something about myself. They challenge how I think and what I know. They’re so influential that they can never be forgotten. That’s how it was with Geoff and Renee.
Now, if Geoff and Renee read this, they’ll probably be scratching their heads. Wondering who I am. Maybe they’ve forgotten me!Yet I haven’t forgotten them.
We found them online while looking for a help exchange. The owners of a bed and breakfast in Arthur’s Pass village. It was half a days drive away, so we sent off a quick message asking if they would take us on short notice. We’d work for 4 hours for food and board.
Soon enough we got a reply saying they’d be happy to put us up. It was no problem.
The drive to the village was torturous. The high mountain pass almost being too much for our car to handle. But somehow we made it with the fantasy in our mind of working in a bed and breakfast. Making tea for the guests, chopping firewood and baking cakes.
Unfortunately we soon learnt the bed and breakfast had tragically burnt down a few months earlier. It was now nothing but a black shell filled with rubble. Instead we found our way to our hosts’ temporary home – a house owned by the National Park and we were introduced to everybody there.
First there were Geoff and Renee, our hosts. A couple of young French girls also there to help out. Then another girl who was volunteering nearby, counting birds and trying to locate bats. With myself and Jamie added in, this made seven of us in a small three bedroom house.
I immediately started to wonder why Geoff and Renee had agreed to take us on when their house was already completely full. But over the next few days I realised that they probably don’t turn down many helpers. They’re so generous that they have to help others. So positive that the mere idea of, “Not enough room” isn’t on their radar. They can always make room somehow.
There was rarely a moment that I didn’t see Geoff and Renee smiling. Their spirit always high and their outlook always positive. Their bed and breakfast had burnt down but they were still happy.
I don’t know how I would cope with such a thing. It would be too much. I don’t have the mental strength within to deal with such setbacks. To even call this a setback is laughable. This is losing your home, your job, your possessions. Everything! How many people would have the strength and belief to start over when their whole life had been destroyed? I find it hard enough to live my day to day life, let alone go through something like that.
But Geoff and Renee were both determined. Not just to get their lives back, but to improve on them. They had a clear plan for their future and they could see a bright light at the end of the tunnel. I find such spirit an amazing quality. They were the perfect example of somebody making the best of a bad situation. Creating opportunity from disaster.
Geoff took Jamie and I to the burnt shell of the bed and breakfast and we stood in the empty building. No walls, or windows, barely any floor. The little that was left over was charred black. Yet Geoff had the largest grin on his face. He didn’t see the house as it was, he saw what it could be. He walked us through the rooms giving us a tour, “So we’ll have a fireplace here, old oak door here, there’ll be a long sofa here for guests to relax on. Here there’ll be some double glazed windows, oh don’t let me forget to show you the kitchen.” The kitchen was literally a hole in the floor to me, but to Geoff it was all there in his head and he was excited. He had it all planned out.
Now, this isn’t even what touched me the most. But rather, what touched me was their generosity. It amazes me that Geoff and Renee having lost everything, still had so much to give. They had nothing left, but opened their home to us. Gave us their time, cared for us, told us to take the day off to go on a hike.
Learning to Cross a River
At dinner one of the French girls got to talking about river crossings. Geoff and Renee insisted that you couldn’t say you’d visited Arthur’s Pass until you’d crossed a river. The volunteer admitted she didn’t even know how to cross a river. Geoff cut in immediately, “Ok, I’ll teach you!”
Now, a lot of people love to make plans and never follow through. Geoff didn’t seem like that sort of guy. The next afternoon, after a long day spent at work, he bounced into the house, “Are we all ready to go and cross some rivers?” We had a few misgivings, the water would be cold and we were tired. Yet Geoff’s enthusiasm was infectious.
He showed us how to cross the river in a group, placing our arms underneath each other’s backpacks so nobody would get swept away. We learnt how to work with the current to ease our way over. Then it came to crossing by ourselves and he guided us over, ensuring we wouldn’t fall or get pulled away.
Geoff’s enthusiasm was so infectious that he managed to also get us jumping into a freezing cold waterhole. Showing us how to use a backpack as a makeshift life vest. He didn’t need to do this, but he relished the opportunity, even jumping in himself to give us a demonstration.
A Lesson in Generosity
Geoff later revealed that the bed and breakfast was under insured. They wouldn’t get enough money to completely redo the bed and breakfast. Instead of giving up, Geoff and Renee decided to take on a lot of the work themselves. Geoff slipping into some overalls to dig foundation trenches under the house. Renee picking through the wreckage of their old home to find window frames they could refurbish for cheap. They both work in the National Park cafe. Working from early in the morning in the busy tourist season to bring in some money to fund their dreams.
Despite all this they still had time for us. To show us how to cross rivers. To tell us where the best hikes were. Taking people into their home with all the care in the world.
Each night before bed, Renee tired after a day of making drinks for customers, asked who wanted a hot chocolate. Always we would all remain silent. “Nobody? Are you sure?” Somebody would pipe up, “Only if somebody else has one.” Soon enough Renee would have us all convinced that we had to all have a hot chocolate and she watched us slurping them down with glee. I don’t think she did this for any reason. It was just one of those selfless things she and Geoff were always doing. They did these things for no other reason than it was in their nature. She had to make us feel at home and welcome. Like part of the family.
Renee and Geoff didn’t have kids, they just had each other. Yet that wasn’t enough for them, they needed to have people around. People to share with and care for. People to cook for and laugh with over dinner. In the past, they had their customers, but with the fire they’d lost more than just their home, they’d lost their family. They were alone.
One night when I complained that I hadn’t done enough work, Geoff told me I didn’t understand. We weren’t just there to work. They wanted somebody they could come home to, somebody that could cook dinner for them when they didn’t have the energy. Help them with odd jobs when they didn’t have time. It sounded to me like they wanted a family.
All this made me question myself. I can be pretty anti-social. I shy away from others and have little generosity. I don’t give enough. I don’t care enough. I find people to be a lot of hard work sometimes and I often convince myself they’re not worth the effort.
Yet when I looked at Renee and Geoff, I saw that despite having lost everything, they still had everything they ever needed. They had friends and family. People to care for and help who would do likewise for them. This gave them strength and kept them going.
After less than a week we had to leave. We didn’t want to go. It hurt. We knew we’d miss the communal dinners and Geoff’s funny stories. We’d definitely miss Renee’s hot chocolates. Most of all we’d just miss Geoff and Renee. These unique, happy people.
When the time came, Geoff gave us a bag filled with meat and vegetables to eat that night. Told us to get some herbs from the garden on the way out. One last act of generosity. It made it that bit harder to leave.
Sometimes it hurts when you have to say goodbye to a person that you’ve barely even met.