An Adventure Ends

So I’m back in Boston, surrounded by the aging buildings of Boston University. The weather is cold, but snow has yet to fall on my watch. At work, a fellow student asked me about New Zealand. A sophomore, she was thinking of going in the fall and wanted to know about the program, the logistics, and the country.

Her questions made me nostalgic. I logged back onto my blog. I hadn’t posted anything for two months. Over the winter break, my grandmother had commented how I just kind of stopped after my Christchurch story. There was no conclusion to my New Zealand adventures. Nothing to say good-bye.

Final rainbow in New Zealand.
My final rainbow in New Zealand.

The abroad program had already ended when I wrote the last post. Therefore, on some level, I felt I had already said good-bye to the life I had been living in the country when I left Auckland. I had stopped playing the expat and was now playing the tourist on a tour bus with strangers all excited to see the famed wonders of New Zealand. I had switched roles, mindsets. An ending had already happened. There was no need for a conclusion at that point. I was way past the final chapter; I was in the epilogue.

Still, when I sat on the Air New Zealand flight back to America after my adventures in the South Island, gazing out the window as the country fade into the grey skies, I wrote in my journal:

“I just watched the last bit of New Zealand green disappear. That’s it. The adventure is over.”

Some part of me had registered then that the ending, the real ending, had finally come. But there was still no time to really feel it. There so much more now to think about. I shut my journal after those few short sentences and settled in for the long plane ride, dreaming of a good taco and my own bed as well as dreading the shape of my country and my last semester in college. Plus, I was sick. Then there were two months of family, holidays, and lethargy to keep my mind occupied.

Honestly, I don’t think the end has truly settled in until now. As I look back at some of my posts and my pictures from my time in that little, often-forgotten country out in the middle of the Pacific, I’m starting to feel it.

Posing on a Devonport beach. Photo credit: Kirsten Johnson.
Posing on a Devonport beach. Photo credit: Kirsten Johnson.

I’ve recounted parts of the adventure to several people now and no doubt will do so plenty of more times (despite the fact that my blog was created to prevent that). I get wowed looks when I say where I’ve been, and I smile every time. I feel thankful for my astonishing luck and support, and pride that I pushed myself to go out that far.

But I also feel a bit of longing for those vivid greens, volcanic peaks, and violent sunlight. The people I met there were kind and unforgettable. The culture refreshing and fascinating. The places unreal and breathtaking. But every hobbit has to return home sometime…

I’m back inside the American bubble now, a changed and changing space but still incredibly insular. I will also be graduating in May, and another ending is currently creeping into my thoughts. And as time moves forward, New Zealand will soon become a only collection of anecdotes and otherworldly pictures. However, at least I know that for four brief months it was not some far-off, fantasy land, but a vibrant reality.

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Flowers for Christchurch

It was an early morning out of Mt. Cook. We left the famous peak still shrouded in mist with the faintest hint of a rainbow glittering in the valleys. It was a full little rental bus that trundled through the roads. The real large Stray bus was undergoing maintenance. So we crammed together friends with friends.

Relationships are formed quickly while traveling. I’ve known these people for less than a week and yet the ease and conversation hinted of a longer connection. The woes and excitement of traveling forms bonds like little else. (Will these bonds last? Only time will tell…)

We drove back down the coast of Lake Pukaki, the vibrant blues of the water blinding us in the early morning sun. Next stop, the shores of Lake Tekapo. The equally vibrant waters were complimented by a small field of Russell lupins (technically classified as a weed by the government because of its nonnative status), the purple stocks forming peaks that mimicked the snowy outline of the Southern Alps in the background. Tourists were roaming around the area like hungry little bees, their cameras desperate to soak up the beauty as their nose captured the lupin’s heady fragrance. We left when we got our fill.

Back on the bus, the landscape morphed as we moved closer to Christchurch. The mountains sank back into the land as the field were stretched flat and were monopolized by tractors, cattle, and sheep. Flashbacks to the American Midwest filled my head as our group in the back of the bus chatted and sang along to the 90s hits blasting out of the speakers. (They almost all were 8+ years older than me.)

It was a long trip to Christchurch and we kept getting tripped up by the traffic. Originally Stray wasn’t going to stop in the city but outside it instead, at this little town off the map. But since the earthquake had dismantled the only road heading directly north out of Christchurch, in order to make the timing work for the new, longer route, the bus had to move a little farther north and stop in Christchurch. Since none of us had planned to see the city anyway, and this was now our chance, we weren’t too disappointed in the change in destination.

Our driver began to give us an account of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that had devastated Christchurch, killing 185 people and leaving hundreds homeless. We all looked out of the window out of morbid curiosity, hoping to see some of the lingering damage or at least the approaching city. But all we saw were newer houses, all characteristically short and flat. Where was the city? The tall buildings? The people?

When we arrived at our hostel, the clouds were creeping in, covering the brilliant sun that had followed us all day. But the warmth remained and the resulting humidity plagued us as we went out to explore the city. It looked like we were out in the middle of suburban isolation, with uniform(ish) houses and tree lined streets, but one look at the map told us we were only 10-15 minutes away from the city center.

I had been warned about Christchurch, particularly by one of my roommates who did a road trip around the South Island during Spring Break. She said the city center is a bit lifeless and everything is very spread out, so it can be hard to navigate on foot. She said it wasn’t worth the effort (a thought Stray seemingly also shared if their original route is anything to go by). Yet the Lonely Planet guide book had pages on the city and there was certainly a lot to see on the tourist map they gave us at the hostel.

When we got closer into the city center, the construction fences and phosphorescent orange cones began to pop up like mushrooms. Murals brought color into the concrete buildings and empty lots that began to replace the houses.

As Rosie and I stopped for pictures, the kiwi and fellow Stray passenger we were with, Chris, began to point out sights and things he knew about from the news and stories and his previous trips here. That lot there was the building that collapsed and killed 100+ people. There’s another still damaged office block. Turn here if you want to go to Quake City.

Quake City is the small but poignant museum dedicated to documenting and sharing the stories of the 2011 earthquake. Rosie read about it in her Lonely Planet and had put it on the top of our sightseeing list. We managed to get there 30 minutes before closing time and were only just able to convince them to let us in (they ended up giving us a discount in the process for our limited time).

Pictures mounted on wooden boards and the occasional television screen displayed the destruction before, during, and after the quake. There were also documentaries conveying accounts of eyewitnesses and clean up volunteers, bringing a voice to the natural disaster. The voices carried into the various rooms where artifacts from the rubble sat, giving the event an even more emotional presence. Something stirred in my chest at the sight of the cross of the damaged cathedral trapped in a glass case, surrounded by a wall-sized photo of the rubble. The museum then ended on a light note, however, with plans for the new Christchurch, giving one a message of healing and hope. I only wish I could’ve stayed longer to linger.

We then wandered through the now famous shipping container mall Re:Start, and then over to the cathedral. We hung around the square as we waited to meet up with another Stray passenger (an American named Phil). Chris and Rosie roamed as I tried to capture the gapping maw of the half-destroyed church, watching other tourists attempt to do the same. It felt weird, especially after coming out of the emotional weight of Quake City, that something so painful to the residents of the city could become a tourist attraction. But I guess if it’s unusual or pretty and can be photographed it will eventually attract tourists like flies to honey.

Phil finally joined us and we began strolling around again, picking up some gelato before checking out the Botanical Gardens. Rosie and Chris left us in the blooming rose garden, having other plans. So Phil and I roamed around the flowers for a bit before heading back out on the streets, talking of Austin and Trump and future plans.

As we were exploring the nearly empty streets, hints of emerging modern architecture and the occasional murals/graffiti bringing life to the grey world under the golden light of the setting sun, I began to feel a deep respect and sympathy for the city. Holes, figurative and literal, are still present in the city and there is more construction orange and builders’ banging than should be possible in such a relatively small place. But the city is clearly trying to bring itself up again. The murals/graffiti are signs of that, so is the shipping container mall and the replacement cathedral made out of cardboard and recycled materials. They might’ve been half destroyed and might not have much going on because of it (in those few hours I spent on the streets, I saw the majority of the city), but the city is healing and trying to make the most of it.

Alongside the Art Gallery is a neon instillation with the words: “Everything is Going to be Alright.”

I tried to keep that in mind as I headed off to eat my last dinner in New Zealand.

Trecking to Mt. Cook

Despite my experience the day before, after sleeping ten hours, I was ready for some more walking. I couldn’t help it. The sunshine was calling me, and plus there’s really not much else to do here. The hostel, if you can call it that, is really just an out of date hotel with bunk beds in the rooms and a “T.V. Room” tucked into a dark corner on the ground floor. There’s nowhere really to hang, which I guess is even more an incentive to go out and enjoy the scenery.

This time I checked with the front desk to make sure I knew where I was going (the free map was crap) and packed enough food and water for the day, and headed out into the windy sunshine. Today’s adventure: the Hooker Valley track with an end point at the Hooker Glacier Lake. Return time = aprox. 3-4 ½ hours.

I started out at the glamorous and imposing Hertmitage Hotel, situated at the top of the hill Mt. Cook Village is settled on. The building overlooks the whole park and serves as the starting point for most of the treks. And so I walked down through the shrubs, moss, and rocks into Hooker Valley. The track picked up more and more people the farther I went. They stood like bright specks in the landscape as their colorful coats and gear picked up the light.

The dark looming mass of Mt. Wakefield blocked Mt. Cook from sight for a good chunk of the walk as the wind rushed through the valley. More than one Asian tourist clung desperately to their hat. Cameras were pulled out the moment Mt. Cook came back into view, its white heights staring coldly down at the green expanse at its feet. I was asked to take a couple group photos.

Three suspension bridges were crossed, each gently rocking in the furious wind. And small hut was explored, the inside full of graffiti spanning 20+ years. (I of course left my own mark.) All the while Mt. Cook stood on the horizon and the wind continued to rage, as if the mountain had partnered up with the air to try and push the tourists back. But still they came, all types and ages in their bright parkas with cameras desperate for a chance to gaze at the famous peak and the lake in its shadow.

After almost two hours, I arrived at those cold waters. Remnants of glaciers drifted upon the blue-grey surface and above it all Mt. Cook looked with its chilly stare, aloof yet awe-inspiring. The wind was more monstrous here, whipping clothing and throwing children off balance. It came in bursts that surprised people as they attempted to eat their lunches and take the perfect photo. I quickly ate my food, snapped a few pictures (I swear I took at least a hundred photos of Mt. Cook that day) before the wind became too much and I moved on back towards limited civilization.

Through Canterbury Heights

After Stewart Island we spent a night in Queenstown before heading off through Canterbury.

9:20 am = And we’re off with a quick travel update post-earthquake.

9:33 = A truly mirrored lake makes everyone turn their heads.

9:40 = Bungy bridge spotted, passed out of view just as someone was about to jump.

9:44 = An attempted sing-along to Coldplay.

10:04 = Stop at a fruit stall (Jones’s). Chinese tourists and heaps of apples and kiwis.

10:23 = On the road. Spotting orchards and making rafting plans. Outside: Snow caps and grape vines.

11:07 = Flowers and rocky outcroppings in Lindis Pass.

11:25 = Lindis Pass Summitt. The highest Stray bus stop. Waving shrubs, photo taking, and thin air. A growing heading and a full memory card.

11:35 = Stories of Shrek the Sheep, a local celebrity and “national treasure.”

11:51 = A river snakes peacefully through shrubs and vibrant purple flowers. Small yellow flowers also pepper the foreground as the snow-tipped blue peaks paint the background.

11:58 = A history lesson about Omarama and their gliders and All Blacks fame.

12:02 pm= Lunch stop. Stale roll and peanut butter. Conversation about college tuition rates and over-priced chips.

12:47 = Back on the bus with more fun facts.

1:02 = Salmon farms with turquoise waters (dyed by “glacier flour”). Passing Twizel. Maori stories about the naming of Mt. Cook or “Cloud Piercer.”

1:09 = Amazing views of flat fields spotted with yellow flowers and a line of be-snowed mountains. More turquoise waters. Pine trees.

1:16 = Lake Pukaki. Bright blue waters surrounded by dead tree limbs.

1:20 = Photo stop. A lake the color of the sky. In the distance, with a “cloud hat,” Mt. Cook.

1:43 = On the road. Still taking pictures of Mt. Cook.

1:55 = In Mt. Cook National Park. Accompanied by fun facts and stories about the mountain.

2:02 = Arrive.

Exhausted (I didn’t get much sleep at Queenstown), I felt like shit getting out of the bus at Mt. Cook Lodge. The sun was shining and the others were excited, so I felt bad leaving them, but I had to take a nap. Somewhat refreshed afterwards, I decided a short walk was necessary. Take in the day and the nature and all that.

I simply couldn’t believe the beauty, yet again. (Is New Zealand, is nature in general ever short on beauty?) The glaringly white peaks of Mt. Footstool brightened the whole plain full of pale green grass and shrubs. The wide skies were peppered with large clouds and in the distance the bright turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki shone ethereally. I think my disbelief and excitement at the scenery woke me up quicker than coffee would’ve.

So I took pictures and walked and walked and walked. I moved through the plain, across a bridge, down a road and partially up the side of Mt. Wakefield before I began to think: “Gee, this sure doesn’t seem like the one hour walk advertised on the free map.”

I look at the piece of paper again. Upon rereading the description of the one hour return walk to Tasman Glacier, I noticed it started at a car park, which was a 20 minute drive away. God I felt stupid…and tired. Needless to say, I turned around and headed back.

It was a much less pleasant trek toward the lodge. The sun was waning, beaming straight on my shoulders with an intensity that only New Zealand’s sun could give. And so I walked. I didn’t bring a lot of water, thinking I wouldn’t need much for a “short” walk, so my throat began to itch with thirst. And so I walked. When I finally returned to the plains, the wind picked up and blew at monstrous speeds, whipping my clothing against my body as I moved against it. And so I walked…

By the end, I was literally shouting at the wind and those wide blue skies in exhausted anger. The mountains just looked on and said nothing. My supposedly easy, one hour hike turned into a two and a half hour haul. Needless to say, I was not happy as I stumbled into the shower practically the moment I returned to my room.

Wildlife Adventures on Stewart Island

Here we were on a tiny little boat rocketing through the seas; a blue speck in a grey seething mass…

Someone else had decided to hop off the Stray tour bus at Steward Island as well (a woman from south England named Rosie), so I met up with her the hostel and together we headed off into nature. Ulva Island, like parts of Stewart Island, is a natural reserve, but unlike Stewart Island, Ulva is completely pest free. No rats, dogs, stoats, ferrets, etc. to threaten the delicate native ecosystem. Consequently, indigenous birds and plants flourish on this isolated piece of land.

The ticket for the Ulva Island ferry.
The ticket for the Ulva Island ferry.

We got to the small port in time for the ferry, were handed our tickets (consisting of Sharpie-d leaves), and hopped on to a six-seater with a bird enthusiast from DC and an Aussie couple. And off we went into the ocean, leaping through the waves, towards a misty green bulk.

The forest rustled with the sounds of birds when we arrived. A weka greeted us as at the hut next to the dock, waiting patiently for us to drop crumbs out of our pockets. We apologized to the weka, bought a guide, and headed off into the wet bush. The narrow packed gravel path twisted through the greenery. The foreign bird song complimented the steady drip of water on the leaves. Ferns swayed as we passed, mosses followed at our heels, and native trees provided protection from the wet chill of the grey skies.

We talked of dinosaurs as New Zealand parakeets flitted and tittered in the corner of our vision. Fantails hopped along the path ahead of us, evading Rosie’s camera. A weka would occasionally be heard shifting around in the undergrowth. And the Stewart Island robin would come and peak at the bugs at our feet when we bothered to stand still long enough.

The misty distances from a beach on Ulva Island.
The misty distances from a beach on Ulva Island.

The path also took us to a couple beaches, deserted save for a few wandering oyster-catchers. The misty distances that stretched out beyond the sea had a faintly unreal quality to them, and we struggled to imagine living on these wet and barren shores as some people did in the 1800s.

It was leaving one of these beaches that we encountered a shock. Rounding a corner, Rosie suddenly put her hand out and stopped me. There, off on the side of the path, was a pale, brown mass: a sleeping New Zealand sea lion. He awoke from our approach and reared his head. We froze and backed away, unsure what to do. We looked at the bush for a way through. Dense ferns and fallen logs blocked our way. We looked at the guide for information. Nothing. That path was the only way forward so we essentially had two options:

  1. Back track and miss a part of the looped track.
  2. Sneak past him, stupid but not inconceivable…

My heart was pounding as I lightly stepped on the moss at the edge of the path. The sea lion snorted and knocked the ferns at his side. I reached his neck, he moved his head, and I rushed forward. I had made it past.

Rosie sneaking past the New Zealand sea lion.
Rosie sneaking past the New Zealand sea lion.

Meanwhile, Rosie stood on the other side, nearly immobile in fear. We had concluded that the sea lion was probably injured and/or half-awake, which was why he wasn’t making more drastic movements other than raising his head and displaying his teeth. Even so, Rosie couldn’t move until the sea lion had turned his eyes away from the path and fell back to sleep. I continually motioned her towards me as she inched forward on shaking legs, displaying the appropriate amount of fear and trepidation. When she reached his neck, he moved and she ran away. Clutching my arm, we both rushed around the next corner.

What followed after the adrenaline had died down was more tramping through the bush, a couple of scares as a few kaka flew across our path, and Rosie worrying about whether or not we did the right thing. At the next beach, a sign warmed people to stay 10 meters away from sea lions at all times. Woops

Rosie calmed down a bit as we encountered the others from the boat and learned that they did or would’ve done the same thing. We weren’t the only idiots on the island.

Eventually the little blue boat returned, and we were welcoming back into the sea.

 

Tea, dinner, and a movie at the hostel before we went out to see the main attraction of Stewart Island: kiwis.

You see, all varieties of kiwis are endangered. These nocturnal birds can only be found in certain areas around the country and they are often so few and far in between that they are rarely seen. Stewart Island with its relatively high kiwi population is therefore one of the places to see New Zealand’s iconic bird. In fact, it’s why most people come here.

We’d heard a lot of tips from various sources (written and verbal) about the best way to go about spotting this allusive creature on Stewart Island. The consensus: go out to the rugby field at night, pick a spot, turn off the flashlight, stand there in silence, and wait for them to come out of the surrounding forest. It was raining fairly heavily when we thought about kiwi spotting, but we were determined, so we bundled up, slung on our rain jackets, and headed out.

photo credit: flyingkiwigirl Okarito, West Coast via photopin (license)
photo credit: flyingkiwigirl Okarito, West Coast via photopin (license)

Up a hill and down a muddy driveway, we were there at the rugby field. Planting our feet at one corner, we let our eyes adjust. With water clouding my glasses, the world soon became a monochrome impressionist painting, but still we stayed.

Soon a red light appeared on the other side of the field, followed by a sweeping beam of white. It lingered a moment on us before moving on. It had appeared that another duo had come out to search as well. We must’ve been a strange sight for them to see: two people standing alone and silent in the middle of a field at 11 ‘o clock at night in the pouring rain.

At one point, Rosie turned to me and whispered: “What if kiwis are some national joke that New Zealand plays on tourists?”

It certainly was starting to feel like that. The wind was picking up and the rain kept on coming. I had to wipe my glasses off several times to even remotely see anything other than splotches of misty greys. I was about to turn to Rosie to see if she wanted to call it a night when we heard it: a high pitched chittering noise at the edge of the field, the distinctive call of the kiwi. We froze as the other kiwi spotters swept their beam of light across the grass. The sound moved through the trees, around the edge and then…it was gone.

Disheartened, soaked, and chilled we didn’t stay much longer and quickly slugged back to the hostel, longing for warmth.

On the Road Through the Fiords

8:00 = Notified of a 7.2 earthquake outside of Christchurch. Told people died and to calm loved ones back in civilization once we had service.

8:17 = The windows have fogged over, making the snowcapped distant peaks and encompassing bush seem even more like a dream.

At the top of the Key Summit walk with views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.
At the top of the Key Summit walk with views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.

8:20 = Nature walk through the wet bush (the Key Summit Walk). Up and up through a stone strewn path as it zig-zagged through the forest. A waterfall here, fallen moss-covered tress there. A conversation with a Londoner. Soon the trees fade out and shrubs fade in and we see the others. Mountains views, snowcapped peaks, and a conversation with our driver. We linger in the chill at the top. Then the long, long, long walk down.

10:25 = After the hike, fingers so cold can barely write. Legs not aching…yet.

10:38 = Rushing around the bends and through the heights with pop music beat matching the rhythm of the bus.

10:48 = Sun and chilled sweat.

10:55 = The Londoner with a banana and Downtown Abby as peaks and trees fly by.

10:58 = Reggae and tour buses.

11:01 = It’s funny how the wow-factor wears off after first viewing. I can still appreciate the beauty though.

11:07 = Through the forest and National Park, now farms and sheep, highlighted by distant hills and though bright yellow flowering bushes (gorse).

11:39 = Back in civilization. Phones blowing up with worried messages from friends and family. At the café everyone glued to their phones, reassuring and searching for info.

12:26 = Back on the road. Nominating DJs.

Lake Hauroko, New Zealand's second deepest lake. © Violet Acevedo
Lake Hauroko, New Zealand’s second deepest lake. © Violet Acevedo

12:42 = Stop at NZ’s second deepest lake. Calm clear waters and beclouded distant blue peaks. Photos and an earthquake update.

12:50 = On the road.

1:11 = Interrupted by baby and earthquake talk.

2:13 = Toilet break and Invercargill fact time.

2:50 = Invercargill…almost. Water spotted at least. I’m not actually sure what town that was.

3:25 = Now in Invercargill.

I took one look at that empty, drab town (sorry NZ standards have labeled it a city) and knew I was not going to spend two days in Invercargill as planned. I’ve never done this before, change my plans at the last moment. But I got on the phone as the bus bumped along to the Steward Island ferry port and changed my ticket and then I was set. It was thrilling and not as hard as I thought it would be. I wasn’t the only one to be hopping off the bus on Steward Island. So I had company and there was always the birds.

Bumping along in the ferry to Steward Island.
Crashing through the waves on the way to Steward Island.

The ferry was…rough. This tiny little boat packed with people crashing through the waves. Bump. Splash. Rattle. (It was worse than Calais to Dover.) It took all my will power to continue talking about Thanksgiving with my fellow passengers and not throw up like this poor man in the front who filled two sick bags.

Legs shaking back on land, we made our way through the small 300+ people town to the hostel. Dinner was at the only pub in town and consisted with fresh seafood chowder, a pint, and wonderful conversation. As other went out in the rain to hunt for a kiwi, I settled into bed and knew I had made the right choice.

Beauty in the Fiords

The peaks that surround the lake and shelter Queenstown followed us as we drove out on the Stray tour bus at 8am. You know I’m kind of amazed sometimes with New Zealand. How can so much grandeur and beauty live in one country? I mean, I rationally know that beauty is relative and New Zealand is blessed not only with geographic diversity but a low population and that those two things have conspired to create the landscape I see. But I still can’t get over the wonder and might of the nature I encounter.

Our driver said the trip to Te Anau and then to Milford Sound is considered one of the most beautiful in the country and is his favorite part of the trip. I think I’ll always remember those sharp mountains piercing the sky, tipped with clouds and lingering snow, covered with hardy trees and flamboyant flowering bushes (which are actually a weed) that stretch across the land like a painter’s brush stroke. Sheep graze the cleared fields below, basking in the sunlight with their lambs.

On wards we went through the beauty and the sunlight. Plans were made about the group dinner and future accommodation. My mind wandered through the peaks and the colors. Thoughts of Trump plagued my mind and made my shoulders tense. The tension only increased in Te Anau as the others split up and I was left alone, unsure what to do and who to talk to. Awkwardness and anxiety (on my part) ensued. I was out of my element and the adjustment period can be rough.

Grocery shopping and lunch and we were back on the road to Fiordland National Park. Tension and Trump still lingered in my body and mind as we were introduced to the evergreens, flat plains, and towering mounts. The old beasts carved by long-lost glaciers wowed and pulled my thoughts towards their jagged ridges and tree coated sides. We paused for several photo ops.

More driving and picture perfect beauty, and then the tunnel. Before Homer Tunnel was built in the 1940s, the only way to Milford Sound was by boat. It was pitch black in that twentieth century passage, save the occasional sweep of a passing light. It felt like we were being transported through the darkness to another world, another time, another place. Everyone was at the edge of their seats and collectively gasped when we saw the view on the other side. Glacier sculpted vistas peppered with green and white and drizzled with a long, winding road.

It seems almost impossible that I could continue to be enamored and flabbergasted by the views and nature of this country. Several people commented on the fact that they’ve taken so many photos during their time in New Zealand that they’ve filled up their phones with the country’s beauty.

The sun and the Asian tourists were out in full force at the Milford Sound ferry terminals, but our boat was relatively empty. We all gathered on the open top deck to take in the “eighth wonder of the world.” The wind was as fierce as the sun. Hair defied gravity, clothes desperately clung to bodies, and items threatened to escape into the winking waters. But no one seemed to care. The mighty grandeur of the fiords couldn’t be missed. Trees fearlessly clinged to moss, waterfalls tumbled down through the cracks in the cliffs, penguins climbed over the rocky shores, seals hung out in the afternoon light, other cruise ships pushed along, and the ship’s captain occasionally popped in on the PA system to narrate. The time passed and all the remaining tension in my body flew away in the wind.

Afterwards, as we back drove through the park back to reach our accommodation, I looked up at the grey rocky faces of the peaks and felt their age and power. They’ve seen so much come and go, seen the Maori walk their tracks, seen the English come in curious and hungry, seen the slaughter and death and silence. And they continue to stand, sentinels to time and change. If they could speak to me about my worries of the future, they would look down with their old and calm eyes and say in a deep throaty rumble:

“This too shall pass.”

Postcard from Queenstown

Street performers practice their trade on the boardwalk next to the lake. (“Don’t clap until I’m finished, except I’m not Finnish; I’m Swedish.”) The sun drifts in and out from behind the clouds warming my back as a soft wind runs its hands through my hair and little waves massage the rocky shore. Seagulls pander about while ducks wash their feathers in the crystal clear waters. Tourists attempt to feed them their leftover Fergburger or are content just feeding their camera the picture book scenery.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many tourists. For many, Auckland is just where they fly into, the gateway point to the “real” postcard New Zealand, an image that is embodied in the peaks around Queenstown.

I left Auckland that morning. Not for good. I still flew back in to make the final leg of my journey home. But I left the abroad program’s accommodation for good then, exiting an echo-y empty apartment in the early hours of the morning. I said good-bye to my roommates. I was done with classes (the usual euphoria of the end of classes damped by a certain cheeto with a hair piece and a red power tie). The program for me has officially ended. Yet here I was, still traveling. It felt weird, to be honest. I was already exhausted from it all.

To be fair, it was an early morning for me that day. 5 o’clock alarm followed by last minute packing and cleaning. A 6 o’clock pick up, and a 7 o’clock drop-off (the shuttle had to make a couple stops) at the international terminal to store what I wouldn’t need in the south. Then a long walk to the domestic terminal, check-in, and a wait. A two hour packed flight and then at 10:30am: Queenstown, the “Adventure Capitol” of New Zealand and the birthplace of bungy jumping.

There’s not much you can do in this small little ski town that doesn’t cost at least $70. Trying to save money for other things, I took a walk, a much more leisurely activity compared to the countless adrenaline-filled options that are noisily advertised in the dozen or so booking and information places that pepper the town center.

But before, a Fergburger, a massive, world-famous creation that comes from a place that always boasts lines stretching out the door. Having not eaten since 5 am, I wolfed down that thing (lamb patty, mint yogurt, and all the usual fixings all under a freshly baked bun) faster than I should’ve. By the end, I was surely in need of that walk.

Along the rustling water, down the Queenstown trail, camera in hand and sun streaming through the cloud-tipped peaks surrounding the lake. Some places just seem to be blessing with unnatural beauty. There’s a reason why the South Island is the home of postcard vistas and fantasy lands alike.

Thirsty and tired I turned around and then wandered back to town through a disk-golf course shaded with towering pines and then into the streets packed with tourists and souvenir shops. Ashamed that I was absolutely exhausted from that little trek, I headed for the hostel and chilled in the dark confines of my upper bunk before quietly watching the sun set on the town’s shore, the ducks and the tourists and the street performers stirring around me.

Election Day

I woke up the night after the election with a message from my mom:

“So sorry we screwed this up.”

She was speaking as a spokesperson for the white American baby boomers, apologizing to me, a mix-raced millennial, for electing a narcissistic racist, sexist reality star to highest office in the land. I don’t think it/’s really sunk in yet. I’m still physically exhausted and nausea still lingers in my stomach. I guess you can say that I’m in shock and mourning. It’s not that I’m mourning over this idealized image of America. I’ve been slowly becoming disillusioned with the good ol’ USA for quite a while now. And it’s not that I don’t know how this happened. I do know, and I think that’s what hurts the most…

 

I had a final right when the results started to come in. I couldn’t go on Facebook or any news sites beforehand. I couldn’t let what was happening thousands of miles away across the sea affect my concentration or state of mind.

But once the pens were put down and the test booklets were handed in, all bets were off. A classmate and I decided to head off to a viewing party at the university bar afterwards. A line stretched and the entrance down the stairs as the curious and passionate alike came to watch the most important election in 50+ years.

My classmate was Dutch, studying abroad in New Zealand from her home university in England. As we waited in the queue, she talked about Brexit and how she was lucky enough to leave the country before the vote. I nodded. I was glad I wasn’t in America, but that didn’t stop the nerves growing in my stomach.

The University of Auckland's bar, Shadows, was all decked out in red, white, and blue.
The University of Auckland’s bar, Shadows, was all decked out in red, white, and blue.

Or the presence of Trump supporters. We were surrounded by them in line. One even tried to calmly state that Hillary’s emails and her Wall Street donations were worse the Trump’s myriad of evils.  A couple others behind us were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and loudly proclaimed that they were from San Jose, California. I ducked my head, hoping other people wouldn’t associate me with them. (If you want to know more about about my impressions of New Zealanders and Trump, read my Culture Shock post on the subject.)

The place was packed inside as more lines stretched out from the bar and people gathered around the giant screens with pints in their hands. I took one look at the numbers running across the bottom of the BBC World News feed and freaked.

“It’s so close! How could it be so close?!”

It was 5:30pm in New Zealand and Trump was slowly taking the lead. Despite my increasingly disillusioned view of my country of birth, I had faith that America would be smart, would do the right thing. My whole body tensed and my stomach threw fits. It really was just like Brexit, but on a much larger and more disastrous scale.

My Dutch classmate stayed for a little bit, then after a couple cheers from the Trump supporters who had gathered in a corner booth, she left. She couldn’t take it. She’d much rather crawl into bed and get the results in the morning. She couldn’t watch the madness unfold. I was literally shaking, but I didn’t leave with her. Some part of me still held out hope. My friends in America said I was in denial, but I couldn’t believe it. I kept telling myself that there must still be a way for Hillary to win.

The viewing party: complete with beanbags, beer, and the BBC.
The viewing party: complete with beanbags, beer, and the BBC.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. I found myself with a first generation Chinese medical student. Being a minority and gay, he was grateful he had located a Hillary supporter to find solidarity with. After I yelled at the screen a couple times (“It’s so fucking close! No Pennsylvania! What the hell are you doing?!”), I left to get a drink. I needed something to calm me down, or I was going to have a heart attack.

The medical student found us a couple of stools, and so we sat, the weak beer warming in my hand, as the results leaked in. The commentators were discussing the increasing unlikely ways Hillary could still win, trying desperately to put a positive spin on things. The beer was successful in losing up the tension in my body, but I was still in shock.

This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening…What the FUCK?!

I had to see the results for Pennsylvania. All my hopes hinged on that state. If Trump won PA then the race was truly over, but even with 98% of the votes counted, it still was too close to call. And so I held onto my increasingly futile hope and waited.

Meanwhile, my viewing companion showed me the messages of sympathy and sympathetic outrage that his collection of international friends were posting on Facebook to try to distract himself and me. And as I went through waves of rage and depression, he also began practicing his bedside manner on me.

“When you reach the lowest of the low, the only way is up.”

His words helped me from going insane, throwing up on the floor, and punching out the joyous Trump supporters in the corner. I was immensely grateful for that.

It was closing in on 8 o’clock, Pennsylvania had yet to be called, and Trump had 244 delegates. The bar was emptying out and impossibly I was starting to get hungry. When management turned off the sound on the screen and turned on the music, we decided that it was time to go. No amount of waiting would change the fact that Trump was going to…win.

Chairman Donald Mao announcing a Winter Clearance on a street in Auckland. (For comic relief.)
Chairman Donald Mao announcing a Winter Clearance on a street in Auckland (for comic relief).

My viewing companion left me then to join his other friends and so I was left alone, wandering the grounds in a daze and hoping my American nationality wasn’t obvious. I didn’t want to be American right now. How could’ve this happened? I thought over and over again. The painful thing was that I knew exactly how: fear of change and the “other,” disillusionment with the system, lingering racism, overt sexism, and anger, overriding anger. I was sick, sick and disappointed with my country.

I took a shower the moment I got home (after barely scarfing down a bowl of cereal). I needed to wash off the nervous sweat that had built up the past few hours in that stuffy bar, watching my country throw its immediate future into the garbage. I couldn’t picture Trump in the white house. My imagination refused to stretch itself that far and yet, to the ire of my nerves, my mind still tried.

I went on Facebook afterwards, to briefly read my friend’s messages of disgust, anger, and tired rallying cries. I don’t think I fully absorbed it all, not that I really wanted to. It was 9 o’clock and I was exhausted. I feel into bed and tried to fall asleep.

 

Even as I write this, the day after the shit hit the fan, it still hasn’t fully sunk in. In two weeks, I’ll be flying back into Texas, into a changed country. In six months, I will be graduating into an uncertain economy, an uncertain world. I’m scared and tired and am not really sure what to think.

I do know that I’m not going to let this taint my last breath of freedom in New Zealand. As I start to pack for my trip to the South Island, I’ve already blocked Facebook and news sites from my browser. I need a break, detox. I need to take some time to let my feelings settle, to allow myself to mourn. I’m lucky that I can do that, though, that I can escape into a foreign landscape and temporarily run away from America’s troubles. God knows, I need that. But not everyone is so lucky.

My friends in America say they’re also in shock. They feel sick and depressed, but strangely they also say that that, despite what happened last night, things are going on as they normally do. Public transport is still running. Classes are still being held. People are still going to work. Even so, there is no doubt that the fallout from this election will rock the country and the world in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. I’m afraid, but I’m trying hard to take comfort in what that first generation Chinese medical student said to me in that crowded university bar:

“This is going to be a defibrillator for change.”

God I hope so.

The Fantastical in Coromandel

 

The morning was colder than the day before but the sun still shone as we watched the kayakers float away from the beach. Kirstin and I, our driver Bern, the German and the Tahitian where the only ones left, the others opting to pay extra to ride upon the waves to another Coromandel highlight: Cathedral Cove.

It was a long walk to the cove, a forty minute hike up and down through the bush and a WWI memorial forest to the coast. The sun moved in and out from beneath the clouds as the gravel of the path crunched beneath our feet. We strode mostly in silence, the German struggling to make conversation with his limited English.

Tourists began to pop up around us the closer we got, and when we finally made it down to the beach, they littered the sand with their cameras and hiking boots. Kristen and I took off our shoes and wondered through the cave and past the monstrous stones that dominated the shore. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian had capitalized on the natural beauty of this landscape, furthering the impression that New Zealand lives just outside of reality, a place so stunning that it bleeds into the realm of fantasy. It’s easy to see why…

My feet chilled in the cold sand as the violently bright sun peaked through the clouds and the sea splashed upon the shore. I spent a while trying to capture the beauty of those blues and the tans, before I ended up sitting upon a rock, playing with the sand and watching the ocean glimmer in the light. My mind drifted upon those waters and I quickly lost track of time.

Somehow we all came together again and collectively, wordlessly agreed to go. After the steep trek back, we picked up the kayakers from the other beach and zoomed into town to grab some lunch. It was fish and chips again, this time at a roadside stand in the darkening sky. The wind was picking up and clouds were rolling in, but Bern had promised two more memorable sights.

It was getting quite chilly by the time we arrived at Waiau Falls. In the end, only two of us were brave enough to jump into the near-polar waters: one of the French and the Tahitian. They both cried out in shock when they leaped in, inciting laughter from the rest of our group and the few other tourists that stood on the rocks surrounding the waterfall. Bern tried to get more of us to go in, but there was no way we were going to join the now shivering jumpers. We were all quick to hop back into the bus.

“Are we going to see the pigs now?” Kirsten asked once we got rolling.

The day before, Bern has described, in detail, the “pig man” that lives alongside one of the country roads in Coromandel. Like an old lady feeding stray cats, this man, Stu, cares for hundreds of wild pigs on a field next to the forest. Stu himself lives in a shack and survives on the government dole while he dutifully looks out for his squeaky little friends, feeding them donated food scraps and love.

Desperate to hold a piglet, Kirsten and the French girls were eager to meet this Stu and his swine. So we drove up to his lot on the side of the road and encountered roosters and pigs roaming around moldering cars and rusting farm equipment. A barefoot man in a baggy, patched jumper, the famed Stu greeted us with a smile and a wave. For a moment, we all just stood there, unable to register the crowd of animals parading around the greenery and urban decay. It was such an odd sight in the middle of the beauty of Coromandel, almost unreal. Yet somehow it seemed fitting in a strangely fantastical way.

Kirsten squealed when a litter of piglets ran across our vision and soon we had ducked underneath the wire fence to get a better look. The French girls and a few of the others meandered about, chatting with Stu, taking selfies with pigs, and chasing after piglets.

Clouds capped off the sunlight as I did my own exploring, hoping to capture the peculiar essence of the place with my camera. A male pig came up to me during the course of my photo sojourn. He even lay down at my feet and rubbed my leg like a cat, begging to be pet. I laughed, stroked his course fur, and watched as Kirsten squealed again when she and the others finally got to hold piglet. The only thing that tore Kirsten away was the rain that started to drip from the sky.

All we had left now was to start the journey back to Auckland. But before we did, Bern made one last stop. Up upon the top of a hill, overlooking the stormy Coromandel on the right and the intensely sunny Hauraki Gulf on the left, we paused to take pictures and spot the Auckland SkyTower off in the hazy distance. Once again the fantastic beauty of the landscape hit me as our collection of international travelers took our group photo. I turned to Kirsten. This was the last time we would be traveling together in New Zealand. It all didn’t seem quiet real.

Coromandel sits in the distance, storms sheltering it from the sun. © Violet Acevedo
Coromandel sits in the distance, storms sheltering it from the sun. © Violet Acevedo