I’m writing this tucked into the comfort of my oldest blanket, with familiar photo frames hanging around me, and the sounds of my family in nearby rooms. It’s my first night back in Greenville, having spent the previous week with my grandmother in LA as my first destination after leaving New Zealand. I’m slowly beginning to adjust back to what used to be natural: the right-hand driving, the four lanes of blaring traffic, the brightly numerous billboards, the omnipresent fast food, the mph and Fahrenheit units. It’s a strange internal dilemma, wanting to quickly settle back into my old and wonderful life with the family I’ve missed, while also refusing to let go of the changes that New Zealand life has wrought in my mindset. I can reluctantly accept that at least some of the differences, such as the South Island having a total of three major highways (they’re also one-lane, virtually traffic free, and snake through mountains and pastures), are a thing of the past.
Being computer-less for the past month, I decided to keep a handwritten journal instead to document the travels that I and a few friends underwent after university ended. It’s a full book’s worth, and I can easily anticipate rereading it for the next five, ten years, simultaneously laughing and crying. There’s something to be said for penning your own memories; it’s not like reading someone else’s work, where you might be able to empathize, but cannot fully understand; when I read my own writing, I can feel my fingers on the keyboard, sense the thoughts that engendered the words. This is probably why I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity to blog about my New Zealand semester. It’s forced me to create this precious account of five months that I will hope to remember for the rest of my life.
The journal begins and ends in Auckland and spans a 23 day period. It follows us landing in Christchurch, a city in the South Island that was the scene of a major earthquake in 2011. Most of the city was completely destroyed, and even now there are more cement rubble heaps than standing buildings. Dedications to the earthquake are seen in places such as the Bridge of Remembrance and the Cardboard Church, which are truly sobering to look at; you can’t help but imagine the buildings that once stood, and the motion of the earth that brought them down. We stay the night at a hostel that had been renovated from a historic prison and take each other’s mug shots in front of the untouched signs.
The journal then follows us through our other numerous attempts to throw ourselves headfirst into uncharted adventure: we invent our own paths up hills and cliffs in search of the perfect panorama view; we manage to lay eyes on two real kiwi birds (admittedly they were in a preserve); we drive through endless, endless beauty, the kind of highway driving that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. I find the best vegetarian burger that exists on the planet in the form of the breakfast burger at Fergburger’s, a famous, family-owned restaurant in Queenstown. It’s so popular that the wait for a single burger might reach an hour, but we somehow justify going at least four times during the few days we stayed in Queenstown.
The journal stresses in detail the days in which we climb up glaciers. A pencil sketch, questionable in its accuracy but unmistakable for its enthusiasm, shows the blue ice caves that we find near Franz Joseph glacier. It’s a vision from Ice Age, the yawning mouth of blue ice that has molded itself with spiny fingers over the rocky fields that lead up to the glacier’s foot. A off-duty tour guide whom we meet by chance leads us to the best viewing, and we squint at the insanely high cliffs looking for rockslides. I ask him the safety protocol for falling rock, and he laughs at me. “Just run, man. Just run.”
The day I throw myself off a cliff is another notable account. The Shotover Canyon Swing was probably the biggest adrenaline rush of my life: a 109 meter free fall before a supposedly safe wire swings me in an arc over an impossibly blue river and rocky side cliffs. I’m laughing from sheer relief, and by the time my two jumps are completed, my hands will not stop trembling. When I first arrived in New Zealand, I heard that a tourist can’t leave without either getting a tattoo or doing some extreme adventure. I’m proud to have fulfilled my ‘tourist’ agenda, and fully recommend it to anyone who happens to read this. You’ll want to conquer the world afterwards (I think I ate Fergburger and took a nap afterwards).
There is so much more to say. We took a Speights’ brewery tour; we took a Cadbury chocolate factory tour. We saw sea lions sleeping on a beach and whole colonies of seals playing in the waves. We mistakenly found a blue penguin’s nest and ran away before it could be disturbed, though it didn’t seem alarmed in the slightest. We took a cruise in Milford Sound, where the waterfalls were so high and the wind so heavy that the water just misted away, like magic. We looked at the peaks of Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in Australasia, and wondered at the people who crest Everest and the like. We met locals who showed us things, like their sculpting studios, or how to lawn bowl. The island isn’t something that can be adequately described in words unless it’s been sensed for yourself. It’s a different world.
When I say goodbye to New Zealand and to the true friends that I’ve made there, it’s with a heavy heart, but also a full heart. I’ve been granted this amazing experience with the generosity of my family and the opportunities extended to me by Cornell, and I want to thank everyone reading this, and everyone not reading this, for their part and their help in my journey. I also would like to encourage everybody in the world to visit this amazing country and to take up living like their locals: relaxed, open-hearted. I’ll hope to carry everything that I’ve learned and everything that I’ve experienced with me, in my mind and heart forever. Kia ora.