back home

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.

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exam time, kind of

It is now November 1st; Halloween weekend just come and gone, and the most I celebrated was to curl into a corner of my friend’s couch while Friday the 13th played in the background. Even beside the fact that I do not understand in the slightest why slasher movies hold appeal for anybody, it was a mildly confusing weekend. Halloween is one of the biggest celebrations in the States, especially for younger people, my age group included; here, I saw barely a few costumed people roaming the streets. The biggest parties I heard of came from within the international student community, while only a few kiwis in my dorm even acknowledged the holiday. It’s an interesting culture difference, but not one that I particularly dislike here (I’ve always been pretty uncreative about Halloween costumes anyway).

The lack of interest may also be because exams have just began at university, and the dining hall downstairs (ie the library during non-meal times) has become packed with silent, frowning kids I’ve never seen in my life. It’s rather difficult for me, and the other international students, to take this exam period as seriously as we should, but I admit to having joined the ranks of the studiers in my recent down time. First-year students here take exams way more seriously than I ever did, but the way that the university system is designed is completely different: for example, first-year students have to apply for med school at the end of this year, and then they start taking general med classes next year. It’s like taking the MCAT when you’re eighteen years old, which is really interesting.

Anyway, while I’ve been avoiding studying altogether, I’ve managed to find and succeed at one of the cooler activities in Auckland: a really fantastic live escape-situation room called Escape Masters, located on the 11th floor of an unassuming office building in the middle of downtown. Back a few weeks ago when I was participating in Live Below the Line, my friend and I entered this challenge called Battle Below the Line (at the risk of being too obvious, it was sponsored by Live Below the Line). It was a fun event that involved us making idiots of ourselves racing each other around the park, carrying water jugs, frantically mixing water with flour, dragging the subsequent dough to a bunch of cinder blocks, and building a makeshift fireplace. We didn’t win the race, but while we were eyeing the prizes we noticed one of them was a free ticket to Escape Masters. (By the way, the people running the event were so nice they gave us a consolation prize, a free bungy jumping coupon. We then sold the ticket, bought a ton of McDonalds in search of the winning Monopoly ticket, then gave all the food to people on the streets. And didn’t win a Jeep).

So we were determined to become Escape Masters anyway. We roped up a team of five vaguely cooperative, smart kids and signed up for the Hackers Escape Room. The idea is the team gets locked inside a room and a wall timer counts down from 50 minutes; if the team doesn’t put together the clues and discover the combination to escape the room, a computer virus takes over the world. We had to find at least five keys hidden in books, stuffed animals, taped to desks and inside computers. We had to convert binary code to numerals to unlock a padlock. We had to put together a series of cards that we found and discover the password to the hackers’ central computer. We had to figure out how to use a blacklight to uncover a secret message. At the end, we managed to escape the room with eight seconds to spare and it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.

In addition to saving the world from computer viruses, I also spent a few days at the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s on the east coast of New Zealand, about a three hours’ mountainous drive. The peninsula itself is about ninety kilometers long, but our destination was very specific: Cathedral Cove, a 10-km marine reserve that includes an attraction called Stingray Beach, another called Gemstone Beach, and the winner: Hot Water Beach. Hot Water Beach, one of the token tourist spots, was packed the day we arrived. A huge beach that stretched as far as the eye could see, surrounded by mountains and sparkling emerald sea, and yet nearly every single person present was clustered in perhaps a 50 ft radius. Shovels littered the sand, some floating in long, shallow pools of steaming water that made up that 50 ft radius. In some places, the sand was literally boiling. Despite the wind chill, the water bubbling up from the underground hot springs was more than enough to keep us lying there for over four hours.

The other tourist must-see was Cathedral Cove itself. It’s casually one of the beaches that was used in the filming of The Chronicles of Narnia, which has arguably some of the most beautiful scenery in film. For the knowledgable, the scene was the one in which the Pevensie children step into Narnia after the train ride and discover the ruins of Cair Paravel. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I have seen here, with huge, jutting white rocks in the shallow waves, and a waterfall lightly spattering the white sand from the nearby cliffs. It’s hard to do justice in anything but photos, so here are a few that I legitimately took myself.

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I’ve explored almost everywhere in the North Island that I could have hoped to see. Three more exams to go, and then I’m flying to the South Island for the rest of my time here. Super excited for the things planned for the next month, and can’t wait to see everybody back home 🙂



no school no problem

With the realization that university ends its lectures in a mere two weeks, and that I am going back to America in a mere two months, I decided to prioritize my time here in a manner not exactly conducive to my GPA but much more beneficial to overall happiness. I decided to take a few (quite a few) days off lectures, rent a tiny, sputtering little car, and journey south. So last week, somewhere around a Wednesday, my friend and I threw our schoolbooks into the abyss and headed out. Armed with a jar of peanut butter, a one dollar loaf of bread, and a bottle of cheap wine, we figured that we could wing pretty much anything New Zealand threw at us.

It was a beautiful spring day when we headed out, and I recaptured that truly singular feeling of rolling down the car windows and feeling the wind snatch away the songs from my throat. I had originally just hoped our borrowed GPS would be the buffer keeping us from panicking over driving on the wrong side of the road while having no clue where we were going; however, driving proved to be much more natural than I’d thought, and that worry soon faded away as Auckland fell into the distance. By the end of the week, I’d only turned the wrong way down a street once — though I did walk around to the wrong side of the car looking for the steering wheel about forty times. Baby steps.

Our vaguely planned destination was Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, at the very bottom of the North Island. Along the way we filled the hours with the continuous struggle of trying not to be too obviously American, while still searching out, finding, and freaking out over the touristy (but still most beautiful) things that proved to everyone we are all too American.

We found the most beautiful gardens in the world. The winner of the 2014 International Garden of the Year Award, the Hamilton Gardens claims to be more of a museum than a botanical garden. Hedged-off paths lead to separate gardens for different cultures, with a bamboo forest in the Chinese heritage garden, a monk’s temple and a sand garden representing “movement without movement and water without water” for the Japanese, regal white walls encircling a square of beautiful bright flowers to represent an upper class Indian backyard, and a mini swimming pool with a Marilyn Monroe decor for America. We laughed at the absurdity of the American representation, but spent over an hour in the Japanese temple watching the impossible clarity of the water and the reflection of the bonsai trees. There were also sections for more practical gardens — we saw herbs, medicinal plants used by the Maori; we saw a piece called the “sustainable backyard” which I’m definitely going to copy when I have my own house. It boasted an idea I’d not heard of: the practice of hugelkulter, burying rotting wood under a garden to eliminate the need for pesticides and irrigation.

We found a beach that sits atop a geothermal hot spring. When the tide floods out at night, and the stars are the only light for miles, the sand near the water’s edge becomes incredibly hot just a foot or so underneath the surface. A few minutes of digging and you have the smell of sulfur in the air and a pool of burning water and sand beneath your feet. It’s literally like installing a hot tub in the sand, one that continuously refills as you dig deeper. We sat in our hot tub in the freezing nighttime air and contemplated how the constellations are completely different from ones in the Northern Hemisphere, a phenomenon that doesn’t bother me as constellations never made much sense to me anyway.

We found a seal colony. At the very southern tip of the North Island, where the fur-capped mountains of the South Island are in clear view, we climbed up jutting cliffs and watched a fur seal colony resting on the nearby rocks. Possibly the coolest animal I have seen thus far, much bigger than I would have guessed, and far more indifferent to humans than I would have hoped. These are the male seals who have been unable to establish themselves as the breeding male in the South Island colonies and thus spend the off-season hanging out at Red Rocks, the bottom tip of the North Island. They did flips in the shallow water, waddled their way up to the sun-baking rocks, and casually waved their flippers and tails at the kids squealing whenever they moved.

We found glowworms! There are some along mossy paths in the forests of Auckland, but it’s a completely different experience when you’re deep underground in a lightless cave and your guide tells you to switch off your headlamp, and the ceiling becomes alive with glowing green specks. It’s like looking into an alternate sky in a different universe. We lay in inner tubes and slowly floated ourselves through the still, dark water in the cave, avoiding the stalactites that hung from the ceiling — some of them multiple feet long — and unable to differentiate the cave ceiling from the blackness of a sky a million miles away. These were the Waitomo caves, one of the best experiences I have had here, despite my friends forcing me to watch “The Descent” a few days prior to scare me into thinking I’d get eaten alive underground.

We found an amazing vegetarian cafe in the heart of Wellington; we found a floor of the National Museum (Te Papa Tongarewa) where visitors drew self portraits and wrote their own interpretations of the artwork on the walls. We found an American friend studying at a different university, where we explored and crashed for a night. We found a bee-keeping shop, watched the bees scurrying along the honeycombs, and marveled at how such short-lived creatures have managed to learn how to survive and thrive. We picked up a hitchhiker for an hour or so, who told us the greatness of his days working on a farm where you don’t need to interact with city life for any reason. We listened to all types of music, Dave Matthews being the favorite we could always agree on. We ate McDonald’s probably twice a day, searching for the elusive Monopoly squares (we’re actually really close to winning a laptop. Lost cause?). We killed the car’s battery outside a grocery store. We saw a few ostriches hanging out in a field, surrounded by sheep. We drove winding roads through valleys and mountains that screamed Lord of the Rings.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful places. To try to justify this statement, here are a few pictures, though I’m not sure my camera phone does them justice…

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^there are two seals in this picture, points if you can spot them.

Shout out and HUGE thank yous to everyone who has donated to Engineers Without Borders for my Live Below the Line week!! It is incredibly appreciated, you guys are fantastic.


Everyone has watched an environmental issues documentary at some point in his life. The problems are so numerous these days that it’s rather hard to escape having seen at least one — An Inconvenient Truth, for example, Al Gore’s reigning attempt to open the eyes of the world to climate change. These kinds of movies are things that hit you hard, make you reexamine your own life and practices, send you on triumphant campaigns for change and truth and sustainability…for about a week.

I can’t count how many films I have seen or interviews I have heard that made me feel this way, but have since faded into the background of things that I only vaguely understand. This is, of course, entirely my fault; the small nuisances of daily living should not be enough to overpower a message that should potentially lead me to alter my life. It’s just that there’s so much, there’s so much happening in the world today and in environmental change, that require detailed attention and time and the issues are so large that I, consumed with schoolwork and athletics, have not delved deeply enough into them to make myself a true advocate, and there’s always more to learn.

Last week I attended the showing of one of these said environmental issues documentaries. It was a film called “Bag It” by an American citizen following his journey to expose the dangers of single-use plastics. The film follows the protagonist as he walks down city streets; at one point he’s walking through New York City and he recounts a common joke: that the state bird of New York should be a plastic bag caught in a tree (<–I think this is brilliant). The numbers he raises to support his distaste of plastic bags and other single-use disposables are insane: an estimated 102 BILLION plastic bags used in the United States in one year, and the oil needed to produce these bags? 12 million barrels. I can’t even conceive of these numbers. He fills a common plastic water bottle about a quarter-full with oil; that’s how much is needed to produce just that one bottle. He also attacks the fact that many plastics, even though they claim to be recyclable, are actually less than 1% recyclable.

It was a very well-constructed film and I recommend it. It’s something that every person can easily change. China has already banned ultra-thin plastic bags and saved an estimated 40 billion in the first year. Ireland has a tax on the use of bags which has been said to reduce consumption by 90%. Some US cities have already banned these bags as well. Seattle. San Fran. Aspen. Cheers to these guys, moving there shortly. But now I live in Auckland, so what should I do about it here?

In the spirit of the thing, I, armed with burning amounts of unclaimed time and passion, signed up to volunteer for Wastewatchers on UoA campus. I had previously noticed the group operating during mealtimes in the quad before, but had forgotten to look further into it; now, I realize what an incredibly simple and simply incredible idea it is. The team sets up a table by the campus fast food restaurants during lunchtime, stacked with dinner plates, cups, and silverware. We bravely and daringly intercept lunch-goers as they enter the quad, brandishing our ceramics like weapons. Some people get alarmed and run away, but those that accept the plates hand them to the fast food workers, who give them a 50 cent discount on the meal instead of a plastic container. The customers then happily return the plates and silverware to the Wastewatchers table, where they are washed and handed off to the next unsuspecting victim. It’s actually fairly disheartening how many people refuse the offer and get the plastic containers instead, but it’s a pretty new idea here and hopefully will become more widely used. There’s also no regular composting on campus, a missing element the Wastewatchers are working on. Very glad to now be a part of this group!

In my frenzy of signing up for everything I also added my name to Live Below the Line and Project Green Challenge (shoutout to Amanda for pgc). Live Below the Line starts next week and lasts for five days; the idea is that you can only spend the amount of money per day that a person living below the poverty line would have. In New Zealand, that’s $2.25, the equivalent of about $1.75 in the US. I’m also supposed to be raising money for my charity of choice (Engineers without Borders!), which is kind of the point I guess, so if anyone reading this would like to donate to this cause, I and many various people around the world would be very grateful. Please check out the page!

Project Green Challenge should be really cool as well. It’s a 30-day effort during October to get high school and college students to complete one green task every day, whether it be collecting all your garbage in a trash bag and then analyzing it, or replacing your chemical-filled shampoos with organic counterparts. It’s set up as a competition with pretty hefty prizes to be won, which is a good setup for this age group. Link for that one as well, why not.

Today I’m going to practice, for the first time, driving on the wrong side of the road. All my instincts will be completely shot after this. Will hopefully be back to update on how this goes! 🙂

Also, to prove that I have not forgotten that I’m actually from America, here is a photo of myself and a few friends dressed as Captain America for a country Olympics type day that we threw together on Saturday. MURICA.


past halfway?

Updates from home flood my inbox and newsfeed as my friends settle into new apartments, frat houses, and the typically Cornellian hardcore swing of classes. A week or so in and they already send me snapchats in the middle of the night, covered in caffeine and problem sets and the occasional Collegetown night out. (by the way, Rulloffs? What? No.)

Meanwhile, I am lying on my friend’s floor, surrounded by ice cream boxes and the products of a waffle maker, watching a truly ridiculous movie called Wild Target and wincing as my movements shift my mosquito-bitten and sunburnt skin, thanks to two weeks spent in the Australian beach. I am just returned from midsemester break (dubbed “spring break” back home) and just completed my amazingly sparse round of midsemester exams. It is amazing and rather alarming that UoA has a mere four weeks left of papers before the study period, and I find myself simultaneously marveling and panicking over where the time has gone. My internal clock is still set on American time, and when I see the date as mid-September, I automatically think that I have at least until mid-December until I am released from university. Not so here; my final exam is in the first or second week of November. At this rate I will simply forget and sleep through it.

Even as I long to extend my stay here, when I look back on the first half of the semester, I don’t know that I would have changed a thing. I have fallen in love over and over again with the people, nature, atmosphere, and culture of this country. Even though my midsemester break in Australia was beautiful and amazing, I still would not choose to move there if it meant leaving New Zealand. And that is saying something, because Australia was a true experience as well. In many ways it is similar to New Zealand: the people are openhearted and easygoing, the alcohol is expensive, the scenery is breathtaking. But there were the kangaroos, of course, and the beaches — the whitest beaches in the world, nearly 98% silica, so fine that the sand felt like sugar to the touch, and never grew hot. Our guide warned us that the most likely place we’d be sunburnt on the beaches of the Whitsundays was under our chins, as the sand would reflect the sunlight. There was snorkeling along the edges of the Great Barrier Reef, with huge sea turtles meandering underneath with no care in the world and rainbow fish dazzling amongst the coral. There was Sydney, and the delight of seeing its famed Opera House in real life, touching the tiles and seeing the truly amazing architectural patterns of wood panels that create the perfect acoustics. There was Bondi Beach, a famous area in Sydney, where an open swimming pool sits jutting amongst ocean rocks and the waves crash up into the pool, and surfers ride the waves around it. There was the Australian rainforest, where we rappelled down waterfalls and jumped from 14 meter cliffs into pure mountain water pools, where our guide would ask curious questions about America and laugh because all he’s heard about it are jokes about the deep South. And there were the mountains that I hiked on the last day by myself, listening to the conversation of the birds and toiling down (not up) the 900 stairs that made up the Giant Staircase in the Blue Mountains, so that I could ride a mini-train on a railroad built into a cliff that rose on a nearly 180° incline to give hikers the best and scariest views.

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The Whitehaven beach at the Whitsunday islands! The craft in the water is our ocean raft. We took a hike up a nearby cliff and came upon this view, one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen.


Sydney Opera House from across the harbour bridge! We managed to catch the view and resulting rainbow right after a small rain 🙂

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And the oceanside pool at Icebergs Bar; one of my favorite pictures here.


The most amazing part of the midsemester break, however, came when I stepped off the plane at midnight back in Auckland. There was such a sense of homecoming and simple joy that I felt upon returning to the city (I think of it as my city, now, after being in Sydney and other cities) that I know for sure I don’t think of this as a vacation anymore. I’m rooted here now, still a tourist perhaps, but with as much claim to this place as anyone else who can love and appreciate all that it has to offer. I remember this feeling after weekends away from Cornell on tennis trips, sitting up in the van and unable to stop smiling as the campus comes into view. I’m ridiculously lucky to be able to consider such a previously foreign place – a new continent! – as an actual home, and feel as though I mean it.

Missing everyone back home with all of the Cornell updates going on, especially the Empire State Building lit up for the 150th. Big Red pride all the way from down under. But can’t wait to spend another two months doing whatever it is New Zealand will throw my way. 🙂


One of the biggest differences here, as far as being at a university, is the lack of university sports pride. There are no tailgates for football or (in Cornell’s case) ice-hockey games. Students barely seem to know that varsity sports at Auckland exist (I’m still not sure if they do). There just isn’t that atmosphere, because there are so few other universities in New Zealand and they don’t have that crazy, bloodthirsty competition that American schools embrace.

I miss it. I’m not the most competitive person but school pride is fun and sporting events are ridiculously fun. So to compensate, I took it to the next level. I went to a rugby match that represented not the University of Auckland, but all of New Zealand. I went to an All-Blacks game.

New Zealanders, I’ve gathered, are generally calm, easygoing, noncompetitive people. But sitting in that wide open stadium, lit up for a mile around, with vendors throwing beers and hot dogs around and drunken fans yelling obscenities at the ref and the other team, I felt as though I were right back at home. It was every bit as wild as an American football game, and rugby is ten times more exciting. There are no breaks and no time stoppages; if someone falls down, the game rages on until someone else remembers to kick the ball out and go check on them. Plays do not “end” unless there’s a blatant foul; instead, they tackle each other, struggle on the ground until someone can manage to kick the ball away from the piled up bodies, and then scramble up and do it over again. Fireworks and flames shoot into the air when the teams take the field, and of course, the All-Blacks performed the infamous haka challenge dance. When the crowd began enthusiastically doing the wave, my kiwi friend pulled me down because apparently it’s a tradition to also throw your empty bottles and cans into the air as the wave reaches you.

It was also a big deal because the game was against Australia in the finals of the Rugby Championship for the Bledisloe Cup, and the All-Blacks ended up dominating 51-22, which is an extremely high score in rugby. The atmosphere was irresistible, and my American friends and I found ourselves cheering without any idea of what was going on. This was on my list of definite to-dos for this country and I am extremely glad to have been here while such a big game was happening.

Mid-semester break starts in exactly one day, and Cornell’s semester started exactly one day ago. I’m just going to sit here and think about that for a second. Also, I am going to Australia for two weeks so won’t get up a post until I return 🙂


new music

Today I went to a music festival.

It was entirely free, outdoors on a beautiful day, and my friends and I had front row seats. It was also located in the middle of a forest in a scientific reserve. And the bands were made up of birds.

When most people think about walking deep into old-age forests, they think of utter silence. They think of the stillness of the forest, the tranquility of nature itself, of peace and quiet and suspension of movement and even eeriness for perhaps being the only soul making noise for miles around.

A famous New Zealand environmentalist once compared this type of forest to a “cathedral where the congregation has left and the choir is leaving.” This quote is too apt for me to pass by; it perfectly captures the awe and loss of a deep jungle that is missing one of its key natural elements: the birds. New Zealand forests were once filled with hundreds of species because birds thrived here with very few natural predators; when humans arrived, they would have arrived to what must have sounded like trumpeting heralds fit for a king. Over time, bird species have dwindled and dropped off. Many are now endangered, and those that survived do so away from the mainland, on islands such as the one that I visited today.

The island of Tiritiri, located an hour’s ferry ride from Auckland, is a scientific reserve. It was razed for a hundred years, filled with bracken, until a few motivated scientists (one was my professor) decided to push for restoration. Thirty years later, the island is a thriving forest, with strategically planted species providing home for reintroduced bird and insect species that are well guarded from the mainland’s dangers. There are insects called giant weta, which are grasshopper-looking creatures larger than my hand. There are penguins (penguins?), little blue things that waddle around at night and nestle away in manmade rock nests during the day, where they sit on eggs protected from prying eyes. And the birds – birds with no name or description in the US. Some sounded like sirens, some remarkably like instruments; some like dinosaurs, others like whistles. At some points I could close my eyes and feel as though a hundred birds are mere inches from my ears, their calls somehow complementing each other in a beautiful concert.

New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi, also lives on this island. It’s endangered, and little wonder: it can’t fly, has no chest plate, and is remarkably loud. If I return to this island, I promised myself to come back with a sound recording. I could probably sell it.

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If the sign is too small, it says: little penguin sitting on eggs, and goes on to explain that the rock formation is actually a covered nest for a mother penguin. I saw at least five of these tucked away on the island, but this one was right next to the path and was apparently being disturbed by nosy visitors.



Sometimes I forget that modern civilization on New Zealand has only been around for a few hundred years. I forget that this country has not had the time to establish itself, make its own mistakes, and start working to fix itself, that other first-world places like the US and European countries have. It’s really because of this very simple fact that New Zealand very recently had the reputation of being the greenest country in the world, because despite its breathtaking nature and hippie-minded inhabitants, New Zealand seems to be actually increasing its ecological footprint.

Tonight I sat down with the staff of a small, dedicated company called LiteFoot. All young people, fresh graduates mostly, wearing jeans to work and drinking beer in a circle; they are sportspeople, and the aim of their company is to integrate sustainability with the management of sports clubs. They travel to fancy country clubs, ancient bowling alleys, huge rugby gyms, anywhere with sweat and tears, and turn environmental friendliness into a competitive challenge. With the true drive of athletes, they motivate their clients with environmental challenges and goals, and then scurry around the gym installing energy-efficient lightbulbs and protective insulations while the gym-goers battle each other over who can recycle the most water bottles.

They’re smart people, and it’s a brilliant angle to play. It’s something I would love to push into US sports management. I remember at Cornell, watching the plastic bottles pile up on the sidelines of the tennis court, and hearing my coach confide in me that the recycling bins in the tennis center actually end up at the landfill anyway. I always meant to write the school about that, but maybe I can also bring back some of LiteFoot’s ideas for making them want to.

Anyway, somewhere around the third round of beers, the staff asked me why I’d come to New Zealand.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, wondering how to possibly make myself sound intelligent here. “And the extreme sports..and its reputation for being so green.”

One woman shook her head. “Ah, but now that you’re here, you’ve seen through that, ae?”

Seen through it? I looked at her in the most unintelligent way possible. Then I realized that I actually did know what she was saying. New Zealand’s water pollution has been steadily increasing for decades due to the boom of dairy farming. The wetlands in the country have all but vanished, leaving a mere 10% under federal protection. Endangered species are threatened by pests such as rampant possums and rats. It’s mostly the water systems that have concerned most environmentalists, though; with so much land being converted to dairy farming, an overabundance of nutrient runoff has started to clog and produce algae blooms in many major waterways and reservoirs. Nearly every region has found their major water source decreasing in quality and availability.

Of course, New Zealand is still one of the greenest in the world, if not quite as pure as its reputation may project. I’m being pessimistic because I wanted it to be a fairytale land, but that was dumb and honestly, it’s really not that bad, and even more honestly, you would never be able to tell anyway because of how amazingly beautiful it still is. There is also no reason that NZ can’t stop and reverse the pollution direction before it actually becomes a noticeable issue. I have great faith in this place and these people (slightly unrelated, but Auckland was recently voted as tied with Melbourne as the friendlist city in the world. If these people can make a city seem friendly, they can save a few rivers).

This weekend I came into direct contact with one of the water sources in question. Flanked by the UoA tramping club, I ventured into the Waitakere Ranges, a regional parkland an hour south of Auckland. It was a beautiful hike, with huge and tropical trees, the colors ranging from every shade of green to bursting spots of purple and orange. Various hidden birds squawked as we hiked deep into the park, passing waterfalls, crumbling overhead cliffs, and finally, Auckland’s reservoir. We hung over the dam’s incredible drop and marveled at the expanse of the still water. It did not look to be in great danger; in fact, nothing I’ve seen in this country would have ever hinted at environmental decay, which is probably why it is not very widely known. That night the tramping club cuddled in an incredible 70-year-old wooden cabin, sharing bowls of pasta and beers, huddling around the fire, watching the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, and playing ridiculous games such as table traverse (I will have to bring that one home) and I thought that as long as people are still able to spend nights like these without causing damage, then things are going to be okay.

10449170_10203785791919377_2236579801879640155_n<– a waterfall we passed on the hike 🙂


It’s two weeks until the university’s mid-semester break. It is amazing to me that Cornell has not even begun its semester. Shout out to upcoming o-week, hope it is absolutely crazy and that someone drinks a Level B fishbowl for me.


first outdoor climb!

I am wearing four sweatshirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, and a wool hat pulled low. I am also wearing a harness, a helmet, and am clipped to a rope that is currently keeping me aloft on a cliff face that reaches 20 meters high. My fingers are clinging desperately to pockmarks in the ignimbrite face, while borrowed rock climbing shoes scrabble for holes that I cannot see.

My belayer, a friend, calls up that she’ll catch me if I fall. Seeing as this is both of our first experiences with outdoor rock climbing, I am not overly convinced. However, she’s right, and I am right as well, in thinking that I should and could do it, because the excitement and joy in using nothing but my own body to pull myself up a vertical cliff, amidst such beautiful scenery with a dozen friends cheering me on, is so much greater than any minor pain in my body or naive fear of failure.

I have always loved rock climbing, but am a total amateur. Fortunately, AURAC (auckland university rock and alpine club) picked a destination last weekend that was both beginner and expert friendly. Despite the freezing temperatures at the campsites, it was the best weekend of my time here. The area was absolutely beautiful. It was a jagged group of volcanic rocks situated amidst rolling green hills and farmland. There were cows and goats bleating at us from the next hill over as we climbed. The entire place looked like the Shire, except for the ragged group of adventurers throwing up ropes and hooks and generally not acting as though the threat of the One Ring was upon them.


I was able to climb the easier runs without too much difficulty, struggled on the harder ones but was prouder than I was tired when I made them, and then when I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, I could sit and eat peanut butter off a spoon and watch the truly amazing climbers traverse overhang rock with bare feet.

Some of these guys in the club climb more than they study. Probably more than they walk (maybe not). The guy in charge of the trip ran around helping the beginners, sharing his equipment, and scrambling up every run there was if someone needed a rope tied at the top. He also used to live out of a van and is one of the nicest, most easygoing people I’ve met here. The other longtime climbers were similar: open, friendly, easygoing, eager to help. My friend and I had no tent, and were immediately offered spaces in a stranger’s. I traded a beer for a sleeping mat, which probably saved my life. It was an amazing group of people, their personalities shaped to the thrills of chasing the best climbs in the world, and I listened to their stories with a kind of quiet awe.

Without being in AURAC, I never would have had this opportunity. The crag is open for the public but there are no guides – you have to be able to set up the top ropes yourself. This means climbing up the cliff solo, with the belayer holding you at each hook you clip yourself into as you climb up. Maybe by the end of the semester, I will be able to. Then when my parents come visit I’ll make them go up (mom you reading this?). She’ll thank me after she’s done it.

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freeeee time

I realized something today, something that should have been obvious from the start. I’ve realized why this semester will be so radically different for me. Not just being in another continent. Not just beginning to accept New Zealand accents as the norm. But in college life in general, something has changed.

If you’re reading my blog you probably know that I was on the varsity tennis team at Cornell for my first three years. As much as I loved it and respected the athlete’s lifestyle and dedication, it took up all my time. It took up weekends and three or so hours every weekday. It drained my physical strength, dictated my sleeping and eating schedule, and prevented me from joining other time-intensive activities on campus. Looking back, I don’t regret it at all; I love the sport, miss my teammates, and recognize the privilege and pride in being an athletic representative for my school.

But this is the first semester I’ve been at a university without that responsibility. And the freedom is, honestly, exhilarating. If I want to get lost in the city streets for two hours in the middle of the day, if I want to hop on the next ferry that leaves Auckland with no idea of when the return ferry is, if I and my friends plan an event ten minutes ahead of time, I can do it. As much as I loved the joy in training and competing for Cornell, I love this spontaneity even more (at least for now), and I know that I’ve picked the right country to exercise it. Auckland just provides for it — for activity, for movement, for choices. Wednesday evening, I spent hours with a good friend listening to a talk by a Hindi yogi. We learned about the event from a monk we’d met on the street, a few days before. The day after, a huge group randomly decided to have a giant potluck dinner, which consisted of everything from Fruit Loops to homemade nachos to sliced apples and sugar, and then go downtown to sneak into a local bar crawl. The day after, I was reunited with a friend from home who was traveling through New Zealand, and we ended up at Denny’s around 2 am. The day after, a friend and I were wandering around the harbour with next to no money and managed to catch free rides to a nearby island, where we had nothing to do but had an amazing time anyway. And this morning, I spent nearly five hours planting trees by a river, covered in mud and watching the rain and eating vegetarian sausages on breaks.

It’s these kinds of days, these days of freedom in movement, of a sort of unrestricted mentality for going, and going, and not worrying, that make me fall in love with this country even more. It’s the feeling of being set loose in a place with endless hidden possibilities, like holding a treasure map in your hand, but the treasures are covered up and you have to find your way to them yourself. It makes me feel as though no one truly appreciates their own place. The locals around here don’t understand my enthusiasm for their city; instead, they ask why I left America. It makes me wonder about the things I surely take for granted in Ithaca, like the used bookstore where the staff wear pirate hats, or the breakfast burritos at the farmer’s market every weekend, or the feeling of watching the sunset over West Campus from the top of Libe Slope.

Every place, really, can be beautiful. I guess I am glad to truly realize it here, where I can take advantage of this part of the world I may never see again (no jinx though..I’m definitely coming back).

On an unrelated but kinda philosophically related note, I heard a new song today and one of the lyrics has stayed with me all day…

“Dumpsters or mansions or boxes or barns,

everybody lives underneath the stars.”

^this is a real photo my friend took at a beach a few hours from Auckland.. no light pollution 🙂