Monthly Archives: September 2009

possum and kea and avalanches…oh, my!

We’ve all seen the countless cards, magnets, plaques, and who knows what other decorative knick-knacks inscribed with the quote: “The journey is more important than the destination.” It’s a common proverb I always try to live up to, especially during times like my fourth year of university when all I really wanted to do was graduate. But never before have I appreciated its meaning than on my trip to Milford Sound last week. When I booked the trip with my American flatmate Jordan, I expected the Sound itself to be the highlight of the two-day journey and for the five-hour bus ride to be spent primarily with the iPod in and seat tilted back. But I should’ve known better when I decided to go with a company named Real Journeys, mainly because they were offering a 45% locals’ discount in September and October – for a journey it was, the bus ride not just a means to Milford Sound, but a chance to see and experience a great portion of Fiordland National Park.

On a grey Monday morning Jordan and I boarded the bus, finding our seats in the back like any cool kid would do. Departing Queenstown at 9am, we set out tracing Lake Wakatipu in a southerly direction, which, with a length of 80 kilometers, can apparently boast of being New Zealand’s longest lake. Our driver/tour guide Skip shared that the Titanic’s last port-of-call was also in Queenstown, only this one in Ireland. The particular relevance of this “factoid” I never quite got, but I soon began to see that 50-something Skip was one of those guides who should never, ever be allowed within fifty feet of a microphone or any other amplification system. Given such an outlet, there’s no telling the number of random, highly pointless pieces of trivia we will be subjected to listening to…and no doubt find ourselves remembering the next day.

We disembarked about twenty minutes later, Skip wanting to give us a chance for our first of about thirty photo-ops along the way. While everyone else snapped away, I had a chance to examine the age dynamics of our group:

45% white-haired retirees

45% Asians

5% random Canadian boys with mysteriously British-sounding accents

4% aspiring American photojournalists (us, duh.)

1% Chatty-Cathy tour guide

As eclectic as the mix appeared to be, Jordan and I couldn’t have been happier. Exhausted from the hectic pace of Queenstown, over the nightlife and the constant need to go out, we’d been looking forward to getting out of town for the night ever since we booked the trip. As the quad-dorm cruise was full when we went to make our reservation, we were left with no choice but to upgrade to the double-bed boat – but as it turned out, it soon seemed that we’d managed to miss out on the usual bawdy backpacker crowd – something neither of us were complaining about. A quiet night with septuagenarians as our cruisemates? Heck yes.

We passed through a series of small towns, most notably Garston – the most inland town in all of New Zealand, situated 128 kilometers from the nearest ocean – before stopping at the Five Rivers Café for a morning tea break. Just like with the perfumeria and limestone “factory” we visited on our tour in Egypt, I got the impression that the majority (if not, all) of the café’s business was generated from the multitude of tour buses traveling through this otherwise untrafficked region.

 Before arriving in Te Anau for a lunch break, Skip pulled off by Lake Manapouri – “Lake of the Sorrowing Heart,” as this lake and its 34 islands is known. This was no ordinary lake, though, as we soon came to learn. Instead it was the center of a heated controversy, the site of New Zealand’s greatest environmental battle. In the 1950s plans were made to raise the water levels of both Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau – the second largest lake in the country – for official and political purposes of hydro-electric generation (please don’t ask what that means). This would have raised the level of Manapouri by up to thirty meters in some places, causing it to merge with Lake Te Anau. Guess that would explain the sorrowing heart, eh? But as so often happens, the people would have none of it. They protested, over 10% of the population of New Zealand signing the Save Manapouri petition in 1972. In the end, the lakes were saved, a body of guardians was created to manage the lake levels, and a boulder was set at the edge of Lake Manapouri to mark where the water would have been raised had the proposed level been approved. A bronze plaque on the rock commemorates the struggle to “save the lake,” quoting Thoreau:

In wilderness is the preservation of the world.

I can think of no better quote to describe New Zealand’s commitment to the environment and the value it places on it as a country. “Clean, green New Zealand” is more than a motto – it’s  a way of life in this reusable-bag-toting, anti-nuclear-warfare country. The fight for Manapouri thus comes as an expected response from people who already have such a concern and respect for the environment they inhabit.

Following the emotional and national significance of Manapouri, I found Te Anau and its permanent population of 2,500 to be rather blasé and a little too reminiscent of Invercargill – flat, small, and generally unremarkable. Although situated so close to Doubtful Sound, I soon thanked myself that I hadn’t made a trip from Queenstown with the sole intention of seeing Te Anau, as I had considered doing at one point. The chief purpose the town serves – it’s “redeeming quality,” you could say – is that it’s the base for many Fiordland expeditions, for the Milford Track itself – possibly the most well-known Great Walk of New Zealand – departs from Te Anau Downs.

Fiordland. The first region to catch my eye when I looked at a map of New Zealand in my London flat with the crazy intention of moving here. I knew only of Milford Sound, the reputed mecca of scenic must-sees. So to finally arrive in Fiordland National Park was quite the moment. “Go into Fiordland with a sense of humor,” Skip shares over the microphone. “Fiordland is relentless, lonely, and rough,” a place of mystery with species yet to be discovered. The Department of Conservation’s Visitors’ Center for the park is on the outskirts of Te Anau and Jordan and I pay a visit on our lunch break, scarfing down mince and steak pies as we speedwalk from town. A number of brochures I pick up in the center shed light on this mystical land of fjords and fog.

In December of 1990, the region of South-West New Zealand was designated as a World Heritage site. Fiordland, Mt. Aspiring, Westland, and Mt. Cook National Parks, areas comprising over six and a half million acres of land, were brought together under the Maori name of Te Wahipounamu, “the place of the greenstone.” The Southern Alps are just one feature of this diverse landscape, situated along the fault line of the Pacific and Indo-Australian crustal plates. As the DOC’s pamphlet describes:

South-West New Zealand is one of the great temperate wildernesses of the world. It is an area of snowcapped mountains, glaciers, forests, tussock grasslands, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and over 1000 km of wild coastline.”

This haven of natural wonders might explain the need for an entirely separate publication titled “Fiordland Tramping.” Tramping is quite the Kiwi thing to do – and I’m not talking about life as a hobo or donning scandalous attire and frequenting ill-lit back alleys at inappropriate hours. No, it’s donning quick-drying polypropylene and polar fleeces, slinging on your day pack chock full of biscuits and muesli bars, and going on a walk – perhaps one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. From Lake Waikaremoana on the North Island to the Abel Tasman on the South, the Walks are the crème de la crème of the tramping world, offering better quality huts than those found on other routes. Three of them alone are found in Fiordland National Park, not to mention seven other tramping tracks and two marked routes. It’s quite the official business as well, with all the huts along the routes requiring reservations for overnight accommodations. Many of the Great Walks even require the tramper to book a space prior to departure in order to prevent over-crowding along the track. Although it’s not something I can really picture myself doing while here, the culture of tramping is something I can appreciate about New Zealand.

The stretch between Te Anau and Milford Sound is known as Milford Road, a two-hour route that can see up to seventy coaches pas through it in a nine-hour period. It’s also known as BMW Strait, Skip says, guiding our bus along its many tree-lined curves that are often featured in auto commercials. I think of the many shots of attractive men hyped up on testosterone, shifting gears in their foreign-made cars, and totally get what he’s saying. Clips of the area have apparently even been used by Japanese real estate companies, although I feel for the hopes of buyers that can only be dashed when they realize their new property isn’t located in the lush rainforest they thought it was. Construction on the road itself began in the 1930s, with WPA-like government-run work schemes behind it, but the Homer Tunnel wasn’t completed until 1954 due to delays from World War II.

We make a five-minute toilet break in a spot called – for whatever reason – Knobs Flat. Like any good rest area, the building is informative as well as useful. A small exhibit outside the toilet not only sheds further light on the region as a World Heritage site, but also includes a few display boards on local wildlife. I’m fine learning about birds and such until I see a life-size replica of a possum on the other side of the room. This wouldn’t have been nearly as upsetting under normal circumstances, but it just so happened I had a particularly traumatic encounter the night before with Terry the Possum, who lives – if not on our roof – then in quite serious proximity to it. Not a day passes that Terry doesn’t make himself known to us, terrorizing the baby birds on our roof, screeching, scampering about, and generally sounding like he’s about to bust through our ceiling at any moment. Needless to say, we are not a fan of Terry.

So imagine my lovely surprise to get home one normal Sunday night, open my bedroom door, and see two little eyes peering up at me from the opposite corner of my room. There’s also a cat that can often be found lurking about our flat, so my initial thought went to that. It wasn’t until I flipped the light switch that I realized Terry had somehow found his way into my room through my open windows. Terry the Terror…in my room. You can imagine my scream at this point, of that I’m sure. And in his seedy little hands (paws?) was a jar of peanut butter I’d mistakenly – gravely mistakenly – left unopened in my room. Unbelievable. “Get out!” I screamed at him, no doubt waking my flatmates. When he didn’t move or set my peanut butter down where he found it, I tried kicking him out my window, but it must’ve been knocked shut when he got in. A second kick and he was out my front door and I was left to recover, shaking only mildly.

So it was with much satisfaction that I listened to Skip as he described the Australian bushy-tailed possum as a “total nuisance.” Released in New Zealand in the 1870s to get the fur trade going, there are currently 70 million possums infesting the country (that’s 17.5 possums to one person! – an unacceptable statistic). Not only did they used to carry TB, they now eat foliage, not kosher with the Kiwis who value the native ecology above all. Their worst crime of all, though? Their Australian heritage, from which they came – something not directly their own fault, but for which they are all the more loathed. To the Kiwis, the only good possum is a dead one – a “squashum,” as Skip put it. He said New Zealanders go especially out of their way when driving at night to hit a possum. Good on ‘em!

Not long after Knobs Flat we entered the Hollyford Valley. “This can throw anything at us,” Skip says, which is of course incredibly reassuring to hear as we begin driving through a well-known avalanche zone. Floods, earthquakes, avalanches – apparently there’s no end to the spectrum of natural disasters we may or may not be run into. But the element of danger only augmented the mystery of the region, with the misty fog settled low and ethereal-like around the mountains. Through the fog you could see the scar marks on the steep hills from tree avalanches, where trees have such shallow roots that they cling together and scrape the face of the mountain in the event of an earthquake. We drove through seventeen kilometers of a “No Stopping” avalanche zone, a rule Skip disregards as he pulls off the side of the road to view a kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Having seen several of the cheeky little birds in Christchurch, I was more interested in photographing the landscape, with massive piles of snow heaped against the sides of mountains, but the kea turned out to be quite the showstopper for the rest of the group.

The rest of the journey to Milford Sound was rather uneventful, but on the return trip, just as we came out on the other side of Homer Tunnel, I had the opportunity to see my first avalanche. As the snow accumulates all winter long on top of the mountains, it grows heavier and heavier until it starts to melt in the spring, posing quite the hazard to those wishing to pass through the road. As our bus rounded the first curve out of the tunnel, there was suddenly blizzard-like conditions, snow swirling dizzyingly all around – my first snow of the season! But before I had a chance to get excited, Skip pointed out an avalanche to our left, which resembled white porridge being poured quickly out of a bowl. “Well, folks, I’ve never seen one quite like this,” Skip says, slowing down to see if we’d be able to make it past. Man, does he have a way of making us feel safe or what?

Any fear was unfounded, though, as we soon made it through the danger zone and were well on our way back to Queenstown. As our return trip traced the same route we’d only just taken the day before, Skip graciously put away his microphone (still not sure how he managed to part with it!), the endless stream of factoids finally coming to an end, and we were able to get some sleep. Although I’d signed up only to see Milford Sound, I got much more than I expected out of the journey. Lake Marian, Mount Tutoko, the Chasm – our bus ride showed me places I didn’t expect to discover only because I didn’t know they existed…

…But I suppose that’s the proper role of a journey after all.

 

 

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halfway marks and summer hopes.

And so six months have come and gone. I realized the other day that at this point during my time in London, I was packing up and moving out, anxious about leaving England behind but excited for the long-awaited reunion with family and friends. So to be here in New Zealand with half a year behind me, it’s weird to think that I’ve still got another half to go; that even as things wind down here in Queenstown and I make plans for my trip to Thailand, I’ll be coming back – there’s still ground to cover, still miles to clock in before my time here is done.

But as I round the six-month mark, I thought I might have my own sort of “mid-year year performance review” in order to evaluate/reflect on/insert-corporate-phrase-of-your-choice/think about life in the Land of the Long White Cloud thus far. One thing’s for sure, it hasn’t been what I expected. Which, of course, is a tricky statement to make considering I came here not even knowing what to expect in the first place. I was asked several times, both by Americans before I left and Kiwis once I arrived, “So what are your expectations for New Zealand?” It was a disconcerting question, one that caught me off guard. Expectations? Not only did I not have them, but I began to wonder why not. Did I need to have them in order to come? Were they a prerequisite for going? As my friend Ryan picked me up from the Auckland airport and drove me to his house, I contemplated the question. “I don’t know,” I tried to answer, “See New Zealand? Visit Fiordland?” I couldn’t have sounded anymore vague.

I suppose the one expectation I did have related to what my year here would look like. I expected to be in Christchurch for the entire length of my time in New Zealand, doing similar work to what I did in London. I applied to at least five administrative assistant positions with the University of Canterbury, hoping for some sort of one-year, fixed-term contract with a “proper” income. And, in a way, I think I thought I would find a close-knit group of friends like I had in London, friends who would keep me put in one place rather than traversing the country like my Kiwis kept me from seeing the rest of England. So there were some expectations, however subconscious or unspoken, but none that even began to compare with the ones in place when I left for London.

What I’ve found is that New Zealand is a country that shapes your time here, defining and molding your expectations for you. I am amazed at the number of times my plans have changed thus far, at the number of times I’ve made up my mind only to go back on my word the next week. I’ve found making a decision is sometimes as pointless as making your bed right before you go to sleep. What’s the use, eh? But why so indecisive? Why so unable to make a plan and stick to it? Simply because this country has so incredibly much to offer. The diversity of landscapes and natural environments is astounding, especially when you consider the size of New Zealand. A look at a world map, just to compare it with its neighbor, Australia, or my home country, is almost laughable. The Kiwis are dwarfed in the shadow of a brute force like Russia, the global perception of New Zealand being one of a tiny country hanging onto the edge of the earth, but spend any time here and you’ll soon see it is anything but small.

In fact, as I have come to see, you will undoubtedly be hard-pressed to cover it all, even though the numbers aren’t terribly intimidating. A quick Google Maps search shows that from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Slope Point at the bottom of the South Island is 1,396 kilometers, about 870 miles, which is roughly the distance from Bangor, Maine, to the Virginia-North Carolina border – barely half the East Coast. But what those measurements don’t take into account are things like Cook Strait taking four hours to cross on the Interisland Ferry or the roads twisting and turning like a bad perm, never seeming to go directly from point A to point B. Or, most especially, just how much there is to see – beaches, islands, volcanoes, glaciers, rainforests, alpine mountains…there is no end to the smorgasbord of scenery and sights to feast your senses on.

So it’s funny now to look back on my first days here and remember the disappointment I  initially felt, at the lack of culture shock I expected to experience. But the longer I’m here, the more I see it’s a culture shock of ideas, assumptions, traditions, and paradigms. It’s a culture shock that takes time to feel, not an instant encounter with the foreign or an immediate barrage of sights and sounds never met. When you step off the airplane, there is no indeterminate cacophony of a foreign native tongue – you can read the signs, you can converse in ease with strangers. When  you go to the mall, there is no struggle to identify mystery meats in the food court – you can eat at Subway and Wendy’s, you can buy clothes from Kmart in styles you’re used to. When you turn on the TV, there’s no channel-surfing to find something you know – you can watch Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, you can cry as Ty Pennington changes yet another family’s life on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. There aren’t a lot of “can’t”s you’re forced to cope with, as is normally the case with traveling and living abroad. There aren’t too many times when you say in frustration, “Man, I can’t wait to go home so I can ______.”

Which, to be honest, is an incredibly weird sensation. When you make the decision to live abroad, you make it with the idea that you will be giving a lot up – you make it ready to sacrifice your favorite things from home, which of course makes a return to those things that much sweeter. Hence my disappointment this day six months ago, driving up to an Auckland mall, face to face with the Westernization – and furthermore, Americanization – of New Zealand. Was it too much to ask for to be able to turn on the TV and not be able to watch Dr. Phil?!

But as the months have passed, I’ve stopped viewing it as what I haven’t had to give up, but what I’ve had to gain. For one, the natural settings are spectacular. There’s not a day I walk out my front door and don’t catch my breath at the sight of the Southern Alps literally in my backyard. And then the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made, especially here in cosmopolitan Queenstown, are worth every mile traveled to get here. English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Canadian, Indian, Australian, South American – people I would’ve never crossed paths with had I stayed home. And even the history of New Zealand is one worth getting to know, especially interesting when I compare its colonization process with that of the States. So what if I can still keep up with the current season of American Idol, albeit a week behind? What I can’t do back home is travel two hours to hike a glacier, as I’m about to do in October – and that, as I’ve now learned, is what New Zealand is all about.

So as I will soon be over the metaphorical Hump Day of my year here, the question that remains is, of course – where next? What to from here? With the new opportunities to get back into music at the bar, I had seriously considered staying in Queenstown for the summer. It certainly wouldn’t have been a bad setup – I decided if I did stay, I’d work only at the bar, making a blessed exit from the supermarket, giving me time to wakeboard, skydive, work on music…and my tan! But every time I waver between staying and going, I think back again to the fact that I only have a year here and want to make the most of it. So…Wellington for the summer it is! And I can’t even say how excited I am – looking up flats in the capital city the other day, a picture popped up on my computer screen of a street scene and I literally felt a pang in my heart. I love the city life and the thought of returning to it – no matter how modest a “big city” Wellington may be – makes me so happy. It occurred to me the other day – Queenstown  doesn’t have a single stoplight. Just a couple of roundabouts and crosswalks to ameliorate pedestrian/driver relations. How insane is that? Not that I’ve ever felt like I was really living in an American Midwest sort of small town while in Queenstown, but there’s no saying I might not jump for joy at the first stoplight I see in Wellington.

It’s not just the desire to see more, though, that fueled my decision to move to Wellington. It’s this, this book, my writing, that I find is always pushing me forward, always making me go. Staying just isn’t an option when I’m wanting to continually uncover new material, new stories, and new experiences. A move to the North Island will be exactly that – I only wonder how I’ll see it all in four months. Everyone I’ve talked with has said how different the North Island is from the South, and I want to be able to speak with authority, from my own encounters, on that difference. And moreover, most everyone says the South Island is better than the North – even North Islanders I’ve met have said the same. I want to be able to gather my own points of reference and draw my own conclusions. Isn’t that what I came to do, after all?

Summer up north will ultimately bring a sense of symmetry and completion to my year in New Zealand – four months in Christchurch, four in Queenstown, four in Wellington. The perfect triad of living experiences. And even more than a return to a city, I am hoping for a return to normalcy, at least a schedule not so blaringly nocturnal. Christchurch was settled, quiet, a city of families and suburbs and 9-to-5 jobs. Queenstown has been mental, a holiday town of thrills and adventure, of staying out all night and sleeping all day, learning to embrace its transient nature. Thus I anticipate Wellington to be a fitting end, quite the denouement to the arc of my year – from settled to manic to…balanced? A city a bit more “New Zealand” than Queenstown, with more to do than just go out, with museums and the Royal Ballet of New Zealand and cricket stadiums. I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?

But above all, I am grateful for the purpose this book/project/writing has brought to my time here. When I left for London, I titled my blog, “A Blindfold and a Prayer,” after a line in a song I’d recently written. Much like Robert Louis Stevenson said he “travel[s] not to go anywhere but to go,” I went to London not knowing particularly why – just that I had to go. New Zealand has been a whole different story. During my time at home in February, I first learned about the MA in Travel Writing available from Kingston University in London, a program I’m currently applying for in the hopes of attending next September. The discovery of that option suddenly gave my haphazard decision to move to New Zealand a heck of a lot of direction. I would be no blindfolded backpacker, aimless in my travels. As my blog title now reads, I am a “wide-eyed wanderluster,” driven by my desire to become a professional travel writer. With eyes wide open, I have soaked up this country over the past six months and can’t wait for the next half to unfold.

All I have to say is, bring it on

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fear meets faith.

If there’s one thing my post at the checkout lane of Premier Taste has shown me, it’s that Queenstown hasn’t earned the name of Adventure Capital of the World for nothing. The number of people who come through my till every day sporting fleeces and jackets emblazoned with the logos of the various companies is astounding. First there’s the jet boats – the Shotover, the Dart River, the Kawarau Jet; the paragliding, skydiving, and God knows what other ways to propel yourself from the sky; then the gondola and luge company; safaris and paintballing; kayaks and white water rafting; the various ski areas, of course, and then, a New Zealand classic, the bungy jumping. Each time they’d come to check out, it only showed me how much I’ve yet to do here, how many crazy opportunities there are to push yourself to so many physical limits.

So when a guy I work with at the supermarket, my Scottish friend Mark, mentioned a couple weeks ago that he was doing the Nevis Highwire Bungy in a few days, I knew I had to do it. Mark and I are in similar situations, in that we’ve both lived in Queenstown for a little while now, but the fact that we’re leaving in a matter of weeks has made us realize, we’ve got things to do. So I hastily rearranged work schedules and freed up my morning to allow for the four hours the entire bungy experience takes. While Mark had originally set out to do the Nevis with two of his friends, I managed to recruit two more – a German girl and guy who had both recently started working at Premier Taste as well.

Forking over the three hundred dollars for the jump (and the photo/DVD combo pack, of course) wasn’t something I spent a lot of time thinking over. It was just something I knew I couldn’t pass up. Skydiving, paragliding, white water rafting – all activities I’ve contemplated doing while in Queenstown, but all things I can do elsewhere. The bungy though? Queenstown is the bungy. To do a bungy jump in New Zealand is sort of the equivalent of eating a pizza in Italy or having a Starbucks espresso in Seattle. It’ where it all began.

The company I’d be jumping with, A J Hackett Bungy, built the world’s first commercial bungy operation in 1988 – the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, 43 meters above the Kawarau River in Queenstown. The company’s namesake, A J Hackett, is a Kiwi entrepreneur cited on Wikipedia as the very Father of Bungy Jumping. From his first jump off of Auckland’s Greenhithe Bridge in 1986, Hackett went on to establish commercial bungy sites around the world as well as earn himself several Guinness records, including the world’s first bungy off a building and jumping out of a helicopter in Malaysia with a bungy stretch of over a kilometer. Has this man lost his mind or what? The 134 meter drop of the Nevis Highwire Bungy – my form of torture – makes it the highest bungy in New Zealand and second highest in the Southern Hemisphere, second only to the Bloukrans River Bridge jump in South Africa. Here goes nothing, right?

And so the day arrived. It had been a fitful night’s sleep, and understandably so. In the days preceding J-Day, Jump Day as I’d come to call it, I didn’t dwell too much on the fact that I was about to go throw myself off a bungy pod suspended by cables over a gorge and freefall for 134 meters. But my sleep the night before clearly showed my subconscious was at least scared out of its mind – I had dream after dream of being up in the pod, of other jumpers going to the edge, screaming as they looked down, running back, the attendants holding their shoulders saying all-too-calmly, “Conquer your fears, you have to jump.” When I told Mark about the dreams when I arrived at the bungy center in town the next morning, he asked, “So did you jump?” And like those dreams where you’re falling but never hit the ground, I myself never stepped up to jump, so I didn’t even have that to go off for whether or not I would actually do it.

10.20 am. Boarding time. Coincidentally, Mark had pulled his back the day before and couldn’t even join us for the jump. “Who’s idea was this again?” asks Mark’s friend Dave. “Martin! And he’s not even coming,” we all groaned as we found our seats. There’s only one word for that forty-five minute ride: ominous. Like lambs being led to the slaughter, everyone glanced at each other, asking quietly, “So is this your first time?” As if desperate for reassurance that they would survive, desperate to know they weren’t alone. And you can tell the bungy company actually revels in it, that they love to play up our fears. As the bus passes the Kawarau Bridge jump, the driver almost delights in announcing, “Just to give you an idea, the Nevis is over three times the height of the bridge jump.” Awesome. And when I asked the woman making my booking about the safety record, she looked at me nonchalantly, “No one has died bungy jumping in New Zealand.” A response which of course skips over a myriad other options of not-so-hapy outcomes, but who’s getting specific? Included in the waiver I had to sign is the following statement:

“I accept that Bungy Jumping carries with it some degree of risk; both to the person, property and emotional trauma of friends and family spectating. Knowing of the risk I still wish to register and participate in Bungy Jumping and so expressly agree to assume the risk of personal injury, damage or trauma to friends and family while I participate in this activity.”

Emotional trauma? They really think of everything in this industry. The only thing that set me slightly at ease was finding out we would be jumping heaviest to lightest. A friend of mind who visited Queenstown a few weeks ago did the Bridge jump and said they had simply asked who wanted to jump first. I had been mulling over this for days, torn by my Type-A, overachieving side that wanted to be first as well, and my other freaked-out-on-the-verge-of-a-panic-attack side that really just wanted to see how it was done a few times before jumping myself. So I felt a little relieved as I harnessed up at the jump site, knowing the jump order was out of my control, but still feeling a little concerned for those heavier than me who had been told they were going first in order to “test the line.” If I was freaking out, what in the world must they be thinking?

We leave our purses and backpacks in lockers and walk out onto a wooden viewing platform. While we wait to board the gondola that’ll take us to our death, I mean, the bungy pod, we watch other jumpers take the leap. Most simply scream, their friends hoping for a swear word to slip out and incriminate them on the video, but one girl cries out, “Iiiii loooove Neeeew Zeeeeealand.” Hardly my sentiments at the moment. The time comes for our group to begin. It turns out Sam, Mark’s other friend, has the privilege of weighing the most and our leader asks if he’s come with anyone. The rest of us join him in the gondola, which conveniently holds five jumpers and one attendant. We clip carabiners onto a wire running across the ceiling – an action that doesn’t go unquestioned by myself as to why we might need to do so – and start moving. I’m delighted to find the floor of the gondola is serrated metal, so that I’m never quite unaware of just how high up we’re actually suspended.

11.30am. In the pod, finally. There’s still a group ahead of us, so we wait for them to finish their jumps, all the while growing quieter as a barrage of signs attempt to instruct us: “Remember you must do a big dive.” One sign shows the danger of jumping feet first, rather than diving straight out, which is of course the opposite of everything those “No diving in five feet or less” signs at the pool ever tried to engrain in our minds as a kid. About three turns away from your jump, an attendant sits you up on a counter and tightens straps around your calves, contraptions that have an eerie resemblance to the arm bands used by nurses to check your blood pressure. My German friend Georg looks at me and asks, “Why are you so white?”

One turn away, just as the victim in front of you jumps, you’re ushered behind “the line,” the line marked by the signs, “Only jumper and attendant past this point,” and told to sit in a seat that looks far too much like a dentist’s chair for my liking. [Have I mentioned by utter and complete hatred for dentists? So yeah, that didn’t help things.] Another attendant begins attaching a weight to your legs and clipping all sorts of carabiners and ropes to you, asking all sorts of comforting questions like, “So this is your first time bungy jumping? How are you feeling?” He explains about how I need to do a sit-up after my second bounce and pull a strap on my left foot. It’ll release something or another, letting me flip up as I’m pulled back into the cabin, rather than hang like a dead fish with my feet first. I’m determined that won’t happen to me, so I keep repeating everything after him.

I’m reminded of when I went white water rafting in the New River of West Virginia. Our raft guide told us that if we hit a particularly rough section of the river, he’d yell out, Get down,” and we should all dig our legs into the sides of the raft. We all know what happens in those moments of sheer panic and how easy it is to forget whatever it is you’re “supposed” to do – kind of how no one actually remembers to turn the steering wheel the opposite way when you start fishtailing on black ice, no matter how many times you’re told to do so in driver’s ed. So there I was in that raft, about to face class 5 rapids for the first time in my life, so I just wanted to be absolutely sure of what to do. “So when you say ‘get down,’ you mean…?” “No, I mean, I want you to start dancing,” says my smart-aleck guide.

12noon. It was much the same in that foreboding dentist’s chair in the pod. I asked something like, “So when you say pull to the left, you mean my left, not yours?” or some other panic-induced, ridiculously stupid question. After a quick, entirely-fake smile for the official camera, it was go-time. I waddled over like a pitiful duck to the wooden jumping platform. The attendant throws the weight over the ledge, causing me to lurch forward slightly, places a hand on my back, and starts counting.

“Three….two…”

It wasn’t even a matter of thinking about whether or not I was ready. There was no time for that, it was only, “Jump out, jump out, jump out.” As much as I tried not to look down, I had to watch my feet as they inched nearer and nearer to the edge of the platform. Photos give away my complete hesitance, my bent knees, arms that refuse to stretch completely out; the video captured the most pained expressions on my face.

“One…”

It wasn’t that the attendant had to push me off the ledge, but it wasn’t that I jumped entirely on my own either. It was with a gentle nudge that I pushed off with my feet, a scream escaping before I’d even fully left the platform, much like a child squirms and says, “Ouch,” before even receiving a much-feared shot. But in about the span of two seconds, the most amazing thing happened. Freefall. The feeling of being completely suspended above the earth literally took my breath away; the feeling of floating, of being weightless, of absolutely nothing. It has to be what astronauts feel for the first time in space. In two seconds, all my panic melted into peace, my fear into faith. Hours of dread and distress instantly giving way to eight and a half seconds of soaking in as much of it as I could; of resting in my trust that the rope would support me. What better metaphor for life, for this year and my decision to come to New Zealand.

After the first bounce, I was entirely at peace, arms extended over my head, taking in the scene below me. I couldn’t even speak, breathing hard not from exhaustion but exhilaration. Once I bounced twice I did a sit-up and pulled the strap, possibly the simplest of maneuvers, definitely not one I needed to stress over. From there it was twenty seconds or so as they reeled me in, back up to the cabin, like some little fish caught in the Pacific.

“That was incredible!” I shouted to the attendants as they pulled me back in and unhooked me from the rope. There’s a reason all of the photo packages and paraphernalia from the company have “I did it!” written on them, because it’s all you can think in the first moments after the jump. Because you were so close to letting your fears win out, to not doing it. So when you step away from the jumping area and take a few breaths, it’s such a high to think, “I did it. That was it? That was what I was so scared of?”

But it all went too terribly fast. After the jump, it was back in the gondola, into the bungy center to select our photos and print them, and then back on the bus en route to Queenstown, in time for a 2.30pm start at work. Talk about anticlimactic. We didn’t say much on the ride back, just shared photos and uttered various words like, “Amazing,” “brilliant,” and “life-changing.”

If there’s one thing that gives me the courage to keep jumping in life – whether literally or figuratively – this is it. I just hope the freefall’s longer next time around.

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chance of pace, change of place.

Since arriving in Queenstown, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I don’t get out much, and by “out,” I don’t just mean this town itself, but even my little world in Queenstown. From my flat to Premier Taste across the street, from the supermarket down Shotover Street, left on Camp, right onto the Queenstown Mall to Wattie’s, from Wattie’s to Bardeaux, then home. Wake up, repeat, with the intermittent visit to the pharmacy or Starbucks thrown in, when time allows. This sort of tunnel vision can be partly attributed to working seventy to eighty hours a week, and partly because of “limited resources,” i.e. no car and a refusal to pay six dollars for one local bus ride. It’s a matter of principles, people! And, of course, being unwilling to part with the money I’ve yet to go up the mountain (Q-Town talk for hit the slopes) or take part in your standard adventure activities – no skydiving, no paragliding, and most ashamedly of all, no bungy jumping!

But, that being said, it’s not like I haven’t done anything. Every so often, I’ve had the chance to venture outside my ever-predictable routine. One such occasion came about a month into my time in Queenstown. When I started work at Premier Taste, I didn’t entirely know whether or not to expect to make the best of friends there – at least, I was simply unsure of the “friend potential.” But as it turned out, there was an English girl my age named Britney I got to know well within a week of work. It just so happened Britney had recently bought a car and was keen for some exploring the various areas surrounding Queenstown. First up was Glenorchy, a little town we’d both vaguely heard was “cute.” One Saturday, my shift at Premier Taste had been cut, so we set out, traveling out along Lake Wakatipu, tracing the water’s edge for about fifty kilometers until we passed a roadside sign proclaiming: “Welcome to Glenorchy: Gateway to Paradise.” But welcome to what, exactly? Before we began to think the Paradise bit was just some sort of cruel joke by the Glenorchy City Council, we later found out Paradise is actually another town after Glenorchy – which, let me be clear, was not a paradise. We pass by an iSite information center and Britney and I start looking at each other, both of us too afraid to ask, “So what is so ‘cute’ about this?”

Because quite frankly,  there didn’t seem to be a heck of a lot going on in Glenorchy, a “small settlement nestled in spectacular scenery,” as Wikipedia describes it. As we drove down the main street, we counted all of three commercial establishments (okay fine, more like five or six – two restaurants, two cafes, a gift shop, and a petrol station) before parking in a gravel lot and walking towards the wharf, which should not be imagined as anything more than a small wooden dock extending into the lake. However there was a small building next to the dock that made for a few lovely photos with its wooden slats been painted a barn red and a white sign with “GLENORCHY” on it hung above the door. We then moved on to the three other streets in the town, where we stumbled across the Glenorchy Library, possibly the world’s smallest library, a seafoam-green, tin-roofed building open only from 3-5pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. Next door was the town’s museum with a sign on the door that read:

“Our small museum will be open on most Sundays through until Easter from 1pm to 3pm. If you would like to visit at other times, please phone Elaine or Ronda.”

If you’re noticing a pattern, namely the repetition of the word ‘small,’ trust me – it’s not a result of a limited vocabulary, but a deliberate attempt at making sure you don’t miss my point. That’s the thing about New Zealand though – this country is constantly redefining my perceptions of what ‘small’ is. After London, even Christchurch and it’s some 360,000 residents seemed like a huge adjustment. It’s been a constant process of downsizing ever since Christchurch, which now seems as big as New York City after places like Greymouth, Queenstown, and most especially Glenorchy. But no matter the size, one thing’s for certain about any New Zealand town – it will undoubtedly have a war memorial. And sure enough, right next to the public restrooms and across the street from the smallest post office you ever will see, was the Glenorchy War Memorial, built “in memory of those who gave their lives in the Empire’s cause, 1914-1920.” At least some things can be counted on these days.

We finished up our riveting excursion with lunch at the Glenorchy Hotel, the pub to ourselves and the burger and mocha the highlight of the day, hands down – certainly more exciting than our brief walk around the Glenorchy Lagoon, which would be more appropriately identified as a bog or marsh. The overcast skies didn’t help transform the grey water or brown, bushy landscape into anything more striking. But, let it be said, at least we went and can now speak with more authority the next time someone goes on about how “cute” Glenorchy is. For example, an older guy came down my checkout lane the other day and began telling me how crazy it gets in the Glenorchy pub on Friday nights, especially if there’s a live band on. As he walked off, all I could think was, “There’s no way. There’s literally no way.” Then again, it is New Zealand, where I’m slowly learning anything is possible.

The next day I headed off with a different crew down to Wanaka, a town of about 5,000 an hour from Queenstown. The main event of the night was a concert by a New Zealand-grown funk/reggae band called Kora. Heaps of hospo people from Queenstown were planning to flood into Wanaka to see the show and a couple of days earlier, a guy I met offered me an extra ticket, so I thought I’d tag along. The initial plan was to go down with him and his friends, but after I failed to wake up for the 8am departure time, I caught a later ride at a less painful hour with a  girl from Wattie’s, two guys from a restaurant in town, and two guys who lead a  pub crawl called Big Night Out. As we pulled out from the petrol station and got on the road, we agreed it was exactly what we all needed – a break, a night away from Queenstown, a chance to turn up the music, not say a word, and just drive.

We reached Wanaka in mid-afternoon, a stunning sun reflecting off the lake and the crisp air warm enough to lose our jackets for a while. Wanaka is undoubtedly a mini-Queenstown, literally half the size population-wise, also situated right on the edge of a lake surrounded by snow-capped Alps, with many of the same restaurants and bars and that same small-town-big-heart feeling to it. We settled down in a park by the lake with a few drinks and did nothing (except run over to a kebab shop for dinner) until the show. Everything was too nice about it to move – the weather, the lake, the friends – it doesn’t take much sometimes.

The show itself was epic, whether from being thrown onto a friend’s shoulders or seeing about half of Queenstown’s hospo crowd there, which of course begged the question of who was actually left at work for the night. Afterwards, I convinced one of the pub crawl leaders to buy me a mince pie from an all-night bakery before crashing on the bed in the campervan. I think I may have failed to mention earlier that while four of us drove to Wanaka in your average SUV, the two restaurant boys led the way in an amazing white campervan. The driver, a crazy Czech named Michal, wandered out of the Kora show at one point and met up with us after saying, “I’ve moved the van…It’s a surprise!” Which obviously thrilled us, as soon as we saw it wasn’t just outside the venue and had to spend twenty minutes running around town in search of it. But we came across it eventually and, even though I had a room booked a hostel, as soon as I saw that mattress my head hit the pillow. Apparently I was out as out can be, for the van was moved several times later during the night and I have no recollection of waking for any of it. I woke up in the morning and as I got out to use the public toilets across the street, one of the guys jokingly warned me, “Be careful, there’s normal people out there.” Stepping out of the van, I laughed to discover Michal had parked horizontally across two handicapped spaces. Classic.

When we went to move the cars later, the SUV wouldn’t start, and as all of us were too cheap to use our phone credit to call a mechanic, I ran into the information center – unshowered, of course, and with a beanie thrown over my hair – and begged a lovely woman named Gloria to use their phone. After a few moments of no one picking up the phone, Gloria sighed, “They’re probably on their lunch break. They do get one, you know.” “Of course,” I replied, “Everyone does.” “Not everyone,” she said. Ouch…hungry much? I finally reached a mechanic and got out of that iSite as fast as I could before upsetting Gloria anymore. The whole trip just had that Little Miss Sunshine magic to it, one of those weekends filled with random moments you won’t soon forget.

We tried several times to jump the car, but – per usual – it was the mechanic who got it on his first try. Thirty bucks for two minutes’ work – what a bargain! Despite the unexpected delay, we made it back to Queenstown in time for my shift at Wattie’s that night – and with that, it was back to the grind. So I was grateful for the chance a couple of weeks ago to pop out of town again with Britney to another little place called Arrowtown, a historic gold mining town about twenty minutes outside of Queenstown. Before milling about town, we went off to explore the Chinese mining settlement set up by the Department of Conservation to commemorate the 8,000 Chinese immigrants that came in the mid-1800s to work the goldfields of Otago-Southland and the West Coast. The settlement couldn’t have contained more than four or five actual buildings – Ah Lum’s general store, a few tin or straw-roofed huts, and the ruins of Ah Gum’s hut. Indeed, there were more official DOC placards explaining the history of the settlement than there were actual sites of interest. It had quite the air of desolution about it, each building set at a distance from another, and really made you sense the isolation the settlers were supposed to have felt.

From the settlement it was into the town center, which was thankfully much “cuter” than Glenorchy could ever hope to be. As it usually goes with particularly historic places, the local authority keeps a strict standard on the appearance of the town’s architecture, which definitely gives off that Wild West sort of vibe. But in the small details you can tell it was settled by Europeans and not rogue American cowboys – a red telephone booth next to the pharmacy, quaint village greens, even a red Edwardian posting box that appeared to be quite the tourist photo-op. But there’s not much else to Arrowtown than the historic avenue of Buckingham Street. Britney and I passed a group wandering about and overheard a girl ask, “So that’s it? Really?” It’s an oft-asked question, but if you don’t go, you won’t know, eh? Everyone who visits Arrowntown is told to have a pie at the Arrowtown Bakery, which we dutifully did even though I didn’t find anything especially remarkable about my mince and cheese pie. Lunch was followed by a quick look into the Lakes District Museum, where the only free exhibit was titled “Speaking of Chance” – a compilation of interviews with elderly residents of Arrowtown to provide an oral history of the town and region. A stroll down an avenue of trees protected by the district council – good to know someone’s looking out for them! – brought us back to the car and en route to Queenstown.

So whether traveling fifty kilometers to see there’s actually nothing to see, sleeping in an illegally-parked campervan, or retracing the steps of Chinese immigrants of an old mining town, it’s been good to have a little change of routine every now and then. It may not be much, but it is enough.

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springtime in september.

“It’s spring fever…And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you DO want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! It seems to you that mainly what you want is to get away, get away from the same old tedious things you’re so used to seeing and so tired of, and see something new.”

– Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer

There’s no better moment to write on the changing of seasons than this: sitting on the picnic table in my front yard, an absolutely brilliant – and warm! – sun shining, iPod in, journal out, a royal blue kite flying across the street, green shoots finding their way out of the hard winter soil, buds and blooms bursting to life. I’m not typically one of those people who take heaps of photographs of flowers, but even I couldn’t resist getting my camera out a few minutes ago to capture the sudden explosion of color around the house. I don’t even know the names of most of my floral friends – except for the massively gorgeous Camilla bush right outside my bedroom. There’s nothing more invigorating than waking up in the morning (okay, okay…afternoon) than to the beautiful rose-like pink Camilla blooms brushing against my window. Pink, purple, fuchsia, white, and – best of all – green; all shades and signs that maybe, just maybe, the worst is over, that the mild breezes blowing are only a taste of the long-awaited summer soon on its way.

The first sign of spring came last month when we started selling little bunches of daffodils in Premier Taste. To me, daffodils are spring – I couldn’t think of a better image to represent the season. As local customers would come down my checkout lane, a bunch of daffodils resting on the top of their full-to-the-brim carts, I’d hold the flowers and ask ever so hopefully, “So is this it? Is winter really over?” Of course there were weeks more of wintry wonderfulness to come, but something about those golden blooms is enough for me to make it through. They also happen to be the face of the Cancer Society of New Zealand, whose logo features a daffodil. The last Friday in August is known as Daffodil Day, when they hold their main fundraising drive for the year. Much like the tradition of selling poppies for ANZAC Day, volunteers stand outside stores and street corners with boxes of fake daffodils to pin to your lapel. [Being a major fan of the paper poppies, I of course promptly purchased a daffodil to sport next to my ever-attractive Premier Taste name badge.]

Daffodil Day then gave way to the First Day of Spring, which here happens to fall on the first of September. I’d expected the twenty-first, given that back home it’s the autumnal equinox and all that, but clearly the Kiwis can’t be bothered with the randomness of lunar occurrences. The first day of each season falls tidily on the first of each corresponding month – September for spring, December for summer, March for autumn, and June for summer. I went on an online investigation to suss out some sort of reasoning behind the differences in dates and was surprised to find that apparently, associating the start of seasons with each appropriate equinox is quite an American thing to do. Who knew? Wikipedia has this to say about it:

“Some cultures, such as those who devised the Celtic and East Asian calendars, call the Spring Equinox mid-spring, but others (especially in the USA and England), regard it as the ‘first day of spring.’ For most temperate regions, signs of spring appear long before the middle of March, but the folklore of March 21 being ‘first day of spring’ persists, and June 21 as the ‘first day of summer’ is common in the USA.”

And to turn to an even more authoritative source, a string of responses on a Yahoo!Answers query includes the following quote:

“The seasons are the same in Australia and New Zealand…No seasons start on the 21st, 22nd, or 23rd. That’s just in America.”

Can’t you just hear their tone of voice as user aussiechik723 typed that out?

Regardless of whatever date a season may or may not begin on, the fact that September means spring in New Zealand is just weird. For me, September has always been Labor Day, the start of a new school year, new lunch boxes and No. 2 pencils, and last-minute trips to the beach before October brings changing leaves and cooler evenings. Those are  just sort of the instantaneous connotations that are conjured in my mind when I think “September,” much the same as June means summer break, sun tans, and my birthday, or November and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving, and cold nights spent at football games or bonfires. As much as a holiday or annual event can represent a month, months in my mind are also inextricably linked to the weather typical of that time of year. So it’s been an adjustment to life on this side of the equator, where all the associations I’ve carried with me no longer apply to each month. When someone says they’re getting married or expecting a baby in January, I have to remind myself that that month is no longer thirty-one long days of grey coldness and post-Christmas boredom, but the glorious height of summer itself.

But my associations with the various months and seasons aren’t the only things that have undergone a little reevaluation since arriving in New Zealand. Just like in London, it’s such a struggle to no longer be able to measure temperature in Fahrenheit – when I hear thirty degrees, my first thought is freezing, but have to remember to switch to Celsius where thirty is actually rather hot. The same goes for distance and speed limits. One hundred kilometers an hour will probably always seem insanely fast to my miles-per-hour mind, until I remember 100km/h is just your average highway driving speed. And I will almost surely have to continue to convert any amount of money back into US dollars to decide whether or not it’s a fair price. I’ve managed to develop my own scale of NZ dollars for some things like rent and food, but for other things, especially flights, I still switch currencies. It’s like you can’t ever just hear something and go, “That’s hot (or cold),” or “That’s fast (or slow).” There are no instant decisions or automatic judgment calls. Even without a language barrier, there’s still that one extra step I have to take in order to understand certain measurements on my own terms.

But either way – whether the 1st or 21st of September – the start of spring in Queenstown is having a visible effect – and I don’t just mean the fact that supermarkets are selling fresh bunches of daffodils. With the new season comes the end of another, the end of winter and the snow season up on the slopes. Even though the slopes don’t officially close until the beginning of October, already the town is quieter, emptying out as the mountain starts melting. I’ve noticed a drastic drop at Premier Taste, where lines no longer stretch back to the frozen section, and at Wattie’s, where I’m making at least a hundred drinks less each night and some nights have apparently been even slower than in summer. Even my flat has shrunk in half – in the span of a couple weeks, five out of the ten of us have left – either for home or to continue traveling. And in one way, I’m starting to get anxious to be on the move again. I’m not used to being the one left behind and all this shifting about is making me restless, ready for the next leg of the journey.

Maybe that’s why they call it spring fever after all…

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new doors, old melodies.

I’ve always been a person of many passions. Music, writing, photography, travel – so many interests, so little time, eh? Interests I was never okay with relegating as just “hobbies” or Saturday morning projects – they’re all things I could see myself pursuing as a viable career. But with so many doors in front of you, how do you know which one to knock on? How do you know which one will open – if any? And hardest still, how do you make peace with a  closed door? How do you bring yourself to accept the fact that as much as you may love something, that’s not what you’re meant to do?

From the moment I performed my first original song in a coffeehouse during high school, I felt pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, I loved “school,” academia, being an English major, engaging in critical analyses and debating over themes and plot development. But on the other hand, what was I to do with my passion for music, my love for songwriting and putting together setlists and performing as a band? The first crucial moment of decision came during my third year of uni when I performed in a songwriting competition judged by – no pressure, now – the manager of the Dave Matthews Band. As nervous as I had been about how to approach him, he took care of it, coming up to me at intermission, asking to meet with me to discuss my music. Really? Seriously? “Well sure, Bruce, let me just check my calendar…” In his office – when I wasn’t distracted by the plethora of platinum records literally strewn across his walls – he told me to apply for an internship with a record label in New York City that summer and that if I didn’t get it on my own, he would – you gotta love this – “make it happen.” Um, okay?

But for some reason, I didn’t. That other part of me – that OCD, punctual, academic side of me – won out for the summer. I decided to go in a different direction, landing an English editorial internship with a textbook publishing company in Boston. I don’t know what made me do it, other than some subconscious need to know if whether or not the editing life was for me. It wasn’t, of course, but at least that door was closed.

The second major decision came on the brink of graduation from university. I think I went through all of fourth year with the desire to pursue music, in whatever capacity it may be, outweighing all other options. Even when I was a good little English major and looked into teaching positions, I kept narrowing in on the Nashville area with the hopes of moving there. And with one of my closest friends choosing to attend graduate school in Music City, it seemed like a realistic move to make. But when no teaching jobs opened up and all the office/admin jobs I looked into offered a mere one week of vacation a year, that’s when the panic set in. Sitting in a computer lab one day, fear of the “real world” in full swing, all I could think was, “How will I ever see Europe on one week a year?” Or in other words, I would never see Europe with that kind of holiday scheme.

So, Life Choice #2 – London. As much as I wanted to see where songwriting could take me in Nashville, the desire to see the world itself won out this time. As much as I would regret not pursuing songwriting, something in me made me believe I would regret not traveling even more. And so I went – and so music was laid to rest. Even with the occasional chance to play a friend’s guitar or the even more occasional twelve-pounds-an-hour visit to a piano practice room in London, the presence of music in my life decreased dramatically. I had all but stopped writing, hadn’t performed in months – the best word to describe music in my life was dormant.

But I was okay with that – I had made the decision after all. Between all the traveling and the Euro-sightseeing, I didn’t even have much time to miss music as much I thought I would. I closed that door myself, after all, and was content with the way life was.

Now – to make all this slightly more New Zealand-relevant – a couple of weeks ago, it was an especially good night at the bar. Packed crowds, fast pace, an awesome crew working, the DJ playing all my favorite songs – so of course I couldn’t help but dance around the bar, singing out every word of every song at the top of my lungs. My much-beloved bar manager Braden looked over at me and said, “You know who you remind me of? The girl from Coyote Ugly.” Which – having not seen the movie myself – is apparently about a bartender who sings. “You can sing, can’t you?” he asks, and me – caught up in the moment – let a “Heck yeah!” escape before catching myself with a “I mean, a little?” “We’re gonna have you up there next Sunday,” he says, pointing to the stage, referring to Acoustic Sundays where two incredibly talented local musicians play every week. “You’re gonna blow me away, I just know it,” he says as he walks away.

I tried my best to lower his expectations – Pearlie, the female vocalist who sings every week, has an absolutely insane range – and the last thing I wanted was him expecting the same from me. The whole affair was rather haphazard. As if the fact that I hadn’t performed for over a year and a half weren’t enough, there was also no possibility of performing on a piano – it’d have to be guitar, which having never played it in public, I was only slightly hesitant about. I managed to borrow a guitar off a friend and find a few hours to practice and prepare – two covers, “Realize” by Colbie Caillat and “The First Cut is the Deepest” by Sheryl Crow, as well as an original, “Yours for the Taking.” And – just to top it all off – I’ve had a weird cough/cold bug my entire time in Queenstown, the fact of which wasn’t doing wonders for my confidence, my throat not being in the best of conditions.

But when it came down to it, I just had to do it. I went into work and was surprisingly substantially less nervous than I normally am before a performance. I’d had a brief chance to run through the songs out back on Shay’s guitar, a gorgeous Takamine, and felt okay – not great, but not entirely fearful either. At about twelve, right before starting his second set, Shay runs up to the bar and says to me, “Grab yourself a shot and get up there!” I ran to the back, threw on a different shirt and some lip gloss and took my hair down. I walked on stage as all my colleagues cheered from the side, thinking only, “Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”

The bar was full, with at least a hundred people – the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of – not to mention all my friends I work with, even the general manager of the bar, lined up one side, with the entire front section of the audience made up entirely of guys. It was utterly exhilarating, by far my best experience in New Zealand as of yet. Shay had originally told me to cut one of the covers and keep it short and sweet. But after the first two songs went so well, he came back on stage and asked the crowd, “What do you say we hear one more?” I couldn’t believe how much they were yelling. “Alright, alright,” I said, “If you insist.”

It was the best feeling in the world – as cool as it was having twenty guys in the front singing along to “The First Cut is the Deepest,” even cooler was having one of them pick up on the words to my own song and sing along to the last chorus. A surreal moment, a moment where you know without a doubt that this is what you are meant to be doing. I came off stage and Braden gave me the biggest hug, “That was perfect. You had 6’3” muscle men crying. There wasn’t a guy in the bar not in tears. You looked so comfortable up there it was unreal.”

And the craziest thing about it all, the absolute magic of the night, was that my music wasn’t dormant anymore. I’d given it up to see the world, and than randomly, strangely, suddenly – I had music and travel at once. Nothing had been sacrificed after all, nothing except my perception that I couldn’t pursue both. Can you really have your cake and eat it, too? I felt like crying I was so happy. It had been like playing for my family, having all my friends looking on, smiling from the sides, and having such a supportive, engaged crowd – I couldn’t have asked for more.

But there is more to come, as it turns out. Braden is a schemer, a dreamer, a man with grand plans. Starting in two weeks’ time, he’s launching a new promotion, Acoustic Wednesdays, with the same four local musicians on stage each week – and he wants one of the slots to go to me. I’ll also keep playing a few songs each Sunday, as well as a potential spot in a charity festival/event Braden is planning for the summer. From thinking I’d laid music to rest to having it back in my life so out of the blue, it has been so unexpected but so, so good. I’d forgotten how much I missed it and how much I love performing my songs. It was like falling in love all over again.

Of course, this new turn of events brings me to evaluate my original plans for the rest of my time in New Zealand – as I’ve done how many other times so far? I left Christchurch for Queenstown expecting to be here for the season and then move on at some point in October. After I got connected here and made plans for a three-week trip to Thailand in November, I sketched out a further itinerary of about four weeks at the top of the South Island post-Thailand before returning to Queenstown for three weeks over Christmas and New Year’s until, finally….the North Island – most likely spending my last three months based out of the capital of Wellington.

Braden’s been asking me all along to stay for the summer, something I wasn’t too keen to do…up until now – now that the chance to get connected into the music scene of Queenstown has presented itself, I could see myself perfectly content with not moving on. I could see myself quitting Premier Taste – as much for the sake of my sanity as for the sake of my music – spending the days outdoors, wakeboarding on a friend’s jet boat, skydiving, getting a long-overdue tan, and spending nights at Wattie’s and performing. There could be a worse arrangement, that’s for sure.

And so I feel like I’m back in that same quandary as before in Christchurch. As the Clash sing, “Should I stay or should I go now?” It’s getting to be an all-too-familiar question in my life, one that maybe I’m just going to have to get used to dealing with. Life is all about decisions, about choices, about making peace with closed doors, summoning the courage to knock on new ones, and – if there’s several open – having the wisdom to know which one to walk through.

As for now, I’m letting the questions alone – it’s just good to have the melodies back.

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