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…