Monthly Archives: May 2010

on maps and murals: thirty days around the north island.

A roadtrip invariably begins with expectations. Whether a caravan of campervans or a solo expedition, the decisions you make before setting out are what set you up for the journey ahead – who you’re with, where you’re going, just how you plan to get around. “To expect” comes from the Latin expectare – to await, to hope – and what is the road but hope? It’s what kept Kerouac moving and what led me to spend a month traveling the North Island of New Zealand.

To conduct a little “market research” for my own New Zealand project, I recently began reading A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand, written by Joe Bennett about his journey hitchhiking around the country. Although he departs from Christchurch with a vague idea of certain sights and regions he wants to see, he writes, “I’ll leave the rest to chance. It’s best that way when you’re hitching…I want my first lift, assuming I get one, to determine my initial direction. From here I could go north, south or west” (pp. 4, 8).

As I followed Bennett making his way first from Geraldine to Timaru and then further south to Dunedin, there was a certain edge, an excitement of sorts, to his laissez faire approach. With his thumb in the air, he let the journey come to him and left his hopes largely undefined. But as the end to my time in New Zealand grew closer, the clock ticking on each day I had left, I felt the pressure of a looming deadline, the need to take a more involved approach. It was time to intervene.

I had questions that needed answers. The majority of Kiwis I’d talked with lauded the superior beauty of the South Island, even those from the North. Surely, I asked myself, they’re overlooking something? And as to the hype around those places on the North Island that are frequently recommended – typically the Coromandel Peninsula and Bay of Islands – just what is the fuss all about? This was no time for waiting for a ride – I kept my thumb unfurled, instead pointing a finger firmly down on the maps of my New Zealand Travellers Road Atlas.

my never-failing passenger-seat companion.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Edgar Allan Poe declared, ‘All experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.’ Poe is consciously juxtaposing the word ‘calculate,’ which implies a cold counting up of the facts or measurements, with ‘the unforeseen,’ that which cannot be measured or counted, only anticipated. How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculating, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”

Despite discovering Solnit after returning to the States, I couldn’t have found a better mission statement to retroactively describe my month around the North Island. A week before my roadtrip departure, I sat at a desk on the sixteenth floor of the Wellington office of an international accounting firm, where a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the city’s sailboat-laden harbor and stunning hills. It was the first temp job I’d gotten all summer in an office environment and I took advantage of the opportunity to plan my forthcoming journey. Juggling my time between Google Maps and jotting down notes on the company’s official letterhead (and answering the occasional phone call when I felt so inclined…) I found myself embracing the very paradox Solnit extols: striking that balance between calculation and chance.

Because with my must-see-must-do list for the island rivaling a run-down of Obama’s campaign promises, I knew I needed some kind of skeletal outline to keep me on track. Bennett might have had the luxury to let others shape his time around New Zealand, but I was on a budget – when it came to both time and money. What kind of distance could I feasibly expect to cover every day? How many activities would I be able to afford? How far could 30 days and $3000 realistically get me? While Bennett relied on the kindness of strangers, I would rely on my own kilometric estimations and the future price of petrol.

scribbles and scratches = the start to any great roadtrip.

And so on the first day of March, incidentally the first day of autumn as well, I caught a bus to a rental car office outside of central Wellington, loaded up my backpack and a week’s worth of food, and pointed my white, economically efficient yet questionably reliable Mazda Familia north. Is there anything more exhilarating than the first moment you finally get on the road?

But I felt like I’d barely left the sprawling suburbs of Wellington behind, twisting my way along the harbor of Porirua and through the towns of Paekakariki and Paraparaumu where place names roll off your tongue, when I came to Waikanae. If it hadn’t been for a sign that read “New Zealand’s Top Small Town 2008,” I would’ve hardly been tempted to stop, but such a claim to fame literally invites you to test it. I didn’t want to pull over, having barely got into a roadtrip rhythm, but here’s where Solnit’s words come to life: you calculate to a point, you estimate distances and driving times until stumbling upon that small town that offers itself to you, asking to be discovered. There is no choice but to comply.

Certainly dental centers, real estate offices and the Woolworth’s along its main road did nothing to build Waikanae’s charm. But tucked away, east of the railway, lay the original town center, where the diminutive Kapiti Coast Museum encourages your visit (bearing in mind it falls between 2 and 4pm on Saturday or Sunday) and the art deco façade of Matenga Auto Services dates the building to 1923.

Nothing won me over, though, like the Eastside Foodmarket, where the side of such an unassuming dairy was covered with a mural of unexpected color and detail. Featuring twelve labels of original New Zealand products – Bell tea, Wattie’s canned vegetables, and even the Kiwi shoe polish that first lent its name to the country during WWI – the mural was a gentle reminder: this is why I’m driving.

I’ve come to find there’s a time to save and a time to spend. This roadtrip, I kept telling myself, was the latter. Every dollar I reluctantly let go of was simply an investment and Waikanae, in all its unexpected Kiwiana glory and touches of an Art Deco past, was just my first taste of the return.


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sunset in the suburbs.

my last sunset on ahe, french polynesia.

Pearl harvesting in French Polynesia was perhaps not the wisest way to spend my last month before returning to American soil for the first time in over a year. It was, however, a chance I was willing to take and you would think it set me up for a disastrous transition back to the land of Suburbia and SUVs. How does one go from life on a remote coral atoll to a slightly more connected existence of microwaves and morning rush hour?

As I sat in my family’s living room night after night, catching up on American Idol, Celebrity Apprentice and the myriad other not-exactly-reality TV shows currently on air, my parents would look over at me, half-expecting, I believe, for some eventual implosion – some emotional breakdown as a result of Being Home.

When friends and family and even new coworkers began to ask how home was, I found myself saying quite simply, it is…well, home. Home hasn’t changed. Like someone returning to the great green room of Goodnight Moon years after childhood, there is my bed, there is my desk [on permanent loan from my mother, of course], and there are the pictures of me at three years old in an outfit too embarrassing to describe. As I said to one friend, home is good because home has always been good.

Last week I started reading a fantastic book by Rebecca Solnit called A Field Guide to Getting Lost. When I first pulled it from the library shelf and skimmed the book jacket, I barely needed to read beyond its first sentence – “Solnit’s new book is about losing oneself in the pleasures of an experience, about wandering and being lost, about the uses of the unknown.” Thankfully, I made it through the first essay, in which she writes:

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so. A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant and those of children are entirely absent. As far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape, and so they roam with confidence. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

Solnit’s words hit home [pun somewhat intended…]. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe these next four months as house arrest – I don’t think momma’s home cooking, free living expenses, and unlimited use of the pool hardly qualify for that – what I do mean to suggest is the idea of containment. I’m not ashamed to admit to the sorrow of one chapter’s close, one bridge’s end. There was a certain thrill about living in New Zealand and traveling in Tahiti – living at the edge of the world made even the mundane a little magical.

What I miss most about “travelling,” and by that I mean making a home abroad, is that very edge that accompanies life. On the road, I clutch my bag a little tighter and keep my guard up a little higher, but at the same time I open my heart a little wider. On the road, awareness to my surroundings is at a high; at home, I don’t often employ the same observational techniques. When you’re alone in a new place, you keep your eye out for serendipitous moments. You’re anxious for that one conversation, that one connection, whose influence is yet to be felt. In a supermarket down the street, I’m not so inclined to share my life story with the checkout clerk.

But one night, about a week into being home, I was sitting at the kitchen table after dinner, having a cup of tea with my mother, when my eye was drawn out the window to the horizon. A shade of pink as vibrant and shocking as a flamingo in a marsh glowed over the two-story houses and the fairway of the golf course our yard backed up to. I skipped up the stairs, two steps at a time, to grab my camera from my room.

sunset in the suburbs of suffolk.

Out back, I craned my neck over the wrought-iron fence that divides our minute backyard from the course’s ninth hole, my eagerness to capture a shot as strong as ever. The initial pink danced over the clouds that rippled and rolled across the sky, the sun setting their edge on fire and casting dramatic undertones of violet. Towards the crown of the sky, a deep blue shone through.

“I can’t imagine that measuring up to Ahe,” my mother the counselor said when I showed her the pictures, ever concerned about my PTSD – Post-Tahitian Stress Disorder.

“Believe it or not,” I said, “But Tahiti’s couldn’t compete with this.” There weren’t often clouds in Ahe and my Suffolk sunset had reminded me of the texture and interest such formations can add to a scene. I couldn’t deny the beauty of my hometown skyline that fateful night, as much as I didn’t want to believe it possible.

Soon after, I thought of another night spent with two friends in Tallinn, Estonia. We’d just finished dinner at an Irish pub named after Saint Patrick and we emerged from the darkness of the bar to find the sun suddenly shining strong in its final hour – much cause for excitement after a damp and overcast day. We were mesmerized as the facades of the city’s Old Town were illuminated, its walls cast with a rich, golden sheen. Remembering the view from a vantage point a tour guide had taken us to earlier that day, we sprinted through the serpentine streets, racing to photograph the city new anew. We found it transformed.


...and after.

“We’re chasing the sun!” we screamed as we flew from the crumbling walls of the medieval city to the spires of the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. Any moment the sun would sink below the horizon, but until it did, we ran, embracing the colors, the shadows, and the life it brought to Tallinn. In a similar way, my sunset in Suffolk showed me two things.

chasing the sun in tallinn.

The first is that there can be beauty in the banal. Banality is one of those words with terrible connotations. It just sounds awful, doesn’t it? Wiktionary defines ‘banal’ as “common in a boring way, to the point of being predictable; containing nothing new or fresh.” Could we ask for a better definition of home? Yet it is this very normality and predictability that often makes home so wonderful – the fact that we can leave and roam and wander, only to return and find our roots so unchanged. But that doesn’t mean I should go about my day uninspired. It doesn’t mean I can’t find beauty even in the most commonplace of circumstances. That suburban sunset taught me to keep my eyes wide open, whether I’m diving in a tropical lagoon or in the five-feet pool in my backyard. Let beauty strike you where it may.

The second is slightly vaguer. As I began to trace the sun of my travels – recalling its rises and falls around the world – I started to think of what the sun can teach us. No matter how my surroundings have changed, the sun stays the same. It always shows up, whether I’m in Paris or Prague, Paeroa, New Zealand, or Portsmouth, Virginia. Indeed, the stunning orange of its glow seems to be rather oblivious to what exactly it’s setting ablaze. It pays no mind to the types of buildings comprising its horizons and gives no regard to town or country, foreign or familiar. It never holds a place against itself.

The sun doesn’t play favorites. And neither, it seems, should I.

paris, as seen from montmarte.

a wellington sunset, as seen from my beloved desk.


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macanese mystique.

While I get my act together and start processing my last month in New Zealand into blog posts, I thought you might enjoy this shorter piece I wrote earlier in the year for a travel writing contest.

I can’t help but look for them all over the city; strings of red Chinese lanterns above the Macanese streets. They hang in rows of graceful symmetry, so beautifully oblivious and suspended above the din below; above vendors handing out samples of beef jerky or almond cookies from wide, woven trays; above the black and white tiled streets of Senado Square, along which crowds wind their way to the ruins of St. Paul’s.

At night they glow, illuminated orbs as if lit by the candles that burn in hollowed pumpkins. The gold of their wire-ribbed edges shines in the light of neon signs and I know this why I am here. Despite being stopped by the airport police and asked for my passport; despite mix-ups of bus lines and routes across the city; despite the unease of being alone in a foreign city, I am here for a mystery.

The mystery of Macau, the mystique of an island only seven square miles, home to half a million, yet with a history not easily explained. Often remarked upon for its fusion of cultures, Macau is where east meets west – or so it’s said. Where the Portuguese had arrived in the 1550s and governed until 1999, when they returned the island to China much like the British with Hong Kong.

Macau now rules itself largely autonomously, termed a Special Administrative Region, or SAR. Brochures cite both Portuguese and Chinese as official languages and street signs are often written in both, but the fact that the island is currently 97% Chinese discourages me from believing so readily in the “path to convergence” the Macau Museum extols. Has there truly been an intersection of two cultures or just a parallel existence?

In search of this, I ascend the stairs leading to the ruins of St. Paul’s, its taupe stone façade all that remains from the Catholic cathedral that last burnt down in 1835. I visit A-Ma Temple, the oldest of its kind in the city, constructed in 1488. Like the red of the lanterns, yellow incense spirals draw my eye in and around their coils that burn slowly from the rafters of the Buddhist temple’s six pavilions.

I walk the Avenida da Praia, pausing in front of each villa belonging to the Taipa Houses Museum. The white-trimmed porticos and mint green walls of the houses stand as remnants of the island’s colonial days, where wealthy Portuguese officials resided in the 1920s.

From a bench along the avenue’s esplanade, I look out across a tree-lined, man-made lake towards high-rising casinos across the water. It’s a strange city, indeed, where signs painted with Chinese characters hang from buildings of Portuguese design. It’s a dichotomous place that isn’t just “one country, two systems,” as the Chinese government proclaims, but even one city, two worlds. A place where reds and yellows mix with pastoral pastels. A place, perhaps, where its true magic lies in the co-existence of such colours; in the possibility of such a limitless palette.


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found in translation.

I’d never regretted learning Spanish until Tahiti.

I arrived in March of this year, where I planned to spend three weeks working on a black pearl farm on a remote atoll named Ahe. But when I reached the island, its coral ring tucked away in the northeast corner of French Polynesia, I found only four others living on the farm, two Tahitians and two Frenchmen, all of whom spoke English at varying levels of proficiency – from barely present to conversational. Getting beyond that initial bon jour and double-kiss proved a frustrating stalemate. Suddenly I wished the last time I studied French hadn’t been first grade and that I’d spent less time rolling my r’s and more time sleuthing out the infamous French silent letters, or lettres muettes.

I quickly got to know Heimana, a 31-year old Frenchman whose English was the strongest and his desire to improve even stronger. While on Ahe, Heimana was solely responsible for my French education. There’s not much I love more than learning a new language, and Heimana willingly obliged. While standing stand-by-side on the boat every day, hauling in two-meter long wire baskets of oysters from the lagoon, he coached me on the most elementary of topics. Never had learning to count to ten seemed such a feat. I returned the favor when I could, which usually took the form of correcting pronunciation or reversing words in a phrase: “Can you wake up me tomorrow?” he asked one night.

But it wasn’t just a new language, it was a new culture – this hybridized, far-flung French outpost, where you breakfast on coffee and baguettes whilst swatting mosquitos and wiping sweat from your brow. At times, trying to communicate was maddening. Humor was largely nonexistent, and by that I mean of the verbal sort – you know, attempts at quick wit and verbal irony. Slapstick was usually the order of the day, learning to make a fool of yourself for the sake of a smile.

When two Americans arrived on the farm a week or so after I did, it didn’t take long for one to remark, “It’s pretty impossible to crack a joke with them, isn’t it?” Even Heimana once said to me, almost apologetically, “I could be so much funnier with you.” So many jokes were lost, falling between the cracks of the weathered boards of the farm.

And yet, on the whole, it was a rewarding challenge; communication, that is. I began to look at the dialogue between Heimana and me differently, in that understanding was even sweeter when its opposite was a much more common outcome. I learned not to take the simple matter of being understood for granted. A few days before I left, I told him that it was going to be the craziest thing to go home and be able to say something without having to repeat it, for someone to instantly “get” what I’m saying. He laughed and shook his head in sad agreement, “I know, I know.” Compatriots in miscommunication.

Because, let’s face it, language can be a nightmare. The phrase ‘lost in translation’ conjures scenarios of all types, of bombed punched lines, failed relationships, and missed train stops, and its inherent difficulties come to life in Sophia Coppola’s well-known film of the same name. As Wikipedia writes, ‘lost in translation’ often describes “cultural references that lose their significance during translation from one language to another.” On Ahe, I would sit for hours around the long wooden table in the farm’s kitchen/dining room/lounge, listening to Heimana and the farm’s manager, Lucien, talk over coffee and cigarettes. I felt wholly alone in my thoughts – don’t get me wrong, I was the picture of ignorant bliss, listening to the waves beneath us lap against the rhythms of their dialogue, but it was isolating, nonetheless.

But the longer I talked with Heimana and the more hours we spent around the farm with our soon-beloved French-English dictionary, I started to think that maybe – just maybe – not everything is lost. In fact, perhaps, there’s even something to be found in translation. The thought came to me one day as I sat at the table sketching a glass water jug and Heimana talked beside me about the classes at the art school he’d attended for a year in Paris. He had taken a drawing class on still lifes and told me the phrase in French translates literally as “dead nature.” I began to chew on the end of my pencil, a physical act of digesting what he’d just said. The two phrases reference the same thing, right? And yet the connotations of each are quite different; even the use of ‘life’ in one and ‘dead’ in the other seems to be a complement, a way of elucidating a new side of the story.

When I finally emerged from the technological sabbatical that was Ahe – it was refreshing to learn the World Wide Web isn’t quite as wide as it avows – I started reading more on the French language. I soon came across the term ‘calque,’ defined by Princeton as “an expression introduced into one language by translating it from another language.” Wikipedia takes this further, writing that a calque is a “loan translation,” a “word or phrase borrowed by another language by literal, word-to-word, or root-to-root translation.” Common examples of this are the English word ‘superman’ being a calque for the German ubermensch and the English ‘flea market’ having been translated directly from the French marché aux puces literally, ‘fleas’ market.’ So what about my ‘dead nature’ discovery? I’m not enough of a linguist (really, I’m not much of one at all!) to know if I’m using the word in the right context, but I still like the idea of ‘still life’ being a calque. I like it enough I might even borrow the idea of borrowing words just to make sure it applies.

I continued to collect calques on the farm. As I went to bed one night, Heimana said, “Fais de beaux rêves.

When – as always – I asked him what that meant, he’d said, “Make a beautiful dream.”

“You mean, like ‘have sweet dreams’?” I asked, anxious to confirm this stunning revelation. Turns out he did, and I delighted in the reversal of what such an ordinary phrase is capable of signifying. Have sweet dreams. Sounds surprisingly passive after the action-packed order of Make a beautiful dream. Even puts the pressure on us, doesn’t it? The outcome of our dreams is in now our hands, not subject to the whims of our subconscious – a lesson for how we live out our daylight hours as well as at night.

Another night, I had the chance to play guitar and sing several of my songs for the guys on the farm. Later, as Heimana and I sat on the floor of his bungalow and rested our heads against the back of his futon, he told me I’d impressed him with my playing. “Why don’t you try to do it as a career?” he asked. I sighed, feeling like I was coming back to this question for the hundredth time. I tried to explain the multiple passions residing in my heart and my current decision that music was worth sacrificing for the ability to travel. Heimana, himself a designer of exquisite jewellery featuring Tahitian black pearls, understood.

“You’ll be fine, just don’t burn the step,” he said.

“I’m sorry?” I asked, only slightly confused.

Ne brûles pas les étapes, don’t burn the step. It means, don’t hurry, be an opportunist, you know?” Oh, yes. I know. The advice to not rush life is common counsel, but never had I heard it put so poetically.

And so now I conjecture and hypothesize about the possibility that one language can actually fill in the holes of another. That two definitions can work together and, when married, provide a meaning greater than what either offers us individually. You could almost call it syllabic synergy, the idea that sometimes the space between a conversation can be more than a deep abyss of misunderstanding, where cobwebbed corners are filled with blank stares and the sound of pins dropping. We talk a lot about barriers when it comes to language, but sometimes you find a bridge instead and you go stumbling across a beautiful link to a new way of thinking.

Sometimes, you find truth in translation.

me and heimana.

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