Monthly Archives: July 2010

zorbing: “the recreation of rolling.”

When you travel, motive is key. There are some things you do for the historical importance, remembering high school history classes and the words of your college professors. Sometimes it’s the cultural significance that draws you in, perhaps a UNESCO World Heritage distinction or some other stamp of approval beckoning your attention. The list goes on, your time divided between can’t-miss churches and must-see museums, and before you know it, you’re calling it a day. But every so often, there are some things you do quite simply for fun, for the sheer heck of it.

And for this reason I had one last stop to make before leaving Rotorua. I was going to Zorb.

I’ve mentioned before all that Rotorua is known for – the sulfuric hot springs, the manicured gardens and Maori culture – but left out one important attraction: zorbing. Invented by Andrew Akers and Dwane van der Sluis in Auckland in 1994, zorbing involves jumping inside a giant plastic ball Wikipedia defines it as “the recreation of rolling downhill in an orb, generally made of transparent plastic,” but I call it the best fifty bucks you’ll ever spend.

Of course, over the years Zorbing sites have been opened around the world – in locations as diverse as the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Guam, Thailand, Slovenia and Argentina – so it’s not as if the experience is unique to New Zealand. But having been invented by Kiwis and the with the first permanent Zorbing site opened in Rotorua, Zorbing in Rotorua hits the same notes of sacred pilgrimage as does bungee-jumping in Queenstown. It’s just something you do.

At check-in inside the office, there was all sorts of official protocol to be followed. A paper wristband attached, my picture taken and weight measured, and a safety waiver signed. As I stood on the changing deck, my arms crossed and feeling exposed in my bikini top and shorts, I watched as those before me tumbled down the hill. I counted the duration of their journey, thirty seconds from the opening of the chute to the bottom of the course, where a photographer waited to capture the moment you slip out of the orb. Only thirty seconds? I thought, finding the whole affair a little underwhelming.

Although there was the option of a dry “Zorbit” run – whereby the “zorbonaut” is strapped inside the ball in a harness not unlike that found on a roller-coaster – the majority of those there that afternoon chose the Zydro ride, or “hydro-zorbing” – myself included. That meant donning swimsuits, waiting as attendants filled the inside of the ball with a few inches of water, and then diving in through a small opening.

Finally, the time came to join three others – an English guy and an Australian couple – in the back of a dirty SUV as a Maori guy named Ryan drove us to the start of the course. This zig-zagging track up the hill was by far the roughest part of the day, the ruts and bumps sending us all over our seats and leaving us more than happy to scramble out up top. As I waited for my turn, Ryan made conversation, talking about growing up in Rotorua and asking where I was from. I told him I was nearing the end of a year in New Zealand and this seemed to impress him. What most certainly could not have impressed him, however, was my failure of a jump into the orb. A running start is supposed to give you enough speed to dive all the way through the hole, but I got stuck, wiggling my way through like a fat kid down a tube slide.

Just as he was about to open the chute, Ryan peeked his head inside the orb and said if I enjoyed the ride, to just hop in the car at the bottom of the hill for a second turn. If I enjoyed it? “Are you serious?” I asked, it suddenly dawning on me that he might find me cute. “Of course, gotta look after our backpackers,” he said with a wink. Whatever it takes, right?

And then it was go-time. To get started, they tell you to stand up as the orb is released, leaning against the front for a little extra push. This doesn’t last for long. Pretty soon, you’re picking up momentum, falling flat on your bum, and swishing and sloshing around like a load of laundry in the washing machine. It felt at once like a hamster must inside his wheel. It felt like popping through a gumball machine. It felt like someone had taken the yellow slip ’n’ slide of my childhood and rolled it into a sphere. But most of all, it felt like hilarious bliss. I couldn’t stop laughing. Not only did it feel much faster inside the orb, but the ride seemed to go on forever. All my “fears” of disappointment were erased and that free second ride didn’t hurt either.

The OGO website goes on to say, “It’ll swallow you whole and spit you out a cleaner, sparklier person. A new you, with a bigger, bolder, brighter smile and an outlook on life that says: ‘I’ve been to the other side and it was GREAT!’”

One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t agree more. Although possibly the most expensive thirty seconds of my life, zorbing was one half a minute I won’t soon forget.

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letting off steam in rotorua: day five on the north island.

There’s no denying the popularity of referring to Rotorua as Roto-Vegas, a nickname that just about sums up the conundrum of this central North Island city. With a population of about 55,000, it is known for its significant Maori population and manicured English gardens (a contradiction in and of itself, perhaps), but also for its sulfur, steam and hot springs. It’s no surprise Rotorua is built on a caldera, a depression formed in the land when a volcano collapses. Caldera comes from caldaria, Latin for “cooking pot,” a picture that lends itself to imagining the pockets of steam found throughout the city as water boiling over the side of a whistling kettle.

You’ll know you’re in Rotorua by the smell. It hit me the second I stepped out of my car and I mentioned it to the hostel worker as she checked me in, knowing fully well it was as stupid as bringing up the rain in London or the heat in Death Valley. “Oh really? Haven’t noticed it,” she said. Well, I certainly did, and began to think the motto of Rotorua – “Feel the Spirit” – would be more accurately stated as “Feel the Sulfur.”

After my visit to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley the next morning, I made my way back to Rotorua to explore for a couple of hours. Walking through the city center, I came first to the Old Post Office, a building that ironically no longer fills the role that its name implies. Today, instead, it houses the i-Site and serves as the main depot for major bus lines running through the city. With its red tiled roof, Tudor Revival-style timber frame, and a memorial clocktower, the building does little to fit into its surroundings. While the architecture evokes a nostalgic charm of days gone by, there is a distinct feeling of Disney-like artificiality about it.

It’s a feeling that runs throughout the city. En route to Government Gardens, a sign on the Princes Gate Hotel read “Return to a Finer Yesterday” and the Blue Baths spa, its Spanish facade dated 1933, invited me to “Step Forward into the Past.” The Rotorua Museum, formerly the Bath House, mirrored the design of the post office, its many peaks and gables the showcase of the garden.

Indeed, everything about the gardens lent itself to postcard photographs – the straight and symmetrical lines of hedges and lawns, long walks lined with Victorian streetlamps and palm trees, and the neatly trimmed grass of croquet lawns and bowling greens. It felt like England and yet the vividly blue and cloudless sky and the mud pools glugging and chugging beneath the surface felt worlds away.

My last stop in Rotorua was Kuirau Park, an area thick with oak trees and smoking sinkholes. Here, your average neighborhood park takes on a darker side with sulfur-lined springs and steaming pools lining the wooden walkways. A sign cautions, “Danger, Keep to the Track: Gases, Hot Area, Unstable Ground,” but the sight of steam rising from the very backyard of a nearby house calls the proclaimed danger into question. In his article, “Among the Fascinating Maoris: Two Famous Villages,” first published in the New Zealand Railway Magazine on May 1, 1930, A. D. McKinlay writes:

“Naturally, the outstanding feature of interest to the visitor [in Rotorua] is the thermal activity. It is not spectacular, but eerie. Everywhere they bubble up, those fussy, energetic pools which you eye respectfully, but dare not touch. In the lake itself a tiny area close in shore steams and hisses furiously, while only a few yards further on, the water lies quiet and cool. At all points take care where you place your feet; you may be treading on solid ground, or you may blissfully be suspending yourself over the mouth of an inferno. Ordinarily, however, there is little danger to fear.”

Ordinary danger. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe life in New Zealand, a country where threats of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are just the stuff of the six o’clock news.

Driving out of town, I returned again to the idea of Roto-Vegas. It’s a comparison I didn’t get at first. The town isn’t flashy, isn’t trashy, and certainly not known for shot-gun weddings. As far as I could tell, there was only one show, a dinner and cabaret combo at the Blue Baths, complete with feather boas and fedora hats for guests.

But then I began to draw on the fact that everything in Rotorua is an attraction. Put another way, everything costs money or comes with some kind of entrance fee. Whether at a museum, the historic Ohinemutu Village, or even a geothermal valley, you’ll find yourself being stopped and asked to pay your way. The Buried Village of Te Wairoa, just outside of Rotorua, is the site of a town that was completely wiped out by the eruption of Mount Tarawera. It was the kind of thing that grabbed my attention on the road atlas, but it turned out they, too, charged. To see what? Where buildings used to stand? Their brochure map is literally covered with x’s, marking the spot of where this or that building had stood. Go figure.

And the sheer quantity of attractions is enough to overwhelm you. Geothermal-related activities aside, there is enough to fill every corner of your itinerary, from mini golf and bungee-jumps to  the Skyline Gondola and luge complex like that found in Queenstown. Rotorua does, in a sense, represent all that New Zealand has to offer – an interesting Maori history, charming relics of English colonialism, and almost every opportunity available to get that adrenaline pumping – but something about the town bugged me. It could have been the patchwork way in which it was presented, the lack of cohesion between its many personalities, or perhaps the sense that it wasn’t worth visiting without a full wallet.

But then again, maybe all that sulfur just got to my head…

Check out Rotorua, whether for its English gardens...

...or its Maori culture, like the historic Ohinemutu Village.

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making the grade in the school of life.

A brief look at the syllabi of my college transcript will reveal an education of highly questionable “real world” applicability, one defined by courses such as SLFK 212: Slavic Folklore Ritual and Family Life, JPTR 322: Intro to Modern Japanese Literature, and ANTH 237: The Culture and History of Still Photography. Although there’s no disputing the usefulness of being able to sight-sing a perfect fifth interval (thank you, MUSI 333B: Musicianship II), not much of my university experience was geared towards preparing me for a thriving existence outside the hallowed walls and halls of Academia.

To make matters more interesting, my decision to move to London after graduation – and then to New Zealand – inaugurated my life as a Backpacker. You know the type – you’ve most likely seen us on the plane, clutching our Lonely Planets and Rough Guides, hauling our overstuffed, oversized backpacks off the luggage carousel, and figuring out just what bus route will get us to the city center (taxis don’t quite make the budget). But my transition into this lifestyle involved more than just purchasing a backpack or joining a hostel association. I found myself instead in a world inhabited by bright and talented people who have foregone career paths and corporate ladders for something a little different (for now, at least). We accept roles as dishwashers and servers, check-out clerks and call center agents, all for the promise that where we are is more important than how we earn our paycheck.

This isn’t an easy trade-off, at least in my experience. Shift after shift of polishing silverware, mopping floors, and taking out the trash wears on you, digging at a little corner of your mind that starts to ask, Is this really what I bargained for? Is this what I spent four years of my life studying for?

But that isn’t to say you don’t pick up things along the way. In Queenstown, I learned how to make one heck of a Long Island Iced Tea. In London, I learned how to arrange a Faculty Away Day, perusing catering options and performing a small miracle to make sure one hundred academics showed up at the same place at the same time. And in Wellington, my stint as a hospitality temp involved taking in more tricks of the trade. An especially slow day in the corporate kitchen of accounting-giant Deloitte found head chef Andrew teaching me how to make the perfect espresso. Naturally, we couldn’t let the mess-ups go to waste…

At the end of my year in New Zealand, my first stop back in the States was a little town in northwest Iowa called Spirit Lake. My childhood best friend Jen was getting married and I arrived a couple days early to help out with any last-minute details. As we were setting up the cake reception the morning before the wedding, Jen’s younger sister, Megan – a freshman at Princeton – did her part and laid out the cocktail napkins for the lemonade and punch. She then took the stack and tried to splay them into a spiral, using her hands to spin them.

Just two months ago I’d done the same my first time hosting a corporate box at Westpac Stadium. The job required setting up the box much like you would as the hostess of a dinner party – stocking up on drinks, setting out snacks, and getting everything set for the catered dinner. Jon, one of the host supervisors, came in before the guests arrived and saw my pitiful attempt at swirling the napkins. “Here, try this,” he said, reaching for a pint glass from the shelf. He started to twist the glass on top of the stack of napkins in a quick motion from left to right. As he repeated this, the napkins began to fan themselves into the perfectly even, perfectly swirled screw-like spiral I’d been aiming for. I was mesmerized.

Two months later in Iowa, watching Megan trying to do it by hand, it was my turn to pass on the tip. “Hang on a second,” I said as I looked for the closest thing I could find to a pint glass in the church’s fellowship hall – a plastic punch glass. I began to push it into the stack just like Jon had taught me as Megan and several family members looked on.

My spiral proudly complete, their Uncle Ross said, “Well, Megan, I guess they don’t teach you that at Princeton, do they?”

We all laughed and I immediately smiled at the irony, remembering how disappointing my rejection from Harvard had been almost six years earlier to the date. Here, though, was a small victory, the little pat-on-the-back life offers you sometimes. Ivy League diploma hanging on my wall? Not hardly, but I sure could show her how to twist napkins. The idea that there are some things you won’t learn in school is oft-repeated, but this was one of the more tangible, if frivolous, examples of that in my life.

If there’s one thing the book and recent movie An Education accomplishes, it’s to expand the idea of what an education is, taking it outside the classroom where it’s so often contained. The chance to pass on such a silly little trick mightn’t be momentous, but it got me thinking about all that I’ve learned the past couple of years I wouldn’t have known otherwise. How to sweet-talk immigration officers into letting me back into a country despite a dubious visa situation. How to take advantage of national airline carriers’ layovers in their main hub for a nearly-free flight to another country. And definitely how to avoid total emotional collapse when your passport and credit cards are stolen in a foreign city (I’ll never forget you, Belfast.) It was the kind of victory I’m getting used to as this string of temporary employment gigs often comes without the usual praise of promotions, raises and a Christmas bonus. I wouldn’t be surprised if backpackers score higher than most in the self-motivation category.

And so as I carry through this summer at home in yet another hospitality-industry position, I continue to challenge myself to look at it as more than just a way to pass the time. This time on the catering staff of my hotel’s banquets and events department is simply another phase of my education. Rene, a Danish guy who was recently granted his American citizenship, is nothing short of a banquet rockstar. Often rolling out four tables at a time, dragging stacks of eight chairs across the floor, and setting up whole banquets single-handed, he’s coached all of us throughout the summer with the promise that one day, just maybe, we’ll be as good as him. Whether it’s “fluffing” a plain white table with extra tablecloths and twinkle lights or transforming cloth napkins into near works-of-art, Rene has grown my “hospitality knowledge” even more.

I may be miles away (literally) from putting my English major to good use, but boy can I fold a mean napkin stand-up fan…

Folded by yours truly, courtesy of Rene's tutelage.

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down in the [volcanic] valley: day five on the north island.

In the valleys of southwest Iceland, the Great Geysir – not to be confused with the Great Gatsby, of course – is part of a system of hot springs that, in addition to spewing boiling water some seventy meters into the air, have lent their name to the English word for ‘geyser.’ The word ‘geysir’ itself comes from the Old Norse verb geysa, to “gush” or “rush forth.” Say it out loud…you can almost just hear an expedition of vikings stumbling upon one and raising their swords with a shout: geysa!

Similarly, the word ‘spa’ originates from the municipality of Spa, Belgium – coincidentally the fictional hometown of Agatha Christie’s famed protagonist, Hercule Poirot. As early as the 14th century, the town’s hot springs have attracted visitors for their supposed healing and restorative powers.

And while there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about New Zealand’s etymological contribution to the geothermal world, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley just thirty minutes outside Rotorua is unique in its own right – as the world’s youngest geothermal system. The tenth of June, 1886, holds little, if any, significance to many in the world, yet it marks the eruption of Mount Tarawera, the largest in the country’s history. Ash could apparently be seen as far away as Christchurch and residents of Auckland, it is said, mistook the sights and sounds of the eruption for an attack by Russian warships. (Little known fact: the Crimean War left young, defenseless New Zealand of the 1870s increasingly paranoid.)
Russo-invasion threats aside, the reality of the eruption was that it dramatically altered the landscape of the valley. Lake Rotomahana exploded to twenty times its original size and a ten mile rift in the earth opened up, forming what is now called the Waimangu Valley, waimangu meaning “black water” in Maori. As a welcome sign explained at the start of the park, Waimangu is important in the fact that it is “the only hydrothermal system in the World where the exact day of the start of surface activity is known.” Despite the presence of hot springs throughout the world, on every continent – yes, that includes Antarctica’s Deception Island – under the ocean and even on Jupiter’s sixth moon, Europa, Waimangu stands alone.

As I began the two-hour walk through the valley, the landscape looked like much that I had grown used to seeing around the country – the towering kanuka trees, the fans of ferns and moss-covered rocks – but then again, that in itself was remarkable. All life in the region was wiped out by the eruption in an eerie Biblical flood kind of way – every plant, every animal, every bird – so the fact that the bio-system has completely rejuvenated itself, without any outside encouragement or assistance, makes it the only one of its kind.

The very names given to the features of the land suggest an instability about it – Inferno Crater, Frying Pan Lake, Rift Valley. The perspective lent from panoramic vistas is that of a quiet unrest, with sulfuric steam rising from very nook and cranny as if a dragon lurks beneath the hills. I thought of bus rides to elementary school on cold winter mornings, where mist would lift off the surface of a pond near my home, its water warmer than the air above. And yet places like Emerald Pool, Fairy Crater and the Crystal Wall hint at a whimsical side to the region; that as the waters have cooled and the mountains settled, Waimangu got a second chance at life. The worst of the destruction over with, it’s as if the creative forces have come out to play, imbuing the crater pools with the deep blue of a peacock’s tail and forming delicate, quartz-like crystals out of sulfur and sulphates. Even the sunlight streaming through the steam spoke of fairy tales.
I had arrived early that morning, almost as soon as the doors were open at half past eight. An early start had been my sole intention, this seeming like the best place to start working my way through a full day’s agenda, but I had unintentionally made the best timing decision of my life. For what seemed like ages, I was the only person on the trail, the silence augmenting the intrigue of bubbling springs and hissing steam vents. But somewhere past the second of three bus stops, I started bumping into a group of about ten French tourists who were hardly louder than the stillness of the air itself. They were older, dressed in trendy fitness gear and appeared considerably fitter than myself. At the end of the one-way trail, we caught the bus back together to the visitors’ center.

What awaited us felt like walking into a mall on the day after Thanksgiving having just spent a quiet morning in the park. People – oh, the people! – were everywhere. Worse yet were the masses of school groups, all heading down the trail at once, high schoolers with their uniforms and cell phones and hipster mentalities. I stared down the trail as they headed out, the one that two hours earlier I’d had entirely to myself, imagining the state of my sanity if I’d overslept and only just arrived. Walking past rows of parked buses, I slipped into my car with that sigh of relief often felt after swerving to miss a near-tragedy of a car accident.

Waimangu may be known as “New Zealand’s most devastating natural event,” but for now, for me, it was disaster averted.

Frying Pan Lake.

Lake Rotomahana.

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the journey of a pearl.

Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below.

John Dryden, “Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra,” All for Love, 1678.

_____________________

“Neal rattled on like this; he was overjoyed and exuberant. He and I suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

_____________________

My first two weeks on a black pearl farm in French Polynesia felt like starting in on a great movie from the middle – all exposition, no conflict, and barely a clue of how the story began or where it would end up. With the sun on my back and the wind – that gentle, warm breeze found only in the tropics, of course – in my face, I went out on the boat every day with Laurent, Heiarri, and Aristide, helping when and where I could as they moved basket after basket of oysters from the lagoon closer to shore to be cleaned. I was, much like my four-year old self, full of questions. How does a pearl grow? When are they fully grown? How did the oysters get in the basket? Indeed, my only glimpse of a pearl came when Laurent found one on the bottom of the boat and asked if I wanted it. If I want it? What kind of question is that?

That all changed when Josh, owner of the farm, arrived the Sunday before the harvest. We’d be spending my last week on Ahe getting our hands properly dirty – working long hours, hauling in baskets, and seeing just what these oysters had been up to the last eighteen months. I couldn’t wait. But what made the harvest even more meaningful – more than getting to see fully grown pearls emerge and new nuclei be grafted in to start the process all over again – was the fact that Josh had brought with him a prospective pearl buyer, a 26-year old Canadian woman named Kristin. Having graduated from the Gem Institute of America with a concentration in pearls – who knew that was even possible? – pearls are her thing. In the last three years, she has started her own business, opened a luxury retail store in downtown Vancouver and travelled to Bali every year to hand-select her South Sea pearls. This would be her first time designing with Tahitian pearls.

At the end of each day, Josh would clean the day’s harvest and take them to Kristin. She worked on a long counter with windows that propped open to the reef below and as the waves lapped outside, she would spread the pearls out on a towel and begin to sort through them, separating by size and sheen – gold, pink, blue, green – into potential sets of strands and earrings. Watching Kristin from a distance, I thought to myself, what a beautiful picture of completion. The ability to view the journey these pearls would take, from the mouth of the oyster to the hand of the grafter to the eye of designer, who would carry them 5,000 miles to a store in Vancouver where women could purchase them. Kristin showed us pictures of the South Sea strands she had on display in her shop and although the price tags were enough to make my heart skip a beat, it was cool for all of us to see where much of this particular harvest would end up.

Josh at his grafting station.

A newly harvested pearl.

Kristin at work.

The strands Kristin put together.

The journey of my pearls, however, looked a little different.

My last night on Ahe, as Heiarii, Timmy, Pete, Peter and I sat around drinking red wine and playing poker, Heiarii asked if Josh or Laurent had given me any pearls before they left for Chile the day before. I won’t lie, there was some small part of me that had been hoping this would happen, so I did my best to feign surprise and give my closest attempt at an innocent “no?” The next morning, with just an hour to go before leaving for the aiport, Heiarii took me up the narrow wooden ladder to the office of the farm. There he unlocked a cabinet and brought out several small plastic bags. Each held what seemed to me a small fortune’s worth of pearls. I’d get six.

Remembering Kristin earlier in the week, I pored over each set of pearls with the utmost attention, choosing each pair carefully, holding them up to my ears to get Heiarii’s opinion. After a week of looking at the pearls from afar, peering over the grafting stations and around the corner of where Josh and Kristin sat, it felt strange to hold them in my hand, to think that these were mine. Indecision wasn’t a fault here but actually merited, giving the process the weight these pearls deserved. What sheen to choose? The traditional black or something with a bit more color? With these six and the one Laurent had given me, I’d have just enough for a pair for my mother, a pair for my sister, and a pair and necklace for me. It all worked perfectly.

The pearls I got to choose from.

All mine!

When I arrived in rainy Papeete that afternoon, I had with me specific directions from Heiarii to find a good friend of his, a jeweler who could turn my pearls into earrings. The next day, I made my way to the Le Marche Papeete, the main market in the center of town. Vendors selling souvenirs and sarongs lined the outside of the building and the first floor was piled high with sweet-smelling fruit and vegetables. I followed the makeshift map in my hand, taking the first set of stairs on the right and heading towards the back of a square of stalls. There it was, Fluid Tahiti. Was it really this easy?

“I’m looking for Eric?” I said, a little short of breath from sprinting from the bus station.

“What can I do for you?” An attractive man asked, looking over at me from behind the counter.

“My name is Candace, my friend Heiarii at Kamoka Farms told me…”

“Of course,” Eric said, interrupting me. “He just called. Said you were his future wife. Weird thing is, he sounded serious. Damn, what did you do to him? He seemed heartbroken.”

Heartbreak would have to wait. Right now, I had business to take care of. Eric said he was about to close up for the day but he’d take care of it for me anyway. While he drilled holes into the pearls and secured posts in place, I got to know his friends in the shop. The volcano in Iceland had just erupted a few days earlier and sent the world into a tizzy. The talk of the shop was travel…or lack thereof. A Danish man sat at a computer, lamenting his third cancelled flight in two days. Within minutes, Eric left me with three small black velvet bags and the satisfaction of watching my pearls come full circle, completing their own journey from oyster to owner.

Eric's shop in Le Marche.

Eric turning the pearls into jewelry.

Or so I thought.

A couple of days later, I reached Minneapolis – via a 36-hour stopover in a scruffy LA hostel – and easily found Gail and Russ, my best friend’s aunt and uncle who would be letting me, a road-weary, scraggly backpacker, catch a ride with them to Iowa for the wedding. It was somewhere between Minnesota and Spirit Lake, however, that I instinctively reached up to my new earrings and felt nothing but the oversized – and devastatingly empty – pierced hole in my right ear. No pearl. Just skin. My stomach dropped and I caught my breath. I looked over at Gail and said quietly, “I’ve lost a pearl.” We made a frantic search of the car but something told me it wasn’t there. I remembered putting on a hooded sweatshirt in Minneapolis, pulling it off, putting it back on and knew that pearl could be anywhere by now. Cue that heartbreak after all.

That night, I conveyed the news to my mother.

“We’ll just have the pearl you have left made into a ring,” she said simply, finding the silver lining faster than an optimistic weatherman. “We’ll do it for your birthday.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that? Leave it to a mother to stave off an emotional disaster faster than you can say “meltdown.”

So on my birthday, I turned to Google Images for a little inspiration. I didn’t know what I wanted, only a vague idea of a simple design and a wide band, something that would suit my long and gangly piano hands. What I found at first didn’t impress, delicately shaped things with florets of tiny diamonds clustered around a white pearl. Then I stumbled across a band of hammered silver, the dimples and dips of its beveled texture a little more my style. I typed in “hammered silver pearl rings” and on the third page of results, I found it.

The one.

My ring. Although the one pictured featured a white pearl, I immediately could see my Tahitian black beauty in its place, a simple band of silver encasing the sphere and set into a wide band of hammered silver. There were ridges along the band itself, six strips that lent the broadness of it an uneven look. It was perfectly imperfect.

Picture in hand, I went to a nearby jewelry store known for good work at affordable prices. I showed them the pearl, handed over the picture, and explained what I had in mind. The woman assisting me took a few notes, tucked the pearl into a small, numbered manila envelope and set it in a pile of “pending” design work. “It’ll be a few weeks,” she said nondescriptly.

Ever short of patience, I tried not to think about it but couldn’t help asking about its progress when I went back in later that month for an appraisal on a different ring. That did the trick. Two days later, I got a call telling me my ring was ready.

When I opened that little envelope and the ring slid out, I knew at once what it must feel like to be engaged. There was my ring, an exact replica of what I’d shown them. Once I got over the shock that they’d been able to create it, I thought of all that this ring represents. What is engagement but the elation of looking down at a ring on your finger and feeling life slide into place? If, over the last two years, my life mantra truly has been “The world is your oyster,” this ring is merely a symbol of my commitment to that cause. A promise to continue my pursuit, to follow the world, wherever it may lead me.

A wedding ring is a celebration of life spent together thus far, a reminder of what has brought you together and a promise of what’s to come, and as I twist my ring round and round my finger, I can think of nothing different. I stare at its dark, round lustre and think of the days spent on Ahe, watching Laurent break open the baskets of oysters, Aristide and Heiarii cleaning and propping them open, Timmy and Josh taking out pearls and grafting in new nuclei. I think of Kristin arranging each of the pearls into strands and sets of earrings, and I think of myself doing my small part in the harvest – drilling holes in the oysters and looping them into new baskets.

What a journey this pearl has made, and I couldn’t be more thrilled at the destination.

The world really is our oyster.

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what i learned from bees.

I was in no mood for adventure.

An email that morning – informing me that my application for a university scholarship was unsuccessful – had set the tone for the day, namely, a poor one. Customers seemed grumpier than normal. The coffee pots seemed to always need refilling. The future, and all its ensuing financial obligations, even more overwhelming.

I knew what I needed to do. A recently opened Starbucks a mere five-minute walk from my house would be the perfect setting for a little bad-day recovery, a chance to catch up on writing in anonymous bliss with an Iced-Mocha-Frappe-Make-Me-Feel-a-Latte-Better-Cino by my side. My mother had other ideas.

As I changed out of the all-black affair of my uniform, she called upstairs. “Feel like clearing your brain and coming to see a beehive with me?”

Not exactly, Mom. In fact, the last thing I felt like doing was putting on protective long pants and boots – with the outside temperature pushing the mid-90s – and trudging through an overgrown field, all to what? Put myself at risk of being stung a thousand times over?

But I did, of course.

My mother, you see, is currently knee-deep in a book about bees. She’s drawing on several of their characteristics – the waggle dance, in particular – to talk about the topic of unity and how women relate to each other. I, however, am up to my waist in the mire that is financial aid, having to fill out scary-sounding things like Master Promissory Notes and Entrance Counseling. Committing oneself to repaying a large sum of money is not for the faint of heart, I’m learning.

And so when a friend of my mother’s called this afternoon, saying that her husband, who has recently taken up beekeeping, would be visiting his new hive, Mom jumped at the chance to tag along – “This is an adventure!” she said excitedly on our way there. We pull up a gravel drive, three miles from our house, and deep, green cornfields grow on either side. I get out of the car and stare down the lane, only a telephone line to muss up the ruralness of it all. Three miles yet a world apart from the development of suburbia that surrounds the farm. I’m feeling better already.

Greg is there to meet us, a retired pastor wearing old jeans and duck boots, and we load into the minivan he’s parked on the side of the road. He steers through tall grass and over a small knoll, saying, “Billy [his beekeeping mentor] did this in a pick-up truck, but we’ll see how we do. I like adventure.” Not him, too, I thought. We reach the hive and Greg directs us to stand to the left, out of the bees’ flight path. Air traffic controller, apiculture-style.

As he pulls a long-sleeved t-shirt over his head and dons a hat and veil, Greg talks of how he built the hive, purchasing a box of 5,000 bees to get his colony going. When it came to placing them in the hive, he said it felt like pouring thick molasses. “You literally just dump them in, but they’d all clung together. They get scared in an unsure environment.”

I know the feeling well. He tells us, too, of another hive he’d started at the same time, yet this one wasn’t so lucky. When wax moths got to it, the hive was decimated. “I opened the top one day and all you could see were the moths’ cocoons they’d spun everywhere. They’d eaten through all the honeycomb. There were maybe three bees left, they were just gone.

“Billy told me there’s not a beekeeper who hasn’t seen that sight at least once. He said not to let it keep me up at night.” With each new wooden frame he lowers into the top box, Greg’s actions speak of tenderness and his emotional investment in this undertaking.

And understandably so. It was remarkable to see, really. I was given a chance to wear the veil and sneak up close. On the underside of the hive’s lid, little pieces of honeycomb had begun to form, their six-sided cells visible even among the swarms of bees moving as one. I can do nothing but stare, marvelling as always at the sight of something that has come from nothing. It’s the same beauty found in icicles, in pearls, in stalactites and stalagmites. It’s the aggregate of the process, the way each small step builds on the last.

Greg slips the last of the frames in and then prepares another safeguard. This time it’s the hive beetles he’s after and he fills small black trays called beetle eaters with vegetable oil. These go in between two frames and ward off another potentially detrimental pest.

I watch with interest, thinking that just like those bees, I’ll be taken care of, too.

Battling the pesky hive beetle.

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information overload: day four on the north island.

Somehow, I’d ended up in Rotorua for the night.

Well, I knew exactly how it happened. State Highway 1 had led me from Hamilton through Cambridge to Tirau, where I picked up SH5 to Rotorua. But I was late leaving Raglan; partly because it was such a lovely little town and partly because things got in the way – waiting for pictures from the surfing lesson, taking advantage of free wi-fi at the library, and saying goodbye to new friends from the hostel. And maybe just a little road-weariness thrown in there, too. The surfing left me feeling spent and I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Once I reached Hamilton, signs for Rotorua, an easy hundred kilometers or so further down the road, got me thinking.

And yet I was about six days ahead of The Plan, which had been to leave Raglan and head straight for the Coromandel Peninsula, stopping over in one very important town: Paeroa. Yes, the Paeroa of Lemon and Paeroa…otherwise known as L&P, the famous New Zealand soft drink. Clearly, it was one of the top points on my agenda for the entire trip, and my 3pm departure from Raglan meant I wouldn’t make it there in time for the shops (cheesy L&P souvenir obviously a must). Might as well divert to Rotorua and save my soft drink scavenging for next week. I blame it on Paeroa, really.

But once in Rotorua, I have the hostel lounge to myself and I am revelling in it. It’s midnight, certainly past the standard 11pm bedtime so many backpackers seem to adhere to (myself included) but I needed a late night to break up the routine. What I’ve noticed about myself in terms of seeing these New Zealand towns is that I’m not a lingerer. Either I set up camp for months or I stay a night. In each hostel, the owners always ask, “Only one night?” with a bit of surprise in their voice. In Europe, I can’t remember staying anywhere less than two nights, but Europe was different, with its cultural capitals and metropolitan centers demanding more of my time and attention.

And so I pay the price for this incessant pressing on, this never-ending covering of miles (er, kilometers…). Tonight my laptop flashed an alert as I uploaded a full memory card’s worth of photos for the third time this week: Startup disk almost full. My mind read the warning and said, Amen. I, too, am on the verge of system-overload. I’m seeing too much too fast. I need time to process and it’s going to be months before that happens.

This is all perhaps a product of how impressed I am by the amount of things to see on the North Island. I wasn’t expecting this, this number of townships, each with their own quirky personalities and stories to tell, and the vistas that seem to await me around every corner. There would be no breezing through the island.

So sure, the day zig-zagged a little more than usual, logic not exactly dictating the amount of backtracking and doubling up I did, but this is me doing things without a guide. As anyone who owns a Moleskin City Book has read, Aldous Huxley beautifully writes, “For every traveller who has any taste of his own, the only useful guidebook will be the one which he himself has written.” Lonely Planet is the backpackers’ Bible, read over breakfast and before falling asleep. I always wonder what it is they’re looking for, rather than trusting the country to tell its story.

Oh, if only there were an external harddrive for our brains!

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