A Kiwi expression. New Zealand was sweet to me, being both totally rad and also kind. Its experiences, like its people, were grounding.
“Sweet as what?” I used to ask my Kiwi friend in law school who regularly used the expression. He’d just shrug. I understand now that there’s no comparison. New Zealand is utterly surreal.
I’ve written about the adventures and the breathtaking landscapes that sparkle with rain and rainbows, but it’s the people that tied this country together for me. Folks on the South Island struck me as hard-working, adventurous, and genuine — a beautiful combination. My experiences were also shaped by fellow travelers. Traveling in the off season, you tend to cross paths more than once. The guy who warned me not to listen to DOC’s faulty advice about Kepler I saw walking along two different highways. I also ran into fellow Kepler trekkers in Wanaka and on the Abel Tasman track. The dude who made dying animal noises in his sleep in the Te Anau hostel was on the black water rafting trip with me at Franz Josef. Also on the rafting trip were some people from my last neighborhood back in Chicago. And a family I shared the boat with after the Tasman track boarded the same ferry I took to Wellington the next day.
And then there’s Nick. What initially brought us together I believe is the fact that focusing so singularly on our brains for our careers came at the expense of fostering other aspects of ourselves. New Zealand was for our hearts and souls. It took Nick a minute to realize this, however, and it wasn’t until he did that we clicked.
Beneath the stars in Wanaka, he flashed me a tortured look, and in that moment we both silently said to ourselves that it wouldn’t be a good idea to travel together any longer. I called him out and stated that a natural consequence of opening oneself up was getting hurt — but, that even that experience is a beautiful gift and so very much a part of being alive. It was his choice, though.
“It’s weird that I think of you as the older sister I never had,” he said. We aired, sorted, and settled the complicated undertones of our otherwise fraternal fondness for one another. After that, Nick settled into himself. He no longer worried about running out of things to say, no longer felt compelled to pry into my headspace or interrupt our quiet. It was incredible to see how he transformed in just two weeks. What took me aback even more, though, was how his process of opening up without any sense of fear circled back to me, fostering a mutual understanding and unexpected intimacy.
The English language has a dearth of words when it comes to capturing the milieu of layered relationships we all share with one another.
“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have 30 words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of 30 words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart… Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.”
–Robert Johnson, “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”
The closest word I can come up with for our bond is “cherish,” but even that doesn’t do it justice. We have a song, for example, after which we named his car (“Riptide”). The only people I have songs with, strangely, are my brothers (“Soul Sister” and “Hey Brother”). We also had moments of intimacy that went beyond kinship. Standing on the porch in the rain with my cheek pressed up against his back, we discussed the power of our introverted sides and how growing up among complex personalities and ambitions shapes one’s emotional intelligence. Or the time he asked for some gum, and I handed him the last piece that I was chewing.
Language aside, the most important quality of our bond to convey is how purely we took care of one another for two weeks. And how we grew stronger because of it. With me, he developed a greater sense of self. With him, I processed my thoughts on the ghosts who have visited me in recent days.
Bottom line: We are great at spontaneity and laughter, accepting that there are no words.
As he carried my backpack to the ferry that would take me to the Wellington airport, I told him how far he’d come in just two weeks. He thanked me for changing his life, for showing him how to open his heart to others. We exchanged three words to express our mutual feelings of reverence for one another, and I boarded the back of the ship. Settling into a wicker bench, I watched the foggy coast line of the South Island recede until the waves and the collection of our road-tripping songs Nick had thrown together rocked me to sleep.
The last song, “Freedom,” was suddenly interrupted by the captain, who announced over the loudspeaker that there was a fire on deck six. They were looking into the problem, but wanted to give us the heads up. I figured it was a drill. Minutes later he came on again to say they were preparing the life rafts just to be safe. I looked around and no one seemed to be panicking. I checked the books and magazines people were reading, and everything was in English. What was I missing? The third time, the captain said it was time to please proceed calmly to the life rafts. Leave your bags behind and take out any sharp objects from your pockets. “Abandon ship, I repeat, abandon ship, abandon ship.” New Zealand was too good to be true, and I was here to die.
I made my way downstairs and asked a woman what the hell was going on. She laughed and said that this was a weekly routine.
“Well,” I said, turning to the cafe. “This calls for a slice of pie.”
It’s been real, New Zealand. I can proudly say that I lived you like I meant it.
Closing with a few photos from our various road tripping adventures as well as a guest post from Nick.
~Riptide in its element, winding through rainy mountain passes~
~Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki~
~Hostels by the sea~
~Moss covered forests~
~Rivers and glaciers~
~Glacier carved valleys~
~The Road, upon which we shed many tears of laughter~
~”Don’t count sheep as you drive!” warn the billboards~
Guest post by Nick
Only an engineer might think this is a good idea, but I will attempt to capture the 2 week journey through the South Island of New Zealand with some numbers!
60 million – The number of sheep in New Zealand. This includes cute little lambs!
3 million – The number of people in New Zealand.
9000 – The estimated number of stars that can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. I recon we could see most of these while exploring Bark Bay during low tide.
1240 – Km’s driven in ‘tidy (thats 771 miles or 223 leagues for those of you using outdated measurement systems). I can’t decide if it was the stunning New Zealand scenery (mountains, oceans, lakes, rivers, forests) or the soundtrack (Dee’s music, laughter, contemplative silence, honest conversations) were the highlight of the journey.
140 – Km’s trekked. Battled the wind and snow while crossing mountain passes. Ducked and squeezed into the depths of the earth. Crossed countless rivers, streams and one huge surge channel. Fought (and failed) to resist the urge to take pictures on every beautiful sandy beach. Observed and admired the native plant life that included moss(!), manuka, palm trees, silver ferns, lots more ferns, giant ‘Dr. Zeus trees’, and all kinds of fauna that keep you hoping to see a dinosaur. Kept smiles on our faces despite blisters, sand flies, torrential downpours, girl issues, long days, too much coffee, empty stomaches, lost camera and bad jokes.
17 – Times the words to “Riptide” were sang incorrectly while driving across the country or lying in the bunks trying to keep warm. (This is according to the play count in iTunes).
12.5 – The cost (in New Zealand Dollars) of more then enough fish and chips to fill up 2 people.
2 1/2 – Minimum spoonfuls of instant coffee to wake up Dee and Nick. This can be doubled if still not awake or if the moment is being enjoyed.
2.2 – Total extra pounds added by carrying Southern Comfort with us on the trail. Trust me, it was well worth it.
2 – The number of bottles of wine that Goldilocks would have chosen.
1 – Shared experience that I wouldn’t trade anything for and I will never forget.