Cheers, New Zealand

In Maori, kia ora means hello. I’ve heard it countless times since coming here. It’s a warm greeting here in New Zealand, used by Maori and Pakeha (non-Maori/European) alike. In my time here, I’ve picked up a handful of Maori words that are used in every day practice here. However, as I packed up my bags last night and prepared for my departure in the morning, I found that I didn’t know the word for goodbye. This is a pretty basic one, so I was a bit taken aback. Upon examination though, I’ve realized that I haven’t really put a lot of thought into my leaving. This place, in the month I’ve been here, has felt like a home. It took twenty young, loud Americans in and adopted them into its culture, into its beautiful scenery and friendly atmosphere. Leaving feels wrong; I’ve found paradise and I’m not ready to let go. I looked up the word for goodbye today, noho iho rā, but the fact of the matter is, I’m just not quite ready to say it yet.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Christchurch airport, waiting to board my flight to Auckland where I’ll catch my connection to Brisbane, my next destination. While I am looking forward to it, my excitement is hampered by the sadness over leaving New Zealand. This place has taken me in, adopted me into every day life. It shows by the familiar faces I see on campus, by the little kiwi slang that’s made its way into my speech. I notice it on my walk home, where I no longer frantically search for street signs, my feet instinctively knowing where to turn and which direction to head in. New Zealand has taken a piece of my heart, becoming a home, albeit a temporary one.

When I first came here, I was incredibly nervous it wouldn’t live up to my excessively high expectations. I had dreamed of visiting New Zealand since I was little, after reading a Nat Geo article describing the lush forests, blue water, and vibrant wildlife. It has surpassed everything I could possibly have dreamed of. I am so incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to come here and to have the experience I now do at only nineteen. I would just like to take a second and thank everyone who made that possible. Thank you to my two best friends for volunteering to pick me up at the airport in Columbus despite the late hour and the inconvenience (you better not forget me). Thank you to all of the people who organized this program, as I was a bit nervous since this was the first year for it. You did a wonderful job; I wouldn’t change a thing. Thank you to my group, who made this trip that much the better. I’m so grateful to have met such a wonderful collection of people that I can now count as friends. Finally, the biggest thank you goes out to my mom for teaching me that the sky is the limit, for pushing me out of my comfort zone time and time again. I know letting me go all the way around the world wasn’t easy, and I appreciate it more than you know.

I feel as though this trip has taught me so much, both about the world and about myself. I’ve spent time acclimating to a whole new culture, but I’ve also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time alone with my thoughts. This trip provided a unique opportunity to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of life. On other holidays, you still have the stress of work or school weighing on you, you’re with your family and your phone probably doesn’t ever stop buzzing. Here, I’ve been on my own, my phone doesn’t work about 40% of the time and when it does, it’s some obscene hour back in the states. The isolation, at first, was a bit unsettling, but towards the end I relished in it. Taking a step back and being able to look at things objectively has been a blessing. This trip was sort of like hitting the pause button on life, while I’ll have to hit play soon, it’s been nice to take some time off.

I would like to think that I’ve grown a lot on this trip, that I’ve learned to take things one step at a time, to relax a bit. I would like to think that I’ve learned to let some things go and also clarified when it’s necessary give in a bit and where I need to demand more. I think the one thing I have learned for sure, however, is that my thirst for adventure isn’t going away anytime soon. Standing on top of a mountain, cruising through the Pacific Ocean, and standing on the very edge of a cliff, amongst other things have only left me eagerly searching for more, and I fully intend to find it.

It’s been a phenomenal month, one I’ll never forget. Each day, a new adventure revealed itself, each better than the last. I considered this trip to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’ve realized I’m going to have to do it at least twice. While I’ve done a lot in my short time here, there’s so much left to explore. I’ve fallen in love with this place, so I don’t think I’m going to be able to stay away. In the meantime though, thanks for the memories NZ, Cheers.

 

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Ending on a High Note: A Weekend at Lake Tekapo

When I signed up to go on this trip, I didn’t really factor in the fact that there would be nineteen other people going. It was a non-issue for me; they would do their thing, and I would do mine. I imagined us as separate ecosystems, quite naively if I do say so. I didn’t stop to imagine the possibility that I might make some (lasting?) friendships.

This past weekend, sixteen of us twenty decided to plan a separate excursion since we had two days off for the queen’s birthday. Sixteen people planned an entire trip, got along, and had a blast. I don’t know about you, but I find that exceedingly impressive.

The entire bus ride down to Lake Tekapo, our chosen destination, I could hardly contain my excitement. Nearly every kiwi we had talked to described this place as a slice of heaven, their favorite place in the whole of New Zealand. Upon arrival, I could see why.

The lake is by far, the most intensely blue body of water I have ever seen. Accented by the snow-capped mountains, the lake glistened like something off a movie screen. I think each and every single one of our jaws hit the floor of the bus when we finally got there.

Another really great aspect of the trip was one that sort of happened by accident. Since it was a holiday weekend, Tekapo was booked full, with backpacker’s lodges not having any rooms available. As such, we decided to rent three hotel rooms and just sneak a few people in. At the time of the booking, we didn’t really pay attention to our accommodations aside from making sure we were close to the lake. We didn’t take the time to realize that we had somehow managed to nap three villas with a lakeside view at an unreal price. This was quite a nice surprise to find.

We started off our first day with a hike up Mt. John to watch the sunset. The hike was a lot of fun, but a lot more treacherous than we had initially planned for. Much of the trail had frozen over so we had to be especially careful. There would be long stretches of clinging to trees or climbing up over shrubs in order to avoid sliding down or injuring ourselves. With a lot of our group not having proper footwear nor a lot of hiking experience, it was a bit of a struggle to get to the top. Once we got there though, I think we were all very glad to have but in the effort.

Standing at the summit of a mountain with an altitude of 3,376 feet is an extremely sobering experience. You feel small, but also accomplished; calm, but simultaneously triumphant. Trees that stand at least five times taller me when next to them now looked like garden shrubs. Passing cars on the road looked like ants. The lake, in contrast, spanned the field of my vision, before disappearing into the horizon. The silence on the mountaintop was deafening, with each of us lost in our own thoughts as well as lost in the atmosphere of the mountain. I would like to think that we all got some sort of comfort at that summit, a peace of mind.

Personally, I sat on a rocky ledge for a bit, just taking in the scene, the crispness of the air and the general feeling of the place. Before this trip, I will admit to being a bit of a mess. Second semester had fried my nerves with stress academically, professionally, and personally (for a taste of this, check out my previous post “The Myth of the Blank Page). Coming here has been such a blessing in that I feel ten times lighter; I no longer have a weight pressing on my chest. I’ve taken a step back and taken the time to relax, to unwind, and to reason through issues that had previously overwhelmed me. Watching the sun sink between the mountains is something I’m never going to forget. I’d like to think that the next time life becomes a bit too much, I’ll just think of that mountaintop. I’ll think of the way the tired sun sank between those twin snowcapped peaks. How the light made the mountains look a bright purple color. Or how the silence was so incredibly pure: no talking, no birds, no busy cars or slamming doors. I like to think I will find that sense of peace again.

That’s enough on my teenage angst, however, and more onto the fun stuff. The hike down was a little rough, with the sun having gone and with it all the warmth we had previously enjoyed. The path had only gotten slicker with the dropping temperature, and so we clung to the brush for dear life, trusting no rock or patch of snow. At the bottom, however, it was all smiles as we reflected on that feeling at the summit.

We turned up for dinner quite early with the hike having left us ravenous. The restaurant we booked was notorious for their lakefront view…it’s just to bad we hadn’t factored in the pitch darkness of the night. Nonetheless, dinner was fun and quite good. I had a delicious udon noodle soup as well as some miso basted fried salmon. We all had some house made ice cream for desert as well (I ordered a delicious bowl of green tea flavored ice cream, my favorite).

After dinner, we headed back to our rooms, meeting back at our villa to hang out and chill for a bit. I mentioned at the beginning of the post how I didn’t really factor in making friends here. I can’t express what a mistake this was. The people I’ve met here are not people I would have encountered were it not for this trip. We come from all different backgrounds, majors, and ages. Our group dynamic is quite odd, and yet, it works. We are all kindhearted and truly look out for one another. Sure, we have a few jokes at the expense of each other (okay, a lot more than a few), but we know how to have fun and we genuinely have grown to care about one another. I count myself as extraordinarily lucky to now call them my friends.

A very unique part of Lake Tekapo is the fact that it has the second clearest view of the stars in the world. I’ve seen stars before, there aren’t that may lights on my street so they’re decently clear on a nice night. Not like this though. Around two in the morning, we all layered up and trekked out to see the stars in a field by our lodge. We plopped down and laid amongst the frozen blades of grass, taking in the sky above us. With the new moon making things even clearer, the stars were so unbelievably bright, they looked as though they were fake. The purple outline of the Milky Way was clearly visible, creating an awe-inspiring view. I will say, I didn’t stay out for all that long, after twenty or so minutes, I was ready for bed. The view was incredible, but I wanted to be rested for the sunrise trek to the lake in the morning.

At 7:00 in the morning, our alarm clocks blared, rising us from what’s probably been our best sleep since we got here (the room had heat, something most of our homestays do not). I will admit to a moment of weakness in which I contemplated going back to bed and missing the whole thing. I’m only human.

Upon dressing and layering up for a frigid morning, we headed out the door, groggy and blurry eyed. The second our feet hit the beach though, our eyes went wide and the weariness left us. I know most of those who read this blog are probably tired of me describing things as beautiful. Honestly, to me it sounds like a cop out. But the fact of the matter is that there are not any words in the English language that are capable of describing the sights of seen in the last few weeks. Lake Tekapo is one of the hardest. Seeing the lake at first light was a wholly unreal experience. The stillness of the lake combined with the frosty morning made it appear as though made of glass, the mountains accenting its near-frozen beauty.

We sat there for upwards of 45 minutes, watching the sun make its ascension to the sky. Again, totally silence ensued (for at least the first half of the time, we are a particularly chatty group). After, we headed back for breakfast and check out, readying ourselves for another hike.

Our hike this time wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the climb up Mt. John, it was actually quite the opposite. We took a bath around the lake, stopping at a few beaches here and there, enjoying a relaxed view of the scenery. We laughed and talked and munched on the snacks we had brought as well as some hurriedly made PB&Js (they were made with love though).

Overall, this trip has been one of the best parts of New Zealand. We planned it by ourselves and it went off without a hitch. That’s not to mention the fact that it was a boatload of fun. Everyone hung out together as well, it wasn’t just like we split off into our factions and ignored everyone else. While there are those of us who have become closer than others, we are, overall, a very inclusive group and that’s something that makes the trip that much the better. I suppose I will conclude by saying once again, how incredibly blessed I am to be on this trip. It’s better than anything I could have imagined.

Another Phenomenal Week

It’s hard to believe that as I type this, I’m finishing out my last weekend in New Zealand. It’s hard to believe how fast these three weeks have flown by and how much has occurred in such little time. I’ve had some incredible experiences as well as met some amazing people. I went from being surrounded by strangers in a foreign country to creating some phenomenal (lasting?) friendships in a place to astonishing to be real. I’m so incredibly grateful to all the people who made this trip as awesome as it has been, both here and back at home. Now, enough with the sappy nonsense and on to the fun stuff.

This week was a pretty low-key one, with the finishing of our research project being the prime focus (believe it or not, I do actually attend class here). We had a few adventures after class, but for the most part, school took center stage. One of these little excursions included a trip to the middle of nowhere to find this awesome t-shirt shop with my friend, Audrey. We got there right before they were about to close, and instead of booting us out, the lady let us browse and chat for a little bit which was really nice. I swear, Kiwis are the friendliest people on earth. After that, we sat in a café for what felt like just a few minutes, but turned out to be hours (side note, I got this caramel coffee cake that was to die for). The plan for the day had been to catch up with the rest of the group at the art gallery, where an event on Kiwi culture was being held, but we wound up missing them. That’s not to say we didn’t go to the art gallery though. I wasn’t initially thrilled about the event, as it didn’t seem like there was that much to do, but Audrey and I wound up sitting in on this really cool discussion on “Cultural Cringe”. It was an open talk about how New Zealanders perceive their culture and it was really interesting.

Another cool stop this week was the Antarctic center. Christchurch is the location of the U.S. Antarctic base so hence; there is an Antarctic center. The highpoint of this trip, however, is when we got thrown into a room that was, at the time, 17 degrees, a balmy summer day in Antarctica. However, this room was actually a storm simulator, which means wind turbines were turned on, lights went off, snow was kicked up, and the temp dropped to negative one degree Fahrenheit. I will say that the two other people aside from our group had to be pretty amused by the mob of 16 Americans running around yelling.

After the Antarctic center, we headed out for our final B.Y.O. (for an explanation of what this is, check out my previous post). Since my home sister was leaving that day, I met up with the group later and enjoyed a last meal with her and her family. Upon arriving at the B.Y.O. though, I found the group to be in good spirits to say the least. This B.Y.O. was definitely the most entertaining with two of the boys deciding it would be a bright idea to down two Chinese hot peppers. David wound up under the table and Wes wound up in tears, as did the rest of the group. We topped the night off by heading to the foundry, the university bar/event center to watch the live band before heading home.

The real fun began yesterday though, with our cancelled trip to Akaroa being made up. Akaroa is a port on the East coast of the south island that was formed by a volcano millions of years ago. We got to really explore the unique area by taking a harbor cruise out past the bay and into the Pacific. On the way, we saw breathtaking landscapes, a volcanic vent, penguins, dolphins, and seals. It was fantastic, seated at the front of the boat, I had a front row view. A quick note about the dolphins: they weren’t just your average run of the mill dolphin (you know, because I see dolphins all the time back in Ohio). These dolphins were Hector’s dolphins, the most rare dolphin in the world. Growing to only a meter in length and having unique white markings on them, they are only found here in New Zealand. I’m so glad we were able to make up the harbor cruise on a day so gorgeous. The water was probably the bluest I’ve ever seen and with the sun hitting the ocean mist as it rose from the waves, it looked photoshopped. Our boat, for the most part, was silent on the way back. There’s just something about gliding over the water, with the wind in your hair and the tang of salt on your lips that is so incredibly clarifying. I don’t know how you could have a worry in the world with such an incredible experience. HAR_1283.jpg

We finished the day off with some fish and chips and a little bit of souvenir shopping around the town. The drive home, however very weary after a long day, was gorgeous. We weaved through mountain roads and watched the sun set over the city. I swear, I really, really don’t want to leave this place

Today proved to be just as awesome as we trekked off to Castle Hill. For those of you who don’t know, this is where both The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia were filmed. Upon arrival, I could see why.

Massive rocks jutted from snowy outcroppings as the land wove its way into the mountain ranges. The air was warmer than usual, but still crisp from the snow so most of us wound up ditching our winter jackets as we climbed up the hills. The rocks were unreal, and upon climbing them, the view beyond was just as fantastic.

Castle hill wasn’t our only stop for the day though; we also headed to a local farm. Since New Zealand has more sheep than people, it was only fitting that we should see one before we left. The farm was really fun, with us getting to see a farm in action as well as eat a phenomenal farm fresh meal (I’m still full). The real fun though, came when the farmer decided to prove his point on the importance of sheep dogs. He had volunteers attempt to herd the sheep through the gate, two at a time, just as the dogs do. Naturally, Audrey and I volunteered.

HAR_1798.jpgToday marks the end of our university-sanctioned weekend excursions. Again, I don’t want this trip to end. However, I am excited for tomorrow as our group heads off on a mini trip we planned to Lake Tekapo for the queen’s birthday. Lake Tekapo is supposed to have the second clearest star gazing in the world as picturesque turquoise waters dotted with wildflowers. This time of year, it’s also supposed to be covered in a light frost. We’re staying the night, so we’ll have plenty of time to take in the sights. I can’t wait.