The odometer keeps turning

5 September 2012 § 1 Comment

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Welp, it’s been one year, one month, and one day since I got back (nearly to the hour) and what a ride life has been since then!

I’ve gotten over my crippling reverse culture shock and homesickness, although it took a while. It’s a good thing I was broke when I stepped off that plane, or I would probably have bought a one-way ticket and gotten right back on. Talking to friends who went abroad helped some, especially my friend Clare who spent a whole year in China. Coming back to the “real” world, which used to be so familiar and no longer is, when your life used to be a thrilling ride and now seems mundane to the point of being depressing, is really hard.

Fortunately, the human mind is resilient, and life creeps up on you when you’re not watching. I turned 21, made fortuitous encounters on my birthday, applied to grad schools (for corals), traveled, wrote my thesis (on corals), traveled, got rejection letters, got some acceptances too, got my license, traveled, graduated, went to my first conference (about corals), traveled some more, moved two thousand miles, and here I am today.

Letting go of New Zealand and accepting it as a memory rather than a lost life to pine for took a lot of work. I was moody for nearly six months after coming back, conflicted, withdrawn, comparing everything and always finding Texas lacking. But, bit by bit, life back home turned out to be pretty awesome, too. How could I deny that spending New Year’s with my best friend in a tent in a randomly chosen state park was an inferior experience? That Texas in full wildflower bloom was anything less than a divine sight? That finding out the guy I’d had a secret crush on for two years liked me back was less worthy of my attention than the wonderful boy I dated in Dunedin? (Hm, my life appears to be about boys a lot. That is (un?)fortunately what happens when you are twentysomething and prone to fee-hee-lings.) It’s still been a rollercoaster. Seeing my u’s, s’s, and Kiwi-isms gradually drop from my speech was heartbreaking, as was getting delightfully Kiwi texts from 2degrees alerting me that my balance was “a wee bit low” during the conference in Australia.

Where am I now? In Oregon, in a cozy small town an hour from the coast, about to start my studies for a PhD in zoology. I’m not going to lie, Oregon appealed to me because it looked just like New Zealand when I visited for interviews back in March, right down to the sheep grazing in the rain as I left the airport. But, my life is what it is and New Zealand is both a step which helped me get to where I am today and a goal for the future (I’d love to get a job at the (former?) Ministry of Fisheries or whatever it’s called nowadays, or even do a postdoc at Victoria U in Wellington).

Wonderful Kiwi Boy and I are still great friends and email once a month or so, my adorable Not-So-New Boyfriend is everything I could have hoped for and a bit more, Best Friend is always up for an impromptu adventure like sleeping under the stars by a remote lake in Wyoming or driving 4000 miles to get ourselves to our respective new homes in two different states, Old Friends send silly letters and let me sleep on their couch so they can see me, Kiwi Friends planned a reunion tour at Thanksgiving but it’s okay that it fell through, we’ll find some other way to catch up.

Now that I’ve turned in my too many pages of a thesis, officially graduated from uni, and am settling in to my new place (it’s been about 24 hours, and none of my stuff is here yet besides a suitcase full of clothes), I’m in pretty good shape to finish telling my story. Leaving my home of ten years in Texas is a bit of a shake up which made me realize that, really, home is where the heart is. I’ve got homes on three continents and that’s quite all right.

I started drawing a comic last year (until real life got too hectic in the way only the last semester of college can be) which sorely needs updating, but I don’t have my scanner with me yet so that will have to wait. In the meantime, I should post some more of the (4000+, y’all!) pictures I took in Aotearoa, give you some stories, and happily wait for the day when I can go “home”!

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Milestone

19 September 2011 § 2 Comments

It’s been a month and eight days since I left.

The leaflet from the study abroad office said the best way to cope with being back was to write about it, so maybe this is the push I need to finally get back to documenting everything on here and share my photos and experiences with whoever wants to sit through and read them since so far no one has even seen a tenth of the pictures I’ve taken or heard a millionth of the stories I have to tell, and I have to share them somewhere otherwise I feel like I might explode.

The flight back was exhausting, more so mentally than physically: I didn’t want to go back. Eventually, the 25 hours of travelling and worrying and feeling EVERYTHING caught up with me. The first thing I said to my parents was “Mommy” and then immediately started crying and blowing snot everywhere. Classy as.

At first, it was so good to be home and hug my family and see my friends and stay up until 3 catching up with my best friends. Then it was good to be back in Austin, then the new schoolyear euphoria. That’s worn off now.

The first wave of “homesickness” hit a couple of weeks ago, when I was sitting in a friend’s car listening to music and suddenly everything was wrong and I didn’t want to be here anymore and I almost started crying. In a car in the middle of the day on the way to the grocery store. Pathetic.

It’s been creeping up gradually: I notice New Zealand in the news more often, I’ve met a couple Otago people around campus, Dunedin friends are posting pictures of the RWC on Facebook, I’ve been craving fish and chips, I haven’t unsubscribed from mailing lists so I still get the student newsletters, my credits still aren’t processed, there’s a scholarship for postgrad study in fisheries supported by MFish and NIWA that I can’t apply for but a guy from their office is trying to help me find a way to maybe find funding to come back for a PhD or a postdoc or something. I Want To Go Back.

The past week, I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with how things work here. They don’t work like they do in New Zealand, people don’t do things the same way, things are complicated, too inefficient, too expensive, it’s too hot, it’s too dry, it’s too this and not enough that. The final straw was not being able to find such a simple thing as berry yoghurt so I could make ambrosia for my birthday party.

Tonight, it’s just everything coming together. I feel miserable and I want to go back. I love my life and my friends here and I love my life and my friends there. I’m stressed out because I need to decide where and how to spend the next 5 to 7 years of my life in the next two or three months. I’m in reverse culture shock and sometimes I feel so alienated even from my best friends because I keep on saying “In New Zealand this” and “When I was at Otago that” and sometimes they just don’t get it even though I’m sure they try their hardest because they love me and they’re my friends. I miss my flatmates, I miss flatting life, I miss neighbours and classes and the lab and the sea and being able to walk everywhere, and because I’m human and completely pathetic, above all I miss the boy who made New Zealand even more wonderful than it already was.

IMPORTANT: 8.9 Earthquake in Japan

11 March 2011 § Leave a comment

I haven’t even gotten to writing the part of my journals where the Feb. 23rd quake happened, and a new natural disaster has struck: a massive 8.9 earthquake in northeastern Japan. The quake triggered tsunamis up to 10m in height in Japan, and almost all Pacific-bordering nations are on tsunami watch. Yes, this includes New Zealand, and it means that a marine science field trip planned for early tomorrow morning has been postponed (yet again). The wave(s) are expected to hit Dunedin starting at 6:21am local time, the boat was set to leave at 8:15am. The waves shouldn’t be more than 1m here, and as we are on the southeastern side we are relatively safe, but I will keep you updated.

You can check the following websites for information:

NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

USGS Latest earthquakes in the world – Past 7 days

BBC live coverage

New Zealand Herald

Otago Daily Times (Dunedin local news)

To all of my New Zealand friends and friends around the Pacific (and especially my daddy dearest in California): stay safe.

Update (12:45am): the tsunami warning has been lifted for Australia and New Zealand, but the New Zealand government still maintains a tsunami watch and advises people to stay out of the water.

January: Culture, Odds and Ends

5 March 2011 § Leave a comment

The smallest coin is worth ten cents, so all prices are rounded to the nearest ten when paying cash (even though many things are advertised costing .99 or .95 at the end) The bills are really colourful and pretty, there’s one famous person on one side (Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Edmund Hillary [scaled Mt Everest, a bunch of his gear is on display at the Otago Museum!], Kate Sheppard [womens’ rights advocate, New Zealand was the first country to grant women the vote], some others I don’t know cause I don’t have the bills) and a native bird on the other side. They also have a little fern-shaped see-through window (the silver fern is one of the national emblems of New Zealand).

I have also been asked to describe the plugs in detail: they basically look like a sad version of US plugs. Interesting tidbit: all the plugs have switches and can be individually turned on or off, which is quite ingenious and energy-saving and probably much safer as well. Extremely confusing, though: until someone showed me how to turn them on I was completely puzzled as to why nothing I plugged in worked.

Things are on the left—cars drive on the left, yes, but people also walk on the left. It makes for awkward run-ins when you have several groups of leftist tourists running into groups of rightist tourists.

It is perfectly acceptable to walk around barefoot here. On the bus, a young man walked onto the bus with a bag, a guitar, and no shoes (sorry sis, no pictures and I didn’t ask his name either). Phil spent the entire day barefoot, walking into fancy wineries without so much as a raised eyebrow from the managers. People are really more relaxed and casual here.

31 January: Rainy day in National Park

5 March 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s still drizzling when I wake up in the morning.

In fact, it doesn’t stop drizzling when I laze around in bed waiting for it to stop.

It’s still drizzling when I finally decided to give up and pack up my tent and show up at the hostel 5 hours before my check-in time. By the time I get to the hostel, I am drenched. It wasn’t the nice kind of drizzle, it was the “look at me, I’m so innocent HAHAHA JUST KIDDING I WILL KEEP ON BEING ALL SMALL AND INNOCENT UNTIL NOT EVEN  A DRYSUIT WILL KEEP YOU DRY”

When I check in, I am informed that the weather might be too bad tomorrow for the crossing to happen–if the weather is too inclement, if there is too much wind, the crossing is closed. The Tongariro Crossing isn’t any hike: 19.4 km of strenuous climbing up the sides of Mount Tongariro. Too much wind means you could be blown straight off the mountain.

Slightly disheartened, I change and spend the rest of the day reading by the fire and trying to dry out. Fortunately, as National Park is also a ski hub in the winter, the hostel is equipped with a drying room, which means that my tent and clothes should be dry and warm by the next day despite the rain outside.

By the fireplace, I meet Sue, a lone American traveller, and an unnamed German traveller. Like everyone else in the hostel, they are here for the crossing, but have already been here a couple of days due to weather.

Overall, an uneventful day.

30 January: Wanganui to National Park

5 March 2011 § Leave a comment

The morning was a blur of planning and trying to get a general idea of what I was doing next. The first thing I did, however, was (through the magic of Google Voice, I love that thing) call Chris to wish him a happy birthday (because, you see, it’s not his birthday yet in the US so he wouldn’t be expecting it at all.)

Having checked out of the hostel, I managed to talk the owner into keeping my stuff in the office while I did various errands around town. I first headed to a nearby park in search of a gypsy festival I’d seen advertised on a flyer somewhere. It turned out that the festival was nowhere to be found and I’d gotten the date wrong. To make up for it, there was another one of the fantastic New Zealand playgrounds distract me. I wouldn’t call myself an authority on Kiwi playgrounds, but it appears that Mother Goose is a common theme.

The way back to the hostel through town passed in front of the I-site, so I took advantage of it and dropped in to ask about the Tongariro Crossing, a hike which Claire had enthusiastically recommended but I knew nothing about. The lady I talked to was of course a trainee, so it took about thirty minutes for her to stop trying to sell me things and handing me brochures I didn’t want before she actually got around to telling me about it. It turned out she had nothing very helpful to say and tried to sell me a bus ticket when I asked her for driving directions to the crossing. Eventually, I disregarded most of what she said and used one of the free internet posts to book two nights in a backpackers including breakfast, a shuttle to the start of the hike and pickup at the end, and weatherproof hiking gear. And no bus ticket, because I’d have to stay another night in this very boring place, so I might as well hitch a ride out of it this afternoon and allow for a night on the road in case I don’t get a ride all the way there.

Those errands done, I kept on walking into town with the help of the guidebook (which as of last night I was incredibly grateful for, it comes in handy when you have no map of the tiny place your bus just dropped you off at and there are no shops open to provide you with a map) and visited a couple of shops including a glassblowing gallery.

On a hunch, I decided to acquire a tent so I wouldn’t have to repeat the Owhiro experience. After visiting a few outdoors shops, I found one who would sell me a tent for $100, which was more expensive than what I was willing to spend but apparently was the cheapest I would be able to find. I told the owner to put it on hold for 30 minutes or so while I checked a couple more shops just in case (because I didn’t entirely believe him). Very fortunately for me, a big-brand store just a block down was having a massive sale, so I ended up buying a very decent $160 waterproof tent for $80. Also expensive, but it could pay for itself if I spent just 3.5 nights in it instead of at a backpackers. At 3.5 kilos, the tent would add more weight to my stuff than was comfortable to carry, but I guess sometimes you don’t have a choice.

Having retrieved all of my stuff from the hostel and done a few groceries, I stopped in the park for a quick picnic (incidentally, peanut butter tomato camembert sandwiches are quite a good combination, thank you very much). After a bit of a wait for a ride (I had to move down the road several times before I reached an optimal hitchhiking point), a very nice man from Whakatane picked me up. Lucky day for me, he was going all the way to Whakatane and passes by National Park on the way, so he would drive me all the way there.

The drive is very scenic, and Terry (the driver) has done it plenty of times, so he pointed out several points of interest on the road and knew the perfect stop halfway through so he could check on the trailer behind the car and I could stretch my legs a bit: a beautiful waterfall. There are also many beehives scattered in the fields and trees.

Further along the way, once we are within sight of Tongariro National Park, snow-covered peaks appear in the distance. The temperature has warmed up and is quite muggy, so the snow is a bit unbelievable. Mount Ngauruhoe, the tallest of the three volcanoes, looms with an unmistakable air of Mount Doom. Appropriate, since it was chosen as the real-life model for Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (I believe one of the questions someone asked was “Does all of New Zealand look like Middle-Earth?” I would answer with a picture since it’s worth a thousand words (even if the one-word answer is yes), but uploading the vast majority of the 3000 or so pictures I’ve taken since arriving would be a pain.) Inevitably, I end up making a mental note to have myself an LOTR marathon sometime in the near future.

Terry drops me off in the middle of the aptly-named National Park village, which is composed of a petrol station, a bar, a restaurant, and ten backpacker hostels. And a handful of houses. It’s 4pm, and about 24 hours earlier than when I planned to arrive. That means an early baptism for my tent, and I now need to find a campsite. I don’t want to camp just anywhere, this is after all on the very border of a national park (and besides, this is a plateau and everywhere is absolutely flat with almost no trees to shelter behind.) On a stroke of luck, I notice that most of the houses have no car in the driveway, closed curtains, and no lights on: most likely holiday houses. And, uh, if I don’t make a mess, no one will mind if I camp on someone’s lawn for a night, right? So that’s what I do. I find a house with no an invitingly empty back lawn and a tool shed to pitch my tent behind just in case.

I spend the rest of the evening wandering around town (there is the tiniest of railway stations on the edge of town) and eventually settle in with caramel Tim-Tams and my computer so I can catch up on writing my journals. As the night falls, it starts drizzling. Safe and dry inside my tent, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be in a rainstorm.

29 January: Windy Welly to Wanganui

5 March 2011 § Leave a comment

After my rough night, I was quite displeased to realise that it was Saturday, meaning that there was no bus service from Owhiro Bay to Wellington. And that Wellington was seven kilometers away. And that it was all uphill. I’ll spare you the cursing and grumbling.

Eventually I was in Wellington, going through Central Park to reach the railway station where I could catch a bus or a train to somewhere (because I still hadn’t decided where to go). Central Park was nice and peaceful, especially so early on a Saturday morning. On the way, I chanced across the playground, which instantly made my day much better: there was a giant flying fox (zipline) and absolutely no one else was there. And by giant zipline, I mean I was going so fast at the end that the reverse momentum was enough to kick me halfway up the line again. After a while, I decided it was not reasonable to spend my entire day in the playground, so I started walking again. When walking through the less reputable parts of the city, I realized that I hadn’t seen a single multiple-storey apartment building until now. Even in Christchurch and Dunedin, it was all houses (even “flats,” I’d always thought flat meant apartment but apparently it means something more like inexpensive house?).

At the railway station, the not very friendly man at the ticket counter told me the bus to New Plymouth had already left, so I scratched that option from my list and went across the street to (where else?) a McDonalds for a well-deserved (and delicious) hot cocoa (okay, I mean, there was a heart drawn in the foam in powdered chocolate and two marshmallows on the side. How much classier can it get?) and hopefully snag an intercity bus ticket online. Fat chance, the next bus out goes to W(h)anganui, leaves in 5 hours, the website won’t let me book online, and my battery is running out. Back to the railway station, I go to the grumpy cashier again, book my ticket in person, buy a few groceries and find a nice corner bench to nap on while I wait forever.

I could sightsee, but I’m too tired to move and besides I’d have to lug all my stuff around. Anyway, today is the races and there is a special charter train, so the people-watching is interesting. It’s like the Kentucky Derby, except that instead of being old and posh, the people are in their twenties and some are already drunk. The ladies are in fancy dresses and fancy hats (or have giant flowers or feather contraptions in their hair), the gents have ties and jackets and I even saw a top hat and cane.

Several hours later, after phasing in and out of a sleepy haze and occasionally shooing away the undaunted pigeons and sparrows, the bus arrived. It was warm and more comfortable than a cold metal bench, and I don’t remember much of the journey. The only marking point of the otherwise boring trip was seeing my first pukeko in-between two naps. Pukekos are the New Zealand version of a swamp hen, are dark blue with a big red beak, and are apparently famous for not being very road-savvy and almost suicidal when it comes to crossing.

W(h)anganui is boring. Its name is the only interesting thing about it: it’s pronounced Wanganui, and thus was spelled that way until historical analysis/Maori people pointed out some technicality I don’t remember that meant that the correct spelling was Whanganui even though “wh” in Maori is pronounced “f”, or for the linguistics buffs, “an unvoiced fricative, both lips together with the air allowed to escape through”. Much politicking eventually settled on the compromise that you could spell it however you want, so half of the time it’s spelled Wanganui and the other half it’s Whanganui.

The main town centre is fairly pretty, with flowers and benches, but it’s obviously a tourist trap and little else. I managed to book a bed in a hostel, which turns out to be very boring and old-fashioned. The EFTPOS machine at the desk wouldn’t accept my card, which means I had to go find an ATM back in the town centre at 9pm so I could pay for my bed.

The only other people in the hostel were a German family who hogged the couches in the common room until late at night and a single traveller from the UK who was heading up North like me.

There was also internet, and even better, internet of a kind I already had a voucher for. I was able to Skype with sleepy but excited Becca and Chloe, and after some technical difficulties, Anna. I’d been starting to feel homesick and in need of familiar faces after last night, so this was a very welcome distraction.

Despite the fair level of crummyness of the hostel (6 out of 10 on the moldy scale), the bed was comfortable and I had an entire room to myself because this hostel had single-sex rooms and I was the only woman staying there. Score.