A year in the making and I still have no idea what to write here. Should it be a summary? A play-by-play of my New Zealand life that touches on everything, but dives into little? Or maybe a how-to guide for people looking to move abroad? To live in a van. To escape the mundane. It could be a story, a fantastical rendition of a life pieced together through a little bit of planning and a whole lot of sheer blind luck.
It's going to be none of these.
Instead, it's going to be a series of brutally honest disparate moments that will undoubtedly mean less to you than they do to me. This will be a collection of those tiny moments that have buried their way into my memory because what other way to tell a story than by those moments which never really ended? It's the sandflies, the wind, the rain, the hot, the cold, the desperate search for wifi, the endless hours in libraries, the even more endless hours in the van, the loneliness, the anti-socialness, the questionable diet. It's the mountains, the rivers, the beaches, the oceans, the lakes, the creatures, the ferns, the hundreds of sunsets, the dozens of sunrises (it's much harder to wake up than to stay up), the fast friends, the never before-had strength in my legs, the never before-had strength in my mind.
This will be a glimpse at the unforgettable moments of a life lived without (too much) fear of the unknown.
This will be my New Zealand story, told in moments.
The Hard Part
Ten days in, stuck in an endless cycle of hurry-up and wait with nothing more to do than wander the city streets and think. In those first ten days of sorting out a new life, the thoughts weren’t so kind. That’s the scary part of uprooting your life for something you can never truly prepare for. By day ten in New Zealand what I knew for sure was this: I had no home to call my own (no real reason to return to Oregon and just a house full of my childhood in Wisconsin, but few of the pieces that made it my home), my beloved car had been scrapped (part of the plan, but still a bitter sting), all of my friends were scattered around (but none in the same country as me), and my dog, a beautiful little mutt that I picked out when I was 12, was put to sleep days after I landed on the other side of the world.
This is the hard part. The part where everything is in flux and you doubt your decision but there’s no going back, even if I caught the next plane home, because there’s no job, no home, no car, and no Kenya, not anymore.
This is the hard part. The part where you want nothing more than to hug your mom and cry over the loss of your best friend, but she’s 8,191 miles away, so you settle for an empty park bench.
This is the hard part. The part where you question it all but you have no choice but to move forward.
This is the hard part. It’s not the first, nor the last, but it’s the worst.
This was the hardest part, so the rest only goes up.
Nearly three weeks in and on only slightly more stable ground, life is better out of the city. I went north, with nothing in mind other than to see whatever there was to see. The beginning was lonely, hurting for company in the absence of routine, something I had never really struggled with before. I pride myself on my ability to enjoy my own company so it was jarring to feel the unfamiliar pang of loneliness so early in my move.
The beginning was a learning experience, one unlike any other I’ve faced. I had to relearn everything including how to be alone. How to drive (on the left side with all new signs and indicators), where to shop (which one was a grocery store? Which one a general? Where can I find this? Where can I find that?), how to use a credit card (which option to pick on the machine when I’d never had a choice before). The list goes on and on and on. A list of insignificant things that only matter after they build upon one another.
My days were spent driving. No real destination, just a general direction and an image of the ocean. Driving down long gravel roads that dead-end after 20k, using up fuel for no other reason than to have something to do. When not driving, I was hiking, exploring at a pace that would’ve suited a shorter time-frame (the lesson in slowing down would come later), but I struggled to fill the hours just before dark. The in-between hiking and driving and reading, when the sun was still up, but I’d run out of things to do.
This is where I learned what a culture that values overstimulation really does to a person, even one who never considered herself a standard product of her country. This is where I started to fix that damage.
This is the learning part. Difficult in a new way, but touched with determination and challenge.
I’d never been on a beach with no footprints before, at least not one that big and that beautiful. I walked slowly as if moving any faster would invite others in. The water was blue, the sky was pink, the sand was golden, and I was the only one to witness it.
Later I would see a double rainbow paint itself across the bay from the top of a grassy hill.
I wasn’t lonely in that moment, nor would I be for nearly the rest of my time in New Zealand.
This is where it all fell into place.
Never before have I never had to “get back.” “Get back” to the trail, to the campsite, to school, to work, to real life. There’s always an end that I have to reach. But here, rock-hopping along the shores of the Coromandel Peninsula, off-track, I feel no rush to get back to anything. The track will be there when I decide to turn back. My camp is my car (freshly named 'Sully'), ready to house me wherever I decide to park him. It has everything I need; food, water, shelter. So I can keep my turtle pace, one boulder after the other, and take in the unreal sights before me.
This is where I learned to slow down.
This is where I’m starting to get good at this. I know how to navigate this country; the roads, the stores, the ins, the outs. I’ve seen some beautiful things, but this is the first place that caught me and the first place I would visit twice.
There’s nothing quite like Mount Taranaki. Shaped like a schoolchild’s science project and shrouded in clouds more often than not, this is the first New Zealand mountain that made me want more. I spent a week here, hunting for the elusive peak. I walked all but one of its trails and I’ll be back for the summit.
There are times when the human body can’t contain its joy. That’s why we smile and laugh and exclaim. But typically, we reserve those things for when we have company. It’s when we can’t contain those smiles and laughs and exclamations when we’re alone that really tell a story. I chase those moments where I shake my head and grin and whisper, “wow” to myself because I cannot contain my happiness.
Taranaki was not the first place this happened, but it was the first where it happened every day I spent there.
This is where it got to be exciting.
Day whatever and I’m parked in yet another carpark where I’ll spend my evening and night. I’m cooking out of the kitchen that is my trunk, picking gnats out of my potatoes without a thought. The river is quiet behind me and the ducks are begging for scraps. I’m thinking about which movie I’ll watch after dinner, because, miraculously, this carpark has free Wi-Fi.
This is where I meet a friend. He’s in the car next to mine, a visitor from Spain. We share stories and food and make plans to explore the town together the next day. We exchange Facebook information and it’s only after I crawl into bed and draw my cowboy curtains that I realize this has become my new normal.
This is where I realize how much I like my new normal.
This is where I realize that the South Island is already living up to the hype. There’s no one here. The lake is quiet and still, the reflection of the mountains is perfect and I want nothing more than to wander up and down its shores. So I do. Six hours of walking, not on any trail, not with any destination, slow as a snail. The sky is drizzling, but it looks so pretty on the water that I don’t try and hide. The first snow of the season will be on the very top of the peaks when I wake up the next morning.
I filled a memory card here. The first one filled by one single place.
This is where I reached a new sense of calm.
(This is also where I meet the Sandfly and develop a hatred I didn't know I was capable of. Win some, lose some.)
This unassuming park, the pit-stop between Christchurch and Greymouth, became my favorite spot in New Zealand. It’s where I explored forests and wandered through valleys and summited peaks. It’s where I felt blown away by the beauty one single place could produce. It’s where I felt physically stronger than I ever had before.
I stood on the summit of some peak I can’t recall the name of and I looked down at a fan of millions of lupines on Christmas Eve. I chased the snowpack so I could build a Christmas snowman, even in the Southern Hemisphere. I ducked down gorges with dead-ends but so many wonders.
This is where I celebrated my very first Christmas away from home. In the company of two other solo travelers, we shared a gourmet dinner of noodles and beans and rice and we shared stories of the world as we experienced it.
This is where I gained a confidence. A confidence to meet strangers, to tackle mountains, to wander off-trail. To continue this life; even beyond New Zealand.
The Untamed Natural Wilderness of the Wild West Coast means a lot of things, but what it really means is rain. All the time. I’m three months into my year in New Zealand, on day four of torrential rain, and vanlife has been good, but it would be nice to have access to a shower more than once a week. And a dry place to stand up. And an income.
Time for the ‘working’ part of my Working Holiday Visa.
I’m at a campground in Franz Josef Glacier, sitting at a tiny table in the tiny kitchen, looking for a job that provides housing, pay, and is located somewhere beautiful. These are surprisingly loose criteria in New Zealand. I recall the comment of a neighbor at a campground the week before and I type in the words next to my previous search.
Three emails, one phone call, and 24 hours later, I have a job at the Milford Sound Lodge.
I had planned to stay for three months. I ended up staying for eight.
I thought this was the responsible part, but it turned out to be the best decision I made during my whole year in the country.
This is the one that deserves its own story.
This is where I realize that these aren’t just my work-friends, they’re my weird, mismatched group of forever people. The kind of friends I’ll actually go out of my way to see again. The kind of friends you normally only make when you’re a kid.
This was a weekend of beach bonfires and beach sunrises, stargazing and laughing, hours of Frisbee turned Monkey-in-the-Middle, icecream, and adventures.
This is where I found yet another family and gain one of the very few things I’d been lacking in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
This is where it all culminated. This is where I was at peace, I was elated, I was strong, I was happy. Aoraki National Park is one of New Zealand’s cornerstones of beauty and I could’ve happily spent my whole year there alone.
This is where I almost stopped believing New Zealand was real.
This is the second hardest part. It’s knowing that you can always go back to see those people or those places again, but it’ll never, ever be the same. It’s knowing that no matter how close you became with the people you meet while traveling, there’s always the possibility that your travels may never line up again. It’s knowing that the world is changing and nothing is forever, not the coastlines, the glaciers, the trees or the animals.
This is also one of the best parts. It’s knowing that you’ve gained experiences, both in people and in places, that will carry you for decades. It’s the memory you’ll relive twenty years down the road that will draw out laughter so intense it hurts. It’s the friend you’ll visit a world-away from where you first met and how you’ll make each other smile. It’s the stories you’ll tell and the pictures you'll share of the world as only you experienced it.
This is the bittersweet part because goodbyes only hurt when you’ve loved something enough to miss it.
Top Photo: Self-Portrait - Tasman Glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand