Archive for February, 2010

Why I Love New Zealand…

Photos of the North Island: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Coromandel, Poor Knights Islands

Red Crater, Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tairua Surf Beach, Coromandel Peninsula


Poor Knights Islands


(Let’s) Go Hike a Mountain: Making and Keeping Friends While Traveling Abroad

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Mt. Ngauruhoe, Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I hadn’t seen Kate, one of my dearest friends, in over four months.  She only lives two hours away by car.  You can imagine what this implies for friends who live two days away by plane.

As you may recall, Kate is the British girl who accompanied me on my sojourn from Wellington to Auckland. After over a month of fruitless job searching in Auckland, she relocated to the Coromandel Peninsula in October, where people are generally more accepting of her nose ring, Florence Henderson haircut, and second-hand clothes.

While Kate was working and dating in the beach town of Tairua, I was doing the same in Auckland.  However, unlike Kate, I had wireless Internet, Facebook, and cell phone reception.  We stayed in touch as much as possible, but we never managed to actually see each other.  Clearly, only a special event could bring us together, and that event was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Considered to be one of New Zealand’s best one-day walks, the Crossing is a nineteen-kilometer trek over the steep volcanic terrain of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro.  Kate and I first learned of the hike in July, when we went snowboarding at Mt. Ruapehu.  Both activities are located in Tongariro National Park, but the idea of climbing an active volcano in the snow was about as compelling as the idea of skiing on gravel.  We vowed that when the weather warmed, we would return to complete the Crossing.

Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen. I finished working at the end of January, leaving me almost four weeks to travel before leaving New Zealand.  However, my boyfriend offered to take me surfing for the last two weeks, and I doubted that Kate and I could coordinate a trip in so little time. Thankfully, we both perform better under pressure.  A few days after I finished my contract, I met Kate in National Park village.

Kate was already a few days into another reunion.  Roger, one of her best mates from England who she hadn’t seen in over two years, had made New Zealand a quick stop on his six-month journey around the world.  Given that the Crossing is a quintessential North Island activity, we invited him along for the hike.

Unlike many activities popular with the masses, the Crossing actually lives up to its hype. Emerald Lakes glitter in the blazing

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing

summer sun, cloud shadows dance upon the rocky slopes of conical Mt. Ngauruhoe, and steam escapes from vents like a sulfur-scented air freshener.  We clamored past painted rock formations and colorful craters, breathed the moist air of a lush podocarp forest, and reapplied sunscreen, often.

The only low point occurred when we stopped for lunch and Roger announced he didn’t have the room key, even though he had been the one to shut the door.   Fortunately, when we returned to the hostel after a day of perfect weather, beautiful scenery, and strenuous activity, we found the key dangling from the outside lock and all of our stuff still inside the room.

The next day, Roger went to jump out of a plane in Taupo (for fun, not as punishment), while Kate and I am ambitiously hitchhiked nearly 350 kilometers from National Park to Tairua in the Coromandel. (Note to my mother: it’s still safe to hitch in most parts of New Zealand.) We made the journey in just five rides and six hours, and only one driver showed any indication of being a total nutter.

I learned many valuable lessons along the way, such as hitchhiking greatly resembles speed dating, only you don’t want to date the people you meet so much as write novels about them.  Or that on long car rides, strangers will tell you all manner of things that neither of you want you to know.  Also, never get in if you don’t trust the driver, allow the driver to make an unplanned stop or detour, or put your bags in the trunk.  Most of all, I determined that friendships, unlike romantic relationships, don’t require constant contact or close proximity for survival.

In fact, after observing Kate and Roger, I would argue that distance might be beneficial in certain cases. The incident with the keys was only one of many complaints Kate lodged against Roger once he was out of earshot.  Mostly, she griped that he was selfish, lazy, and clueless.  “He’s a twenty-eight year old male who still lives with his ridiculously wealthy parents, what did you expect?” I reasoned.  “Traveling will be good for him.  Give him a chance to change before you write him off.”  That’s when Kate confessed that she wasn’t disappointed in Roger; she was scared that she no longer had anything in common with her friends from England.

Many long-term travelers share the fear that after a long stint abroad, they will find themselves irreconcilably distant from close friends.  In my experience, this is an irrational fear. Becoming an expat does change you; but you probably became an expat because you were different to begin with.  If your friends got you before you left, they’re likely to still get you when you return home.  Besides, traveling is not the only thing that changes people.  Love, marriage, children, mortgages, careers, graduate school, and ageing all impact personal development and personal relationships and don’t require a passport.  It’s possible that while you were evolving overseas, your friends from home were evolving in exactly the same way.

Don’t do your friends the injustice of presuming they can’t understand you simply because they’ve never left home (and for everyone’s sake, please have something to talk about other than your own travels). And don’t naively assume that if you lived next door to your best friend you will still be as close now as you ever were. As we mature, pursue romance, follow our life’s dream, and inherit responsibilities once delegated to our parents (cooking, cleaning, paying the bills), we have less time for our friends, and our friendships progress or plateau, persevere or vanish. No doubt you will miss your friends while you are gone.  However, so long as your friendships are based on genuine affinity rather than history or convenience, you won’t lose them.

Of course, part of my connection with Kate comes from the fact that we are both restless souls.  I wish I could drop by Kate’s place unannounced because I happened to be in the neighborhood, seek her advice rather than report on the results, or actually do stuff with her instead of tell her the story later.  Our lifestyle just doesn’t allow for it.  But, there is something magical about our marathon gossip sessions; Kate’s epic, stream of consciousness, punctuation- and paragraph-free emails; and our girl-bonding vacations.  Three days probably provided us with enough inside jokes and unforgettable memories to last us until next time – June 2010, Melbourne, to celebrate our birthdays.

The Most Superlative Road Trip Ever!: Traveling Abroad With Your Parents

South Island, New Zealand

Kaikoura, New Zealand

It’s my parents’ fault that I’m an expat.  Not because they traumatized me as a child, but because they encouraged me to go abroad from a very young age.  When I was nine, they let me live with a French family for three weeks in Paris. By the time I graduated from college, I had backpacked through Europe, gone on Spring Break to Central America, and exploited my Jewish heritage for a free trip to Israel. My parents also led by example, having themselves been to places like Brazil, Russia, China, and Finland.

Interestingly, even though I always traveled with my parents’ blessing and often on their dime, I almost never traveled with them.  When I was a kid, family vacations involved a van large enough for my brother and I to each have our own row of seats, books on tape, and a national monument.  Admittedly, those trips were a lot of fun, but you don’t get a stamp in your passport when you enter Disneyland. The problem was my brother, whose comfort zone doesn’t extend past North America.  He even suffered culture shock during a business trip to Montreal.

However, during my semester abroad in Barcelona, my parents and I spent a long weekend together in England.  Then, while I was living in Argentina, the three of us met in the middle in Colombia; and my mother came to Buenos Aires three times. Most recently, my parents joined me for two weeks in New Zealand.

Having your parents visit you abroad is stressful, the way high school reunions and annual performance reviews are stressful.  There’s pressure to look your best, demonstrate that you’ve accomplished your goals, and prove that you’ve made something of your life.  Because long-haul flights are expensive and unpleasant, you feel personally accountable for everything from the weather to their health to how much things cost.

In the past, I had alleviated my sense of duty by convincing myself that I was an excuse to travel to exotic locales.  This time, I knew that New Zealand was only on my parents’ radar because I live here.  I worried they would grow bored of New Zealand, fast.  My parents aren’t exactly nature lovers; they would rather analyze paintings of landscapes than actually go outside. Entertaining my parents without the aid of art museums, architectural masterpieces, and historical sites is like throwing a children’s birthday party with no cake, games, or presents.

I wanted to show my parents what makes New Zealand special, so I decided to take them to the South Island. Our first destination was Kaikoura, a stunning beach town north of Christchurch, where an abundance of marine wildlife feeds in the nearby waters.  We booked a whale-watching tour, and had the good fortune to spot a number of albatross, six Sperm Whales, a pod of Dusky Dolphins, and an Orca Whale.  Sadly, thanks to an unfortunate combination of rolling waves, the lamb pie she ate for lunch, and my dad’s driving, my mother spent most of the trip vomiting off the side of the boat.

We spent the next day in Christchurch, where my parents finally got their culture fix – the impressive art gallery, the lovely Botanic Gardens, a production of “Anything Goes”, and dinner at a Greek restaurant owned by an actual Greek couple (and their mothers).

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

The following morning, we drove through Arthur’s Pass to Franz Josef Village.  With the help of a pair of crampons and a young Kiwi wielding a pickax, we climbed part way up the face of the Franz Josef Glacier, a mountain of moving ice that resembles a Baked Alaska filled with windshield washer fluid.

Murchison Lookout Point, New Zealand

On the way to Nelson, we stopped to see the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki, and the seal colony at the aptly named Cape Foulwind.  Near Murchison, we hiked to a lookout point and contemplated the verdant, pastoral landscape.  “I would love to see what the impressionists would do with this,” remarked my father.

We dedicated a day to sampling Sauvignon Blanc in the Marlborough wine region. Astoundingly, my father was sober enough to

Abel Tasman National Park, Coast Track

drive us back via Queen Charlotte’s Drive, a short, curvy stretch of highway with incredible views of the haunting Marlborough Sounds.  In New Zealand, driving between destinations is a noteworthy activity due to the majestic scenery. The next morning, we walked a few hours of the famous Abel Tasman National Park Coast Track.  In the afternoon, we called in at the Ngaru Caves, situated under the summit of Takaka Hill, before watching the sunset over Golden Bay.

Then, we returned to Auckland, where my parents left me while they went to Rotorua to see the geothermal parks, soak in the hot mineral baths, and eat grass-fed New Zealand beef behind my back.  At the weekend, we scoped out the art galleries in Parnell, and took the ferry to Waiheke Island, where we had a fabulous lunch at Stonyridge Vineyard, and made one final pilgrimage to the beach.

To everyone’s surprise, my parents loved New Zealand.  Before they left for the airport, my parents lamented, “I can’t believe

Sheep, New Zealand

we’re leaving already; it feels like we’re just getting started.” During the drives, my mother would hang out the back window and take pictures of sheep, and my father interrupted every conversation with an involuntary, “Wow!  Look at how pretty that is.”  Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the road signs, which espoused such indispensable driving tips as, “Too close?  Back off.” “Too fast?  Slow down.” “Have to pee? Pull over.”  My parents were charmed by the Kiwi hospitality, and I was amused by the ubiquitous use of superlatives.  Everywhere is the best, biggest, first, or highest something or other. The New Zealand tourism department must have a team dedicated to handing out paper plate awards.

Yet, of all the must-see, can’t-miss things we did, what I enjoyed most was the novelty of being in the same city as my parents.  I used to reason that if I didn’t live abroad, I wouldn’t be in touch with my parents much more than I am now, because I wouldn’t live in my home state of Michigan.  Of course, that’s not true.  You can’t use free nights and weekends to call New Zealand, not least of all because we don’t have the same nights or weekends. There’s no rationalizing my way out of it: homesickness is one of the unavoidable costs of living abroad.

If it’s hard for me, I can only imagine what it’s like being the parent of an expat.  My mom, bless her heart, still can’t work out the time difference.  She has to confront subtle attacks on her parenting, like, “How could you let your daughter live in South America?” (As if moving to Argentina was equivalent to getting pregnant and dropping out of high school or as if my parents could do anything about it.)  And it can be a challenge for her to trust that my choice to live abroad is nothing personal.

Parents always have an image of what their children’s lives will be like. My parents certainly never fantasized about me living permanently in the Southern Hemisphere and earning money as a temp.  Even though they raised me to be independent, they didn’t intend for me to be so distant.  I used to get annoyed when my parents tried to guilt-trip me into a trip home or talk me out of my next crazy move.  Now, I appreciate that they miss me, worry about me, and want me closer.

I’m lucky.  My parents might have different plans for my life, but they both defer to my wishes.  Not only do my parents support my lifestyle, they also make a concerted effort to be a part of my life. Even though I wish I could see them more frequently, and for fewer hours at a time, I’m grateful we get together at least once a year.  We have a new tradition and amazing memories to hold us over.  I’m not sure how interested my parents will be in a trip to Sydney next year, but I wonder if I could sell them on Bali?

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