Archive for the 'Friends' Category

(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.

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Good While It Lasted: Managing Transience

Wellington, New Zealand

I may be a fan of The Power of Now and a proponent of living in the moment, but if I’m being honest, I don’t and can’t always practice what I preach.  We live in a fearful, future-focused society that encourages us to help our children plan for retirement rather than talk to them about safe sex.  Delayed gratification is a virtue, while instant gratification is seen as hedonistic, frivolous, self-indulgent, and worse, irresponsible. But I believe in the short-term.  I believe that we should allow ourselves to do the things that make us happy now, even if they won’t do anything for us later.  Call me a utilitarian (actually, please don’t), but I believe in the intrinsic value of pleasure.   Yet lately, I’ve been plagued by the question what’s the point?

Considering that I’ve only been in Wellington permanently (and given the nature of the current discussion, I use that term reluctantly) for a few weeks, things are going well.  I live alone and rent-free in a beautiful house, and I have a fun part-time job, friends whose company I enjoy, and a good-looking English guy to give me something to think about.  In other words, there are a lot of things to be happy about.

But happy is not exactly how I’ve been feeling lately.  And trust me, there is nothing more frustrating, obnoxious, or unattractive than being able to count your blessings but not being able to appreciate them.  It’s a little like finding out that your boss, who has a wife and twin girls, is having an affair with the young man who works in the mailroom, and not being able to tell anyone about it.  At first, hormones were my only explanation for this unwarranted and irrational display of indifference.  Until I realized that rationality was actually to blame for my bad mood.

Yesterday, after dance class, I met a friend for coffee.  She had spent the weekend in the mountains, interviewing for seasonal work at a ski lodge.  A lot had happened since we had last spoke, just a week before.  We sat for hours talking psychology, dating, and the hardships of being an expat.  It was one of those great conversations that graduate the relationship to the next level of friendship.  However, when we said goodbye, I didn’t feel satisfied.  I felt empty.  During the evening, my friend had revealed that whether she gets the job or not, she will likely leave Wellington within the next month. And it hit me just how temporary my life is at the moment.

The pleasure we derive from doing certain things, like buying treasury bonds, lifting weights, or shaving our legs is based on the promise that our actions in the present will pay off in the future.  Sure, the more masochistic among us may find such activities amusing (I, for one, do genuinely like going to the gym), but for the most part, we suffer these tasks in silence because we understand that they are part of the creative process.  All of these actions, and the subsequent sore muscles and nicked knees, are necessary in order to reach our objectives.  And it is the knowledge that we are building a foundation or nearing our goal that makes these steps not just bearable, but rewarding.

So, it’s a little disheartening and disappointing knowing with certainty that I will soon have to say good-bye to many of the wonderful things in my life, like the house, my job at the bookstore, and my friend.  And it’s discouraging sensing that the energy I am currently expending will not be compensated.  I just can’t help but feel burdened by the expiration date.  Which brings us back to the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost or to have never loved at all? When I think about my time in Argentina, this blog, or the recent coffee date with my friend and how comforting it was to share stories, worries, and plans with another person, I would definitely place my vote on the former.

Besides, as my friend pointed out, as much as I need a certain amount of stability and control, I also need to explore, experiment, and evolve.  If everything were sorted and settled, eventually I would get bored and crave change.  Rather than resist or resent the transient nature of my existence, perhaps I should try to accept and embrace it, as it gives me the opportunity to constantly refresh and do-over.  The problem is when something ends before you’re ready to give it up.

It’s exhausting to think about starting anew, again. Especially for a girl who may or may not be writing this at 1pm from her bed because she can’t be bothered to get dressed.  I had been hoping to put on cruise control and just coast for a while.  However, in the immortal words of Bryan Adams, “Ain’t no use in complaining when you got a job to do.”  And there’s also no use in staying at home on a Saturday night, even if it is raining, just because your partner in crime won’t be around the following weekend.  So, I guess I’m going to get up, brush my teeth, and make dinner plans with a friend who is leaving for Asia next week.  I might as well enjoy what I’ve got before it’s gone.

I’ll Take You As Far As: Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

En Route to Cape PalliserSeals

I recently finished reading Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s account of his farewell trip through Britain, his adopted home of twenty years, before moving back to the United States.  Personally, I’m a great fan of Bill Bryson, especially of his wit, social commentary, and writing style, and have read and recommended a number of his books.  As usual, Notes From a Small Island made me laugh, taught me something new, and gave me plenty to think about.  However, unlike Bryson’s other works, I found this one to be a bit boring and repetitive, perhaps because, as he points out, Britain is a bit boring and repetitive.  After a while, the places visited ceased to captivate the imagination, the people encountered no longer amused, and the anecdotes failed to entertain.  I remain a loyal reader, but I do suggest skipping Notes From a Small Island and going straight to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Neither Here Nor There, or A Short History of Nearly Everything.  But I digress.

Literary review aside, I mention Notes From a Small Island here because I hold it responsible for what happened to me the other day.  Bill Bryson travels through the UK by means of public transport (bus and train) and his own two feet.  He has a rough itinerary, but he allows himself to veer off course when fancy strikes, even if the travel time significantly outweighs the amount of time spent at the destination.  Once he gets the idea in his head to visit a sight he is undeterred, regardless of how complicated the timetables or difficult the route.

A few people had mentioned to me that the nearby town of Martinborough and its lovely vineyards were worth a visit.  But my guidebook’s vague description of Cape Palliser and Palliser Bay, located along the coast of the Cook Strait, had sparked my interest.  Unfortunately, the explanation of how to get to Cape Pallier was as vague as the description of the place itself. But with Bill Bryson in mind, I decided to forgo the wine and make my way instead for the black sand beaches of the Wairarapa coast.

My guidebook did mention that the Cape was located south of Martinborough.  So, I woke up early to catch a train from Wellington to Featherston, where a perfectly timed bus was waiting to take me to Martinborough.  Once I arrived in Martinborough, I visited the local i-SITE for guidance.  One of the kindly women on duty walked me over to a display of pictures of the Cape and explained that it was just a mere 40 minutes down the road.  “Walking?” I asked, naively.
“No, by car.”
“Is there a bus or some other form of public transportation?” I inquired.
The poor woman looked at me like I had just asked her if Santa Claus was real.  She clasped her hands to her mouth in genuine anguish before responding, “No, lovely, I’m afraid there’s not. Can you drive?” she asked, optimistically.
“Not on the left side of the road.”
“Oh dear, well, I’m not going to show you any more of these photos then.”

Disappointed, I thought to myself, what would Bill Bryson do? And then it came to me in a flash of inspiration.  I would rent a bike and ride to the coast.  When I revealed my plan to the woman at the i-SITE, her eyes filled with tears of pride and admiration.  The problem was that no one could give me even a rough estimate of the distance to Cape Palliser or how long it might take to reach it by bike.  But I figured, what the hell? If I don’t make it, at least it will give me something to do for the day.

I hired a bike from the wine center down the road and set off down the lonely path to the Cape.  The scenery was stunning: sheep grazing in green pastures and white clouds topping rolling hills, typical New Zealand stuff.  The road was paved and decently flat, but after just a short time, I started to resemble the Little Engine That Could more than Lance Armstrong.  I’m not the best or most experienced cyclist in the world, but I’m in shape and have taken more than one spinning class.  The challenge wasn’t so much physical as it was mental.  I enjoy traveling alone, but some activities, such as riding a bike an indeterminate distance through deserted farmland, are just not as much fun without a friend.  At one point, I even started talking to a cat that was crossing the road.

After an hour, I finally came upon a road sign indicating the distance to my final destination.  Cape Palliser, it read, 50km.  That’s when I decided to pull over to the side of the road and have a snack.  I was eating an apple, contemplating my options, and secretly hoping that someone would come to my rescue when a car pulled up beside me.  A young, South African woman and her dog Turbo leaned out the window.  “You alright?” she shouted to make herself heard over the sound of the hip hop music streaming from her radio.  “No, actually, I’m not,” I replied.  I approached the car, explained the situation, and accepted her offer to drive me at least part of the way there.

It turned out that she was free for the day. So, rather than take me as far as she was going, she ended up being my travel companion.  We drove along the coast, stopping to watch a group of Danish surfers battle the waves, take pictures of seals, have a few drinks at a hotel bar overlooking Lake Onoke, and talk about life.  She was absolutely fascinating, and we had a great day together, even though one of the only things we had in common was that earlier that day we happened to be in the same place at the same time.

At five o’clock, she and her boyfriend drove me back to Martinborough.  Before dropping me a few blocks from the wine center (to give me the appearance of having accomplished my stated goal), we exchanged contact information and said good-bye, possibly to meet again in the future.  I returned the bike, and headed to the i-SITE to catch a ride back to Featherston with the woman who had helped me earlier that day.

With a few hours to kill before the train departed for Wellington, I made myself comfortable in an Italian restaurant near the station.  I was trying desperately to entertain myself when the owner came over and handed me a stuffed cow.  “A little souvenir for you to take home,” she explained.  Either it looked to her like I could use a friend, or she, like everyone else in this country, thought that I was under the age of 16.

People often think that I’m crazy for traveling alone, and the truth is that it’s not always easy (although neither is traveling with your best friend).  Sometimes I wish that I had someone with whom to share the experiences and the responsibilities, to help me feel safe and keep me entertained.  But days like this remind me that, even in today’s skeptical, cynical, selfish world, if you’re open to accepting rides from strangers and letting new people in, you’re never truly alone. (A fact confirmed again later that night on the train platform, when a clearly inebriated, middle-aged man introduced himself to me by way of a giant hug).  I like to think that even though I never made it to Cape Palliser, Bill Bryson would have been proud. (Or horrified by my foolish behavior.  He is a father after all).

Home Sweet Hostel: Living Long-Term in Temporary Housing

Wellington, New Zealand

During my travels, I’ve stayed in an infinite number of hostels, pensiones, guesthouses, and any other synonym for budget accommodation.  Whether good, bad, or ugly they were, for the most part, predictable and forgettable.  But a few were downright memorable.

The summer that I backpacked through Europe, a Viennese friend of my travel companion was interning in Bratislava, Slovakia. Curious to know what Communism looked like, we agreed to spend a night there partying with him and his coworkers. After an evening of drinking Absinthe and dancing on a houseboat, we retired back to the cement block university dorms where they were staying.  We found an unlocked room, and even though the mattresses were bare and the doors were riddled with what looked like bullet holes, my friend and I immediately passed out in a drunken stupor.  The next morning, we heard the door creak open.  Terrified, we waited for members of the KGB to rush in and shoot us for being spies.  Instead, a four feet tall Russian maid in a fur rimmed jacket peeked in, turned around, and walked away without further incident.  We immediately dressed and treated ourselves to a McFlurry to calm our nerves.

When we arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, we accepted a strange mans offer to lead us to housing because there was no way we could navigate the subway without him. He left us at the home of an old, shrunken, dusty Czech woman who rented out spare bedrooms to travelers.  In her hand, she held an old, shrunken, dusty book.  She searched determinedly for a particular page and pointed to a specific passage: the English translation of the Czech word for “to pay.”  The other room was clearly inhabited, as evidenced by the cigarette smoke and the sound of the Crowded House song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” which wafted incessantly from under the door.  However, we saw our neighbors, two young German men, on only one occasion: when they emerged from their room accompanied by two scantily clad Czech women whose company had no doubt been included in the price of the room.

Because all of the hostels were booked in Florence, Italy, we followed an old, Italian man home from the train station.  He rented us a room adorned with a four-posted bed and decorated with cheap copies of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in his luminous, airy apartment.  In the morning, we were serenaded by the sounds of he and his wife screaming at each other. Tensely, we listened for one of them to throw the other down the stairs. Our money was on the wife.  Thanks to my Spanish, I understood enough Italian to eventually determine that they were discussing the weather.

On a trip to the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, two girlfriends and I stayed in a hostel owned by an expat from the Northeast, USA, who moved to Central America because he suffered from bad circulation.  My friend tactfully pointed out that he could have just bought gloves.  There were no beds available the first night, but the owner kindly offered to let us sleep in his room (while he would sleep on the couch).  There, we discovered his collection of Playboys from the 1970s, and the fourteen year-old Tica, with lips painted in the unmistakable hue of Wet & Wild watermelon lipstick, who lived in a room adjacent to where we were staying.  It suddenly occurred to us that the climate wasn’t the only reason why the owner had migrated south.

Finally, in Antigua, Guatemala, my friend and I stayed at a hostel that shared its diminutive space with a bar/restaurant.  Every morning at 10am, we opened the door of our room to find the 7-foot tall, dreadlocked bartender/cook from Belize preparing breakfast while the bar owner divided a substance that was not oregano into plastic bags.  Sitting at the table outside our window were a Spanish teacher and her student, conjugating verbs and getting high.

Some of these hostels were actually trip highlights.  But regardless of how comfortable the accommodations, how cool the other guests, or how hospitable the staff, I have never felt compelled to stay in one long-term. Personally, I got my fill of random roommates, communal bathrooms, no privacy, and crowded kitchens during college. I hate keeping my valuables locked away, worrying that someone will steal my groceries (whoever ate my last two granola bars, I’m after you), and listening to the incessant commentary of the elated Chilean who happened to be vacuuming the hallway when I returned to my room from the shower, dripping wet and in a towel.  And yet, I find myself going into my second week at a hostel in Wellington.

The hostel where I am staying has a large number of long-term occupants.  In fact, they offer discounts for longer stays and allow guests to work for housing.  It’s always a little awkward when the person you were drinking with last night is cleaning your bathroom in the morning.  I used to envy long-termers.  They were the ones who knew how to work the stove and turn on the hot water.  They had all of the insider information about the coolest cafes, bars, and restaurants.  And they controlled the remote control and took over the couches in the living room.  I used to look at them like they were part of an exclusive, invitation-only club.  Now, they seem a lot more like fifth-year seniors than members of a secret society.

Many of them suffer from failure to launch syndrome.  They came to Wellington with the idea of getting a flat and a job, and integrating into local life.  Instead they got comfortable staying at the hostel, taking advantage of the free dinners and 2×1 drink offers at the adjacent bar and living vicariously through the backpackers passing through, unable to let go of their travel glory days.

Still, in my current situation, living in a hostel is the best, if not only, option.  It is my halfway house, the place where I am staying while I’m transitioning into a new life.  Plus, in addition to temporary housing, the hostel provides me with temporary friends.   As much as I enjoy and need my alone time, spending all day talking to myself can get boring and lonely, not to mention that it’s a good way to develop a borderline personality disorder.  Even though I dread fighting for pots and pans and making small talk after a long day, I secretly love coming home to friendly faces that understand what I’m going through, even if we’re going through it separately.  So even though the search for a flat and friends outside the hostel is definitely still on, there’s no immediate rush.  Because, who doesn’t love going out on St. Patrick’s Day with Irish guys, playing cards with a Swedish couple, and watching Tango & Cash with a group of Dutch, Spanish, and French kids?

Despedida: Saying Good-bye to Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I thought that I could get away without having a despedida. As much as I like being the center of attention, I don’t like to be the reason for or the hostess of an event, especially when the event is saying good-bye to my best friends.  I just couldn’t handle the concept of everyone getting together to talk about how much we’re going to miss each other.

When one of my friends decided to celebrate her birthday on Saturday night, I was relieved. She offered me the night first, but I liked the idea of being able to see my friends without ever having to actually acknowledge that I’m leaving.  I may not be the one getting married, but I was hoping to run off to New Zealand and elope without anyone noticing.  Besides, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to plan an evening more entertaining than Korean karaoke (you even get your own private room and machine).  Unfortunately, my plan backfired.

Before I had even sung my first Britney Spears number, my friends were already asking when we were going to get together again.  As I explained to them that I, like most women when they turn 30, wasn’t planning on dignifying my departure with a party, they nodded sympathetically before discussing amongst themselves potential places, times, and activities.   By the end of the night, nothing had been confirmed, except my sneaking suspicion that friends don’t let friends leave the country without saying good-bye.

Sunday afternoon, the designated social coordinator of the group called to ask if I had made up my mind about the despedida.  Of course I wanted to see everyone again, but I couldn’t decide which would be more depressing: spending time with my friends “one last time” or not.  Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t think of a good pretext for seven people hanging out on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

In the end, my friend convinced me that no planning was necessary, and gave me a moving speech about needing to give my closest friends the opportunity to say good-bye, as if I had just died and was trying to decide whether or not to have a funeral for myself.  I sent an email at the last minute, inviting everyone to my friend’s apartment that afternoon.  Hours later, we were eating homemade avocado dip and chocotorta, gossiping about the previous night, playing Apples to Apples, and making each other laugh.  The truth is that I was going to be sad no matter what, but it’s far better to be sad and in good company than sad and alone.

I think that what made my despedida so nice is that it was not anything out of the ordinary.  It was just another reminder of how wonderful it is to belong to a group of people who love each other, especially one that doesn’t need an itinerary to have a good time.  I’m glad that we had the chance to make one last memory in Buenos Aires, because I don’t know when, if ever, such a moment will arise again.

I’m great at being gone, but I’m terrible at good-byes.  I get overly sentimental, wanting to do, see, touch, and taste everything one last time because I’m convinced that good-bye is forever. But this time, I know that Buenos Aires isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the memories or friendships that I made here.  However, even though I will maintain my relationships and likely return to Argentina in the future, even if just for a visit, it will never again be exactly as it is now.

I think that part of what makes leaving Argentina so hard is that I’m not just saying good-bye to friends or a city.  I’m saying good-bye to an era.  When my friends came over to meet my mother, we took a Buenos Aires class picture. Staring at that photo later, I realized that three people were already missing – they left Argentina earlier in the year – and that nearly everyone else had plans to be gone within the next year or two.

Someone once told me that life is like a spiral – we go around in ever expanding concentric circles, passing by the same points, but always at a different point in our lives.  Of course, different can be just as good or better, but when you like things the way that they are, it can be hard to let go.  So, that’s why I don’t want to do anything special to commemorate my last few days in Buenos Aires. I prefer to carry on with business as usual, doing the things that have characterized and defined my life for the past three years, like run in the park, go shopping with friends, and write, because pretty soon, everything will change.  I may be ready to move on, but I’m still sad for what I’m leaving behind (including all of the clothes that didn’t fit in my suitcase).  In fact, I have to get going.  My friend is waiting for me so we can order take-out, eat dinner on her balcony, and talk about the guy she’s dating.

Coming Up On Your Left: Entertaining Guests

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaPaddle Boats

Hosting is as much a part of living abroad as is learning a new language.  Yet, in all the time that I have lived in Buenos Aires, I have had virtually no visitors (except my own mother). I did get to see a few friends and acquaintances when they passed through town.  But I was not the motivation for those trips, just a bonus.

My two worlds have never truly collided, and most of my friends and family from the States have never interacted with my host country or actively participated in the “Argentine years.” My life at home and abroad were both present during the past three years, but they almost never appear together in the same memory. Pictures allow people on both sides of the equator to put faces with names, but they cannot take the place of actually experiencing a place en vivo y en directo.

Besides, guests give you an excuse to act like a tourist in your own city.  You get to do all of the things that life, work, and pride don’t normally permit you to do – visit museums, drink at Irish pubs, rent paddle boats in the park, carry a map, take pictures.  But maybe I’m just idealizing and romanticizing what it’s like to have visitors.

I have enough friends who practically run hostels to know that being a host is hard work.  Your guests may be on vacation, but you, typically, are not, and differences in time, energy, and budget can make it hard to keep up.  After a few days, you find yourself shoving a guidebook in your guests’ hands and agreeing to meet them for coffee after work.   Having nonstop guests is especially difficult right after you arrive.  Establishing a routine is impossible if every few weeks, visitors come and upset it, and developing new relationships is challenging when you’re busy entertaining old ones.

There is also the pressure and the guilt you feel if your guests are uncomfortable or not having a good time.  In your mind, the city is a reflection of you, and you are responsible for all that happens there.  You want your loved ones to like where you live in the way that you want them to like your boyfriend. If your visitors so much as observe that it would be nice if the sidewalks didn’t have potholes, you get defensive. No one is allowed to talk badly about your city, except you.

Moonlighting as a tour guide/babysitter is worth it in order to spend quality time with close friends and family.  But what about when your visitors are slightly more distant?  There is always some kid you shared a desk with in fourth grade who heard from your parents that you are living abroad and wonders if it wouldn’t be too much trouble to stay with you for a few days.  Of course, you can’t remember if you even like this person.  But the “travelers’ code” states that if you have the space, you have to put them up.  That’s just what you do.  And most of the time, it’s what you want to do.  Just remember, don’t let other people’s vacations get in the way of your own life.

Luckily, my mother was easy.  My mom has been coming to Argentina since before I could locate it on a map.  This was her seventh trip to Buenos Aires, which means that she’s already done and seen it all. The only things on her list of “musts” were: eat empanadas, get together with friends, and spend time with her daughter.  Check. We actually made it a point to get out of town, spending a few days at the incredible Iguazú Falls. The only problem was that since my mother had no agenda of her own, I was left to fill in the gaps in our itinerary.  And as I tried to come up with ideas of fun and novel things for us to do together, I was forced to ask myself: “What the hell am I doing here?”

The hardest part for me about having visitors is that it forces me to confront the fact that I’m just not that into Buenos Aires.  I’m always excited when people tell me that they are coming to visit or stay for a few months, because I know that they are going to love it here.  Most people do.  But they are almost always meat eating, Malbec-drinking, Tango-dancing, Latino-loving, party animals.  And I’m not.  I am a vegetarian, I prefer white wine, Tango bores me, most Argentine guys are not exactly my type, and I will never understand the logic behind starting your night at 2am.  And while the city’s cultural offerings are nice, they are not exactly worth renewing your passport for. This is not to say that Buenos Aires isn’t charming, beautiful or worth visiting.  But in my case, it doesn’t offer me enough to compensate for the noise pollution, exhaust fumes, catcalls, inefficiency, broken sidewalks, and bureaucracy.

So, how did I end up here, and for so long?  Because at first, I didn’t know any better, and honestly, I didn’t care.  Before moving to Argentina, I didn’t do much research or pay attention to the details, because all I wanted was different and distance.  And I certainly got both of those things.  Buenos Aires was a place where I could explore, experiment, resolve, and grow.  It was a place where I could live well.  And it was a place where I could make some of the best friends I’ve ever had.  But it’s not a place where I see myself long-term, because the quality of your life is inextricably influenced by the city where you live.

When I was applying to colleges, my parents (half) joked that I could go to any school I wanted, as long as it was in a place that they would want to visit.  And I think that a good rule to follow is: if are going to move abroad, and take on all of the associated expenses, you should pick a city that you personally would want to visit.  Otherwise, you won’t last long.  That’s why I’m optimistic about New Zealand, a country famous for it’s great outdoors, extreme sports, sheep, and Sauvignon Blanc.  And if any of that sounds appealing to you, you’re welcome to crash on my couch, just as soon as I have one.

Stuck in the Middle: Caught in Pre-Travel Purgatory

Somewhere between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Auckland, New ZealandMerry-Go-Round

There is a reason why I don’t make plans in advance: I can’t stand waiting for them to happen. There’s too much time for thinking, for raising expectations, and for talking myself out of it. There is too much time for daydreaming (or day-nightmaring).  And since things never work out the way you imagined, if you fantasize away all of the best outcomes, what are you left with?  Disappointment. Most people call this anticipation.  I call it purgatory.

Being noncommittal in my daily life is easy (especially when you have patient friends and family who love you, even if you RSVP or cancel at the last minute).  But there is a fine line between being relaxed and being flaky, and you can miss out on opportunities if you don’t move fast enough.  Sometimes, the circumstances require advanced planning.  Like when other people are involved, or you’re moving abroad.

The idea to move to New Zealand was inspired by a friend from high school.  She is marrying a Kiwi in March on an island outside of Auckland (the island’s name, which I can never remember, is Waiheke).  In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to the wedding and stay indefinitely.  (Or maybe it was a stroke of déjà vu considering that I ended up in Argentina for exactly the same reason.)

Even though the date was set and I was set on going, I dragged my feet on purchasing a ticket.  Because no matter how committed you are, until you spend $1,250USD on a nonrefundable plane ticket, you can always change you mind.  Trust me, I’ve done it before.  Like the time I told everyone that I was moving back to the States and then called my mother two weeks before to tell her, “Hey, remember when I said I was coming home?  Just kidding.  That was a terrible idea.” But prices were going up and availability was going down and I had to act early.  I booked my flight to New Zealand an impressive three months in advance.

With my ticket purchased, I had a new question to face: What the hell am I going to do with myself until I leave?  I quit my job a few months ago and decided not to look for work immediately.  I had been fairly miserable, and I wanted to give myself time to reclaim my soul, relax, and most importantly, think seriously about what I wanted to do with my life.  By the time I decided to move to New Zealand, there was no sense in looking for work in Argentina. Jobs, especially temporary, well-paying ones for foreigners, are hard to come by.

At first, I loved my stint as a desperate housewife.  I took meditation classes and breathing seminars.  I spent days running in the park, reading on the balcony, cooking, cleaning, and sunbathing. I took my time: no rushing, no obligations.  I became my own boss (and, it must be said, I am a phenomenal boss).  I discovered what kind of lifestyle suits me best.  I discovered my passion for writing.  And most importantly, I learned to enjoy life. (I highly recommend voluntary unemployment to everyone who is willing, able, and in the throes of an existential crisis.) And then the boredom set in.

One of the great ironies about being unemployed is that you finally have the time to do all of the things you were unable to do while working.   You just don’t have any money. And finding cheap, meaningful ways of entertaining yourself can be something of a challenge.  I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, or worse, like Pinky and the Brain. Every morning, I wake up and ask myself: “Gee Self, what do you want to do today?”
“Same thing we do every day, Self.”
“Try to take over the world?”
“No, go for a run, do a little writing, kill time stalking people on Facebook and checking my blog stats, prepare lunch, meditate, write a little more, cook dinner, watch America’s Next Top Model, and go to sleep.”
“Oh, right.  That.”

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a playground near my house.  I love to swing and was starting to take off when the most amazing thing appeared: a government worker who takes her job seriously.  Wearing a hall monitor’s vest with “Department of Open Spaces” stamped on the back, she informed me that the swings were not for adults.  She was like those teenagers who worked at the movie theater when I was growing up who actually kicked unaccompanied minors out of R-rated movies.  I think that one of the kids at the park had tattled on me.  That’s when it became clear that I am starting to overstay my welcome.

Now that I know what I want to do and where I want to do it, I am eager to move forward.  But I am trapped in the present.  The reality is that the next six weeks will fly by, even if every day feels like an eternity. And before I know it, I will have to admit that for all my talk about wanting to move on I am not ready to go.  Saying goodbye is going to be painful and getting settled in New Zealand is going to be stressful, and I just want to get it over with already.  It feels like waiting to get test results back from the doctor.  You are scared and anxious, and despite your best efforts, your fear and anxiety taint everything you do.  There is no point in fighting or resisting. I simply have to accept the fact that I will not be at ease until I leave.

In the meantime, I am in limbo, trying to take care of unfinished business so that I can cross over in peace.  I spend my days writing, working on my tan, and waiting for my friends to get off work so that we can spend time together.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a savings account for quality time. No reserve that you can draw on in the future when you feel lonely.  You just have to enjoy your friends while you’re all still around. And that kind of makes it worth being stuck here a little longer.


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