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Geographically Polyamorous: Having Multiple Countries At One Time

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’m in an open relationship with four countries.  I guess you could say I practice geographical free love.  I entered New Zealand on a one-year Working Holiday Visa.  My first few months were an absolute tragedy, and I had no more intention of extending my stay than of coordinating my five-year college reunion. Weeks were wasted in Wellington wrapped in fleece blankets, listening to depressing music, and devising schemes to get deported.

Then I moved to Auckland, where my quality of life and mental health improved significantly.  By month twelve, I was infatuated with New Zealand’s majestic beauty, in love with my boyfriend, contended with my lifestyle, and reluctant to leave. I was also receiving weekly emails from Immigration New Zealand reminding me that my visa was due to expire.

Protecting your privacy on Facebook is more challenging than obtaining a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa.  For U.S. citizens, the application is free of charge and lodge

d online.  All that is required is that you are between the ages of 18-30 and willing to lie about having health insurance and being financially solvent.  Once you’re hooked on life in New Zealand, the government starts making demands.

To be fair, it is not impossible to extend your stay in New Zealand.  If you have a short-listed skill, are in a long-term, committed relationship with a Kiwi or someone with residency, or can convince your boss that you are indispensable and irreplaceable, you have a good chance of getting another work permit.  However, the process takes months, costs thousands of dollars, and involves medical exams, joint bank accounts, letters of recommendation, and winning a spelling bee.  More to the point, I didn’t fall into any of the aforementioned categories.  My only option was a tourist visa, which would have been tantamount to paying $700 to drain my savings and delay the inevitable.

The best I could do was to take out the atlas and decide where to go next. The obvious choice was Australia.  Ever since arriving in New Zealand, I had heard nothing but rave reviews of Oz from fellow travelers and certain Kiwis whose names have been changed to protect the innocent.  In December, I successfully applied for a Work and Holiday Visa and booked a one-way ticket to Sydney on V Australia.  The flight from Auckland takes about four hours.  My trip will take two and half months, thanks to a couple of extended layovers.

I flew to New Zealand directly from Argentina on a roundtrip ticket.  I never intended on using the second leg, but it was the cheapest option at the time.  However, when I began to contemplate life after New Zealand, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for Argentina. The energy radiating from the city on a warm summer night, the buttery smell of fresh medialunas, the euphonical sound of Castellano: these sensations rose to the surface of my memory like bubbles in a bottle of aqua con gas.  More importantly, I missed my friends.  Returning to Buenos Aires for a few weeks made the most sense emotionally, if not logistically.

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Even though my bedroom is now the guest room, my mother insists on taking offense when I tell her that Ann Arbor, a city I haven’t lived in for nine years, no longer feels like home.  Nevertheless, before I booked my flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney, I called to inform her of my plans. A few days later, she made me an offer she hoped I wouldn’t refuse.

“We’d like to bring you up to the States from Argentina.  You can always fly to Sydney from L.A.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I yelled. “How many times do I have to tell you, I’ve no interest in going to the States? What possible reason could I have for coming home in April?”

“Well, Amy,” my mother sighed, “your grandmother is turning 95, your father 65, and your brother 30.  And we were going to surprise you with your own private jet.”

“Oh, you could have mentioned that sooner.” No matter when I talk to my mother, it seems to be that time of the month.

Following our conversation, I apologized for losing my temper and graciously accepted the free ticket home.  I even agreed to stay for an entire month to be there for Mother’s Day as well.  I didn’t want to go to the States at that time or for that long for a number of reasons – genuine disinterest, impatience and anxiety about moving to Australia, lingering teenage angst, fear of getting sucked into the black hole of satellite TV – but I simply cannot skip my grandmother’s ice cream social. What is the furthest distance between two points?  My trip from Auckland to Sydney.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor

No longer do I worry about baggage allowances, long-haul flights, or lengthy transitions.  My only fear is that I’ll never find a compound big enough to house all of the pieces of my life. No matter where I am, I’m always missing someone or something. While I had a wonderful boyfriend in New Zealand, most of my best friends were in Argentina, and all of my family was in the States. Four friends will get married while I’m in Australia, and who knows how many breakups, engagements, births, deaths or really amazing dinner parties will occur in my absence?

Of course, if I were willing to stay in one place, life would be a lot less complicated.  But it would also be a lot less exciting and fulfilling. The irony is that the thinner I spread myself, the more complete I become.  For a long time, I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged, what my purpose was, or what kind of life I wanted to lead.  These last few years have been like an epic scavenger hunt, where I travel the globe collecting clues to these riddles.  In the process, I’ve overcome fears, gained wisdom, met amazing people, and done and seen strange and wondrous things. I’ve learned to be independent, open, confident, composed, and most of all, happy.

For me, traveling is equal parts compulsion, education, and mission.  Sure, my life can be frustrating, uncertain, and lonely at times, but then again, whose life isn’t? I’ve finally come to terms with my insatiable curiosity, hunger for new experiences, and wanderlust.  Maybe someday I’ll be ready for monogamy; until then, I will continue to be geographically polyamorous.


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?

Why I Love New Zealand…

More photos from the South Island

Milford Sound, Fiordland, South Island

Mirror Lake, near Queenstown, South Island

Milford Sound, Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand

Water Taxi, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.

Why I Love Argentina…

Lombard  Twins & Fernando Otero “Sublevados”

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