South Pacific! (Not the musical, the cruising adventure!)

Through a bit of luck, we had the chance to travel through the South Pacific for Christmas on a cruise ship.  It was T’s first ever cruise and it has easily been 20 years since I went on one to the Bahamas with two sorority sisters.  So at 4am one morning, we staggered to the taxi waiting to take us to the airport, got a crazy-early flight to Sydney, Australia, and got on a floating city (otherwise known as the Rhapsody of the Seas) later that afternoon.  We cruised to an area of the South Pacific known as Melanesia and visited islands in New Caledonia and Vanuatu.  My French (a necessity in New Caledonia) was rusty to non-existent, and I wound up saying “Ah, oui!” a lot.  It seemed to work.  Je comprend un peu, however, so I had entire conversations with people in which I nodded a lot, said “oui” a lot, and occasionally said, “Non.”

One phrase I knew well, however, was”C’est combien?” (How much?).  It was always on the tip of my tongue.  Much to T’s distress.

We went snorkeling in Vanuatu, had a bit of a car adventure in Noumea, New Caledonia, got frustrated in Lifou (also New Caledonia), and enjoyed swimming in the sea and laying on the soft, shell beach of Mystery Island.  But by far, our favorite place was Isle des Pins (Isle of Pines) and we’re pretty sure we want to go back.  Here are some pictures from our trip.  Enjoy!

Leaving Sydney harbour and floating past the Sydney Opera House.

The Jean-Marie Tijbaou Cultural Center, Noumea, New Caledonia.

Our first stop was the capital city of New Caledonia, Noumea.  New Caledonia is under French rule, but the Kanaks are the indigenous people of New Caledonia.  The Tijbaou center is a celebration of Kanak culture and an homage to the leader of the Kanak independence movement.

A replica of a grand case (big/important house--primarily ceremonial and one per tribe)

Beautiful Anse Vata (still in Noumea) where we had lunch on the beach. French baguette, cheese, apples, and juice.

Saying "Au revoir!" to New Caledonia. For a day, at least.

Our next stop was Port Vila in Vanuatu.  I should mention that it rained for a good portion of our trip (though it IS rainy season!), so when we could snap pics in the sunshine, we did.  Vanuatu was all about snorkeling and eating super-fresh pineapple and berries from the market.

snorkeling in Vanuatu. Honestly, it was like swimming in a tropical aquarium!

Yummy fruit and veg from the market in Port Vila.

In front of the market in Port Vila. In addition to fruit and veggies, there were gorgeous flowers, exotic fruit drinks, dancing, singing, and lots of fun.

What does that say? No sitting on the wall.

The next day, we went to Mystery Island, part of Vanuatu.  It’s very small and just a great place to swim in the sea and laze about in the sun.  Which is exactly what we did.

Enjoying the beach and marveling at the crystal clear water.

Local boys, playing in a field, just off of a small cove on Mystery Island.

That's 200 Vatus, or about $4.00 NZ. Still, it's a long way to go for a cup of coffee!

After Port Vila and Mystery Island, we headed to Lifou, another island in New Caledonia.  This one was more frustrating.  We landed in an area that wasn’t near any major areas, and there was very little information (and a lot of misinformation) about how to get anywhere.  In the end, we paid for a 45 minute tour that we thought was taking us to We (pronounced way), but in the end, no one seemed to know the way to We.  (I couldn’t help myself, sorry).  No matter, we walked to the top of a cliff and got amazing views and got some great pictures too.

Coming in to Lifou.

The view from the top of the cliff. Definitely worth the climb!

Leaving Lifou--I was ready for another swim!

Our final stop on the trip was Isle des Pins (Isle of Pines), New Caledonia.  The people were warm and kind and greeted us with flowers as we came off the tender boat.  The island is pristine and mostly undeveloped (i.e., there was a complete lack of tacky tourist stops.  Hooray!).  We had hoped to go out on a Pirogue, which is an outrigger boat and something that Isle of Pines is best known for.  Alas, the weather did not want to cooperate, so we rented a car instead and explored the island by foot and by car.

Perfect snorkeling water.

Column pines, what the island is known for. They look like jagged teeth from far away. This was near Baie d'Oro. We took a nice bush walk across to a natural swimming hole, but it was too cold and rainy to take a dip.

Part of a pirogue, waiting patiently in the bay.

Like being home. Our walk back to the tender port--I could have walked this tree-lined drive for days.

A final glimpse of one of the many gorgeous bays at Isle of Pines.

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The Beautiful and the Wretched

T and I travelled to the Bay of Islands this past weekend to celebrate his birthday early (unbelievably, our birthdays are only a day a part, and I have this thing about birthdays being both individual and individually special).  I had never been and he had only been there once or twice.

The top of the North Island. We started in Whangarei, drove to Pahia, Russell, Opua, and Kerikeri, and across to Kaihohe and Hokianga

The Bay of Islands is considered a wee gem, even by New Zealand standards.  Sometimes, it feels like you’re visually overstimulated living here.  You can’t appreciate the pretty because there’s no “ugly”, there’s no wretchedness.

This trip was beautiful.  And it was ugly.  And at the end of it, I came away enriched in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.  There are four reasons for this—some light-hearted, some just gorgeous, and others troubling and unsettling.  But first, let’s start with the fun.

Reason number  1:  The toilets

We flew into Whangarei and then drove to Paihia, stopping in Kawakawa for a break at the famous Hundertwasser Toilets.  Frederic Hundertwasser was a Viennese architect with a very, erm, interesting aesthetic.  He bought a second home on the coast near Kawakawa.  When the local council announced in 1998 that they wanted to refurbish the 40 year old toilets, he volunteered a design in his idiosyncratic style.  Given the whimsical approach New Zealand takes to many public spaces, it’s not surprising that Hundertwasser’s plan was adopted, grass roof and all. The design also includes a living Macropiper excelsus tree, after which the town is named (The Maori word for the tree is Kawakawa). This was the only building he designed in the southern hemisphere, and it now is probably the most photographed public toilet in the world.  It’s also, the weirdest.  Here are a few of my pictures of it:

The inside of the toilet area

From the outside

Reason number 2: Stunning landscapes.

This is simply photo porn.  Enjoy!

Looking from Flagstaff Hill, Russell

The shoreline in Russell

A small boat in the Opua harbour

A gorgeous old church near Paihia

Rainbow Falls

Looking down at the Stone Store in Kerikeri--the oldest stone building in New Zealand.

Reason number 3: Standing up for what’s right.

This was an unexpected experience and one—on reflection—I’m grateful for.

We took the ferry over to Russell from Paihia—all of a 5 minute trip.  Russell is a lovely, resortish sort of place full of boutiques, cafes, and old buildings with historical markers.  It is also the first capital of New Zealand and the sight where European settlers arrived, including Anglican missionaries who witnessed to the local Maori population.  It reminded me a bit of a seaside Savannah.

You could really feel the history in some of the places.  As I sat in one, alone and deep in thought, a woman came in with cleaning supplies.  She was on the building’s cultural board and it was her weekend to tidy up.  We struck up a conversation.  She was from the UK originally, but had lived in New Zealand for about  thirty years.  We talked about Savannah and the South.  She mentioned that the evening before she had attended a Thanksgiving dinner with some people from New Orleans.

What I’m leading up to starts with what she said next.

“They said that there was still so much racism there,” she said.

Not sure where she was going with this, I replied, “I think it’s fair to say that racism exists everywhere.”

“Well not here.  There’s no racism here.”

I think my raised eyebrows gave away my surprise.

She explained.  “It’s not about racism with the Maoris.  It’s about role models.  They aren’t very good role models for their children, are they?”

“Excuse me?”

She leaned in a way that I can only describe as conspiratorial.  And it angered me.  “They’re all on the benefit.  All they’re doing is teaching their kids to be lazy and live on the benefit.”

At this point, I had a choice.  I could smile benignly and change the subject, thus letting it go, or I could say something.

I said something.

“I don’t think that’s really accurate,” I began.  “And, regardless, it’s not about role models.  It’s about ending a cycle of oppression and racism.  That takes a long time– it’s endemic  *and* systemic.  You can’t just change that overnight.  And to say that racism doesn’t exist here is just… well, I’m sorry, but it’s just wrong.”

She waved her hands in the air.  “Oppression?  Racism?  I think that’s debatable.”

“There’s nothing debatable about laws that basically stripped Maori of their property or that laws that prohibited Maori children from speaking their own language in public,” I said, genuinely angry at this point.  “ I don’t know what you call it, but that sounds like oppression and racism to me.”

Before she could reply, we were interrupted by a jovial older man who came in to join her in her cleaning.  She turned away and I returned to some quiet contemplation.  I think God was probably looking out for us both in that moment.

I was seething inside, though.  The conversation had really bothered me, for obvious reasons.  But what really angered me was that she somehow thought I might be sympathetic to what she was saying.  Was it because I was an immigrant, like her?  Was it because I was a white girl from the South?  Was I being overly sensitive to the issue because I *am* from the South and race relations are always present somewhere in the periphery.   I don’t know.  At this point, I don’t care, but I was honestly astounded that she believed that these were “truths” and thus safe to share with a total stranger.

It rattled me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In fact, it still rattles me.

In contemplation, I am glad of two things.  First, I am glad I said something.  For lots of reasons I won’t go into here, people don’t always have the luxury of being able to say something.  I know some would disagree with me on that point.

Second, it’s the first time I’ve encountered such direct statements about race in New Zealand, and honestly one of the few times I have encountered it in my life.  That shows me that while there is obviously still a lot of work to be done, there’s a lot that has already been done.  I can live with that.  For now.

Reason number 4: Seeing where it all started

Tying everything together was our visit to the Waitangi Treaty grounds on our last day.  Waitangi is typically translated as weeping waters.  Though, some believe it can also translate into falling tears.

The Waitangi Treaty grounds is the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Crown and the Maori.  It is the birthplace of modern New Zealand.  It’s where it all started for most of us.  It’s where it changed for many others.

I thought about the Revolutionary War and the birth of America.  I thought about the riots and the skirmishes and the wars going on all over the world over so many of the things that I experienced in the microcosm of our weekend away.  Once again, I realised that the same struggles exist almost everywhere to one degree or another.  That people are fighting, have fought, and will fight for many of the same things.

As I stood looking out over a gorgeous bay under the shade of century old trees, the Tui birds danced and sang on their branches.  Anyone I know here will tell you that I have a thing about the Tui birds.  I looked up and I smiled.   And I thought to myself, “This is New Zealand,” this is the world,  both the beautiful and the wretched.

Looking out over the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Inside the Waitangi Wharenui

Rocks and Islands and Life’s Eternal Question

Since moving to New Zealand, I have accepted rides from strangers.  I have been kicked out of a bar (by association).  I have habitually jaywalked.

I have faced the prospect of being alone in a place so very far away from home.

I have been more straight-forward with people on difficult subjects.  I have dressed up like a zombie.  On purpose.  In public.

I have asked a total stranger for his phone number (for a friend).  I have met the total stranger with my friend at a bar (not the one I was asked to leave).

I have successfully driven on “the wrong side of the road” for over a year.

I have had fun.  I have been scared.  I have been sad.  I have been angry.

I have learned that I like Indian food, that I like eating more vegetables than meat, that I can tell the difference between a good laksa and a not-so-good laksa.  I have learned that pumpkin and kumara humus is delicious.

I have learned that some things in life are sacred.  They are, in no particular order: love, loyalty, curiosity, friends, laughter, and cornbread.  But only cornbread like my Papa used to make.  I have accepted that I will never be able to make it the same way.

I have learned that the core of me is the same, no matter where I live or what I do, but that I can change.  That I have changed.  That I am changing.  That I will continue to change.

I now wear patterns (occasionally) and layers and boots and scarves and don’t worry about standing out.

I think about all of these things as I get ready to leave for a trip home next week.

I wonder if my friends will think I’ve changed?  Will I think they’ve changed?  Will I miss Wellington?  Will I want to leave Savannah?  Will I ask for coriander and courgette instead of cilantro and zucchini?

Will I unthinkingly say, “Cheers, mate,” instead of “Thank you.”?  Actually, that’s a very unlikely scenario.

I have no idea how I will respond to any of these potential questions.  And (maybe this is the Kiwi creeping in me), aside from mentioning all of these things here, I don’t really care.

I can’t wait to see Wright Square, to have lunch at the Pink House, to eat real pulled pork with mustard sauce, coleslaw, and maybe a rib or two.

But in saying that, I know I’ll miss hearing the Tui birds sing every morning and that cheeky cat who saunters along the waterfront.  I’m going to miss Rahzoo and walking the waterfront on Sunday mornings.

In short, I’ll miss home when I’m home.

It’s a very odd feeling to have one foot in Savannah and the other in Wellington.  The halves of you are stretched between two planes of existence, and you never wholly fit into either.

Though in saying that, the constant stretch and pull of finding my center when I’m not sure where center is has provided unparalleled opportunities for growth and experience.  And I love Wellington, and New Zealand, and on most days, feel like this *is* home.

At its worst—on days when I feel isolated and sad and unsure of where I am and what I’m doing—having two homes is a displacing, discomfiting existence.

We need an anchor in life.  I disagree with Simon and Garfunkel—we are not rocks, we are not islands.  But even if you were an island, sometimes, the best of yourself fails you, and you need the warm, comforting blanket of familiarity and history.  You need the terra firma of a back garden in Brunswick,Georgia or a front porch in Savannah,Georgia.  That is your rock.  That is your island.  That is what gets you through the times when you’re experiencing a sort of emotional vertigo.

I saw a German film at the NZ International Film Festival called, At Ellen’s Age.  It was a weird, disjointed film about a middle-aged woman whose entire life turns upside down and—in an effort to discover who she is without the definitions of her job and her partner, she careens from one bizarre experience to another.  I didn’t particularly like the film, but I knew exactly where Ellen was coming from and why she did some of the things she did.  I understood the choices she made in the end.

We are all pursuing our authentic selves.  Part of human experience is stripping away the layers and definitions and wondering, “Who am I”?

I had a voice teacher who told me once that she would study voice until the day she stopped singing.  When I asked her why she would do that, why she would continue to learn about something she had obviously mastered, she replied:

“When you stop learning, you stop living.”

Well, indeed.

Here’s to a few more rides with strangers, trips to unknown, faraway places, and the knowledge—that when I need it—my rock is still there.  Waiting for me to find home.  Wherever “home” may eventually be.

Where is your home?  How have you dealt with feeling displaced, whether by geography or something else?

Taco Ephiphanies

I had an epiphany today while waiting for my vegetarian taco. No, it wasn’t that I was eating a vegetarian taco, it was that I had lived in Wellington long enough to recognize the constancies of the city—the sort of “in-jokes” that you can only get after living in a place long enough.

I had this epiphany while watching a sinewy black cat stroll across the wooden benches along the Wellington Harbor waterfront today, looking for cuddles and left over tuna. It wasn’t his first time. He’s an old pro with a soft touch. He doesn’t so much wait politely for a handout as he demands one by perching himself half on your thigh and half on the bench. He’s quite a picky little thing. I have learned that while he will eat my chickpea salad, he draws the line and carrots and cabbage.

The cat is not the only Wellington fixture. There’s also the busker in the train station who actually plays pretty well and is always ready to sell you one of his homemade CDs.

Or Blanket Man, a homeless man so famous that when he returned to Wellington after an unfortunate absence, his arrival made the paper.

But I suppose the real epiphany is that with every sighting of the things that make Wellington feel familiar, Wellington begins to feel a bit more like home.

Adapt and Overcome

I have been an honorary Kiwi for exactly one week.  As I take stock and reflect on my Kiwi status thus far, I am left with but one revelation.

Pak n Save is scary.

I admit to being naive about this adventure.  Somehow, I was sure that visiting New Zealand a handful of times had given me all of the knowledge I needed to slip seamlessly into the Kiwi culture.  But as I have quickly discovered, it’s much different to embrace the charming idiosyncrasies of a country as a visitor, than it is to realize you will never, ever have an unlimited data plan in NZ.

And that grocery shopping can be classed as a contact sport.  You feel a bit like Mike Tyson bobbing and weaving between the grabby hands and bumping carts as you legitimately weigh the merits of organic ketchup (or tomato sauce, as I have been corrected) versus regular.  Ponder too long, and your cart will magically move away from you, down the aisle, to the left.  Grocery shopping should be a leisurely, calm pursuit.  The aisles should be wide, and the atmosphere nearly anesthetic as Nirvana’s “Never Mind” is turned into tinny elevator music.  And above all else, There.  Should.  Be.  Personal.  Space.

Then there are the battles for acquiring internet at home where the view is stunning but I’m actually too high up to get wireless internet and therefore, special equipment has be to ordered.  The words I should understand (because they’re English) but which make no sense to me at all.  The skirmish over yellow or black trash (rubbish) bags.  Foods I cannot even begin to puzzle out or pronounce.  A bizarre penchant for asymmetrical hemlines (strangely enough, the subject of my next blog entry–Rocking the Unconventional– a droll little tale of one woman’s vain attempt to find a conventional, conservative three-button suit while her luggage decided to take an extended vacation in LA.).  The sheer cliff I have to scale in order to get to a bus stop that only runs on the hour and only between the hours of 7:30 am and 5:30 pm.

Personal space, abundance of instantaneous transportation options, and other things I find myself missing are uniquely American notions.  But, to heavily paraphrase a line from the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’m not in America anymore.”  So the dilemma becomes one of holding onto the past–whether old ideas, or old history–or letting it go and adapting.  Embracing.  Overcoming.

To it all, to every trial, tribulation, and test, I say–confidently, defiantly–Bring.  It.  On.  I will figure this out.  I’ll come to love it.  I’ll even learn to live with a 250MB data plan.

I’ll Fly Away

“New Zealand? NEW ZEE-land!! Why in the world are you moving to New Zealand?”
The answer isn’t complicated, really. What’s complicated is putting the answer into words that make sense. For most of us, the idea of traveling to the other side of the planet seems impossible, even in today’s global marketplace. And the thought of moving there? Why? Why would anyone do that?
The flax. It’s all about the flax.
When I was a young girl, I had heaps of journals and scrapbooks filled with pictures, maps, and articles of places I wanted to visit, adventures I wanted to have, and things I wanted to see. Whether it was clamoring toward Angkor Wat, sailing down the Rhine, or discovering whether I liked Buda better than Pest, I wanted to experience all of it. More importantly, though, I wanted to understand a culture different from my own. Meet people who had a different sense of the world. See and know things I would otherwise never be able to.
It was an act of happenstance that got me to New Zealand the first time. A perfect happy accident, I suppose, because on that trip I began to understand a few things about risk, about myself, and about the idea of really living my life as if each day mattered. And yes, it started with flax.
During that visit, I came across a huge plant that looked almost primordial to my un-fauna-cultured eye. Large, robust bean pods dangled from great big stalks shooting from the center. it looked like a combination of vanilla and sea oats. I took ten–no twenty–pictures of it. I was sure I’d found something that only existed in New Zealand. My adventure had begun.
I asked what it was, prepared for an answer full of exotic syllables and amusing descriptors. Like Tanzalia, or Devil’s Striped Tongue, or something. But no, that’s not what it was.
“It’s flax,” I was told in a flat, unassuming voice. Wait, wait–what about the Tanzalia? Are you sure it’s not devilish in any way?
“No. It’s just flax,” again said the flat, and unassuming voice.
And why should that voice have been any different? There’s nothing remarkable about flax, really. It’s just … flax.
It was more than that, though. It was the embodiment of that kind of adventuresome, intellectual curiosity that can only be found in a young girl with pigtails surrounded by grand piles of travel and adventure books.
Life has a way of carving out a path for you, even when you don’t realize that’s what’s happening. And if you find yourself in a situation where things haven’t worked the way you planned (and insisted), its time to make your own rules. When you do, perhaps you become fascinated with things like flax, the correct pronunciation of tena koe, and the culinary possibilities of kumara. Perhaps you stop reading about adventures, and instead, have one. And perhaps, it’s the first in a long string of adventures in which you come to know yourself and the world better than you could ever have otherwise. It’s quite a daunting possibility for a South Georgia girl who’s never lived more than 250 miles from where she was born.
A good friend said to me recently that the best thing about having an adventure is that you can stop it whenever you want. “When do you think your New Zealand adventure will end?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I guess when I stop being fascinated by flax.”
I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of flax since that first visit. I suspect I’ll take thousands more.