Chapter 2: Experiencing the Middle in Middle Earth
As long as I can remember I have always wanted to go to New Zealand. I’m not going to wax poetic on the how’s and why’s, just know that this has always been a dream of mine.
Let’s be honest here, who doesn’t want to go to Middle Earth?
New Zealand and Lord of the Rings are synonymous with mystery. The entire country is a real fantasy world come to life.
Having grown up in Beautiful British Columbia I am no stranger to the scenic allure of the coast. The weathered rock faces and the lush green of the woods are just as stunning back home but they lack a certain romance. (I am, admittedly, under appreciative of my home town.)
But despite the similarities, Vancouver Island doesn’t have Tolkien.
… Besides, I’d always wanted a hobbit friend.
(Spoiler Alert: I didn’t get one.)
Regardless of the reasons, the truth is I have never been more excited about anything in my life than I was about going to New Zealand. It was literally a dream come true and I spent the weeks up to leaving obsessing over our itinerary. We were booked with Kiwi Experience on a hop-on hop-off bus tour that travelled through the highlights of both North and South Island. (The “Kea” Pass, starting in Christchurch and ending in Auckland.) Just like our time in Australia we were going to be rushing through the country. We had just over four weeks and I was determined to make every day count.
There is a spectacular fact about travelling that nobody ever believes until they have experienced it for themselves. No matter how much you plan, no matter how prepared you are or how great of an itinerary you have mapped out, things will always change.
I had refused to believe this before leaving.
Since all of our stops were already mapped out I planned every activity and sight that I wanted to see while gone. I knew exactly where my “candid photo ops” (candid, contrived, they both start with C …) were going to be, and what parks I was going to fall in love with. I knew everything.
Even with all of the spontaneity of Australia it never once occurred to me that our trip to New Zealand wouldn’t go exactly as I had planned.
Considering my chronic OCD I believe I handled the changes a lot better than I would have expected.
(I should note that my sister disagrees with the above statement. Or, as she puts it, “Strongly disagrees”.)
We missed far too many things to count, but we got to see so much more than I had ever imagined.
It’s the little things that stand out the most. Emergency visits to a hospital room in Queenstown. Stumbling home from a hole-in-the-wall pub in Paihia. Bearing witness to the butchering of Macbeth (the play, not the man) in Wellington. Face-breaking horseback rides in Nelson. These are the things you remember. These are the things that still make you smile after ten years.
It all comes back to candid versus contrived.
It always comes back to candid versus contrived.
(And in case you do not understand the bigger picture, candid wins. Hands down. Every time.)
One of the most distinct memories I have of New Zealand is of our arrival. We got into Christchurch in the early afternoon tired, stiff, and cranky from our night at the Sydney Airport. My excitement was overshadowed by sheer exhaustion and we still had no idea how we were going to get from the Airport to our hostel (rest easy, it turns out there was a shuttle).
I was sad to have left Australia, melancholy with the knowledge that there was still so much we hadn’t seen, and I barely (uncharacteristically) looked out the window the entire drive to downtown Christchurch.
Julia and I had long ago learned our lesson about taking naps when suffering from jet lag (the lesson? It’s never just a nap, it’s an actual black out and you will lose more time than it’s worth) so we forced ourselves to explore the town after we checking into the hostel.
I should tell you that it is easy to forget that the southern hemisphere is experiencing winter in July and August when one is traveling down the east coast of Australia. However, this is not a fact that can be easily overlooked in South Island New Zealand.
At first it was a novelty to see snow on the ground in August. Sure, the weather was a bit cold and we were completely underdressed, but here before us was snow! In August!
The novelty didn’t last.
Eventually the unpleasantness of walking through snow while wearing mesh shoes kicked in. With frozen toes and fingers, we continued “exploring” Christchurch. I was depressed. In all the times I had day dreamed about my first day in New Zealand I had never once pictured myself trudging through snow, cold and miserable, down a street where all the shops were closed for “winter holidays”.
After about two hours we finally made our way back to the hostel. I was irrationally angry with Julia (to be fair, her eternal optimism can be grating when one just wants to be miserable) and feeling guilty because of it.
I wanted to go back to Australia. New Zealand, my imagined land of mystery was not at all what I had expected.
A few hours of rest (and wallowing) later, Julia and I left the hostel so we could get dinner at a pub down the street. The pub wasn’t packed, but it certainly wasn’t deserted. We found a booth near the middle and settled in to people watch.
There is nothing quite like the atmosphere of a good pub to “turn that frown upside down”.
As it turns out, our waitress was Canadian (born and raised in Winnipeg). Her name was Melissa and she was “always happy to meet other Canucks”. She was doing SWAP (Student Work Abroad Program) and had made her way to Christchurch from Auckland, via Queenstown (not a direct route, but one worth taking). She introduced us to her roommates who were at the pub that evening, two native Kiwis who joined us at our table and told us all about the “hidden gems of Christchurch”.
After finding out we had just arrived from spending a month in Australia they explained to us Australia’s biggest problem (it’s filled with Aussies!)
(As an aside, if you’ve never heard that joke you’ve never traveled down under.)
That night turned out to be one of the best FANZ had to offer.
People travel to see the sights and get the Hallmark moments of a country. Travelers spend more time with other travelers than they do with the locals. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s always great to meet new people and you can learn so much from other travelers. But often you get so caught up in having the time of your life that you forget to actually have it.
It is far too easy to go to a country and never really see it.
Meeting the Kiwis at the pub and spending a few hours shooting the shit was a fantastic beginning to the middle.
It was this experience, this first day that had started out so terribly and ended so wonderfully that I carried with me for the rest of the trip.
We had many more days like this, evenings of new friends and pubs, but this is the one I always remember.
I honestly sobbed at the end when we boarded the plane for Fiji, leaving New Zealand behind. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. I have never felt more at home in a place than I did there, and I often wonder if I will ever feel that way again.
FANZ was a fantastic trip and at this point in my life it has the honour of being the greatest summer I have ever had. When I look back on my life, and the moments that defined me, FANZ is the main entry. I had more fun in those two months than I have ever had before, and I would not change any of it for the world.
But while Australia and Fiji were fantastic, there is something about my time in New Zealand that stands out.
Love is not knowing the Good, the Bad or the Ugly about something.
Love is loving the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
And I love New Zealand.