Hello from Wellington!
I have made it to New Zealand, safe, sound, and incredibly found. Ways I’ve been found: dumbfounded, found myself lost, f(l)oundering in the ocean, found out that life exists outside of my box. This place is truly incredible. I’m definitely in the honeymoon stage, and everything is new and exciting.
The flights were all fine, and jet lag was not even all that harsh. There’s an eighteen hour difference, so back home, it’s simply six hours ahead, but yesterday. My first night was in Auckland, NZ’s largest city. It is like any major metopolitan city, except with kiwi flair. The architecture is all distinct, and the city is on the bay, so there is a sea breeze amongst the tall buildings! Delicious orange ruffy fish sandwich for dinner, followed by a walk around the town.
The next four nights were in Rotorua, a sulfury-smelling town home to geothermal activity and our home for the week. All of us Australearn students stayed in a hostel called Kiwi Paka. Nice. Low key. Close to town. Equipped with a bar. It felt very much like vacation–living out of a suitcase, shared showers, free time, and sunshine. (PS-we’re seven for seven on gorgeous sunny days. I’m loving it).
The first day, we had an instruction on how to do the haka, an intense, primal, spiritual experience meant to prepare one to kill. For family, for everything you love, for those who have come before, and those yet to come, that is who you fight, kill and die for. And that energy goes into doing the haka, which involves screaming, pukara stares, chest beating, hairy parts protecting, and tongue sticking out. We all got to wear the traditional dress, which was barely more than a fur covering our waist. It was surprisingly comfortable and freeing.
The following day was our adventure day, which for me was white water rafting. It was my first time, and the river we ran, Wairoa, was a grade 5 river, the highest commercially available. Why walk when you can run, right? We had a vet guiding our boat, so I felt in good hands. There was also a world-class kayak race going on at the same time. The world champ said hi to our bus as he walked by with his kayak over his head headed to the river. No biggie. A huge cyclone three weeks ago changed the river runs quite a bit, so we had to do some guessing, but made it down all 13 rapids fine. We lost one guy on one of the rapids, but we hauled him to safety with no harm done. Afterwards, he said that was his favorite part of the trip. It was a blast.
Next day was caving in the Waitomo caves. After a brief rappelling lesson, which here is called abseiling, the German word instead of the French word rappel which the Americans adopted, it was time to head on down. Again, no time to be scared as we immediatley had a 100ft. drop down into the dark. It was intense, scary, exhilirating, and super Rambo-esque. About halfway down it struck me, “I am in a cave. Rapelling. Fifty feet above me is the guide, and fifty feet below me is the nearst safe ground. In New Zealand. This is exactly where I want to be right now.” Totally cool moment. We then proceeded to depths of 100m below ground, abseiled down two waterfalls, saw glow worms, crawled on our stomachs through tight, tight spaces, and eventually climbed a very tall ladder to daylight.
On the way back to Rotorua, our bus driver stopped the bus at a river and said we could have a swim at what we thought would be a beach. There was water, but no beach, just a 25 foot jump, protruding trees and a rocky outcrop to clear before hitting the water. Everybody jumped. There were kiwis there, so I felt reassured. It was a place that the locals knew, and enjoyed, two crucial ingredients for maximizing the cool factor. I had enough time falling through the air for two complete exhales. There was also a rope swing that launched out over the water that was entertaining to watch when people could not hold their weight and slammed the water at the first hint of upswing and tension. They were fine, but it was fun to see them beef it. My new friend, Alex, is a former diver from the University of Minnesota, and he made some spectacular leaps and dives.
The next day we visited a Maori village where we learned about how they live today amongst the crazy hot springs and geothermalness of the area. They do very well for themselves, while still adhering to traditions of old. The steam-fed “Maori microwaves” were neat to see as their primary way to cook. Also they have communal bathing. Our old lady guide, Anna, was very funny in describing the process.
That night we finished with a traditional hangi dinner which is a meal that is cooked entirely underground, beneath a fire, with all the fix’ns arranged in such a way as to maximize the flavor and tenderness of everything being cooked. The meal was chicken, stuffing, kumara (NZ sweet potatoes), mussels, potatoes, and carrots. incredible. Dessert was a traditional NZ treat called pavlova which was every bit as tasty as the Wikipedia article I read about it described it to be.
And that was my Australearn orientation week. I’ve now been in Wellington for two days, but will have to leave that for another time. I’m here. I’m healthy. I’m excited. Kia ora (the NZ all-purpose phrase for hello, goodbye, thank you, how are you, boo ya).