Gotta Jet

Queenstown Continued: Jet Boating on Lake Wakatipu

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After a month of finals and over a month of traveling (during which I had no computer), I have finally made it safely back to the United States. You’ll have to pardon my slight post-excursion break, but for six weeks previous to my return home I hadn’t spent more than two nights in the same bed before moving to a new location (with the exception of one place in which I spent 4 nights). And although I enjoyed my travels immensely, I must say that I’m grateful to be relating my travels to you all from the comfort of my own home, where–unless my brothers decide to relocate my furniture to the woods–my bed is always in the same place each night.

With that, I will pick up my tale of Queenstown, which you will remember was my first solo-traveling experience in New Zealand. After paragliding off of Bob’s Peak (which I decided to do immediately upon arriving in Queenstown to make sure I didn’t chicken out), I was feeling invincible. Having defeated my fear of heights for some time, and eager to make my first afternoon as adrenaline-packed as possible, I decided to go jet boating.

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

I snagged a ticket for the fastest jet boat in town just 4 minutes before the last trip of the day was scheduled to take off. I sprinted to the dock, and breathlessly offered up my boarding pass in exchange for an oversized black rain coat and a spot in line. I didn’t even have time to put my hair up before I slid into my seat. Eh, the worst that can happen is I’ll look like Syndrome from the Incredibles, right?

Syndrome and his glorious mane of hair

Syndrome and his glorious mane of hair

Luckily for me, I adore boats and I love going fast. So, as you can imagine, I spent the entire experience beaming with joy, giddily awaiting every spin. How could I not love life when I was hurtling along the river, the wind gluing me to the back of my seat and making tears stream from my eyes until I could barely see the peaks of the Remarkables in front of me? Granted, that may not sound ideal, but even getting doused with ice-cold water after each spin just served to remind me that I was in Queenstown–the adventure capital of the world–zooming alongside one of the most picturesque backdrops I have ever seen, feeling alive and limitless.

Jet boating with KJet

Jet boating with KJet

However, be warned: the side effects of feeling alive and limitless can be disastrous for free-flowing hair. The price I paid for foolishly leaving my hair to its own devices was ten minutes in the bathroom spent pulling a giant chunk of knotted hair out of my head. Syndrome may not have been able to foil the Incredibles, but he sure as heck beat me in the luscious locks department after that jet boat ride. Not that I regret it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because–as is true of every activity in Queenstown–once is never enough.

Poster inside the gondola

Poster inside the gondola

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About my Jet Boating Experience: I went with KJet, New Zealand’s original jet boating company that has been in operation since 1960. The boat is able to skim through just five centimeters of water, taking you over Lake Wakatipu before going down both the Kawarau River and the Shotover River. The boat reaches speeds of up to 85 kilometers per hour, and the hour-long trip is full of 360 degree spins. Our guide was a great driver and very personable. I highly recommend their services for anyone interested in jet boating in Queenstown!

Nightmare at Nichols Falls

“Okay, before we get going, one rule. No fake scaring one another.”

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A picture of glowworms; image not my own

“Yeah, of course not. Definitely not,” Mary’s voice sounded thin as she uttered her agreement.

It was only 9:00 at night, but the woods was pitch black and silent except for the rumbling of a nearby waterfall. Oddly, its tempo did little to ease my mind. Mary and I were off to see the Nichols Falls glowworm cave, a wonderfully interesting natural phenomena that could only be seen at night. Squinting at the inky outlines of the forest ahead of me, I clutched my flashlight tighter, my knuckles white.

“Wait, one more thing.” I pulled my lanyard over my head, tucking it carefully into my down jacket to stifle the familiar clink of keys against my emergency hiking whistle. “If you want to turn on some music, that might be nice.”

I exhaled slowly, waiting for Mary’s music to fill the air before stepping forward into the dark. The notes echoed weakly off of the trees, sounding tinny and insubstantial in the midst of the imposing stillness of the forest.

As we made our way forwards, my flashlight highlighted the spindly, twisted branches that reached towards us like bony fingers. Shadows leapt at our feet hungrily; each time my beam dissolved one, ten more appeared. The path curved this way and that, winding deeper and deeper into the woods as we crawled slowly upwards. Suddenly, we reached a fork in the road; three paths diverged ahead of us. Before arbitrarily choosing the center path, I placed a fern on the trail we had just come from. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than choosing a route that would take us far into the woods on the way home.

“For the way back,” I said to Mary, feeling very much like Hansel and Gretel. At least we weren’t using breadcrumbs that were going to get eaten by animals. But before I felt satisfied with my impromptu marker, a perturbing thought flitted through my head: there could be a single fern lying on any one of these paths, ready to lead us astray. I plucked another fern and placed it behind the first. There. That looked more purposeful.

A sign for Nichols Falls, which we did not see on our way up and which makes me think we could have been in the completely wrong spot.

A sign for Nichols Falls, which we did not see on our way up and which makes me think we could have been in the completely wrong spot. Image (obviously) not my own.

We kept moving. Time seemed to stretch on an on. Another fork in the road. Another purposeful arrangement of ferns. The prospect that something else might be lurking in these woods was not a comforting possibility, and despite my best efforts, I could not shake the idea that something was out there waiting for us. Although the trek was only supposed to take seven minutes, we’d been walking for well over ten. When we reached our third fork in the road, we came abruptly to a halt.

“Didn’t we just go in a circle?” Mary’s question took the words straight out of my mouth. Our ferns were gone. Someone had moved them. 

A million and a half thoughts flooded through my head. We weren’t alone. There was probably a crazy person just a few feet away from us. What if we were going to die out here, in the prime of our lives? Or even worse, what if we were kidnapped and locked in someone’s basement for years on end? I can hardly sit still for two hours; how could I be expected to be tied up in a basement, etching the number of days of our captivity into the side of a toothbrush? I didn’t even have my toothbrush with me. The glowworm caves were seeming like a sillier idea with each passing second.

“Would you like to go back?” I could feel my heart about to fly out of my chest.

“Yes!” Mary cried enthusiastically in a tone that very much expressed my own sentiments.

“Okay, let’s go.” The words fell out of my mouth in a rush as I spun around, making a beeline back towards where we came. We passed by our other markers, not caring that in actuality, no one had touched our ferns.

When we finally turned the corner and saw our little white Nissan parked across the street, I nearly started sprinting. Once we’d slammed our car doors shut, I pressed on the gas, bolting out of there like a bat out of hell.

“We are NEVER doing that again,” I exclaimed, a complete ball of nervous energy. “I have never been so scared in my entire life!”

“I thought I was going to get murdered!” Mary declared.

“Oh my god, my parents would have killed me. We should go to Rob Roy’s. And then just crawl into Jes’ bed and try to forget this ever happened.” Normally I use any excuse to go get Rob Roy’s, but on this occasion it was actually warranted. How could I take Mary home after scaring the living crap out of her without so much as a consolatory ice cream?

Sitting in Jes’ bed a half hour later, savoring our delicious dessert, we admitted that we probably would have been fine had we kept going. However, I wasn’t willing to stake my life on the prospect that we “‘probably’ would have been fine,” and given the chance, I would never again venture into the woods of Nichols Falls without an entourage of at least eight burly men. Even if we’d made it to the caves, I would have been too freaked out to fully enjoy it anyways. Regardless, it certainly made for a good story. Or, at the very least, it made for a good excuse to get some ice cream.

 

An image of some Rob Roy's ice cream; image not my own

An image of some Rob Roy’s ice cream; image not my own

A Forgotten Blog Post: Day In the Museum

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Mountains covered in snow

I woke up to the sound of a uni worker scraping ice off of our roof. Up in the mountains, snow had claimed every craggy peak and crevice. I shivered, bracing myself for the coldest day we’d had yet. Even the hot shower did little to warm me up. I had planned to visit the Moeraki Boulders, but I was hesitant to mix snow and beaches more than was necessary.

Instead, my flatmates and I decided to head down to the Otago Museum. Ordinarily I avoid museums with all my might, as they go against all of my primary instincts. You’re expected to act your age, it’s frowned upon to trip over giant tribal canoes on the ground, and you feel obligated to whisper even when you’re the only ones in the room. But on a rainy day, why not check out some of Dunedin’s history?

An example of the type of canoe you should avoid tripping over

An example of the type of canoe you should avoid tripping over

We spent the afternoon wandering around the various exhibits and making astute comments such as “Let’s name this sheep George,” “Wow, it’s shaped like a pig” and “That’s a big bowl”. I made the last two comments in quick succession just as a young museum worker was walking by. I saw a smile creep onto his face and I wondered how many children forced to come to the museum on a field trip had uttered those same words in a sad attempt to connect with the artifacts.

Although I love history, I have trouble with the way that museums present information. There are no stories about people, just stationary, sullen objects. Wouldn’t it be a little more interesting if they found a way to display the story of Te Rauparaha, a famous Maori warrior, or better yet, if they brought him back from the dead and had him tell his life story to visitors on Monday afternoons? Okay, so I can see there may be a few minor complications with this arrangement. They’d definitely need to get a translator who could interpret his Maori for the crowd, and Monday afternoons probably aren’t peak business hours for the museum.

While I still think they could find a way to implement my suggestions, I recognize that objects are the only tangible things that a museum can offer us (even though I still maintain that the merely tangible aspects of a culture are hardly the most interesting). I feel as though something meaningful has been stripped away when an object exists unaccompanied by the stories and the lives that went along with it.

There was one moment when I was staring at some wooden Maori carvings that I could almost see the men carving it. I stood mesmerized by its intricacy for a few moments before it once again turned into a slab of lifeless wood.

Intricate Maori wood carvings

Intricate Maori wood carvings

As closing time drew nearer, the young museum worker from earlier began pointing other visitors down the stairs, but he let us be. He may have been too lazy to come retrieve us, but personally I think he knew that the girl who could only state the size and shape of an object she was looking at couldn’t last very long in a museum anyways.

A few short minutes later, closing time was officially upon us. As we headed down the stairs, we retraced our steps past the Sir Edmund Hillary exhibit, which was one of my favorites from the day precisely because next to every object there was a story to go along with it. When he climbed Mount Everest, Hillary brought a secondhand camera with him in order to get a picture of him and his partner, Tenzing Norgay, when they made it to the top. When he reached the summit and went to snap a picture of Tenzing planting the flag, however, he merely remarked: “This photograph should be a good one if it [comes] out at all.” It was such a casual way to treat such a momentous occasion, but to him, it was more about the act of climbing the mountain than about the attention that would come with it. More telling still, when Tenzing offered to take Edmund’s picture, he declined. Perhaps his modesty is even more impressive since members of our generation seem to post a picture to Instagram every time they brush their teeth, or every time they find a sheep and name him George:

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Our sheep, George

*Post written on July 21, 2014*

Going Solo

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Mountain in Queenstown

There are few things I treasure more than quite mornings. I find absolute bliss in the thought that I may be the only one awake in the world, that I may somehow be cheating time. It’s as though the painter who decorates Earth’s canvas has grabbed my hand, put a finger to his lips and let me silently watch him brush the universe into existence.

Five Saturday mornings ago (and my mom tells me I don’t blog enough), I was met by one of these extraordinary mornings after hopping out of bed at 6:00AM to eagerly make my start towards Queenstown. I had already hit the road before the sun had peeked over the horizon, but as I drove the morning light ballooned out behind me as though it were a bright kite fastened to a string that I was trailing out my window. Purple clouds dotted the sky, adorning the peaks of dark mountains that gazed at their reflections in the lakes that lay at their feet. Fluffy sheep and lumbering cows grazed unhurriedly, oblivious of the brilliance that surrounded them.

Alone in the car and singing happily (and perhaps slightly off-key), enveloped by the majesty of New Zealand’s silent landscape, the magic of the morning was not lost on me. I was filled with a sense of freedom that I had never felt before, and a wave of premature nostalgia suddenly washed over me. I knew that I would miss this place terribly when it was time to leave, and I was once again reminded to make the most of the time that I had left.

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Mall Street, Queenstown

When I arrived in Queenstown nearly five hours later, I parked beside the Lake Wakatipu esplanade and spent the better part of the next hour gazing at the view before me. When I finally drank in enough of the sights to hold me over for a few brief minutes, I made my way to the i-Site center in town to start making plans for my solo weekend. There I met Jamiee and Joyce, two young women who became my go-to ladies for all things Queenstown. I knew far before I even stepped foot in New Zealand that I wanted to go paragliding off of Bob’s Peak, but sensing that the actual moment was nearly upon me, I faltered.

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

“What’s paragliding like?” I asked, bouncing nervously from one foot to the other as Jamiee explained how it was incredible once you ran off of the cliff.

“You’re standing on this cliff face, and then all of a sudden they just ask you to run forward towards nothing–and of course the whole time you’re wondering what the heck you’ve gotten yourself into—and then you realize that your feet aren’t even touching the ground and you’re running in the air. No, trust me, it’s amazing!” She asserted, clearly observing the panicked look that sprinted across my face.

Paragliding off of Bob's Peak

Paragliding off of Bob’s Peak

“Do you think I can do it if I’m scared of heights? Like, really scared of heights?” I rambled. “You have to understand…Have you seen the movie Up? Do you know the part where the kid is hanging off of the blimp by the end of a hose? That scares the crap out of me. My hands start sweating and everything…”

All Jamiee could do was laugh out loud as she declared that that was the best thing she’d heard all day. “Look–I used to be terrified of heights too! It gets better the more you confront it.”

She and Joyce then proceeded to show me all of the different ways one could jump into a canyon (most of which they’d done, and all of which turned out to be more terrifying than the prospect of running off of a cliff). In the end, I ended up begging Joyce to book me as soon as possible for paragliding, opting to forgo lunch so as to avoid spending any more time being nervous than was absolutely necessary. Before I could back out, Joyce had grabbed my credit card and booked me for 1:15PM, letting me know it would take thirty minutes to ride the gondola to the top of the peak. It was 12:45. Apparently she took “as soon as possible” to heart.

View from the Gondola

View from the gondola

The view from the gondola was incredible, and I enjoyed every second of it, despite the smattering of butterflies that had taken up residence in the pit of my stomach. Upon arriving at the peak, I was introduced to my guide, Brady (like the Brady Bunch, he explained, apparently wanting to avoid the misfortune of someone calling him Brody for the better part of an hour….which was ironic considering he called me “Malyssa” the entire time), who was quite the ham. He greeted me warmly, and then proceeded to gab affably: “Oh, I like the looks of yah already! Young and fit! Gosh…I love having clients like you! Sometimes I get stuck with people who are old and large, and who are utterly terrified–”

“Well, just so you know, I’m a little scared at the moment as well,” I cut in.

“Don’t worry, we’ll just send you up into the woods where no one can hear you scream!” He said, motioning to a path on his left.

I laughed nervously. I’d only been in Queenstown for an hour and already I was being taken deep into the woods with someone who sounded like an axe murderer.

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What was to be my fate if all went well

“We’ll have you hike up that trail there since it’s just an eight minute trek. You get out what you put in, so the higher up you go, the more airtime you have!”

Shortly after this introduction to paragliding, Brady ended up tossing his pack in a company jeep and driving up the track, leaving me to walk up with another one of the paragliding instructors. This man was young, probably only a few years older than myself, with bright blue hipster glasses and a slight limp that made him walk as though he couldn’t bend his right leg. We began talking on the way up, and he asked me where I was from. Not wanting to assume that he knew where Boston was, I explained that I was from the U.S. He seemed as though he had guessed that already, so he asked: “Whereabouts?”

“Massachusetts; the northeast part of the U.S.” I said as I usually do, careful not to assume that foreigners know where every state sits on the map. He shot me a weird look. “I’m from Iowa.”

My eyebrows flew up in shock, and all I could manage was, “Oh, Iowa! Right on.” His accent was like no other Iowan lilt I had ever heard. In fact, he sounded downright Kiwi, and he had only lived in Queenstown for five years. It was a classic Pete from Ecuador situation, for those of you who went to Puerto Rico in 2010, although Pete from Ecuador wouldn’t be caught dead in those blue glasses, and even if we’re being optimistic, Pete from Ecuador has probably lost all ability to speak English by now. (Pete from Ecuador is a man who grew up in Vermont and lived there for his entire life and then moved to Ecuador for three years and forgot how to speak English. Granted, he’s smoked a lot of pot which likely sped up the process). It’s called a rafter, Pete! Do you not have those in Vermont? Okay, enough of that; suffice to say, it was an uncomfortable predicament, as my Iowan friend clearly was unaware of his accent’s progression.

Brady rejoined me shortly afterwards to strap me in and to give me the run-through on the paragliding process. “Look darlin’, you don’t weigh a lot so the wind is going to take you as soon as we get going. Here’s what I’m going to do–I’m going to give you a test, OK?”

“OK,” I said absently, staring off the edge of the mountain, anticipating the moment when he would ask me to run straight off of the cliff. Suddenly Brady yanked me backwards; I stood firm for a split second before I tumbled over, forcefully landing on his left foot. “Strong as an ox!” He proclaimed proudly. “You’d make a good Kiwi wife!” (I think perhaps I broke a few toes on impact). After deciding that I was strong enough to cause some bodily damage–or perhaps discovering that I was not as light as he’d presumed–Brady geared me for takeoff.

Brady and me before take off (evidently looking right into the sun)

Brady and me before take off (evidently looking right into the sun)

“Stand your ground, and when I tell you to, I want you to walk forwards as far as you can!” I tried my best to follow his instructions, but all of my efforts were in vain. I was completely off the ground as soon as the parachute flew above my head. I think I air-walked three steps before I was officially soaring over Queenstown.

Soaring over Queenstown

Soaring over Queenstown

It was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever experienced. I felt like a bird; like nothing could touch me. And incredibly, I wasn’t scared at all. Better yet, I hadn’t even needed to run off of a cliff! Brady just let us ride the wind for a few minutes, chattering away, while I sat in silence, utterly enthralled by what was below me. Before landing, Brady did a few tricks in the air that made my stomach tickle and put an even bigger grin on my face. When my feet finally touched the ground, all I could exclaim was, “I want to go again!” Actually, I wanted to go again, and again, and again and again and again. And I was sincerely wondering how one obtains a paragliding license. (Upon researching this question, it turns out that it takes about 10 days to complete and costs around 2,500 dollars, so I may have to start saving my pennies before I can live that dream).

After riding the gondola back to the top of the peak and taking more time to enjoy the sights, I headed back down to the i-Site center, eager to tell Jamiee and Joyce all about paragliding, and thrilled to head off on my next adventure.

Poster inside the gondola

Poster inside the gondola which perfectly captured my sentiments

South Island Castaways (Days 1 & 2)

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” I had just mistakenly hit the windshield wipers for maybe the eighth time in fifteen minutes when attempting to press the turn signal, which, like everything else in the car, was on the opposite side from what I was used to. Elise and I were on our way home from the airport in the little white Nissan we had affectionately named Wilson (Willy, for short), and the mantra “tight left, wide right” was on rerun in my head. For the most part, driving on the left side of the road (and on the left side of the car, for that matter) was significantly easier than I’d imagined, although it was definitely a good choice to have a driving buddy and to be fully caffeinated. Thirty minutes and one very clean windshield later, we had picked up Jen and Mary and were headed out to the Otago Peninsula.

The winding roads led us past gorgeous lookouts with cliffs dipping into the sea that just begged us to pull over, but after nearly being bowled over by the fierce wind during one of our stops, we didn’t venture out of the car again until we made it to Sandfly Bay. As soon as we stepped out into the parking lot, the sky let loose a torrential downpour of hail, but it did nothing to dampen our excitement. (Someone must have been summoning the foul weather by hitting their windshield wipers too many times…). Luckily, the weather eased up slightly as we hiked down the sand dunes to get to the beach. Our afternoon was off to a wonderful start; we were greeted by a gorgeous rainbow over the sea, and we caught a glimpse of a sleeping sea lion on one of the dunes.

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Our next stop was Sandy Mount, where we hiked to Lovers’ Leap and the Chasm. We trekked through some very muddy fields scattered with a plethora of little gifts from our sheep friends (I thought that was a generous way to put it) in order to take in some more incredible views. 

Our last stop for the day was Taiaroa Head, where we hoped to see a royal albatross or two heading home at dusk. Although we enthusiastically pointed to every black-winged seagull that came into view in hopes that maybe the magnificent bird looked smaller in person, we didn’t catch a glimpse of what we were really after. However, I was fully satisfied with our visit, since Taiaroa offered us some of my favorite views from the entire weekend.

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The next morning we woke up early and headed out to the Moeraki Boulders. We caught a nice sunrise at a beach we passed along the way, and we made it to the boulders while the morning sun still lingered low in the sky. We spent hours ambling up and down the strip of sand, climbing on the rock formations, collecting shells, and hunting for paua. It was the closest I could get to a tropical day at the beach since I’d arrived in New Zealand, and I adored every minute of it.

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After lunch, we headed off to Oamaru. My Kiwi Host, Jes, had told us that there was essentially nothing there, but we decided that if we were going to be in the area, we might as well take a look. After a brief tour through the main street of the city and a peek at the quaint harbor, we concluded that Jes had been right. So when our afternoon plans to kayak fell through, we decided that we had to go somewhere else…somewhere exciting…somewhere like Lake Tekapo. Although it was nearly three hours away, we decided it was well worth the drive. We stopped briefly along the way to visit the Elephant Rocks and to take in some beautiful views of mountains soaring above incredibly blue lakes, but we didn’t stop in any one place too long as we were always aware that we were racing against the sun.

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When we finally arrived in Tekapo and tumbled out of the car, we were eager to stretch our legs, and couldn’t wait to walk along the water’s edge. We hunted around for the best views, sometimes walking, sometimes driving, in an attempt to settle in a perfect spot for sunset (there’s a very particular lake-to-mountain ratio that varies depending on your angle, and a precise vertical gradient of vapor pressure above the water required to generate such perfection; it’s all firmly grounded in science and mathematics). I think that the angle and vapor pressure worked out quite nicely for us, as we caught some magnificent views of Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook.

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We drove back in the dark; it was odd to know that we were entirely surrounded by enormous mountains when all we could see was blackness. During a long stretch in the middle of nowhere, we pulled over to look up at the night sky. It was bitterly cold outside, but when one has the opportunity to stare at every star in the galaxy, the only proper reaction is to suck it up and stand outside until one or more extremity has completely turned to ice.

When we finally made it home that night, I clambered directly into bed. Closing my eyes, the night sky reappeared, and I drifted off to sleep, my head swimming with magnificent visions of all of the adventures we had had the last two days and with expectations for the day to come. 

21,000 Steps (And Then a Whole Lot More)

It was Friday morning, and my flatmates, Mary and Courtney, and I had just trekked into the city only to be told that the car company did not rent cars to people under 21, despite the information online which had indicated otherwise. It’s times like these that I wish I took a note from Superbad and had the license of a 25-year-old organ donor from Hawaii. The friendly woman at the front desk sent us next door to a small café for breakfast while she tried to sort things out. She kindly took it upon herself to call another rental company, and fifteen minutes later she sent us even further down the road to check out the minivan in their lot.

The license that I sadly don't have

The license that I sadly don’t have

When we arrived, the door was locked and the office was vacant; a hanging sign told us to call a phone number for assistance. After a few rings, a woman picked up and told us that she would be back in the office in two minutes. After twenty minutes of attempting to amuse ourselves in an empty parking lot, she strolled into the office and made us aware that the company would rent us the car only if we didn’t want any insurance coverage. Despite my aspirations to become a soccer mom for a weekend, my desire to pay thousands of dollars in the event of an accident was significantly smaller, so we declined the minivan and walked the hour back to our flat. When we finally arrived, we collapsed in the kitchen and explained to our Kiwi host, Jes, how five miles of walking, four phone calls, three games of parking lot Ninja, two car rental companies, and one chocolate muffin had managed to wipe away visions of weekend adventures to the Otago Peninsula, the Catlins, and the Moeraki Boulders.

“We’ll just be spontaneous then,” Jes concluded. A few moments later, she brought up one of the activities from our Bucket List that hung on the wall. “How about Baldwin Street?”

When someone wants to know if you’d like to walk up the steepest street in the world, there is really only one question you can ask: “What time should we leave?”

“How about 3:00?” Jes replied.

I glanced at my watch. It was 2:58. In approximately two minutes we were out the door, completely ready to conquer the climb ahead of us. For your entertainment, the entire ordeal has been depicted for you in the following ( and highly accurate) manner below:

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For your convenience:

How steep the street actually is

For those of you at home who haven’t pulled out your Guinness Book of World Records, here is what the steepest street in the world looks like

For no reason at all:

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We made our way back down Baldwin just as the sun was about to set. As we neared the bottom, Jes asked the question that was to spur our second spontaneous decision that evening: “Do you all feel like going to Signal Hill?”

We had already walked all the way to Baldwin Street, and Signal Hill would be on our way home..Putting them together just made sense!

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Oh come on, you knew it was only a matter of time before I put a Frozen reference in here, didn’t you?

For the record, Signal Hill is not really a hill; it’s more like a marathon of steep streets. We still booked it the entire way to the top, each pretending that we weren’t about to keel over from the exertion. For my part, I had to make up an elaborate story about a wheezing squirrel named Jeremy that was following us in order to cover up the origin of the uncomfortable gasping noises. I offered to stay behind to fight the asthmatic creature off, but the jig was up when someone pointed out there are no squirrels in New Zealand.

We made it to the top just in time to watch the fading colors in the sky. The magnificent view was worth the exhausting climb, and although I was slightly disappointed Jeremy couldn’t join us (I had grown quite attached to my imaginary squirrel), I was content being with my fabulous flatmates.

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Signal Hill at sunset

The flatties at the top of Signal Hill

The flatties at the top of Signal Hill

We skipped back home in the dark, blasting happy tunes, and enjoying the art of getting lost in the Botanical Gardens. Collapsing in the kitchen for the second time that day, Jes took a look at the pedometer she’d been required to wear for physio and informed us that we’d walked about 21,000 steps that afternoon. All in all, that put Mary, Courtney, and me at about 15 miles for the day.

Although our day had not turned out like we’d planned, we had everything we could really want. We had plenty of adventures, plenty of laughter, and plenty of good company. Even with tired legs, it’s pretty hard to not be content with all of that.

Love at First Hike

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View of Blueskin Bay from the trail

“Oh my gosh, guys! Look at this! No seriously, look at it! Are you looking?” We were still eight minutes away from getting dropped off at the foot of the trail that would lead us up Mount Cargill, and I already had my face pressed up against the car window. I may have been slightly enthusiastic about the views, because Megan finally pulled the car over and let me jump out to take a photo.

“No seriously guys, I think this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen!” I declared for maybe the one-hundredth time in the last five minutes.

“Alyssa, we haven’t even started hiking yet!” Hira and Taylor reminded me with a laugh as we all piled back into the car. No matter, I was still supremely impressed and quite certain that the views could not possibly get any more beautiful than they already were.

View of Blueskin Bay through the trees

View of Blueskin Bay through the trees

A few short minutes into our hike, and I realized that I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Steep wooden steps led us through a mesh of ferns and crowds of leafy green shrubs. Trees arched towards each other overhead, bent in an embrace that filtered the sun into soft patches of light that speckled our path. Every few minutes, the covering of trees would thin and the vegetation would fall away just enough for us to catch glimpses of Blueskin Bay’s majestic mountains draped in silver fog.

As the trail finally subsided into a more gradual ascent towards the summit, I could feel my excitement mounting and my pace begin to quicken. Suddenly, the path forked in different directions, with the branch to the left leading towards the Organ Pipe Rocks, and the other heading towards the top of the mountain. Although it could take us four days to decide what kind of food we wanted to eat for dinner, it took us only a matter of seconds to decide that a detour to the Organ Pipes was a must. From our rocky vantage point, we were able to soak in uninterrupted views of what lay below us. Fueled by our desire to see more, we eventually pushed onwards towards the top of the mountain.

Hira and I at the Organ Pipe Rocks

Hira and I at the Organ Pipe Rocks

When Hira and Taylor stopped for some quick photos, I fervently scurried ahead. As the path bent towards the right, I spotted a small, faded sign subtly pointing in the opposite direction towards Butters Peak. Although the path was overgrown, the openness of the rocks at the top promised another clear view of all of our surroundings.

“Hira! Taylor! I’m going up the trail to the left!” I shouted, already bushwhacking my way through to the top. A few moments later, Hira and Taylor had made their way up behind me, and we found ourselves with a 360 degree view of our surroundings. The Blueskin Bay was once again revealed to us, and the Otago Peninsula finally came into sight.

Otago Peninsula from Butters Peak

Panorama of the Otago Peninsula from Butters Peak

Standing at the top of the Peak, the wind whipping around us as we took in Dunedin in all its glory, I was hit suddenly by the full force of an emotion that I had only been catching snippets of for the past few weeks. It was what I had felt for a brief moment when I first glimpsed the snowcapped mountains towering over the fields of sheep as we zoomed along on the train. It was what I had felt as I sat around the table with my flatmates, eating tacos and laughing so hard that I lost my breath. And it was what I had felt at every gap in the trees as we scaled the mountain. But here, on Butters Peak, I finally knew what it was. It was love.

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Panorama of Blueskin Bay from Butters Peak

It was the kind of love that made me feel completely content when I was home in Boston, and the kind of love that made me thrilled to return to Richmond each semester. It was the kind of love that makes someone happy despite the challenges. It was the kind of love that takes a place and makes it a home. I couldn’t claim that I would never again feel frustrated by a pad of Sticky notes that cost $8.99 rather than $2.49, or that I would never get sick of rolling out of bed when it is only 27 degrees inside, but I became certain of one thing: I will miss New Zealand when it is time for me to go. My hope is that, at the end of it all, I will look back and know that I cherished my moments here, and made the most of everything that came my way.

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Standing on Butters Peak

No Train, No Gain

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The New Zealand flag at the foot of the mountains in Middlemarch

The buzz of my alarm clock shattered the morning calm that lay like a protective glass windowpane between me and the busyness of the waking world. Although I wanted nothing more than to roll over in my sleeping bag and pretend that the frigid air permeating my bedroom did not exist, this morning I could not delay the inevitable. Confronting the cold, I slid out of bed and padded to the kitchen in search of breakfast.

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Our train passing by a river

Once my body acclimated to the chill, the pace of my morning routine began to accelerate. Soon, I was out the door, my feet propelling me in the direction of Taylor and Hira’s flat. After a week of being in Dunedin, we had decided it was time to see some of the countryside.

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The railroad behind our train

We made the twenty-minute trek to the Dunedin Train Station, where we caught the Taeri Gorge Railway train which was taking us to Middlemarch, a town at the base of the snowcapped mountains where Lord of the Rings was filmed.

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We rolled through miles and miles of sheep-speckled plains and hills canvassed in yellow wildflowers. We passed over gorgeous flowing rivers and under long stone tunnels. We let the wind whip our hair, and we froze our hands taking pictures off the back deck. But it wasn’t until the snowcapped mountains came into full view that reality hit: I was in New Zealand.

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The snowcapped mountains coming into view

Without any language barrier to overcome or extreme cultural differences to tackle, it sometimes feels like I could be anywhere in the U.S. Yet, out there, seeing what I had only seen before in pictures of this place, I felt the full, invigorating force of being halfway around the world. It was magnificent.

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After another three hours of train travel back to Dunedin, our desire for glorious views was fully satisfied. The walk back to our flats flew by as Taylor, Hira and I talked about all of the wonderful travel possibilities that we would soon have the opportunity to experience. We began to wonder if there was even enough time to do everything that we wanted to do.

What I do know, however, is that this small taste of what New Zealand has to offer left me thoroughly ready for more. And I am certain that whatever we pack into our days and weeks will lead to wonderful months filled with jaw-dropping views and exceptional memories.

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Liquid Sunshine

The Otago clock tower

The Otago clock tower

My first few days in Dunedin have been extremely pleasant; I’ve been living in a flat that is cozy in nearly every way without actually being warm. The outside is quaint, each bedroom is charming, and the living area is…Well, the living area looked like a 1970’s office space until my flatmates and I took it upon ourselves to do some rearranging. When we arrived, the kitchen table was up against one wall, right beneath a large bulletin board with a series of flyers on how to conserve energy and what to do with our rubbish. An oversized calendar, a wall clock, a microwave, and a jubilee of pens all succeeded in making the space look like an old-fashioned corporate break room.

In a matter of minutes, we relocated many of the informational flyers and the clock, moved the microwave off of the kitchen table, and scooted the kitchen table away from the wall. In an attempt to spruce the place up, my flatmates and I posted a series of memorable quotations on the cork board that had already been uttered by one of us in the past week. Given the time it took us to revamp the kitchen and accumulate odd inside jokes, we expect that our flat will grow to be more homey as the days go by.

Meanwhile, I am hopeful that I will grow more accustomed to the cold the longer I live here. Walking down the streets of Dunedin, I’ve seen women in dresses, runners in shorts, and several people in T-shirts. I’m still routinely losing feeling in my extremities and wishing that a fleece onesie will magically appear in my room. I’m certainly not the only one; I think my laptop may also be wishing for a fleece jacket or a trip to Hawaii right about now. My third night here, my computer felt like a block of ice and refused to hold any charge. Thinking it was on the verge of collapsing, I rushed it to the library and prayed that some heat might revive it. The jolt of warmth seems to have set it right, but I have taken to tucking it into my bed when it’s not in use.

As for the New Zealanders, their warm personalities seem to counteract the cold weather. Coming back from the library the other day, I turned a corner just in time to watch an adorable three-year-old who was walking with his father trip over an orange cone which marked a construction zone. I immediately froze; I could see that tears were about to come to his eyes, and I was worried he’d gotten scraped up by his spill. But before so much as a wail from the child, another man walking in front of me scooped the little tike off the ground and placed him into his father’s arms. What shocked me wasn’t just that it took under three seconds for this whole event to take place, but that there was no look of “Who is this man picking up my child?” on the father’s face. There was virtually no other exchange between the two men; one smiled his thanks while the other hurried on his way. Perhaps the little boy was just as stunned as I was, because the teary-eyed look had vanished as soon as he’d found he was no longer lying facedown on the ground, but rather was being hugged tight in his father’s arms.

Inspired by this display of kindness, I asked a woman walking a few paces in front of me if she needed help carrying two bicycle wheels. She gave me an odd look and shook her head “No” and I realized that maybe they weren’t all that heavy, and instead of being a nice gesture it looked like I was trying to steal one off of her.

As I wondered why anyone would steal a single bicycle wheel without a tire on it, it started to rain. In a few short moments (as is customary in Dunedin) the sky was completely overrun by clouds. While I watched giant droplets slide off the hood of my rain jacket, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought back to another drizzly afternoon a few days earlier. I had just been about to leave the post office when I remarked to my friends how the rain had come back full force since we had ducked inside. A man who had just walked through the doors quickly corrected me, saying “It never rains in Dunedin! There’s only liquid sunshine!” So, while I probably won’t offer to carry anyone’s bike wheels for a while, I can certainly strive to embrace the type of Kiwi attitude that is capable of turning storms into sunshine.

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Traveling Into Tomorrow

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Something interesting about being halfway around the world is that the time difference puts us a day ahead of people in the states. Technically I think this means that I’m licensed to call home and let them know if the future is looking bright. The price of being able to travel into the future, however, is a grueling series of plane flights and layovers.

To start my journey, my parents and I took off for San Francisco, where we spent some time taking in the sights. We were able to climb the Coit Tower, walk along the Pier, see Lombard and Steiner Street, visit the Golden Gate, and stuff our faces with Boudin sourdough and Ghirardelli chocolate. It was incredibly nice to spend time with my parents in one of my favorite cities in the world.

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But after some wonderful adventures in San Francisco, it was time for my parents to drop me off at the airport. Thirteen hours later I arrived in Auckland; I was exhausted, overwhelmed by the airport, and feeling completely alone. After hauling my bags off of the belt, I attempted to prepare myself to go through customs and catch my plane to Dunedin.

One of my greatest talents in life is my capability to get lost anywhere. Passing as a tourist in my own hometown? Easy. Looking like a freshman on my college campus? No problem. So, naturally, I got lost as soon as I grabbed my bags. I tried to wander around for a bit, hoping I would stumble upon a line on the floor that I could follow to my exact destination. I ambled towards an exit that claimed to be able to lead me to the domestic terminals, finding instead that it led me to a curb outside of the airport. I decided that I couldn’t lug my bags around any further, and that I needed some help. “Excuse me?” I asked a woman walking past. “Do you know how to get to the domestic terminals?”

“Well, I normally walk to it by taking this path right here,” she motioned to a green line that was painted on the ground. “It takes you right to it. But today I’m riding the bus, so you can follow me.” As I struggled to follow her, my bags incapable of any synchronized movement, my newfound guide began to explain how I could have grabbed a cart for my bags, or that I could have left my bags at a bag drop inside. “No worries now, you can just do it at the domestic terminal.”

The bus to the terminal arrived shortly afterwards, and my guide helped me load my suitcases aboard, and then promptly proceeded to help an older gentlemen with his suitcase, making sure both he and his bag didn’t tumble over. I couldn’t help but think of a mother duck collecting ducklings as she went. Upon arriving in the terminal, she helped the older man off the bus and brought him his suitcase, all the while making sure I was still behind her. She made sure we found someone with a wheelchair for the older man, and then she rolled his bag to where he needed it before turning back to me. “This way, this way.”

She took me to the premium desk, although I was certainly not a premium passenger, and made sure my baggage could be dropped off. “Maybe I should ask them where I should go,” I said out loud, feeling guilty that this woman had to drag me around the airport. “No, no, follow me, we’ll go to security next,” she called, leading me onwards and letting me know which security rules applied in New Zealand.

As soon as we were through security, I once again mused that I should ask someone for my gate (which was unmarked on my ticket), not wanting this kind woman who also had a flight to catch to have to take me the whole way there. But once again, she shushed me, saying, “No, no, follow me.” At this point I had no idea how this woman would get me to my gate if we didn’t even know the number, but I was too tired to care that I once again had no idea where I was headed.

“Let’s see if I can’t get you in the Koru Lounge. It’s a much nicer place to wait than at your gate. Can I take her as my guest?” She asked a woman at the entrance of a swanky-looking airport sitting area. Once she was given the OK, she ushered me in and lead me to a comfy couch, and began pointed out where to get food, coffee, and Internet. “You can use the bathrooms or take a shower over there. Do you see the man in the checkered shirt who just sat down? That’s Ma’a Nonu. He’s a famous rugby player on the New Zealand All Blacks. You’ll start seeing him on TV a lot.”

As I gazed around the lounge in amazement, I began to wonder what I had done to earn this woman’s pity and to end up in this airport wonderland. Perhaps it was the baffled look that had permanently taken over my face, or the fact that I was struggling to find the words to thank her and was having trouble stringing sentences together. Before leaving to catch her flight, she handed me her business card and made me promise to tuck into the food for a good breakfast so I didn’t waste my pennies. Then she offered me a place to stay if I ever made it to New Zealand’s capital and said “Let’s see if you make it to Wellington” before disappearing out the lounge door towards her gate.

I think it’s safe to say that I was the luckiest and most grateful person at the Auckland airport that day. Somehow her display of kindness made me feel less alone, and made New Zealand feel less far from home. Safely in Dunedin now, I’d like to send a message back home: The future is looking bright.