Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Wide-Eyed Rush of Traveling

Abe shared this passage with me today. It's from Thomas Kohnstamm's book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, and Kohnstamm describes my favorite aspects of traveling more perfectly than I ever could. He writes:

"People, when dislocated from their customary surroundings, can free themselves from preconceived notions of how they are supposed to act.  Abroad, that which is formerly unacceptable can become commonplace.  That which is normal at home can be disregarded as an outdated practice of the past.  It's not "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."  People actually tend to do as they've always wanted to do - no one (at least, no one they're going to see again) is watching or passing judgement on them, and they are allowed to re-imagine themselves and recreate their own ability. 

When a human becomes unbound from his or her place, it also affects the perception of time.  The senses are inundated with new sights, smells, and sounds.  The flow of new, often-shocking details makes us more like wide-eyed children than jaded adults.  There is more concentration, recognition, and appreciation given to details throughout the day.  With no tether to a place and no base of reference, relationships and plans become hyperaccelerated.  New best friends are made and then never seen again.  Romances develop with the bottle-rocket trajectory of the Challenger.  For my generation, the first that has always had a computer at home and that considered video games a normal childhood pastime, life on the road is one of the few things that actually overwhelm our tolerance for stimuli and shock us into the here and now."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Coming Home of a Trip

Returning home is hard, especially if the place you left often felt like paradise.

New Zealand looks like a paradise: white sandy beaches, clear water, high blue mountains and sunlit green forests.  Leaving that kind of perfection was very hard. But I missed my home, the things I grew up with. I yearned to be close to people I knew and loved for years, for a sense of stability that my transient, traveler’s life lacked. 

Stillman's Bay, Abel Tasman National Park

I boarded my plane in Wellington feeling bittersweet: happy to return, and wistful about all I was leaving behind. What I didn’t expect to feel was lost.

Reverse culture shock always sounded strange to me. I grew up in America, surely I should know what to expect upon my return. But if America and my friends and family hadn’t changed (which they had, of course) I had changed, and the culture shock of coming home hit me much harder than when I arrived in New Zealand.

Going to New Zealand was an adventure, and everything was new and interesting. I felt exhilarated, and my adrenaline overshadowed any shock I felt.  For my first few weeks in New Zealand, I stressed about looking for work or going to a new place. I felt hyper-aware when I met new people, over-analyzing their reactions to things I said and wondering if they would think I was weird or cool or too American. But those fears were gradual and expected; coming home, change flooded me, intense and all at once.

My first night home, I stood on a dark concrete curb, staring at a packed airport parking lot with a lonely fluorescent light and a highway overhang blocking half the sky. A guy on my connecting flight from LAX walked over and asked me what I was doing in New York.  I told him I was returning from New Zealand, he said, “Oh wow, cool!” And then, “Where is New Zealand?”

After he and the other passengers from my flight were all picked up, I wobbled under the weight of my luggage to the nearest payphone to call my parents.  They arrived awhile later, and as we exchanged warm hellos, my dad yelled that he needed to clear the pickup lane. My mom was having trouble operating the GPS, so after attempting a brief conversation about the trip, we all gave up, so my dad would stop yelling about the traffic or how he didn’t know which route to take.

My friends called and excitedly planned to do things with me, and I had been away from them for so long that I fantasized about our first meetings: the smiles and hugs, the hours spent sitting together, drinking wine while I regaled them with stories from my travels. I would tell them about the people and places I loved and show them my thousands of pictures. I felt so changed, that I wanted my friends to look at me and see the difference. I wanted them to listen intently, to relive my year with me and understanding my feelings.

Storefront in Nelson that reminded me of  home
Like in any good narrative, I wanted my return chapter where I come home from my conquest and share my discoveries..or something like that. But when I saw my friends for the first time, everyone tried to talk at once and our initial reunion was nothing like my fantasy. Their lives have changed too; they have formed new friendships in my absence. We need time to get to know each other again.

Now that I am home, I’m obsessed with little things that I missed while I was gone: Entenmann’s donuts, streaming NPR,  and brushing my teeth with an electric toothbrush. Friends look at me strangely, and I feel materialistic. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted I missed internet and American food so much. Am I saying too much or too little about New Zealand? I have trouble putting things into words. I feel their boredom when I speak; I am over-analyzing again but with old friends this time.

I feel overwhelmed by all of the choices. In New Zealand, I thought countless times about the clothes I wished I’d brought or the things I would do at home when I had 24 hour, unlimited internet access, but now that I am home I don’t know where to start. Yesterday I spent an hour walking back and forth, going upstairs to list some items on ebay, then thinking no, I should apply for jobs because I need to work, or maybe I should read some books or watch the news or no, I need to clean out my room from all this clutter. I am cluttered.

Everyone I see is so full of purpose. They have jobs and career goals, hobbies and friends. They are entrenched; I am an onlooker. My parents both work two jobs to pay their bills. I spend most of my time at home alone trying to look for a new job, so I can begin to save money again. But I feel despondent, uninterested, and lonely. I don’t know if I should talk to my friends at home or the ones I just left in New Zealand. I feel a part of neither world now.

I thought when I left New Zealand that it would be hard to say goodbye to the place and the people I met there. It was. But it was more than that. It was my dream to travel there, to try new things, to think and explore free of stress and baggage. I saved money, quit my job, planned for and lived in that dream for two and a half years. Little did I know, I also defined myself by it.

And so this loss that I feel now, this sadness, is not for the place, or the people, or the wealth of happy experiences I had there.

It is saying goodbye to my dream, my sense of purpose, my driving motivation that is the hardest. I did not realize how much inspiration I drew from my trip until it was over. I never thought realistically about the coming home of the trip. And what I would do when I got here.

Leaving the South Island on the ferry to fly home on a cold, blustery day

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Zealand In 55 Words

I created this Wordle as a gift to Abe to commemorate our trip to New Zealand together. After making it, I realized how much it will help me remember all of the little things and the overall essence of our trip. They are only words, but I am very happy I wrote them while the experience is still fresh in my mind. I hope other people who live or have visited New Zealand will see places or activities they loved too and will comment on the blog or maybe create their own Wordle!

My wordle of New Zealand is here:
  Wordle: New Zealand

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ten Reasons Why All Americans Should Watch Rugby

Before I lived in New Zealand I had never seen a rugby match. Living there the year NZ hosted the Rugby World Cup quickly remedied me of that. NZ rugby players are the hottest, biggest celebrities in the country, and now I know why. The NZ All Blacks rugby team are fantastic athletes in one of the coolest sports I've ever watched.

I'm not a huge sports fan; I don't even watch much football in America. But with the entire nation of NZ so excited to host a world event, my curiosity was piqued. And before I knew what was happening, I was watching rugby games almost every night, organizing groups of friends to meet at one local pub or other after work to cheer and boo our teams together, and mourning on Mondays and Tuesdays when no games were on.  It was total rugby immersion.

The All Blacks haka

As a recent convert to the exciting, jaw-dropping world of rugby, I want to share with you why I think all Americans should give one of the world's favorite sports a try. Yes, we have American football. No, America is not currently good at rugby since no one here watches it. But there has to be a reason every other English-speaking country loves rugby, right? I'll give you ten good reasons to stop grumbling and start loving this sport:

  1. We all love football games. Even for those of us who do more talking and eating during them than watching, football is a bonding experience. Rugby is so similar to football that anyone who enjoys kicking back with a beer to watch American football would love doing the same for a rugby game. 
  2. It's exciting. Rugby is faster-paced than football but just as high-scoring. It's a passing game where the clock doesn't stop except for very limited time-outs, and you can score with tries (touch-downs) or kicks just like football.
  3. It's crazy and violent and fierce. Rugby is truly a team game, with the team often moving as one unit, passing, ramming the opposition, or breaking away to score altogether. Especially when the game is country against country in the world cup, these players will do anything to bring home a win for their nation's pride. There is a ton of contact, shirt pulling, and even players picking up opposing players to run them down the field.
  4. Haka intimidation chants. Every Kiwi learns how to perform one in school, and they are an awesome way to bitch out a team before the game, on the field in front of thousands of people. If you've never seen one, watch the NZ All Blacks' intimidate the French with their haka in the Rugby World Cup finals this year.
  5. Scrums. Sounds badass, right? Well, they are. This full-team tackle formation may look silly at first, but before you know it you'll be trying to replicate it at home.
  6. Everyone makes fun of America when we suck. The whole world makes fun of us during the rugby world cup because every half decent team gives us a beating. We owe it to ourselves as a nation to care more about this sport and get better at it.
  7. They really love making fun of us. The whole world makes fun of us off-season too with slogans hinting at the inferiority of American football like: No helmets. No pads. Just balls. Rugby.
  8. Rugby players are really hot (why do you think I watch?). The players all have to run more since it's a passing game, so they are in world-class athletic shape. Think David Beckham plus 30 lbs of muscle. And you can actually see the hot men because they aren't covered in helmets and padding. Nope, they're wearing tight t-shirts and short shorts, prime ogling material.
  9. Non-stop action. For all of the protection American football players wear, rugby players don't seem to have more injuries--some argue all the padding in football produces as many injuries as it covers. But in rugby, the clock stops for no man. Which means the rugby pitch often resembles a battlefield, medics scrambling on, players hobbling off, while the remaining players fight for glory 'til the clock runs out.
  10. You can't get better rivalry than country vs. country. The rugby season is a fantastic excuse to go out to a pub with a bunch of your friends, drink beer, get rowdy and trade loud insults about other teams, just like football. But in the rugby world cup, every fan dons their nation's colors and roots for their home, their countrymen. In the world cup, we all cheer harder and feel the competition deeper because it's our country's reputation, past, present and future on the line. 
My favorite All Blacks player: the dashing yet humble, Richie McCaw. He's so cool, he doesn't even want to be a knight.
If you're still not convinced, you don't have to take my word for it, you can read what NFL players said about rugby on Matador sports.

If we all watch more rugby, and encourage more kids to play rugby, our US team will get better each year. So, when the next rugby world cup comes around, paint stripes and stars on your face, travel to a far-off country to see the glorious rivalries in person, or kick back with a beer and watch the games at home.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recipe Edition: How to Make the Best (and Easiest) Veggie Burgers

Burgers have always been a favorite meal of mine. They are such a filling lunch or dinner and the BBQ is one of my favorite things about warm weather! After becoming a vegetarian a few years ago, I have been on a mission to find the best vegetarian burger. This is what I've come up with.

There are many great ways to make veggie burgers using ingredients from mushrooms or sweet potatoes to nuts and maple syrup. This recipe is my favorite because it is the easiest and cheapest to make while tasting like a delicious unhealthy burger.

I found this recipe while trolling Martha Stewart's vegetarian recipe section (you can find the original recipe here) and made a few slight changes to cut the cost and use things everyone has in the cupboard.

What you need (serves 4):
1/2 cup of any kind of rice, quinoa, or Martha suggests bulgur (I used jasmine rice)
1 15 oz can of pinto beans (preferably rinsed and drained)
1/2 cup sliced carrots
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used crumbled feta, but your favorite cheese will do)
1 small onion or scallion minced
1 egg
olive oil or cooking spray

What you do:
Make rice, quinoa or bulgur substance in boiling water or in a rice cooker (everyone should have a rice cooker because they are amazing). Once the water has boiled off, take the rice substance off the heat and set aside.

Combine pinto beans, carrots, cheese, onion and egg in a bowl. Then mix in rice. Add a pinch of salt and pepper if you like.

Put a bit of olive oil or cooking spray into a frying pan on medium heat. Add burger-sized spoonfuls of the mixture to the frying pan and flatten, so they cook evenly. Cook for 3-5 minutes or until crispy and golden brown on each side.

Serve on your favorite hamburger bun with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, avocado, mushrooms or even salsa. Substitutions work very well with this recipe, so get creative people!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


“We are all in search of something; why else would we be here? No one comes to New Zealand to be practical. And we all need someone to share the experience with, to laugh and stare in awe with.”

“Please promise me,” Ingrid says in her beautiful but broken English, her big brown eyes insistent. “Before you publish your book, you will visit me and stay in my home in Chile.” It is my last night in Ohakune, and Ingrid and Pablo cooked me and Abe a Chilean meal of bread topped with fish and lemon and pepper to say goodbye. The mood is heartfelt; we’ve shared so many firsts with them since we met them at Oskat Forest Park picking kiwifruit. And no one says it, but this could be the last time we see each other.

I’ve tried to explain to Ingrid many times that I am not a writer yet. I only aspire to be a writer, and even then I will probably only write short articles, never a book. My blog is for practice, people don’t actually read it, I tell her. But Ingrid always smiles and pats my hair in response and tells me how much I look like a writer. I love her certainty.

I wonder if it’s the language barrier between us (I only have a few words in Spanish, and she is still studying English every day to be able to get by at work here) that keeps her insisting that I am a writer. Maybe, or maybe she believes in me. I promise her after I finish my book, yes, of course, I will come to Chile and stay with her family.

Ingrid is a photographer, and Pablo writes fiction. Guille wants to be an interior designer, and Julia wants to live in Brazil. Alex wants to learn English well enough to make jokes we all understand. Kath wanted to live somewhere that wasn’t her home, and Bobby seems to want to do everything.

After 10 months of traveling in New Zealand, I’m used to being surrounded by people’s dreams. They are always on the surface of conversation here. Instead of asking people what they do for a living, I ask people what they want to do. Everyone I meet in New Zealand is working at the same relatively unskilled, low wage job and calculating each expenditure. We all want to save money quickly, so we can continue traveling and exploring as soon as possible.

Travel and new things are the dreams we all share, but everyone has a different experience, or reasons why they came. And everyone wants to swap good spots, tips for cheap travel, and personal inspirations. And weird stories. We bathe in shared experiences. We get high on the future travel plans of everyone around us.
It is no wonder living in New Zealand felt like an adventure; I traveled with people who were all in the midst of their own and who wanted to hear about mine. I wonder how I can return home to conversations in bars about what people do all day, and I decide I don’t want to. I don’t care what they do. I am more interested in what they really want.

I don’t think it’s impossible to talk about dreams with people in the US—the podcast This American Life is a perfect example of people who do—but it is harder. In the US, I am not living in a community of travelers. There is so much clutter in the lives of people who have spent years living and building in one place. They have families, friends, office politics, to-do lists, car payments, email and twitter accounts, and an overwhelming amount of material stuff filling up their houses and their minds.

When I left for New Zealand, I was forced to strip down everything unnecessary to travel simply. And unless I wanted to spend one year in isolation, I had to be open to making new friends because all of my old friends were out of reach.

Being away from home made me see things more clearly: I understand what is important to me now. I want to try to connect with foreigners traveling to the US. I want to continue to be a part of that community. But I have a lot of things I want to do now, and I think it will take effort every day to stay focused, and uncluttered, and to bring things I learned from living in New Zealand into my life.

Monday, October 10, 2011

You Know You're in New Zealand When...

We’ve all woken up at one time or another and wondered “where am I?” (or “who am I?” but I can’t help you with that one). And if you find yourself in that confusing, disoriented state, never fear. I’m here to help you out. The following is a list of funny, weird, and wonderful things I’ve noticed about New Zealand after living here for 10 months. It is also a foolproof way to discover if you are or are not in the country New Zealand.

Note: If you realize you are not in NZ by taking this little test, you may still not know where you are, but at least you’ll know one place you’re not.

You will undoubtedly know you’re in New Zealand when:

The birds you see don’t fly
Supermarket rotisserie chickens are stuffed with bacon and the salads are topped with it
Sheep graze in normal-size suburban yards
Girls play netball (seemingly a less physical form of basketball)
Pineapple lumps and jet planes are popular candies
People drive 3 hours to go shopping
MC Hammer and the Friends theme song play on the radio
There’s only one road to take to the nearest city
Your using the word “pretentious” makes people think you’re pretentious
The most popular beer on tap is named after the tui bird
Big old vans full of unshowered backpackers fill the roads
Everyone is “mate” or “bro” despite how recently you met them
You can snowboard down a mountain and not see another person on the trail
Beetroot finds its way into every soup, sandwich, and smoothie
Gorgeous forest trails exist in everyone’s backyard, but no one uses them
The phrase “long black” means coffee
You can casually meet someone and have them invite you to live in their home for a month