While my departure from the US was an adventure all its own, my trip through New Zealand to meet my host family was equally as blog-worthy. En route to Auckland I met my first potential traveling companion, Stephanie, who also happened to be sitting next to me on the plane. She was also traveling alone, headed to Auckland to spend several months student teaching before heading back to the States in early January. We chatted about our plans, then exchanged names and agreed to maybe work out some trips via Facebook. While she seemed a bit disappointed when she found out I couldn’t scuba dive and hadn’t brought my wetsuit with me to New Zealand, I didn’t feel too bad since this was also coming from someone who had brought her electric guitar with her on her 3-month study abroad trip. It didn’t really matter though – meeting someone who wanted to maybe, possibly meet up sometime and potentially travel somewhere made me feel like I was actually a real traveler!
Meanwhile, the view flying into Auckland was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and it was barely even light outside. Even at 6:00 in the morning, the sky was slowly starting to brighten over dense green hills that dipped into lagoons and rolled into the sea. It was like flying over an island rainforest mixed with hints of marshland, and everywhere the most verdent, intense green you have ever seen. I wish I’d had the window seat so I could have taken a picture!
The negative side of seeing New Zealand for the first time was that it reminded me I still had to actually get into the country. Would I have to go through the same trouble I had in the US when I tried to get through New Zealand Customs? I picked up my backpack from baggage claim (my bags are always last), then cautiously approached the tanned, chiseled, Adonis-like Customs agent waiting to see my passport and customs declaration form. And then, he didn’t even bother looking for my visa – he simply asked if I had one (“Yes.”). After that, our conversation went something like,
“Where’re yah goin?”
“Ah, Gis-buhn! (emphasis on the correct pronunciation) What’re yeh doin’ theya?”
“Actually, working on a ranch!”
“(laughs at me) We call that a fahm, heeya!” (awkward laugh from me)…then, “Oy, I heeyah them boys in Gisbuhn ah hahd ones!”
(more awkward nervous giggles from me, more small talk about how it’s “very different work” that I’d be doing) and then as I walk away, “Welcome to New Zealand. And oy, watch out fah them Guzzy boys!”
…nothing like getting laughed at in your first 15 minutes in a country by one of the most beautiful men you have ever seen. I could pretty much do anything with confidence after that! That’s the thing with the language here – we may all speak English, but I can never tell whether someone’s being serious, sarcastic, or having a laugh at my expense. In the previous exchange, I’m guessing it was probably all of the above. Kiwis 1, Claire 0.
In fact, the only difficulty I encountered while trying to enter the country was not related to my passport, my visa, my bagagge or even my “proof of sufficient funds” that I had been so desperately worried about. No, the thing New Zealand Customs found most suspicious about me? My hiking boots. New Zealand is particularly protective of it native wildlife, and therefore keeps strict control over items that could be biohazards. In my case, I had declared on my customs form that I was not bringing into the country any shoes or boots that had been worn in a forest or farm overseas. Upon x-ray examination of my bag however, it became clear that I did in fact have hiking boots in my bag. I suffered the scathing looks of the x-ray technicians and customs agents until I got a chance to explain that they were brand new and had never been worn. The agent(s) seemed to believe me, and I snatched my bag and nearly ran through the sliding glass doors into the arrivals terminal of Auckland International.
Once I got into the terminal, my first thought in New Zealand was, “Wow it’s cold!” I knew that I was headed into summer, but had somehow missed the idea that spring was happening! The wind was frigid, and I suddenly felt rather silly about bringing all the clothing I’d so carefully worried over. At almost the same moment, it also dawned on me that I had a couple of hours to wait for the bus that would take me to Gisborne. I’m not really sure how I passed the time, but a good part of it was definitely taken up by finding someone to help me print my bus tickets and find my bus terminal. I ended up sitting outside in the cold to wait (I was still a little paranoid about missed connections), and I was glad I did – the bus showed up a good half hour early, and left without waiting for any other passengers!
While waiting for the bus I got to talking with Roman, a German backpacker who had been on the same plane with me from LA. On the short drive to Manakau (where the Intercity bus would pick me up and take me to Gisborne) we got to know each other a little better and I was suddenly feeling increasingly less cool in comparison. At 19, he’d graduated from school, picked up a backpack, and come to New Zealand for a year without any plans whatsoever. No friends, no connections, not even a list of things he might possibly want to do or see. He’d purchased the earliest bus ticket he could, and was simply deciding what he wanted to do as he went along. And everyone said I was being brave!
The bus terminal in Manakau sat right across the street from a combination shopping mall and office building, and I spent some time warming up inside while I waited for my next bus (mostly by buying a hot tea and promptly spilling it on myself). Outside, two Intercity buses came and went at their assigned times while mine of course was late, nowhere to be found. When it finally did arrive it did so with a bang, or rather a loud crunch accompanied by gasps and screams – the driver, attempting to manuever around another parked bus, had managed to come so close to it that he scraped its sideview mirrors, leaving long black skid marks along the side of his bus and causing a spectacular crunching noise as he attempted to back up and only made it worse. I figured this was probably a good thing, if it meant we could avoid similar “complications” along the way. Once we were all safely aboard and the other driver had adjusted his mirrors, I was finally only a mere 9 hours away from my goal!
The Intercity bus route from Auckland to Gisborne follows a winding path with numerous stops along the way, including two in Rotorua and Opotiki for refreshments. This meant that I had a lot of time to read, which of course actually meant that I spent a lot of time creeping on my neighbors and staring out the windows at the amazing countryside. My neighbor across the row from me, a 20-something Maori guy accompanied by his son (the most beautiful little boy I have ever seen) occupied a lot of my attention. The boy’s big dark eyes, long eyelashes, and tightly-curled dark hair gave him this angelic quality, and he had a quiet, intense gaze which he trained on me as he sat on his dad’s lap silently for hours. After a while he fell asleep and his dad laid him in the empty seat next to mine, and I almost died of joy. The dad, on the other hand, did not stop talking to his seatmate for the entire ride, and was almost constantly emitting a weird, quiet, chortling hurhurhurhur laugh that quickly got on my nerves. Despite the fact that they were talking almost the entire time, I could barely understand a word they said – their accents were so thick they sounded like they were speaking Japanese. The only clue I had that it was English were the “f*cks,” “f*ckin’s,” and “what the f*cks” that seemed to make up at least half of everything they said. That poor child never had a chance at a decent vocabulary.
Of course, also competing for my attention was the scenery outside of y window. I took notes and photos and tried to seal it all in my memory, but none of it compares to the actual landscape of this country. Mile after mile of green hills stretch out around you, hills as far as the eye can see, dipping and rolling and suddenly dropping off into valleys. Trees line the ridges and copses of them spring up at the tops of hills and the low parts of valleys. Crooked wooden posts held together by wire form mile after mile of low fences for cows, sheep, and horses (and even some red deer and alpacas!). The colors are incredible – bright blue sky, white clouds, and the most spectacular bright green I have ever seen. Photos that look like they’ve been color-enhanced actually dull the vibrancy of the grass, the sky. Do people who live here take it all for granted, like it’s just another day? Passing into more rugged country the hills begin to change shape, with some vaguely terraced by generations of sheep and others covered with huge stone outcroppings that make you wonder how those boulders could have possibly been scattered that way. It’s rugged and wild and breathtaking. The sloping movement and grace of the hills is something I will never be able to adequately express.
In more mountainous areas the land is covered in forest, and the woods are the strangest combination of trees I have ever seen. They could pass for midwestern forests with all the fir/pine trees, if it weren’t for the giant palm trees and cypresses packed in beside them! It’s the strangest thing driving down a winding road through a gorge high above a river, with moutains looming over you densely covered in forest – you could be anywhere, Colorado, California, Washington – but then you notice the hundreds, thousands of palm trees in between them, and you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. They even have some of the strange-looking pine trees I saw in Greece this past May (which, as I later found out, are called Norfolk pines)! Driving down a particularly steep mountain road, giant ferns cover the walls, and they reach out like thousands of arms, their tips uncurling like fists toward the light. I know that these hills must have completely forested long ago, and I wonder what it would have looked like to explorers just reaching the shore.
Hurtling through the gorge I had a moment where I regretted my decision that the sideview mirror incident was isolated – the bus driver, speeding through the pass because he was 45 minutes late, narrowly missed a truck coming around the corner and swiped a guard rail in the process – but in time I made it to the Gisborne bus station where Marg, my host, was waiting for me. We hopped into her car, started down the road to her farm, and I had my mind blown by what I arrived to… but that too will have to be in the next post, because this one is hopelessly long and utterly too detailed already!