Less than half a second later, our entire raft group was submerged in chilly, glacial water. Instinctively, I closed my eyes in the water and fumbled for our safety rope as icy eddies pummeled my ears. If anything happens, grab the rope. I remembered the safety guide’s voice. Grab the rope. As the water-rafting guide reached down her hands and pulled me out of the rapids, I gasped for air as if I had just been featured as the main character in a miraculous rescue mission. Back on the raft, I numbly glanced around from underneath a dripping, off-kilter helmet at my counterparts, all of whom had also been thrown into this rafting fiasco. Our boat met calm waters. Everyone sat in silence. We had made it through. As we looked at each other and saw seven matching horrified faces, we began to laugh apologetically in that uncontrollable way that is only born from high adrenaline. Roasting each other for all the dramatics as if we had been only one wave away from death, we cruised down the Rangitata River in fits of giggles.
New Zealand has a way of making everything look like it’s a green-screen. The most incredible moods and atmospheres are created through lighting on the water and the land. It’s like every hour in New Zealand is transformed by a different photographic lens and each lens has the subtle power to change the mood of your mind. The country is wild, like the most magical chapter from your favorite children’s book and the most beautiful reality on Earth. I had to continually remind myself that it was real, that I was there. Luckily there were heaps of people to ground me in the fantasy world of New Zealand. There were travelers from Germany, Estonia, England, the Netherlands, France, and all over the world hopping onto the same bus tour as me. Most could speak English. Some couldn’t. One thing that never got lost in the language barrier was the shock on our faces when we saw the sheer beauty of this little island paradise.
In only a short seven days we got to see a great amount of the South Island: Queenstown (the adventure capital of the world), Gunn’s Camp, Milford Sound, Invercargill, Stewart Island (an island off the southern tip), Mount Cook, Peel Forest and Christchurch. Each day began early at the crack of dawn and each night ended in a new hostel in a new town with new roommates. It was exhausting. But it felt as if it was supposed to be exhausting, like it was all part of the experience. Packing your bags each morning before the sun is up and your eyes are still half-shut is exhilarating. Where to today? That question is a wonderful way to feel alive. It’s also a wonderful way to lose almost everything you brought. By the end of the trip, I had conveniently forgotten two shirts, two pairs of pants, and a bottle of shampoo somewhere across the vast array of accommodation we used. Later in the trip while crossing through security at the airport, I had to give up an unopened bottle of harissa sauce and grape jelly from a New Zealand farm, a jar of peanut butter, a new bottle of shampoo and a sense of comfort in my belly as the security guard made me chug a 250 mL bottle of water. “What a darn shame this is lady. Don’t you feel bad wasting this food?” He stared me down. I don’t ride planes often so the rule about the liquid slipped my mind. Heat rose into my face as he watched me throw out the best sauce I had ever tried. I had a few choice things ready to spit back at his remark, but instead the two most important words in a traveler’s vocabulary appeared on the projector screen of my occipital cortex. “Oh well.” I swallowed the last few gulps of the water, felt my stomach expand to well past third trimester size, grabbed my reusable water bottle and walked away. Remembering the clothes I had lost and all the food I just unintentionally wasted to my dismay and the money that had put that food in my suitcase, I sighed. “Oh well” was what got me to the point where I was cracking up on a phone call with my boyfriend ten minutes later about how I had never been so bloated. Thanks for teaching me New Zealand.
New Zealand also taught me the true sound of silence and the color of total darkness. On our second night we stayed in Gunn’s Camp, a secluded, off-grid cabin site run by an old man and women in Fjordland National Park. None of us had service for almost two days, which meant the iPhone got switched off and I actually had to be present with the people traveling on the tour bus with me. At night in Gunn’s Camp the electricity and heat was shut off completely. Our cabins were heated by fireplaces. I remember waking in the middle of the night and trying to open my eyes again because I thought they were still shut. I panicked and pried open my eyes with my fingers but found they were already opened wide. Reaching for my phone for some light, my hand touched thin air. I swept it around and around but couldn’t find a single object. I tried opening my eyes again. Open already. There were no street lights, no night lights, no flashing car lights and no phone lights to obstruct my view. There was nothing to steal the unseen wonder before me. My view was frightening and amazing, breathtaking to say the least. I was staring at the color of total darkness.
Although most of the South Island is spectacular landscapes- great mountains, rolling hills, and turquoise waters- cities dot the map every couple hundred kilometers. After visiting Queenstown I was expecting the city of Christchurch to be similarly steeped in adventure and youth. It was quite evident that something was much different when we pulled into town. We saw immediately the memorials of both the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 and the tragic mosque shooting only a month ago. Around every corner there was some kind of remembrance for the catastrophes that shook the people of Christchurch. Paper hearts with kind words were tied to fences all over the city to send up prayers and wishes for the families impacted by the shootings. Metal plaques on the sidewalks commemorated the lives lost in the quakes. Memorial flowers lined the openings to buildings. Stickers showing a Kiwi bird protecting the symbol of Islam decorated telephone poles. It was hard not to think of the word ‘resilience’ everywhere we went. A small population of about 400,000, the people of Christchurch have made it through a lot. Oddly enough, residents of Christchurch were terribly kind and friendly in spite of the fog that has yet to lift over their home. What respect we have for New Zealand after seeing the way they deal with hatred – how they only respond with stronger love.
Surprisingly, it was not too tough to return to school today after a week of adventure. I walked up the stairs from the tram almost excited to get back to it. I’ve lost count of the weeks left, but that’s alright. It’s alright to lose count of the weeks and the days to take a second and remember the present.