The truth is that in my busyness, I’ve been pretty down on New Zealand and, well, it’s not really New Zealand’s fault. Partly it’s because I am a nomadic person and people like me will never feel happy simply staying put in any one place. So, it’s easy to think “It’s been 5 long years. I just need to move house”. And moving to a new place would feed my itinerant soul like nothing else can but, only enough to make the difficult bits in life more interesting for a while. Truth be told, this is the best place to raise my son. Although people tend to paint it with an overly rosey brush New Zealand is not without it’s hazards , but I know the schools are decent, there is a relatively low rate of violent crime, many people try to be accepting of others* and things like this can happen:
The other thing we have here, the thing that drew me and countless others way down here to the middle of the Pacific, to Aotearoa, the thing I’ve been too busy to enjoy is just beyond the suburban borders. When I’ve got my waterproofs and my boots on and I walk around in the New Zealand bush smelling rain, humus and manuka I once again feel calm, reconnected and, most importantly, restored. I wonder, when I get there, why I’m not there more often. “What am I doing that I’ve forgotten to come out here?”, I ask myself. But then I go home and get stuck in the eddy of daily life again.
As you may or may not know, three year olds are not known for their long attention spans but I took my son out into the bush as an experiment anyway. If you search tramping, climbing and even mountaineering forums online, you get a bevy of boot people freaking out that their outdoor lives may be over once the wee ones arrive. But the nice thing is there are others who have gone before writing calming words and warning newbies not to go with any expectations or goals (which is a serious issue for some competitive climbers!). I decided that our goal should be to focus on the lookabout rather than the walkabout. Turns out, he surprised me. Not only did he focus for 2 whole hours on walking, walking, walking, he asked questions like, “What’s that smell?”, “Can you hear that bird?”, “Is that water down there?”, and “Mummy, can I have my snack on that fuzzy rock?”.
Wow, I thought, he sees things and he likes to walk. I used to love this. I DO love this and I can do this again!
The next weekend he actually asked, unprompted, if we were going to go tramping. It took my husband and I a moment to realise what that word was he was saying (new words take a few goes to become clear). “He’s saying ‘tramping’. Oh my God, he wants to go out again!” We were delighted, of course, but secretly I felt like I’d just been given a gift. He loves that centering thing that we once thrived on and he’s going to bring us back to it.
Now, whenever we have the chance, the three of us get our boots on, pack up our backpacks with provisions and drive until we get to the hills. I haven’t decided who is benefitting more from this but I do know that it is joyful when a three year old can take you back to yourself.
*Please don’t take this to mean there is no anti-gay sentiment, or racism, or any of those other nasty things in New Zealand as unfortunately, like everywhere else in the world, there most certainly is.
We’ve had the most beautiful day at our local Songkran celebration. My son, who is three years old and too young to remember last year’s celebration, was so excited but didn’t really know what was happening as we walked from the car towards the noise. He even looked a bit nervous as we entered the crowd and asked to be picked up. So, to give him something to focus on, I asked him if he’d spotted the big Buddha yet.
“There he is! He’s yellow!”, he shouted.
He took the offering very seriously and watched intently as we poured water with flower petals over the Buddha. There is something about a toddler stood in a wai that just chokes me up, but I tried to concentrate on what I was doing. Come back, Monkey Mind.
As we collected some food and chai yen we realised that Poom still hadn’t noticed the water pistols. But when we settled down on to our blankets, his little friends approached, soaked to the bone and donning tubes full of water. I started to regret not bringing one for him when a friend said she had a spare one. Here we go, I thought. But, really, he just wanted to play on the playground so off he went. 10 minutes later he came back saying,
“People spraying water. Not do dat! I told them, not do dat!”.
So we told him it was OK and that it was fun, a blessing. His eyes travelled back to the previously offered weapon and then it clicked.
Super soaker in hand…the rest is dripping, sodden, history.
Be assured that sheep in New Zealand are free ranging.
In our daily activities and rhythms we often forget that where we are is a foreign place to others. It looks and smells different and there are very different things that punctuate our day. After dropping my son off at day care, I wanted to go out for a run before settling down to work for the day and so pointed the car in the direction of a place I knew I could don my headphones and listen to some travel podcasts and forget that my legs were annoyed with me for making them move at this hour.
I’d slowed my car to a halt and was waiting to get through when it suddenly struck me that my windscreen framed what some might call “a New Zealand scene”. I was in Corwall Park at the base of One Tree Hill, one of Auckland’s 50 odd volcanic cones. It was fully my intention to run around the cone if only I could get to the car park and set off. But I was stuck, waiting for three sheep to decide which way they wanted to go. One was halfway up a hill and already tucking in to a fresh patch of grass doused in morning dew. I’m thinking this is like a power breakfast for sheep, greens and hydration in one. I had a lot of time to think. Another of the sheep was just looking at me and chewing , like they do. “What are you doing here?”, he seemed to be thinking. The last one was contemplating the cattle stop but finally decided that what lay beyond the stone gate was not something worth treading over narrow metal strips for, at least not today. When they finally inched over a bit I slowly rolled forward enough that they got the idea a flitted up the hillside.
Much of a travel writer’s job is to take up the challenge of describing a place without the dreaded “commodification”. Like salt has pepper, Japan has geishas, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, England has Beefeaters (I never understood that one), and California has the flashy cheesiness of Rodeo Drive (never understood that either). Places get stuck with images, often not actually very representative, and then they are copied and pasted ad infinitum. This is how we package things up to sell the story and sell the place. Perhaps some people actually still want this kind of writing. Perhaps they want to have critical mass of a particular image in their mind so they can tick it off on their list when they arrive at the destination, you know, for reassurance that all is as we believe it to be in the world. Indeed, I’ve had clients request this kind of writing. If that’s what they need, who am I to refuse? But I can say that it is difficult to spin that story in a new direction for the ten millionth time and it still be interesting. Very difficult.
As much as I hate reading the same bloody exclamations of “There are more sheep than people in New Zealand” and “They even have sheep in the middle of the cities” over and over, I have to admit that, in this case, it is absolutely true. There ARE sheep in the middle of Auckland. I’m sitting in my car, the rainy mist is hanging low, the stone walls are grey and the grass is green and covered in sheep. This doesn’t happen in London or Beijing. There may be some people who might want to know. Sheep in cities is sort of interesting… I guess. I suppose I should write about this. Oh, I just did.
Yes, you’ve read that correctly! The reason I’ve been so absent here on Shantiwallah is that I have been away in Thailand collecting my 20 month old son.
It hasn’t been easy as we don’t have a very good system for adoption here in New Zealand. We tried to start the process back in 2007 when we were still in Japan but the NZ government won’t work with citizens abroad, so we came back. From January 2008 we have been working with the authorities to get a mound of paperwork the size of Mount Taranaki completed and verified by all the right people. It was finallly sent off to Thailand last year where things were set in motion for us to go and collect our wee lad. We left Auckland for Bangkok on the 10th of July and visited the orphanage, coming away with a special little package, on the 14th and have been getting to know Mr. Poom* ever since.
It’s been a long journey with lots of bumps, but we are so happy to have him home in New Zealand, even if he does resent the New Zealand cold as much as I do!
*Not his real name as we are not allowed to identify him on the internet. We only have guardianship for now until the adoption process is complete sometime next year.
Is there still time to cash in on the Royal Wedding?
I am fascinated by how people act in different circumstances. There is nothing like a celebrity event to bring out the lovers and the haters. Of all the street parties mentioned on TV that day, one was a group of anti-royalists who were claiming that, “You don’t need a Royal Wedding to get together with the people on your steet and have fun.”. Is this not irony? It was BECAUSE of the Royal Wedding that they were having their party, even if it was an anti-event. Why didn’t they just have it on a different day?
Anyway, I have been busy with other things (I know, selfish me) like typing like a frenzied, typing thing in order to take advantage of an incentive at one of my jobs. The need for money has both made my typing quicker, and worse at the same time. You’d think I’d get better with practice. I should really take some lessons. Or is “the writer who can’t type properly” part of my identity now? Speaking of identity, another thing I’ve been doing was being interviewed by the lovely MaryAnne over at A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai. It was quite fun and very self-reflecting for me. I don’t know if anyone else got anything out of it, but I enjoyed it and I got to be up there with a bunch of other cool people. Check out her whole series on expats. Cool stuff.
There have also been a lot of cool things happening over at Pocketcultures. The team is really big now, so the sun never sets on us! Something I love are the collaborative posts that the team is putting out now. This recent one about Naming Traditions in 13 Different Countries is really packed full of interesting information. I’ve had a couple of teacher friends say they will use it in the classroom and, indeed, it is a good resource.
Auckland is now being thrashed by winter wind and rain, boo! But that’s OK. I’m spending a lot of time chained to my dear computer. I have been working on a massive project that I hope comes to fruition in just a few more short weeks. I am not ready to divulge the details yet but it’s going to be exciting and will be of interest to lots of you (I hope!). I am so impatient, I really want to get this thing going. But I want it to start off well so, alas, I must carry on tweeking. Hmmm, perhaps I will start dropping hints soon. Or was that one?
I wish I could describe better how I am feeling, but I’m not sure I even know how I am feeling. Maybe it’s that my feet are not on the ground. My lungs feel so stretched and overfilled with air from hyperventilating for nearly a week that I just feel like my entire body is made of lace that is floating and not able to get a hold on the ground. I woke up in the tightest little ball today that hurt all over when I tried to straighten out and stand up out of bed. At 12:24 we had been woken from a deep sleep by rumbling and concrete knocking. It was only our neighbour coming in down the driveway past our bedroom window. But from a deep sleep to that point of sitting up we had to calm each other down so that we could eventually go back to sleep, worried about heart attacks from the racing within our chests. Normal life experience does not make you react like this.
My husband and I were also deep asleep when at 2am on Boxing Day in December 2010 we were woken by the earth rumbling beneath us in our tent in Christchurch. It was a big aftershock and one that did further damage to the buildings in Christchurch. We drove into the city in search of breakfast and were diverted when we saw bricks and mortar lying in the road in front of us. The epicentre had been right under us while we sat in the car watching shop window glass move like water, hoping for it to stop. Shaken and upset, we were happy to be leaving on our pre-booked flight the next day. So lucky we could fly to our home in Auckland.
In 2007, my husband and I were in our first floor (US second floor) flat in Niigataken, Japan when the rumbling began. We’d felt many in Japan, but they usually stop within seconds. This one did not stop. In fact, the entire flat began to twist out of shape, creak and dump things off the shelves. We crouched down in the genkan (small entryway where you take off your shoes) and grabbed our “earthquake bags” that we kept there with water, snacks, a torch and a few other items. We were making plans about at what point we would run outside. Japan is so built up that they tell you it is far safer inside than outside and never to run outside. All of this was running through my head, as we rode out the waves. A bigger one came and we really thought this was it. The flat was like a fairground ride. Our minds were having a hard time making sense of what our eyes were seeing as the straight lines of the rooms twisted bizarrely*. Unlike all the smaller tremours we’d felt in Tokyo, Osaka, and Los Angeles, these were the ones that began our real fears. These were the ones that helped us to understand our mortality and we’ve never been the same since.
Long after we’d left Japan and returned to the relative safety of Auckland we’d still jump and look at each other in fear whenever a big truck would rumble past or waves would show up in a glass of water on the table because someone had accidentally kicked it. Slowly we began to calm down and only occasionally would we have these episodes. But, the experience in the tent in Christchurch brought it all back. We felt terrible for the people of Christchurch who have been living with this since September 2010. By the time we visited in December people were still shaken but perhaps beginning to accept that the worst may possibly be over. People were focussed on getting their properties repaired. The people seemed optimistic, even, and perhaps a little stronger after each small aftershock** that life was still good and things were going to get better and better. People seem to be resiliant in this way.
But then, of course, the worst had happened and the world is looking on helplessly and with heavy hearts.
I wanted to tell my earthquake stories, not because any of this is about me because it’s absolutely not, nor to trivialise anything that has happened to Cantabrians, but to let others know what it is like to have experienced any of this and the lasting effects. The main event is horrifying and terrible and uncomprehensible. But for survivors, the psychological damage will last a long time. After a life-threatening event, I think the survival instinct in you says that you have had your close call, and now you can go on and live your life to the full. That is the only way your mind can begin to move on. In this instance, it did not work that way and it will be very hard for Cantabrians to move on.
People will need to tell their stories and they deserve to be heard as each time the story is told, even though there is no sense to be made of it, the act of going through the events can remind the person that they are now just telling the story and no longer living it. People need love, patience and understanding. I don’t think there is a logical end point at which people should be expected to be ‘over it’. And people need financial support to rebuild their homes and lives. If you can, please give something to one of the organisations listed at the end of this post.
*We were very lucky. Most of the damage was a few kilometres further north where many of my students and their families lived. Not all of them were lucky.
**There have been over 5,500 since September 2010.
Air New Zealand has said today that they will extend the $50 to/from Christchurch domestic fares to include all flights within New Zealand until midnight on the 27th of February. The also have some compassionate international fares.
They have put on a number of extra flights into and out of Christchurch equivalent in capacity to 19 additional 737 flights today.