Friday, March 10, 2017

An introvert abroad - day 7

Day 7.

The Mountain.

Remember when service station attendants used to fill your car with fuel for you? Yeah, seems they do that here. I didn't know what to do with myself while he did, so I ended up buying a drink I didn't really need. Not sure if it's good old-fashioned service or clever sales tactics. Maybe both.

I climbed a small area of Mount Taranaki. About 3 hours of walking altogether. If I had more time and fitness, I'd have stayed longer and done the "goblin forest" walk too (isn't it magical that is actually a thing, not just a figment of the imagination).

So, so beautiful. It seems strange to call something natural "amazing", when it's there all the time. Creatures and plants and animals and fungi and bacteria and precipitation and sunlight all doing their thing. We cityfolk just forget about it, surround ourselves with things, landscapes modified beyond recognition.

At lunch I met a rooster named Grandfather, in a homely barn converted to a country restaurant. I ate a Prutje dutch pancake (well, half of it. It was a calzone-style filled pancake that was possibly bigger than my head).

On the way back, I stopped randomly in a little town and found the memento I've been looking for (one that eluded me in the tourist gift shops and bigger centres). A hand carved stone pendant in the symbol manaia: "(Guardian Angel) The manaia symbolizes a mythical being with a bird’s head a human body and fish tail. The invisible light surrounding a person."

Has it really been a week already? It seems like much less and much more time simultaneously.

Mount Taranaki with his head in the the clouds

Tethered to the sky

Thursday, March 9, 2017

An introvert abroad - day 6

Day 6.

M is for mountain goat.

After spending half the morning rearranging my itinerary (to avoid severe weather and flooding in Coromandel, where I planned to end my tour), I set out for the day, unsure of where I was going. I ended up climbing Paritutu Rock via a route that can barely be called a path. I ate morning tea with a magnificent view. My legs were mush by the time I got back to the car.

I was tired for the rest of the day, physically and mentally. No philosophy or insights today. Not much magic. Just meandering. A couple of second hand shops... a rock-lined waterway... kinetic sculptures in an art gallery... a massage... a little too much icecream after dinner. I think I'll sleep well tonight.

"Everything has been said..." - Mary-Louise Browne

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

An introvert abroad - day 5

Day 5.

Today was a day of scents.

The damp earth after all-night rain.
Stale cigarette smoke wafting out of the car upholstery.
The after-scent on my clothes after sitting in a restaurant with an open kitchen.
The peculiar, distinctive dry-damp odour of caves.
The changing quality of the air from green inland valleys to wooded mountains to salty coast.
Passing livestock trucks.
The homely smell of frying onions.
Fresh nail polish.

Inside an inky black cave, galaxies of glowworms. They are actually considered maggots when they are in the phase of development where they glow. But, as our guide eloquently summarised: "we didn't think anyone would pay to see glow-maggots". I tried to not breathe the unwashed odour of the backpackers shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the boat, and wished I could stay under that miniature night sky much longer.

In half an hour on this beach, so many sensory delights that I can hardly catch them all. Black sand, sprinkled with spectacular driftwood of all sizes. The shading of the clouds and the water beneath them, from storm-backed grey horizon to hidden golden sunset. Drying seaweed wafting its sticky stench over the beach.

The sound of rounded stones clattering over each other in the waves takes my mind into the past. Last year I briefly dated a man who was blind. Deprived of the option of sharing images of the quirky things I notice in daily life and the beautiful places I experienced, I started recording sound bites to share instead. I found myself listening to the world differently, finding unusual landmarks in the constant landscape of noise. It was almost 6 months ago, and I still haven't lost the habit, or a lingering kernel of sadness at how it ended.

Then, as I'm sitting on a rock overlooking the waves, two bull mastiff pups run to me. Ignoring the urging of their gap-toothed owner, and my nudges, they sit their warm flanks down against my thigh and lower back, and push their heads under my hand and elbow. The next person to walk past comments that I have "the best seat in the world". I agree. On the walk back, two young black cats with white bibs scamper under the boardwalk. A cluster of surfers whoop and holler further out from the beach. And I walk back to the house smiling.

Monday, March 6, 2017

An introvert abroad - day 3

Day 3.

Yesterday I thought that I wouldn't write something every day. I thought I should wait until something spectacular happens (whatever that means).

Then I asked myself why I was sharing it here: why not just write for the sake of it, squirrel it away for later? I read a friend's Facebook post about social media being bananas for the monkey mind and thought: hmm, maybe I'm just banana-hunting. After finishing this paragraph I wanted to delete it.

Then today happened and I couldn't help noting down more moments, more thoughts. Too many to cram into one post here, although I have to tell you about Sheila.

On the intercity train I sat next to an elderly English woman. Her stories and commentary were so fascinating that introverted little me didn't mind that she filled the better part of 2 hours with her chatter.

She's been in New Zealand since 1964. Her husband died on holiday in Norfolk Island less than 10 years later. He had to be buried there, because she couldn't afford the then $28 000 to hire a plane to bring him home.

Sheila hates the way people say her name in Australia, and reminds them that hers has a capital S. Together we wondered why it became a colloquial term for a woman. Sheila thinks Australia is amazing but can't stand the heat and the deadly critters.

Sheila thought it was better that I'm single rather than settling for an unhappy marriage, like one of her granddaughters just had. She followed it up by telling me I still had time to find someone nice, in just the right grandmotherly-but-worldy-wise tone that didn't make me bristle.

Sheila owns a bach overlooking the beach where Captain Cook landed. And as we spoke, she was on her way to ticking off a few items on her bucket list.

Meeting Sheila led me to a wish that I had understood the significance of family histories before my grandmother died. I've catalogued the painful parts, the bruises passed down the generations. But what about the delights? What about the miracles that are threaded through into the life I call mine?

Like one story my mother tells occasionally: how my great grandmother survived a train bombing in the war because she went to check the post office for a much-awaited letter. There was no logic to it, as she'd already been earlier that day. If she hadn't though, I wouldn't exist.

I wonder if this is what people mean when they say they travel to find themselves. Everything here eventually leads me back to myself.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

An introvert abroad - day 2

Day 2.

Overcast morning. Silent house. Body still protesting movement. I get up anyway, and push myself up a long hill to a bus stop.

I arrive early. Dancing: a familiar quintuplet of rhythms. The facilitator welcomes me warmly. I start to feel at home, like my tribe exists everywhere, if I just know where to find them. I coax my reticent limbs into stretches, shapes they haven't taken on in weeks.

As more people arrive, I notice familiar characters connecting, and myself floating, more and more on the outer edges. Not many people even make eye contact. I don't consider myself shy, but without an opening I don't try to connect.

Walking is easier afterwards, though I can feel the weight of my own flesh. The earth wants to befriend my body. Lie down, she says... stop climbing mountains and looking at harbours... surrender to the heaviness. I walk on, hatless and sunscreen forgotten.

Lukewarm mint and cinnamon tea on top of a grass-lined crater, with a 360° view, and a (helpful?) guide to how far I am from home. It's impossible to photograph well on my usually adequate smartphone.

There are more people sharing the view than I'd like. I content myself with being amused at the Asian children afraid of the insects, and the handsome, sweating man running casually over the lookout.

In the canopied forest, path sloping downhill, the leaf litter underfoot reminds me of another time, another walk, with someone that I need to forget.

I've stopped shaving recently. I've never really liked it. It was always something I did to avoid drawing unwanted attention to myself, starting with the bullies in high school. I'm still walking around a little self consciously, waiting to encounter someone that feels so strongly about it that they'll try to shame me into starting again, or hiding it. But seriously, men: why didn't you tell us life feels better with leg hair? A simple breeze on the exposed portion of my legs is a revelation in sensation.

Auckland is bigger than it seems. A hilly, spread-out city that doesn't seem to have the sharp distinctions between suburbs that I'm used to (unlike Sydney, Los Angeles). I haven't been anywhere here, where I felt like I shouldn't be.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An introvert abroad - day 1

My third overseas trip, and my first one travelling alone, was to the North Island of beautiful New Zealand. What follows are a series of posts I wrote each day, capturing my experiences, thoughts, reflections and lessons.

Day 1.

A long, heavy sleep.

Muscles wanting to be used differently to how they have been.

Bright sunshine that looks colder than it is.

Walking, walking.

A piece of art that makes me homesick - or rather, makes me feel my aloneness here. It moves me so strongly that I almost buy it. Then I realise that I will always associate it with this moment, standing in a shop and feeling a wave of sensation swell up into my throat.

Wrestling with myself unnecessarily: ideas about how I should spend my time, versus what I actually want and can handle.

More art. Sensing the taint of colonialism here too, the undertow of a painful history beneath all the beauty, all the inclusion.

Lying in a park and settling into my body, munching hand-picked local blueberries. A man named John blithely introduces himself, chats about his day, his work, his memories of visiting Sydney, guessing my ethnicity (Greek today). The surprise and suspicion in my limbs, gradually easing into a cautious comraderie.

Feeling a peculiar mixture of belonging (a city is a city. This one moves slowly) and unease (why am I here? What am I looking for?)

Thursday, March 2, 2017


I woke disoriented today. From a dream like a horror movie, in a bed not my own. In the dream people around me were being inhabited by ghosts. Some of them carried on as normal, slightly dazed, quiescent. Others turned malicious. I was sorting through a ring bind folder where all the pages were out of order. I was sorting them back into their place, looking for what did not belong; clues to explain why some spirits turned nasty. Some of them attacked me even as I worked to unravel the mystery. For a person who avoids that kind of entertainment, even in fiction, my dreams are often surprisingly violent.

Over breakfast with my friend of over two decades, I find myself talking about my ambivalence about the ever present question of children, the ever more ethereal idea of finding a life partner. She shares for the nth time how she thought we would have the opposite lives: I'd be married with kids, while she never expected to "settle down". I tell both of us that I'm too late to take that turn, that I've been alone too long, that I couldn't cope with it anyway.  The logic is sound enough, but it's tinged with a faint disappointment, a sensation that sits uncomfortably in my gut. Decisions that cut off possible futures have always been difficult for me to make wholeheartedly.

         - the condition of having lost one's sense of direction

Visiting this place usually gives me a sense of groundedness that is less present at home. Slotting myself into the dailiness of life with 2 children; the loving chaos early in the morning; thinking about what to cook for dinner as breakfast is finishing; the school run; the tantrums paired with moments of tenderness. I usually leave with a hollow longing in the pit of my belly; a quiet sense of loss not only at leaving behind 3 people I love: also for the path my life didn't take.

There's a lot of love threaded into this life. Although I don't doubt there is as much in my own, I question whether it is made of the same substance. And nothing here has really changed - it's me that feels more lost this time.

Later, I'm sitting in a bowling alley flanked by a boy's carefully-handmade birthday cake and a pair of arcade games blaring dramatic music, gunshots, grunts, and the name of the game repeated in a deep, masculine voice. A man in a pale blue shirt with sunglasses wedged up on his head walks in. He catches my eye as I'm rearranging my legs and knee-length skirt and smiles at me widely.

I'm reminded instantly of my first lover. He's married now, with a chubby baby and life running predictably along the tracks of the 5-year plan he spoke of when I met him. We wouldn't have fit together, I am sure of it. Yet there it is again, a passing twist in the belly, the drifting question. What would my life be now if I'd chosen different doors? If I'd wanted that other life more?

I know that to a large extent I have the power to choose the kind of existence I want. If I don't want to live in the city any more, I can leave. I can change careers (I've made that transition in the last year without any kind of masterplan). I can choose my friends, how I prefer to relate to people. So much control, and yet none at all. In some moments I feel like a tumbleweed. In others, a chess player orchestrating an entire game.

Today I'm more tumbleweed than mistress of anything, peering at the landscape around me. Although I can see back to where I've come from, I'm not sure if I'm just blowing away from my past choices or moving towards something else.