It could’ve gone either way. I could’ve kept listening to my iPod and continued wandering around the harbor looking for my sushi lunch. And in that reality I would’ve found myself at what sounded like a pretty cool vineyard for the next few days. But instead I decided to ask the group of kids with their American accents where they were from, and after about five minutes of conversation they decided to invite me on the camper van tour of the North Island that they had just decided to take.
We crammed 11 into a six person van, eight of the others from Wash U. in St. Louis, another from Miami of Ohio and a tenth from Arcadia in Pennsylvania. All of them were juniors studying abroad at the University of Auckland for the semester. Three of the Wash. U kids were from LA, including one who went to Harvard-Westlake’s rival school Loyola, and another who not only was in the same graduating class at Milken Community High School as my sister Karin, but had actually hung out at my house in middle school. Small world indeed.
Within a few hours of landing in Auckland, I got lonely. New Zealand was one of Jaime’s countries, and not only did I miss having one of my best friends with me, but it also hit me that I didn’t know a single friendly face in the entire country. If you think about that long enough, it can get you pretty down.
But I found another Nando’s, the amazing Portuguese chicken restaurant from South Africa, had a filling lunch, spent some time talking to some Uruguayans and kept on my way. I checked out Mt. Eden, the dormant volcano which lends it name to the little, very Asian suburb my hostel was in.
I made it back in time to my hostel for the meet-and-greet BBQ, and wandered around talking to people- two British girls there, a few Germans here, and more Germans there. (Germans are absolutely everywhere in Australia and New Zealand). Eventually I met a few people who wanted to go out, so four Germans, an Israeli girl and I walked to a bar playing live American hits ranging from the 50s and 60s to the latest from Kings of Leon. Two fights, or more shoving contests than full-fledged fights, broke out at the bar, the first between girls, the second guys. A little bit after the second, jetlag got the best of me and I headed back to the hostel.
Then my second day in New Zealand I met the group of Wash. U kids. I bummed around their dorms, sleeping on a different person’s couch for the couple nights before we left for our trip.
First we headed off to Waitomo, a small town that probably wouldn’t exist if not for its tourist trap, the glowworm caves. We were told that without a tent, we wouldn’t all be allowed to sleep in the campsite with all the other RVs and camper vans, so we split up. Half of our group slept in a luxurious hostel, while the other half got the van. A few of us in the van group decided to really enjoy the great outdoors and sleep next to the van. We had just stopped talking, preparing to go to sleep when a shooting star streaked across the sky. I think it was the first I had ever seen, and it had us city kids talking for a little bit longer about the stars and the Milky Way. I lasted til about 3 in the morning before the cold conquered my $15 camouflage sleeping bag, purchased earlier that day, which struggled to reach my sternum. I spent the rest of the night equally uncomfortably, if not a little less cold, in the camper van and decided it’d be hostels for me for the rest of the trip.
We chose the longest cave adventure called the Black Abyss, which started off with a long abseil/ rappel into the caves, followed by a zipline, some underground tea and cookies and then finally led us into the water for some blackwater rafting. Blackwater rafting sounds a lot more intense than it is. After finishing our tea, we jumped about 10 feet into the water, clutching black inner tubes to our backs so we wouldn’t have to experience more of the frigid water than was absolutely necessary. We then coasted through the caves on our inner tubes, admiring the glowworm larvae splattered on the wall like lime green snot and singing Don’t Stop Believin’.
Feeling adventurous we decided to choose the waterfall exit out of the caves. I found this to be the most exciting part of the excursion, because we had to scramble up through the cave and over the waterfalls without any sort of safety harness. Granted our guides were yelling through the noise of the waterfall and pointing to exactly which rocks to step on, but it still felt appreciably more dangerous than any other part of the afternoon.
Our next stop was Lake Taupo, probably my favorite city in New Zealand. I’ve heard of other cities in New Zealand on the South Island claiming to be the extreme sports capital of the world, but I can’t imagine any city squeezing more action into each square mile than Taupo did. There were a solid four different skydiving companies vying for your thrill-seeking dollars, a place to bungee jump and water sports galore.
Nine of our crew decided to go for the skydive. I thought about it, but since I had already done it last June and didn’t love it, I thought I’d give bungee jumping a try. Ben, the one who went to high school with Karin, wasn’t so big on heights, so he came to watch me bungee.
I freaked out a little right before the jump, but I ended up taking and loving the 47 meter (130ish feet) plunge. I jumped into water, maybe Lake Taupo, and asked to be dipped only head deep, but I jumped too far out and only got my hands in.
Ben and I then headed to the water sports center, grabbed a quick lunch and then decided to try our hand at sailing. After the shortest tutorial known to man, Ben and I were given the boat for an hour. We had quite the rocky start with lots of shrieking and laughing, and a few close calls. After we made it back safely ashore, we found out that in the early going, my letting go of the steering rod to help Ben on the sails, was analogous to letting go of the steering wheel on a car. But we eventually found a better (and safer) groove with Ben steering and me on the sails.
Just to put it in perspective, when I went skydiving I had to leave around 8 in the morning, drive two hours away south to Lake Elsinore, and then wait for a few hours, before heading back, getting caught in typical LA freeway traffic and finally getting back home around 6 at night. In Taupo, you could skydive, bungee and windsurf all before lunch.
Our next stop was Whangamata (pronounced fahn-gah-ma-TAH). We watched Sideways in our hostel, and went to check out the beach the next morning. Everybody else messed around in the water, but I wasn’t feeling the cold so I went running on the beach instead. After lunch, we kept on north to go back to Auckland and return the van.
I had a really fun couple of days, and am really glad I got out of Auckland and got to explore the country a little. In my few months of traveling I haven’t heard of a single city as roundly criticized as Auckland. Sure, people from St. Petes trashed Moscow and you heard the fair share of Jo’burg horror stories that made you want to scurry indoors the second the Sun set, but at least the residents of the two cities spoke fondly of them. Most people I talked to in Auckland complained about how boring it was, and encouraged me to leave and see the rest of the country.
We got back to Auckland for the end of orientation week, just in time for a pub crawl at the other international students dorm. Three of us decided to take the half hour walk there together, and on a whim we popped into a random house party. We walked straight up to the barbecue and a girl in her late 20s asked us if we were the barbecue technicians from next door. And why not? The ruse was up quickly enough, but not before we thoroughly and completely burned the shish kebabs for the dentist hygienists party that we were supposedly so expert at cooking.
We finally made it to the student dorms in Parnell village. I was sick of relaying the whole extended gap year story, so I just started to tell people that I was living in the other dorms (partially true, at least for the week) and that I was a sophomore at William & Mary (completely false). I had to disappoint a few people by admitting that I didn’t know a senior named David on the gymnastics team.
“But everybody knows David!”
“Well I mean it is a pretty big school.”
Right as I was explaining how I didn’t know everybody at William & Mary, a girl I vaguely recognized came up to the group I was talking with. She listened and then exclaimed excitedly, “I know you! You’re not in college yet.”
I had met this girl on my second day before the Wash. U group took me in, and talked to her for a little while at Dunkin Donuts while I ate a bagel and egg sandwich. She was studying abroad in Auckland and I related the whole gap year story to her, before we went our separate ways. Another one of the random conversations with a stranger never to be seen again, except this time she decided to have another cameo with some perfect timing. Nobody was any worse for my little lie, and I really enjoyed the small taste I got of what the study abroad experience might be like.
Well, my 12 hour layover in Hong Kong International Airport is thankfully wrapping up. Now it’s time for India. Fingers crossed that when I inevitably get sick from the food, it passes quickly and easily! Hope everybody has a great March. I have no idea what my computer access situation will be, but I’ll be sure to write in a notebook and throw it online at a later date if I have to.