Travel Essay: My housemates and I had talked about going to Muriwai beach to see the gannet colony. It was about an hour’s drive or so away from Grey Lynn but still worth it for a day trip. I was the only one who was ultimately able to make it, so my landlady Frances and I drove all the way out west to see the gannets.
We saw many of the birds perched on their nests, small hills on the flat rocks. Some were sitting in perfect symmetry, as if they had planned it for us visitors. It was the perfect early December day to see the breeding colony; the sun provided the necessary heat to balance out the late spring cool weather. We walked along the trails and read the signs that explained the lives of the gannets. We stood at the lookout points while I photographed the birds on cliffs that jutted out towards the beach. The Tasman sea lunged towards the black sand, big waves crashing onto the shore. There were no surfers out, despite Muriwai being one of the most popular surfing sites in Auckland. Some of the birds looked like they were sleeping, yellow heads folded over their white bodies. Some dive bombed into the sea, catching fish for lunch.
After seeing the birds, Frances and I bought some Tip Top ice cream from a nearby stand. I’d never heard of this brand before I came to the South Pacific, but it quickly became a favorite.
“So, Alex, what made you come all the way to New Zealand?” Frances asked, digging her spoon into her cup of hokey pokey ice cream. She picked a classic Kiwi flavor.
It was a question that I hadn’t gotten in a while. By now, I could navigate Auckland’s shoddy bus system, racked up points with Countdown’s One Card, knew more than most locals about which restaurants and cafes were safe to patronize. So her question caught me off guard, but it made me consider my answer. When I first arrived in New Zealand, I gave a superficial answer involving Flight of the Conchords or “Oh I wanted an adventure and New Zealand seemed cool.” About five months after arriving in New Zealand, I thought about it again as to why I came here.
Maybe I picked New Zealand because I subconsciously had my doubts as to how much I could break away from my old life of adjuncting at the community college and the nonstop years of formal education under my belt. Maybe going to a place so far away was the only way I could make it on my own; it’s not like I could turn back easily. I knew that the events of 2011 and early 2012 had pushed me further towards making that leap, but I didn’t realize to what extent they pushed me. Maybe I had to go through misery in graduate school, working a job I didn’t like, boredom in my hometown, loss of three close friends in one year and other unfortunate events in order to prioritize what was really important.
“I’ve always been fascinated by places that no one hears too much about. I never really studied New Zealand in school, and I’ve known a handful of people who have been here, if that many. I wanted to go to a place where barely anyone else I knew had visited. And I figured if I was going to take the massive leap of traveling somewhere by myself, I wanted to pick a place where I knew the language. So here I am, in Aotearoa.”
“Ah yes. You’d traveled some before coming here, haven’t you?”
I nodded, swallowing more gumdrop ice cream. “I’ve been to Europe a few times, places like Bucharest, Vienna, Prague, London, and all over Spain. I went to France and The Netherlands earlier this year, back in March. I was hoping to break outside the realm of crossing the Atlantic.”
“Has anyone else in your family gone to New Zealand?”
“My cousin has, but she was only there for three weeks and saw Christchurch, Akaroa, and Wellington, but otherwise no one else has.”
My mom studied abroad in Spain in the 1970s, traveled to Europe a few times in the 80s, went to Morocco a few years before I was born, and taught in Switzerland in the fall of 2007, when she and my dad were separated. I had a few cousins that had done study abroad or short trips to Europe. Other than that, the working holiday was uncharted territory in my circles of friends and in my family. No one I knew had done it, and most people I knew had no idea what it was.
I found out that afternoon that once young gannets are able to fly, they leave their nest and fly across the Tasman sea. The survivors come back a few years later to nest at the colony. To give an idea of how far apart New Zealand and Australia are, Auckland and Brisbane, for example, are 1,424 miles apart from each other. It’s a three hour plane ride between those two cities. It’s a vast distance that these birds have to fly, and many don’t make it going to Australia. Many more don’t make it back to New Zealand. I thought about those birds on the way back home, how they just fly across the sea at a young age. It’s what they do. The gannets have no guarantee of surviving the trip or of coming home. It’s common for New Zealanders to put on a backpack and go traveling or do a working holiday in London. They saved their money, booked their plane tickets, and just left. There’s no guarantee that things would go well or go badly. For some Kiwis, it all goes well and they stay in London for years. For others, everything falls apart and they head back to the land of the long white cloud, disillusionment in tow. It’s a blind leap of faith that all travelers have to take. I had no way of knowing whether things were going to be okay or if I would come home with empty pockets and broken dreams.
But just as those gannets can fly across the Tasman, I too, could board that plane in Los Angeles. I thought about how far I’d come in five months. How scared I was to travel by myself somewhere for the first time, how my heart pounded as the gate agent scanned my boarding pass. This is it, I thought then. No turning back now. But here I was on a working holiday, just turned 26, with my landlady I’d grown close to, a job at city council, forward on the greatest journey I’d had thus far.
BIO: ALEX MOORE writes creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and occasionally screenwriting. She’s been published in Vapid Kitten and The Hurricane Review. When she’s not writing, she’s usually traveling. Currently, she’s working on two books about her experiences working and living abroad in New Zealand and South Korea.
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