both sides now
Whenever I hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now,’ I am transported to the early 1980s, a passenger in my mom’s old copper Audi. I hear her trying to mimic Joni’s range as I rest my forehead on the window and superimpose images of ice cream castles on the storefronts of my Toronto neighbourhood. Some people change keys for effect…my mom is not one of them. But despite her less than perfect pitch, this song was a gift my mom gave me. Its lessons on perspective, on change, on “tears and fears and feeling proud” have comforted me throughout my child and adult life.
Now I am behind the wheel, and both the clouds and the lessons are more real. I just got back from a whirlwind two week trip to New Zealand. True to form, I booked a flight without researching my destination at all, and left it up to the fates to colour in my sketchy itinerary.
I was feeling heartsore and weary after six months spent away from home depending on the generosity of friends and strangers. All I knew was that I needed to look at love and life from both sides. I figured that Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand meaning something like, “land of the long white cloud,” was the perfect place to do this.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: depending on others is not a bad thing. I was all down on myself for a while about being such a “taker” until a wise friend told me, “You’re not taking, you’re receiving.” For the last year, I have been receiving primarily through Couchsurfing.org. For those of you who don’t know about CS, at its most basic level it is a social network where people all over the world open up their homes and offer travellers a place to stay. There is no money involved, and no expectations on either end besides a safe space and a cultural exchange. Beyond that, people use it to connect with friends and to share rides, flats, activities and advice.
It has opened me up to places most travellers never see, freed up money for my over the top cheese budget, and provided valuable cultural exchanges with strangers who quickly become lifelong friends. My CS friend Lisbeth laughed at me when I told her it affirmed my faith in humanity, but I swear, this is not an overstatement. Couchsurfing has made me feel at home anywhere in the world.
Anywhere, that is, except New Zealand. I spent my first four hours in Auckland killing time and returning every once in a while to the lobby of my hosts’ building, pressing their (broken) buzzer. Finally, feeling abandoned, hungry and really needing to pee, I checked myself into an unfriendly and overpriced 8 person dorm room that smelled like 8 pairs of damp hiking boots. Strike one.
I consoled/distracted myself by deciding to go buy myself a proper meal. I speak 5 languages (badly) but am reluctant to use them. But I was feeling so alienated in Auckland that when I heard Hebrew (from a block away), I clung to it like a lifeline and turned around to ask the approaching posse of dreadlocked Israelis if I could join them for what turned out to be an incredibly entertaining sushi dinner.
I spent a half day in Auckland visiting the Art Gallery and wandering around “Auckland’s hippest strip,” grabbing a coffee at Agnes Curran and fish & chips on Ponsonby Rd. It was nice, but I wasn’t feeling the Auckland love and was excited to get out into the countryside.
The next night I was supposed to meet a French CSer in a coastal town called Tauranga, where we were going to begin a 4 day road trip around the North Island. She had arranged hosts for us in a few towns, and had her own car. All I had to do was pitch for gas and keep her company. I showed up in Tauranga and my host was waiting for me. Male, mid 50’s, a bit sketchy looking, and right off the bat he tells me “Your friend isn’t coming tonight.” Strike two.
I made sure to suss him out over falafels before agreeing to go back to his farm. Turned out to be a solid guy with no ulterior motives, lives on the family farm next door to Ma, sponsors Latin American kids through WorldVision…totally trustworthy.
My road trip buddy showed up the next day, all smiles, and we headed off. We visited the thermal pools at Rotorua, did a couple short hikes, drove through a relatively depressed part of the country with a large Maori population, wished it wasn’t freezing and rainy as we cruised along the beautiful beaches of the East Cape and Bay of Plenty, took pictures in front of a giant kiwi, and surfed with some wonderful hosts in Opotiki and Gisborne. She taught me to drive manual in her old beater hatchback, which it turned out was dangerously low on oil.
It was pleasant enough, but the weather was crap and I was itching to be in control of my own destiny. I headed down to the South Island with a brief stop in Wellington where I surfed with a super classy host who fed me vegetable mash and recommended some excellent but inexpensive local wine. Before catching the Interislander ferry, I checked out the impressive Te Papa museum and had a great lunch at Fidel’s on lively & colourful Cuba St.
The mid-afternoon ferry ride was gorgeous. I stared out at the blue water of the Cook Strait as one of my favourite travel themed songs, Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al” ran through my head.
A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
I arrived in Picton & grabbed my car – a sturdy mid-1990’s navy blue Nissan Sunny sedan. For some reason I instantly felt like her name was Penny. I rolled down the windows, turned on the radio and experienced a moment of serendipity as “Call Me Al” struggled through the static. I was so relieved I started to cry as I cruised toward Nelson and on, beside the setting sun, toward Motueka.
A few highlights:
I did part of one of NZ’s Great Walks in Abel Tasman National Park, camping in the rain but waking up to sunshine that warmed my toes and dried my pack. Unfortunately, on that stunning hike I forgot my camera in the car and am still waiting for my new friends to send me their photos when they get home to Bourgogne and Manitoba.
In Hokitika, I camped at a small seaside hostel and was moved by the sunset on the beach. Sometimes cliches are still powerful. The town itself was totally weird – dead quiet except for the ubiquitous jade stores and the quirky Sock Making Machine Museum. The hostel had a cosy fire in the living room and I made friends with a German woman who kept me company for the drive to Franz Josef the next day.
In Franz Josef, I decided to forgo the expensive glacier tours and to do a couple of independent hikes. The first one was a 5 hour hike, a lot of which was up a poorly maintained rocky trail. It too slippery in the rain and I was afraid I’d lose sunlight considering I didn’t start until 2pm. When the only other people I encountered on the trail decided to turn back, I did the sensible thing and turned back with them. I was disappointed but as a solo hiker (without proper gear) it’s best to play it safe. I took my time getting back, bonding with the moss along the way.
Then I set out for a shorter hike to the foot of the glacier (actually a disappointing 500m away from the foot of the glacier), where I jumped over the rope to find a private rock to sit on and have a moment with Bjork, the queen of glacial music.
At Milford Sound, Fiordland (sic) I splurged on an all day kayaking excursion, where I paddled past sunbathing fur seals, waterfalls, glacial peaks, and a cliffside shadow that was a dead ringer for Leonard Cohen.
We hiked a short part of the Milford Track and saw a fuschia tree whose fruits ferment and get the bush pigeons drunk. We also moved as quickly as possible through the place considered by Maori legend to be the birthplace of the sandfly.
The week was a blur of negotiating hairpin turns in the dark, waking up early to hike, and taking breaks whenever I turned a corner and was gobsmacked the views. I waded into many freezing turquoise streams and restocked my fuel and food in many underpopulated towns.
At 5’10, I push the upper limit of car-sleepability, and I dutifully tiger balmed my aching knees every morning after sleeping scrunched up across the back seat. I lived on PB&J and apples, smelled like a hobo…but I was free. I was alone by choice, operating on my time, following my inner compass. I talked to myself, saying some things I had never uttered out loud. On a few occasions, I made myself laugh; just as often, I made myself cry. I had imaginary conversations with unattainable crushes. I pulled over to scribble down lines of poetry or to draw images that popped into my mind.
In other words, I spent a week with my head in the clouds. Literally and figuratively. I saw Joni’s ice cream castles at sunrise from the lighthouse at Cape Foulwind. I saw clouds that looked like they were designed by Zaha Hadid from the ferry across the strait. The little fluffy clouds perched atop the southern alps looked like my Auntie Pearlie (z’l) after a visit to John the hairdresser. Others looked like they had been placed there simply to accentuate the vivid blues.
Both Sides Now
I reluctantly returned the car in Queenstown. Having fully inhabited it, it took a while to clean my stuff out of all the pockets and compartments – rocks and shells, maps, scribbles on scraps of paper, peanuts and smelly socks. I met my CS host in town and went to his place for dinner. It was St. Paddy’s day and Queenstown had been green since the pubs opened. I had to go out for a Guinness or two – when in Rome…
By midnight I was bored and starting to get self righteous and cynical about the drinking culture, so I took my host’s keys and let myself in while he stayed out to party. I was awakened at 3:30 by him, quite drunk and trying to force himself into my bedroom. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he cursed and yelled at me and threw me out on the street. Strike 3.
After a week of feeling strong, independent, and in control, I fell into a place of fear and darkness. It was deeply upsetting. Even though I had stood up for myself and refused to take any blame for this horrible situation, I still felt disappointed in humanity and upset that no matter how confident and experienced we are, female travellers are always vulnerable. It’s unfair that I can so easily be made to feel unsafe, uncomfortable, defensive, and objectified.
I started to wander into town, gripping my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket and sobbing. As I pounded on the door of a hostel, a woman walking home from her bartending shift approached and asked if I was OK. I told her what happened, and she took me home, poured me a glass of water, and gave me a warm and safe place to sleep. Mary and her roommates offered me to stay on with them but at this point, I did not want to depend on people anymore, and checked in to a hostel the next morning.
My energy was slowly rising, and was boosted by some of the great people I met in the hostel – Irish brothers who shared a civilized dinner of green lipped mussels, and the two middle aged women in my room who sat cross legged on the floor until midnight talking and laughing about life’s ups and downs.
The last couple of days were transit days. My only experience of Christchurch is sleeping with all the other backpackers on the airport floor before catching our early morning flights.
New Zealand was exactly what I wanted. The lows kept me in check, reminded me that life isn’t all well-maintained trails opening up to dazzling blue vistas. Sometimes we slide downhill in the freezing rain, and arrive to find clouds obscuring the view. Abusive jerks make us appreciate that most strangers are kind and trustworthy. Loneliness is a reminder of how important it is to be self sufficient. We need both sides to appreciate how good life can be.
But don’t take my word for it; I really don’t know life at all.