It took me quite a long time to finish this, because for the longest while I did not know where to begin. The delay was so great that now, as I’m polishing the end, it’s been three months since I left New Zealand. I have journal notes for ideas of what I wanted to say, and these are dated from my last month in the country. The writing since then has come in stops and starts: awaiting a cyclone to blow over in Townsville, on sand at Bondi Beach, under an A/C unit in an inexpensive hotel in Nha Trang. It was not until a caffeinated jolt from an egg coffee in Hanoi’s old quarter that I cracked the profuse bulk of this essay’s matter.
Until then, I could find no start decent enough. For a few weeks I mimicked the style, rhythm, and structure of my favorite essay, a most famous one about saying good bye to a place: “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion. That piece, which chronicles a young person’s falling in and then out of love with New York City, was composed in such a way, much like a series of film dissolves, that it mimics the fracturing of that young person’s idealized dream. And it concludes with a late stage happiness at being away from the city’s claustrophobic urban and social settings. The essay’s structure failed me because it did not derive from my own story. It may be obvious, but the correct structure for a piece is determined by the piece’s purpose. A structure copied, or words fitted through another mind’s molding, has a harder time conveying a writer’s message.
I realized the origin of my struggle. So close to my departure from New Zealand, I could not yet determine the structure to my feelings. Didion, when she penned her essay, was far, both physically (she was in Los Angeles) and temporally (three years after moving), from New York. The dual distance—time and space—is a magnifier of feeling and clarifier of theme; looking back one is able to see one’s life in episodic arrangements, and meanings can be lifted from each. I could not write about New Zealand because I was too close to its experiences. The country’s soil was still physically on me even though I’d left my hiking boots in a garbage bin in a town called National Park since their soles were carved apart after foot skiing down Mt. Nguaruhoe (aka Mt. Doom). Departing Auckland, I was no more able to compose my feelings. I did feel like I was abandoning New Zealand without being able to elucidate why. My first morning in Australia, sitting atop a hostel rooftop in Brisbane at dawn, taking joy in a heat I’d not once felt in New Zealand, I couldn’t fathom what I should write about. But when I was in Hanoi and wanting familiarity, the type that teases an empty stomach into dragging the body over hot streets retching with motorcycles to find a croissant, I had a cup of egg coffee and discovered what I wanted to say about New Zealand. It’s short and banal, and it’s that I miss the place. So what I wish to explain is why, and in so doing perhaps understand why it is we miss any place at all.
Why I left New Zealand is best abridged here. By February I’d completed the majority of my planned itinerary: I’d completed seven (and started eight) of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks; I’d driven what felt like was every centimeter of every major and minor highway on both islands; but in South Island I’d purposefully left off The Catlins and the most enticing city of the area—Dunedin—believing they’d be inducements for a return. At the end of February I arrived in Wellington, which was the city I’d planned on living in. I booked a week’s stay at the YHA across from the harbor and began searching for apartments. Before this, even before I arrived in New Zealand, it was still possible to hold onto a dreamer’s notions of what the future might be. When I disembarked in November from the plane at Auckland airport’s terminal, future me could have worked as a journalist, or castrated sheep, or donned a Hobbit’s costume and catered themed weddings at Hobbiton. So long as I traveled and did not commit myself to a path, these future selves, however improbable, were possible. Now that I was in a place where I could act in such a way to actualize these dreams, they seemed like a child’s notions of one’s future. Ones either too consequential or too frivolous to commit to during a year away from reality.
My search for apartments did not get far. The few listings that I viewed and the neighborhoods that I wandered under a different set of circumstances would have been enticing. Wellington is a city for the very hipster and for the very creative. It has trendy cafes, and its vintage stores are copious and well-appareled. Restaurants serve all sorts of local and exotic specialities. But I felt unable to settle there. I was jittery. My insides were barking for movement. By then, having traveled for six months, each day in a different bed, each moment on a different sort of road, I’d become accustomed to being transitory. Having to wake up in an unfamiliar setting and wondering what type of day you’ll have and how you’ll have it is a type of addictive and powering fuel. And, during the course of calculating how much money I could spend on rent, I determined I had the money to continue traveling. Bitchface’s death, I realized, even though it aborted so many of my New Zealand plans, literally opened the world for my seeing. Suddenly Asia was a graspable place. I could spend a month in Tibet. China seemed less like a country famous for walls and more like a grand expanse to see by railcar. I made tentative mental plans to see Australia and then Southeast Asia, gander through China before hopping on a train car in Beijing and taking the Trans-Mongolian Railway to Moscow. Wellington, at this point, did not excite me. If I was going to spend a full year from life and work, I could spend it in a Paris or London or Sydney. A twenty minute stroll would have you pass in and then out of Wellington’s heart. Opportunities seemed so few. While pristine and adorable—Wellington has an ample rose garden for lounging, and you can spend many idle hours watching adolescents jumping off the wood piers or practicing in rowed racing boats in the harbor—life there is still a bit subdued. Wellington is the high school football star who never had Pac 10 ambitions and happily and comfortably settled into his blustery, small town home. When I received an invitation to travel Queensland, Australia with a companion I met in New Zealand, I accepted it.
I left Auckland, bound for Brisbane, on March 13th. The night before, I purposefully stayed in the hostel I’d stayed in my first week in New Zealand. Tom, the pony tailed Brit who first welcomed me to the country, was still working there. His own plans to travel New Zealand by van were postponed: matters of money and misbehaving mates. I peeked into the room I’d stayed in when I arrived in November, and there, in the corner, was the Maori nurse who’d been there my first week, still reading her Daniel Steele books, still on the bed in a floral nightgown. There were new arrivals too, their trekking bags were against the wall of the entrance foyer. It doesn’t take much deduction to determine newness: if it’s not the pristine and un-torn bag, then it’s the luggage routing sticker displaying the three letter acronym of whatever origin city they arrived from. I was envious because the new crop would have experiences near to my own. New Zealand is small, so most visitors who circuit the backpacker trail inevitably wind up seeing many of the same things. I wanted to believe that I had the sole lease hold on what I’d seen, and seeing proof that I did not triggered the same type of nostalgia one might feel returning to a cherished alma mater: the landscape is the same, so there is the realization that it was your interaction with it that gave it its significance.
It was also on purpose that I did not write about the memories of my last weeks in New Zealand; I needed to deprive them of permanency. Alice will always say “I am the bus.” I will always be rescued from the sand in exactly the way I’ve written it. I will always be alone on the Routeburn. These are stories that hold a fixed place, and there’s no way to deviate from them. Had I written about the week at Mt. Taranaki living with a pastor and his wife and sharing meals each evening, or my day that turned to a week in Raglan where each day I surfed, drank beers in a jacuzzi, and made family meals with exquisite people from a dozen countries, I would have removed from them their alterable uses. Since I am not in the habit of keeping a daily dairy, my memories have always been moveable to suit a future self that might need a reminiscence to have a certain quality. In plainer language you might be understanding me to say, “When it comes to certain memories, I am not concerned with fact, I am concerned with feeling.” And that is exactly what I am saying. Memories of emotion become a method of support when they are needed, they’re changeable as future circumstance demands. One moment may attain increased meaning, another may fall away and be forgotten. By not writing about surfing each day in Raglan and partying until midnight, I may be able in 25 years, under the yoke of a mortgage and other adult obligations, to look back on that week as a sort of idealized still-life, a moment where simplicity was freedom. But in five years, or even in six months from right now, I could look back at the crammed jacuzzi and the hippie girls playing ukuleles and think about how restless I was. That the empty slate with which I began each day gnawed at my sense of purpose, it made me more cognizant of what friends at home were doing since they were on paths towards tangible accomplishments: marriages, homes, a dog named Snickers.
By not working so many memories through the narrowing truth of a pen nib, I let these New Zealand memories become freeform. As I crammed into Vietnam’s petite buses and squatted over its toilet holes, I realized that my eagerness for travel is finite and there is a point when I need to re-charge. Eights months on the road had worn me exhausted. My appetite for something familiar became a craving, and what I craved for most after three weeks in Vietnam was that feeling of comfort that comes directly from having a home. In a word this is homesickness. But I knew enough to know that even when I felt homesick, the idea of what home is and what comfort is was expanding: while I was in New Zealand there were moments when I felt irreparably lonely, yet when I was in Vietnam, suffering from its humidity and the gastro effects of its hygiene, it was New Zealand that I missed most. Sitting in its coffee shops and intaking its plains and mountains, its pristine air, enjoying the rejuvenating aloneness it offered. New Zealand was not alienating, but even a place that is may, in time, become a sanctum that harkens us back. We believe that if we meld our present senses with a place where indelible memories were created then we may be made whole, even for a moment. This is why we return to mountains. This is why those of us who first learned to walk in waves must always live by the sea.