New Zealand was the sanctuary my family fled to from a chaotic and turbulent South Africa in which it was felt necessary that I, as a single white twenty-something female, avoid driving alone, and particularly at night; we had got to a point where I would, for instance, go to a party and my father would sit outside in the car ("You go in, have a nice time, don't worry about me") and wait until I was done so that I could make it safely back home again. On at least one occasion he was reported by increasingly jumpy and paranoid residents of the particular street where he sat and waited, and had to explain to visiting policepeople what he was doing there. By the time we left, bombs in pubs and churches were blowing people to smithereens and live bullets had been known to rake the parking lot across which Dad often walked to get from his office building to the city centre.
New Zealand was an oasis of peace, after that, although we carried it all with us - I remember walking along a NZ street with another South African expat and a Kiwi friend when a passing car backfired violently just behind us. The New Zealander said that she had never seen two people so ready to dive under the nearest parked vehicle for cover. But for us, that sound meant something far more dangerous than a busted exhaust.
To start at the top of my list, above, yes, New Zealand took my breath away. I walked on the black volcanic sand beaches - you know the one, where "The Piano" was filmed? - and the sand was unlike anything I had ever seen before, blue-black, with tiny brilliant sparkles within, something that made you dizzy with an instant loss of perspective and made you feel as though you were walking on thin air above multitudes of distant stars lost in a black cosmos. I had the good fortune to be flown down the length and breadth of both islands in a tiny two-seater plane and I saw it all from the air - the golden ribbon of the Whanagnuui river at sunset, the volcanic peaks, the rolling brown hills of the Mackenzie country, Queenstown, the Southern Alps, the fiords. Doubtful Sound made me weep at the sight of its majesty and grandeur. The kauri trees of the far north made me catch my breath with wonder. The constant reminders that underneath the ground beneath out feet there roiled restless magma, and that in places like Rotorua, with its pervasive stench of malodorous sulphuric gases, there was a Boiling Pool which was quite literally a pool of boiling water where ancient Maori used to dunk fresh-caught fish and have it pretty much cooked to order simply by holding the thing below the surface of the pool for a requisite time. When I first drove up to Taranaki, Mount Egmont, it was veiled by cloud so that only its base could be seen - but as the car approached the mountain God playfully drew back the clouds revealing this picture-perfect conical volcanic mountain peak and my travelling companion grinned and said to me, "Stop whimpering". Dear Heavens, this land is magnificent. It was no accident that the only place on this planet that could stand in for Middle Earth is found right here.
New Zealand made me laugh.The misadventures with the Kiwi accent were legion. My favourite story is still the South African woman (there were lots of us there from that place at the time)who turned up at the local "dairy", as the little corner stores in New Zealand are known, although they tend to be pronounced something far closer to "dearie", and marched up to the till with her handful of purchases. The Kiwi guy behind the counter said to her, "D'you wanna beg for these?" Nonplussed, she stared at him, and said carefully, "No, I'd like to PAY for them..." at which point both of them stared for a moment before it dawned on them both that all he had done was inquire if she would like a BAG to carry her goods away in... This was also the woman who wanted to know how come the National Theatre in Auclkand had "belly dancers". This would be "ballet", for those of you still trying to work it out. My own personal encounter was when I was talking to a Kiwi about the whereabouts of "Merrill Drive" and things got really convoluted until we both figured out that (a) that would be "Mayoral Drive", and (b) we were standing on the sidewalk of said street already...
New Zealand made me cry. Sometimes from the sheer beauty and wonder, to be sure, but here it comes - New Zealand broke my heart. It's a long story, folks. Suffice it to say that I had never loved so well as I had loved here, and when the relationship ended it was devastating - to the point that this was one of the few times in my life that my words dried up. COmpletely. I was so crushed and shattered that my words died inside of me and I lived in a white silence for damn near a year before it came trickling back to me. That was how much pain I have left lying on the shores where starlight glitters in black sand.
New Zealand taught me new things. It was here that I first stood up (and immediately fell down) on a pair of skis. It was here that I went bone-carving, out on the Cocromandel peninsula, and carved with my own fair hand a stylised curclicued pendant which represented a taniwha, a Maori water spirit or demi-god (one of my nieces has that piece of carving now). I learned how to be an in-house editor. I also learned - perhaps far more importantly - a whole load of stuff about a culture which I had never known that much about before - and it opened up the South Pacific for me. I learned about Polynesian voyages, and their beliefs, and their legends, and their spirits, and their gods, and a smattering of a whole new language or set of languages (Maori is phonetic, and I could impress my Kiwi friends by being able to at least pronounce and READ it properly, right from the beginning, from the first time I laid eyes on a Maori word. It taught me about mana, and about the relationships between the holy and the quotidian. New Zealand gave my first relationship with a cat, ever, and it also gave me one of the best dogs that it was ever possible for a human being to love.
It made me shake my head with a complete lack of comprehension because of its attitudes to certain things. When the All-Blacks lost to France in a rugby match one year, the entire country went into deep mourning, and you might have been forgiven for expecting all the flags to be taken to half-staff and everyone to walk around singing dirges. At my workplace, a New Zealand branch of a large international educational publishing firm, I would often get accosted with passionate inquiries about "the game" of the night before. Not being a sports fanatic in general, and with a rather deep disinterest in rugby in particular, I would respond with genuine bafflement and a question along the lines of, "What game?" - and I would be rewared by responses ranging from astonishment to something almost like pity.
New Zealand also took me back to the Middle Ages, because it was here that I got involved in the SCA. I still have a closet-full of medieval garb from those days, including a breathtaking gown hand-embroidered in silk and gold (yes, by my own fair hand) which I will probably never wear again but which I am strangely reluctant to give away. I even took part in a full medieval wedding between one of my best friends in New Zealand and her sweethheart - I was a bridesmaid, of sorts, wearing a full-skirted medieval gown and a copper circlet holding back my unbound hair (as was proper for a maiden...) I still bear a jagged white scar from the time I attempted, at one of the SCA events at camp, to open a walnut with a serrated breadknife and slicing deep into my finger instead. I don't know how the Middle Ages survived without Band-Aids. Really.
And yes, it was the one time I lived in the Land of Tomorrow. Any family and friends I had who lived practically anywhere else in the world from me were always "yesterday" to me. it seemed like I was out there chasing the dawn - the voyage of the Dawn Treader all over again - while the rest of the world was scrambling to keep up. I remember that feeling. I kind of treasure it.
I've not been back, now, for going on eight years - nearly a decade. I may never return. But I carry it with me, New Zealand, and somewhere back there, on volcanic beaches and beside pools of boiling water and in the shadow of temperate rainforests and on the shores of the only fjords outside of Norway and on the foothills of perfect sleeping mountains waiting to explode into life - in one of the youngest and the oldest lands on this planet - there is a shadow-self that I have left behind, a part of me that still remains.
Kia ora, Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. Thank you. For everything.