Late June marked the halfway point of my first school year in Tonga. All schools took a two-week break after the first two terms, and John and I took that chance to go to New Zealand. This was our first trip out of the country since arriving last October, and I was very much looking forward to it.
My spirit isn’t crushed by Tonga. I don’t feel overly stifled by the conservative society, nor do I constantly pine for western comforts of restaurants and hot showers. Even so, the little things I took for granted in America were the things I looked forward to in New Zealand: stores with things I actually wanted to buy, a bar where I could get a mojito, a place where I could show my knees and not offend anyone. (Though it was winter in NZ, I wore my shorts with tights, but that was close enough for me!)
We started in Wellington where we saw the Beehive, toured the Te Papa museum, and ferried around the harbor. But more exciting to me was the sensation of being in a city. The first day there I stopped in almost every store I saw. (I’m sure John loved that.) That night we went to a grocery store to find dinner. I wandered up and down every aisle, savoring the near-endless choices and fantasizing about how I could make a DIY yogurt machine work in my Ha’ano home. (Alas, I couldn’t think of a way, so the yogurt maker stayed in NZ.)
In Ha’apai, my island group, there are a handful of stores that are big enough to walk into. The rest of the stores are only storefronts, and we ask and point for the goods behind the counter. Everything in these stores is almost always the same. It’s big news among the Peace Corps Volunteers when something new comes in. “Blair, there’s a new chip that isn’t chicken flavored. It’s great!” Those treats never make it up to my island though, so I can only dream of the plainly flavored potato chips as I eat neon-colored, chicken-flavored chips called Bongos.
We drove from Wellington to Napier, on the east coast of the North Island. I was the first to drive the rental. I wasn’t nervous about (1) driving at all after 9 months or (2) driving on the opposite side of the road than I used to drive on or (3) managing roundabouts for the second time ever. I wasn’t nervous, but I was awfully concentrated on that road.
We made it to Napier, the Art Deco Capital of… New Zealand? The world? We took a wine tour to 4 vineyards, enjoying a sampling of 6-8 wines in each place. John made out well on that excursion, since I don’t really like wine and wouldn’t usually finish my tasting. The pictures from that day progress from our normal selves to those with droopy eyes and purple-stained teeth.
We went on to Lake Taupo in the central thermal region of New Zealand. We walked around the thermal hotspots, checking out gurgling mud and steamy lands. A few months ago, while lying on my bedroom floor in Ha’ano, I told John I was thinking about doing something crazy in NZ, like skydiving or bungee jumping. We kept that in our minds around Taupo, but upon seeing the height of the bungee bridge, I quickly withdrew my plans to “do something crazy.” Instead, we went mountain biking, which, I discovered, is not my forte. I more enjoyed the massage and thermal mineral pools at our hotel.
On the way from Taupo to Auckland, we took at detour to visit the Waitomo Caves, home to thousands of glowworms. Sure enough, when we got into the caves, there were thousands of glowworms.
In Auckland, we again enjoyed all the trappings of a city. In Wellington, we had gone bowling – something that was on John’s list to do. In Auckland, we did karaoke – my list, of course. We did other things that wouldn’t be on any list of mine in America: getting McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s not that I really wanted either of those things. But they were both drastically different than anything in Tonga, and thus they were both delicious.
At one point, John said something like, “The best McDonald’s in the world is in New Zealand. The best Indian food, Thai food, Mexican food – they’re all in New Zealand. The best massage is in New Zealand. The best television is in New Zealand. Know why? I’ve been in Tonga for 9 months.”
I can only imagine how exciting America will be.