What’s the Blues When You’ve Got the Greys?

The title of this entry is from a great song by Frightened Rabbit. Jeff Einhorn and Lucy McLellan turned me onto it a few years ago, and it was in my head all day.

Kaikoura is on the east coast of the South Island. It’s an old whaling town on a peninsula that now has more of a tourist economy—whale watches, dolphin encounters, tours of lavender farms, and so on. But the colors are free:

Blue-grey sky and water


blue-gray 3 blue-grey sky and water

Here’s my little habitat:

my room

My room for a few days.

ABC’s of NZ

More proof that this is my kinda country—New Zealand alphabet stamps!


Speaking of letters, New Zealanders call their country “NZ,” but with their accent it sounds like “inn zid.”

My letter of the day today was D: for driving. About 6 hours of it with plenty of photo stops. But the scenery was so screamingly pretty that it flew by. About halfway to my destination (from Abel Tasman to Hamner Springs), the landscape started showing off more than usual and it got harder to focus on driving:

Waiau River (photo by Waiau River (photo: Kahu Publishing Company)

Waiau River (photo: Kahu Publishing Company)

I was like, Come on, Inn Zed, now you’re just showing off, but Inn Zed said nothing and just kept being quietly stunning, and so modest about it, too.

Clumsy Wombat

Well, it’s not all rainbows and Tim-Tams. It was a rough day today—a six-person all-day kayaking trip in Abel Tasman National Park. This is what it looked like as we set out:

Starting off.

Starting off.

I know…how could I struggle such a place? And my host at the inn had told me the trip was for beginners. But apparently kayaking in Abel Tasman isn’t like kayaking in Westbrook, CT on my little hometown beach where I know what I’m doing and what to expect.

I was put in a double kayak with a lovely yet relentlessly stoic German woman about my age and, since I was in the back, I had to steer. I’d never used a kayak with a rudder before, and it was more technically demanding than I’d have thought.

Preparing to set out was an involved process of packing the kayaks, putting on spray skirts and life vests, and sealing phones and cameras in waterproof bags. There were fast-paced multi-step directions with specific tips on how to do all of these things, and I somehow missed a step and the guide had to help me. “I can see you’re going to be the special-needs case today,” he joked as he pulled my spray skirt tight around my seat. “No worries, English is only your first language,” he added with some disdain-soaked sarcasm.

It started out fine. We paddled out to an island and saw a ton of New Zealand Fur Seals sunning themselves, all blubbered out on rocks. Plenty of juveniles too, curious and frolicky, their eyes like giant, wet black marbles. As with any wildlife encounter, I was pleasantly distracted from reality; that is, the reality of how exacting the trip was becoming.

Once the fur seal portion of the morning was over, I realized what I was in for. Long stretches of super-choppy water dotted with invisible underwater rocks, giant swells, and the two guides keeping most of their seafaring wisdom to themselves. Several times I told Astrid, my kayak partner (who was annoyingly physically competent), that I was “a little freaked out,” and she kept saying in this very matter-of-fact German way that the guides wouldn’t have taken us out if it wasn’t safe.

These stretches were punctuated by perfect little picnic breaks with perfect caramel shortbread on perfect beaches on which I somehow managed to feel deeply ashamed for not having a perfect time.

Astrid and me on the beach.

Astrid and I on a picnic break in a sheltered cove. Note how I am acting like everything is perfectly fine. I am a master of deception.

So here’s something you may not know about me. When I was younger I actually was a bit of a “special needs case.” My guide today could never have known what a nerve he’d hit, but when I was in second grade it was determined that I should come inside at recess several times a week for “remedial gym class.” Apparently in phys ed I wasn’t up to par with other kids in things like catching or throwing a ball or walking a balance beam. I avoided physical group games. I was scared of the ball.

Today this might be called “gross motor delays,” but then it was just thought of as something like “chubby clumsy kid syndrome.” In those days, all the special needs kids were grouped together, so I was in this special class with kids with a variety of developmental disabilities. I was in this program for about a year, then I guess it was determined that I’d “caught up.” But I always hated phys ed, and I still never do any group sports or even classes at the gym. Not even Frisbee with friends in the park. Exercise is a purely private affair for me.

So today was the adult equivalent of second-grade phys ed. I couldn’t get the kayak to move right, and everyone else could. My kayak partner, a polite adult, just had to put up with me. I panicked when waves washed over the boat, when the others seemed sort of awed and entertained, like Whoa! Whee! The guide was clearly frustrated when I couldn’t make a turn through some rough rocky water that would lead us into some enchanted emerald cove. And because I couldn’t do it, the whole group couldn’t go in the cove.

And so I did what I strive to avoid doing: I took this one negative experience and dipped it again and again in horrid layers of story and suffering. I really took that ball and ran with it. I felt uncoordinated and fat and clumsy, like a big baby. I just wanted to crawl under covers on dry land.

I tried to joke with myself that these inclinations are why I feel a connection with the wombats. But then I remembered: wombats look clumsy and may even be laughed at for it, but they actually get the job done. They’re fast when they need to be and they’re also so stubborn that they just keep at whatever it is they’re doing, ramming their challengers head-on and digging slammin’ burrows.

So that’s what I’m doing right now: getting the job done. I’m chopping and roasting vegetables in the lodge’s communal kitchen, drinking local red wine, and planning on going to bed at about 8:30 pm. Tomorrow I’ll drive for a few hours; I’ve actually become quite competent at driving on the opposite side of the road.

I’ll just do my thing and keep at it. It’s the Wombat Way.

I stopped at this vegetable stand for dinner fixins.

I stopped at this vegetable stand for dinner fixins.

Doing Well in Wellington

Wellington is a great, green city with just the right amount of urban edge. It also definitely lives up to its nickname of “Windy Wellington.” It reminds me a little of San Francisco, with its hills and light colors and ever-changing sky. I spent two nights here and now I’m about to board the ferry for the South Island (the crossing across the Cook Strait takes three hours), where I’ll be staying the night in a small city called Nelson.

I made reservations at an inn in Nelson called The Shortbread Cottage, which makes me think of a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, and I half expect Goldilocks’ grandmother or some character in the Candy Land board game to open the door and offer me a plate of rich golden shortbread. I also have this vision of teddy bears on the bed. And maybe a lollipop forest outside. But I’m trying to go in without any expectations. That’s the big trick of traveling.

I’ve felt a little aimless these last few days without any wildlife projects to work on or subjects to immerse myself in. More like a plain old American tourist (often people’s first guess is that I’m Canadian, but I think they’re just being kind, and since I’m traveling alone, how loudly American can I possibly be?). But I’m making the most of all this leisure time. Yesterday I visited several organic grocery stores, found a vegan restaurant for lunch, walked and walked, took an 8 pm yoga class near my hostel (almost exactly like a yoga class would be in Brooklyn), and then had a late dinner at a Malaysian restaurant. I have got to stop myself from apologetically saying “just one” or “only me” whenever I enter a restaurant, but I don’t know what else to say. Intrepid solo traveler? One crazy wombat lady? Maybe just “one, please.” Hey yeah, that’s it, keep it simple.

This morning I had an hour-long Skype call with work (how can such a thing be free? I still don’t get it). It was mysteriously easy to shift into work mode, since I’ve been feeling a world away. I imagined my giant face on the screen in a conference room in which I usually see other people’s giant faces on the screen. Oh well. People walking by popped their heads in to chat when they saw me, which was such a great treat. (I Skype with Michael almost every day, but haven’t seen visual reminders of my “regular life” except for a wall in our apartment, and occasionally Michael will hold up Marvin the cat for me to talk to. Marvin always looks kind of startled.)

Crazy that the trip is more than halfway over—just 12 more days left. Here’s to spring having already sprung by the time I land, but mostly, here’s to all of you surviving this last stretch of winter!

Here are some photos from yesterday:

View from top of cable car ride.

View from top of cable car ride.

My meditation hut in the botanical gardens.

My meditation hut in the botanical gardens.

Bench in botanical gardens.

Bench in botanical gardens.

Along the quay.

Along the quay.