#4: The Kiwi Country

January 6, 2010

There is a peninsula of land at latitude 42 and longtitude 17 in this big world. The Maoris call it Aotearoa. The white settlers of the British colony called it New Zealand. It has three major cities – Auckland, Wellington (the capital) and Christichurch. The first two are in the North Island, and the latter on South Island. Its national bird is the Kiwi, its Kiwi fruit famous and delicious, and so then the citizens of Aotearoa call themselves the KIWIs. There’s even a KiwiBank. I became a temporary Kiwi when I landed in Auckland on December 29th, 2009 until the day I left, on January 22, 2010.

The first Kiwi I would meet would be Sonia, a friend from our Gallaudet days and hanging out in the International Students Club group. Since I was invited to go to NZ by another friend, I contacted Sonia through the wonders of Facebook and asked if she could host me for a few days. There she was, Sonia greeted me at the airport. We then left for her cool, urban funk home (a former auto shop!) and I met her partner, Dan. That same day, Sonia took me to meet her Deaf parents, who are respected in the country for their work with the Deaf community. Over wine, I mastered a few NZSL (New Zealand Sign Language) signs. A good start. Sonia and I then grabbed a cup of java (really good coffee down there) and headed for Mt. Eden – a popular tourist attraction and a favorite of Aucklanders – and the view from top was beautiful. The towering city skyline loomed ahead, and I breathed in the brisk, clean air of NZ. I was in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time.

After Mt. Eden, Sonia and I went home. Her idea of a guest room is putting a bed, overnight table and comfy goose down blanket in a massive Russian ship cargo container, which she bravely lugged to her auto-shop home and fit in nicely in the very open living room. It was like a scene out of MTV’s Real Deaf World: New Zealand.

December 30 came, Sonia and I were up and packed for the road trip. We were headed to Kerikeri to celebrate the New Year with a few Deaf people. It would be a three hour journey from Auckland unil it was almost the northern tip of the island. A town that grows wine and oranges, it would be where I’d stay for three days.

On the way to Kerikeri in Sonia’s old Volkswagen station wagon, we curved it on the roads (literally! The roads are so curvy, it’s scary and amazing!) to Goat Island (cool swimming hole), Whangarei (A Deaf man owns a coffeeshop there named Angus) then we were finally in Kerikeri in the early afternoon. The ride up was simply stunning, with deep valleys of green, lush ferns and sheep scattered over sloped fields of grass, grape and orange orchards lining up by the road.

It was the night before New Year 2010, and there were six people (and two cute rugrats). We enjoyed a nice evening. I attempted to sign NZSL and Universal Signs with the group, and it went off with a lot less errors than I’d expected. They were a nice bunch of folk.

A long, hazy day of chilling riverside by the big, modern, affluent white summer home of Liz. *names have been changed* Five more people came. I recognized one of them as a former camper of mine when I was a leader at the World Federation for the Deaf Youth Section Camp in 2003.

At the New Year’s party, there were two South Africans, one Swiss, one Canadian, one Latvian, seven Kiwis (one of them a Maori). We would be the first nation in the world to celebrate the New Year. It was six a.m. in New York City on December 31 when we rang in the new year, eighteen hours past.

We slept as the world celebrated the new year longtitude by latitude, time zone to time zone, from the Tasman Sea to the Atlantic. When we woke up, my family in Canada was gearing to get ready to celebrate. One more day of chilling in Kerikeri then on January 2 Sonia and I trailed a bunch of the partygoers to Bland Bay, on the eastern shores of North Island for overnight camping. In the early morning hours, I boarded a fishing boat out to the bay and watched a group of seasoned Deaf fishermen reel in a multitude of colored fishes – big, little, circled, long, short, ugly and beautiful. Their record of catching fish that week was 55. The group has caught marlins, swam close to sharks and weathered storms.

From picturesque Bland Bay, Sonia drove me to Langs Beach, where she would drop me off at the Greenwoods’ and where I would finally embrace my dear friend, Ben, whom I met in college. Catherine and her husband, Daniel, welcomed me in the summer home of Catherine’s family. The reunion between me and Ben was an exciting one, we dished on the explosive tidbits of our lives summed up in an hour, then headed out to the shores of Langs Beach with Catherine and Danny. The western shores of New Zealand are scattered with black sands, whereas there is white sands on the eastern shores. In Langs, there were some parts of the strand with black and white sands blended in. Kayakers cruise past us as we explore the coral reef coves.

January 4, Ben and I return to Auckland, and we greet an American who had, on a whim, decided to move to Aotearoa and see if he could find a job in Auckland and live with his best buddy Ben. I knew Jesada “Jerry” from our college days as well, he and I worked in the Philippines in 2002 on an internship. Jerry didn’t know I was here, so it would be a cool surprise for us.  Needless to say, Jerry was shocked to find me standing in the door. Buzz, news, life storis passed around the three of us, college friends from Gallaudet.

That same day, Ben introduced me to one of his friends, who in turn, offered to host my 30th birthday party at her house the very next day. Ben said he would invite the people that partied with me during New Year’s, and the  people I met along the way, and new people. It would be a Kiwi party for the birthday girl.

The morning I became 30 was uneventful, but peaceful. Ben left for work on the 5th of January after a long holiday. I was alone in his flat, in my Super Mario pyjamas, drinking coffee and checking the hundreds of birthday wishes on Facebook and Gmail. I then decided to take a long bath in the clawfoot tub and get ready for the party. I got dolled up in red and set out feeling older, wiser and a new woman. For some reason, becoming 30 had felt different than turning another number in the 20s. I was a full adult, doing what I wanted to do, feeling very loved and blessed. I went through so much hardship in my life, and stood a dignified and fortunate woman.

The party, amazingly, was a big one. 20 people attended (the most I’ve had at my own birthday party in the past!!) and I was served New Zealand’s most popular dessert, the Pavlova cake. Egg white at its most delicious. Laughter and tactile all around. Facebook names and crazy life stories swapped. It felt good to be surrounded by good people on my birthday, when my family and friends were halfway around the world, way up North.

When a person celebrates a rite of passage, a birthday, an anniversary, we grow into something greater than what we were a day ago, a year or 10 ago, from the day we were born. The rites bring people together to celebrate a new beginning, or mourn the end. The New Year, for billions of people, is a ritual where they leave behind the year that either made or ruined them; make new beginnings and renew their faith and hope for the future. Birthdays are meant to celebrate not only the birth of this person, but to regard the mother for bringing us into this world. Anniversaries are for people who want to remember the past, and celebrate the fact it’s ongoing and renew the vow to make it go on longer. I celebrated the New Year in Kerikeri, feted my birthday in Auckland. New outlook, new ideas, new passion for everything; feeling wiser, loved, and older. Being older is like a Kiwi: fun;  fruit of my life; a bird in mid-flight.

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