The Winding Down

In the hopes of slowing down what I can only assume will be a whirlwind of a week, I want to take the chance to reflect on the past few adventures The Squad has shared.

After our trip across the South Island to the West Coast (which I gushed about in my last post), we returned briefly to Lincoln University and then departed again the next morning for an overnight trip to the Rapaki Marae. The Rapaki people are a sub-tribe of the Maori, and a Marae is the term given to their communal living area. We were welcomed onto the Marae through a process known as the powhiri, in which a Rapaki elder calls across the space in front of the meetinghouse and a representative from the visiting group (it was me!) responds to the call.

We entered into the meetinghouse, took our seats, and listened as one of the elders spoke to us about the history of the Marae and of the Maori belief system. The ceremony included a koha (gift) given to the hosts, a song-sharing portion (The Squad sang Here Comes the Sun, reminiscent of our roots in the Sunshine State), and an individual greeting in which each member of The Squad touched foreheads with the Rapaki elders. We proceeded to the kitchen to drink tea and coffee, which finalized the removal of the tapu (sacredness) of us as guests. We were then part of our hosts’ families, and were fully welcomed on to the Marae.

Here is something beautiful we learned:

In the center of the meetinghouse, there is a post than runs from the floor up to the peaked ceiling. When someone passes away, they are placed in an open casket and left for viewing in the meetinghouse beneath the central pole for several days. The Rapaki elder said that the spirit of the deceased climbs up the central post, moves along the window-lined ceiling to the front of the meetinghouse, and leaps off of the peak of the building into the world of the stars to be another twinkling star in the sky.

We heard beliefs and legends and stories like this for hours, and we could have listened for many more. The joy, sincerity, and peacefulness that each of our hosts delivered their stories with made me feel welcome and awestruck by the sheer beauty of the Rapaki lifestyle. With such strong ties to the land and to their familial histories, it made me reconsider the way that I live my life.

After our stay at the Marae, we visited Quail Island to participate in a restoration project (I wrote about it on our class blog if you’re interested), and then embarked on a tour of Waipara Valley.

Waipara Valley is New Zealand’s wine country. We learned about the Greening Waipara project, which is a research-based movement involving Waipara’s wineries that aims to enhance functional biodiversity of the region and to educate visitors on New Zealand’s native flora. While our day touring the wine country was interesting, the evening that followed was the best night of my life. We visited Dr. Hostetler’s friends (who live in an actual castle), played with their puppies, ate a gourmet three-course meal, and competed in a lip-sync contest (which Connor and I won with our rousing rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, fully choreographed, complete with jazz hands). It was the best night of 2014, hands down.

The next morning, The Squad headed to Kaikoura, where we had the most surreal, incredible, classic New Zealand experience ever. We hiked two minutes into a forest located just across the street from the ocean, and ended up at a waterfall. And at the base of the waterfall, in a pool of crystal clear water, were three baby seals. They were leaping through the water, doing hand-stands, and having a blast. Every once in a while they would turn their little heads to look back at us to make sure we were watching them. In the wild. We were watching baby seals frolic through a waterfall in nature. It was the coolest thing ever.

After an afternoon hike and another morning of class discussions, eight of us departed Lincoln for our weekend off in Queenstown. Alicia and I went jet-boating on the Shotover River, while a few Squaddies went skiing and snowboarding. On Saturday, everyone went bungy jumping, skydiving, and skiing while Alicia and I visited Milford Sound.

And I need to talk about that for a moment.

Our bus ride to get to Milford Sound took us through Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s largest national park. It is 13,000 square kilometers of pure beauty. Every stop along the way was so incredibly beautiful that it felt surreal. Everything was so wonderfully perfect, so unbelievably pristine, that I was left speechless for a majority of the trip. In fact, Alicia and I didn’t talk very much during the entire 12-hour tour.

The tour through Milford Sound itself was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I will go out on a limb and say that Milford Sound is the most stunning place in the world. We sailed straight through to the Tasman Sea, on bright blue water and past towering mountains, then turned around, away from the sea and back into the Sound for our return trip.

As we turned around away from the ocean, our guide told us to imagine ourselves as the early explorers, searching for land after many months at sea. We approached the deceptively narrow opening – nearly invisible from the ocean – and the glaciers parted on either side of us. The view, the colors, the way the sun hit the water, everything – it was enough to make the breath momentarily leave my body. Even after cruising from the start of the Sound through to the sea, after seeing the entire thing, there was still something about turning around and seeing it from the point of view of early navigators that really got to me. (I’m going to guess that they probably didn’t cry like I did. I could be wrong.)

It is important to experience Moments like these in life because it helps us find humility as well as an appreciation for the world and our place in it. The magnificence of this journey has acted as a reminder that there are places in this world much older and wiser than us and anything we will ever know. The world is not at our disposal and it certainly doesn’t need us in order to carry on. That’s what I wish people would understand. There is no “saving the world” – there is only changing it. Making it better. Places like Milford Sound are great at getting people to care about the world, because nature communicates beauty like nothing else. Maybe we should look at and listen to these places more, because there is so much to learn, and so many people who need to learn.

I needed to get all of these thoughts down because I am clinging on to what little time I have left here with my Squad. With just a week left, we are all trying to make the most of our last days, and I know I’ll spend quite some time reflecting on how much I’ve learned, changed, and done since July 2nd.

Tomorrow, we’ll be off to the Alpine foothills to visit some landowners, and then we’ll be celebrating Connor’s birthday! It will certainly be a bittersweet week – here’s to making the most of it.

Wishing you well,


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