Sunday, February 27, 2011

Traveller's Remorse

When you travel for an extended period of time, forging friendships in a short period of time becomes a critical lifeskill. Seeing the world is great, but it almost becomes boring when you don't have a soul to share it worth. Naturally, as we get older, making friends becomes harder and harder to do. Your moral and ethic compass becomes more rigid. You have enough friends at home, why do you need anymore? Still, to a degree, we are infatuated with meeting random strangers. When you think about how big the world is, how can you not?

For me, each and every trip is like the first day of kindergarden. Mom and dad drop you off at school with a bunch of other wandering souls, all just itching for some kind of human connection. You find the one kid who loves playing with Legos as much as you do, and immediately a best friend is born. Yes, it's that easy, as long as you're genuine with yourself and with everyone you meet.

Unfortunately, the world is big. Really big. And often, home is far away. Over the days or weeks you spend getting to know someone everything is fresh and new. You don't have the time to think about the eventual plane trip home, when you have to leave and go an indefinite amount of time before seeing them again (if you ever get to see them again). It's a tough emotion to deal with. We as humans struggle with the concept of goodbye. We cry and weep. We accuse the world of being unfair. Sometimes we even close ourselves off to meeting new people, as we will only regret it when the time comes for us to say goodbye.

It's called traveller's remorse, and even the seasoned traveller gets it. We desperately want to let people in, and when we finally do they have to leave us, leaving an empty spot in our hearts that takes some time to heal. To avoid the pain, we throw walls up because that's what we're trained to do. It also works, although you deprive yourself of some of life's greatest experiences.

Fortunately for you, traveller's remorse is only a way of interpreting a situation. It's like the glass-half-full, glass-half-empty argument: all it takes is some positive thinking.

The first step is to embrace that impending goodbye and use it to your advantage. You don't have the luxury of being jaded or guarded. You have to train yourself to be genuine and open, and it has to be as natural as possible. Some of my best friendships were made in a matter of days because of this mentality.

The next step is to enjoy the moment. Since our survival instincts have taken a back-seat in our thought process, our minds and hearts have become future-orientated. We're constantly thinking about the paper due in class on Monday or the project due at work in a month. Living in the moment isn't as natural as it use to be. It's important to think about the future, but learn to turn it off. Learn to enjoy the moments that you have in a certain place or with a certain person. You'll have time to think about (or regret) those moments in the future, so right now you just need to enjoy them.

When it does come time to say goodbye, let your emotions get the best of you. Cry, be stoic, laugh: do what you need to do. Holding back those emotions isn't healthy, and the people that you met in your travels are probably feeling the same thing.

The last step is to take those feelings of regret and rid them out of your mind. The reason you're feeling sad about saying goodbye is that you had a truly amazing relationship with this person or place. The guarded and jaded don't feel pain because they haven't lived. Recognize that what you're feeling is evidence of a true, human connection. It's beautiful and real. You should never regret feeling those emotions. Ever.

When it is all said and done, be realistic with yourself. There's a chance that you might never be here again, and that you may never see this person again. The world is a terribly huge place, and we all have lives to live. But that's the beauty of true friends: they'll be there for you, no matter how long down the road it is. We live in an age where keeping in touch with each other is incredibly simple. Use that to your advantage. It's always sad to leave a new place and say goodbye to new friends, but I would never trade those experiences for anything in the world. I don't regret a thing, and neither should you. Stop making excuses to not open yourself up to everything life has to's truly beautiful on the other side.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

24-Hour News Loves...?

I know...I know. Blog content has dropped off dramatically in the past 10 days or so. Blame it on me being lazy, and I'll blame it on the destructive flu that had me stuck in bed for 6 days wishing I had something stronger than Extra Strength Tylenol. But, that's neither here nor there. The flu lost. I'm still alive. We're moving on like civilized adults.

As I lay there shivering from the crippling fever, I did get to catch up on some television viewing. Most of my time was spent on CNN or another news channel watching the sheer insanity that broke out around the world. The most popular subjects of the week were:

  • Protests and people being shot in Libya
  • Political unrest in the rest of the Middle East
  • Wisconsin trying to destroy unions and the ensuing protests
  • Fox News calling the protesters ill-informed and un-Patriotic when they applauded the Tea Party for the same thing
  • Somalian Pirates killing more Americans
  • How we're going to run out of food by 2050
  • Unemployment is still rocking and rolling
  • Christchurch getting leveled by an earthquake
  • Justin Bieber winning the MVP at the Celebrity All-Star Basketball Game
Needless to say, this week was pretty fricken depressing. It's what I get for watching the news for 6 days straight I guess, but I really enjoy keeping up on world affairs. Knowing what's going on outside of the United States makes me feel like I'm still part of the world community rather than just another American. Most weeks it's great: once you sift through the standard 'our economy is tanking' headlines you can see some of the miraculous stuff that is going on abroad. Not this week though...everything beautiful and amazing was falling apart at the seams.

Of course I proceed to make the mistake of mixing my news watching with the occasional check-up on the latest happenings on Facebook. The only thing worse than the world falling apart at the seams is the world falling apart and only a handful of people in my social circle actually giving a damn. I love my friends, but how does all this stuff get by you and not phase you one bit? I mean, your 10 page paper might be important, but come on! Running out of food? People dying? Is your Red Bull induced all-nighter really that damn important?

Expecting people to care is something I learned to give up on. It's not because they're ignorant or because they don't get's because you're not living their life. They have different morals and different standards. They have different experiences.

The one thing I have noticed, however, is that travelers have one shared moral: a care for the world they live in. Everyone who's spent a sufficient amount of time traveling seems to be in-sync with the harmony of the world. When things are going sour, they care. Deeply. They know that these people are suffering, and that these people are just like you and me. It's a fundamental moral that can only be taught through seeing different cultures and people. 

You also learn that there are beautiful things happening constantly...even in super-destructive weeks like this. In times of disaster and hardship, people naturally pull together. The 24-news cycle doesn't like this sappy stuff, so you won't see it on MSNBC anytime soon. The strength of humanity, however, always finds a way to prevail. It's in that love for one another that will get us through the tough times we all face in the near future. You thought it was hard now? It's going to get alot harder...believe me. The economy will seem petty in retrospect. But take solace in this: we've always pulled through. As a species, we're programmed to persevere and survive, using everything we have at our disposal to do so. New ideas will arise out of need and desperation, and they'll shape the world into a better place to live. Stay active and always moving, and we'll all get there together. I have faith. 

More importantly, we have Anderson Cooper. With him, we cannot fail.
In The Silver Fox We Trust

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - Chapter 3: The Legendary Stories, Introduction

After pondering on it for a couple days, I realized that encompassing the full spectrum of stories and adventures from New Zealand and giving them each a chapter would give this series more chapters than Atlas Shrugged....and I really hate Atlas Shrugged. So, for the sake of being comprehensive and to cater to the short attention spans of the modern day American, I give you the continuing Chapter 3 of The Kiwi Chronicles......The Legendary Stories.

To introduce this chapter, let me flash forward to 5 nights ago, when I was trying to outline this series. It was a late Thursday night, and I was sitting at my desk jotting on some notecards the memories that I had of New Zealand. I was consulting the mass of pictures I had on my hard drive as well as my journal for reference, and after a couple hours I looked up at my bulletin board to see half the thing covered in notes. I was fitting 7 or 8 different stories onto one card, and had a good 10 or 15 cards on the board. That's alot of material.

As I was sorting through them, I noticed a couple things:

  1. Classifying these stories into distinct categories would be impossible, as most of them are unique or involved the bar in some sort of fashion.
  2. Some were just lessons or games that I learned, and although I'm going to tell you how to play "Possum" efficiently, it wasn't a chapter of the story as much as an event worth mentioning.
  3. Telling them in order would take the piss out of the whole thing. Who goes to the movies to see the epic finale first? It's all about the build-up, and I want to start semi-epic and work up to epic-epic.
So I came up with 'The Legendary Stories' to address this issue. This is the middle chapter of The Kiwi Chronicles....the meat of the story that made the trip special and unique. The stories will feature the people, places, things, and events that will hopefully at the end paint a picture why I fell in love with this country and it's people, and why I'm now addicted to travel. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Argument for College Education

In May of 2010 I became one of the 27.4% of Americans who have attained a Bachelor's degree. That's no small feat, as the percentage of students actually completing their degree is only 47%. I was part of the even smaller group that actually finished their degree on time, and as I walked down the aisle to pick up that sheet of paper I did feel special. Four adventurous years culminated into this degree saying that I was fit to work in this society. I am now 'educated'. My parents are proud. Nothing could be better than this.

That was 8 months ago. Now I wonder if I wasted 4 years of my life...

You really can't blame me. Going to college has been engrained in our society as the appropriate path to choose after high school, and anything other than that is considered a failure. 18-year-olds smug with the notion that they are privileged enter an institution to be educated and to hit the ground running in pursuit of their careers and dreams. They graduate, still smug, with an 'education' that sets them apart from the rest of the group. Four years of schooling entitles you to a job in your field, much more over applicants who have only worked in the field as you studied and partied and attended mandatory Resident Hall Picnics so you can socialize with your peers.

Six months after graduation, you realize how much that 4 years really cost. The student loan debt in this nation exceeds revolving credit card debt, sitting at $850 billion dollars. The average student graduates with $23,000 in student loans. That equates to $276 a month in student loan payments. That's alright though, because you'll be making $40,000 right out of school...or at least that's what your program will tell you. Most likely, however, you'll join the 13.9 million other people looking for a job so you can start paying back those student loans.

My struggle with post-college life was a much more intrapersonal one. I chose a field that is highly competitive and that doesn't necessarily require a degree to be successful, and I knew that a job wasn't guaranteed. It is also a field where I need to have a grasp on reality, and how our own social circles fit into that reality. My success is determined by my understanding of what makes us tick as humans. I watch people and how they treat each other. That's a byproduct of traveling: you're genuinely curious of everything around you. You don't get wrapped up in jobs or vices because you know how big the world is, and looking inward all the time will deprive you of everything the world has to offer.

So when I say that my struggle is intrapersonal, I mean that I evaluate myself and my social relationships. I do work...but my identity isn't tied to my job. For my entire college career, I built this life for myself. I made friends in every social circle: from being a Vice-President of a Fraternity to playing D&D on Tuesday nights with the business students. When I left, I had to leave most of that behind. I lost what made Or, what really happened is that I didn't know who I was or what kind of person I could be.

This self-evaluation came from two things: being out of my comfort zone, and watching my friends make very little progress in their own growth. I didn't mind being in a new atmosphere, but what really hit me hard was watching from the sidelines as the place I had in their lives quickly disappeared. I faded away with little resistance because I was out here while they were still in school. I wasn't ok with it at first, but I accepted it as time went on. It was natural because the one thing we had in common changed, and we no longer inhabited the same social circle.

I was part of that demographic at one point, and looking back in I realized how ridiculously easy and absurd college truly is. Now I know that physics majors and nursing kids are going to wring my neck, but this still applies to you. Think about it: you go to school about 15 hours a week. Even when I was working on a show in theatre for 3 hours a night, that's only 30 or so hours a week. You get homework, which is usually from a book or for a test. You study, regurgitate, rinse and repeat. Essay writing becomes a habit rather than a critical analysis.

I'm going to take a stand here and say this with some force: if you whine about school, you're pathetic. Stop whining about studying or how long your week is and man up, because once you get out you won't be able to handle all the curveballs life throws at you. I'm sorry...I laugh hysterically when I read your Facebook status of "OMG this studying is so hard" or "Only 5 more pages on my essay to go...FML". Please understand, all this is coming from the guy who went up to Calculus III and took English courses every semester just for fun. Learning is fun, no matter the circumstance.

College kids are just that: kids. They are children and took the half-step into society. I learned this my sophomore year and that's why I made the effort to get out of my comfort zone and studied on the other side of the globe. I'm a rare case, because the vast majority of college graduates are immature, inexperienced, and oh so very smug. Their degree gives them the power to be the king of the jungle prematurely. Don't worry, I bought into the lie too. Everyone tells you how elite your are, and you believe it. And once you leave the sanctum of the university, you try to be the leader of everything. The uneducated don't know because they didn't go to college. They are down there while you are up here, where the air is thin and your ego is self-inflating.

I quickly learned, however, that my degree didn't mean as much as I thought I did. I wasn't entitled to jobs or respect. I wasn't entitled to anything...I had to earn it. I also had to learn how to be a member of society, interacting with more than just the 'educated' and privileged. A degree doesn't make you intelligent. If anything, a degree is something you pay for so you look a little better at the dog and pony show. You may look better, but it doesn't make you best of show. Be prepared to lose...alot. Humility will cure you of your smugness very quickly.

That's the joker in this big old card game that is life: that life is a game of winners and losers, and winning is the only path to happiness. Congratulations, you are graduating with honors from a reputable college. By all standards, you've been dealt a good hand, and the poker commentators are tilting the percentages in your favor. But you take that hand anywhere else in the world and, even though they have a 2-7 offsuit and are wearing borrowed shoes and pants, they will win every time. Their life isn't tied to the game like ours is, and at the end of the day they might go home broke...but they'll be much happier than you ever will be.

But I digress...the real question is: was my college education worth it? Is it worth the billions of dollars that everyone drops on a decent education? That's something you have to answer for yourself. You can be a part of their institution, but you don't have to play their game. I didn't, and am much happier because of it. I said this is the argument for higher education, and I agree that I wouldn't have learned about all of this unless I went through it all. College isn't for everyone, and those who don't go for a degree are just as intelligent as you are.

I'm not saying that my path was the best one, but I am saying that the vast majority of college graduates took the easy and safe path. They had the chance to pursue happiness with humility and curiosity, but instead believe that happiness is entitled to them through jobs and money, and they were too afraid to work out of their comfort zone. It's natural to want safety and security...but throw that out the window when you can. You won't learn a damn thing if you don't...

Your institution won't teach you that because you're in a bubble looking out. Screw that bubble, screw the institution, and get you butt out into the real world. Take the things you're learning in college and find how they fit in this ever-moving puzzle that is life. You won't ever figure it out, but you'll appreciate how beautiful it all is. Live adventurously, because all the money and power in the world doesn't really mean a damn in the end. College is a great way to start, as long as you recognize that it is only the beginning of a much grander adventure.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Emergency Operation!

The Orange Sweater is falling apart! Luckily, I found a thread and needle and decided to do some emergency triage work.

Believe it or not, I don't know how to sew. That's alright though, it doesn't have to look pretty. As long as I prevent it from ripping anymore, then I consider this operation a success! Some of my friends say I should throw it out...
....but honestly,  I look too damn good in orange.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - Chapter 2, Part 2: Hierarchy of Needs

This is an ongoing series covering my semester abroad in New Zealand. If you would like to start from the beginning, click here. Enjoy!

Ok....where did we leave 2008 Ryan again? Oh, that's right...he was crying in his prison cell of a room, wishing for a plane ticket back home. Time to man up, cause it doesn't get any easier from here.

If you aren't familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, here's a crash course. This theory in psychology concerns the needs we have as humans. It's often depicted as a pyramid, with the most fundamental of needs at the bottom level and the needs of self-actualization at the top. The basic four layers (esteem, love/belonging, safety, and physiological) are the deficiency needs. According to his theory, if you're missing one of those layers, you might not physically feel anything but might feel anxious and tense. Once one layer is satisfied, you can focus on the next one. 

Now, this is just a theory...but my first week in New Zealand was dedicated to fulfilling these needs, and it was a struggle. I look back now and laugh because, frankly, I was pretty lame. Not "aww, I feel bad for you" lame, but more like "Dude, seriously?" lame. Let's break it down and share a laugh together, shall we?

Physiological Needs
I woke up on my second day tired, thirsty, and super hungry. I didn't have any dishes or food...heck, I hadn't even unpacked yet. After taking a shower, I walked outside to forage some supplies.

Remember the Hindu man that helped me out? Well, he failed to mention the fact that the closest grocery store was miles away. I didn't have a bike at this point, and had no idea how the bus system worked yet, so what did I do? I started to wander aimlessly in one direction in search for food. 

I walked for a good 45 minutes before hitting my first store. It was the 'Warehouse', which was the equivalent of the American Wal-Mart. As I walked in, I checked my pockets to see what my budget was. It took me a good 30 seconds for everything to set in: I left my wallet at the hostel. I wouldn't have been pissed if I had lost my wallet, because at least I could have blamed a person walking by or I could have lost it in a freak accident. But no...I was stupid and left it on my bed as I was getting ready to leave. 

I did have money left over from the bus ride to Hamilton: a whopping $6 in miscellaneous change and bills. It was enough for me to buy a plate, a cup, and 1 fork, so it wasn't a total loss.

When I got back to the hostel with my fancy new chinaware set, I snatched my wallet and walked to the nearest gas station, stocked up on cheese, bread, and Coca Cola, and went back home to take a depression nap. I had food though, so that's all that mattered.

Safety Needs
My second day in New Zealand was a complete failure, so that third day was about redemption. Now that I had some food to work with, I had two things to accomplish today: get a bicycle and a phone card to call home. I was able to email my mom, but the internet was so ridiculous that I couldn't use Skype. 

I spent most of the morning haggling the Dey Street locals for a cheap bicycle. I learned that day that I was the only English-speaking resident in the entire hostel, as all the other residents were Hindus attending the technical college in Hamilton. Thank God numbers are universally recognized...I was able to convince one of them to give me his bike for $30. I finally had freedom and access to resources.

My first bike ride was right back to that Warehouse to buy a helmet and a phone card. I picked up some water and some ramen noodles, and with all my basics finally satisfied I biked home to settle in once and for all.

Most of that week played out the same way: I would bike around looking for stuff, then come home in the afternoons to either read or pass out. I wasn't feeling too optimistic about this whole studying abroad thing, as I had been in the country for 6 days before making one friend. I've gotten alot better now, but back then I was shy and timid and it really prevented me from making the most of a bad situation. I was also going through the classic stages of culture shock, and it paralyzed me with fear.

Love/Belonging Needs
On the 7th day was the international orientation and registration, and even though my self-esteem and hope was destroyed, I managed to muster just enough excitement to get out of bed and ride to the University. 

I sat on the steps of the auditorium, iPod on and keeping to myself. Everyone had these little clicks of friends that they met at the dorms. I lived off campus because I couldn't get into the dorms in time, and I felt like I missed out on the prime opportunity to make some friends. I talked to my mother years later and she told me how worried she was, because the phone calls home weren't pretty. I'm glad she talked me into staying.

Anyways, we were about to go inside and I decided to hang back for just a moment. I wanted to sit in the back and be non-intrusive...stick to myself. Yes, I was this lame. But it was that decision that ultimately changed the course of everything that came after, and led me to be the adventurous soul I am today. 

At the bottom of the hill I saw Emma and some of her new friends coming towards the auditorium. She saw me and called out. She came up and introduced me to this American guy, Nick, and this Canadian girl, Emily. I ended up sitting with them for the orientation and making plans with them to have a kickback in Orchard Park (the dorm-like cabins that they all lived at) after the day's events. 

Esteem Needs
I had to go fetch my bike from the other side of campus before joining them at their dorm. The entire walk down there I contemplated riding back to my hostel, playing some GameBoy, and going to bed. I wasn't a partier...this wasn't Fiji anymore. What was I doing?

I had a rule that I adopted for this trip: I would make a pact to stay at a party for 45 minutes before bailing. It was the perfect amount of time to see if this is where you wanted to spend your evening or not, and it forced you to socialize with people you normally wouldn't talk to. So, abiding to the rule, I went to hang out in Orchard Park.
I impressed them with my card-house building skills.

As it turned out, most of the kids in Orchard Park were awesome! Nick and Emily lived in one of the flats with this Kiwi guy, Campbell, and a German girl, Manu. There were these two Dutch guys, Pim and Sam, who were like Emma and I: travelled from the same university in Holland. Orchard Park was a haven for the international community. There were kids from the US, Canada, Mexico, Holland, Germany, China, Japan, Korea, UK, and more. That night consisted of us sitting on one of the porches and drinking wine out of the bottle (I didn't learn my lesson), making acquaintances and just hanging if we've always been friends.

The night started to wind down, and I gathered my blue bike to make the trek back home. Nick and Emily were heading back to their flat, and rather than bike all the way home they offered me their blue couch. I had just met these people a couple hours prior, but I was too tired to bike the 2 miles I said yes. That was the start of an era, a genesis of sorts. I ended up sleeping on that couch so much that the Director of Orchard Park thought I lived there, and I was known as the adopted resident of Orchard Park. But, that's another story for another time.

That first week was pretty ugly for me. I had spent most of the week locked up in a hostel with a pack of pepperjack cheese and a bottle of cola. I was resistant to making friends and let culture shock take over. I was very close to ruining my entire semester abroad.

I look back and think "What if Emma didn't see me? What if I went home that night? What if I didn't sleep on Emily and Nick's couch that night?". It seriously came down to a moment in time that altered everything. I don't think I would be as adventurous and spontaneous as I am now if I hadn't met those people. I would have closed myself off and made the entire experience rotten and unfulfilling. Yet again, fate had my back and gave me a moment to work with. That's the thing: it really does take one meeting to change the course of everything. Living adventurously comes down to moments of spontaneity, and you have to seize them for yourself. Throw yourself out there...I promise you, the risk is worth it.

The Kiwi Chronicles - Chapter 2, Part 1: Landfall

This is an ongoing series covering my semester abroad in New Zealand. To catch up from the beginning, start here. Enjoy!

I'm going to prelude this chapter by saying that, within the first 24 hours of being in New Zealand, I had accomplished every single item on the 'do not do' list provided by your home campus when you go abroad. Although I came out alright, I will emphasize this by saying that, if you are going to study abroad, listen to everything your advisor says. He/she is wise and he/she knows what he/she is talking about. Do not wing it like I did...

The 4 hour plane ride from Fiji to New Zealand was the worst flight of my life. I was tired and nursing a wine hangover, courtesy of the French film guys I met our last night in Fiji. The flight was in the middle of the day and the sun managed to single out my row on the airplane. Sleep was not an option. This was my first mistake...

We landed in Auckland around 2pm and were greeted into the country by the most stringent customs checkpoint I've ever been through in my life. If you've ever seen pictures of New Zealand, you know how beautiful this country is. As it turns out, to protect this fragile environment, it is required for all travelers to be screened for 'foreign contaminants', which includes the mud on your shoes and the dirt that collects in the open pockets of your backpack. It took me half an hour to clean everything out, but I got a free shoe detail out of the deal. What can I say....I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.

As we took the airport shuttle to the bus depot in downtown Auckland, I was finally able to ground myself and comprehend where I was. Home was 7,000 miles away. Most of my friends were in class right now, and I was navigating my way through a foreign country on the opposite side of the globe. Everyone and everything was new, and I loved it. For now.

After driving through Auckland for a bit and craning my head trying to take in everything, Emma and I arrived at the bus depot. It was at this point that I realized my second mistake: I had no idea where to go or what to do. Campus wasn't opening for another week, my hostel I was staying at for the semester wasn't expecting me till tomorrow, and I sure as hell didn't have enough money to stay in Auckland. I was also dragging a semester's worth of crap in a rolling suitcase: my third mistake.

At this point it was 4:50PM. The sun was starting to set, and the last bus to Hamilton (where my university was located) was leaving in 10 minutes. Emma went off to go sightseeing for the week...and so all alone, scared, hungover, and poor, I bought the ticket to Hamilton.

The bus arrived in Hamilton around 6:45pm, and much like the last situation I was still too scared and hungover to do anything else. I couldn't see any landmarks or sights in the twilight, so I just hailed the closest cab and prayed he knew where I was suppose to go.

God had my back on this day and thought I learned my lesson about drinking with the French, and so he sent the nicest cabbie I've ever met to come pick me up. He was a Hindu man, with a beautiful family that moved to Hamilton 2 years ago. His daughter was attending Waikato (my university), and chatted with me about the school and stuff to do in the area. He could tell I was having a kinda rough day, and so upon pulling up to Dey Street (my hostel) he knocked down the fare and pulled out a map. We sat on the curb and he pointed out the local grocery stores, the University in relation to the hostel, and how to get downtown in case I wanted to eat at the restaurants or go visit the bars. As he left, he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I ever needed another ride. I rode the bus for the rest of my stay in Hamilton, and so I never called. To have a such a nice man help me out was a relief and restored my faith in this whole being-7000-miles-from-home situation.

I walked into the hostel just as the front desk was closing up shop, dragging a suitcase that, at this point, had broken wheels and was 5 minutes away from being chucked in the nearest garbage can. The girl at the front desk could sense my despair and stayed open 15 minutes longer to help me get my keys and pay my rent for the month...forgoing the fact that I was a day early. She was this goth girl, Ashley, who was a couple years older than me and worked at Dey Street while attending Waikato. Her and I became really good friends...probably because I was the only guy who spoke English there, but we'll cover the full extent of Dey Street and their staff another day. At the time, I was just excited to get into my room and get settled...
Now this doesn't look like the pictures in the brochure...
The thing was....I wasn't staying in a room, I was staying at a former mental institution. Even though the front desk would deny it, all the foreboding signs were there that this place wasn't always a hostel. The rooms were tiny and consisted of a bed, a desk, a locker, and a mini fridge. That's it. The room was so skinny I couldn't lie across, and the picture above was taken from the desk by the window. The halls and the walls were solid concrete and the door was solid steel. I felt pretty safe because the lock I had was something you'd find at most penitentiaries. My sole window opened just enough to get air flowing and there was no way I could sneak out. On the windowsill you can see the brackets for the re-inforced rebar that once lined the window. They could have done a better job at hiding it all...or at the very least, put it on their brochure.  "Stay at Dey Street! Not only can we offer cheap and secure accommodations, but our recreation room features padding on all the walls, floors, and roof! We also offer the clearest sattelite picture, as our dish is mounted on the former guard tower located in the quad!"

Now understand...over time, I would grow to tolerate and even kinda enjoy Dey Street. I loved the staff there, and for the most part it wasn't too bad. I had a safe place to sleep and a hot shower to look forward to in the morning. That first day, however, was so terrible that I couldn't see the silver lining. Here's my list of infractions that you shouldn't do when it's your first trip out of the country:

  1. I drank wine.
  2. I drank wine with the French.
  3. I flew hungover.
  4. I didn't have a plan for my first night in the country.
  5. I overpacked my suitcase.
  6. I didn't bring enough contingency money.
  7. I didn't pay attention to the time and improvised.
  8. I was naive enough to think that the rooms in the brochure were what my room was going to look like.
  9. I didn't do any research on New Zealand or my surrounding areas.
I was lucky that I had a string of incidents and people that allowed me to sleep safely in my bed that first night. I was also lucky that I was 7,000 miles away, because I spent that night thinking about how to get back home and escape this misery. My first night (and first week, which is the next post in this series) was not what I expected. Fortunately, being alone and out of your comfort zone in such an extreme situation forces you to adapt and take some risks. That first week was tough, but it was just the beginning of one of my greatest adventures.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Great American Tradition

For 51 weeks out of the year, I like to consider myself a member of humanity. I may have stole that philosophy from a hippie I met at the Chevron in Flagstaff, AZ, but it's very appropriate for a traveller to think this way. No matter where you come from or what your nationality is, we all share the same home. But, for one week out of the year, I tuck that mentality in the drawer with my passport, buy a pack of Coors Light and hot wings, and indulge in the greatest of all American traditions: the Super Bowl.

Nothing reminds you how awesome the USA is than the championship game of the American football season. It's the one Sunday out of the year that pastors cut church early, grocery stores shut down, and the chips and salsa industry sees the biggest profits of the year. You gather with your friends and family to crowd around the television to get drunk and watch football. Nobody fights like at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and there isn't a must-go-to party like at New Years. As long as you have friends, beer, and a television, you're all set. Seriously, it boggles me that we get Columbus Day off and not Super Bowl Sunday....

The beautiful thing about the Super Bowl is that for one day, people have to be included in the festivities. The last thing anyone wants is to show up at work on the following Monday and not know the outcome of the game. If that happens, you're immediately cast aside and your Social Security number is flagged by the FBI as a 'person of interest'. 

Each Super Bowl game is special, but most parties are the same. Some are more into the game than others, but everyone's there for the same reason. There's food galore, everything to nurture the heart attack you've been working on for 10 years. There's cheap beer readily available. Even the kids get into the festivities, often playing pick-up games in the house because they know that mom and dad are too busy enjoying the fact that everyone's getting along.

Now the game is usually spectacular, the commercials are pretty funny, and the halftime show is entertaining (save for the couple years after the Janet Jackson incident), but what really defines the Super Bowl as the Great American Tradition is the Star Spangled Banner preceding kickoff:
Seriously, nobody's better than Whitney

It's a song that every American has heard a million times before, but for some reason the Super Bowl's rendition manages to bring a glisten to my eye as that final note rings into the audience. It's the only moment you'll see 60,000 fans silent with their gaze on the stars and stripes and their hands over their hearts. For a brief moment, the nation stands still, casting aside our differences and our disdain for government as we focus on what makes our nation great. Soldiers, football players, diplomats, and drunk cheese-heads stand side by side to remind themselves why we love America and everything she stands for. 

We know that on Monday, we'll go back to our lives relatively the same as we were before. We might talk about the game or impersonate the funny commercial that aired. For the most part, nothing really changes. But, during that broadcast on that one Sunday every winter, we know that in one year's time we'll be doing this again....still Americans, and still free. Remember that when you're rooting for Aaron Rodgers to destroy the Steelers' secondary this weekend. And please, turn off the television after the game. I don't want 'Glee' milking ratings again...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

1000 Hits!

"Adventures of the Orange Sweater" has officially hit 1000 hits! In spirit of this not-so-momentous occasion (from what I hear, 1000 hits is chump change in the blogosphere), I present to you the greatest thing you'll see today, courtesy of the orientation video I was forced to watch:
Yes...that is a bear caressing a bottle of hand sanitizer. I wish I could make this stuff up. Best part is they sent me home with this DVD, so I can share Hand Sanitizer Bear with all of you. Thank goodness all the important stuff is displayed via graphics...I can't focus with a bear in the room.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - Chapter 1, Part 2: Beachcomber Island

This is part of an ongoing series of the semester I spent abroad in New Zealand entitled "The Kiwi Chronicles". Part 1 of Fiji can be found here, and you can start the series here.

At one point in our week in Fiji, Emma and I decided that it was time to go do our own thing. We had our room booked for the last night at the hostel near the airport, so we would rendezvous there before heading out to New Zealand. It was good idea: she was into anthropology, I was into getting into trouble. So, after our gameplan for getting out of the country was set, we said goodbye and embarked on our adventures for the rest of the week.

We had made friends with a Canadian couple when we were on our Fijian spa day, and back at the hostel I was drinking a couple beers with them and this Aussie guy we met along the way. Halfway into a box of Fiji Bitter, we got chatting about our plans for the week. The Aussie guy was flying out the next day, but the Canadian couple were going to this beach resort called the "Beachcomber". Apparently, it was known as the 'party island of the Pacific', so naturally I was intrigued.

I checked the rates for the dormitory... $79FJD a night, with all meals inclusive. Pop that into the conversion calculator and I'm breaking the bank at $38 a night. I had to take George out of my wallet and kiss him in thanks for being a strong currency (my how things have changed). I dropped $114 for the 3 nights without a second thought and hopped on a boat heading out into the Pacific.

Our high-speed catamaran cruised on crystal blue waters, with the main island getting smaller and smaller behind us. The boat was packed with tourists from all around the world looking for some rest and relaxation.

We passed half a dozen islands that were smaller than city blocks, each with white sand and some huts to stay in. As we passed them, the workers would come out and wave at the passing boat. Sometimes you can hear shouts of 'Bula' (welcome) coming from the island, just barely audible from the waves crashing on the boat. Occasionally, we would stop to let people off at certain islands, which were often accessible by rowboat only. I was on the top deck laughing as people tried to get their multiple pieces of luggage on a boat that could barely hold 3 or 4 people. My New Zealand luggage was safely locked up at the hostel on the main island, so I had a small backpack with a pair of swim trunks and my GL2. That's what started my love affair with backpacks and the art of light travel.

After sipping some drinks on the top deck, we finally made it to the Beachcomber.
Yeah, this is a promotional pic, but my camera couldn't do this island justice.
First reaction was "Holy crap, this place is gorgeous!". Second reaction was "Holy crap, this place is gorgeous and I'm paying $38 a night!". Even this aerial promotional pic couldn't do this island justice. The water was crystal blue, and the island looked incredibly fake. How could a place like this just pop out of the ocean like that?

As it turns out, we were sitting on a giant coral reef, and I didn't know it until we hopped on our taxi boat that took us to the island. The boat was bigger than the rowboat we saw earlier, and the entire bottom of the boat was glass. As we got out of the deep water, the reef became visible. It was like we were looking down at the aquarium from 'Finding Nemo': fish and creatures galore, all basking in the most vivid colors I've ever seen. Thank goodness I had snorkeling would be a crime if I didn't get some serious snorkeling done while I was here.

The next three days were so incredible (and alcohol-driven) that the order of events that occurred after setting foot on the island are still questionable in my mind. For the sake of coherence, I'll breakdown the highlights of the island and my stay there, in no particular order.

The Dormitory
The dorm that I was staying at was in the heart of the island, where the foliage blocked all view of the ocean that was just yards away. It was incredibly simple: a couple dozen bunkbeds underneath a giant straw roof, propped up by logs. Everything was open, allowing the ocean breeze to come in at night and calm you to sleep. Small birds would chirp in the morning, but nothing too obnoxious. Seeing it, it reminded me of an upgraded version of camping, but to this day I never had a better night's sleep than I did there.

The Beach
Why did I leave again?
On an average day, the Beachcomber had about 100 or so people staying on the island. Add the 100 or so day visitors from the catamarans, and you have one cramped sand bar in the middle of the Pacific. You would think that the beaches would be as crowded as a small water park, but like all islands, this one had it's secrets. One side of the beach housed the bar and recreation center, and naturally that's where most people spend their time. But, if you walk 50 yards through the brush to the other side, you have a white sand beach all to yourself. Sure, the occasional couple will come walking by, but for the most part you can use the beach to your leisure. I finished a book on that beach....listening to the waves crashing on the sand and the faint sound of an ocean breeze. If I had to choose a time where I thought life couldn't possibly get any better, it would have been on that isolated beach on the far side of the Beachcomber.

The Reef
If you look at the picture of the island above, you'll notice the patches of green stuff surrounding the place. That's a coral reef, the kind of stuff you see replicated in aquariums. One of my pastimes on the Beachcomber consisted of taking my snorkel gear and walking the 30-60 feet to the reef and go exploring. The reef started at waist-level, so you didn't need any help getting out there. We had a preview on the boat ride in, but being in the mix of it all is a different experience entirely.

The colors are absolutely spectacular. Reds and blues and greens bombard your senses as hundreds of different species of plants and coral swayed with the motion of the ocean. Fish and other creatures swam around, almost completely oblivious to your presence. At one point a Dory-fish (Dory from "Finding Nemo. I don't know her species) scurried between my fingers as I inspected some kind of sponge thing. All the creatures welcomed you to their habitat, and it was only natural to feel a deep respect for the environment around you. You didn't go stomping around in the floated above it, as a silent observer. Being one with nature is something that hippies brag about, but they can go suck it. Snorkeling in Fiji trumps their tree-hugging conventions every day of the week, and I didn't have to smell like a stale pizza box to fit in.

As you went deeper into the reef, the ocean became more and more mysterious. You would swim about 6 feet above the reef for a hundred yards or so, often getting as close as 2 feet as waves would come and go. Then, out of the darkness, came the drop off.

Reefs suddenly stop in the middle of the ocean, creating these sea cliffs that drop to the sea floor 30 feet below. You could just barely make out the bottom, and the light dissolving in the water below you was eerie and wonderful. As it turns out, this is also where the reef sharks live....a crapload of reef sharks. So what's my first instinct? Let's go diving with the sharks.

I would take a deep breath and dive 15 feet around the overhang of the reef as 10 or so sharks circled in my vicinity. They would hover in the darkness below me or pop out of the reef above. The green glow of the ocean and the rays of sun beaming down set the mood. Cue the Jaws music John Williams...I was surrounded.

I'm a man's man, so I was ready to fight whichever little punk wanted to try some Hawaiian cuisine this afternoon. My logic was, if they all attacked me at once, I could punch each of them in the nose and assert my dominance. I would be King of the Reef, and they would respect and love me. One bite wouldn't be too much to concede to the little bastards. Scars are cool, especially when it's from a shark.  I was also an idiot who had a couple beers at the bar and decided it was a good idea to go diving with the sharks.

I would later find out that reef sharks are quite harmless...even friendly. The people I went diving with, however, didn't have the heart to tell me. Apparently, a skinny kid swimming with his fists ready to fight with a bunch of harmless sharks was incredibly entertaining. They bought me beers later that night, so it was a fair trade.

The Bar
So majestic...
A party island without a bar is like forgetting the condiments at a tailgate party: unforgivable in the eyes of God. The Fijians are smarter than the kid across the hall rushing a Fraternity our freshman year, and so they provided us with a wonderful establishment of alcohol.

Much like the other bars in the country, beer was readily available at 5am. And, like the other bars, it was cheap. Really cheap. So cheap that, for some people, their vacations were dedicated to drinking the beer from the minute they woke up to the minute the bar was the case for the Aussies.

While I was there, I met this group of Aussie guys who were the life of the island...mostly because they never left their booth. Ever. Most of the guys were on holiday, and to treat themselves they bought tickets to Fiji, where they spent 5 nights sitting in a booth at the Beachcomber drinking as much as humanly possible. They would wake up at the crack of dawn, often from an epic hangover, and combat their dehydration with pitchers of beer. On one of the days I woke up late, and was stumbling to breakfast at 9am. By that time, between the 7 or 8 of them, they had killed a good 15 pitchers of beer.

Throughout my day I would spend an hour or two with them, talking about life and school and whatever subject the alcohol was fueling at the time. Then, after finishing the pitcher that they bought for me, I would go snorkel or swimming. I would come back a couple of times during the day. Rinse and repeat 3x's and you have my vacation on the Beachcomber.

The bar showed it's true colors at night, when all the families left on their catamarans and the sole inhabitants were the bar staff and 100 or so people under the age of 30. To chronicle those nights would be irresponsible, but here's some of the highlights of the 3 nights I was there:

  • Boat races. It's like flip cup...except with 50-person teams and all you had to do was drink.
  • Norwegian raves. A group of Norwegians convinced the DJ to play techno for 3 solid hours. Everyone danced.
  • Groups of people dancing on tables, much like Merry and Pippen from 'Lord of the Rings'
  • Forest parties. We would buy pitchers and take them into the trees and drink under the stars.
  • Beach Rugby. One of the Aussies brought a Rugby ball, and had some pick up games around 10 at night.
  • "The Run". A tradition of the Beachcomber. After things got wild and crazy, the entire bar would strip to their underwear or birthday suits and make a sprint to the ocean, only to continue the party in the waves.
  • Aborigine dance-offs. One of the Aussies took pride in being Aborigine, and would challenge people to dance-offs in a tribal dance of his. Imagine breakdancing meets the 'robot.' It was infectious, and huge chunks of the night were dedicated to dancing tournaments.
Needless to say, the bar is where stories were made and where the Beachcomber is made famous.

My last night before going back to the hostel and leaving the country for New Zealand I was lying on the beach, beer in hand, talking to two Aussie girls I met a couple days prior. Even though we were mere yards away from the bar, it was quiet and very dark. The night sky was littered with stars...more stars than I had ever seen before. The Milky Way disappeared beyond the blue horizon, reflecting it's starry trail on ocean below.

We were talking about growing up, and all the trials and tribulations you go through along the way. They were 22 or 23, so they had some years on me. But, for the most part, we saw eye to eye on how to live the most ideal life possible. Staying stagnant, building a life in one place, finding a stable career and settling down with someone wasn't for us. It didn't make sense. These were (and still are) the selfish years of your life, where you create the stories that you tell people for years to come. All three of us had friends starting to settle down and felt the pressure that came from them, telling us how our lives should be. I look back at those friends, the ones who never took a risk or made any effort to embark on adventures, and I feel bad for them. I love to tell them stories of my newest conquest, but I would much rather have them experience it with me. 

I'm glad I learned that at 19, because now that I'm out of school and trying to make a name for myself, I have the tenacity and the spirit to go out and see the world. It was on that beach in the middle of the South Pacific that I formed my philosophy to live as adventurously as possible. Call it selfish, but when I'm 40 years old I want an arsenal of stories over a stable 401k...

The next day Emma and I said goodbye to our new friends and jumped on a plane for New Zealand. I learned that flying with a hangover is the worst idea ever, but the excitement of finding my new home for the next 5 months carried me through. I would go back to Fiji if given the chance, but for now that's one country crossed off the list. Next stop: NZ.

Oh, and if anyone wanted to know...minus the cost of the flight (which was 0 because it was on the way to New Zealand), I spent under $500 for an epic week on a tropical island. Yeah, I have skills...