New Zealand in Numbers:
9 months and 25 days here
309,486 km (192,306 miles) on Pippin’s (my car’s) odometer
12,397 photographs taken
11,486 km (7,137 miles) traveled with Pippin
28 places stayed in (hostels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, homes; includes 24 unique locations with one location stayed at three times)
27 blog posts published
11-hour train ride from Auckland to Wellington
9 videos made
8 flights taken (including one in which I was the pilot)
5 stuffed animals purchased
3 cameras used
2 natural disasters experienced (7.8 magnitude earthquake in November and Port Hills bush fire in February, both while in Christchurch)
1 kiwi found
Countless pamphlets and maps gathered
1 fantastic adventure in Middle Earth.
And 1 homesick farm girl.
I leaned forward, elbows on knees as I sat on the bench at the intersection of Suffolk Street and Northumberland Street* in Tapanui, New Zealand. Tapanui had become Millhaven, U.S.A , for the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, and the town had fully embraced its temporary Americana identity. The Stars and Stripes hung in the pharmacy window, and as I was about to turn the key in the ignition and drive back to where I was staying, someone behind me sounded the Dukes of Hazzard horn. The late afternoon sun glowed gold on the Blue Mountains and the green and yellow street signs over my head. I tried to enjoy my microwaved blue cod, New Zealand’s hallmark fish ruined by radiation. The chips were much better.
I should have just bought ice cream.
The stop at Tapanui was near the end of a day of driving around Southland and East Otago, taking pictures and trying to get my mind back to a functioning state. For the two days prior, I had been anxious with a cloudy head, which affected my ability to do my job and enjoy the afternoon’s cloudless autumn skies, the morning’s coastal fog, peaceful sheep, fields of lush grass, and landscapes few tourists see. Instead, I was thinking about things I didn’t want to think about, and I just wanted to go home.
During the entire month of March, I was wretchedly homesick. It wasn’t something I really wanted to talk about. But in Christchurch, I often was asked if I was homesick. I’d always give a wistful, “Yeah,” and look down at the ground. I felt ashamed that I was homesick, like I was ungrateful for this amazing experience and that I should be leaving everything behind. In some ways, I had. But in others, I still felt I was trying to “hang on,” and I “wasn’t supposed to.” After all, it seemed like everyone else I had met on this trip were leaving home permanently, or at least much longer than I was. Some were making plans to move to New Zealand. I “wasn’t supposed to” want to go back to the U.S. I “wasn’t supposed to” travel for less than a few years. That’s what everybody else was doing.
But then again, I “wasn’t supposed to” go to New Zealand, either.
I’ve been in New Zealand for nine months and 25 days. Sometimes, I didn’t think I’d make it this far. If I had a dollar for all of the times I thought, I’m not cut out for this, or something similar, I’d be able to pay off my student loans.
I’d been homesick before March. But it had never been that bad. This time, my head hurt — not a headache pounding my skull, but a tightness inside my mind like it would implode, Donna Noble and Rose Tyler holding all of space and time inside their heads. I felt anxious. The first phrase I thought when I woke up in the morning was, I just want to go home.
With all that, it had been an extreme challenge being here and being present.
But I had made a commitment to live in a foreign country for a year, and if I turned back, I would have never forgiven myself.
“Commitment is not based on emotion.”
Somewhere at home lies a small rectangular card with those words written in bold. I don’t remember the attribution. I received the card during a high school trip with the National FFA Organization to the U.S. capital for the Washington Leadership Conference.
Sometimes, commitment is based on pure grit and nerves of steel.
As a writer and journalist focused on agriculture and education, I constantly consider the line between sharing stories about my travels and keeping some thoughts private. I have 15-20 blog post drafts at any one time. Some pieces end up too sensitive to publish in this particular venue. Sometimes, a post seems too controversial. Family, friends, former students and complete strangers read my writing. I’m halfway across the globe from home. I think, Why worry anyone?
But then I think of the Successful Farming editors’ note my dad read to me several years ago. In it, the editor of the magazine said that a reader had written to thank him for publishing an article about a certain medical emergency. The reader had studied the piece and shortly after, his wife had suffered that same medical emergency. Because he’d read the story, he knew what to do. He saved her.
That story stuck with me because I was in college at the time, studying agricultural communication. Suddenly, my chosen vocation became much bigger than my desire to write.
I also think of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Amazing Grace, in which William Wilberforce is passionately and angrily telling Barbara Spooner about failed efforts to end the slave trade. After his passionate oration, he cries, “Now do you see why I shouldn’t talk about it?”
She replied, “I think you should.”
During breakfast a few weeks ago, a national television morning show featured a story about New Zealand Rugby’s new mental health and fitness website. Several athletes within the sport had experienced mental health challenges, and the organization compiled resources to help them and others tackle these issues.
Curious, I pulled up the website, appropriately called “Headfirst,” on my phone. Stats on the homepage said that “1 in 5 Kiwis experience some form of stress, anxiety and depression.” The website divided mental health challenges into several categories, one of which was “Travel.” A definition of this challenge and strategies to help alleviate any stress followed. I continued to read, intrigued that this category existed on a mental health website.
The “travel” section dug into homesickness and what it looked like and what it could cause. The section listed unhealthy ways to cope, such as “training harder, eating more or drinking alcohol.” One paragraph described how severe homesickness can cause adverse physical symptoms.
Suddenly, my head hurting made sense. And being able to name the cause helped.
As I read through the website, I discovered that I had already been following some of the strategies listed under the “Travel” section. My own twists helped me stay and enjoy the here and now. Sometimes, all I had to do was say to myself, “Be here right now.”
At other times, I needed to:
1.) Keep doing my thing.
One of the most helpful tips a Purdue friend from overseas gave me was, “Keep doing things that you like while in another country.” What I have found most helpful to keep my mind at ease has been surrounding myself with natural beauty and just staying there for a while, taking pictures and recording observations in my small, red, $0.59 notebooks. That’s why the trip to Paihia and my three-week stay in Milford Sound were so effective. I was able to clear my head, organize and prioritize. Attending worship services on Sundays whenever I was free and could find a church in the area also helped. This activity also enabled me to become part of a community, especially in Christchurch.
2.) Call home.
Simply calling a U.S. phone number and hearing one long ring on the other end instead of New Zealand phone numbers’ two short rings provides comfort. There’s also comfort in hearing the news about a new truck, birthday celebrations, putting hay out to the cows or just what my parents are watching on TV (mostly sports — Reds and Cubs baseball soon). Learning that things haven’t changed much and that home will be there when I’m ready is an anchor for me.
3.) Chase adventure.
My idea of adventure is a bit different from the usual New Zealand backpackers’ adventures. (Perhaps it’s because most of my belongings are in a suitcase.) It does not at all include bungee jumping or sky diving. I search for stories. I learned that The Lord of the Rings and Narnia films were filmed here (as well as Pete’s Dragon  and many more). Before coming to New Zealand, I purchased a book that revealed the locations of the filming of The Lord of the Rings. (One of my students rolled his eyes when he heard about that.) I searched for Narnia locations and heard about them through people I met here. It’s been exciting for me to find the places where the stories came to life, places where I can say, “Frodo was here,” or, “The White Witch was defeated in this place.” I also created adventure in searching for kiwis, swimming with dolphins, and simply living week by week, sometimes not even knowing where I would be in the next few days.
4.) Actively seek to learn new things in my favorite field(s).
With the exception of Milford Sound, all of my jobs have been on farms. Questions are endless and observations are made that can help me when I return home. I also have learned more about photography, birds, nature and numerous other cool topics.
5.) Choose a focus and stay the course.
Before coming to New Zealand, I set a goal: learn about New Zealand agriculture. I focused on looking for farm work, which helped me sort through the 500-700 jobs temporarily available on the online Backpacker Board. I also would look in newspapers, Indeed, and other online job sites. What helped the most were connections. Someone knew somebody who knew somebody who knew something and needed workers. There were times when it didn’t look like there would be anything agricultural available, and I would consider jobs like laundry assistant in a nursing home, front desk receptionist at a newspaper office or housekeeper at a hotel. But somehow, it always worked out.
It always worked out.
That’s been the theme of this year.
I still needed to do my part of the work: making connections, talking to people, searching through job boards…but it all would come together in the end, flooring me every time.
There’s a coping strategy from the Headfirst website that I want to include here because it’s one I’m not always good at, and it’s one I see far too many friends not doing.
“Be Kind to Yourself.
“It can take time to get used to new environments. Try not to put pressure on yourself and allow a few days or weeks to relax and feel more comfortable.”
There have been times (not every time) where it’s taken me at least a week to settle in where I am (it’s taken me two weeks to settle in to my current location; I’m so close to beginning my journey home that it’s becoming harder and harder to adjust to a place here). I say, “What am I doing here, I shouldn’t be here, I want to leave, this wasn’t the plan.” The first night, I sleep terribly. The sounds of the refrigerator and the heater keep me awake. In this strange place, I don’t understand the plan or why I am here.
I give it a week, and things are okay.
“Be softer with you. You are a breathing thing. A memory to someone. A home to a life.”
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Of course, there’s always one more highly effective strategy: