It is a grey rainy day in Wellington, the capital of this country of kiwis. I’m sitting in the van now, one week of voyage has already gone by, flashing by in a kaleidoscope of new landscapes as I await the ferry that will take me and my Cheri and our dear van across oceans to the southern island of New Zealand. We crossed the North Island heading south in our trusty Honda step wagon ’97; we left the urban cityscape of Auckland to immerse ourselves in the magnificent countryside- rolling hills of rural pasture land, sheep aplenty, stunning wild beaches of black sand, volcanic mountains with steam spewing over their edges, and strange pools formed from magma deep in the earth bursting to the surface in sulfurous bubbles, in this country that precariously straddles the divide between two of earth’s major tectonic plates. With one week down, we’ve quickly realized in this island-country, water is never far. The ocean coast is never more than few hours’ drive; rivers run like veins, coursing between the rolling hills, as the roads themselves also snake along these natural transit systems. Mountain lakes created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago appear suddenly, unexpectedly, coming into view along the roadways.
The van has quickly became home- messy, but not too messy, lived in, an improvised chez nous- our transportation, our bed, our kitchen all contained in this vehicle that comes with its own quirks: a broken window that we had to prop up, a finicky electric system that has locked us out and locked us in, in turn, and one dead battery to count. We’ve adjusted pretty quickly to these idiosyncrasies, taking them in stride just as we’ve had to do with one another. Even after five months apart, Remi and I have quickly taken up our old habits on the road; maybe it's the diversity of landscapes here- jungle, desert, expansive coastlines, hard wood forest- but every new scene we come across here seems to incite a flood of memories, other continents, other scenes, other times. And now, Remi has officially lanced himself in the English language! In spite of his French-born and bred resistance to this language, his three month stay in Australia has given him a delightful range of new expressions; ay mate, heaps (?), and I think his all time favorite expression: I'm losing my shit, pissing laughing. I think he's just happy to be able to speak English as vulgarly as he can express himself in French. It's also a whole new language for us to explore and experiment together; it’s fun to play with my mother tongue together and being the teacher for once, and, as always, student at the same time. That’s one of the things I find so beautiful about languages, you never really stop learning it. Every day is a new expression, a new accent, a fresh translation, or a different interpretation.
We’re a day ahead here in New Zealand, so coming here was like doing a bit of my own time travel. The decalage horaire hasn’t been holding us back though, far from it, with long days on the road, hiking a new summit, or cooking inventive Christmas feasts, camping style. Absorbed in our itinerary, neither Remi nor I have seen the time go by, nor taken the time to watch it go by, I confess. We woke up on the 24th (or so we thought), ready to celebrate Remi’s 25th birthday together, but exhausted from a near precarious hike across the Tongariro Crossing the day before. With virtually zero visibility and dangerous winds at the peak, onwards we had fearlessly marched, too stubborn to give up on a walk over Lord of the Ring’s ‘Mount Doom,’ (which we couldn’t actually see, given the thick clouds that covered everyone beyond an arms reach). On the other side of the ridge, a bizarre mechanical noise greeted us, to our great confusion. Could it be? We had taken the name of the mountain to be simple semantics; did doom really await us ahead? It couldn't be coming from the volcano; this noise was clearly manmade. Had they come for… us? Finally, emerging out of the fog, precariously perched just at the edge overlooking the Emerald Lakes, it loomed in front of us, finally visible, it's metallic legs coming to a sharp angle against the stark mountain peak- a genuine chopper! It wasn't the mountain winds that had gotten to our heads. Luckily, we realized, it had not come for us; doom was not on the schedule for that rainy, windy day. We were lucky enough to have fared the dangerous conditions comparatively well, as we watched the helicopter airlifting one of the less fortunate hikers that day, who had called rescue services after tearing a ligament in his knee. A bit astounded at this turn of events, we scarfed down left-over sandwiches before slodging on to a soggy finish 13km farther, chilled and exhausted from the day’s trek. More or less intact, we hitched a ride back to our van that we had left on the opposite end of the track, 20 kilometers and 5 hours of vigorous hiking away.
[youtube=http://youtu.be/_eAwFA6W-6o] So the 24th we let ourselves wake up slowly, a bit dismayed at the rainy scene that greeted us outside of the van’s windows. A rare (and brief) ray of sunshine afforded a fleeting glimpse of Mount Taranaki, 150 km west of the mountain we had summited blindly the day before. She disappeared an instant later, consumed by hungry and dark storm clouds that promised rain. The quick glimpse was enough, however, to entice us over for a picnic lunch and brief tramp through the woods around this stunning volcanic mount, in the hopes of another peek. Absorbed in our mountainous activities, it wasn’t until we left the mountain later that afternoon that we became especially befuddled; all the stores were closed a day early! Frustrated, we had planned to do our shopping for a Christmas meal a day early, since surely everything would be closed Christmas day. The gears were slowly churning in our collective mind- our gazes met and... Really, Remi?! We had done it again. It already was Christmas! It must be. We didn’t dare to ask anyone, “oh sorry mate, what’s the date today?" I didn’t even want to imagine the reaction we would incite from the poor passerby who would have to inform us that yes, indeed, today was Christmas. I had still been calculating on US time- somehow I had missed a day, skipped a beat, I suppose… Once we recovered from our initial shock and processed the absurdity of the entire situation, we had to laugh at ourselves. It was a birthday and Christmas neither of us would forget for a long time.
I suppose the moral must be, somewhere in this absurd turn of events, if you’re going to play with the elasticity of time, you better be prepared for it to snap you in the ass when you least expect it. If you don’t mind the sting, the ride can be a lot of fun.