They say that one of the most interesting parts of Antarctica is in leaving it. Spending several months in a place without humidity or many odors heightens your senses, and the vibrancy of the return to moisture and aromas is incredible.
Walking through the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, I was overwhelmed by the aromas of water, soil, flowers and vegetation. It felt so strange to walk out of doors unencumbered by heavy clothing; dressed only in a T-shirt, I reveled in feeling the warm breeze on my elbows. To my delight, it even began to rain lightly. I eagerly turned my face up to the sky, letting the drops roll across my nose and eyelids.
I have spent 11 of the last 18 months in Antarctica. It is a magical, frozen continent, but I’m ready for a green, rich land, with plenty of life and varying geography. I am ready for New Zealand.
And at the moment, I feel like Alice in Wonderland.
Christchurch is a playground for people recently returned from Antarctica. It’s known as “the Garden City” for good reason — riotous plants and flowers crowd the streets. When I ran into a fellow Polie on a street corner, she bore a telltale yellow mark of pollen on her nose.
“Have you been sniffing the flowers?” I asked. She wiped her face with the back of her arm and we both laughed.
Christchurch is a quaint town, strongly reflecting New Zealand’s British history. New Zealand’s original inhabitants are the Maori people from the nearby Polynesian Islands; then, while searching for the famed southernmost continent of Antarctica in the 1600s, Capt. Cook discovered New Zealand as well. European settlers followed his vivid descriptions of what the Maoris called “the land of the long white cloud,” and New Zealand became a British colony in 1840. Today it is an independent nation within the British Commonwealth.
Christchurch is the most English of New Zealand’s cities. Tram cars rattle through the streets, and a giant Anglican cathedral stands at the city’s center. The Avon River winds through the city, and small boats — punts — glide across its surface. “English breakfasts” are advertised in cafe windows, and mincemeat pies are common service station food.
We spend several days doing nothing but eating fresh food, walking the streets, and lazing in the botanical gardens. We bought real milk from the grocery — I had almost forgotten that the milk I have been drinking for months now was powdered — and drank it out of the carton, passing it around while sitting on the lush green grass. “Remember when Dorothy hits Oz?” one of my friends asked, biting into an apple. “This is probably what she felt like.”
New Zealanders, or “Kiwis” are pleasant, fun people, and the Christchurch residents are accustomed to seeing Antarctic workers come and go. “Oh, you’re coming from the Ice,” they say knowingly. As one man said, not unkindly but cutting right to the chase, “all of you Ice people are strange.”
Though both New Zealanders and Americans speak English, a language barrier of accent and idioms exists. Getting directions may require some spelling of street signs, as varying pronunciation can create seemingly disparate words. Other times, understanding the words doesn’t help me understand the meaning — as with the first few times I heard the ubiquitous phrase, ‘”Sweet as.”
“We’re planning on hiking for several weeks,” I told one Kiwi at the grocery.
“Sweet as,” he said, smiling.
“As sweet as what?” I asked.
“Sweet as,” it was explained to me, means “that’s cool,” or what you are proposing is good by me.
“Oh,” I said, nodding in a way that I hoped made it look like I understood this. I haven’t yet begun to tackle the many usages of the word “cheers.”
On my second evening in Christchurch, we stumbled into an enormous Chinese festival. Red lanterns were strung from the trees, and dressed-up children ran about excitedly. A pavilion had been set up for performances. Just as we arrived, New Zealand’s prime minister mounted the steps to speak.
Close geographically, many Chinese have immigrated to New Zealand in recent years. The prime minister spoke highly of the country’s growing cultural diversity. “We began as a bicultural nation,” he said, referring to their Maori and British roots. “Now, we are becoming multicultural.”
Multicultural or no, some things about New Zealand remain unchangeable — such as the national obsession with rugby. Before leaving the pavilion, the prime minister announced the score of that night’s game — a win for Christchurch. The crowd cheered.
“What are your plans?” a friend asked me. I aim to explore New Zealand for the next month or two — as long as it takes for my joints to thaw and my feet to get tired of hiking the famous trails of this island nation.
“Nau mai,” as they say in the native Maori tongue. “Welcome to New Zealand.”
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.