Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

Yes, I rolled my eyes when titling this blog post. But it was too perfect: reader, I’m in New Zealand, unabashedly the land of Tolkien. England has given up and ceded all claim to the Kiwis. Air New Zealand’s safety video is as Hobbit-themed as the Internet promised it would be. A banner stretches across the wall of the gift shop in the Wellington airport: “Welcome to Middle-Earth”. Downtown is peppered with glass cases housing finely-made movie props.

LotR-mad middle-school me, nestled inside adult me like a bucktoothed Russian doll, is beside herself with glee. But adult me, who still likes Tolkien but is more into wandering around and looking at stuff? She’s pretty happy too.

Oddly enough, I’m in Middle-Earth on a fellowship. This is the last remnant of grad school for me; Iowa has a long-standing exchange program with Victoria University here in Wellington, each year sending one poet and one fiction writer to teach a six-week summer course in their respective disciplines. (It’s a pretty one-sided exchange.) The poet, the lovely and talented Nikki-Lee Birdsey, will arrive at our homestay on Saturday; class begins for me on Tuesday. Til then, I have been left more or less to my own devices. I have no goal, no ring to drop into a fiery crevice, no wizard leading me. Just a city outside my front door. (And a novel to finish by March, but that’s another story.)

Wellington rewards fecklessness in a way unlike any other city I’ve ever been in. It’s built into the hills – imagine a thoroughly modern Rivendell. Its residents hew their garages into the rock like hobbit-holes and use cable-cars to reach their front steps.

Every day is a carnival ride in Wellington.

The city center is the harbor, and it is an excellent destination for someone who is jet-lagged and new to the city. Museums, bookstores, outdoor cafes, fearless boys plummeting thirty feet off a board into the sea…

He certainly can't go back now.
He certainly can’t go back now.

But how to get to the harbor? My homestay is halfway up the mountain, and from it there are a thousand ways to reach downtown. Perhaps the least interesting is the bus stop directly outside my front door. A step up from that is the cable car, a bigger version of the front-porch editions: one steep five-minute journey next to some German tourists and you’re in the heart of it.

A bad photo of the cable car.
A bad photo of the cable car.

The cable car is a good way to get up the hill from downtown, of course… but down is a whole other story. A hundred different paths will get you to more or less the same destination, I think. I hesitate to involve another fandom, but it’s sort of like being at Hogwarts. Moving staircases, etc. I’m sure there are more efficient ways to walk places. Still, I think what I love about this city is the plethora of options – the whimsy of not necessarily wanting the straightest distance between two points. Yesterday, for instance, I picked a path because it had a cat on it.

As good as any.
As good as any.

As it turned out, that cat was a genius.

I wound up in the Botanical Gardens. My hosts had raved about them, and I should have known: when a New Zealander says something is beautiful, that means you should definitely run to it, as their standards for loveliness are high. I spent a while pretending to be Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake. (“Tui! Tuiiiiii!”)


“Oh,” I said, “some rose gardens! I suppose I will check them out. Probably they won’t be any good.”

IMAG4989 IMAG4993 IMAG4994 IMAG4997 IMAG4999

(In the greenhouse pictured above, I walked in, spent a while admiring the begonias, then turned at the sound of a door shutting behind me. A small boy wearing a bike helmet and no pants was holding the handle and glowering at me. I raised an eyebrow. Without breaking eye contact, he locked it, then sprinted off. “Gollum?” I called.)

I left the rose gardens via yet another strange path –

IMAG5004which eventually led me onto a freeway. They can’t all be winners.

But sooner or later I was downtown. I swung into the National Portrait Gallery, which seemed appropriate – I’d been taking selfies all day. Not so much vanity as proof that I was there, in Middle-Earth, but still I am not going to display them on my blog. Only my selfie-portrait, which was one of the attractions offered – here, sit in this easy chair and sketch yourself in this mirror. I think it was meant for children, but I spent 20 minutes on it anyway.

"Jessie, avoiding work."
“Jessie, avoiding work.”

I left the gallery to find that a ferry had pulled up to the docks. Oh, I thought, it would be nice to go on the water. And then the nice lady in the ticket office said that if I ran I just might make it, so… all of a sudden there I was.

The heads of other tourists notwithstanding.

On the forty-five minute ride to my (apparently) ultimate destination, Days’ Bay, I sat there with the wind whipping my hair into an impossible tangle and the sun burning my skin pink, and I wondered if everyone made decisions like this. All the tourists around me seemed quite prepared, with sunblock and hats and guides to the islands around us. Their journeys were not unexpected. Was something intrinsically weird about me? Here I was, on a boat in New Zealand. Nobody around me knew who I was, and none of the people who knew me back home knew where I was. Was that irresponsibility, or growing up?

But then we arrived, and I got distracted. The bay was very pretty.

Wie schoen!
Wie schoen!

And I got out my notebook, and worked on my novel while drinking a beer

Tui! (It’s a type of bird, turns out.)

… and ended by wearing my trousers rolled, and walking along the beach.

Like J. Alfred Prufrock! Or Kris!

Although, judging from this day, I don’t think “a failure to act” will ever be my problem. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This is the farthest from home I’ve ever been, and I can’t wait to see what it brings.

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