Rollercoaster Weekend: Gala, Skydiving, Memorial Service, Motutapu

This is the last blog post I wrote in 2012 while studying in New Zealand. Because of the emotional nature of some of the content, I chose not to publish it right away. Unfortunately, I didn't publish anything else after saving this draft, either. But I didn't stop writing. I didn't stop traveling. And I never stopped seeking my next adventure. SO, nearly five years later, I continue my story by picking up where I left off. 

On living in Auckland: I was talking with a friend the other day (thanks, Alice!) about my blog and took some time to reflect on the whole experience of writing about and trying to explain what my day to day life is like here. It is easy to talk about things like my spring break trip, but how do I describe what it feels like to live in Auckland? On the surface everything seems really simple and beautiful (VERY beautiful) but there is a strange kind of complexity that is just under the surface that I can’t quite seem to describe... maybe it's because I don’t quite understand it yet myself.  I think a good metaphor for what it’s like to live here is the language, or even more simply, the way things are named: Rangitoto, Queen Street, Waiheke, New Market, Piha, Mission Bay, Ponsonby, the Viaduct, Sky Tower. There is a constant mingling of the familiar and foreign, of Maori and Pakeha (a person living in New Zealand who is originally from Europe) and the Kiwi (born in New Zealand but not Maori) identities.

Friday, May 18, 2012 
Friday night was the Huia Ball (aka Prom 2.0)! I had been looking forward to getting dressed up all week! Although at the same time I can feel the anxiety creeping into the back of my mind because this was one of those far-off things that I seemingly didn’t need to think about because it wasn't until the end of the semester, and now I’m looking at the end of the semester in the face and I can’t believe I’m here! But I digress; the anxiety of things to come did not hinder the present. 

As always, the boys were pretty helpless and the girls were frantic. Carlee painted our nails and Brianne did everyone’s hair (but not mine, I like keeping things simple). Needless to say, the whole crew dressed to impress and all the couples looked wonderful together. I went to the dance with my camera as a date and thoroughly enjoyed spending my evening split between the dance floor and behind the lens. There was a professional photographer there who was a cheeky-monkey and caught me in the act! It’s actually a really funny picture of me all dressed up with my camera in front of my face—kind of ironic actually. Anyway, it was really nice seeing my non-Loyola friends in a setting other than class or walking around the halls in our p.js. We took some floor photos, and while not everyone is there, it is a great memento of a really fun night. The dance ended at midnight and just about everyone went out to town to continue celebrating. But I decided to call it a night since I had a very big day ahead of me! I split a cab home with some friends who were going back to Huia to change first and shortly went to bed.

Saturday, May 19th  
I woke up bright and early at 7am to get ready for my next thrill-seeking adventure; sky diving! The start of this story requires a little background info. So way back at the beginning of this adventure, during orientation, I attended an info session about traveling as a student around New Zealand with some friends. Throughout the presentation there were opportunities to answer questions and win prizes—anything from a candy bar, to t-shirt, to tickets for a trip. When they started talking about places to skydive, my friend Garvin leaned over to me and calmly explained how he would never ever do it. He's desperately afraid of hights. So, naturally, what happens? He wins the most expensive, and highest skydive package in the North Island. I told him I was planning on diving and that I’d do it with him (this was after I tried to get him to give me his prize, of course) when the time came. 

Well, Saturday was the day. I asked Garvin at the ball if he wanted me to wake him up in the morning since he was planning on going out with the group for a little bit. He said that it wasn’t necessary but if I wanted to I could. Yeah, ok. I made a mental note to give his door a knock when I woke up. And thank God I did! The whole ordeal was quite ridiculous; I knocked on his door 3 separate times and on the third time with no answer I just went on in and woke him up, and of course, he went back to sleep. Now I love Garv, but when I went into his room for the 3rd time and he was still sleeping I nearly took his head off. We were supposed to be at the Sky Tower to be picked up by 8am. It’s a solid 20 minute walk. We left Huia at 8:10. Luckily I was able to call them to let them know we were coming and a little late. Well, long story short—remind me and I’ll tell you the whole thing, it’s hysterical (now)—we almost missed the van and I had to wave it down as it drove down the street right as we arrived at Sky Tower. After that whole ordeal, jumping out of a plane was the easiest part of the day! 

It took about an hour to get to the skydiving location—just the right amount of time for a nice refreshing nap we both desperately needed. My bus-mates and I checked in, signed our lives away, met our dive-masters (mine’s name was Emily too, but she goes by Lotti) and got into our flight suits. One of my friends (cough couch Ryan…) who knew I was jumping did request that I wear my dress from the ball under the suit, which I did not and I am really glad I didn’t! While we were suiting up the dive masters distributed gloves, which a graciously turned down. To which Lotti told me that it was -6 degrees at elevation! Now I still didn’t wear the gloves but I was immediately glad I was wearing all my layers and not a strapless dress.... They split us up into 2 groups and Garv and I were in the second one. After group 1 did their jumps (and absolutely raved about it) it started to rain so group 2 was grounded until the clouds passed. But finally our turn came!

We piled into the smallest plane I've ever seen and before I knew it we were taking off! Garvin and I were separated; he was at the back of the plane since he would be jumping at a higher altitude than me while I was at the front. Lotti did a great job of keeping me calm and reminding me to breathe. We got all strapped in as we were climbing to altitude. She pointed out around what height we would pull out shoot at and it seemed a really long time between then and the moment when the door finally opened. THAT is a moment I will never forget. I can’t tell you how weird (and wrong) it is to have the door of an airplane open while you are in it. They told me to take a deep breath when they opened the door because it gets really loud and cold in the cabin and the sensory overload can be a little jarring. They weren’t lying! I wasn’t the first to go, but I was the second! We scootched our way to the open door and sat on the edge. Lotti had the camera in one hand and took great (but really embarrassing) pictures of the whole process. I tucked my feet under the plane and leaned my head back against her shoulder so I would be in the best position for her to negotiate once we jumped. She rocked back and forth three times then WOOSH we were out!
Those first few moments we extreme; the most extraordinary, overwhelming, terrifying, and disorienting moments I have ever experienced, nevermind all at once. You don’t have any kind of depth perception at 13,000 feet so it didn’t really feel like I was falling (you know the sinking feeling in your stomach when you're on a rollercoaster? None of that happened). The air rushing past me was frigid. It took me a moment to get my thoughts in some sort of coherent orderand once I did I started to scream. I could see the curve of the world. And then I laughed. We were in an incredible free-fall for 8,000 feet. Though I didn't realize it right away, we dropped through some leftover cloud cover. I was falling through a rain cloud! We got pretty soaked and it was chilly but I didn’t care. I was looking at a rainbow from above. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It was in a complete circle. Once we got through the clouds we pulled the shoot. I wouldn’t say that it was a violent jolt or even painful but I definitely felt it. I think it was more of a surprise than anything else. 

Gliding through the air at 5000 feet was surreal. My heart stopped frantically beating and I was able to calm down a little. It was actually really relaxing. Lotti loosened the connection between our harnesses a little so we would be more comfortable and I was able to take off my goggles. The view was incredible. I could see everything, and it was tiny. You know that feeling when you look up at the stars on a really clear night and you feel small? Well, for the first time ever, I felt like I was the star looking down on the world. We did some fun acrobatics in the air, twirling and spinning, and took a lot of pictures. As we got lower we could see that we would be coming in over a herd of cows. I wondered if our presence would frighten them, but if they noticed us they certainly didn’t care. After a few more corkscrew maneuvers,  it was time to land. 

We got lined up on the grass runway and came in for a smooth landing. All I had to do was pick my feet up and we slid right in on our bums. I had a huge smile on my face that lasted the whole way home. I gave Lotti a huge hug and made my way back to the waiting area so I could watch Garv. His descent looked a lot like mine felt. I was excited to see what his reaction was since he hates heights so much. When he finally landed and came over to me he gave me a giant hug and said that he couldn’t even remember why he was afraid because it was so amazing. We got out of our flight suits and I picked up my photos and Garv got his DVD and just as fast as we had gotten there we were leaving. I just kept saying to myself over and over, “I just jumped out of an airplane!”
We got back in the early afternoon and I had a harsh reality to face. I got cleaned up and ate and then headed to the University chapel for the first and, God willing, last time. A week ago there was a horrible accident. A group of BU students studying at Uni with us rented a few vans and took a trip to Taupo to hike Mount Taranaki, the mountain used to film Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. We had just been there on our Loyola trip and were planning on doing the same hike in a couple of weekends. One of the vans drifted off the road and the driver over-corrected causing it to flip. The first van didn’t know it happened and kept driving. The third van watched it happen. Three students died and many others were injured. The news hit headlines back home as “Massachusetts students studying in Auckland killed in car wreck”. It could have been any of us. It certainly could have been me. I got in touch with my family as soon as I heard the news. I felt truly homesick for the first time. I didn’t know any of the students but a few of the other Loyola students did. It was heartbreaking and terrifying. The memorial service for the students who died was held in the chapel on Saturday night and I felt like I should be there. So I did. It was indescribably sad. Listen to these people recount the lives of their friends with such grief and see the stark similarities to my own friends left me feeling hollow. It could have been us. But it wasn’t. And that’s why I was there.

This is something I wrote later on Saturday evening that I think sums up what happened quite well: Today was an interesting day. I went from soaring through the sky to being grounded hard by how cruel reality can be. And I have never felt more blessed to experience both. Have you ever felt like you were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? I went to the memorial service for the 3 BU students who died last week. It was beautiful, simple, and emotional. I don't think there is anything more heart-breaking than a parent grieving the loss of their child. The director of the BU/Auckland study abroad program concluded his tearful talk by saying, "the first thing I saw when I woke up this morning was a rainbow. I took it as a sign of hope". As a tribute to their friends, the BU students decided to sing Free Falling at the end of the service. I was moved. It was a sad but necessary way to end my evening. And I have never felt more homesick. But this too shall pass, and if anything, this weekend so far has given me perspective, and as my dad would say, I built some character. I know I can’t take one moment of this life I’ve been given, that I’ve worked hard for, for granted—and not just while I’m in this wonderful country. It has to happen every day. 

It was a tough night, and I didn’t sleep much, but I was really looking forward to spending the next day at Motutapu doing service. Never underestimate the therapeutic power of working with your hands, especially with good people.

Sunday, May 20th
Today I returned to Motutapu! I took my second trip with TJ to the island where we volunteer. It was a rough night. I was physically and emotionally drained but so glad to be going back, to have something hard and important to do while I sorted out my thoughts from the weekend. I definitely did my fair share of praying again. We were worried about how it was going to go since there were a lot of clouds gathering in the sky and the forecast called for rain. But we lucked out! By the time our meeting in the barn to split off into our groups was over, the rain had come and gone. It made the soil easy to break since the top layer was soft (and I have always loved playing in the mud). We worked hard and it was a really fun day; we planted about 52 trees as a pair, over 1200 as a group! I am so happy I found this place—it has become part of my definition of New Zealand and gives me a feeling of being at home, something that I was desperately in need of.


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