How my long, long distance relationship got me out of my bubble and into New Zealand
By Amber McLinden, Features Editor
When I first began dating my now girlfriend, I didn’t expect it to take me halfway across the world.
But, such is life. My girlfriend, a New Zealander travelling in Canada — like many others — came here on a two year working holiday visa. Sadly, visas expire, and eventually you must return home, no matter how much you may want to stay.
So while she’s home in the North Island of New Zealand working on a permanent residency application to come back to Canada, I’m here in Calgary finishing my degree at Mount Royal.
Planning ahead, I realized I could take some time off around reading break in February to go visit for two weeks. Lucky for me, her hometown is located in the beautiful region Bay of Plenty on the northeast coast of the North Island. I found a cheap flight (only $980, compared to the usual $1500 to $2000 range they usually run) and hopped on my first international flight since I was five years old.
New Zealand is something I’ve probably seen in my dreams. Not just because it’s gorgeous, and especially warm at this time of year because it’s their summer, but because it seems like an unconventional mash-up of mainland and island life.
Riddled with palm trees and pohutukawa trees (also known as New Zealand Christmas trees) it doesn’t necessarily read as another version of Hawaii. Stepping outside after being in airports for nearly a day, the thick air that coats Auckland after a rainstorm immediately took me off guard. My girlfriend likes to joke about never feeling dry after you take a shower.
While I may not have travelled to New Zealand before, I have been elsewhere in (relatively) close cities to home. For myself and my girlfriend alike, most major cities like Auckland, with a population of 1.3 million, generally seem pretty much the same, except that all the cars are on the wrong side of the road. High rise buildings and plenty of bustling people makes you feel right at home. I made a point of constantly comparing it to Vancouver, another port-side city.
Three days in Auckland before heading back to my girlfriend’s hometown of Whakatane (pronounced fah-ka-tah-nee) had us exploring the city like tourists. From the sky tower to the art gallery to indulging in any number of cafes in the city, which is many, I felt right at home. Perhaps it was my girlfriend, or perhaps it was the relative similarity to other cities, but it was outstanding.
Beaches, beaches and more beaches
I have to assume that the best part of living on an island is the beaches. It must be why everyone is so tan. Taking a day trip to Waiheke, a small island only a 45-minute boat ride from Auckland, I realized how much I would like New Zealand, as long as I stayed close to the coast.
The white sand beach and the incredibly warm weather, with sprawling hills overlooking the beach, sent my mind to a permanent state of calm for the rest of the trip. Appreciating the natural beauty of anything is breathtaking, no matter where you are.
When we went back to my girlfriend’s hometown, transported there by a very tiny plane seating only 20 people, I was yet again inclined to compare it to my life in Canada. Maybe it’s because it is similar, or maybe it’s because of the idea I have in my head that New Zealand is like the Canada of down under, but Whakatane felt like my small town Ontario home.
The people are friendly and know each other, everything is in walkable distance and the stress of the city is wiped away. There might not be as much to do there as Auckland, but it sure was the perfect place to have a vacation.
The only difference was the abundance of cafes, and even though I was no longer in school mode, I was on high caffeine dosages. My girlfriend even currently works at a cafe, where yes, I did drink more coffee.
The beach near her home, just on the other side of a large hill dividing the two places, is called Ohope Beach. Not dissimilar to Waiheke Island, the beach was just as beautiful, despite the sand being more of a brown colour rather than white.
A breathtaking hike that starts in town took us over the hill, looking onto the town and the ocean and around to the beach.
Even though I compare Canada and New Zealand, in many ways, we are vastly different. While both countries have a terrible history of how we treat Indigenous peoples, I noticed I was able to appreciate and learn about the Indigenous people of New Zealand at a hyper-local level. Whakatane has a story about Wairaka, the daughter of a captain-navigator when the Maori (Indigenous people of New Zealand) first arrived to their town.
According to Whakatane.com: “Unveiled at the Whakatane Heads in 1965 as a memorial to the wife of Sir William Sullivan, this bronze statue atop Turuturu Rock lies at the mouth of the Whakatane River and commemorates the bravery of Wairaka and the daughter of Toroa, captain-navigator of the Mataatua waka.
When the Mataatua waka first arrived at Whakatane after making a perilous voyage from Ngati Awa’s ancestral homeland of Hawaiki 600 years ago, the men left the women alone in the canoe while they went ashore. When the canoe started to drift back to sea, Wairaka (defying the tapu that forbade women to handle a canoe) seized the paddle and brought the waka back to shore crying, ‘Kia Whakatane au i ahau’ – I will act the part of a man.’ This cry is the origin of the town’s name.”
Many of the names of places and things are also in Te Reo, the Maori language. While almost every country in the world must actively work to better the systems in place marginalizing Indigenous people, observing those differences was interesting and informative.
Beauty in the details
If this trip has taught me anything about myself it’s to value what you have, not wish for what you don’t.
I am lucky to be with my girlfriend, no matter how far away she is. I’m lucky I had the means to go visit her for two weeks. I am incredibly lucky that she is originally from such a beautiful country. We are both lucky she has the means and resources to eventually move back to Canada. Many people who seek to come here don’t have the money, the time, or the resources to navigate our incredibly complicated system.
When we were walking back to her house one day from the beach, we decided to stop at the liquor store for some beer. I’m a big craft beer fan and I hadn’t had a chance to check out what they had. The man at the cash register didn’t have a New Zealand accent. When he looked at my passport, he asked me if I’m from Calgary.
“Yeah, I am,” I responded.
“Where about in Calgary are you from? What community?” He asked back.
I was surprised he asked. “Edgemont is where I currently live, in the northwest.”
“I’m from Varsity,” the guy responded.
The world seems big but yet it is so small at the same time. I’m lucky for that as well.