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This is my routine.

The alarm goes off at five, or five-thirty, an hour before the start of work.  I have to prepare myself, have to wake up fast and steel my nerves against the cold and wet that await me outside the tent.  It’s been dropping to about 14 degrees celsius (55ish fahrenheit) every night.  Long grass laden with dew surrounds the tent and it drips between my toes when I scuff through it on the way to the toilet.  It’s a small, enclosed outhouse, attached to the shed.  Yawning, I watch the spiders spinning in the corners and sides of the raw lumber walls as I sit.  Face washed, teeth brushed, work clothes exchanged for PJs, hair pulled back and shoes pulled on, I’m ready for breakfast and then picking.  This has become automatic.  It’s been two and a half weeks, and I am organized, adapted.  Autopilot.  Things that used to be different and foreign are normal.  The screenless windows and doors.  The hot water faucet on the right of the sink.  Individual hot and cold faucets – no mixer to create warm water.  Driving on the left side of the road.  The accents, even.  People have asked if I have an accent yet – I can’t pick it up, at least not yet, and now I can hardly hear it.  It’s just the normal voice.  This isn’t NEW ZEALAND anymore, the land of magic and mystery and different-ness.  This is just my life.  NZ used to feel unreal, impossible, but somewhere between Maureen and Mark, (or was it Jasmine and Ian?), it’s home that’s faded, become diminished.  When I make contact with home it’s as if I’ve reached through a wormhole to the other side of space, and those off-balance, unsettled, moments are when I feel acutely the difference of what I’m doing here, and I feel anxiety for what I will find waiting for me when I return in ten months.  It’s unreal to me – but not actually unreal.  Both lives will continue on, regardless of my participation.  NZ is the experience of a lifetime.  I love that I’m here, and I’m happy.  But home goes on too.  I can’t have both worlds.  I can’t put one on hold while I live out my dream…

It’s been difficult to leave updates, recently – I’ve been quite tied up with work and my routine, and trying to put my days into terms that will have meaning for everyone back home leaves me exhausted and disrupted.  But I have had some amazing breaks from said routine in the last two weeks, and life is good, so very good.

Christmas in Tauranga with Jasmine and family was marvelous.  I was welcomed and made to feel so much at home that I survived the weekend with only the smallest tinge of homesickness.  Somehow I’ve been lucky enough to find these people who have become a family and a home away from family and home, and I am so grateful for them.  Didn’t feel quite like Xmas, though, except for the actual morning of, when I went to church with Jasmine and her brother Elliot (finally got to meet Elliot, the man who’s the reason I am here at all).  Other than the simple, relaxed service (they read a child’s story about Jesus’ birth for the sermon – lovely), it was entirely too sunny and warm to be hearing songs about sleigh-bells jingling.  Thanksgiving would be a closer bet, minus the traditional football game.  Piles of delicious food, all the family together in one place, good cheer, and ping pong.  We did do a hilarious game of Yankee Swap around the small tree, though (not that they call it Yankee Swap here), and drank and danced and talked until late, late into the night.

For the first time in my life, I celebrated Boxing Day (or, The Day After Christmas When All The Shops Have Sales)!  Instead of rushing to the stores, I went hiking up the nearby Papamoa Hills with Dan, Jasmine’s son.  The two of us were so caught up in discussion and appreciation of the trees and plants and the occasional views that we managed to turn an easy, forty-five minute walk into over an hour of climbing fences, slogging through pastures (it was drizzling heavily) and dodging questionably friendly cows.  We took the wrong turn, although how, neither of us could quite figure out, as the correct path was about five feet wide and well-trodden.  Along the path we chose (which was invisible to the naked eye), there were official-looking green and white signs instructing us to “Beware of Cows with Calves.”  Their officialness convinced us that we must be going the right way, but were concerned as to why the park managers would direct us through land dominated by large, intimidating and potentially dangerous cows.  Nonetheless, undeterred, Dan and I trudged on, up and down and around, and it wasn’t until we finally reached the summit that we noticed the direction that the rest of the holiday walkers were coming from, and observed the wide, well-trodden path running down the opposite side of the hills.  However, since we had achieved the top of the Papamoa Hills, and had escaped being gutted by angry bulls, I called the outing a success.  What good is a walk in the hills without a little adventure?

I’m not sure that I can sufficiently describe the warmth of the welcome I received, but it was an absolutely wonderful weekend, and my return to the strawberries was marked by a significant decrease in energy, enthusiasm, and productivity.  I wasn’t the only one, though.  All of we pickers seemed to spend this past week suffering from a post-holiday lag.  A mostly gray and dull week (though HOT, weather-wise), the bright spots included: 1) finding the library and signing up for a visitor’s card (but, something quite different and unexpected – one must pay for some of the items.  Movies, CDs, best selling books all cost $3-5 to take out.  Huh.); 2) baking bread to share with my shed-mates for xmas; 3) getting excessively girly watching “Love Actually” and “Pride and Prejudice” (yes, the entire, five-hour BBC miniseries) with Anne and Kathrin; 4) spending two mornings picking peaches and nectarines instead of strawberries; 5) finding the Napier Botanical Gardens and spending a glorious afternoon lounging in the grass in the shade and scent of a Eucalyptus tree, reading.

And then it was the end of the year!  Another (though less obscure) connection forged before I left the US was with a woman my age named Kate.  She’s a friend of my friend and fellow RA/English major, Ksenia’s, and has just finished her bachelor’s degree in English and theater.  Kate and I had been in touch through email, and she invited me to come to Taupo for her family’s annual New Year’s bash.  So, Anne, Kathrin, Sabine (another German girl living in the shed with us) and I loaded up Dr. Gonzo and took off Saturday afternoon for Taupo, a two hour drive north and west.  Taupo rests on the shores of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in NZ.  It’s 25 nautical miles (46km) by 18 nm (33km), and is about 180 meters deep.  Since I don’t know how big Winnepesaukee is, I’ll leave the facts there for you all at home to calculate and get back to me as far as which lake is bigger.  As we came into Taupo itself, we could look west across the lake and see Mts. Ruapehu, Ngaruahoe, and Tongariro (the volcanic sisters of Taranaki, the peak I conquered a few weeks ago) huge and snow covered and gorgeous even at this great distance.

Kate’s family’s summer house was in Kinloch, about twenty km out of Taupo, but still bordering the lake.  The party was massive.  The house was two stories tall (an extreme rarity in NZ), but still wasn’t large enough to contain the people streaming in and out.  Two white canopies covered the driveway, and underneath the canvas were chairs, tables, and an enormous buffet table (lambsteaks, beef, salads, potatoes, veggies, bread, fresh caught roasted rainbow trout, cheese, savory pies, garlic bread).  Tents covered the back lawn, and the four of us set up our own out front.  Met Kate and her parents, and were introduced to the younger crowd – a group of artistic, fashionable and witty stand up comics and artists from Wellington, all friends of Kate and her older brother.  At times it was difficult to keep up with their running banter, but they were quite friendly and there was much to talk about, with us being foreigners and their having dozens of questions about our countries and our travels.  Deep in conversation with George (Kate’s cousin) and another friend, we completely lost track of time, so when we should have been counting down, we were scrambling to open a bottle of champagne, and therefore our toast was a bit delayed, but it was still a satisfyingly raucous farewell to 2005 – a year of many, many events and firsts and lasts.

George, it turns out, was going waterskiing in the morning – early, to attempt to catch the lake at that divine, mirror-like stage of calmness, and when I told him how much I enjoy the sport, he invited me to come along.  As it got later and later, it became a mantra: waterskiing at 6:30 AM!  Woohoo!  Pass me another drink!  I’m going waterskiing in 6 hours!  5 hours!  4 hours!  Eventually George left to catch some sleep, and I sat on the ground to look at the stars with Kathrin.  But, leaning back, I lost my balance and lay down instead, upending my glass and pouring the rest of my champagne across my neck and chest.  After Kathrin’s hysterical laughter had subsided, I took this as my cue to go to sleep.  6:30 came, and true to my word, I woke up and unearthed my mobile to await a text message from George.  Alas, he wrote, the lake was too rough for a ski.  Disappointment was quickly overcome by the realization that this meant I could go back to sleep.  Three hours later I finally emerged for the day, and sat on the porch with the Germans and Kate and her family and friends, reliving the night and laughing and enjoying the fresh, hot quiche Kate’s mom had baked.

Today it was back to the grind, picking and then sorting the berries in the shop.  My fingernails and hands are stained pinkish red with the blood from the rotten fruit that I have to separate from the good.  But, Thursday will be my last day on Mckelvie’s Orchards.  Moving on.  Not sure where to, yet, but I’ve got contacts north in Gisborne, south in Hastings, and half of the North Island still to see.  It’s been a full two months.  As Kelli wrote to me in a recent email, “A year is a damn long time!”  Happy New Year everyone – enjoy!!

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