Being behind on blog posts affords the benefit of having more time to contemplate my experiences but adds the risk of forgetting nuances. Blowing the dust off a three-month old trip and the thousand photos that accompanied it is a bit of an endeavor, but this post starts another month and a half before that. In January, I had a business trip to China that began with me watching the sun rise from business class, a perk of work travel while on a German contract.
The trip was short and didn’t leave much free time to ponder. The last time we saw blue skies was just before we descended into the industrious smog, but on our last day rains the previous evening washed away enough particulate to allow the sun to poke through just after sunrise.
Less than two months afterward, I would watch a sunrise coming into the same airport (albeit from “poky” economy class), this time, though, en route to a destination where the forecast predicted no smog but rather enveloping fog.
Both flights were on Airbus planes: the first, a newish A330-200 of China Eastern Airlines, and the second an old Swiss A340-300. I enjoyed my experience flying out of Zurich when I went to Singapore in 2016, and this time again the pricing out of Zurich was astonishing. The Senator Lounge did not make the decision harder; with a terrific hot buffet, extremely large beverage selection, and a view of the apron and a runway, it’s still my favorite lounge.
The weather was wet and cold the morning of the flight, so the outdoor viewing deck was closed. Even so, the expansive windows didn’t prohibit watching planes taking off while kicking up a plume of water vapor.
The Alps were hidden on the group, but once in the air it didn’t take long to penetrate the cloud layer. We climbed out of the clouds too late to see the Swiss Alps, but as we flew north, mountains over eastern Europe (and our shadow on the ground) revealed themselves. Something about a white cross on a red background against a blue sky is just perfect; it reminds me of something else quintessentially Swiss.
Soon blue sky turned to black night, this time without the dancing green phantoms of the Aurora Borealis, and then re-brightened to an orange glow as we settled into our approach to Pudong. From my much-rearward seat the Swiss cross was just barely visible in the shadow of the winglet, which I admittedly couldn’t see from my forward vantage point a month prior.
The destination this trip was New Zealand, which at first glance is not so logical given that I had ten days total to visit there. New Zealand is about 19 hours of total flight time from even the east coast of the U.S., but from Europe it is 25 hours of flying removed. Thankfully I enjoy flying long-haul, and the price of the itinerary was less than what I paid for my round-trip to China last May (which was itself cheaper than any fare to China I’ve paid in the US). With Charleston being the Bosch location I would most likely return to after I finish my assignment, the extra stopovers within the U.S. to get to Oceania didn’t seem appealing or manageable, so overall the 25,000 miles of flying I’d do within ten days to a country I had never visited seemed altogether cogent, tongue firmly in cheek. The main reason, ultimately, was not some goal of finding the farthest destination from central Europe but rather to meet up with two friends with whom I had visited Paris, Florence, and Oslo in the past.
How we decided on New Zealand isn’t much of a story, but the ludicrousness of traveling only abroad to catch up is and was not lost on us. We spent our last full day as a group of three near Tauranga and hiked up Mount Maunganui for sunrise. We had hiked and driven around the North Island for five days, so capping off a mad rush of a trip with a beach day was a soothing close to a rather dizzying trip, even if catching the sunrise meant waking up at 4:15 AM. It was a surprisingly warm morning and others also chose to stifle yawns to watch the colors dance; I shared my photographic vantage point with three other photographers and on the hike up came across probably a dozen joggers and hikers.
The clouds didn’t catch as much color as I had hoped for as the sun rose, but it was refreshing to see so many locals with a mind for the outdoors. This, perhaps above all else with the exception of the genuine hospitality we experienced there, was one of the most memorable characteristics of the people I saw and met in New Zealand.
The sun ducked behind clouds as it rose, not quite convincing the fog hanging over some parts of the peninsula to burn off. Hours later, however, the temperatures rose and the beaches came alive with surfers, families, and tourists. I began to get a sense of the transitory intrigue of #vanlife — waking up to this view up top and the beautiful beaches below would be addicting.
It is with a sense of bewilderment and admittedly of some sheepishness that I write this post. The world seemed inaccessible not so long ago, not just because work or family schedules made it unachievable; it was perhaps an unidentifiable goal because the technology wasn’t there to make it practical for the masses. As commonplace as flying has become for many in the Western world, it is nevertheless still beyond the reach of a significant majority. Having the means to travel and living in a culture that encourages it is refreshing, but taking in such a breath of fresh air also brings a sharp pang of reality as I realize a majority of humans can’t pick a destination and have the means to go to it. Knowing that I can keep coming back to this medium with new photographs and experiences and my thoughts that go with them makes me more conscious of how pretentious traveling can be.
This thought came perhaps to a head on my last full day in New Zealand. One friend had left to return to the U.S. in the morning, leaving two of us to head to Waiheke Island for the day. It coincided with the Onetangi Beach Races, and the sun was relentless. Although it wasn’t snowing in Germany, the change from the dreary February winter to unequivocal shorts weather was in every sense abrupt.
The weather wasn’t necessarily what triggered the contemplation. The island is simply affluent, and with affluence comes wines, whiskies, and sitting around. One of the main draws of Waiheke are its vineyards, though without much time before I had to return to Auckland to catch my flight we ended up visiting only one. But the views were grand, and somehow we managed to find an even more snobbish way to enjoy a glass of wine than while people watching in Paris.
Not long afterwards, we boarded the ferry for the return back to Auckland, and for me its airport. Atop the open deck, the warm sun beat back the biting wind, which again threw my sense of season for a loop when I realized I was sweating despite wearing shorts and the breeze in February.
At one Airbnb on the trip I learned that possum fur is among the three warmest in the world. The Auckland airport sold sweaters and gloves of a blend of possum fur and merino wool, but it looked like it would shed more than a Yellow Lab (though it apparently does not) so I headed for the lounge, which again had windows that overlooked a runway. I was quick to judge the many other airports that didn’t prioritize such interests of a subset of the flying public.
If the sunrise the previous morning started colorful and then dulled, this one was opposite. I watched twinjets land and depart for some time as the sky above bloomed rose and violet.
Gradually, the last light in the sky began to fade, and soon my mind wandered to considering whether the idle planes next to jet bridges were preparing for their next journey or if they were turning in for the night. The lounge itself was still abuzz as I packed up my laptop and headed to my gate for the journey home.
On my way to Auckland, I was one of the last to board because I inadvertently fell asleep in the Pudong lounge. Making up for the hiccup, returning to Pudong I was the first economy passenger to board and walked into a spotless Air New Zealand 787-9 aglow in bright purple lighting.
My thoughts returned to the question of privilege as I shut my eyes in preparation for the 25 hours of flight time and ten hours of time zone difference. New Zealand was a bit of a revelation — people didn’t approach me assuming I didn’t speak their language, strangers were generous with directions and itineraries and marveled at our being only seven days on the North Island, and the physical emptiness and ruggedness of the country was belied by the interest and endearing fascination of its inhabitants at why tourists continue to travel so far to visit. On the one hand, this experience is one I will never forget; my list of places to revisit grows yet again. (This time, at least the name of the place doesn’t begin with “S!”) On the other, there are undeniably more sensible, more sustainable ways to live than to fly from continent to continent when the price is right.
I’m not sure whether the strata of privilege will ever fully fuse, but I hope that in my wanderings I can remember the awe I had when I took my first trips abroad. It’s ironic and yet somehow fitting that as a cultural transplant myself this trip cemented one notion: what luxuries I enjoy today are the results of decades of love from my parents, who themselves first traveled abroad not to be in awe but to give me an opportunity to experience awe.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. :-)