By Christina Quarles
It was once said that Los Angeles is truly just 72 suburbs. 72 interconnected suburbs in search of a city; 72 interconnected suburbs with 4,045,873 people bustling to work, racing the metro buses, frantically zipping in and out of traffic, over the highways, between the skyscrapers and just before the beach, while still in search for their lost city. I am merely one of those 4,045,873 people who call the city of angels their home. Every so often, in the midst of all the madness, I look ahead of me on the freeway and see red brake lights beaming and stretching for miles ahead of me. Typical, I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Big cities are often glamorized, what they don’t tell is that it’s quite easy to get lost, and not just geographically. It’s easy to just fade into the background, get stuck in your everyday routines, always feeling content and never experiencing the extraordinary. This summer for the first time I experienced the extraordinary when I traveled for four weeks out of the land of opportunity, and explored the land of the long white cloud, aka New Zealand.
New Zealand has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Glaciers, rain forests, caves, black sand beaches, and snowy mountain tops all within a 30 minute drive from each other. Thanks to the Dillon Henry Foundation’s generous sponsorship I was able travel with International Student Volunteers. The first two weeks of my travels I lived with eight international college students and volunteered for the Department of Conservation in the countryside of Pureora. Each day we would perform various task ranging from weeding, planting, frog tracking, trail maintenance, and beach clean-up. During this time I learned a lot about conservation. More importantly I learned a lot about New Zealand culture and various cultures from around the world through bonding with the eight individuals I worked with. Finn and Joanne from Ireland, Janelle from Canada, Steven, Kevin, Emily and Kathryn from various areas of the USA, and our group leader Chauncy from New Zealand epitomized diversity. We constantly compared and contrasted our different customs, beliefs, and cultures. It was fascinating to hear a totally different perspective of the world and find a common ground among us.
One of my favorite moments of the trip was meeting and learning about the native peoples of New Zealand, the Maori. Maori people are very in tuned with their culture, language, and ancestry. It caused me to contemplate my identity as an American, which I’ve never really thought about. I asked myself and struggled to conclude what being an American means to me. Perhaps, it means to be a representative of diversity and opportunity. Or perhaps it means to be a dreamer, go-getter, consumer, or simply a pursuer of happiness.
After two weeks of volunteering I flew down to the South Island, joined up with 40 more international college students and toured the entire country from bottom to top. Living in various hostels, stopping in multiple cities to engage in thrilling activities such as, jet boat riding, glacier hiking, white and black water rafting, sea kayaking, and Zorbing; was an experience like no other.
My trip to New Zealand was without a doubt the greatest experience of my life. None of this would’ve been possible without the help of Harriet and Steve Henry. I definitely have not returned the same person I left. The way we view the world and ourselves, is such a crucial aspect of self-discovery. I can never look at a map the same again. America is so much smaller to me now. I’ll always have a piece of New Zealand with me because I’ll never forget all the fond memories and friends I made there. I’ve also gained more appreciation for the community which I call home. Home is where my loved ones are. Home is the community which has molded and shaped me into being the person that I am. Home is what I am familiar with; the only danger is being conditioned into those familiarities and not keeping an open mind or gaining new experiences. Since returning to “the real world” I’ve been questioning whether the plans for my life are my actual desires or just goals I was conditioned to want. This trip has become an integral part of my development as a young woman, I hope that one day I can help and impact someone’s life as much as the Henry’s have mine. As for now I truly desire to see more of the world, and being from Los Angeles I bet you I can think of 4,045,873 reasons why.