INTERNATIONAL BACKPACKING TRIPS prior to starting college are a time honored tradition among recent high school graduates. Frequent KTD Teen Contributor Aviva Hirsch graduated from high school one semester early and decided to explore New Zealand with nothing more than the pack on her back while working on organic farms, staying in hostels. Oh, and she did it all by herself.
While she was there, she sent back audio dispatches and many photos to let us know what this first taste of traveling freedom was like.
WHILE ON HER solo journey to New Zealand, Aviva learned that she'd won a scholarship from the Coca Cola Scholars foundation which included a weekend with her fellow honorees in Atlanta. (Due in part to a story she produced for Kids These Days! radio, listen here.)
Listen below to hear Aviva's stories about flying cross country to be part of an elite group of young leaders in Atlanta, all teens who've done extraordinary things from cancer research to creating their own non-profits.
Aviva (front row, 4th from L) and her fellow Coca Cola Scholars
Exploring the Coca Cola museum
One drop creates a ripple!
Future leaders of the US
"...we really did have a nice bonding moment," Aviva said of meeting Morgan Freeman at the Coca Cola Scholars banquet. "He kissed me on the hand and that was nice."
HITCHHIKING TO TAURANGA made me happy I was traveling by thumb. It only took one minute for a car to pull over. I told the smiling man that I liked hitchhiking opposed to taking buses because people would occasionally act as tour guides and show me interesting landmarks along the way. He replied by offering to drive out to a beautiful lake where his brother-in-law owned an outdoor adventure facility for youth. The man drove me 20 extra kilometers because, he said, he enjoyed talking to me and I would be better off getting a ride at this next pullover.
[Editors note: Aviva, insert hitchhiking disclaimer here, please: Hitchhiking is illegal in many states in the US. This is because there is a possibility of danger, and mothers everywhere advise their daughters not to get into cars with strangers. I will not lie, New Zealand is not completely safe and the common thought is that hitch hiking is not a preferable means of travel. But in general, New Zealanders are incredibly kind, hospitable and trustworthy. I knew that the most important thing is to trust a gut feeling, have an idea of the potential risk involved and have a plan, just in case.]
My next driver was a Raglan-born Maori fruit deliverer. He told me he worked hard everyday to save money so one day he could buy a house on a small farm. He had never left New Zealand and only been to the South Island once a long time ago. At the grocery store in Tauranga he unloaded the containers of grapes and we said goodbye.
Wendy picked me up next.
I stayed a week in Tauranga with Wendy, Craig and their two little girls. My family's good friend knew Wendy when he was young working at a ski resort in New Zealand and has kept in touch ever since. Tauranga is on the east coast of the North Island and close by is a beach with warm, picturesque, white sand. I made a friend named Marius. He took me out one night, brought me to the animal shelter to volunteer with him and lent me a bike so we could go mountain biking.
Wendy & Craig from Tauranga
After a week in Tauranga I left for Waihi to visit Jake the wedding photographer. Before arriving I received a text: Hey Aviva, you are welcome to stay with us but we are moving soon and live in a super small house right now. You can stay in my two-year-old daughter's room, but I'm not sure how long you'll want to stay here...
The forcast showed heavy storms but my best New Zealand friend, the weather, had my back. I went hiking everyday.
Then one day I decided to pack some extra granola bars and hike to a hut shown on my photocopied map. I learned that the more risks I took, the more I was willing to take.
It was me, alone, with my headlamp and small pack in a large, bunk-filled hut looking out at the stars. I assumed the emptiness was due to winter approaching. When I got to New Zealand the sun set around 9:30 PM. On my campout it set at 6:00 (ok, we have to account for daylight savings being taken off). I played solitaire, lit a candle to read a three-year-old issue of some New Zealand fashion magazine and zonked out at 8:00.
The day I left Jake and Meg, his wife, lent me their car. The keys jingling around my neck made me feel amazing, like I was in charge again. For the first time, I could pull over at any beach, any fruit stand I wanted.
For lunch we all ate meat pies, one of the only signature New Zealand foods I encountered. Then I tried my first fijoa, a refreshing, green fruit mainly grown in New Zealand. I cannot describe the taste, only that it is often mixed with apple juice and eaten by cutting in half and spooning out the soft inside.
I hugged them all goodbye, feeling like I had yet another New Zealand family.
With a red bow in my hair I tried hitch hiking to Auckand. It was April 6, the first night of Passover. I was reminded of this when a woman looking at my profile on couchsurfing.org (which I joined a few days prior after countless travelers raved about their experiences) and seeing my Hebrew name invited me to a Seder in Auckland.
To everyone who still can't imagine hitchhiking I will share this: I asked the family who initially picked me if they knew any stores along the way where I could buy smething to bring to the Seder. They pulled over at the next convinience store, I hopped out with my purse and they waited for me. I trusted them enough to leave my backpack in the trunk, and by this point it was not because I was naive.
Having told you that, the next thing I did was one of the most stupid things a hitch hiker could do, and I knew it before it happened. A nice, young girl picked me up and said she was not going all the way to Auckland. Of course, I couldn't get a ride standing on the freeway. And April 6th was a public holiday in New Zealand, the friday before Easter, so trains and buses weren't running. After driving around trying to figure out what I should do, she dropped me off at the airport and I took an hour bus ride to the city centre to catch another bus to the woman's house, all the while feeling horrible for being so late to meet my Jewish Auckland host.
While traveling, it is impossible to be the punctual, reliable, focused person I stive to be. I sent Lilach a text to suggest she leave without me to the Seder and poured my worries into my journal. Kindly, she ignored my text and I ended up being the only one who spoke no Hebrew at the Seder. The four Israeli families I met moved to New Zealand for safety, although never stopped talking about when they would go home.
The next day I had my second couchsurfing experience, equally great. A man with a baby met me outside Starbucks and decided he wanted to take a road trip that night. After lunch he gave me the keys to his new apartment in the centre of Auckland and left. I had just met this person and he trusted me like we'd been friends for years!
Listen to the audio blog below to hear Aviva's last days in New Zealand...
RAGLAN IS A 3000 person surfing hippy town. People keep telling me that I should leave soon or I'll never get out. But of course, I have an airplane to catch on April 8th and because I'm not an expert surfer or have anything tying me to Raglan, I'm not too worried about being caught here. Actually, I'll be leaving tomorrow and going to Tauranga, on the other coast of the North Island. Driving from coast to coast is easy here, and without stopping it will take around 2 hours and 15 minutes.
I've spent most of my time in Raglan walking on the black sand beaches. Sometimes I'll strip down to my bathing suit and wade into the salty, turbulent water. Then at night I'll go to the small club by the beach and listen to New Zealand bands play to small audiences and sometimes be distracted by the vibrant stars. I love the stars in New Zealand. It fascinates me how they are all different ones than I am used to seeing in the northern hemisphere.
Friends in Raglan
The first day I was in Raglan (about 5 days ago) I realized that my camera bag was missing from my purse. I traced everywhere I'd been and thought over how it could have disappeared but never came up with a plausible solution. Finally I reported my loss to the police and a few days later I received a phone call. My excitment was lowered when the suited woman pulled out my black and red case. It was damp and covered in sand. I opened it and saw my electronics in the same condition but still felt relieved that I was once again in possession of my camera and phone. So in short, the universe has given me an opportunity to be exceedingly descriptive with my language and you the ability to add unique personalized visuals to my journey.
Listen below to part 7 of Aviva's travels in which she introduces us to a couple of Kiwi characters...
MY TRIP SEEMS to be flying by and I'll be back in the States before I can blink. I'm in New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island staying with a lovely family who I met through a few degrees of separation. There are around 45,000 people here next to the coast and the Taranaki volcano.
I came here to go to WOMAD (World of Music and Dance), an international music festival. It happened to be some of the best weather, which drew huge masses of people to the park. The selection of musicians was diverse, I appreciated the music of every band I listened to. Furthermore, the venue couldn't have been more perfect with the main stage surrounded by water and ducks swimming to and fro.
I've been touring New Plymouth on a bicycle and on foot. Looking through galleries, museums, unique shops, bakeries, and beaches.
I'm learning to be happy exploring cities and landscapes by myself, finding different ways to entertain Aviva. That may be one of the most difficult parts of traveling solo: being alone. I can't say how many people have gawked at my age and what I chose to do with my semester off. "You're so brave!" I've been told over and over.
Today I hitchhike to Raglan, another costal town in the west. Into the unknown....
Listen below to hear a sampling of all the great music from the festival...
CHAPTER 1: I'm all the way at the end of the Banks Peninsula. The town is named Akaroa. There are dolphins, seals, penguins and many tourists here but I haven't seen any of them. I hitchhiked here from Oamaru, the place with the most interesting architecture I've seen in New Zealand, a million second hand clothes shops, cheese, whisky and chocolate factories to tour, basically so much to see. I wandered around, getting lost in the gardens and sampling a few meat pies. I met many interesting people at my hostel..... more to come this internet is running out...
CHAPTER 2: The best part of Oamaru is that the little blue-eyed penguins come swimming next to the harbor right at dusk. I wanted to keep one of those spotted, waddling, adorable birds. Before Oamaru I was wwoofing for a few days. I pulled carrots and beets, tended to the cows and sheep, helped cook, baked bread, made butter, yogurt and cheese. Catherine, the owner of the farm, told the most entertaining stories about her psychopath ex-husband, her cowardly neighbor, her brave minuscule dog and all the other kooky people in her life. Ahhh this dumb internet...!
CHAPTER 3: From my wwoofing farm near Palmerson I was picked up by some Aucklanders. I told them about these Moraki Boulders I'd heard about and they loved me for sharing part of their own country with them. The boulders were marvously round and planet-like, and one looked like an egg being cracked open.
I didn't have enough time in Oamaru but there was another place I wanted to see before flying to the North Island: Akaroa. On the Banks Peninsula there are many little bays cutting into the mountains and the one close to Akaroa is the largest. There are no docks in the harbor, to access a boat a person needs to paddle out in a small kayak. I biked through the one-road town and hiked up part of a mountain with a girl I met. If not for my sunscreen, my whole body would have been burned like a marshmallow in the sun that day.
Back in cell phone service, I recieved a call from an elderly couple who picked me up hitch hiking and invited me to spend the night and a big smile of relief came over me. Sometimes, in the bustle of young travelers deciding where to go next and which pub has the best dancing music I seek out company from older people full of enthralling stories. Vicki and Reg laughed about their 5-week boat expeditions to New Zealand from England, the different farms they owned, the various marriages they'd dealt with, managing a rock band, working with the first computers in New Zealand and all the changes they've seen unfold in the years of resedency in what they call paradise.
Close to Christchurch, the home of sorrow and recent catastrophe, I am currently in the center of an old, inactive volcano. Like Alaska, New Zealand rests on some of the largest tectonic fault lines. The land has formed elevated mountain terrain and in the center of it all is my favorite: a lengthy tear-dropped spit of land, which is owned by the Maori people.
Travelers from big European cities have all shared with me their surprise at the kindness of New Zealanders. To me, people are similar to Alaskans in mentality, there are times I feel so happy and grateful for that. Vicki and Reg had no idea what they got themselves into by picking up an 18-year old hitchhiker I'm sure, but they generously shared their life with me for a day.
Later on today I will fly out of Christchurch and into Wellington. There I will be driving with a radio journalist and musician to a music festival called WOMAD where she has played in previous years.
Listen to Part 5 of Aviva's audio blog below... Have a New Zealand tip for Aviva? Leave it in the comments down under!
I'M DOING WELL now. I have to admit, there was a two-day period where I felt completely overwhelmed and was not sure where I was going or what I was going to do. So I took out my thumb and after a bit of waiting, I was picked up by some people heading to Queenstown.
I wandered through town and ended up at Fergburger, a signature Queenstown hamburger joint. As it happens, the longer I'm in New Zealand the more faces I recognize. That first night in Queenstown I spent with my friend from Hong Kong who happened to be in the same place as me. We woke up in a 12-person dorm room and walked outside to a sunny farmers market. There I began talking to two brothers from Pennsylvania who were friends with the Jonas Brothers and had been on tour and on TV with them. They invited me to drive with them in their minuscule toyota up Skipper's Canyon, an old gold mining location. The canyon was beyond beautiful and the mountains ridges looked sharp as knives.
Skipper's Canyon, just north of Queenstown
That night I got in touch with a family who moved outside of Queenstown from Colorado; Sarah Gonzales, KTD's producer, knows them and hooked me up with the family. I've had a lovely time with them, hiking The Remarkables (really steep snowy/icy mountains) and overlooking one of the biggest lakes in New Zealand outside my window.
Some serious hiking in the accurately named "Remarkables"
They live on a station, a farm, with a few really nice cabins situated next to different lakes surrounded by sheep and cows. I was lucky enough to stay in one last night with a friend I met from Holland.
"Station" = "Farm" in NZ
Tomorrow I leave, with my pack and my thumb to Switchback Road. There I will farm.
Listen below to part 4 of Aviva's audio blog...
I'M IN WANAKA after hitchhiking the west coast and going to glaciers and finishing a three-day hike. At first I thought I was holding my thumb out the wrong way or something because all the cars were passing by. Then I got a series of really short rides, but luckily it was a sunny day and I got my day's dosage of vitamin D. I think I grew a whole year during that day. I remember feeling so entirely overwhelmed and slightly rejected by the passing cars, it was the first time I really missed home and wanted to phone a familiar voice.
I went on a few glacier walks and then decided to follow nature's call and at 4:30, I headed toward the Copeland track. At 8:15 I arrived, right before dark. I was walking in the sun by myself, next to a glacial river, over swing bridges with a really heavy backpack filled with everything I brought to New Zealand. I carried onward the next day toward the famous hot pools that happened to be ALL they were cracked up to be.
With so many travelers in New Zealand, everything has a cost and the hot pools 18 kilometers from the parking lot were a bargain. The next day though, hiking out in the rain, was a chore and I'm still recovering.
There are good and bad parts to traveling alone. It's easier to get picked up hitchhiking, I don't have to compromise and I am meeting people from around the world. I actually feel like I've just traveled the world because of all the stories I've been hearing from people. As it's turned out, I've been with people most of the time and there are many single travelers.
Listen to part 3 of Aviva's audio blog below as she tries her thumb at hitchhiking, soaks up some sun and relaxes in the hot pools.
IT WAS MOSTLY a stationary week. I stayed and helped out Jan and Barry, the people I had already known from Alaska, for nine days.
I did so many different tasks: shovel horse manure, help build things with power tools, help fix a 4 wheeler, weed the garden, pick a million plums, help Barry calibrate his new gun, help cook, do lots of dishes and more.
On the beach in Motueka
Then as a result of my curiosity I did other things. Really fun things. Barry showed me the airplane he built. On each side of it there are painted genies and the plane is registered as "YAY". We flew over the town of Motueka and along the coastline.
Barry and his plane
Flying over Motueka
Aviva the co-pilot
Driving from their property into town I would see thousands of sheep, but of course that should have been no surprise. I also would see so many orchards and farms with peaches and apples and oranges and plums and kiwi fruit and sweet corn and greens... Because almost everything can grow in Motueka's mostly warm, occasionally rainy climate.
Now I'm in Barrytown on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. I drove here with Jan and last night we had supper with her friends who have mini horse, parrots and teach a knife making workshop to tourists.
And today I go off by myself. I was planning on wwoofing with this person who had a glass blowing studio but it turned out when I talked to him the glassblowing was out of service and in truth I didn't get a good feeling. So right before I was going to call the guy back I received an email from him saying it wouldn't work out on his end. Strange how the universe works.
Tonight I am going to stay in a hostel in Punakaiki and I'm planning on meeting people like travelers do. Okay, I'm a bit nervous. I'll be completely on my own with all the responsibility and a backpack.
Listen to part 2 of Aviva's audio blog below as she recounts the week's adventures and introduces us to Barry.
IT'S SUNNY UP here, flying over Sitka towards Seattle. Of course, it reminds me of my final destination, which relative to the slushy, overcast weather back home seems like paradise. The climate in New Zealand is about as diverse as possible. Two islands combined to be about the size of California host luscious plant life, a variety of birds, huge waterfalls, snow covered mountains, indigenous peoples and of course, uncountable sheep. I've heard that weather is sometimes unpredictable and while my iPhone suggests beaming a 70-degree paradise, everything can change suddenly and I may be granted a free and unexpected shower.
The town of Nelson is located on the northern part of the South Island. It's said to be one of the sunniest places and that's where I'm heading first. For about a week I'll be staying with someone who moved from Homer, Alaska to live with her Kiwi husband on the South Island. They have a farm with horses, vegetables and a beach near by. It's where I'll begin my WWOOFing adventure; after Nelson I have no itinerary.
Some last-minute dad wisdom
Getting ready to go, I had to resist good intentioned packing suggestions like Dad's insistency on bringing a laptop. How could I be independent and accountable without a computer!? And What if I stayed at a farm without Internet access!? Well, I told him, part of what triggered my interest in this journey is the absence of overbearing electronics found in my regular life. So I left nearly everything.
See ya, little sis!
This is what people talk about - the moment when your parent's house begins feeling like a place to visit. That's sort of an amplified feeling for me because at the end of the month my family is moving out of my house. It was much more difficult to pack up my room than pack two pairs of pants, my sleeping bag and a toothbrush into my backpack for New Zealand.
The last goodbye
By the time you read this I'll be off the airplane, in Kiwi-land and the rest...you know as well as I do.
Listen to Part 1 below: Aviva says her goodbyes, asks mom, dad and sis what they each think about her leaving and she reflects on being on her own for the first time.