I had exchanged several emails with Hugh McDowell, and although I had accepted his offer to stay two nights at his home on Lake Rotorua, I wasn't sure I was going to like the man. He was bigoted and sometimes crude. But he was also funny, poetic, and welcoming. And I needed a place to stay near Rotorua, so this was my plan: I'd arrive late in the day that I was expected; I'd stay with Hugh that first night; and if he turned out to be a real jerk I'd simply leave in the morning and be on my way.
Back in the planning stage, a patchwork quilt of maps and printouts covered my kitchen table: The Tasman Sea. South Island. North Island. Springtime in October.
The place names were calling to me: Oamaru, Milford Sound, Fox Glacier, Rotorua, Waiheke Island. And Aotearoa—the native Maori name for New Zealand itself.
Yet there was one thing missing from my initial plans: people. I enjoy traveling alone, especially on shorter trips, but I wanted to have people to talk with during this six-week solo journey to New Zealand. The natural phenomena and unaccustomed flora and fauna would be lovely, but they would not be enough. I wanted a few New Zealanders with whom to take travel breaks, to swap stories, to visit their favorite places, to share a meal at the end of a full day.
But how would I, a confirmed introvert, start up a conversation on the road in a country halfway around the world? It wasn't likely that I'd just walk up to a table in a restaurant and say, "Hi, my name is Cynthia, and I'm here from America, and I'd like to have a chat with you." That was not at all my style.
I went back to the maps: there were the highways crossing the southern end of New Zealand through the Catlins; there was Tutuku Beach with its long graceful concentric arcs of surf, and the great chain of mountain peaks called the Southern Alps. My imagination conjured up the moon over those mountains on a clear night. I could see myself admiring the moon while driving, on the left side, a narrow deserted mountain road... and getting lost... and my rental car breaking down. Now what? Whom would I call?
I knew only one person in all of New Zealand: Sandra, who had been a graduate school classmate of mine. She'd agreed to meet me at the airport in her home city of Dunedin; I'd stay with her for a day or two to visit her part of the country. She'd help me get comfortable with currency, customs, and other-side driving on the roads. But what then?
Then I'd be on my own. For a very long time. I definitely needed to connect with more people in New Zealand!
So I did. In six weeks I met more than three dozen wonderful people who offered me overnight hospitality in their homes and arranged parties for me. They shared with me their meals and their stories, their disappointments and aspirations, and a deep love of their country.
This is how it happened:
"I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we're so close... I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people." (the character Ouisa Kitteridge, in the movie Six Degrees of Separation.)
In the case of the Kiwis and me, the "trail" was only two people long, or sometimes three, and it led to a month and a half of delightful connections.
First I composed a letter "To My Unmet Acquaintances." In the writing I described myself, my upcoming journey, and my desire to meet and be met by New Zealanders along the way. I attached the letter to an email delivered to my friend Sandra (the first degree of connection) and asked her to forward it to anyone with whom she thought I might have things in common (the second degree of connection).
Within a few days the first person to respond to my letter was Liz, a social worker friend of Sandra's; the second response was from Jan, a friend of Liz's, who lived in Nelson. The letter was beginning to make its way across New Zealand.
As Kiwis replied to my letter I created a chart of the dates that they offered, and a map of where they lived. I designed my itinerary around those dates and places. Some offerings were logistically impossible, but most people were quite flexible about when I could arrive and how long I might stay, or whether we would just meet for tea. All I had to do was let them know a few days before I arrived.
Books from the Author:
Buy Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Society's Invisible People at your local bookstore, or get it online here: