A year ago today, I stood on the beach in Napier, New Zealand, and watched the waves roll in. It was early afternoon, and the sun was high overhead. The sky and the water seemed endlessly blue.
I had woken up that morning on the other side of the island and driven cross-country for almost four hours. I crossed from lush forest, thick with ferns, to meadowed valleys, where gorse crowded the roadside. I wound my way up and down mountainsides, my cautious Canadian nature balking at the 120 km/hour speed limit on the precipitous two-lane mountain roads. Whenever I could, I pulled over to let people pass, although I pretended that I was getting out of the car to look at the sheep.
The fact that I can't find any pictures of sheep is probably revealing.
I got to Napier and checked into my hotel. That day I was supposed to join my tour group, half a dozen other writers, but I found myself wanting to prolong my solitude. I begged off lunch and headed into town, where I bought an apple and a homemade granola bar from a health-food store and a latte from the coffee shop next door. I'd been travelling on my own for five days and my head was swimming from too much time alone and an incipient head cold, but I found some comfort in the fact that the health-food store smelled familiar: sandalwood and nutritional yeast and paper bags. Some things don't change, whatever the hemisphere. The smell of the health-food store, the shape of the lid on my takeaway cup, the taste of the hot, frothy milk – each carried their own brand of familiar reassurance.
The walk down to the water took less than five minutes. I crossed the promenade, skirted the band shell and hopped a low tide wall onto the shingled beach. The gravel crunched beneath my boots and the sun glared down; there were girls in bikinis, hopeful, watching the surfers, but the breeze was cool enough that I was moved to wrap myself more tightly in my scarf. I sat on a driftwood log to eat my snack, and I watched the waves, and I thought about "my" ocean, the Atlantic, and wondered if I'd ever seen it so blue.
After a while, I pushed the apple core into the empty paper cup and stood up to walk back. On the way, I looked for rocks – striped pebbles, my favourite – and tried to fix those moments in my mind.
(More about Napier, the Art Deco capital of the world.)