I never meant to stay in Wanaka for this long. A quiet town on a lake surrounded by mountains. The main street is dominated by cafés and pubs, a charming library, everything in walking distance. It fits the classic small American town stereotype of everyone knowing each other more so than any small American town I have visited. You could not have crafted a better trap for me.
It did not take long for me to hear about Wanaka after arriving in New Zealand. There are two types of travelers in New Zealand. People here for a few weeks to do a whirlwind tour of the country. Or people here for a year, or longer, to fruit pick, ski during months when one does not typically ski, or find some other excuse to take an extended holiday. The latter seem to invariably end up in Wanaka at some point.
“I think it is the best spot in New Zealand. If I could live anywhere, it would be Wanaka,” Craig says, his glowing review of the town needing no prompting. “I lived there for a year and I only regret not finding it earlier into my stay here. If I could live anywhere in the world, I think it would be Wanaka.” I ask him why he is in Auckland, why he is leaving. “Well I have to, don’t I? Visa’s up, time to head home. But I’m applying for another one when I get there. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
I had started my trip only four days prior. I still had not found a car, nor gotten my bank account, nor had I received my New Zealand tax information. The only plan I have is to sort those out and then spend a few months camping, traveling wherever I feel like day to day, maybe pick up some work on a farm occasionally. So, I tuck Wanaka into the back of my mind as an option for later and promptly forget about it.
Driving down the West Coast a few months later, a sign indicates Wanaka and Queenstown is only a few hundred kilometers farther, the memory is shoved to the forefront of my thoughts. I abandon my plan of stopping in one more spot on the West Coast and drive on.
Sitting on the sandy lakefront I realize I was drained. The incredible vista of the mountains and the lake, the charming, small downtown area, the plentiful hiking nearby, the comfortable hostel, and young crowd of fellow travelers make my decision for me. I would stay for a week, recover from moving around every day, and continue on afterward.
After the first week, I decided to stay a second. During the second, I started looking for a job. I wanted to spend the ski season near here anyway, and it is a great spot for the summer. That was in January, that was more than nine months ago. Wanaka’s charm infected me quickly.
I left briefly in May on a holiday to Sri Lanka. I was overjoyed to see someone from home, the trip was great, the country was beautiful. But after two weeks later, I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get home.’ I was not going home to the states from Sri Lanka, I was heading back to Wanaka. It had unceremoniously become my familiar, comfortable respite.
Here in Wanaka, I existed in a bubble. Very little happens in Wanaka. Time passed me by here, exempt from the goings on of the outside world. I went to yoga in the morning, sat in the same coffee shop during the day or went for a hike, worked in the evening and went out after. Rinse and repeat. I snowboarded once the winter started. Wanaka has an amazing little old school cinema, with an intermission and café and homemade cookies.
But it was not all these things that make Wanaka magical. It is the people. Without the people, Wanaka would be just another nice place to visit. Beautiful, yes. Quiet, quaint, and charming, yes. But the people are truly special. Half the town are other young foreigners here for a couple months, or a couple years. But we all believe that life is about enjoying life. The future is a problem we will face eventually, but not now, not here.
The future only intrudes on us when one of us leaves. Many young travelers here mean frequent goodbyes. But they are not a sad thing. They are celebrations of the time we spent together. The memories we have made in Wanaka, this crossroads of our lives.
One year ago, I left my home, close to my friends and my family. I left a good job, working for a good company doing interesting work, working with good people. I came to New Zealand with the vaguest of plans. To see beautiful landscapes. To escape my old life. To retreat into solitude. To figure out what I want. To learn and explore and grow.
My time here did not end up being what I expected. I did not do everything I wanted here. I did not find the isolation I sought. Yes, I found beautiful landscapes. Yes, it has been an adventure. Yes, I have grown and learned. But the most important part of my time here was something I did not expect.
I found a new home. A home that I am leaving tomorrow. And though I am leaving, I will not leave it behind. Home means something different to me now. It is no longer where I grew up. Instead, it is a collection of people and experiences and memories and feelings. I will never forget the time I spent here or the friends I made. They will come with me wherever I go now. They will be my home when I am on the road again.
So, farewell, Wanaka. I am off on my next adventure. Farewell to a good home, great memories, and even better friends. But it is not goodbye. You will come with me wherever I go. And I’ll see you where the roads meet.