Traveling is always a blur, and none more so than the last day of a trip. On December 13, 2016, we dropped off our car, loitered for hours in the Christchurch airport, sprinted between terminals in Auckland (where I chugged a whole a liter of water for the security officers there), watched the Fellowship of the Ring on a tiny plane screen, ate a rubbery dinner and slept. We landed in San Francisco many hours later but at the same time in the day on December 13. Caitlin and I had an Oscar-worthy reunion when we got off the plane. I think that 12 hour flight was the longest we had spent apart in three months. I stayed on in San Francisco to visit my uncles while Caitlin continued on to Minneapolis, but I got to wave goodbye to her and her massive red backpack as she disappeared around the corner into the domestic terminal — an abrupt end to our partnership.
I had diligently declared every single thing in my backpack and had to go through extra screenings at American customs, but I was cleared pretty quickly and soon found myself at the San Francisco transit train. Uncle Kirk was waiting for me when I exited through the release gate and we chatted excitedly as we walked back to his apartment. Uncle Jaime met us a little later when he was done with work and he prepared a delicious vegan dinner for us all. It was still December 13, but I had been up for well over 24 hours by that point and crashed almost immediately after dinner.
The next day, I met Jaime at his school to volunteer in his first grade classroom. I pushed my way through the doors of a bright yellow-tiled building and squeezed past groups of kids heading to lunch. There was a woman reading a story to Jamie’s class when I snuck in, but Jaime, his mom, Maribel, and his sister, Carmen, greeted me in silent enthusiasm. I had a wonderful time all afternoon meeting Jaime’s coworkers and watching him command the classroom. He lives up to his reputation as the best first grade teacher in the whole Bay Area and his rambunctious students were very sweet.
The school bell rang at 2 p.m. and a flurry of backpacks ricocheted out the door, leaving the room in an instantaneous silence. Everyone finally got to breathe and we all sat down on tiny chairs at tiny tables. Usually Jaime stays at work for a while longer, but that day we left right after school got out. The four of us went out for dinner at a delicious Indian restaurant and I heard all about Maribel’s life back in Spain as well as the time she spent in San Francisco raising her children and then her grandchildren.
The next day it was absolutely pouring but I decided to brave the weather to go see Japantown on the bus. I was absolutely soaked before I found the entrance to Japantown, but once I did I was immediately immersed in a world of Manga and Hello Kitty which threw me back to memories of my ten years in a Japanese Dance Troupe.
When it was time to head back, I decided that since I was already soaked so I might as well walk. That was the wrong decision. It was only a 40 minute walk but the rain was unbelievable. My hair was plastered to my face immediately and my pants became so drenched that they glistened and sagged. My shoes were so waterlogged that they foamed at the toe with every step. I was an absolute mess by the time I made it back to the apartment and I had to hang my clothes all over the bathroom to let them dry.
Friday morning I set out for Fisherman’s Wharf. I knew going in that it would be super touristy but I had not been there since I was five years old so I had always been curious. It took me maybe 45 minutes to walk to the Ferry Building but it was a beautiful day to be exploring outside and I could feel all the crinkles in my body shaking out with every step. I bought a delicious cheese and onion empanada at the Ferry Building and then made the tragic mistake of eating it outside on the waterfront. I was immediately swarmed by savage seagulls that dive-bombed me the moment I sat down. One even managed to snatch the bag out of my hand. Luckily I was clutching my little empanada in the other hand and was able to protect my lunch.
After I exhausted every little bougie shop in the Ferry Building, I slowly made my way to Pier 39. The sun’s reflection shimmered in the bay as I strolled along the endless chained docks. This tranquility, however, changed abruptly when I finally reached the official Fisherman’s Wharf. Suddenly there were groups of tourists, rogue selfie-sticks, $10 keychains and questionable Christmas carols. I spent only a few minutes walking through the marketplace and ducking into various shops before I found myself back out by the water and in the sunlight. I looked to my left and saw a herd of people huddled by one part of the dock, staring at something in the water. As I approached I realized they were staring at hundreds of seals lounging on some wooden platforms. Apparently this is a well-known tourist attraction, but no one had informed me. The seals were decidedly ignoring the tourists while the crowd snapped hundred of photos of them. I was highly amused by the whole spectacle.
That night Kirk and Jaime took me out for a falafel dinner where we heard a jazz band and singer, and then we went to a Welsh Christmas show at a local community center. They played a song called the Lord of the Dance and I knew all of the words without having a clue as to why I did. Jaime and I joined the dance line and ended up on stage holding hands and dancing in a circle with the performers — something I would usually find mortifying but didn’t seem to faze me this time.
Saturday morning Kirk and Jaime got dressed up for the Dickensian Faire with their friends. They had these plans long before I decided to stop by San Francisco on my way home, so we said goodbye in the morning and then I was on my own in the apartment long before I had to leave for my flight. It was very sad to say goodbye to family that live halfway across the country, but I have been spoiled with how many times I have gotten to see them in the last few years. Hopefully it will only be a short time before we all get to see each other again!
Hours later I hoisted my enormous gray backpack onto my shoulders and then slipped my black carryon onto my front side. I waddled down the street, squashed between two backpacks as I made my way to the train station and then on to the airport. My flight was delayed multiple hours due to a snowstorm but soon I found myself I watching the white fields of Minnesota glow in the night as we made our descent into Minneapolis. The gold runway lights welcomed us to a Winter Wonderland and I finally let myself sigh in relief. I had made it back. It was 1 a.m., -19 degrees Fahrenheit and I was exhausted, but I was home.
Mom was waiting for me at baggage claim with a thick down jacket, wool hat and furry gloves for me to bundle up in. When we stepped outside the cold hit me like a wall of ice, sinking into my skin immediately and lining my throat with frost. My lungs froze and I couldn’t breathe for a heart-stopping moment. New Zealand summer had made me soft!
The next morning I got up to a professional-grade espresso courtesy of my father and decorated Christmas cookies with my mom. As much as I adored New Zealand, I have never been more grateful to spend the holidays in a place that has glittering snow and glinting ice.
This trip is easily the best thing I have ever done. I learned so much and met some of the best people — none better than Caitlin. While we were friends before we set off for the Southern Hemisphere, it didn’t occur to me how important our friendship would be to the success of this adventure. I know firsthand that experiences depend entirely on the company you keep, and Caitlin was by far the best company. I know for a fact that I drove her crazy — especially when I cut her feet off in every photo, made stupid jokes and turned a teapot into a deranged turkey for Thanksgiving — but she put up with it all. I am indebted to her (especially the thousands of miles she drove us singlehandedly) and I couldn’t imagine having this experience with anyone else. Thanks Flynn Ryder and I look forward to our reunion world tour when you get back from Peace Corps!