Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The "Bucket List"

When I arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand last Friday, my host Susan Puha, the director of Wild Things Home Based Childcare, asked me if there was anything I particularly wanted to do while there. I answered without hesitation, "I want to see a kiwi in the wild." When she informed me that they were very shy nocturnal creatures and that this might be next to impossible given my limited schedule, I went to the next item on my list, "How about a penguin?" She said she would see what she could manage.

After a full day with the brilliant and enthusiastic Dunedin early childhood community on Saturday, I had the opportunity to be a night time tourist in the downtown of this charming university town. I made my way to what is called "The Octagon," the eight-sided public square where Susan had told me I could do a little sightseeing and find a decent meal. I wound up in a pleasant-looking pub, full, but not too full I thought for a Saturday night. Dining alone, I played the game of telling myself stories about the other people in the place.

There was a young couple who might have been on a first date. There was a group of guys who seemed to be either colleagues or teammates celebrating something or other. I spied an elderly couple who were sharing a fine looking order of fish and chips. Inspired, I placed my own fish and chips order along with that for a second beer. By the time my food arrived, however, the place had begun to empty out, leaving me more or less alone for a time, which I thought odd for a Saturday night in a college town. I was a bit disappointed. I'd been seeking a bit of night life, but then, as if responding to a cue, the doors burst open and the pub began to re-fill, urgently. Indeed, it got so full, so fast that I wound up sharing my table. Then I realized that everyone's attentions were focused on the television screens where I saw that the world famous All Blacks rugby team was warming up to play against the French side.

I'm not a rugby fan, but even I know about the All Blacks, perennially one of the world's top teams, and undoubtedly the rugby world's most revered dynasty. New Zealanders, even those who are not particularly sports fans, are understandably proud of this national team and all it has achieved. Their matches are a unifying national event. What unexpected fun, I thought: watching this game in a pub full of Kiwis. The men with whom I shared my table were a university music professor and one of his graduate students and between their side conversations about their art they helped me understand the game. I got to cheer with the local fans, adopting the All Blacks the way sports fans do, even catching myself referring to the team possessively as "we" and "our side." This was not something that was on my "bucket list," but I realized that it certainly should have been,

The following day, Susan and her husband collected me for a drive to a place called Sandfly Bay Wildlife Refuge where they were hoping to help me fulfill my goal of seeing penguins in the wild. Particularly exciting was the prospect of spotting some of the endangered yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho, that are known to nest on the cliffs adjacent the beach. It wasn't an easily accessible place, requiring a long, steep decent on a challenging path, much of which involved sand into which we sank up to mid-shin. The rainy, cool weather contributed to the challenge. My hosts informed me that the name "Sandfly" didn't come from an insect, but rather the fact that when the winds were up, it caused the sands to "fly" which stung one's exposed skin like thousands of little needles. Thankfully, the wind was minimal. Once at the bottom of the dunes we hiked the length of the beach where several sea lions lounged as if basking in mid-summer sun.

There were no penguins in sight as we made our way to the most likely spot. Susan warned me that we may leave disappointed, that the adult penguins were currently out feeding, that they tended to return at dusk, that we were hoping to see them, but there were no guarantees. We had to cross a shallow beach stream which, of course, drenched our feet. And then we waited, standing in the cold, rain, and occasional wind. We waited and waited. At one point I thought I saw something in the waves, but it turned out to be a young seal. We speculated that maybe the penguins were staying away because of the seals and sea lions. We waited and waited. And waited. Then, disappointed in our quest, we returned home.

We climbed the steep hill back to the top of the bluff, fighting deep, shifting sand, gravity, and the limitations of our lungs and legs. At the end of the outing I was tired, sore, damp, and sweaty. My legs ached and my feet were uncomfortably wet and sandy. Before leaving the beach, I'd stopped to photograph penguin footprints in the sand, the closest I was going to come to ticking this experience off my bucket list on this day.

We talk a lot about our bucket lists, but even as the term is relatively new, the concept is not. We set our goals, we make our plans, and we strive for success in terms that we've pre-determined. Sometimes we achieve them, but more often we don't. The preceding evening I'd actually discovered a "bucket list" item, to watch the All Blacks in a New Zealand pub, even as I was achieving it. Then the following day, after much trial and effort, I'd failed in another. But I don't feel a lick of disappointment because it's never about our goals as much as it is about the setting out, the climb, and the joy of doing it in the company of others. I didn't see penguins, but I have another story to tell, a memory to reflect upon, and, most importantly, a new person to call "friend." And in the end, those are really the only goals worth pursuing.

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