I arrived in New Zealand on December 29th, 2016, summer in the southern hemisphere. The air was fragrant with all sorts of floral aromatics, the warm breeze was fresh from the ocean, and I was excited to be in such a new and different place. Just some of the things I noticed right away:
- Cars drive on the other side of the road.
- The plugs are all different and have individual switches.
- The light switches are tiny and reversed (up is off!).
- You hang clothes up to dry outside (no one has clothes dryers) because it doesn’t rain for months on end.
- Everyone makes their own yoghurt.
- The licence plates are just a number, no country/province necessary when you’re an island nation.
Having lived in Canada my whole life, there are some things ingrained into me that I hadn’t realised until I came to NZ. That shadow in the bushes? Not a raccoon. That rustling on the path at night? Nothing to worry about, certainly not a bear. There are no predators here. There are no naturally occurring mammals here. Mice, rats, stoats, and possums have made it over, but no large predators. No snakes even. It feels a lot like BC, but the ever-present feeling that there are hungry beasties hidden about is a vibe I still, 6 months in paradise, cannot quite shake. There something deep and old about the fear of predators; I see fields of sheep everywhere and just cannot wrap my head around there being nothing for them to worry about.
Coming from the worst winter in my life (in all aspects; the weather was just terrible!) into a tropical wonderland was the most perfect thing.
I stayed with a wonderful woman, Rona Spencer, for a week. She showed me all around town to orient me, and took me on a walk up to the Brook Wildlife Sanctuary. The birdsong here is incredible; Tui and Bellbird have the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, and Canada’s no slouch when it comes to bird life!
After my week in Nelson, I headed up to The Wangapeka. I now know it by many names: The Centre, The Wanga, officially The Wangapeka Study and Retreat Centre. I and another retreatant took the shuttle up a day early (Colin is great if you ever need to get anywhere in the Nelson area, or book him up to the Centre, he really knows the drive!). My early-companion had been to Wangapeka before and showed me all around to get me oriented. I’ve had many kind and wonderful guides since coming here; they always seem to show up right when I need them most.
I walked up to the whare (pronounced “far-ay”- the “wh”s here are pronounced as “f”s), the beautiful teaching house. I saw NZ’s first Stupa. I heard and saw many things for the first time that made me feel like I was in a magical place.
If you don’t know what a retreat is, it’s basically taking intentional time away from life to do personal work. The retreat I went on was a 2 week Chenrezig retreat. It’s a form of meditation that helps explore many aspects of self, with the ultimate goal of cultivating compassion. It was my first time using a mala, which are beads on a string to help count mantra. I remain an atheist; there are many aspects of Buddhism I cannot get behind, but many that I can. I have found it incredibly useful to explore the mind using some of the tools it offers, Chenrezig being one of them.
So many people have been doing work of various kinds at the Centre for so long that it feels… anything I say will sound like mystical hoo-hah. It just feels special. Knowing that people have faced their inner demons, have explored dark and deep crevices of their minds, have had the guts to delve into themselves and root around, gave the place a feeling of gravitas, of solemn importance. It made me feel comforted; I am not the first person to be going through a great loss, nor will I be the last.
I think I fell in love with The Wangapeka when I arrived. It could be that a drowning person will love any lifeboat, but as time has gone on, I don’t think I love it just because it helped me so much in a time of great need. I see the work being done there, see that just having a place for serious retreat work is a gift. The care and attention put into that place over the many years has made it a special place.
I did a solo retreat for a few days after Chenrezig ended. I went to the highest hut, Omahu, and had uninterrupted time all to myself. I has one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, for what it represented to me as much as the actual sight. I cried for joy when I got up there; how lucky I am to have landed here and get to be in such a place.
Since that first retreat I’ve been back several times; I did a week long “intro retreat” to further understand retreat work in general. Then, I was back in Nelson and prepared to send my roommates and many friends off for a month-long retreat. Many pieces fell into place: my roommate Chani was the retreat organiser, I had been cooking a ton and sending delicious food to Wangapeka-related meetings, I made it known that I loved the Wangapeka and wanted to help in any way I could, I was completely at loose ends (I cancelled my flight back to Canada) and I was looking for work. This perfect storm was bubbling away when, three days before their retreat was due to start, they found themselves without a cook.
Badda bing badda boom, chef Heidi to the rescue!
I learned how to use the ordering system, how to portion, what the dietary requirements were, made meal plans, and got oriented with the kitchen in three days. Then I cooked for a big group for a month!
It was some of the happiest time of my life. Waking up every morning with a purpose, knowing I was helping support the work people were doing, making delicious and nutritious food, being around wonderful people in that place, and going to teachings in the morning and group meditations in the evening- it was exactly what I needed.
I even got a couple of breaks, and got to go on a hiking trip into the Nelson Lakes.
After the month, I stayed to cook for a work week, where amazing woofers helped with whatever needed doing. Then I was asked to cook for a “harp meditation” weekend, and I spent my final days in one of the higher up huts, Skydancer.
It snowed a bit, heralding the start of winter.
It’s been nearly two months since I was last there, and I can’t wait to go back. I’ll be cooking for a 4-day Chenrezig retreat soon, then for the AGM, then staying on to cook for a six-week retreat and all the ones that happen on the weekends concurrently. I feel so lucky to have the opportunities that I do. If you spend enough time setting up bowling pins, you can stand back and have a go at knocking them down. I have been bowling a pretty terrific game since I arrived in NZ, that’s for sure.
Oh and during that month long retreat, my publisher sent me the final MS to proof. I did some intensive editing in the caretaker’s office between lunch and dinner. They also asked for the acknowledgements and my bio. What hilarious timing to have to write a paragraph about who I am.
Because really, who am I?
Thanks for reading. ❤