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Just Checking

Postcard from New Zealand

By Silas Xu

WEST COAST, New Zealand—It was almost midnight and I started to doubt the directions I got from the man in the pub. There were no stars, and in my car, I was enveloped in total darkness except for the small patch of road illuminated by my headlights. My rear-view mirror led to an empty black void as if the back half of my car had all of a sudden merged with the night. There are good reasons for driving alone at this hour. But attempting to locate a cell phone signal that may not even exist is probably not one of them. Worst of all, I was trying to call my mum.

Constructing transmission towers has clearly not been a priority around here. I should not be surprised—after all, this is the West Coast, one of the most rugged and remote places in New Zealand. A land of rainforests, rivers and glaciers between the Tasman Sea and the spine of the formidable Southern Alps, the West Coast is home to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular landscape. By night, mighty mountains recede into the darkness. Yet I can still feel their unmistakable presence.

My mum insists that I call her regularly whenever I go traveling, and prior to my trip to the West Coast, I obliged as usual. I didn’t mind when I was a kid and felt a sense of achievement when I dialed what seemed like an endless stream of digits to reach home. But as I grew older and filled half my passport with visas and stamps, my mum’s litany of questions became all too familiar: “Are you eating well?” “Did you bring everything you need?” “Are you living in a safe neighborhood?” And ever since arriving in America, she also cautions me to be wary of cars driving on the right and to avoid hanging out in public buildings and with large crowds. I was well-versed in my response which usually consisted of a big emphatic “Yes” or a sincere “I‘ll be careful.”

If I heeded my mum’s every word, I would have no choice but to return to New Zealand for good or to start life in a retirement village. I felt I called much too often to say the exact same things again and again. I really did not need reminding to drink bottled water or to put on a warm jacket as the weather gets cold. So when my mum asked that I call her every night while I was traveling on the West Coast, I thought it was mildly excessive. After all, I am in New Zealand, where people drive on the left, and things are so clean you have to struggle to get sick. But I agreed nonetheless—I had a phone card and a cell phone. How hard could it be to make mum happy?

On the West Coast, however, my cell phone became more useful as an alarm clock than a telecommunication device. It would not pick up a signal for days, but did occasionally storm back to life, buzzing and beeping, as it caught up with a barrage of missed calls and text messages. My contingency plan was fatally flawed—my phone card had expired (with all my credits!) months before I returned home.

So here I was, all by myself on a deserted West Coast highway, driving further into the darkness. The road turned right, and all of a sudden, it assumed a steep ascent. Climbing deeper into the mountains would definitely not help my reception. I pulled aside and decided to go back.

As I made a U-turn, for a second the car was facing sideways. Without road markings and the tarmac to reflect their beams, my headlights faded into the vast expanse of emptiness. For a moment, I saw nothing. No trees, no bushes and not one familiar contour of a sheep or cow behind the fences of a paddock. The illuminated dials in the dashboard seemed all there was in the world and the hum of the engine its only heartbeat.

Yet this moment did not just flash by. Gazing into the darkness, I felt enveloped in nature’s immense power and my presence vanished in its embrace. It was silly even at the time, but I could not help but imagine the consequences of my car breaking down. As the glow was extinguished from my dashboard, and as the sound of the engine faded, I was trapped in silence and eternal darkness. I could neither see my hands on the steering wheel, nor see my feet on the pedals. I reached out, there was nothing to touch; I called out, there was no answer. I floated in space, from nowhere and to nowhere in a universe of nothing. At no other time in my life had I felt more alone.

Then at once the road reappeared. Beep…beep! My phone lit up. It has found a faint signal—just one bar, but enough to call home. As I parked to talk with my mum, I kept the engine running and left the headlights on. I told her about the people I met that day and the glaciers I would visit tomorrow. She asked me all the usual questions, to which I gave all my usual answers. But this time it was different—I carefully considered each question before replying. Through the encompassing darkness and across mountains, gorges, lakes and plains, my mum’s voice reverberated in my ears. In my car, on the side of that stretch of road on the West Coast, I was deeply thankful.

Despite my anxieties, my car never broke down and I arrived home safely to Christchurch a week later. My mum didn’t really rescue me that night, and I still hate even to contemplate the possibility that her constant reminding has in some ways changed how I behaved or increased my chances of survival in this world. But while I make my “check-in” calls, and answer mum’s same questions with the same replies, something fundamental has changed. One thing is for sure, I will know to buy a new phone card next time I go to the West Coast.

Silas Xu ’05, an applied math concentrator in Cabot House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. For the remaining summer and during the fall, he is studying and researching in Paris, where calling mummy could not be easier—cell phone signals abound, even in the metro system.

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