When you’re a kid, every new experience and discovery in life is so emotionally momentous. I have a distinct memory of being 8 years old and traversing a Northern California beach with my dad, when I stumbled on what I thought of as the discovery of a lifetime, half buried in the cold, wet sand. It was a sand dollar, which normally would be a cool find but not entirely unexpected, but this one was different. It was a royal shade of purple, and spotted with almost fluorescent orange barnacles; it was large, fully intact, and in that moment, I thought I would hold it with me for the rest of my life. I dutifully carried my fragile treasure for the rest of the day, but when I hopped back in the van at dusk, my mind drifted towards thoughts of a warm bed, a hot meal, a rerun of Pokémon I could catch on the tv of the Motel 6, and disaster struck- I sat on it.
Fast forward 13 years, and I’m on a very similar beach in a very different place, walking with a new friend from my old school (we never met until we were 6500 miles from Santa Clara). Especially near the ocean, New Zealand reminds me a lot of Northern California, and the surf town of Ragland is reminiscent of many spots tucked away on the Humboldt coast, hauntingly beautiful yet relatively undiscovered by California standards. I’m walking with my friend along the water, recounting the story from above, when in a moment of serendipity I spotted something in the sand. For the first time in years, I had found a sand dollar. This one wasn’t purple nor ordained with shells, but I noticed that the contours of the imprinted skeleton were distinct from the Californian variety. It struck me as not totally alien, but just a little off. The “uncanny valley” of the sea. While New Zealand has provided a wealth of majestic views and bloggable experiences (rafting through a frigid cave to see a night-sky’s worth of glowworms, watching a meteor shower from a hot tub that overlooks the Bay of Islands, finding $2 pork buns in the quad on campus), it’s often the subtleties that catch me off guard and remind me of the magnitude of my situation. It would be in these little moments, like when I spot a difference in the biodiversity or when the landscape just has that peculiar look to it, that I get slammed with the feeling that I’m very far from home, and at the same time I get a taste of that childlike sense of significance, like this current moment means a lot and should be held in close rather than be passed over by the next. And the moment always leaves, but if I hold onto it as it does I’m better for having known it.
When I returned to my apartment in Auckland, I had forgotten that I stashed the sand dollar in my bag. I pulled it out in five pieces and assembled it on my desk before wrapping it up gently and tossing it in the trash. While my eight-year-old self would be ashamed at me for not having learned my lesson, I found it a bit easier to move on this time. I suppose life’s small tragedies don’t affect me as much as they used to, and I’ve become more accustomed to entropy. Or maybe I’m just more perceptive and don’t need to categorize my experiences by the things I’ve collected. Either way, as I settle in to daily life in a distant land, certain characteristics have definitely not changed, namely an appreciation for a warm bed, a hot meal, and quality television.