The Imprint of Leaving New Zealand on both my Heart and my Foot

Jess makes a snow angel

So much snow in Chicago!

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

My car sits in a blanket of snow.  We’ve just had the 5th largest snowfall in Chicago history after Monday’s blizzard, and I know that soon I’ll be on my way to Michelle Obama arms after I manage to shovel my Pontiac from its white cocoon.  It’s hard to think that just a few weeks ago, I was sitting in the blazing warmth of a sunny Sydney summer, and now I am checking my cupboards to make sure I have enough hot cocoa to help defrost my fingers later this afternoon.

Side by side comparison of Sydney and Wisconsin

Left Sydney, right Wisconsin. The only thing they have in common is that I love them both.

The end of my official Fulbright experience was a wonderful blur.  Sometimes, it’s not until we say goodbye to a place that we realize how much that place has impacted us.  As I gave my final hugs and my final gazes at places that have become security blankets, I realized just how grateful I was to have this experience.

Maurice and Jess

Remember Maurice, the neighbor who helped me get through a New Zealand winter? Well, here he is. I miss him!

When I arrived home from the Milford track, I only had three days in Wellington before I left the country, as Fulbright granted me the dream opportunity to spend two days in Sydney, Australia (blog post to come).  It was a crazy three days attempting to sardine in all of the suitcase packing and goodbye hugs that I wanted to do.  And on top of it all, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education read this very blog you are reading now and called me in for a meeting to gain my perspective on New Zealand partnership schools (again, blog post to come).  These events all led to a very exciting homestretch of my Fulbright experience.

But it wasn’t without an interesting finish.

One of my goals while I was living in my beautiful apartment on Oriental Parade was to walk out of my apartment one sunny morning, cross the quiet street, walk across the golden sand, and run out into the sea, arms outstretched to embrace the watery soul of the earth.  But then it never got quite warm enough for me to want to venture into the ocean. If I’m honest, I barely dipped my toes in. It felt so much more beautiful (and comfortable!) to look the ocean from the warmth of my apartment.

Picture of farewell dinner

The farewell dinner with my Fulbright friends: Tricia, Max, and Sarah.

After a wonderful farewell dinner, a couple of my Fulbright buddies decided to come back to my apartment, partly because I didn’t want to say goodbye, but mostly because I needed people to sit on my suitcases so I could get them shut.  As we chatted in my living room, I started to feel some pangs of regret.  How is it that I lived on the ocean for over four months and never swam in it?  What kind of adventurer am I?

So, while my friends continued their chatter, I slipped into my bedroom to sneak on a bathing suit.  When I came out in a towel, my friend Sarah exclaimed, “You’re doing it?!”  And I was.

Sarah and Max braved the rain and wind–Wellington’s retaliation of my departure was to withhold drops of sunshine in my final days–to witness my venture into the sea.

They thought I was just going to prance around in the water and run right back inside.  But oh no, if I was going to run into the sea, I was going to run. into. the. sea.  And it was pretty much how I always anticipated.  There I was, running out into the ocean, arms outstretched, traveling deep enough to submerge myself, and then…


A sharp pain shot up my left leg.  Thinking I stepped on a sharp rock, I paused for another second in the water to complete one more pseudo-doggie paddle, and then I turned around to limp back to shore.

As I high knee-d in, shivering and smiling, Sarah and Max wore impressed expressions on their faces.  I felt proud that I had accomplished a personal goal, but I was worried about my left foot.  As we walked back up the four flights of stairs to my apartment, I favored my left leg, not wanting to look to see if there was blood.  I really, really don’t do well at the sight of blood.  I hopped immediately into the shower to wash the sticky salt and sand from me, giving me a clear picture of what happened to my foot during my dip in the ocean.

Uh oh.

There was definitely blood, enough that I had to slump against the glass side of the shower to collect myself.  And it was more than just a scrape or a cut– inside my foot were about 15 puncture wounds with little brown tips sticking out of them.  It could only be one thing: a sea urchin.

It took a lot of examining my foot and fighting over my computer’s Google, but after careful consideration,  my friends and I came to the conclusion that it was, in fact, a sea urchin. Luckily, it clearly wasn’t poisonous, but I had to leave for the airport at 3:30 a.m. (a mere four a hours away) and I still had four days before I’d be home. Do I go to the doctor in Australia? Do I try to gouge out the pricks by myself? Do I just plaster it in antiseptic? So many questions and not much time to decide.  Sarah cross referenced and found that I definitely should soak my foot for at least an hour in water as hot as I could stand.  Even though I wanted to get some sleep before my big trip of the land of the kangaroos, I also didn’t want to sit on a plane for 24 hours with a fever and a foot full of pus.

High Tea

One of my farewell dinners with my lovely teacher friends: Ash, Kaille, and Bimba

Jess jumps with her friends

I’ll certainly miss jumping for joy with these lovely friends!

So, I stayed up, foot in the biggest bowl we had in the house and wrote postcards to anyone whose address I had in my possession (note: no one received said postcards sadly enough, but hopefully someone enjoyed my regaling of swimming with dolphins and looking for glowworms before they ended up in a landfill).  I took a quick one hour nap before rubbing my eyes and yawning with Sarah, who had graciously stayed overnight on our couch so that she could kindly drive me to the airport.
And thank goodness for this act of kindness.  I was a ball of competing emotions.  I was terrified of the prospect of flying.  I was nervous about getting my luggage through without a huge weight fine.  I was excited to go to Australia.  I was depressed about leaving Wellington.  I was looking forward to being home.  I needed Sarah to keep this ball intact and not in pieces on the airport floor.

But I made it home, sea urchin bits and pieces still embedded in my left foot.  I like to think that it’s a great metaphor for my experience, as I will always carry a part of Wellington with me wherever I go.

I guess I just didn’t think it would be literally.

Jess by ice

I made it back to the cold weather, wounded foot and all!

I’ve learned a lot about myself and about life from this experience.  I learned that swimming in the ocean is very different than swimming in Lake Michigan (i.e. that there are many things that can prick, sting, and bite you to death in the ocean, whereas in the fresh water lakes your biggest worry is usually slimy seaweed and swimmer’s itch).  I learned that I can walk into a place not knowing a single soul and walk away with friends who will be mine until my heart stops pumping in my chest. I learned that I love having curly hair.  I learned that teachers can make an incredible difference on any sort of gaps in achievement in their classrooms.  And, maybe most importantly, I learned that when I take care of myself and I keep my inner sunshine strong, that the rays that come from me can have a bigger impact than I will ever understand.

Frozen leaves in Chicago

Frozen leaves in Chicago

So, this 2015, I’m vowing to put myself first, to focus on the things that make me happy.  I want to really take care of myself, and the first step in this endeavor was to remove all of the sea urchin points from my foot.  Luckily for me, my aunt Sandy has a lot of experience working in a dermatology office, and she happily got out a tweezers and a sewing needle, re-opened the wounds, and extracted the pricks.  And of course, this was all done in the comfort of Christmas day, so I had an audience of my entire family.

Each time a prick was removed, it was held up, and the entire family would cheer.  Such is life–a wonderful life where one’s family surrounds you to hold your hand while you experience horrible pain.

Jess at Christmas

Our Christmas entertainment: watching my aunt dig sea urchin bits out of my foot.

So here I am, a month back in the beautiful city of Chicago.  My foot still hasn’t completely healed, and part of me hopes that I will always have little circular scars on the bottom of my foot.  It would be the visual proof of the lasting impact my Fulbright experience has made upon me.

But for now, I must cover up the imprint with wool socks and snow boots, as it’s time for shoveling and snowflakes on eyelashes.  Wish me luck!

Jess and Atticus

At least my cat Atticus is happy to have me back (and is good at keeping me warm!)

8 thoughts on “The Imprint of Leaving New Zealand on both my Heart and my Foot

  1. Oh my goodness!!! From the first day of your trip it has been an enormous adventure-the sea urchins now!! OH MY! I am so happy to hear that you maintain your inner sunshine! I will have to remember that great expression! Welcome home!! I cannot imagine how transformational this experience has been!!


    • Thanks Sue! It really has been transformational, and I am so incredibly grateful for it. And who knows, maybe this time next year I’ll be reading about your adventures in New Zealand! Thanks for your amazing support 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aww, this made me teary eyed. What a great experience, sans the sea urchin. I love how adventurous you were. You grabbed life by the balls. I’m so happy for you that you were able to do so much in the little time that you were there. It was very courageous and exciting.

    I can’t wait to hear more stories. Soon!



    • Awww, Isabel. You are the best! I grab life by the balls because I have amazing friends like you who role model this for me! Thanks for the love! Jess


    • Thanks Nancy! I really love and appreciate your support! (PS: I love that my brother captured the picture of the Christmas time sea urchin removal).


    • Thanks for reading and commenting Emily! I still have some strange bumps in the skin, but no more pain. I really hope that we get to see each other soon! I miss you!


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