“On our first night I was so tired from the 33hr door to door travel but I just wanted to cram it all in. Times Square, yellow cabs, hot-dog stands and sky-scrapers that made Auckland buildings look like match-sticks.”
This is where the story of a great friendship, an amazing travel companion, and a life-changing event, begins…
Sept 9th 2011, 4.30am, Auckland International Airport, the excitement is overwhelming and I just can’t sit still.
First overseas trip and I’m off to New York for 3 weeks! How did this happen to me? At this time in my life I was a single mum and a student, working crazy hours to get by and this still seemed like a dream come true – flying Business Class no less (little did I know, this is not how most people travel – how would I ever settle for cattle-class!).
Now, if you take a moment to look at the date, you’ll soon realise this trip of a life-time would soon become something quite different, but first, the elation of getting on that “big bird” and the big experiences of landing in the big US of A.
My first observations – and believe me I was inhaling and absorbing it like a thirsty sponge – everything was so BIG! Big jet-streams, big buildings, big roads, big cars, big traffic jams, big food, big voices, big smiles, big people! It felt like my preconceived ideas about “all things American” had been right on the button…after all I was in the Big Apple!
On our first night I was so tired from the 33hr door to door travel but I just wanted to cram it all in. Times Square, yellow cabs, hot-dog stands and sky-scrapers that made Auckland buildings look like match-sticks. The constant hum of vehicles and sirens and horns and the bustle of busy people and then there were the corner vendors who had clearly “spotted the tourist”. “Don’t make eye-contact” Tania would say – but it seemed so unfamiliar to me not to be curious and engaging. The small-town-girl in me wanted to get a feel for this bustling place and it’s crazy people.
Pinching myself and giggling and crying from exhaustion and hugging my lovely friend who had given me this amazing opportunity – I finally slept.
The city never sleeps though and it was time to really begin our adventure so we started unravelling our journey. We’d originally planned to spend the first week in the city, go to all the major tourist attractions, including the Twin Towers, and then escape to the wilderness by driving up into Canada through New York State and across the border near Niagara Falls.
Someone was looking after us. The friend we’d planned to stay with had to go away for a week so we flipped everything around and decided to come back to the city in our last week.
Sept 11, 2001. An early start, driving along in our rental car, both singing along to the radio, about an hour out of NY city and then, that unforgettable ‘breaking news’ interrupts the music. At first we thought we didn’t hear correctly, “must be a radio-prank”, we flick stations, same news bulletin. Disbelief, we switch to another station and another…all the same. We keep driving then we hear about the second plane! No way, what’s going on? This can’t be right! We pull over into a rest area. I will never forget the people standing in this road-side diner looking up at the TV screen stunned, disbelief, sadness and fear on every face.
The hours and days that followed will never be forgotten and while we both felt so incredibly lucky to be alive the feeling of loss all around us was unfathomable. Once we were able to get in touch with our families back home we continued into Canada to visit a friend before heading to the beautiful wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park where we would collect our thoughts.
It didn’t seem right to be on holiday while there was so much death and terror all around and we felt quite numb and so very far from our loved ones. We would both have jumped on the first plane home but virtually all flights were cancelled – anywhere.
I vividly remember looking up at the sky and where there had been literally dozens of jet-streams on the previous days – now there were none.
While we tried our best to make the most of our time in this big country, it never felt quite right to be taking holiday snaps, booking tours or buying souvenirs and our experiences were always tainted with the knowledge that so many were coping with loss and the unknown.
However, something else happened. We became acutely aware of the incredible resilience of the people we met and we witnessed thousands of Americans showing their intense patriotism everywhere we went. There wasn’t a single American flag left for sale anywhere and they were flying on almost every car, church, school and building.
We felt so humbled during conversations we shared with locals as we made our way down the east coast of Connecticut through Boston, up to Cape Cod and back to New York City.
And then, the reality…it was such a surreal time in the city as the destruction of buildings and lives was still so raw, yet people everywhere had no choice but to continue with daily routines and business amongst the rubble. Without meaning to, we literally stumbled across ‘ground zero’ and what we discovered was beyond words. Everything felt broken and the dust was as if the buildings had just fallen moments ago and while I cannot describe it as a stench, there was an indescribable smell and sense of foreboding. It was just horrible. Yet, somehow life was continuing and I’ve never experienced such resilience in people as they came together at every opportunity to help others. Something I will never forget is the walls of photographs and messages reaching out to find any trace of those still missing. Everyone was affected in some way and somehow this disaster bought the most unlikely people together.
And so, my friend and I were drawn together even more knowing we had shared something incredibly sad, yet so powerful and an even stronger bond was formed as we each found new appreciation in the simple things and we knew we would return home from this big, overwhelming experience to our little country down under feeling so very different from when we left. I couldn’t wait to be reunited with my little girls, to hug them so tight and tell them just how much they were loved.
Bron Smith is a stay-at-home mum and small business owner living in rural Auckland, New Zealand. She loves to potter around on her beautiful ‘block of life’ while running ‘Ruth’s Gardens’. She’s inspired by her late mum Ruth, her loving family and the beauty of the changing seasons which are so fresh and vivid.