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Wandering into Poetry: The Land of the Long White Cloud

By: Camey VanSant

By Jiaheng

A balmy Tuesday afternoon in the middle of March. As the air-conditioner clamoured to aerate cool air into the stuffy classroom, letting out intermittent screeches that drew the ire of the passionate speaker, I sat face-to-face with an unfamiliar name: William Wordsworth. 

Well, to be precise, his magnum opus: ‘The Prelude’.

It was in this drab, windowless classroom where I was first introduced to rolling fields of wild daffodils, staggering Windermere Peaks towering over pristine meadows, and the surprising serenity of a gentle breeze. (Trust me, I fully appreciate the irony.) While my physical environment couldn’t be further from the scenes of lyrical calm and beauty painted by Wordsworth’s verses, one line struck me deeply. 

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’

The truth is, I have spent my whole life growing up in a dense urban jungle. Sure, Singapore is a ‘Garden City’ with plenty of green spaces littered across our tiny island-state, but there’s only so much you can fit into 275 square miles (roughly the same size as the five boroughs of New York City). Life, for the most part, collapsed into an all-too-familiar existence revolving around three distinct points: home, school, and extracurricular activities. 

I begin to wonder: “What exactly does it feel like to wander lonely as a cloud?” 

I can’t remember the last time I partook in cloud-watching, nor wandered across town aimlessly, or ventured out alone in abundant nature. To follow the clouds and let it choose my path forward was an exceedingly liberating yet strangely remote concept. I made a mental note to revisit this plan when the opportunity arises, before switching focus back into the tense classroom discussion surrounding my literary Roman Empire.     

Fast forward 3 years, as pandemic-era restrictions were slowly lifted, I began looking into how I can make this Wordsworth experiential possible. With the generous support of the Duke Gap Year Program, I managed to secure the financial funding to solo backpack for 6 months, and so the story began. 

My journey started in February, and the first stop was New Zealand. The reasons for starting in New Zealand were multifold: It was peak summer (which meant an abundance of long hikes and outdoor experiences), the accessibility of pristine landscapes, and its reputation as a backpacker-friendly nation. 

It was only upon my arrival in Auckland that I discovered the affinity between New Zealand and my poetic inspiration years ago. The Māori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which loosely translates to the “land of the long white cloud”, a reference to the cloud formations which helped early Polynesian navigators discover the country. Boom. Even as a sceptic of the TikTok-famous “invisible string theory”, I could hardly deny the perfect coincidence. Perhaps TikTok astrologists were right: the universe is stitched together by unseen threads, all of which leading us to our destinies. 

My first pit-stop in Auckland was the Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland War Memorial Museum. One of my objectives was to learn about the evolution of New Zealand from its Polynesian roots to post-colonial developments, as well as study the unique approach towards preservation of natural landscapes and heritage. 

This map portrays the migration of the Polynesian people to the South Pacific throughout centuries. Super cool!

While most individuals tend to think about Australia and New Zealand as a singular group, they are quite different! New Zealand was only discovered 800 years ago, being the last major land-mass to be discovered and inhabited in the world. In contrast, the first evidence of human inhabitation in Australia goes back to 50,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when people walked from South Asia (present day India/Sri Lanka) to Australia. Furthermore, the climates of Australia and New Zealand are also vastly different — large swaths of land in Australia are arid, limiting the expansion of human civilization to the temperate edges of the country. Surprisingly, I learnt that the first inhabitants came from Southeast Asia (though archaeological evidence could not pinpoint a specific country within SEA), and hence many individuals in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand have hereditary ties to Southeast Asia.

The ingenuity of the Māori people was also demonstrated through the use of raw natural resources for shelter and food. Māori carvings evolved out of earlier Pacific art, owing much to the availability of easily worked, straight-grained timber, and high-quality stone such as pounamu (greenstone) for woodworking tools. New Zealand’s large size and the independence of tribes led to the development of many different carving styles. In pre-European times, the forests of New Zealand teemed with bird life, which became a principal source of food for the Māori people. Utilising their knowledge of the birds’ feeding habits on various trees, the Māori people mainly hunted the kereru (wood pigeon), kãka, tut, kakariki (parakeet), korimako (bellbird), weka and kiwi. The feathers from many of these birds were used as adornments on cloaks, dwellings, pataka and war canoes.

Above: Taking full advantage of the amazing outdoors here in New Zealand

I was blessed with amazing weather throughout the 2.5 weeks in New Zealand, and the long summer days allowed me to be in communion with Nature’s greatest gifts: kayaking in milky blue alpine lakes, hiking through the wilderness, cycling through a dormant volcanic valley, and rafting through a historic indigenous river. 

The promise of Wordsworth’s verses led me onto this journey, but the essence of Wordsworth’s experiences goes far beyond the literal. While the landscapes have impressed me a million times over and more, New Zealand has given me an inkling on what it truly means to wander —to journey without fixation on a specific destination, to unload the emotional burden of city-life, and to welcome each and every experience as a gift to be treasured. 

To wander is to give up control, and to accept whatever may come your way. Yet, accepting this new identity as a ‘wanderer’ was counter-intuitive, as it went against all pre-conceived notions. Growing up in an ever-evolving world, we have been bombarded with messaging about ‘taking control’, ‘maximising opportunities’, along with a prescriptive list of things we should aspire to be. This is symptomatic of the experiences of many in our generation, as the stakes to succeed become ever higher. 

My attempt at reconciling this cognitive dissonance has led me to the following (imperfect) hypothesis: To wander is to deconstruct psychological barriers we have been conditioned to fortify against all things foreign; and in doing so truly harness our individual agency. To wander is to challenge our assumptions — about the world, new cultures, the societies we grew up in. Instead of hurtling towards a supposed end-point at break-neck speed, the process of wandering serves as speed-bumps. We shift our focus from the ‘how’, to reflect on the ‘why’, which helps to ground our decisions in our own ethical and logical beliefs. 

As I conclude this blog post, I am reminded of the words tattooed on a fellow traveller’s arm: “Not all those who wander are lost.” To that I add: “Those who do not dare wander — have yet to be found.”