I first become aware of New Zealand back when I lived in Oregon, a state even in the early 80’s known as the ‘last bastion of the terminally hip.’ I guess that’s me. Hi. But if the ‘hipness’ passed around wholesale back then like fresh bud seemed a bit smug and self-righteous, the Oregon kind seemed genuine and heart-felt and home-grown. But even then there were rumors of a whole other country, down there somewhere… just like Oregon! Just head due south and hang a right at Easter Island, hang ten up on to the shores of a New World. Then start planting seeds.
So if Papua New Guinea is preceded by its rep as a haven for modern-day headhunters and general lawlessness, New Zealand is preceded by its rep as an ‘Ecotopia’, or even ‘God’s Country’. That’s a tough billing to live up to… and that was BEFORE ‘Lord of the Rings’ let the average Joe America in on the buzz. Now with over two million tourists per year in a country of four million, there’s an imbalance there that’s ominous. Has the country sold itself out to every Harry Dick and Tom with a wad in his pocket and an urge to merge? Maybe it’s okay if they all cling together and leave the locals- and me- alone. Still tourism’s better than munitions factories, right? We’ll soon find out. It’s raining in Sydney this morning with more forecast for the entire week to come, and AUD currency has passed parity with USD, so the timing’s right. I’m outta’ here.
I booked my flight from Sydney to Auckland on Aerolineas Argentinas- on its way to Buenos Aires- not just coincidentally one of the better prices of a rather pricey lot, but also the best times of the better prices, early afternoon to early evening, real civilized. Also I want to get the feel of flying over the South Pole to South America even if I actually don’t. This flight is as close as you get. It’s a long way to Buenos Aires, and farther than you’d think to Auckland even, some 1350 miles as the jet flies, so about three hours. The flight from there on to Bs. As. is almost FOURTEEN hours. Fourteen hours would be the longest single stretch I’ve ever flown, I believe. What’s the jet lag like when you fly over the pole? Too bad they fly at night.
In the Sydney airport there’s free wi-fi so I book a car for Auckland while waiting. I ended up regretting my sedentary lifestyle in Australia, and don’t want to repeat the mistake in New Zealand. God’s country is to be experienced, after all. I’d like to go all the way south, but after finding out that the bus to just Wellington is twelve hours, I’ll have to settle for less. There’s not enough time. At the southernmost tip you’re still not even as far south as the US’s northern border is north, so hardly at the Earth’s extremes (though they DO have glaciers). Still Tierra del Fuego beats it by a ways. NZ cars are a bit cheaper than Oz, too. Given the high prices in Australia and subsequent crimp on my budget, I almost wish I’d allocated more time to New Zealand and less there, but proportionate to their relative sizes the ratio is already unbalanced.
On the flight I’m sitting next to a Peruvian lady on the way home after visiting her son in Alice Springs, where he works with the Aborigines. After chatting away in Spanish for about fifteen minutes, she finally asks me, “Do you speak Spanish?” Welcome to Thailand. It’s the future. Then a little later I catch her fingering her rosary beads and uttering various oaths to various saints. “Es Catolico?” she asks me. “Si,” I fudge it. “Que bueno.” Yes, I’m Catholic… and Buddhist… and Christian Scientist… and Scientologist… and Muslim, Hindu, Jew, and anything else that works. They’re all good… in my opinion. In that Long Dark Night in Hanoi way back when I realized that I could create as many gods as I needed- and serve them all faithfully- as long as the sun came up the next morning and some part of me moved when I gave it the command. I’m like the Decent Twin of the Marlon Brando rebel character in The Wild One, equally conflicted, but not usually up to no good. INT. COFFEE HOUSE- DAY BARISTA: “What’s your religion today, Hardie?” HARDIE K: “Whad’ya got?”
So I’m a rebel with a cause maybe? Actually rebelliousness is way overrated. I just figure anything that takes a human being out of a Walmart long enough to place him in some spatio-temporal context with Infinity is worth having, the more dimensions the better. But my next-door neighbor doesn’t want to hear all that… so I just tell her what she wants to hear. Life’s easier that way… as long as it’s true. When I was cowering with fear in PNG I clutched the Buddhist priest medallion that my father-in-law gave me in Thailand, because that’s the only thing I COULD clutch that wasn’t a body part. Whatever works is fine with me. I help my neighbor with her English and remind her that once the plane leaves Auckland, they’ll go back a day at the date-line, so it’ll be Christmas again, pretty special getting a double-dip.
Once on land in Auckland, ‘la migra’ gives me the once-over, but no big deal, just confiscate my cheese and let me keep my ‘toasted muesli’, aka ‘granola’. Hey, it’s tough being a vegetarian! The Super Shuttle even gets me to my back-packers’ hostel before the office closes, so time enough to get some groceries and ‘do a little settlin’ down’. I’m out a ways, so that’s a bit of a walk, through a lonely semi-industrial neighborhood after dark on the way back, but no problem here. Even the fierce-looking Maoris are nice… so far. It seems like the human race finally got it right. NZ may have been the last place on Earth to be settled, but it seems it was worth the wait. Although Polynesian Maoris were here first, they seem to get along well enough with the Western ‘mellow-nesians’ that have flooded in recently, putting an end to any ‘white-Australia’ type of notions that may have existed previously. The city is nice enough- though largely shut down for the holiday- but the nicest part is the general friendliness of everyone.
The weather is not cooperating. Next day dawns gray and cloudy, heavy odds on some precip. I check the prognostications and they’re talking gale force winds, so I cancel the rental car idea. I try to extend my stay at the hostel, but no privates available, just… a dorm bed… horrors! Let’s call it a manger. Dodging the rain and treading water as fast as I can, I head into town to make other plans. First I stop by the other hostel I’ve booked for my last two nights here… and wince, way too far out of town again, albeit the other direction. Then I go check out the ferry boats to some nearby islands. This looks like the ticket for enjoying the next few days. I also check Grayline Tours, going the same places I planned to drive, complete with omniscient narrator, but they’re pretty pricey. I might try to take a public bus instead. I’ve got enough internal narrative of my own already. Then I pass by another hostel downtown, one I’ve never heard of. I inquire; they’ve got a private single for three nights, so I book it. As fate would have, it seems like Latino central for Auckland. I’m just a lucky guy, I guess.
Meanwhile my original hostel has booked me into a dorm room for the night… with nothing but females? Do they know something I don’t? What, so they think I’m ‘safety boy’ or something? Canned Vienna sausage? Too old, homo viagrensis? Hey, I’m a dirty old man, have gun will travel! But it’s all to no avail, my avuncular nature already documented. Membership DOES have its privileges, though, heh heh. So I get to listen to girls’ talk all night, secretly taking notes in my mind. The hostel scene is getting old, though, like a frat party with changing cast every day. I’m tired of fighting for counter space in the kitchen and listening to itineraries.
The new place isn’t like that at all. I’m on the tenth floor looking out over the city and trying to catch rogue wi-fi signals as catch can. But these aren’t real travelers either, you know, nothing like a hostel scene in Yerevan or Puntarenas, where you trade travel tales like espionage reports. So what are they all doing here, and why are cities here and in Australia crawling with backpacker hostels? I’ll tell you in two words- work holiday. The Europeans are all here to hang for a year or two, working in the jobs the locals shun. For the local governments, it’s preferable to allowing in the poor neighbors. And it’s not bad money, especially Australia, which is undergoing a China-fueled boom, hence the high prices. New Zealand is no bargain either, but more on the scale of London or Paris, not Vienna or Zurich.
So I go out to Waiheke Island next day, and it’s lovely… lovely AND unique, full of micro-climates and micro-breweries, flowers of reds and music of blues. Next day is the nature reserve at the island of Rangitoto, complete with volcano and traditional rustic holiday ‘baches’ in the process of being refurbished. I met a ‘bach’ owner who met the man who built Bert Monroe’s (Fastest Indian) motorcycle, so we talk cars and bikes and hates and likes till the boat comes home… and I have to go back… friendly folk here. Next day it’s Whangarei, up the coast a ways toward the Bay of islands, semi-tropical NZ at LA latitude, small town NZ at its best. If Auckland is the spitting image of Seattle, then Whangarei is the spitting image of… Wenatchee? All in all, the landscape is lovely, pines and ferns and palms all coexisting… and the cities aren’t bad, either, but the best thing is the people. It’s New Year’s Eve, so there’s nothing to do but celebrate. I think I’ll go hang with the Hare Krishna people. They always have good parties. Tomorrow I go to Fiji. Too bad I’m not going on to Samoa; I could celebrate the New Year again. HAPPY NEW YEAR!