Sunday, March 29, 2009

Are you going to Okains Bay?: Banks Peninsula, 2

As my travels continue, I've been exploring my personal travel style, learning what I like and don't like, my preferred pace, how many museums versus parks versus restaurants I can handle before it all gets to be too much. Spontaneity is one ideal I've maintained-- I say "ideal" because often being spontaneous causes me a lot of stress and anxiety, but I try to persevere because it means being able to take advantage of the random opportunities that sometimes present themselves on the road.

I left off last entry at one of those opportunities, the chance to see a Maori-centric celebration of Waitangi Day at Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula. I had planned to return to Christchurch after one night until I heard of the celebration, and so I had to scramble to find accomodation. All of the hostels in town were booked up, but I finally lucked into a free room at a local SERVAS host's bed and breakfast. When I arrived at her house, up a steep hill outside of town, it was immediately clear to me that the lady, whose name was Val, was significantly batty-- not in a malevolent way, just enough to prattle on about the discovery of Atlantis, past life regression, and the coming golden age brought on by a Buddhist Jesus figure as we ate her delicious vegetarian curry for dinner.

That evening I walked down to town, watching the sunset and trying to figure out how to get to Okains Bay, about 20 minutes away by car, the next day. In the US, such a celebration would warrant shuttle busses, or at least taxis, but I could find evidence of neither. In fact, the single taxi driver in Akaroa told me that she had advertised for a shuttle service and had had no responses. She apologized, but if there weren't any more takers the trip would not be worth her while.

I was flummoxed. It seemed incredible to me that such a big-deal celebration happening nearby would merit no public transport, but as it stood I would have done better to go all the way back to Christchurch and then get a bus to Okains Bay the next day, rather than stay in the immediate area of the celebration. But now that I had committed to stay, I was determined to figure out a solution. I started asking around in the restaurants and shops in town, and most of them recommended hitchhiking. I decided I might try my hand at it for the first time as a last resort, but first I would ask to see if there was anyone in town who was already planning to attend and had a free seat in his/her car.

And so I did. Akaroa's single main street is about a mile long, lined with little stores, galleries, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. And I went into every single one of them (well, the ones that were open past dinner time) and asked the waitstaff, the clerks, and sometimes the patrons if anyone was planning to go to Okains Bay. It was a difficult task: I'm not a big fan of talking to strangers, in general, and this required me to continually break the stranger barrier for two hours. But I was generally greeted with politeness and friendliness, although this was always followed by apologies. When I reached the town's main pub, I stooped to asking every single customer. Finally, a well-dressed man seated with a group looked me up and down. "I'm not planning to go to Okains Bay," he said, "but I'll run you over if you like. You don't need a ride back, do you?"

I said I didn't: ironically enough, my Christchurch host, Theresa, was planning to drive down to the celebration and had agreed to give me a ride back to the city.

"Great, my name is Robert," he said, and extended his hand. "Do you like a fast ride?"

The next morning, after I had said goodbye to Val, I saw what he had meant. Equipped with a coffee for myself and one as a gift for Robert, I climbed into his beautiful blue Porsche at 9 am on the dot. We took the winding roads from Akaroa to Okains Bay at at least twice the speed limit, and he explained that he had a beach house on the peninsula, that he had started a factory business with three friends and when they weren't sure if they'd do well they'd agreed to each buy a Porsche if they succeeded. He paused to throw the car into third gear. "Well, two of us bought them. The third fellow didn't because he's Fijian Indian, and if he drove it people would think he pinched it," he said. I opted not to respond to this comment, instead silently admiring the car, which was all curves and growls.

View from the road to Okain's Bay
Out of breath from the speed, we arrived in Okains Bay, I thanked Robert and hoofed it down the road to the town's marae (remember, that's the Maori word for meetinghouse), the center of the day's festivities.

The beautiful blue Porsche. See what some determination and two hours of asking everyone in sight for a ride can get you?
At the marae, things were just getting underway.

The Okains Bay Waitangi Day schedule
The day started off with a powhiri, or formal welcome ceremony, in which a Maori representative challenges the visitors to prove their intentions before they are allowed on the marae. That day the powhiri was purely for ritual's sake, as there were no tensions to be resolved, but the sight of the chosen warrior stomping his feet, bugging his eyes, and sticking his tongue out angrily was still affecting. I looked around the crowd, which was filled with both white and Maori faces, rapt at attention. And for the first time I saw a Maori woman with a moko, or traditional chin tattoo. According to what I've read, moko used to be used to indicate rank and identity. They disappeared for a long time but now are making a comeback.

Performing the powhiri

Maori woman with chin moko

Once the powhiri was completed, we settled in for a lengthy program of Maori language and English speeches, discussing the history of New Zealand (Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, where virtually every important Maori chief agreed to become a subject of the Queen, creating modern New Zealand-- just what "becoming a subject of the queen" meant to both sides was where the problems started) and emphasizing the importance of understanding and peaceful coexistence between Pakeha (White European) and Maori. In between the speeches, a group of Maori girls performed traditional songs, an interestingly diverse group (note one red-haired singer in the group below) in one-shouldered dresses swinging their hips and arms to the beat.

Maori girls waiting to perform
Following the speeches, we got to watch a NZ citizenship ceremony, which I thought was a very cool and moving way to observe the holiday. As we looked on, families from Samoa, Fiji, and South Africa recited oaths and started new lives. Each family was also given a tree to plant near their new homes, representing the roots they could now put down.

The rest of the day presented an earthy, down-home version of Kiwi culture, akin to going to a small-town Independence Day celebration in the States. There were sheep-shearing demonstrations, blacksmithing, arts and crafts. And intermingled with that, in a comfortable, unforced sort of way, were Maori traditions. Okains Bay has a fantastic museum of Maori artifacts, and lunch was a hangi, a traditional Maori meal of root vegetables and meat baked underground.

Cooking a hangi for 500+ people in the ground

A hangi lunch: sweet potato, pumpkin, chicken, pork, bread, and carrots all cooked in underground oven. Mmm, delicious.
Through it all came the voice of the day's announcer, a sharp Kiwi accent flowing continually through a PA system thredded across the entire festival site. He commented on the weather and current events, told jokes, and occasionally recommended that we go see a certain event, his disembodied voice assuring us with a classic Kiwism that this or that was "well worth a look." The sound of his constant patter added a lovely texture to the already fascinating day.

The afternoon ended on a fitting note, with a waka (traditional Maori war canoe) making a trip up the river feeding into the bay. The canoe paddled in from the Bay, with the occupants singing traditional chants in time with their strokes-- but those occupants were both Maori and Pakeha volunteers, and the revelers who packed close to the bank to watch the canoe come in were mixed as well, watching traditions made, stories celebrated, and centures of struggle not resolved but certainly remembered.

Paddling the waka

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Akaroa? I hardly know her (Banks Peninsula, 1)

If you ever find yourself in Akaroa, New Zealand, kindly remember that its location is NOT "the Banks peninsula" but in fact only "Banks peninsula." That is, if you say "I am going to spend the weekend on the Banks peninsula" you will have spoken incorrectly, and probably the nearest Kiwi will point this out and laugh. The more times you make this mistake, the more said Kiwi will laugh. I suppose it's a bit like saying "I'm going to spend the weekend on the Cape Cod," but it took me awhile to catch on to the idea.

Anyway, Banks peninsula is a little knob of land sticking out of the otherwise smoothish coastline south of Christchurch. I first spotted it while dreamily playing around with Google maps on my lunch break at work last winter. It looks very odd on a map, a growth in New Zealand's side, and when I found out that it was actually an enormous submerged volcano (also called a "caldera") soaked in Maori history I was hooked.

Beautiful Banks Peninsula scenery

I rode the Akaroa Connection, a glorified shuttle bus, from Christchurch to Akaroa (shocking!), the biggest settlement on the peninsula (you can say "the" in this case, but not when you add "Banks" to the equation). Upon arrival, I found my way to Chez La Mer, a charming hostel/ repurposed Victorian house. The name is French because everything in Akaroa is as well. A little known historical fact: the French actually "discovered" New Zealand, stumbling upon it on an exploring jaunt focused on other south sea locations. Because they were on a separate mission they had to sail back to Europe to ask permission to claim the land for France and bring back settlers, but in the interim the British arrived and made accords with the local Maori-- something like two days before. That means only 50-odd hours separate a British versus a French New Zealand, which would make for quite a different world.

Anyway, the French sulked and took Akaroa as their consolation prize, the one French settlement in New Zealand. It's a charming one-street little town, stretching itself around Akaroa harbor, one of countless harbors on the peninsula (because it is a submerged volcano, there are both harbors inside the crater and around the outside where the mountain comes out of the ocean). There are a host of bars, coffee shops, a little cinema, a grocer, and lots of farmers in the mountains. All the signage in French, although that's about all the French culture that remains. Borrowing a bicycle from my hostel, I went exploring, enjoying a fudge shop, poking into art galleries, and looking into another cute local museum. The so-called "Giant's House," an art garden where everything was intricately mosaiced, called to me, but the entrance fee was too steep, and I passed it by.

Instead, I rode my bike to Onuku Marae. In Maori a "marae" is a ceremonial compound that includes a sacred space and a meeting house, often in the middle of a Maori community-- where there is a marae there are certainly Maori. Here I encountered my first instance of the famous Kiwi understatement. New Zealander's lack of apparent enthusiasm is famous among travelers in New Zealand. I'm not saying that they actually don't feel strongly about anything, only that they often don't show it. An attraction that is fabulous-out-of-this-world is termed "well worth a look" and an hour and a half bike ride up and down small mountains is a "forty-five minute ride with maybe two big hills." At least that's what the owner of Chez La Mer told me as I set off on my mission to Onuku. I wanted a chance to enjoy the scenery, and I had never seen a "real" marae (that is, one outside of a museum.) As I will have plenty of opportunity to discuss in the future, I prefer to encounter culture when it exists for itself, rather than a paying audience, and the chance to see Maori life outside of a tawdry amusement setting was really appealing.

The bike ride was beautiful but incredibly challenging. In the end I walked the bike almost as much as I rode it. I was rewarded, however, with a peaceful Maori settlement nestled among mountains, from which emanated the sounds of traditional singing-- practice for the upcoming Waitangi Day (New Zealand independence day) celebrations.

Onuku Marae

I rested and ate some celebratory fudge, looked into a tiny carved church, and pondered the problem at hand: how to get the bike back to Akaroa? I thought I might be able to make the trek back, but it would take hours and put me out of commission for the rest of the week. I had, as the saying goes, bitten off more than I could chew.

The church at Onuku

My saviors came in the form of three middle aged British ladies who were also visiting the marae but who, wisely, had come by car. They may have been gray haired, but at least one of them was in better shape than I, and when she heard my predicament she consulted with her friends and very generously offered to ride the bike back for me while I rode in the car with her companions. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to finish the job and felt a stab of regret as we crested the last hill back to Akaroa, but part of traveling is accepting your limits and I certainly had reached mine that day.

Sunset after my bike ride

The highlight of my time in Akaroa came the next morning, when I woke bright and early to go out with the Akaroa Rural Postal Run--I spent 5 hours driving all over the peninsula with the postman as he delivered mail, newspapers, and medicine for the elderly. It was a fantastic way to see the area, which is very rural, confusing, and difficult to access without a car and a working knowledge of local geography, culture, and history. And I got the tour all to myself, which was even better.

A glimpse of rural NZ life

As we drove, the postman would tell me little snatches about the people we were delivering to: this family had been farming for generations on the peninsula since they came from Scotland; this one's father built the church on the hill with his bare hands, working for 30 years; this man has Parkinson's, isn't it a shame; this one has lived alone here his whole life; this one is an odd American who is building a Buddhist temple. Through maybe twenty different bays, through fog and sunshine, on paved roads and roads that were little more than dirt paths, we visited everyone on the route and I got to see the backstage life of a quiet, beautiful place unfold with the daily farmer's circular.

At the midpoint, the postman laid out a "morning tea" of crackers, cheese, muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee, to eat at a picnic table overlooking a beautiful inlet where, he said, dolphins sometimes come to feed.

A pretty nice spot for tea
In the last village, where the postman himself lived, we paused at the local school, where the students came running up to the van and he gave each a piece of mail to deliver.

Running to meet the mail

View along the postal route
And in tiny Okain's Bay we watched preparations for the next day's Waitangi festivities. A waka (Maori war canoe) sat in a river shed waiting to be paddled. Nearby, people dug a hole to hold the hangi, or traditional feast. The Okain's Bay celebration would be the biggest in the south island, and as we drove back to Akaroa, I made up my mind that I would change my plans and make it there. I just didn't know how yet.

Okain's Bay General Store

Waka in a shed at Okain's Bay

[Note: It was suggested to me that as I endeavor to catch up with my current travels I might include my present location in my blog entries. So I'm inaugurating a new "current location" feature in this entry. And I am thrilled to tell you that my current location is: Osaka, Japan. I am very, very psyched to tell you all about it.]

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Newest Zealand: First stop, Christchurch

New Zealand: new country, new start, new adventures. The flight across the Tasman Sea was quick and painless, and after I struggled through customs I met my first SERVAS host, Leith, at the airport (SERVAS is like a UN-sponsored version of couch surfing, dating back to the 1970s). She lived a bit outside of Christchurch, and it took most of the afternoon to convert her computer room into a guest room. By the time we finished, we had just time for "tea" (Kiwi language for "dinner") before attending a performance of "Waiting for Godot." This, as it turned out, was a mistake. I know many people consider him to be a genius, but I hate most plays by Samuel Beckett with a vengeance. I had thought that maybe the novel and easy-on-the-ear Kiwi accents would help me appreciate the play more, but they did not. Worn out from the long day of traveling, I struggled to stay awake through two hours of mediocre acting and plotless conversation. Not the highpoint of my travels.

Actually, my stay with Leith was in general not a highpoint. Not every host in a trip like this can be your favorite, and I found Leith to be exacting and cold. She chastised me for turning on a light in my room during the day, for leaving a door closed and then that same door ajar. Not all the tension between us was personality based: during that first dinner Leith revealed to me that she had Asberger's syndrome. She was quite high functioning, but I think my presence in the house and my ignorance of tiny cultural differences that neither of us anticipated unbalanced her usual routines. After two days at her house I transferred to a new couchsurfing host, Theresa, in the city. It was a much better fit.

Christchurch is very walkable city, and I spent my few days there wandering.

Christchurch architecture

The first day my wanderings were rewarded by the last day of the World Busker's Festival, an annual celebration that brings street performers from all over the world to New Zealand. I met Theresa there and we spent the afternoon immersed in the carnival atmosphere, taking in a three-meter unicyclist juggling fiery batons, two acrobats performing a love story in a bubble, a contortionist going by the name Bendy M, and a guy balancing himself on a pole (and occasionally vice versa.)

Images from the Busker's Festival:

Bendy M in a box:

The acrobats in a ball

Living statues
Guy on a pole

Pole on a Guy

The next morning after a grumpy, tense breakfast with Leith I moved officially to Theresa's, trying to glean what lessons I could about cultural differences from the experience while still reminding myself that most of the problems were not something I could control. The day was filled mostly with the super bowl: I met some couch surfers at the Holy Grail, the biggest (only?) sports bar in Christchurch. Every American male in a 20 mile radius was there, or at least it seemed that way. I enjoyed yelling at the screen and soaking up the testosterone, and since I cared nothing about who won I was able to enjoy the game on screen all the more.

After a jaunt through an interesting art gallery showing some Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) art, I joined Theresa and her friends for their weekly Pub Quiz. As the token American, I was mostly lost among trivia about Parliament and rugby miscellany. I spectacularly failed to identify Holly Marie Combs ("that chick from 'Charmed'") and Denver, Colorado but did add Jason Mraz to the mix.

My last day in Christchurch wasn't really spent in Christchurch at all, but exploring its environs. Instead, I went with Enric, a couch surfer from Spain, to Lyttleton, which is a very cute town on the coast that was also the deepest and most important port in New Zealand for a long time and served as the base of some of the first expeditions to Antarctica.

Funky Lyttleton

Enric and I wandered the charming streets, lined with coffee shops and art galleries, and greatly enjoyed a local maritime museum replete with bizarrely dressed mannequins and the random bits and pieces that make a local museum fantastic.

I love little local museums

Creepy/awesome (crawesome?) mannequins, all kitted up to go to the Antarctic
We also hiked up to the highest point in town, where one of the last functioning time balls in the world had its home. A worldwide network of time balls, we learned from the caretaker, once helped seafarers set their courses. For a long time one relied on the time and position of the stars to figure out one's location, and a tiny error could lead to, say, crashing into an island that was supposed to be a couple miles away by your calculations. Time balls, which could be seen from far out on the water, were dropped at a certain time every day, allowing captains to see if their sea clocks (chronometers) were off and by how much, and saving them from island-crashing situations. There are very few time balls left (although the caretaker cleverly pointed out that the most famous time ball of all, at Time Square on New Years). The station also presented a great view of all of Lyttleton Harbor.

Our day wrapped up in Hagley Park, a lovely and lush botanical garden, where Enric and I snagged a great spot near the stage for an outdoor performance of "The Complete History of Cinema, Abridged," a sketch comedy performance by three local comedians. Most of it was entertaining, with a great skit involving a man dressed as the Titanic rapping "Ice Ice Baby" warranting specific mention.

Said sketch
My final act in Christchurch, at least for the moment: an epic game of Scrabble with Theresa, who was a worthy opponent. We played late into the night, and when my alarm went off the next morning I was tired but excited to get on a bus for Akaroa and Banks Peninsula.

Fancy meeting you here

I know, I know, it's been too long. Taiwan has been rather rough in terms of consistent internet access. Just when I get a head of steam going and get ready to blog up a storm, I run into a chunk of days with no access at all, not even time to check e-mail, and before I know it I'm two countries behind.

I'm back now, currently ensconced in a cozy (i.e. tiny) one-room apartment with a fifth-year medical student in Hualien, which is on the northeast coast, and hopefully I'll be able to do some catch up in the next few days. And after that, I think I will have to sacrifice the quality of text for some photos and brief accompanying narration. If all else fails, I will undertake a blogathon in Tottori, Japan, which is my next stop on the 2009 Friends Around the World Tour.

Stay tuned! (Pretty please?)

Friday, March 6, 2009

We can't forget Wally

Thinking ahead as to what there is left to cover on this blog before I can be "caught up" I realized that I made an unfortunate mistake and left off something super cool that happened aboard the Rum Runner in Cairns. So I will add this post script before moving on to NZ:

On the second morning as we were finishing our breakfast, floating over the reef with most of us still dripping salt water, wet suits draped around our waists, Jason (the skipper) looked over the back of the boat-- if I was more of a boat buff I'd know what that's called, but I don't-- gave a start and yelled, "BEVERLY!" which is the full name of Bev, the lovely, salty British girl who cooks and cleans aboard the Rum Runner. Before we could ask him what was happened he had skipped below deck, barely hitting the stairs. Aboard the Rum Runner, Jason often looked like he was barely touching the ground at all.

Beverly came running up above deck with a bowl of cut up watermelon. We all exchanged puzzled glances, but then someone looking out the back of the boat yelled, and we were all introduced to Wally.

Wally is a Maori wrasse, a rainbow colored fish (literally, like a pride flag on a fish but in more iridescent colors) about the size of a coffee table. He has gotten to know Bev, Jason, and the rest of the Rum Runner crew over the past several months. He likes the vibrations of the boat and especially likes watermelon. And so over the next fifteen minutes we watched the two of them feed him watermelon and stroke him off the dive platform, where he lazed on the surface, clearly appreciating the attention. He was enormous, his coloring unbelievable. And when he swam away we still had a stop at the giant clams and purple starfish of the lagoon to look forward to.

Wouldn't want to forget something like that!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ni hao, Taiwan

I landed in Taiwan! I'm staying with Mel and I saw Maya! There are shrines on the street corners and little children speaking Chinese out my window. This is definitely not Kansas anymore.

Yesterday night I was making stupid puns about Oman and Yemen with Kiwis while learning to play whist in the bottom of an Auckland hostel, and now suddenly I'm in Asia! How did that happen? The magic of air travel continues to amaze me.

(There's still a month of New Zealand to cover here, though...)