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.

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