Friday, May 22, 2009

The Wonder of Wellington

Following my "breather" in Nelson, I hopped a bus-and-ferry combo across the choppy but stunning channel separating New Zealand's north and south islands, landing in Wellington. As an Anthropology major and avid traveler, I had several reasons to be excited by this next step in my time in NZ. I had visited once before with my parents, but at that point we had focused largely on seeing the gorgeous sights of the south island. We had spent only a few days on the north island, had seen very little of the Maori culture that permeates it or anything outside the typical Auckland-Rotorua tourist trail. I was excited to take a longer chunk of time to experience north island life and learn more about Maori culture in the bargain. On the ferry I took photos and read some travel notes, struggling to decide between two equally exciting routes through the island. One would take me around the remote East Cape region; the other would involve crossing the famous Tongariro national park (also known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies), possibly by horseback.

All aboard the Inter-island ferry in Picton

The northernmost point of the south island, as seen from the ferry

As my first north island stop, I stayed with Moira, my mother's friend and colleague; her husband, Dave; and her adult son, Rob. They made me a temporary part of their family for the next week: I had my own little room in their house, which was located in heavily Polynesian suburb of Wellington called Naenae. Dave was what I would call a sort of "old school" Kiwi, constantly saying jocular and mildly offensive things, chain smoking, ribbing his wife (or "taking the piss," as he would say.) It seemed a comfortable marriage-- it was Moira's third-- and there was a constant march of their many, many grandkids through the ramshackle house.

I had "tea" (dinner), complete with "pudding" (dessert, usually not actually pudding) with the family most nights; I watched how they related to each other as a Kiwi family; I participated in the genial "piss taking." In the morning I listened to the national talk radio call-in show with Dave, discussing topics of the day. In the evening I caught up on TV, especially appreciating the Maori language/Maori-centric programming-- my favorite was Mr. Ed dubbed into Maori. And during the day I would walk through Naenae, filled with unfamiliar Rarotongan/Samoan signs, and take the commuter train into Wellington to explore.

A free clinic in Naenae
I spent a couple afternoons wandering around the quay area of Wellington harbor to Te Papa ("the Nation") which is arguably New Zealand's foremost museum, although there are certainly some Aucklanders would have something to say about that. (Wellington and Auckland have a long running and mildly silly rivalry-- a Wellington newspaper article I read claimed that "Wellington has streets full of arts and theater, Auckland has the cast of Shortland Street [a Kiwi soap opera]")

Te Papa was like every kind of museum rolled into one. One floor had an engrossing, informative exhibit about volcanoes/earthquakes, including an earthquake simulation. The building also housed a natural history museum, featuring stuffed versions of most of NZ native animals including a giant squid (!); a cultural museum with fully reconstructed Maori marae and interesting exhibits about other Pacific Islanders; and an art museum with modern displays and a really well-curated show of Maori and Pakeha art, showing how the two interacted as the groups did as well, from 1800s up through today. And the best part: it was free! Which meant I did not have to feel obligated to take it all in in one day--and, indeed, I spent parts of three days exploring the monstrous fantasticness of it all.

I took some time after my first visit to Te Papa to wander Cuba Street, and alternative heart of Wellington. Unfortunately, due to an ill-timed but totally worthwhile visit to the Cubita coffee house, a Cuba-themed cafe with fantastic coffee and an Iraqi owner, the stores on Cuba St had just closed when I arrived. But still I wandered, seeing a street filled with things I love-- old clothing and record shops, antiques, coffee houses, cafes. The best part was the random street art everywhere, something I came to love about Wellington. I ate crepes at a little stand and got lost on the winding streets that head up hill to the ancient volcano's peak, but didn't mind. The late afternoon sun felt wonderful and there was so much to see.

Wellington Waterfront
Cuba St, Wellington
Some choice street art

In my opinion, one of the peak experiences available to a traveler is the chance to meet a familiar face in a far-flung location (and it's even better when that face belongs to a dear friend!) A few days later I had just that pleasure, meeting my good friend Rania, who was in NZ with her boyfriend WWOOFing for several months, in downtown Wellington. The day was sunny and busy, everything tinged with the mild miracle of the two of us meeting so far from home. In the morning, we took a cable car up to one of highest points in the city, to see all over Wellington. We walked back down through a beautiful botanical garden to the NZ legislative building (which locals call "The Hive") and had a lovely outdoor lunch before going to see a "question session," in which MPs (representatives in the parliamentary system) field political questions from their peers and constituents.

"The Hive"

Rania and I thought it would be very interesting to see how parliament functions, but we had an ulterior motive: these sessions were famous for becoming, shall we say... "spirited."

And we were not disappointed! Often after an answer half of the gallery could be heard grumbling, clapping, or yelling "hear hear!", like some sort of deranged Greek chorus. And sometimes they descended into insults. My favorite of these involved one MP accusing another of becoming "the Marie Antoinette of education." Another time, in regards to a contentious bill to repeal a law requiring schools to promote healthy food, one representative fired off this gem: "So what you're saying is, our kids can smoke as much dope as they like but they can't eat a cake once in awhile." Rania and I loved it.

To cap off the day, we took a cheap ferry across Wellington's sheltered harbor to to Days Bay. Or at least that's what we tried to do, but we accidentally got off one stop too early at Seatoun, a sleepy and adorable but not particularly happening town. Moira's husband had told me that Eastborne, the settlement at Days Bay, would have cafes and arts/crafts-- but Seatoun had a dairy, a book shop, a closed cafe, and two hours until the next ferry. So we walked and chatted, eventually making our way to the next village over, where we found a bakery to stop in and pass the time. Back at the ferry, we convinced the ticket man to let us stop in Days Bay after all. It was also beautiful, although we didn't get to spend much time there.

At the end of a long, great day, aww

A few days late, knowing my interest in Maori culture, Moira took me to a Maori immersion school, where students learn Maori language and culture before they learn to read English-- a contraversial but very successful model. As a sweet, very shy young Maori girl led us from classroom to classroom I felt suddenly nervous, suddenly very aware of my white skin and my privilege in being allowed to just barge into the day to day workings of the school. Nonetheless, they were very welcoming as I toured around an art class where they painted traditional symbols, a kindergarten where little Maori kids learned about traffic lights-- what they do, what you call them, the name of the colors. We didn't stay very long, and I felt fascinated, intrigued, let down by the surface nature of the experience. It would not be the last time I experienced such frustration.

At the school- a Maori language poster about nutrition
In the last few days of my week in Wellington, after a long period of agonizing decision making, I decided to take the risky path and join a complete stranger (well, almost-- I'll explain later) for a tour around the North Island's remote East Cape region. I spent the last days planning, relaxing, and going up to the blueberry farm where Rania and Colin were working to see them. That day was warm and sunny, and we picked blueberries to eat with ice cream and explored the charming farm, complete with a huge rooster named Dumbledore and an enormous, gorgeous old German Shepherd called Bilbo Barkins (awesome.)

On the Blueberry Farm

At the end of the day at the farm I sat on the benches (pictured above) and talked with Rania and Colin while they worked on a painting project. We were discussing travel decision making, the necessity of taking risks, and Colin said something that would inform both the next week I spent in New Zealand and the next several months of my travel.

"No good stories come from things that go as planned," he remarked. "'I went to the Caribbean on vacation and came back.' is not a good story. 'I went to the Caribbean on vacation and got eaten by an ENORMOUS KILLER OCTOPUS' is totally a good story."

I thought about that-- I thought about it a lot, and the more I thought the more I knew he was right. So the next day I jumped into the mouth of the octopus, as it were, and got on a bus to meet Heikki, a Finnish ex-pat who goes by the name Henry, for a four-day camper van tour around the East Cape. It was a decision I would not regret.

No comments: