Friday, June 5, 2009

FLASHBACK-- Napier, NZ: What decade is it, anyway?

As I mentioned in a previous entry, the format of this blog is changing. From now on I will be simultaneously writing about what I'm doing in the present (and where I'm doing it), as well as occasionally presenting forays into the missing 3+ months of travel this blog has yet to cover. This is the first of the FLASHBACK entries I promised.

Late February (approximately February 20)--
When we left off in New Zealand, I had just decided to take the riskier option for my travels through the North Island toward Auckland. The relatively remote region of East Cape had caught my attention when the G family, with whom I'd stayed in Nelson, recommended it to me. When I did more research, the appeal only grew: the region boasted rich Maori culture unspoiled by the crass tourism ventures that pop up in larger North Island communities such as Rotorua; it also was one of the most stunning areas on the island, and in New Zealand that's saying something. The cape was large, however, and not well-serviced by tourist busses. I wasn't sure I could make the trip alone.

Enter couchsurfing, my longtime savior. Heikki, a Finnish Kiwi expat who went by the name Henry, posted on a New Zealand message board looking for someone to accompany him on a campervan trip around East Cape. I hemmed and hawed-- although Henry had all positive recommendations on his couchsurfing profile, he was still a strange, older man, and the situation had obvious inherent risks. But after several telephone conversations with Henry, as well as consultations with my parents and friends, I decided to take the plunge. He was waiting in Napier, a city about 6 hours north of Wellington by bus. Leaving the comfort of Moira's home behind, I rode north into a multi-day adventure.

As it turned out, I had very little to worry about. Henry was completely non-threatening, a recovering paraplegic whose enormous inner strength had brought him back to walking with canes when doctors said it was impossible. Really, he only posed a threat when it came to my peace of mind--he was mildly anti-Semitic, mildly homophobic, and generally a little bit of a jerk. But as traveling companions we got on reasonably well, and in the end the places his campervan took me were well worth the effort it took to steer clear of the necessary topics...

I knew little to nothing about Napier when I arrived. I didn't know, for example, that the entire town was leveled in an earthquake in the early 1930s and had therefore been rebuilt completely in that era's current style, art deco. Napier is therefore, among some circles, known as the art deco capital of the world. It might have been useful for me to know this beforehand, but my ignorance made arriving to find the annual Napier Art Deco festival about to begin even more delightful.

For one weekend every year, people from all over New Zealand and beyond--possibly everyone in the southern hemisphere who owns an antique car-- converge on Napier for four days of old-fashioned (in every sense of the phrase) fun. There are big band concerts, barbershop quartet performances, antique car parades, and costume contests. For yes, celebrants get into the spirit by getting out their best flapper dresses and bowler hats, completing the transformation of the town into its last-century self.

I arrived in Napier from rainy Wellington to find the weather clear and a jazz band playing in the old-timey band shell. I spent the night in Henry's camper van (the rest of the nights on our trip he slept outside in his camping hammock) with no incident and the next morning was taken up wandering the town admiring the lovely architecture, coming across such fun surprises as corner girls' choruses, morris dancers, and a restored steam engine, and doing some fantastic people watching.

I think some photos would give you a better idea of the atmosphere than anything else. So without further ado:
An outdoor jazz brunch
These pictures really beg the question: what decade is it, anyway? Switch them to black and white and I don't think you could be sure

Art Deco at its best

Barbershop stylings on the sidewalk

The antique car parade

Waiting to be judged at the costume contest
I think this one might be my favorite

The sun was shining intensely on Hawke's Bay as I finished my morning wander and caught up with Henry in the parking lot where we'd camped for the night. He was ready with maps, and we set out on the first leg of our tour around East Cape, heading for what many consider to be the easternmost city in the world-- Gisborne.

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