March 14th, 2010

We bowled up to Terminal 3 with plenty of time, dressed in our best compromise clothing – got to get into the terminal before hypothermia sets in, through the airports and flight in reasonable comfort, then from the terminal to the best place to change without spontaneously combusting, not an easy compromise to draw. Personally, I prefer summer to winter flights. But we got to the terminal without freezing and with plenty of time. We got through all the formalities easily and to our gate with time to wander round being underwhelmed by what T3 had to offer in the way of duty free. But whatever. I have only three complaints about the flight:

  1. I got absolutely no sleep whatsoever. For that, I don’t blame Air New Zealand. I can’t. Somehow my brain went into hyperdrive for 13 straight hours.
  2. The air was getting pretty skanky towards the end of the flight. I still don’t blame Air New Zealand, as there are probably many technicalities of keeping a pressurised aircraft cabin intact at high altitude and affects of these technicalities on the possibilities for providing ample amounts of clean, fresh air that I’m not aware of, but it would be nice if fresher air could be brought onboard as well.
  3. The plane ran out of water. Still not blaming anybody, but you really gotta wonder when they get on the intercom and explain that nobody’s getting no tea or coffee with their breakfast as there’s no water left in the tanks.

Whatever, we made it to Auckland safe and sound. We touched down 15 minutes early, in fact. Stepping out of the skanky aircraft cabin air into humid Auckland air was expected. From that into the equally sticky, apparently unairconditioned air of the terminal building was not, and did not feel good. Whatever, we got through the formalities at that end without any hassle, out the other side and there were my parents waiting, standing, hurrying over to greet us. Then in the car and off to my uncle’s house where we could get ourselves cleaned up, get a change of clothes, a cup or ten of tea, and generally start feeling human again.

But there was a reason for us to stay in Auckland, and to have gone first to my uncle’s house, and that was my grandmother. She had been in poor and deteriorating health for some time. I hadn’t seen her for over ten years. About a week before our arrival she’d asked Mum when I’d be back. The plan had been for us to stay in Aucland and visit her before heading down to Hamilton, where my parents live. A few days before our arrival she’d had a massive stroke, and as we packed, then travelled, the family started to gather and prepare. But that’s a matter for another post I’m struggling to write.

I don’t really want to go into a travelogue. That’s been done. I do want to write about a few impressions, though. The first of them – at least, the first I want to write about – is the opposite of Arctosia’s. The thing is, I fully understand where he’s coming from, while I’m still trying to figure out my own reaction. I was struck by New Zealand’s prosperity. Not just prosperity, but possibility, too. I think that’s the first time I’ve felt that way about my own country, and I’m trying to understand why.

For example, I was surprised by Raglan. I had never been there before, and knew it only by its reputation as a surf beach. I was expecting only a few buildings – the requisite petrol station, pub, general store and maybe a church with a few houses and perhaps an area school, not much more. It’s much bigger than that, of course, but what I didn’t expect was an apparently quite thriving retail area full of boutiques, cafes, a few bars, and generally what you’d expect in a trendier part of Wellington or Auckland, but transported to the coast of the Waikato. Tirau was similar, in that the road was lined with some fancy stores selling lots of cool stuff and a few cafes and…. surprising prosperity for a tiny town not much wider than the highway that runs through it.

Oh, and  a giant corrugated iron sheep and a giant corrugated iron sheepdog. And a giant corrugated iron shepherd in the grounds of the church next door. In Tirau, that is.

Still, at half past four in the afternoon all the shops in Tirau shut, much to my wife’s disgust. How lazy! she said. How can they all shut?! If I had a shop here I’d stay open until much later in the evening! Then I pointed out how small the town is by pointing out just how far she’d have to walk up one of the sidestreets before she was in a paddock – not far at all.

Nationalism. For years my Mum has been sending me t-shirts with a New Zealand theme. Things like a map of New Zealand with the word ‘Home” next to it in big, bold letters. It’s almost as if she’s trying to tell me something. When we did get to Hamilton, she gave me more t-shirts of that nature. The day we left she gave me a hoodie with three colourful tikis on it. I think perhaps I sense a pattern developing here…. Anyway, so I’ve been aware for some time now that clothing with New Zealand patriotic/nationalist messages exists. What I wasn’t expecting to see so many blatant displays of national allegiance in New Zealand.

That first day there, in Auckland, had to be spent partly at the hospital with Grandma. But the situation meant that we were given time off, and Dad took us to do a couple of necessary things like change money (NEVER CHANGE MONEY AT AUCKLAND AIRPORT!), then we went across the Harbour Bridge and out to Devonport for a bit of a look-round. On the road (to get back to this nationalism thing) I couldn’t help but notice quite a few cars with a southern cross design, basically the same as the right-hand half of the New Zealand flag (four five-pointed red stars with white borders in the shape of the Southern Cross on a blue background – remember that and you’ll never confuse our flag with the Australian one again), to the left of their licence plates and a silver fern to the right.

Flags, too. I saw more New Zealand flags than I remember being used to seeing flying around. But with flags it gets a little more complex, especially when we were in Rotorua. I couldn’t help but notice more than a few Confederation of United Tribes and Tino Rangatiratanga flags flying, too – in one memorable case, a house in Rotorua had a torn-up United Tribes flag and a Tino Rangatiratanga flag flying from a flagpole in the yard and larger and more intact versions of both flags covering the front windows. Rotorua also sported graffiti along the lines of “Tangata whenua 4 eva”.

It seems I forgot to warn my wife what a maritime climate means: Summers are surprisingly cool. Overnight, when cloud covered the sun, when there was a breeze or rain, especially all of the above combined, she found it cold, and was even seen shivering. It seems lzh learnt the hard way that what I’d told her about the Pacific sun really is for real: As soon as the sun came out, she was complaining about the heat. I think the highest temperature we experienced in New Zealand was 27 degrees – in other words, daytimes were consistently a good 10 degrees cooler than midsummer Beijing.

My wife likes Hamilton. Actually, it is a nice enough town in its own right. My parents don’t like living there, because there’s nothing happening there (they say – I will refrain from commenting, having only ever visited, and never for the sake of visiting Hamilton). I can understand lzh’s point of view – it’s quiet, clean, green, full of trees, and generally pleasant. I’m sure that changes for the weekend of the V8s, but that’s one weekend. Mornings there were nice. I’d wake up, somehow instantly back on my summer schedule of absurdly early starts, brew a pot of coffee, and alternate between reading the paper and stepping out on the deck to observe the sunrise. Despite the fact I was awake at a time I have always felt should be illegal, I have to say it was quite a nice, almost civilised way to start the day.

She liked Taupo even better than Hamilton. The natural environment, the setting by the lake, she said. I can see why. I don’t have a bad memory of the place, and it’s natural setting goes a long way to explaining why.

She didn’t like Wellington. Dry and windy and densely packed. I think I saw for the first time just how tightly packed into the valleys and the few scraps of flat land central Wellington and the older suburbs are, and I think it was a combination of time away (seven years, as it happens) and lzh’s reaction as a first time visitor that opened my eyes to that. Windy, of course, and it is unfortunate that the few days we were there Wellington turned on its typical weather. For myself, it was just a little breezy, nothing unexpected or untoward. For lzh, it was windy. And yes, Wellington’s air is oddly dry.

That dry wind has been blamed for everything that’s been wrong with our skin since we left Wellington.

Books really are expensive. Still, I came back with 10 of them (and somehow our luggage wasn’t overweight): 2 were gifts, 9 were ‘New Zealand’ in some way, shape or form (history, poetry, fiction…). Necessities don’t seem to be quite so expensive. We needed shampoo. We were at a store in Tirau on our way home from Rotorua. lzh said, hey, this is only $5. I said, don’t buy it, it’s always more expensive in these small shops. She didn’t understand what I was on about, after all, it was cheap enough as it was. Next day in a real supermarket in Hamilton we got a bigger bottle of shampoo for even less.

We were in the souvenir shop at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua. The cashier rang up our purchases. She told me the price, but in Chinese…. I must’ve looked surprised and a bit confused. Oh, I’d heard you two speaking Chinese, she said. I hadn’t actually noticed the cashier before, being preoccupied with getting our already large pile of souvenirs onto the counter and stopping lzh from adding to the pile and getting her out of the shop and us on our way to lunch in time to catch the afternoon performance at Whakarewarewa, and the hour was growing late and I still hadn’t readjusted to being able to traverse twice the distance in half the time thanks to the very low population density. Turns out the cashier was from Guangdong – must’ve been a relatively recent immigrant, though, considering her Mandarin was slightly accented but basically flawless, most certainly not like that of a Hong Konger. We ate two lunches in Auckland. On both occasions, lzh ordered in Chinese. I noticed a Chinese-language (traditional characters) newspaper on sale in the Asian supermarket in Hamilton.

Chinese-language signs seemed to be about equally divided between Simplified and Traditional.

I was, however, surprised by how few Chinese, or East Asian people in general, were around. There must be plenty of them, especially if the Waikato now has its own Chinese-language media, but I guess they tend to hang out in areas other than the ones we visited.

lzh is still commenting on the distances that had to be travelled in order to do anything, even just buying a bottle of soy sauce or whatever the kitchen had suddenly run out of.

We were on the road to Rotorua, and my wife was glued to the car window, constantly commenting on how green everything was, how many sheep were in that field, how many cows over there, and so on. I spotted an odd-looking herd and said, hey, check out those animals. The look of mixed-up surprise, confused recognition, and a little shock was so priceless I should’ve had the camera ready. “就是那个草泥马吗?!” (Is that that grass mud horse?!) Yep, it was a herd of alpacas.

That’s about all for this long-overdue post. We’ve been back in Beijing two weeks now and the snow is falling thickly outside. Two weeks ago I was wandering around barefoot in a t-shirt.

One Response to “Aotearoa”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    As always, nice read Chris.

    >>I was struck by New Zealand’s prosperity. Not just prosperity, but possibility, too. I think that’s the first time I’ve felt that way about my own country, and I’m trying to understand why.

    I think I know what you mean. It is something that I try to understand myself as well. Alas, busy middle aged life makes it difficult to sit down, reflect, and put it into words. One more reason to cut down the electronics time.