Up North Looking South

In search of work, Abby and I plowed through highway after highway while edging our way up the North Island.  The roads were straighter, the towns bigger, and the countryside flatter.  I missed the South Island.

Heading up from Wellington, the multi-lane highway was clogged with trucks and traffic. I had told Abby (who had joined me in Wellington) how all the roads in New Zealand twisted and turned around hills and squished into one lane to cross a bridge… All of these facts I had thought to be truths did not apply to the North Island.  Nothing screamed home like these Americanesque interstates with their toddling trucks and honking traffic.

The roads were a bottleneck through sprawling suburbs into the endlessly horizontal countryside.  The passing towns were windswept and weathered.   “These are the scary, backwards places I avoided in Colorado.”  Abby questioned my insistence that everywhere in New Zealand was absolutely breathtaking.  I too was beginning to wane on this position.

Palmerston North, the next city on the map, only added to the disappointment.  The small metropolis, with its dueling towers, was centered along an audacious town square that was as banal as it was pompous.  I felt sorry for the poor kids at Massey (New Zealand’s largest university) who called this, the “student city,” their home.

Further north, we spent the night in an old horse stable on the Pacific coast at Napier.  Other than the high ceilings, the only thing resembling it’s equine past was the wall-to-wall horse murals and framed unicorn silhouettes.  Majestic horses have always fascinated me, but I find horse paintings inherently creepy.  They conjure up the image of a certain persnickety girl from forth-grade with a penchant for My Little Pony and Crayola Crayons.

From said friend’s adolescent dream room, we left to explore Napier in all of its Art Deco Glory.  You may remember Ranfurly, the “rural art deco capital of New Zealand.” Napier was the real deal in all its kitsch grandeur.  It was as if Walt Disney had designed a retirement city along the Florida coast with a Riviera theme.

Napier was the kind of place with an immediate appeal that vanished steadily and heavily as the hours passed.  Once you’ve bought into the gimmick, you find that was all it ever was at the start.  But, at least Napier presented an outward charm.  A giant effort was made.  That, I could appreciate.

Neighboring Hastings was content on looking like shit.  They were not going to put on a façade and hide behind cream-colored geometrics like their neighbors.  Nope, the sinister citizens of Hastings were pleased to be the agricultural waste station of Hawkes Bay.  In a coast of endless orchards, Napier hung proud to it’s artificially enhanced core as Hastings sat rotting below.

Coming from the northern hemisphere, what that had always struck me about the New Zealand countryside was its trees.  How could pines and palms stand together in the same forest?  Trees, so gnarled and stunted, trees that branched out halfway from the top, trees that appeared upside down…  I had never seen such trees before in my life.

So, when I drove north from Napier past rolling hills of logged forest, I was saddened.  And, the deforestation continued the whole way northwest to Lake Taupo.  As I write this in my notebook, I feel hypocritical.  I know paper comes from a tree that comes from a forest.  We all use paper, so we all need trees.  I guess sometimes it’s easier to detach the thing from its origin.  But, to see so many unique trees downed in such a (generally) untouched country was a disappointment.

I found myself thinking, “this would never happen on the South Island!”  Everything was preserved there – every corner a National Park.  I had become such a staunch defender of the South, the place that northerners thought of as slightly backwards.  I had always heard that the South Island was the jewel of the country but I had not imagined the north to be this bad.

But, perhaps bad is a poor choice.  I was accustomed to the small town charm of the South that catered to every one of my inner-tourist desires.  Here in the North, I had found a countryside that let its flaws show.  It was crowded, harried, and, well, normal.  This was New Zealand without the perpetual ebb and flow of tourism.

I began to question what it was I had considered, “the real New Zealand.”  Was it the tailor-made towns of the southern countryside? Or was it the bland suburbs of the north?  Was the South Island really just a big tourist trap that I had bought into whole-heartedly?

From Taupo on north, we witnessed a reappearance of the familiar drama of New Zealand.  The north wasn’t as bad as I thought.  When you’re on the South Island everyone talks about how bland and overcrowded the north is and when your up north they gasp that you could spend four months living in a town of 300 people.  Perhaps I’ve bought into a certain southern mentality that I’m having a hard time letting go.  Maybe things don’t need to be so tough and gritty.  Food doesn’t need to cost a dollar more because I’m in the middle of the mountains and the local post office doesn’t have to run out of the gas station.  I need to embrace the fact that I am up north.  It’s crowded.  There are actual places to shop, three choices of supermarkets, and real places to see a movie outside of the local town hall’s monthly special.  I work with Kiwis instead of foreigners.  Instead of parks and hotels, there subdivisions.  It’s a bit easier, a bit more normal… but it’s no less New Zealand.

A Bloodstained Mattress in Wellington

I downed a sleeping pill with an airplane bottle of Cruzan Rum to fall asleep.

This was, by all accounts, a good idea – a good idea that soured when one of the eleven flatmates in our 2nd story apartment accidentally lit his pillow on fire and set off the alarm around 2:30 in the morning.  Opening my gloopy eyes I saw a clan of fluffy-haired university kids in hipster pajama-wear marching past endless rows of pop-art replicas out the bulky front door.

I went back to sleep, but then…

Abby flipped on the fluorescents.  She had just flown into Wellington to meet me and had also taken a sleeping pill.  We sat, dazed, on my bloodstained mattress looking around our strange room.  The windowless walls were draped in tinfoil and in the corner lay a collection of chairs, TVs, traffic cones and topographical maps.  It was all too much for us on our first night in town so we shut of the light, crawled back into our beer-scented cave and began our hibernation.

If I haven’t mentioned coushsurfing on this blog yet, I will take the time to acquaint you with it now.  Essentially a website for meeting others through the process of free accommodation, Couchsurfing.org is the search engine of sofas.  Requests are made for surfing rights and information exchanged until one finds a willing couch owner that has a respectable reputation on the site.

For example: Iago from Spain came to sleep on my couch in Queenstown, cooked a tasty Spanish Tortilla, wooed my flatmate with his clown nose and juggling skills, and spent the next two nights shagging her.  I wrote on his wall, “Iago cooked a mean dinner and got along great with the housemates.”  He wrote me a reference raving about how everyone in the house showed him a great time.  This is couchsurfing!

Slayton, our host in the eleven-room apartment, was in classes most of the day and spent his afternoons exploring the cold, murky waters of Wellington harbor with his dive gear.  Originally from Thailand, he offered a wealth of knowledge on “the motherland.”  Slayton marked up my map with quality tips like, “hang out with the police here,” or “mean people, avoid this town.”  In between shots of an unknown liquor mixture, he spoke of the beauty of Thailand as we sat in my room that, with it’s drop ceilings and florescent lights, reminded me of my high school science classroom if it were fork-lifted away and dropped in the middle of a dorm.

On the outside, the apartment building looked incredibly respectable.  In fact, everything in Wellington was as neat and tidy as a country’s capital should be.  What shocked me about New Zealand’s capital city was how the fluffy-haired hipsters and greasy, suited politicians marched in harmony down the same streets.

A compact city, Wellington is sandwiched between the harbor and the foothills.  With a concentrated central business district, it gave off the air of a city twice its size.  It had far more theaters and concert halls than a (relatively) small city should accommodate and, as the capital, museums loomed on every corner.  Even the government buildings had a playful architecture with the parliament’s Bee Hive the iconic backdrop and symbol of the city.

On our first day in Wellington, we crawled out of our cave and walked along the harbor through town to its famous 108-year-old Cable Car.  Rising through Wellington’s upper quadrants, the single red car arrived at the hilltop Botanical Gardens where the Spring Festival was in full bloom.  The nation had been in the midst of a serious winter storm and everyone was heralding this as the first true day of spring – a great day to wander the windy paths of the fragrant, flowery park.

Back by the harbor, we explored Shed 11’s powerful and emotionally draining World Press Photos exhibit  and strolled across the marina to the Wellington Museum.  Keeping with New Zealand’s curious enthusiasm for the Earth’s poles, the museum was hosting the Polar Night exhibit of surreal black and white photos and quixotic riddles of the arctic.

Cuba Street sucked us into the midnight grip of its thrifty-chic revelers, edgy bars and cozy concert halls.  When our ears were exhausted from the Cuba Street clamor, the walk home down Courtney offered plenty of further enticements.  Yet, in the wee hours of a Wellington night, it was our 2nd floor cave on Kent Terrace that took on a magical perfection.

Waking up late as you do in a dorm, we washed our teeth in the side sink, bypassing the main bowl that was being used as a storage space for 11 toothbrushes and 6 empty tubes of paste.  Coffee in our bellies, we sauntered through the city at lunchtime to people-watch and set out to tackle Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand.

If you make it to one city in New Zealand, make it to Wellington.  If you make it to one museum, make sure to set aside some real estate in your brain for Te Papa.  Taking interactivity to a whole new level, exhibits included videos, buttons, and levers aplenty.  Want to feel an earthquake, see a volcano explode, or step on a light sensitive map of the country?  This is the spot.

Down Taranaki Street, the New Zealand Film Archive Mediaplex (or simply Mediaplex) housed a small gallery showcasing the works of “Wellywood,” its multi-Oscar-winning WETA animation studio, and its patriarch Sir Peter Jackson.  The computers in the lobby contained a vast library of New Zealand media from old McDonalds ads for the “Kiwi Burger” to a survey of buskers in Christchurch in the summer of ’69-‘70 or silent footage of the Queen’s visit to “her most remote outpost” in 1953.

It was hard not to notice how Wellington’s arty, sophisticated citizens held their city in high esteem.  There was one thing that Wellington was most certainly not – Auckland.  Like the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry in Australia, Auckland may be the big show-off, but Wellington is the cultural capital of the country.

Walking along the Oriental Parade, heaps of fit urbanites jogged past in groups, chatting.  Listening in, I detected a noticeable change in the Kiwi accent from down south.  Words were swallowed and sung in diphthongs.  Sentences were clipped short.  This was the funny accent outsiders associated with New Zealanders.

Worn out on trendy, windy Wellington, we waved goodbye to the tatters of tinfoil and topographical wonders.  Switching off the lights, the florescent glare faded to black.  From hipster rubble and arty intrigue, Abby and I left Wellington heading north past the beachy Kapiti Coast.   Into the farmlands of the lower North, we drove past the towns where the fluffy haired hipsters of Kent Terrace spent their awkward adolescence.