Sunday, April 8, 2012

New Zealand…oh and it’s a beautiful land.

New Zealand is a definite return stop, with visions of coming here for a few months, renting a van thing (, and traveling all over the South Island especially, doing all the things I didn’t have time to do this trip. The land is beyond beautiful, the people are friendly, and travel is easy peasy especially compared to some of the places I’ve been. The last big accolade for New Zealand is that I’ve had the most laugh-out-loud moments here of any place. People will just strike up a conversation with you, and it’s easy to get people laughing, which is interesting because New Zealand is and must always have been a challenging place to live. The isolation (three hours flight from Australia which is the closest civilized land mass), the weather which ranges from windy Wellington to the South Island Alps, the economy which is based on exports such as wool, and the internal politics of the place are collaged into this one tiny nation. From the large union protest I ran into in Auckland with the posters saying “don’t make Auckland into Oakland”, to the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Queenstown, the Kiwi’s have not had a lot to laugh about recently.  Of course I’ve had a few laughs in other places, and of course the Thai people are always smiling; but the Kiwi’s overall having the best spontaneous sense of humor about life in general.

I’m writing this riding on the train from Christchurch to Picton on my way back to Auckland, sad to go from this beautiful place. The sheep, white moving dots against the green patchwork, stroll along a ridgeway and pass quickly by my window. It is a rainy day, which is usual for this time of year (autumn in March), and I’ve been very lucky to have fairly good weather which isn’t to say it hasn’t been cold for me. So glad I bought a wooly sweater in Sydney, and borrowed my friend’s London Fog jacket. 

I attempted to leave Sydney Airport with a one way ticket to Auckland, having forgotten that you cannot enter New Zealand without a ticket out. I find it amusing how much flack America gets when we turn someone away from our borders, and countries like Australia and New Zealand, that are extremely exclusionary, are rarely mentioned in these caustic debates. It is much more difficult to get into India, China, Australia, and New Zealand than it’s ever been to get into America. It’s very difficult to immigrate to New Zealand unless you are thirty something with money and skills. I understand both sides of the immigration debate in American and I am not sure what the solution is now, when it’s like trying to plug up a hole in the dike while the water is pouring through. I do know that every country has already or will eventually face the same issues that America is now facing, where the resources to care for people cannot meet the demands of those who need care.  America was once New Zealand and New Zealand will eventually be India. It is inevitable as long as we continue to populate the planet with no plan of caring for those we bring into the world, no plan of conserving the resources we have, and no plan of going somewhere else when those resources are gone. 

So, I had to purchase a return ticket at the airport even though I had proof I was leaving with a ticket from Sydney to Honolulu. I also had a very rude custom agent leaving Australia, who took offense that all my items were not in plastic bags. I wanted to tell her that taking crap from people just because they wore a uniform is what got Germany in trouble, but what I did tell her was that I had traveled all over and never been hassled. She was not impressed, and I was not intimidated. My bad because as long as I’ve been a productive member of society, I still have an inbred antipathy to bullies in uniform. 

I arrived in Auckland, had a lovely cab driver who was from Sri Lanka (go figure),  and arrived at my hotel which was conveniently located right next door to the train station, two minutes from the Ferry Station, and right on the main street for downtown Auckland.  After ordering room service dinner and getting a good night’s sleep in a fairly comfy room, the next day I walked around town and ended up catching the tour bus. I stopped off in Parnell Street where I had a coffee and checked out the high end stores. My fast impression of Auckland (and New Zealand) was how much colder it was then I had expected, how unpopulated it is especially compared to the places I’ve been, and how efficient and friendly most services are, including the bus drivers.

That evening I found out that the train from Auckland to the National Park was booked for the day I planned to go, so I had to stay an extra day in Auckland. Actually it worked out fine, because I needed that extra day after touring around Auckland to just have a good rest. While I was in Auckland, I was able to catch the Auckland Art Gallery’s exhibit of Degas to Dali. It was a fantastic showing of art from the National Gallery of Scotland, with some pieces from Degas, Van Goth, and Roy Lichtenstein that I’d never seen. There was one picture from a Scottish artist done in an impressionist style of his lover, who was a famous artist herself. It was so impressive, with this bold young woman arrayed in art deco, but looking so crisp and definite. It made me remember the best of myself, when I face life with no fear and complete confidence, with an absolute belief in my own abilities.  Perhaps not the best artwork, but the best picture for me.
I did as I like to do, and walked around looking for a special place to have dinner. I saw this strange little door on Victoria Street that said Tony’s Lord Nelson Restaurant. There were no ads or signs, just a plain front with a heavy wooden door. I walked into a very English, almost Elizabethan, area with dark cozy booths lining both sides and down the middle of a narrow room. There was a small pub at the back of the room, and several casually dressed waitresses scurrying around. This was a place with history, a place that Aucklander’s brought family for special occasions. There was a larger seating area up a narrow flight of stairs, and later in the evening a picture perfect family with dressed up young girls walked by me after their birthday party dinner. I was seated in a tiny booth, and served the best steak dinner I’d had since dinner in Hong Kong.

The funniest part of the evening, in a Woody Allen sad kind of way, was the young American man with his Russian companions seated across from me having a conversation that went from casual getting to know you, this is my life, who are you, which one of you  will I be able to have sex with; to oh no you are both involved with men in Russia, have no intentions of sleeping with me, and I’ve just been duped  into buying you dinner because I’m a dumb American boy looking for love in all the wrong places. I felt no guilt about eavesdropping because I forgot my book for dinner reading, and because I am a writer and the dialogue was priceless. 

“I am a holistic spinning instructor.” He says haughtily.
“Vas is dat?” She says with a confused look.
“I teach people how to work a stationary bicycle, you know, they go to a gym and ride bicycle to stay in shape.” Both girls who are in fabulous shape look at each other, puzzled by this odd example of western culture. He continues on with more information about himself. “I had some very serious problems with my health for several years, stomach problems from stress, so now I’ve gone on a healing diet and am finally feeling well enough to start dating. I’ve never really had a relationship, because I was ill for a long time. I’m better now,” he gestures with his silverware to make sure they are listening which they are, but mostly they are eating, “I feel really good, great.”
“Ya.” One girl says, with her mouth full.
“So now I am trying new things, trying to meet new people, you know, dating.”
“Would it be okay, I mean would you be comfortable, if I ask you what you do, if you have boyfriends, date in Russia?”
One girl translates the other girl’s Russian answer into very bad English, “she has boy in Russia. She works for him.”
“What work does she do?” Both girls laugh and the boy looks away, as if he’d been caught peering in their bedroom window.
Bravely he goes on, “So are you interested in dating here in Auckland?”
The girl concentrates on eating, “I go back to Russia with my friend. I go to school in Russia.  Learn English better.”
                “So you won’t be staying here in Auckland?”
                “No. We go back to Russia soon.”
                Then, sadly, the light goes on. “So I guess you’re just here for dinner.”
                Both girls concentrate on the food left on their plates, “ya.”

The boy/man’s voice changes from one of interested bubbling friendliness, that he probably read in Esquire magazine is the way to speak when taking two foreign ladies out to dinner with the implicit plan of bedding one of them, to a tone of slight bitterness a bit like the taste of lemon soda. Not as sharp as sucking lemons, but not a long way off. He is another disappointed young man. The languid pace of dinner speeds up to faster eating and less attempts at “meaningful” conversation. And finally, he becomes frustrated at the length of time it takes to get the largely pregnant waitresses attention, so he can pay the bill and end his humiliation.
I was greatly amused by these clever Russian girls making their way in the world, but I also felt such empathy for this sad young man who was also trying to make his way in his world. It was a wonderful setting and a brilliant scene piece. Another twist would be to add the character of the solitary woman traveling on her own and listening in as a silent participant to this cozy Oscar Wilde play. Not sure I’m up to it, but I’ve done my best to give you a glimpse of dinner on my own in Auckland.

I took the bus out to Sandringham for a meeting and got a sense that this was the part of Auckland not offered on the tour of the city. There were a few places like that in New Zealand, but even though my friend told me this was "a poor country", it did not seem like a place of poverty. Like everywhere in the world, there are the places where people live and the places where people want to live. I just found out that James Cameron is moving to New Zealand to film more Avatar movies, and of course he will have no problems with visas or immigration. I'm also one of the lucky ones, in that although I wouldn't be welcomed with open arms to stay indefinitely in New Zealand, I am able to move around the globe for extended stays at places most people only dream of visiting. I guess, because of my mostly substrata family origins, I've never got used to or comfortable with the idea of a privileged class, even though I'm as close to being a member of as I'm likely to get in this lifetime. Honestly, I'd rather think of myself as a nomad with benefits.

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