Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Land of the Long White Cloud

I'm back. I've been in NZ for a bit over a week, and I'll be posting some thoughts I had over there. This is part one. Apologies for the length.

It's 9.20 on Wednesday morning. I've had a toasted Swiss cheese sandwich, a very large black coffee, two cigarettes and a Berocca. I've showered and shaved and brushed my teeth. I've begun to do a little cleaning, although the level of last night's fallout covering most available surfaces means it's more like trying to sweep up after a hydrogen bomb blast. It's at least a two man job, anyway.

The view out the window is magnificent; cover-of-travel-brochure magnificent. There's a massive snowy-peaked mountain leading down to a twilight blue lake which stretches almost all the way to our back door. To either side there are more panoramic mountains, also white-tipped, and the sun is washing over their sides just so. They seem warm and content, as content as mountains get, at least. Which I would say is pretty content.

And amidst this beauty I've just given in and tried something new. I'm staring at my first Boredom Breakfast Beer. And it's glaring back. It's not that I especially felt like a beer (which I think it knows, and resents). But I'm bored, and it beckoned to me with it's yeasty come-hither look and I gave in. How can I be bored here, in the middle of this beautiful day? Well, it takes a lot of work and a combination of events.

Firstly, everyone else is asleep. And that's a lot of people, somewhere between eight and ten at my estimation. I was fast asleep when they arrived back home from wherever they ended up last night, and I think it was probably about four or five am when Marcus came into my room and kicked me out of my toasty double bed and drove me to the hard single bed in the next room. I vaguely remember him saying something about how the double bed should be offered to our newest guests, couple Rupert and Verity, but they're wrapped under a sleeping bag in the lounge room next to me, so I have the distinct feeling that Marcus himself is currently snoring away in the lodgings formerly known as My Bed. Ru and Verity are joined in their dreams by a couch-bound Zac, who despite steamrolling into the kitchen behind me and inhaling a litre of cranberry juice twenty minutes ago, has purchased and validated his return ticket to sleepyland and it looks like there's still a fair few stops before he gets back. Mark, who shared the single bed room with me last night, probably won't be surfacing soon. And this leaves unaccounted Biddy and Emma and Jules, who I suspect are distributed throughout the remainder of the house. But there are no conscious, speaking humans within the vicinity, and this is a major contributor to my boredom. Not that I mind, mind. The other contributor is the unconfirmed bodies in my old double bed, which are preventing me from going in to get bags, jacket, shoes and other things which could allow me to, say, go for a walk or find something else to do.

There have been hinted stirrings, noises behind closed doors or shufflings down corridors between bed and bathroom, creakings of timber as bodies turn in their sleep, readjust themselves just as the house readjusts itself and settles down around each motion. There was the possibility of voices coming from the downstairs master bedroom, but I may have imagined things.

We were tentatively planning to go snowboarding this morning but I don't think it'll happen. This might be a good thing.

When I decided to retire early last night, which is a nice way of saying I piked (cue drunken protest, the obligatory dragging out of house minus shoes towards waiting taxi, passionate counter-argument and eventual return to bed) it had already been a long day. I could have kept going but I was already walking dead, so I probably wouldn't have been much value. I did notice the much-spoken of and almost legendary FergBurger wrappers which have turned up this morning, so I'm sort of regretting not buckling up and hitting the town last night, but there'll be other chances. And I've just opened Beer 2, what the Mexicans call Cerveza Duo, assuming duo is Spanish for two. And until someone wakes up to tell me otherwise, it will be.

No sign of that happening soon.

We've been in New Zealand since Saturday afternoon and it sure hasn't gotten old yet. We arrived in Christchurch where we spent a couple of nights, and as Rupert put it last night, Christchurch can give new arrivals a distorted perspective on the country. It's very English; it was the first place they arrived and they've done their damnedest not to change it since. The river is called the Avon, there's plenty of Tudor style cottages, egg and bacon breakfasts and British pubs. It's normal for newly settled colonies to cling more steadfastly to their roots than country of origin does itself, and you can see the same thing going on in Victoria, Canada ("more English than England") or dozens of other countries across the globe. Christchurch, like NZ as a whole, though, is also a solidly postcolonial place, however, and this becomes clear our first night of arrival. We head out on Saturday to catch a gig by one of New Zealand's biggest bands, Fat Freddy's Drop, a loose dub/reggae collective playing at the Town Hall.

It's actually the Town Hall, as in major civic centre with seats, stage, middle-aged red-vested ushers and all. It's a full house downstairs, and we're at half-capacity in the stalls, which I am guessing puts the attendance at about one and a half thousand people. This is in a town of three and a half hundred thousand. This is pretty huge. Like the band, in a literal and figurative sense. There seem to be somewhere between eight and fifteen members onstage at any one point, with guests wandering on and off to contribute vocals and things. Fat Freddy's are one of the countries leading proponents of dub and that's saying something for a place with one of the most highly concentrated dub and reggae outputs this side of Jamaica. Why is it so?

In a jolting van ride across the southern countryside yesterday, Verity told me that New Zealand's musical heritage is majorly based on two things: the 70s and acid. The way to rebel against the anglo musical background arrived via these, and so it was that Caribbean styles, soundsystems and roots music entrenched themselves as big parts of the local landscape. Everyone seems to know all of the bands, and it's a strong contrast to that Australian desire to find niches, unknown bands or styles you can claim as your own. Things that mark you off as different.

I'm always wary of trying to spot national character, something that unites a nation. To me nations are about plurality, about that difference between you and your neighbour. But New Zealand seems a lot more unified, if that's the word. Travelling across the South island, we meet up with various people who all seem to be loosely connected, and wherever we go there's someone who knows someone. Moreover, everyone seems to know everywhere. I've been to Tasmania once when I was a kid, and driven up to Sydney on a few occasions. I don't feel like I've got much in common with Australians, since the place is so damn big and I've seen so little of it. But New Zealanders, Biddy tells me, feel more like this is their country. It's small, and it's easy to see it all, and they know it well. Different locations will have different associations, so wherever you go you might find a memory or a friend you've forgotten. I kind of envy that.

We drove from Christchurch to here, Queenstown, mountain-fringed lakeside town where the sunlight drifts down like snow. There are clouds at eyelevel beside the mountain opposite me. Jules, freshly risen and planning a breakfast foray down into town, has just put on a cruisy number by Salmonella Dub, another well known outfit. Biddy has gone to shower, and there have been various recombinations of sleeping arrangements. A little more time to write.

The drive was meant to take about five hours, but although we got out of Christchurch before midday it was still well and dark by the time we hit town. We'd stopped a few times along the way, taken photos, spotted a few zombies and penned some original tunes for the band (most of which are now forgotten). Jules met up with us after we arrived, and Verity flew in yesterday. More are expected as the week progresses.

Sunday, still in Christchurch, we drove out to Lyttleton, half an hour away, and wandered the streets as the sun set. It was quaint, historic feeling. A port town. They filmed The Frighteners there, and our first stop was the cemetery featured in the movie. Second, obviously, was the pub, and we didn't want a cool bar or renovated place. We wanted a real local joint, with people who'd look up at strangers entering. We found a place that fit the bill pretty quickly, all dark brown wall panelling and people smoking inside (with New Zealand's no smoking indoors laws, you'd have to know the owner to dare this). We spotted our first zombie in Lyttleton. We also had a child say hello, locals ask us where we were from and an old man in the toilet drunkenly inform me that the jukebox was too loud. I liked Lyttleton.

That was the night we played Is It Butt?, the latest drinking game to sweep the nation or at least the living room in Barbadoes Rd, Christchurch. It's success comes from the simple inclusion of all of the vital components in any good drinking game, namely partial nudity, photography, television, competition and drinking. Lots of drinking. Here is how to play: A nominated photographer takes each party member aside and snaps a body part, hiding the identity of both the subject and exactly what part is being shot. Once everyone has been done, the camera is plugged into a TV so each photo can be seen by all. Spin a bottle, and whoever it lands on has to guess body part and owner. Get both right, photographer drinks. Get either wrong, guesser drinks. If it's a butt (Is it BUTT?!?) you multiply drinks by 3. That's the basics; now you can impress your friends and potentially disgust your neighbours by playing it yourself. Not a good solo game.

This could be a motto for New Zealand tourism. Not a good solo game. What it lacks in positivity it more than makes up for in utility. This place is much more fun in groups, especially in groups which include locals. The crew we're with know all the good spots to visit, all the tourist traps to avoid and how to enjoy a good night in (which, when you're travelling, is harder to find than a good night out). I've travelled solo and with friends, but it's very different to take the guided tour. Of course, these are the people that can also con you into ill-advised excursions, such as bungee jumping. When I mentioned that we wouldn't be going snowboarding today and that this might be an advisable omission, I'm sure I was right (we didn't, though we will tomorrow). But in the meantime, I may have been convinced to take the big jump tomorrow.

While the Melbourne boys went off bushwalking today (in a place titled Paradise, which would be an overstatement in most countries but is probably entirely accurate down here), I had a Ladies Lunch with Emma and her boss, Ian. Ian is editor of the magazine Emma works for, and was entertainingly pissed by lunchtime, which put him in good company. We gabbed on about his son's band, his film career, his magazine. Mostly about himself, really, which I'll frankly admit is an allowable concession for someone who has made it in this world. I also managed to get him to offer me something writing for the magazine, which was a bonus, though perhaps a drunken one which won't be followed up on. I'll follow it up.

Ian is here doing "research" for the mag, and will write an article on Queenstown – meaning most if not all of his expenses are taken care of. And judging by his hotel room, that's a nice expense account. He also has a free bungee jump tomorrow, jumping being a local specialty (along with parasailing, jet-boating, etc) and since his back isn't up for it he can give one lucky camper the shot to leap off a bridge into oblivion. I ask the group what the experience is like. Jules is nonchalant. Biddy is nonchalant. We'll see how nonchalant I can be.

Speaking of which, it was Biddy who turned up today after lunch with her mother (also visiting – it seems no New Zealander is more than a short drive from any other). She outlined her day, casually mentioning that she'd gone parasailing with Mum, as well as shopping at the supermarket. Now, where I come from, you don't go parasailing on a whim. You go for coffee. You might even go for icecream. You don't go whitewater rafting, or running down a hill in an inflatable ball. But I don't come from NZ so I don't confess to understand these matters.

Short tips for non-natives: A milk bar is called a dairy. You can drive at 100kmph on a lot of roads. Everyone knows someone nearby (while we were lunching, Jules turned up, and two separate friends of his joined the table unexpectedly). You should feel entirely free to end sentences with "bro", without feeling shamed at your lack of African-American heritage. You can also end sentences with "eh", only barely qualifying said sentences as questions. This is an odd phenomenon also noticeable in Canada, South Australia and Queensland. I can't explain it, nor do I find a reason to try.

I'm writing this sitting by the side of a winding road which meanders down the valley to the bay. The last light is grudgingly sinking over the hills and a massive, contented mountain is hovering over me. It's bone cold, but it doesn't really matter. I can see snow, stars, water and a warm house. In case you can't tell I'm really enjoying New Zealand.

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