It's cold. Wind buffets from all sides and the floor shifts with the jerking motion of a moving train. I zip my jacket up to my chin. It's loud too and smokey, as there are no windows, just large long slots that begin at waist height, oh, and no seats either inside this rolling open-air steel box they call the observation car. But mostly, at this moment, what I'm observing are the other tourists around me. Lots of Chinese chattering away excitedly about everything which, to be honest, is what all tourists do, but Chinese tourists seem to be particularly good at it.
Everyone has a camera. We are all struggling to maintain our balance and trying to position ourselves so that when the next incredible vista arrives we'll be ready. I maneuver in for the next shot and a man cautions me to be very careful, "remember the briefing?" Actually I wasn't there when the briefing took place so he lets me know that the scenery is highly seductive. So much so that people forget they are standing on a shifting moving platform on wheels zipping through alpine passes and traveling in and out of lots and lots of tunnels… Ok, he actually didn't say that, not really. What the guy actually said was "mind you don't stick your camera out beyond the opening or the next tunnel will take your dammed arm off."
I used to live in Switzerland. It's a wonderful place and there are lots of trains, lots of stunning alpine vistas and certainly hundreds of tunnels but I don't think they have an observation car like the one I experienced in New Zealand traveling from Christchurch to Blenheim on Kiwi Rail. The Swiss like order and organization. They like it a lot, they like it so much that non-Swiss can find living there a bit unnerving in that everything is just so dammed neat and tidy, but after you've been there a while, you come to appreciate neat and tidy. New Zealand is a bit like that, it's certainly a neat and tidy place but with an unpolished, roughness along the outer edges. Which is kinda fun actually, like the naked steel box observation car.
The Truman Show. The 1998 Jim Carry movie about a guy who doesn't know his life is actually a top rated TV show. Anyway, the film's theme of everything being oh so perfect has been a hot topic of conversation here on board. New Zealand is oh so perfect. People are incredibly nice here, total strangers will stop and ask you about your day and they really do want to know, it's not bullshit. Some TV shows come to mind as I look back on our remarkable six month stay here- why there's Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch and Mayberry RFD… The Waltons, and gosh, gee, let's toss in Little House on the Prairie while we're at it. It's like Kiwis watched every sappy, sentimental American trope that ever came down the pipe and said, well heck, let's just be like those guys! It's sweet and endearing and you find yourself wondering what the government may be putting into the water system.
The Italians are entertained. We've all been having a lot of fun here, but for Giamma, Carmen and Andrea, it's been an experience. See ya! and Sweet as Bro! Have become popular expressions. Although the accent has been a source of consternation. Even for Art and I it's been tough to sort through at times. I've actually had to ask perfectly nice folks who actually do speak English to please repeat themselves. People love to give advice here about pretty much anything. So when their accent is as thick as Marmite the advice comes off sounding rather funny and when mixed with the local slang it's even hilarious but none the less sincere.
People love to fish. We can now say that we've traveled N-Zed from top to bottom and from the most northern Northland villages to the nation's most southern tip, fishing is a huge activity. Kiwis are a fishing culture and I'll go out on a limb here and state that more Kiwis are into fishing than Rugby… go All Black! Yes, it's obligatory in a way, but also fun and I've found its a great ice breaker when meeting new acquaintances to simply give a shoutout to the world champion home team. So with that out of the way, let's get back to the fishing.
It's wholesome fun for the whole family… But it's also a major sport and big game fishing is where it's at in Kiwi-land. Here in Russell, what's become our second home, the deep sea boats arrive daily and there's a special winch mounted on the ferry dock for the really big ones. It's rather amazing to be enjoying a beer at the bar in The Duke of Marlborough, gaze at the array of antique photos displaying really small people next to incredibly huge fish and then you walk outside and there's a couple guys hauling up a Marlin that looks like the star of the Hemingway novella. A much more thrilling sight than The Hole In The Rock or the Glow Worm Caves. By the way, both are actual tourist attractions, I didn't make that up… no seriously they're real places.
It's the size of Colorado. Aotearoa, that's the Māori name for these islands, is actually an archipelago of hundreds of islands, many quite small, most amazingly beautiful, but everyone only talks about the two biggest ones which have the no nonsense names of North Island and you guessed it South Island. The Māori are remarkably cool and seeing the famous Haka tells you all you need to know about the warrior culture: be afraid. Our journey through Polynesia would have not been complete without meeting the Māori. We are all, by now, sporting our green stone.
From Wikipedia we learn: Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand in 1642 and called it Staten Landt, supposing it was connected to a landmass of the same name at the southern tip of South America. In 1645, Dutch cartographers renamed the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. British explorer James Cook subsequently anglicized the name to New Zealand.
A million fewer people than Colorado. They drive on the left here and you can get a rental car really cheap. Our faithful crew car was a 90's vintage Honda Odyssey that we got for the meager sum of fifteen NZ dollars a day. She was by no means an epic experience to drive but at that price who cares? You must, absolutely must have wheels here. Public transportation is sparse at best, cabs are ridiculously expensive and rare beyond the major cities (both of them) and if you decide to walk be very careful as there is no, as in none, no respect paid to pedestrians here. Roads and highways are top notch and in excellent condition, oh and Kiwis love their horns, they adore them in fact.
Earthquakes happen. They happen a lot here but most are hardly noticeable. A series of devastating earthquakes that struck Christchurch, the second largest population center, hitting the South Island between September of 2010 and February 2011 are still a very recent event for Kiwis. The quakes were shallow, powerful, and although they were centered around Christchurch, they were felt across both islands. During our time here there have been hundreds of small tremors and aftershocks happening all the time. There's a website that tracks each one. The first time we noticed them was when we were in the marina in Gulf Harbor. We would experience an odd vibration in the boat. It defied explanation at first. There was no swell, no wind, no wake hitting the boat, nothing. It was dead calm and completely still but yet the boat would just suddenly start shaking. It lasted a few seconds and quit. On a hunch, we started tracking these mystery events on the earthquake website and bingo, a perfect match.
It's great to catch up with friends. We hadn't considered our numerous connections to New Zealand before, but once we landed we realized there were a number of terrific people we looked forward to catching up with. We had a delightful visit to the South Island to see friends in Christchurch. It's 2016 and the city is still in recovery but still very much alive and kicking. Long time residents, they took us on a memory tour of the city, describing in detail, all of the places that used to be there. Huge swaths of the city and entire neighborhoods are simply gone now, the memories are all that's left.
When the earthquake happened I nearly peed myself. Yeah, and it was a small one too only a 4.4. We were at a resort near Queenstown on the South Island. It was about four in the morning and I wasn't sleeping. Our room was on the bottom floor of a masonry building, which is probably why I wasn't sleeping after seeing Christchurch and hearing over and over how only wood frame structures seemed to escape while brick, stone and block buildings folded on top of themselves. So I was just sitting up and reading when the entire room suddenly jumped. Yes, jumped as if we were traveling and had hit a big bump in the road. I'm so accustomed to being on the boat, to experiencing movement of all sorts all the time so it didn't register at first. I wasn't sure until I looked across the room to see the closet door swinging back and forth. Art slept through the whole thing, but then, it was me who slept through the tsunami in Tonga so there you go.
People love to shop. In so many ways, as Art and I traveled the highways and byways and traversed the cities and suburbs we felt a strange sense of déjà vu like we'd been somehow sent back in time to 2006 America, but a much smaller version, and more friendly, safer, and cleaner. Like an alternate universe United States where the mythical moralistic ideals of the 1950's just stuck around and the sixties never happened. An America where the financial crisis never happened and where people are still excitedly buying houses and filling them with all sorts of consumer items from huge big-box stores that seem to be everywhere. Young families with little kids are everywhere, the demographic is younger, a lot younger, and the birth rate is higher. Art and I were having lunch in a popular restaurant. A "gentlemen's social club" was having their weekly lunch on one side, while a bevy of young mothers with strollers took up the other. There is a type of idealism here that is real and that Kiwis take for granted.
The land of wine and cheese. I could just end this paragraph right here, with that one statement, and pretty much sum up the country. This is the land of wine and cheese. It's good wine too, and the cheese is fabulous. The vintners are serious craftspeople these days, putting out world class vintages across a broad spectrum of varietals. Those days of New Zealand only being known for Sauvignon Blanc are long gone folks. Wine regions now host a variety and scale that feels like California, and with the restaurants to match. We had some amazing meals prepared by superbly skilled young talent. Artisanal cheese making has taken hold here big time. There are superb craft beer tours too. The foodie experience is worth the trip alone but factor in the jaw-dropping scenery, the genuinely kind and friendly attitudes and you have a real hands down winner of a destination.
So here we are in Russell. We're back where we started and waiting for our weather window so we can sail for Fiji and beyond. Our time here in New Zealand has been richly experienced and delightfully consumed in so many ways. We lived here, for a time, and it's been amazing. For myself, 2016 is shaping up to be a remarkable year. Some of you, my greatly appreciated readers, have been feeling rightly neglected and I do apologize. I've written two books, both novels, and it's really sucked all bandwidth away from the blog. My first novel was published on 18 March. The second manuscript is finished and now in the editing stage. There is a third in the works but after writing over five hundred pages of intricate, complicated text and spending months working nonstop, I need a break. Fiji here we come, we are Feelin' Good!