A LAND OF BLUE AND GREEN

Trip notes from New Zealand

11-8-03

 There are times a trip needs to bubble and simmer a little before I can write about it. I visited New Zealand in August, as the guest of New Zealand Romance Writers and Frances Housden, a writer of enormous grace who ferried us and tended us as carefully as a mother. (Visit her website at www.franceshousden.com.) Because I did spend so much time traveling this year, and the summer was quite hectic for several reasons, I simply came home and retreated into my quiet, solitary world for awhile, hibernating with my books and my dog, taking long walks and letting all other thoughts go.

Today, suddenly, I am ready to write about New Zealand.

I remember it in a wash of color and a cluster of odd sounds. I think of sitting on the plane and settling in under a beautiful New Zealand Air blanket woven in blue and green, not realizing how those two shades will permeate my soul. It is the blue of the Tasman Sea and the sky arching above a landscape that is unlike any other, anywhere and the hills, arching in the distance. It is the green of lush grass, and pots of ferns, and flowers everywhere, of trees whose exotic names echo in my mind like a poem–manuka, which is common and beautiful and gives the landscape a look that makes me think of pictures of Africa, and kohi-kohi, enormous and twisted, with flowers that bloom from its trunk. I think of sounds, palm fronds clacking together softly, rain whispering down into thick grass, the unique accent of the New Zealanders.

I often felt a little bit disoriented, wandering a world not quite like Europe, but not America, either. The colonial world feels only a breath or two distant; there is that accent with its lilt and music, everything is new, all the buildings and cars and roads. There’s a fresh, energetic pulse in the air, a sense of optimism tempered by European sophistication. They’re physical and energetic, the New Zealanders, but they are not naive, and despite their physical isolation, their global perspective is much broader than that of most Americans, which I’ve thought about often since arriving home.

In my journal, I wrote a scribbled note: I could not quite pin the culture–partly British but also very modern and multicultural (not that Britain isn’t modern–there is just that endless sense and weight of time behind you in Britain).

I often felt, coming around a corner or going into a bakery or grocery store, that I was in Scotland. It looks very like it in some ways—I took a photo of one rolling landscape from the top of a hill that looks almost exactly the same as one I shot from the top of a hill in the western Highlands—and the rash of homes built all of an ilk: a sturdy, square bungalow. There were sheep littering the green hills, and islands in the waters and the softness of rounded mountains in the distance.

But then you turn around and there are those beautiful, strange trees, and thirty foot palms, cabbage trees and silver ferns as tall as my shoulder, and calla lilies (noxious weeds!) blooming in a drift in the shadows of a ditch, and flashing birds with calls I’ve never heard. It’s magical.

There is a multicultural underpinning of the world itself that I found intriguing. Many, many of the place names are not Anglicized, but still Maori, which felt as if it reflected an institutional multiculturalism that’s lacking in America or Europe–but might exist in the same way in Africa. (I am not speaking with authority here–I have no idea, really. It was new to me and seems as if it deserves notice.) The names are beautiful: Whakarewarewa and Muriwai and Kerikeri and Whangeri.

I think of two beautiful Maori men I saw: one on stage in Roturua, dancing and singing in a traditional way, his body strong and fierce, his face angled and beautiful. Playing to tourists and thrilling us, and I thought of the Native Americans at the Best Western in Taos, dancing every night at eight. I like to hear the drums when I’m there, even if it feels a bit false to me. The other man I saw was in the streets of Roturua, his hair lush and braided and laced with beads, his hands long and beautiful and very clean, his sharply handsome face tattooed in curlicues and ritualistic lines, his pale green eyes faintly hostile as he meets my stare… I am ashamed for staring so openly, but his claiming something ancestral that’s so brash and outside the realm of what the industrialized world would call acceptable fascinates me. It’s a little shocking. I wish I had my son Miles with me–he with his piercings and stretched earlobes and braided hair and tribal tattoos. He would be known and named here, or perhaps only find a piece of himself he doesn’t see in America.

Now to trip reports themselves. These are in no way complete–it was a two week trip and we absorbed more than I could write into an entire book. Just a few notes to share the flavor of this exotic, lovely place with you and perhaps whet your appetite for visiting….

Aug 15, 2003 5:30 am

The sense of NZ’s very exotic and rare ecological system begins the minute you land in the airport. You do have a sense of its isolation simply flying there–it’s a very, very, very long plane ride, and most of it is over open ocean. As the plane approaches the county, there are repeated warnings about taking anything into the airport; there is a long list of forbidden items: fruit, seeds, plants. And they don’t kid around–if you have anything, even by accident, there is a stiff fine. I’ve gone through my things very carefully, so when a dog sniffs my carryon at the baggage claim, I’m not worried about it. Still, he’s quite persistent and the handler asks me if I have bananas. No. I swear it. The dog insists in return that he smells bananas. We unpack my bag there in the cold green light, and there are no bananas. Nothing organic, only the blouse I shed in the bathroom before landing, a hairbrush, my lipsticks and clean socks and panties (oh, how I love to take my panties out in airports, and it happens so much more these days! Gives new meaning to paying attention to the condition of one’s underthings!) and all my books and notebooks and pens. The dog is still worried, so the handler questions me carefully, we search through it.

I finally remember: the carryon is my constant transport bag. A friend had been leaving on a business trip and gave me some–yep, you guessed it–bananas to take home so they wouldn’t spoil at his house. I’d carried them in the bag. Pretty amazing that a dog could know it was specifically bananas and be able to communicate that to the handler so clearly.

We heard upon arrival at the conference that another writer had not been so lucky. She’d tucked away her children’s lunch in his backpack, and it contained forbidden items. She was hustled away, found with the contraband, and fined heavily. I happened upon her only hours after it had happened, and she was quite shaken.

As we wander through the areas of the country we toured–only the northern half of the North Island–you do begin to understand why this is, but at the moment, it was only a little alarming.

Thursday morning, Aug 14

Here I am in New Zealand. Sitting outside on Frances’s porch. I have a big mug of tea and my jacket and there is a soft rain falling. The cool damp feels heavenly on my summer-parched skin, and I want to breathe and breathe and breathe, fill my body with the cool moisture. I think, listening to the palms clacking together, that I am the opposite of a sunbird who treks to Arizona in the wintertime. I much prefer treks to a season where I must don a jacket against the rain, where I can be assured of some fog and dark days and wind buffeting me all around. The older I get, the more I loathe summer.

In New Zealand, it’s the barest beginning of spring. Yesterday, Frances took us to Muriwai, on the Tasman Sea. It’s a rocky coast with fierce waves slamming into the rocks and boiling out of little holes. I wanted to simply fall down and sit there for hours and hours, watching it, listening to it. The color of the water, beneath a vivid sky, is turquoise and deep blue, unlike any seawater I’ve ever glimpsed before.

We saw gannets clustered on a cliff high above the see, dozens and dozens of them. They’re like small swans, with warm brown heads and cream colored bodies and smooth, long necks. They were mating, and it was an erotic and beautiful thing to watch–their smooth brown necks and graceful heads form a heart, then slide together, then apart, then repeat. There was a huge crowd of them on the rock outcropping, and dozens were mating, engaged in this gentle dance. A sound like purring or cooing filled the air. I could have watched them for hours, twisting their necks together. It hypnotised me.

Evening

We drove to Kerikeri today, looping through the north. I have discovered a delightful coffee drink here: called flat white, it tastes like French cafe crème, with that same heft and weight. Luscious. The food is wonderful, too–the bakeries have all sorts of delectable treats. I vaguely remember when American bakeries were as rich and varied as this, when you could buy a slice of cake and sit somewhere and enjoy it, but these days, the grocery stores have taken over the bakery business for the most part. A loss, I think.

As we sat having lunch in a little bakery in a village along the way, I coaxed Frances to tell me about her Scottish girlhood. She’s been in New Zealand for decades, but the Scottish sound is still in her voice. Very much so. She tells us stories of her village and meeting her husband, who was a sailor, and of coming to New Zealand on a ship that took a week (two? I can’t remember).

The weather is glorious–wet and drizzly all day. My skin is rejoicing. I bought a midweight raincoat for an astonishing price, $35. The buttons came off quickly, but the coat itself is quite sound. Frances has a coat exactly like it, in exactly the same color, but I promise her I won’t wear it anywhere she is. Since we live on opposite sides of the world from each other, this doesn’t seem like a big problem.

At Kerikeri, we meet up with Fiona Brand, another writer for Mira and Silhouette. A tiny, beautiful woman with flashing eyes, she has baked fresh scones and served us tea in her warm house. I’m enchanted by it–the rain falling beyond the windows to an emerald yard, the plants blooming on the porch, a cat sitting by the door. I want to live here.

Teresa and I return to our lovely, lovely hotel. It’s an elegantly appointed cottage at the Royal Palm, two bedrooms and a kitchen and a long porch along the front. Gardens spread out all around, meandering over the substantial grounds. I would live here, too, especially after Teresa and I walk a mile or so into town and pick up supplies–yogurt, Red Lion beer (I blithely bought Bud Lite the first night and it was $18! An import, of course, and hardly worth it. I just hadn’t known what the local brand was), rolls and cheese for breakfast. I adore grocery stores in foreign lands and enjoyed meandering through the aisles to see what was new or different, what was ordinary here. Lots of good “biscuits” and yogurts. The instant oatmeal, which Frances cooked for breakfast, is hefty and much better than the American version. The tea, too, is excellent.

Tomorrow, we’re going to Cape Reinga, the “jumping off place”, which my friend Teresa picked out for us to visit. I’m looking forward to it.

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