I spent several days passing through New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, on my way to Australia. I learned a lot about the culture of the Kiwis and met some great people.
In Auckland I stayed at Auckland Central Backpackers which is this huge hostel with like a million floors and tons of rooms. I was in a four bed female dorm with one other girl from Japan named Toshiko. She said that she was living in Australia on a working holiday for a year and now she is returning to Japan. The room is a little cubicle with drab beige walls and no windows so you have no idea what time of day it is or what the weather is like. It kind of reminds me of a terrible dorm room. But there is a fridge to keep things cool and I can finally plug in my laptop. The hostel is huge and it is right downtown. There are multiple floors (like more than 10 – I haven’t counted), and a huge lounge area and a kitchen that looks like it belongs in a restaurant so you can make your own food.
The showers here at ACB only turn on for 10 seconds (I am not exaggerating, I actually counted). So you have to soak yourself and then wash without water and then rinse. Saves water but makes showering very unpleasant.
I woke up Wednesday morning and had instant oatmeal from home and then decided that I should get some fresh food so I ventured out to go shopping. I asked a guy in the elevator where was a good place to go and he directed me to Foodtown, which is comparable to Stop and Shop. Their bakery area really puts Stop and Shop to shame, they have just about anything you would every want in a baked good. Pies, cakes, a million different breads, cookies, pastries – I really wished that I had brought a camera with me. I bought some bread, water, plums, a cucumber and Nutella. They had all of these pre-packed sandwiches to go and some of them were so weird like the hamburgers all had a fried egg and pineapple on them. Must be some New Zealand thing.
Auckland feels like Boston mixed with a bit of San Francisco, it is breezy and crowded but nice and right on the water and very hilly. It is one of the most sprawling cities in the world but there are parts you can walk across in twenty minutes (actually walking across that section also means walking across then entire country of New Zealand, coast to coast). Walking through the city, I kept wanting to jump for joy because I can’t believe that I’m actually in New Zealand. It is so amazing and when you plan such a big trip everything seems so scary and difficult but once you get there it is so easy and you wonder what you were every so anxious about.
New Zealand money is interesting, all the New Zealand coins I’ve seen so far have the Queen on one side and some New Zealand thing on the other and their paper money has a clear plastic area making it virtually impossible to forge. The notes also have a different feel to them, they’re silky smooth and you can feel the designs on them because they are plastic rather than paper.
Wednesday afternoon I took a walk to Albert Park and was mesmerized by the amazing trees there. They looked like they were straight out of Lord of the Rings. The park itself is on a hill which is made up of a thick layer of ash from a volcano that erupted there some 60,000 years ago. It was the site of a Maori village called Rangipuke until 1840 and crops were grown there with water from a spring that was considered sacred called Te Wai-Ariki or Chiefly Waters. Later the British used it as a site to build barracks. The whole park is like a variant on a Victorian garden with all these nicely patterned flower beds and marble neo-classical statues. There is even a statue of Queen Victoria. But there are also palm trees just like the ones in California and lots of modern sculpture as well. There were lots of people relaxing in the shade because it was a pretty warm day. As I made my way to the fountain I saw a whole camera crew and trailers parked on the street and it turned out that they were filming a Wrigley’s Gum commercial!
Thursday I decided to spend all day on the town, walking around. First, I headed to the waterfront which is called Viaduct Harbor and it’s very fancy with expensive apartments and private yachts all over the place. I found out that it was completely overhauled a few years back to make room for all the millionaires who came for the America’s Cup competition. There is also a tourist information center down there so I got some pamphlets, one of which was for the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I had known about the museum but had assumed that it was all war related stuff so I hadn’t bothered to check it out. The pamphlet said that they have one of the largest Maori and Pacific Culture collections in the world and that they do Maori cultural performances every day. So after reading that I started walking to the opposite side of Auckland to get to the museum in time for a performance. Auckland is very hilly because it is built on a bunch of volcanoes and the walk to the museum was almost all uphill. It took me two hours on foot, although I did get a little lost. I had a map but mostly I navigated by the Sky Tower since the hostel was so close to it I knew that I would always be able to find my way back.
The museum itself is located in this gigantic city park – kind of like central park in New York – called The Domain. There are lots of paths and grassy fields there and it is the first park in New Zealand. It has 200 acres and is located around the cone of yet another volcano. There are a few historic sites within the park. There is a hill called Pukekaroa that overlooks the cricket grounds where the city of Auckland was founded when Lieutenant Governor Hobson met with the Ngati Whatua tribe in 1840. There are lots of gardens there because in the 1860s the Auckland Acclimatization Society used the park to test the adaptability of foreign trees, birds and freshwater fish (in hindsight that wasn’t a very good idea).
I arrived at the museum early so I sat on the grass under a tree and ate the lunch I had packed. It was a nice rest since I was all hot and sweaty from power walking uphill through the park because I was afraid I would miss the performance. Once in the museum, I bought a ticket for the performance and sat in the foyer waiting. At 1:30, a group of Maori in traditional dress entered the foyer and one of them blew a conch shell, inviting us into the performance room. Once we all sat down in a small auditorium, a lone woman on stage began singing in Maori. During the song, she was joined on stage by two other women and two men who sang along. After the song, the first woman explained that it was a song of welcome and introduced the members of the group, Manaia, as well as the instruments. There were six performers in all, three women and three men. One of the men played the guitar offstage. The instruments that we were introduced to were the conch shell, an instrument that consisted of a piece of wood on a rope swung in a circle very quickly so as to make a whirring sound called a Purerehua, or the Bull Roarer and the acoustic guitar which was adopted into Maori music after it was introduced by Europeans. The performance was amazing and there was an explanation of each dance. They did some stick dances which used long sticks and short sticks and were a popular game among Maori and also served to sharpen the reflexes and increase the agility of warriors. The women performed a poi dance which is meant to represent the flight of a certain New Zealand bird and is used to welcome the men home. Poi is a ball on a chord and the dance consists of a woman spinning four poi balls at once without getting all tangled up. The fire spinning that has become popular recently has its origins with the poi dance. There was a demonstration of the different kinds of weapons and how a warrior would use them. For the finale the whole troupe performed a Hakka, which is a Maori war dance. The men would do this dance before going into battle in order to psych themselves up into a frenzy. The men slap themselves on the chest, the arms and legs to make their skin tough for battle and make fearsome faces and do a lot of yelling.
After the performance, I wandered around the museum looking at all of the exhibits. They had this huge Maori was canoe that was made to seat 100 warriors and lots of beautifully carved and full sized Maori food storage houses and lots of other handicrafts.
I left the museum and went to the Wintergardens, which is also in the Domain and was built in the 1920s to house all sorts of flowers. There is a tropical house and a cool house with a nice courtyard and pool in between but when I was there, the tropical house was being renovated so it was closed to the public. I wandered around the duck pond, which had more geese in it than ducks, and then headed out of the Domain. While trying to get a good shot of this amazing back and blue bird near the duck pond, my batteries ran out. Total bummer, especially since it turns out that the huge battery charger I bought actually doesn’t work on New Zealand voltage like the guy at Best Buy said it would so I need to get myself a converter. Also, as I was leaving, I got a bit confused with the map because I had entered the park from a street called Grafton, so I headed to the Grafton exit which actually took me to the neighborhood of Grafton which was a bit of a ways away from the hostel. It was kind of nice though; it seemed like an artsy kind of neighborhood with music stores, cafes and wall murals everywhere. When I got back to the hostel, I met a new girl that was staying in my dorm. Her name is Melanie and later I found out that she’s not really a girl, since she’s 27 and married. She is from Adelaide originally but she lives in Sydney now. It turned out that we had a million things in common so we totally just clicked from the start. She was in Auckland because she will be spending the next few months on a research ship studying oceanography and the ship leaves from Auckland. She’s a marine biology grad student whose specialization is fish ecology, especially of the Blue Fish. She was so amazing to talk to and had all of the same beliefs as me about animals and the environment (she is a veggie too!). We could just talk and talk and talk, it was really great.
Thursday morning I had booked this free city orientation tour of Auckland for Friday, so Friday morning at twenty past ten I boarded the tour bus and spent the next four hours visiting some parts of Auckland that were impossible to get to on foot. There are about three companies that offer free city orientations so that they can sell you on some of the longer trips they offer. Still it was worth it, and very informative. We visited Mt. Eden which is another very large volcano with an awesome view and were told about the best places to swim with dolphins, hike and skydive in New Zealand (and we could book them all right there). Finally, we were taken to a pub for lunch (we had to pay for our own lunch though) and everything was fish and chips and basically all seafood. I noticed this girl kind of hanging back and looking a bit awkward so I went up to her and asked if she was going to get something or what and said that I had packed my own lunch. She was with this guy and they said that they had packed their own lunches too so we went outside and sat on a patch of grass and had a picnic. Turns out that they were veggies too, which is why they had packed their own food. They were from Canada, the girl from Winnipeg and the guy from Quebec so we talked about the standard travelers topics like how did you get here and what are you doing here and they said they were doing a working holiday in Australia and were just visiting New Zealand on the way there.
After lunch, the bus took us back to the hostel and I dropped off my backpack, grabbed a smaller bag and headed to the Aotea Square Market. The market was this little tent city in Auckland’s largest square where you could buy anything from designer clothing to cultural crafts. I was enthralled with the Maori greenstone pendants but they were so expensive! I talked to the guy selling them and he explained why some were more expensive than others (because they had intricate traditional bindings) and about the shell jewelry that comes from this kind of shell that is only found in New Zealand and it glistens like mother of pearl but is turquoise and blue. Another guy was selling New Zealand t-shirts and one had the Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa, which means land of the long white cloud. So I had him teach me how to pronounce it correctly. Wandering around some more, I found a guy selling nothing but pins (like button pins, you know the stuff punky hip kids wear). I saw some New Zealand themed ones like “I heart NZ” or one with a kiwi bird on it, the national symbol of New Zealand (like the Australians are Aussies, New Zealanders are Kiwis) so I had to get them. At the next tent/booth thingy, I was looking at some sunglasses when my Polish radar picked up a signal. There was this fairly young couple and as I listened again, my suspicions were confirmed so I turned around and said “Polacy?” (which means Polish?) and we got going into a conversation in Polish. They couldn’t believe that I had never lived in Poland. Anyway, they said they live in Sydney and they were in transit to Bora Bora. I got their e-mail address and an invitation to visit whenever I wanted. Their names were Ania and Piotr and they invited me to a movie later that night but I declined. I returned to the hostel and Mel asked me if I knew where there was a grocery store. I had run out of fresh food by then, so we walked to the supermarket together. I bought some apples and cereal, some more bread and more water while Mel filled her basket with soy milk and all this other veggie food because she was sure that the veggie option on the ship would be just side dishes without any protein. We also decided to go to Kelly Tartan’s Undersea World the next day to see the penguins and fish.
In the evening, Mel and I went out to take some night shots of the city and we stumbled upon a “Busker Festival” along the waterfront. New Zealanders and Aussies call street performers “buskers.” So we sat down and watched the show. Afterwards, I ran into the Canadians from the bus tour and actually got their names and sort of ended the earlier conversation which was nice because we were kind of rushed to get back to the bus and I never got a chance to say “it was nice meeting you and good luck” and that sort of thing.
Saturday, we got up early to catch the free shuttle that left from the Sky Tower lobby for the aquarium and so that we wouldn’t miss the 10:30 stingray feeding. Kelly Tartan was this famous diver and scientist and he totally overhauled this underground sewage plant and turned it into an aquarium and a breeding a rehabilitation center for penguins. Going to the aquarium with Mel was awesome because I got all this background info on the animals and on the politics of aquariums in general because she used to work in one in Sydney. After the aquarium, we walked around the waterfront a bit and did our usual talking and then we caught the free shuttle back to the center of town and decided to take a ferry across the harbor to this little ocean side town of Devonport. The town defiantly had the feel of a slow paced resort beach town like some towns in south county RI. The houses were beautiful Victorian style and the gardens were neatly kept and overflowing with flowers. Walking along, we happened to pass a park where there was a cricket game in progress so I had to go check that out. Mel did the best she could to explain it but I’m not sure I get it. There are like two batters on the field (or as Aussies, Kiwis and Brits call it the “pitch”) at once, what’s that all about? And instead of running around a diamond they run a straight line. Anyway, we found a nice beach and sat in the sun a while and then I ventured into the water. However far I went out, it would not go any higher than my hips and it was so warm! The water was also this greenish blue color, not dark like the Atlantic. It was really nice. We hadn’t brought towels or a change of clothes so we dried out as best we could in the sun and then walked back to ferry landing just in time for the last ferry (if we had missed the ferry we would have to take a really long and probably expensive bus ride back to Auckland). At the beach Mel was telling me about all of these Australian bands that I had never heard of so when we got back she was playing them for me and it turns out that we have similar taste in music too (plus we both love to dance). So we figured that we would go dancing that night at this bar that’s right next door to the hostel. I think they’re kind of affiliated because when I checked into the hostel I got two free drink vouchers for that particular bar (and then promptly gave them away). So after asking the bouncers about cover charges and dress codes (none and none for girls) we decided to go there at 10:30, when the DJ arrived and the bar turned into a club.
When we got there it was kind of empty still and felt like a high school dance. There was a bachelor party going on and the groom to be was wearing a dress and a wig and dancing around a stripper pole. The groom’s younger brother came over and started dancing with us and he kept twirling us around because that is the only thing he knew how to do. When we danced by ourselves, he just stood there doing the “white boy clap” move where you just stand there and clap. So he kept trying to twirl us and we kept getting dizzy. I always get very into dancing, especially if I like the song and because of that, the guy asked me if I was on drugs. What a weirdo. I said “No, I’m American.” Eventually the bachelor party left and Mel and I were just dancing and we found ourselves in the middle of the dance floor and a couple of Maori guys had gravitated towards us. It was unreal because we don’t have any Pacific Peoples in RI, our minorities are African American and Hispanic, but here the minorities are Pacific Peoples like Maori or Tongans and Asians, both east and south. It turned out that they were an uncle and a nephew and that they live in Australia and were just visiting home. The younger guy said his nickname was Ewok (like from Star Wars) and he kept wanting to buy me drinks. After they left to go to another club, some other guy came up to me and asked if he can buy me a drink so I told him that it was against my religion to drink so he went to the bar and brought me back an orange juice! Seriously, come on. It was weird because I’ve never had that happen to me before, even when I went dancing with a female friend like I was doing here, plus Mel is gorgeous so I figured she’d get all the attention. Totally weird. Outside of that, it was a great night, they played every song I like that I could reasonably expect them to play. We stayed there until about 3 AM and then showered and went to bed. We were both hung over the next morning, in the sense that a hangover is nothing more than severe dehydration. So Sunday, I did laundry, I bought postcards, checked my e-mail and called home. I was so tired from the night before that I didn’t really do much else. Well, I also packed. My flight to Sydney was Monday morning at 7 AM so I set my alarm for 4 AM. Then came the hard part, saying goodbye. Mel and I really bonded over just these few days and I was sad to leave, even though she was leaving too so it’s not like staying in Auckland would have made a difference, it’s just that I didn’t want it all to end. I got all her contact info and she got mine and she invited me to stay with her and her husband in Sydney anytime and then we all went to bed.
Monday, I couldn’t sleep. I kept waking up and checking the time to make sure that I didn’t oversleep. Also, I didn’t want to wake Mel or this new British girl that had come the day before with my alarm. So I woke up a few minutes early, turned off my alarm and got up. After getting all my final “toothbrush and face wash” packing done, I opened the door and Mel whispered a final goodbye from her top bunk. Looking back now, I wish I had wished her a good voyage but I was so tired and had that got-to-catch-a-plane nervousness that I forgot. I checked out and bought a bus ticket at reception and headed to the bus stop.