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Time to let my hair down

Helen Gilchrist takes a break and discovers New Zeland's crazy side

I thought it would be strange and disorientating going back to work after almost three months doing whatever I liked. I thought it might take me some time to get back into it, get used to the routine again... that maybe I would drift around the corridors of the Language Institute in an unfocussed daze while I gradually adjusted to life back on the workforce. However, not even a month has passed since I started and the lesson planning, teachers' meetings, tutorials, admin and battling with the photocopier's temperamental paper-swallowing mood swings are already all too familiar. I'm trying not to let myself become a dusty old teacher buried beneath a pile of registers text-books board-pens... keeping my out-of-work life as active as possible with frequent trips to the beach and mad dashes up to the lakes after work for a couple of hours' wakeboarding before sundown (and I actually feel like I've earned it when I, just like the others, have been working all day too). So, when the opportunity arose for free tickets to New Zealand's premier musical bonanza - the closest the Kiwis come to Glastonbury - I jumped at the chance to cast down my board-pen and get down to the beats of some of the best New Zealand and international bands...


The lucky coincidence that one of my oldest and dearest friends happened to be the girlfriend of one of the musicians performing at Auckland's main musical event, THE BIG DAY OUT, meant that I was able to get my hands on some free tickets. Pretty chuffed, I decided to treat my Kiwi friends, as a way of saying 'thank you' for taking me in and looking after me for the past couple of months. Unfortunately, we all had to work in the morning, but as soon as we knocked off we were in the car burning up the State Highway 1 to Auckland. We weren't the only ones who only managed to make it half a day: as we bounded through the turn-styles mid-afternoon, we passed several early casualties - too wasted too soon - stumbling staggering out of the stadium. Inside, the usual spectacle of happy sunburnt festival-goers greeted us: dreds pink hair beads tats piercings hotpants Doc Martens glitter drainpipes combats skate-shoes bikini-tops and the ever-present ever-cheesy jester hats... but whatever, whoever, everyone was buzzing that so many good bands were all playing on the same day in New Zealand of all places - that country far away on the bottom of the world that so many touring bands seem to forget about.
Those bands who did remember New Zealand delivered the goods to an eager and ecstatic crowd, letting rip with some 'awesome' sets - Coldplay, Roots Manoeuvre, Rammestein (the German hard-metal act dressed in S & M gear, with a stage-show of simulated sex to a backdrop of on-stage fireworks and burning crosses...), Roni Size (turning the heat up to a fever in The Boiler Room dance tent), Limp Bizkit (who amped the crowd right up into such a hardcore mosh that they had to stop playing to allow Security to pull out several casualties), and finally the funked-up hip-hopping breakdancing Black Eyed Peas (less one of their rappers, who had been put straight back on the plane after New Zealand Customs found a small quantity of marijuana on him). And, as I was groovin' away, just as I was least expecting it, it was my turn to join the ranks of the young international traveller 'oh my God we used to go to school together' crowd - I was tapped on the shoulder by an old schoolmate I hadn't seen or heard of for six years. I've always scoffed at the gushing oohs and ahhs when observing other young travellers' unexpected reunions in distant corners of the planet, thinking its not that 'amaaaazing' after all because so many young people travel these days and everyone using The Lonely Planet is bound to end up in the same places... but when it was actually me, taken by surprise amongst a 36,000-strong crowd, it did seem like a 'mental' coincidence, and I think I may have even said 'oh my God'...


A long weekend - thanks to Auckland's Anniversary Day - combined with the visit of some close relatives all the way from Europe gave me another perfect opportunity to escape the long air-conditioned corridors of the Language Institute and get out of Hamilton for few more days. A combination of its acclaimed 'Californian / Mediterranean' climate, cafe-culture and live music, and the fact that it has the most concentrated collection of Art Deco buildings in the world, lead us to sunny Napier. It was good to be on the road again, off somewhere new, winding through pine forests and climbing up over the high plains and rocky escarpments of the Maungaharuru mountains until, passing the highest point, we caught our first glimpse of the Pacific glistening in the distance. Descending into the foothills and the famous Esk Valley wine region of Hawkes Bay, we passed through vineyards orchards olive groves orange and avocado trees, past countless roadside fruit stalls... finally reaching Napier in the golden early evening - the best time of day to view the vivid colours and striking motifs of the Art Deco capital of the world.
Napier's present-day glory is born out of past tragedy: in 1931 a huge earthquake (measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale) struck the region, killing 258 people and virtually destroying the whole of Napier city centre. However, in just two years, the city had been rebuilt entirely using the most popular and modern styles of the time - predominantly Art Deco and Spanish Mission. These styles symbolize the new spirit of the early 20th century: the overthrow of old conventions, huge scientific and technological advances, new freedom and optimism for a bright new future. Such beliefs are embodied in the favourite motifs of the style: geometric patterns and lightening flashes to show power, dancing women, leaping deer and - most common of all - rising suns to represent the dawn of a new age. They're everywhere. For Napier, the past was destroyed and could never be brought back; so the most modern buildings would be used to replace those that had gone.

Today Napier thrives on its image as a city reborn in an era of glamour and glitz, at the height of the Jazz Age... the official tourist guide describes Napier as 'sophisticated, glamorous, spiffing, saucy and suave', and invites you to 'wander through streets that evoke the razzmatzz of a bygone era'. To an extent this is true - everywhere we went we saw Art Deco motifs, vintage cars, costume shops, antiques shops full of Art Deco treasures, we heard jazz classics drifting out from the dozens of cafes and restaurants (Napier is also known as the coffee capital of New Zealand)... but then, in another way, the bright modern ground-level shop fronts of nationwide chain stores and the pedestrianised shopping precincts are very similar to any other town. To maintain the 'razzmatazz', you just need to keep looking up at the first floor and above... or stick to the elegant Marine Parade and gardens along the beachfront.


Monday: time to head 'home' - I do have a job to get back to now - and so comes my first long-distance bus journey in New Zealand. I must admit I'm not too keen; memories of long cramped National Express journeys between Cornwall and London come flooding back, casting my thoughts to numb legs and soggy sandwiches... but then the bounding bright chirpy entrance of Kevin our driver, grinning ear-to-ear, dressed in short shorts, long white socks pulled up to the knee, and a wide-brimmed sunhat, jolts me back to the present. Cracking jokes and jibbering away in a constant friendly banter, he loads up all the bags and jostles everyone onto the bus. After a quiet chat with a strange, angry-looking man at the back of the bus, we finally roll out of 'saucy, spiffing' Napier's bus station. Somehow, its obvious from the start that this isn't going to be a dull journey. 'G'day folks! my name's Kevin and I'm your driver for today and I'm here to make your journey as pleasant as possible...' - the usual stuff. I'm waiting for the National Express-style description of journey times, toilet facilities and onboard refreshments. But then, 'there's a little something you can do for me today: please folks - no drinking, smoking (cigarettes or anything else ha ha), glue-sniffing, or smacking up ... ha ha you get that you young lads in the middle ha ha aaawwww I'm just jokin' with ya...!!! I like to have a laugh, you know, keep things funny... I tell you what... how abouts I warm you all up with a joke... there's this elderly couple, right....' Oh no. I cringe painfully as the punchline falls on a stony silence - then even more painfully as he, thinking no-one understood it (rather than just not finding it at all funny...), proceeds to deconstruct and explain it...

After a several minutes' awkward silence, good ol' Kev's back in form, enlightening us with incidental facts, anecdotes, histories and statistics about the places we pass through... this place's main industry is forestry; that place was first settled by a Welshman in 1867; there are 15,843 sheep in this town... Its not a tour-bus - most people onboard are Kiwis - but I bet no-one knew any of the random facts he bombarded us with. Sniffing, I smell freshly-lit cigarette smoke. Suddenly, the bus screeches to a halt and up gets Kevin, transformed from joker into strict schoolmaster, and thunders to the back of the bus. It turns out to be the strange, angry-looking man who has flouted the no-smoking policy - and he's going to pay for it. 'Right, that's it! I did ask you nicely but you chose to ignore me. It's a disgusting habit and its not fair to subject your fellow passengers to it. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you get off at the next stop.' Fair enough, I suppose. So, at Tokoroa, the man gets off the bus, head down low, and we pull away. No-one says anything. Then Kev breaks the silence, 'sorry about that folks! That's the first time in my sixteen years as a driver that I've ever thrown anyone off the bus. But that man there, well, he's just got out of prison, and I did warn him, I tried to be nice, give him a chance, but, you know...' We pass through another town, which, Kev informs us, has a distillery. As if to proove that he's not a prude or a bigot, he starts telling us all about how he likes to drink and his successes with his homebrewing; 'my friends tell me I make a very nice butterscotch schnapps. And I can make a $40 bottle of Bourbon for $7 - you won't beat that folks, will you?!! ha ha!' I can't help but listen, giggling, to his chattering monologues - especially as I don't have any music and the road is too windy to read anything. I try to let it entertain rather than annoy me... and then, before I know it, the random facts and figures are about Hamilton and we're entering the suburbs of what, as Kev tells us, is The Fountain City. Surely that wasn't a five-hour journey...? ........ Tuesday morning, 8:30am, and I'm back sitting in the staffroom, swapping stories, sipping coffee and queueing for that damned photocopier. What a short long weekend...

© Helen Gilchrist 2001

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