I bought an A5 spiral notebook to record impressions and stories for this travelogue. But it may not do – may not do the trick. Moments recorded after the fact lose a dimension or two and even the best of notes neglect fleeting sensations. Still, we do what we can
To-ing and Fro-ing
I always or usually cry upon leaving New Zealand. This time the sadness hit as I walked out of the old campus to meet the airport shuttle – a familiar wave to remind me that I was leaving something behind. (Actually, I had left my flash drive sitting on the desk, but I wouldn’t know about that for another 30 hours.) It might have been a shift in the wind that stole away the newly-rained-on-earth smell. It might have been a glimpse of Dunedin Harbour and hills behind all shades of green and dotted with sheep. [i] It might have been the end of an era or it might have been simple fatigue.
I always or usually cry upon returning to the United States. On this trip, as on many before, the clench and the tears came as I wandered the aisles at Smiths, overwhelmed by abundance and familiarity. Grapes grown in Chile, apples from Seattle, cheese from France, frozen salmon caught wild off the coast of Alaska, tortilla chips made from organic blue corn stone ground in the mountains of Colorado, tempeh made who-knows-where from fermented soy, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream only not anymore, really. Pomegranate juice. Cashiers ask where I’ve been. Neighbors say hello. I remember when Carl Malone could be spotted in these aisles. There’s Bob Bennett. We don’t talk, him being Republican, a former Senator, and very tall and me being in so many ways opposite, but I do feel sorry for the looming fellow. We could have been friends.
Is it strange to have two homes? It is certainly complicated (as when you leave behind a flash drive or an immigration official asks where you reside or you try to pay your taxes.) Which side are you on? I can’t say, but an arbitrary rule simplifies things. Heading to New Zealand I say I reside there. Heading to the states, I say I reside there. I broke the rule on this trip, just to see what would happen. I chose the “Visitor” line at New Zealand immigration. The man behind the counter paged through my passport and said. “You’re a resident! You’re not supposed to go through this line!” He let me through anyway. I knew he would. They always do. Once I forgot to get a work certificate that was required for my visa. An immigration officer noticed “Hey, you don’t have your A95 certificate in here.” When I asked what was going to happen he said, “Oh, love, we wouldn’t want to detain you. You can take care of it next week in Dunedin.” I never break the rule in the U.S. Best to present an American cheerfully returning home from a business trip abroad. Even then they give you grief.
The spell begins with a lilting kiwi accent on the plane’s public address system. “Kia ora,” the Maori greeting reminds me that I am “tangata” (human being); not a commodity, a unit of production, a consumer—at least not first.[ii] Being human first takes a while to relax into, but you get used to it. After a few glasses of wine and Woody Allen’s latest movie the lights of Auckland slip into view and soon I’m walking down one of my favorite hallways. The international terminal was redecorated for the 2011 Rugby World Cup[iii] so this hallway offers a mural of beaches and penguins with some upbeat advice, “Be yourself!” “Live a little!” “Breathe.” Then we pass through the Tiki entrance with its symphony of bird calls. After formalities it takes 20 minutes to walk from international to the domestic terminal for my flight to Dunedin. The sun is coming up but the wind blows straight out of Antarctica. Tender stalks of spring grass remind me I’ve switched seasons. Waiting at the gate I start texting friends, “I’m here!”
“Aotearoa,” the Maori name for New Zealand, means Land of the Long White Cloud. That’s what I see when I gaze out of the window on the Auckland-Dunedin flight. It’s OK, I know what’s there. The Southern Alps rising majestic, while glacial melt chasing see birds along braided rivers. Water, windows, grass all sparkle in the Southern sun; but not now. Now it’s time for the long white cloud.
By the time I’ve dumped the luggage in my room I’m ready for bed, but that would be a big mistake. I have to work tomorrow so fast adjustment is in order. Must stay awake until the sun sets. Luckily, this is an Art Festival day. Luckily, the sun has come out to warm my back as I walk to the Octagon at the heart of Dunedin. Barricades re-route automobiles as small barefoot children have taken over the plaza. Some run with chalk in their hands; some crouch down to draw on the old bricks; some play with older children who pretend to be monkeys; some pull out the spring grass to decorate their friend’s hair; some laugh; some hum; all safe, under the matriarchal gaze of a few older women. Sea gulls scour for crumbs and squabble when they find them. A dog or two roam through, ready to lick food off the wee faces. A teenage girl gently traces the outline of her boyfriend in chalk as he lies basking in the sun. When he gets up I realize his outline only has four fingers; too late to check against the original as he’s walking off arm in arm with the artist.
I lounge on a bench, basking as well, jotting notes in my new A5 spiral notebook. A breathless mother asks, “Have you seen a wee girl?” She sounds worried, feels guilty probably because she’s late. I look out at a sea of wee children and say, “What color’s her hair?” Silly me, they’re all blond. Before mom can answer one of the matriarchs shouts at her, “Meghan’s over there!” Indeed she is, looking all of three years old, humming to herself as she picks daffodils beneath to the statue of Robbie Burns. Mom heaves a sigh and rushes over.
There’s a dad with his five-year-old daughter. Together they’re coloring a message, “We love you mum!” His daughter’s pull down and her wee bum flashes the world as she crouches over her work. I wonder if dad dressed her this morning, but no one rushes to cover her up. No one but me even seems to notice. I begin to worry that mum is in hospital with a terminal illness when she turns up looking for all the world like a harried academic. What joy! Mum admires the art work and the three of them tiptoe away. That’s how people move through these cahlk drawings, balancing on tiptoe as a sign of respect. Even the most primitive sketch deserves to be preserved. Let the rain wash it away.
[i] “More sheep than people!” we like to brag. Lot’s more. Four to one. That’s a ratio we can live with.
[ii] Maori have a saying, “He aha te mea nui te Ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” (What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.)
[iii] Which, of course, the All Blacks WON.