Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Hail to the Chief!

It has been a comparatively quiet couple of weeks since my last entry. I opted to spend some extra time (and money) to explore the East Cape of the North Island. This is not part of Stray’s main circuit, so we only had a small van. The passengers were only myself, a carsick German girl, and a very jolly French-speaking Swiss girl who sounded exactly like Ana Gasteyer’s impression of Celine Dion. Our driver, Dave, picked us up in Rotorua and took us Eastward. The coastline was amazing – lush forested mountains next to the ocean. There were few signs of civilization. We would pass a few houses from time to time, but no real towns. The majority of the local population is Maori, and there is very little work to be had.

One thing I have noticed in New Zealand is how well people maintain their properties, particularly in poorer areas. When you drive across rural (and not so rural) parts of America, you see house after ramshackle house with rusting cars and other assorted junk rotting away on the front lawn. Around here, the houses may be small and simple, but they are mostly clean and well kept. I don’t know if they have stricter environmental laws or just better junk removal, but it nice to see. They may be poor, but they take care of what they have.

Our first stop was the village of Hick’s Bay. Driver Dave informed me that our hosts for the next two nights would give us a traditional Maori welcome and that since I was the only guy on the bus, that I would be our group’s chief. Not only would I have to present our group’s boarding money as a gift, but I also had to speak on the group’s behalf, since women are not allowed to speak during the ceremony. I was not expecting this.

Upon our arrival at our hostel, we all had to sit on one side of the porch while Joe, the owner, greeted us in Maori and then English while all of the hostel’s other guests (all female) sat behind him in silence. He told us about the area’s history, a bit about Maori culture, and what was expected of us as guests. It was then my chiefly duty to present our boarding money and speak a bit about where I was from and why I was visiting the East Cape. I don’t recall much of what I said, but I must have done something right, because Joe later invited me into his house for tea. He asked me more about why I was in New Zealand and about America in general. He said I did not seem like “most Americans.” I’m pretty sure that was a compliment, but I didn’t press him on it. As it turns out, his daughter is now in New York studying - no bullshit - film editing! How crazy that a girl of Maori and Scottish decent from one of New Zealand’s most rural areas is now in NYC studying the same thing as a Boston boy visiting her home on the other side of the world! Anyway, it was a nice chat with Joe.

As we finished our tea, Joe informed me that as chief I was also responsible for coordinating dinner - which the women would prepare. All I really had to do was tell one girl to do the salad, another to do the pasta, and another to work the barbecue. To my great surprise, all of them did what I said while I enjoyed some wine with the other men joining us. I kept wondering how my mother and sisters (and indeed, most American women) would have reacted to this scenario. The dinner turned out great (mostly due to my coaching, I thought), and Joe insisted that the ladies have first dibs on the food since they had worked so hard. They also had to clean up afterwards while I built a campfire on the beach. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the chief.

Hick’s Bay was very beautiful and quiet. There were lots of cool trees and rocks. It was a great place to do some reading and take some pictures, but it got kinda boring after 36 hours. The girls at the hostel weren’t much fun so I was eager to move along, my status as chief notwithstanding.

The next morning, we headed off to the East Cape lighthouse, the most Easterly lighthouse in the world. It sits atop a big hill next to the Pacific and looks out over the inventively named East Island. We had terrific weather, so the view from the top was great. We then headed south along the coastal road. The landscape bore an amazing resemblance to parts of California. I could have sworn we were diving through Santa Barbara, Napa, or Marin County - rolling golden hills, vineyards, and patches of redwood trees filling up the little valleys. The ocean was a beautiful emerald green.

Our next stop was Tatapouri Beach, just north of Gisborne. The hostel we stayed at doubles as a headquarters for a scuba diving outfit. One of the guys working there took a bunch of us walking out to of the reef just offshore where we got to watch him feed stingrays. They were huge! About 3 feet in diameter. They were swimming all around our feet, and the guy told us to stand still, lest we disturb them and meet a Crocodile Hunter-esque fate.

The next day, I hopped off the bus in Gisborne to check out the area. The city’s two claims to fame are its geographical location (the first city in the world to see the sun) and its place in history (Captain Cook’s first landfall in New Zealand). Nowadays, it is mostly known for its surfing and Chardonnay.

The first couple of days were unseasonably cold, wet and windy. After spending two restless rainy days in the hostel, I went for a walk on the beach with a girl from England, a guy from Germany, and another guy from Canada. To our surprise, a photographer from the local paper hopped of the dunes and asked to take our picture as we ran giddily down the beach. The next afternoon, we found our picture on the front page of the Gisborne Herald at the local corner store. The ladies at the store actually asked us to autograph the paper!

Yes, Mum. I will send a copy home.

The weather cleared up on Monday, so I spent the last couple of days surfing. I heard on the news that a little boy was attacked by a shark on the very beach where I learned to surf in Raglan. Maybe it wasn’t so bad leaving there after all (I still wanna go back, though!). There are a few cool people at my current hostel and the town is halfway decent, but I am getting antsy to move on. Stray can’t pick me up until Friday, so I will spend the next couple days living cheaply and (hopefully) surfing. The next big stop will be Taupo, which lies on the shores of the New Zealand’s biggest lake (really a gigantic volcanic crater). I have heard that it is beautiful there, with lots of goofy adventure activities and mountain views. In all likelihood, I’ll have to get a job around there and stick around for a while.

I have no clue where I will be or what I will be doing for Christmas or New Years. A lot of backpackers seem to be headed for the big cities (Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch), but it is reportedly very difficult to find accommodation. I’m making all of this up as I go along anyway, so I’ll figure something out.

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