We were having a perfectly nice day in the park when my ice cream shot up my nose. “Tell me that’s not a mural of dolphins playing under a rainbow.”
“Why yes, it is,” Peter confirmed. “And over there we have hippie in a knit cap playing guitar.” He paused for a moment, contemplating the music. “It’s remarkable how tone deaf this guy is. Just remarkable.”
But we listened, and we didn’t rip his throat out, or cook him and eat him. Which is more than I can say for some people.
Golden Bay is a very tolerant place now, much more so than it used to be when it was called Murderer’s Bay. You can take classes in yoga, permaculture and tarot cards. You can buy a wooden yurt for three hundred thousand dollars, or a didgeridoo for fifty bucks. You can sit under a tree all day and ruin old Eagles hits, and no one will bother you except a couple of sarcastic Americans who smell weird because they live in a van.
This wasn’t the case in 1642. When Abel Tasman dropped anchor here, he and his men made history: they were the first Europeans to glimpse the New Zealand coast. The thrill didn’t last for long. Almost immediately, they were met with boatloads of local Maori, who hailed them by sounding wooden trumpets. Tasman thought it only polite to answer back, so he had his men blow a greeting in return.
As it turned out, this was a very bad move.
You’re not actually supposed to respond to the wero, the traditional Maori challenge. If someone drops a leaf or a feather, you should pick it up, but otherwise you should act very meek and respectful and try not to piss anyone off. The whole purpose of the ceremony is to find out if you’re up to no good, and if you respond to a trumpet call with a fanfare of your own, you’ve just made a declaration of war.
Tasman, of course, knew nothing about this. Before anyone had a chance to react, the Maori warriors overwhelmed his crew, smashing them in the necks with their taiohae, beating their brains out, and generally unleashing a world of hurt on the unsuspecting Dutchmen. They killed four, dragging their bodies to shore where they were presumably roasted and eaten.
Tasman, needless to say, got the hell out of there. And no white man dared set foot in New Zealand for another 127 years.
Since then, things have gotten a great deal more accommodating around here. Modern New Zealanders have a reputation for tolerance, and when we visited the Nelson-Tasman area, we found this to be true. Take Motueka, for instance. It’s a town of seven thousand people, approximately 6,999 of whom believe Jesus Christ is coming back in their lifetime. And the other one is Michael Jackson’s gay hairdresser.
Tommy’s an extremely handsome, friendly guy who happens to own a very good restaurant in town. And he spent seventeen glamorous years traveling the world with the King of Pop, retiring at 35 so he could slow down and enjoy life with his lover. In the late nineties, when his boyfriend emigrated to New Zealand, Tommy came along as the “domestic partner.” Yup, that’s right. More than a decade ago, New Zealand granted gay partners the same rights as married straight people. If anyone had tried to pass a law like that in the States, they’d probably have been roasted and eaten.
The Nelson-Tasman area is home to all sorts of folk—artists and hippies, evangelical Christians and gay hairdressers. There’s even some Dutch living there now, though they tend to be a little jumpy. Then there’s Megan Hansen-Knarhoi. She crochets shit on a blanket.
Megan is an Auckland artist who now lives in Nelson, and her medium is wool. She makes boobs from wool, Jesus from wool, and she’s even knitted a little brown turd, nestled on a blanket. She calls it Happy Poo.
New Zealand is a place where people take their knitting seriously. The country is teeming with grandmas who knit, shooting out pastel baby booties, cardigans and throw blankets at a furious pace. So when Megan makes a throw pillow in the shape of an erect penis and calls it Hampton Wick (Cockney rhyming slang for “Prick”), she is offending on a number of levels.
Surely she must get hate mail? I asked her. Surely people must tell her she’s a sicko?
“Oh, you don't do that,” she corrected me. “You say, oh that's nice. I like the colours.”
She looked a little dejected. “Feedback is so rare. Maybe I should be more proactive and ask people what they think. But then, a lot of people are scared to express what they think.”
Disappointing for an artist, but perhaps less confrontation is a good thing. Just ask Abel Tasman.