Sunday, February 28, 2010

Land's End

At the tippy-top of New Zealand is Cape Reinga: a dry, gritty, windswept place where people go to die. More accurately, it’s where those who have already died go to jump away, into the next world. It’s a place where journeys begin.

The place where New Zealand stops is a rocky, tempestuous point of land, with gusts of winds that can knock you over, where the oceans beat the shoreline with unrelenting fury. This is the meeting place of the Tasman and the Pacific. You can see the confluence where they join, a place of standing waves and treacherous whirlpools. You wouldn’t want to swim here. You wouldn’t want to sail anywhere near it.

But then again, this isn’t a place for the living. At the tip of Cape Reinga, there is an ancient Pohutukawa tree, a gnarled, twisted old specimen growing right out of the salt-washed rock. According to Maori tradition, it’s where their spirits go, when their bodies die. The Maori ghosts climb down the roots of the ancient tree, making atua peruperu, the snuffling sounds of the dead. From here, they begin their long journey toward Hawaiki, their ancient homeland. I talked to Emily, a local elder for the Ngatikuri iwi, and I asked her what Cape Reinga meant to her. “When Maori people pass away, that’s where we go,” she said simply. “And no one’s gonna tell us any different.”

The land doesn’t even look like New Zealand, up here. It’s dry and empty, with a broad pelagic wind off the Tasman. We pass brushfires, leaping through the sun-parched grass. We pass a forest of low, scorched trees. The light is hazy; the grit burns our throats. The dust creates a spirit-filled haze.

And the dead aren’t the only ones who come here. Each year, thousands of bar-tailed godwits use the fine white silica sand dunes around Cape Reinga as their launching pad. The birds take off in March, to begin a seven thousand-mile, trans-oceanic voyage to Alaska. No one knows how they navigate, or how they predict the weather: they seem to take off just as a low pressure system is building, propelling them thousands of miles toward their destination.

Many of the godwits complete the journey non-stop, flying for more than a week without food or rest. Why do they make it so hard on themselves? Why go direct, when the Pacific is full of fertile, tropical islands, where they could stop off for a few days, eat bugs, take a nap, drink a piƱa colada in the shade?

The answer, in short, is that no one knows. Scientists haven’t even monitored their altitude, and no one knows if they skim the waves or soar thousands of miles in the air. As we watched those tiny specks congregating on the sand dunes, we wondered if they were planning the journey ahead. Did they feel fear? Did they think about the sleepless nights, the storms, the surging, empty sea?

Every year, many of the birds don’t make it. But the ones that do: just think of the stories they have to tell.

Cape Reinga was a turning point for us as well. We drove our van until there was no more land to drive on, then we turned her around and headed south. For five months, we’ve travelled New Zealand by sea and by land. It’s time to stop. The signs are all around us: Silas, now running and saying words, increasingly anxious to meet new kids and make friends. My twitching, pregnant belly, and my aching backside in the van as our baby gets bigger and heavier. Our rapidly emptying bank account.

Even our ancient van, which has carried us across New Zealand though a fortuitous mix of dumb luck and Peter’s mechanical skill, started giving up the ghost. At Cape Reinga, it started screaming out loud, red-hot and unable to cool its engine. I was ready push the goddamned thing into the Pacific and let it find its own way to Hawaiki, but Peter fixed it with a party balloon, and drove us safely back to Whangarei.

And now: home again. We’ve rented a little house on a quiet street. We’ve collected our car out of storage, signed up Silas for nursery school, visited with our midwife. I’ll write a book about our travels, and hopefully I’ll make some people laugh. Peter is looking for work on the water. And in May, we’ll have a little baby girl.

As to Sereia, who brought us so far, and kept us so safe, she’s waiting for us in Lyttleton. Peter will deliver her to Whangarei, after we've delivered our daughter.

I don’t know why we did it. It wasn’t fun. It was a hell of a lot of hard work. And sometimes, we were afraid for our lives.

But we made it. And now, if I’m not mistaken, we have an excellent story to tell.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Suicide City

They don’t like John Cleese in Palmerston North. And he doesn’t like them, either.

In 2005, Cleese visited the town while touring with his one-man show. And this is what he had to say:

"If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick. We had a thoroughly, bloody miserable time there and we were so happy to get out.”

This is the kind of celebrity commentary that tourism boards don’t print on brochures. Heather Tanguay, the town mayor, wondered out loud if Cleese needed more medication. And Paul O’ Brien, from the local chamber of commerce, tried to spin it into a slogan. “Palmerston North,” he proposed. “So Boring, You’ll Relax In a Minute!” Finally, the city came to a consensus. They just stuck a sign in front of the pile of rotting garbage at the city dump. “MT. CLEESE,” the sign reads. “ALT 45.2 M.”

Obviously, we were intrigued. What would the suicide capital of New Zealand look like? Would it be full of staggering zombies, inhaling solvents and looking hopelessly into a dead-end future? No, it couldn’t be. Because that’s Invercargill. Still, our curiosity was piqued.

By the time we got to Palmerston North, I was about ready to slit my wrists, but I think that had more to do with being tired and pregnant than any fault of the town’s. “Palmy,” as it’s locally known, seemed like a very nice place. There was sunshine, and colorful flowers in pleasant little planter boxes, and the locals displayed a healthy curiosity about life.

"How old is your two year-old?" asked the receptionist at the holiday park, and when Peter paused in confusion, she went on to offer him a map. "Sure," he replied. "I'd love a map."

"Would you like a shady one?" she asked, and then Peter backed slowly out of the office, before she could offer him a parakeet or start making airplane noises. Maybe she’s drunk, he thought, and a pitcher of martinis in the afternoon is her only way to cope.

But I needed hard data, so I rang up the guys who handle dead bodies. And that’s how I came to speak to Dr. Temple-Camp, a pathologist at the city hospital. Formerly of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Dr. Temple-Camp is delighted that Palmerston North is a boring place. He spent the first part of his life dodging carjackers, praying for the chance to be bored someday.

“I wanted to ask you about this comment John Cleese made,” I began, once I got him on the phone. “Is it true? Do you get a lot of suicides, here in Palmerston North? Are people really dying of boredom?”

The doctor reflected for a moment. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything unusual about the deaths or suicides in Palmerston North. If there’s anything unusual, it’s John Cleese. Have you seen any of his programmes? He’s rather an odd fellow.”

“So you can't tell if your bodies are overly bored?”

“No, but I can tell you they're overly nourished. They like their food here.”

“Any regional specialties in particular?” I asked, hoping for a restaurant recommendation. Death by Lamb Shank, for example, would be an excellent way to go.

“No, just good food. And lots of it.”

This was going nowhere. A sunny town, full of happy people, with flowers blooming on every corner, and now this: they die from deliciousness. Frustrated and annoyed, I changed the subject.

“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “what did people die of in Zimbabwe and South Africa?”

“Oh, that would have been a lot of gunshot wounds,” he said. “ We don't get many gunshot wounds here in Palmerston North.”

“Oh no?”

“You'd be pretty safe walking the streets here. You wouldn't really need a metal jacket.”

I thought about the flower-lined sidewalks, the pretty town square. Earlier that day, we’d seen a toddler, dressed in pink, splashing through a fountain. No carjackings in Palmerston North. Just good food, sunshine, and blossoms. I scowled into the telephone.

“I see. And just one more question. When people do commit suicide in Palmerston North, how do they do it?” Maybe now I’ll hear the real dirt. They overdose on chocolate, or impale themselves on butter knives.

“I’d say it’s fairly standard here. Pills, hanging, the occasional gunshot. Carbon monoxide.”

He paused, and then went on.

“The only strange thing about New Zealand suicides, I'd have to say, is up in Auckland. I attended a conference there, and apparently a lot of people are setting themselves on fire up there.”

“I’m sorry, what? People in Auckland are setting themselves on fire? Alive?”

“Yes. I don't know why they would do such a thing. Seems to me a terribly unpleasant way to do it. Perhaps John Cleese should have a look up there.”

Perhaps we should have another look up there. Auckland sounds like a fascinating place.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Happy Poo

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.