Friday, April 30, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Seven

You may have noticed that I'm not blogging many books in the past month or two; this is because I'm reading an immense tome, Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. I was reading about Hegel's metaphysics on Graham's red couch this afternoon, as the sun set, and once it became too dark, rather than turning on lights, I closed the book and looked out the window, which offers a rather open view with some nice trees up close, and a highway in the distance. I rather like the highway there, though other people might think it an eyesore. The cars and trucks move across it at just the right speed for thinking, and tonight, the clouds were moving above it in the same direction, at a speed slower, but still palpable. I pondered like this for quite some time, until Graham came home and I announced to him, in the dark, that I was throwing all metaphysics out the window.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Six

Tonight, before our kung fu class, Aldo said, "Do you want to go for a little run in that field?" Some people have so much energy that they need to exercise before they do their exercise. Generally, I'm the kind of girl who, if I go for a little run in the field, I will not be doing anything else for three days afterward, but of course I acquiesced. An empty field just after twilight is a magical thing. The grass is wet and makes a squeaking sound under your shoes. You can't really see the ground, so you just have to trust that there isn't a hole right there. Without a track, you try to follow the person in front of you, who in the dark, as he gets farther and farther away, is just a blinking ghost. He knows how close or far you are without looking back, because it's so quiet out that he can hear your breath.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Five

Here is another washing story, as Wednesday is wash day. I was more excited to do wash than usual today, since I had bought more clothespins at the Pak'n'Save. This would enable me to hang all the underpants and all the socks and all the shirts and all the pants all in neat rows all at one time, rather than having to take half-dry things inside to finish drying because I ran out of pins and the wind was to strong to hang clothes without them. Everything was going well until I took in our white bed sheet, which had been, yes, pooped on by a bird, twice. Despite the aesthetic pleasure of socks with socks, and underpants with underpants, marching in rows on the line, bird poop casts a vote for the environmentally unfriendly dryer. If the environment cared to be a bit more mindful of my wash, I would be willing to reconsider.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Four

Today, our hosts gave us a lettuce. Robin had been asking for a few days, "Do you want a lettuce?", and I admit to being a bit confused as to why they would be in possession of a lettuce they did not want. There was also some linguistic confusion arising from the phrase "a lettuce," rather than just "lettuce," "some lettuce," or "a head of lettuce," but that was secondary. But when, today, he gave me the lettuce, I realized it had grown in their garden. Food that you have grown yourself in your backyard is still a bit foreign to me. That said, it was a beautiful lettuce: a pale, pearly green, with long, gentle* leaves that were surprisingly crisp for their delicacy.

*I know it seems quite odd to describe a lettuce leaf as gentle, but if you had held this lettuce, you would understand.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Three

Tonight, we stopped at a roadside Indian joint for dinner, which we had seen packed with Indians on prior occasions. It turned out to be a fast-food kind of joint, but we were tired, so we ate. Every corner had a flat screen television broadcasting Indian television, which was remarkably informed by American television. We watched an Indian soap-opera, which, though it included a Bollywood-style song performed by a woman for her moping husband, appeared to be taking place in a Manhattan super-deluxe loft. We watched commercials for a vedic televangelist program, and for an Indian So You Think You Can Dance? show, which offered a one-armed break dancer.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Two

How do you know, assessing a beach, whether the tide is coming in or going out? Today, we went to Karekare to practice our kung fu, and Aldo chose a spot right by the water, where the sand is packed hard. I trekked far, far away from the waves to put down our stuff in a safe place, and he said, "Why are you putting it all the way over there? The tide is way out." I said that, since the sand near the water was dry, the tide was coming in. We've been to Karekare when the tide was going out, and it leaves a deep slick of reflective water on the sand. But, he didn't believe me, and moved our things closer. So, two hours later, when we weren't paying attention, the water came up and licked all of our things with its waves.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-One

Today, we went to the farmer's market. We had left the house in a hurry, and only brought sixty dollars with us, not realizing we would buy a few big-ticket items (olive oil, peanut butter) and possibly need a bit more cash if were going to sit down for a coffee afterwards. With only eleven dollars left (eleven kiwi dollars is about eight American), we decided to blow it all at the veggie stand, and just go back home for more money before caffeinating. But vegetables are so cheap here that we couldn't spend all of our money, even though we bought a giant pile of greens. We only managed to spend seven kiwi dollars, on four meals worth of veggies.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty

Today, we got a new rental car and found ourselves listening to the radio, where we found the kiwi version of NPR. There was a report on a bomb scare in what sounded like our little neighborhood. It turns out that the suspicious devices strapped to a bridge were merely pinhole cameras, hung there by a college student doing an art project, who called the police to tell them so as soon as he saw word of the scare on television. This announcement was made by the chief of police, who admitted that he didn't know much about what bombs looked like.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Nine

Today, Aldo drove into the city on his own and I stayed home with some friends who had their own vehicle. I was going to take the train into the city on my own, but they realized they needed to go in as well for an errand, so I caught a ride with them. They're visiting from the States as well, so they had rented a van with a bed and kitchenette in back, so that they can sleep on the road (I'm not hearty enough for that, I don't think). The van only technically seats two, so for the 30 minute drive into the city, I swayed back and forth on the edge of their bed, feeling mildly seasick.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Eight

Today I stayed home alone, but it was nice out and I wanted to take my book for a walk to this the Packing Shed, a garden cafe in our neighborhood. But, I didn't have any money, and there's no bank in walking distance, and this place is a far cry from Starbucks, where you pay with your credit card. After pulling change out of every pants pocket, I was only twenty cents short of what I knew I needed for a "flat white," a kiwi cappuccino (there is no "regular" coffee here, just "long black," which is like a big espresso, and "flat white," which is like a wet cappuccino). Luckily, I found twenty cents in the laundry room when I went to change the washing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Seven

Today, I stopped into the gift shop at the Auckland War Memorial Museum to kill some time waiting for friends. One of the items on offer was a batch of toy soldiers, but not only did they have western-style infantrymen, they had Maori figurines as well. In fact, they had a display case with an entire battle scene set out. However, in some misguided attempt to be culturally sensitive, the Maoris weren't facing they westerners, they were just facing the wall of the case, doing Haka for nobody.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Six

Our hosts have three sons under 10. This morning, Aldo was talking to the boys while they were cuddling their chickens (this is a regular occurrence). He asked whether they enjoyed having, in addition to pet chickens, pet Americans who stay in their shed. "Yeah," one said, "but you don't lay eggs."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Five

Today, to make up for yesterday, we were ultra civilized, and went to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth before the long drive back to Auckland. The gallery was showing some rather jejune textual work by Kiwi artist John Reynolds, but the museum staff was so attentive and engaging that we managed to have some fun nevertheless; playing, at their insistence, with the word-block paintings of Hells Bells. Aldo made a tower; I made a poem. The museum's Information Officer, Leannah, took a photo of us with our work and emailed it to us. Imagine this happening in a New York museum.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Four

Today, about three-quarters of the way to the top of Mt. Taranaki (elevation at the peak: 2518 meters), I had a panic attack. We had been climbing steadily for three or four hours (I had no watch), and it had been hardover big piles of stone, up a never-ending, 50° concrete ramp aptly called The Puffer, up and up rock-strewn wooden stairs that some poor soul kindly builtbut I had been doing better than expected, and thought I might just make it to the top.

But then we hit the scree; the orange posts marking the trail disappeared, and I faced a vast expanse of volcanic pebbles, devoid of any firm foothold, devoid of any plant to grab at. As I felt the ground give way beneath each step, I leaned further and further down, until I was grabbing at the rocks with my fingers too, clawing for a grip. I scrambled up up up, almost running to pull my lagging feet away from the sliding rocks, and stopping to catch my breath whenever I found a trench firm enough to support me for a minute. I scrambled up about two-thirds of the way to the final push, where the scree gives way to sheer rock; I could see the snaggle-toothed peak right up above me, but right here was a tiny triangular perch, a 15-inch island in a tilted sea of scree. I sat there and cried. The wind whipped all around me; I saw the stone give way, below, to verdant clefts, to forest, to farm. I could see the roof of our camphouse glinting in the sun far below. Far below.

I couldn't go up. I couldn't go down. I cried. I cried hard, for a long time. I was dizzy. I was breathing fast. I thought I would die. I couldn't move from my perch. I thought they would need to send a helicopter. I couldn't get up. Aldo was speaking to me; he had stayed with me the whole way, was waiting with me, came and held me; he told me to get up, and gave me his hand, but I couldn't move. I cried.

Then I decided that I had to get down, off that mountain, immediately. Still, I couldn't stand, so I stayed sitting. Still sniffing, still breathing heavy, I scooted down off my perch into the scree, and with one leg stretched in front to break, and the other leg tucked in to push, pushing off with my hands as well, I slid down the mountain on my bottom, refusing to stand up again until the rocks were again the size of fists, and the incline too shallow for gravity's forward effect.

I will photograph my ruined dungarees for you before I wash them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Three

Tonight, we are sleeping in a camphouse part-ways up Mt. Taranaki, so that in the morning, we can start our hike right from our bedside. The building's walls are corrugated metal, and it's been here since 1905. Even 100 years ago, people were crazy enough to come out here and climb to the top of this mountain. What is it that makes a person want to work so hard to get to the top of something when there isn't anything there, but a long way back down?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-Two

Tonight, we went back to the musical chairs Malaysian restaurant for dinner. This time, I interrogated the waiter about the menu while Aldo was outside making a phone call. After getting the down-low on the preparation of Chicken Rendang versus KK Special Chicken, I chose Mummy Chicken. The waiter said, "You want Mummy Spare Ribs instead? Ribs come in today, so very fresh. The chicken. . . maybe two, three days. . . not so much." I ordered ribs.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty-One

Today, I learned to ride a bicycle. Or, at least, I learned to sit on a bicycle and pedal, pedal, pedal, and wrestle the handlebars, and not fall down. Our hostess lent us her bike and we took it to the park, where I turned crazy loops around a lumpy practice field. By the end of my lesson, I could stay up on my own, though I could not control more than 50% of the bicycle's direction. This is rather odd, since unlike, say, a horse, a bicycle should not have its own volition.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirty

Today, we went to hire boots (i.e., rent them), because I am supposedly climbing Mt. Taranaki this weekend. I've rented bowling shoes and ice skates in the past, but never imagined that anyone would want to rent hiking boots. I can't say that I much like them; they are very heavy and make me look like a construction worker. But Graham assures me that they are very nice boots and that, once on the mountain, I will be happy to have them. Hiring these boots for the weekend costs $30 NZ. Later, we found that we had a parking ticket, because we'd left the car in a four hour zone all day long. The fine was $15 NZ, half the cost of renting boots for the weekend. This is a good illustration of Kiwi priorities.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Nine

Today, we went to the drugstore, because I have been having a lot of snot. Strangely, as soon as we walked in, a man in a white lab coat asked whether he could help us. We told him that I was suffering from allergies and he suggested a number of different products. Aldo (who is studying to be a doctor) began asking him technical questions about the medicines' contents, and he responded intelligently to all of them. Can you imagine walking into a Rite-Aid in New York, and encountering a knowledgeable person who wants to help you? We were astounded. Also, about fifteen minutes after I used the nasal spray he suggested, I had no more snot.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Eight

Today, we went tramping, which is Kiwi for hiking, along the West Coast's Hillary Trail, stretching from the ridges behind Bethells/Te Henga to Muriwai. After two hours of hard climbing, two hours from sun down, longing for a dip in the Tasman, and knowing that Muriwai was another hour ahead, Graham decided that it would be best to just stop at the beach below for a swim. The drop down was steep and slippery, but climbers past had left a rope, so we lowered ourselves down, one by one. Once on the shore, Graham boiled water for tea, for what civilized tramping expedition goes sliding down ropes to the sea without stopping afterward for tea? No matter that my shins were covered with mud, or that I had to crawl back up the cliff on all fours afterward. Even quadrupeds are civilized if they stop for tea.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Seven

Today was serene and beautiful, but we were stuck indoors for most of it, so, at five o'clock, we decided to take a walk to an outdoor cafe in the neighborhood. When we got there, they'd closed at four. The cafe is next door to a winery's bar and restaurant, but they had closed at four too. This is on one summer's last Saturday afternoons, with the sun shining sweetly for another few hours. New Zealand, why do you close so early?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Music: Talib Kweli and Jean Grae at the Powerhouse

It seems that my time in New Zealand, when not spent chasing chickens out of the house, is dedicated to hearing live performances of musicians with whom I'm not all that familiar. Looking for tracks produced by the 9th Wonder, I'd come to know a few of Jean Grae's tracks well, but I don't have any of her albums, or any of headlining Kweli's.

Hip-hop in Auckland seems a little out of place (Jean, Talib, and their back-up singer are perhaps the eighth, ninth, and tenth black people I've seen in this countryno exaggerationand I've been here a month). That said, Jean was in high spirits, literally and figuratively, drinking Gray Goose straight from the bottle, and exhorting the audience to step up their game. She was particularly hard on the front row, stopping between songs to instruct a lardy blonde in hip-hop show etiquette: "Get your titties up off the motherfucking rail."

Sugar-coated belligerence aside, the girl can rap. No matter how drunk she got, she didn't miss one word; her delivery was crisp and clean, and her flow rhythmic and playful. Kweli, contrastingly, was loud but indistinct, hard and repetitive, like a jackhammer that paused every few minutes to exhort its own utility. While Jean and her back-up singer were making math jokes, Kweli was name-checking himself every few lines; while Jean told us to tip our bartenders, Kweli told us to buy his t-shirts. Not knowing his work well, but having always considered him a thinking-man's rapper, I have to admit that I was disappointed. If I'd never heard of either of them, and didn't know that hip-hop is, for the most part, a man's world, I'd have been surprised that Jean opened for Kweli and not the other way around.

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Six

Today, I learned a new sport, devised by languishing mountain climbers and called slacklining, in which you string up a flat bungee cord between two trees, about three feet off the ground, and then walk across it. Of course, I'm not actually strong enough to hop up onto the cord on my own, but I spent the afternoon trying to balance on it, first one foot, then the other. Later, in the car, I could feel the wobble underneath my ungrounded feet, the way you do when you step off a boat.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Five

Tonight we went to this dinky Malaysian restaurant for dinner, which we always drive by and which is always totally packed. There was a table for two outside, but it was cold and we wanted to sit inside. They had a group of three move from a table for four to an empty table for eight and sat us at the empty table for four. Then, a group of five people came in, and they moved us to a now empty table for two to seat the five at our table for four. I don't imagine this ever happening in New York.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Books: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft

When reading, I always keep a list of words I don't know so that I can look them up later. At home, I keep this list in a book by my bed, and never actually look up the words, but that is for another blog entry. Here in New Zealand, I keep them on a square of paper, and actually had cause to use a dictionary for another purpose, and therefore decided to look up some of the words used by Lovecraft I didn't recognize when reading The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories. Interestingly, of the five words I had time to look up, three of them (naphtha, mephitic, and ichor) had similar implications, that of foul-smelling organic fluids.

This is a Lovecraftian obsession, and while I especially enjoyed The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Thing on the Doorstep, the author has a number of stylistic hang-ups that I found rather distracting. I'm not commenting here on his personal mythology (e.g. the Necronomicon, a dreaded volume of witchcraft supposedly written by the "mad Arab Abdul Alhazred," and which is a Lovecraft invention, appears in many of his stories), but his tendencies to reuse tones and phrases, so that having read one good Lovecraft tale, you've as good as read the lesser ones as well. For example, the author often describes horrors as indescribable, and leaves them at that: "I can but ill describe;" "To describe their exact nature is impossible;" "I cannot describe the incidents and sensations;" "One need not describe the kind and rate;" "I can hardly describe what I saw;" "I can scarcely describe it;" "It would have been quite futile to try to describe them;" "The exact nature of this stirring is extremely hard to describe;" "This scene I cannot describeI should faint if I tried it;" etc. A generous critic will suggest that Lovecraft in this way implies a horror outside of language, the literary analogue of Hitchcock's refusal to show any more of the murder in Psycho than the weapon's shadow followed by blood swirling down the drain. The brutality implied is much stronger, and generates a more delicious sense of dread, than does, say, the campy butchery of Evil Dead 2. A less generous critic will say that Lovecraft is lazy or incompetent or both.

Alternately, I would suggest that, as an intellect, Lovecraft is less like his hero Poe, who was most fascinated by the senses, than a later writer like Borges, a bibliophile fascinated by the intersection of annals and lore; history and myth, less interested in traditional story-telling than describing, say, a civilization on a faraway planet, or under the sea, via its art and architecture, in encyclopedic fashion. Lovecraft, aping Poe, isn't as dry as Borges, but its clear that underneath all of the "weird" and fantastic, the ichor and mephisis and naphtha, Lovecraft is more seriously attending to building an alternate intellectual world, a personal library of mythical volumes, describing mythical places with mythical creatures who have their own detailed mythical histories.

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Four

Today, I cried while trying to parallel park. This isn't unusual; I don't drive in New York and so only find myself having to parallel park a few times a year. But parallel parking on the other side of the street is even harder. The reality is that, since the driver's seat is on the opposite side of the vehicle, one is the same distance from the curb as one would be in the States. So, it should be equally easy. Unfortunately, it is not. After I finished parking, and while I was still crying, I got out of the car and Aldo re-parked it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Three

This was our last day in the Northlands, and on the way home we stopped to see the famous giant kauri trees of Waipoua Forest. I like trees, and I like big trees, but the must-see kauris, the most famous of which is likely 2,000+ years old, didn't much move me. I felt much more intimately inclined to a tree of more pedestrian proportions I had found on the beach at the end of Wharau road near Kerikeri a few days ago. This tree's trunk grew right up out of the beach, but only for a few feet before opening like the palm of a human hand into five sturdy branches, with an empty bowl in the center. Here I promptly curled up, leaning my head against one, and stretching my legs up against two others.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-Two

Today we drove to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point on the North Island accessible by car. On the way there, we could see the pristine beach on the western coast, which stretches out to Cape Maria Van Diemen, culminating with Motuopao Island. All the while, Aldo wanted to go swimming there. From our map, and the sheer drop down the cliffs from the road, I told him that would be impossible. After parking and visiting Cape Reinga's lighthouse with the other tourists, he led me to a trail, which follows the coastal bluffs and drops down onto the beach. The walk took about 30 minutes. No one was there. No one from the lighthouse could see us. We hid all of our clothes behind a bush and walked, like prelapsarian Adam and Eve, down the two mile beach. We swam in the Tasman sea and walked back, pulling on our clothes just as a group of people were arriving. The fabric, even though it was soft, worn cotton, warmed by the sun, felt abhorrent to my skin.

You can see our beach here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty-One

Stopping at a small local beach today on our way to the fancy-pants Bay of Islands, Aldo pointed out a cormorant in the ocean. I asked how he could recognize it at that distance, and he explained that they have a different degree of buoyancy than most seabirds, and float with much of their bodies under the water. I had merely thought that it was sick, because it looked like it was struggling. As it swam closer to the shore, eventually stumbling drunkenly along the beach on its way to the shoreline pond, we saw that it was indeed struggling; it had a fishhook lodged in its mouth. It wouldn't let us get close enough to help.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twenty

Driving home from Mitimiti, the end-of-the-road beach west of the Warawara forest, where we had seen Polynesian locals collecting their dinner of fresh mussels off the rocks, we saw a tractor turning onto the gravel road from its farm. My vision is poor at distances, but as we came closer, I could see the strange, heavy load swinging from its front arm: a cow's carcass, dressed and ready for the butcher. The tractor entered the intersection and drove down the road, swinging the carcass through the dust with total nonchalance.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Nineteen

Today, we began a road trip to the Northlands, the northernmost part of New Zealand's North Island. Once we were out of the city, we started to notice an inordinate amount of roadkill—a creature every 100 meters it seemed. We passed a fresh kill at top speed and Aldo said "HOLY SHIT did you see the size of that squirrel?" I said, "That was a fox." It was, indeed, the size of a small fox, with longer forelegs than any squirrel could ever have. After arguing for some time as to whether squirrels have elbows (I erroneously insisted that they didn't), we saw another one, upon whose entrails a hawk was feasting, and slowed to examine it. It was a possum. New Zealand's possums aren't the same as American opossums; they have big bushy tails and snubbier noses; they are also not as road-savvy, it seems.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Eighteen

Tonight we went to dinner with friends at No. 1 Chinese Seafood BBQ. We had been there before and seen other families ordering lobsters, which are brought to the table live for inspection before the meal. New Zealand doesn't actually have lobsters; these are enormous, misappellated crayfish, and they have no front pincers. Tonight, we ordered one, neglecting to enquire after the "market price" quoted on the menu. When the waitress brought the living creature out for us to approve, she mentioned the price: $88 NZ per kilo; this one was 2.4 kilos. We promptly un-ordered it.