Monday, 26 November 2012

North Island - Time traveller's life

Watching Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers - a fitting backdrop to be typing this blog because
a) it is set against the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand
b) the première of the Hobbit is tomorrow in Wellington, at the Embassy Theatre - where I saw the new James Bond film this week
c) I can happily multi task whilst watching talking trees and fantastical ghouls. Not hugely my thing.
Every so often James calls out 'been there' which is simply not true but perhaps impresses or maybe annoys the various Europeans (Swiss, Dutch, Slovenian) in the TV lounge of this hostel in Picton, at the very north of South Island.

The last two weeks have certainly been an adventure in a way I was not expecting. After recovering from illness in Te Arora we headed west via the gold mining town of Waihi. There is a huge hole in the centre of town. A massive open cast gold mine which closed in the 50s and reopened in the 80s. A tonne of rock yields about 4 grams of gold but the gold is soon expected to run out and be changed into some kind of golden theme park probably including hobbits. We headed to the east coast with the warning that Lonely Planet had dubbed this section of road 'suicide highway'. Big lorries, no shoulder and blind corners were certainly a potentially dangerous combination. Many people had said that New Zealand was being perfect biking country though New Zealand drivers have yet to be informed of this.

We made it in one piece to a small town called Katikati, or as the Welsh might say Caci caci. We stopped at the only hostel in town. We should have known when we walked in and could hardly hear the voice of the young German guy because of loud Euro techno pop, that this was not the ideal place for a good night's sleep. Shortly after checking in the manager mentioned that there would be a sushi party that evening.

The hostel was teaming with 20 year old Germans. They had come to New Zealand on working visas for the year, many straight from school. They were all looking for work on nearby kiwi plantations which was hard to come by, particularly as the kiwi crops are being hit by a kiwi disease - PSA which has now spread to over half of New Zealand's kiwi orchards. It did make me wonder and worry a little about these young people. Someone in Germany has definitely worked hard to glamourise the fruit industry.

I had a shower. The door did not lock. No matter. Just as I was washing my hair the fire alarm went off. Choosing between my life and my dignity I obviously chose the latter. Coupled with my recent decision to buy a handkerchief sized travel towel there was little option. I decided to get fully dressed before evacuating anywhere. It was not a fire, just someone smoking in the wrong place.

All seemed well at the start of the evening. The Euro techno music was contained down stairs, we had a few beers, chatted to more blonde Germans and made a relatively early exit for a good night's sleep. I should have known that young people with their first chance of freedom, relaxed rules, large quantities of cheap beer was not the ideal combination. All was well until the speakers were moved. The volume was now similar to that in a night club. The lyrics of every song pounded through my pillow. 'Tonight's gonna be a good night..' It was so surreal I found myself giggling with inappropriate jokes about German sleep torture. It went on and on through til four something the next morning.

James kindly volunteered to negotiate our money back. Given that the manager was partying with the best of them I was not convinced but we did secure a small refund.

On to the hot and steamy town that is Rotorua. It was a tough 60 mile uphill to get there. Famous for its sulphurous pong, hot springs, geysers and bubbling mud pools, Rotorua is steeped in Maori legend. It was from here that my journey took an unexpected turn. An unlikely band of five of us all staying at the same hostel headed out on the town. Daniella, a Chilean born Swede, Lucy a Chinese girl from Hong Kong, Tef an Ethiopian New Yorker, James and me. A memorable night.

And so the journey continued. In Lake Taupo we arrived in the pouring rain and I was delighted to be greeted by a distinctly Welsh accent. The manager was from north Wales and her first language was Welsh. I did my best to practise the native tongue. The other chap on the desk was French speaking and I remarked how exciting it was that the two languages I spoke were spoken there. I added 'Though Welsh is a bit of a niche language'.

'Never' said the man sternly. 'Never refer to our language as niche. I am happier speaking Alsatian than I am any other language'.

I stood corrected. The history of the Maori language reminds me how right he was. Te Reo - the Maori language, though an official language of New Zealand it is not compulsory in schools unlike the Welsh language in Wales. In the 19th century English missionaries set up schools teaching the reading and writing of the Maori language which was essential to trade. However after an act of 1867 the government began funding only English schools and from the 1880s the language was banned in schools in line with an attempt to assimilate all Maori. This policy continued so that by 1960 only a quarter of the native people spoke Te Reo as their first language. This has now dwindled to 16% of people being fluent though more can understand it. An 1980s revival saw the launch of Maori radio and TV channels and increasing numbers of Maori schools. Unsurprisingly the Maori Language Act of 1987 drew on international precedence including the Welsh language Act of 1967 and recently teachers from New Zealand have visited Welsh schools to see bilingual education in action.

James and I cycled on. We crossed through Togariro National Park, skirting the volcano that would eject molten ash just a few days later. Timing is everything. It started to rain - heavily. We stopped after just 20 miles in a town at the bottom of Ruapehu, another volcano. Although it was so grey for our stay here we could never see it - even when we drove up to the snow line. We were looked after by Miriam and Dan. From the small village of Keithly in Yorkshire they were looking after the place in the owner's absence. Miriam had grown attached to the chickens and found 24 eggs hidden under a bush.

It was here my path changed. Tef, an American doctor working in New Zealand was flying south to explore the south of South Island for a few days. Taking an opportunity to discuss American health care policy with a democrat, I joined him wishing I had a few more tops in my pannier. I squished my bike into the back of the Toyota and left James to cycle the last 180 miles to Wellington unaided or rather without handicap.

Tef and I flew from Wellington to Dunedin with the snowy mountains of the south island visible from the small plane. Dunedin is a cross between San Fran and Edinburgh, boasting the steepest street in the world, Princes Street and cosy whisky serving pubs. We found a beach house on the sweeping sands of Curio Bay with the ocean on our door step. We saw dolphins playing in the surf, watched penguins shuffling down a nearby rocky beach, drove along spectacular coastline and drank local Pinot Noir with perfectly cooked steak and leeks. I had to get the leeks in. There are few times, probably no times, when I have felt more like Carrie Bradshaw or even Bridget Jones. You know the bit in the second book/film 'The Edge of Reason'? Now I understand the title.

It was in Rotorua that I also started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. A fantastic book rippled with great examples of psychological experiments that illustrate his idea that we as humans have two systems of thinking. The first system one is intuitive, the second, system two is more rational. He argues that we tend not to recognise our intuitive thinking but are more willing to recognise it in other people. Other people are the crazy ones. There was a certain irony to reading this book whilst I made seemingly rational decisions about ditching my bike (albeit briefly) and jumping on a plane. It was certainly this kind of thought that led me to cycling round then world.

I rejoined my cycling buddy James in Wellington. He had had some bad news about his mum who is ill. James will go home for Christmas and hopefully be able to rejoin me in February in Thailand. Love to him and his family.

We stayed with my friend Andy and his family in Wellington. I know Andy from my London swimming club - Cally Masters. He moved here almost two years ago and loves the outdoor opportunities that Welly offers but misses London friends. His children learn Te Reo at school and his sone Fin has developed an obsession with whales. Welly is a beautiful city with tree clad hills around a stunning bay. We enjoyed cycling round the coast, swimming in the sea, drinking too many flat whites in some great cafes with fantastic company.

There can be more connections on counter sides of the globe than with our own neighbours. Place and culture are not the only connection that makes people feel home. Time and timing are also important.

This all made me think about the importance of time in defining life. Or as science fiction writer Ray Cummings wrote in 1922, "Time is what keeps everything from happening at once". Now wouldnt that be interesting. As a history teacher time provides a structure to explain events and changes. So much is defined by a combination of place and time. As I go from hostel to hostel sometimes age feels important -like in KatiKati - and sometimes less so. There is no predestination in life, everything does not happen for a reason though after the event we can make stories fit the outcome - like the Maori legends. So many choices and random events collide to make life and yet as human beings we find it a more comforting explanation of our lives if we believe in the story. Part of the excitement of this year is its timing. Who knows how life might have been different had I not opted to begin this journey. I will never know. And who knows what is yet around the corner.

And so, as I continue south having said another goodbye, a small part of me still believes the idea that 'Everything happens for a reason' even though my rational thought knows damn well it doesn't.

It is just what it is.

Time to move on. Or as the Welsh would say - amser i symud mlan.

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