L, bless her, met me at the airport. The first flight, coming in close to midnight, was relatively short from Tokyo to Beijing. A modern version of Dante’s Inferno, with an entirely female cast, the Duty Free in Beijing was, in lurid half light, a scene of hysterical anguish with women clutching jars, perfume bottles and waving credit cards as the shop was about to close. The second flight was 11 hours to Auckland. Air China does not believe in providing much oxygen to dilute its recycled germs even in business class. When I stumbled out of customs my sinuses felt as though they had been immersed in Thai chili sauce for those hours but over the next few days at K and L’s they seemed to quiet down. This is despite Dr. F’s many pills. Going to the gym helped.
One day L and I went downtown to Queens Street to look at black pearls, since I am going on to Tahiti. Every shop was Chinese staffed and I would suppose Chinese owned. It was an education. At one store the owner, when I showed interest in an opera length strand, started at over 17,000 NZ and came down in less than five minutes to 7,000 NZ. This does not inspire confidence; it inspires terror.
It was an education and the owner of the Gallery Pacific, which had no black pearls but wonderful nephrite carvings and small statues in bone, wood and bronze, educated us further. He told us that in Tahiti the Chinese dredge freshwater ponds, seed them with oysters and then dye the pearls they harvest from these man made puddles. The Chinese are extraordinary at dying things. If I buy anything jade from the Jade Market in HK, I always presume it is dyed. No one else knows how to dye jade successfully but the Chinese.
The nephrite carvings at the Gallery Pacific are much more skillful than any others available in Auckland. Also he has artists who produce quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes haunted two-inch high statues of men and beasts.
The racial mix of downtown Auckland is exhilarating, heavily Asian, of course, but a mix that Europeans or Americans are not used to because of the addition of the South Pacific islands—Maori, Polynesian, Samoan, Fijian and on it hopes from island to island across the expanse of the ocean. These are faces that are completely unfamiliar to most westerners. I love walking among their unknown colors and features. I am thrilled to the core to come up behind two squarely shouldered young men and realize that they are speaking a Maori dialect.
The next day the three of us went out on L and K’s boat. We went not at all far from Auckland harbor—the skyline was behind us—to anchor in a bay, not more than a half an hour out. There were two rather nondescript modern houses at the top of the ridge but otherwise there were just outcroppings of yellow rock below overhanging trees as we were rocked by the passage of other boats. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon with L’s excellent feta and spinach pie.
That night I used their new hot tub cut from cedar which perfumes the air around you as you lie in the water looking up at palms or across at the small lemon tree pendant with heavy ovals of bumpy yellow fruit. Above a few stars can be glimpsed despite the ambient light of the city.
I had promised myself a return to the War Memorial Museum which houses exhibits about the white history of New Zealand, grim in its deprivations, and the most magnificent Maori art I have seen anywhere. The “meeting house”, the war canoe, the tiki entrance arch, the New Guinea and New Ireland masks are viscerally thrilling. Unfortunately the Madonna and Child carved by a recently baptized Maori two hundred years ago was on loan to a museum in London. It is not “beautiful” but it is vigorous. The pastor refused to accept it as a gift.
In the morning L and I left with a little roar and a long purr in her black, 1992 Saab, low slung convertible. We drove to Muriwai where far below us were surfers and a swath of black sand beach. A core of rock, flat on top, towered to the right. We walked on a narrow path with scrub trees beside it a fantail following us companionably for a while fluttering and spreading, scissoring its tail from tree to tree. It has a white clerical collar, a belly and breast of a color similar to the American robin and a fan for a tail. Looking down I could see the hummocks of the gannet nesting grounds. Beyond was a shorter outcropping of rock, flat as a table on top, on which two men were fishing in very dangerous conditions. A good wave would have wiped them off into the sea like a hand sweeping crumbs from a table.
Further right from that short rock is a stretch of black beach. You can see the rip tides that form a line like a zipper from beach into sea.
We stopped for lunch at Wellsford at the sort of cheerful neighborhood restaurant where waitresses serve big portions followed by lots of coffee.
In Kawakawa we stopped to see and use the Hundertwasser Toilets on Gilles Street. They were designed by the Austrian artist, a recluse, who came to Kawakawa to live in 1975. It was completed before his death in 2000 at the age of 71 and is as eccentric as its creator. A tree sprouts through a hole in the corridor ceiling. Grass that was uprooted for the construction continues to happily thrive on its roof. Sculptures, ceramic tiles, discarded bottles and bricks from a former bank have all been incorporated into it. It is a huge amount of fun. It reminded me in its whimsy and use of the broken and rejected of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia in Los Angeles. The outside pillars resemble children’s wooden beads, although much more irregular, with their brilliant primary colors. It is a great place. Busloads of tourist come but L and I had it to ourselves.
We then continued on our drive to A’s at Totara North, a long drive through rolling hills with copses of trees in their dimples, some stands of planted timber, cows, cows and sheep, sheep. It is an occasionally three-lane road, which is most of the time a two-lane road, frequently winding and definitely dangerous. There are warnings about crash areas and about speeds on curves.
An anomaly of the New Zealand countryside is that it frequently looks like the English countryside—rolling hills and dells full of most un-English vegetation, tree ferns, for instance. It is not England also because it is Big Sky country with huge, goose down billows of cumulus. There is as well something un-Englishly edgy about those hills. They are a little aggressive, too intense.
I have known L since she was 8 and I was about 27. Her family lived across the courtyard from me at 319 St. John’s Place in Brooklyn. We became and stayed friends, although we have not seen each other for many years at a time. When she lived in Bella Coola, British Columbia, living in the dorm of a salmon-canning factory, I was teaching at the University of Idaho, Moscow. At her suggestion I drove up for a visit.
It was an epic journey in my little red Honda hatchback, which I drove back and forth across the U.S. 10 times in 6 years. I drove up into Canada, then over to the coast to follow 97 to Williams Lake where, as instructed, I made a left onto a road that turned, within a mile, to dirt and stayed dirt. I drove all day with mountains flanking me, with a cattle herd surrounding me until I honked at them, stopping at and providing entertainment at a school just by my unexpected appearance. There were no signs. As the day progressed I became more and more nervous. I was, apparently the only person on this road. When I was going up a rise two young Native Americans in a flatbed Ford came toward me. I braked and honked. Leaning out my window I asked, “How far is it to Bella Coola?”
“We don’t think like that,” the young couple replied grinning. “You go up this rise, then down a bit. Then there is a big rise and you come down and down from that. When you are down you are in Bella Coola.”
The down and down was on a gravel and dirt road that serpented its descent on the mountain edge. I hugged the cliff wall as eighteen-wheelers charged up past me snorting like wild boar.
When I arrived in Bella Coola, L was waiting for me. As I remember I got out of my little red car and gave her the following curse. “I hope when you are almost 50 someone gets you to do a day’s driving like this.”
Bella Coola is on a fjord. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to.
When, in their sixties, L and K finally married I came to New Zealand for the first time. Both of them were in the film industry in New Zealand. K was a grip. L still is in the industry and has won awards for her work as a producer.
My other connection to L is through travel. She is a thoroughly intrepid traveler. Once she hired on as a cook on a yacht with the understanding that she could leave, instantly whenever she wanted to. They came down the U.S. coast and then along the coast of Mexico. Somewhere along the shore of Central America L saw some people on an island, told the owner she was leaving them, bundled her clothes up and swam to the island. She spent months living with the islanders until they returned to the mainland. She left them shortly after than to go to Belize and design shoes. She was one of my original traveler role models.
I met A, who is unforgettable, at the wedding. She’s about as unique a personality as one is likely to find, gifted with her hands and her heart—part tomboy, part shaman, seasoned by some Maori in the blood. She worked as grip coordinator on Lord of the Rings. She was the first woman grip in New Zealand
We had a glimpse of a harbor before we turned into A’s. Her house is a huge, but plain, villa, the New Zealand name for a wooden, colonial house, pre 1910, surrounded by trees. There are six rooms plus a long kitchen opening onto a verandah lacy with Victorian gingerbread, fretwork, hung with small, mirrored, disco balls and elaborate spider webs. There is also a bathroom, its window propped open so that Mr. Black, A’s cat, can enter and exit at his convenience.
The rooms are large with twelve-foot ceilings. The man who built it around 1900 was a cabinetmaker; everything fits. The ceiling is paneled. The entire house is made from one tree. It is up on posts. The windows, like the windows in my Brooklyn house, have rippled glass because it was poured, not rolled. There are two fireplaces, wood burning, surround by tiles, in one room yellow-orange chrysanthemums with fern leaves in the corners. The other has unidentifiable bluey-green flowers.
The front door has panels of yellow to mustard stained glass in a pattern of raised daisies. There is a worn front porch with Victorian gingerbread. There are palms in her front yard and a tree covered with purple blooms. I felt it an honor to be asked to stay at A’s house.
Starting out in A’s car, we drove through mostly rolling but occasionally craggy country and stopped at a supermarket at Coopers Beach. We had coffee, and a ginger cookie, at a little coffee bar next door. There is a Vermont feeling about this area, of people having difficulty getting the two ends to meet.
We went on to Mangonui, a harbor with a simple fried fish restaurant where you eat outside. I had oysters. A and L had fried fish. We were greeted at the door by a grey shag, a largish cormorant, who talked a lot, getting out of the door way reluctantly. Sparrows hung out inside the open air eating area, the gulls, small ones, outside. The sparrows also were not at all afraid. The oysters were delicious.
While we ate we watched men fishing on the pier. One pulled in a big fish, over two feet long, a kingi fish, or king fish. It did not come in easily; it was heavy. When we walked over to the pier it was slowly, painfully drowning in air. Why not finish it with a strong blow? A two year old watching its death pushed on its eye causing it to convulse–a gesture of both curiosity and unconscious cruelty.
We drove on to Taupo Bay with a gorgeous bulge of rock on one side. There were twenty or so youngsters out in the surf paddling and coasting small waves. It is a dramatic coast.
Driving back to Auckland from A’s on roads along the coast we suddenly had to slow and stop for a funeral at the roadside. At first L thought it was a protest as it was largely Maori with lots of children. The cemetery was by the side of the road. A truck had hit a ten year old. The crowd was both sorrowful and angry. A Maori warden with embroidery on her hat slowed us and then waved us through. It was terrible to see those clenched, dark faces in the green graveyard—grey tombstones against green, black clothes against green.
We had a late lunch at Waipu Cove at the Cove Café, another outdoor restaurant, but not as successful as at Mangonui. I had adequate venison but I have had more tasty and tender in New York. L had some good tuna and luscious squid. The restaurant was right off the beach, full of people of all ages, with a tiny playground next to it with a slide.
All day we drove in and out of rain accompanied by rainbows.