“Kia Ora!” I read on several signs as I trudged through Auckland Airport’s arrivals corridors after my anti-climactic flight. When I was growing up in London, “Kia Ora!” was a lurid, artificial drink with a crazy animated commercial featuring a wide-eyed monkey and little black kids swinging from trees in that highly un-PC way they did everything in the late 70s. I think they renamed the drink, “Orangina,” but I’m not entirely sure.
I say, “anti-climactic” because, in my true-to-fashion Kafkaesque way, I had been expecting the worst, so I was perversely disappointed. I arrived at LAX with my stomach in knots, having had nightmares of security lines stretching out of the terminal, officious airline staff refusing to change my middle row seat to a window one while I bawled my eyes out protesting that I needed a specific seat to help calm my flying nerves, and near riots at the security scanners with passengers refusing to be x-rayed and being carted off to be molested by TSA staff. What actually happened was, the nice woman at the Air New Zealand desk waived my overweight bag fee, there was not one single person lining up at the security checkpoint, through which I went without so much as a pat on the butt, and they called me forward just before we boarded to tell me they’d got me a window seat right near the front of the giant 747 I was about to board. When I got on, I found I had a spare seat beside me, to boot.
A week of frantic last-minute appointments and logistics and leaving parties and work commitments had left me more sleep-deprived than I can ever remember being, and for the first time in my life, instead of clasping my hands together and praying like mad as we sped down the runway and took to the air, I was fast asleep. I slept on and off for the majority of the 12-hour flight, waking only briefly to eat my two delicious vegan meals (dinner and breakfast) and to watch as we crossed the equator (something I’d done only twice before) and the International Date Line (a first for me) on the flight map. There were some 150 movies and 100 TV shows to choose from on the personal entertainment system in the back of the seat in front of me, and I was disappointed I didn’t have the energy to watch them. The airline staff were hospitable and friendly, and distinctly different most of the cabin crew I’d encountered in the past, whose behavior I have usually found falls into one of two extremes, either the bitchy, condescending, don’t-bother-pressing-the-call-light-because-I-will-never-come attitude, or the fake, in-your-face, robotic, watch-how-I-can-still-smile-while-I-clean-up-this-child’s-vomit approach. The Air New Zealand staff all seemed laid back and chilled and mildly sardonic; a kind of toned-down version of what you get on Southwest, if you’re at all familiar.
After the extremely handsome customs officer graciously let me into his country, I gathered my belongings and headed out of the terminal, marveling at the fact that I’d been wrong to laugh at my friend, who’d once dated a Kiwi underwear model who was visiting LA, and was convinced that all Kiwi men were going to be that good looking. I took the shuttle to my friend’s house, in a leafy suburb just south west of the city, and after a quick shower and change I was ready for my guided tour. As we drove into the city center, the roads and houses reminded me of both a small town in the English Lake District and a place I once visited in Maryland. Someone more knowledgeable in the history of architecture can no doubt tell me why. While downtown Auckland itself was clean and functional, it looked a little dated and tired, and I reminded myself that people came to New Zealand for the countryside, the spectacular natural landscape, and the charming towns of the South Island, and not because there is any great wow factor about the CBD of the country’s largest city.
As early evening approached, I found myself sitting at a waterfront table on the terrace of a new, trendy bar in the Viaduct area, with friends, sampling the first of my New Zealand wines. The sun was still shining at 7pm, a major bonus of flying south of the equator in early December. I started talking about my travel plans and one of the women at the table suggested I hitchhike my way down to the South Island because it would be cheap and fun. I looked at her and laughed, briefly, before realizing she was serious. She persisted.
“I would never suggest hitching on your own, as a woman, anywhere else in the world, but this is New Zealand, it’s completely safe,” she assured me. And something really fascinating to write about, I thought, laughing at my own fake bravado. Not in a million years will you catch me hitchhiking, on my own, across a foreign country with all my worldly possessions. And yet, as I write this, I have a sneaking suspicion I’m writing my own famous last words!
Before leaving LA, I’d decided I was going to take up wine tasting as a casual hobby on my travels. Everything else I did was going to have some connection to work and I wanted a pastime, something fun to do that was purely for my own entertainment. I’ve always loved wine but I do struggle to remember the wines I like. A few weeks ago I’d set up some wine tastings for my friend’s family’s wine and it had been a great educational experience for me, watching how the experts do it. So I had bought myself quite a fancy wine journal, and on my first night in Auckland, I had a great time making notes on the Hawkes Bay Chardonnay and the Martinborough Pinot Noir I’d been recommended. Sampling and savoring and making notes somehow slowed down my consumption and I was very pleased that I felt nothing but a mild buzz as we left the bar at 9pm and walked back along the harbor. About an hour later it was a slightly different story.
Somehow I’d managed to miscalculate the time difference. My friends were tired and wanted to head home. I was convinced it was only 6pm LA time (actually it was more like midnight the day before, but the Pinot Noir was clearly thinking for me) and I was already being coaxed into another bar by a group of young guys who seriously could have been underwear models but turned out to be Air New Zealand engineers. Satisfied that I had enough cash for a cab and a key, my friends left me in the safe, greasy hands of these aircraft engineers. Two shots of tequila and half a pint of beer later, I was swapping life stories with their boss, who happened to be from Bridgend in South Wales.
“Where are you from, then?” he asked me.
“Well, kind of London via LA,” I replied.
“You’re like an Air New Zealand flight,” he quipped.
It took me a minute to get it and then I fell off my stool I was laughing so hard. Two tequila shots, remember.
Luckily I had enough sober brain cells lurking in the back of my head to get out before I made any promises to join them as they moved onto their next location (although it was a close call and I had to sneak out the back to ensure I got away), and soon I found myself wandering up Queen Street, Auckland’s central high street, which is where I ran into Doug and Dan.
Just as I was wondering how far my high-heeled sandaled feet were going to get me before I gave in and did the rest of the journey by cab, I saw two regulation-cute guys embracing outside a small supermarket. In my best Bette Midler impression, I beamed at them, swished my arm in the air flamboyantly, and said,
“You guys are adorable!”
It had been a fun night, but I’d always been aware I was in a strange country and there’s nothing that could make you feel more at home when you’ve just flown in from LA than a gay couple embracing in the middle of a busy thoroughfare on a Saturday night. They declared me “adorable” too and insisted we all go for a drink. We stopped at an outside bar and Doug said he’d surprise us. He came out with three dark brown concoctions that he said he’d just invented. It was 42 Below vodka, manuka honey and ginger ale. I named it a “Kiwi Mule.” I just googled it and there are some recipes that include these ingredients and others, such as kiwi fruit, mint and lime. Maybe I’ll do a little research on best recipes for this drink alongside the wine tasting. And try to figure out how they’re all so fit and healthy down here with all this great booze available!
Around midnight, something kicked my brain back into gear (perhaps it was the manuka honey) and I realized the time difference made LA 21 hours behind, not forward, making it more like 3am to my body clock. So I exchanged big hugs with my new best friends, Doug and Dan (they’ve only been together 3 weeks but I do have high hopes for them) and jumped in a cab.
Earlier that day my friend had reminded me, after the second time I’d tipped a waitress serving us coffee, that tipping it not part of the Kiwi culture. I remembered, from my days in Australia, that this was something I’d never been able to get used to. As I watched the meter run up in the cab, I resolved to honor the Kiwi culture and not tip the guy. I did, however, only have $20 in cash on me, and so I asked him to stop when the meter hit $20 and I’d walk the rest of the way. We’d turned into my friend’s street and we were at number 54 (they live at number 102) when the meter hit $20. The guy stopped. I gave him the $20 and got out and watched as he drove away from me, in the direction of number 102, without a second glance. I hadn’t even been in the country for 24 hours yet, it was past midnight, I was a woman on my own, and he was going to be driving past the house I needed to reach anyway.
Glad I hadn’t asked him to let me out when the meter reached eighteen dollars so I could give him a ten percent tip, and with my feet aching in those high-heeled sandals I now regretted stuffing into my overweight suitcase, I started walking down the deserted street. I wasn’t scared; I was in New Zealand.