Thursday, November 15, 2012
Still Asunder Down Under
Karen here, still in New Zealand, where it’s Spring. Jim’s still in Tonga but is on his way south from Vava’u to Ha’apai, then to Nuku Alofa on Tongatapu—about 200 miles. Pretty soon you are going to be hearing more from him as he sets sail from Tonga to New Zealand. He will at the very least do a position report each day, which you can find on the Side Page called "Where is Sockdolager Now?" This is the Tongan courtesy flag flying from Sockdolager’s starboard spreader:
We’re thrilled that Tom Reese, Jim’s longtime sailing buddy, will join him in Nuku Alofa to crew for the passage. Takes a lot of worry out of the mix. They’ll set sail for NZ as soon as Tom arrives, weather permitting, around November 21. I’m in Devonport, a quiet suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, still in that lovely little flat overlooking a salt marsh for one more week.
Next Friday (Thursday for most of you) I’ll head up north to await Jim’s arrival. This has been a serene place to rest up and heal, and I’m grateful. The old rowboat pictured above is in this back yard. Jim and I plan to come right back here in January, too, for some more land-time in a peaceful setting. We’re hoping summer arrives by then, because so far this spring the weather has been unseasonably wet, cold and windy. Summer, according to locals, arrives on December 1st. Don’t ask me how these Kiwis know that; they just do. Let’s hope so; we’d rather not greet all incoming cruising boats with this announcement:
Health matters have improved: The doctor adjusted my heart medication and I have joined a walking group. It’s a little embarrassing to report that although I’m no slowpoke, most of this group’s members, who have at least ten years on me, can leave me in the dust. Must be the air down here, or maybe it’s the rugby, but Kiwis are robust. Walking at a good clip is once again possible in the cool air of a temperate latitude. In Tonga at this time of year, a walk is basically a sweat-bathed slow ooze down the side of a dusty road. Being able to hike here in NZ is nice compensation for not being around all that gorgeous sparkling warm languid turquoise gin-clear, fish-laden, spa-like, inviting, relaxing tropical water... oh, slam a bung in it, Karen.
New Zealand is a sightseer’s delight, there’s so much variety here. A visit to the Auckland Museum is a good first step. Their exhibits on Maori art and culture are outstanding.
Here is the largest remaining Maori war canoe, Te Toki A Tapiri, built in 1836, and adzed from a single totara log. It’s 25 meters long, can carry 100 warriors, and has elaborate carvings on the stern and prow. It has been in the museum since 1885, and looked so new I did a double-take when I read that it’s 177 years old!
The use of woven stick mats to stand on and keep feet out of the water, or allow storage underneath, was brilliant.
While it would be hard to improve such a canoe, anchor technology has advanced.
For such a small country, New Zealand has some interesting wildlife. Everyone knows that Kiwis, endemic to New Zealand, are the country's national bird, and we hope to see some in the wild. Meantime, here are 3 species of Kiwi in the museum exhibit so you know what they look like. They’re flightless.
This is a re-creation of an extinct bird called a moa, sort of the wooly mammoth of the bird world. I couldn't fit all of it in the camera lens.
There has been plenty of time for reflection. A few of you have asked over the past year what else besides the blog might be coming out of this Excellent Adventure. There have been several more articles published (see the side page for an updated list,) and a whole series on solo sailing is coming out next year in Good Old Boat magazine. Plus, a movie deal with Meryl Streep playing me has been signed… just kidding. But I have begun to put together a manuscript about the Pacific crossing for an e-book, and it’s a fun project. It’ll take awhile to rewrite and edit, but I’ll keep you posted.
In the shorter term, reflecting on how we've dropped like little aliens into all these island cultures, with their individualities and quirks and customs, has been enjoyable. Of course, it goes both ways, and I’m sure we’ve been viewed as pretty darned quirky ourselves. Jim’s hearty attempts at speaking French, Marquesan, Tahitian, and Cook Islands Maori practically guaranteed grins and groans. But we love the eye-opening that this cruise has given us so far.
The most profound benefit of seeing the world at 5 knots is realizing that when it comes to basic human decency, people are much the same the world over. There’s something comforting about this, a sense that no one needs to feel aloof or separate from anyone else, that you can wander through humanity and connect with people on the universal currency of a smile. You can talk to someone who speaks a different language from your own and be understood, because 75 percent of what we say comes not from words but from body language. You can ask for help and it will be given, gladly and generously. You can give help and it will be graciously received. You can be awed by the genius of seeing problems solved using low or no technology. You can be abashed at how little is wasted in some societies compared to our own. You can see for yourself that Americans are still liked and respected, and you can look at news stories of far away places with new eyes and think, those are people, not objects. You can be a citizen of the world, and it feels good. It sure beats gated communities.
When you spend time in a new place, there is an awareness at first, of things that are different. Gradually this subsides into familiarity, but before it does there’s a pleasant sense of surprise that goes with every excursion ashore. Of course, some observations have hidden messages, like, if your taxi has a windshield that looks like this it might be best to make it a short trip.
Where to begin? Ah yes, food. One of the great pleasures of being in a foreign country, besides its people, is its food. Restaurants have long accommodated this, and in rural places local people often put on beach feasts when boats drop anchor. Cooking food underground has been a real revelation ever since we crossed the Pacific; it’s simple, seems to be done everywhere in Oceania, and it makes sense in hot climates.
But eventually you have to go shopping, which is also one of the pleasures and challenges of cruising around. Sometimes you have to visit three or four shops to find what you need, and often you don’t find familiar foods. Sometimes it’s the way things are sold; peanut butter at the gas station, for example, or canned chicken at the back of a toddler’s toy store. Some items catch the eye because you don’t know what they are; take ota, the Polynesian voyaging food made from boiled taro and coconut. It looks like a soft fat white hippie candle. Had I known how delicious it was, I would have started snorking it much sooner, but it’s never labeled because it’s home made, and everyone already knows what it is. Except the gringos.
Some items have names that defy common sense. Wonder what the marketing plan was for this dairy product? “Noisy Butter—not your average beurre demure?”
Some foods are unusual combinations, like chicken-flavored potato chips. Definitely an acquired taste. I liked Vietnamese shrimp-flavored cheezits, but Jim thought they were so vile he didn’t want me eating them in the cabin. Okay, so shrimp breath mints aren’t the Next Big Thing.
What I don’t get about the brand shown below is the name. Bluebirds and potato chips? As a former biologist I must also object: that’s not a bluebird surfing a chicken potato chip, it’s a penguin.
Here’s the peanut butter from the gas station in Aitutaki. And yes, that’s the price in NZ dollars, about $6 US. Not cheap, but Jim was desperate, and far be it from me to get between a man and his peanut butter. But seriously, Sanitarium? Isn’t that a nice word for, like, sick bay? Granted, the word has hints of “sanitary” and “yum” in it, which you of course would want in your food, and it turns out to be a major brand down here. But I should talk. At home we have “Safeway,” which implies something, but I’m not sure what. Maybe their marketers wanted to distance themselves from the Piggly Wiggly types.
Even the transportation system gives pause for reflection. You queue to board the bus, you get this sign. I thought New Zealand was a secular society.
Okay, I’m off food for a minute, because we’re going to talk bugs. If you recall from an earlier post, big crunchy bugs are not the kind of thing that make my day. Especially these bugs. I’m talkin’ major, herkin’ bugs with attitude, so big that according to the museum where I photographed these dudes, even the warlike Maoris feared them. I’m talkin’ Weta bugs, giant ones, weighing up to 72 grams. The world's largest insect. They are almost big enough to saddle, and they live in New Zealand. Like, not too far from here. Weta bugs could run down the Orkin Pest Man and have him for breakfast. And there are several species of Weta bugs!
I think the NZ biosecurity folks may have overlooked Weta bugs in the national defense scheme. I mean, think about it. Someone tries to smuggle in a non-native plant or animal, you just put them in a room with a cage full of Weta bugs all wanting to get out. Instant confession. It’s the Kiwi Nuclear Option. If I’d known about Weta bugs before I got here, I would have microwaved my clothes and shoes for extra credit with Customs. Here are some smaller species compared in size to my hand.
So, after I saw the Weta bugs at the museum, I made the BIG MISTAKE of going to the grocery store. Bad move. Guess what I found:
Uh-unh, no way nohow am I ever gonna eat that. Can't fool me with the extra 'e.'
Thank you for all the emails, comments and good wishes. We love reading them and try to answer everything, but lately with all that’s happened it sometimes takes awhile.
However, fair warning: you might see a scene like this at the Whangerei docks when Jim arrives: