Goodbye to the land of the long white cloud, but I do hope it is not too long before I return. New Zealand has such stunning natural beauty and so many wonderful people, I can certainly see myself living there. So, yeah, any hot, single, floppy-haired Kiwis out there?
My last two days in Bay of Plenty were rainy and gray. On Friday I took the city bus from the Rotorua Central Business District to the Whakarewarewa Forest, a/k/a The Redwoods and walked some trails for a couple hours. (I apologize for the delay in getting all the trip photos back online via Flickr; Flickr's interface is very un-user-friendly and uploading so many photos has been challenging between that and the spotty and slow wifi I've been hopping onto here and there). Friday afternoon I took a regional bus back to Tauranga. I had hoped to hit the trails at the Karangahake Gorge on Saturday and stay just late enough to see some glow worms there, but the rain just wouldn't let up. I convinced my hostess Nikki to grab burgers at Astrolabe in Mt. Maunganui for lunch, since the burgers back in the US cannot remotely compare. We decided that after lunch we'd catch a movie someone had recommended, The Dark Horse (see the trailer here: http://youtu.be/X3YopiaQ3k8). We had to drive to the "Kiwifruit capital of the world," Te Puke, to catch a showing.
The Dark Horse is the true story of a Maori chess champion who suffered with bipolar disorder. It's a moving story about his struggle with mental illness and the social struggles of many Maori. I think it stands on its own as a film worth seeing, but especially recommend it if you are visiting New Zealand. Maori terminology and symbols can be seen everywhere in New Zealand and give the impression that white Kiwis have embraced Maori culture and it's all one big, happy family. The reality is that there is a great deal of underlying racism and resentments running both directions. While I suspect many "white" Kiwis probably have a little Maori in them and take pride in it, there are definitely class distinctions along racial lines. The "chamber of commerce" portrayal of Maori culture will give you pricey hangi buffets and dance shows, but they don't want you to see the poverty or gang problems. I walked around in areas that some white Kiwis would consider unsafe for me, but didn't faze me in the least. Maybe being the palest one on the street made me stand out, but no one made me feel that way. I only wish I had bought a Maori phrasebook at the beginning of the trip so I hadn't been butchering pronunciation and so I could really learn the langauge. I can't imagine living in either the Cooks or New Zealand and not being bilingual. It's like living in Miami and refusing to learn Spanish; you're missing out on a huge part of life there and really only hurting yourself.
Before I had left Rotorua I was back to researching tattoo artists. There are plenty of tattoo shops out there and New Zealand is the tattoo capital of the world from what I was told when I was there. Based on the volume of tats you see when out and about, I tend to think that may be true. I found an artist back in Auckland whose fine line ta moko (traditional Maori tattoo) was right up my alley. I had already bought a bus ticket for Monday to head to Auckland before my flight, but figured I could change plans and head to Auckland a day early if the right tattoo opportunity got sorted. I decided to roll the bones and give a call. The artist, Thomas Clark, was the one to actually answer the phone and I explained I was leaving on an evening flight Monday but wanted to see if there was any way he could see me earlier in the day. He said he had a large piece (8-9 hours) scheduled but he might be able to push it back a couple hours if I could come first thing in the morning. He said it'd be at a studio he's setting up at his house, near the airport. Close to the airport sounded good to me. I had a good feeling about him from speaking on the phone so I sent him a lengthy email about what I was thinking of, where, and why, and we set up an appointment for 9:00am Monday morning.
Taking the bus back to Auckland, yet again I hadn't figured out where I'd stay. Part of the issue was not being able to walk far with the ridiculous duffel bag full of gear. The bag weighed between 20-23 kilos depending on whether I pulled things out into a gym bag or just had a few items in my small pack. Next time I will have a really good backpack, period. Duffels are bullshit. They are just for people who drive their luggage everywhere or have servants to carry it. If you actually have to carry a bag even a couple blocks a shoulder strap never wants to stay on, you're tipped all sideways from the weight of the bag, and walking down an aisle on a bus or plane means holding it awkwardly in front of you. I couldn't really have packed lighter for the trip I thought I was going on, thus the weight and size of the bag were in large part due to the snokel gear and lifejacket that took up half the space. Oh, and a whole gym bag I had had to take to bring the chartplotter, batteries, flashlights, 5200, et cetera for the scumbag captain. Anyway, next time I will pack lighter and have a serious backpack.
When I got to the city I ended up going with a six-female dorm room at Queen Street Backpackers, just down the block from where I'd been before. People there seemed friendlier and it was cheaper at NZ$27 for the night and free wifi. No lockers in the rooms, a loud, creaky door, and sort of old and dirty, but it was just one night. I chatted with one of my new roommates, from Czech Republic, and convinced her to come out for happy hour. Then we met up with one of my roommates from before, who had also moved to a different hostel. I was tired and had to get up very early, so a few beers and I was done.
I was up at 6:00am to get to the airport. Although my flight wasn't until 7:15pm, I needed to check my enormous bag and get my boarding pass so I wouldn't have that stress while getting the tattoo. I felt like I was running late and stressing at the airport, but managed to get it all done and catch the local bus to Mangere Bridge. It was less than 10 minutes to walk from the bus stop to the house, so I was relieved to even make it a smidge early (I'm notoriously on "Miami time" and 10 minutes late for everything).
If you've been following along you know I had been planning on getting this Maori mask that's on the ten cent coin as the central feature. It stuck me the first time I saw it in the Cooks because it looks like a cat, then a butterfly, then a warrior. I was thinking of a small piece between my hairline and necklace chain, so the chain wouldn't be breaking across it. Thomas asked me about my family and heritage and how my life was connected to the water. He explained that he felt the mask has a lot of detail and would need to be much bigger than what I was wanting so the lines don't blur together as the tat ages. He also convinced me not to worry about the necklace chain going across it. I just had a good feeling that he understood what I was trying to express, that I needed to trust his ability to capture that, and went for it. I felt he genuinely wanted to understand who I am so the tattoo is meaningful. That willingness and ability to "get" what I was after is what was missing when I spoke with someone earlier in the trip.
As I've probably mentioned, Maori tattoo is not stenciled. The basic outline is drawn on with a Sharpie, a photo is snapped, and then the piece is done freehand. When he showed me the Sharpie version it was not what I had originally envisioned but was beautiful. I had been concerned that a piece of such a different style from the one on my shoulderblade would look odd if they were close together but I saw that it really worked, fit the shape of my neck and back, and had a symetrical elegance. My only requests were couldn't we have a matau (fish hook) and could we add touches of color here and there. Thomas agreed we could do some color if I wanted, but thought I should see it done first before commiting. When it was finished he said he'd add the blues we discussed but really felt the piece was complete and would be more traditional left without any color. When I saw the finished piece I agreed and left it in black line.
As for the matau, he said it's very touristy and instead of that he made a hammerhead shark, which is a very strong guardian for me on the water and that the hammerhead represents strength and determination, and thus suits me well. (The hammerhead design is formed by two large koru (spirals) coming from either side of the center line.) Koru are the unfurling fronds of the silver fern and represent rebirth and the eternal nature of the universe. The smaller parallel koru represent me and my father, with whom I was very close. The fine directional lines within the design represent navigational signs so I always find my way on the water and in life. The center line is me, independent and often standing on my own. Ta moko is considered a sacred ritual and the piece is very meaningful for me, so I am glad I went with a traditional style. A lifelong memento of my trip but that captures me on its own, and the bonus...takes up no extra space on the boat.
So, drum roll please, and here it is...
When the real work began he apologized that the first line was a really long one, but that it was going so well he didn't want to stop. Any tat right around the spine is going to hurt, so I just reminded myself how laser removal was far, far more painful and I had made it through eight sessions on a large piece on my arm. We were chatting while he worked and I mentioned that my last couple of days had been terribly rainy and one day I decided to just hide from the rain in a movie. I told him I went to see this great movie, The Dark Horse, it's in theaters now, had he heard of it? He was quiet a little longer than I expected, which made me think maybe he didn't care for the film. Then he told me Genesis, the chess champion protagonist, was his uncle and had taught him chess as a boy. I got to hear cool stories and family history and get more context for the film. He put on a documentary that the feature film is based on so I could watch it while he was working. What an incredibly small world it is that led me to that film and to Thomas within days of each other. The universe just has its ways.
I absolutely love the piece and I'm glad I trusted Thomas' suggestions. He did a wonderful job, moved his schedule around to fit me in, and even got me to the airport. If you're getting a tat in New Zealand, check out his page at https://www.facebook.com/matakioretamoko/photos_stream, and you can also find his contact details there.
In addition to lots of great Kiwis and Pacific Islanders, I met cool backpackers along the way, and may have even left a better impression of Americans than much of the world has. There is definitely a view that Americans are ignorant of the world, and, sadly, many of them are. If you followed the government's directions you'd never learn about another culture or have much fun when traveling. They'd rather you stay blissfully ignorant of the larger world around us and the fact that the US is not the center of it. They tell you not to eat street food or drink the water or have sex or get tattoos (I almost did all those things on this trip, wink-wink). Well, that's a sanitised way of travelling that keeps the sheeple dumb and easy to control. People would say to me that I seem nice, that most Americans they meet seem nice, but that they hate our government and its policies. Well, so do a lot of Americans. Our government gives us all a bad name and makes it more dangerous for us to travel because its terrible policies are attributed to us. I simply cannot comprehend traveling to another country and not learning as much of the language as possible, eating all the local food I can, spending as much time steeped in the local culture as I can. If all you want out of travel is to lay on a pretty beach, speak English, and eat McDonald's, you can do that in most of Florida so please just stay stateside so the rest of the world doesn't think we're all that mindless. OK, rant over.
My flight from Auckland to San Francisco was 11.5 hours; the flight from San Fran to Baltimore is 5+. So, roughly 17 hours flying time, plus 4 hour layover, plus arriving early enough for my flight out of Auckland equals over 24 hours in transit. I think I'm going to sleep in when I finally arrive, except I will want to get up and go fetch my sweet pup dog and give her a huge hug. I'll miss the Cooks and New Zealand, but it will be good to be back with my pack. I am so incredibly grateful to all my friends who made the trip possible, by babysitting my pets and boat, stepping up as emegency back-up pet-sitters, driving me to or from airports and bus stations, and welcoming me into their homes. I'm blessed by great friends and the kindness of strangers, many of whom I am lucky to now call friends.