New Zealand was the final leg of our Polynesian journey. After yet another lengthy flight - on this occasion across the international date line - we were greeted by a friendly customs officer at Auckland International Airport. The public servant charmed us through his welcoming behaviour, a feeling quite similar to arriving at Pearson airport in Toronto in the early 1990s. Our Canadian counterpart have veered far away from this mindset, preferring a more intrusive and suspecting stance upon welcoming Canadian passport holders into their own country. We proceeded afterwards to the car rental counter where once more the service was friendly, timely and efficient. Before we knew it, we were in the parking lot in front of our rental that would play an integral role for the duration of our trip. We loaded the car with our belongings and assumed our regular positions. My mom and I opened the back doors and settled in while Dad and Brian made their way to the front seats. My father realized he was sitting behind the dashboard and my brother had an unfamiliar steering wheel staring back at him. We shared a good laugh as we noticed our Kiwi friends had adopted British driving standards and regulations. Few countries in the world followed this trend and it was the first time we encountered this curious system. My Dad switched over to his more familiar position, yet this time on the right side, driving us out of the parking lot and into the parkway leading to the city. Before even merging into the motorway, we were warned by an alarming honk and a Mick Dundee-like "You're on the wrong side of the road, mate!". My Dad readjusted his bearings while the rest of us caught our breath, and maneuvered nervously following the local traffic flow toward the city.
|Maman, Brian and I at the Auckland Zoo|
Our first day in Auckland was primarily a period of adaptation to our new time zone helping counteract serious jet-lag. We checked-in to our hotel situated conveniently nearby the central business district. This city is the business powerhouse driving the national economy, representing approximately one third of the population. It houses the largest concentration of Polynesians, known as Māori, accounting for 20,000 of the 1.3 million inhabitants. Life in the metropolitan area seemed to run smoothly through clean and quiet streets, especially in comparison to other cities I had the privilege to live in. This was particularly useful for us as we wanted to maximize the time we had to see as much as we could. Many of the road and park signs were both in English and Māori. The government of New Zealand had pushed for legislation protecting the local culture and language in the mid 1980s to preserve the rich aboriginal history. We reached Hobson Bay in the afternoon, east of the downtown core, to visit Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, the brainchild of a famous Kiwi diver and marine explorer bearing the same name. The aquarium is adjacent to the coast and as visitors enter, they descend into the underwater level through escalators. Upon reaching the lower levels, all that separates people from the sea are networks of large glass tubes and domes. People are transported on conveyor belts sliding through the tubes allowing them to watch the animals as they stand still. There were not many places to stop and admire a specific exhibit, but in case the desire to see more of the wildlife was not fulfilled, people were allowed to go through the circuit as many times as they pleased. We did so for about three complete circles as we enjoyed the novelty of the experience.
The city itself portrayed a fine blend between colonial buildings, such as the old government house near Auckland University and modern architectural office towers. Much of the cityscape resembled North American urban centres preserving little structural memory of the aboriginal past and a growing desire to live in suburbia. Even some historic buildings are demolished to pave the way for progress. The Victoria Park Flea Market had a classic exterior facade yet the inside resembled a modern shopping centre. This wonderful place offered many interesting souvenirs for tourists which could not be found elsewhere in the country. One of my favourite memories during our window shopping included a store with all sorts of fun memorabilia. Among these was an unforgettable t-shirt starring a caricature of a sheep smiling and holding his back to the observer while a yellow stream filled a bottle. The caption read as follows: "Australian beer." I figured from that comedic depiction that the Kiwis and the Aussies had some sort of rivalry. We purchased more discrete shirts in a dark blue with "New Zealand" written in large red characters and below, the national flag. Following proper diplomatic fashion, it was better to remain on the fence in regards to international rivalries and buy a decent t-shirt. The store also stocked key chains, figurines, pencil erasers, each with their national emblem the Kiwi bird. This is a symbol of national identity, such as the beaver for Canadians, the bald eagle for Americans, or the condor for many of the Andean people. Even the local MacDonald's restaurants displayed a small yellow Kiwi bird below the iconic golden arches to give the franchise a more local appeal. The menu included a KiwiBurger consisting of the classic beef patty, egg, beetroot, tomato, lettuce, cheese, onions, tomato sauce and mustard on a toasted bun. The ingredients did not entice any of us enough to actually taste one.
In the evening we returned to our hotel. It was a common cultural custom for locals to organize an orientation to welcome their foreign guests. The hotel administration honoured this inviting all new arrivals to partake in a group dinner in their conference room. A spokesperson for the hotel opened the ceremonies in front of an international carnival of cultures, armed with his microphone. He briefly explained his duties with the hotel and spent the remainder of his monologue imparting his knowledge on local customs, traditions and history. My family and I had so far witnessed much of the European - specifically English - heritage throughout the island and far too little to our liking of the aboriginal culture. As we patiently indulged our host and most of us moved on to desert, he proceeded to introduce the evening show: a group of Māori men and women wearing their traditional outfits and their many tattoos. They were going to perform their dances, including the world known haka (ha meaning fire and ka breath). This is a posture dance with vigorous movements, stamping with great might and loud tribal chanting. Some say the haka was intended to bring unison to the Māori warriors on the battlefield and intimidate their rivals. Common facial expressions include widely open eyes and sticking the tongue out as much as possible. Part of the explanation proposed that the warriors would make their opponents feel as if the Māori would eat them alive. I remember one of the entertainers mentioned in his curious accent: "To us, the ugliest man is handsome." This person is blessed with the looks to be potentially the most feared warrior which makes of them the most respected member of the tribe. Variations of this traditional dance are adapted for welcoming guests, summer, winter and in competitions where the All Blacks Rugby before kick-off. They closed the show by asking their audience if anyone had a birthday. Afterwards, they comically announced they would perform the Māori birthday song, which was exactly the same. The audience responded in a friendly laughter.
|One Tree Hill, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants|
The next days we spent in Auckland provided the opportunity to stand on One Tree Hill, a great place for an outstanding panoramic view of the city and both of its harbours. This hill had served as a strategic fort (locally known as pã) for the Māori to defend against pirate raids, allowing them to control east-west trading. For many years, the hill did in fact only possess one single tree on its highest point and the aboriginals considered it sacred. The tree was eventually chopped down by an English settler, some say in an act of vandalism and others in an attempt to innocently gather firewood. Regardless, the tree was replaced on the summit by an obelisk where Sir John Logan Campbell, the father of Auckland is burried. It symbolizes his admiration for the indigenous people, explaining the bronze Māori warrior placed on the monument. It was erected in 1940 commemorating the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Representatives of the British Crown and Māori leaders agreed on establishing a British Governor, recognizing Māori land ownership and extending them the rights of British subjects. It was officially inaugurated in 1948, as the government respected the aboriginal tradition of not holding celebrations in times of bloodshed. The native presence in the metropolitan area appeared to have been reduced to names of suburbs, primarily showing a dominance of British and European influence. We were determined to make our way out of the city in the days that followed to tour the rest of the northern island in search of the tribal past and their settlements.