I cadged an excellent seat with a power plug next to it on the way back across the Cook Straight and had just settled in with cheese and cracker snacks to do some work on the blog, when I was asked by a bearded, ponytailed, leather-clad biker-type accompanied by a strapping young ginger lad if the seats across from me were taken. I shifted my equipment out of the way and spent the trip having an unexpectedly fantastic time chatting with John and his contractor son Tim (headed from Nelson to spend Xmas with a Wellington-based daughter) and quaffing Monteith’s pints from the onboard bar. We traded stories, jokes, and double-entendred wordplay ‘til our sides hurt from cackling diabolically, surrounded by the approving grins of our nearby fellow passengers (most of whom were also working on getting tipsy; most people within eye range had brought along bottles of wine for the trip to kick off the holiday). John graciously invited me to join them for Christmas after I’d had family dinner with Jonathan to knock back some more pints (John and I both cite Monty’s Black as our favorite in the range) and hang out with ‘people my own age,’ i.e. his kids, though, truth be told, they were all in their early to mid-twenties, and age-wise I was probably smack between John and his kids. I arrived at Jonathan’s house just before midnight where I was installed again in the nice large bedroom I’d had before and availed myself of untimed shower luxuriation.
The next day was Xmas Eve, and after a morning walk with Jonathan and Jason though the woods surrounding their house, I decided to do some touristy Wellington things.
First stop upon Jonathan’s recommendation was the top of Mount Victoria for a bird’s eye view of the city, after finding my way despite a few false starts up the tiny winding roads that led to the summit. The streets on the mountain were full of nerve-wracking blind curves, being too narrow for two cars headed opposite directions to pass comfortably and safely, let alone with remaining street space gobbled up with solidly packed lines of parked cars. Kiwis tend to drive at accelerated speed in such situations, presumably based on the knowledge that in such a sparsely populated country, the odds favor avoidance of any head-on collisions. As a paranoid American from a crowded coast, I crept along and prayed to the gods of uninterrupted holiday celebration to not have my van mangled in any way.
Next I drove to the city gardens, which are tied via an iconic hill-climbing cable car to the downtown area below. Following a brief stroll through the gardens and the cable-car museum, I took the car downtown, wandered the waterfront, and felt it would be appropriate to enjoy the beautiful hot sunny day with a pint on the quay. I had one at the Mac’s brewpub, watching rollerblading kids frolic among the sculptures followed by their stroller-pushing parents, and a wedding party, in a blizzard of tulle and tuxes, getting portraits done before adjourning to a private bayside club for the reception.
Mac’s closed for the evening at the family friendly hour of 5pm, but there was a club at the end of the stretch of buildings loaded with people spilling out of the bar area and lolling on the lawn on oversized pillows to the accompaniment of thumping techno music. I had a second pint here, reflecting on how different Kiwi Christmases are, taking place as they do in the dead of summer. There’s no snow in Florida at Christmas, but at least it’s seasonably cold – here I would have been comfy in a bikini top and shorts, and don’t spare the sunscreen.
Back at the house Ati had fixed fajitas accompanied, if desired, by her special secret homemade Indonesian chile sauce (which she and I shared enthusiastically, along with healthy helpings of pickled jalapenos). I ate a durian popsicle for dessert with Jason on the back deck, watching the sun set on a neighborhood Santa bringing holiday cheer to the street’s children via ATV. Jonathan showed me some old-school pictures of my grandma and grandpa and his grandparents, filling me in on unfamiliar and intriguing family history. Letter written to Santa and set out with milk, cookies, and carrots for the reindeer (back door left unlocked, since in Wellington, at least, Santa comes in via the back porch rather than the non-existent chimneys), we went to bed.
Morning brought dissection of stockings – one for me, even! that Santa sure knows his stuff – and present unwrapping, followed by surgical sterilization of the entire kitchen to prepare the enormous turkey.
Following a huge, soporific, and delicious dinner, I grabbed my hostess gifts – champagne and Monty’s Black – and headed off to spend the evening with John’s family. After some confusion and erroneous door-knocking due to non-sequential house numbering, I located the place and settled in to a beery evening peppered with Kiwi curiosity questions: what did I think about the Jersey Shore show and our new president? How many guns did I own? It is dangerous to travel in America without a firearm? Tipsy by evening, one of the boys backed my van up the sharp cornered driveway for me and I camped out for the warm Christmas night in their front yard. We all know it’s not safe to drive after drinking, but even on my way over there around 5pm the streets were blocked by cops conducting instant breathalyzer tests of would-be celebrants – again, Kiwi police are very stringent about their drinking and driving policies.
The next day I spent some time lazing at the beach, then preparing to get on the road again – cleaning and reorganizing the van, doing laundry and dishes, refreshing water supplies.
I’d planned next to head slowly up north through the wine-producing Wairarapa and to the little art-deco city of Napier before heading to the beachy Coromandel peninsula for New Year’s and my last week in the country. However, I’d been communicating via email during my trip with Lewis, the very funny English ski instructor I’d met at the mildewed hostel near the glaciers. We’d missed a planned lunch visit in Christchurch when Lewis was invited on an impromptu holiday trip to the Cook Islands, but he was flying back into town the next day, and – ready to perhaps have more company than I’d become accustomed to – I invited him to join me in Coro for at least a day before he proceeded on to his Christchurch base. However, to make this happen, I’d have to scuttle my east coast trip plans and go directly back to Auckland to collect him from the airport. Jonathan assured me that though the Wairarapa was an excellent wine destination, things were likely to be closed for the holiday break, and Napier was just a few blocks of art-deco buildings – not necessarily a must-see destination, especially for someone living so close to the art-deco heaven of Miami Beach. So the next morning, after tidying my bedroom and readying the van, I packed up, said my adieus and profuse thank-yous for the extraordinary hospitality and chance to meet these relatives I hardly knew I had, and struck out north to collect my temporary travel companion.