Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New Zealand trip diary - day 1

We left Toronto at 2 pm on Sunday, and between the traveling time and the time change didn’t arrive in Auckland until just after 5 am on Tuesday. We’d been enjoying telling people this in advance because it sounds so daunting, but we didn’t expect it to be too bad, and it really wasn't. We flew first to Vancouver, so that's easy, and by the time we’d walked to the other gate it wasn’t much more than a half hour wait. The flight to New Zealand was thirteen hours, but we both slept for a large chunk of it. We were in “premium economy” which got us more leg room, a better washroom-per-passenger ratio and nicer food – the first two made it worthwhile. I watched two somewhat obscure, non-timekiller category movies during the journey, a documentary about Robert Altman and I Origins; Ally watched Norma Rae and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  As on every flight now, I ended up reading much less than I’d expected to (I've been storing up material for over a month), but there’s plenty of time ahead. Overall, it confirmed our approach – the more you can transform the duration of the flight into specifically useful time, the easier it goes by (reading this paragraph over, I see that I’ve already used the term “time” six times - and there’s another one - so that was obviously the preoccupation of the day).

Getting through the airport was easy, although we were quite surprised at the apparent paranoia about bringing in illegal fruit and other contraband – our bags were sniffed by three separate dogs, as well as being put through an X-ray machine. After a mostly nondescript twenty minute drive, we got to our hotel, the right-downtown Hotel DeBrett, at around 6 am, too early to check in because the place was full. We left our bags and just started walking. The same thing has happened to us before, most recently in Singapore just last year, and in retrospect usually provides one of the most memorable days of the trip, in that we assimilate a big central chunk of the city almost before we’ve fully realized we're here. That’s exactly how it went today – by the time we returned to the hotel, shortly after 11, we’d already covered (albeit superficially) virtually the entire standard downtown tourist map. The hotel is just a few minutes from the waterfront, and we went along there first, circling back into the middle of the city and then along the waterfront in the other direction, circling back a second time, walking through the centre to Albert Park (dominated by some astounding trees, as thick and contorted as an entire history of suffering), then to the Sky Tower which dominates the downtown skyline. We went up the Tower to the viewing platform on the 62nd floor, then returned to the hotel. They still couldn't let us check in, but even at 11 am we’d already done just about enough for one day (at least in the absence of a shower, a proper sleep etc.) so we sat in their library space for an hour or so until the room was ready.

During those five hours, we were at various times both underwhelmed and overwhelmed – underwhelmed because Auckland for the most part seems like a pleasantly ramshackle city that at various points reminded us of any number of previous destinations: the waterfront is in the course of being reclaimed and generically spruced up; isolated buildings (or, by this point, often just facades, stuck onto or squeezed between ugly glass towers) embody the colonial past, occasionally reminding us of somewhere like Bermuda (where, similarly, otherwise run of the mill streets are often decorated by enormous exotic-looking trees); some of it is strenuously modern in the global corporate way (the logos of 3 of the big 4 accounting firms jumped out at us within five minutes, and by 7.45 am we’d ticked off all four); other parts of downtown are rather ugly, with entire blocks looking as if they’ve spent years waiting for demolition. All of this, at the same time, is overwhelming, because it’s in a place about as far from home as you can be. Walking through the morning rush hour, with its mess of buses and impatient pedestrians and all the rest of it was almost exactly like the sensation of doing the same thing at home, and even though you know that’s the inevitable result of globalization and of people being more the same than different, it still seems surreal and even unnerving, given that no one (as far as we know) has consciously coordinated the similarity.

At around 9 am, we stopped for a snack in a café attached to an old rundown theatre (there are quite a few of those) where Barbra Streisand was playing on the speakers – we shared a bacon and egg pie and had Christmas cookies (Christmas is as prominent in the stores here as it is at home, which feels even more premature given the climate). This was at the corner of Queen and Wellesley, both equally prominent street names in Toronto (although they don’t intersect there). It was already getting quite hot by then – apparently we’re lucky as the weather has been lousy in recent days. The view from the Sky Tower was pristine and as impressive as all such aerial landscapes; from up there it all seems much more coordinated (and hence more beautiful) than it does when you’re in the middle of it. The Sky Tower itself though largely embodies tackiness, being attached to a hotel/casino/entertainment complex with the clear intention of lulling visitors into spending all their time and money there without ever going anywhere else.

Once we got into the room, we slept until 6 pm. It’s a large, very pleasant second-floor room with a nice view of the street – it's also right across from an office building though so we’ll probably generally have the curtains drawn. We went back out and wandered round, mainly exploring side streets, many of them with the universally rather flat downtown-after-everyone’s-gone-home feeling. We have an enormous selection of bars and restaurants within a few blocks (although mostly with similar menus, all including lamb of course) and none of them seemed to be busy tonight. We chose a place called the Chancery Bistro, which had a big TV screen tuned to lawn bowling on the sports channel. This, at least, would never happen at home! I had fish; Ally had vegetable fritters. We’ll have lamb one day no doubt. We were asleep again not long afterwards.

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