Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Wellington, New Zealand

Posted on January 7th, 2005

Civic Center

My first 36 hours in Wellington can be summed up in two words; Freakish exhaustion. I had avoided a literal train wreck back in Australia in favor of a mental one in New Zealand. I was sleepless, hungover and still ill at ease from the events of the prior week. All I wanted was peace, quiet, a comfortable bed, good food and Jennifer Garner to wrap her naked body around me and tell me that everything would be all right (stupid Ben Affleck). What I got instead was the unrelenting melee of Base Backpackers hostel, a top bunk in a rickety bed and some trash talking, good ol’ boys for roommates. You know kind, they constantly talk shit, all women fall into two categories, “bitches” and “ho’s” and are considered mindless sources sexual gratification. Oh and of course, they all want to bed the good ol’ boys in question. To hear these guys talk, they had been getting laid by every ho’ in the hostel and the Wellington metropolitan area since they got off the plane. They even had to fight off the women at times, allegedly having to create complex ruses and even run for their lives to avoid a situation where three supple German girls wanted to strip them naked and take turns riding them like crazed donkeys. These guys were almost comically confident and arrogant until of course a female entered the room, at which point they would revert to sniveling, butt kissers quick to do the bidding of the females. It was quite a show. Additionally, the good ol’ boys had raided the duty free shop on their way into New Zealand and had, for once I am not exaggerating at all, eight, one-liter bottles of various types of booze which they had set up in the corner of the room, along with a variety of mixings, like a wet bar. Although the promise of booze, willing ho’s and a general good time was dangled in front of me, my general condition was far beyond pulling myself together for a night out. I waited for them to leave and laid down for a long night of elusive sleep, interrupted by the comings and goings of the good ol’ boys and the ho’s that loved them.

Though I had spent nearly every free moment working my ass off on the IP, I still had a sizable writing backlog. The final edit of the Salzburg thing, the short IP article, the long IP article, the IP journal and the subsequent web site update, a final read-through on two other paying pieces that were ready to go and the Europe book which I had been neglecting for months. Also, because I am an idiot, in an ill-considered moment I had sent out a pitch to the editor of “Juggle Magazine” to see if he might like me to do a piece on a hostel run by jugglers in Picton, on the south island of New Zealand, my next destination. There are times when I wish I had the funds to have an assistant traveling with me who, at moments like these, could wind up and kick me in the ass before putting me to bed without dessert.

I put in serious work on my first full day in Wellington, only leaving the hostel to get food and take care of Internet tasks. Just for the hell of it, I slammed in my wireless Internet card to see if there might be a free hub in the neighborhood. I had all but given up on this option in Australia, as it proved to be a black hole of wi-fi hubs, free or not, but I wondered if smaller NZ might be a little more generous. To my astonishment, I was able to pick up no less than five signals from my the top bunk. Two were secure business hubs, but the rest had the makings of a free wi-fi orgy. The only problem was that I was just out of range all of them. Just as I was connecting to one hub, it would suddenly disappear and fall off the availability list. Then I would try another and it was would disappear, while the first deserter would suddenly reappear. Sometimes, the “connecting” message would grind along for an eternity, doing nothing. I moved all over the room to try to improve the signal. Getting off the bunk, moving in and out of the vicinity of both sets of windows, climbing on a chair and rolling around on the floor (Laptop Rhythmic Gymnastics) all had varying effects, usually making some of the weak signal disappear only to be replaced by new weak signals, but never success. Then I went down to the lobby and tried again. Nothing. Same story in the TV room and the dinning area. I was screwed. The good news was that NZ seemed to be onboard with the wi-fi craze and it was just a matter of time before I found myself a sweet spot. The wi-fi failure was redeemed when the Internet café around the corner let me hook my laptop right into their lightning fast system broadband connection and their hourly rate was refreshingly cheap. Not having to rely on a few 1.4 MB diskettes to save and transfer all saved material between Net cafes and my laptop, I went nuts and downloaded a bunch of future travel research, pertinent facts for the work at hand and updated my operating system along with various pieces of freeware. Despite my diminished cognitive state, it was a massively productive day.

The next day, after many more similarly productive hours, I decided to get out and familiarize myself with Wellington. Not having a guidebook for NZ, I needed some kind of direction. I initially decided that I would just walk down to the tourist information office to collect a map and any eye-catching brochures, but as usually happens with me, I was easily drawn off course over and over by gnarly looking buildings, big squares, tempting crowds of people staring at something and girls with short skirts. The last one wasn’t true at all actually. It was not short skirt weather in Wellington. Having just been in 100 degree heat in Perth, I was a bit shocked to find myself in 60 degrees at the height of a New Zealand summer. Yes, NZ was much further south on the globe, but I still naively thought that it would at least be beach weather. Far from it, actually, and to make matters worse, the wind was relentless. I had read that Wellington got a little more than the average amounts of wind, but I was not prepared to be nearly knocked off my feet twice in an hour in downtown Wellington.

These weather complaints aside, Wellington was ultimately quite nice. On the ride in from the airport I had noted that the suburban homes were of the quaint, single story, tin roofed, colonial affairs that I had become accustomed to in Oz. But instead of these modest homes being sprawled out across flat, dry desert plains, the houses in Wellington were scattered over green, lush mountainsides and valleys. They dotted the landscape in such a pleasing way, while the surrounding fertile greenery completely masked the presence of the streets leading to them, giving one the impression that the only way to access these homes was by foot, on thin, mud forest paths.

On the flipside, I saw now that downtown Wellington reverted to a familiar scene of steel and glass skyscrapers, but the area was so compact that it was an entirely forgivable urban jungle. The nearby Queen’s Wharf was alive with tourists and sailing fans. A competition sailboat, having clearly just returned from a very important race, was moored with a modest crowd standing by to cheer and snap pictures. The crew was standing around the deck of the boat, each with a giant beer or bottle of Champaign in their hands, while they posed for TV and crews and photographers.

Just a taste of the general weirdness to be found on the waterfront.

Wellington’s waterfront is packed with cool distractions. Museums, shops, playgrounds and strange, but pleasing sculptures, pedestrian bridges, walkways and random decorations are a jumbled constant. I ended up walking way past my turn-off for the tourism office, as every time I was ready to turn around and accomplish my mission, something new would catch my eye off in the distance.

Over an hour later, I finally found my way back to the tourist office, where I loaded down on pamphlets, maps and suggestions from the staff. While going through my tourist booty, I had the sudden urge to start hitting a just few of the nearby sights before going back to the hostel for more work, but my willpower failed me. Wellington’s sights are arranged in such a tempting way, just a few blocks away from each other, one after the other, that two hours later I found myself all the way across town. I visited the “Beehive” (an odd office building shaped, like guess what?), the old and stately Parliament buildings, the unexciting Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, Old St Paul’s Church (much better), the National Archive (which I found after no shortage of confused wandering, only to learn that they were closed for a two week holiday break) and finally the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. The Museum of Wellington City and Sea was a huge find. The displays were interesting and concise, being just long and detailed enough to be informative without unduly boring fatigued, short attention-spanned travel writers. The open, central staircase had a two story screen hanging through it which periodically showed slides of historical scenes, set to music. The highlight was on the third floor where a small theater was running a nine minute, live-action hologram short that told the story of two Wellington-area Maori legends. (I should mention here that the Maori are the native people of New Zealand who have managed, through luck and better colonial attitudes and intentions, to find themselves in a comparatively equal and comfortable position in society.) The hologram actors in the short were moving around, and sometimes interacting with, real-life solid set pieces, meaning that filming the hologram parts must have been a real bitch for the actors, having to hit those imaginary cues. The whole thing was very impressive and I would have stayed to watch it again, but I had rolled into the museum at 4:30PM and they closed at 5:00, so I dashed around, speed-reading as much as possible in the remaining 21 before closing.

The next day, I resolved to get out and do a little walking. Between the three days on the train, the travel to NZ and then the brunt of my first two days in Wellington being conducted behind my laptop, I was in dire need of exercise and fresh air. I decided that I would hike the Southern Walkway, an 11 kilometer (almost seven miles) meandering path that wound up and around the perimeter hills of Wellington. I got started by getting breakfast at the nearby New World grocery store. I loved going to this grocery, it was as big as a Rainbow Foods (gigantic, US supermarket chain), but, unlike the neglected, half-trashed shelves at Rainbow, everything in New World was orderly, lovingly displayed and clean. I would have given anything to do some real, substantial shopping there, instead of just breezing through to pick up fruit and muffins. On that note, the fruit was the most flawless, perfectly colored and juicy fruit I have ever had the pleasure of buying. It looked like the immaculate, fake fruit that you find on movie sets, yet this was clearly naturally grown, god blessed fruit. There was no picking around the shelves, looking for the one or two pieces that weren’t either bruised, rotting or housing a family of worms. You could just reach in, grab the first piece you touched and have it be pristine. Finally, as if this shopping weren’t enough of a joy, New World had this crazy approach to check-out. It was set up just like in the U.S., a line of 23 or so check-out isles stretching down to the end of the building, but unlike the U.S. - I still can’t believe this - New World had all of their registers open and manned by competent, friendly courteous people! It was stunning. I went in there twice at 6:00 in the evening, grocery store rush hour, and both times the check out lines were only one or two people deep and the wait was less than a minute. It was ever so glorious!

After another gratifying visit to New World and a luscious breakfast, I was off. The walk to the beginning of the path took me around Oriental Bay, which provided a nice panoramic view of central Wellington across the harbor. I found the entrance to the Walkway and started climbing the zig-zagging path up the hill. Other than a few choice viewing spots, the Southern Walkway was not a particularly scenic hike. Usually the path was completely enshrouded in a cave foliage. I was content with this. Just being able to breathe fresh air and get the blood flowing was all I needed. It was nice to just let my mind deflate and roll through the crazed events of the previous week and the weeks to come.

The path finally opened up at the top of Mount Victoria that allowed for a 360 degree view of Wellington, the harbor, the surrounding suburbs and hills. It began to mist at this point, but it was so light that it wasn’t even beading up on my skin. Further down the path the signage began to get lazy at the worst possible points. Until then, helpful signs had been stuck in no-brainer spots where your choices were to either continue down the well trodden path or jump off a cliff. At these junctures, the signs would clearly and thoughtfully indicate that one should go down the path. However, now I was arriving at junctions where four inviting paths intersected with absolutely no indication as to which direction to continue. I ended up taking numerous wrong turns that probably added a cumulative several miles onto my entire journey. At one point, the path skirted the back end of Wellington Zoo’s Hamadryas baboon habitat. The baboons totally ignored me, even after I half climbed the fence and made my best come-hither baboon-like noises in an attempt to interrupt their stately sitting around eating grass and picking various things out of their assholes.

Soon after I gave up on the baboons, the mist turned to rain. It wasn’t a full-on rain, but it was more than enough for me to encase my digital camera under four layers of protection and don my raincoat. After another extended, unintentional foray off the path, I looked at my watch to see that I had been walking for about three hours. By my basic calculations at the beginning of the hike, if I did the seven miles at a good clip (three miles an hour), I should have been nearing the end of the Walkway. I happened on a path marker showing that I was still far short of the finish and that it was not going to be an easy finish. All the up and downhill walking had worn me down faster that I expected. I was starting to feel fatigued, sore, hungry and being progressively more wet wasn’t making things any better. Additionally, completing the walk meant going even further away from the city center, into a valley suburb called Island Bay, where I would only have to turn around and catch the bus back to Wellington. I made the executive decision to screw the rest of the path and get back into the city. As if on cue, a bus heading back to the city pulled up and I was headed for home.

I limped out for a nice Chinese dinner in an otherwise empty restaurant, where the tiny waitress stared at me with a silly, flirty smile the entire time, before I returned to the hostel and plunked back down behind the laptop. The well-behaved half the hostel were watching “Pretty Woman” and the ne’er do well half were getting stinking drunk and pairing up for what looked to be a full night of casual sex. My legs had clenched up at dinner and I had a full day of writing and a ferry to catch the next afternoon, so I shunned them all, worked remarkably late and then retired.

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