Archive for the ‘Alex in New Zealand’ Category

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Alex: Ta Moko

November 9, 2011

On November 4th, I got a Maori-style Ta moko. It is the greatest experience I’ve had, in New Zealand or elsewhere.

I’m not sure how to talk about this. I’m not sure if I can separate the experience from the well of emotion I feel about this, so I think I may just not try. I apologize if this gets a little too real.

It’s no secret that I came to New Zealand to research my final project on Ta moko.  It is also no secret that I love tattoos.  I could talk about those two things alone for entire volumes, but I won’t.  No, I have a specific event to talk about.  I came here hoping above all other things to get a ta moko.  The style means a lot to me, and I’ve poured dozens of hours into learning everything about the style, the culture and the people.  I feel connected to it in a way that I have never felt connected to an art form before.  And it is an art form that I can wear on my skin, so I was dying to carry it with me my entire life.

So I do.  I made my appointment, and I showed up just five short days ago now.  My artist, Brad, had drawn the pattern a few days before, and proceeded to redraw it and without any sort of ceremony, began tattooing.

I had forgotten how painful tattoos are.  The pain fades with time, our brains are pretty good at that, but it was most certainly painful.  I think that it was more painful than my previous tattoo, even though it was farther from bone.  As he tattooed a swirling circle of protection on my shoulder, I felt my entire arm shake.  My bones vibrated in time with the machine, as if we had merged for that brief, excruciating moment.  When he reached the thin skin of my underarm, I was almost certain the tiny needles would tear my skin apart.

But the art began to take shape.  There was a moment where, between the pain, my staring at the lights, and beginning to see the tiny forms appear, I actually began to tear up.  I’m a wimp, I know, but I can’t explain it.  This art is something I’ve only ever read about and seen on others, but to experience it was transcendent.  It was spiritual.  It was beautiful.  It is intricate and detailed, and yet broad and sweeping.  It is everything I had imagined and more.  It is still difficult for me to reconcile that something so beautiful is a part of me.

I try not to get terribly personal on this blog.  This post is going to fail at that.  I apologize for breaking format, but I had to get his out, and it’s not the sort of thing I can sneak into regular conversation.

I’ve never really felt like I’m attractive, and that’s my issue.  It’s because I’m overweight and my culture tells me that means I’m unattractive.  I get that.  But now, I get up every day, and I see this beautiful piece of art on my shoulder and I feel like I’m on top of the world.  I’ve never in my life been excited to take off my shirt until four days ago. It is liberating and a little terrifying.  I’m excited to have other people see it.  I’m excited to have other people appreciate my body, even only a small part of it.

Perhaps I have some deep-seated fear of being boring, and having a tattoo allows me to reassure myself that I am at the very least not boring, even if being interesting doesn’t make me attractive.  Whatever it is, I’m okay with it.  Tattoo enthusiasts will talk about a “tattoo high,” that once you get one, you keep craving more.  I had that with my first tattoo, but this most recent one has made me feel so incredibly good that I cannot wait to get another.

I apologize for this being so personal.  This body image issue means a lot to me, and it is difficult for me to discuss it without involving my personal struggle with it.
This may be one of my last posts on this blog, as my journey is nearing its close.  I am sad to leave, but I will be glad to be home.

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Alex: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

October 28, 2011

Yesterday, I did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was life-changing in a way I thought not possible.

I am not a fit man. I am technically obese (I’ll spare you my rant on that system). I also do not handle heights well. I’m not petrified by them, but I certainly do not seek them out. So the idea of an 20-kilometer alpine mountain crossing was not the most attractive idea I have ever heard. I am so glad that I did it.
I’m having trouble articulating this experience in the usual way, which is to say circuitously. So, I’m going to cut straight to the action, and hopefully that will spring my brain into its usual florid, overly philosophical tone.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.3 kilometers long. It climbs up between two mountains, Mount Ngaurahoe (Mount Doom) and Mount Tongariro (not Mount Doom, but also awesome). It takes somewhere in the ballpark of 7 hours, if one does not summit either summit. Experienced a walker as I am, this was massively daunting to me.

But I did it. I soldiered on up the full hour of stair climbing. I kept my cool when I felt as if the wind would literally rip me from the side of the mountain. I walked in shorts in snow up to my knees. I saw massive heights, and in the face of them choked back my abject terror and took in the most incredible scenery I’ve ever seen.

We were unable to summit Ngaurahoe, as it is quite steep and quite snow-covered, and requires crampons andice axes, of which we had neither. We did, however, summit Tongariro. It was perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. The snow was deep, the wind was strong and the heights were dizzying. The sky was clear, and the view in every direction was overwhelming. As I crossed a small, snowy ridge blasted by the wind, with nothing on either side but a steep slope down to a rocky demise, I had to keep my hood closed tight around my head just to limit my periphery and keep my cool. Only once we reached the summit and I was able to sit and hold firmly on to some rocks could I relax enough to keep my heart from beating out of my chest.

The view was absolutely worth every moment of terror. From here, one can see what seems like the entire world. The desert on one side of the mountains, and the rocky scrubland on the other. Down to the forest, and lakes Rotoaira and Taupo. It is truly magnificent.

On the descent from this summit, I saw the the huge red crater and the gorgeous emerald lakes, just beginning to peak out from underneath their frosty winter covering. I was assaulted by the smell of sulfur from the many volcanic vents in the area. I slid down treacherous loose gravel trails.

After all of this there was more walking. Lots more. We descended down past the snow line, and further down to where the vegetation began again. Before we knew it we were walking through sub-tropical forest.

Every part of my body hurt at the end of the day. I was sun-burnt on every exposed piece of skin. My hips, knees, feet, legs, and back all ached from a level of exertion they rarely, if ever see. I am still sore, and I suspect this burn will last some time.

It was fantastic.
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Alex: Raglan Surfing

October 26, 2011

Two weekends ago now, a group of friends and I stayed and surfed in Raglan. The experience was the type of surreal that I am quickly running out of creative ways to describe.

I came to New Zealand with three things in mind that I needed to do before leaving. The first, my real reason for being here at all is to conduct research. The nature of that research has mutated over time, but I have certainly done quite a bit of that. The second was to get a ta moko. I’ve made an appointment. The third was to go surfing, at least once.

When we (finally) arrived in Raglan, we stayed at this adorable, very hippy, hostel. The rooms were all old converted train cars, and the woman running the desk was this French woman who carried a duckling around most of the time. Like I said: adorable place.

We drove out to a point to see some fantastic views, and split into two groups. My group went down to the beach. I swam in the ocean which was surprisingly warm for mid-spring. I think I can finally say that I have gotten the hang of swimming in an ocean. Keeping mouth closed: check.

That night we went to a bar to watch the Irish get defeated by Wales, and watch Les Bleus beat the English. I was exhausted from swimming and being exposed to sunlight, but we stayed. In between games a few of us wandered around Raglan (not a difficult task, there’s not much to wander). We found a skate park covered in graffiti that made me pine for my skateboard (bad pun, sorry).

The next day the real fun began. We went surfing.

I live, and have always lived, in a place that is thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. One needs to drive for days without sleep to reach salt water from my home. Surfing for me has always had sort of a magical mystique. I suspect this is because it was so foreign, but also owes something to my love of other board-sports.

Surfing always seemed so serene and almost transcendent. Transcendent is not a word I use lightly. In my mind surfing was the perfect way to connect with the world. Floating out in the ocean, there are no distractions. There are no deadlines, no assignments, no worries but the tide and the waves.

Before my trip to New Zealand, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I had seen an ocean, much less been in one. I am always excited to spend time in the ocean. That said, I thought I was going to die there. Within the first ten minutes of surfing, I got in over my head and was swept out past the wave break. I had no idea until I noticed that even the experienced surfers were further in than I was. I spent the next hour frantically paddling my way back in. Moments before I became exhausted and was about to start screaming for help, I caught a lucky group of waves that brought me in.

I could not wait to get back to surfing.

So I did, with limited success. I had made the mistake of choosing a board that was short and therefore difficult to stand up on. I had also wasted a significant portion of high tide out at sea.

I didn’t manage to stand up, but it was still one of the most fun experiences I’ve had. I cannot wait to go again.
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Alex: Falafel & adventure

October 17, 2011

I had an enlightening experience yesterday, which coincided with my first experience with falafel. I suspect they were unrelated, but no one will ever know.

I love walking. I do it a lot. It started with my wonderful dog Maddie. When we got her, I was still in the midst of borderline exercise bulimia, and I walked her twice a day, for at least half an hour each time. Often on weekends I would spend literally the entire morning walking. I got used to it, and I’ve been walking ever since.

Since I’ve been in Auckland (and often trapped in Auckland) I’ve walked a lot to explore the city. While I love walking, seeing the city and catching up on my podcasts, this has always seemed to me like a consolation to a real adventure.

Yesterday I sat down at a kebab restaurant on Parnell here in Auckland. I had been walking for four hours or so, looking for this greenstone shop that I always manage to lose. I sat down at this place and ordered falafel, which I had never had (not a lot of middle-eastern cuisine in the upper Midwest), and a thought occurred to me. I am in another country, on a fairly unfamiliar road, eating at a restaurant I’ve never even noticed before. I’m thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the place where I’ve spent my entire life, a place I had never left before. Not a person on the planet who knows my name knows where I am. This is the definition of adventure.

Adventures don’t require hiking over mountains or swimming in oceans or driving hundreds of miles. They just require a wild spirit and a willingness to experience all that life has to offer.

On a much less philosophical level, I learned a little something about myself that day (other than that I’m not terribly impressed with falafel). Travel, like most things, requires acclimation. I’ve never traveled before this year. Not really, anyway. Family vacations once or twice, but nothing on the scale of this New Zealand adventure. This is my first adventure, maybe it’s okay to take it easy.

There will be plenty more adventure.

The road beneath my feet.

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Alex: Sasa

September 28, 2011

Last Friday me and a group of my peers performed a Samoan sasa led by a renown Samoan dance instructor.

I’m taking a class on Pacific art. Every week, more or less, we cover a different art form: weaving, bark cloth, carving, tattoo, etc. Last week was dance. We had our lecture in the campus fale, because presumably there was going to be some sort of demonstration. The first hour plodded along, with our guest lecturer talking about the importance of preserving traditional dances and whatnot. Then as the second hour started he told us to push the chairs to the sides of the room and to choose a spot on the floor to sit.

I am terrified of dancing. I’m not good at it. I’m white as can be, I’m awkward and uncoordinated and my sense of timing is sub-par at best. But my hope was that sitting would limit the potential for me to embarrass myself utterly, since only half my body would be able to be awkward and uncoordinated. But I had no idea what a sasa was, and I had no idea what I might be in for.

So I sat on the floor and prepared for the worst. I was relieved to find out that sasa is a Samoan clap dance. I may not be able to dance, but I can clap with the best of them. Slowly he taught us the moves, making us do them slowly at first, and stringing together longer and longer sequences of claps, ground slaps and various hand and arm movements.

Then we put it all together, and a simple string of claps and slaps became something else entirely. Our instructor/leader was drumming with two wooden sticks on the back of a plastic chair, but as soon as he started counting us in in Samoan, for all I knew that plastic chair was a centuries-old Samoan instrument–I was swept away.

As we slapped our knees to the beat that he kept on his chair-drum he started shouting things–things in Samoan that I didn’t understand, things that the Samoan students in the room knew exactly what to do with. They were calls, calls which were answered in the most energetic and invigorating way possible. It charged the whole huge open-air fale with energy. It got me excited to dance. It got me excited to be a part of this group that had from which I could learn.

In that moment, all of us clapping in time, Samoan calls and answers lighting up the room, I felt totally connected to those people–people that I don’t even really know. In that moment, the movements mattered so much less than that group of people–that wonderful environment. That’s not to say that the moves fell by the wayside. If anything, I was inspired by this almost magical sasa energy to perform the best sasa a white boy from Wisconsin had ever performed.

That energy stuck with me. The rest of that day, I could not get that plastic-chair-beat out of my head. I can still hear those calls and answers in my head. Sometimes, in the moments when I am falling asleep, I feel that collective energy surge through me and I feel as if I may never need to sleep again.
Post script: Here is a link to a sasa performed at Polyfest, which is a huge Polynesian dance competition held in Auckland every year. The one we performed was considerably less complex, but hopefully this will give you some idea.
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Alex: Street art

September 15, 2011

I spent a large portion of my spring break hunting down the best of Auckland city’s street art.

Spring break here in New Zealand began on the third of September. By that time, most of my classmates and peers had made plans to travel, many of the them to the South Island, some to Australia, and others to pacific sites like Fiji. At this time, I had just received my financial aid package, so I had not had money with which to plan a vacation, and I was not in the mood to spend twice as much money booking last minute. I had hoped that this time would allow me to do much of the research for which I came to Aotearoa. So I decided that I would take advantage of my urban surroundings and go looking for man-made beauty.

I have had a fascination with street art for some time. As an adolescent it was just about the thrill and the danger, the possibility of getting caught. Growing up in a town of thirty thousand suburban (by which I mean white, middle class) people, I had little exposure to the art and craft that can be present in good street art. Living in Minneapolis, along with the media’s recent fascination with street art, opened my eyes to this underground art form. My fascination with taboo art forms could be not only a whole post, but perhaps a book unto itself. So in order to fill my time, find some art, and sate my insatiable need to walk, I devoted at least two hours almost every day over the last two weeks to comb the streets of Auckland for art.

I have learned quite a bit from this experience, primarily regarding the placement of street art. There is a delicate balance to be struck between visibility and surreptitiousness. Like any artist, graffiti artist want there art to be seen, but they prefer not be seen by the proper owners of the building or the always-understanding-of-artistic-expression police. So choosing a street is a matter of choosing one that is busy enough that enough people will see your work to warrant your time, but not so busy that it is regularly patrolled. One can easily tell which streets these are, because once one artist finds the balance, word travels fast, and soon the street is covered. Karangahape road (k’road), which is a fairly busy street just up the hill at the terminus of a few different main streets, is a prime example of this. It is covered in street art. From huge murals to simple tags and everything in between, it is fully decorated.

It also seems that either the laws on graffiti are different here, or the police are simply more understanding. More than once I saw street art being painted in broad daylight, albeit often rather nervously. I also found pro-police street art, presumably either painted or commissioned by the police themselves, which leads me to believe they are not so vehemently opposed to graffiti as American police. Also reinforcing this idea are the electrical boxes on the streets. I have seen only a handful of unpainted electrical boxes in all of Auckland. Since these are directly on the street in broad view, I presume they were not painted surreptitiously.

There is also a protocol as to which walls on which one paints. You will never, for example see street art on marble walls. There seems to be a tacit code which stipulates that only those walls which are drab or ugly should be painted. Street artists generally seek to add beauty, not detract from it.

So although I didn’t travel and I didn’t do much research, this was a productive and informative spring break. That said, I am quite jealous of my peers. I’m attempting to use this feeling to fuel a new vigor in my school work and research.

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Alex: Auckland Museum

September 7, 2011

With most of my compatriots off gallivanting for spring break and me stuck here in Auckland, I was looking for things to do. A friend of mine Ida, the Norwegian girl whom I met on the tramp to Piha, suggested going to the Auckland Museum as it’s free for residents of Auckland. So we went together one afternoon last week.

We met around two o’clock in the afternoon, knowing that the museum closes at five, and figuring three hours would be plenty of time to explore. I think poor Ida didn’t know what exactly what she was getting herself into by inviting the likes of me to a museum. Museums are sort of my thing. I am a historian, after all, so museums fall quite squarely in my wheelhouse.

So we entered the museum and walked immediately into the pacific artifacts section, which occupies most of the first of three floors. I was not aware of just how well my study of pacific art and anthropology had prepared me for the experience of a pacific museum. As it turns out, it prepared me quite well, and because the only thing I love more than learning new things is explaining them to other people, I proceeded to give Ida the nickel tour. I’m sure she got sick of me quite quickly, but she seemed a good sport about indulging me.

So after the large Pacific history section, we entered something…else. I’m not sure how to describe it, and I feel that any title or name for this exhibit would not adequately explain it. It was, ostensibly, an exhibit of the English portion of New Zealand history, and while my Maori professor may cringe to hear me say it, I think it has a valid place. The English may be colonizers, but they did bring their own history to New Zealand. But that is not the weird bit. This exhibit slowly went from being about the English in New Zealand to being what appeared to be simply a dumping ground for old things. There was a collection of antique chairs, for example, and I use the term “collection” loosely. There were six chairs, and two of them looked like ordinary old chairs. The chair exhibit became our running joke for the remainder of the day. Any time we saw a chair, we would point out that it too should be part of the chair exhibit.

The second floor was dedicated to natural history, and seemed largely focused toward children, so we didn’t spend much time there. Ida and I compared large-grazing-animal stories near an exhibit of some sort of yak.

So we moved to the third floor, which held the various war exhibits. One would assume that I, as a military historian, would be excited for war exhibits, but one would not necessarily be correct in that assumption. There is a period of about a hundred and fifty years of military history that holds absolutely no interest for me. That being the period from about the beginning of the 19th century, up through the middle of the 20th. This is the period in which technology is advanced enough to have long-since outstripped skill in importance on the battlefield, but the technology is not yet complex or variable enough to hold my attention. This is the area in which all of New Zealand military history takes place. So we passed through the Boer War exhibit, a war that I as an American always forget about, and moved through the first and second world wars. We spent some time in the holocaust exhibit which was somber at best, and by this time we were both fairly well burned out. But there was one section to go, one section I had been looking forward to all day. There was still the armory.

We walked into the armory, and my eyes lit up like a child’s. My weary feet no longer ached and my slowly growing hunger disappeared entirely, as did my compatriot. She had gone to sit down, but it honestly took me a full minute or two to notice. There was nothing terribly fascinating in the armory, nothing I hadn’t seen before, but it was gorgeous and enthralling nonetheless. That’s not entirely true, there were things I hadn’t seen before, but I didn’t notice them at the time. When I noticed Ida sitting, she rejoined me and I made my lap of the exhibit as fast as my fluttering heart would allow. But as I was lingering on the sword wall, Ida made the mistake of asking which was my favorite. Before I could stop myself, what should have been a simple answer became a five minute lecture on the various uses and merits of each. Let me tell you, the best way to impress a girl is to lecture her about things she clearly has no interest in.

So we headed off out of the museum, and back toward our respective apartments. We discussed sports, running, and our Chucks. We parted amicably. But this was not the end of my museum adventure.

I returned to the museum the next morning. I skipped straight to the armory, where I lingered and took pictures for a solid hour at least. There were percussion cap revolver rifles that I had never seen before, a spring-loaded polearm which was new to me, and a few machine guns that had been made in New Zealand. None of this I had noticed before.

That was my museum adventure. An adventure in two parts. I didn’t learn much about history, but I learned quite a bit about how to visit museums with others without boring them to tears.

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