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“You like girls?” asked Chris, an affable, middle-aged Asian chap who’d volunteered to drive us around Singapore in the middle of the night on a drunken mission to find cigars. “Sure” we enthused, interpreting this to be a mere nugget of man chatter before continuing to assault our new found friend with questions about where to go and what to do in the city.
As we cruised the dark, muggy streets, watching the people of the night gliding past, I started to become increasingly aware of growing number of scantily clad young women loitering on the side walk. As Mike and I were about to find out, our driver had other things on his mind for us that night than just finding us tobacco products – and for a country that prides itself on having rules for everything, they sure have a lot of prostitutes.
The car slowed to a crawl and Chris leaned back, a mischievous grin wide on his face, “like any of these girls?” he pressed.
“Ah… sure, they’re lovely” I replied lamely, “but really… we’re just after some cigars tonight…”
“Oh…” said Chris, the disappointment dripping from his voice; his shoulders sagging in his seat.
The BMW rolled on through the night, Chris answering our questions with noticeably less enthusiasm than before. We found our cigars shortly after, some drastically overpriced Cubans, then our driver graciously offered to drop us home, but only after a cursory return trip through the red light district (“just in case!” he assured us).
After a fruitless mission through the seedy back streets we finally arrived back at the hostel but before we could spring from the vehicle, Chris, with a trace of annoyance in his voice, thrust a business card in to each of our hands and said “OK, OK, no girls tonight. You call me tomorrow and we go get girls then. I get best price!” His credentials claimed membership to the liquor industry, but my suspicions tell me our guide for the evening also made a nice sideline pimping Asian women to “rich” white tourists like us.
Mike and I arrived in Singapore feeling apathetic. We’d been roughing it through Africa for nine weeks and the urge for consistency, stability and comfort had kicked in strong. The thought of going outside and exploring yet another city suddenly felt more like a chore than a pleasure, so encouraged by the total lack of tourist attractions and the oppressive heat and humidity outside we hijacked the hostel dining table with our laptops, basked in the icy cold air conditioning and blatantly flouted the hostel’s no alcohol policy by drinking scotch whiskey everyday from the early afternoon, cleverly concealing the bottle under table when the manager came in and vehemently denying her accusations that we were drunk (although the giggling probably didn’t help our case.)
After an unrewarding and expensive week in the Malaysian outpost we set forth to Australia, where we spent another useless week achieving very little. We made it out once to walk through Sydney and down to the Opera House, the otherwise torrential rain kept us from the beaches and the streets and left us instead inside positioned by the pool table at the downstairs bar.
Finally, two weeks after departing the African continent, Mike and I arrived in New Zealand, dressed in tailored, hand-made, silk and cashmere blend Italian cut suits we’d picked up during one of our few excursions in Singapore, hoping to surprise our families with the exact opposite of the stained, scraggly, bearded travellers they were expecting to receive. Unfortunately, our moment of splendour was sadly ruined by the New Zealand Customs and Excise Service who after finding a a collection of knives, including a 24 inch machete, in the neatly suited Michael’s backpack decided they needed to inspect my cousin somewhat closer, although, despite his 45 minute absence he has assured me repeatedly since then that they didn’t once require the use of a latex glove. (I only half believe him).
This November marks the four year anniversary of me originally leaving New Zealand and moving to the UK and Michael is only a few months shy of being able to claim the same. In such a long absence, my memories of life in New Zealand had long ago been eclipsed by those of my new life on British shores, so, it was with some surprise to arrive home and fall back in love with the motherland so quickly, in fact, so much so that I’ve decided to stay – until the end of summer at least.
It’s been great being tourists in our own country. One of my biggest gripes about living in England was constantly being bombarded by Brits professing their love for New Zealand. “Oh! Don’t you love the South Island!” they’d squeal, then exclaim “Isn’t the Milford Sounds is the most beautiful place on earth!?” usually followed by them staring at me blankly awaiting my endorsement, forcing me to admit that despite having travelled all over the world I’d actually seen very little of my own country. In fact, my memories of the South Island were largely confined to a singular incident which happened on a family trip almost two decades ago; my Dad accidentally spraying his pristine white shirt in ketchup and actually commenting at the time “I bet this is the only thing you’ll remember about this trip…” (and, of course, it is).
Memories involving condiments aside, a tour of New Zealand has been due for a long time, so it was with great relish (sorry, couldn’t resist) we purloined my Aunt’s car and set off on our noble journey, starting with the northernmost tip of the country that myth claims fisherman ?Maui pulled from the sea. Our first port of call was a holiday house in the Bay of Islands, a picture-postcard perfect part of NZ where we were joined by some friends for an intense week of cultural activities, featuring such quintessential Kiwi pastimes as fishing, beer drinking and barbecue.
Following such a successful week getting reacquainted with New Zealand’s timeless traditions, Mike and I opted to sign up for a day trip of Northland, promising an array of attractions from body boarding on sand dunes, to visiting an ancient Kauri forest and more. We had no way of knowing then that we’d end up spending most the day being stalked by the Eastern European paparazzi.
To start with, she seemed normal enough. Mid-to-late fifties; homely attire; thick Soviet-bloc accent. Armed with a video camera snuggly affixed to her right hand at all times, she recorded in minute detail every aspect of our trip from the seemingly endless Ninety Mile Beach, to the driver’s riveting dialogue regarding bus evacuation procedures in the event of fire.
“Can I take your picture?” she enquired in brusque Russian tones as Mike and I sat atop a hill at Cape Reinga, surveying the meeting point of the Tasman and Pacific Oceans. “Uh, sure” we replied, wanting her to go away more than anything else. With that, she aimed her camera, snapped our picture and then meandered off to find her friend, leaving the two of us to resume the serious business of watching the waves crashing on the rocks below.
A few hours, several tourist attractions and countless photographs later Mike groaned, “She’s taking our picture again!” I glanced over to see again a familiar lens aimed in our direction. Mike wheeled his camera across and quickly snapped a shot of our paparazzo-in-training, balancing out the us-to-her photograph ratio at about 50:1. I can only imagine her intentions were for so many pictures of our hunky New Zealander selves; I can only speculate that she must have sold our likeness to popular Yugoslavian media and unbeknownst to ourselves, Mike and I are now probably huge celebrities in the former USSR.
From the northern tip we travelled right the way down the length of the country to Slope Point, the southernmost outreach of the South Island; only the tiny Stewart Island extending New Zealand’s claim further in to the cold, subarctic ocean below. Since leaving Auckland we’ve driven over 5,000 kilometres, passing through dozens of towns and cities on the way; Michael never failing to seize the opportunity to dangle his arm out the window and glare menacingly at anyone who happens to appear in his field of vision. Regretfully, as sinister as his thug impression is, I suspect our gangsta street cred is somewhat lessened by the fact our pimp-mobile is actually a 1995 burgundy red Peugeot hatchback we borrowed from his Mum.
So, in short, it’s good to be back. It’s been an immense pleasure to catch up with all my friends and family I’ve neglected for so long with my European antics, and to finally get out and explore the number one tourist destination in the world (well, according to a recent poll I saw anyway). There have, of course, been changes in my four year absence. Notably, my high school chums and I now meet for lunch and have adult conversations about global politics and the financial markets instead of lounging around at the beach smoking joints after school, and people continuously ask me where I’m from and seem genuinely surprised when I reveal my New Zealand origins – my accent is obviously a twisted wreck; perhaps a few more months at home is just what I need…?
New Zealand – roll on summer!
England – see you in Spring!
(and as always, we loving hearing what you’re all up to, keep the emails coming!)
Ka kite ano,