Posted by: Alex | March 27, 2010

The Journey

8:12pm Monday, March 22, 2010 GMT-8 / 4:12pm Tuesday, March 23, 2010 GMT+12

Looking out over the calm waters of San Francisco bay, it’s a peaceful night, barely a whisper of wind, and the lights of the San Mateo bridge four miles away are clearly visible, strung like distant Christmas lights.  The aircraft is half-empty, most of the passengers settling into their own row, searching for comfort in the narrow, hard seats, tolerating the bumps from the passenger behind.  Contemplating the long journey ahead over the boundless ocean, they watch the blue, green, red, white lights roll by as our captain guides us to our departure runway.

A neat row of lights stretch into the sky seemingly as far as the eye can see, bright, silent orbs of light, floating evenly, constantly down towards us, gradually growing larger.  Their glow reflects off of the gentle ripples of the bay, beams from distant lighthouses.  Evenly flanked by small, flashing fireflies, each makes a precision touchdown.  The company logos on their fins half-heartedly lit like the sign of a desolate, dilapidated gas station.  US Air.  Southwest.  Continental.  Fellow travelers, small, distant and anonymous through my porthole.

A faint whine is heard as we move to pause between the parallel landing runways.  A middle-aged mother with dark brown hair and a crop of stark highlights looks directly down our parallel runway as we pass it, the warm glow of the runway lights illuminating her face.  She turns around to share the view with her absent neighbor and our eyes meet briefly.  Two more orbs carefully float by either side of us in synchrony.  United.  American Airlines.  Memories of names that already seem distant, a former life.

The whine resumes as we line up on the longest runway, headed due West.  As whine becomes a tactile rumble, then a roar, the Earth moves beneath us, falling behind with greater and greater resolve.  Finding purpose, the wing begins to arch upwards, further, higher, until the world tilts and begins to fall away from us.  The sum of years of memories is visible directly off the wing tip.  Friends, business meetings, a favorite brunch location, falling in love, a close call at a traffic intersection — disappear.  The Earth gently dips below, the diminutive peninsula hidden beneath the wing as we navigate southward.

The world level once again, the dark featureless voids of the sky and Pacific now command the view, memories left behind.  Chasing the receding sunlight, a waning blue, violet, pink, red band reminds that another day has passed as we continue our inexorable journey around our solitary source of vitality.  The only remaining point of reference, Venus, rises above the fading band of color, beckoning the stars to join.

The cabin lights come on to full brightness —

8:27am Tuesday, March 23, 2010 GMT-8 / 4:27am Wednesday, March 24, 2010 GMT+12

After seven hours of fitful sleep strewn across three seats, we touch down in Auckland.  Nothing much is visible.  It’s still hours before dawn, though my body is telling me otherwise, and the sky is overcast.  The damp ground suggests recent rain.

Passport control and customs is a breeze, and with the prospect of sitting in Auckland airport for another 7 hours before my connecting flight to Christchurch, I’m switched to a 6:50am flight without issue.  The short flight is mostly full of business people, no doubt heading to same-day meetings in Christchurch, to return to Auckland that evening.  I know what that lifestyle is like.  Reminiscent of the UK’s increased formality over the US, without exception all the business folks are wearing a blazer.  Air New Zealand’s famous “nothing to hide” safety briefing plays on the overhead monitors, and we depart on our 1-hour flight.

8:50am Wednesday, March 24, 2010 GMT+12

Christchurch airport is tiny, and as I wait for my ride to the off-site rental car agency, there are so many reminders of the UK.  Smaller cars, road markings and signs, the predominantly white population, facial structure and features, driving on the left.  It almost feels like home, and someone walking past cheerfully asks, “Mountain or road?”  It’s a road bike in the box.

The drive from Christchurch to Omarama is about four hours, and aside from repeatedly activating the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal (opposite sides of the steering wheel to a lefthand drive vehicle), the switch to the lefthand side of the road comes back to me, having originally learned how to drive in the UK.  Navigation isn’t much of an issue as the number of main roads is small.  I love the complete lack of stop signs.  Only in the US are drivers forced to stop at every intersection regardless of whether there is any traffic coming the other way.  Have a preference for roundabouts, replace most stop signs with an implicit give way rule, put them only where absolutely necessary and traffic lights everywhere else, and you have much smoother, free-flowing traffic.  Not that there is much out here.

It doesn’t feel like you’re on a remote island in the South Pacific until you start driving out of town.  Christchurch, population of around 400,000 based on the average of people’s widely ranging estimates, is widely spread out and is the largest city in the South Island.  It takes some time to drive outside the bounds of the city, but once out, it feels like you’re in the Midwest of the US.  Rolling hills, sheep, dairy cows.  The mountains to the West, clearly visible about 40 miles away, make it feel more like Montana, though not as desolate yet.

After turning West through Geraldine and Fairlie, the landscape becomes more remote and gradually more mountainous.  Long stretches without seeing another car, human being, or home.  Cresting a ridge, Lake Pukaki comes into view, its turquoise waters the product of the Tasman glacier, extending far to the north to the foothills of Mt. Cook.  A scene reminiscent of Banff national park in Canada.  Mt. Cook isn’t visible from Lake Pukaki today due to cloud cover, but on a clear day it’s said to be one of the most spectacular views in New Zealand.


After taking two and a half minutes to drive around the extent of Omarama (population 260, pronounced oh-MARE-a-mah), I walk in to the gliding operation’s office to meet my hosts, G and M.  Finishing up their business for the day, they suggested I grab a coffee and a bite to eat at the cafe on the airfield.  I meet L, who is running the cafe while the owner is away and wolf down some delicious pasta.  It’s a typical, small on-airfield cafe: pilots come in and out to grab a bite or drink between flights, flying magazines exclusively are stacked under the coffee table, and visitors coming in for a trial flight, most often a birthday present to a husband or boyfriend, are easy to spot, shyly keeping to themselves.

G comes by to chat with me about my gliding goals and plans during my time off and then we head over to the house they’ve invited me to stay in until at least the end of April, which is the end of the gliding season.  A few minutes from the airfield, it’s up on a hill overlooking a pasture full of sheep with mountains in the background.  With two bedrooms and a generous living area, it’s more than enough room for a single occupant.  I get the impression that it’s packed during the peak season.


G and M’s house is just below mine, and they’ve invited me over for dinner.  They’re going away for a few days and show me where the chickens are, and where the dog and cat food is.  Feed the dog before the cat, otherwise he’ll eat all the cat’s food.  A trap’s been set to catch the stoat that thinks the chickens are for dinner.  Eat the eggs, or give them to L at the cafe in exchange for coffee.  Over New Zealand wine, American politics feature strongly in the discussion.  Both the comedy of it — how has freedom died now that tens of millions of people will have health insurance in the richest country in the world? — and the truth that it’s not just a spectator sport: for better or worse, American politics has worldwide repercussions.  G tells me about Omarama and why it’s such a unique and special location for gliding, being the epicenter of multiple types of favorable weather conditions.  They offer me advice on what to do during my year off.

Such a stark contrast to the busy, everyone-for-himself mentality of city life and capitalistic greed.  Everyone is extremely friendly, very open and trusting.  No one locks anything.  I don’t even have the keys to the house I’m staying in.  I imagine this is what life is like in most rural parts of the world, and I’m strongly reminded of a month spent with my relatives in Canada as a child: life is less hurried, more enjoyed, more focused on the weather and environment and local issues like irrigation, the swarm of high school rowing teams in town for the week, and keeping stoats from eating your chickens.  No (inter)national brand franchises or stock tickers, and news from Wellington, let alone the rest of the world, seems distant and unimportant.


Sated, I walk up the short hill to my house in the dark, note the brilliant display of stars visible between the clouds, unpolluted by the lights of countless millions of city residents, and with only the sound of the wind, fall into a deep sleep.

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