New Zealand / Australia Diary
Wednesday 11 April 2012

Storm clouds over Maidstone West

After all of the months of planning & preparation, the innumerable emails trying to find a combination of flights & workshops that suited everyone, the delicate discussions with my employers about taking way more than my allotted holiday time and the toe-curling quotes for the tickets things had finally come together and I was due to set off! A four week trip to the Antipodes, visiting Dunedin and Whitianga in New Zealand, then Newcastle, Hobart and Perth in Australia, with dance workshops on every weekend. Some old friends and some new ones, some familiar places and some new vistas, and over 40,000km of air travel. Whatever happened it would be quite a trip.

I'd begun to think that my global travel days were long gone but in recent years I'd found myself hanging around in International Departures once again. Last year had been relatively quiet but 2010 had seen new stamps in my passport from Brazil, Croatia and the USA. However I'm still something of a passive traveller, very happy to be invited to teach or visit or to be a travelling companion but lacking the urge to just head off somewhere for the hell of it. Going on a 'busman's holiday' does have its drawbacks but it certainly suits my style, having something to focus on (rather than just taking in the sights) and providing the comforts and local insight & perspective of being with, er, locals. The prospect of working the weekends and holidaying the weekdays sounded pretty good to me.

One of the advantages of flying from the UK to Australia is that the flights usually set off in the evening, which for me translates to a relaxed day doing my final preparations and lots of time to get to the airport. My journey began at the very civilised hour of four in the afternoon when I was expecting a taxi to take me to my local train station. This wasn't quite as casual as it might have been as the week before I'd been left high and dry by a local taxi company (despite several, increasingly animated calls asking WHERE WAS MY CAB!) and had missed my train but this time (with a different company) the taxi was there early and whisked me effortlessly to the station with time to spare.

As the time ticked towards four the clouds gathered menacingly overhead, finally erupting into thunder & lightning and sharp deluges of rain. I was dressed for a warm Australasian autumn rather than a churlish English spring and could probably have done with a warmer coat but soon the first of my trains chugged into view and I settled into its toasty interior.

Three trains and a tube later I drew into Heathrow airport. A minor hiccup came when the electronic check-in machine I was directed to declared that my journey was too complicated for it to cope with but after a bit more queuing all was sorted and I waved my case goodbye (until Aukland, all being well) and headed for the departure lounge.

I've done a fair bit of flying in my time and over the years I've developed a collection of techniques & strategies for easing the stresses of airline travel. One of these has been to never eat airline food, so before my flight was called I chose a rather nice looking restaurant and treated myself to an excellent pizza with a big slice of tiramisu to follow. Suitably fortified I made my way to the gate and found my seat, and soon after taking off the drowsiness of digestion led me to wrap myself in my blanket and let my eyelids fall.

From London to Singapore takes over 12 hours by modern airliner, so it was a delightful surprise to find that 9 of those had already passed as I emerged from my sleep. Once I'd established that I wasn't going to return to the Land of Nod I unpacked the newest addition to my Air Travel Survival Kit, a Kindle ebook reader. I'd heard good reports about these from friends and had spotted more and more of them being used out and about so I decided to give one a try rather than haul a bunch of physical books along with me. A quick visit to had loaded my new toy with four lengthy tomes to set me up for my lengthy trip.

The Kindle was a wonderful reading device. Its screen doesn't emit any light itself so you have to be in some light to read it (as with a physical book) and this seemed to make it much easier on the eyes than reading from a computer screen or watching a film or TV show on the seatback display. As someone who works with interface design a lot it was a real joy to use a device that does a limited number of things very well and within a very short time I was totally immersed in my book (Reamde by Neil Stephenson) and almost unaware of the mechanics of the Kindle itself. A very good discovery.

Sunrise over Sydney Airport

It was early evening when we arrived in Singapore but I wasn't really aware of a time of day by this point. The air was warm and the sun was low but after a long sleep it just felt like generic airport environment. We had about an hour to get off the plane and enjoy being on terra firma before queuing up to get back onto it again and setting off on the next leg, to Sydney.

I dozed and read my way through the next 7 hours and then found myself in Sydney airport at 5am, a good while before dawn. By this point I'd lost any sense of time and walking through an almost deserted terminal only added to the sense of abstract disassociation. A misreading of my itinerary made me think I had several hours in this limbolike existence but my dogged subconscious persuaded me to check it again and 90 minutes after touching down I was taking off again, heading west to Aukland.

In Aukland it was lunchtime, but by now I'd resigned myself to finding a randomly chosen time of day whenever the aircraft doors opened. I reunited myself with my case (I'd be travelling domestically for the last flight) and set off towards immigration, customs and biological border control accompanied by what seemed like hundreds of Chinese schoolboys dressed in identical blazers, shirts, ties & hairstyles. Was the sensory deprivation of over twenty hours of air travel pushing my brain into hallucinatory breakdown? No, I'm pretty sure they were actually there.

My first experiences of New Zealand were, sadly, of things not quite working. While standing in line to get my bags x-rayed the official responsible for my queue just wandered away for ten minutes, leaving us immobile while the other queues continued to move on and through. (They were predominantly composed of identical Chinese schoolboys so may have been imaginary.) Next stop was the newly automated domestic check-in machines, neither of which seemed to work without the active intervention of (at least) one person from the bag drop-off desks, meaning that the process took longer than if we'd just checked in normally. Finally, to get from the international terminal to the domestic one you followed a large, friendly green stripe painted on the ground, which unfortunately divided in two at one point with no explanation as to which branch you should follow. Despite all of this I managed to find a nice lunch of spicy noodles, check my bag & get my boarding card, text Catherine (who was meeting me in Dunedin) to let her know the flight was on time, and start to reconnect with the Real World by walking to the other terminal rather than taking the shuttle bus. Aukland was warm & damp with big puddles on the ground and I strolled through it with unquestioning acceptance, at least the Chinese schoolboys hadn't followed me this time.

Two hours later I was touching down in Dunedin and feeling my brain restarting the social interaction processes that had been put on hold for the past day or so. It felt like coming out of a retreat or some other form of intense personal process, despite being closely surrounded by lots and lots of people for the entire time I'd only interacted with them in the most formalised of ways and had been, essentially, alone for the whole journey. Not just alone but in a very passive state, sleeping, reading and following signs & instructions. It was as if, knowing how unpleasant airline travel can be, my mind had decided that it wasn't worth burdening my conscious with the experience and had put it away somewhere until it was needed again.

But finally here I was and 'I' could be brought back to run things again. I was remarkably present & coherent (or my greeters were being very polite) as we drove into Dunedin and after a light but well-needed supper I decided to join my housemates in going to the Meet & Greet session for Festival organisers and presenters.

I'd been invited to teach a couple of workshops on Dancing To Unusual Rhythms as part of the MEDANZ (Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand) annual Festival, mostly through the intervention of my dear friend Catherine who had invited me to teach circle dance workshops back when she lived in the UK. Now a New Zealand resident (& citizen) and a MEDANZ member she'd suggested that my teaching style & fascination with unusual rhythms would fit nicely with the increasing interest in uneven rhythms in the belly dance world and, after a small flurry of emails, I was booked and listed as a Guest Teacher at the event.

The upshot of all this was finding myself in a room almost exclusively populated with women and with a very high proportion of sparkly accoutrements and visible midriffs. I chatted for a while (and was only called a Pommie Bastard once) but the effects of the journey were starting to make themselves felt and after a shortish while I retreated back home and to my bed.

Next day