Airports are full of people constantly in that weird space somewhere between traveler and homeless. Some layovers I’ve had have been short enough to barely choke down something more palatable than airline food. Others, like this one, I’m camped out long enough to get mail delivered to me at the terminal. This could be awful, this could be something worthy of complaining or writing a terrible review about but the simple lesson here is this: if you’ve got a long way to go, book all the flights together through the same provider.
Otherwise you’re here, dying of boredom, allowing yourself enough time to analyze the environment around you to see that everything here which is presented as a luxury can be boiled down to its sterile necessities. The clean lines, the rushed finishings, the PA system that beeps periodically that is only really noticed by those who sit here long enough. Yet, it is air conditioned and the seating is right on the border of comfortable – and I know most international terminals might be hard up for glass windows or an accurate time table.
Feet up, kicking back in a hard plastic chair, I flip through notes and pages of our destination: New Zealand. An isolated country in the middle of nowhere. The history of the country is marked in parallels in the book Fairness and Freedom – a country founded by exile, appropriated from natives, and consistently at conflict between its heritage and what it could stand to become. Colonial histories versus modern niceties and an evolution of people. Today, while the U.S. dives towards ecological destruction and a racist/cultural divide of it’s own people, New Zealand leads the way in sustainable innovations and incorporates the native people of the Maori into their modern political culture.
Today New Zealand sits as the small archipelago of a nation on the souther edge of the world. As long as the coastline between San Diego and Seattle and with the mountains and climate range to match, the relative isolation of New Zealand has left it near the top of many bucket lists, kept the heritage relatively intact, the ecosystem restored, and the very idea of the place a fantasy. With the release of the Lord of the Rings, the subsequent Hobbit movies, and the commercial availability of long-haul flights from the US – New Zealand is an increasingly accessible destination.
The accessible nature is through a 13 hour overnight flight from Los Angeles to Aukland with three hundred close strangers, a handful of crew, and thousands of hours of movies, media, and glowing screens. Approaching the gate, through the endless floor-to-ceiling windows fo the terminal is our ride. The plane is enormous, it takes an hour to disembark the arriving bleary eyed travelers with neck pillows and carry-ons in tow. It takes another hour to fully load the plane, get situated with headphones in and sleeping pills dissolving under tongue. The pill wouldn’t matter. I’m about to be awake for the next 13 hours. I can never really sleep on planes.
Night is falling in L.A. We’re on our way out.
We’re woken in the middle of the “night” twice to be fed, drowned with wine, and thrown back into the dark cabin to continue movie marathons, half-sleep, standing in lines for bathrooms and marinating in the mid-flight body odors and halitosis of our fellow passengers.
I’ve ready the mountains are the most staggering thing you’ll see. From the plane the giant slabs of granite climb form the oceans edge. It’s massive like most have never seen – on the scale of Himalayas, the magnitude of the Rockies, but packed into a small archipelago. Dotted along the shores are the towns and cities of New Zealand. Glittering cities of modern innovations full of people from all over the world coming together to create something new and wonderful.
I don’t see any of this on our pre-dawn approach to Aukland. I see the glow of the sun over a valley and the stretch of lights making up our approach runway. A pleasant end to our flight that I’m unable to enjoy due to the physical and mental disaster I have become from an evening of too little food, too many anti-histamines, and numerous glasses of complimentary New Zealand wine. To think that this was the diet I kept in the college years (with stronger drugs and cheaper wines) and how I managed to survive that for any duration to make it here, to the runway at Aukland so many years later is a wonder for another time.
Cool ocean air floods the cabin doors, clearing out the collective funk from the night around us and refreshing us just enough to chase our bags through customs, quarantine, and rechecking it for for our final flight of the morning. It’s well before dawn in Aukland, every person on the plane is exhausted fro the flight but that doesn’t stop the strict regime New Zealand Federal Agents from manning customs and quarantine at 4:30 in the morning. Stamping books, rifling through luggage, looking for seeds and produce and live animals or anything else being smuggled in by tourists, backpackers, and other nefarious types. There is no sympathy for the long-hauler here. You’ll get a nasty look for bringing in an orange. They’ll make you throw away your boots if they are too muddy. This is New Zealand – a fragile ecosystem that requires constant surveillance. There will be no entrance for snakes here.
Yet, we survive it. On the ground on the other wide of the world. One more flight, one more walk, one more departure and we can truly begin taking in the bucolic country that is coming to light all around us. At Aukland there is a small wall between the domestic and international terminal which requires a short walk along a sternly painted line on the ground. This one requires a walk from the international terminal to the domestic one. A ten minute walk through the rain cleaned air. Right outside the door, an airstream trailer modified into a coffee shop. We both buy iced coffees – loaded with cream and sugar – and it might be the greatest sensation I’ll remember. To this day, years later as I’m compiling all of these notes into something worthwhile, it is still the most powerful memory I have – that simple $3 coffee.
In the domestic terminal early in the morning there isn’t the typical nonsense of passengers anticipating a vacation. Everyone here has packed just enough for a day, maybe two. We meet two gentlemen with American accents who are here on business. Flying to Christchurch to see about setting up a new office for their company for some kind of economic stimulation plan. There are other locals who are hopping islands to visit friends and family, to work for a week, or to go home for another. They dress in suits, eat what they would on any other day, read the daily news, and know where all the amenities are.
It’s the exact opposite of the glossy travel pages.
While there is something to be said about the Instagram-hungry traveller, you might not see this part of it. The inspiring images of the person who puts themselves out there as the road-weary vagabond, venturing from city to city, landmark to landmark, only to spend more time setting up a great photograph of themselves looking well dressed (from the suitcase that likely holds an infinite wardrobe) than they are to soak in the locale. They usually look happy, well off, as though nothing could possibly stress them out. Yet, we see mere snapshots of these lives. Single frames among a constantly moving landscape full of all the bullshit that anyone can expect in a vacation.
Use the right filters and anything can seem perfect for a moment. For the rest of the time, you’re probably sitting in the terminal with a stomachache.
For the rest of us, there are 9 to 5 jobs and a few weeks of paid-time off that rigidly structures just how much time we’re allowed to spend off in a faraway land. It’s a pain that so much of the time is spent in transit – the journey versus the destination. I mark this feeling with a photo of Carly sitting on the floor of the airport, noshing on something so that when we are in a place we spend every ounce of conceivable time and energy extracting everything we can from the experience of a new place.
The energy of a new place! Yet, when we land in Christchurch at 9 in the morning the only thing I want to do is take a nap. To just lay down somewhere flat, or to find a comfortable chair, and just close the eyes for a few moments. Fortunately, as strong as the temptation is, the circumstances are stronger. It is only 9 AM here in Kiwi-land, we’re in the full light of day with a list of things – from cell phones to rental cars and a full day ahead of us before we can even think about getting comfortable in a foreign bed.
Read On: Christchurch, post quake