Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Kaikoura and Beyond

Kaikoura is a small town on the East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, famous among tourists for its whales - great grey beasts, submarines with tails – and among UC Philosophy students for its lodge, which affords an excellent view of an ocean that ends in Chile, and an excellent chance to undertake philosophical activities such as drinking beer, which usually ends in sillygism. When I went through this town on my way up to Wellington for the GREs the hills rose out of a skirt of clouds, like dwarf Everests, and there was a patch of dirty foam stuck in one place, just offshore. At 9 0’clock in the morning the town has a general appearance of greyness. It also has the vacant, modest look of a place designed to admit outsiders rather than cultivate insiders, a place whose main visible occupants are tourists and seagulls. The seagulls have the alert, inquisitive look of beings who have just dropped in for a few minutes and intend to leave very soon. The tourists look much the same. The tourists look at the seagulls with cameras; seagulls look back through their orange rims. The sea drops heavily against the sand, but it has no effect on the dirty foam, which stays stuck.

The bus is large and white with black windows and a sleek, rectangular look about it, like a fridge wearing dark glasses. The driver also wears dark glasses, and he is also large, but he is certainly not sleek. His face has the crumpled, bulldog look that Maori faces often have when they are depicted in cartoons. In the cartoons they are often equipped with large bellies, and the driver has one of them as well. The guy in the bus mimics the cartoons, then; but a few seats from the front there is the guy who inspired them: small eyes, heavy drooping nose, skin like bark, thick neck, multiple pregnancy. There are metal bars on the seats that I believe are called armrests: the living caricature uses both of them as bumrests. He does have a kind of stern grace about him, like a whale’s grace, and he would be a fearsome sight paddling a waka, and a friendly, fatherly sight collecting pipis. Sitting on his armrests, however, in his tourist jeans and striped shirt and red golf visor, he is the satirists’ dream.

When the driver says “Kaikoura”, he pronounces the last two syllables with the deft accent that newsreaders try to imitate but which they usually turn into an awkward stab or a bloated collection of vowels.

There is not much to see or hear out of Kaikoura, unless you’re keen on wide, slapping oceans and shimmering wheatfields and paddocks full of grass and drooping cattle. I was probably keen on that sort of thing on the first five times I made this trip. This time I am entertained by the two young kids in the next seat and the fence posts blurring past the window on the right-hand side of the road. In front of the fenceposts there are metal road markers. At the base of one of them there is a piece of orange peel, looking very peeled and very orange. Halfway between two of those markers there is a fist-sized rock with a band of bright yellow paint on it. “The sea is a big puddle,” says one of the kids, a girl. She says it in the triumphant, uncompromising way that children sometimes have, as if they are telling someone off and enjoying it. “A big, big puddle.”

In one place the grass on the edge of the road has been peeled away like skin, and rolled up against the fenceposts. A yellow roller turns a pile of shingle into a cricket-pitch.

“I can’t see,” says the girl. “I can’t see anything.” She has the window-curtain wrapped around her face and is peering through it. The mother has to say something, and might as well make it educational. “Yes dear, it looks as if you can’t. Do you know why you can’t see anything?” The girl quibbles. “I can see some things. I just can’t see them very well.” There is a pattern that seems to be quite popular among manufacturers of bus seat covers. It is made up of think black lines and primary colors, with a grey background. It looks like a shattered stained-glass window, and it would be quite attractive it were not so intimately associated with boredom and mild nausea. If you look straight out of the window of a bus and keep your eyes fixed in place, you will see the fence posts as one long stutter of wood. However, if you flick your eyes from side to side in the right way you can see each post free of any blurring; except during the brief time it takes to flick your eyes away from the post that is disappearing out the back of your window, and towards the new posts that are emerging out of the front of the window. Just inside the shoulder of the road there is a smooth, shiny patch that looks like black ice but is not black ice. A red truck goes past.

“Are we nearly there yet?” This is the girl again. “Are we almost nearly there yet? Are we almost nearly almost there yet? Are we almost nearly, almost…” but she stops short, hooks a finger between her bottom gum and lip, and looks puzzled. The young woman sitting on the seat in front of mine has a barbed-wire tattoo on her upper arm. I can see this because there is a gap between the window and the seat. It just so happens that I can see the reflection of the driver’s head in the window ahead of me. I see him itch is ear once, then get tired of waiting for him to indiscreetly pick his nose. The kids start making noises. They are good at this. They make tiny booming noises, duck noises, nail-on-blackboard noises, high multi-tone rasps, electric-saw squeals. They play with their voices like drunken thespians. They are not imitating the noises of animals or machinery: they just make noises and come across the familiar ones by accident. Everyone in the bus listens to them. Three white cars go past. A tractor comes down the next hill with seven cars behind it, and it looks as if the tractor is towing all these cars along on its own steam. The kids make a noise that sounds like “buying” but which is not. They make it again, in a slightly different pitch and timbre. This game is fun, and they keep playing. I remember that I will need to courier something up to Wellington because I left it behind. A moment later I see a red courier van go past. Now the word is less like “buying” and more like “beating,” and with every repetition the “b” is sliding further into a “v.” The kids have an orange toy in the shape of a laptop, and when they press a certain key the laptop makes a noise that is cross between a siren and snorting elephant. I note that when this noise is repeated at the right frequency it sounds very much like the TARDIS when it takes off, at least when it takes off in the new TV series of Dr. Who.

We arrive in Picton and the little boy points his arm in that wobbly infant way, with the elbow and pointing finger imperfectly extended and the fist imperfectly closed, and makes a noise that could mean anything from “wader” to “beaver.” I get off and enjoy the view that visitors get when they arrive at the Picton waterfront on a fine day, a view that I am keen on despite frequent viewings. If you want to know what that view is like, you’ll have to go there yourself.