Christel Jeffs (2012)

[Kaikoura Whale Watching]

Domestic Experience

Three months before we were due to leave, Kristy gave me brain-freeze.

“Oww,” I moaned. I had sipped my frappé too fast and now ice was burning through my head. I clutched the café table and blinked at my friend, who was still grinning at me after her bombshell. “What did you say?” I mumbled.

“I said forget Europe. Let’s do New Zealand instead!” Kristy’s eyes were practically bulging. “I know it’s a bit radical, but it makes total sense. Why freeze in Europe when we could be hanging out here all summer?”

“I…I thought you wanted to go skiing.” My brain was on fire at this point.

“Yeah I do, but – sorry, I’ll back up a little.” Kristy took a slurp of her coffee and settled back in her seat. “My friend Alana’s coming over in January.”

“Your English friend?” I rubbed my temples and pinched my nose. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I want her to travel with us! And she won’t thank me if I invite her back to Europe in the flippin’ winter.”

“Does she have to come?”

“Grace! I’m not about to ditch her for six weeks!” Kristy scowled at me. “I’ve already asked her anyway – she’s totally keen.”

“Oh okay! Thanks for putting it past me first!” I stirred my drink furiously. My head cleared and I felt the blow really sink in. “So that’s settled, then,” I said slowly. “We’re going to be touring New Zealand for our OE…”

“Make that DE,” grinned Kristy. “I’ve barely seen the country myself – it’ll be awesome, Grace, trust me.”

Domestic experience. That really left a bad taste in my mouth. But nothing stops Kristy once she’s begun; within two weeks we were doomed to go. We left Auckland on January 5th and would be away until the money ran out. I’m off for the trip of a lifetime, I thought as we drove towards Wellington that first night. But I won’t even leave the ground.

“Thank-you so much for letting me come,” Alana piped up from the back.

I glanced into my side mirror. Kristy’s friend looked an awful lot like Edith Crawley from Downton Abbey: honey-coloured hair pinned back neatly, lily skin, demure smile. She sat ramrod straight, one leg tossed over the other with her slender hands folded on top – the perfect package of Englishness.

“It’s such a relief to be with friends,” she chatted. “I’d be too scared otherwise.”

“Haven’t you ever travelled overseas before?” Kristy fired the question over her shoulder before shooting in front of a logging truck to get into the motorway’s left lane.

I flinched and Alana grabbed her car door. “Ah, no,” she said with a shaky laugh. “I’ve lived in Churston Ferrers all my life, so this is a very new thing for me.”

“Churston Ferrers?” I shrugged. “Never heard of it.”

“It’s a tiny hamlet in Devon,” she explained. “I have been to London before of course, but never for long…guess I don’t like cities that much.” She tried another laugh as Wellington’s sparkling face moved closer.

Lord, help me be nice. With a sigh I rummaged through my bag and pulled out a red notebook, covered in Snoopy stickers and filled with neat writing: my mother’s travel journal. She wrote it when she was travelling the Continent with her friend. She was about the same age as me, so why shouldn’t I be like her?

I flipped it open and scanned some of the entries:

2nd May – Amsterdam

Saw little bit of France in passing on to Belgium. Further on into Holland – saw couple of windmills and some gorgeous tulips. Fascinating to see all the River houses lined up on the water.

I could feel myself turning green. I turned a few pages:

9th May – Lauterbrunnan, Switzerland

Arrived at the Trummelbach Falls to have a look around. You walk through some caves and the waterfalls are all lit up from behind. Looks beautiful.

I glanced up and realised that we had hit the city centre – at eleven o’clock, right in the party zone. Streams of people were everywhere and the atmosphere was seedy; the regulars had headed home and the wild ones were refuelling.

“Look at that!” Kristy exclaimed. We pulled up at a traffic light and gawked as men in skirts, heels and cheap makeup pranced by. Girls followed closely behind, wrapped in dresses that barely covered their thighs.

“Perhaps it’s a hen night-slash-stag party,” Kristy suggested. “Oh yeah, look – there’s the bride!”

A young woman, wearing a stiff bridal headpiece and a pair of devil’s horns, marched along the footpath and right past my window. She stared down at me and I felt like I could see right into her heart: it was empty and bleak.

Alana suddenly shrieked and I whipped my head around to see a guy pound on Kristy’s window.

“Oi!” He shouted through the glass. “Canna hava kiss?” He was decked out in a white dress, pink and purple streamers all over him.

“Sure!” Kristy shouted back. She wound down the window while we looked on flabbergasted. “What are you doing?” Alana squeaked.

Kristy ignored her and stuck her head outside. The guy smacked a loud, sloppy kiss on her cheek.

“Too quick, bro!” his mate hollered from behind. The drag queen kissed Kristy again and lingered with puckered lips until a camera flashed.

“Thanks – that’s fifty-two!” he crowed, and with one last peck the two were skipping across the road. Kristy doubled over laughing.

“What were you thinking?” I yelled.

The light turned green and we ploughed on ahead. Kristy spluttered and tried to gain control. “It’s a stag party,” she said. “My mate did the same thing, he had to go around and get as many pictures of him kissing other girls as possible!”

“Oh.” I checked on Alana and she was even whiter than before. “You’ve freaked out your friend now,” I said and Kristy burst into more giggles.

“That – that would never happen back home!” Alana stuttered.

Kristy swiped pink lipstick from her cheek. “That’s nothing. We’re crazy over here, get used to it!” She recomposed and focused fully on the road. “Ohh-kay, time to find a hostel. ‘Lana, could you check the map again and point us towards the Sleepy Owl? Oh woops, I’ve done a complete circle. There’s the bride and groom again!”

We saw the couple tottering towards a blaring pub at the end of the street. Their friends still flocked around, like kids amused by circus clowns. I felt suddenly ashamed of them. Shocked, too, that Alana hadn’t seen anything like this. Is England too cultured? Surely not! But then, what do I know about the world? Television could be all lies. Maybe the rest of the world is sane and we’re the crazy savages left in a remote part of the world. Perhaps Europe is the place to find maturity and dignity.

I opened Mum’s diary again and a sentence jumped at me from the page. It was about a skit competition that her tour group had entered:

One of the Contiki groups came first with their nursery rhymes and the gorgeous ballet danced by men dressed in white petticoats and bras, with a wreath of leaves around their heads and a rose clenched in their teeth – really great stuff.

I slapped the book shut. Or maybe not.

We found the Sleepy Owl eventually. It had disgusting bathrooms and a wide rickety staircase up the centre of the building that drunk people liked to call up and down to hear the echoes. Up at five, at the terminal by half-past six, and there we stayed until about 3 o’clock that afternoon waiting for engine repairs. By the time we’d arrived in Picton and made the final push to Kaikoura, the whole town was glowing with ‘No Vacancy’ signs. We pulled into the car park of a sightseeing area.

“Guess we’re sleeping in the car,” I said. I was sitting in the back this time, so I turned around and started pulling out our sleeping bags and pillows.

“Is it safe, though?” Alana gave me the “I-don’t-trust-you” look that I was getting to know quite well.

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Kristy said breezily. “All the murderers live in the North Island.”

Alana huffed. “But I’ve heard stories! About backpackers going missing and break-ins to caravans. It doesn’t seem safe.”

“Don’t forget that houses are always broken into,” Kristy countered. “We’ll be sweet. Who’s keen to try and pump up the airbeds?”

We laid out the front seats, Alana’s eyes getting bigger by the minute. We managed to get two mattresses up, but only after an episode of head banging, scrambling over each other and being pushed against the side of the car as Kristy swivelled the beds around. All this was done by torchlight – it probably did look like a murder in progress from the outside.

Kristy curled up in one corner with her sleeping bag. “Good night,” she yawned and was asleep within seconds. I lay across the other air mattress with Alana leaning heavily on my feet. She jumped upright at every voice or sound and checked the locks religiously. I tried a bit of reading by torch to help myself fall asleep:

1st June.

We start our night drive to Barcelona, Spain…Danny’s lilo kept falling on top of me and everyone stretched their legs across the seat. Felt all hemmed in and couldn’t breathe.

I woke the next morning all out of shape and breathless. To top it off, it was pouring with rain. But even so I happily disentangled myself from my friends and started hunting around in the boot for something to eat.

“Go-way,” whined Kristy as I rustled through the plastic bags.

“Come on guys – we’ve got the Whale Watch today!” I rubbed my hands together. This was one thing I had actually been looking forward to.

Alana peered out from her sleeping bag. “Are the boats safe?” she asked.

“‘Course they are.” I found an apple and crunched it loudly. “It’s a yucky day, but I don’t care – the whales love the rain.”

Pictures as bright as travel brochures began to fill my head as Kristy and Alana rolled grumbling from their sleeping bags. I could see myself gazing at humpbacks, dolphins…or perhaps an orca. That would be amazing. By the time we punched down the airbeds, I even had a vision of what photos I would take: clear, perfectly timed, incredibly close, and all with a backdrop of white capped mountains. Well, the mountains were hidden away in the cloud – I could only hope that they’d make an appearance.

We searched the town again for a youth hostel and actually found a cheap motel with vacancies. Kristy dashed through the rain to inquire and soon emerged with an Asian man who waved gleefully at us as he led the way to our room.

We dumped our stuff in relief. I caught sight of something shiny on the coffee table and went over to have a look. I bent over and saw a collection of small vials – used drug vials. I backed away and checked out the rest of the place. The fridge smelled; there were dead bugs all over one of the pillows. No way was I going to take advantage of a bed that night.

“I’m going to get nits!” wailed Alana. She stood petrified in the middle of the room, clutching her hair. “It’s crawling with filth, we cannot stay here!”

“Could be worse,” Kristy said cheerfully. “My friend stayed at a hotel in Thailand once – he stepped on a rat when he first walked into his room.”

I blanched. “Thailand will never be on my to-do list.”

Our boat trip was booked for 2 o’clock. It had stopped raining by the time we got to the pier, but there were still no mountains in sight. Our catamaran took off and within minutes we were skipping across the water like a kite surfer. Alana turned a horrible green and I felt a sudden compassion for her.

“Look at the horizon,” I said. “It helps.” But soon she was doubled over a bag and I patted her back, fixing my eyes on the sky line with furious determination.

At last we were out far enough that we could chug more sedately, although the boat was still pitching like a seesaw. Poor pale Alana stood up and I helped her outside for some air. James, the young guide on the tour, gave her a cup of water and colour immediately flowed back into her cheeks.

We began our hunt for the whales. “The most popular whale in Kaikoura is the sperm whale,” Rimu the captain told us. His Maori accent rolled the R in Kaikoura and it sounded beautiful. “We should find one soon…oh look folks! We have a pod of dolphins coming up on your right!”

I left James and Alana standing awkwardly together and scrambled to the other side of the boat. Dusky dolphins were swarming in their hundreds! They swept across the hull and made leaps into the air like spears, their adorable little faces lifted high. I started taking photos like crazy.

The pod spread out on either side of us and I shot back and forth through the cabin, grabbing videos when I could and trying to find the perfect shutter speed. Kristy just stood by watching and before long she was laughing at me.

“Grace! You look ridiculous!” she exclaimed. “Really, how many photos do you need?”

I glared in her direction and kept on snapping. “I take after my mum,” I said as I almost fell over a tourist’s tripod. “My dad says that on our Australian holiday, we travelled about 6,000 kilometres. Mum took 3,000 photos – that’s a photo every two kilometres.”

Kristy snorted as my camera flashed a whole second after a dolphin had finished its dive. “That’s extreme. You can’t enjoy the view if you’re looking through a lens all the time.”

14th May – Wien Prater theme park – Vienna

There are many side attractions and breathtaking rides. Libby wanted to do all the fast ones.

15th May

Didn’t think I would sleep too well last night but did – even though my lilo rocked a bit.

Did Mum see any whales on her tour? That night I lay in bed and flicked back through the journal to try and find the entry about her Channel crossing. It fell upon on the 3rd of May, in Amsterdam:

Went to a place with three windmills. We climbed to the very top…took one photo…

I almost laughed out loud. That did not sound like my mother! She got some good photos, though. I put the book aside and settled down, my air mattress rocking beneath me.

I took 200 photos on the boat and they all looked the same: grey water, grey sky, and little grey pieces of dolphin buried somewhere in the middle. So this is what a tourist is like. I sighed and rolled onto my stomach. We see things only through camera lenses. We scramble around snapping pictures to show our friends and say, “I’ve done this. I’ve been there.” We forget to stand still. You forget to stop and say to yourself, only yourself: “I’m here. “

Next morning I woke up and found Alana perched on a towel at the edge of a chair, watching the news. I poured myself a Milo and joined her. It was nearing the end of the bulletin when the front door opened and Kristy hurried in.

“Just went to pay,” she said. “There’s been another aftershock in Christchurch, the guy reckons – about a 5.6.”

“Really?” I looked at the TV screen. “The news didn’t mention it.”

“That’s because it isn’t news anymore.”

Of course Alana’s eyes got big. “Could Kaikoura get one?” Ever since arriving in New Zealand, she’d heard about nothing but earthquakes.

“We did get one,” replied Kristy. “Didn’t you feel the jolt this morning? Kaikoura’s fallen to bits, we’re the last building standing.”

“It isn’t funny, Kristy.” I shook my head. “It’s just freaky.”

“Maybe we should go and have a look,” Alana blurted. We stared at her in surprise.

“Why?” I asked.

Kristy frowned. “You, of all people, should want to stay away.”

Alana’s cheeks went pink. “Well, James lives in Christchurch with his sister but works here during the week. He says that…”

“Hold it! James? The whale watch guy?” I glanced at Kristy and we cracked up laughing.

“What’s so funny?” exclaimed Alana defensively. “We were just talking…”

“For the entire trip!” hooted Kristy.

“Oh, fine!” Alana rose and flounced into the kitchen. She clattered about in the sink for a while and then went quiet again.

“I do like him,” she said softly. “But I want to go and understand what it is like. Could we…please?”

Within a few hours we were bumping through Christchurch’s suburbs, mud and silt slurping under the wheels. Everything we’d seen on TV at a distance – from crushed chimneys to ripped up roads to large boulders – we saw with physical and vivid clarity. I knew straight away that no camera could ever make one feel the way I felt. My mother’s words suddenly jumped to mind:

31st May

Started on our way to Pompeii. In 79 AD it was hit by an avalanche of ashes and lava caused by eruption of Mt Vesuvius.

Steel grey sludge crept across the roads. I could see people buried in it, hoisting bikes from their sticky lawns and digging deep with shovels to clear out their homes and gardens once more. This was not life-and-death. It was just a chore that needed to be done.

Everything was covered up but not destroyed...Even saw the actual bodies of two men recovered from the ruins, still covered in thick layers of silt.

I suddenly saw the Pyne Gould Building of the future. The image swelled in my mind and I gripped the steering wheel in horror as I saw it being preserved like an Italian ruin. A walkway was built around it, complete with cafés and shops. “Come see the Pancake Building,” the travel brochures declared. “You can see the actual bodies still covered in rubble.”

“Guys! This isn’t right!”

I pulled over to the side of the road and stared hopelessly at the mess outside. “Do you know what we’re doing? We’re disaster tourists!” I looked at my friends and felt so ashamed. “We might as well fly to Ground Zero and buy a 9/11 baseball cap!”

They looked back at me in silence. Alana bowed her head and Kristy shrugged beside me. “Wasn’t my idea,” she said.

Alana burst into tears. Kristy groaned.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it like that, I just – argh! I know what you mean, I know what you mean…”

I turned the key again. “We’re out of here.”

“No, wait – drive to New Brighton.” Kristy spun around and poked the sobbing Alana’s knee. “‘Lana-banana, that’s where you want to go, eh? You’ve got the address where James and his sister live, don’t you?”

Alana swiped at her tears and nodded. She held up a slip of paper and Kristy rummaged around for a map. “Let’s go there, Grace.”

I glanced at Alana in the mirror. “He gave you his address?”

No, I – I asked for it.”

Kristy violently cleared her throat and I sent her dagger-eyes. Turning around in the muddy street I plucked the map from Kristy and chucked it at Alana. “Lead the way.”

We drove right across town and finally pulled into a driveway with a red brick house. It was cut in two slices and the roof was covered by a tarpaulin as grey as the liquefaction oozing across the yard. A woman stood outside with a shovel, spinning right and left as if not sure where to start.

I drove up as far as I could and we all tiptoed across the muck towards the woman. She stopped as soon as she saw us and grinned. She was probably about 25, her red hair tightly braided African-style.

We introduced ourselves and she threw her arms around each of us in turn. “Name’s Teresa, but call me Tizzy!” She squeezed me like a boa constrictor and I hit the ground gasping.

“Ahh, so good to meet ya,” she grinned. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s dig in!”

“Oh, we…” I glanced down at my good jeans and sparkling top. Alana looked at her white skirt and also opened her mouth to protest, but Tizzy was already off and shouting to one of her neighbours for some extra shovels.

“What do we do?” Alana whispered and Kristy rolled her eyes.

“We do it, what else?” she hissed and marched forward in the boots that had cost her $160. She grabbed a shovel from Tizzy and immediately got to work. I thought about asking to change, but a spade was thrust into my hands and I just began digging.

We scraped the muck away from the crack in Tizzy’s wall, and she went inside with a hose and flushed the leakage out to us. The sun came out and burned, everything stank – I tried breathing through my mouth but the smell became a taste on my tongue. I gritted my teeth and bore it as best as I could.

Many locals were also outside working on their driveways and lawns. We shouted moral support across to each other as the day wore on. Piles of stinking silt lined the ditches, each one an Everest we had climbed. After we’d done all we could, we moved into neighbouring streets and started shovelling there too. I looked to Kristy and Alana. Their clothes were as gross and ruined as mine. I felt disgusting, but I couldn’t stop grinning!

When the sun finally began dipping west, we fired a round of high-fives and declared it a job well done.

Tizzy bounded up and wrapped us all in another gooey squeeze. “Are you on holiday here?” she asked. We nodded.

“Aww, thank-you so much!” she gushed. “So kind of you to offer your help!” She clasped her hands together. “So how about…”

The ground shook and cut her off mid-sentence. Alana screamed and I clutched Kristy’s shoulder tightly, but the trembling was over in about two seconds. Tizzy was standing completely unabashed when we had recovered ourselves. “How about dinner in town?” she continued. “My shout – I feel so special today having little helpers!”

Well, how could we say no? After cleaning up and getting into some other clothes, we headed to Cashel Street and checked out the shipping container shops. We found a restaurant that was just re-opening its doors, so we holed up there and demolished two pizzas between us. We sat and chatted for ages, Alana asking lots of casual questions about James. Kristy snorted into her Coke every time she got an answer and blushed.

At last Tizzy sat back and stretched, a saucy grin on her face. “How are you girls with karaoke?” she asked. Without waiting for our reply she stood and headed towards Cathedral Square.

“You are beautifu-hul, in every single waay,” she belted out. Kristy immediately joined in and Alana picked up the words too. I hurried after them, my own cheeks burning with embarrassment. But I quickly realised that I was the one looking like an idiot, so I began to sing. We walked as far as we could go and then stood like buskers, our voices getting louder and stronger. No passers-by stopped to listen. We got plenty of weird looks, but I didn’t care; it was okay to be a little crazy. When we finished we got an anonymous comment from across the square: “Hallelujah, you’ve shut up!”

Tizzy clapped her hands. “Not good enough, ladies – next number. Do you know ‘Stand Up’? The Feelers?” We didn’t, so she sang the verses and we picked up the easy chorus. It actually sounded a lot better with Tizzy leading. I looked up at where the Cathedral’s spire should be and the crumbling ghosts of buildings as I sang:

“It’s a long, long road
And I’ve got to be strong.”

The rain started again as we were finishing, so we decided to leave. Tizzy offered us a place to stay and of course we said yes. I drove us back and we were soon settled down with our mattresses in the piecemeal lounge, the rain thrumming against the tarpaulin above us. Before going to sleep I read from the diary again.

“You know, after her tour Mum didn’t know where she would be staying from night to night,” I murmured to anybody still awake enough to listen. “She and her friend just flitted about England for a while, staying with whoever they could get in touch with on their contacts list.”

“Mm. That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?” Kristy murmured into her pillow. She was asleep within moments.

“Great way to meet new people,” added Alana. She smothered a giggle, totally in love.

I flicked my torch back on and squinted at the page before me.

28th July – Cullen

Finished packing and tidying up, then left about 1 pm for the Addisons….so hard to say goodbye to this lovely family who we’d got to know pretty well over the last week.

“Alana, how many relatives do you have around England?” I asked. I closed the book and smiled. “I would love to meet them someday.”

© Christel Jeffs

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