Monday, July 21, 2014

Aotearoa—the land of long white clouds

Most of us who have gone to school in India (and perhaps elsewhere) will remember those hectic mornings where dirty black shoes had to be polished. If not, we would get a whack for indiscipline in the morning assembly.  When one forgot to use ‘Kiwi’ shoe polish, the quick solution would be to wipe the shoe with socks and save the skin. For many of us, Kiwi polish was (and to a greater part is) the only association to the land of Kiwis.
‘Nova Zeelandia’ as the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (After whom Tasman Sea is named) chanced upon this country which was unknown to the west until 1600’s. Just like Columbus mistook West Indies for India, Tasman apparently mistook New Zealand to the Southern tip of South America. Polynesian settlers know as Māori had however, long settled in this Island nation.  
One set of arrows point from Taiwan to Melanesia to Fiji/Samoa and then to the Marquesas Islands. The population then spread, some going south to New Zealand and others going north to Hawai'i. A second set start in southern Asia and end in Melanesia.
"Polynesian Migration" by David Eccles. Migration arrows Taiwan through Melanesia to Polynesia, and earlier migration to Australia and New Guinea; Colonisation of East Polynesia, and dispersal to more remote islands (including Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

New Zealand as we know today is famous for many things. Kiwi fruits; Kiwi bird; Sir Ed. Hillary; Cheese; Wine; Cricket; Earthquakes and Cattle to name a few. One of the world’s least populated countries is the closest big landmass to Antarctic in the South Pacific Ocean. New Zealand also perhaps the first country to see the sunrise as per the International Date Line in the Southern hemisphere!. The country has a rich biodiversity and a unique biogeography. Much of the uniqueness is not well known to a vast majority of people like myself.

Kiwi Land

Watching a program by the BBC on TV four years ago, I had this deep sense of longing to go visit this beautiful country. Little did I know that my wish would soon come true. At a conference in Canada, it was announced that the next conference of the International Congress for Conservation Biology would be held in New Zealand. The conference in Canada being my first one to which I had got in by sheer luck (and what some may dare call divine intervention), I had very little clue how to go about getting myself to such conferences. The clock had started ticking. In about a year that passed, I had managed to gather data on ecology of frogs using automated sound recorders and put in an abstract to present my work at the 25th International Congress for Conservation Biology. In a few months, I heard that I was selected and was to present a poster. Allwin, my colleague too had also got in! 
Traveling costs money. Especially if one is a student in a third world country like India. I had sought for travel bursaries but had got only half of what was sufficient to go. A round of (what can be called bargaining and) justifying to the grant makers ensued and I finally managed to get the entire airfare and conference fees paid by the generous Conservation Leadership Program!. So plans were made two months before the trip and the deal was to stay back as long as our pockets would run dry and see as much as we could of this country which the Maori used to call as the ‘land of Long White Clouds’.

Land beyond the land down under

New Zealand would perhaps be the farthest I would have gone from home as the crow flies. We flew in Cathay Pacific with a stopover at Hong Kong. I was to fly with Allwin who got his wife along as well. So I packed shop and took a bus to Chennai and we all planned to fly out together. Last minute packing and all kept us busy. My folks were all in the US and I was doing all this alone. Was fun nonetheless. I couldn’t blame anyone for misplacing things!
An uneventful flight dropped us off at Hong Kong where we had to wait for a few hours. The swanky terminal and a small museum of Hong Kong culture kept us busy. 
A wonderful quote and yes, a selfie too!
Allwin was busy listening to the infamous Why this Kolaveri Di? song on the free internet. The entire airport was built on land reclaimed from the South China Sea. It was surely one of the busiest airports I had been to. The landing and taking off was indeed breathtaking. Heading straight down to the deep blue waters and landing on the tarmac among mountains that rise out of the Sea. Our next ride was prepped up to leave and we got on for the second leg of our journey. 
The Boeing that flew us to Kiwi Land

In flight entertainment and unlimited servings of alcohol kept us busy for the long journey. I always enjoyed sitting by the window to take pictures. Being the land closest to the date line, the sun was up quite early. Much to my neighbors’ annoyance, I opened the blinds and clicked away. The colors of the morning sky are always a treat to watch.
The New Zealand trip had opened up a lot of old connections. I had gotten in touch with Sana and Smitha with whom unfortunately, I would hardly talk when we were classmates in Josephs. We spoke over email and had plans to go scuba diving on the day we land in Auckland. The plans were to check into the accommodation given by the grant makers and catch a quick bus to the diving spot. With such zealous plans we woke up as the plane got closer to Kiwiland. 

The sky was a long blanket of white clouds. No wonder the Maori people called it Aotearoa
First landfall of the Auckland Coast.
The flight landed into Auckland. Again, it headed straight to the Sea. Then over a lake. As suddenly as it all began. We were there. We had reached the place. A dream had come true.
The immigration was not too much a big deal but the officers on duty had their eyes popped out with the three of us. NZ is a great country and they are very careful about outside plants and animals becoming invasive. They screen everything. No uncooked food gets across. No honey. No fruits. They saw my field boots and asked if I worked in forests. Yes. I was asked to step out of the line. Was made to walk to a tray with some sort of ‘seedicide’ and made to stomp my feet thoroughly. After sanitizing my boots, I was back on line. Then came the bags. We all were carrying ready to eat food from India. This was to get over homesickness and to cut costs. Being a veggie, I was extra worried of not finding proper food. Each of us had 30 packets of MTR ready to eat food in our bags.  One by one, we opened our bags.
 The gentleman asked is there food in this?.
 All 30 packs?
Are they cooked.
Yes, they are ready to be eaten.
Ok. Next was my turn.
How about you sir, got any food?.
Yes. Food.
All this?.
Wow. You also have a tripod- nature lover eh?.
Yes sir!, going on a hike in your beautiful country.
Alright. Next was Allwin or his wife I don’t remember. The man asked same question.
Food?. Yes of course!.
Oh gosh! All this?. You know guys, we sell food in our country, says the officer tongue in cheek. We have a good laugh and off we go. The immigration line was all people going to the conference. We could see people with rolled posters. All we had to do was to follow the crowd and we got into a public transport bus and reached the hotel we were staying at.
Finding the place was a little difficult and we asked a convenience store chap who said he had no idea. We step out. Look up and the shop is in the basement of the same hotel where we had to stay. Oh those Indian technique of ‘Just ask someone’ does not really work!
The rains had got the Scuba plans to a halt. We called up Sana and made other plans. That I shall talk in the next blog post!
The rains poured away throwing zealous plans out of gear!

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