Blessed to be a witness

Sunday, 11th September

Another invitation to an Embassy

Thanks a bundle, Air New Zealand. Our original flight was from Christchurch to Wellington, then immediately to Taupo. The round-the-world ticket we bought in London included up to five internal flights with Air New Zealand, and we had only a couple of minutes to choose them. This had been a silly decision, so we went to Christchurch's airline office to change the Taupo flight to give us a few days in Wellington.

It was at this point that we discovered our flights were cancelled. All of them. From the next couple of internal Air New Zealand flights all the way across the Pacific to the Cook Islands and then LA. It seems we were marked down as 'no-shows' on our flight from Sydney, and as policy this meant the rest of our journey was cancelled too. The reason, of course, that we were 'no shows' is that Air New Zealand itself had cancelled the bloody flight and rerouted us. Idiots. Thankfully we were able to get all the flights reinstated, but it was a good job that we'd decided to alter our flight to Taupo, or we'd have turned up very early the next morning to find that we couldn't go anywhere. We also discovered at the same time that Virgin Atlantic had changed the date and time of our final flight, but hadn't bothered to inform us.

I was a bit perturbed to find there was no security check whatsoever for domestic flights. Although NZ isn't involved in any Arabian wars or major geopolitical machinations, it does seem an absurdly complacent policy, remniscent of the US's lacksadasical stance on airline security that had shocked us only a few months before 9/11 (of which dreadful events I have just realised it is the fourth anniversary today). A little prop plane flew us the few hundred kilometres, surprisingly smoothly, over the mountains of northern South Island, across the Cook Straight, down to the glorious harbour of Wellington in about forty minutes. Wooden houses clustered the green wooded hills around a deep blue bay as we touched down on a seaside runway. We got a bus to the hostel, and checked into a room on the seventh floor with a balcony that overlooks the entire city and harbour. Very pleasant.

We then hooked up with a guy from Glasgow we'd made friends with while working on Phi Phi. He is working in the Embassy Cinema - the one where Lord of the Rings was premièred - and it's magnificent, and right over the road from the hostel. I'm not too informed about the economic history of the Antipodes, but the profusion of art deco around the place indicates to me that the countries had an economic boom between the wars, and most of the buildings have been preserved in their slightly pretentious magnificence. The Embassy is a fine example of this from the heyday of cinema. Only one screen, but it is the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and it shows the same film over and over again just like the old days.

Our mate got us free tickets that afternoon to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and since staff get first refusal, we had the best seats in the house at the largest screen in the southern hemisphere. It was all rather pleasant - huge armchairs with loads of legroom (not that it particularly bothered my Oompa Loompa dimensions, but M was pleased), and free popcorn. The movie was quite good, and much more faithful to the book than the musical. Since our friend is working two jobs, he left the cinema to go over the road to work in a bar, and we went and joined him there for a few drinks after he finished work, ending up in a Welsh bar, which is the first one I've seen overseas, and was very pleasant.

The next day we went to the house where our mate is staying, and met his flatmates, she white and he Maori. They are a very pleasant couple, and we talked NZ politics over lunch. Wellington is the seat of government, she explained, and therefore most Wellingtonians are very political. Antipodean politics is rarely reported outside this hemisphere, but it's quite interesting. Normally when travelling, we go to all these different countries and never know what the hell is going on because we don't understand the language. Here we can hear the different issues.

While we were in Australia, which we discovered is way more federated than we imagined - there are similar issues of states' rights versus the federal government that the US has. While we were there, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party (confusingly, these are the conservatives) in New South Wales - referred to a leadership challenger's Malaysian wife as a "mail-order bride", as well as molesting two female journalists, all on the same evening. Drink, as they say in Ireland, had been taken. The scandal was playing out every day, with more allegations of misconduct in the pipeline, when the day before we left the country, the guy was found late at night in his office, having slit his wrists. It was rather macabre, though his injuries were listed as "minor" and "not life-threatening". I don't know what's happened to him since, though. I presume he's resigned and gone to see a shrink.

New Zealand politics is milder and more middle-of-the road: Labour are currently in power, have been for years, have a female prime minister, and are centre-left. The Greens are further left with an environmental bent, of course. To the centre-right is the National Party and the ACT is the furthest right party. There's a general election on at the moment, so there are scandals afoot: a weird fringe Christian group called the Bretheren put out a leaflet urging worshippers to cast their lot with the ACT, and the party leader denied all knowledge of it. Then it transpired that he had in fact approved its content, and there were witnesses to say so. Bizarrely, this minor scandal boosted ACT's standing by seven points.

We wandered around the town in the afternoon. It's another lovely city, though there is definitely more vibrancy here than Christchurch, and with it an undercurrent of seediness that wasn't visible on South Island - more homelessness and drunks in evidence. In the evening we went to the most amazing little Malaysian café, Satay Kingdom, where I had a bowl of roti chanai - red curry chicken soup with chapati-like bread - that was absolutely delicious, filled me up completely and came to $5 (€2.80). M had sweet and sour pork which was equally delicious, came with tons of veg and rice, and cost $7.50 (€4.20). I cannot work out how they make a profit, but the place was incredibly popular, with queues out the door permanently.

Later we were treated to more free cinema tickets and popcorn, this time to see Crash (which I thought was the David Cronenberg movie right up until the credits started rolling. Turns out it was a new movie by Paul Haggis - I kid you not - that was quite good; it reminded me of Magnolia. And also made me realise that Don Cheadle, whom I had only ever seen before in his very disappointing role Oceans 11 & 12, is a very good actor). There were only six people in the entire place, and we were the last to leave. As the projectionist turned off the credits, she then saw us, and leant out of the box and shouted to apologise for turning the movie off, since she didn't realise we were there. It was surreal to be in such a huge, magnificent space, and to be the only people there with the projectionist asking if we wanted the movie turned back on again. Our own private cinema: this is what I'd buy if I were a multimillionare. Amongst other things.

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.