Well, Well, WELLINGTON !
Wellington is one cool city. Located at the southern most tip of the North Island, New Zealand’s compact capital city has a population of about 254,000 people and is the third largest city after Auckland, also in the North Island, and Christchurch in the South Island. It is home to Peter Jackson and to booming digital technology businesses like Weta Workhop and Weta Digital , and Wellingtonians even brag that they have more cafes, bars, and restaurants per capita than New York City. What’s more, the drinking age is eighteen and prostitution is legal. Wellington is also where you take the Interislander Ferry across Cook’s Strait to Picton and the South Island.
Since I had been on my own for several days and heading to a “big” city, I thought it might be a good idea to access a social media site called “Broads Abroad” I discovered just before leaving the states. Created by an Aussie woman, this female only online social network lists opportunities for members traveling solo to stay free of charge with other like-minded women all over the world. Since this sounded like the kind of authentic travel experience I was after, I applied to the site and was accepted.
I emailed and requested a two night stay with Ellie and a three night(maximum )stay with Katie before continuing my journey on the ferry to the South Island. They both readily agreed to host me! Ellie even offered to pick me up at the station when I arrived and invited me to dinner with a friend of hers who happened to be celebrating a birthday. I can’t tell you what a comfort it was to be greeted by the beautiful, smiling face of a friendly local! Rob and Ellie chauffeured me around the city showing me the landmarks and then took me to dinner at a favorite spot located on the iconic Cuba Street. Call it serendipity: we three Aquarians celebrated birthdays on the third, fourth, and sixth of February!
Ellie’s lovely home in Khandallah, is just outside the city center and up in the hills with a spectacular view. Ellie has an advanced degree in journalism and now works in her “dream job” writing, revising, and editing documents for members of Parliament. In addition to Ellie’s great company, I got to meet her gracious kids, eighteen-year-old son Max and twenty-three-year-old daughter Maddie who helped me with bus schedules and places to see. A must see in Wellington is the city’s world famous, national museum Te Papa (it’s free), a recognized leader in “interactive and visitor focused experiences.” I spent almost five hours visiting the five different levels that featured the geological, cultural, and social history of the country, a Dreamworks Animation exhibit, and a moving exhibit marking the centenary of the WWl Gallipoli campaign with spectacular, life-like sculptures created by Weta Workshop.
A short walk from the museum took me to the City Gallery of contemporary art and an interesting show of 1960s Auckland when its population had just surpassed half a million (now almost a half of the entire population of NZ lives in Auckland!) seen in photographs, film, and paintings, condemned at the time for being “too gritty and bohemian.” After making my way back to Khandallah, Ellie made me a great dinner, and we enjoyed a visit with her brother, Hamish and neighbor, George. The next morning before I left and Ellie went to work, I also met her father. Experiencing this small slice of her close family life made saying goodby all the more poignant… I was leaving a friend.
And then I met Katie…. and had what I call my first travel disaster.
Katie asked me to meet her just outside the city, so I took the local bus and hoped I was getting off at the right stop. I had a moments conscious thought that I should keep my arm through the strap of my backpack. With all my gear, I didn’t want to leave anything behind. But anxiety got the better of me. My arm came out of the strap, and that heedful thought became an undetected blip off the radar. When I got to my stop, I just grabbed my suitcase, handbag, and lumbered quickly off the bus. Moments later standing on the busy highway, a strong physical tremor of shock registered (about a 5.8); I realized I had left my backpack–containing my laptop– on the bus! Dread overtook me. My laptop was my lifeline these many months! But the funny thing is, at the same time another thought popped into my head that this was somehow going to be OK?! Angel speak?
Having never met Katie, I ran to her car and met her with the panicked words that I’d screwed up and left my backpack on the bus. Without missing a beat, she punched some numbers into her cell, got connected to the Metro, identified the bus driver from the number on my ticket, and found they had my backpack! (When I mentioned this later to other New Zealanders, they were not surprised it was turned in.)
That’s Katie–a -take- charge-competent-“no flies on her”- kind of person. Active in her community, a busy realtor, and a part-time guide at Zealandia, the world’s first fully fenced urban ecosanctuary, Katie was not only hosting me for three days, but was also hosting a young Japanese student Tamami studying at the university for two weeks.
Katie’s home is located in the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn (they have a Central Park), a short walk to the central business district. Also located right down the street is a great movie theater called the Penthouse with nine theaters, a great selection of movies, and, of course, a terrific cafe. I satisfied my movie cravings and saw the movie Brooklyn and The Big Short. Another special treat was a unique night tour of Zealandia set up by Katie. Armed with torch lights with red filters, our guide took us through the special predator exclusion fence and we looked at birds and listed to birdsong that has been absent on mainland New Zealand for more than a century. The big thrill was actually seeing the nearly extinct, flightless, nocturnal Kiwi bird.
Wanting to be useful, the following night I went with Katie to a “client appreciation” party she was giving in town and helped out by selling raffle tickets. I met her aunt and several of her friends who were genuinely interested in what I was doing and extremely helpful giving me the inside scoop of where to stay and what to see when in the South Island.
Experiencing all these wonderful places has been exciting, but what has really moved me are these exceptional women who have invited me, a perfect stranger, into their lives and homes. I feel like the ancient traveler experiencing the tradition of stopping in a strange city, and when asking for a room for the night, given unconditional hospitality.
It has taught me to trust people. I don’t mean be naive about it. But trust people until they give you a reason not to because the majority of people are good and want to give and be of service in some way. When you just let go, remain open, and become a little vulnerable, some amazing things happen.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
― Ernest Hemingway