Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Battle of New Zealand

I surprised myself by sleeping a lot on the plane ride. It was almost a full night’s sleep, interrupted by brief repositioning, but really I shouldn’t be too amazed because I do have the uncanny ability to fall asleep in almost any situation if I so choose...and sometimes when I don’t so choose. But I felt good and it seemed okay that I was waking up as the sun was rising, just as the flight attendants wanted, never mind time zones and all that. I’ve heard lots of people complain about transpacific flights, but overall it was a smooth ride and went by pretty quickly, so don’t let that stop you from going to China (or New Zealand, as the case may be).

Upon arrival, I still wasn’t sure what to expect about my visa, because I read that the immigration officials will most likely ask about all the requirements, one of them being either a plane ticket out or proof that you have a bankroll sufficient for a ticket and enough to live there for a year. I wondered how one would prove this. $4,000 in-pocket? Printout of internet banking statement? I didn’t have anything like this, but all the options I thought of as proof seemed impractical so I just let it go. It seemed okay, they were greeting me warmly already:
At the immigration checkpoint, the line was moving swiftly but was still fairly long, so I looked around at who else was joining me here. Based on looks, maybe a few Americans. Lots of Asians. Okay, some returning Kiwis (accent is a dead giveaway)...oh, some Maori! Maori are the indigenous New Zealanders whose culture is not just a tourist gimmick, they are really still around. In fact their culture and language is on the rebound...or so I read, but hey, here are some in my first half-hour.

Almost at the desk, I heard the familiarity of an American accent from the guy ahead of me. He looked young from the back of his shaggy head
. Maybe he was on an adventure too? But he was busy immigrating and I was up next. I wasn’t asked about the exit ticket or money at all when I told them I was there for a Working Holiday. I just had to show them a printout of my visa, which could have easily been forged with any word processing program (in case you are thinking of breaking in). This gave me my “work permit,” in the form of a stamp in the back of my passport. By the way, I did get funny looks and questions every time I showed my passport since the picture is from six years ago when I had dreadlocks.

After breaking into the country, I noticed that in the baggage claim area that they had a courtesy desk giving out free coffee and tea. They are nice here! The little old lady’s semi-British accent seemed appropriate for the spot of tea she was handing me. My giant backpack came out on the belt still encased in the oversized United see-thru plastic bag I put it in, but it looked like the airline workers’ gloves were replaced with cheese graters. I wondered when this TSA regulation came into effect. I opened it up like a little kid at Christmas so I could strap it on, since carrying it any other way didn’t make sense. New Zealand appeared to be surprisingly strict about bringing in plants, food products, etc. and had signs about equine influenza dangers prominently displayed. I remembered having some Trader Joe’s fruit snacks on me which were actually made in New Zealand. Despite the fact that I was just returning them, I declared to avoid the possible $200 fine for illicit pirate booty fruit snacks. I told the fruit police that it was packaged fruit snacks and they waved me through. Easy enough.

I sipped my tea while I tried to figure out what I was doing, in hopes that it would help some. There was a little area that looked like it was made just for lost backpackers and had an entire wall of brochures ranging from hostels to the Naked Bus to blackwater rafting. I barely spoke the words, “Kiwi International Airport Hotel” to the attendant before she politely told me to pick up one of the phones and dial 24. I didn’t know the phone system well, but this told me there were no more than 99 phones in the country. Simple yet elegant. Over at 24, someone at the hostel that I reserved in the last couple days said they would sent the (previously promised via website) free shuttle. It was supposed to be ambiguously “outside,” so I wandered out to find warm sunshine, tropical-looking trees, sweet-smelling air, and bearded men in turbans with idling taxis. I asked if they knew about my shuttle and one replied with a (Pakistani?) accent that it was at door eight. They must get asked this a lot.

By door eight stood a young girl and guy. Hey, that was they guy from the immigration line! They were talking about Big Day Out. “Are you guys going to Big Day Out?” The guy was and the girl wasn’t. She was Australian, on a pit stop here from China before going home. He was indeed American and also confused about what he was doing. I like this guy’s style. I found out his name was Derick, and when the van showed up Derick headed for the shotgun position. Since they drive on the left side here, the wheel is flipped and the driver jokingly had to tell him he wasn’t driving and should get in the passenger side...the left side. The Kiwi International Airport Hotel, which is really more of a combination motel and hostel, stood true to its name, having a huge kiwi sculpture perched on top [didn’t bother with a picture; in retrospect, should have]. By the time we got there it was about 9 a.m. and they had a shuttle leaving for the concert festival soon. My room wasn’t ready yet, but I needed a shower. This being Friday, I think I hadn’t showered since Monday. It would be nice to blame that on sleeping in the airport from the cancellation, but I was definitely able to bathe at home Wednesday. I guess I was trying to work my way into the backpacker lifestyle. When I asked, they let me shower in a used room of the motel variety, but that was all I needed. I also made myself a cup of coffee with the instant packs that the previous residents hadn’t utilized. I quickly repacked my bag, stuck it in the storage room, and we were off. The stadium was several kilometers away, and based on the gate opening time it was best to take the hostel’s shuttle there, which was $10 each way. I could see transportation costs were going to add up.

It was sunny and warm by mid morning, so I could tell it was going to be a great festival day, and a terrible day for a pale boy coming from winter. I had realized a while back that sunscreen was something I forgot to pack, but figured I would buy some on arrival. I didn’t get the chance yet, but I was sure they would have some at the concert. So I rode along with my camera, wallet, sunglasses, and spanish leather water bag. Picking up my will call ticket was easy and I headed for the front gate. On the way, I talked with Derick and a young Kiwi couple that was also staying in our hostel. Someone posted along the path to the front gate asked us if we wanted “party pills.” The young couple explained that these were something like speed and actually legal in New Zealand. Apparently some kids had been dying recently from a little too much partying. None of us felt like partying, so we proceeded, saving more partying for others. At the front, children were ready to rock and un-something the world:
The Big Day Out website said no video cameras allowed and I was surprised it didn’t ban detachable lens SLR cameras, aka “professional cameras.” Of course at the gate they had a different sign which declared that no professional cameras were allowed. Now if a professional photographer was on hand, she could have told the front gate staff that she would never use my camera in a professional shoot, but we all know there is no arguing with a sign. And if I wasn’t being paid to take pictures, how could it be professional? I’m pretty sure you have to be paid to do something in order to be a professional at it. Reluctantly, I gave them my “professional camera,” bag, two extra lenses, etc., with the promise that it would be returned to me if I returned to them the equally valuable postage stamp sized numbered piece of paper. No pictures of the Big Day Out, but I was determined not to let that change the size of my day out.

Some band that I never heard of and that wasn’t very good was playing on a smaller stage. Recalling the back of my Lonely Planet book that said New Zealand has a very high UV index, I knew I needed to head for sunscreen. The first aid tent had some but required a donation of any amount. I didn’t have any canned food, so I gave them a kiwi dollar coin and got a nice-sized squeeze of the white cream. I applied liberally and even put it all over my head since I had extra and I just cut my hair as short as it’s
ever been. I really should have brought a hat. I took a good tour of the whole grounds using my new colorful booklet as a guide. It was a pretty typical festival setup with several smaller stages, two big ones in the stadium, a techno tent (the “Boiler Room”), and vendors everywhere. The attendees looked like a mixture of the Bonnaroo and Ozzfest crowds, except half ugly and mostly from New Zealand. A good number of mohawks, dreadlocks, and bad dye jobs. Ill fitting clothing, of the tight, baggy, long, and short varieties. The Tool shirts indicated to me that these people were here to see Rage Against the Machine, like I was. Except I wasn’t wearing a Tool shirt. Both because I don’t own one and if I did, it wouldn’t have been one of the five T-shirts I brought. I was highly temped to buy Rage shirts that they had in the fashion of The Battle of Los Angeles, except they had “The Battle of New Zealand” written on them. Something like this:

I’m shocked that I can’t find a picture of one online right now. Anyway I thought they were very cool, and apparently so did everyone else who was wearing one. I sat and looked at the lineup for the day and drew up a plan in my book. I stuck to it like clockwork:
Antagonist was hardcore from NZ and not that special. I liked Die! Die! Die! and Cut Off Your Hands, but COYH would have been better suited for a night show. Anti-Flag was some decent political punk from Pittsburgh. They talked about George Bush and told the mosh pit to love each other. The Bleeders didn’t have anything special to offer, the singer (screamer) wasn’t very good, and should have been skipped except there was nothing much else going on at that time. I took a sit during their set to get out of the sun. I got sunscreen 4 times throughout the day and was wishing I had coins to donate that were worth less than a dollar, but the price on the curry chicken from the Indian food vendor was (in)conveniently rounded. Very unfortunately, when I was slathering myself in anti-sun liquid the second or third time I inadvertently slathered my sunglasses away and didn’t notice until a few minutes later. I backtracked in hopes that I would at least find sunglasses that looked like they had been trampled by horses in a chariot race. No such luck. I liked those a lot. They were polarized, I think for fishing, and I found them an indeterminate amount of time ago. All good sunglasses are found, not bought. I could only hope that they went to someone less fortunate, like an underprivileged (squinting) child in Borneo.

The Spoon show was very good, especially since I got close. It felt like being a Keepon for almost an hour. Billy Bragg was good, in a more rare classic rock kind of way. It was just him and a guitar on stage, but he made it work. The Nightwatchman was also just a man and a guitar on stage, but Tom had a vendetta. Billy Bragg watched approvingly from backstage as Tom belted out tales of mistreated union workers and even did a cover of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (originally by AC/DC) but replacing the lyrics to make it about the Bush administration. He even brought out Serj Tankian, who happened to be around because he moved to New Zealand, for a song that is going to be on the new Nightwatchman album, due out in coming months. Rushing to catch Arcade Fire, I ran smack into a wall of disappointment and equally disappointed sweaty people. The main stages were setup with a European festival style front pit area, that funnels people in from further away to keep crowding down to a reasonable level. At this point they closed entry to the front area because it was already full. People up front needed to leave before they let more in, and the mob was not happy about this. I watched Arcade Fire from further than I would have liked, but they were still excellent. The eleven-tet brought the full album sound, complete with french horns, pipe organs and all.

I had never heard of Shihad, but they were local favorites and before they even played I was impressed by their position in the lineup. I think their sound was deserving of this. They have an almost U2 grandeur about them, but in a harder rock format. If you are playing in the torrent world and like rock, they are definitely worth checking out: http://thepiratebay.org/tor/3652998/Shihad_-_compilation. By this time, members of the mob were climbing the center pit entry gate structure and the crowd was chanting “LET US IN!” Shihad had to stop playing a few times so they could make announcements about them getting down off the gates. The stopping of the show prompted most of the crowd population to turn against the extremists. Yelling ensued and I heard things like, “Christ on a stick, get down ya bugger!” and “Good on ya, wank” as they threw bottles in an effort to get them down. I enjoyed the obscenities that were meaningless to me, but I think the bottles really drove down the troublemakers. Despite earlier indications that the gates might be broken down by angry, bloodthirsty New Zealand Rage fans, I knew all hope was lost for getting in the center pit at this point. I went to jockey for a positon for the Rage show, despite the fact that that gave me a bad angle for Bjork. She brought her usual wacked-out full stage type presentation with lots of colors and costume changes. It was excellent, but the Rage fans were restless and Icelandic electronica was not satisfying their appetite for being told to not do what they tell ya. I felt sorry for Bjork because she was actually getting booed by a large number of people who just wanted to see more of another band, but it didn’t affect her show at all. At the end of Bjork was a side show farther away from the main stages called Lords of Lightning, that involved two men fighting with lightning. Yes, real bolts of high voltage electricity. Apparently this fairly amazing stunt was the brainchild of an electrical engineer that couldn’t stop playing with capacitors in his garage. I could see that this was an attempt by the event planning people to thin out the crowd before anarchy and violence was about to start, but to no avail.

There was a large amount of buildup to Rage’s entrance, with giant red rebel star flag displayed prominently on stage. I was disappointed at how far away I was, despite earlier attempts at positioning. Crammed between sweaty rock fans, I decided I was happy to get to see Rage at all, considering I could be sitting in LAX still. I was just glad they were even back together and to think, I got to see the Battle of New Zealand! The crowd went wild when the band came out and they sounded explosive. It was like they had never broken up. Zack’s newly fashioned latino-fro bounced as he encouraged the crowd to turn their radios on and off. They played all the songs a little slower than usual, I think so that people could hear all the lyrics. Later in the show during “Wake Up,” Zack made a speech about...well about a lot of things. Among them, he refuted the negative coverage they got from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News about their call for a war crimes trial against Bush. He told New Zealanders that the United States still thinks it’s the number one power in the world. He encouraged them to stop buying U.S. products and start protesting their wars. That was probably the pinnacle of the show, and it felt good to be around all the young people wanting to change the world, even though they would probably forget and not do much in the end. They took off after that, which started a huge wave of chanting to get them back on. At this time I realized I had moved about halfway closer to the stage than where I started because of all the acres of jostling and moshing pushes people around pretty easily. The view was actually not bad. If only I could breathe and there weren’t elbows constantly flying at me. Rage came back out for a good multi-song encore and finished it up with “Freedom.” Always a classic.

Supergroove was on afterwards, I suppose to let the crowd depressurize so as to minimize the amount of cars to be flipped and set on fire. I went to some of that but remembered the shuttle pickup was at around 11:30 and I needed to get back for that. Attempting to get my camera back at the front gate, I pulled out a mash of paper that could not be read. My precious return ticket had all but dissolved in my pocket after being soaked in kiwi sweat. I told them I had a black camera bag and described the contents to the staff. As they gave it to me I was glad nobody else came to them with no ticket describing something similar. Like finding a needle in a haystack, I bumped into Derick on the way out and we headed for the van pickup together, comparing shows we had seen throughout the day. I wish I got to see some other bands that were playing at the same time as what I did see, but such is the downfall of a multi-stage concert festival. Oh well, I saw who I came for. On the ride back to the Kiwi International Airport Hotel I thought about what I was going to do the next day, since I had no plan. Maybe start the 50km walk to my first farmstay, maybe hang around Auckland. Who knows. Either way it was a good first day in New Zealand.


moire oasis said...

Rolling Stone Magazine will be calling soon to pick you up as an international concert reporter!

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