There was a scent of lilies in the air as we walked down a hill in Wellington. The air is so clean in New Zealand’s capital that the flowers on a rack outside of a corner store perfumed much of the surrounding block. Add to that to sight of the blue harbor and green hills, and there are all the ingredients for a pleasant morning walk.
I’ve never seen a city built in such harmony with its surroundings. There are tall office buildings downtown, and then hills filled with houses. There were a good number of Victorian-looking ones and many nice cottages with gardens. I don’t think we saw a single jumbo-sized house squeezed onto too small a lot, a common sight in the U.S. Many of the Wellington houses look like the one in this picture, which added to the city’s resemblance to San Francisco.
Cool-Weather People’s Carnival
Wellington grew on us our during our visit, which started during a major rugby event called the Sevens. More than 30,000 people head to Wellington for Sevens, according to Wikipedia. Perhaps not the best time to visit if you’re not a rugby fan and you want some nice cheap lodging. We arrived into something akin to a cool-weather people’s version of Mardi Gras. People roamed the streets in costumes varying from convicts to mariachis to a group of Wonder Women.
My husband was coming down with a cold and doesn’t like crowds, “group think” or sports. I tried to point out how festive the city seemed as we dropped New Zealand coins with Maori designs into a pay phone in search of lodging. There’s a Halloween party we’ve gone to for the past two years in Takoma Park, Maryland, where adults wear all kinds of clever costumes.
“This is like Nadine’s party.. but with a city participating,” I told David as he hung up from another fruitless call to a hotel. David replied that that was not the case at all, that it was a bunch of drunk and crazed sports fans out behaving badly. I would have continued to argue, but one of a bunch of men dressed in Rydell High School cheerleader outfits, a la `”Grease”, asked me whether his costume made him look fat something, something being a word I will neither say nor type.
So, David won that round. A couple of days later, we would enjoy the last gasp of the party atmosphere of the Sevens while eating a kabob dinner downtown. We had fun watching people pass when we were rested, in good health and knew where we would sleep that night.
“Highwayman” Added to Pop Song
Wellington’s botanical gardens are among the best I have seen. The rose garden alone is about the size of four city blocks, well maintained and arranged with an eye toward coordinating colors. There was a reception being held overlooking the rose garden on the day we visited. Some of the women attending wore lovely hats and dresses, and jazz classics played.
Tall green ferns loomed over hydrangeas, which were such a deep blue as to seem fake. Elsewhere in the garden, a theater group put on a play for children. It was a fairy tale, with a king and queen and the princess as the heroine. At one point, one cast member sang out to the other about having to avoid him. “You’re a Highwayman” appeared to be the refrain to the song, which was set to the tune of “Islands in the Stream.”
On a green field just below the botanical garden, men dressed in white played cricket. So, there clearly was more to Wellington than excited rugby fans.
Stories Well Told
Wellington’s folk seem to love their city deeply, another thing that reminded me of San Francisco. They have created a museum about the history of their city that is far superior to the larger neighboring Te Papa, the national museum. The entry to the museum is set up like an old warehouse, complete with a mechanical rat that dashes out along a rope between boxes of cargo.
The museum has room where it breaks down the city’s history, year by year, with simple objects and a few paragraphs of text. There’s a statue of Ganesh in the one on the Indian community. There are cases in the exhibit that explain things like how the death of New Zealand Prime Minister Richard Seddon, known as `King Dick,’ led to the creation of the zoo. Wirth Brothers Circus donated a lion to the city as a tribute to Seddon, and other animals followed.
The museum shows a film about the 1968 sinking of a boat, the Wahine, which had been crossing from New Zealand’s southern island to its northern one. The film uses an interview done by a survivor the day after his rescue and then voice overs on the details of the sinking, with still photos in the background. It leaves the feeling that this ship wreck was a tragedy beyond even the 51 lives lost.
Modern Technology, Ancient Story
The city museum also has a hologram display of the Maori legend explaining why rubbing sticks together can start a fire. The holograms, maybe a foot high, tell of a mischievous boy sent to get fire from his grandmother, who was the goddess in charge of it. She gives him a fingernail, which bursts into flames, to take to his village to relit their fires. The boy deliberately puts out this fire and then asks his grandmother again and again for new flames, which he also extinguishes. Once the grandmother has lost her fingernails and toenails, she catches on and send fires into the forest in her rage.
The museum used holograms of two actors playing the boy and grandmother and another as narrator. The exhibit was so well done that my husband, an engineer with a hatred for myths, liked it.
Wellington reminded me of San Francisco in another way. Both cities have beaches that only the bravest of souls will swim in.