For the past few weeks I've been on tour in New Zealand, rapping for the Kiwis. When I first heard that New Zealanders affectionately referred to themselves as this, I thought it was in reference to the fruit. Nope.
I'd come to find out the people of New Zealand were not paying homage to a fruit, but a flightless bird native to the island. The kiwi is a rare, small, nocturnal bird that has a long beak and runs around frantically looking for insects under leaves. They can only lay one egg at a time and when they do, the egg is gigantic. After doing some research I learned the Kiwi is related to the huge, now extinct, moa species of bird who also laid large eggs.
Before people came to New Zealand from other Pacific Islands, the moa could be found roaming around up until the 15th century. Humans first arrived to the island around a thousand years ago, and with them came their mammalian pets. The cats and opossums ate the gigantic, delicious moa eggs while the Maori hunted the birds into extinction. Today the New Zealanders honor the kiwis for their unique qualities and rarity since the moa's extinction. A promoter-friend of mine in Hamilton brought me to a sanctuary on the North Island to see some kiwis, which was awesome but I really wanted to see them in the wild.
I had a few days off between shows and decided to visit the kiwis in the wild terrain of New Zealand's Stewart Island. I got to Stewart island via South Island, one rental car and two ferry rides. The ferry from Wellington took me to Picton, a small town in the northern area of South Island where I rented a car. In that little rental car from Picton, I drove through some of the most incredible places I've ever seen in my life. I can say, without any exaggeration, that the west side of New Zealand's South Island has some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world.
The tropical rainforest cuts into a mountainous coastline, complete with glaciers, gigantic ferns and peninsulas teeming with marine life. Coming from America, I imagined if there had been a prehistoric fusion of Lake Tahoe and Hawaii, this is what it would look like. I drove all the way to Bluff, a small town at the southernmost part of South Island where I hopped aboard the ferry to Stewart Island. On this adventure I had with two goals: to see a brown kiwi in its natural habitat and to see the Australis borealis, the southern lights.
The Australis borealis rarely happens, so I knew there was a chance I wouldn't see it, which I didn't. Learning about its mythological roots in Stewart Island was just as fascinating though.
The Maori name for Stewart Island is Rakiura, which loosely translated and shortened means, "man who blushes when he's embarrassed." The legend behind the island's name is that the son of a rich tribal chief came down from the South Island to marry one of the Stewart Island princesses hundreds of yeas ago. When the Stewart Island princess declined his offer, he asked her sister. When the sister also said no, the visitor was embarrassed. His cheeks turned bright red and to this day the Stewart Islanders delight in this legend. "How are you going to come to our island, without any knowledge and respect for the culture, and poach our women?" They said, in essence, "Not happening."
Being on a few thousand miles from Antarctica, about the distance from San Francisco to Chicago, Stewart Island is somewhat of an arctic rainforest. It's cold, incredibly cold, even during their fall (our spring). However, because of its unique latitude, the sunsets are amazing - bright, brilliant, red and stunning. This combined with the southern lights, reflect the embarrassment of the chief who got dissed by the island debutants, which explains the blushing. How can you not love native Kiwi folklore? It's awesome.
Many backpackers, or as the Kiwis called them, "trampers," come to Stewart Island. On the way to the main trailhead there's a bench and a phone attached to a tree, along with the most recent phonebook. The phone doesn't work anymore, it used to, but now it is kept there as a reminder to a time when everyone on Stewart Island had one phone line to call the mainland. Pretty awesome.
I met a woman from Iowa who had moved to Stewart Island after getting her PhD in Dunedin. She was running the coffee shop by the ferry station and made a fire for me when I came in. Only 400 people live on Stewart Island year round. There's a hotel, a ferry terminal, a coffee shop and a visitor station. No disrespect to Iowa, but she made the right choice if she wanted majestic, physical beauty in her life.
I told the lady I had come to see the Australis borealis and the kiwis. "You're not going to see the southern lights tonight," she said. "It's completely cloudy and you can't see them in the rain." I was disappointed. I asked her where I might find kiwis, she gave me a map and told me some good places: the rugby field, a hidden enclosure under a bridge, the golf course and on the peninsula near the lighthouse. After the beautiful sunset, I put on my rain jacket and was on my way. It was Kiwi watch 2012, with MC Lars.
One of the spots she had mentioned was in the backyard of someone's house near the golf course. She told me she knew them and that it was safe to go hide in their bushes. After reading a sign on a tree that said, "Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again," I decided that sneaking around on their property with a flashlight at midnight might not be the best idea. When their dogs started barking and snarling, I turned around. No thanks.
Instead, I snuck over the fence and hid by the golf course for an hour. It started raining. No kiwis. I decided to hike to the lighthouse, but as my flashlight began to run out of batteries I felt disoriented and scared. The arctic winds had begun to pick up and the trail became muddy. If I had slipped down the cliff into the Tasman Sea, it would have all been over. I waited in the ferns, hoping a curious kiwi would sneak past me, but such no luck. Dejected, cold and shivering, I decided to head back.
On my way to the hotel I encountered a British family who had the same idea, to see kiwis in their native environment. We introduced ourselves in the dark and I continued the expedition with them. Kiwi watch 2012 with MC Lars was back on.
We heard some strange, crying sounds in the bushes next to us. Kiwis? We thought it might be. And then we spotted them, not kiwis, but dozens of blue penguins, sneaking around in the rain under the ferns. I had never seen penguins in the wild, but they were awesome. Stumbling up the hill and tripping over each other, they were like the ghosts from Pac Man bumping into one another. We took some great photos and I came back to the hotel satisfied.
In the pub downstairs I met some drill engineers, a teacher who worked at a school with less than ten students, and a lighting designer for Cirque de Soleil from Boston who lived on Stewart Island when she wasn't on tour. It was an interesting group of people who were all just trying to stay dry on a tiny island off of the southernmost New Zealand coast.
The next day I drove back up the east coast, going through Dunedin. I stayed with some extended family in Christchurch who took me on a tour of the earthquake damage. Two earthquakes had demolished this city a few years ago, one in late 2010 during the night and another in the afternoon of February 2011. Hundreds of people were killed in the second one, but they told me that that number would have been much higher if the first earthquake had actually happened during the day. Many of the storefronts of the buildings had fallen down, so the scaffolding and loose parts of the buildings had already been dislodged at night when everyone was sleeping. When the second one hit, it wasn't as bad. It reminded me of a famous photo of one of the chapels where a statue of the Virgin Mary spun around 180 degrees, looking out the window into the street. It's a haunting image.
Christchurch feels like a cross between modern day Detroit and Berlin. During the earthquake rocks from the hills had come down on many of the beachfront homes, but it was quite random what was destroyed and what wasn't. Even so, many of the properties are now abandoned because their foundations had become unsafe. Houses at the top of the hill had partially collapsed, and when driving underneath you could see destroyed living rooms dangling over the mountains. Though destruction blankets the city, there is an incredible flourishing of creativity in the makeshift buildings and those that popped up around the rubble. Boxcars from trains and trucks had been stacked up to prevent more boulders from coming down and murals had been painted on the giant tarps covering them. It's a city in transition.
In downtown there's a new mall made of boxcars in the middle of the flattened city. I went with my cousin Annie. We had coffee and took photos of the landscape. It felt weird being a tourist, but much of the red zone, or the earthquake zone, is open for exploration and geological education. We saw the cathedral that had partially collapsed but the New Zealand army has a strong a presence there, so we couldn't really explore it. Guards still remain at various street corners preventing people from going into the unsafe areas. It reminded me a lot of the San Francisco earthquake from 1989.
I was six years old when the Bay Bridge collapse on commuters and I remember it well. I had never been in a earthquake before that one and it was traumatizing because of how long it lasted. The damage in San Francisco was no where near as bad as it had been in Christchurch, but it brought back memories.
That night I performed at a venue called the Darkroom with some local indie bands. The nightlife in Christchurch is quite lively because people are so glad to have somewhere to go. Like most other residents at places in New Zealand- they drink a lot. The venue was newly constructed, full of young hipster types in their muted tones and fancy shoes. "Let's give it up for this awesome city," I said between songs. "You've been through a lot, you're rebuilding a beautiful place here. Thank you for welcoming me into your town and for coming out tonight." The audience cheered and I was truly grateful to be welcomed into such a city of transitional beauty and growth.
Afterwards I knew I had to drive back to Picton to drop off my rental car and take the ferry back to Wellington for my last show that night. I mentioned it on stage that night in Christchurch, and as I was packing up a bartender came up to me. She gave me two giant sandwiches and a bottle of orange juice. "For your trip back," she said. I tried to give her a CD. "Don't worry about it mate," she responded, "keep the money and sell it." Kiwis are some of the nicest people in the world. Here I was in a city that had basically lost everything and this bartender was giving me sandwiches.
On my trip back up, the GPS in my rental car freaked out. It didn't know that most of the streets had been destroyed, so I went on a crazy detour around the entire city where I saw some eerie damage I hadn't seen before. In the moonlight it was like being in post-WWII Dresden, creepy and surreal. I saw the aftermath of a terrible and scary scene - collapsed storefronts, broken windows and spray painted notes that the search and rescue teams had left for each other. My tires eventually found the highway and I made my way back.
There is a debate in the schools in Christchurch - do they have the students write and express how the trauma of the earthquake affected them, or do they just move on? One of the things that made the 1989 Loma Prieta quake so traumatizing for me was the frequently earthquake drills and long discussions in class that had followed. Couldn't we just let it go? Scary things happen, but dwelling on them as a child made it worse for me. I would lie in bed at night as a kid and go over how the first earthquake felt and what I would do if it happened again.
At about the same age I was when I would lie in bed worrying about the next earthquake, my little cousin in Christchurch was proud to show me Minecraft on his iPod touch. Its a creative game where you build cities from nothing. He's only eight but he's a pro at it. He showed me how you can build stairs, dig out canals and lay foundations for buildings. It made me really happy to see this awesome little dude getting so creative in his virtual world. There was something poetic about ending my stay in Christchurch watching him play this game, building something from nothing, just like hip-hop.
So, while I didn't find a brown kiwi in the bushes on Stewart Island, I had found an abundance kiwis with kind souls and triumphant spirits that assured me the future of New Zealand is in good hands indeed. I love this country and I can't wait to come back.