Tuesday, August 31, 2010
My boys love hearing my Rugby stories. In particular, the time long ago when I had the misfortune of finding myself trapped at the bottom of a ruck with an opponent's teeth firmly clenched on my buttocks. They like the description of my agony and my utter inability, pinned beneath 1,000 pounds of sweating, hostile enemies, to do anything but scream like a sissy.
They also enjoy me telling them about the time, while playing for the University of Georgia, when my opposite number - affectionately known as the Assassin - tackled me late, my kicking leg still firmly planted on the ground. That one sent me to hospital for knee surgery. Months later, in Baton Rouge for the SEC tournament, my teammates had their revenge on my behalf. The boys appreciate the karma of that story, too.
It was a tough sport even back in my time. But my month in New Zealand has shown me just how much harder the game, long since professionalized, has become in the 20 years since I last sang dirty songs, drink in hand, after a good day on the field.
You don't see beer bellies on the pitch anymore. These blokes are built. You don't bump into the guys as they head off to their real jobs with briefcase in hand - as I once ran across Andy Irvine, the great Scottish Rugby hero of my day. The players are big, fit professionals now.
The game has changed, too. I'm not just talking about the hoisting at the throw-ins. It's a tough, bloody, non-stop game that takes a spectator's breath away. The game is awe-inspiring in its flowing mix of finesse and brutality.
In other words, I have become a fan all over again. But, while as a schoolboy I could always imagine myself in Irvine's boots - wasn't he the guy taking the same bus as me, after all? - now I can't even dream of stepping onto a Rugby pitch. And not just because I'm old and creaky. It is warfare out there, pure and simple. But still played by people who respect the game.
They always said that soccer was a gentleman's game played by hooligans and Rugby was a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. Watching the cynical shenanigans of soccer players compared to the pure, respectfull bliss of Rugby players, I think the analogy still stands.
But, my how the game has changed. I like it a lot.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
We have spent a lot of time happily lost in New Zealand.
Today, though, our aimless tramping along the Coast Road was abruptly cut short by a decided lack of petrol. We were forced into a plan, complete with destination and directions provided by iPhone.
Luckily, even technology can not fix our hapless sense of direction. We promptly got lost in Wellington - and discovered a couple of lovely neighborhoods we had not yet seen. Kelburn was the nicest of these. Our affection for this store- and pub-lined community was cut short by the road situation. Even in bloody town, it seems, the drives can be petrifying. Miniscule, allegedly two-laned, steep hairpins claw their way up the mountains. Paved sheeptrails, basically.
Soon enough, though, we had found Happy Valley Road - had a State College giggle - and the torrential rain came. The little community on Owhiro Bay is colorful even on a rainy day. We hung a right and headed toward Red Rocks (Pari-whero), a place of Maori legend and a colony of seals.
"The Red Rocks are ancient pillow lava formed 200 million years ago by undersea volcanic eruptions. Small amounts of iron oxides give the rocks their distinctive colouring" - that's the boring, scientific explanation.
"Maori folklore tells two stories relating to the colour of the rocks. In one, Kupe - the famous Polynesian explorer - was gathering paua (shellfish) here when one clamped his hand. He bled and stained the rocks red. In the other story, the red is the blood of Kupe's daughters. Fearing for their father's safety on a long voyage, they gashed themselves in grief over his absence" - that's the much cooler Maori version.
We put the car into four-wheel drive and headed along the trail until common sense prevailed. Morgan and I walked the last mile or so in the driving rain. The water is filled with this weird, serpent-like seaweed that moves in the water like Nessie and convinced us that we were watching hundreds of seals or whales in the water. It was just imagination spurred by a complete absence of sealife.
We needn't have worried. After walking round one more corner to Sinclair Head, we were in among a very sedate population of male fur seals. It's kind of a sad sight, knowing that the only reason these bachelor seals are there is because they were knocked back by the breeding females on the South Island. It explains the absence of aggression and general lack of enthusiasm.
Kind of sad, really. But it allowed us to get close enough for some good pictures, even if it was of the animal kingdom's equivalent of a bunch of stoner couch potatoes.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
The drive, however, is not so lovely. Bloody hairy climb over the mountains with only little wooden "guard"rails to protect you from a plunge of several hundred feet. (Pictures above.) Narrow little roads, too. The only saving grace is that the undergrowth is so thick up there that it would probably slow or even stop the fall.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The uniforms are truly hideous. The blazer is gray, red and black striped. There is no way to make it pretty. The boys have learned to tie a tie and now know what to do with garters. Morgan has to take two public buses with his fellow uniformed cohorts. Ewan gets a school bus from just down the street.
The school has houses, just like Strath. The boys were hoping for Griffindor. No such luck. Morgan's in Plimmer; Ewan's in McKelvie. Lots of inter-house sports. It seems to be a really good school and I've been stunned by how seamlessly they've slipped into this whole new world. While there's lots of Anguses and Hamishes, Ewan says his teacher looks like Obama and his best friend wears a turban. Morgan discovered that there was a boy with the same name in his class. "There's only room for one Morgan in this class," he said. "From now on you shall be called Shirley." Poor little bugger is now referred to as Shirley. I suppose he'll always remember the day his life changed.
Morgan played rugby the other day, but says his life is too short to start playing cricket. I tend to agree. Ewan made his house soccer team.
To be frank, there was no startling revelation that we had landed in another country, far less one at the end of the world. After being sniffed by a killer customs beagle - which discovered Ewan's Granola bar - the first thing we saw was a McDonald's. We felt nice and comfortable. Flying from Auckland to Wellington, though, the awesome newness hit. The landscape is dramatic. Massive mountains. Deep volcanoes. Gorgeous coves and secluded bays. And a gentle emptiness.
Then, wandering the streets of Wellington, there was something else. After being struck by the splendor of the harbor and the houses built on the hill – little Sydney and San Francisco, indeed – there was an eerie familiarity. This was Glasgow. It wasn't just that I passed Turnbull House and Kelvin Court or a shop called the Mews. It was the people. The donkey-jacketed, scrunched, head-down walk into the driving rain with that look of stoic acceptance. The red-faced hardness. The shuffle. The woolen sweaters and Wellington boots. The knitted woolen tams. The smell of vinegar from the fish and chip shops. The sound of the bus breaks and the splish of puddles as little cars drive through them.
But then there's the wind to grandly announce that you're in a wild and different land. They don't call it "Windy Welly" for nothing. It howls up the Cook Strait and through the streets, thinking nothing of doing a 100km an hour and making tumbleweeds of people. A southerly wind is bad news, for it has its roots in the Antarctic. A northerly only mildly better.
There's the great dry humor, too. The vending machine man who, while restocking his merchandise, said "There you go, sir. I can't guarantee a manual transaction every time." Or the car salesman who, in mid pitch and upon catching sight of Ewan in shorts, said, "It's winter here, young man," and carried on without missing a beat.
The Kiwis are wonderful. Courteous drivers. Polite service, but not of the commercial sort – there's no tipping here. Very kind and very funny.
The land itself is breathtaking. The air is crisp and fresh and clean.
The beauty is physically affecting. Mountains rise 4,000 feet out of the ocean and in your face. Wild, rolling barrenness. Gorse, the yellow plague of Scotland, everywhere. At night when I look out of my window, the lights climbing up the hills remind me of Lake Arenal. It's a glorious cross between Scotland and South Dakota, with a bit of Costa Rica thrown in. Heaven on earth, in other words.