Blog Archives: Marcus McShane

What do tourists want?

If you’re from New Zealand, you’re probably used to viewing tourists with mild distain.  I’m not sure why, it seems silly, but we do.

I think people should treat tourists in the same way that you would treat intelligent and curious children, rather than the way we do treat them, which is as if they were dairy cattle with credit cards.  After all, not even dairy cattle should be treated like dairy cattle.

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New Zealand isn’t a cheap country to travel in.  The currency is expensive, and we’re an expensive place to live even for us.  Our cheese costs more than cheese anywhere, and despite the fact that it’s not very good we export it and pride ourselves on it.

Our attitude to such things seems much like our attitude to our 100% Pure branding.  “If that’s what we say we are, then we must be that” we cry.  And then we walk around with our chests puffed out feeling quite proud of ourselves.

It’s a kind of arrogance to assume that anyone would be interested in the sorts of things that we try and foist on tourists.  These are often people no wealthier than us, who have travelled a long way to meet us on our own terms, because they’re curious about us.  And yet we seem to assume that anything they do here will exceed their wildest expectations.

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Let’s say that I’m a hypothetical Chilean web-designer called Rodrigo.

I’m thirty-three.  My girlfriend and I broke up, and so I’ve taken a month off while she moves out of our apartment in Valparaiso and moves in with the banker she started sleeping with.  I’ve come to New Zealand because the landscape looks amazing in half a dozen films I’ve seen, and my girlfriend was hooked on Flight of the Conchords, so she’ll feel she’s missing out.

But I don’t want to fly across the world to be given the chance to pat a sheep.  I know what wool is.  I wear wool everyday.  Even if it’s brought from Gap, even if it’s bought from Zara.  I’m not wowed by paua-shells.  Elsewhere they’re called abalone.  And kiwifruit are from South America, as are Fejoas.

It was expensive to fly here.  I could have bought a new Macbook Pro for what it cost me to get here.  So I’m prepared to rough it a little, but I’m not prepared to live off Weetbix in 8-bed hostel dorms full of teenaged European males.  Nevertheless, this is probably what’s going to happen to me, as I can’t afford the hundred-plus dollars a night for any sort of hotel room.  Airbnb only has shoeboxes and strange things called “farmstays” listed, and the couchsurfers here only seem to want to host teenaged European females.

The train I catch down the country costs twice what flying would have, but moves at about walking pace, and there are such constant heavily accented announcements about unintelligible local trivia and some sort of spiral that I stop listening, and so miss my stop.  I just want to walk in the forests and eat local cuisine and listen to local music, but you seem to need a car to get to any of the forests, the local music is mostly murky garage bands, and there’s no identifiable local cuisine at all.

I pay a lot of money for a package tour as I’m not meeting anyone and feeling pretty lonely, which just means that I continue feeling lonely, but in Hobbiton, and while patting a sheep.

Sigh.

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I’m not Rodrigo any more.  I’m me again now.

And some of my best times when wandering have been when people like Rodrigo have shown me round, and let me see their world for a moment.  Watching stars while drinking wine with students on a fifteenth century rooftop in in Coimbra, ruining a shirt while trying to help fix the engine on a stalled launch that then took me for free to Isla do Mel, in Brazil.  (A roadless island where people move everything by wheelbarrow)  Singing badly in a gospel choir in Du Pont, South Georgia.  My singing was terrible, but they still fed me.

I don’t mind being embarrassed when I’m a tourist, or even being uncomfortable, but I do want something real.  Because I’m real.  Where I live is real.  Where everyone lives is real.  So what’s the point in unreal places?  We have the Internet so we don’t have to actually try and create them in the real world.

Perhaps this my horror of theme parks coming out, but I really don’t think many people cross oceans to get strapped onto a flying fox that lands in a field of sheep, or to ride a horse that was used in lord of the rings.  You can do both of these things in Motueka.  But I think most people want to do something more real, even in Motueka.

The sort of encounter you have with Goofy or Cinderella in Disneyworld is what I would call unreal.  I know people who have worked in both these roles, and it’s been a pretty strange experience for them.  The Goofy I know quit after a concerted attack of eight-year-olds pushed her into a pool and she couldn’t get her giant plastic head off and was only rescued from drowning by one of the parents.

Would children do this to a real person?

Disneyesque myths are not myths of humanity, they’re myths of inanity.  Let’s steer away from these.  They’re at best awful re-interpretations of what were once meaningful stories.  In Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid the protagonist finds that every step after she gains her legs is like stepping on knives.  There’s no mention of this in the Disney version.  How has this been forgotten?  It’s a tale about the cost of changing the world you live in, and I know which version makes more sense to me.

Most of the culture we offer tourists in New Zealand is down near the level of Disney.  I don’t think Disney makes for intelligent and well rounded children any more than our tourist industry encourages intelligent and well-rounded tourists.   And being snobby towards tourists is about as fair as being snobby towards children.

I know that trying to cater to the tastes of people with totally different backgrounds to you is always going to be difficult.  It’s like being a chef with no taste buds, a perfumer with no sense of smell, a deaf musician.  But not much of the tourism on offer in New Zealand seems to include the possibility that a tourist is just like you, but from somewhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bicycles & Piracy

I am scribbling about bicycles, because I like them, and about piracy, as Freerange claims to be very interested in pirates, but has very little visible piratical content.

But let me preface this with a disclaimer:

I despise people who steal bicycles. I think that there is a special circle of hell reserved for bicycle thieves and the abusers of animals and children. In saying this I am walking a fine line, because like most forms of piracy, bicycle piracy is not as black and white as I’d like it to be.

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I love bicycles, and I dislike waste. These fit together nicely, as bicycles are some of the least wasteful objects humans have ever managed to produce.

And bicycles make you greater than yourself. Slip onto a well-made bicycle, clip your shoes into the pedals and let your hands rest lightly on the bars and it feels like strapping on a pair of wings. You become something new.

Astride a well made bike you become strong. You can swoop across jammed cities, silent as an owl. A good bicycle is a perfect piece of hand-tooled minimalism with the merest hint of wheels, but which allows you to slice through the frigid morning, and nothing, not snow, nor gridlock nor petrol prices can stop you. Although snow can just make you want to stay in, drink wine, and bake instead.

Whenever I’m without a bicycle I feel like some crippled city pigeon that’s reduced to hobbling about instead of soaring. Every bicycle is a gift of wings. Which means that every abandoned and abused bicycle is a wasted gift.

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Most cities have these wasted bicycles, chained and rusting against lamp-posts, fire escapes and bike-racks, and not just left there for a day or two while the owner’s away, but abandoned the way that many horrible people abandon kittens when they grow into cats. Maybe the owner left town or forgot the combination to their lock. Maybe a tire went flat or a wheel got bent and the owner couldn’t be bothered fixing it, the result is the same. The bike sits in the weather for a few seasons, often being stripped of it’s more easily removed parts by whatever scavenging creatures come along and strip abandoned bicycles in the middle of the night, and then it just becomes a corpse, a rusting thing, like a skeleton still chained to a wall.

It’s a myth that bicycles can live outside. They can get wet, but they shouldn’t stay wet. After a bicycle has been left in the rain for a winter all it’s delicate component parts will be just a rusted solid mass, no matter how expensive and well-maintained they were to begin with.

But if you get in quick, before the rust and the (other) scavengers, this fate can be avoided.

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In 2010 I lived in San Sebastian for a time. It’s a beautiful city in Spain near the French border. It’s perfect for cycling, impossible to drive in, and has a huge seasonal population who come to work the summer and then leave as the jobs dry up and the rains come back and the city closes for winter.

This seasonal population get about by bicycle as the city has a web of idyllic bike lanes, and then they often abandon their bikes when they leave town for winter.

I was living in San Sebastian with an equally bike-obsessed friend, Peter, and I was about to be joined by another friend, Jenna, who was going to ride west with me from San Sebastian. Jenna didn’t travel with a bike forever in her luggage like Peter and I did, and Spanish Ebay wasn’t being helpful at providing a bike for her either, but we kept seeing beautiful mixte frames locked and rusting on the streets, begging to be ridden.

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It’s easy to tell an abandoned bicycle. First, both tires must be completely flat. One tire may have gone flat anyway, leading to it’s abandonment, but the other will take at least six weeks to deflate completely. If both tires are totally flat it generally means the bike hasn’t been ridden for at least a month. Secondly, the chain should be rusted and seized, so that even if you pumped the tires up the bike would still be unrideable without some serious mechanical attention. Thirdly, the bike should have at least one missing or broken component. Maybe the front wheel is twisted into a pretzel, or the seat and seatpost are missing. If a bicycle ticks all three of these boxes, you can bet no-one’s sitting up at night worrying about it.

Strangely, it’s not just the Walmart-grade clunkers that get abandoned. There are plenty of unloved thoroughbreds rusting their last days away along the streets we all live on. I presume this happens because as bicycles become third and fourth hand they pass often into the ownership of people who have no idea of what they’re owning. Plus there is a strange period before a thing becomes ‘classic” when it’s just seen as “old”.

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In San Sebastian the city council even identified abandoned bicycles for us by orange-stickering them. The orange stickers are dated, and state that if the bikes aren’t removed in two months the council will cut them loose and dump them. Sometimes these bikes cluster three or four deep round lamp-posts, forming rusty coral reefs that are large enough to block pedestrian traffic, hence the council’s insistence on removing them.

So by removing them ourselves we would be performing a public service.

No one bicycle that was definitely abandoned was in good enough condition to become a reliable touring bike for Jenna. So we began looking for bikes that had useful parts. And in our looking we started to see some gems amongst the chaff. Here a 1970’s Frejus with no front wheel or saddle. There an original ALAN in bright blue, it’s delicious Italian components so rusted that examining them made my tummy hurt.

What is a good citizen to do?

Liberate them as well, of course.

Not steal them. Liberate them

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Peter and I arose at three am with a hacksaw and our maps and went bike-picking. By six am the hallway of our apartment had five new bicycles. Three of them we mangled into a touring bike for Jenna. Peter and I fooled about with the other two until they were functional again and then rode them round San Sebastian on sunny days. Jenna’s bike lasted two thousand kilometers, starting the trip as a ten speed and ending as a four speed. which she later sold for twenty five euros before jumping on a train to Sweden.

I kept the ALAN. I managed to pack it in with my other bicycle on my way to London, and sold it there to a man in Brick Lane Cycles for enough so that it nearly paid for my flight back to New Zealand.

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I’m uncertain what i’m trying to say here. I would never advocate stealing a bicycle. Having a loved bicycle stolen is crippling and horrible. I’m tiny, and a confirmed pacifist, but I once chased a huge man away from a girlfriend’s stolen bicycle using only a carbon-fibre tennis raquet, which in a fight is about as useful as a toilet roll. That’s the sort of outrage that bicycle theft provokes in me.

But letting a beautiful piece of craftsmanship decay and rust out of sheer negligence provokes outrage in me as well. It’s a crime of omission, like that of wasting food, or of not separating your recycling,

So I think perhaps a little bit of educated bicycle piracy, of taking the law into your own hands in an informed way doesn’t hurt either. I suppose I’ve rescued maybe a half-dozen bikes off the streets now. I tend to give them away afterwards, which is nicely moral and robin-hoodish, but I guess what I’m saying is “Take care of your bicycles. Or they may be taken care of for you”

Marcus McShane.


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There’s nothing plain about the rail in Spain

Autovia 8, west of Bilbao, where it finishes

Spanish rail is a delight.

It’s cheap, about as difficult as getting on a bus, and more or less on time, and you can travel locally at our train speeds (for about two euro an hour) or at 300km an hour if you’re going cross country and want to spend a little more. It’s a goddam pleasure at that speed to just have a glass of wine, lie back, and watch the train unzipping the countryside. Barcelona to Madrid is roughly the same distance as Auckland to Wellington. In Spain that’s less than three hours, from the moment that you dive into one underground until the moment that you emerge out of another.

It’s a similar distance to travelling, say, between Queen Street in Auckland and Lambton Quay in Wellington. With our check-in times and the quality of our transport to and from each airport here in New Zealand you’re lucky to make that sort of time if you fly. And we easily the have the population density to support just one train line between our two main north island cities.

For years our transport policies have focussed on getting more land under tarmac and more vehicles in and out of cities faster while refusing to invest in any reasonable alternative. The revolution in communications seems to be happening, but surely our bodies need to keep pace with our minds?

Grumble mumble mumble.

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