Monday, 19 November 2012

NZ travelogue: Around Christchurch with Alan

Meet Alan, one of my old chess kaki from the Penang Chess Association days. I knew him back in the 1990s when he was still working at Hewlett Packard in Penang. Towards the end of the decade, he decided to pack his bags and move his family to Christchurch in New Zealand.

When my wife and I visited the South Island last year, we re-established contact, and we still do keep in touch till today. It was good to catch up with him again. And getting to know his family. The son, born in Penang and last seen as a toddler, has grown up a teenager. The daughter, born in New Zealand, completes the family.

On the last day of our vacation in New Zealand, we caught up face-to-face at the Riccarton Bush. Alan was little changed except he looked a bit stockier. Could be the additional layers of clothes to ward off the anticipated autumn chill. (Except that New Zealand was experiencing some weird weather pattern in 2011. Right until June, the weather was warm enough to fool some trees into bearing flowers when they should not.)

We spent the rest of the day together until it was time for us to catch the AirAsia X flight back to Kuala Lumpur. Speaking of AirAsia X, I am quite disappointed that the long-haul budget airline had decided to terminate its services to Christchurch. I'm sure it was not because of some silly excuse like not making money on this route. On the contrary, I believe the airline was doing well as it brought plane loads of Malaysians and other tourists directly to the South Island. Malaysia Airlines only fly to Auckland.

Maybe there was some other more sinister reason which I'm speculating, like Malaysia Airlines persuading AirAsia X to stop competing with them on this sector when the two airlines were still working together about a year ago. Maybe, in return for AirAsia X's getting landing rights to Sydney, they were persuaded to give up Christchurch. Anyhow, Christchurch wasn't the only long-haul destination now off the AirAsia X horizon. Even their flights to London and Paris have disappeared.

But this digression aside, I suppose Alan must have been quite pleased with the small diversion in his life. Seeing us and well as some other of his friends was like catching up with news from the homeland. I ploughed him with news on the political developments in the country, and especially the positive news emanating from Penang. Hope he salivated and thought about coming here for a holiday sometime in the future.

When we left the Riccarton Bush, we ended up at the Foo San Teahouse in Rountree Street for some Malaysian dimsum. Alan told me that the family running this joint was from Ipoh. When we arrived, the place was packed with people. Mostly Asians (Malaysians and Singaporeans?) but there were other people there too.

Somehow, we managed to grab a table with the six of us crammed round it. The food wasn't very impressive but hey, after being away for slightly more than a week, eating Malaysian dimsum was a welcome change to our diet.

Alan suggested that we stopped by his house in Christchurch but before we did, there was a small diversion to the Raewards Fresh warehouse to pick up some fresh produce. "We'd normally come here weekly to pick up our provisions," he explained. Yah, okay, the warehouse was an eye opener. We hadn't seen so much abundance of New Zealand vegetables, fruits and meat in one central location before. Produce of all shapes, sizes and colours. Some going for ridiculously cheap prices although there were others which to me, were rather expensive.

This, below, is Alan's house at the northern part of Christchurch. An impressive double-storey building quite unlike the typically NZ houses I noticed everywhere else. "We were fortunate not to be affected during the earthquake," he told me. The whole of Christchurch had rocked and rolled when the earthquake struck and the areas most devastated were the central business district and towards Lyttleton to the south-east.

I walked around. I commented that he was a bit of a green thumb. I could see even lengkuas plants growing there. "Oh, they'll die off soon enough. It's because of the balmy weather we're experiencing now that they are still surviving. They are being fooled by the weather. When it gets chillier and frost sets in, all these will be killed off," he said.

I found out later that he wasn't joking. By July that year, winter had really settled upon the South Island and Christchurch was buried under a thick layer of snow.

Soon, we decided to go for a drive into the Christchurch CBD. "We'll it is impossible to drive into the CBD," Alan explained, "as the whole area has been cordoned off. We can only go around and walk as near as possible to the barricades." This was a real pity as one of my original intentions, when I bought the flight tickets to Christchurch - and this was way before the earthquake - was to go admire the Christchurch Cathedral and jump on board their tramcars.

The Wok On In Cafe in Kendal Avenue was our final destination in Christchurch. We all trooped there for dinner. Alan had a little surprise for us.

"Here, meet Ah Hock. He's from Penang and he owns this place," Alan said, and it was true. If I'm not mistaken, Ah Hock's roots are in the Noordin Street section of George Town or its whereabouts. He still goes back often to see his folks and presumably, to pick up more culinary secrets.

He and his staff cooked up a mean meal in Christchurch and we enjoyed ourselves with his improvised versions of Char Hor Fun, Char Koay Teow, Wantan Mee and Nasi Lemak. As far as we were concerned, the food was different but still close enough to the real stuff back home. His little cafe was just about three minutes away from the Christchurch airport and so, it was quite convenient for us to have a slow and hearty meal while we killed time before leaving for the airport. Here's part of the menu. Quite a wide variety of items.

Soon, we really had to leave. And with great reluctance, I had to say goodbye to Alan and his family. Alan, I hope to be able to meet up with you again one day, if not in Christchurch, then perhaps in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur or Kuching. Keep in touch!

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