The Royal Busking weekend in the Queenstown, Day 1

Jetstar is a wonderful company. Not only did their agent insist on charging me 160 AUD to check in my guitar, but she also decreed me “too late” to board the plane after wrangling me about that charge for a while – looking at her watch after a return from the security line and some fifteen minutes of arguing to say, “It’s fifty five minutes before departure” which is apparently too late to check in. “There’s nothing I can do. The flight’s closed.” Amazing. There’s a reason Jetstar is cheap, and that reason is they go out of their way to make your experience miserable. Unfortunately, it’s a great business model, and on looking for a new flight on realizing my old one was absolutely forfeit, I booked one the following morning with… Jetstar. I’d head to Queenstown rather than Christchurch, spending the night at the airport. It was the coldest night yet. Seriously, they try to freeze you to death in the Melbourne airport, and the open wire grill chairs don’t help much.

But all for the best. Because the flight to Queenstown must be one of the most spectacular I’ve ever experienced. Dead asleep for the first few hours, but awoken for the “initial descent” right as we caught sight of land – the fabulous Western coast of New Zealand in all its wrinkly glory. Milford and Doubtful Sounds coming into focus, Mt. Cook in the distance, the Remarkables coming into focus as we lower perceptibly all the while, and then touching down amidst a field of the jagged brown peaks we just skirted. On entering the airport I was detained by customs for about an hour and a half to go through everything in my bag – the first time that’s happened so far – perhaps because I looked so dead tired? Strangely enough this was a nice welcome to the country – unlike my own country’s lovely manhandling and rough barking of even its own citizens (and absolute roughhousing of foreign nationals), the officer going through my things spoke amicably the entire time, genuinely interested in my story for the story itself along with the search for inconsistencies. I didn’t feel my privacy or dignity invaded at all, and he carefully rolled my clothes back up as he went, leaving them in a neat pile, then re-packed my bag more efficiently than he’d found it, to my astonishment. I remain grateful to his system as that’s left me lots of wiggle room.

I’d spent a few minutes on the internet kiosk with some free time donated by the maintenance man checking the timers (popping the coins in to check and leaving me the time) to frantically search for hosts, and on emerging from the airport I did so again, rejoicing when I saw Neil’d agreed to take me in that night. I headed into town and ate a Ferg Burger while I waited for him to come into town. I met his other flatmates for a moment and then we returned to the very small town centre where I set up for a short pitch on the Queenstown Mall. A cold, unlucrative pitch, marked only by an inquisitive young boy with clear eyes who confidently strode up, with a composed quiet serious air, to request Fly Me to the Moon to the surprise and delight of his father. The girls standing just inside the doorways of the restaurants along the mall snared no patrons, either, and seemed grateful for the tunes to bop along to.

Freezing my ass off but understanding the slowness had nothing to do with me, I walked into every bar/pub/cafe I could find to try and secure an indoor arrangement. Most indicated that their own patronage had been so small they’d had to severely limit the flow of musicians, and what spots they had were taken for months. By a stroke of luck, however, as I exited The Pig & Whistle (one of about ten establishments that comprise the entire live music scene in Queenstown), the night’s entertainment walked in. He offered to let me sing a few songs after asking multiple times “Are you good?” which I found a strange question to answer but did with a reasonably confident, “Yes.” Oh the balance between humility and confidence. Or between humility and the need to earn a buck.

They went on at half eight, so I had a few minutes to tour the rest of the possible venues (two of which sat entirely empty). On my way back, I encountered a fire poi spinner at the end of the mall where it met the wharf. He invited me to sing while he played and I acquiesced after running back to the Pig & Whistle to confirm a good time to return there to fill their necessary break. How companionship can turn a slow pitch into a wonderful night! We created a beautiful vibe where I didn’t care a whit about the income from the very few passersby – framed by stunning mountains a little blacker than the glossy black lake before us and the sky lit by the visible milky way above. Every now and again Teo came over to dangle the flaming poi in front of my hands while I played (a bit scared for the guitar but more grateful for the warmth). I sang the sad songs I felt fit the vibe of the poi – slow and mournful and soaring. He loved my Blower’s Daughter and requested another Damien Rice. I need to learn more of his! Kids stood wowed by the poi. I could feel the whole vibe perfect for the scenery and the hushed town – one of those that didnt feel at all imposed on but part of the night. The predominantly Asian tourists stopped for the novelty of fire, stayed for the music, left with photographs and all their coins. Only a pair of young Australians stayed to stand beneath the streetlight, clapping after a song of mine and requesting Fix You and Simon & Garfunkel. Towards the end, as Teo and I established a good connection of how to begin and end songs to coordinate with the running out of kerosene while his girlfriend Kate looked on ready to help sell the poi, a group of Chileans and a French girl stopped, sang with me eyes closed, requested Liberta. It reminded me of a night at the Notre Dame three years ago – but this time I was not merely spectator but performer.

I bid Kate and Teo adieu and we split our just over 20 NZD riches down the middle, with a funny moment where we wondered who would take the note and who the coins. A gas fire roared in the fake hearth near Shay and Pearly, the artists of the night, and I huddled by it still shivering from the five degree night. A small table very into the entertainment from Queensland invited me to join them with a seat to the back of this fire, and we conversed a bit while Shay and Pearly played 80s and 90s hits with great harmonies, clever use of a loop machine and well arranged medleys. When Shay called me up for a song, my table erupted with “You had us on! We didn’t know you were part of the act!” good naturedly. I sensed the cover vibe and opened with Hey Ya, and then Crazy before Shay regained the stage. He bought me a ginger beer. I’m not sure whether he disapproved of my music or wanted to get the night back in hand, but this threw me off a little bit – such a short set! I barely had time to push my CD.

Hayley, Jay, Dee and Gary bought one for each couple – for each car. They danced to the rest of the songs, chatted with me happily while I signed the jackets, told me they were so happy to have met me and to own a physical souvenir for that memory. I sold them at 13 NZD each, trying to adjust for the exchange rate and overshooting. I’ve realized I could sell my CDs for much more both in Australia and New Zealand, what with the average cost being well over 20/30 dollars, but I decided to morally stick to my 9 USD marker for comparison. They wished me the best of luck; Shay advised me to hitch back to Neil’s from just outside the Real Journey store. I caught a lift almost instantly, with a girl heading the same way who happened to be from Hong Kong. I spoke a mite of Cantonese for fun with her, bringing my language use total for the day (Turkish to get a glass of water from the kebab store, Russian with a fellow patron at Ferg Burger while we waited for our food, Spanish with Neil’s flatmate Fernando from Chile, English all day) to five.

Earnings: 40.46 NZD, 2.3 hours
Song of the Day: Liberta – Pep’s

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