The floating tribe: Life as a Waiheke commuter

by Jenny Nicholls / 13 June, 2016
We spend 70 minutes together every day, have done for years, although we hardly know each other. Waiheke Island commuters, all 2000 of them, are an Anglo tribe compared with the city they work in. In fact, “we” may be overstating it.

There are more faces than our brains can absorb, so we would struggle to piece together the identikit face of a man we have queued behind for years. But every now and then, across the road in the city, we will see someone, and nod, thinking, Aah, yes. Goatee-man. Spotty-Bag-Woman.

It has been pointed out to me, after a complete stranger hugged me at PlaceMakers, that sheep are better at recognising human faces than I am. When we’d had that riveting conversation on the ferry days before, she was wearing a different kind of shirt.

He may recognise voices, she, faces. I myself recall shoes, bags and hair. Like others, I notice accessories more readily than nose shapes or eyes, because, I must admit, they are more interesting.

So I travel with Girl-in-Docs-Who-Walks-Like-Mr-Natural; Slept-On-His-Hair; Weird-Pants and his friend, Very-Weird-Pants; Handsome-Might-Be-An-Architect; Two-Wines; Ms Trenchcoat; and Shirt-Hangs-Out-But-Carries-It-Off, who often sits with National-Pinstripe, and Trelise-Cooper-Bag. We sit on the other side of the deck from The Giggler, and The Annoying Yogis, who block your view with ostentatious yogi postures.

Men and women between 28 and 45 who are blond, athletic and shop in Newmarket fry my brain’s limited storage capacity. There is simply no way to tell these people apart. They have marinated in the zeitgeist and are now done, like gleaming ceviche. You need some day-by-day oddity to bank in the department of humans, subcategory, ferry passengers. Maybe this is why people get tattoos. They need an error, a flaw, which is theirs alone.
I have an uneasy feeling that to several hundred commuters I am Green-Bag-Woman.

I am thinking of changing my satchel, the one I like so much I have worn to work every day for three years. But I have an uneasy feeling that to several hundred commuters I am Green-Bag-Woman. “Don’t forget the bag. Otherwise no one will recognise you,” says my friend Slept-On-His-Hair, who would attain the desired level of incognito with a haircut performed by a professional.

My tribe of strangers shares many pleasures, but a few tribulations, too.

The worst? Threatened commuter-pass bus-fare rises, the Wet Arse Of Morning, caused by outside seats mysteriously soaking every dawn, the lack of dark beer, the “unforeseen incidents” that (rarely) delay the ferries and keep us from dinner, and Fullers’ universally despised Jet Raider, a boat designed by a child with a crayon.

The Jet Raider, or “Tomb Raider”, is “slow to load”, which means if you have a bus or train to catch, you will spend the trip biting your nails. If you have a bike, forget it. You will have to watch hundreds of others get off first.

Anyone catching a commuter ferry is a city worker, a high school student or a visitor. Even SuperGold Card holders have to pay on the busy weekday morning runs.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup brought a noisy new species to the 6.30pm ferry: the Vast-Australian-Rugby-Nut. The price of the delicious onboard wine did not please them. “Sex nine-dy!” Rugby aficionados do live on the island, but not in large numbers. That’s why Sir Graham Henry lives there, I suspect.

Tourists do not understand. They always select the side seats on the Jet Raider, getting drenched in a calm sea, their wits blasted from their bodies by the strange winds that gather speed along the side of the hull and smack them in the face. The Jet Raider’s hull is crafted for this express purpose. If it is the QuickCat today, they will clamber up to the top deck, congratulating themselves on the empty seats and the view. Once the ferry gathers mild speed, strange hurricane-force winds are unleashed which send them back down the steep stairs in disarray, sans hats, bags, scarves, sunglasses, brains.
They take photographs of everything, the ferry tourists: a faraway gannet the size of a pixel, their beer, their knees, the sky, the backwash, their boyfriend’s bellybutton, the backwash again, with their iPads and pink telephones.

They take photographs of everything, these tourists: a faraway gannet the size of a pixel, their beer, their knees, the sky, the backwash, their boyfriend’s bellybutton, the backwash again, with their iPads and pink telephones.

Meanwhile, we have stuff to talk about: 35 minutes is a long time in ferry politics. Issues can be dissected, examined, and given a decent burial. Flirtations are resumed. Alliances formed, half-baked theories taken out of the oven and displayed proudly. And then there are the usual matters: work stress, real-estate stress, love stress, no-love stress, kid-soccer-team stress, teen-kid stress, car stress, money stress, and/or (insert name of TV show here) stress.

Years ago, the ferry was said to be a floating pub by 5 pm. Now smoking has been banned and the voyage time is shorter, things are, sadly, more civilised.
For those who like to compartmentalise their relationships, the ferry is perfect. You may be introduced on land, after years of travelling together, as a “ferry friend”. “Oh,” says the husband or wife you have never seen before.

The pleasures of commuting are manifold. Watching everyone else fume in their cars on the road from Mission Bay is always pleasant.

But for many islanders, the greatest joy is 35 delectable minutes alone with a plastic glass of wine and a dilapidated blockbuster, medical notes, Harper’s, Nature, Scientific American, stockmarket results, magazine about sofas, book about fishing or building or the First World War, this magazine, emails, Twitter, online shoe shop, Kindle or, God Help You, newspaper.

Turner would die for the landscape we ignore, a new painting every day. He used his fingers, apparently, to make the sea. You would need a dozen different greens, from forest to ash. The islands, some big, some small, change shape at the whim of a cloud. Hills as flat as children’s paper cut-outs become undulating and breasty with the addition of a few strategic shadows.

And the sea is still alive. As you read this, countless black birds are gliding and fluttering about the ferry lanes, so close to the waves, huge flocks clenching and unclenching like fists of dots. Even in storms you see them bobbing up and down, mad aquanauts on a roller coaster made of sea. They are the shearwater clan, fluttering and sooty, who you will not see in Ponsonby.

Ebbing sunlight can make the trees on Motutapu hills look too much like 1950s fireguard paintings, but the warm evening glow, a flattering light, makes Matiatia Bay sparkle with sequins.

The old-timers miss this, of course. Well, they say, we know about it already, we have seen it before, we live here, FFS.

An unreliable, flickering inner mental video reveals changes to the gang of strangers since I joined them nine years ago. Bellies have swollen and receded, or just swollen, beards have grown, school kids have grown up, dogs have died. Although numbers have doubled, many have vanished. Some may have shrugged off the monthly-pass fare and relocated to Titirangi. Some may have simply lost their jobs. And I have, sometimes, seen the full-page obituary you get in the Gulf News when you die young.

We meet every day, and we disperse without a backward glance. I may not know a damn thing about them, but when they are gone, I mourn them all.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Metro. Follow Metro on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail

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