Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Wintering over

It’s good to be home. Especially with the spring-like weather that passes for winter in Auckland. I hardly need a coat at all, although I always forget the particular chill of July and August mornings... It’s certainly a novelty for Busytot -- accustomed as he is to central heating -- to find himself sleeping in a room that has condensation on the inside of the windows. Not to mention waking up with feet like little blocks of ice, even with socks on.

But a quick snuggle in the big bed with the grandparents soon fixes that, and after a week he’s already acclimatized to the point of running around bare-footed inside and out. He even paddled in the sea at Mission Bay yesterday, while several slightly stauncher children actually stripped off and plunged in. Poor urban creature: he gazed out at the sparkling Waitemata, with magnificent Rangitoto on the horizon and views all the way out to the Barrier, then looked down at the beach in front of him and pronounced, with great satisfaction, "Sandpit!"

I am happy to report that the journey from New York to Auckland was accomplished entirely without the help of drugs, in any form, for any of us (unless you count the myriad ill-advised chocolate treats I dutifully confiscated from the toddler's tray to gorge on while he slumbered). JFK to LAX coincided with nap-time, and after a good night’s sleep in LA, the long haul to Auckland didn’t seem quite so daunting after all.

The California stopover was a stroke of brilliance: not only did it break the trip nicely, it also gave us all a chance to get into the water and splash around. First with a thoroughly refreshing dip in the hotel pool, and later, a spontaneous dip in the Pacific while on an evening jaunt to the nearest beach. The beach wasn't on the original plan, but we hadn’t quite timed it right to catch the spectacular Getty Museum (and only a mad person would take a toddler to Disneyland) so we took advantage of a free shuttle bus to the quaintly named Manhattan Beach. First stop there was the pier, which stretches out into the sea and provides an excellent vantage point for admiring the surfers and swimmers. "Wanta surf, yeah?" said Busytot (which should have come as a warning).

At the end of the pier is a small aquarium, which offers ominous sounding "Sleep with the Sharks Slumber Parties," as well as something I’d never seen before -- a sort of aquatic petting zoo, a tank full of fish that you could touch (albeit, as the sign said, "gently, with one finger only"). Squadrons of determined children ringed the tank, some of them gingerly stroking the dogfish and rays with one tremulous finger, others thrusting both hands into the water up to the elbows for the full two-fisted fish-fondling experience; equally, half the fish huddled in fear on the far side of the tank, while the other half fairly leapt out of the water in search of small sticky hands.

Busytot spent a good half an hour leaning precariously over the water touching fish until we dragged him off to walk along the promenade at the top of the beach. The plan was that he would conk out in the stroller. No such luck, so we parked the pushchair and walked down onto the sand. He kept walking, heading down towards the water, a good fifty metres or so away. Plod, plod, plod, like Captain Oates out into the snow.

We shadowed him like bodyguards, and rolled up his trousers as he approached the water. Where he stood happily at the very edge of the surf, watching the waves go in and out. In and out. In and out. In and . . . all of a sudden he was running OUT with the water at enormous speed! It was one of those six million dollar mum scenarios, with everything happening in slow motion: I chased him, he tripped over, and lay face down in the water while the retreating wave filled his nappy and his nostrils with about half a pound of sand and sea water. I scooped up the now sodden child, who squawked briefly to get the water out of his nose, and then smiled maniacally and said "More swimming?"

Mad child. Luckily we had a spare outfit for him, and the ubiquitous drinking fountain helped wash the sand off. We wandered back to the bus stop along the strand, admiring all the toned and tanned flesh on display. After a series of long northeastern winters you tend to forget that people have limbs, so it’s eye-opening to see them all hanging out and moving around in such naked profusion.

One especially statuesque young specimen caught everybody’s eye: she was wearing a bikini that was the exact manuka-honey shade of her impressively smooth skin, giving the general impression that she was utterly, beautifully nude. Certainly the three older ladies beside us couldn’t take their eyes off her. I couldn't hear exactly what they were mumbling, but made out the words "harlot" and "Babylon" and "if that were my daughter..." I thought she looked delicious. Who was it who said that if she had her life to live over, she'd spend more of her twenties in a bikini? Me too.