Thursday, June 23, 2011

An uncharacteristic attack of bonhomie

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 21.)

PLEASE disregard the title of this column. Just this once, it’s written in a non-curmudgeonly tone. Stop reading now if this is likely to be too much of a shock.

A recent sequence of unconnected events brought on an uncharacteristic attack of bonhomie; a sense of wellbeing and goodwill toward my human fellow human beings which, try as I may, I cannot suppress.

It started when I needed to upgrade my BNZ Visa credit card to avail myself of free travel insurance. For reasons that I won’t attempt to explain, I had to do this overnight rather than wait the customary two or three days for the new card to arrive in the mail.

Most of us dread dealing with call centres. This usually requires responding to a series of automated inquiries as to what the problem is, and almost invariably the options don’t include the issue you’re calling about. (The purpose, of course, is to make the experience so frustrating that the caller will be deterred from ever seeking help again. That’s the raison d’etre of call centres.)

But my dealings with the Visa call centre couldn’t have been smoother. I phoned three times and each time encountered an operator who was charming, helpful and lucid. My new card was activated at midnight, enabling me to use it the next morning even though I wasn’t yet physically in possession of it.

The last of the three operators noted that I was in the habit of paying off my card debt before any interest fell due, which doesn’t make me a very profitable customer for the bank, and politely suggested I might repay the BNZ for its help by not being so punctilious in future.

Fair enough, I suppose. I’ll keep it in mind.

* * *

A FEW DAYS later I was on the Interislander ferry Kaitaki, bound for the South Island.

I’ve lost count of the number of ferry crossings I’ve done but it was some time since I’d last made the journey and my first trip on the Kaitaki. It’s a very pleasant ship, spacious and comfortable – in fact the first Cook Strait ferry I’ve travelled on where passenger comfort seemed to be the primary consideration rather than an afterthought.

But the real revelation was the staff. It’s hard to imagine a more striking contrast with the take-it-or-leave-it culture of the era when surly members of the Cooks and Stewards Union did what they had to do and no more.

These days you’re served by smiling, smartly dressed young women who give the impression of enjoying their work. The food has greatly improved too, and there’s a respectable selection of wines and beers.

In the days when my family and I used the ferry often, we made sure we took our own food rather than risk scungy, overpriced pies and stale sandwiches served grudgingly by people who gave the impression they would rather be somewhere else. I’m delighted to report that such precautionary measures are no longer necessary.

* * *

THE REASON I went south was that a group of us were tackling the Heaphy Track on mountain bikes, which brings me to my next non-curmudgeonly expression of appreciation.

It was years since I’d stayed in a Conservation Department hut and I didn’t know what to expect. I packed a small cooker, assuming I would need it to prepare a hot meal.

More fool me. The DOC huts on the Heaphy are equipped with gas cooking facilities. Not only that, but they have potbelly stoves and ample supplies of coal and firewood.

I expected the usual long-drop dunny 30 metres away in the bush, but no; our hut had flush toilets – flush toilets! – right beside the front door, under the shelter of the verandah. You didn’t even need to get your feet wet. Sheer luxury, and the hut appeared to be rat-proof too.

If you happened to be stuck in one of these huts because of bad weather, as happened to a group that came in a day behind us, you’d be bored but cosy. All that was missing was someone to turn down the bed and leave a chocolate on the pillow (not there was a pillow, of course; DOC huts aren't quite that flash).

* * *

FINALLY, I can report that the best qualities of the old-style New Zealand country pub are alive and well in Karamea.

Isolated towns at the end of the road, such as Karamea (population 400), can be insular and wary of outsiders, but our ragged, mud-covered group encountered nothing but warmth and hospitality from the owners and staff at the Karamea Village Hotel. They plied us with hearty pub grub, kept the kitchen open for the late arrivals, made phone calls for those of us needing transport the following morning and turned a blind eye to the mess we made in our rooms with our filthy gear.

What’s more, they did a cooked-to-order breakfast that would shame five-star hotels with their wretched, serve-yourself buffets.

No comments: