at the heart of the country: day five on the north island.

Welcome to Paeroa.

Day five was winding down. I was back on the road after Rotorua and all that stood between me and the Coromandel Peninsula was a little town with a big name – Paeroa, New Zealand.

Anyone who’s spent any time in New Zealand has probably had the chance to taste the country’s national soft drink, L&P – short for Lemon and Paeroa. As I wondered the aisles of a Pak’n’Save supermarket with my friend Ryan and his girlfriend on my first night in New Zealand, we loaded the cart (or trolley) with all sorts of traditional Kiwiana food items – Tip Top Hokey Pokey ice cream, a jar of Marmite and a two-litre of L&P, no less. I drank it at dinner – spaghetti that Ryan had made the grave mistake of making with Wattie’s ketchup – and found it a cross between Sprite and ginger ale. Partially because of a “When-in-Rome” mentality and partially because of a genuine liking, I was hooked.

Now, almost a year later, it was time to pay a trip to Mecca.

This visit to Paeroa brought with it certain expectations. It was the very moment I learned of a retro seven-meter L&P bottle in Paeroa that the decision to drive around the North Island – rather than bus or fly or hitch it – was made. This was something that couldn’t be missed. As sad as it sounds, an oversized soda bottle did indeed wield that much weight in my mind.

Hence you can imagine my disappointment arriving in town a few minutes past 4 o’clock and realizing the iSite – and more importantly, the town’s gift shop – had just closed. I stared through the darkened windows with that first thought of, “Where do I go from here?” but soon I turned away and left the cheesy souvenirs to collect dust without any help of mine.

New...

...and old.

Hence you can imagine my disappointment arriving in town a few minutes past 4 o’clock and realizing the iSite – and more importantly, the town’s gift shop – had just closed. I stared through the darkened windows with that first thought of, “Where do I go from here?” but soon I turned away and left the cheesy souvenirs to collect dust without any help of mine.

I turned to the streets of this modest town of 4,000 and to the cafes and restaurants that each bore the L&P logo like a badge of honor: Tui Coffee Lounge, Coachman’s Cafe, Cosy Kitchen, and the Big Cafe & Bakery. At Criterion Dairy I bought a can of L&P and drank it down Main Street, passing places like Midway Takeaways Burger Bar, where a group of high-schoolers gathered and I wondered if kids here grow up drinking L&P like water.

In Ohinemure Park trash cans are shaped like lemons and tile mosaics in the concrete sidewalk form fizzy bubbles. Storefront signs read the beverage’s motto “World Famous in New Zealand” like an unofficial regional anthem. And although the soft drink is no longer manufactured in Paeroa and has been moved – like so much else – to Auckland, it’s clear that just as one sign proclaims, L&P truly is the Pride of Paeroa.

At the time I was reading Duncan Fallowell’s Going as Far as I Can: The Ultimate Travel Book, in which he relates driving towards the electric blue waters of Lake Tekapo on the South Island:

“Firstly, ahead of you on the road, above the car bonnet, a sliver of electric blue appears. As you advance the sliver expands, and you realise it’s water. Slowly a blue lake is rising in front of you, rising up as it were out of the floor of a stage, and even on an overcast day like today, the blues of its waters are radiant, seemingly lit from beneath, the blue light pouring upwards out of the lake, as though you have come upon the mythic source of blueness itself. By chance I’ve driven into the throbbing, absolute heart of the nation. That’s what it feels like, this huge lake of living light which has risen up before me. And the heart of the nation is blue” (156).

These lines stuck with me, the idea that a country could appeal to our senses in such a way. The thought came to me that late afternoon in Paeroa that maybe more than minerals and water spring forth from the hills that surround the town – here, perhaps, is another clue to understanding the heart of New Zealand.

And the heart of the country tastes like Lemon and Paeroa.

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