It was with my suitcase packed, and weighing exactly the 23kg I was allowed, table packed into ski bag, and camera in my carry on, that I inserted myself into the check-in queue for my Air New Zealand flight to Christchurch. Of course, it wasn't going straight to Christchurch - it was going to LA, and then to Auckland, and then to Christchurch. It was going to be a long day. I perhaps would have been more downhearted about the length of journey if I hadn't glanced across the aisle and noticed my friend Asaf in the same queue, going to the same place as me. Except he had already travelled from his place, in Tel Aviv. Longer day for him.
We were off to Christchurch because we have been invited to perform at the World Buskers Festival. Arguably the biggest and most prestigious festival of street performing in the world, this year it was special, as most of the usual street show pitches had been trashed, along with about half the city, in 2011's series of horrific earthquakes. The whole festival has, this year, been relocated to a gorgeous park - the city badly needed a laugh, and it was an honour to be asked to provide it.
My flights there were fairly comfortable - the discovery of entire seasons of "Arrested Development" in the in-flight entertainment system making it go a lot quicker. I also watched Bogart and Bacall in "The Big Sleep", while sipping a Jack Daniels. Seemed fitting.
As we were making out final approach into Auckland, I kept finding myself looking at a guy a few seats across from me. I was slowly convincing myself that he looked like the famous skateboarder Tony Hawk. Thing is, Tony Hawk just kinda looks like a guy, so it probably wasn't him. Then, after landing, he reaches up into the overhead luggage bin and pulls down - yes! - a skateboard. Totally was Tony Hawk. After going through immigration, I witnessed him be great. There was a kid - a young black teenager - in the airport, also holding a skateboard. Tony sees him, goes over, shakes the kid's hand, exchanges a few words of encouragement, and then goes on his way - leaving this kid with an expression of disbelieving glee the like of which I have never seen. His mind truly blown. How great.
We get met at the airport by the festival organisers husband who drives us to our hotel while telling us stories of the big quake. The side-to-side movement was so great, he tells us, that the street lights swayed so much, they hit the ground and smashed their bulbs. Quite the image.
Once I'm checked in I go down to the park and spend a wonderful couple of hours re-connecting with old friends. One of the things about my job is that half my group of friends are spread across the world, so there are a bunch of people I am very fond of, but get to see maybe once a year if I'm lucky, when we happen to be at the same gig. At a gig this big, it's always a reunion. Every night there's a big buskers comedy show on a huge outdoor stage, compered by the spectacularly filthy Wau Wau Sisters, and as I'm not scheduled to perform tonight, I get to hang out backstage and watch. Fun.
The next morning I hang out a bit with old friend Pete Mielniczek, who hadn't worked much recently, but still managed to completely steal last nights late night comedy show. He shows me where the local shopping mall is, so I can get some supplies for the shows. On the way we pass the red zone. The red zone is the area of the city that's fenced off because the buildings are unsafe and will be demolished. It's about half of the downtown area. As someone told me - the next ten years or so are just about rebuilding the city. Starting again. It's a huge undertaking. You can stop and peer through the fences at long wide city streets that have been stopped in time. Empty of people and lined with cracked buildings, piles of rubble and torn billboards. They look like sets from a post-apocalyptic movie. Unsettling.
The afternoon comes around, and shows start. And they're lovely. Good natured, laid back audiences who have had this festival every year for the past 19 of them, so they know street theatre, and love it. I don't work the street much at all these days - apart from the occasional festival like this one, and a few days at the Edinburgh festival, I'm pretty much an indoor cat these days, but these audiences make it a breeze to come back to it. I have fun, get big audiences, and make earthquake jokes that the let the people laugh at the hellish year they've just had. And I get free ice lollys. Result.
After a couple of days of working, my jet lag is starting to wear off, and I'm getting decent nights sleeps. It comes as a surprise then, when I find myself being woken up at three in the morning by a crazily vivid dream of being in a cabin on one of my old cruise ship gigs. I can feel the ship moving as I wake up. And then, as I hear my toiletries fall over in the bathroom it hits me. This isn't a dream. It only lasted a few seconds - a 4.2, as people tell me the next morning, but there it was. Guess that means I've arrived here properly.
MAT RICARDO'S LONDON VARIETIES
starts on Feb 9th at the Bethnal Green Workingmens Club, London.