So close, far away
It hasn't been too long since I was in Napier, but I am sure that even decades from now, the first thing that will come to my mind when the city is mentioned is the Pacific Ocean. Specifically, the azure blue of the Pacific. A dazzling, uplifting, mesmerising, yet soothing blue.
I come from the island city of Mumbai on the western coast of India, and start to miss the sea if I am inland for too long. India's tour of New Zealand in early 2014 was my first trip outside the subcontinent. And the sea had been a constant companion on the long journey - viewed as the aircraft approached airports in Singapore, Sydney and Auckland.
Napier, the venue of the opening match of the tour, was different. We do grey in various shades in Mumbai. Everything seems grey. The sky, the roads, the skyline, the sea. From the colour of compromise to the colour of tranquillity in just over 24 hours was quite a transition.
We drove from the airport down south along the coast, past the harbour packed with speedboats and yachts, past the endless line of motels on Marine Parade, till we reached the one I was booked at. The room looked out to the Pacific across the road: you could slide the door open and feel the sea breeze on your face.
I walked in a lane behind the motel. It was deserted at 8.30 pm, though the sun still shone down. This was a different world all right.
Napier has a population of about 60,000. It's probably small even by New Zealand standards. The island of Salsette, which Mumbai shares with a couple of its satellite cities, has nearly four times as many people as the entire country of New Zealand.
The absolute absence of people at a time when my home town would have been swarming with traffic was liberating and eerie.
Jet-lag-induced sleep let go of its grasp around ten the next morning. I drew the curtains and was blinded by the sheer intensity of the blue of sea and sky. Kids on the seafront with their cycles and skateboards and giant balls. Summertime postcard.
Postcards seem to lurk around every other corner in Napier: sprawling Nelson Park, where teams practise, surrounded by neat one-storey houses and a clump of trees, with international venue McLean Park on one side and Napier Hill on the other.
The railway crossing on my way to the grounds, with all its warning signs for barely any traffic, and a shed and a low platform close by, and a green patch adjoining it.
The famous art deco city centre straight out of the 1930s, built in the same style as its pre-1931 earthquake avatar. With very English street names - Tennyson, Emerson, Dickens and Browning. And an assortment of inviting cafés and restaurants.
Legendary Te Mata Peak near the neighbouring town of Havelock North. According to Maori folklore, Te Mata is the body of a giant who died chewing his way through the earth - and it does look like that when viewed from afar. The view from up there will stay with me forever: carpeted hills rolling down into the distance on all sides. The town of Havelock North and the city of Hastings to the west. Napier stretching out to the coast on the north, and the Pacific curving into Hawke's Bay. A river meandering below to the east. The odd house or two along the banks. And so many sheep grazing on the hillsides. Not too many people up on the peak. A woman's laughter ringing out. A couple holding hands. Walking trails curling away all around.
It was half past three that night when I walked back to my motel from a colleague's lodgings. Through the tiny town centre, with its brightly lit shopfronts, but empty barring a group of revellers. On to Marine Parade, with my footsteps ringing out, unchallenged by any other sound.
I walked across the road and stood on the shore of the Pacific, gazing into the darkness, feeling the waves gently washing ashore but unable to see them. There was nothing between here and the continent of South America but thousands of miles of water, a restaurant sign in Napier had proclaimed. The sense of sight dulled and the sense of feeling enhanced, it was one of those moments where the puniness of your physical existence hits home and you're glad just to be alive.
Match day was bright and scorching. I had been warned by a couple of acquaintances to buy a particular brand of sunscreen, and had done just that. But the ego refused to allow it to be applied on the face. An Indian afraid of the sun? As the same sun set on the Indian chase at McLean Park, I discovered it had also burned a T-shape across my face, singeing the forehead and the nose so much that the skin was peeling off. Sunscreen immediately became as mandatory as toothpaste for the rest of the tour.
The tour moved inland to Hamilton. The coast had to be left behind, for the moment at least. As I dragged my luggage to the bus stop by the promenade, I noticed that the Pacific had turned heavier, more grey. The sun had disappeared behind a vast cover of cloud, and there was a very fine, almost unnoticeable, drizzle in the air. Napier was giving me a send-off by doing a much softer impression of Mumbai's Marine Drive on a rainy day. It is always so hard to leave the familiar behind.
Abhishek Purohit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo